Alfredo eyed the whisky bottle on the table. He tipped another two fingers into his glass and drank it down. There was some small satisfaction that he had now had enough experience with the whisky that he could tolerate with some equanimity the way it burned down his throat. This was good, because it was only morning, and he was only half-drunk; he had further to go before he was drunk enough to forget Violetta for a couple of hours.
He was about to repeat the process when he was startled by the knock at his door, and for the briefest of seconds imagined that it was Violetta. But of course it could not be; she was in Paris, probably with Douphol; probably she did not even think of him at all. He scowled.
The door opened. Of course it was his father. Of course he had tracked him down, even in London where he had come to escape from all of them. "Have you come," said Alfredo bitterly, "to castigate me for my misdeeds once again?" By his figuring, he was not nearly drunk enough to deal with his father.
"I did think I had raised you better than that," Germont said, sounding more sorrowful than angry, this time. "No matter what the provocation, my son, to attack a woman in such a hurtful way -- "
"Father," said Alfredo, "I could not possibly feel any worse about it than I already do. Please."
Alfredo saw Germont open his mouth to continue the lecture, and with an almost physical effort stop himself. "That is not why I came, in any case," Germont said, looking away from him. "Not to talk about your misdeeds, but about mine."
"My son," said Germont, "there is something I must tell you."
Alfredo squinted at him. His father was behaving rather strangely; his voice almost sounded remorseful. Part of Alfredo thought he would have preferred the lecture. He understood his father lecturing; he did not understand what his father was trying to say now. Alfredo waved a hand at him. "About Violetta? I warn you, if it is about anything else I may not listen. Sit down, father, and have a drink with me." He gestured grandly at the chair next to his. There was even a second glass on the table, though he no longer remembered why he'd thought it was a good idea to put it there. He nudged it towards his father. Of course he would not take it; Alfredo almost laughed at the thought of his extremely-proper, extremely-correct father taking a swig of whisky with him, as if they were friends.
Germont looked ill at ease and remained standing. He swallowed, looking down. Alfredo had never in his life seen his father look nervous before now, and, despite himself, found himself slightly curious about what the man had to say.
"You received my letter," said his father finally, "in which I asked you to return to Provence, because the family of Bianca's intended husband was threatening to break off the match."
Whatever Alfredo had expected, it was not that. He furrowed his brow. "What does this have to do with anything?"
"That is what I am trying to tell you," his father said patiently. "You would not come, so I asked Violetta to leave you, for Bianca's sake. She told me that you would follow if she left in any conventional way. But I promise you, I did not know that she planned to go back to the Baron and break both your hearts that way. I would have opposed it, had she told me."
The words took a moment to penetrate Alfredo's mind.
His father had asked Violetta to leave him.
He had --
"She told me," Alfredo said numbly, "that she had taken a sacred oath to leave me. That the one who had asked it of her had the right to do so." Fool that he had been, to think it had been Douphol! Of course she had agreed and said it was; of course Violetta would have known that it was the only way he would actually leave her. Now, now, everything finally made sense. He rose, knocking his glass aside, and clenched his fists; he took a step towards his father, who stood perfectly still.
Their eyes met. Alfredo understood that his father was waiting for whatever might come, that if Alfredo hit him or knocked him down he would not resist. He saw Violetta's eyes in his mind; they had had the same look in them, when he threw the money at her. His anger dissipated, leaving behind despair, and he collapsed back into his chair. "Oh! My God!" Alfredo muttered brokenly. "What must she think of me?"
His father loosened his cravat, sat down heavily in the chair Alfredo had proffered earlier, and poured himself a drink. He drained the glass in one swallow, which immediately sent him into a fit of coughing. Alfredo was too stunned by what he had just heard to remark on what, for his father, was wildly erratic behavior. "I believe," his father offered, after his coughing subsided, "that she understands. She struck me as a most remarkable woman."
"Now you say that?" Alfredo demanded. "If you had only known that then -- if you had not --" Words failed him, and he put his face in his hands and wept.
Germont put a hand on his shoulder. "My son --"
"It's too late," Alfredo said, his voice muffled. "She could not forgive me, she could never forgive me, I could never face her again --"
Germont shook Alfredo, just a little. "Alfredo. Do you love her?"
"Yes," Alfredo cried out in despair, "I love her, I will always love her!"
"Then go," his father said quietly, letting his arm fall, "and tell her so, before it is too late."
Germont sat for a while by himself after his son had left. He was not insensible of the irony that he had been the one to urge Alfredo to go back to Violetta.
If only his wife were still alive, he thought, not for the first time: she would have known what to say, what to do; she had always known how to handle their children.
At least he knew the proper order in which to do things, which was something he often despaired of his son learning. Alfredo had not, he expected, even thought about writing to tell Violetta of their arrival. He rummaged around in the room and before long found paper, pen, and ink. He wrote Violetta what had happened: Alfredo abroad, that they would both be coming to her.
Germont pinched the bridge of his nose. He could feel the incipient headache coming on. He wondered how much earlier the letter would get to Violetta than he and Alfredo did. He wondered if Alfredo understood that Germont would be coming to see Violetta as well, or whether he would be surprised by it. He wondered why Alfredo had not knocked him down; he had expected it, had almost welcomed it. He wondered if Alfredo would ever forgive him.
Most of all, he wondered what he was going to tell Bianca when Marco's family learned that Violetta and Alfredo were still together, and the inevitable happened and Marco was made to withdraw from the engagement. I am sorry, Bianca, he thought sadly. He had only wanted to protect his sweet and lovely daughter, and he had failed her.
But he had finally understood, after the party, too late; he had finally and fully understood the cruelty of what he had done to Violetta, that he should not have asked her for such a sacrifice at all: that he had been wrong to do so, even for Bianca.
He wanted to say something of that to Violetta; wanted to say further that her fidelity and love and kindness were such that any father would be proud to claim her as his daughter, that he held as a promise to her that he himself would embrace her as a daughter. He hesitated for a minute, then added to the letter, Take care of yourself. You deserve a happier future. He hoped with all his heart that she would find that happier future, whether it was with Alfredo or not. He could not help a small hope that it was without Alfredo, though he was realistic enough to know that this was unlikely.
He signed the letter and folded it carefully; he would find an envelope and mail it as soon as he left the room. He rose, finally, and went out to direct the letter, and himself, to Violetta as quickly as they both could go.