Julie Kavanagh, The Girl Who Loved Camellias
When Oscar returned to Paris that fall, he wrote to Marie. It was a foolish thing to do, he knew, and he didn’t doubt that he would hear no end of it from the others of his kind in Paris, but he could not stay away.
He did not go anywhere near the boulevard de la Madeleine until he heard from her. The letter came a few days after he had sent her his, and once he opened it, he could detect the smell of laudanum, fever, and approaching death underneath the light scent of the l’Eau de Harem cologne he had come to associate with her. The script was as fluid and elegant as always, but it seemed lighter, as though written by a weaker hand.
My dear Oscar,
How kind of you to write to me on your return to Paris. I’ve missed you so; I would come to call on you, but alas, I am not well. But you might call upon me if you wish. We will drink champagne and talk of Spa and Brussels and how lovely it all was, and you’ll be witty as always and make me laugh. I’ve had more tears than laughter of late, Oscar. Please come to me.
The next evening he went to her, bearing a bouquet of orchids and a bottle of champagne, as she had spoken of in her letter. The maid Clothilde let him in, casting a wary eye upon him as he handed her his top hat, his gloves, and walking stick. She set them aside and led him to the boudoir, where Marie lie upon the pink satin daybed, pale and wispy. She must have been dozing, for she roused herself once she had heard the door open and Clothilde’s gentle whisper of, “Madame, Monsieur Esterhazy is here.”
He was stricken by the sight of the ill Marie. Her dark eyes had lost their luster, and her face was pale and gaunt, yet he could see from the slight flush in her cheeks that she was feverish. She was no longer the vibrant, bewitching creature he had first seen on that first night at the Opera, no longer the laughing, demure coquette he had danced with this past summer in Brussels. It affected him deeply to see her this way; more so than had anything else in the centuries of his existence.
“Oscar.” Marie held out her hand to him, and he took it, kissing it. He could feel the heat of the fever upon his lips.
“Marie,” he murmured, and the sound was sadder than he meant it to be, but then he supposed that just as many of her friends and lovers who had come to visit her had said her name in the exact same fashion.
She coughed, hurriedly putting a handkerchief to her mouth to cover it. But there was no covering it up for him, the smell of blood and sputum and impending death…
“I’m sorry I’m not well,” she said, folding the handkerchief as surreptitiously as she could to conceal the blood she had coughed up. “I do wish we could go to the Comedie, or the Opera. When I’m better I would like to go.”
“If you would like to go, let me escort you,” he offered, and he thought he saw a gleam of both sadness and gratitude in her eyes. “Or,” he amended, “I can take you to the Opera ball, and I’ll dance with you all evening and not let another man have you, just like on that night in Brussels. All of the other young men were put out that they couldn’t have you, even your Aguado…”
“How jealous he was!” Marie said, leaning back on her pillows, a smile on her lips as she remembered that night. “And you told me you were sorry you had let me go.”
“Indeed I was,” he replied, smiling. “I don’t pride myself on being a foolish man, Marie, and I promise you that I won’t make the same mistake again.”
She laughed. “So you admit your mistake, Monsieur Fool?”
“I’ll indulge you and openly and honestly admit it,” he said, bowing his head in mock self-deprecation. She laughed again, but her laughter lapsed into another few moments of coughing. He rose to help support her so that she would remain sitting up, and once the cough had subsided, he helped her lie down once more against the pillows. He offered her his own handkerchief so that she could wipe the tears that had gathered in her eyes. Once she had collected herself, she turned to him with an expression of the utmost pain on her face.
“I shouldn’t have let you come see me,” she told him. “Hardly anyone visits any longer…except for Olympe and Romain now and again. Ned Perregaux has been here nearly every day this week, but I won’t see him. I don’t want to see him, because he is only looking to find the marriage license and then leave and let me die alone.” She wiped a few tears from her eyes and smiled wanly at Oscar. “That champagne you brought…why don’t we open it?”
“I think that would be a lovely idea,” he said to her, and he opened the champagne and poured it into two of her expensive crystal glasses. And just for a few moments, Marie Duplessis regained some of the brilliance that had faded away during the course of her illness, and Oscar remembered why he had fallen in love with her to begin with.