Letter 23

The Viscount de Valmont to the Marchioness de Merteuil

I broke off at our return to the castle. Now to my narrative: I had scarce time to dress and return to the saloon, where my charmer was making tapestry, whilst the curate read the gazette to my old aunt. I placed myself near the frame. Softer looks than usual, almost bordering on fondness, soon informed me the spy had made a report of his business; and, in fact, the lovely woman could no longer keep the secret; being under no apprehension of interrupting the good pastor, whose utterance was perfectly in the pulpit style. I have also some news to tell, said she, and immediately related my adventure with an exactitude that did honour to her historian’s accuracy. You may guess how my modesty displayed itself; but who can stop a woman’s tongue, who unconsciously praises the man she loves? I determined to let her go on. One would have imagined she was preaching the panegyric of some saint, whilst I, not without a degree of hope, attentively observed every circumstance that bore an appearance propitious to love: her animated look, free action, and above all, the tone of her voice, which, by a sensible alteration, betrayed the emotion of her soul. She had scarcely finished, when Madame de Rosemonde said, “Come, my dear nephew, let me embrace you.” I soon concluded the lovely panegyrist could not offer an objection to my saluting her in turn. She attempted to fly; but I soon seized her in my arms; and far from being able to resist, she had scarce power to support herself. The more I contemplate this woman, the more amiable she is. She hastened back to her frame, with every appearance of resuming her work, but in such confusion, that her hand shook, and at length obliged her to throw it aside.

After dinner, the ladies would visit the objects of my unaffected charity; I accompanied them; but I shall spare you the unentertaining narrative of this second scene of gratitude. My anxious heart, panting with the delightful remembrance of what had passed, made me hasten our return to the Castle. On the road, my lovely Presidente, more pensive than usual, spoke not a word; and I, entirely absorbed in the means of employing the events of the day to advantage, was also silent. Madame de Rosemonde alone spoke, and could receive but few and short answers. We must have tired her out, which was my design, and it succeeded to my wish. When we alighted she retired to her apartment, and left my fair one and me tête-à-tête in a saloon, poorly lighted: gentle darkness, thou encourager of timid love!

I had not much trouble to direct our conversation to my object. The fervour of my lovely preacher was more useful than my own skill. “When the heart is so inclined to good,” said she, glancing a most enchanting look, “how is it possible it should at the same time be prone to vice?” “I don’t deserve,” replied I, “either this praise or censure; and I can’t conceive how, with so much good sense as you possess, you have not yet discovered my character. Were my candour even to hurt me in your opinion, you are still too deserving to withhold my confidence from you. You’ll find all my errors proceed from an unfortunate easiness of disposition. Surrounded by profligates, I contracted their vices; I have, perhaps, even had a vanity in excelling them. Here too the sport of example, impelled by the model of your virtues, and without hope of ever attaining them, I have however endeavoured to follow you: and, perhaps, the act you value so highly today would lose its merit, if you knew the motive!” (You see, my charming friend, how nearly I approached to the truth.) “It is not to me those unfortunate people are obliged, for the relief they have experienced. Where you imagined you saw a laudable act, I only sought the means to please. I was only, if I must so say, the feeble agent of the divinity I adore!” (Here she would have interrupted me, but I did not give her time.) “Even at this instant,” added I, “it is weakness alone extracts this secret from me. I had resolved not to acquaint you of it; I had placed my happiness in paying to your virtues, as well as your charms, a pure and undiscoverable homage. But, incapable of deceit, with such an example of candour before me, I will not have to reproach myself with any vile dissimulation. Imagine not that I dare offend you by a criminal presumption. I know I shall be miserable; but I shall cherish my sufferings: they are the proofs of the ardour of my love:⁠—at your feet, in your bosom, I will deposit my grievances; there will I gather strength to bear up against new sufferings; there I shall meet compassion, mixed with goodness and consolation; for I know you’ll pity me. O thou whom I adore! hear me, pity me, help me.” All this time was I on my knees, squeezing her hands in mine; but she, disengaging them suddenly, and covering her eyes with them, exclaimed, “What a miserable wretch am I!” and burst into tears. Luckily I had worked myself up to such a degree that I wept also; and taking her hands again, I bathed them with my tears. This precaution was very necessary; for she was so much engaged with her own anguish, that she would not have taken notice of mine, if I had not discovered this expedient to impress her with it. This also gave me leisure to contemplate her charming form⁠—her attractions received additional embellishment from her tears. My imagination began to be fired, and I was so overpowered, that I was tempted to seize the opportunity!

How weak we are, how much governed by circumstances! since I myself, forgetful of my ultimate design, risked losing, by an untimely triumph, the charms of a long conflict, and the pleasing struggles that precede a difficult defeat; and hurried away by an impetuosity excusable only in a raw youth, was near reducing Madame de Tourvel’s conqueror to the paltry triumph of one woman more on his list. My purpose is, that she should yield, yet combat; that without having sufficient force to conquer, she should have enough to make a resistance; let her feel her weakness, and be compelled to own her defeat. The sorry poacher takes aim at the game he has surprised⁠—the true huntsman runs it fairly down. Is not this an exalted idea? But perhaps by this time I should have only had the regret of not having followed it, if chance had not seconded my prudence.

A noise of someone coming towards the saloon struck us. Madame de Tourvel started in a fright, took a candle, and went out. There was no opposing her. It was only a servant. When I was certain who it was, I followed her. I had gone but a few steps, when, whether her fears or her discovering me made her quicken her pace, she flung herself into, rather than entered, her apartment, and immediately locked the door. Seeing the key inside, I did not think proper to knock; that would have been giving her an opportunity of too easy resistance. The happy simple thought of looking through the keyhole struck me, and I beheld this adorable woman bathed in tears, on her knees, praying most fervently. What deity dared she invoke? Is there one so powerful as the god of love? In vain does she now seek for foreign aid; I am henceforward the arbiter of her fate.

Thinking I had done enough for one day, I retired to my apartment, and sat down to write to you. I had hopes of seeing her again at supper; but she sent word she was gone to bed indisposed. Madame de Rosemonde proposed to go to see her in her room; but the arch invalid pretended a headache, that prevented her from seeing anyone. You may guess I did not sit up long after supper, and had my headache also. After I withdrew, I wrote her a long letter, complaining of her rigour, and went to bed, resolved to deliver it this morning. I slept badly, as you perceive by the date of this letter. I rose and read my epistle over again, which does not please me: it expresses more ardour than love, and more chagrin than grief. It must be altered when I return to a sufficient degree of composure.

It is now dawn of day, and I hope the freshness of the morning will bring on a little sleep. I return to bed; and whatever ascendant this woman may have over me, I promise you never to be so much taken up with her, as not to dedicate much of my thoughts to you. Adieu, my lovely friend.