The Lady of the Camellias CHAPTER XVI

I could have, said Armand, told you of the beginning of this liaison in a few sentences, but I wanted you to understand by what events and what steps we came to the understanding that I had to agree to everything Marguerite wished, and that she could not live with anyone but me.

It was the day after the evening she came to see me that I sent her Manon Lescaut.

From that moment on, as I could not change my mistress’s ways, I changed mine. I wanted above all not to give myself the time to analyze the role I had just accepted, because, despite myself, I would have felt it as a great sorrow. Also, my life, usually so quiet, reshaped itself immediately into a thing of noisiness and disorder. Don’t think that, disinterested as it may be, the love a kept woman has for you comes for free. Nothing is more expensive than satisfying the thousand whims for flowers, theater boxes, suppers, and country picnics that one can never refuse one’s mistress.

As I told you, I did not have a large fortune. My father was and is the tax collector at C . . . . The job has a great reputation for security, which permitted him to raise the commission that was required for him to take up the position. This job brings him forty thousand francs a year, and in the ten years since he’s had it, he has paid back his commission, and busied himself with putting aside my sister’s dowry. My father is the most honorable man you could ever meet. My mother, when she died, left behind six thousand francs in income, which he divided between my sister and me on the day he obtained the job he had sought, and once I was twenty-one, he added an annual allowance of five thousand francs to this small income, assuring me that with eight thousand francs a year I could be very happy in Paris, if I took a job either at the bar or in medicine. So I came to Paris, I studied law, I became a lawyer, and like many young men, I tucked my diploma in my pocket and let myself enjoy the carefree life of Paris for a time. My expenses were quite modest, but still I would run through my annual income in eight months, and spend the four summer months with my father, which allowed me to live as if I had an income of twelve thousand francs, and gave me the reputation of being a good son. Besides, I did not have a penny of debt.

That was the state of my affairs when I met Marguerite.

You will understand that, in spite of myself, my manner of living became more extravagant. Marguerite had a changeable nature, and she was one of those women who never regard the thousand distractions that comprise their life as a serious expense. The result was that, wanting to spend as much time with me as possible, she would write me in the morning that she would dine with me that evening not at her house but at some restaurant, either in Paris or in the countryside. I would go pick her up, we would dine together, we would go to the theater, we often had supper together, and on any given night I would spend four or five louis, which is to say two thousand or three thousand francs per month, which shortened my year to three and half months, and made it necessary for me either to go into debt, or to leave Marguerite.

I could accept everything except that last eventuality.

Forgive me for giving you so many details, but you will see that they were the cause of the events that followed. What I am telling you is a true and simple story, to which I have attached all the naïveté of the details and the simplicity of the developments.

I understood that, since nothing in the world could induce me to forget my mistress, I would have to find a way to afford the expense she put me to. Then again, this love consumed me to the point that every moment I spent away from Marguerite felt like years, and I felt the need to burn through those moments in a passion and to live them so quickly that I would not be altogether conscious of what I was doing.

I began by borrowing five or six thousand francs off my small capital, and then I started gambling, because once they’d closed down the gaming houses, gambling popped up everywhere. In the past, when you entered Frascati you had the chance of striking it rich—you played with real money, and if you lost you had the consolation of telling yourself you could have won—whereas now, except in circles where a certain scrupulousness prevails regarding payment, the moment one wins a substantial sum one is almost sure that one will never get it. You will easily understand why.

Gambling can be practiced only by young men who have enormous financial needs but who lack the necessary fortune to support the life they lead. This is why they gamble, and here is the natural result: Either they win, in which case the losers pay for their horses and mistresses, which is extremely awkward; or debts are contracted, and dealings that began across a green cloth end in quarrels that tear apart both honor and life to some degree, and if you’re an honest man, you soon find yourself ruined by very honest young people who have no flaw except for the lack of two hundred thousand francs a year.

I don’t need to tell you about those men who cheat, and of whom one day you hear that they were forced to leave town and were belatedly brought to justice.

I threw myself, therefore, into the fast life, noisy and volcanic, which had formerly frightened me when I’d thought about it, but which had become for me the inevitable backdrop of my love for Marguerite. What would you have expected me to do?

