The Lady of the Camellias CHAPTER XIII

“You got here almost as fast as we did,” Prudence said to me.

“Yes,” I responded mechanically. “Where is Marguerite?”

“At home.”


“With M. de G . . . .”

I began to pace the room.

“What’s with you?”

“Do you think I can find it pleasurable to wait here for M. de G . . . to leave Marguerite’s apartment?”

“You are not being reasonable. Understand that Marguerite cannot show the count the door. M. de G . . . has been with her for a long time; he has always given her a lot of money. He still does. Marguerite spends more than a hundred thousand francs a year; she has many debts. The duke sends her what she asks for, but she does not always dare to ask him for everything she needs. She must not make trouble with the count, who gives her no less than ten thousand francs a year. Marguerite likes you very much, my dear friend, but your relationship with her, speaking both in her interest and in yours, must not become serious. With your seven or eight thousand francs you cannot maintain that girl in the luxury to which she’s accustomed; it would not be enough to pay for the upkeep of her carriage. Take Marguerite as she is—for a fine, spirited, and pretty girl. Be her lover for one month, maybe two; give her bouquets, candy, and theater boxes—but don’t get anything else in your head and don’t make ridiculous, jealous scenes. You know very well who you’re dealing with; Marguerite is not a virtuous woman. She likes you, you like her very much; don’t fret about the rest. How charming you are to play the victim! You have the most delightful mistress in Paris! She entertains you in a magnificent apartment, she is covered in diamonds, she won’t cost you a penny if you wish it, and you aren’t content. What the devil! You ask too much of her.”

“You’re right, but this is stronger than I am. The idea that that man is her lover causes me tremendous pain.”

“First of all,” Prudence replied, “is he still her lover? He’s a man she needs, that’s all. For two days, she closed her door to him. He came this morning; there was nothing she could do but accept his theater box and let him accompany her. He drove her home, he has gone up for a moment to visit her, he will not stay there, and so you are waiting here. All of this is quite natural, it seems to me. That aside, the duke doesn’t bother you?”

“Yes, but he’s an old man, and I’m sure Marguerite is not his mistress. Also, a man might well tolerate one affair, but not two. That kind of complaisance begins to look like calculation, and brings the man who consents to it, even for love, closer to those who, in the lower element, make a business of this sort of understanding, and profit from it.”

“Ah! My dear, you are so backwards! How many men have I seen—and nobler men than you, richer and more elegant—who do what I advise, and without effort, without shame, without remorse? You see it every day. How could the kept women of Paris maintain the lifestyles they lead if they didn’t have three or four lovers at a time? There’s no individual fortune, however great, that could cover the expenses of a woman like Marguerite. A fortune of five hundred thousand francs is enormous in France; and well, my friend, five hundred thousand francs would not be enough, and here is why: A man who has an income that great has a house to maintain, horses, servants, carriages, hunts, friends; often he is married, he has children, he races, he gambles, he travels, what do I know! All of these habits are so established that he cannot get out of them without giving the appearance of being ruined and creating a scandal. Everything considered, with an income of five hundred thousand francs, he can’t give a woman more than forty or fifty thousand francs a year, and that’s already a lot. So, other lovers have to make up the difference of the woman’s annual expenses. With Marguerite, things are a little more convenient; by a miracle that fell from Heaven, she stumbled upon a rich old man worth ten million, whose wife and daughter are dead, who has nobody left but nephews who are themselves rich, and who gives her everything she wants without asking anything in return. But she can’t ask him for more than seventy thousand francs a year, and I’m sure that if she asked him for more, despite his fortune and his fondness for her, he would refuse.

“All the young people who have twenty or thirty thousand francs a year in Paris—which is to say, hardly enough to live on in the circles they travel in—know very well that if they happen to become the lover of a woman like Marguerite, she could not pay for her apartment and her servants with what they can give her. They keep quiet because they know this; they pretend to see nothing, and when they’ve had enough, they leave. If they are vain enough to take everything upon themselves, they ruin themselves like fools and go kill themselves in Africa after having left a hundred thousand francs of debt in Paris. Do you think that the woman should be grateful to them for it? Not at all. On the contrary, she tells them that she sacrificed her social position to them, and that while she was with them, she lost money. Ah! You find these details shameful, don’t you? Well, they are true. You are a charming boy, and I love you with all my heart, but I have lived for twenty years among kept women. I know what they are and what they’re worth, and I would not want to see you take the caprice a young girl has for you too seriously.

