TWO days later, the sale was completely over. It had realized one hundred and fifty thousand francs.
The creditors had divided two thirds among themselves and the family? a sister and a young nephew ?had inherited the rest.
The sister's eyes had opened wide when the agent had written telling her that she had come into fifty thousand francs.
It was six or seven years since this young woman had set eyes on her sister who had disappeared one day without anyone ever discovering, either from her or through other people, anything whatsoever about her life from the time of her disappearance.
So she had now arrived post-haste in Paris, and great was the astonishment of those who had known Marguerite when they saw that her sole heir was a hearty, good-looking country girl who, up to that moment, had never set foot outside her village.
Her fortune had been made at a stroke, without her having the least idea of the source from which it had so unexpectedly materialized.
She returned, I have since been told, to her part of the country, bearing away from her sister's death a deep sadness which was, however, eased by an investment at four and a half per cent which she had just made.
All these happenings, which had gone the rounds of Paris, the mother town of scandal, were beginning to be forgotten, and I myself was forgetting quite what my part in events had been, when something occurred which led to my becoming acquainted with the whole of Marguerite's life, and put in my way particulars so affecting that I was seized with an urge to write this story and now do so.
The apartment, empty now of the furniture which had all been auctioned off, had been to let for three or four days when one morning there was a ring at my door.
My servant, or rather the porter who acted as my servant, went to see who it was and brought me a visiting card saying that the person who had handed it to him wished to speak to me.
I glanced at the card and there I saw these two words: Armand Duval.
I tried to recall where I had seen the name, and then I remembered the fly-leaf of the copy of Manon Lescaut.
What could the person who had given the book to Marguerite want with me? I said that the gentleman who was waiting should be shown in at once.
The next moment I saw a young man with fair hair, tall, pale, wearing travelling clothes which looked as though hey had not been off his back for several days and which, on his arrival in Paris, he had not even taken the trouble to brush down, for he was covered in dust.
Monsieur Duval, deeply agitated, made no attempt to hide his feelings, and it was with tears in his eyes and a trembling in his voice that he said:
'Please excuse my visit and these clothes; not simply because young men do not stand much on ceremony with each other, but because I wanted to see you so badly today that I have not even taken time to stop off at the hotel where I set my luggage, and have rushed straight here, dreading even so, early as it is, that I should miss you.'
I begged Monsieur Duval to sit down by the fire, which he did, taking from his pocket a handkerchief with which he momentarily hid his face.
'You must be wondering, ' he resumed with a melancholy sigh, 'what a stranger can want with you at such an hour, dressed in such clothes and weeping like this. I have come quite simply, to ask you a great favour.'
'Say on. I am at your service.'
'Were you present at the Marguerite Gautier auction?'
As he said this, the emotion which the young man had held in check was for an instant stronger than he, and he was obliged to put his hands to his eyes.
'I must appear very ridiculous to you, ' he added, 'forgive me this too, and please believe that I shall never forget the patience with which you are good enough to listen.'
'Well, ' I replied, 'if a service which it seems I can do for you will in some small way ease the pain that you feel, tell me at once in what way I can help, and you will find in me a man happy to oblige.'
Monsieur Duval's grief was affecting and, even had I felt differently, I should still have wished to be agreeable to him.
He then said:
'Did you buy anything at Marguerite's sale?'
'Yes. A book.'
'Do you still have it?'
'It' s in my bedroom.'
At this, Armand Duval looked as though a great weight had been taken from his shoulders, and he thanked me as though I had already begun to render him a service simply by holding on to the volume.
I got up, went to fetch the book from my bedroom and handed it to him.
'This is it, ' said he, glancing at the dedication on the first page and riffling through the rest, 'this is it.'
And two large tears fell on to the open pages.
'May I ask, ' he said, raising his eyes to me and making no effort now to hide the fact that he had wept and was near to tears once more, 'if you are greatly attached to this book?'
'Why do you ask?'
'Because I have come to ask you to surrender it to me.'
'Forgive my curiosity, ' I said next, 'but it was you, then, who gave it to Marguerite Gautier?'
'It was I.'
'The book is yours. Take it. I am happy to be able to restore it to you.'
'But, ' continued Monsieur Duval with embarrassment, 'the least I can do is to give you what you paid for it.'
'Please take it as a gift. The price fetched by a single volume in a sale like that is a trifle, and I can't even remember how much I gave for it.'
'You gave a hundred francs for it.'
'You are quite right, ' said I, embarrassed in my turn, 'how did you know?'
'Quite simple. I hoped to reach Paris in time for Marguerite's sale, but got back only this morning. I was absolutely determined to have something that had been hers, and I went directly to the auctioneer's to ask if I might inspect the list of items sold and of the buyers' names. I saw that this volume had been bought by you, and I resolved to beg you to let me have it, though the price you paid for it did make me fear that you yourself associated some memory with possession of the book.'
In speaking thus, Armand clearly seemed to be afraid that I had known Marguerite in the way that he had known her.
I hastened to reassure him.
'I knew Mademoiselle Gautier by sight only, ' I said. 'Her death made the sort of impression on me that the death of any pretty woman he has had pleasure in meeting makes on any young man. I wished to buy something at her sale, and took it into my head to bid for this volume, I don't know why, for the satisfaction of annoying a man who was bent on getting it and seemed determined to prevent it going to me. I repeat, the book is yours, and I beg you once more to accept it. This way it won' t come to you as it came to me, from an auctioneer, and it will be between us the pledge of a more durable acquaintance and closer bonds.'
'Very well, ' said Armand, extending his hand and grasping mine, 'I accept and shall be grateful to you for the rest of my life.'
