Letter 96

Viscount de Valmont to the Marchioness de Merteuil

I dare say, you have been in daily expectation of my compliments and eulogiums on your adventure; I even make no doubt but my long silence may have put you a little out of temper: But to sum up all, I will freely own I have ever thought, that when one had nothing but praise to offer a woman, he might safely trust to herself, and employ his time on other matters. Yet I must thank you for my share in it, and congratulate you on your own. I will even, for this once, to make you perfectly happy, agree you have much surpassed my expectations. And now let us see, whether, on my side, I have not partly fulfilled yours.

Madame de Tourvel is not the subject we are now on; her slow proceedings do not meet your approbation; you like to hear of business done; long-spun scenes disgust you; but I never before experienced the pleasure I do now in those pretended delays.

Yes, I enjoy it; to see this prudent woman, entangled imperceptibly in a path from whence she cannot return; whose rapid and dangerous declivity hurries her on against her will, and forces her to follow me⁠—then, frightened at the danger, would, but cannot stop;⁠—her anxiety and wariness make her steps slow, but still they must succeed each other. Sometimes, not daring to view the danger, she shuts her eyes, and abandons herself to my care. New dreads often reanimate her efforts; and, in her grievous fright, she again endeavours to return, wastes her strength to climb painfully a short space; and soon, by a magic power, finds herself nearer the danger she vainly endeavoured to fly. Then, having no other guide or support but me, without thinking any longer of reproaching me with her inevitable fall, she implores me to protract it. Fervent prayers, humble supplications, all that terrified mortals offer up to the Divinity, I receive from her; and you would have me be deaf to her vows, to destroy the worship she renders me, and employ the power she invokes to support her, in hurling her into destruction. Let me at least have time to contemplate this affecting struggle between love and virtue.

Is not this, then, the exhibition you fly to at the theatre with so much avidity, and applaud with so much ardour? And do you imagine it can be less endearing in realizing it?⁠—The sentiments of a pure and tender heart, which dreads the happiness it wishes, and ceases not to defend itself when it even ceases to resist, you enthusiastically admire: And pray, is the ruling principle of this great work to be rejected?

Yet, those are the delicious enjoyments this celestial woman daily offers me, and you reproach me for relishing them. Alas! the time will come too soon when, degraded by her fall, I shall view her with as much indifference as another.

But I wander; for, speaking of her, I forget that I did not intend even to mention her. An unknown power impels me, and incessantly recalls her to me when I am even injuring her: let me banish this dangerous idea, be myself again, and entertain you with a more agreeable adventure. Your late pupil, now become mine, shall be the subject; and now, I hope, you’ll again know your friend.

Having, for a few days past, been more gently treated by my charming devotee, and consequently more disengaged, I observed the little Volanges was really handsome; and that if it was ridiculous in Danceny to be in love with her, it would be no less so in me not to embrace a dissipation that my solitude called for. I even thought it an act of justice, to repay myself for the trouble I had had with her: I recollected, also, that you offered her to me before Danceny had any pretensions to her; and thought myself well grounded in asserting certain rights, which he claimed only from my refusal and abdication. The engaging mien of the little creature, her pretty mouth, her childish air, even her awkwardness, strengthened those sage reflections. I determined to act conformably, and success has crowned the enterprise. I think I see you all impatience to know how I supplanted the cherished lover, the seducing arts fit to be employed for such a tender age, and so unexperienced: spare yourself the trouble, for I employed none.⁠—Whilst you, managing with dexterity the arms of your sex, triumph by artifice, I, in a manly way, subdue by authority⁠—sure of my prey, if I can close with it. I had no occasion for dissimulation, but to get it within my reach, and that I made use of scarcely deserves the name.

I took the advantage of the first letter Danceny wrote to his fair one, and, after having made the signal agreed on, instead of employing my address to deliver it, I contrived obstacles to prevent it; and, feigning a share in the impatience this excited, pointed out the remedy after causing the evil.

The young thing is lodged in an apartment that opens into the gallery, and the mother, very properly, keeps the key. Nothing, then, was wanting but to get possession of the key, and nothing more easy in the execution: I asked for it for two hours, only to have another made by it: then correspondence, interviews, nocturnal rendezvous, all were convenient and safe: but, would you believe it, the timid child was frightened, and refused. Any other would have been driven to despair: to me it was a more poignant pleasure. I wrote to Danceny, complaining of this denial; and was so successful, that the thoughtless youth urged, nay even exacted of his timid mistress, that she should agree to my request, and give herself up to my discretion.

