Camille, by Alexandre Dumas

Chapter 16

I might have told you of the beginning of this liaison in a few lines, but I wanted you to see every step by which we came, I to agree to whatever Marguerite wished, Marguerite to be unable to live apart from me.

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

From that time, seeing that I could not change my mistress’s life, I changed my own. I wished above all not to leave myself time to think over the position I had accepted, for, in spite of myself, it was a great distress to me. Thus my life, generally so calm, assumed all at once an appearance of noise and disorder. Never believe, however disinterested the love of a kept woman may be, that it will cost one nothing. Nothing is so expensive as their caprices, flowers, boxes at the theatre, suppers, days in the country, which one can never refuse to one’s mistress.

As I have told you, I had little money. My father was, and still is, receveur general at C. He has a great reputation there for loyalty, thanks to which he was able to find the security which he needed in order to attain this position.

It is worth forty thousand francs a year, and during the ten years that he has had it, he has paid off the security and put aside a dowry for my sister. My father is the most honourable man in the world. When my mother died, she left six thousand francs a year, which he divided between my sister and myself on the very day when he received his appointment; then, when I was twenty-one, he added to this little income an annual allowance of five thousand francs, assuring me that with eight thousand francs a year I might live very happily at Paris, if, in addition to this, I would make a position for myself either in law or medicine. I came to Paris, studied law, was called to the bar, and, like many other young men, put my diploma in my pocket, and let myself drift, as one so easily does in Paris.

My expenses were very moderate; only I used up my year’s income in eight months, and spent the four summer months with my father, which practically gave me twelve thousand francs a year, and, in addition, the reputation of a good son. For the rest, not a penny of debt.

This, then, was my position when I made the acquaintance of Marguerite. You can well understand that, in spite of myself, my expenses soon increased. Marguerite’s nature was very capricious, and, like so many women, she never regarded as a serious expense those thousand and one distractions which made up her life. So, wishing to spend as much time with me as possible, she would write to me in the morning that she would dine with me, not at home, but at some restaurant in Paris or in the country. I would call for her, and we would dine and go on to the theatre, often having supper as well; and by the end of the evening I had spent four or five louis, which came to two or three thousand francs a month, which reduced my year to three months and a half, and made it necessary for me either to go into debt or to leave Marguerite. I would have consented to anything except the latter.

Forgive me if I give you all these details, but you will see that they were the cause of what was to follow. What I tell you is a true and simple story, and I leave to it all the naivete of its details and all the simplicity of its developments.

I realized then that as nothing in the world would make me forget my mistress, it was needful for me to find some way of meeting the expenses into which she drew me. Then, too, my love for her had so disturbing an influence upon me that every moment I spent away from Marguerite was like a year, and that I felt the need of consuming these moments in the fire of some sort of passion, and of living them so swiftly as not to know that I was living them.

I began by borrowing five or six thousand francs on my little capital, and with this I took to gambling. Since gambling houses were destroyed gambling goes on everywhere. Formerly, when one went to Frascati, one had the chance of making a fortune; one played against money, and if one lost, there was always the consolation of saying that one might have gained; whereas now, except in the clubs, where there is still a certain rigour in regard to payments, one is almost certain, the moment one gains a considerable sum, not to receive it. You will readily understand why. Gambling is only likely to be carried on by young people very much in need of money and not possessing the fortune necessary for supporting the life they lead; they gamble, then, and with this result; or else they gain, and then those who lose serve to pay for their horses and mistresses, which is very disagreeable. Debts are contracted, acquaintances begun about a green table end by quarrels in which life or honour comes to grief; and though one may be an honest man, one finds oneself ruined by very honest men, whose only defect is that they have not two hundred thousand francs a year.

I need not tell you of those who cheat at play, and of how one hears one fine day of their hasty disappearance and tardy condemnation.

I flung myself into this rapid, noisy, and volcanic life, which had formerly terrified me when I thought of it, and which had become for me the necessary complement of my love for Marguerite. What else could I have done?

