Letter 113

Marchioness de Merteuil to the Viscount de Valmont

I think it time to inform you, Viscount, the world begin to talk of you. Your absence from Paris is remarked, and the cause guessed. I was yesterday at a public supper, which was very numerous; where it was positively asserted, you was detained in a village by an unfortunate romantic amour. Joy was instantly visible on the countenance of all those envious of your successes, and of all the women you have neglected. Believe me, you should not suffer such dangerous reports to gain ground, and should immediately return to destroy them by your presence.

Remember, if you once lose the reputation of irresistible, you will soon more readily find resistance; your rivals will lose the respect they had for you, and will dare you; for is there one amongst them who does not think himself more powerful than virtue? But, above all, remember, among the number of women you have held up to public view, all those you have not had, will attempt to undeceive the public, whilst the others will use every means to abuse it. To sum up all, you must expect to be rated, perhaps, as much beneath your value, as you have hitherto been above it.

Return then, Viscount, and no longer sacrifice your reputation to a puerile whim. You have done all we wanted with the little Volanges; and as for your Presidente, it is not very probable you will do your business with her at ten leagues distance. Do you imagine she will go after you? Perhaps she no longer thinks of you, or thinks of you only to felicitate herself for having humbled you. But here you would find some opportunity of appearing with éclat, and you really want it. If even you should continue obstinate in your ridiculous adventure, I can’t see how your return would hurt you⁠—on the contrary.

For if your Presidente adores you, as you have so often told me, but never yet proved, her only consolation, her sole pleasure, ought now to be to speak of you, to know what you do, what you say, what you think, even the most trifling matter about you. Those wretched fooleries are of some consequence, according to the privations that are experienced. They are the crumbs falling from the table of the rich man, which he despises; but which the poor one collects with avidity, and feeds on. So the poor Presidente at present receives those crumbs; and the more she has of them, she will be less greedy for the rest. Moreover, as you know her confidant, there is no doubt but every letter contains a little exhortation to corroborate her prudence, and strengthen her virtue. Why will you then leave resources to the one for her defence, and power to the other to hurt you.

Not that I am in the least of your opinion on the loss you think you sustain by the change of confidant; for M. de Volanges detests you, and hatred is always more ingenious and clear sighted than friendship. Your old aunt’s virtue will never permit her to slander her dear nephew, for virtue has its foibles. Again, your fears lead you into an error. It is not true, that the older women grow, the more morose and severe they are. It is from forty to fifty that grief for faded beauties rage, to be forced to abandon pretensions and pleasures to which the mind is still attached, make almost all women peevish and ridiculous. It is necessary they should have this long interval to prepare for this great sacrifice: but when it is once completed, they divide into two classes.

The most numerous, which are those who never possessed anything but youth and beauty, fall into a weak apathy, from which they never recover but for play and a few practical devotions; that class is always tiresome, often morose, sometimes marplots, but rarely mischievous. It is not easy to determine whether those women are or are not severe; without ideas, or in a manner without existence, they repeat indifferently, and without comprehending, everything they hear; and are, as to themselves, non entities.

The other class, much more uncommon, but truly valuable, are those of good disposition, who having cultivated their minds, can create themselves an existence, when nature fails; and can, when the embellishments of the outward figure are useless, place them to their minds. Those women have most commonly a sound judgment, and a mind replete with solidity, good humour, and kindness.⁠—They replace the seducing charms with attractive goodness and cheerfulness, whose charms increase with their years. Thus they may be said in some shape to renew their age, by gaining the affections of the youthful part of society. But far from being what you call morose and severe; the habits of indulgence, the long reflections on human nature, but especially the remembrance of youth, by which alone they have a relish for life, would rather make them too condescending.

I can aver, having always cultivated an intimacy with old women, of whose good opinion I saw early the advantage, I have known several who I frequented as much from inclination as interest. I shall stop here; for I dread you should fall in love with your old aunt, you are so apt to be inflamed suddenly and morally, and bury yourself with her in the tomb you have so long dwelt in.

