The Lady of the Camellias CHAPTER XXIII

As the ordinary routine of daily life resumed its course, I could not believe the day that broke would not resemble the ones that had preceded it. There were moments when I told myself that some circumstance I could not recall had brought me to spend the night away from Marguerite, but that if I returned to Bougival, I would find her anxious, just as I had been, and that she would ask me who it was who had kept me so far away from her.

Once existence has solidified into habit, as had happened with this love affair, it seems impossible that this habit could be broken without simultaneously shattering all the other mainsprings of life.

I was therefore forced to reread that letter from Marguerite time and again, to convince myself I had not dreamed it.

My body, succumbing to moral shock, was incapable of a single movement. My anxiety, my nighttime journey, the news of the morning, had exhausted me. My father took advantage of this total prostration of my forces to ask me to formally consent to leave with him.

I promised everything he wanted. I was incapable of enduring an argument, and I needed genuine affection to help me survive what had just happened.

I was only too happy that my father was willing to console me for such heartbreak.

All I recall is that around five o’clock that afternoon he had me step into a post chaise with him. Without telling me anything, he’d had my trunks packed, had them loaded with his own behind the carriage, and taken me off.

I had no idea of what I was doing until the city had disappeared and the solitude of the road reminded me of the emptiness of my heart.

Again I was overcome by tears.

My father understood that words, even from him, would not console me, and let me cry without saying a word, contenting himself with sometimes gripping my hand, as if to remind me that I had a friend next to me.

That night I slept a little. I dreamt of Marguerite.

I woke with a start, not understanding why I was in a carriage.

Then reality came back to me, and I let my head sink on my chest.

I did not dare talk to my father; I was too afraid he might say, “You see, I was right when I denied that woman’s ability to love.”

But he did not abuse his advantage, and we arrived at C . . . without his having said anything to me but words completely unrelated to the events that had caused my departure.

When I embraced my sister, I recalled the words of Marguerite’s letter concerning her, but understood at once that, good as she was, my sister was incapable of making me forget my mistress.

Hunting season was open; my father thought it would provide a distraction for me. He organized shooting parties with neighbors and friends. I attended them without repugnance and without enthusiasm, with the same apathy that characterized all my actions after my departure.

We were hunting for game. I was brought to my post. I set my unloaded gun down beside me and daydreamed.

I watched the clouds pass. I let my thoughts wander across the lonely plains, and from time to time I would hear my name called by some hunter, pointing out a hare ten steps away from me.

None of these details escaped my father, and he did not let himself be deceived by my tranquil exterior. He understood very well that, defeated as it was, my heart might someday experience a terrible, perhaps dangerous reaction, and while avoiding the appearance of consoling me, he did his utmost to distract me.

My sister, naturally, had not been made aware of all that had occurred. She could not understand why I, usually so cheerful, had suddenly become so dreamy and sad.

Sometimes, surprised in the midst of my sadness by an uneasy glance from my father, I would give him my hand and clasp his as if tacitly begging his pardon for the pain that, in spite of myself, I had caused him.

A month passed this way, but it was all I could bear.

The memory of Marguerite pursued me endlessly. I had loved this woman too much, and I still did, for her to become indifferent to me at once. Whatever feelings I might have for her, I simply had to see her again, and at once.

This desire entered my mind and planted itself there with all the violence of the determination that finally reemerges in a body that has been paralyzed for a long time.

It was not in the future, in one month, in a week that I had to see Marguerite; it was the day following the very day when the idea seized me, and I went to tell my father that I was leaving him for business that called me back to Paris, but that I would return promptly.

No doubt he guessed the motive for my departure, because he urged me to stay; but, seeing that the suppression of this desire, in the excitable state I was in, might have fatal consequences for me, he hugged me and begged me, almost in tears, to return quickly to his side.

I did not sleep all the way to Paris.

Once I was there, what would I do? I did not know, but first of all I needed to find out what had become of Marguerite.

I went to my apartment to get dressed, and as the weather was good, and there was plenty of time, I went to the Champs-Élysées.

