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CAMILLE (LA DAME AUX CAMILIAS)

By Alexandre Dumas, fils




Chapter 1

In my opinion, it is impossible to create characters until one has spent
a long time in studying men, as it is impossible to speak a language
until it has been seriously acquired. Not being old enough to invent, I
content myself with narrating, and I beg the reader to assure himself of
the truth of a story in which all the characters, with the exception of
the heroine, are still alive. Eye-witnesses of the greater part of the
facts which I have collected are to be found in Paris, and I might call
upon them to confirm me if my testimony is not enough. And, thanks to a
particular circumstance, I alone can write these things, for I alone
am able to give the final details, without which it would have been
impossible to make the story at once interesting and complete.

This is how these details came to my knowledge. On the 12th of March,
1847, I saw in the Rue Lafitte a great yellow placard announcing a sale
of furniture and curiosities. The sale was to take place on account of
the death of the owner. The owner's name was not mentioned, but the sale
was to be held at 9, Rue d'Antin, on the 16th, from 12 to 5. The placard
further announced that the rooms and furniture could be seen on the 13th
and 14th.

I have always been very fond of curiosities, and I made up my mind not
to miss the occasion, if not of buying some, at all events of seeing
them. Next day I called at 9, Rue d'Antin.

It was early in the day, and yet there were already a number of
visitors, both men and women, and the women, though they were dressed
in cashmere and velvet, and had their carriages waiting for them at the
door, gazed with astonishment and admiration at the luxury which they
saw before them.

I was not long in discovering the reason of this astonishment and
admiration, for, having begun to examine things a little carefully, I
discovered without difficulty that I was in the house of a kept woman.
Now, if there is one thing which women in society would like to see (and
there were society women there), it is the home of those women whose
carriages splash their own carriages day by day, who, like them, side by
side with them, have their boxes at the Opera and at the Italiens,
and who parade in Paris the opulent insolence of their beauty, their
diamonds, and their scandal.

This one was dead, so the most virtuous of women could enter even her
bedroom. Death had purified the air of this abode of splendid foulness,
and if more excuse were needed, they had the excuse that they had merely
come to a sale, they knew not whose. They had read the placards, they
wished to see what the placards had announced, and to make their choice
beforehand. What could be more natural? Yet, all the same, in the midst
of all these beautiful things, they could not help looking about for
some traces of this courtesan's life, of which they had heard, no doubt,
strange enough stories.

Unfortunately the mystery had vanished with the goddess, and, for
all their endeavours, they discovered only what was on sale since
the owner's decease, and nothing of what had been on sale during her
lifetime. For the rest, there were plenty of things worth buying. The
furniture was superb; there were rosewood and buhl cabinets and tables,
Sevres and Chinese vases, Saxe statuettes, satin, velvet, lace; there
was nothing lacking.

I sauntered through the rooms, following the inquisitive ladies of
distinction. They entered a room with Persian hangings, and I was just
going to enter in turn, when they came out again almost immediately,
smiling, and as if ashamed of their own curiosity. I was all the more
eager to see the room. It was the dressing-room, laid out with all the
articles of toilet, in which the dead woman's extravagance seemed to be
seen at its height.

On a large table against the wall, a table three feet in width and six
in length, glittered all the treasures of Aucoc and Odiot. It was a
magnificent collection, and there was not one of those thousand little
things so necessary to the toilet of a woman of the kind which was not
in gold or silver. Such a collection could only have been got together
little by little, and the same lover had certainly not begun and ended
it.

Not being shocked at the sight of a kept woman's dressing-room, I
amused myself with examining every detail, and I discovered that these
magnificently chiselled objects bore different initials and different
coronets. I looked at one after another, each recalling a separate
shame, and I said that God had been merciful to the poor child, in not
having left her to pay the ordinary penalty, but rather to die in
the midst of her beauty and luxury, before the coming of old age, the
courtesan's first death.

