It is my considered view that no one can invent fictional
characters without first having made a lengthy study of
people, just as it is impossible for anyone to speak a
language that has not been properly mastered.
Since I am not yet of an age to invent, I must make do with
telling a tale.
invite the reader to believe that this story is true. All
the characters who appear in it, with the exception of the
heroine, are still living.
I would further
add that there are reliable witnesses in Paris for most of
the particulars which I bring together here, and they could
vouch for their accuracy should my word not be enough. By a
singular turn of events, I alone was able to write them down
since I alone was privy to the very last details without
which it would have been quite impossible to piece together
a full and satisfying account. It was in this way that these
particulars came to my knowledge.
On the 12th day of March
1847, in the rue Laffitte, I happened upon a large yellow
notice announcing a sale of furniture and valuable curios.
An estate was to be disposed of, the owner having died. The
notice did not name the dead person, but the sale was to be
held at 9 rue d'Antin on the 16th, between noon and five
The notice also
stated that the apartments and contents could be viewed on
the 13th and 14th.
I have always
been interested in curios. I promised myself I would not
miss this opportunity, if not of actually buying, then at
least of looking.
day, I directed my steps towards 9 rue d'Antin.
early, and yet a good crowd of visitors had already gathered
in the apartment? men for the most part, but also a number
of ladies who, though dressed in velvet and wearing Indian
shawls, and all with their own elegant broughams standing at
the door, were examining the riches set out before them with
astonished, even admiring eyes.
After a while,
I quite saw the reason for their admiration and
astonishment, for having begun myself to look around I had
no difficulty in recognizing that I was in the apartment of
a kept woman.
Now if there is one thing that ladies of fashion desire to
see above all else ?and there were society ladies present ?
it is the rooms occupied by those women who have carriages
which spatter their own with mud every day of the week, who
have their boxes at the Opera or the Theatre-Italien just as
they do, and indeed next to theirs, and who display for all
Paris to see the insolent opulence of their beauty, diamonds
and shameless conduct.
The woman in
whose apartments I now found myself was dead: the most
virtuous of ladies were thus able to go everywhere, even
into the bedroom. Death had purified the air of this
glittering den of iniquity, and in any case they could
always say, if they needed the excuse, that they had done no
more than come to a sale without knowing whose rooms these
were. I had read the notices, they had wanted to view what
the notices advertised and mark out their selections in
advance. It could not have been simpler ?though this did not
prevent them from looking through these splendid things for
traces of the secret life of a courtesan of which they had
doubtless been given very strange accounts.
Unfortunately, the mysteries had died with the goddess, and
in spite of their best endeavours these good ladies found
only what had been put up for sale since the time of death,
and could detect nothing of what had been sold while the
occupant had been alive.
But there was certainly rich booty to be had. The furniture
was superb. Rosewood and Buhl-work pieces, Severs vases and
blue china porcelain, Dresden figurines, satins, velvet and
lace, everything in fact.
I wandered from room to room in the wake of these
inquisitive aristocratic ladies who had arrived before me.
They went into a bedroom hung with Persian fabrics and I was
about to go in after them, when they came out again almost
immediately, smiling and as it were put to shame by this
latest revelation. The effect was to make me even keener to
see inside. It was the dressing-room, complete down to the
very last details, in which the dead woman's profligacy had
seemingly reached its height.
On a large table standing against one wall ?it measured a
good six feet by three ?shone the finest treasures of Aucoc
and Odiot. It was a magnificent collection, and among the
countless objects each so essential to the appearance of the
kind of woman in whose home we had gathered, there was not
one that was not made of gold or silver. But it was a
collection that could only have been assembled piece by
piece, and clearly more than one love had gone into its
I, who was not the least put out by the sight of the
dressing-room of a kept woman, spent some time agreeably
inspecting its contents, neglecting none of them, and I
noticed that all these magnificently wrought implements bore
different initials and all manner of coronets.
