Letter 125

Viscount de Valmont to the Marchioness de Merteuil

At last this haughty woman is conquered, who dared think she could resist me.⁠—She is mine⁠—totally mine.⁠—She has nothing left to grant since yesterday.

My happiness is so great I cannot appreciate it, but am astonished at the unknown charm I feel:⁠—Is it possible virtue can augment a woman’s value even at the time of her weakness?⁠—Avaunt such puerile ideas⁠—don’t we every day meet resistance more or less feigned at the first conquest? Yet I never experienced the charm I mean; it is not love⁠—for although I have had fits of weakness with this amazing woman, which very much resembled that pusillanimous passion, I ever subdued them and returned to my first rules⁠—if even the scene of yesterday should have led me farther than I intended; had I partook for a moment of the intoxication I raised, that transitory illusion would have been now evaporated, yet still the same charm remains⁠—I own I should be pleased to indulge it, if it did not give me some uneasiness:⁠—At my age must I then be mastered like a schoolboy by an unknown and involuntary sentiment?⁠—I must first oppose and then examine it.

Perhaps I already see into the cause⁠—the idea pleases me⁠—I wish it may be true.

Among the multitude of women with whom I have played the part of a lover, I never met any who were not as well inclined to surrender as I was to persuade them⁠—I used even to call those prudes who met me but halfway, in contrast to so many others, whose provoking defence is intended as a cloak to their first advances.

But here I found an unfavourable prepossession against me, afterwards confirmed on the report and advice of a penetrating woman who hated me; a natural, excessive timidity, fortified with genuine modesty; a strong attachment to virtue under the powerful direction of religion, and who had already been married two years⁠—an unsullied character⁠—the result of those causes, which all tended to screen her from my solicitations.

It is not any way similar to my former adventures:⁠—a mere capitulation more or less advantageous, which is easier to be acquired than to be vain of; but this is a complete victory, purchased by a hard campaign, and decided by skilful maneuvers, therefore it is not at all surprising, this success, solely my own acquisition, should be dear to me; and the increase of pleasure I experienced in my triumph, which I still feel, is no more than the soft impression of a sentiment of glory. I indulge this thought, as it saves me the humiliation of harbouring the idea of my being dependent on the very slave I have brought under subjection, as well as the disagreeable thoughts of not having within myself the plenitude of my happiness, or that the power of calling it forth into energy and making me fully enjoy it, should be revived for this or that woman exclusively of any other.

Those judicious reflections shall regulate my conduct on this important occasion and you may depend, I shall never suffer myself to be so captivated, but that I may at pleasure break those new bands:⁠—Already I begin to talk of a rapture, and have not yet informed you how I acquired the powers⁠—proceed and you will see to what dangers wisdom exposes itself endeavouring to assist folly⁠—I studied my conversation and the answers to them with so much attention, I hope to be able to give you both with the utmost exactitude.

You will observe by the annexed copies of letters,29 what kind of mediator I fixed on to gain me admittance with my fair one, with what zeal the holy man exercised himself to reunite us; I must tell you also, I learned from an intercepted letter, according to custom, the dread the humiliation of being left, had a little disconcerted the austere devotee’s prudence, and stuffed her head and heart with ideas and sentiments which, though destitute of common sense, were nevertheless interesting⁠—After these preliminaries necessary to be related, yesterday, Thursday the 28th, the day appointed by my ingrate, I presented myself as a timid and repentant slave, to retire a successful conqueror.

It was six in the evening when I came to the fair recluse; for since her return, her gates were shut against everyone. She endeavoured to rise when I was announced; but her trembling knees being unable to support her, she was obliged to sit down immediately. The servant who had showed me in, having something to do in the apartment, she seemed impatient. This interval was taken up with the usual compliments. Not to lose a moment of so precious an opportunity, I examined the room carefully, and fixed my eye on the intended spot for my victory. I could have chose a more commodious one; for there was a sofa in the room: but I observed directly opposite to it a picture of the husband; and I own I was afraid with so strange a woman, a single glance, which accidentally she might cast on that side, would in an instant have destroyed a work of so much care. At last we were alone, and I entered on the business.