I must own myself well pleased to change my character, and that the young man should do for me what he expected I was to do for him. This idea enhanced the value of the adventure; and, as soon as I got possession of the delicious key, I lost no time:⁠—it was last night.

When I was assured all were at rest in the Castle, taking my dark lantern, and in a proper toilette for the hour and circumstance, I paid my first visit to your pupil. Everything had been prepared (and that by herself) to prevent noise: she was in her first sleep, so that I was by her bed side without awaking her. I was at first tempted to go on farther, and make everything pass for a dream; but dreading the effects of a surprise, and the consequences naturally attendant, I chose to awake the pretty sleeper cautiously, which I effected without the alarm I dreaded.

After having calmed her first fears, as I did not come there to chat, I ventured to take some liberties: they did not, certainly, inform her in the convent, to how many different dangers timid innocence is exposed, and all that she had to take care of to guard against a surprise; for, using all her strength to prevent a kiss, which was only a false attack, she left all the rest defenceless: how was it possible to resist the temptation?⁠—I then changed my attack, and immediately took possession of the post. At that instant we had both like to be undone; the little girl, scared, was in earnest going to cry out; happily, her voice was stifled with her tears: she flung herself, also, on the string of the bell, but I held her arm opportunely.

“What are you about? (then said I) Will you ruin yourself forever? Do you think you will be able to persuade anyone that I am here without your consent? Who but yourself could supply me the means of getting in?⁠—And this key that I had from you, which I could not have from anyone else, will you take it upon you to tell the use it was designed for?”⁠—This short speech did not calm either grief or anger, but it brought on submission. I don’t know whether I had the tone of eloquence, but certain I am I had not the action: one hand employed for strength, the other for love, what orator could pretend to gracefulness in such a situation? If you conceive it right, you must own, at least, it was very favourable for the attack: but I know nothing; and, as you say, the simplest creature, a boarding school girl, would lead me like a child.

She was in the utmost affliction, but felt the necessity of coming to some resolution, and entering into a composition. Being inexorable to prayers, she proceeded to offers: you think, perhaps. I sold this important post very dear; by no means; I promised everything for a kiss; however, the kiss taken, I did not keep my word; my reasons were good: it had not been agreed whether it should be given or taken; by dint of bargaining we agreed on a second, and that was to be received; then guiding her trembling arms round me, and pressing her with one of mine more amorously, the soft kiss was not only received, but perfectly received in such a manner, that love could not have done it better.⁠—So much plain dealing deserved to be rewarded, and I immediately granted the request: the hand was withdrawn, but, I don’t know by what accident, I found myself in its place. You now suppose me very alert, and in great haste, don’t you?⁠—Not in the least; I have already told you I delight in delays: when one is once certain of coming to the end of the journey, what occasion for haste?

Seriously, I was glad, for once, to observe the power of opportunity; and it was here divested of all foreign aid. She had, however, love to combat with; and love, supported by modesty and shame, strengthened by the bad humour I had put her in. There was nothing in my favour but opportunity;⁠—it was there, always ready, always present, and love absent.

To be certain in my observations, I was so mischievous to employ no more force than what could be easily combated: only, if my charming enemy, abusing my condescension, attempted to escape me, I kept her in awe, by the same dread whose happy effects I had already experienced.⁠—At length the tender, lovely girl, without farther trouble, first complied, and then consented: not but that, after the first moment, reproaches and tears returned together⁠—I can’t tell whether true or feigned; but, as it always happens, they ceased as soon as I began to give fresh cause for them. At last, from weakness to reproach, and from reproach to weakness, we separated, perfectly satisfied with each other, and equally agreed for the rendezvous this night.

I retired to my apartment at the dawn of day, quite exhausted with fatigue and sleep; yet I sacrificed one and the other to my inclination to be at breakfast in the morning. I am passionately fond of the next day’s exhibition. You cannot conceive anything like this. It was a confusion in the countenance, a difficulty in the walk, dejected eyes so swelled, and the round visage so lengthened, nothing could be so grotesque; and the mother, for the first time, alarmed at this sudden alteration, seemed to show a deal of affection for her; and the Presidente also, who seemed to be much concerned for her. As to her cares, they are only lent; for the day will come, and it is not far off, when they may be returned to her.

Adieu, my lovely friend!