Dangerous Liaisons —125—


BEHOLD HER VANQUISHED THEN, this proud woman who dared to think she could resist me! Yes, my friend, she is mine, mine entirely; since yesterday there is nothing left for her to grant me.

I am still too full of my happiness to be able to appreciate it: but I am amazed at the unknown charm I have experienced. Can it be true, then, that virtue enhances the value of a woman even at the very moment of her fall? Nay, let us relegate this puerile notion with other old wives’ tales. Does one not almost always encounter a more or less well-feigned resistance at a first triumph? And have I found elsewhere the charm of which I speak? Yet it is not that of love; for, after all, if I have sometimes had, with this astounding woman, moments of weakness which resembled that pusillanimous id passion, I have always known how to overcome them and return to my principles. Even if the scene of yesterday had carried me, as I believe it did, somewhat farther than I counted on; even if, for a moment, I shared the trouble and intoxication which I caused, that passing illusion would be dissipated by now: and nevertheless the same charm subsists. I should even find, I confess, a sweet enough pleasure in abandoning myself to it, if it did not cause me some anxiety. Shall I be dominated at my age, like a schoolboy, by an unknown and involuntary sentiment? Nay: I must before all combat it and understand it.

Perhaps, as far as that goes, I have already caught a glimpse of the cause! I am pleased with this idea, at any rate, and I would fain have it true.

In the crowd of women with whom I have hitherto played the part and performed the functions of lover, I had never yet met one who had not at least as much desire to give herself as I had to persuade her to it; I was even in the habit of calling those women prudes who did no more than meet me halfway, in contrast to so many others whose provocative defense did but imperfectly conceal the first advances they had made.

Here, on the contrary, I met with a preconceived unfavorable prejudice, which was subsequently strengthened by the advice and stories of a spiteful but clear-sighted woman; a natural and extreme timidity, fortified by an enlightened modesty; an attachment to virtue directed by religion, with already two years of victory to its account; finally, a vigorous course of conduct inspired by these different motives, which all had for their aim escape from my pursuit.

It is not then, as in my other adventures, a mere capitulation, more or less advantageous, whereof it is easier to take advantage than to be proud; it is a complete victory, purchased at the cost of a hard campaign, and determined by cunning maneuvres. ’Tis not surprising, then, that this success, due to myself alone, should seem all the more precious to me; and the excess of pleasure which I experienced when I triumphed, and which I feel still, is no more than the sweet impression of the sentiment of glory. I cherish this point of view, which saves me from the humiliation of thinking that I can be in any manner dependent upon the slave whom I have subjected; that I do not possess in myself alone the plenitude of my happiness; and that the power of giving me the whole energy of pleasure should be reserved to such or such a woman, excluding all the others.

These deliberate reflections shall regulate my conduct on this important occasion; and you may rest assured that I will not let myself be enchained to such a degree that I cannot always play with these new bonds and break them at my will. But I am talking to you already of my rupture, while you do not yet know the means by which I have acquired my rights: read then, and learn to what virtue is exposed when it seeks to succor folly. I studied so attentively my conversation and the replies I obtained that I hope to be able to repeat them to you with a precision that will delight you.

You will see from the two copies of letters enclosed ie what mediator I chose to reconcile me with my fair, and what zeal the holy personage employed to reunite us. One thing more I must tell you, which I learned from a letter intercepted in the usual way: the fear and the petty humiliation of being quitted had somewhat disturbed the austere Puritan’s prudence, and had filled her heart and head with sentiments and ideas which were nonetheless interesting because they were not commonsense. It was after these preliminaries, necessary for you to know, that yesterday, Thursday the twenty-eighth, the day settled and appointed by the ingrate, I presented myself before her in the quality of a timid and repentant slave, to leave her crowned with victory.

