The narrator buys a courtesan's old book at a whim. Some time later, the man who gave her the book comes looking for it, and shares with the narrator their tale of love and sorrow. They had but a few short months together before her debts and his family's need to maintain their reputation came between them. I hadn't realized how closely the movie Moulin Rouge was based on this--the broad outline and many of the visual details (like the courtesan visiting her true love one last time, pale and waxy under her black veil) are the same. That said, Ewan McGregor's character was far less frustrating (nay, hateful!) than Armand Duval, the "hero" of this tale. But the courtesan of this tale is even more affecting than in the bombastic movie. I was helplessly crying near the end, distraught at Marguerite's courage and how little she hoped for (in vain, as it turns out).
"...I am tired out with seeing people who always want the same thing; who pay me for it, and then think they are quit of me. If those who are going to go in for our hateful business only knew what it really was they would sooner be chambermaids. But no, vanity, the desire of having dresses and carriages and diamonds carries us away; one believes what one hears, for here, as elsewhere, there is such a thing as belief, and one uses up one's heart, one's body, one's beauty, little by little; one is feared like a beast of prey, scorned like a pariah, surrounded by people who always take more than they give; and one fine day one dies like a dog in a ditch, after having ruined others and ruined one's self."