Dangerous Liaisons —81—


How YOUR FEARS EXCITE my pity! How they prove to me my superiority over you! And you want to teach me, to be my guide? Ah, my poor Valmont, what a distance there is between you and me! No, all the pride of your sex would not suffice to bridge over the gulf which separates us. Because you could not execute my projects, you judge them impossible! Proud and weak being, it well becomes you to seek to weigh my means and judge of my resources! In truth, Vicomte, your counsels have put me in an ill humor, and I will not conceal it from you.

That, to mask your incredible stupidity with your Présidente, you should blazon outes to me, as a triumph, the fact of your having for a moment put out of countenanceet this woman who is timid and who loves you: I agree to that; of having obtained a look, a single look: I smile, and grant it you. That, feeling, in spite of yourself, the poor value of your conduct, you should hope to distract my attention from it by gratifying me with the story of your sublime effort to bring together two children who are both burning to see one another, and who, I may mention by the way, owe to me alone the ardor of their desire: I grant you that also. That, finally, you should feel authorized by these brilliant achievements to write to me, in doctorial tones, that it is better to employ one’s time in carrying out one’s projects than in describing them: such vanity does me no harm, and I forgive it. But that you could believe that I had need of your prudence, that I should lose my way unless I deferred to your advice, that I ought to sacrifice to it a pleasure or a whim: in truth, Vicomte, that is indeed to plume yourself over much on the confidence which I am quite willing to place in you!

And, pray, what have you done that I have not surpassed a thousand times? You have seduced, ruined even, very many women: but what difficulties have you had to overcome? What obstacles to surmount? What merit lies therein that is really your own? A handsome face, the pure result of chance; graces, which habit almost always brings; wit, in truth: but jargoneu would supply its place at need; a praiseworthy impudence, perhaps due solely to the ease of your first successes; if I am not mistaken, these are your means, for, as for the celebrity you have succeeded in acquiring, you will not ask me, I suppose, to count for much the art of giving birth to a scandal or seizing the opportunity of one.

As for prudence, finesse, I do not speak of myself: but where is the woman who has not more than you? Why, your Présidente leads you like a child!

Believe me, Vicomte, it is rarely one acquires qualities which can be dispensed with. Fighting without risk, you are bound to act without precaution. For you men, a defeat is but one success the less. In so unequal a match, we are fortunate if we do not lose, as it is your misfortune if you do not win. Even were I to grant you as many talents as ourselves, by how many should we not still need to surpass you, from the necessity we are under to make a perpetual use of them!

Supposing, I admit, that you brought as much skill to the task of conquering us as we show in defending ourselves or in yielding, you will at least agree that it becomes useless to you after your success. Absorbed solely in your new fancy, you abandon yourself to it without fear, without reserve: it is not to you that its duration is important.

In fact, those bonds reciprocally given and received, to talk love’s jargon, you alone can tighten or break at your will: we are even lucky if, in your wantonness, preferring mystery to noise, you are satisfied with a humiliating desertion, without making the idol of yesterday the victim of tomorrow.

But when an unfortunate woman has once felt the weight of her chain, what risks she has to run, if she endeavors to shake it off, or tries but to lighten it! It is only with trembling that she can attempt to dismiss from her the man whom her heart repulses with violence. Does he insist on remaining, she must yield to fear what she had granted to love:

Her arms are open still; her heart is shut.

Her prudence must skilfully unravel those same bonds which you would have broken. At the mercy of her enemy, if he be without generosity, she is without resources: and how can she hope generosity from him when, although he is sometimes praised for having it, he is never blamed for lacking it?

Doubtless, you will not deny these truths, which are so evident as to have become trivial. If, however, you have seen me, disposing of opinions and events, making these formidable men the toys of my fantasy and my caprice, depriving some of the power, some of the will to hurt me; if I have known, turn by turn, according to my fickle fancy, how to attach to my service or drive far away from me if in midst of these frequent revolutions my reputation has still remained pure; ought you not to have concluded that, being born to avenge my sex and to dominate yours, I had devised methods previously unknown?

These unthroned tyrants that are now my slaves,ev.