The nights I didn’t spend on the rue d’Antin I spent alone at home. I couldn’t sleep; jealousy kept me awake, burning my mind and blood. As long as I gambled, I was distracted for the moment from the fever that had invaded my heart, which transformed itself into a mania whose interest consumed me, despite myself, until the hour struck when I was to go and see my mistress. This is how I could recognize the power of my love—that, whether I was winning or losing, I always left the table pitying those I left behind, who would not find the happiness I did when they left it.

For most people gambling was a necessity. For me it was a cure.

If I could be cured of Marguerite, I would be cured of gambling.

In the midst of all that, I was fairly clearheaded; I never lost more than I could pay, and I won only what I could have spared.

Also luck favored me. Without getting into debt, I was able to spend three times more money than before I started gambling. It was not easy to resist a life that allowed me to satisfy Marguerite’s thousand whims without inconvenience to myself. As for her, she loved me as much as before, and still more.

As I told you, I began at first by visiting her from midnight until six in the morning; then I was admitted occasionally into her theater boxes; then she sometimes would come dine with me. One morning I didn’t leave until eight o’clock, and a day came when I didn’t leave until noon.

As I awaited her moral metamorphosis, a physical transformation had worked itself on Marguerite. I had undertaken her cure, and the poor girl, guessing my aim, obeyed me to prove her gratitude. Without imposing extreme changes and without effort, I had very nearly managed to wean her from her old habits. My doctor, whom I had made her consult, had told me that only rest and calm could restore her health, so I began to supplant her suppers and insomniac nights with a healthful regimen and regular sleep. Despite herself, Marguerite started getting used to this new existence, whose salutary effects she could feel. Soon she began spending some nights at home, or if the weather was good, she would wrap herself in a shawl, cover herself with a veil, and we would go on walks, like two children, strolling the dark lanes along the Champs-Élysées in the night. She would return home tired, have a light supper, then go to bed after playing a little music, or reading—something she’d never done before. The coughing, which broke my heart every time I heard it, had almost completely disappeared. At the end of six weeks, the count was no longer in the picture; he had been definitively sacrificed. Only the duke still forced me to conceal my liaison with Marguerite, and even he had been sent away during my visits, on the pretext that madam was sleeping, and had forbidden that she be woken.

As a result of the habit, the need, even, that Marguerite had developed for my company, I was able to give up gambling at just the moment when a shrewd gambler would have quit. All being counted, I found myself, with my gains, in command of ten thousand francs, a sum that appeared to me inexhaustible.

The time of year when I was accustomed to rejoin my father and my sister had arrived, but I did not leave town. I began to receive frequent letters from one or the other of them, letters imploring me to come see them. To each letter I responded as decently as I could, repeating always that I was doing well and did not need money, two things I thought would reassure my father a little about the postponement of my annual visit.

While all this was taking place, one morning Marguerite, who had been awoken by dazzling sunshine, jumped out of bed and asked me if I would take her into the country for the day.

We sent for Prudence, and the three of us went together, after Marguerite told Nanine to inform the duke that she had decided to make the most of the day, and had gone to the countryside with Mme Duvernoy.

In addition to the fact that the presence of Mme Duvernoy was necessary to satisfy the old duke, Prudence was one of those women who are expressly made for such outings. With her unfailing high spirits and her bottomless appetite, she did not permit a moment of boredom to those who accompanied her, and she expertly saw to the eggs, the cherries, the milk, the fried rabbit, and everything else that is required for a traditional picnic on the outskirts of Paris.

There was nothing left for us to do but to decide where to go.

It was Prudence again who came to the rescue.

“Do you want to go to the true countryside?” she asked.


“Then let’s go to Bougival, to the Point du Jour, the Widow Arnould’s auberge. Armand, go rent a barouche.”

An hour and a half later we had arrived at the Widow Arnould’s.

You may know this auberge, a hotel where you can rent by the week, or visit on a day trip. From the garden, which rises as high as the second story of a building, you can take in a spectacular view. To the left there’s the aqueduct of Marly on the horizon; to the right the view extends to an infinity of hills. The river, which barely flows in this spot, unspools like a wide, pale taffeta ribbon between the plains of Gabillon and the island of Croissy, eternally lulled by the whispering of tall poplars and the murmur of weeping willows.

At the bottom, in a broad patch of sunlight, rise little white houses with red roofs, and factories that lose their hard and commercial character from a distance, admirably completing the landscape.

And beyond that, Paris, in a haze.

