Letter 81

The Marchioness de Merteuil to the Viscount de Valmont

How your fears raise my compassion! How much they convince me of my superiority over you! So you want to teach me how to conduct myself! Ah, my poor Valmont! what a distance there is still between you and me! No; all the pride of your sex would not be sufficient to fill up the interval that is between us. Because you are not able to execute my schemes, you look upon them as impossible. It well becomes you, who are both proud and weak, to attempt to decide on my measures, and give your opinion of my resources. Upon my word, Viscount, your advice has put me out of temper. I cannot conceal it.

That to hide your incredible awkwardness with your Presidente, you should display as a triumph the having disconcerted for a moment this weak woman who loves you, I am not displeased. That you should have obtained from her a look, I smile, and pass over. That feeling, in spite of you, the insignificancy of your conduct, you should hope to deceive my attention, by flattering me with the sublime effort you have made to bring together two children, who are eager to see each other, and who, I will take upon me to say, are indebted to me only for this eagerness; that I will also pass over. That, lastly, you should plume yourself on those brilliant acts, to tell me in a magisterial tone, that it is better employ one’s time in executing their projects than in relating them; that vanity hurts me not; I forgive it. But that you should take upon you to imagine I stand in need of your prudence; I should go astray, if I did not pay a proper regard to your advice; that I ought to sacrifice a whim, or a pleasure, to it: upon my word, Viscount, that would be raising your pride too much for the confidence which I have condescended to place in you.

What have you then done, that I have not surpassed by a million of degrees? You have seduced, ruined several women: but what difficulties had you to encounter? What obstacles to surmount? Where is the merit that may be truly called yours? A handsome figure, the effect of mere chance; a gracefulness, which custom generally gives; some wit, it’s true, but which nonsense would upon occasion supply as well; a tolerable share of impudence, which is solely owing to the facility of your first successes. Those, I believe, are all your abilities, if I am not mistaken; for as to the celebrity which you have acquired, you will not insist, I presume, that I should set any great value on the art of publishing or seizing an opportunity of scandal.

As to your prudence and cunning, I do not speak of myself, but where is the woman that has not more of it than you? Your very Presidente leads you like a babe.

Believe me, Viscount, one seldom acquires the qualities one thinks unnecessary. As you engage without danger, you should act without precaution. As for you men, your defeats are only a success the less. In this unequal struggle, our good fortune is not to be losers; and your misfortune, not to be gainers. When I would even grant you equal talents with us, how much more must we surpass you by the necessity we are under of employing them continually?

Let us suppose, that you make use of as much address to overcome us, as we do to defend ourselves, or to surrender; you will, at least, agree with me, it becomes useless after you succeed. Entirely taken up with some new inclination, you give way to it without fear, without reserve; its duration is a matter of no consequence to you.

And really those reciprocal attachments, given and received, to speak in the love cant, you alone have it in your power to keep or break. Happy yet do the women think themselves, when in your fickleness you prefer secrecy to scandal, or are satisfied with a mortifying abandonment, and that you do not make the idol of today the victim of tomorrow.

But if an unfortunate woman should first feel the weight of her chains, what risks does she not run if she attempts to extricate herself from them, if she should dare to struggle against them? She trembling strives to put away the man her heart detests. If he persists, what was granted to love must be given to fear; her arms are open, while her heart is shut; her prudence should untie with dexterity those same bonds you would have broken. She is without resource, at the mercy of her enemy, if he is incapable of generosity, which is seldom to be met with in him; for if he is sometimes applauded for possessing it, he is never blamed for wanting it.

You will not, doubtless, deny those self-evident propositions. If, however, you have seen me disposing of opinions and events; subjecting those formidable men to my whims and fancies; taking from the one the will, and from the other the power, of annoying me. If I have discovered the secret, according to my roving taste, to detach the one, and reject the other, those dethroned tyrants becoming my slaves; if in the midst of those frequent revolutions, my reputation has been still preserved unsullied; should you not from thence have concluded, that, born to revenge my sex and command yours, I found out means unknown to any that went before me.