Oh! keep your advice and your fears for those delirious women who call themselves sentimental;ew whose exalted imagination would make one believe that nature has placed their senses in their heads; who, having never reflected, persist in confounding love with the lover; who, in their mad illusion, believe that he with whom they have pursued pleasure is its sole depository; and, truly superstitious, show the priest the respect and faith which is only due to the divinity. Be still more afraid for those who, their vanity being larger than their prudence, do not know, at need, how to consent to being abandoned. Tremble, above all, for those women, active in their indolence, whom you call women of sensibility, and over whom love takes hold so easily and with such power; who feel the need of being occupied with it, even when they are not enjoying it; and, giving themselves up unreservedly to the fermentation of their ideas, bring forth from them those letters so sweet, but so dangerous to write, and are not afraid to confide these proofs of their weakness to the object which causes it: imprudent ones, who do not know how to discern in their present lover their enemy to be.

But what have I in common with these unreflecting women? When have you ever seen me depart from the rules I have laid down, or be false to my principles? I say my principles, and I say so designedly; for they are not, like those of other women, the result of chance, received without scrutiny, and followed out of habit; they are the fruit of my profound reflections; I have created them, and I may say that I am my own handiwork.

Entering the world at a time when, still a girl, I was compelled by my condition to be silent and inert, I knew how to profit by that in order to observe and reflect. While I was thought heedless or inattentive, and, in truth, listened little to the remarks that they were careful to make to me, I carefully gathered up those which they sought to hide from me.

This useful curiosity, while serving to instruct me, also taught me dissimulation; often forced to conceal the objects of my attention from the eyes of those who surrounded me, I sought to direct my own whither I desired; I learned then how to assume at will that remote look which you have so often praised. Encouraged by this first success, I tried to govern equally the different movements of my face. Did I experience some vexation, I studied to assume an air of serenity, even of joy; I have carried my zeal so far as to inflict voluntary pain on myself, in order to seek, at that time, an expression of pleasure. I labored, with the same care and greater difficulty, to repress the symptoms of unexpected joy. It was thus that I gained that command over my physiognomy at which I have sometimes seen you so astonished.

I was very young still, and almost without interest: my thoughts were all that I had, and I was indignant that these should be stolen from me or surprised against my will. Armed with these first weapons, I tried to use them; not satisfied with not letting my real self be manifest, I amused myself by showing myself under different forms. Sure of my gestures, I kept a watch upon my speech; I regulated both according to circumstances, or even merely according to my whim; from that moment the color of my thought was my secret, and I never revealed more of it than it was useful for me to show.

This labor spent upon myself had fixed my attention on the expression of faces and the character of physiognomy; and I thus gained that penetrating glance to which experience, indeed, has taught me not to trust entirely, but which, on the whole, has rarely deceived me. I was not fifteen years old, I possessed already the talents to which the greater part of our politicians owe their reputation, and I was as yet only at the rudiments of the science which I wished to acquire. You may well imagine that, like all young girls, I sought to find out about love and its pleasures; but having never been to the convent, having no confidential friend, and being watched by a vigilant mother, I had only vague notions, which I could not fix; even nature, which later I had, assuredly, no reason to do aughtex but praise, as yet afforded me no hint. One might have said that it was working in silence at the perfection of its handiwork. My head alone was in a ferment; I did not desire enjoyment, I wanted to know: the desire for information suggested to me the means.

I felt that the only man with whom I could speak on this matter without compromising myself was my confessor. I took my course at once; I surmounted my slight feeling of shame; and vaunting myself for a sin which I had not committed, I accused myself of having done all that women do. That was my expression; but, in speaking so, I did not know, in truth, what idea I was expressing. My hope was not altogether deceived, nor entirely fulfilled; the fear of betraying myself prevented me from enlightening myself: but the good father represented the ill as so great that I concluded the pleasure to be extreme; and to the desire of knowing it the desire of tasting it succeeded.

I do not know whither this desire would have led me; and, devoid of experience as I was at that time, perhaps a single opportunity would have ruined me: luckily for me, my mother informed me, a few days later, that I was to be married; the certainty of knowing extinguished my curiosity at once, and I came a virgin to the arms of M. de Merteuil.

