It was hardly an hour after Joseph and I had begun preparing for my departure, when there was a violent ring at the door.
“Shall I go to the door?” said Joseph.
“Go,” I said, asking myself who it could be at such an hour, and not daring to believe that it was Marguerite.
“Sir,” said Joseph coming back to me, “it is two ladies.”
“It is we, Armand,” cried a voice that I recognised as that of Prudence.
I came out of my room. Prudence was standing looking around the place; Marguerite, seated on the sofa, was meditating. I went to her, knelt down, took her two hands, and, deeply moved, said to her, “Pardon.”
She kissed me on the forehead, and said:
“This is the third time that I have forgiven you.”
“I should have gone away tomorrow.”
“How can my visit change your plans? I have not come to hinder you from leaving Paris. I have come because I had no time to answer you during the day, and I did not wish to let you think that I was angry with you. Prudence didn’t want me to come; she said that I might be in the way.”
“You in the way, Marguerite! But how?”
“Well, you might have had a woman here,” said Prudence, “and it would hardly have been amusing for her to see two more arrive.”
During this remark Marguerite looked at me attentively.
“My dear Prudence,” I answered, “you do not know what you are saying.”
“What a nice place you’ve got!” Prudence went on. “May we see the bedroom?”
Prudence went into the bedroom, not so much to see it as to make up for the foolish thing which she had just said, and to leave Marguerite and me alone.
“Why did you bring Prudence?” I asked her.
“Because she was at the theatre with me, and because when I leave here I want to have some one to see me home.”
“Could not I do?”
“Yes, but, besides not wishing to put you out, I was sure that if you came as far as my door you would want to come up, and as I could not let you, I did not wish to let you go away blaming me for saying ‘No.’”
“And why could you not let me come up?”
“Because I am watched, and the least suspicion might do me the greatest harm.”
“Is that really the only reason?”
“If there were any other, I would tell you; for we are not to have any secrets from one another now.”
“Come, Marguerite, I am not going to take a roundabout way of saying what I really want to say. Honestly, do you care for me a little?”
“A great deal.”
“Then why did you deceive me?”
“My friend, if I were the Duchess So and So, if I had two hundred thousand francs a year, and if I were your mistress and had another lover, you would have the right to ask me; but I am Mlle. Marguerite Gautier, I am forty thousand francs in debt, I have not a penny of my own, and I spend a hundred thousand francs a year. Your question becomes unnecessary and my answer useless.”
“You are right,” I said, letting my head sink on her knees; “but I love you madly.”
“Well, my friend, you must either love me a little less or understand me a little better. Your letter gave me a great deal of pain. If I had been free, first of all I would not have seen the count the day before yesterday, or, if I had, I should have come and asked your forgiveness as you ask me now, and in future I should have had no other lover but you. I fancied for a moment that I might give myself that happiness for six months; you would not have it; you insisted on knowing the means. Well, good heavens, the means were easy enough to guess! In employing them I was making a greater sacrifice for you than you imagine. I might have said to you, ‘I want twenty thousand francs’; you were in love with me and you would have found them, at the risk of reproaching me for it later on. I preferred to owe you nothing; you did not understand the scruple, for such it was. Those of us who are like me, when we have any heart at all, we give a meaning and a development to words and things unknown to other women; I repeat, then, that on the part of Marguerite Gautier the means which she used to pay her debts without asking you for the money necessary for it, was a scruple by which you ought to profit, without saying anything. If you had only met me today, you would be too delighted with what I promised you, and you would not question me as to what I did the day before yesterday. We are sometimes obliged to buy the satisfaction of our souls at the expense of our bodies, and we suffer still more, when, afterward, that satisfaction is denied us.”
I listened, and I gazed at Marguerite with admiration. When I thought that this marvellous creature, whose feet I had once longed to kiss, was willing to let me take my place in her thoughts, my part in her life, and that I was not yet content with what she gave me, I asked if man’s desire has indeed limits when, satisfied as promptly as mine had been, it reached after something further.
“Truly,” she continued, “we poor creatures of chance have fantastic desires and inconceivable loves. We give ourselves now for one thing, now for another. There are men who ruin themselves without obtaining the least thing from us; there are others who obtain us for a bouquet of flowers. Our hearts have their caprices; it is their one distraction and their one excuse. I gave myself to you sooner than I ever did to any man, I swear to you; and do you know why? Because when you saw me spitting blood you took my hand; because you wept; because you are the only human being who has ever pitied me. I am going to say a mad thing to you: I once had a little dog who looked at me with a sad look when I coughed; that is the only creature I ever loved. When he died I cried more than when my mother died. It is true that for twelve years of her life she used to beat me. Well, I loved you all at once, as much as my dog. If men knew what they can have for a tear, they would be better loved and we should be less ruinous to them.