Ah, keep your advice and your fears for those infatuated women, who call themselves sentimental; whose exalted imaginations would make one believe, that Nature had placed their senses in their heads; who, having never reflected, blend incessantly the lover with love; who, possessed with that ridiculous illusion, believe that he alone with whom they have sought pleasure is the sole trustee of it, and, true to enthusiasm, have the same respect and faith for the priest that is due to the Divinity only.

Reserve your fears for those who, more vain than prudent, do not know when to consent or break off.

But tremble for those active, yet idle women, whom you call sentimental, on whom love so easily and powerfully takes possession; who feel the necessity of being taken up with it, even when they don’t enjoy it; and, giving themselves up without reserve to the fermentation of their ideas, bring forth those soft but dangerous letters, and do not dread confiding in the object that causes them these proofs of their weakness; imprudent creatures! who in their actual lover cannot see their future enemy.

But what have I to do in common with those inconsiderate women? When have you seen me depart from the rules I have laid down to myself, and abandon my own principles? I say, my own principles, and I speak it with energy, for they are not like those of other women, dealt out by chance, received without scrutiny, and followed through custom; they are the proofs of my profound reflections; I have given them existence, and I can call them my own work.

Introduced into the world whilst yet a girl, I was devoted by my situation to silence and inaction; this time I made use of for reflection and observation. Looked upon as thoughtless and heedless, paying little attention to the discourses that were held out to me, I carefully laid up those that were meant to be concealed from me.

This useful curiosity served me in the double capacity of instruction and dissimulation. Being often obliged to hide the objects of my attention from the eyes of those who surrounded me, I endeavoured to guide my own at my will. I then learnt to take up at pleasure that dissipated air which you have so often praised. Encouraged by those first successes, I endeavoured to regulate in the same manner the different motions of my person. Did I feel any chagrin, I endeavoured to put on an air of serenity, and even an affected cheerfulness; carried my zeal so far, that I used to put myself to voluntary pain; and tried my temper, by seeming to express a satisfaction; laboured with the same care and trouble to repress the sudden tumult of unexpected joy. It is thus that I gained that ascendancy over my countenance which has so often astonished you.

I was yet very young and unconcerned, but still reflected. My thoughts were my own, and I was exasperated to have them either surprised or drawn from me against my will. Provided with such arms, I immediately began to try their utility. Not satisfied with the closeness of my character, I amused myself with assuming different ones. Confident of my actions, I studied my words; I regulated the one and the other according to circumstances, and sometimes according to whim. From that moment I became selfish; and no longer showed any desire, but what I thought useful to me.

This labour had so far fixed my attention on the characters of the physiognomy, and the expression of the countenance, that I acquired the penetrating glance, which experience, however, has taught me not to place an entire confidence in, but which has so seldom deceived me.

I had scarce attained my fifteenth year, when I was mistress of those talents to which the greatest part of our female politicians owe their reputation, and had only attained the first rudiments of the science I was so anxious to acquire.

You may well imagine, that like all other young girls, I wanted to be acquainted with love and pleasure: but never having been in a convent, having no confidant, and being moreover strictly watched by a vigilant mother, I had only vague ideas. Nature even, which certainly I have had since every reason to be satisfied with, had not yet given me any indication. I may say, she silently wrought to perfect her work. My head alone fermented. I did not wish for enjoyment; I wanted knowledge: my strong propensity for instruction suggested the means.

I was sensible, the only man I could apply to on this occasion without danger was my confessor. As soon as I was determined, I got the better of my bashfulness. I accused myself of a fault I had not committed, and declared I had done all that women do. Those were the exact words: but when I spoke thus, I really had no idea of what I expressed. My expectations were neither entirely satisfied, nor altogether disappointed; the dread of discovering myself prevented my information: but the good father made the crime so heinous, that I concluded the pleasure must be excessive; and the desire of tasting it succeeded that of knowing it.

I don’t know how far this desire might have carried me; being then totally unexperienced, the first opportunity would have probably ruined me: but fortunately a few days after my mother informed me that I was to be married. Immediately the certainty of coming to the knowledge of everything stifled my curiosity, and I came a virgin to Mr. de Merteuil’s arms.

