Letter 76

Viscount de Valmont to the Marchioness de Merteuil

I cannot comprehend you; you were either in a whimsical mood, or, when you wrote, in a very dangerous fit of madness. If I did not know you very well, my charming friend, I should be really alarmed; and, colour it as you will, I should have a great deal of reason.

Vainly do I read, and read again, your letter. I can’t conceive you; for it is impossible to take your letter in the style it is couched; what did you then mean to say? Did you only mean there was no occasion to give oneself so much trouble against so despicable an enemy: if so, you are wrong. Prevan is really amiable; he is more so than you imagine; and has, in a peculiar manner, that happy talent of interesting one much about love affairs, which he introduces on every occasion, and in all companies. Few women can avoid the snare of replication, because, as they all have pretensions to artifice, none will lose the opportunity of displaying it. And I need not tell you that a woman, who consents to talk of love, commonly ends with being entrapped, or, at least, acts as if she was. He refines on this method, which he has even brought to a science, by often introducing the women themselves as witnesses of their own defeat: this I aver, and can prove.

I was let into the secret only at second hand; for I never was intimate with Prevan. We were six in company: the Countess de P⁠⸺, thinking herself amazingly fine, and even possessing the talent of keeping up a general conversation well, related to us minutely the manner she had surrendered to Prevan, with all circumstances. She gave the recital with so much composure, that she was not even disconcerted at a smile which escaped us all at the same time. I shall never forget, one of us, to excuse himself, feigned to doubt what she said, or rather what she related; she gravely answered, that none of us could be so well informed as she; and she was not even afraid to call upon Prevan, and ask him whether she had omitted a single circumstance.

This I think sufficient to call him a very dangerous man: but is it not enough for you, Marchioness, he is handsome, very handsome, as you say? Or that he should make on you one of those attacks that you are sometimes fond of rewarding, for no other motive, but because you think it well carried on? Or that you would think it pleasing to surrender for any reason whatever? Or⁠—but it is impossible for me to guess the infinity of whims which rule the minds of women, and by which alone you resemble your sex. Now you are informed of the danger, I have no doubt; but you may easily avoid it; and yet it was necessary to put you on your guard. I return to my text; what do you mean to say?

If it is not a banter on Prevan, besides its being very long, it is not to me it can be useful; it is in the face of the world you must make him ridiculous; and I renew my instances to you on that subject.

Ah! I believe I have discovered the enigma. Your letter is a prophecy; not what you will do, but what he will believe you ready to do, at the moment of his disgrace. I approve this project well enough; however, it requires great management. You know, as well as I do, it is absolutely the same thing to the public, whether you are connected with a man, or receive his addresses, unless the man is a fool, which Prevan is not by any means; if he can only save appearances, he will brag, and everything will be greedily swallowed. Fools will believe him, others will seem to believe him; and then what becomes of your resources? I am really alarmed; not that I have any doubt of your abilities; but the best swimmers are often drowned.

I think myself no novice in the ways of debauchery. I have discovered a hundred, nay, a thousand. My mind is often engaged in thinking how a woman could escape me, and I never could find out the possibility. Even yourself, my charming friend, whose conduct is a masterpiece; I have often thought your success was more owing to good fortune than good management.

After all, I am, perhaps, seeking a reason where there is none; and I am astonished I have been for this hour past treating seriously a subject that you certainly mean as a jest. How you will laugh at me! but be it so; let us talk of something else. I am wrong; it must be the same subject; always of women to be had or ruined, and often of both.

I have here wherewithal, as you justly remark, to give me employment in both capacities, but not with equal facility. I foresee revenge will outstrip love. The little Volanges is ready, I will answer for her; all now depends upon the opportunity which I take upon me to provide: but not so with Madame de Tourvel; this woman distracts me. I have no conception of her. I have a hundred proofs of her love; but I have also a thousand of her resistance. Upon my word, I am afraid she will escape me.

The first effect that my return produced gave me more flattering expectations. You may guess, I was willing to judge for myself; and to be certain of seeing her first emotions, I took care not to be announced by any formality, calculating my journey so as to arrive while they were at dinner, and fell from the clouds like an opera divinity.