Is there anything sadder in the world than the old age of vice,
especially in woman? She preserves no dignity, she inspires no interest.
The everlasting repentance, not of the evil ways followed, but of the
plans that have miscarried, the money that has been spent in vain, is
as saddening a thing as one can well meet with. I knew an aged woman who
had once been "gay," whose only link with the past was a daughter almost
as beautiful as she herself had been. This poor creature to whom her
mother had never said, "You are my child," except to bid her nourish her
old age as she herself had nourished her youth, was called Louise, and,
being obedient to her mother, she abandoned herself without volition,
without passion, without pleasure, as she would have worked at any other
profession that might have been taught her.

The constant sight of dissipation, precocious dissipation, in addition
to her constant sickly state, had extinguished in her mind all the
knowledge of good and evil that God had perhaps given her, but that no
one had ever thought of developing. I shall always remember her, as
she passed along the boulevards almost every day at the same hour,
accompanied by her mother as assiduously as a real mother might have
accompanied her daughter. I was very young then, and ready to accept for
myself the easy morality of the age. I remember, however, the
contempt and disgust which awoke in me at the sight of this scandalous
chaperoning. Her face, too, was inexpressibly virginal in its expression
of innocence and of melancholy suffering. She was like a figure of
Resignation.

One day the girl's face was transfigured. In the midst of all the
debauches mapped out by her mother, it seemed to her as if God had left
over for her one happiness. And why indeed should God, who had made her
without strength, have left her without consolation, under the sorrowful
burden of her life? One day, then, she realized that she was to have a
child, and all that remained to her of chastity leaped for joy. The soul
has strange refuges. Louise ran to tell the good news to her mother.
It is a shameful thing to speak of, but we are not telling tales of
pleasant sins; we are telling of true facts, which it would be better,
no doubt, to pass over in silence, if we did not believe that it is
needful from time to time to reveal the martyrdom of those who are
condemned without bearing, scorned without judging; shameful it is, but
this mother answered the daughter that they had already scarce enough
for two, and would certainly not have enough for three; that such
children are useless, and a lying-in is so much time lost.

Next day a midwife, of whom all we will say is that she was a friend of
the mother, visited Louise, who remained in bed for a few days, and then
got up paler and feebler than before.

Three months afterward a man took pity on her and tried to heal her,
morally and physically; but the last shock had been too violent, and
Louise died of it. The mother still lives; how? God knows.

This story returned to my mind while I looked at the silver toilet
things, and a certain space of time must have elapsed during these
reflections, for no one was left in the room but myself and an
attendant, who, standing near the door, was carefully watching me to see
that I did not pocket anything.

I went up to the man, to whom I was causing so much anxiety. "Sir," I
said, "can you tell me the name of the person who formerly lived here?"

"Mademoiselle Marguerite Gautier."

I knew her by name and by sight.

"What!" I said to the attendant; "Marguerite Gautier is dead?"

"Yes, sir."

"When did she die?"

"Three weeks ago, I believe."

"And why are the rooms on view?"

"The creditors believe that it will send up the prices. People can see
beforehand the effect of the things; you see that induces them to buy."

"She was in debt, then?"

"To any extent, sir."

"But the sale will cover it?"

"And more too."

"Who will get what remains over?"

"Her family."

"She had a family?"

"It seems so."

"Thanks."

The attendant, reassured as to my intentions, touched his hat, and I
went out.

"Poor girl!" I said to myself as I returned home; "she must have had a
sad death, for, in her world, one has friends only when one is perfectly
well." And in spite of myself I began to feel melancholy over the fate
of Marguerite Gautier.

It will seem absurd to many people, but I have an unbounded sympathy
for women of this kind, and I do not think it necessary to apologize for
such sympathy.

One day, as I was going to the Prefecture for a passport, I saw in one
of the neighbouring streets a poor girl who was being marched along by
two policemen. I do not know what was the matter. All I know is that she
was weeping bitterly as she kissed an infant only a few months old, from
whom her arrest was to separate her. Since that day I have never dared
to despise a woman at first sight.



