Letter 79

The Viscount de Valmont to the Marchioness de Merteuil

I thought to have gone a-hunting this morning, but it is most horrible weather. I have no book to read but a new romance that would tire a boarding-school girl. We shall not breakfast these two hours; therefore, notwithstanding my long letter of yesterday, I will still chat with you, and am confident you will not think me tedious, for I will entertain you concerning the very handsome Prevan.

So you know nothing at all about this famous adventure which separated the inseparables. I would venture to lay a wager, you will recollect it at the first word. I will give it you, however, since you desire it.

You may remember all Paris was astonished, three women equally handsome, equally possessing the same talents, and having the same pretensions, should remain so intimately connected since the time of their appearance in the world. At first it was imagined it proceeded from their great timidity; but soon surrounded by a number of gallants, whose homages they shared, they soon began to feel their consequence, by the eagerness and assiduity with which they were followed. Still their union became the stronger. One would have imagined the triumph of one was also that of the other two; however, everyone flattered himself that love would cause a rivalship. Those fair ones contended for the honour of the apple of discord; and I myself would have been a competitor, if the high reputation the Countess de ⸻ was in at that time would have permitted me to have committed an infidelity before I had obtained the consummation of my desires.

However, our three beauties that same carnival made their choice, as if in concert; and far from exciting any disturbance, it rendered their friendship more interesting by the charms of confidence.

The crowd of unfortunate pretenders coalesced with the envious women, and this scandalous constancy was submitted to public censure. Some promulgated, that in this society of the inseparables, so called at that time, the fundamental law was, that everything should be in common, that love even was subservient to the same law. Others asserted, that the three lovers were not exempt from rivals. Others went so far as to say, they had only been admitted for decency sake, and had only obtained a sinecure title.

These reports, whether true or false, had not their wished-for effect; the three couple perceived plainly they were undone if they separated at this period, therefore resolved to stem the torrent. The public, who soon tire of everything, shortly gave up a fruitless scandal. Carried away by their natural levity, they were engaged in other pursuits. Returning again to this, with their usual inconsequence, they changed their criticisms to commendations. As everything is here fashionable, the enthusiasm gained ground, and became a perfect rage, when Prevan undertook to verify those prodigies, and to fix the public opinion and his own on them.

He then laid himself out for those models of perfection. Being easily admitted into their society, from thence he drew a favourable omen; he very well knew, those who lived in a happy state were not so accessible; and soon perceived the so-much-boasted happiness, like that of kings, was more envied than desirable. He observed among those pretended inseparables, they began to seek for pleasures abroad, they were often absent; from thence he concluded, the ties of love or friendship were already relaxed or broken; that those of self-love and habit still preserved some kind of strength.

Still the women, whom necessity kept together, preserved the same appearance of intimacy among themselves: but the men, more free in their proceedings, found duties to fulfil, or business to do, which they always lamented, but nevertheless did not neglect; their meetings were thus scarcely ever complete.

This behaviour was very useful to the assiduous Prevan, who being, in course, at liberty with the widow of the day, alternately found an opportunity of offering the same homage to the three friends. He readily saw, if he made a choice, it would be his destruction; the shame of being discovered to be the first transgressor would deter the one who had the preference, and the vanity of the two others would render them mortal enemies of the new lover; they would not fail to display all their resentment against him, and jealousy would certainly recall a rival, who, perhaps, might be troublesome. Thus everything was attended with difficulty: but in his triple project, everything was made easy; each woman was indulgent, because she was interested, and each man, because he thought he was not.

Prevan was engaged to only one woman at that time. Fortunately for him, the sacrifice was not very difficult, as she became celebrated. The addresses of a great prince, which had been dexterously rejected, together with her being a foreigner, had drawn the attention of the court and town upon her. Her lover shared the honour, and made a very good use of it with his new mistresses; the only difficulty was, to carry on those three intrigues in front, whose march should be regulated by the movements of the slowest: and I have been assured by one of his confidents, that his greatest trouble was to retard one of them who was ripe a fortnight before the others.

At length the expected day came. Prevan, who had obtained the consent of them all, regulated their motions in the following manner: One of the husbands was absent, another was to go on a journey early the next morning, the third remained in town. The inseparable friends had agreed to sup with the future widow; but the new master would not suffer any of the old servants to be invited. The morning of the same day, he divided into three lots the fair foreigner’s letters. In the one he enclosed her picture; in the second, an amorous cipher she herself had drawn; the third enclosed a lock of her hair. Each received her share of sacrifice, and, in return, consented to send to their discarded lovers, letters of dismission.

That was doing a great deal; but yet was not enough. She whose husband was in town, was at liberty during the day only; and it was agreed, that a feigned indisposition should prevent her from supping with her friend, but the evening should be dedicated to Prevan; the night was granted by her whose husband was out of town; and daylight, the time the third husband was to set off, was the happy moment allotted for the other.

Prevan, who neglects nothing, flies to the fair foreigner’s in an ill humour, which soon spread, and leaves her, after an altercation which brought on a quarrel that ensured him leave of absence for twenty-four hours at least. His dispositions thus made, he returned home, to take some repose; but other affairs awaited him.

The letters of dismission had opened the eyes of the discarded lovers; none of them had the least doubt but that he was sacrificed to Prevan: and the vexation of being tricked, with the mortification of being discarded, they all three, as if in concert, but without communicating with each other, resolved to have satisfaction, and demanded it accordingly of their fortunate rival.

