Illnesses like Armand’s have one fortunate thing about them: they either kill outright or are very soon overcome. A fortnight after the events which I have just related Armand was convalescent, and we had already become great friends. During the whole course of his illness I had hardly left his side.
Spring was profuse in its flowers, its leaves, its birds, its songs; and my friend’s window opened gaily upon his garden, from which a reviving breath of health seemed to come to him. The doctor had allowed him to get up, and we often sat talking at the open window, at the hour when the sun is at its height, from twelve to two. I was careful not to refer to Marguerite, fearing lest the name should awaken sad recollections hidden under the apparent calm of the invalid; but Armand, on the contrary, seemed to delight in speaking of her, not as formerly, with tears in his eyes, but with a sweet smile which reassured me as to the state of his mind.
I had noticed that ever since his last visit to the cemetery, and the sight which had brought on so violent a crisis, sorrow seemed to have been overcome by sickness, and Marguerite’s death no longer appeared to him under its former aspect. A kind of consolation had sprung from the certainty of which he was now fully persuaded, and in order to banish the sombre picture which often presented itself to him, he returned upon the happy recollections of his liaison with Marguerite, and seemed resolved to think of nothing else.
The body was too much weakened by the attack of fever, and even by the process of its cure, to permit him any violent emotions, and the universal joy of spring which wrapped him round carried his thoughts instinctively to images of joy. He had always obstinately refused to tell his family of the danger which he had been in, and when he was well again his father did not even know that he had been ill.
One evening we had sat at the window later than usual; the weather had been superb, and the sun sank to sleep in a twilight dazzling with gold and azure. Though we were in Paris, the verdure which surrounded us seemed to shut us off from the world, and our conversation was only now and again disturbed by the sound of a passing vehicle.
“It was about this time of the year, on the evening of a day like this, that I first met Marguerite,” said Armand to me, as if he were listening to his own thoughts rather than to what I was saying. I did not answer. Then turning toward me, he said:
“I must tell you the whole story; you will make a book out of it; no one will believe it, but it will perhaps be interesting to do.”
“You will tell me all about it later on, my friend,” I said to him; “you are not strong enough yet.”
“It is a warm evening, I have eaten my ration of chicken,” he said to me, smiling; “I have no fever, we have nothing to do, I will tell it to you now.”
“Since you really wish it, I will listen.”
This is what he told me, and I have scarcely changed a word of the touching story.
Yes (Armand went on, letting his head sink back on the chair), yes, it was just such an evening as this. I had spent the day in the country with one of my friends, Gaston R—. We returned to Paris in the evening, and not knowing what to do we went to the Varietes. We went out during one of the entr’actes, and a tall woman passed us in the corridor, to whom my friend bowed.
“Whom are you bowing to?” I asked.
“Marguerite Gautier,” he said.
“She seems much changed, for I did not recognise her,” I said, with an emotion that you will soon understand.
“She has been ill; the poor girl won’t last long.”
I remember the words as if they had been spoken to me yesterday.
I must tell you, my friend, that for two years the sight of this girl had made a strange impression on me whenever I came across her. Without knowing why, I turned pale and my heart beat violently. I have a friend who studies the occult sciences, and he would call what I experienced “the affinity of fluids”; as for me, I only know that I was fated to fall in love with Marguerite, and that I foresaw it.
It is certainly the fact that she made a very definite impression upon me, that many of my friends had noticed it and that they had been much amused when they saw who it was that made this impression upon me.
The first time I ever saw her was in the Place de la Bourse, outside Susse’s; an open carriage was stationed there, and a woman dressed in white got down from it. A murmur of admiration greeted her as she entered the shop. As for me, I was rivetted to the spot from the moment she went in till the moment when she came out again. I could see her through the shop windows selecting what she had come to buy. I might have gone in, but I dared not. I did not know who she was, and I was afraid lest she should guess why I had come in and be offended. Nevertheless, I did not think I should ever see her again.
She was elegantly dressed; she wore a muslin dress with many flounces, an Indian shawl embroidered at the corners with gold and silk flowers, a straw hat, a single bracelet, and a heavy gold chain, such as was just then beginning to be the fashion.
She returned to her carriage and drove away. One of the shopmen stood at the door looking after his elegant customer’s carriage. I went up to him and asked him what was the lady’s name.
“Mademoiselle Marguerite Gautier,” he replied. I dared not ask him for her address, and went on my way.