The nights that I did not spend in the Rue d’Antin, if I had spent them alone in my own room, I could not have slept. Jealousy would have kept me awake, and inflamed my blood and my thoughts; while gambling gave a new turn to the fever which would otherwise have preyed upon my heart, and fixed it upon a passion which laid hold on me in spite of myself, until the hour struck when I might go to my mistress. Then, and by this I knew the violence of my love, I left the table without a moment’s hesitation, whether I was winning or losing, pitying those whom I left behind because they would not, like me, find their real happiness in leaving it. For the most of them, gambling was a necessity; for me, it was a remedy. Free of Marguerite, I should have been free of gambling.

Thus, in the midst of all that, I preserved a considerable amount of self-possession; I lost only what I was able to pay, and gained only what I should have been able to lose.

For the rest, chance was on my side. I made no debts, and I spent three times as much money as when I did not gamble. It was impossible to resist an existence which gave me an easy means of satisfying the thousand caprices of Marguerite. As for her, she continued to love me as much, or even more than ever.

As I told you, I began by being allowed to stay only from midnight to six o’clock, then I was asked sometimes to a box in the theatre, then she sometimes came to dine with me. One morning I did not go till eight, and there came a day when I did not go till twelve.

But, sooner than the moral metamorphosis, a physical metamorphosis came about in Marguerite. I had taken her cure in hand, and the poor girl, seeing my aim, obeyed me in order to prove her gratitude. I had succeeded without effort or trouble in almost isolating her from her former habits. My doctor, whom I had made her meet, had told me that only rest and calm could preserve her health, so that in place of supper and sleepless nights, I succeeded in substituting a hygienic regime and regular sleep. In spite of herself, Marguerite got accustomed to this new existence, whose salutary effects she already realized. She began to spend some of her evenings at home, or, if the weather was fine, she wrapped herself in a shawl, put on a veil, and we went on foot, like two children, in the dim alleys of the Champs–Elysees. She would come in tired, take a light supper, and go to bed after a little music or reading, which she had never been used to do. The cough, which every time that I heard it seemed to go through my chest, had almost completely disappeared.

At the end of six weeks the count was entirely given up, and only the duke obliged me to conceal my liaison with Marguerite, and even he was sent away when I was there, under the pretext that she was asleep and had given orders that she was not to be awakened.

The habit or the need of seeing me which Marguerite had now contracted had this good result: that it forced me to leave the gaming-table just at the moment when an adroit gambler would have left it. Settling one thing against another, I found myself in possession of some ten thousand francs, which seemed to me an inexhaustible capital.

The time of the year when I was accustomed to join my father and sister had now arrived, and I did not go; both of them wrote to me frequently, begging me to come. To these letters I replied as best I could, always repeating that I was quite well and that I was not in need of money, two things which, I thought, would console my father for my delay in paying him my annual visit.

Just then, one fine day in summer, Marguerite was awakened by the sunlight pouring into her room, and, jumping out of bed, asked me if I would take her into the country for the whole day.

We sent for Prudence, and all three set off, after Marguerite had given Nanine orders to tell the duke that she had taken advantage of the fine day to go into the country with Mme. Duvernoy.

Besides the presence of Mme. Duvernoy being needful on account of the old duke, Prudence was one of those women who seem made on purpose for days in the country. With her unchanging good-humour and her eternal appetite, she never left a dull moment to those whom she was with, and was perfectly happy in ordering eggs, cherries, milk, stewed rabbit, and all the rest of the traditional lunch in the country.

We had now only to decide where we should go. It was once more Prudence who settled the difficulty.

“Do you want to go to the real country?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Well, let us go to Bougival, at the Point du Jour, at Widow Arnould’s. Armand, order an open carriage.”

An hour and a half later we were at Widow Arnould’s.

Perhaps you know the inn, which is a hotel on week days and a tea garden on Sundays. There is a magnificent view from the garden, which is at the height of an ordinary first floor. On the left the Aqueduct of Marly closes in the horizon, on the right one looks across bill after hill; the river, almost without current at that spot, unrolls itself like a large white watered ribbon between the plain of the Gabillons and the island of Croissy, lulled eternally by the trembling of its high poplars and the murmur of its willows. Beyond, distinct in the sunlight, rise little white houses, with red roofs, and manufactories, which, at that distance, put an admirable finish to the landscape. Beyond that, Paris in the mist! As Prudence had told us, it was the real country, and, I must add, it was a real lunch.