I waited with unconcern the period that was to resolve my doubts; and I had occasion for reflection, to assume a little fear and embarrassment. This first night, which generally fills the mind with so much joy or apprehension, offered me only an opportunity of experience, pleasure, and pain. I observed everything with the utmost exactitude, and those different sensations furnished matter for reflection.

This kind of study soon began to be pleasing: but faithful to my principles, and knowing, as it were, by instinct, that no one ought to be less in my confidence than my husband, I determined, for no other reason than because I had my feeling, to appear to him impassible. This affected coldness laid the foundation for that blind confidence which he ever after placed in me: and in consequence of more reflection, I threw in an air of dissipation over my behaviour, to which my youth gave a sanction; and I never appeared more childish than when I praised him most profusely.

Yet, I must own, at first I suffered myself to be hurried away by the bustle of the world, and gave myself up entirely to its most trifling dissipations. After a few months M. de Merteuil having brought me to his dreary country house, to avoid the dullness of a rural life, I again resumed my studies; and being surrounded by people whose inferiority sheltered me from suspicion, I gave myself a loose in order to improve my experience. It was then I was ascertained that love, which is represented as the first cause of all our pleasure, is at most but the pretence.

M. de Merteuil’s sickness interrupted those pleasing occupations. I was obliged to accompany him to town, where he went for advice. He died a short time after, as you know; and though, to take all in all, I had no reason to complain of him, nevertheless I was very sensibly affected with the liberty my widowhood gave me, which had so pleasing a prospect.

My mother imagined that I would go into a convent, or would go back to live with her: I refused both one and the other: the only sacrifice I made to decency was to return to the country, where I had yet some observations to make.

I strengthened them by reading, but don’t imagine that it was all of that kind you suppose: I studied my morals in romances, my opinions amongst the philosophers, and even sought amongst our most severe moralists, what was required of us.⁠—Thus I was ascertained of what one might do, how one ought to think, and the character one should assume. Thus fixed on those three objects, the last only offered some difficulties in the execution: I hoped to conquer them; I ruminated on the means.

I began to be disgusted with my rustic pleasures; they were not sufficiently variegated for my active mind, and felt the necessity of coquetry to reconcile me to love; not really to be sensible of it, but to feign it, and inspire it in others. In vain I have been told, and had read, that this passion was not to be feigned. I saw clearly, that to acquire it, it was sufficient to blend the spirit of an author with the talent of a comedian. I practised those two characters, and perhaps with some success; but, instead of courting the vain applause of the theatre, I determined to turn what so many others sacrificed to vanity, to my own happiness.

A year was spent in those different employments. My mourning being expired, I returned to town with my grand projects, but did not expect the first obstacle which fell in my way.

The austere retreat and long solitude I had been accustomed to, had given me such an air of prudery as frightened our prettiest fellows, and left me a prey to a crowd of tiresome gallants, who all made pretensions to my person; the difficulty was, not to refuse them; but several of those refusals were not agreeable to my family: I lost in those domestic broils the time which I flattered myself to make so charming a use. I was obliged then to recall the one, and disperse the others, to be guilty of some frivolities, and to take the same pains to hurt my reputation that I had taken to preserve it. In this I easily succeeded, as you may very well imagine; but, not being swayed by any passion, I only did what I judged necessary, and dealt out prudently some little acts of volatility.

As soon as I had accomplished my aim, I stopped short, gave the credit of my reformation to some women, who not having any pretensions to beauty or attractions, wrapt themselves up in merit and virtue. This resolution was of great importance, and turned out better than I could have expected; those grateful duennas became my apologists, and their blind zeal for what they called their own work, was carried to such a length, that upon the least conversation that was held about me, the whole prude party exclaimed shame and scandal! The same means acquired me also the good opinion of our women of talents, who, convinced that I did not pursue the same objects they did, chose me for the subject of their praise, whenever they asserted they did not scandalize everybody.

However, my former conduct brought back the lovers; to keep the balance even between them and my new female friends, I exhibited myself as a woman not averse to love, but difficult, and whom the excess of delicacy rendered superior to love.

Then I began to display upon the grand theatre the talents I had acquired: my first care was to acquire the name of invincible; in order to obtain it, the men who were not pleasing to me were the only ones whose addresses I seemed to accept. I employed them usefully in procuring me the honours of resistance, whilst I gave myself up without dread to the favoured lover; but my assumed timidity never permitted him to appear with me in public company, whose attention was always thus drawn off to the unfortunate lover.

