THE sale was due to be held on the 16th.
An interval of one day had been left between the viewing and the sale in order to give the upholsterers enough time to take down the hangings, curtains and so forth.
I was at that time recently returned from my travels. It was quite natural that no one had told me about Marguerite's death, for it was hardly one of those momentous news-items which friends always rush to tell anybody who has just got back to the capital city of News. Marguerite had been pretty, but the greater the commotion that attends the sensational lives of these women, the smaller the stir once they are dead. They are like those dull suns which set as they have risen: they are unremarkable. News of their death, when they die young, reaches all their lovers at the same instant, for in Paris the lovers of any celebrated courtesan see each other every day. A few reminiscences are exchanged about her, and the lives of all and sundry continue as before without so much as a tear.
For a young man of twenty-five nowadays, tears have become so rare a thing that they are not to be wasted on the first girl who comes along. The most that may be expected is that the parents and relatives who pay for the privilege of being wept for are indeed mourned to the extent of their investment.
For my own part, though my monogram figured on none of Marguerite's dressing-cases, the instinctive forbearance and natural pity to which I have just admitted led me to dwell on her death for much longer than it perhaps warranted.
I recalled having come across Marguerite very frequently on the Champs-Elysees, where she appeared assiduously each day in a small blue brougham drawn by two magnificent bays, and I remembered having also remarked in her at that time an air of distinction rare in women of her kind and which was further enhanced by her truly exceptional beauty.
When these unfortunate creatures appear in public, they are invariably escorted by some companion or other.
Since no man would ever consent to flaunt by day the predilection he has for them by night, and because they abhor solitude, they are usually attended either by less fortunate associates who have no carriages of their own, or else by elderly ladies of refinement who are not the least refined and to whom an interested party may apply without fear, should any information be required concerning the woman they are escorting.
It was not so with Marguerite. She always appeared alone on the Champs- Elysees, riding in her own carriage where she sat as unobtrusively as possible, enveloped on winter days in a large Indian shawl and, in summer, wearing the simplest dresses. And though there were many she knew along her favourite route, when she chanced to smile at them, her smile was visible to them alone. A Duchess could have smiled no differently.
She did not ride from the Rond- Point down to the entrance, to the Champs-Elysees as do ?and did ?all her sort. Her two horses whisked her off smartly to the Bois de Boulogne. There she alighted, walked for an hour, rejoined her brougham and returned home at a fast trot.
These circumstances, which I had occasionally observed for myself, now came back to me and I sorrowed for this girl's death much as one might regret the total destruction of a beautiful work of art.
For it was impossible to behold beauty more captivating than Marguerite's.
Tall and slender almost to a fault, she possessed in the highest degree the art of concealing this oversight of nature simply by the way she arranged the clothes she wore. Her Indian shawl, with its point reaching down to the ground, gave free movement on either side to the flounced panels of her silk dress, while the thick muff, which hid her hands and which she kept pressed to her bosom, was encompassed by folds so skillfully managed that even the most demanding eye would have found nothing wanting in the lines of her figure.
Her face, a marvel, was the object of her most fastidious attentions. It was quite small and, as Musset might have said, her mother had surely made it so to ensure it was fashioned with care.
Upon an oval of indescribable loveliness, place two dark eyes beneath brows so cleanly arched that they might have been painted on; veil those eyes with lashes so long that, when lowered, they cast shadows over the pink flush of the cheeks; sketch a delicate, straight, spirited nose and nostrils slightly flared in a passionate aspiration towards sensuality; draw a regular mouth with lips parting gracefully over teeth as white as milk; tint the skin with the bloom of peaches which no hand has touched ?and you will have a comprehensive picture of her entrancing face.
Her jet-black hair, naturally or artfully waved, was parted over her forehead in two thick coils which vanished behind her head, just exposing the lobes of her ears from which hung two diamonds each worth four or five thousand francs.
Exactly how the torrid life she led could possibly have left on Marguerite's face the virginal, even childlike expression which made it distinctive, is something which we are forced to record as a fact which we cannot comprehend.
Marguerite possessed a marvelous portrait of herself by Vidal, the only man whose pencil strokes could capture her to the life. After her death, this portrait came into my keeping for a few days and the likeness was so striking that it has helped me to furnish details for which memory alone might not have sufficed.
Some of the particulars contained in the present chapter did not become known to me until some time later, but I set them down here so as not to have to return to them once the narrative account of this woman's life has begun.
Marguerite was present at all first nights and spent each evening in the theatre or at the ball. Whenever a new play was performed, you could be sure of seeing her there with three things which she always had with her and which always occupied the ledge of her box in the stalls: her opera- glasses, a box of sweets and a bunch of camellias.
