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"You have come almost as quickly as we," said Prudence.
"Yes," I answered mechanically. "Where is Marguerite?"
"With M. de G."
I walked to and fro in the room.
"Well, what is the matter?"
"Do you think it amuses me to wait here till M. de G. leaves Marguerite's?"
"How unreasonable you are! Don't you see that Marguerite can't turn the count out of doors? M. de G. has been with her for a long time; he has always given her a lot of money; he still does. Marguerite spends more than a hundred thousand francs a year; she has heaps of debts. The duke gives her all that she asks for, but she does not always venture to ask him for all that she is in want of. It would never do for her to quarrel with the count, who is worth to her at least ten thousand francs a year. Marguerite is very fond of you, my dear fellow, but your liaison with her, in her interests and in yours, ought not to be serious. You with your seven or eight thousand francs a year, what could you do toward supplying all the luxuries which a girl like that is in need of? It would not be enough to keep her carriage. Take Marguerite for what she is, for a good, bright, pretty girl; be her lover for a month, two months; give her flowers, sweets, boxes at the theatre; but don't get any other ideas into your head, and don't make absurd scenes of jealousy. You know whom you have to do with; Marguerite isn't a saint. She likes you, you are very fond of her; let the rest alone. You amaze me when I see you so touchy; you have the most charming mistress in Paris. She receives you in the greatest style, she is covered with diamonds, she needn't cost you a penny, unless you like, and you are not satisfied. My dear fellow, you ask too much!"
"You are right, but I can't help it; the idea that that man is her lover hurts me horribly."
"In the first place," replied Prudence; "is he still her lover? He is a man who is useful to her, nothing more. She has closed her doors to him for two days; he came this morning--she could not but accept the box and let him accompany her. He saw her home; he has gone in for a moment, he is not staying, because you are waiting here. All that, it seems to me, is quite natural. Besides, you don't mind the duke."
"Yes; but he is an old man, and I am sure that Marguerite is not his mistress. Then, it is all very well to accept one liaison, but not two. Such easiness in the matter is very like calculation, and puts the man who consents to it, even out of love, very much in the category of those who, in a lower stage of society, make a trade of their connivance, and a profit of their trade."
"Ah, my dear fellow, how old-fashioned you are! How many of the richest and most fashionable men of the best families I have seen quite ready to do what I advise you to do, and without an effort, without shame, without remorse, Why, one sees it every day. How do you suppose the kept women in Paris could live in the style they do, if they had not three or four lovers at once? No single fortune, however large, could suffice for the expenses of a woman like Marguerite. A fortune of five hundred thousand francs a year is, in France, an enormous fortune; well, my dear friend, five hundred thousand francs a year would still be too little, and for this reason: a man with such an income has a large house, horses, servants, carriages; he shoots, has friends, often he is married, he has children, he races, gambles, travels, and what not. All these habits are so much a part of his position that he can not forego them without appearing to have lost all his money, and without causing scandal. Taking it all round, with five hundred thousand francs a year he can not give a woman more than forty or fifty thousand francs in the year, and that is already a good deal. Well, other lovers make up for the rest of her expenses. With Marguerite, it is still more convenient; she has chanced by a miracle on an old man worth ten millions, whose wife and daughter are dead; who has only some nephews, themselves rich, and who gives her all she wants without asking anything in return. But she can not ask him for more than seventy thousand francs a year; and I am sure that if she did ask for more, despite his health and the affection he has for her he would not give it to her.
"All the young men of twenty or thirty thousand francs a year at Paris, that is to say, men who have only just enough to live on in the society in which they mix, know perfectly well, when they are the lovers of a woman like Marguerite, that she could not so much as pay for the rooms she lives in and the servants who wait upon her with what they give her. They do not say to her that they know it; they pretend not to see anything, and when they have had enough of it they go their way. If they have the vanity to wish to pay for everything they get ruined, like the fools they are, and go and get killed in Africa, after leaving a hundred thousand francs of debt in Paris. Do you think a woman is grateful to them for it? Far from it. She declares that she has sacrificed her position for them, and that while she was with them she was losing money. These details seem to you shocking? Well, they are true. You are a very nice fellow; I like you very much. I have lived with these women for twenty years; I know what they are worth, and I don't want to see you take the caprice that a pretty girl has for you too seriously.
