The Lady of the Camellias CHAPTER XVII

The next day Marguerite sent me away early, saying the duke was going to come first thing in the morning, and promising that she would write as soon as he left to give me our evening arrangements.

That afternoon I received this message:

“I am going to Bougival with the duke; be at Prudence’s tonight at eight o’clock.”

At the appointed hour Marguerite was back home, and came to join me at Mme Duvernoy’s.

“Everything is arranged,” she said as she walked in.

“The house has been rented?” Prudence asked.

“Yes; he consented at once.”

I did not know the duke, but I was ashamed to deceive him as I was doing.

“But that’s not all!” Marguerite continued.

“What more, then?”

“I was worried about where Armand would stay.”

“In the same house?” asked Prudence, laughing.

“No, at the Point du Jour, where we had lunch, the duke and I. While he took in the view, I asked Mme Arnould—that is her name, isn’t it? I asked her if she had a room that would be suitable. She has just one, with a living room, foyer, and bedroom. It’s everything one could ask for, I think. Sixty francs per month. Furnished so as to drive a hypochondriac to distraction. I reserved it. Did I do the right thing?”

I flung my arms around Marguerite’s neck.

“It will be charming,” she continued. “You have a key to the little door, and I’ve promised the duke a key to the gate, which he will not take, because he will come only during the day . . . when he comes. I believe, between you and me, that he is enchanted by this whim, which will keep me at a distance from Paris for a while, and calm his family a bit. However, he asked me how I, who love Paris so much, could have resolved to bury myself in the countryside; I told him I haven’t been feeling well, and that I needed rest. He seemed only to half-believe me. That poor old man is always in the dark. We will have to take many precautions, my dear Armand. He will have me watched over there, and he won’t just be renting me a house; he also must pay my debts, and unfortunately I have a few. Is all this acceptable to you?”

“Yes,” I said, as I tried to quiet all the scruples that this way of life awoke in me from time to time.

“We took a tour of the house from top to bottom; we’ll be in bliss there. The duke has seen to everything. Ah! My darling,” the crazy girl added as she kissed me, “you are a fortunate man—a millionaire makes your bed for you.”

“And when will you move out there?” asked Prudence.

“As soon as possible.”

“Will you take your carriage and your horses with you?”

“I will take my whole household with me. You will look after my apartment during my absence.”

Eight days later Marguerite had moved into the country house, and I was installed in the Point du Jour.

Then began an existence I would be hard-pressed to describe to you.

At the outset of her stay in Bougival, Marguerite could not completely break her old ways, and the house was always in festival mode. All her friends came to see her; for a month there was not a day when Marguerite did not have eight or ten people to dinner. Prudence, for her part, brought the people she knew, and they received all the hospitality of the house, as if the house belonged to her.

The duke’s money paid for it all, as you may imagine, yet all the same, on occasion, Prudence would ask me for a thousand francs, purportedly in Marguerite’s name. As you know, I had made some profit from gambling; so I charged myself to give Prudence what Marguerite had her ask of me, and, for fear that she might need more than I possessed, I borrowed in Paris an amount equal to the sum I had borrowed in the past, and which I had scrupulously repaid.

I found myself newly richer by ten thousand francs, not counting my allowance.

However, the pleasure Marguerite took in receiving her girlfriends dimmed a bit when she considered the expenses this pleasure entailed, and above all considered the necessity to which she was sometimes put of asking me for money. The duke, who had rented this house so Marguerite could rest, stopped coming, always fearing he would be met there by an exuberant and populous crowd by which he did not want to be seen. This arose from the instance when, coming over one day for an intimate dinner with Marguerite, he found himself in the middle of a lunch for fifteen people that had not yet ended at the hour when he had intended to sit down to dinner. When he entered the dining room all unsuspecting, a wave of laughter welcomed his entry, and he beat a hasty retreat, in the face of the impertinent gaiety of the women who were there.

Marguerite had gotten up from the table, gone to find the duke in the next room, and tried, insofar as it was possible, to make him forget this incident, but the old man, his pride wounded, had resented it. He told the poor girl somewhat harshly that he was tired of paying for the excesses of a woman who did not treat him respectfully in her home, and he left quite angry.

From that day on, nothing had been heard from him. Marguerite could have sent away her friends and changed her ways, but the duke did not get in touch. Through this development I won more complete ownership of my mistress, and my dream at last felt as if it had come true. Marguerite could no longer live without me. Without worrying about what might come of it, she made our relationship public, and I no longer had to leave her house. The servants called me sir, and regarded me as their official master.

Prudence had lectured Marguerite on the subject of this new lifestyle, but the latter had responded that she loved me, that she could not live without me, and that, whatever might happen, she would not renounce the happiness of having me continually by her side, adding that anyone who wasn’t happy with that was free to go away and not come back.

I overheard this conversation one day when Prudence had told Marguerite that she had something very important to say to her, and I listened at the door of the room where they had shut themselves up.