You know how expeditious I am in my decisions; this proceeds from my observation, that it is always the preparatory steps which betray women’s secrets. Let one do what they will, the ton is never the same before as after success. This difference does not escape the attentive observer; and I have found it always less dangerous to be mistaken in my choice, than to suffer myself to be seen through; I moreover gain by this conduct, to remove probabilities on which only a judgment may be formed.

Those precautions, and that of never corresponding, to give any proof of my defeat, may appear satisfactory; however, I never thought them sufficient. Examining my own heart, I studied that of others; then I found, there is no person whatever who has not a secret that it is important should not be revealed; an established truth of which antiquity seems to have been more sensible than we are, and of which, perhaps, the history of Samson may have been an ingenious emblem. Like another Delilah, I always employed my power in discovering this important secret. Ah! how many of our modern Samsons do I not hold by the hair under my scissors! Those I have no dread of; they are the only ones that I sometimes take a pleasure in mortifying. More pliant with others, I endeavour to render them fickle, to avoid appearing inconstant myself. A feigned friendship, an apparent confidence, some generous dealings, the flattering idea that each was possessed with, of being my only lover, has secured discretion; in short, when all those means have failed, I have known how to stifle beforehand, (foreseeing my rapture), under the cloak of ridicule and calumny, the credit those dangerous men might obtain.

What I now tell you, you have often seen me put in practice; and yet you call my prudence in question! Don’t you recollect, when you first began your courtship to me? I never was more flattered; I sighed for you before I saw you. Captivated by your reputation, you seemed to be wanting to my glory; I burned with the desire of encountering you face to face; it was the only one of my inclinations that ever took a moment’s ascendancy over me; yet, had you been inclined to ruin me, what means had you in your power? Idle conversations that leave no traces after them, that your reputation even would have rendered suspicious, and a set of facts without probability, the sincere recital of which would have had the appearance of a romance badly assimilated. It is true, you have since been in possession of all my secrets; but you are sensible how our interests are united, and which of us two ought to be taxed with imprudence.17

Since I am in the humour of giving you an account of myself, I will do it with the utmost exactitude.⁠—I think I hear you say I’m at least at the mercy of my chambermaid! Truly, if she is not in the secret of my sentiments, she is at least in that of my actions. When you spoke to me on this subject formerly, I only answered you, I was sure of her; the proof this answer was then sufficient to make you easy, is, you have since confided in her, and for your own account; but now Prevan gives you umbrage, that your head is turned, I doubt much you’ll not take my word: you must, then, be edified.

First, this girl is my foster-sister; this tie, which appears nothing to us, has a great influence with people of her condition: moreover, I am in possession of her secrets; she is the victim of a love intrigue, and would have been ruined if I had not saved her. Her parents, armed at all points with sentiments of honour, wanted to have her shut up: they applied to me about it; I instantly saw how useful their resentment might be to me, and seconded their intentions; solicited the order from court, which I obtained; then suddenly, preferring clemency, brought her parents round, employing my credit with the old minister of state, and prevailed on them to depute me the trustee in this business, to stop or demand the execution of it, according as I should think the behaviour of the girl would deserve. She knows, then, her fate rests in my hands; and if, which is impossible, those powerful motives would not prevent, is it not evident, that her conduct being laid open, and her punishment authenticated, it would soon wipe away all credit to her tale?

Add to all these precautions, which I call fundamental ones, a thousand others, either local or eventual, that reflection and habitude would produce, if needful, the detail of which would be too minute, but the practice very important, and which you must take the trouble to collect in the whole of my conduct, if you want to arrive at the knowledge of them.

But to pretend that I, who have taken so much pains, should not receive any benefit, after having raised myself so much above other women by my assiduous labours;⁠—that I should consent to creep, like them, between imprudence and timidity; but, above all, I should dread a man so far as to find my salvation only in flight. No, Viscount; I must conquer or perish. As to Prevan, I must and will have him. He will tell, you say: but he shall not tell. This, in a few words, is our romance.