Marcel had sometimes found Albertine’s presence comforting, “like a domestic animal which comes into a room and goes out again and is to found wherever one least expects to find it, and she would often–something that I found profoundly restful–come and lie down beside me on my bed, making a place for herself from which she never stirred, without disturbing me as a person would have done.” (V,9) He requires a similar presence to ease his anguish over Albertine’s escape.
Outside the door of Albertine’s house I found a little poor girl who gazed at me with huge eyes and who looked so sweet-natured that I asked her whether she would care to come home with me, as I might have taken home a dog with faithful eyes. She seemed pleased at the suggestion. When I got home, I held her for some time on my knee, but very soon her presence, by making me feel too keenly Albertine’s absence, became intolerable. And I asked her to go away, after giving her a five-hundred franc note. And yet, soon afterwards, the thought of having some other little girl in the house with me, of never being alone without the comfort of an innocent presence, was the only thing that enabled me to endure the idea that Albertine might perhaps remain away for some time. (V,583)
The girl’s parents are outraged and press charges, which also bring a respite of sorts to his distress.
…and fear, to a certain extent, as I felt on my way to see the head of the Sûreté, is an at least temporary and fairly efficacious counter-irritant for sentimental miseries. (V,598)
But as soon as they had gone, the head of the Sûreté, who had a weakness for little girls, changed his tone and admonished me as man to man: “Next time, you must be more careful. Good God, you can’t pick them up as easily as that, or you’ll get into trouble. Anyhow, you’ll find dozens of little girls who are better-looking that than one, and far cheaper. It was a perfectly ridiculous amount to pay.” I was so certain that he would fail to understand me if I attempted to tell him the truth that without saying a word I took advantage of his permission to withdraw. Every passer-by, until I was safely at home, seemed to me an inspector appointed to spy on my every movement. (V,598-599)
Proust continues to play the incident as comedy, perhaps to diminish the creepiness, with Françoise, his unfailing Falstaff.
Unfortunately, although I had assumed that the business with the Sûreté was over and done with, Françoise came in to tell me that an inspector had called to inquire whether I was in the habit of having girls in the house, that the concierge, supposing him to be referring to Albertine, had replied in the affirmative, and that since then it seemed as though the house was being watched. (V,601)
But all of a sudden, by a confusion of which I was not aware (for it did not occur to me that Albertine, being of age, was free to live under my roof and even to by my mistress), it seemed to me that the charge of corrupting minors might apply to Albertine also. thereupon my life appeared to me to be hedged in on every side. And reflecting that I had not lived chastely with her, I saw, in the punishment that had been inflicted upon me for having dandled an unknown little girl on my knee, that relation, which almost always exists in human sanctions, whereby there is hardly ever either a just sentence or a judicial error, but a sort of compromise between the false idea that the judge forms of an innocent act and the culpable deeds of which he is unaware. But then when I thought that Albertine’s return might involve me in an ignominious charge which would degrade me in her eyes and might perhaps even do her some damage for which she would not forgive me, I ceased to look forward to her return, it terrified me. And immediately, a passionate desire for her return overwhelmed me, drowning everything else. (V,602)
To give the story its full arch, and to show Marcel’s interest in little girls is not a passing fancy:
I looked at Gilberte, and I did not think: “I should like to see her again,” I said merely, in answer to her offer, that I should always enjoy being invited to meet young girls, poor girls if possible, to whom I could give pleasure by quite small gifts, without expecting anything of them in return except that they should serve to renew within me the dreams and the sadnesses of my youth and perhaps, one improbable day, a single chaste kiss. Gilberte smiled and then looked as though she were seriously giving her mind to the problem. (VI,439)