After relating in few words, I supposed Father Anselmus had informed her the motive of my visit, I lamented the rigorous treatment I received, and dwelt particularly on the contempt that had been shown. She made an apology, as I expected, and you also: but I grounded the proof on the diffidence and dread I had infused; on the scandalous flight in consequence of it, the refusal to answer my letters, or even receive them, etc. etc. As she was beginning a justification, which would have been very easy, I thought proper to interrupt her; and to compensate for this abrupt behaviour, I immediately threw in a flattery. “If such charms,” said I, “have made so deep an impression on my heart, so many virtues have made as great a one on my mind. Seduced by the desire of imitating them, I had the vanity to think myself worthy of them. I do not reproach you for thinking otherwise; but I punish myself for my error.” As she preserved a silent perplexity I went on. “I wish, Madam, to be justified in your sight, or obtain your pardon for all the wrongs you suppose me to have been guilty of; that I may, at least, terminate in tranquillity a life which is no longer supportable since you refuse to embellish it.”

To this, however, she endeavoured to reply. “My duty would not permit me.”⁠—The difficulty to finish the fib which duty required, did not allow her to end the sentence. I replied in the most tender strain, “Is it true, then, it was me you fled from?⁠—this retreat was necessary⁠—and that you should put me from you⁠—It must be so⁠—and forever⁠—I should⁠—” It is unnecessary to tell you, during this short dialogue, the tender prude’s voice was oppressed, and she did not raise her eyes.

I thought it was time to animate this languishing scene; and rising in a pet⁠—“Your resolution, Madam,” said I, “has given me back mine. We will part; and part forever: you will have leisure to congratulate yourself on your work.” Surprised with this reproaching tone, she should have replied⁠—“The resolution you have taken,” said she⁠—“Is only the effect of despair,” I replied with passion. “It is your pleasure I should be miserable⁠—you shall have the full extent of your wish. I wish you to be happy.” Here the voice began to announce a strong emotion: then falling at her knees, in the dramatic style, I exclaimed, “Ah, cruel woman! Can there be happiness for me that you do not partake? How then shall I find it, when absent from you? Oh, never, never!”⁠—I own, in abandoning myself thus, I depended much on the assistance of tears; but, whether for want of disposition, or, perhaps, only the continual, painful attention my mind was engaged in, I could not weep. Fortunately I recollected, all means are equally good to subdue a woman; and it would be sufficient to astonish her by a grand movement, to make a deep and favourable impression. I therefore made terror supply the place of absent sensibility; changing only my tone, but still preserving my posture, I continued, “Yes, at your feet I swear I will die or possess you.” As I pronounced those last words our eyes met. I don’t know what the timid woman saw, or thought she saw, in mine; but she rose with a terrified countenance, and escaped from my arms, which surrounded her waist: it is true, I did not attempt to hold her; for I have often observed, those scenes of despair became ridiculous when pushed with too much vivacity or lengthened out, and left no resource but what was really tragic, of which I had not the least idea. Whilst she fled from me, I added in a low disastrous tone, but so that she might hear, “Well then, death.”

I rose silently, and casting a wild look on her, as if by chance, nevertheless observed her unsteady deportment, her quick respiration, her contracted muscles, her trembling, half-raised arms; everything gave me sufficient evidence, the effect was such as I wished to produce: but as in love nothing can be brought to issue at a distance, and we were pretty far asunder, it was necessary to draw nearer. To attain which, I assumed, as soon as possible, an apparent tranquillity, proper to calm the effects of this violent agitation, without weakening the impression. My transition was:⁠—“I am very miserable. I only wished to live for your happiness, and I have disturbed it:”⁠—then with a composed but constrained air;⁠—“Forgive me, Madam; little used to the rage of passions, I do not know how to suppress their violence. If I am wrong in giving way to them, I beg you will remember it shall be the last time. Compose yourself; I entreat you compose yourself.” During this long discourse, I drew near insensibly. “If you wish I should be calm,” replied the terrified fair, “do you then be calm.” “I will then, I promise you,” said I; and in a weaker tone, “If the effort is great, it ought not at least to be long: but I came to return your letters. I request you will take them. This afflicting sacrifice is the only one remaining; let me have nothing to weaken my resolution.” Then drawing from my pocket the precious collection⁠—“Here is the deceitful deposit of your friendship: it made this life supportable; take it back, and give the signal that is to separate us forever.” Here the timid lover gave way to her tender grief⁠—“But, M. de Valmont, what is the matter? What do you mean? Is not your proceeding today your own voluntary act? Is it not the result of your own reflections? And is it not they have approved this necessary step, in compliance with my duty?” I replied, “Well, this step decides mine.”⁠—“And what is that?”⁠—“The only one that can put an end to my sufferings, by parting me from you.”⁠—“But answer me what is it.”⁠—Then pressing her in my arms without any opposition, and observing from the neglect of decency, how strong and powerful her emotions were, I exclaimed, “Adorable woman! you can’t conceive the love you inspire. You will never know how much you was adored, and how much dearer this passion was than my existence. May all your days be fortunate and peaceful! May they be decorated with that happiness you have deprived me of! At least, repay this sincere wish with one sigh, one tear; and be assured, the last sacrifice I make will not be the most painful to my heart. Adieu!”