So that at his arrival he found three challenges, which he nobly accepted: but unwilling to lose the pleasure or reputation of this adventure, he fixed the meeting for the next morning, all three at the same hour and place, at one of the gates of the wood of Boulogne.

Night being come, he run his triple career with equal success; at least, he has since vaunted, that each of his new mistresses had received three times the pledges of his love. Here, as you may well imagine, the proofs are deficient. All that can be required from the impartial historian is to request the incredulous reader to remark, that vanity, and an exalted imagination can bring forth prodigies. Moreover, the, morning that was to follow so brilliant a night, seemed to excuse circumspection for the events of the day. The following facts have, however, a greater degree of certainty.

Prevan came punctually to the place appointed, where he found his three rivals, who were a little surprised at meeting each other, and perhaps, partly consoled on seeing the companions of their misfortunes. He accosted them with an affable and cavalier air, and made them the following speech, which has been faithfully related to me:

“Gentlemen,” said he, “meeting here together, you certainly guess that you have all the same subject of complaint against me. I am ready to give you satisfaction: but let chance decide between you, which of you three will be the first to require a satisfaction that you have all an equal right to. I have brought neither witness nor second. I had not any in the commission of the offence: I do not require any in the reparation.” Then, agreeable to his character of a gamester, “I know,” says he, “one seldom holds in three hands running; but be my fate what it will, the man has lived long enough who has gained the love of the women and the esteem of the men.”

Whilst his adversaries, astonished, silently looked on each other, and, perhaps, hurt at the indelicacy of this triple combat, which made the party very unequal, Prevan resumed, “I will not conceal from you, that last night has been a very fatiguing one. It would be but generous to give me time to recruit. I have given order to prepare a breakfast; do me the honour to accept of it. Let us breakfast together with good humour. One may fight for such trifles; but I don’t think it should have any effect on our spirits.”

The breakfast was accepted. It is said, Prevan never shone more. He not only had the address not to mortify his rivals, but even to persuade them, they all would have easily had the same success; and made them agree, that none would have let slip the opportunity no more than himself. Those facts being acknowledged, the matter was entirely settled; and before breakfast was over, they often repeated, that such women did not deserve that men of honour should quarrel about them. This idea brought on cordiality; the wine strengthened it; so that in a short time afterwards, an unreserved friendship succeeded rancour.

Prevan, who doubtless liked this denouement as well as the other, would not, however, lose his celebrity; and dexterously forming his projects to circumstances, “Really,” says he, “it is not of me, but of your faithless mistresses you should be revenged, and I will give you the opportunity. I already feel, as you do, an injury, which I shall soon share with you; for if neither of you have been able to fix the constancy of one, how can I expect that I can fix them all? Your quarrel then becomes my own. If you will sup with me tonight at my villa, I hope to give you your revenge.” They desired an explanation: but he answered with that tone of superiority, which the circumstances authorised him to take, “Gentlemen, I think I have already sufficiently shown you, that I know how to conduct matters; leave everything to me.” They all agreed; and having took leave of their new friend, separated until evening, to wait the effect of his promises.

He returned immediately to Paris, and, according to custom, waited on his new conquests; obtained a promise from each to take a tête-à-tête supper with him at his villa. Two of them started some small difficulties, but nothing was to be refused after such a night. He made his appointments at an hour’s distance from each other, to give him the time necessary for the maturing his scheme. After these preparations, he gave notice to the other conspirators, and they all impatiently expected their victims.

The first being arrived, Prevan alone received her, and with a seeming eagerness led her to the sanctuary, of which she imagined herself the goddess; then retiring on some slight pretence, was immediately replaced by the insulted lover.

You may guess the confusion. A woman who was not accustomed to adventures of this sort, rendered the triumph very easy. Every reproach that was omitted, was looked on as a favour; and the fugitive slave, again delivered to her first master, thought herself happy in the hope of pardon on resuming her chains. The treaty of peace was ratified in a more solitary place; and the void scene was alternately replaced by the other actors in pretty much the same manner, but with the same finale.

Still each of the women thought herself sola in this play. Their astonishment is not to be described, when, called to supper, the three couple reunited: but their confusion was at the summit, when Prevan made his appearance, and had the barbarity to make apologies to the ladies, which, by disclosing their secrets, convinced them fully how much they had been tricked.

They sat down, however, to table, and recovering from their confusion, the men gave themselves up to mirth, and the women yielded. It is true, their hearts were all full of rancour; but yet the conversation was nevertheless amorous; gaiety kindled desire, which brought additional charms; and this astonishing revel lasted till morning. At parting, the women had reason to think themselves forgiven: but the men, who preserved their resentment, entirely broke off the connection the next day; and not satisfied with having abandoned their fickle ladies, in revenge, published the adventure. Since, one has been shut up in a convent, and the other two are exiled to their estates in the country.

Thus you have heard Prevan’s history. And now I leave you to determine whether you will add to his fame, and be yoked to his triumphal chariot. Your letter has made me really uneasy; and I wait with the utmost impatience a more explicit and prudent answer to my last.

Adieu, my lovely friend! Be diffident of whimsical or pleasing ideas, which you are rather apt to be readily seduced by. Remember, that in the course you run, wit alone is not sufficient: that one single imprudent step becomes an irremediable evil: and permit prudent friendship to sometimes guide your pleasures.

Adieu! I love you notwithstanding, as much as if you was rational.