It was six o’clock in the evening when I came to the fair recluse; for since her return her door has been shut to everyone. She attempted to rise when I was announced; but her trembling knees did not allow her to remain in this position: she immediately resumed her seat. She showed signs of impatience, because the servant who had introduced me had some task to perform in the apartment. We filled up the interval with the customary compliments. But, in order to waste no time, when moments were so precious, I carefully examined the locality; and at once my eye fixed upon the scene of my victory. I could have chosen one more suitable, for there was an ottoman in that very room. But I noticed that, facing it, was a portrait of the husband; and I confess that, with such a singular woman, I was afraid lest one haphazard glance in that direction should destroy the result of all my labors. At last, we were left alone and I broached the question.

After having explained, in a few words, that the Pèreif Anselme must have informed her of the motives of my visit, I complained of the severe treatment I had been subject to, and dwelt particularly on the scorn which had been displayed me. She defended herself, as I expected; and, as you would expect yourself, I founded my proofs on the distrust and fear which I had inspired, on the scandalous flight which had ensued, her refusal to answer my letters, even to receive them, etc., etc. As she was commencing a justification which would have been very easy, I felt bound to interrupt her; and, to obtain pardon for this brusque proceeding, I covered it at once with a flattery. “If so many charms,” I went on, “have made so profound an impression on my heart, the effect of so many virtues has been no less upon my soul. Led away, no doubt, by my desire to approach them, I dared to deem myself worthy. I do not reproach you for having judged otherwise; but I am punished for my mistake.” As she maintained an embarrassed silence, I continued:

“It was my wish, Madame, either to justify myself in your eyes, or to obtain from you pardon for the wrongs you suppose me to have committed; so that I can at least end, with a certain tranquillity, days to which I attach no more value since you have refused to embellish them.”

Here, however, she endeavored to reply:

“My duty did not permit me….” And the difficulty of completing the lie which duty required, did not permit her to finish her phrase. I resumed, therefore, in a more tender tone: “Is it true that it is from me you have fled?” “My departure was necessary.” “And that you drive me away from you?” “It must be so.” “And forever?” “I must.” I have no need to tell you that, during this short dialogue, the voice of the gentle prude was oppressed,ig and that her eyes were not raised to mine.

I judged it my duty to give this languid scene a touch of animation; thus, rising with an air of vexation: “Your firmness,” I then said, “restores to me all my own. Well, yes, Madame, we shall be separated even more than you think. And you may congratulate yourself at your leisure over the success of your handiwork.” Somewhat surprised at this tone of reproach, she sought to reply: “The resolution you have taken …” said she. “It is but the result of my despair.” I resumed with passion. “You wished me to be unhappy; I will prove that you have succeeded even beyond your hopes.” “I desire your happiness,” she answered. And the sound of her voice began to announce a strong emotion. Casting myself, therefore, on my knees before her, and in that dramatic tone which you know is mine: “Ah, cruel one!” I cried. “Can any happiness exist for me in which you have no share? Where can I find it away from you? Ah, never, never!” I confess that, in abandoning myself to this extent, I had counted much on the support of tears; but, either from ill disposition, or perhaps owing to the constant and painful attention I was giving to everything, it was impossible for me to weep.

Luckily I remembered that, in order to subjugate a woman, all means are equally good, and that it would be sufficient to astound her by some great change of manner in order to produce an impression at once favorable and profound. Thus, for the sensibility which proved lacking, I substituted terror; and for that, merely changing the inflection of my voice, and keeping in the same posture, “Yes,” I continued, “I make this vow at your feet, to possess you or die.” As I uttered these last words, our eyes met. I know not what the timid creature saw, or thought she saw, in mine; but she rose with a terrified air, and escaped from the arm with which I had encircled her. It is true, I did nothing to retain her: for I had often remarked that scenes of despair rendered in too lively a key became ridiculous, if they were unduly prolonged, or left one only such really tragic resources as I was very far from wishing to take. However, while she withdrew from me, I added in a low and ominous whisper, but loud enough for her to hear me: “Well then, death!”