After half an hour I saw Marguerite’s carriage approach from afar, from the Rond-Point at the Place de la Concorde.

She had bought back her horses, because the carriage was just as it used to be, except she was not inside it.

Hardly had I noticed this absence when, following the eyes of others around me, I saw Marguerite, on foot, accompanied by a woman I’d never seen before.

In passing alongside me, she turned pale, and a nervous smile tightened her lips. As for me, the violent beating of my heart shook my chest, but I succeeded in maintaining a chilly expression on my face, and coldly saluted my old mistress, who reached her carriage almost at the same time, and climbed into it with her friend.

I knew Marguerite. Meeting me unexpectedly must have disconcerted her. Without doubt she had learned of my departure, which must have calmed her in the aftermath of our rupture; but seeing me come back, and finding herself face-to-face with me, pale as I was, she must have understood that my return had a purpose, and asked herself what was going to happen.

If I had come upon Marguerite unhappy—if, as a sort of revenge, I had been able to rescue her in some way—I would perhaps have forgiven her, and certainly would not have thought of doing her harm. But I found her happy, at least so it appeared; another man had returned to her the luxury I could not provide for her. As a consequence, our rupture, initiated by her, seemed to take on the basest character. I felt as humiliated in my pride as in my love; she absolutely had to pay for the suffering she had caused me.

I could not be indifferent to what this woman was doing, and surely, the thing that would hurt her the most would be my indifference; so that was the sentiment I had to feign, not only for her eyes, but also for the eyes of others.

Trying to put on a smiling face, I presented myself at Prudence’s.

The chambermaid went to announce me and made me wait a few moments in the living room.

At last Mme Duvernoy appeared and invited me into her boudoir. As soon as I sat down, I heard the door of the living room open. A light step made the parquet creak, and then the door of the building slammed violently.

“Am I disturbing you?” I asked Prudence.

“Not at all; Marguerite was here. When she heard your name announced, she ran away; it is she who has just left.”

“She is afraid of me now?”

“No, but she believes it would be disagreeable for you to see her.”

“Why then,” I said, making an effort to breathe naturally, as emotion was choking me, “the poor girl has left me to get back her carriage, her furniture, and her diamonds. She has done the right thing, and I should not resent her for it. I ran into her today,” I continued casually.

“Where?” said Prudence, looking at me and seeming to ask herself if this man was really the same one she had known who had been so in love.

“On the Champs-Élysées; she was with another very pretty woman. Who is that woman?”

“What does she look like?”

“A blonde, slender, with long curls, blue eyes, very elegant.”

“Ah! That’s Olympe, a very pretty girl, indeed.”

“Who does she live with?”

“With nobody, with everybody.”

“And where does she live?”

“Rue Tronchet, number . . . Ah! Wait, you would like to pursue her?”

“You never know what might happen.”

“And Marguerite?”

“To tell you that I don’t think of her at all anymore would be a lie, but I am one of those men for whom the manner in which an affair ends carries great weight. Marguerite sent me away me in such a light manner that I felt like a fool for having been as in love as I was, for I was truly very much in love with that girl.”

You may guess in what tone I attempted to say these things; sweat poured down my forehead.

“Come now, she loved you very much, and she still loves you; the proof is that after she saw you today, she came immediately to tell me about this encounter. When she arrived, she was trembling; she was almost ill.”

“Well, what did she tell you?”

“She said to me, ‘No doubt he will come to see you,’ and begged me to ask your forgiveness.”

“I forgive her; you may tell her that. She is a good girl, but she’s a girl of a certain type, and what she did to me I should have expected. I am grateful to her for her decisiveness, because today I ask myself where my idea of building a life with her would have led. It was folly.”

“She will be very happy to learn that you are reconciled to the necessity in which she found herself. It was time for her to leave you, my dear. The scoundrel of a businessman she had planned to sell her furniture to had contacted her creditors to ask how much she owed them; they had taken fright, and everything was going to be sold in two days.”

“And now it’s all paid off?”

“Just about.”

“And who provided the funds?”