“Beyond that, let us suppose,” Prudence continued, “that Marguerite loves you enough to renounce the count and the duke. In the case that the former learns of your relationship and tells her to choose between you and him, the sacrifice she would make to be with you would be enormous; you can’t deny it. What comparable sacrifice would you be prepared to make for her? When you have had your fill, when you will want no more of her, what will you do to help her regain what you will have made her lose? Nothing. You will have separated her from the world in which her fortune and her future resided, she will have given you her best years, and she will be forgotten. At that point, you will either act like a typical man, throwing her past in her face and telling her that in leaving her you do no worse than her other lovers, abandoning her to certain misery; or you will be an honest man, and believing yourself honor bound to keep her by your side, will deliver yourself to inevitable unhappiness, because this liaison, which is excusable for a young man, is impardonable for a man of mature years. It becomes an obstacle to everything; it permits neither family nor ambition, those second and last loves of man. Believe me then, my friend, take things for what they’re worth, women for who they are, and don’t give a kept woman the right to see herself as your creditor in anything.”

It was well argued and showed a logic of which I would not have believed Prudence capable. I found nothing to reply, except that she was right. I gave her my hand and thanked her for her advice.

“Now, now,” she said. “Let’s put aside these gloomy theories and laugh. Life is charming, my dear; it depends on how you look at it. Talk with your friend Gaston—there’s a man who seems to see love as I see it. What you must be convinced of, failing which you will be a very silly boy indeed, is that there’s a beautiful girl close by who is impatiently waiting for the man who’s visiting her now to leave, who is thinking of you, who has reserved her night for you, and who loves you, I am certain of it. Now come by the window with me, and let’s watch the count leave; he won’t delay to yield us his place.”

Prudence opened a window, and we leaned side by side against the balcony.

She looked at the occasional passersby; I daydreamed.

Everything she had said to me buzzed in my head, and I could not help agreeing that she was right, but the genuine love I had for Marguerite could not accommodate itself to her reasoning. From time to time I heaved sighs that made Prudence turn to me and shrug her shoulders like a doctor who has given up hope on a patient.

“How short life must be,” I said to myself, “given how quickly different feelings come and go! I have known Marguerite for only two days, she has been my mistress since only yesterday, and she has so taken over my thoughts, my heart, and my life that the visit of this Comte de G . . . comes as a great unhappiness to me.”

At last the count left, climbed into his carriage, and disappeared. Prudence closed her window.

At just that moment, Marguerite called out to us.

“Come quickly; we’re setting the table,” she said. “We’re going to have supper.”

When I entered her apartment, Marguerite ran to me, threw her arms around me, and kissed me with all her strength.

“Are we still grumpy?” she asked me.

“No, that’s over with,” Prudence responded. “I gave him a lecture, and he has promised to be good.”

“And high time!”

In spite of myself, I glanced at the bed; it was not unmade. As for Marguerite, she was already in her white dressing gown.

We sat down to eat.

Charm, sweetness, character—Marguerite had everything, and I was forced from time to time to recognize that I did not have the right to ask anything else of her, that many people would have felt lucky in my place, and that, like Virgil’s shepherd, all I had to do was rejoice in the good offices that a god, or rather, a goddess had bestowed upon me.

I tried to put Prudence’s theories into practice, and to be as merry as my two companions, but what was natural for them felt forced to me, and my nervous laughter, which fooled them, was very close to tears.

Finally the supper came to an end, and I was alone with Marguerite. She went, as was her custom, to sit on the carpet in front of the fire and looked with a melancholy air at the flame on the hearth.

She was thinking—what about? I didn’t know. I looked at her with love and almost with terror, as I contemplated what I was ready to suffer for her sake.

“Do you know what I was thinking about? About a solution I have come upon.”

“And what is this solution?”

“I can’t tell you yet, but I can tell you what will come of it. What will come of it is that in one month, I will be free, I will owe nothing, and we can go spend the summer together in the country.”

“And you can’t tell me by what means?”

“No; you must only love me as I love you, and everything will work out.”

“And you have hit upon this solution on your own?”


“And you will execute it on your own?”

“Only I will have the care of it,” Marguerite said to me with a smile that I will never forget, “but we will both share in the benefits.”

I could not keep from blushing at this word benefits; I recalled Manon Lescaut eating up M. de B.’s money with Des Grieux. . . .

I responded in a rather harsh tone, while rising, “You will permit me, my dear Marguerite, not to share in the benefits of any enterprise except one that I conceive and execute myself?”

“What does that mean?”

“That means that I strongly suspect M. le Comte de G . . . of being your associate in this happy solution, of which I can accept neither the burden nor the benefit.”

“You are a child. I thought you loved me; I was wrong. It’s all right.”