As I contemplated all these things, each to my mind standing
for a separate prostitution of the poor girl, I reflected
that God had been merciful to her since He had not suffered
her to live long enough to undergo the usual punishment but
had allowed her to die at the height of her wealth and
beauty, long before the coming of old age, that first death
Indeed, what sadder sight is there than vice in old age,
especially in a woman? It has no dignity and is singularly
unattractive. Those everlasting regrets, not for wrong
turnings taken but for wrong calculations made and money
foolishly spent, are among the most harrowing things that
can be heard. I once knew a former woman of easy virtue of
whose past life there remained only a daughter who was
almost as beautiful as the mother had once been, or so her
contemporaries said. This poor child, to whom her mother
never said 'You are my daughter' except to order her to keep
her now that she was old just as she had been kept when she
was young, this wretched creature was called Louise and, in
obedience to her mother, she sold herself without
inclination or passion or pleasure, rather as she might have
followed an honest trade had it ever entered anyone's head
to teach her one.
The continual spectacle of debauchery, at so tender an age,
compounded by her continuing ill- health, had extinguished
in the girl the knowledge of good and evil which God had
perhaps given her but which no one had ever thought to
I shall always remember that young girl who walked along the
boulevards almost every day at the same hour. Her mother was
always with her, escorting her as assiduously as a true
mother might have accompanied her daughter.
I was very young
in those days and ready enough to fall in with the easy
morality of the times. Yet I recall that the sight of such
scandalous chaperoning filled me with contempt and disgust.
Add to all this that no virgin's face ever conveyed such a
feeling of innocence nor any comparable expression of
sadness and suffering.
You would have said it was the image of Resignation itself.
And then one day, the young girl's face lit up. In the midst
of the debauches which her mother organized for her, it
suddenly seemed to this sinful creature that God had granted
her one happiness. And after all why should God, who had
made her weak and helpless, abandon her without consolation
to struggle on beneath the oppressive burden of her life?
One day, then, she perceived that she was with child, and
that part of her which remained pure trembled with joy. The
soul finds refuge in the strangest sanctuaries.
to her mother to tell her the news that had filled her with
such happiness. It is a shameful thing to have to say ?but
we do not write gratuitously of immorality here, we relate a
true incident and one perhaps which we would be better
advised to leave untold if we did not believe that it is
essential from time to time to make public the martyrdom of
these creatures who are ordinarily condemned without a
hearing and despised without trial ? it is, we say, a matter
for shame, but the mother answered her daughter saying that
as things stood they scarcely had enough for two, and that
they would certainly not have enough for three; that such
children serve no useful purpose; and that a pregnancy is so
much time wasted.
The very next day, a midwife (of whom we shall say no more
than that she was a friend of the mother)called to see
Louise, who remained for a few days in her bed from which
she rose paler and weaker than before.
Three months later, some man took pity on her and undertook
her moral and physical salvation. But this latest blow had
been too great and Louise died of the after effects of the
miscarriage she had suffered.
The mother still lives. How? God alone knows.
This story had come back to me as I stood examining the sets
of silver toilet accessories, and I must have been lost in
thought for quite some time. For by now the apartment was
empty save for myself and a porter who, from the doorway,
was eyeing me carefully lest I should try to steal anything.
I went up to this good man in whom I inspired such grave
'Excuse me, ' I said, 'I wonder if you could tell me the
name of the person who lived here?'
'Mademoiselle Marguerite Gautier.'
I knew this young woman by name and by sight.
'What!' I said to the porter. 'Marguerite Gautier is dead?'
'When did it happen?'
'Three weeks ago, I think.'
'But why are people being allowed to view her apartment?'
'The creditors thought it would be good for trade. People
can get the effect of the hangings and the furniture in
advance. Encourages people to buy, you understand.'
'So she had debts, then?'
'Oh yes, sir! Lots of'em.'
'But I imagine the sale will cover them?'
'Over and above.'
'And who stands to get the balance?'
'She had a family?'
'Seems she did.'
'Thank you very much.'
The porter, now reassured as to my intentions, touched his
cap and I left.
'Poor girl, ' I said to myself as I returned home, 'she must
have died a sad death, for in her world, people only keep
their friends as long as they stay fit and well.'
spite of myself, I lamented the fate of Marguerite Gautier.
All this will perhaps seem absurd to many people, but I have
a boundless forbearance towards courtesans which I shall not
even trouble to enlarge upon here.
One day, as I was on my way to collect a passport from the
prefecture, I saw down one of the adjacent streets, a young
woman being taken away by two policemen. Now I have no idea
what she had done. All I can say is that she was weeping
bitterly and clasping to her a child only a few months old
from which she was about to be separated by her arrest. From
that day until this, I have been incapable of spurning any
woman on sight.