THE room in which she had taken refuge was lit by a single candle on a table. Lying back on a large couch, her dress undone, she held one hand on her heart and allowed the other to hang limply. On the table was a silver basin half full of water. The water was mottled with flecks of blood.
Marguerite, extremely pale and with her mouth half open, was trying to catch her breath. At times, her chest swelled in a long, indrawn sigh which, when released, seemed to afford her some slight relief and left her for a few seconds with a feeling of well- being.
I went to her? she did not stir ?sat down and took the hand which was resting on the couch.
'Ah! Is it you?' she said with a smile.
My face must have looked distraught, for she added:
'Aren't you very well either?'
'I'm all right, but how about you? Are you still feeling ill?'
'Not very.' And, with a handkerchief, she wiped away the tears which the coughing had brought to her eyes. 'I'm used to it now.'
'You are killing yourself, ' I said, and there was emotion in my voice. 'I wish I could be your friend, a relative, so that I could stop you harming yourself like this.'
'Ah! There's absolutely no need for you to be alarmed, ' she replied bitterly. 'You can see how well the others look after me. The truth is they know there's nothing anybody can do about what I've got.'
Thereupon, she got to her feet and, taking the candle, set it on the mantelpiece and looked at herself in the mirror.
'How pale I look!' she said, refastening her dress and running her fingers through her dishevelled hair. 'Oh, who cares! Let's go back into supper. Are you coming?'
But I remained seated and did not move.
She realized just how shaken I had been by this scene, for she came up to me and, holding out her hand, she said:
'Don't be silly. Do come.'
I took her hand which I put to my lips, and despite myself I moistened it with a few pent-up tears.
'Well, now! You really are a child!' she said, as she sat down again beside me. 'There, you're crying! What's the matter?'
'I must seem very stupid to you, but what I've just seen has made me feel quite dreadful.'
'You are really very kind! But what do you expect? I can't sleep, I've got to take my mind off things for a while. And anyhow, with girls like me, if there's one more or fewer of us, what difference does it make? The doctors tell me the blood I cough is really only bronchial; I pretend I believe them, it's all I can do for them.'
'Listen, Marguerite, ' I said then, with an effusion which I was unable to check, 'I don't know what sort of influence you might have over my life, but I do know this: at this moment, there is no one, not even my sister, about whom I feel more concerned than you. It's been like that ever since I first saw you. So, in Heaven's name, look after yourself properly, don't go on living as you do.'
'If I looked after myself properly, I'd die. What keeps me going is the pace of the life I lead. In any case, taking care of yourself is all well and good for society ladies who have a family and friends. But women like me are abandoned the moment we're no more use for feeding the vanity or pleasure of our lovers, and then long, empty evenings follow long empty days. I know, believe me. I was in bed for two months; after the first three weeks, no one came to see me any more.'
'I realize that I mean nothing to you, ' I went on, 'but if you wanted, I'd care for you like a brother, I wouldn't leave you and I'd make you better. And then, when you were strong enough, you could go back to the life you lead now, if that's what you wanted; but of this I am sure? you would come to prefer a quiet life which would make you happier and keep you pretty.'
'You may think like that this evening, because the wine has made you sentimental, but you wouldn't have as much patience as you say you have.'
'Let me remind you, Marguerite, that you were ill for two months and during those two months, I called every day to find out how you were.'
'That's true. But why did you never come up?'
'Because I didn't know you then.'
'But whoever observes such niceties with girls like me?'
'One always observes the niceties with any woman; at least, that's what I believe.'
'So you'd look after me?'
'You'd stay by me every day?'
'And even every night?'
'For as long as you weren't tired of me.'
'What would you say that was?'
'And where does this devotion come from?'
'From an irresistible attraction that draws me to you.'
'In other words you're in love with me? Just say it straight out, it's a great deal simpler.'
'I may be: but if I ever tell you some day that I do, this is not that day.'
'It would be better for you if you never said it.'
'Because there are only two things that can come from such an admission.'
'And they are?'
'Either I turn you down, in which case you will resent me, or I say yes, in which case you won't have much of a mistress; someone who is temperamental, ill, depressed, or gay in a way that is sadder than sorrow itself, someone who coughs blood and spends a hundred thousand francs a year ?which is all very well for a rich old man like the Duke, but it's not much of a prospect for a young man like yourself. And, if it's proof you want, the fact is that all the young lovers I have ever had have never stayed around for very long.'