The recollection of this vision, for it was really a vision, would not leave my mind like so many visions I had seen, and I looked everywhere for this royally beautiful woman in white.
A few days later there was a great performance at the Opera Comique. The first person I saw in one of the boxes was Marguerite Gautier.
The young man whom I was with recognised her immediately, for he said to me, mentioning her name: “Look at that pretty girl.”
At that moment Marguerite turned her opera-glass in our direction and, seeing my friend, smiled and beckoned to him to come to her.
“I will go and say ‘How do you do?’ to her,” he said, “and will be back in a moment.”
“I could not help saying ‘Happy man!’”
“To go and see that woman.”
“Are you in love with her?”
“No,” I said, flushing, for I really did not know what to say; “but I should very much like to know her.”
“Come with me. I will introduce you.”
“Ask her if you may.”
“Really, there is no need to be particular with her; come.”
What he said troubled me. I feared to discover that Marguerite was not worthy of the sentiment which I felt for her.
In a book of Alphonse Karr entitles Am Rauchen, there is a man who one evening follows a very elegant woman, with whom he had fallen in love with at first sight on account of her beauty. Only to kiss her hand he felt that he had the strength to undertake anything, the will to conquer anything, the courage to achieve anything. He scarcely dares glance at the trim ankle which she shows as she holds her dress out of the mud. While he is dreaming of all that he would do to possess this woman, she stops at the corner of the street and asks if he will come home with her. He turns his head, crosses the street, and goes sadly back to his own house.
I recalled the story, and, having longed to suffer for this woman, I was afraid that she would accept me too promptly and give me at once what I fain would have purchased by long waiting or some great sacrifice. We men are built like that, and it is very fortunate that the imagination lends so much poetry to the senses, and that the desires of the body make thus such concession to the dreams of the soul. If any one had said to me, You shall have this woman to-night and be killed tomorrow, I would have accepted. If any one had said to me, you can be her lover for ten pounds, I would have refused. I would have cried like a child who sees the castle he has been dreaming about vanish away as he awakens from sleep.
All the same, I wished to know her; it was my only means of making up my mind about her. I therefore said to my friend that I insisted on having her permission to be introduced to her, and I wandered to and fro in the corridors, saying to myself that in a moment’s time she was going to see me, and that I should not know which way to look. I tried (sublime childishness of love!) to string together the words I should say to her.
A moment after my friend returned. “She is expecting us,” he said.
“Is she alone?” I asked.
“With another woman.”
“There are no men?”
My friend went toward the door of the theatre.
“That is not the way,” I said.
“We must go and get some sweets. She asked me for some.”
We went into a confectioner’s in the passage de l’Opera. I would have bought the whole shop, and I was looking about to see what sweets to choose, when my friend asked for a pound of raisins glaces.
“Do you know if she likes them?”
“She eats no other kind of sweets; everybody knows it.
“Ah,” he went on when we had left the shop, “do you know what kind of woman it is that I am going to introduce you to? Don’t imagine it is a duchess. It is simply a kept woman, very much kept, my dear fellow; don’t be shy, say anything that comes into your head.”
“Yes, yes,” I stammered, and I followed him, saying to myself that I should soon cure myself of my passion.
When I entered the box Marguerite was in fits of laughter. I would rather that she had been sad. My friend introduced me; Marguerite gave me a little nod, and said, “And my sweets?”
“Here they are.”
She looked at me as she took them. I dropped my eyes and blushed.
She leaned across to her neighbour and said something in her ear, at which both laughed. Evidently I was the cause of their mirth, and my embarrassment increased. At that time I had as mistress a very affectionate and sentimental little person, whose sentiment and whose melancholy letters amused me greatly. I realized the pain I must have given her by what I now experienced, and for five minutes I loved her as no woman was ever loved.
Marguerite ate her raisins glaces without taking any more notice of me. The friend who had introduced me did not wish to let me remain in so ridiculous a position.
“Marguerite,” he said, “you must not be surprised if M. Duval says nothing: you overwhelm him to such a degree that he can not find a word to say.”
“I should say, on the contrary, that he has only come with you because it would have bored you to come here by yourself.”
“If that were true,” I said, “I should not have begged Ernest to ask your permission to introduce me.”
“Perhaps that was only in order to put off the fatal moment.”