I waited with calmness for the moment which was to enlighten me, and I had need of reflection, in order to exhibit embarrassment and fear. The first night, of which ordinarily one entertains an idea so painful or so sweet, presented itself to me only as an occasion of experience: pain and pleasure, I observed all carefully, and saw in these different sensations only facts upon which to reflect and meditate. This form of study soon succeeded in pleasing me: but, faithful to my principles, and feeling by instinct perhaps that no one ought to be farther from my confidence than my husband, I resolved to appear the more impassive in his eyes, the more sensible I really was. This apparent coldness was subsequently the impregnable foundation of his blind confidence; on fruitful reflection, I joined to it the mischievous air which my age justified; and he never thought me more of a child than when I was tricking him most.

Meanwhile, I will admit, I, at first, let myself be dragged into the vortex of society, and gave myself up completely to its futile distractions. But, after some months, M. de Merteuil having taken me to his dismal country estate, the dread of ennui revived the taste for study in me: and as I found myself there surrounded by people whose distance from me put me out of the reach of all suspicion, I profited by it to give a vaster field to my experience. It was there especially that I assured myself that love, which they vaunt to us as the cause of our pleasures, is, at the most, only the pretext for them.

The illness of M. de Merteuil came to interrupt these sweet occupations; it was necessary to follow him to Town, where he went to seek for aid. He died, as you know, shortly afterward; and although, considering all things, I had no complaint to make against him, I had, nonetheless, a lively feeling of the value of the liberty which my widowhood would give me, and I promised myself to take advantage of it. My mother calculated on my entering a convent, or returning to live with her. I refused to take either course, and all I granted to decency, was to go back to the same country estate, where there were still some observations left for me to make.

I supplemented these with the help of reading: but do not imagine it was all of the kind you suppose. I studied our manners in novels, our opinions in the philosophers; I even went to the most severe moralists to see what they expected from us; and I thus made sure of what one could do, of what one ought to think, and of how one must appear. My mind once settled upon these three matters, the last alone presented any difficulties in its execution; I hoped to overcome them, and I meditated on the means.

I began to grow tired of my rustic pleasures, which were not varied enough for my active brain; I felt the need of coquetry, which should reunite me to love, not in order that I might really feel it, but to feign and inspire it. In vain had I been told, and had I read, that one could not feign this sentiment; I saw that, to succeed there, it sufficed to join the talent of a comedianey to an author’s wit. I exercised myself in both kinds, and, perhaps, with some success: but, instead of seeking the vain applause of the theatre, I resolved to employ for my happiness that which so many others sacrificed to vanity.

A year passed in these different occupations. My mourning then allowing me to reappear, I returned to Town with my great projects; I was not prepared for the first obstacle which I encountered.

My long solitude and austere retreat had covered me with a veneer of prudery which frightened our beaux; they kept their distance, and left me at the mercy of a crowd of tedious fellows, who all were aspirants for my hand. The embarrassment did not lie in refusing them; but many of these refusals displeased my family, and in these internal disputes I lost the time of which I had promised myself to make such charming use. I was obliged, then, in order to recall some and drive away the others, to display certain inconsistencies, ez and to take as much pains in damaging my reputation as I had thought to take in preserving it. I succeeded easily, as you may believe: but, being carried away by no passion, I only did what I thought necessary, and measured out my doses of indiscretion with caution.

As soon as I had touched the goal which I would attain, I retraced my steps, and gave the honor of my amendment to some of those women who, being impotent as far as any pretensions to charm are concerned, fall back on those of merit and virtue. This was a move which was of more value to me than I had hoped. These grateful duennasfaset themselves up as my apologists; and their blind zeal for what they called their work was carried to such an extent that, at the least reflection which might be made on me, the whole party of prudes cried scandal and outrage. The same method procured me also the suffrages of the women with pretensions, who, being persuaded that I had renounced the thought of following the same career as theirs, selected me as a subject for their praise, each time they wished to prove that they did not speak ill of all the world.

Meanwhile, my previous conduct had brought back the lovers; and to compromise between them and the unfaithful women who had become my patronesses, I passed as a woman of sensibility, but of rigor, whom the excess of her delicacy furnished with arms against love.

I then began to display upon the great stage the talents which had been given me. My first care was to acquire the reputation of being invincible. To attain it, the men who did not please me were always the only ones whose homage I had the air of accepting. I employed them usefully to obtain for me the honors of resistance, while to the preferred lover I abandoned myself without fear. But the latter, my pretended shyness never permitted to follow me in the world; and the gaze of society has thus been always fixed on the unhappy lover.

