Letter 85

Marchioness de Merteuil to Viscount de Valmont

At length you will be satisfied, and do me justice; no longer blend me with the rest of womankind: I have at last put an end to my adventure with Prevan, and you shall judge which of the two has a right to boast. The recital will not be so amusing as the action; neither would it be just, whilst you have done nothing but argue well or ill on this matter, you should enjoy as much pleasure as me, who employed my time and care in this business.

But if you have any great affair in hand, any enterprise wherein this dangerous rival is your competitor, return; he has left you a clear stage, at least for some time; and perhaps will never recover the blow I have given him.

What a happy man you are, to have me for a friend! I am your good genius. You languish in absence from the beauty that possesses your heart; I speak the word, and instantly you are with her: you wish to be revenged of a mischievous woman: I point out the place where you are to strike, and deliver her up to you: again, to set aside a formidable competitor, you still invoke me, and I grant your petition. Upon my word, if you don’t employ the remainder of your days in demonstrating your gratitude, you are a base man: but to return to my adventure, and its origin. The rendezvous given out so loud at coming out of the opera18 was heard, as I expected. Prevan was there, and when the Marechale told him obligingly, that she was happy to see him, twice running, on her public day, he took care to reply, that since Tuesday he had got rid of a thousand appointments, to have it in his power to wait upon her this evening; a word to the wise: however, as I was determined to be certain whether or not I was the true object of this flattering eagerness, I was determined to oblige my new admirer, to make a choice between me and his reigning passion. I declared I would not play, and he made a thousand pretences not to play: thus my first triumph was over Lansquenet.

I engrossed the bishop of ⸻ for my conversation; chose him on account of his relationship with the hero of the adventure, for whom I wished to smooth the way to make his approaches: was, moreover, glad to have a respectable witness, who could upon occasion answer for my conduct and conversation: this arrangement succeeded.

After the customary vague chat, Prevan having soon made himself master of the conversation, engaged, upon different subjects, to endeavour to find out that which was most agreeable to me. The sentimental I rejected, as not worthy of credit. I stopped, by my serious air, his gaiety, which seemed too volatile for an opening: then he returned to delicate friendship; and this was the subject that engaged us.

The bishop did not come down to supper; Prevan gave me his hand, and consequently placed himself at table by me: I must be just; he kept up our private conversation with great address, as if he was only taken up with the general conversation, to which he seemed all attention. At the dessert, a new piece was mentioned that was to be played the Monday following at the French Comedy.⁠—I expressed some regret at not being provided with a box; he offered me his, which I refused, as usual: to which he replied, with great good humour, that I did not understand him, for, certainly, he would not offer his lodge to a person he did not know; he only meant to inform me that Madame la Marechale had the disposal of it; she acquiesced to this piece of humour, and I accepted the invitation. Being returned to the saloon, he begged, as you may suppose, a seat in this box; and as the Marechale, who treats him very familiarly, promised it to him if he behaved himself well, he took the opportunity of one of those double entendre conversations, for which you so profusely praise him, and throwing himself at her knees as a naughty child, under pretence of begging her advice and opinion, he said a great many tender and flattering things, which it was easy for me to apply to myself. Many of the company not having returned to play after supper, the conversation became more general and less interesting, but our eyes spoke a great deal⁠—I should say his, for mine had one language only, that of surprise; he must have imagined that I was astonished, and amazingly taken up with the prodigious impression he had made on me. I believe I left him pretty well satisfied; and I was no less contented myself.

The Monday following I went to the French Comedy, as was agreed: notwithstanding your literary curiosity, I cannot give you any account of the representation, and can only tell you, that Prevan has an admirable talent for flattery, and that the piece was hooted. I was somewhat troubled to see an evening so near an end, from which I promised myself so much pleasure, and, in order to prolong it, I requested the Marechale to sup with me, which gave me an opportunity to invite the lovely flatterer; he only begged time to disengage himself with the Countesses de P⁠⸺.19 This name raised my indignation; I saw plainly he was beginning to make them his confidants; I called to mind your prudent advice, and determined⁠—to pursue the adventure, as I was certain it would cure him of this dangerous indiscretion.

Being a stranger in my company, which was that night very small, he paid me the usual compliments, and when we went to supper, offered me his hand⁠—I was wicked enough, when I accepted it, to affect a light tremor, and, as I walked, to cast my eyes downwards, accompanied with a difficulty of respiration⁠—assumed the appearance of foreseeing my defeat, and to dread my conqueror; he instantly remarked it, and the traitor immediately changed his tone and behaviour: he was polite before, but now became all tenderness;⁠—not but the conversation was pretty much the same⁠—the circumstances required it; but his look was not so lively, yet more flattering; the tone of his voice was softer; his smile was not that of art but satisfaction; and his discourse gradually falling from his sallies, wit gave way to delicacy. Pray, good Sir, what could you have done more?

On my side, I began to grow thoughtful to such a degree that it was taken notice of; and when I was reproached with it, I had the address to defend myself so awkwardly, and to cast a quick, timid, and disconcerted glance at Prevan, to make him imagine that all my fear was lest he should guess at the cause of my confusion.

