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It was something already, but it was not enough. I saw the hold which I had upon this woman, and I took a cowardly advantage of it.
When I think that she is dead now, I ask myself if God will ever forgive me for the wrong I did her.
After the supper, which was noisy as could be, there was gambling. I sat by the side of Olympe and put down my money so recklessly that she could not but notice me. In an instant I had gained one hundred and fifty or two hundred louis, which I spread out before me on the table, and on which she fastened her eyes greedily.
I was the only one not completely absorbed by the game, and able to pay her some attention. All the rest of the night I gained, and it was I who gave her money to play, for she had lost all she had before her and probably all she had in the house.
At five in the morning, the guests departed. I had gained three hundred louis.
All the players were already on their way downstairs; I was the only one who had remained behind, and as I did not know any of them, no one noticed it. Olympe herself was lighting the way, and I was going to follow the others, when, turning back, I said to her:
"I must speak to you."
"To-morrow," she said.
"What have you to say?"
"You will see."
And I went back into the room.
"You have lost," I said.
"All that you had in the house?"
"Well, it is true."
"I have won three hundred louis. Here they are, if you will let me stay here to-night."
And I threw the gold on the table.
"And why this proposition?"
"Because I am in love with you, of course."
"No, but because you love Marguerite, and you want to have your revenge upon her by becoming my lover. You don't deceive a woman like me, my dear friend; unluckily, I am still too young and too good-looking to accept the part that you offer me."
"So you refuse?"
"Would you rather take me for nothing? It is I who wouldn't accept then. Think it over, my dear Olympe; if I had sent some one to offer you these three hundred louis on my behalf, on the conditions I attach to them, you would have accepted. I preferred to speak to you myself. Accept without inquiring into my reasons; say to yourself that you are beautiful, and that there is nothing surprising in my being in love with you."
Marguerite was a woman in the same position as Olympe, and yet I should never have dared say to her the first time I met her what I had said to the other woman. I loved Marguerite. I saw in her instincts which were lacking in the other, and at the very moment in which I made my bargain, I felt a disgust toward the woman with whom I was making it.
She accepted, of course, in the end, and at midday I left her house as her lover; but I quitted her without a recollection of the caresses and of the words of love which she had felt bound to shower upon me in return for the six thousand francs which I left with her. And yet there were men who had ruined themselves for that woman.
From that day I inflicted on Marguerite a continual persecution. Olympe and she gave up seeing one another, as you might imagine. I gave my new mistress a carriage and jewels. I gambled, I committed every extravagance which could be expected of a man in love with such a woman as Olympe. The report of my new infatuation was immediately spread abroad.
Prudence herself was taken in, and finally thought that I had completely forgotten Marguerite. Marguerite herself, whether she guessed my motive or was deceived like everybody else, preserved a perfect dignity in response to the insults which I heaped upon her daily. Only, she seemed to suffer, for whenever I met her she was more and more pale, more and more sad. My love for her, carried to the point at which it was transformed into hatred, rejoiced at the sight of her daily sorrow. Often, when my cruelty toward her became infamous, Marguerite lifted upon me such appealing eyes that I blushed for the part I was playing, and was ready to implore her forgiveness.
But my repentance was only of a moment's duration, and Olympe, who had finally put aside all self-respect, and discovered that by annoying Marguerite she could get from me whatever she wanted, constantly stirred up my resentment against her, and insulted her whenever she found an opportunity, with the cowardly persistence of a woman licensed by the authority of a man.
At last Marguerite gave up going to balls or theatres, for fear of meeting Olympe and me. Then direct impertinences gave way to anonymous letters, and there was not a shameful thing which I did not encourage my mistress to relate and which I did not myself relate in reference to Marguerite.
To reach such a point I must have been literally mad. I was like a man drunk upon bad wine, who falls into one of those nervous exaltations in which the hand is capable of committing a crime without the head knowing anything about it. In the midst of it all I endured a martyrdom. The not disdainful calm, the not contemptuous dignity with which Marguerite responded to all my attacks, and which raised her above me in my own eyes, enraged me still more against her.
One evening Olympe had gone somewhere or other, and had met Marguerite, who for once had not spared the foolish creature, so that she had had to retire in confusion. Olympe returned in a fury, and Marguerite fainted and had to be carried out. Olympe related to me what had happened, declared that Marguerite, seeing her alone, had revenged herself upon her because she was my mistress, and that I must write and tell her to respect the woman whom I loved, whether I was present or absent.
I need not tell you that I consented, and that I put into the letter which I sent to her address the same day, everything bitter, shameful, and cruel that I could think of.
This time the blow was more than the unhappy creature could endure without replying. I felt sure that an answer would come, and I resolved not to go out all day. About two there was a ring, and Prudence entered.
