The Lady of the Camellias CHAPTER XV

For about an hour Joseph and I had been preparing for my departure, when someone rang violently at my door.

“Should I get it?” Joseph asked me.

“Get it,” I told him, asking myself who could possibly come at such an hour to see me, and not daring to believe it was Marguerite.

“Sir,” Joseph told me upon returning, “two ladies are here.”

“It’s us, Armand,” cried a voice that I recognized as Prudence’s.

I came out of my bedroom.

Prudence, standing, was looking at the various curios in my living room; Marguerite was sitting on the sofa looking pensive.

When I entered, I went up to her, got on my knees, took her two hands in mine, and, terribly moved, said to her, “Forgive me.”

She kissed my forehead and said, “That makes three times already that I have forgiven you.”

“I was going to leave tomorrow.”

“How can my visit change your resolve? I have not come to keep you from quitting Paris. I have come because I did not have time to reply to you today, and did not want you to leave thinking that I was angry with you. And Prudence didn’t want me to come; she said I might disturb you.”

“You, disturb me? You, Marguerite? How?”

“Why, of course, you might have had a woman here,” said Prudence, “and it would not have been pleasant for her to see two ladies walk in.”

During this remark of Prudence’s, Marguerite watched me closely.

“My dear Prudence,” I replied, “you do not know what you are saying.”

“How nice your apartment is,” Prudence replied. “May we see the bedroom?”


Prudence entered my bedroom, less to inspect it than to make up for the foolish thing she’d just said, and to leave us alone, Marguerite and me.

“Why did you bring Prudence?” I asked.

“Because she was with me at the theater, and because when I left this place, I wanted to have someone to accompany me.”

“Wouldn’t I have been here?”

“Yes, but apart from the fact that I did not want to disturb you, I was sure that if you came to my door, you would insist on coming up to see me, and as I would not be able to grant you that, I did not want you to leave town with the right to reproach me for a rejection.”

“And why would you have been unable to invite me up?”

“Because I am being watched, and the least suspicion could do me great harm.”

“Is that the only reason?”

“If there were another, I would tell you; we are no longer to keep secrets from each other.”

“Marguerite, I do not want to beat around the bush. Do you love me a little?”

“Very much.”

“Then why did you deceive me?”

“My friend, if I were Mme the Duchess So-and-So, or if I had two hundred thousand francs of income, if I were your mistress and I had another lover besides you, you would have the right to ask me why I deceived you. But I am Mlle Marguerite Gautier, I am forty thousand francs in debt, I have not a penny to my name, and I spend a hundred thousand francs a year, which makes your question idle and my response futile.”

“Fair enough,” I said, letting my head fall into Marguerite’s lap, “but I—I am crazy in love with you.”

“Well, my friend, you’ll have to love me a little less or understand me a little better. Your letter caused me great pain. If I had been free, first of all, I would not have entertained the count the day before yesterday, or, if I had let him in, I would have come to beg your pardon, and in future would not have received any lover but you. I thought for a moment I could permit myself that happiness for six months. You did not want it; you insisted on knowing the means. My God! The means were easy enough to guess. It was a greater sacrifice than you might think I would make. I could have told you, ‘I need twenty thousand francs.’ You were in love with me; you would have come up with it, at the risk of holding it against me later. I would have preferred to owe you nothing, but you did not understand this scruple . . . for it is a scruple. Women like me, if we still have a little heart, we accord words and things a meaning and consequence unknown to other women. I repeat, then, that, on the part of Marguerite Gautier, the means she found to pay off her debts without asking you for the money necessary for it was a delicate operation from which you would have profited without needing to say a thing. If you had only met with me today, you would be only too happy with what I promised you, and you would not have asked me what I had done the day before yesterday. Sometimes we are forced to purchase a satisfaction required by our soul at the expense of our body; and we suffer all the more when, afterward, that satisfaction eludes us.”

I listened, and looked at Marguerite with admiration. When I thought that this magnificent creature, whose feet I longed to kiss, had made a place for me in her thoughts, that she had given me a role in her life, and that I had not been content with what she gave me, I asked myself if men’s desire has any limit, when, satisfied as promptly as mine had been, it still seeks more.

“It’s true,” she resumed. “Women who depend on luck as I do have immoderate desires and inconceivable passions. We leap into one thing, then another. Some men ruin themselves over us without obtaining anything in return; others can get us for a bouquet. Our hearts have whims; that is our lone distraction and our sole excuse. I gave myself to you more quickly than to any other man, I swear it to you. Why? Because when you saw me spit blood you took my hand, because you cried, because you are the only human creature who has ever pitied me. I will tell you a silly thing; but once I had a little dog who looked at me sadly whenever I coughed; that is the only creature I ever loved.