I did not answer: I listened. Her frankness, which seemed to verge on the confessional, and the dismal life which I half-glimpsed beneath the golden veil that covered its stark reality from which the poor girl sought escape in debauchery, drunkenness and sleepless nights, all made such an impression on me that I could not find a thing to say.
'But come, ' Marguerite continued, 'we're talking foolish nonsense. Give me your hand and let's go back to the diningroom. The others must be wondering what to make of our absence.'
'Go back, if that's what you want, but please let me stay here.'
'Because I can't bear to see you so bright and cheerful.'
'In that case, I'll be sad.'
'Listen, Marguerite, let me tell you something which other men have no doubt told you often, something which the habit of hearing will perhaps prevent you from believing, though it is nonetheless real, something which I shall never say to you again.'
'And this something?' she said, with a smile such as young mothers smile when listening to their child being silly.
' ...is this. From the moment I first saw you, I don't know how or why, you have occupied a place in my life. Though I've tried to drive your image out of my mind, it has always come back. Today, when I met you after two years without seeing you, you took an even stronger hold on my heart and my thoughts. Now you have received me here, now I know you and can see everything that is strange in you, the truth is that you've become indispensable to me, and I shall go out of my mind, not simply if you do not love me, but if you do not let me love you.'
'But, you wretched man, I shall say to you what Madame D used to say: you just be very rich, then! You clearly have no idea that I spend six or seven thousands francs a month, and that spending this much has become necessary for my way of life; can't you see, you poor fool, that I'd ruin you in no time at all? that you family would have you declared unfit to manage your affairs to teach you not to live with creatures like me? Love me, like a good friend, but not otherwise. Come and see me, we'll laugh, we'll talk, but don't go getting ideas about my merits: they are very small. You have a kind heart, you need to be loved, you are too young and too sensitive to live in our world. Find yourself some married woman. You can see I'm a decent sort of girl, and I'm being frank with you.'
'Hello! What on earth are you pair up to? 'cried Prudence, whom we had not heard coming, as she appeared at the bedroom door, her hair half undone and her dress open. In her disordered appearance, I recognized Gaston's handiwork.
'We're having a serious talk, ' said Marguerite, ' leave us for a while, we'll rejoin you shortly.'
'All right, all right, talk away, my children, 'said Prudence, and she left, closing the door as if to reinforce the tone in which she had spoken these last words.
'So it's agreed, 'Marguerite went on, when we were alone, ' you will stop loving me.'
'I shall go away.'
'It's as bad as that?'
I had gone too far to turn back, and besides, this girl overwhelmed me. Her mixture of high spirits, sadness, ingenuousness and prostitution, the very illness which as surely heightened her sensitivity to impressions as it did her nervous reactions ?everything made me see that if, from the outset, I did not gain some hold over her heedless, fickle nature, then she would be lost to me forever.
'So what you are saying is quite serious? ' she said.
'But why didn't you tell me all this before?'
'When could I have told you?'
'The day after you were introduced to me at the Opera-Comique.'
'I think you'd have received me very badly if I had come to see you.'
'Because I had behaved stupidly the previous evening.'
'Yes, that's true. But all the same, you were already in love with me then.'
'None of which prevented you from going home to bed and sleeping very soundly after the play. We all know about great loves of that sort.'
'Now that's where you're wrong. Do you know what I did that evening we met at the Opera-Comique?'
'I waited for you outside the entrance to the Cafe Anglais. I followed the carriage which brought you and your friends back here and, when I saw you get out by yourself and go up to your apartment alone, I was very happy.'
Marguerite began to laugh.
'What are you laughing at?'
'Tell me, I beg you, or I shall think that you're laughing at me again.'
'You won't be cross?'
'I have no right to be cross.'
'Well, there was a good reason why I should return alone.'
'What was that?'
'There was someone waiting for me here.'
Had she stabbed me with a knife, she could not have hurt me more. I stood up and, offering my hand, said:
'I knew you'd be cross, ' she said. 'Men have a mania for wanting to know things that will upset them.'
'But I assure you, ' I added coldly, as though I had wanted to show that I was cured of my passion for ever, ' I assure you that I am not cross. It was only natural that someone should have been waiting for you, as natural as it is that I should leave here at three in the morning.'
'Have you got someone waiting for you at home too?'
'No, but I must go.'
'You are sending me away.'
'Not at all.'
'Then why do you say hurtful things?'
'What hurtful things?'
'You told me someone was waiting for you.'
'I couldn't help laughing at the thought of your being so happy to see me coming in by myself, when there was such a good reason for me to do so.'
