The room to which she had fled was lit only by a single candle. She lay back on a great sofa, her dress undone, holding one hand on her heart, and letting the other hang by her side. On the table was a basin half full of water, and the water was stained with streaks of blood.
Very pale, her mouth half open, Marguerite tried to recover breath. Now and again her bosom was raised by a long sigh, which seemed to relieve her a little, and for a few seconds she would seem to be quite comfortable.
I went up to her; she made no movement, and I sat down and took the hand which was lying on the sofa.
“Ah! it is you,” she said, with a smile.
I must have looked greatly agitated, for she added:
“Are you unwell, too?”
“No, but you: do you still suffer?”
“Very little;” and she wiped off with her handkerchief the tears which the coughing had brought to her eyes; “I am used to it now.”
“You are killing yourself, madame,” I said to her in a moved voice. “I wish I were a friend, a relation of yours, that I might keep you from doing yourself harm like this.”
“Ah! it is really not worth your while to alarm yourself,” she replied in a somewhat bitter tone; “see how much notice the others take of me! They know too well that there is nothing to be done.”
Thereupon she got up, and, taking the candle, put it on the mantel-piece and looked at herself in the glass.
“How pale I am!” she said, as she fastened her dress and passed her fingers over her loosened hair. “Come, let us go back to supper. Are you coming?”
I sat still and did not move.
She saw how deeply I had been affected by the whole scene, and, coming up to me, held out her hand, saying:
“Come now, let us go.”
I took her hand, raised it to my lips, and in spite of myself two tears fell upon it.
“Why, what a child you are!” she said, sitting down by my side again. “You are crying! What is the matter?”
“I must seem very silly to you, but I am frightfully troubled by what I have just seen.”
“You are very good! What would you have of me? I can not sleep. I must amuse myself a little. And then, girls like me, what does it matter, one more or less? The doctors tell me that the blood I spit up comes from my throat; I pretend to believe them; it is all I can do for them.”
“Listen, Marguerite,” I said, unable to contain myself any longer; “I do not know what influence you are going to have over my life, but at this present moment there is no one, not even my sister, in whom I feel the interest which I feel in you. It has been just the same ever since I saw you. Well, for Heaven’s sake, take care of yourself, and do not live as you are living now.”
“If I took care of myself I should die. All that supports me is the feverish life I lead. Then, as for taking care of oneself, that is all very well for women with families and friends; as for us, from the moment we can no longer serve the vanity or the pleasure of our lovers, they leave us, and long nights follow long days. I know it. I was in bed for two months, and after three weeks no one came to see me.”
“It is true I am nothing to you,” I went on, “but if you will let me, I will look after you like a brother, I will never leave your side, and I will cure you. Then, when you are strong again, you can go back to the life you are leading, if you choose; but I am sure you will come to prefer a quiet life, which will make you happier and keep your beauty unspoiled.”
“You think like that to-night because the wine has made you sad, but you would never have the patience that you pretend to.”
“Permit me to say, Marguerite, that you were ill for two months, and that for two months I came to ask after you every day.”
“It is true, but why did you not come up?”
“Because I did not know you then.”
“Need you have been so particular with a girl like me?”
“One must always be particular with a woman; it is what I feel, at least.”
“So you would look after me?”
“You would stay by me all day?”
“And even all night?”
“As long as I did not weary you.”
“And what do you call that?”
“And what does this devotion come from?”
“The irresistible sympathy which I have for you.”
“So you are in love with me? Say it straight out, it is much more simple.”
“It is possible; but if I am to say it to you one day, it is not today.”
“You will do better never to say it.”
“Because only one of two things can come of it.”
“Either I shall not accept: then you will have a grudge against me; or I shall accept: then you will have a sorry mistress; a woman who is nervous, ill, sad, or gay with a gaiety sadder than grief, a woman who spits blood and spends a hundred thousand francs a year. That is all very well for a rich old man like the duke, but it is very bad for a young man like you, and the proof of it is that all the young lovers I have had have very soon left me.” I did not answer; I listened. This frankness, which was almost a kind of confession, the sad life, of which I caught some glimpse through the golden veil which covered it, and whose reality the poor girl sought to escape in dissipation, drink, and wakefulness, impressed me so deeply that I could not utter a single word.