“When he died, I cried more than I did at my mother’s death. It is true that she had beaten me for twelve years of her life. And I loved you instantly as much as I loved my dog. If men knew what they could win with one tear, they would love more successfully, and we would be less destructive.

“Your letter gave you away; it showed me that you lacked the wisdom of the heart. It did more to damage the love I had for you than anything else you might have done. It was provoked by jealousy, that is true, but by ironic and insolent jealousy. I was already sad when I got that letter; I had counted on seeing you at noon, on having lunch with you, so I could blot out by the sight of you a memory that tormented me, which before I met you would have been as nothing.

“Because,” Marguerite continued, “you were the only person who ever made me feel instantly that I could think and speak freely. Everyone who clusters around girls like me analyzes our every word, trying to draw consequence for themselves from our most insignificant actions. Naturally, we don’t have friends. We have selfish lovers who spend their fortunes not on us, as they say, but on their own vanity.

“With men like that, we have to be lighthearted when they are joyful, in fine fettle when they want to have supper, in a skeptical mood when they are. We’re forbidden to have any feelings of our own, on pain of being jeered at and having our credit ruined.

“We no longer belong to ourselves. We are not beings, but things. We are first in men’s pride, last in their esteem. We have female friends, but they are friends like Prudence, former kept women who retain a taste for extravagance that their age will no longer afford them. So they become our friends, or, really, our dining companions. Their friendship goes as far as utility, but never reaches the point of disinterestedness. They will never give you any but mercenary advice. It matters little to them if we have ten lovers or more, so long as they get a few dresses or a bracelet out of it, and can go out in our carriages from time to time, and come to the theater and sit in our boxes. They get our bouquets from the night before, and they borrow our cashmere shawls. They never render us any service, however small, without getting twice what it’s worth. You saw it yourself, the night when Prudence brought me the six thousand francs I’d begged her to go ask the duke to give me. She borrowed five hundred francs from me that she’ll never give back, or that she’ll make up in hats that will never leave their boxes.

“So we cannot have—or rather, I cannot have—any happiness but one, which is, unhappy as I sometimes am, in poor health as I always am, to find a man who is of superior enough character that he will not demand a full account of my life, and will love me more for myself than for my body. I had found that man in the duke, but the duke is old, and old age can neither protect nor console. I had thought I could accept the life that he wished for me; but what do you want? I was perishing of boredom, and as long as you’re going to be consumed, you might as well hurl yourself into a fire, rather than slowly suffocate from coal smoke.

“So, I met you, you—young, ardent, happy—and tried to make you into the man I had longed for in the middle of my noisy solitude. What I loved in you was not the man you were, but the man you might yet become. You refuse to accept this role, you reject it as unworthy of you, you are a vulgar lover. Do as the others do—pay me and let’s speak of this no more.”

Marguerite, exhausted by this long confession, threw herself on the sofa, and to stifle a weak flight of coughing, brought her handkerchief to her lips and from there to her eyes.

“Forgive me; forgive me,” I murmured. “I had understood all this, but I wanted to hear you say it, my adored Marguerite. Let us forget the rest and remember only one thing: that we belong to each other, that we are young, and that we love each other.

“Marguerite, do with me what you will; I am your slave, your dog. But in the name of Heaven, tear up the letter I wrote you, and do not let me go away tomorrow; I would die.”

Marguerite withdrew the letter from the bodice of her gown and gave it to me, saying to me with a smile of ineffable sweetness, “Here, I’ve brought it back to you.”

I tore up the letter and kissed with tears the hand that had given it back to me.

At this moment Prudence reappeared.

“Well, Prudence, do you know what he asks of me?” said Marguerite.

“He asks you to forgive him.”

“Just so.”

“And you pardon him?”

“I should, but he wants one thing more.”

“What, then?”

“He wants to come have supper with us.”

“And do you consent?”

“What do you think?”

“I think the two of you are babies, with not a brain between you. But I also think that I’m very hungry and that the earlier you consent, the earlier we’ll have supper.”

“Let’s go,” said Marguerite. “The three of us can fit in my carriage. Take this,” she added, turning toward me. “Nanine will have gone to bed. You will open the door; take my key, and try not to lose it again.”

I smothered Marguerite with kisses.

Joseph came in behind her.

“Sir,” he told me with the air of a man delighted with himself, “the trunks are packed.”


“Yes, sir.”

“Unpack them, then; I’m not going away.”