Letter 106

The Marchioness de Merteuil to the Viscount de Valmont

Admirable, my dear Viscount! now I love you to distraction; after the first of your two letters, I might well expect the second, which did not much surprise me; although you were so proud of your future success as to solicit the reward, and ask me if I was ready, I foresaw there was no necessity for all that expedition. Yes, upon honour, perusing the recital of your tender scene, that had affected you so much; and reflecting on your modesty, worthy the most glorious days of chivalry, I exclaimed, “The opportunity is lost!” How could it be otherwise? What would you have a poor woman do, who surrenders, and will not be accepted? Why, faith, in such a circumstance, appearances must be saved, and that is only what your Presidente has done. For my part, I very well know, the step she has taken has its effect, and intend to follow the example on the first serious occasion that offers; but I swear, if whoever I take this trouble for does not make a better use of it than you have done, he may certainly renounce me forever.

Thus are you reduced, positively, to a mere nothing! by two women, one of which was fixed for the next day, and the other wished for nothing so much! Well, you will be apt to think I boast, and say it is easy to prophecy after the event; but I swear I expected it; for you really have no genius for your profession; you barely know what you have learned; you have no invention; when circumstances do not assist your formalities of custom, and you are obliged to go out of the common road, you stop short like a schoolboy; to sum up all, a childishness on the one hand, a return of prudery on the other, because they are not every day experienced, are enough to disconcert you; you neither know how to remedy or prevent them. Ah, Viscount! Viscount! you teach me not to judge men by their success, and we must soon say of you, “he was brave such a day.” When you commit blunder on blunder, why then you fly to me⁠—One would imagine I have nothing else to do but retrieve your follies: it is certainly work enough for any one person.

However, as to those two adventures; the one was undertaken contrary to my inclination;⁠—the other, as you have paid some attention to my wishes, I take on myself.

Read first the enclosed letter, then give it to the little Volanges; it is more than sufficient to recall her; but I beg you will pay some attention to this child; let us join together to make her the greatest curse and affliction of her mother and Gercourt: there is no danger in giving her large doses; I see plainly the little thing will not be frightened; and, our scheme once completed, she may act as she pleases.

I shall be totally unconcerned about her. I had some thoughts of making her a subaltern intriguer, to take her to play the second parts under me; but I perceive she has no genius; she has a kind of foolish openness that has not given way to the specific you administered, which, however, seldom fails; and, in my opinion, it is the most dangerous disorder a woman can possibly have; it marks, more than anything, a weakness of temper, which opposes everything, and which is almost always incurable; so that our time would be lost in forming this little girl for intrigue, as, at best, she never will be more than a comeatable woman. I don’t know anything so insipid, as that stupid facility, that makes a woman compliant without knowing why or wherefore; only because she is attacked, and knows not how to resist; those sort of women are absolutely mere machines. You will say, that is all we want; and that is sufficient for our purpose. Be it so: but it must not be forgot, that everyone soon becomes acquainted with the springs and contrivers of those machines; so that to use this one, without bad consequences, we must lose no time, stop when necessary, and afterwards break it. We shall not be at a loss to get rid of her, and Gercourt will be ready to cloister her when we please. When he can no longer doubt his disaster, when it will be public and notorious, what matters it us if he revenges himself, provided he is inconsolable? What I say of the husband, I dare say you think the same of the mother; therefore look it as done.

This measure, which I conceive to be the best, attracted my thoughts, made me resolve to lead on the young thing briskly, as you will perceive by my letter; it is also of the utmost consequence not to leave anything in her possession that may commit us, which I beg you will attend to. This precaution observed, I take the morality on myself; the remainder is in your department; however, if we should hereafter find she improves, we shall always have time to alter our plan; which had like to have been the case, and that we should one time or other have been employed at what we are now about; but at all events our labour will not be lost.

I must, however, tell you, mine had like to be destroyed; and Gercourt’s good fortune had nearly overpowered my prudence. Madame de Volanges, in a fit of maternal fondness, was on the point of giving away her daughter to Danceny; from thence proceeded the remarkable tenderness you observed the next morning. This would have been still one of your master strokes. Fortunately the tender parent consulted me about it; and I expect my answer will give her a disrelish to it. I said so much in praise of virtue, and wheedled her so well, that I am sure she will be pleased with my reasons.

I am sorry I had not time to take a copy of my letter, for your edification, on the austerity of my morals. You would there see how contemptible I hold those women of depraved principles who have lovers. Nothing so commodious, as to be a rigourist in convention; it only hurts others, and gives us no uneasiness. Moreover, I am informed the good lady has had her little foibles, as well as others, in her younger days. I was not sorry to humble her conscience, at least, which was some consolation for the praises I was obliged to give her against my own. It was thus, in the same letter, the idea of hurting Gercourt inspired me the resolution to speak well of him.

Adieu, Viscount! I approve much of your plan of remaining where you are for some time. I have no means for expediting your march: but I recommend you should employ your time with our pupil. As to myself, notwithstanding your polite summons, you find you must still wait, and you will agree with me it is not my fault.