'People often find happiness in foolish things. It is unkind to destroy their happiness when, simply by allowing it to continue, we can increase the joy of those who have discovered such happiness.'
'But what do you think I am? I am neither a virgin nor a duchess. I'd never met you before today and I don't have to justify my actions to you. Assuming that one day I become your mistress, you must realize that I've had other lovers before you. If you're going to carry on and be jealous now, what's it going to be like after? if there's ever an after! I never met a man like you.'
'That's because no man has ever loved you as I do.'
'Let's be clear about this: are you really in love with me?'
'As much as anyone could possibly love anybody, I believe.'
'And how long has this been going on?'
'Since I saw you one day get out of your barouche and go into Susse's, three years ago.'
'How wonderful, it really is! And what do I have to do to acknowledge this great love?'
'You must love me a little, ' I said, with a beating heart which almost prevented me from speaking; for, despite the half-mocking smiles with which she had accompanied the whole of our conversation, it seemed to me that Marguerite was beginning to share my troubled state and that I was approaching the moment which I had been so long awaiting.
'But what about the Duke?'
'My old Duke. He's very suspicious.'
'He won't know.'
'And if he does?'
'He'll forgive you.'
'Oh no! He'll leave me and then what'll become of me?'
'You are already running that risk for someone else's sake.'
'How do you know that?'
'From the order you gave that no one should be allowed in tonight.'
'You're right; but he is a good friend.'
'Who you don't much care for, if you can close you door to him at this time of night.'
'You're in no position to criticize me since I did it to receive you and your friend.'
Imperceptibly, I had drawn closer to Marguerite, I had put my arms around her waist and could feel her supple body pressing lightly against my clasped hands.
'If you only knew how much I love you!' I whispered.
'Do you really mean it?'
'I swear it.'
'Well, if you promise to do everything I say without arguing, without finding fault or asking questions, I will love you, perhaps.'
'Whatever you ask!'
'But I warn you, I want to be free to do whatever I choose, without having to tell you anything about the life I lead. For a long time now, I've been looking for a young, easygoing lover, someone who would love me without asking questions, someone I could love without his feeling that he has any rights over me. I have never found one yet. Men, instead of being content with being freely given for long periods what they hardly dared hope to get once, are forever asking their mistresses for an account of the present, the past and even the future. As they get used to a mistress, they try to dominate her, and they become all the more demanding the more they are given. If I decide to take a new lover now, I want him to have three very rare qualities: he must be trusting, submissive and discreet.'
'Very well, I shall be everything you desire.'
'We'll see. '
'And when will we see?'
'Because, ' said Marguerite, slipping out of my arms and taking a single bloom from a large bunch of red camellias which had been delivered that morning and putting it in my buttonhole, 'because you can't always implement treaties the day they are signed.'
The meaning is plain.
'And when shall I see you again?' I said, taking her in my arms.
'When this camellia is a different colour.'
'And when will it be a different colour.'
'Tomorrow, between eleven and midnight. Are you happy?'
'How can you ask?'
'Not a word of any of this to your friend nor to Prudence, nor anyone.'
'I promise. '
'Now kiss me, and let's go back to the dining-room.'
She proffered her lips, smoothed her hair again and then she, singing as she went, and I, who was madly elated, left the room together.
In the drawing-room, she stopped and said softly:
'It must seem strange to you that I should appear ready to accept you straightway like this: do you know the reason?'
'The reason, ' she went on, taking my hand and pressing it to her heart which I could fell beating violently and insistently, 'the reason is that since I shall not live as long as the others, I have promised myself that I shall live my life faster.'
'Don't talk to me like this, I implore you.'
'Oh, cheer up! 'she went on, laughing. 'However little time I have to live, I'll live long enough to see you love out.'
And, singing, she went into the dining-room.
'Where's Nanine? ' she said, seeing Gaston and Prudence alone.
'Asleep in your bedroom, waiting for you to go to bed, ' answered Prudence.
'Poor girl, I'm wearing her out! Come, gentlemen, be off with you, it's high time.'
Ten minutes later, Gaston and I were on our way out. Marguerite squeezed my hand as she said good- bye and remained with Prudence.
'Well?' asked Gaston, when we were outside, 'what do you make of Marguerite?'
'She's an angel and I'm mad about her.'
'I thought so. Did you tell her?'
'And did she promise to believe you?'
'She's not like Prudence, then.'
'Did she promise to believe you?'
'She did more than that, old man! You wouldn't think so, but that Duvernoy woman is
still a bit of all right, even if she is on the large side!'