“Good-evening, my dear Gaston,” said Marguerite to my companion. “I am very glad to see you. Why didn’t you come to see me in my box at the Varietes?”
“I was afraid it would be indiscreet.”
“Friends,” and Marguerite lingered over the word, as if to intimate to those who were present that in spite of the familiar way in which she greeted him, Gaston was not and never had been anything more than a friend, “friends are always welcome.”
“Then, will you permit me to introduce M. Armand Duval?”
“I had already authorized Prudence to do so.”
“As far as that goes, madame,” I said, bowing, and succeeding in getting more or less intelligible sounds out of my throat, “I have already had the honour of being introduced to you.”
Marguerite’s beautiful eyes seemed to be looking back in memory, but she could not, or seemed not to, remember.
“Madame,” I continued, “I am grateful to you for having forgotten the occasion of my first introduction, for I was very absurd and must have seemed to you very tiresome. It was at the Opera Comique, two years ago; I was with Ernest de ——.”
“Ah, I remember,” said Marguerite, with a smile. “It was not you who were absurd; it was I who was mischievous, as I still am, but somewhat less. You have forgiven me?”
And she held out her hand, which I kissed.
“It is true,” she went on; “you know I have the bad habit of trying to embarrass people the first time I meet them. It is very stupid. My doctor says it is because I am nervous and always ill; believe my doctor.”
“But you seem quite well.”
“Oh! I have been very ill.”
“Who told you?”
“Every one knew it; I often came to inquire after you, and I was happy to hear of your convalescence.”
“They never gave me your card.”
“I did not leave it.”
“Was it you, then, who called every day while I was ill, and would never leave your name?”
“Yes, it was I.”
“Then you are more than indulgent, you are generous. You, count, wouldn’t have done that,” said she, turning toward M. de N., after giving me one of those looks in which women sum up their opinion of a man.
“I have only known you for two months,” replied the count.
“And this gentleman only for five minutes. You always say something ridiculous.”
Women are pitiless toward those whom they do not care for. The count reddened and bit his lips.
I was sorry for him, for he seemed, like myself, to be in love, and the bitter frankness of Marguerite must have made him very unhappy, especially in the presence of two strangers.
“You were playing the piano when we came in,” I said, in order to change the conversation. “Won’t you be so good as to treat me as an old acquaintance and go on?”
“Oh,” said she, flinging herself on the sofa and motioning to us to sit down, “Gaston knows what my music is like. It is all very well when I am alone with the count, but I won’t inflict such a punishment on you.”
“You show me that preference?” said M. de N., with a smile which he tried to render delicately ironical.
“Don’t reproach me for it. It is the only one.” It was fated that the poor man was not to say a single word. He cast a really supplicating glance at Marguerite.
“Well, Prudence,” she went on, “have you done what I asked you to do?”
“All right. You will tell me about it later. We must talk over it; don’t go before I can speak with you.”
“We are doubtless intruders,” I said, “and now that we, or rather I, have had a second introduction, to blot out the first, it is time for Gaston and me to be going.”
“Not in the least. I didn’t mean that for you. I want you to stay.”
The count took a very elegant watch out of his pocket and looked at the time. “I must be going to my club,” he said. Marguerite did not answer. The count thereupon left his position by the fireplace and going up to her, said: “Adieu, madame.”
Marguerite rose. “Adieu, my dear count. Are you going already?”
“Yes, I fear I am boring you.”
“You are not boring me today more than any other day. When shall I be seeing you?”
“When you permit me.”
It was cruel, you will admit. Fortunately, the count had excellent manners and was very good-tempered. He merely kissed Marguerite’s hand, which she held out to him carelessly enough, and, bowing to us, went out.
As he crossed the threshold, he cast a glance at Prudence. She shrugged her shoulders, as much as to say:
“What do you expect? I have done all I could.”
“Nanine!” cried Marguerite. “Light M. le Comte to the door.”
We heard the door open and shut.
“At last,” cried Marguerite, coming back, “he has gone! That man gets frightfully on my nerves!”