And at that moment, she got up, opened her piano, and returned to playing “L’Invitation à la Valse,” up until that infamous passage that always stopped her.

Did she do it out of habit, or was it to remind me of the day we met? All I know is that as I heard this melody, the memories came flooding back, and approaching her, I took her head between my hands and kissed her.

“Can you forgive me?” I asked.

“As you see,” she replied. “But keep in mind that this is only our second day together, and already I have something to forgive you for. You don’t keep your promises of blind obedience very well.”

“What do you want from me, Marguerite? I love you too much, and I’m jealous of the least of your thoughts. What you proposed to me just now made me crazy with joy, but the mystery attached to carrying out this project grips my heart.”

“Come, let’s be reasonable,” she said, taking my hands and looking at me with a charming smile I found impossible to resist. “You love me, don’t you? And you would be happy to spend three or four months in the country alone with me. I, too, would be happy for this solitude à deux; not only would it make me happy, but I need it for my health. I can’t leave Paris for such a long time without putting my affairs in order, and the affairs of a woman like me are always very complicated, and so, I’ve found a way to reconcile everything, my business and my love for you—yes, for you; don’t laugh, I am foolish enough to love you—and now you put on your great airs and preach at me. Child, three times a child, just remember that I love you and you’ll have nothing to worry about. Are we agreed, then?”

“I agree to everything you wish; you know that.”

“Then, before a month is out, we will be in some village, strolling by the waterside and drinking milk. It must seem strange to you that I would speak this way—I, Marguerite Gautier. It comes, my friend, from the fact that when this Parisian life, which appears to make me so happy, doesn’t burn me up, it bores me, and I’ve suddenly acquired aspirations for a more peaceful existence that might remind me of my childhood. Everyone has had a childhood, whatever one has become. Oh! Don’t worry—I’m not going to tell you that I’m the daughter of a retired colonel and that I grew up in Saint-Denis. I’m a poor country girl, and I didn’t know how to write my own name until six years ago. That reassures you, doesn’t it? Why is it that you are the first man I’ve come to, to ask to share the joy of this impulse? No doubt it is because I recognized that you loved me for myself and not for yourself, whereas the others have only ever loved me for themselves.

“I’ve been to the countryside many times, but never as I would have liked to be there. I’m relying on you for this simple happiness, so don’t be unkind and deny it to me. Tell yourself this: ‘She can’t live to be very old, and one day I will regret that I did not grant her the first favor she asked of me, which would have been so easy to grant.’”

What could I respond to such words, especially with the memory of a first night of love, and in the expectation of a second?

An hour later, I held Marguerite in my arms, and if she had demanded that I commit a crime, I would have obeyed her.

At six in the morning I left, and before leaving I said to her, “Until tonight?”

She kissed me all the harder, but did not respond.

In the afternoon I received a letter that contained these words:

“Dear child, I am not feeling well, and the doctor has ordered me to rest. I will go to sleep early tonight and will not see you. But, to make up for it, I will expect you tomorrow at noon. I love you.”

My first reaction was, “She is deceiving me!”

A cold sweat broke out on my forehead, as I already loved this woman too much for this suspicion not to tear me apart.

Nonetheless, I was going to have to expect this kind of thing nearly every day with Marguerite, and it had often occurred with my other mistresses without troubling me overmuch. Where did it come from, the hold that this woman had on my life?

And then I thought, since I had her key, why not go see her as usual? That way I would quickly know the truth, and if I found a man there, I would slap his face.

While I waited, I went to the Champs-Élysées. I stayed there for four hours. She did not appear. In the evening I went to all the theaters where she usually went. She was not in any of them.

At eleven I turned up at the rue d’Antin.

There was no light in Marguerite’s windows. I rang nonetheless.

The porter asked me where I was going.

“To see Mlle Gautier,” I told him.

“She isn’t back.”

“I will go up and wait for her.”

“There’s nobody at home.”

Obviously there were some sort of instructions at work that I could have overridden, since I had the key, but fearing an embarrassing scene, I left.

Only, I didn’t go home. I couldn’t leave the street, and did not let Marguerite’s building out of my sight. It seemed to me there was something I had still to find out, or at least that my suspicions would be confirmed.

Toward midnight, a coupé I knew well stopped by No. 9.

The Comte de G . . . got out and entered the house, after having sent away his carriage.

For a moment I hoped that, as had happened to me, he would be told that Marguerite was not at home, and that I would see him go away; but at four o’clock in the morning I was still waiting.

I have suffered greatly these past three weeks, but it is nothing, I think, in comparison to what I suffered that night.