“Your letter undeceived me; it showed me that you lacked the intelligence of the heart; it did you more harm with me than anything you could possibly have done. It was jealousy certainly, but ironical and impertinent jealousy. I was already feeling sad when I received your letter. I was looking forward to seeing you at twelve, to having lunch with you, and wiping out, by seeing you, a thought which was with me incessantly, and which, before I knew you, I had no difficulty in tolerating.
“Then,” continued Marguerite, “you were the only person before whom it seemed to me, from the first, that I could think and speak freely. All those who come about women like me have an interest in calculating their slightest words, in thinking of the consequences of their most insignificant actions. Naturally we have no friends. We have selfish lovers who spend their fortunes, riot on us, as they say, but on their own vanity. For these people we have to be merry when they are merry, well when they want to sup, sceptics like themselves. We are not allowed to have hearts, under penalty of being hooted down and of ruining our credit.
“We no longer belong to ourselves. We are no longer beings, but things. We stand first in their self-esteem, last in their esteem. We have women who call themselves our friends, but they are friends like Prudence, women who were once kept and who have still the costly tastes that their age does not allow them to gratify. Then they become our friends, or rather our guests at table. Their friendship is carried to the point of servility, never to that of disinterestedness. Never do they give you advice which is not lucrative. It means little enough to them that we should have ten lovers extra, as long as they get dresses or a bracelet out of them, and that they can drive in our carriage from time to time or come to our box at the theatre. They have our last night’s bouquets, and they borrow our shawls. They never render us a service, however slight, without seeing that they are paid twice its value. You yourself saw when Prudence brought me the six thousand francs that I had asked her to get from the duke, how she borrowed five hundred francs, which she will never pay me back, or which she will pay me in hats, which will never be taken out of their boxes.
“We can not, then, have, or rather I can not have more than one possible kind of happiness, and this is, sad as I sometimes am, suffering as I always am, to find a man superior enough not to ask questions about my life, and to be the lover of my impressions rather than of my body. Such a man I found in the duke; but the duke is old, and old age neither protects nor consoles. I thought I could accept the life which he offered me; but what would you have? I was dying of ennui, and if one is bound to be consumed, it is as well to throw oneself into the flames as to be asphyxiated with charcoal.
“Then I met you, young, ardent, happy, and I tried to make you the man I had longed for in my noisy solitude. What I loved in you was not the man who was, but the man who was going to be. You do not accept the position, you reject it as unworthy of you; you are an ordinary lover. Do like the others; pay me, and say no more about it.”
Marguerite, tired out with this long confession, threw herself back on the sofa, and to stifle a slight cough put up her handkerchief to her lips, and from that to her eyes.
“Pardon, pardon,” I murmured. “I understood it all, but I wanted to have it from your own lips, my beloved Marguerite. Forget the rest and remember only one thing: that we belong to one another, that we are young, and that we love. Marguerite, do with me as you will; I am your slave, your dog, but in the name of heaven tear up the letter which I wrote to you and do not make me leave you tomorrow; it would kill me.”
Marguerite drew the letter from her bosom, and handing it to me with a smile of infinite sweetness, said:
“Here it is. I have brought it back.”
I tore the letter into fragments and kissed with tears the hand that gave it to me.
At this moment Prudence reappeared.
“Look here, Prudence; do you know what he wants?” said Marguerite.
“He wants you to forgive him.”
“And you do?”
“One has to; but he wants more than that.”
“He wants to have supper with us.”
“And do you consent?”
“What do you think?”
“I think that you are two children who haven’t an atom of sense between you; but I also think that I am very hungry, and that the sooner you consent the sooner we shall have supper.”
“Come,” said Marguerite, “there is room for the three of us in my carriage.”
“By the way,” she added, turning to me, “Nanine will be gone to bed. You must open the door; take my key, and try not to lose it again.”
I embraced Marguerite until she was almost stifled.
Thereupon Joseph entered.
“Sir,” he said, with the air of a man who is very well satisfied with himself, “the luggage is packed.”
“All of it?”
“Well, then, unpack it again; I am not going.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53