You know with what rapidity I choose: it is because I have observed that it is nearly always the previous attentions which disclose a woman’s secret. Whatever one may do, the tone is never the same before and after success. This difference does not escape the attentive observer; and I have found it less dangerous to be deceived in my choice than to let that choice be penetrated. I gain here again by removing probabilities, by which alone we can be judged.

These precautions and that of never writing, of never giving any proof of my defeat, might appear excessive, and to me have ever appeared insufficient. I have looked into my own heart, I have studied in it the heart of others. I saw there that there is nobody who does not keep a secret there which it is of importance to him should not be divulged: a truth which antiquity seems to have known better than we, and of which the history of Samson might be no more than an ingenious symbol. Like a new Delilah, I have always employed my power in surprising this important secret.15 Ah, of how many of our modern Samsons have not the locks fallen beneath my shears? And these, I have ceased to fear them; they are the only ones whom I have sometimes permitted myself to humiliate. More supple with the others, the art of rendering them unfaithful lest I should appear to them fickle, a feint of friendship, an appearance of confidence, a few generous measures, the flattering notion, which each one retains, of having been my only lover, have secured me their discretion. Finally, when these methods failed me, foreseeing the rupture, I knew how to crush in advance, beneath ridicule or calumny, the credence which these dangerous men could have obtained.

All this which I tell you you have seen me practice unceasingly; and you doubt of my prudence! Ah, indeed! recall to mind the time when you paid me your first attentions: no homage was ever more flattering to me; I desired you before I had ever seen you. Seduced by your reputation, it seemed to me that you were wanting to my glory; I burned with a desire for a hand-to-hand combat with you. It is the only one of my fancies which ever had a moment’s empire over me. However, if you had wished to destroy me, what means would you have found? Empty talk which leaves no trace behind it, which your very reputation would have helped to render suspect, and a tissue of improbable facts, the sincere relation of which would have had the air of a badly conceived novel. It is true, since that time, I have handed you over all my secrets: but you know what interests unite us, and that, if it be one of us, it is not I who can be taxed with imprudence.fb

Since I have started off to render account to you, I will do it precisely. I hear you tell me now that I am at any rate at the mercy of my chambermaid; in fact, if she is not in the secret of my sentiments, she is of my actions. When you spoke of it to me once before, I answered that I was sure of her; and my proof that this reply was sufficient then for your tranquillity is that you have since confided to her mighty dangerous secrets of your own. But, now that you have taken umbrage at Prévan, and that your head is turned, I doubt whether you will believe me anymore on my word. I must therefore edify you.

In the first place, the girl is my foster sister, and this bond, which does not seem one to us, is not without force among people of her condition: in addition, I have her secret and better still, the victim of a love madness, she was ruined, if I had not saved her. Her parents, bristling with honor, would be satisfied by nothing less than her imprisonment. They applied to me. I saw at a glance how useful their anger might be made to me. I seconded them and solicited the order, which I obtained. Then, suddenly turning to the side of clemency, to which I persuaded her parents, and profiting by my influence with the old minister, I made them all consent to make me the depositary of this order, free to stay it or demand its execution, according to the judgment I should form of the girl’s future conduct.She knows, then, that I have her lot within my hands; and if, to assume the impossible, these potent reasons should not prevent her, is it not evident that the revelation of her conduct and her authentic punishment would soon deprive her language of all credit?

To these precautions, which I call fundamental, are joined a thousand others, local or occasional, which habit and reflection allow me to find at need; of which the details would be tedious, although their practice is important; and which you must take the trouble to pick out from the general view of my conduct, if you would succeed in knowing them.

But to pretend that I have been at so much pains, and am not to cull the fruit of them; that, after having raised myself, by my arduous labors, so high above other women, I am to consent to grope along, like them, betwixt imprudence and timidity; that, above all, I should fear any man to such an extent as to see no other salvation than in flight? No, Vicomte, never! I must conquer or perish. As for Prévan, I wish to have him, and I shall have him; he wishes to tell of it, and he shall not tell of it: that, in two words, is our little romance.fc Adieu.