Chapter 2

The sale was to take place on the 16th. A day's interval had been left
between the visiting days and the sale, in order to give time for taking
down the hangings, curtains, etc. I had just returned from abroad. It
was natural that I had not heard of Marguerite's death among the pieces
of news which one's friends always tell on returning after an absence.
Marguerite was a pretty woman; but though the life of such women makes
sensation enough, their death makes very little. They are suns which set
as they rose, unobserved. Their death, when they die young, is heard
of by all their lovers at the same moment, for in Paris almost all
the lovers of a well-known woman are friends. A few recollections are
exchanged, and everybody's life goes on as if the incident had never
occurred, without so much as a tear.

Nowadays, at twenty-five, tears have become so rare a thing that they
are not to be squandered indiscriminately. It is the most that can be
expected if the parents who pay for being wept over are wept over in
return for the price they pay.

As for me, though my initials did not occur on any of Marguerite's
belongings, that instinctive indulgence, that natural pity that I have
already confessed, set me thinking over her death, more perhaps than it
was worth thinking over. I remembered having often met Marguerite in the
Bois, where she went regularly every day in a little blue coupe drawn by
two magnificent bays, and I had noticed in her a distinction quite apart
from other women of her kind, a distinction which was enhanced by a
really exceptional beauty.

These unfortunate creatures whenever they go out are always accompanied
by somebody or other. As no man cares to make himself conspicuous by
being seen in their company, and as they are afraid of solitude, they
take with them either those who are not well enough off to have a
carriage, or one or another of those elegant, ancient ladies, whose
elegance is a little inexplicable, and to whom one can always go for
information in regard to the women whom they accompany.

In Marguerite's case it was quite different. She was always alone when
she drove in the Champs-Elysees, lying back in her carriage as much as
possible, dressed in furs in winter, and in summer wearing very simple
dresses; and though she often passed people whom she knew, her smile,
when she chose to smile, was seen only by them, and a duchess might
have smiled in just such a manner. She did not drive to and fro like the
others, from the Rond-Point to the end of the Champs-Elysees. She drove
straight to the Bois. There she left her carriage, walked for an hour,
returned to her carriage, and drove rapidly home.

All these circumstances which I had so often witnessed came back to my
memory, and I regretted her death as one might regret the destruction of
a beautiful work of art.

It was impossible to see more charm in beauty than in that of
Marguerite. Excessively tall and thin, she had in the fullest degree the
art of repairing this oversight of Nature by the mere arrangement of the
things she wore. Her cashmere reached to the ground, and showed on each
side the large flounces of a silk dress, and the heavy muff which she
held pressed against her bosom was surrounded by such cunningly arranged
folds that the eye, however exacting, could find no fault with the
contour of the lines. Her head, a marvel, was the object of the most
coquettish care. It was small, and her mother, as Musset would say,
seemed to have made it so in order to make it with care.

Set, in an oval of indescribable grace, two black eyes, surmounted by
eyebrows of so pure a curve that it seemed as if painted; veil these
eyes with lovely lashes, which, when drooped, cast their shadow on the
rosy hue of the cheeks; trace a delicate, straight nose, the nostrils
a little open, in an ardent aspiration toward the life of the senses;
design a regular mouth, with lips parted graciously over teeth as white
as milk; colour the skin with the down of a peach that no hand
has touched, and you will have the general aspect of that charming
countenance. The hair, black as jet, waving naturally or not, was
parted on the forehead in two large folds and draped back over the head,
leaving in sight just the tip of the ears, in which there glittered two
diamonds, worth four to five thousand francs each. How it was that her
ardent life had left on Marguerite's face the virginal, almost childlike
expression, which characterized it, is a problem which we can but state,
without attempting to solve it.

Marguerite had a marvellous portrait of herself, by Vidal, the only man
whose pencil could do her justice. I had this portrait by me for a few
days after her death, and the likeness was so astonishing that it has
helped to refresh my memory in regard to some points which I might not
otherwise have remembered.

Some among the details of this chapter did not reach me until later,
but I write them here so as not to be obliged to return to them when the
story itself has begun.