"Then, besides that," continued Prudence; "admit that Marguerite loves you enough to give up the count or the duke, in case one of them were to discover your liaison and to tell her to choose between him and you, the sacrifice that she would make for you would be enormous, you can not deny it. What equal sacrifice could you make for her, on your part, and when you had got tired of her, what could you do to make up for what you had taken from her? Nothing. You would have cut her off from the world in which her fortune and her future were to be found; she would have given you her best years, and she would be forgotten. Either you would be an ordinary man, and, casting her past in her teeth, you would leave her, telling her that you were only doing like her other lovers, and you would abandon her to certain misery; or you would be an honest man, and, feeling bound to keep her by you, you would bring inevitable trouble upon yourself, for a liaison which is excusable in a young man, is no longer excusable in a man of middle age. It becomes an obstacle to every thing; it allows neither family nor ambition, man's second and last loves. Believe me, then, my friend, take things for what they are worth, and do not give a kept woman the right to call herself your creditor, no matter in what."
It was well argued, with a logic of which I should have thought Prudence incapable. I had nothing to reply, except that she was right; I took her hand and thanked her for her counsels.
"Come, come," said she, "put these foolish theories to flight, and laugh over them. Life is pleasant, my dear fellow; it all depends on the colour of the glass through which one sees it. Ask your friend Gaston; there's a man who seems to me to understand love as I understand it. All that you need think of, unless you are quite a fool, is that close by there is a beautiful girl who is waiting impatiently for the man who is with her to go, thinking of you, keeping the whole night for you, and who loves you, I am certain. Now, come to the window with me, and let us watch for the count to go; he won't be long in leaving the coast clear."
Prudence opened the window, and we leaned side by side over the balcony. She watched the few passers, I reflected. All that she had said buzzed in my head, and I could not help feeling that she was right; but the genuine love which I had for Marguerite had some difficulty in accommodating itself to such a belief. I sighed from time to time, at which Prudence turned, and shrugged her shoulders like a physician who has given up his patient.
"How one realizes the shortness of life," I said to myself, "by the rapidity of sensations! I have only known Marguerite for two days, she has only been my mistress since yesterday, and she has already so completely absorbed my thoughts, my heart, and my life that the visit of the Comte de G. is a misfortune for me."
At last the count came out, got into his carriage and disappeared. Prudence closed the window. At the same instant Marguerite called to us:
"Come at once," she said; "they are laying the table, and we'll have supper."
When I entered, Marguerite ran to me, threw her arms around my neck and kissed me with all her might.
"Are we still sulky?" she said to me.
"No, it is all over," replied Prudence. "I have given him a talking to, and he has promised to be reasonable."
"Well and good."
In spite of myself I glanced at the bed; it was not unmade. As for Marguerite, she was already in her white dressing-gown. We sat down to table.
Charm, sweetness, spontaneity, Marguerite had them all, and I was forced from time to time to admit that I had no right to ask of her anything else; that many people would be very happy to be in my place; and that, like Virgil's shepherd, I had only to enjoy the pleasures that a god, or rather a goddess, set before me.
I tried to put in practice the theories of Prudence, and to be as gay as my two companions; but what was natural in them was on my part an effort, and the nervous laughter, whose source they did not detect, was nearer to tears than to mirth.
At last the supper was over and I was alone with Marguerite. She sat down as usual on the hearthrug before the fire and gazed sadly into the flames. What was she thinking of? I know not. As for me, I looked at her with a mingling of love and terror, as I thought of all that I was ready to suffer for her sake.
"Do you know what I am thinking of?"
"Of a plan that has come into my head."
"And what is this plan?"
"I can't tell you yet, but I can tell you what the result would be. The result would be that in a month I should be free, I should have no more debts, and we could go and spend the summer in the country."
"And you can't tell me by what means?"
"No, only love me as I love you, and all will succeed."
"And have you made this plan all by yourself?"
"And you will carry it out all by yourself?"
"I alone shall have the trouble of it," said Marguerite, with a smile which I shall never forget, "but we shall both partake its benefits."
I could not help flushing at the word benefits; I thought of Manon Lescaut squandering with Desgrieux the money of M. de B.
I replied in a hard voice, rising from my seat:
"You must permit me, my dear Marguerite, to share only the benefits of those enterprises which I have conceived and carried out myself."
"What does that mean?"
"It means that I have a strong suspicion that M. de G. is to be your associate in this pretty plan, of which I can accept neither the cost nor the benefits."