Having made a sufficient noise coming in to draw their attention to me, I could observe with the same glance my old aunt’s joy, Madame de Volanges’ vexation, and the confused pleasure of her daughter. My fair one sat with her back to the door. Being employed at that instant cutting up something, she did not even turn her head. I addressed myself to Madame de Rosemonde; and at the first word, the tender devotee hearing my voice, gave a scream, in which I thought there was more of love than surprise or terror. I was then got so far into the room as to be able to observe her countenance; the tumult of her soul, the struggle of ideas and sentiments, were strongly depicted in twenty different forms on it. I seated myself at table close by her; she did not know what she said or did. She endeavoured to keep on eating; but it was in vain. At length, in less than a quarter of an hour, her pleasure and her embarrassment overpowering her, she thought it best to beg leave to retire from table, under a pretence of wanting a little air. Madame de Volanges wanted to accompany her; the tender prude would not permit it: too happy, doubtless, to find a pretence to be alone, and give herself up without restraint to the soft emotions of her heart.

I dispatched my dinner as soon as possible. The dessert was scarcely served, when the infernal Volanges, probably with a design to prejudice me, got up to follow the charming woman. I foresaw this project, but disappointed her. I feigned to take this particular motion for a general one; and rising at the same time, the little Volanges and the curate of the place followed our example, so that Madame de Rosemonde was left at table with the old Commander de T⁠⸺, who both also took the resolution to follow us. We all went then to join my fair one, whom we found in the arbour near the castle; and as she wanted solitude more than a walk, she chose rather to return with us, than to oblige us to stay with her. As soon as I was certain that Madame de Volanges would not have an opportunity of speaking to her alone, I began to think of executing your orders, and exert myself for the interest of your pupil. When coffee was over, I went up to my apartment, entered the other’s to reconnoitre the ground, and formed my dispositions to ensure the correspondence of the little one. After this first step, I wrote a few words to inform her of it; and to demand her confidence, I tacked my note to Danceny’s letter; returned to the saloon, where I found my fair one stretched upon a sofa at full length, in a most delicious abandonment.

This sight rousing my desires, animated my looks. I knew they should be tender, yet urgent; and placed myself in such a manner, as to be able to employ them successfully. Their first essay obliged my celestial prude to cast down her beautiful modest eyes. I viewed for some time this angelic figure; then running over her whole frame, amused myself with considering the outlines and forms of her person through the light dress she wore. After gazing on her from head to foot, my eyes went back from the feet to the head⁠—my charming friend, the soft look was fixed on me, but she instantly cast her eyes down again; being desirous of bringing them back, I turned my eyes from her. Then was established between us that silent convention, the first treaty of timid lovers, who to satisfy the mutual want of seeing each other, permit soft looks to succeed until they mingle together.

Fully satisfied that my charmer was entirely taken up with this new delight, I took upon me to watch for our mutual safety: but when I was assured that a pretty lively conversation took off the attention of the company, I endeavoured to make the eyes freely speak their own language. At first I darted some glances, but with so much reserve, that modesty itself could not be alarmed at it; and to make the lovely timid woman easier, I appeared as much embarrassed as she; by little and little, our eyes accustomed to meet, fixed themselves a little longer, and at length did not quit each other; I perceived in hers that soft languishing air, happy presage to love and desire: but it was only for a moment; and she soon recovered herself; she changed her looks and position with some confusion.

As I determined she should have no doubt of my remarking her different emotions, I started suddenly, asking her, with a frightened look, if she was indisposed. Immediately the company assembled round her. I let them all pass before me; and as the little Volanges, who was working tapestry near a window, took some time in quitting her frame, I seized the opportunity to give her Danceny’s letter.

I was a little distance from her, and threw the letter in her lap. She really did not know what to do. You would have laughed to see her surprise and embarrassment; yet I did not laugh, lest so much awkwardness should betray us: but a glance and a frown, made her comprehend that she was to put it in her pocket.

The remainder of the day had nothing interesting. What has happened since, will, perhaps, bring on events that will please you, at least, as to what regards your pupil; but it is better to employ one’s time in executing than in relating them: moreover, this is the eighth page I have written, and I am a good deal fatigued; so adieu.

It will be unnecessary to tell you, that the little thing has answered Danceny.16 I have also had a letter from my fair one, to whom I wrote the day after my arrival. I send you both letters. You will read them, or let it alone; for those perpetual tiresome repetitions, of which I begin to be disgusted, must be very insipid for a person unconcerned.

Once more, adieu! I still love you much: but I beg, if you speak again of Prevan, that it may be in intelligible language.