“My dear child,” said Prudence, “you really treat him too badly, and he is so good and kind to you. Look at this watch on the mantel-piece, that he gave you: it must have cost him at least three thousand francs, I am sure.”
And Mme. Duvernoy began to turn it over, as it lay on the mantel-piece, looking at it with covetous eyes.
“My dear,” said Marguerite, sitting down to the piano, “when I put on one side what he gives me and on the other what he says to me, it seems to me that he buys his visits very cheap.”
“The poor fellow is in love with you.”
“If I had to listen to everybody who was in love with me, I shouldn’t have time for my dinner.”
And she began to run her fingers over the piano, and then, turning to us, she said:
“What will you take? I think I should like a little punch.”
“And I could eat a little chicken,” said Prudence. “Suppose we have supper?”
“That’s it, let’s go and have supper,” said Gaston.
“No, we will have supper here.”
She rang, and Nanine appeared.
“Send for some supper.”
“What must I get?”
“Whatever you like, but at once, at once.”
Nanine went out.
“That’s it,” said Marguerite, jumping like a child, “we’ll have supper. How tiresome that idiot of a count is!”
The more I saw her, the more she enchanted me. She was exquisitely beautiful. Her slenderness was a charm. I was lost in contemplation.
What was passing in my mind I should have some difficulty in explaining. I was full of indulgence for her life, full of admiration for her beauty. The proof of disinterestedness that she gave in not accepting a rich and fashionable young man, ready to waste all his money upon her, excused her in my eyes for all her faults in the past.
There was a kind of candour in this woman. You could see she was still in the virginity of vice. Her firm walk, her supple figure, her rosy, open nostrils, her large eyes, slightly tinged with blue, indicated one of those ardent natures which shed around them a sort of voluptuous perfume, like Eastern vials, which, close them as tightly as you will, still let some of their perfume escape. Finally, whether it was simple nature or a breath of fever, there passed from time to time in the eyes of this woman a glimmer of desire, giving promise of a very heaven for one whom she should love. But those who had loved Marguerite were not to be counted, nor those whom she had loved.
In this girl there was at once the virgin whom a mere nothing had turned into a courtesan, and the courtesan whom a mere nothing would have turned into the most loving and the purest of virgins. Marguerite had still pride and independence, two sentiments which, if they are wounded, can be the equivalent of a sense of shame. I did not speak a word; my soul seemed to have passed into my heart and my heart into my eyes.
“So,” said she all at once, “it was you who came to inquire after me when I was ill?”
“Do you know, it was quite splendid of you! How can I thank you for it?”
“By allowing me to come and see you from time to time.”
“As often as you like, from five to six, and from eleven to twelve. Now, Gaston, play the Invitation A la Valse.”
“To please me, first of all, and then because I never can manage to play it myself.”
“What part do you find difficult?”
“The third part, the part in sharps.”
Gaston rose and went to the piano, and began to play the wonderful melody of Weber, the music of which stood open before him.
Marguerite, resting one hand on the piano, followed every note on the music, accompanying it in a low voice, and when Gaston had come to the passage which she had mentioned to him, she sang out, running her fingers along the top of the piano:
“Do, re, mi, do, re, fa, mi, re; that is what I can not do. Over again.”
Gaston began over again, after which Marguerite said:
“Now, let me try.”
She took her place and began to play; but her rebellious fingers always came to grief over one of the notes.
“Isn’t it incredible,” she said, exactly like a child, “that I can not succeed in playing that passage? Would you believe that I sometimes spend two hours of the morning over it? And when I think that that idiot of a count plays it without his music, and beautifully, I really believe it is that that makes me so furious with him.” And she began again, always with the same result.
“The devil take Weber, music, and pianos!” she cried, throwing the music to the other end of the room. “How can I play eight sharps one after another?” She folded her arms and looked at us, stamping her foot. The blood flew to her cheeks, and her lips half opened in a slight cough.
“Come, come,” said Prudence, who had taken off her hat and was smoothing her hair before the glass, “you will work yourself into a rage and do yourself harm. Better come and have supper; for my part, I am dying of hunger.”
