MY father was sitting in my drawing-room in his dressing-gown. He was writing.
I knew at once, from the way he looked up at me as I entered, that serious matters were about to be broached.
I went up to him, however, as though I had no inkling of anything from his expression, and I embraced him.
'When did you arrive, father?'
'And you're putting up here as usual?'
'I'm so sorry I wasn't here to welcome you.'
I expected that these words would unleash the lecture which my father's cool expression clearly promised. But he did not answer, sealed the letter he had just written, and gave it to Joseph to post.
When we were alone, my father stood up and, leaning against the mantelpiece, said:
'The two of us, my dear Armand, have serious matters to discuss.'
'I'm listening, father.'
'Will you promise to be frank with me?'
'I'm never anything else.'
'Is it true that you are living with a woman named Marguerite Gautier?'
'Do you know what sort of woman she was?'
'She was a kept woman.'
'Was it on her account that you neglected to come down to see your sister and me this year?'
'Yes, father, I admit it.'
'So you love this woman very much?'
'You can see I do, father, since she made me forget a sacred duty, for which I now humbly ask your pardon.'
Clearly, my father had not been expecting such plain answers, for he appeared to reflect for a moment before saying:
'You must have know, of course, that you couldn't go on living like this forever?'
'I was afraid it might be so, father, but I knew no such thing.'
'But you must have known, ' my father continued in a slightly sharper tone of voice, 'that I would never allow it.'
'I told myself that, as long as I did nothing to prejudice the respect which I owe to your name and the time- honoured probity of the family, then I could behave as I have ?and this went some way to reassuring me about the fears I had.'
Passion arms us against sentiment. I was ready to fight any battle, even against my father, to keep Marguerite.
'Well, the time has come to behave differently.'
'But why, father?'
'Because you are on the point of committing actions which undermine the respect which you say you have for your family.'
'I don't understand what you're saying.'
'Then I'll explain what I said. If you have a mistress, all well and good. If you pay her like any gentleman pays to be loved by a kept woman, even better. But when you neglect your most sacred obligations on her account; when you allow rumours of your scandalous conduct to travel all the way down to my part of the world and cast the shadow of a stain on the honourable name I have given you, then that is something which cannot continue, nor shall it continue.'
'Allow me to say, father, that whoever told you all this about me was badly informed. I am Marguerite Gautier's lover, I live with her: it's really quite simple. I have not given Mademoiselle Gautier the name I received from you. I spend on her no more than my means permit, I haven't run up any debts and I haven't got myself into any of the predicaments which entitle a father to say to his son what you have just said to me.'
'A father is always entitled to turn his son from the ill-considered path on which he sees him set his foot. You have not done anything wrong as yet, but you will.'
'Sir, I know life better than you do. Wholly pure sentiments are to be found only in women who are wholly chaste. Every Manon can turn a man into a Des Grieux, and times and manners have changed. It would be pointless if the world grew older without growing wiser. You will leave your mistress.'
'It distresses me to disobey you, father, but that is out of the question.'
'I shall compel you.'
'Unfortunately, father, there aren't any St-Margaret's Islands nowadays where courtesans can be transported, and, even if there were, I should follow Mademoiselle Gautier there if you managed to have her sent away. I'm sorry, it may be wrong of me, but I can be happy only on the condition that I remain her lover.'
'Come, Armand, open your eyes and see your father who has always loved you and who wants only your happiness. Is it honourable for you to live as man and wife with a woman who's been had by everybody?'
'What does it matter, father, if no one else shall have her again? What does it matter if she loves me, if she has been transformed by the love she has for me and the love I feel for her? What can it possibly matter if there has been a spiritual change in her?'
'And do you think, sir, that the mission of a gentleman is to bring about spiritual changes in courtesans? Do you imagine that God has given life so grotesque a purpose, and that a man's heart must have no other zeal than this? How will this miraculous cure end? And what will you make of what you're saying now, when you're forty? You'll laugh at this affair, if you are still able to laugh, if, that is, it hasn't left an indelible mark on your past. Where would you be now if your father had thought as you do, if he'd surrendered his life to the enticements of love instead of setting it unshakeably upon a belief in honour and integrity? Think, Armand, and stop talking nonsense. Come, you shall leave this woman. Your father begs you to.'
I made no reply.
'Armand, ' continued my father, 'in the name of your saintly mother, listen to me: give up this way of life. You will forget it far more quickly than you think and, in any case, you are kept chained to it by a philosophy which is quite absurd. You are twenty-four: think of the future. You won't always be in love with this woman, nor will she love you forever. You have both exaggerated what you feel for each other. You're shutting all the doors to a career. Take one more step, and you'll never be able to get off the path you're on, and you'll regret your misspent youth for the rest of your life. Leave now. Come and stay for a month or two with your sister. Rest and devoted family love will soon cure you of this infatuation, for it is nothing else.
'Meanwhile, your mistress will get over it. She'll take another lover and then, when you see what kind of person almost made you quarrel with your father and forfeit his affection, you will say I was quite right to come and fetch you, and you will bless me for having done so.
'So you will come away, won't you, Armand?'
I felt that my father was right about women in general, but I was convinced that he was wrong about Marguerite. However, he spoke these last words so gently, so beseechingly, that I dared not answer.
'Well?' he said, in a voice heavy with emotion.
'Look, father, I can't promise anything, ' I said at length. 'What you are asking is more than I can do. Please believe me, ' I continued, seeing him stir impatiently, 'you're making too much of the consequences of this affair. Marguerite isn't the kind of girl you think she is. Far from setting me on the wrong road, this love of ours, on the contrary, has the power to nurture the finest sentiments in me. True love always makes a man finer, whatever sort of woman inspires it. If you knew Marguerite, you'd see that there's no risk to me. She is as noble as the noblest women. She is as disinterested as the others are grasping.'
'Though that hasn't stopped her pocketing all your money, for the sixty thousand francs your mother left you, which you want to give her, represents ?and take note of what I'm saying ?all the money you have.'
In all likelihood, my father had kept this peroration as a threat intended to undermine my last defences.
I felt stronger against his threats than against his entreaties.
'Who told you that I was to make the money over to her?' I went on.
'My solicitor. Would any honourable man have drawn up a deed of that kind without letting me know first? Well, it was to prevent you beggaring yourself for the benefit of some loose woman that brought me to Paris. When your mother died, she left you enough to live on decently, but not enough for you to go giving it away to your mistresses.'
'I swear to you, father, Marguerite knew nothing of this deed of gift.'
'Why did you have it drawn up, then?'
'Because Marguerite, the woman you've slandered and want me to give up, has sacrificed everything she owns to live with me.'
'And you have accepted this sacrifice? What sort of man are you, sir, that you will allow a Mademoiselle Marguerite Gautier to make sacrifices for you? But, enough. You will leave this woman. A little while ago, I asked you to; now, I order you to. I will not have such obscenities in my family. Pack your trunks and get ready to come with me.'
'Forgive me, father, ' I said, 'but I shall not leave here.'
'Because I am now at an age when I don't have to obey orders any more.'
At this, my father turned pale.
'Very well, sir, ' he went on, 'I am clear in my mind what remains to be done.'
'Have my trunks sent round to the Hotel de Paris, ' he told my servant. And with these words, he went into his bedroom where he finished dressing.
When he emerged, I went up to him.
'Will you promise me, father, ' I said, 'that you won't do anything to distress Marguerite?'
My father paused, gave me a look of contempt, and merely said:
'I do believe you've taken leave of your senses.'
Thereupon, he stormed out, slamming the door violently behind him.
Then I too left, took a cab and set off for Bougival.
Marguerite was waiting for me at the window.