I very much wanted to question Armand about Marguerite, for the dedication in the book, the young man's journey, his desire to possess the volume, all excited my curiosity; but I feared that by questioning my visitor, I should appear to have refused his money simply to have the right to pry into his business.
It was as though he sensed my wishes, for he said:
'Have you read the book?'
'What did you make of the two lines I wrote?'
'I saw straightaway that, in your eyes, the poor girl to whom you had given the book did not belong in the usual category, for I could not bring myself to see the lines simply as a conventional compliment.'
'And you were right. That girl was an angel. Here, ' he said, 'read this letter.'
And he handed me a sheet of paper which, by the look of it, had been read many times over.
I opened it. This is what it said:
'My dear Armand, I have received your letter. You are still good, and I thank God for it. Yes, my dear, I am ill, and mine is the sort of illness which spares no one; but the concern which you are generous enough still to show for me greatly eases my sufferings. I expect I shall doubtless not live long enough to have the happiness of grasping the hand which wrote the kindly letter I have just received; its words would cure me, if anything could. I shall not see you, for I am very close to death, and hundreds of leagues separate you from me. My poor friend! The Marguerite you knew is sadly altered, and it is perhaps better that you do not see her again than see her as she is. You ask if I forgive you; oh!
with all my heart, my dear, for the hurt you sought to do me was but a token of the love you bore me. I have kept my bed now for a month, and so precious to me is your good opinion, that each day I write a little more of a journal of my life from the moment we parted until the moment when I shall be no longer able to hold my pen.
If the interest you take in me is real, Armand, then on your return, go and see Julie Duprat. She will place this journal in your keeping. In it you will find the reasons and the excuse for what has passed between us. Julie is very good to me. We often talk about you. She was here when your letter came, and we wept together as we read it.
Should I not hear from you, she has been entrusted with seeing that you get these papers on your return to France. Do not be grateful to me. Returning each day to the only happy moments of my life does me enormous good and if, as you read, you find the past exonerated in my words, I for my part find in them a never-ending solace.
I would like to leave you something by which you would always remember me, but everything I own has been seized, and nothing belongs to me.
Do you understand, my dear? I am going to die, and from my bedroom I can hear the footsteps of the watchman my creditors have placed in the drawing-room to see that nothing is removed and to ensure that if I do not die, I shall be left with nothing. We must hope that they will wait for the end before they sell me up.
Oh! how pitiless men are! or rather, for I am wrong, it is God who is just and unbending.
And so, my love, you will have to come to my sale and buy something, for if I were to put aside the smallest item for you and they heard of it, they would be quite capable of prosecuting you for misappropriating distrained goods.
How sad the life I now leave!
How good God would be if He granted that I should see you again before I die! Since the chances are remote, adieu, my dear; forgive me if I do not write more, for those who say they will cure me bleed me to exhaustion, and my hand refuses to write another line.
And indeed, the last few words were scarcely legible.
I gave the letter back to Armand who had doubtless read it over in his thoughts while I had been reading it on the paper, for as he took it he said:
'Who would ever believe that a kept woman wrote that!' And deeply affected by his memories, he stared for some time at the writing of the letter before finally putting it to his lips.
'And when I think, ' he went on, 'that she died before I saw her again, and that I shall see her no more; when I think that she did for me what no sister could ever have done ?I cannot forgive myself for having let her die like that.
Dead! dead! thinking of me, writing and saying my name, poor dear Marguerite!'
And Armand, giving free expression to his thoughts and tears, held out his hand to me and continued:
'People would think me very childish if they saw me grieving like this for the death of such a woman; but people could not know what I made that woman suffer, how cruel I was, how good and uncomplaining she was. I belived that it was for me to forgive her, and today I find myself unworthy of the pardon she bestows on me. Oh! I would gladly give ten years of my life to be able to spend one hour weeping at her feet.'
It is always difficult to comfort a grief that one does not share, and yet so keenly did I feel for this young man who confided his sorrows with such frankness, that I felt that a few words of mine would not be unwelcome to him, and I said:
'Have you no relatives, no friends? Take hope. Go and see them for they will comfort you, whereas I can only pity you.'
'You are right, ' he said, rising to his feet and striding around my bedroom, 'I am boring you. Forgive me, I was forgetting that my grief must mean little to you, and that I trespass upon your patience with a matter which neither can nor should concern you in the slightest.'
'No, you misunderstand me. I am entirely at your disposal; only I regret I am unable to calm your sorrow. If the company of myself and my friends can beguile your thoughts, if you need me in any way, I would like you to know how very happy I would be to help.'
'Forgive me, forgive me, ' he said, 'grief magnifies the feelings. Allow me to stay a few minutes more, long enough to dry my eyes so that idlers in the street shall not stare to see a grown man weeping as though he were a freak. You've made me very happy by giving me this book; I'll never know how to repay the debt I owe you.'
'By granting me a little of your friendship, ' I told Armand, 'and by telling me the cause of your sorrow. There is consolation in speaking of one's suffering.'
'You are right. But today my need for tears is too great, and what I said would make no sense. Some day I shall acquaint you with the story, and you shall judge whether I am right to mourn the poor girl. And now, ' he added, rubbing his eyes one last time and looking at himself in mirror, 'tell me that you do not think me too foolish, and say you give me leave to call on you again.'
The look in the eyes of this young man was good and gentle; I was almost tempted to embrace him.
For his part, his eyes began again to cloud with tears; he saw that I noticed them and he turned his glance away from me.
'Come now, ' I told him, 'take heart.'
'Goodbye, ' he said.
And, making an extraordinary effort not to weep, he fled rather than left my apartment.
I lifted the curtain at my window and saw him get into the cab which was waiting at the door; but he was hardly inside when he burst into tears and buried his face in his handkerchief.