Marguerite was always present at every first night, and passed every
evening either at the theatre or the ball. Whenever there was a new
piece she was certain to be seen, and she invariably had three things
with her on the ledge of her ground-floor box: her opera-glass, a bag of
sweets, and a bouquet of camellias.

For twenty-five days of the month the camellias were white, and for five
they were red; no one ever knew the reason of this change of colour,
which I mention though I can not explain it; it was noticed both by her
friends and by the habitue's of the theatres to which she most often
went. She was never seen with any flowers but camellias. At the
florist's, Madame Barjon's, she had come to be called "the Lady of the
Camellias," and the name stuck to her.

Like all those who move in a certain set in Paris, I knew that
Marguerite had lived with some of the most fashionable young men in
society, that she spoke of it openly, and that they themselves
boasted of it; so that all seemed equally pleased with one another.
Nevertheless, for about three years, after a visit to Bagnees, she was
said to be living with an old duke, a foreigner, enormously rich, who
had tried to remove her as far as possible from her former life, and, as
it seemed, entirely to her own satisfaction.

This is what I was told on the subject. In the spring of 1847 Marguerite
was so ill that the doctors ordered her to take the waters, and she went
to Bagneres. Among the invalids was the daughter of this duke; she
was not only suffering from the same complaint, but she was so like
Marguerite in appearance that they might have been taken for sisters;
the young duchess was in the last stage of consumption, and a few days
after Marguerite's arrival she died. One morning, the duke, who had
remained at Bagneres to be near the soil that had buried a part of his
heart, caught sight of Marguerite at a turn of the road. He seemed to
see the shadow of his child, and going up to her, he took her hands,
embraced and wept over her, and without even asking her who she was,
begged her to let him love in her the living image of his dead child.
Marguerite, alone at Bagneres with her maid, and not being in any fear
of compromising herself, granted the duke's request. Some people who
knew her, happening to be at Bagneres, took upon themselves to explain
Mademoiselle Gautier's true position to the duke. It was a blow to
the old man, for the resemblance with his daughter was ended in one
direction, but it was too late. She had become a necessity to his heart,
his only pretext, his only excuse, for living. He made no reproaches,
he had indeed no right to do so, but he asked her if she felt herself
capable of changing her mode of life, offering her in return for the
sacrifice every compensation that she could desire. She consented.

It must be said that Marguerite was just then very ill. The past seemed
to her sensitive nature as if it were one of the main causes of her
illness, and a sort of superstition led her to hope that God would
restore to her both health and beauty in return for her repentance and
conversion. By the end of the summer, the waters, sleep, the natural
fatigue of long walks, had indeed more or less restored her health. The
duke accompanied her to Paris, where he continued to see her as he had
done at Bagneres.

This liaison, whose motive and origin were quite unknown, caused a great
sensation, for the duke, already known for his immense fortune,
now became known for his prodigality. All this was set down to the
debauchery of a rich old man, and everything was believed except the
truth. The father's sentiment for Marguerite had, in truth, so pure a
cause that anything but a communion of hearts would have seemed to him a
kind of incest, and he had never spoken to her a word which his daughter
might not have heard.

Far be it from me to make out our heroine to be anything but what she
was. As long as she remained at Bagneres, the promise she had made to
the duke had not been hard to keep, and she had kept it; but, once back
in Paris, it seemed to her, accustomed to a life of dissipation, of
balls, of orgies, as if the solitude, only interrupted by the duke's
stated visits, would kill her with boredom, and the hot breath of her
old life came back across her head and heart.

We must add that Marguerite had returned more beautiful than she had
ever been; she was but twenty, and her malady, sleeping but not subdued,
continued to give her those feverish desires which are almost always the
result of diseases of the chest.

