Letter 21

From Viscount Valmont to the Marchioness de Merteuil

I have at length, my dear friend, made an advance, and one of such importance, that though it has not led to the full completion of my wishes, convinces me I am in the right road, and dispels my dread of having gone astray. I have at last made my declaration of love; and although the most obstinate silence was preserved, I have obtained an answer of the most flattering, unequivocal nature; yet, not to anticipate matters, but to recur to their origin: you may remember a spy was appointed over my proceedings; well, I determined this shameful treatment should be converted into the means of public edification; and I laid my plan thus: I ordered my confident to look out for some distressed person in the neighbourhood, who wanted relief. This you know was not a very difficult discovery. Yesterday evening he informed me that the effects of a whole family were to be seized on as this morning, for payment of taxes. I first took care to be certain that there was neither woman nor girl in the house, whose age or appearance could raise any suspicion of my intended scheme. When I was satisfied of this, I mentioned at supper that I intended going a shooting next day. Here I must do my Presidente justice; she certainly felt some remorse for the orders she had given; and not being able to overcome her curiosity, she determined to oppose my design. It would be exceedingly hot; I should probably injure my health; I should kill nothing, and fatigue myself in vain; and during this conversation, her eyes, which spoke a plainer language than she perhaps intended, told me she wished those simple reasons should pass current. You may guess I did not assent to them, and even was proof against a smart invective upon shooting and sportsmen; I held my ground even against a little cloud of discontent that covered her celestial face during the rest of the evening. I was at one time afraid she had revoked her orders, and that her delicacy would mar all. I did not reflect sufficiently on the strength of woman’s curiosity, and was mistaken; my huntsman cleared up my doubts however that night, and I went to bed quite satisfied.

At daylight I rose, and set out. I was scarcely fifty yards from the castle, when I perceived my spy at my heels. I began to beat about, directing my course across the fields towards the village I had in view; my amusement on the way was making the fellow scamper; who, not daring to quit the high road, was often obliged to run over treble the ground I went. My exertions to give him exercise enough, put me in a violent heat, and I seated myself at the foot of a tree. And would you believe it, he had the insolence to slide behind a thicket not twenty yards from, me, and seat himself also. I once had a great inclination to send him the contents of my piece, which, though only loaded with small shot, would have cured his curiosity; but I recollected he was not only useful, but even necessary to my designs, and that saved him. On my arrival at the village, all was bustle; I went on, and inquired what was the matter, which was immediately related to me. I ordered the collector to be sent for; and, giving way to my generous compassion, I nobly paid down fifty-six livres, for which five poor creatures were going to be reduced to straw and misery. On this trifling act, you can’t conceive the chorus of blessings the bystanders joined in around me⁠—what grateful tears flowed from the venerable father of the family, and embellished this patriarchal figure, which a moment before was hideously disfigured with the wild stamp of despair! While contemplating this scene, a younger man, leading a woman with two children, advancing hastily towards me, said to them, “Let us fall on our knees before this image of God;” and I was instantly surrounded by the whole family prostrate at my feet.

I must acknowledge my weakness; my eyes were full, and I felt within me an involuntary but exquisite emotion. I was amazed at the pleasure that is felt in doing a benevolent act; and I’m inclined to think, those we call virtuous people, have not so much merit as is ascribed to them. Be that as it may, I thought it fit to pay those poor people for the heartfelt satisfaction I had received. I had ten louis d’ors in my purse, which I gave them; here acknowledgments were repeated, but not equally pathetic: the relief of want had produced the grand, the true effect; the rest was the mere consequence of gratitude and surprise for a superfluous gift.

In the midst of the unmerited benedictions of this family, I had some resemblance to the hero of a drama in the denouement of a play. Remark that the faithful spy was observable in the crowd. My end was answered: I disengaged myself from them, and returned to the castle.

Everything considered, I applaud myself for my invention. This woman is well worth all my solicitude; and it will one day or other prove to be my title to her: having, as I may say, thus paid for her beforehand, I shall have a right to dispose of her at my will, without having anything to reproach myself with.

I had almost forgot to tell you, that, to make the most of everything, I begged the good people to pray for the success of my undertakings. You shall now see whether their prayers have not already been in some measure efficacious. But I’m called to supper, and I should be too late for the post, if I did not now conclude. I am sorry for it, as the sequel is the best. Adieu, my lovely friend! You rob me a moment of the pleasure of seeing her.