After supper, I took the opportunity, whilst the good Marechale was telling one of those stories she had repeated a hundred times before, to place myself upon my sofa, in that kind of lassitude which a tender reverie brings on. I was not sorry Prevan should see me thus; and he really did me the honour of a most particular, attention. You may very well imagine my timid eyes did not dare lift themselves up to my conqueror, but being directed towards him in a more humble manner, they soon informed me I had obtained my end: but still it was necessary to persuade him I also shared it, and as the Marechale said it was time to retire, I exclaimed in a soft and tender tone, “Oh, good God, I was so happy there!” However, I rose; but before we parted, I asked her how she intended to dispose of herself, to have an opportunity of saying, I intended to stay at home the day after tomorrow; on which we all parted.

Then I sat down to reflect; I had no doubt but Prevan would improve the kind of rendezvous I had just given, that he would come time enough to find me alone, and the attack would be carried on with spirit; but I was certain that, reputation apart, he would not behave with that kind of familiarity which no well-bred person ever permits himself, only with intriguing or unexperienced women; and I did not doubt of my success, if he once let slip the word love, or if he even made any pretension to draw it from me.

How convenient it is to be connected with you men of principle! Sometimes the quarrels of lovers disconcert through timidity, or embarrass by its violent transports; it is a kind of fever which has its hot and cold fits, and sometimes varies its symptoms; but your regular progressions are easily seen through; the first salutation, the deportment, the ton, the conversation, I knew all the evening before: I shall not, then, give you an account of the conversation, which you will readily conceive; only observe, that in my feigned defence I helped him all in my power; embarrassments to give him time to speak, bad arguments to be discussed, fears and diffidence to bring on protestations, the perpetual requisition from him, I beg but one word, that silence on my part which only seemed to make him wish for it more; and besides all this a hand often squeezed, always drawn back, and never refused; thus a whole day would have passed, and we should have passed another in this frivolity, perhaps would have been still engaged in the same, if we had not heard a coach coming into my court. This happy mischance made his solicitations more pressing, and when I found myself safe from all surprise, after having breathed a long sigh, I granted the precious word. Soon after company came in.

Prevan requested to visit me the morning following, to which I consented; being careful of myself, I ordered my waiting maid to stay during the whole time of this visit in my bed chamber, from whence you know, one may see everything that passes in my dressing room. Our conversation was easy, and both having the same desires, we were soon agreed; it was necessary to get rid of this troublesome spectator; that was where I waited for him.

Then giving him an account of my domestic life, I easily persuaded him we should never find a favourable opportunity, and he must look upon it a kind of miracle that which he had yesterday, and was attended with such dangerous consequences as might expose me, as there was every instant company coming into the saloon. I did not fail to add, those were long established customs in my family, which, until then, had never been varied, and at the same time insisted on the impossibility of altering them, as they would expose me to the reflections of my servants. He endeavoured to affect grief, to be out of humour, to tell me I had very little love: you may guess what an impression that made on me. Being determined to strike the decisive blow, I called tears to my assistance. It was the real scene in Zara, You weep. The ascendant he thought he had gained over me, and the hope he conceived of ruining me in his own way, supplied him with all the love of Orosmane.

This theatrical scene being over, we returned to the settling our measures. No probability of success in the day, our thoughts were taken up with the night; but my porter was an insurmountable obstacle, and I could not agree to any attempt to corrupt him: he then proposed the small door of my garden; that I had foreseen. I pretended a dog there, that was quiet and silent in the daytime, but a mere devil at night. The facility with which I gave into all his schemes served to encourage him, and he soon proposed the most ridiculous expedient, which was the one I accepted.

First, he assured me his domestic was as secret as himself; there he did not deceive me, for one was as secret as the other: I was to give a public supper, he would be of the party, would take his opportunity to slip out alone, his dextrous confidant would call his carriage, open the door, and he, instead of getting in, would slip aside; thus, having disappeared to everybody, yet being in my house, the question was, how he should get into my apartment? I must own, that at first my embarrassment was to find out reasons against the project, to have the appearance of destroying it. He answered them by proofs; nothing was more common than this method, he had often made use of it; it was even the one he practised most, as being the least dangerous.

Being convinced by those unanswerable authorities, I candidly owned I had a back-stairs that led very near to my private closet; I could leave the key in the door, and he possibly might shut himself up in it, to wait there without any danger till my women were retired; then, to give more probability to my consent, the moment afterwards I refused, then again consented, only upon condition of the most perfect submission and good behaviour. To sum up all, I wanted to prove my affection, but not to satisfy his.

His departure in the morning, which I had forgot to mention, was settled to be through the little gate in the garden; as he was to go off by daylight, the Cerberus would not speak a word; not a soul passed at that hour, and my people were all to be in a profound sleep. If you are astonished at this heap of nonsense, you must forget our situation: what business had we for better arguments? All that he required was, that the business should be known, and I was very certain it never should: the day after was fixed for the execution.