But to return. Although you seem enraptured with your little scholar, I fancy she has no share in your projects. You found her ready to your hand, and took her: be it so. But that cannot be called taste. It is not even, properly speaking, an enjoyment; you possess her person only. Not to mention her heart, which I suppose does not give you the least uneasiness, you don’t even engage her imagination. I cannot tell whether you have observed it, but I have a proof of it in the last letter she wrote me: I send it you, that you may be convinced. Observe, always when she mentions you, it is M. de Valmont; all her ideas, even those you raise, terminate in Danceny; she does not call him Monsieur, but plain Danceny. Thus she distinguishes him from all others: and even giving herself up to you, she familiarises herself only with him. If such a conquest has anything bewitching, if the pleasures you receive are so attaching, you are certainly modest, and not difficult to please. Keep her; I agree to it; it is even a part of my scheme: but I really think it should not discompose you in the least. You should also have some ascendant over her, and not suffer her to draw near Danceny, until he is a little worn out of her memory.

Before I think of your coming to me, I must tell you this pretended sickness is an exploded common trick. On my word, Viscount, you lack invention! I am also guilty of repetitions sometimes, as you shall hear: but I endeavour to amuse by the circumstances; and success justifies me. I am going to attempt another adventure. I will agree, it has not the merit of difficulty; but it will be a distraction at least, for time lies very heavy on my hands.

I cannot account for the reason, but since Prevan’s affair, Belleroche is become insupportable to me. He has redoubled his attention, tenderness, and veneration, to so violent a degree, I can hold out no longer. His wrath at the time was pleasant enough; but it was necessary to check it, otherwise I must have committed myself; there was no making him listen to reason. I resolved to show him more affection, to bring him round more easily; he has taken it so seriously, that ever since he puts me out of all patience with his eternal charms. I moreover take notice of his insulting confidence, for he really looks on me as his property. I am really humbled. He holds me cheap, indeed, if he thinks himself capable of fixing me. He had the assurance to tell me lately, I never should have loved any other but him. Then, indeed, I lost all patience, and was obliged to call my prudence in aid, not to undeceive him instantly, by telling how matters stood. He is certainly a pretty fellow, to aspire to an exclusive right! I will allow, he is well made, and a tolerable person: but take him all in all, he is only a maneuverer in love. The time is come, we must part.

I have endeavoured at it this fortnight past. I have, by turns, treated him with coolness, capriciousness, bad humour, quarrelled even; all in vain: the tenacious creature will not quit his hold. I must, then, use some violence; for this purpose I take him with me to the country. We set out the day after tomorrow. We shall only have some people of no consequence, and not very discerning, and shall be almost as much at liberty as if we were alone. There I shall so overload him with love and fondness, we shall so live for each other only, that he will wish to see the end of this journey, which is now his greatest bliss, more than I shall; and if he does not return more tired of me than I shall be of him, I consent you may say, you know more of the matter than I do.

The pretence for this retreat is, I want seriously to employ my time in preparing for my great lawsuit, that is to be decided the beginning of winter, which pleases me much; for it is really very disagreeable to have one’s fortune in suspense. Not that I am uneasy about the issue; for, first, I have right on my side, as all my lawyers assure me;⁠—if it even was not the case, I should be very unskilful, indeed, if I could not gain a suit against minors of tender years, and their old guardian: however, as nothing must be omitted in a business of such consequence, I shall have two lawyers with me. Will not this be a sprightly jaunt? If I gain my cause, and lose Belleroche, I shall not regret the time.

Now, Viscount, I will give you a hundred guesses before you name his successor; I forget though, you never guess anything⁠—Why, Danceny. You are astonished; for I am not yet reduced to the education of children. This one, however, deserves an exception in his favour. He has the graces of youth, but not its frivolousness. His reserve in a circle is well adapted to banish all manner of suspicion, and he is the more amiable when in a tête-à-tête; not that I yet have had one with him on my own account. I am only his confidant: but under this mask of friendship, I think I see a strong inclination for me, and I already feel a violent one for him. It would be pity so much wit and delicacy should be sacrificed and stupified with that little idiot Volanges. I hope he deceives himself in thinking he loves her; she is so far from deserving him. Not that I have the least tincture of jealousy: but it would be murder; and I wish to save Danceny. I therefore beg, Viscount, you will use your endeavours that he may not come near his Cecilia, as he has got the disagreeable custom of calling her. A first liking has always an inconceivable power. If he was now to see her, I could not be certain of anything, especially during my absence. At my return, I shall take everything on myself, and will answer for the success.

I had some notion of taking the young man with me; but sacrificed my inclination to my usual prudence: moreover, I should have been apprehensive he might make some observations on Belleroche and me; an idea even of such a thing would distract me; as I wish to offer myself immaculate to his imagination: such as one should be to be worthy of him.