Dangerous Liaisons —104—


IN TRUTH, MY GOOD and dear friend, I could hardly refrain from a movement of pride when I read your letter. What! you honor me with your entire confidence! You even deign to ask for my advice! Ah, I am happy indeed, if I deserve this favorable opinion on your part: if I do not owe it only to the prepossession of friendship. For the rest, whatever the motive may be, it is nonetheless precious to my heart; and to have obtained it is only one reason the more in my eyes why I should labor harder to deserve it. I am going then (but without pretending to give you a counsel) to tell you freely my fashion of thinking. I distrust myself, because it is different from yours; but when I have exposed my reasons to you, you will judge them; and if you condemn them, I subscribe to your judgment in advance. I shall at least show thus much wisdom, that I do not think myself wiser than you.

If, however, and in this single instance, my opinion should seem preferable, you must seek for the cause of this in the illusions of maternal love. Since this sentiment is a laudable one, it needs must have a place in you. Indeed, how very recognizable it is in the course which you are tempted to take! It is thus that, if it sometimes happens to you to make a mistake, it never arises except through a choice of virtues.

Prudence, it seems to me, is the quality to be preferred, when one is disposing of another’s fate; and, above all, where it is a question of fixing it by an indissoluble and sacred bond, such as that of marriage. ’Tis then that a mother, equally wise and tender, ought, as you say so well, to aid her daughter with her experience. Now, I ask you, what is she to do in order to succeed in this, if it be not to distinguish for her between what is pleasant and what is suitable?

Would it not, then, be to degrade the maternal authority, would it not be to annul it, if you were to subordinate it to a frivolous inclination, the illusory power of which is only felt by those who dread it, and disappears as soon as it is despised? For myself, I confess, I have never believed in these irresistible and engrossing passions, through which, it seems, we are agreed to pay general excuses for our disorders.gq I cannot conceive how a fancy which is born in a moment, and in a moment dies, can have more strength than the unalterable principles of honor, modesty and virtue; and I can no more understand why a woman who is false to them can be held justified by her pretended passion, than a thief would be by his passion for money, or an assassin by that for revenge.

Ah, who is there that can say that she has never had to struggle? But I have ever sought to persuade myself that, in order to resist, it sufficed to have the will; and thus far, at least, my experience has confirmed my opinion. What would virtue be without the duties which it imposes? Its worship lies in our sacrifices, its recompense in our hearts. These truths cannot be denied except by those who have an interest in disregarding them, and who, already depraved, hope to have a moment’s illusion by endeavoring to justify their bad conduct by bad reasons. But could one fear it from a shy and simple child; a child whom you have borne, and whose pure and modest education can but have fortified her happy nature? Yet it is to this fear, which I venture to call humiliating to your daughter, that you are ready to sacrifice the advantageous marriage which your prudence had contrived for her! I like Danceny greatly; and for a long time past, as you know, I have seen little of M. de Gercourt : but my friendship with the one and my indifference toward the other do not prevent me from feeling the enormous difference which exists between the two matches.

Their birth is equal, I admit; but one is without fortune, while that of the other is so great that, even without birth, it would have sufficed to obtain him everything. I quite agree that money does not make happiness, but it must be admitted, also, that it greatly facilitates it. Mademoiselle de Volanges is rich enough for two, as you say: however, an income of sixty thousand livres, which she will enjoy, is not over much when one bears the name of Danceny; when one must furnish and maintain a house which corresponds with it. We no longer live in the days of Madame de Sévigné. Luxury swallows up everything; we blame it, but we needs must imitate it, and in the end the superfluous stintsgr us of the necessary.

As to the personal qualities which you count for much, and with good reason, M. de Gercourt is, assuredly, irreproachable on that score; and, as for him, his proof is over. I like to think, and, in fact, I do think, that Danceny is no whit his inferior: but are we as sure of that? It is true that thus far he has seemed exempt from the faults of his age, and that, in spite of the tone of the day, he shows a taste for good company which makes one augur favorably gsfor him: but who knows whether this apparent virtue be not due to the mediocrity of his fortune? Putting aside the fear of being a cheat or a drunkard, one needs money to be a gambler or a libertine, and one may yet love the faults the excesses of which one dreads. In short, he would not be the first in a thousand to frequent good company solely because he lacked the means of doing otherwise.