A little time after, Prudence came back.

I was at the back of the garden when she came in; she did not see me. I wondered, from the way in which Marguerite came up to her, whether a conversation similar to the one I had already overheard might again take place, and I wanted to hear this one as well.

The two women shut themselves up in a dressing room, and I listened in.

“Well?” said Marguerite.

“Well? I saw the duke.”

“What did he say to you?”

“That he would happily forgive you the first incident, but that he had learned that you are living publicly with M. Armand Duval, and that he will not forgive you this. He told me, ‘If Marguerite leaves this young man, I will give her everything she wants, as I did in the past. If not, she will have to give up asking me for anything at all.’”

“How did you respond?”

“I told him that I would inform you of his decision, and promised him to make you see reason. Reflect, my dear child, on the status that you will lose and which Armand will never be able to give you. He loves you with all his soul, but he does not have a fortune large enough to meet all your needs, and one day he will be forced to leave you, at which point it will be too late and the duke will no longer want to do anything for you. Would you like me to speak to Armand?”

Marguerite seemed to reflect, for she did not answer. My heart beat violently as I awaited her response.

“No,” she said. “I will not leave Armand, and I will not hide myself away to live with him. Maybe it is folly, but I love him! What do you want? Also, he has grown used to being able to love me without any obstacle; he would suffer too greatly if he were forced to leave me, if only for an hour a day. Anyway, I don’t have long enough to live to make myself unhappy, and to humor the will of an old man the very sight of whom makes me grow older. Let him keep his money; I’ll make do without it.”

“But how?”

“I don’t know.”

Without a doubt, Prudence was about to make some retort, but I entered abruptly and ran to throw myself at Marguerite’s feet, covering her hands with tears that overflowed from my joy at being loved so much.

“You are my life, Marguerite; you don’t need that man anymore, now that I’m here. How could I ever leave you, and how could I ever repay the happiness you give me? No more limits, my Marguerite; we are in love! What does the rest matter to us?”

“Oh! Yes, I love you, my Armand!” she murmured, lacing her arms around my neck. “And I love you as I never believed I would be able to love. We are happy, we will live serenely together, and I will say good-bye forever to the life that now makes me blush. You won’t ever reproach me for my past, will you?”

Tears muffled my voice. I could not respond except by clasping Marguerite to my heart.

“Let’s go,” she said, and turning back to Prudence, she said in a voice filled with emotion, “You are to report this scene to the duke, and add that we don’t need him.”

From that day on the duke was no longer in the picture. Marguerite was no longer the girl I had known. She shunned anything that might have recalled the milieu in which I had met her. Never has a woman, never has a sister shown the love and attentiveness to a husband or brother that she showed me. Her sickly constitution was impressionable and accessible to all feelings. She broke with her old girlfriends as she had with her old habits, and with her old ways of talking and spending. Anyone who saw us leave the house for an excursion on the charming little boat I’d bought would never have believed that this woman in a white dress, wearing a straw picture hat and a simple silk pelisse draped over her arm to protect herself from the water’s cool dampness could be that same Marguerite Gautier whose extravagance and scandals had prompted gossip only four months before.

Alas! We were in such a hurry to be happy, it was as if we guessed that we would not be happy for long.

For two months we didn’t even go to Paris. Nobody came to see us except for Prudence, and that Julie Duprat I told you about, to whom Marguerite would later give the touching narrative I relay here.

I passed entire days at the feet of my mistress. We opened the windows that looked out on the garden, and watched the summer descend joyfully upon the flowers and burst them into bloom, and under the shade of the trees, side by side, we breathed in that genuine life that neither Marguerite nor I had known until that time.

This woman fell into childlike raptures at the tiniest things. There were days when she ran into the garden like a girl of ten to chase after a butterfly or a dragonfly. This courtesan for whom men had spent more money on bouquets than is required to comfortably maintain an entire family would sit on the lawn for an hour at a time, simply to inspect the simple marguerite daisy, whose name she bore.

It was during that time that she so often read Manon Lescaut. I came upon her many times making notes in the book; she always told me that when a woman is in love, she cannot help acting as Manon did.

Two or three times the duke wrote to her. She recognized his handwriting and gave me the letters without reading them.

Sometimes the language of these letters brought tears to my eyes.

He had believed that closing his purse to Marguerite would bring her back to him, but when he understood the uselessness of this device, he could not believe it. He wrote again, asking for permission to come back to her, as he had done before, whatever conditions she might impose upon his return.

I of course read these urgent, repetitive letters, and ripped them up, without telling Marguerite what they contained, and without advising her to see the old man again, despite the feelings of pity for the poor man they inspired in me. But I was afraid that she might read into any sanction of a return of the duke’s former visits a base desire on my part to make him resume paying the household expenses; I feared above all that she might believe me capable of rejecting responsibility for her on any of the paths where her love for me might lead her.

As a result, the duke, receiving no response, stopped writing, and Marguerite and I continued to live together with no thought of the future.