It is not only out of gratitude for the happiness I owe it, but Bougival, in spite of its horrible name, is one of the prettiest places that it is possible to imagine. I have travelled a good deal, and seen much grander things, but none more charming than this little village gaily seated at the foot of the hill which protects it.

Mme. Arnould asked us if we would take a boat, and Marguerite and Prudence accepted joyously.

People have always associated the country with love, and they have done well; nothing affords so fine a frame for the woman whom one loves as the blue sky, the odours, the flowers, the breeze, the shining solitude of fields, or woods. However much one loves a woman, whatever confidence one may have in her, whatever certainty her past may offer us as to her future, one is always more or less jealous. If you have been in love, you must have felt the need of isolating from this world the being in whom you would live wholly. It seems as if, however indifferent she may be to her surroundings, the woman whom one loves loses something of her perfume and of her unity at the contact of men and things. As for me, I experienced that more than most. Mine was not an ordinary love; I was as much in love as an ordinary creature could be, but with Marguerite Gautier; that is to say, that at Paris, at every step, I might elbow the man who had already been her lover or who was about to, while in the country, surrounded by people whom we had never seen and who had no concern with us, alone with nature in the spring-time of the year, that annual pardon, and shut off from the noise of the city, I could hide my love, and love without shame or fear.

The courtesan disappeared little by little. I had by me a young and beautiful woman, whom I loved, and who loved me, and who was called Marguerite; the past had no more reality and the future no more clouds. The sun shone upon my mistress as it might have shone upon the purest bride. We walked together in those charming spots which seemed to have been made on purpose to recall the verses of Lamartine or to sing the melodies of Scudo. Marguerite was dressed in white, she leaned on my arm, saying over to me again under the starry sky the words she had said to me the day before, and far off the world went on its way, without darkening with its shadow the radiant picture of our youth and love.

That was the dream that the hot sun brought to me that day through the leaves of the trees, as, lying on the grass of the island on which we had landed, I let my thought wander, free from the human links that had bound it, gathering to itself every hope that came in its way.

Add to this that from the place where I was I could see on the shore a charming little house of two stories, with a semicircular railing; through the railing, in front of the house, a green lawn, smooth as velvet, and behind the house a little wood full of mysterious retreats, where the moss must efface each morning the pathway that had been made the day before. Climbing flowers clung about the doorway of this uninhabited house, mounting as high as the first story.

I looked at the house so long that I began by thinking of it as mine, so perfectly did it embody the dream that I was dreaming; I saw Marguerite and myself there, by day in the little wood that covered the hillside, in the evening seated on the grass, and I asked myself if earthly creatures had ever been so happy as we should be.

“What a pretty house!” Marguerite said to me, as she followed the direction of my gaze and perhaps of my thought.

“Where?” asked Prudence.

“Yonder,” and Marguerite pointed to the house in question.

“Ah, delicious!” replied Prudence. “Do you like it?”

“Very much.”

“Well, tell the duke to take it for you; he would do so, I am sure. I’ll see about it if you like.”

Marguerite looked at me, as if to ask me what I thought. My dream vanished at the last words of Prudence, and brought me back to reality so brutally that I was still stunned with the fall.

“Yes, yes, an excellent idea,” I stammered, not knowing what I was saying.

“Well, I will arrange that,” said Marguerite, freeing my hand, and interpreting my words according to her own desire. “Let us go and see if it is to let.”

The house was empty, and to let for two thousand francs.

“Would you be happy here?” she said to me.

“Am I sure of coming here?”

“And for whom else should I bury myself here, if not for you?”

“Well, then, Marguerite, let me take it myself.”

“You are mad; not only is it unnecessary, but it would be dangerous. You know perfectly well that I have no right to accept it save from one man. Let me alone, big baby, and say nothing.”

“That means,” said Prudence, “that when I have two days free I will come and spend them with you.”

We left the house, and started on our return to Paris, talking over the new plan. I held Marguerite in my arms, and as I got down from the carriage, I had already begun to look upon her arrangement with less critical eyes.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37