I then rose; and, after a moment’s silence, cast upon her, as if at random, wild glances, which were nonetheless clear-sighted and observant for their distracted air. Her ill-assured attitude, her heavy breathing, the contraction of all her muscles, the half-raised position of her trembling arms, all gave sufficient proof to me that the effect was such as I had wished to produce: but, since, in love, nothing ever finishes except at close quarters, and we were still at some distance from one another, it became necessary before all things to draw together. It was in order to succeed in this, that I passed, as soon as possible, to an appearance of tranquillity, capable of calming the effects of so violent a condition, without weakening its impression.

This was my transition: “I am very miserable! It was my wish to live for your happiness, and I have troubled it. I devote myself for your peace, and I trouble it too….” Then, with a composed, but constrained, air: “Forgive me, Madame; little accustomed as I am to the storms of passion, I know ill how to repress its movements. If I was wrong to abandon myself to them, at least remember ’tis for the last time. Ah, be calm, be calm, I conjure you!” And, during this long speech, I insensibly drew nearer. “If you would have me be calm,” replied the frightened fair, “pray be more tranquil yourself.” “Ah, well! yes, I promise you,” said I. I added, in a fainter voice, “If the effort be great, at least it is not for long. But,” I continued, with a distraught air, “I came, did I not, to return you your letters? For mercy’s sake, deign to take them back. This sorrowful sacrifice remains for me to perform; leave me naught which may tend to diminish my courage.” And, drawing the precious collection from my pocket: “Behold,” said I, “the deceitful receptacle of your assurances of friendship! It bound me to life; take it back from me. Give me thus, yourself, the signal which must separate me from you forever….”

Here, my timorous mistress gave way entirely to her tender concern: “But, M. de Valmont, what is the matter with you, and what is it you would say? Is not the step which you are taking today a voluntary one? Is it not the fruit of your own reflections? And are they not the same which led you yourself to approve the inevitable course which duty has made me adopt?” “Well, then,” I answered, “that course is responsible for my own.” “And what is that?” “The only one which, while it separates me from you, can put an end to my pain.” “But answer me, what is it?” Here I clasped her in my arms, nor did she defend herself in any way; and, judging from this forgetfulness of the proprieties how strong and potent was her emotion: “Adorable creature,” said I, risking a little enthusiasm, “you have no conception of the love which you inspire in me; you will never know to what an extent you were adored, and how much dearer this sentiment was to me than existence! May all your days be calm and fortunate; may they be adorned with all the happiness which you have ravished from me! Reward this sincere prayer by a regret, a tear at least; believe that the last sacrifice which I shall make will not be the most grievous to my heart. Farewell!”

While I spoke thus, I felt her heart throbbing violently; I observed the changed expression of her face; I saw, above all, that her tears were choking her and yet were few and painful in their flow. It was not till then that I resolved to feign departure; when, retaining me forcibly: “Nay, listen to me,” she said quickly. “Leave me,” I answered. “You shall listen to me; it is my wish.” “I must flee from you, I must!” “No,” she cried….

At this last word she flung herself, or rather fell swooning into my arms. As I was still doubtful of so fortunate a success, I feigned the utmost alarm; but, alarmed as I was, I led her, or carried her, to the spot I had originally fixed upon as the field of my triumph; and in truth she did not return to herself until she was submissive and already abandoned to her happy conqueror.

Thus far, my lovely friend, you will find, I believe, a purity of method which will give you pleasure, and you will see that I departed in nothing from the true principles of that war which, as we have often remarked, so strongly resembles the real war. Judge me then as though I had been Frederic or Turenne.1 I had forced to combat an enemy who would do nothing but temporize;ih by scientific maneuvres I obtained the choice of positions and of the field; I was able to inspire the enemy with confidence, in order the more easily to catch up with him in his retreat; I was able to add terror to this feeling before the fight was engaged; I left nothing to chance, except in my consideration of a great advantage in case of success, and the certainty of resources in case of defeat; in short, I did not engage until I had an assured retreat, by which I could cover and preserve all that I had previously conquered. That is, I believe, all that one can do: but I am afraid, at present, lest, like Hannibal, I may be enervated by the delights of Capua.2 Now for what has passed since.