For twenty-five days in every month the camellias were white, and for five they were red. No one ever knew the reason for this variation in colour which I mention but cannot explain, and which those who frequented the theatres where she was seen most often, and her friends too, had noticed as I had.
Marguerite had never been seen with any flowers but camellias. Because of this, her florist, Madame Barjon, had finally taken to calling her the Lady of the Camellias, and the name had remained with her.
Like all who move in certain social circles in Paris, I knew further that Marguerite had been the mistress of the most fashionable young men, that she admitted the fact openly, and that they themselves boasted of it. Which only went to show that loves and mistress were well pleased with each other.
However, for some three years previously, ever since a visit she had made to Bagneres, she was said to be living with just one man, an elderly foreign duke who was fabulously wealthy and had attempted to detach her as far as possible form her old life. This she seems to have been happy enough to go along with.
Here is what I have been told of the matter.
In the spring of 1842, Marguerite was so weak, so altered in her looks, that the doctors had ordered her to take the waters. She accordingly set out for Bagneres.
Among the other sufferers there, was the Duke's daughter who not only had the same complaint but a face so like Marguerite's that they could have been taken for sisters. The fact was that the young Duchess was in the tertiary stage of consumption and, only days after Marguerite's arrival, she succumbed.
One morning the Duke, who had remained at Bagneres just as people will remain on ground where a piece of their heart lies buried, caught sight of Marguerite as she turned a corner of a gravel walk.
It seemed as though he was seeing the spirit of his dead child and, going up to her, he took both her hands, embraced her tearfully and, without asking who she was, begged leave to call on her and to love in her person the living image of his dead daughter.
Marguerite, alone at Bagneres with her maid, and in any case having nothing to lose by compromising herself, granted the Duke what he asked.
Now there were a number of people at Bagneres who knew her, and they made a point of calling on the Duke to inform him of Mademoiselle Gautier's true situation. It was a terrible blow for the old man, for any resemblance with his daughter stopped there. But it was too late. The young woman had become an emotional necessity, his only pretext and his sole reason for living.
He did not reproach her, he had no right to, but he did ask her if she felt that she could change her way of life, and, in exchange for this sacrifice, offered all the compensations she could want. She agreed.
It should be said that at this juncture Marguerite, who was by nature somewhat highly strung, was seriously ill. Her past appeared to her to be one of the major causes of her illness, and a kind of superstition led her to hope that God would allow her to keep her beauty and her health in exchange for her repentance and conversion.
And indeed the waters, the walks, healthy fatigue and sleep had almost restored her fully by the end of that summer.
The Duke accompanied Marguerite to Paris, where he continued to call on her as at Bagneres.
This liaison, of which the true origin and true motive were known to no one, gave rise here to a great deal of talk, since the Duke, known hitherto as an enormously wealthy man, now began to acquire a name for the prodigality.
The relationship between the old Duke and the young woman was put down to the salacity which is frequently found in rich old men. People imagined all manner of things, except the truth.
The truth was that the affection of this father for Marguerite was a feeling so chaste, that anything more than a closeness of hearts would have seemed incestuous in his eyes. Never once had he said a single word to her that his daughter could not have heard.
The last thing we wish is to make our heroine seem anything other than what she was. We shall say therefore that, as long as she remained at Bagneres, the promise given to the Duke had not been difficult to keep, and she had kept it. But once she was back in Paris, it seemed to her, accustomed as she was to a life of dissipation, balls and even orgies, that her new-found solitude, broken only by the periodic visits of the Duke, would make her die of boredom, and the scorching winds of her former life blew hot on both her head and her heart.
Add to this that Marguerite had returned from her travels more beautiful than she had ever been, that she was twenty years old and that her illness, subdued but far from conquered, continued to stir in her those feverish desires which are almost invariably a result of consumptive disorders.
The Duke was therefore sadly grieved the day his friends, constantly on the watch for scandalous indiscretions on the part of the young woman with whom he was, they said, compromising himself, called to inform him, indeed to prove to him that at those times when she could count on his not appearing, she was in the habit of receiving other visitors, and that these visitors often stayed until the following morning.
When the Duke questioned her, Marguerite admitted everything, and, without a second thought, advised him not to concern himself with her any more, saying she did not have the strength to keep faith with the pledges she had given, and adding that she had no wish to go on receiving the liberalities of a man whom she was deceiving.
The Duke stayed away for a week, but this was as long as he could manage. One week later to the day, he came and implored Marguerite to take him back, promising to accept her as she was, provided that he could see her, and swearing that he would die before he uttered a single word of reproach.
This was how things stood three months after Marguerite's return, that is, in November or December 1842.