I tried to assume an indifferent air as I asked her what had brought her; but that day Mme. Duvernoy was not in a laughing humour, and in a really moved voice she said to me that since my return, that is to say for about three weeks, I had left no occasion untried which could give pain to Marguerite, that she was completely upset by it, and that the scene of last night and my angry letter of the morning had forced her to take to her bed. In short, without making any reproach, Marguerite sent to ask me for a little pity, since she had no longer the moral or physical strength to endure what I was making her suffer.
"That Mlle. Gautier," I said to Prudence, "should turn me out of her own house is quite reasonable, but that she should insult the woman whom I love, under the pretence that this woman is my mistress, is a thing I will never permit."
"My friend," said Prudence, "you are under the influence of a woman who has neither heart nor sense; you are in love with her, it is true, but that is not a reason for torturing a woman who can not defend herself."
"Let Mlle. Gautier send me her Comte de N. and the sides will be equal."
"You know very well that she will not do that. So, my dear Armand, let her alone. If you saw her you would be ashamed of the way in which you are treating her. She is white, she coughs--she won't last long now."
And Prudence held out her hand to me, adding:
"Come and see her; it will make her very happy."
"I have no desire to meet M. de N."
"M. de N. is never there. She can not endure him."
"If Marguerite wishes to see me, she knows where I live; let her come to see me, but, for my part, I will never put foot in the Rue d'Antin."
"Will you receive her well?"
"Well, I am sure that she will come."
"Let her come."
"Shall you be out to-day?"
"I shall be at home all the evening."
"I will tell her."
And Prudence left me.
I did not even write to tell Olympe not to expect me. I never troubled much about her, scarcely going to see her one night a week. She consoled herself, I believe, with an actor from some theatre or other.
I went out for dinner and came back almost immediately. I had a fire lit in my room and I told Joseph he could go out.
I can give you no idea of the different impressions which agitated me during the hour in which I waited; but when, toward nine o'clock, I heard a ring, they thronged together into one such emotion, that, as I opened the door, I was obliged to lean against the wall to keep myself from falling.
Fortunately the anteroom was in half darkness, and the change in my countenance was less visible. Marguerite entered.
She was dressed in black and veiled. I could scarcely recognise her face through the veil. She went into the drawing-room and raised her veil. She was pale as marble.
"I am here, Armand," she said; "you wished to see me and I have come."
And letting her head fall on her hands, she burst into tears.
I went up to her.
"What is the matter?" I said to her in a low voice.
She pressed my hand without a word, for tears still veiled her voice. But after a few minutes, recovering herself a little, she said to me:
"You have been very unkind to me, Armand, and I have done nothing to you."
"Nothing?" I answered, with a bitter smile.
"Nothing but what circumstances forced me to do."
I do not know if you have ever in your life experienced, or if you will ever experience, what I felt at the sight of Marguerite.
The last time she had come to see me she had sat in the same place where she was now sitting; only, since then, she had been the mistress of another man, other kisses than mine had touched her lips, toward which, in spite of myself, my own reached out, and yet I felt that I loved this woman as much, more perhaps, than I had ever loved her.
It was difficult for me to begin the conversation on the subject which brought her. Marguerite no doubt realized it, for she went on:
"I have come to trouble you, Armand, for I have two things to ask: pardon for what I said yesterday to Mlle. Olympe, and pity for what you are perhaps still ready to do to me. Intentionally or not, since your return you have given me so much pain that I should be incapable now of enduring a fourth part of what I have endured till now. You will have pity on me, won't you? And you will understand that a man who is not heartless has other nobler things to do than to take his revenge upon a sick and sad woman like me. See, take my hand. I am in a fever. I left my bed to come to you, and ask, not for your friendship, but for your indifference."
I took Marguerite's hand. It was burning, and the poor woman shivered under her fur cloak.
I rolled the arm-chair in which she was sitting up to the fire.
"Do you think, then, that I did not suffer," said I, "on that night when, after waiting for you in the country, I came to look for you in Paris, and found nothing but the letter which nearly drove me mad? How could you have deceived me, Marguerite, when I loved you so much?
"Do not speak of that, Armand; I did not come to speak of that. I wanted to see you only not an enemy, and I wanted to take your hand once more. You have a mistress; she is young, pretty, you love her they say. Be happy with her and forget me."
"And you. You are happy, no doubt?"
"Have I the face of a happy woman, Armand? Do not mock my sorrow, you, who know better than any one what its cause and its depth are."
"It only depended on you not to have been unhappy at all, if you are as you say."
"No, my friend; circumstances were stronger than my will. I obeyed, not the instincts of a light woman, as you seem to say, but a serious necessity, and reasons which you will know one day, and which will make you forgive me."
"Why do you not tell me those reasons to-day?"