“Come,” continued Marguerite, “we are talking mere childishness. Give me your arm and let us go back to the dining-room. They won’t know what we mean by our absence.”
“Go in, if you like, but allow me to stay here.”
“Because your mirth hurts me.”
“Well, I will be sad.”
“Marguerite, let me say to you something which you have no doubt often heard, so often that the habit of hearing it has made you believe it no longer, but which is none the less real, and which I will never repeat.”
“And that is . . .?” she said, with the smile of a young mother listening to some foolish notion of her child.
“It is this, that ever since I have seen you, I know not why, you have taken a place in my life; that, if I drive the thought of you out of my mind, it always comes back; that when I met you today, after not having seen you for two years, you made a deeper impression on my heart and mind than ever; that, now that you have let me come to see you, now that I know you, now that I know all that is strange in you, you have become a necessity of my life, and you will drive me mad, not only if you will not love me, but if you will not let me love you.”
“But, foolish creature that you are, I shall say to you, like Mme. D., ‘You must be very rich, then!’ Why, you don’t know that I spend six or seven thousand francs a month, and that I could not live without it; you don’t know, my poor friend, that I should ruin you in no time, and that your family would cast you off if you were to live with a woman like me. Let us be friends, good friends, but no more. Come and see me, we will laugh and talk, but don’t exaggerate what I am worth, for I am worth very little. You have a good heart, you want some one to love you, you are too young and too sensitive to live in a world like mine. Take a married woman. You see, I speak to you frankly, like a friend.”
“But what the devil are you doing there?” cried Prudence, who had come in without our bearing her, and who now stood just inside the door, with her hair half coming down and her dress undone. I recognised the hand of Gaston.
“We are talking sense,” said Marguerite; “leave us alone; we will be back soon.”
“Good, good! Talk, my children,” said Prudence, going out and closing the door behind her, as if to further emphasize the tone in which she had said these words.
“Well, it is agreed,” continued Marguerite, when we were alone, “you won’t fall in love with me?”
“I will go away.”
“So much as that?”
I had gone too far to draw back; and I was really carried away. This mingling of gaiety, sadness, candour, prostitution, her very malady, which no doubt developed in her a sensitiveness to impressions, as well as an irritability of nerves, all this made it clear to me that if from the very beginning I did not completely dominate her light and forgetful nature, she was lost to me.
“Come, now, do you seriously mean what you say?” she said.
“But why didn’t you say it to me sooner?”
“When could I have said it?”
“The day after you had been introduced to me at the Opera Comique.”
“I thought you would have received me very badly if I had come to see you.”
“Because I had behaved so stupidly.”
“That’s true. And yet you were already in love with me.”
“And that didn’t hinder you from going to bed and sleeping quite comfortably. One knows what that sort of love means.”
“There you are mistaken. Do you know what I did that evening, after the Opera Comique?”
“I waited for you at the door of the Cafe Anglais. I followed the carriage in which you and your three friends were, and when I saw you were the only one to get down, and that you went in alone, I was very happy.”
Marguerite began to laugh.
“What are you laughing at?”
“Tell me, I beg of you, or I shall think you are still laughing at me.”
“You won’t be cross?”
“What right have I to be cross?”
“Well, there was a sufficient reason why I went in alone.”
“Some one was waiting for me here.”
If she had thrust a knife into me she would not have hurt me more. I rose, and holding out my hand, “Goodbye,” said I.
“I knew you would be cross,” she said; “men are frantic to know what is certain to give them pain.”
“But I assure you,” I added coldly, as if wishing to prove how completely I was cured of my passion, “I assure you that I am not cross. It was quite natural that some one should be waiting for you, just as it is quite natural that I should go from here at three in the morning.”
“Have you, too, some one waiting for you?”
“No, but I must go.”
“You send me away?”
“Not the least in the world.”
“Why are you so unkind to me?”
“How have I been unkind to you?”
“In telling me that some one was waiting for you.”
“I could not help laughing at the idea that you had been so happy to see me come in alone when there was such a good reason for it.”
“One finds pleasure in childish enough things, and it is too bad to destroy such a pleasure when, by simply leaving it alone, one can make somebody so happy.”
