All the famous names from the world of fashionable vice were there. They were being slyly observed by a number of society ladies who had again used the sale as a pretext for claiming the right to see, at close quarters, women in whose company they would not otherwise have had occasion to find themselves, and whose easy pleasures they perhaps secretly envied.
The Duchesse de F rubbed shoulders with Mademoiselle A, one of sorriest specimens of our modern courtesans; the Marquise de T shrank from buying an item of furniture for which the bidding was led by Madame D, the most elegant and most celebrated adulteress of our age; the Duc d'Y, who is believed in Madrid to be ruining himself in Paris, and in Paris to be ruining himself in Madrid, and who, when all is said and done, cannot even spend all his income, while continuing to chat with Madame M, one of our wittiest tale-tellers, who occasionally agrees to write down what she says and to sign what she writes, was exchanging confidential glances with Madame de N, the beauty who may be regularly seen driving on the Champs-Elysees, dressed almost invariably in pink or blue, in a carriage drawn by two large black horses sold to her by Tony for ten thousand francs...and paid for in full; lastly, Mademoiselle R, who by sheer talent makes twice what ladies of fashion make with their dowries, and three times as much as what the rest make out of their love affairs, had come in spite of the cold to make a few purchases, and it was not she who attracted the fewest eyes.
We could go on quoting the initials of many of those who had gathered in that drawing room and who were not a little astonished at the company they kept; but we should, we fear, weary the reader.
Suffice it to say that everyone was in the highest spirits and that, of all the women there, many had known the dead girl and gave no sign that they remembered her.
There was much loud laughter; the auctioneers shouted at the tops of their voices; the dealers who had crowded on to the benches placed in front of the auction tables called vainly for silence in which to conduct their business in peace. Never was a gathering more varied and more uproarious.
I slipped unobtrusively into the middle of the distressing tumult, saddened to think that all this was taking place next to the very room where the unfortunate creature whose furniture was being sold up to pay her debts, had breathed her last. Having come to observe rather than to buy, I watched the faces of the tradesmen who had forced the sale and whose features lit up each time an item reached a price they had never dared hope for.
Honest, men all, who had speculated in the prostitution of this woman, had obtained a one hundred per cent return on her, had dogged the last moments of her life with writs, and came after she was dead to claim both the fruits of their honourable calculations and the interest accruing on the shameful credit they had given her.
How right were the Ancients who had one God for merchants and thieves!
Dresses, Indian shawls, jewels, came under the hammer at an unbelievable rate. None of it took my fancy, and I waited on.
Suddenly I heard a voice shout:
'A book fully bound, gilt-edges, entitled: Manon Lescaut. There's something written on the first page: ten francs. '
'Twelve, ' said a voice, after a longish silence.
'Fifteen, ' I said.
Why? I had no idea. No doubt for that 'something written'.
'Fifteen, ' repeated the auctioneer.
'Thirty, ' said the first bidder, in a tone which seemed to defy anybody to go higher.
It was becoming a fight.
'Thirty-five!' I cried, in the same tone of voice.
I confess that if I had set out to cause a stir, I would have succeeded completely, for my last bid was followed by a great silence, and people stared at me to see who this man was who seemed so intent on possessing the volume.
Apparently the tone in which I had made my latest bid was enough for my opponent: he chose therefore to abandon a struggle which would have served only to cost me ten times what the book was worth and, with a bow, he said very graciously but a little late:
'It's yours, sir.'
No other bids were forthcoming, and the book was knocked down to me.
Since I feared a new onset of obstinacy which my vanity might conceivably have borne but which would have assuredly proved too much for my purse, I gave my name, asked for the volume to be put aside and left by the stairs. I must have greatly intrigued the onlookers who, having witnessed this scene, doubtless wondered why on earth I had gone there to pay a hundred francs for a book that I could have got anywhere for ten or fifteen at most.
An hour later, I had sent round for my purchase.
On the first page, written in ink in an elegant hand, was the dedication of the person who had given the book. This dedication consisted simply of these words:
'Manon to Marguerite,
It was signed: Armand Duval.
What did this word 'Humility' mean?
Was it that Manon, in the opinion of this Monsieur Armand Duval, acknowledged Marguerite as her superior in debauchery or in true love?
The second interpretation seemed the more likely, for the first was impertinently frank, and Marguerite could never have accepted it, whatever opinion she had of herself.
I went out again and thought no more of the book until that night, when I retired to bed.