I do not say (God forbid!) that I believe all this of him; but it would be always a risk to run; and what reproaches would you not have to make yourself, if the event were not happy! How would you answer your daughter, if she were to say to you, “Mother, I was young and without experience; I was seduced even by an error pardonable at my age: but Heaven, which had foreseen my weakness, had granted me a wise mother, to remedy it and protect me from it. Why, then, forgetful of your prudence, did you consent to my unhappiness? Was it for me to choose a husband, when I knew nothing of the marriage state? If I had wished to do so, was it not your duty to oppose me? But I never had this mad desire. Determined to obey you, I awaited your choice with respectful resignation ; I never failed in the submission which I owed to you, and yet I bear today the penalty which is only the rebellious children’s due. Ah! your weakness has been my ruin! …”

Perhaps, her respect would stifle these complaints: but maternal love would divine them; and the tears of your daughter, though hidden, would nonetheless drip upon your heart. Where then will you look for consolation? Will it be to that mad love against which you should have armed her, and by which, on the contrary, you would have yourself to be seduced?

I know not, my dear friend, whether I have too strong a prejudice against this passion: but I deem it redoubtable even in marriage. It is not that I disapprove of the growth of a soft and virtuous sentiment to embellish the marriage bond, and to sweeten, in some sort, the duties which it imposes: but it is not to that passion that it belongs to form it; it is not for the illusion of a moment to settle the choice of our life. In fact, in order to choose, one must compare; and how can that be done, when one is occupied by a single object, when even that object one cannot know, plunged as one is in intoxication and blindness?

I have, as you may well believe, come across many women afflicted with this dangerous ill; of some of them I have received the confidences. To hear them, there is not one of them whose lover is not a perfect being: but these chimerical perfections exist only in their imaginations. Their feverish heads dream only of virtues and accomplishments; they adorn with them, at their pleasure, the object whom they prefer: it is the drapery of a god, often worn by an abject model; but whatever it may be, hardly have they clothed it than, the dupes of their own handiwork, they prostrate themselves to adore it.

Either your daughter does not love Danceny, or else she is under this same illusion; if their love is reciprocal, it is common to both. Thus your reason for uniting them for ever resolves itself into the certainty that they do not, and cannot, know each other. But, you will ask, do M. de Gercourt and my daughter know each other any better? No, doubtless; but at least they are simply ignorant, they are under no delusion. What happens in such a case between two married persons whom I assume to be virtuous? Each of them studies the other, looks face to face at the other, seeks and soon discovers what tastes and wishes he must give up for the common tranquillity. These slight sacrifices are not irksome, because they are reciprocal, and have been foreseen: soon they give birth to mutual kindness; and habit, which fortifies all inclinations which it does not destroy, brings about, little by little, that sweet friendship, that tender confidence, which, joined to esteem, form, so it seems to me, the true and solid happiness of marriage.

The illusions of love may be sweeter; but who does not know that they are less durable? And what dangers are not brought about by the moment which destroys them? It is then that the least faults appear shocking and unendurable, by the contrast which they form with the idea of perfection which had seduced us. Each one of the couple believes, however, that only the other has changed, and that he has always the same value as that which, in a mistaken moment, had been attributed to him. The charm which he no longer experiences he is astonished at no longer producing; he is humiliated at this: wounded vanity embitters the mind, augments injuries, causes ill humor, begets hate; and frivolous pleasures are paid for finally by long misery.

Such, my dear friend, is my manner of thinking upon the subject which occupies us; I do not defend it, I simply expound it; ’tis for you to decide. But if you persist in your opinion, I beg you to make me acquainted with the reasons which have outweighed my own: I shall be glad indeed to gather light from you, and, above all, to be reassured as to the fate of your amiable child, whose happiness I ardently desire, both through my friendship for her and through that which unites me to you for life.