“The Comte de N . . . . Ah! My dear! There are men made just for that purpose. In short, he gave her twenty thousand francs, but that was his limit. He knows Marguerite is not in love with him, but that does not keep him from being very kind to her. As you saw, he bought back her horses, he redeemed her jewels, and he gives her as much money as the duke gave her. If she would like a tranquil life, that man will stay with her for a long time.”

“And what is she doing? Is she living entirely in Paris?”

“She never wanted to return to Bougival after you left. I am the one who went there and got all her things, and even yours, which I’ve made into a bundle that you can pick up here. Everything is there, except for a small portfolio with your monogram on it. Marguerite wanted to keep it; she has it at her place. If you are attached to it, I will ask for it back from her.”

“She may keep it,” I stammered, for I felt the tears rise from my heart to my eyes at the memory of the village where I had been so happy, and at the thought that Marguerite wanted to hold on to something of mine that reminded her of me.

If she had entered at that moment, my resolutions of vengeance would have disappeared, and I would have fallen at her feet.

“Besides,” Prudence resumed, “I’ve never seen her as she is now. She hardly sleeps anymore, she goes to the balls, she has supper, she even drinks too much. Very recently, after a supper, she had to stay in bed for a week; and when the doctor permitted her to get up, she started it up again, at risk of her life. Are you going to go see her?”

“What good would that do? I came to see you—you—because you have always been kind to me, and because I knew you before I knew Marguerite. It is to you that I owe the fact that I was her lover, just as it’s to you that I owe the fact that I no longer am, is that not so?”

“Ah, I should say so. I did everything I could to make her leave you, and I believe that, later, you will not hold it against me.”

“In that case I owe you a double debt of gratitude,” I added as I rose, because I was disgusted by this woman, seeing that she took at face value everything I said to her.

“You are going?”


I had learned enough.

“When will we see you again?”

“Soon. Good-bye.”


Prudence led me as far as the door, and I went home with tears of rage in my eyes and a hunger for vengeance in my heart.

So Marguerite, in the end, was like all the rest, and the deep love she had for me had not been able to overcome her desire to resume her past life and her need to have a carriage and to take part in wild parties.

That is what I told myself during my sleepless nights whereas, if I had reflected as coolly as I pretended to, I might have read into Marguerite’s clamorous new existence her hope of quieting a persistent thought, an unceasing memory.

Unfortunately I was overcome with fury, and sought nothing but a way to torture this poor creature.

Oh! Man can be so petty and vile when one of his small-minded passions is wounded.

This Olympe, whom I had seen her with, was, if not Marguerite’s friend, at least the person she had seen most often since her return to Paris. She was going to give a ball, and since I supposed that Marguerite would be there, I sought to get an invitation, and received one.

When, seething with my painful emotions, I arrived at this ball, it was already at full tilt. People were dancing, people were even shouting, and, in one of the quadrilles, I saw Marguerite dancing with the Comte de N . . . , who seemed quite proud to show her off, and seemed to say to all the world, “This woman is mine!”

I went to lean against the mantel, just across from Marguerite, and watched her dance. Hardly had she noticed me when she became troubled. I saw her and greeted her absently with a glance and a wave.

When I reflected that, after the ball, it would not be with me that she would leave, but with this rich idiot, and when I pictured what in all likelihood would follow their return to her apartment, the blood rushed to my face, and I felt compelled to stir up trouble between them.

After the contredanse I went to greet the mistress of the house, who had put on display for the eyes of her guests her magnificent shoulders and an expanse of dazzling bosom.

The girl was beautiful—and in terms of her figure, more beautiful than Marguerite. This became even clearer to me as I saw the way the former looked at Olympe while I was talking to her. The man who would be the lover of that woman could be as proud as M. de N . . . , and she was beautiful enough to inspire a passion equal to that which Marguerite had inspired in me.

She had no lover at that time. It would not be difficult to take on that role. All that was required was to show enough gold to get oneself noticed.

My resolution was set. This woman was to be my mistress.

I commenced my role as suitor by dancing with Olympe.

Half an hour later, Marguerite, pale as a corpse, put on her pelisse and left the ball.