Manon Lescaut is a truly touching story every detail of which is familiar to me and yet, whenever I hold a copy in my hand, an instinctive feeling for it draws me on. I open it and for the hundredth time I live again with the abbe Prevost's heroine. Now, his heroine is so lifelike that I feel that I have met her. In my new circumstances, the kind of comparison drawn between her and Marguerite added an unexpected edge to my reading, and my forbearance was swelled with pity, almost love, for the poor girl, the disposal of whose estate I could thank for possessing the volume. Manon died in a desert, it is true, but in the terms of the man who loved her with all the strength of his soul and who, when she was dead, dug a grave for her, watered it with his tears and buried his heart with her; whereas Marguerite, a sinner like Manon, and perhaps as truly converted as she, had died surrounded by fabulous luxury, if I could believe what I had seen, on the bed of her own past, but no less lost in the desert of the heart which is much more arid, much vaster and far more pitiless than the one in which Manon had been interred.
Indeed Marguerite, as I had learned from friends informed of the circumstances of her final moments, had seen no true consolation settle at her bedside during the two months when she lay slowly and painfully dying.
Then, from Manon and Marguerite, my thoughts turned to those women whom I knew and whom I could see rushing gaily towards the same almost invariable death.
Poor creatures! If it is wrong to love them, the least one can do is to pity them. You pity the blind man who has never seen the light of day, the deaf man who has never heard the harmonies of nature, the mute who has never found a voice for his soul, and yet, under the specious pretext of decency, you will not pity that blindness of heart, deafness of soul and dumbness of conscience which turn the brains of poor, desperate women and prevent them, despite themselves, from seeing goodness, hearing the Lord and speaking the pure language of love and religion.
Hugo wrote Marion Delorme, Musset wrote Bernerette, Alexandre Dumas wrote Fernande. Thinkers and poets throughout the ages have offered the courtesan the oblation of their mercy and, on occasion, some great man has brought them back to the fold through the gift of his love and even his name. If I dwell on this point, it is because among those who will read these pages, many may already be about to throw down a book in which they fear they will see nothing but an apology for vice and prostitution, and doubtless the youth of the present author is a contributing factor in providing grounds for their fears. Let those who are of such a mind be undeceived. Let them read on, if such fears alone gave them pause.
I am quite simply persuaded of a principle which states that: To any woman whose education has not imparted knowledge of goodness, God almost invariably opens up two paths which will lead her back to it; these paths are suffering and love. They are rocky paths; women who follow them will cut their feet and graze their hands, but will at the same time leave the gaudy rags of vice hanging on the briars which line the road, and shall reach their journey's end in that naked state for which no one need feel shame in the sight of the Lord.
Any who encounter these brave wayfarers are duty bound to comfort them and to say to all the world that they have encountered them, for by proclaiming the news they show the way.
It is not a simple matter of erecting two signposts at the gateway to life, one bearing the inscription: 'The Way of Goodness' and the other carrying this warning: ' The way of evil', and of saying to those who come: 'Choose! ' Each of us, like Christ himself, must point to those paths which will redirect from the second way to the first the steps of those who have allowed themselves to be tempted by the approach roads; and above all let not the beginning of these paths be too painful, nor appear too difficult of access.
Christianity is ever-present, with its wonderful parable of the prodigal son, to urge us to counsels of forbearance and forgiveness. Jesus was full of love for souls of women wounded by the passions of men, and He loved to bind their wounds, drawing from those same wounds the balm which would heal them. Thus he said to Mary Magdalene: ' Your sins, which are many, shall be forgiven, because you loved much' ?a sublime pardon which was to awaken a sublime faith.
Why should we judge more strictly than Christ? Why, clinging stubbornly to the opinions of the world which waxes hard so that we shall think it strong, why should we too turn away souls that bleed from wounds oozing with the evil of their past, like infected blood from a sick body, as they wait only for a friendly hand to bind them up and restore them to a convalescent heart?
It is to my generation that I speak, to those for whom the theories of Monsieur de Voltaire are, happily, defunct, to those who, like myself, can see that humanity has, these fifteen years past, been engaged in one of its boldest leaps forward. The knowledge of good and evil is ours forever; religion is rebuilding, the respect for holy things has been restored to us, and, if the world is not yet wholly good, then at least it is becoming better. The efforts of all intelligent men tend to the same goal, and all those firm in purpose are yoked to the same principle: let us be good, let us be young, let us be true! Evil is but vanity: let us take pride in Goodness and, above all, let us not despair. Let us not scorn the woman who is neither mother nor sister nor daughter nor wife. Let us not limit respect to the family alone nor reduce forbearance to mere egoism. Since there is more rejoicing in heaven for the repentance of one sinner than for a hundred just men who have never sinned, let us try to give heaven cause to rejoice. Heaven may repay us with interest. Let us leave along our way the charity of our forgiveness for those whom earthly desires have brought low, who shall perhaps be saved by hope in heaven and, as wise old dames say when they prescribe remedies of their own making, if it dies no good then at least it can do no harm.
In truth, it must seem very forward of me to seek to derive such great results from the slender subject which I treat; but I am of those who believe that the whole is in the part. The child is small, and yet he is father to the man; the brain is cramped, and yet it is the seat of thought; the eye is but a point, yet it encompasses leagues of space.