Whilst I spoke, I felt her heart throb violently; her countenance altered; her tears almost suffocated her. Then I resolved to feign retreat: but she held me strongly.⁠—“No, hear what I have to say,” said she, eagerly. I answered, “Let me go.”⁠—“You shall hear me.”⁠—“I must fly from you; I must.”⁠—“No,” she exclaimed; then sunk, or rather swooned in my arms. I was still doubtful of so happy an issue, seemed much terrified, and still led, or rather carried her to the place I had marked out for the field of glory. She did not recover herself until she was submitted, and given up to her happy conqueror.

So far, my lovely friend, you will perceive a methodical neatness, which I am sure will give you pleasure. You will also observe, I did not swerve in the least from the true principles of this war, which we have often remarked bore so near a resemblance to the other. Rank me, then, with the Turennes or the Fredericks. I forced the enemy to fight who was temporising. By skilful maneuvers, gained the advantage of the ground and dispositions; contrived to lull the enemy into security, to come up with him more easily in his retreat; struck him with terror before we engaged. I left nothing to chance; only a great advantage, in case of success; or a certainty of resources, in case of a defeat. Finally, the action did not begin till I had secured a retreat, by which I might cover and preserve all my former conquests. What more could be done? But I begin to fear I have enervated myself, as Hannibal did with the delights of Capua.

I expected so great an event would not pass over without the customary tears and grief. First I observed somewhat more of confusion and recollection than is usual, which I attributed to her state of prudery. Without paying much attention to those slight differences, which I imagined merely local, I followed the beaten road of consolation; fully persuaded, as commonly happens, the sensations would fly to the assistance of sentiment, that one act would prevail more than all my speeches, which I did not, however, neglect: but I met with a resistance really tremendous: less for its excess, than the form under which it appeared. Only think of a woman sitting stiff and motionless, with unalterable features; seeming divested of the faculties of thinking, hearing, or understanding, from whose eyes tears flowed without effort. Such was M. de Tourvel during my conversation. If I endeavoured to recall her attention by a caress, or even the most innocent gesture, terror immediately followed this apparent apathy, accompanied with suffocation, convulsions, sobs, and shrieks by intervals, but without a word articulated. Those fits returned several times, and always stronger; the last was even so violent, I was much frightened, and thought I had gained a fruitless victory. I returned to the usual commonplace phrases⁠—“What do you then regret you have made me the happiest man on earth?” At those words this adorable woman turned to me; her countenance, although still a little wild, had yet recovered its celestial expression. “The happiest?” said she.⁠—You may guess my reply. “You are happy, then?”⁠—I renewed my protestations. “Have I made you happy?”⁠—I added praises, and everything tender. Whilst I was speaking, all her members were stilled; she fell back softly in her chair, giving up a hand I ventured to take. “This idea relieves and consoles me,” said she.

You well believe, being thus brought back in the right road, I quitted it no more; it certainly was the best, and, perhaps, the only one. When I made a second attempt, I met some resistance; what had happened before made me more circumspect: but having called on my idea of happiness for assistance, I soon experienced its favourable influence. “You are right,” replied the tender creature, “I can support my existence no longer than it contributes to your happiness. I devote myself entirely to you. From this moment I give myself up to you. You shall no more experience regret or refusal from me.” Thus with artless or sublime candour did she deliver her person and charms, increasing my happiness by sharing it. The intoxication was complete and reciprocal: for the first time mine survived the pleasure. I quitted her arms, only to throw myself at her feet, and swear eternal love. To own the truth, I spoke as I thought. Even after we parted, I could not shake off the idea; and I found it necessary to make extraordinary efforts to divert my attention from her.

I wish you were now here, to counterpoise the charm of the action by the reward: but I hope I shall not lose by waiting; for I look on the happy arrangement I proposed in my last letter as a settled point between us. You see I dispatch business as I promised: my affairs will be so forward, I shall be able to give you some part of my time. Quickly get rid, then, of the stupid Belleroche, and leave the whining Danceny to be engrossed solely by me. How is your time taken up in the country? You don’t even answer my letters. Do you know, I have a great mind to scold you? Only prosperity is apt to make us indulgent. Besides, I can’t forget ranging myself again under your banner. I must submit to your little whim. Remember, however, the new lover will not surrender any of the ancient rights of the friend.

Adieu, as formerly!⁠—Adieu, my angel! I send you the softest kisses of love.