I fully expected that such a great event would not be accomplished without the customary tears and despair; and, if I noticed at first somewhat more confusion and a sort of shrinking, I attributed both to the character of the prude: thus, without concerning myself with these slight differences, which I thought purely local, I simply followed the high road of consolation, thoroughly persuaded that, as happens ordinarily, sensations would assist sentiment, and that a single action would do more than any speech, which last, however, I did not neglect. But I met with a really alarming resistance, less indeed from its excessive character than from the form under which it was displayed.

Imagine a woman seated, of an immovable rigor, and an unchanging face; having the air neither of thinking, hearing, nor understanding; whose fixed eyes give issue to a continuous stream of tears, which fall, however, without an effort. Such was Madame de Tourvel, while I was speaking; but, if I tried to recall her attention to me by a caress, by even the most innocent gesture, this apparent apathy was at once succeeded by terror, gasping for breath, convulsions, sobs and, at intervals, cries, but with not an articulate word.

These cries were resumed several times, and always more loudly; the last even was so violent that I was entirely discouraged by it, and feared for a moment that I had won a useless victory. I fell back upon the customary commonplaces; and, among their number, found this one: “And you are in despair because you have made my happiness?” At this word, the adorable woman turned toward me; and her face, although still rather wild, had, nevertheless, resumed already its celestial expression. “Your happiness!” she said. You can guess my answer. “You are happy then?” I redoubled my protestations. “And happy through me!” I joined praises and tender speeches. While I was speaking, all her limbs grew supple; she sank down languorously, leaning back in her armchair; and yielding to me a hand which I had ventured to take: “I feel,” said she, “that that idea consoles and relieves me.”

You may judge that, thus shown the way, I no longer left it; it was really the right and, perhaps, the only one. So that, when I would fain attempt a second success, I met, at first, with a certain resistance, and what had passed before rendered me circumspect: but, having summoned this same idea of my happiness to my aid, I soon perceived its favorable effects: “You are right;” the tender creature said to me, “I can no longer support my existence, except in so far as it may serve to render you happy. I devote myself entirely to that: from this moment, I give myself to you, and you shall meet, on my side, neither with refusals nor regrets.” It was with this candor, naive or sublime, that she abandoned to me her person and her charms, and enhanced my happiness by participating in it. The intoxication was reciprocal and complete; and for the first time mine survived the pleasure. I only left her arms to fall at her knees and swear an eternal love to her; and, to tell the whole truth, I believed what I said. And, even after we had separated, the idea of her never left me, and I was obliged to make an effort in order to distract myself.

Ah, why are you not here at least to counterbalance the charm of the action by that of the reward? But I shall lose nothing by waiting, is not that so? And I hope I may consider as settled the happy arrangement which I proposed to you in my last letter. You see that I fulfill my word, and that, as I promised you, my affairs will be sufficiently advanced to enable me to give you a portion of my time. Hasten then to dismiss your heavy Belleroche, and leave the mawkish Danceny where he is, to occupy yourself only with me. But what are you doing so long in the country, that you do not even answer me? Do you know that I should like to scold you? But happiness tends to indulgence. And then I do not forget that, in entering once more the ranks of your adorers, I must submit anew to your little fantasies. Remember, however, that the new lover will lose no whit of the former rights of a friend.

Adieu, as of old…. Yes, adieu my angel! I send thee all the kisses of love.

P.S. Do you know that Prévan, after his month of prison, has been obliged to leave his regiment? It is the news of all Paris today. Truly, he is cruelly punished for a sin which he did not commit, and your success is complete!