Observe, here is an affair settled, and no one has ever yet seen Prevan in my company; he offers his box for a new piece, I accept of a place in it; I invite this woman to supper during the performance, in Prevan’s presence; I can scarcely dispense proposing to him to make one; he accepts my offer; two days afterwards makes me a ceremonial visit;⁠—he comes, it is true, to visit me the day following, in the morning; but besides, as the morning visits are no longer exceptionable, it belongs to me to judge of this, and I account it trifling.

The fatal day being come, the day on which I was to lose my virtue and reputation, I gave my instructions to my faithful Victoire, and she executed them to admiration.

When evening came, I had a good deal of company; Prevan was announced; I received him with singular politeness, a proof of my slender acquaintance with him; I placed him with the Marechale’s party, as it was in her company I had first been acquainted with him: the evening produced nothing but a little note which the discreet lover found means to convey to me, and was burned, according to custom: he informed me, I might depend upon him; it was embellished with all the parasitical phrases of love, happiness, etc., which are never wanting upon such occasions.

At midnight, the parties being all finished, I proposed a short macedoine.20 In this project I first had in view to favour Prevan’s evasion, and at the same time to make it remarkable, which could not fail to happen, considering his reputation as a gamester; I was also glad, if there should hereafter be occasion, it might be remembered I was left alone. The game lasted longer than I had imagined; the devil tempted me; I gave way to my desire, to console the impatient prisoner. I was thus proceeding to my ruin, when I reflected, if I once surrendered, I should abandon the power of keeping him within the necessary bounds of decency for my projects: I had strength enough to resist, and returned not in a very good humour to my place at this abominable game; at last it was finished, and everyone departed: I rung for my women, undressed myself expeditiously, and sent them away.

Only think now, Viscount, you see me in my light robe, approaching with a circumspect timid pace, and trembling hand, opening the door to my conqueror. The moment he perceived me, he flew like lightning. What shall I say? I was overcome, totally overcome, before I could speak a word to stop him or defend myself. Afterwards he wanted to take a more commodious situation, and more adapted to our circumstances. He cursed his dress as an obstacle to his complete bliss. He would engage with equal arms; but my extreme timidity opposed his desire, and my tender caresses did not give him time. He was employed in other matters.

His rights were doubled; his pretensions revived: then “Harkee,” said I, “so far you have a tolerable pretty story for the two Countesses de P⁠⸺, and a thousand others: but I have a great curiosity to know how you will relate the end of this adventure.” Then ringing with all my strength, I had my turn, my action was quicker than his speech. He scarcely stammered out a few words, when I heard Victoire calling all my people that she had kept together in her apartment, as I had ordered her; then assuming the tone of a queen, and raising my voice, “Walk out, Sir,” said I, “and never dare appear again in my presence.” On which all my servants crowded in.

Poor Prevan was distracted, and imagined murder was intended, when in reality it was nothing but a joke, seized his sword; he was mistaken, for my valet de chambre, a resolute lusty fellow, grasped him round the body, and soon brought him down. I own, I was very much terrified, ordered them not to use him ill, but let him retire quietly, only to take care he was put out of the house. My servants obeyed my orders: there was a great bustle among them; they were enraged to the highest degree, anyone should dare to insult their virtuous mistress; they all accompanied the unfortunate Chevalier, with all the noise and scandal I could wish. Victoire alone remained with me, and we repaired the disorder the bed had suffered.

My people returned tumultuously; and I, still in great emotion, desired to know by what good fortune they happened to be all up. Victoire said, she had given a supper to two of her friends; that they had sat up in her apartment; and, in short, everything as had been agreed on. I thanked then all, desired them to retire, directing one of them to go immediately for my physician. I thought I was authorised to guard against the effects of this dreadful shock; this was the surest means to give it currency, as well as celebrity.

He came, pitied me much, and prescribed repose. I moreover ordered Victoire to go about the neighbourhood in the morning early to spread the news.

Everything succeeded so well, that before noon, as soon as my doors were open, my devout neighbour was at my bed’s head, to know the truth and the circumstances of this horrible adventure. I was obliged to lament with her a whole hour the corruption of the age. Soon after, I received the enclosed note from the Marechale, and before five, to my great astonishment, M⁠⸺⁠21 waited on me, to make his excuses, as he said, that an officer of his corps should be guilty of such an offence. He was informed of it at dinner at the Marechale’s, and immediately sent an order to Prevan, putting him under arrest. I requested he might be forgiven, which he refused. I thought, as an accomplice, I should also be punished, and kept within doors; I ordered my gate to be shut, and to let everyone know I was indisposed.

It is to this solitude you are indebted for so long a letter. I shall write one to Madame de Volanges, which she will certainly read publicly, where you will see this transaction as it must be related.

I forgot to tell you, that Belleroche is outrageous, and absolutely determined to fight Prevan. Poor fellow! But I shall have time to cool his brain. In the meantime, I will go to repose my own, which is much fatigued by writing. Adieu, Viscount!