As Prudence had told us, it was the true countryside, and I must say, it was a true luncheon.

It is not out of gratitude for the happiness I owed to her that I say this, but Bougival, despite its horrible name, is one of the prettiest parts of the country you could imagine. I’ve traveled a great deal, and I’ve seen many grander sights, but none more charming than this little village, nestled cheerfully at the foot of the hill that protects it.

Mme Arnould offered us a boat ride, which Marguerite and Prudence accepted with joy.

The countryside has always been associated with love, and rightly so: Nothing is a better frame for the woman one loves than a blue sky and the scents, flowers, breezes, and shining solitude of the fields or the woods. However much a man loves a woman, however much he trusts her, however much confidence in the future her past permits him, a man is always jealous, to a greater or lesser degree. If you have ever been in love, seriously in love, you must have felt that need to isolate from the world that being in whom you would like to be entirely enveloped. However indifferent she may be to her surroundings, the woman one loves seems to lose her fragrance and her plenitude when she comes into contact with other men and things. I felt this much more than any other man. I was as much in love as an ordinary man can be, but my lover was no ordinary lover; when it came to Marguerite Gautier—in Paris, that is—at every step I was likely to bump into a man who had been this woman’s lover, or who might be on the following day. In the countryside, however, among people we had never seen and who paid no attention to us, in the bosom of nature decked out in springtime (that annual reprieve), and removed from the sounds of the city, I could have my lover all to myself, and love without shame and without fear.

The courtesan in her had begun to fade away, little by little, and I had beside me a young, beautiful woman whom I loved, by whom I was loved, and who was named Marguerite. The past held no more shadows; the future no more clouds. The sun shone on my mistress as it would have shone on the chastest fiancée. The two of us strolled in those charming places that seem made for reciting the verses of Lamartine, or for singing the melodies of Scudo. Marguerite wore a white dress, she leaned on my arm, she repeated to me under the starry sky the words she had spoken to me the night before, and the world rumbled on at a distance without marring with its shadows the smiling tableau of our youth and our love.

That is the dream that the day’s hot sun carried to me through the leaves of the trees, as I lay on the grass on the island where we had alighted, free of all the human connections that usually oppressed my mind. I let my thoughts run free and gather all the hopes they could find.

Add to this that, from the place where I was, I could see on the riverbank a charming little two-story house with a semicircular fence around it; through the fence, in front of the house, a green lawn, smooth as velvet; and behind the building a little woods full of mysterious nooks, whose mosses would erase every morning the steps made there the night before.

Flowering vines hid the front stoop of this house, and embraced the facade, climbing as high as the second story.

I looked at this house so long that I ended by persuading myself it was mine, so neatly did it complete the dream I’d been dreaming. I pictured Marguerite and me spending the day in the woods that covered the hillside, sitting on the lawn at night, and I asked myself if any earthly creatures were ever as lucky as we were.

“What a pretty house!” said Marguerite, who had followed the direction of my gaze and perhaps of my thoughts.

“Where?” said Prudence.

“Over there.” And Marguerite pointed to the house in question.

“Ah! Ravishing,” replied Prudence. “You like it?”

“Very much.”

“Well then! Tell the duke to rent it for you. He will, I’m sure. I’ll take care of it if you like.”

Marguerite looked at me, as if to ask what I thought of this idea.

My dream had flown away with those last words of Prudence’s, and had thrust me so rudely into reality that I was still stunned by the transition.

“It’s an excellent idea,” I stammered, without knowing what I was saying.

“Well then, I’ll take care of it,” Marguerite said, taking my hand and interpreting my words as it suited her. “Let’s go at once to see if it’s for rent.”

The house was vacant and could be rented for two thousand francs.

“Would you be happy here?” she asked me.

“Is it certain that I’d be allowed to come here?”

“And why would I come bury myself here, if not for you?”

“Marguerite, let me rent this house myself.”

“Are you crazy? Not only is it unnecessary; it would be dangerous—you know very well that I have the right to accept such a gift from only one man. Let it be taken care of, you big baby, and don’t say a thing.”

“And whenever I have a couple of free days, I’ll come spend them with you,” said Prudence.

We left the house and got back on the road to Paris while discussing this new decision. I held Marguerite in my arms so happily that when I got out of the carriage I began to consider my mistress’s scheme with a less critical air.