However little one may have known women like Marguerite, one can not but know the delight they take in pretending to be witty and in teasing the people whom they meet for the first time. It is no doubt a return for the humiliations which they often have to submit to on the part of those whom they see every day.
To answer them properly, one requires a certain knack, and I had not had the opportunity of acquiring it; besides, the idea that I had formed of Marguerite accentuated the effects of her mockery. Nothing that dame from her was indifferent to me. I rose to my feet, saying in an altered voice, which I could not entirely control:
“If that is what you think of me, madame, I have only to ask your pardon for my indiscretion, and to take leave of you with the assurance that it shall not occur again.”
Thereupon I bowed and quitted the box. I had scarcely closed the door when I heard a third peal of laughter. It would not have been well for anybody who had elbowed me at that moment.
I returned to my seat. The signal for raising the curtain was given. Ernest came back to his place beside me.
“What a way you behaved!” he said, as he sat down. “They will think you are mad.”
“What did Marguerite say after I had gone?”
“She laughed, and said she had never seen any one so funny. But don’t look upon it as a lost chance; only do not do these women the honour of taking them seriously. They do not know what politeness and ceremony are. It is as if you were to offer perfumes to dogs — they would think it smelled bad, and go and roll in the gutter.”
“After all, what does it matter to me?” I said, affecting to speak in a nonchalant way. “I shall never see this woman again, and if I liked her before meeting her, it is quite different now that I know her.”
“Bah! I don’t despair of seeing you one day at the back of her box, and of bearing that you are ruining yourself for her. However, you are right, she hasn’t been well brought up; but she would be a charming mistress to have.”
Happily, the curtain rose and my friend was silent. I could not possibly tell you what they were acting. All that I remember is that from time to time I raised my eyes to the box I had quitted so abruptly, and that the faces of fresh visitors succeeded one another all the time.
I was far from having given up thinking about Marguerite. Another feeling had taken possession of me. It seemed to me that I had her insult and my absurdity to wipe out; I said to myself that if I spent every penny I had, I would win her and win my right to the place I had abandoned so quickly.
Before the performance was over Marguerite and her friend left the box. I rose from my seat.
“Are you going?” said Ernest.
At that moment he saw that the box was empty.
“Go, go,” he said, “and good luck, or rather better luck.”
I went out.
I heard the rustle of dresses, the sound of voices, on the staircase. I stood aside, and, without being seen, saw the two women pass me, accompanied by two young men. At the entrance to the theatre they were met by a footman.
“Tell the coachman to wait at the door of the Cafe’ Anglais,” said Marguerite. “We will walk there.”
A few minutes afterward I saw Marguerite from the street at a window of one of the large rooms of the restaurant, pulling the camellias of her bouquet to pieces, one by one. One of the two men was leaning over her shoulder and whispering in her ear. I took up my position at the Maison-d’or, in one of the first-floor rooms, and did not lose sight of the window for an instant. At one in the morning Marguerite got into her carriage with her three friends. I took a cab and followed them. The carriage stopped at No. 9, Rue d’Antin. Marguerite got out and went in alone. It was no doubt a mere chance, but the chance filled me with delight.
From that time forward, I often met Marguerite at the theatre or in the Champs–Elysees. Always there was the same gaiety in her, the same emotion in me.
At last a fortnight passed without my meeting her. I met Gaston and asked after her.
“Poor girl, she is very ill,” he answered.
“What is the matter?”
“She is consumptive, and the sort of life she leads isn’t exactly the thing to cure her. She has taken to her bed; she is dying.”
The heart is a strange thing; I was almost glad at hearing it.
Every day I went to ask after her, without leaving my name or my card. I heard she was convalescent and had gone to Bagneres.
Time went by, the impression, if not the memory, faded gradually from my mind. I travelled; love affairs, habits, work, took the place of other thoughts, and when I recalled this adventure I looked upon it as one of those passions which one has when one is very young, and laughs at soon afterward.
For the rest, it was no credit to me to have got the better of this recollection, for I had completely lost sight of Marguerite, and, as I told you, when she passed me in the corridor of the Varietes, I did not recognise her. She was veiled, it is true; but, veiled though she might have been two years earlier, I should not have needed to see her in order to recognise her: I should have known her intuitively. All the same, my heart began to beat when I knew that it was she; and the two years that had passed since I saw her, and what had seemed to be the results of that separation, vanished in smoke at the mere touch of her dress.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53