It was a great grief to the duke when his friends, always on the lookout
for some scandal on the part of the woman with whom, it seemed to them,
he was compromising himself, came to tell him, indeed to prove to him,
that at times when she was sure of not seeing him she received other
visits, and that these visits were often prolonged till the following
day. On being questioned, Marguerite admitted everything to the duke,
and advised him, without arriere-pensee, to concern himself with her no
longer, for she felt incapable of carrying out what she had undertaken,
and she did not wish to go on accepting benefits from a man whom she was
deceiving. The duke did not return for a week; it was all he could do,
and on the eighth day he came to beg Marguerite to let him still visit
her, promising that he would take her as she was, so long as he might
see her, and swearing that he would never utter a reproach against her,
not though he were to die of it.

This, then, was the state of things three months after Marguerite's
return; that is to say, in November or December, 1842.



Chapter 3

At one o'clock on the 16th I went to the Rue d'Antin. The voice of the
auctioneer could be heard from the outer door. The rooms were crowded
with people. There were all the celebrities of the most elegant
impropriety, furtively examined by certain great ladies who had again
seized the opportunity of the sale in order to be able to see, close at
hand, women whom they might never have another occasion of meeting, and
whom they envied perhaps in secret for their easy pleasures. The Duchess
of F. elbowed Mlle. A., one of the most melancholy examples of our
modern courtesan; the Marquis de T. hesitated over a piece of furniture
the price of which was being run high by Mme. D., the most elegant and
famous adulteress of our time; the Duke of Y., who in Madrid is supposed
to be ruining himself in Paris, and in Paris to be ruining himself in
Madrid, and who, as a matter of fact, never even reaches the limit of
his income, talked with Mme. M., one of our wittiest story-tellers, who
from time to time writes what she says and signs what she writes, while
at the same time he exchanged confidential glances with Mme. de N., a
fair ornament of the Champs-Elysees, almost always dressed in pink
or blue, and driving two big black horses which Tony had sold her for
10,000 francs, and for which she had paid, after her fashion; finally,
Mlle. R., who makes by her mere talent twice what the women of the world
make by their dot and three times as much as the others make by their
amours, had come, in spite of the cold, to make some purchases, and was
not the least looked at among the crowd.

We might cite the initials of many more of those who found themselves,
not without some mutual surprise, side by side in one room. But we fear
to weary the reader. We will only add that everyone was in the highest
spirits, and that many of those present had known the dead woman, and
seemed quite oblivious of the fact. There was a sound of loud laughter;
the auctioneers shouted at the top of their voices; the dealers who had
filled the benches in front of the auction table tried in vain to obtain
silence, in order to transact their business in peace. Never was there a
noisier or a more varied gathering.

I slipped quietly into the midst of this tumult, sad to think of when
one remembered that the poor creature whose goods were being sold to pay
her debts had died in the next room. Having come rather to examine than
to buy, I watched the faces of the auctioneers, noticing how they
beamed with delight whenever anything reached a price beyond their
expectations. Honest creatures, who had speculated upon this woman's
prostitution, who had gained their hundred per cent out of her, who had
plagued with their writs the last moments of her life, and who came now
after her death to gather in at once the fruits of their dishonourable
calculations and the interest on their shameful credit, How wise were
the ancients in having only one God for traders and robbers!

Dresses, cashmeres, jewels, were sold with incredible rapidity. There
was nothing that I cared for, and I still waited. All at once I heard:
"A volume, beautifully bound, gilt-edged, entitled Manon Lescaut. There
is something written on the first page. Ten francs."

"Twelve," said a voice after a longish silence.

"Fifteen," I said.

Why? I did not know. Doubtless for the something written.

"Fifteen," repeated the auctioneer.

"Thirty," said the first bidder in a tone which seemed to defy further
competition.

It had now become a struggle. "Thirty-five," I cried in the same tone.

"Forty."

"Fifty."

"Sixty."

"A hundred."

If I had wished to make a sensation I should certainly have succeeded,
for a profound silence had ensued, and people gazed at me as if to see
what sort of a person it was, who seemed to be so determined to possess
the volume.

The accent which I had given to my last word seemed to convince my
adversary; he preferred to abandon a conflict which could only have
resulted in making me pay ten times its price for the volume, and,
bowing, he said very gracefully, though indeed a little late:

"I give way, sir."

Nothing more being offered, the book was assigned to me.


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