Letter 51

The Marchioness de Merteuil to Viscount Valmont

Upon my word, Viscount, you are intolerable; you treat me with as little ceremony as if I was your mistress. Do you know you will make me angry, and that I am this instant in a most horrible passion? so you are to meet Danceny tomorrow morning? you know how important it is I should see you before that interview; yet, without giving yourself any farther trouble, you make me wait the whole day, while you run about I know not where. You are the cause of my having been indecently late at Madame de Volanges’, which all the old women thought exceedingly strange; I was under the necessity of amusing them the rest of the evening, to keep them in temper; for one must be on good terms with old women; they decide on the reputation of the young ones.

Now it is one o’clock; and instead of going to bed as I ought, I must sit up to write you a long letter, which will add to my drowsiness by its disagreeable subject. You are very lucky that I have not time to scold you. Do not imagine, however, I forgive you: you have only to thank my hurry. Hear me, then: with a little address, you may, tomorrow, obtain Danceny’s confidence. The opportunity is favourable: it is that of distress. The little girl has been at confession, has told all like a child, and has been since so terrified with the fear of hell, that she is absolutely determined on a rupture. She related to me all her little scruples in a manner that I am confident her head is turned. She showed me that letter, declaring her breaking off, which is in the true style of fanatical absurdity. She prattled for an hour to me without a word of common sense, and yet she embarrassed me; for you will conceive I could not risk to open my mind to such an idiot.

I observe, however, amidst all this nonsense, that she is not the less in love with her Danceny; I even took notice of one of those resources which love always supplies, and to which the girl is curiously enough a dupe. Tormented with the thoughts of her lover, and the fear of being damned for those thoughts, she has taken it into her head to pray to God to make her forget him; and as she renews this prayer every hour in the day, she is thus incessantly thinking of him.

To anyone more formed than Danceny, this little circumstance would be more favourable than impropitious; but the youth is such a Celadon, that unless we assist him, it will take him so much time to conquer the slightest obstacles, that we shall not have time enough to carry our project into effect.

You are quite right, it is a pity, and I am as sorry as you that he should be the hero of this adventure; but what can be done? What is past is not to be recalled, and it’s all your fault. I desired to see his answer; it was wretched stuff. He gives her numberless reasons to prove that an involuntary passion is not criminal; as if it became involuntary in the moment of desiring to resist it. This idea is so simple, that it even struck the girl herself. He laments his misfortune in a manner somewhat pathetic; but his grief is so cold, and yet bears the appearance of being so fixed and sincere, I think it impossible that a woman, who has an opportunity of driving a man to despair with so small a risk, should not gratify the whim. He informs her he is not a monk, as the little one imagined; and that is certainly the best part of his letter: for, were a woman absurd enough to be seized with a propensity to monastic love, the gentlemen who are Knights of Malta would not deserve the preference.

However, instead of throwing away time in arguments which would have committed me, and perhaps without persuasion, I approved the scheme of breaking off; but told her in such cases it was more genteel to declare the reasons in conversation, than write them; that it was also usual to return the letters and other trifles that might have been received; and thus seeming to enter into her views, I determined her to give Danceny a meeting. We immediately concluded the method of bringing it about; and I undertook to prevail upon her mother to go on a visit without her; and tomorrow evening is the decisive hour of our meeting. Danceny is apprised of it. For God’s sake, if you possibly can, prevail on this lovely swain to be less languid; and tell him, since he must be told everything, that the true method of overcoming scruples, is to leave nothing to lose, to those who are subject to scruples: that this ridiculous scene may not be renewed, I did not omit raising doubts in her mind, on the discretion of confessors; and I assure you she repays me the fright she put me into, by her present apprehensions, lest her confessor should tell her mother all. I hope, after I have had one or two more conferences with her on this subject, she will not be so ridiculous to tell her foolish nonsense to the first comer.12

Adieu, Viscount! Seize on Danceny, give him his lesson; it would be shameful we should not do as we pleased with two children. If we meet more difficulty than we first imagined in this business, let us reflect to animate our zeal; you, that your object is Madame de Volanges’ daughter; and I, that she is intended to be Gercourt’s bride. Adieu!