“But what do you think I am? I am neither maid nor duchess. I didn’t know you till today, and I am not responsible to you for my actions. Supposing one day I should become your mistress, you are bound to know that I have had other lovers besides you. If you make scenes of jealousy like this before, what will it be after, if that after should ever exist? I never met any one like you.”
“That is because no one has ever loved you as I love you.”
“Frankly, then, you really love me?”
“As much as it is possible to love, I think.”
“And that has lasted since —?”
“Since the day I saw you go into Susse’s, three years ago.
“Do you know, that is tremendously fine? Well, what am to do in return?”
“Love me a little,” I said, my heart beating so that I could hardly speak; for, in spite of the half-mocking smiles with which she had accompanied the whole conversation, it seemed to me that Marguerite began to share my agitation, and that the hour so long awaited was drawing near.
“Well, but the duke?”
“My jealous old duke.”
“He will know nothing.”
“And if he should?”
“He would forgive you.”
“Ah, no, he would leave me, and what would become of me?”
“You risk that for some one else.”
“How do you know?” “By the order you gave not to admit any one to-night.” “It is true; but that is a serious friend.”
“For whom you care nothing, as you have shut your door against him at such an hour.”
“It is not for you to reproach me, since it was in order to receive you, you and your friend.”
Little by little I had drawn nearer to Marguerite. I had put my arms about her waist, and I felt her supple body weigh lightly on my clasped hands.
“If you knew how much I love you!” I said in a low voice. “Really true?”
“I swear it.”
“Well, if you will promise to do everything I tell you, without a word, without an opinion, without a question, perhaps I will say yes.”
“I will do everything that you wish!”
“But I forewarn you I must be free to do as I please, without giving you the slightest details what I do. I have long wished for a young lover, who should be young and not self-willed, loving without distrust, loved without claiming the right to it. I have never found one. Men, instead of being satisfied in obtaining for a long time what they scarcely hoped to obtain once, exact from their mistresses a full account of the present, the past, and even the future. As they get accustomed to her, they want to rule her, and the more one gives them the more exacting they become. If I decide now on taking a new lover, he must have three very rare qualities: he must be confiding, submissive, and discreet.”
“Well, I will be all that you wish.”
“We shall see.”
“When shall we see?”
“Because,” said Marguerite, releasing herself from my arms, and, taking from a great bunch of red camellias a single camellia, she placed it in my buttonhole, “because one can not always carry out agreements the day they are signed.”
“And when shall I see you again?” I said, clasping her in my arms.
“When this camellia changes colour.”
“When will it change colour?”
“To-morrow night between eleven and twelve. Are you satisfied?”
“Need you ask me?”
“Not a word of this either to your friend or to Prudence, or to anybody whatever.”
“Now, kiss me, and we will go back to the dining-room.”
She held up her lips to me, smoothed her hair again, and we went out of the room, she singing, and I almost beside myself.
In the next room she stopped for a moment and said to me in a low voice:
“It must seem strange to you that I am ready to take you at a moment’s notice. Shall I tell you why? It is,” she continued, taking my hand and placing it against her heart so that I could feel how rapidly and violently it palpitated; “it is because I shall not live as long as others, and I have promised myself to live more quickly.”
“Don’t speak to me like that, I entreat you.”
“Oh, make yourself easy,” she continued, laughing; “however short a time I have to live, I shall live longer than you will love me!”
And she went singing into the dining-room.
“Where is Nanine?” she said, seeing Gaston and Prudence alone.
“She is asleep in your room, waiting till you are ready to go to bed,” replied Prudence.
“Poor thing, I am killing her! And now gentlemen, it is time to go.”
Ten minutes after, Gaston and I left the house. Marguerite shook hands with me and said good-bye. Prudence remained behind.
“Well,” said Gaston, when we were in the street, “what do you think of Marguerite?”
“She is an angel, and I am madly in love with her.” “So I guessed; did you tell her so?”
“And did she promise to believe you?”
“She is not like Prudence.”
“Did she promise to?”
“Better still, my dear fellow. You wouldn’t think it; but she is still not half bad, poor old Duvernoy!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07