Marguerite rang the bell, sat down to the piano again, and began to hum over a very risky song, which she accompanied without difficulty. Gaston knew the song, and they gave a sort of duet.
“Don’t sing those beastly things,” I said to Marguerite, imploringly.
“Oh, how proper you are!” she said, smiling and giving me her hand. “It is not for myself, but for you.”
Marguerite made a gesture as if to say, “Oh, it is long since that I have done with propriety!” At that moment Nanine appeared.
“Is supper ready?” asked Marguerite. “Yes, madame, in one moment.”
“Apropos,” said Prudence to me, “you have not looked round; come, and I will show you.” As you know, the drawing-room was a marvel.
Marguerite went with us for a moment; then she called Gaston and went into the dining-room with him to see if supper was ready.
“Ah,” said Prudence, catching sight of a little Saxe figure on a side-table, “I never knew you had this little gentleman.”
“A little shepherd holding a bird-cage.”
“Take it, if you like it.”
“I won’t deprive you of it.”
“I was going to give it to my maid. I think it hideous; but if you like it, take it.”
Prudence only saw the present, not the way in which it was given. She put the little figure on one side, and took me into the dressing-room, where she showed me two miniatures hanging side by side, and said:
“That is the Comte de G., who was very much in love with Marguerite; it was he who brought her out. Do you know him?”
“No. And this one?” I inquired, pointing to the other miniature.
“That is the little Vicomte de L. He was obliged to disappear.”
“Because he was all but ruined. That’s one, if you like, who loved Marguerite.”
“And she loved him, too, no doubt?”
“She is such a queer girl, one never knows. The night he went away she went to the theatre as usual, and yet she had cried when he said good-bye to her.”
Just then Nanine appeared, to tell us that supper was served.
When we entered the dining-room, Marguerite was leaning against the wall, and Gaston, holding her hands, was speaking to her in a low voice.
“You are mad,” replied Marguerite. “You know quite well that I don’t want you. It is no good at the end of two years to make love to a woman like me. With us, it is at once, or never. Come, gentlemen, supper!”
And, slipping away from Gaston, Marguerite made him sit on her right at table, me on her left, then called to Nanine:
“Before you sit down, tell them in the kitchen not to open to anybody if there is a ring.”
This order was given at one o’clock in the morning.
We laughed, drank, and ate freely at this supper. In a short while mirth had reached its last limit, and the words that seem funny to a certain class of people, words that degrade the mouth that utters them, were heard from time to time, amidst the applause of Nanine, of Prudence, and of Marguerite. Gaston was thoroughly amused; he was a very good sort of fellow, but somewhat spoiled by the habits of his youth. For a moment I tried to forget myself, to force my heart and my thoughts to become indifferent to the sight before me, and to take my share of that gaiety which seemed like one of the courses of the meal. But little by little I withdrew from the noise; my glass remained full, and I felt almost sad as I saw this beautiful creature of twenty drinking, talking like a porter, and laughing the more loudly the more scandalous was the joke.
Nevertheless, this hilarity, this way of talking and drinking, which seemed to me in the others the mere results of bad company or of bad habits, seemed in Marguerite a necessity of forgetting, a fever, a nervous irritability. At every glass of champagne her cheeks would flush with a feverish colour, and a cough, hardly perceptible at the beginning of supper, became at last so violent that she was obliged to lean her head on the back of her chair and hold her chest in her hands every time that she coughed. I suffered at the thought of the injury to so frail a constitution which must come from daily excesses like this. At length, something which I had feared and foreseen happened. Toward the end of supper Marguerite was seized by a more violent fit of coughing than any she had had while I was there. It seemed as if her chest were being torn in two. The poor girl turned crimson, closed her eyes under the pain, and put her napkin to her lips. It was stained with a drop of blood. She rose and ran into her dressing-room.
“What is the matter with Marguerite?” asked Gaston.
“She has been laughing too much, and she is spitting blood. Oh, it is nothing; it happens to her every day. She will be back in a minute. Leave her alone. She prefers it.”
I could not stay still; and, to the consternation of Prudence and Nanine, who called to me to come back, I followed Marguerite.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07