"What a child you are! I thought you loved me. I was mistaken; all right."
She rose, opened the piano and began to play the "Invitation a la Valse", as far as the famous passage in the major which always stopped her. Was it through force of habit, or was it to remind me of the day when we first met? All I know is that the melody brought back that recollection, and, coming up to her, I took her head between my hands and kissed her. "You forgive me?" I said.
"You see I do," she answered; "but observe that we are only at our second day, and already I have had to forgive you something. Is this how you keep your promise of blind obedience?"
"What can I do, Marguerite? I love you too much and I am jealous of the least of your thoughts. What you proposed to me just now made me frantic with delight, but the mystery in its carrying out hurts me dreadfully."
"Come, let us reason it out," she said, taking both my hands and looking at me with a charming smile which it was impossible to resist, "You love me, do you not? and you would gladly spend two or three months alone with me in the country? I too should be glad of this solitude a deux, and not only glad of it, but my health requires it. I can not leave Paris for such a length of time without putting my affairs in order, and the affairs of a woman like me are always in great confusion; well, I have found a way to reconcile everything, my money affairs and my love for you; yes, for you, don't laugh; I am silly enough to love you! And here you are taking lordly airs and talking big words. Child, thrice child, only remember that I love you, and don't let anything disturb you. Now, is it agreed?"
"I agree to all you wish, as you know."
"Then, in less than a month's time we shall be in some village, walking by the river side, and drinking milk. Does it seem strange that Marguerite Gautier should speak to you like that? The fact is, my friend, that when this Paris life, which seems to make me so happy, doesn't burn me, it wearies me, and then I have sudden aspirations toward a calmer existence which might recall my childhood. One has always had a childhood, whatever one becomes. Don't be alarmed; I am not going to tell you that I am the daughter of a colonel on half-pay, and that I was brought up at Saint-Denis. I am a poor country girl, and six years ago I could not write my own name. You are relieved, aren't you? Why is it you are the first whom I have ever asked to share the joy of this desire of mine? I suppose because I feel that you love me for myself and not for yourself, while all the others have only loved me for themselves.
"I have often been in the country, but never as I should like to go there. I count on you for this easy happiness; do not be unkind, let me have it. Say this to yourself: 'She will never live to be old, and I should some day be sorry for not having done for her the first thing she asked of me, such an easy thing to do!'"
What could I reply to such words, especially with the memory of a first night of love, and in the expectation of a second?
An hour later I held Marguerite in my arms, and, if she had asked me to commit a crime, I would have obeyed her.
At six in the morning I left her, and before leaving her I said: "Till to-night!" She kissed me more warmly than ever, but said nothing.
During the day I received a note containing these words:
"DEAR CHILD: I am not very well, and the doctor has ordered quiet. I shall go to bed early to-night and shall not see you. But, to make up, I shall expect you to-morrow at twelve. I love you."
My first thought was: She is deceiving me!
A cold sweat broke out on my forehead, for I already loved this woman too much not to be overwhelmed by the suspicion. And yet, I was bound to expect such a thing almost any day with Marguerite, and it had happened to me often enough with my other mistresses, without my taking much notice of it. What was the meaning of the hold which this woman had taken upon my life?
Then it occurred to me, since I had the key, to go and see her as usual. In this way I should soon know the truth, and if I found a man there I would strike him in the face.
Meanwhile I went to the Champs-Elysees. I waited there four hours. She did not appear. At night I went into all the theatres where she was accustomed to go. She was in none of them.
At eleven o'clock I went to the Rue d'Antin. There was no light in Marguerite's windows. All the same, I rang. The porter asked me where I was going.
"To Mlle. Gautier's," I said.
"She has not come in."
"I will go up and wait for her."
"There is no one there."
Evidently I could get in, since I had the key, but, fearing foolish scandal, I went away. Only I did not return home; I could not leave the street, and I never took my eyes off Marguerite's house. It seemed to me that there was still something to be found out, or at least that my suspicions were about to be confirmed.
About midnight a carriage that I knew well stopped before No. 9. The Comte de G. got down and entered the house, after sending away the carriage. For a moment I hoped that the same answer would be given to him as to me, and that I should see him come out; but at four o'clock in the morning I was still awaiting him.
I have suffered deeply during these last three weeks, but that is nothing, I think, in comparison with what I suffered that night.
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