"Because they would not bring about an impossible reunion between us, and they would separate you perhaps from those from whom you must not be separated."
"Who do you mean?"
"I can not tell you."
"Then you are lying to me."
Marguerite rose and went toward the door. I could not behold this silent and expressive sorrow without being touched, when I compared in my mind this pale and weeping woman with the madcap who had made fun of me at the Opera Comique.
"You shall not go," I said, putting myself in front of the door.
"Because, in spite of what you have done to me, I love you always, and I want you to stay here."
"To turn me out to-morrow? No; it is impossible. Our destinies are separate; do not try to reunite them. You will despise me perhaps, while now you can only hate me."
"No, Marguerite," I cried, feeling all my love and all my desire reawaken at the contact of this woman. "No, I will forget everything, and we will be happy as we promised one another that we would be."
Marguerite shook her head doubtfully, and said:
"Am I not your slave, your dog? Do with me what you will. Take me; I am yours."
And throwing off her cloak and hat, she flung them on the sofa, and began hurriedly to undo the front of her dress, for, by one of those reactions so frequent in her malady, the blood rushed to her head and stifled her. A hard, dry cough followed.
"Tell my coachman," she said, "to go back with the carriage."
I went down myself and sent him away. When I returned Marguerite was lying in front of the fire, and her teeth chattered with the cold.
I took her in my arms. I undressed her, without her making a movement, and carried her, icy cold, to the bed. Then I sat beside her and tried to warm her with my caresses. She did not speak a word, but smiled at me.
It was a strange night. All Marguerite's life seemed to have passed into the kisses with which she covered me, and I loved her so much that in my transports of feverish love I asked myself whether I should not kill her, so that she might never belong to another.
A month of love like that, and there would have remained only the corpse of heart or body.
The dawn found us both awake. Marguerite was livid white. She did not speak a word. From time to time, big tears rolled from her eyes, and stayed upon her cheeks, shining like diamonds. Her thin arms opened, from time to time, to hold me fast, and fell back helplessly upon the bed.
For a moment it seemed to me as if I could forget all that had passed since I had left Bougival, and I said to Marguerite:
"Shall we go away and leave Paris?"
"No, no!" she said, almost with affright; "we should be too unhappy. I can do no more to make you happy, but while there is a breath of life in me, I will be the slave of your fancies. At whatever hour of the day or night you will, come, and I will be yours; but do not link your future any more with mine, you would be too unhappy and you would make me too unhappy. I shall still be pretty for a while; make the most of it, but ask nothing more."
When she had gone, I was frightened at the solitude in which she left me. Two hours afterward I was still sitting on the side of the bed, looking at the pillow which kept the imprint of her form, and asking myself what was to become of me, between my love and my jealousy.
At five o'clock, without knowing what I was going to do, I went to the Rue d'Antin.
Nanine opened to me.
"Madame can not receive you," she said in an embarrassed way.
"Because M. le Comte de N. is there, and he has given orders to let no one in."
"Quite so," I stammered; "I forgot."
I went home like a drunken man, and do you know what I did during the moment of jealous delirium which was long enough for the shameful thing I was going to do? I said to myself that the woman was laughing at me; I saw her alone with the count, saying over to him the same words that she had said to me in the night, and taking a five-hundred-franc note I sent it to her with these words:
"You went away so suddenly that I forgot to pay you. Here is the price of your night."
Then when the letter was sent I went out as if to free myself from the instantaneous remorse of this infamous action.
I went to see Olympe, whom I found trying on dresses, and when we were alone she sang obscene songs to amuse me. She was the very type of the shameless, heartless, senseless courtesan, for me at least, for perhaps some men might have dreamed of her as I dreamed of Marguerite. She asked me for money. I gave it to her, and, free then to go, I returned home.
Marguerite had not answered.
I need not tell you in what state of agitation I spent the next day. At half past nine a messenger brought me an envelope containing my letter and the five-hundred-franc note, not a word more.
"Who gave you this?" I asked the man.
"A lady who was starting with her maid in the next mail for Boulogne, and who told me not to take it until the coach was out of the courtyard."
I rushed to the Rue d'Antin.
"Madame left for England at six o'clock," said the porter.
There was nothing to hold me in Paris any longer, neither hate nor love. I was exhausted by this series of shocks. One of my friends was setting out on a tour in the East. I told my father I should like to accompany him; my father gave me drafts and letters of introduction, and eight or ten days afterward I embarked at Marseilles.
It was at Alexandria that I learned from an attache at the embassy, whom I had sometimes seen at Marguerite's, that the poor girl was seriously ill.
I then wrote her the letter which she answered in the way you know; I received it at Toulon.
I started at once, and you know the rest.
Now you have only to read a few sheets which Julie Duprat gave me; they are the best commentary on what I have just told you.
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