Dangerous Liaisons —85—


AT LAST YOU MAY be tranquil, and, above all, you can render me justice. Listen, and do not confound me again with other women. I have brought my adventure with Prévan to a close. To a close! Do you fully understand what that implies? Now you shall judge whether it is I, or he, who can vaunt himself. The story will not be as amusing as the adventure: neither would it be just that you, who have done no more than reason ill or well about the affair, should reap as much pleasure from it as I, who have given my time and labor.

In the meantime, if you have some great scheme to try, if you would attempt some enterprise in which this dangerous rival should seem to you to be feared, this is your time. He leaves the field free to you, at least for some time; perhaps, even, he will never recover from the blow I have given him.

How fortunate you are to have me for a friend! I am a benevolent fairy to you. You languish afar from the beauty who engrosses you; I say one word, and you find yourself once more at her side. You wish to revenge yourself on a woman who injures you; I point out to you the place where you have to strike, and abandon her to your tender mercies. Finally, to drive a formidable competitor from the lists,fg it is once more I whom you invoke, and I give heed to you. Truly, if you do not spend your life in thanking me, it means that you are an ingrate. I return to my adventure and take it up from the beginning.

The rendezvous made so loudly, on leaving the Opera,fh was understood as I had hoped. Prévan repaired to it;fi and when the Maréchale said to him politely that she congratulated herself on seeing him twice in succession at her days;fj he was careful to reply that, since Tuesday night, he had cancelled a thousand engagements, in order that he might thus dispose of that evening. A bon entendeur, salut!fk As I wished, however, to know with more certainty whether I was, or was not, the veritable object of this flattering zeal, I resolved to compel the new aspirant to choose between me and his dominant passion. I declared that I should not play; and he, on his side, found a thousand pretexts for not playing, and my first triumph was over lansquenet.fl

I secured the Bishop of— for my gossipfm; I chose him because of his intimacy with the hero of the day, to whom I wished to give every facility to approach me. I was contented also to have a respectable witness, who could, at need, depose to my behavior and my language. This arrangement was successful.

After the vague and customary remarks, Prévan, having soon made himself the leader of the conversation, tried different tones in turn, in order to discover which was likely to please me. I refused that of sentiment, as though I had no faith in it; I stopped, by my seriousness, his gaiety, which seemed to me too frivolous for a début;fn he fell back upon delicate friendship; and it was beneath this well-worn flag that we began our reciprocal attack.

At suppertime, the Bishop did not descend; Prévan then gave me his hand, and was naturally placed by my side at table. One must be just; he maintained with much skill our private conversation, while seeming only to be occupied with the general conversation, to which he had the air of being the largest contributor. At dessert, they spoke of a new piece fowhich was to be given on the following Monday at the Français. I expressed some regret that I had not my box; he offered me his own, which at first, as is the usage, I refused: to which he answered humorously enough, that I did not understand him; that certainly, he would not make the sacrifice of his box to anyone whom he did not know; but that he only let me know it was at Madame la Maréchale’s disposal. She lent herself to this pleasantry, and I accepted.

On our return to the salon, he asked, as you may well believe, for a place in this box; and when the Maréchale, who treats him with great kindness, promised him it, if he were good, he made it the occasion of one of those double-edged conversations, at which you have extolled his talent to me. Indeed, having fallen on his knees, like a submissive child, he said, under pretext of begging for her counsel and asking her opinion, he uttered many a flattering and tender thing, the application of which I could easily take to myself. Several persons having not returned to play after supper, the conversation was more general and less interesting: but our eyes spoke much. I say our eyes: I should have said his; for mine spoke but one language—that of surprise. He must have thought I was astonished, and quite absorbed in the prodigious effect which he had on me. I think I left him highly satisfied; I was no less pleased myself.

On the following Monday I was at the Français, as we had agreed. In spite of your literary curiosity, I can tell you nothing of the performance, except that Prévan has a marvelous talent for cajolery, and that the piece failed: that is all that I learned. I was sorry to see the evening come to an end; it had really pleased me mightily; and, in order to prolong it, I invited the Maréchale to come and sup with me: this gave me a pretext for proposing it to the amiable flatterer, who only asked the time to hasten to the Comtesses de P—,fp and free himself from an engagement. This name brought back all my anger; I saw plainly that he was going to begin his confidences; I remembered your wise counsels, and promised myself… to proceed with the adventure; I was certain that I should cure him of this dangerous indiscretion.

Being new to my company, which was not very numerous that evening, he owed me the customary usages; thus, when we went to supper, he offered me his hand. I was malicious enough, when accepting it, to allow mine to tremble slightly, and to walk with my eyes cast down, and a quick respiration. I had the air of having a presentiment of my defeat, and of being afraid of my victor. He noticed it readily; then the traitor promptly changed his tone and aspect. He had been gallant, he became tender. It was not that his language did not remain much the same: circumstances compelled that; but his gaze had become less keen and more caressing; the inflection of his voice softer; his smile was no longer the smile of finesse, but of satisfaction. Finally, in his conversation, suppressing more and more the fire of his sallies, wit gave place to delicacy. I ask you, could you have done better yourself?

On my side, I grew pensive to such a point that the company was forced to perceive it; and when I was reproached for it, I was clever enough to defend myself indifferently, and to cast on Prévan a rapid, yet shy and embarrassed glance, that was to make him believe that all my fear was lest he should divine the cause of my trouble.

After supper, I profited by the moment when the good Maréchale was telling one of those stories which she is always telling, to settle myself on my ottoman, in that languorous condition which is induced by a tender reverie. I was not sorry for Prévan to see me thus; in truth, he honored me with most particular attention. You may well imagine that my timid glances did not dare to seek the eyes of my conqueror: but directed toward him in a more humble fashion, they soon informed me that I was obtaining the effect which I sought to produce. I still needed to persuade him that I shared it; so that, when the Maréchale announced she was going to retire, I cried out in a faint and tender voice, “Ah Dieu! I was so comfortable here!” I rose, however: but, before taking leave of her, I asked her her plans, in order to have a pretext for telling her mine, and of letting her know that I should stay at home the whole of the next day but one. Upon this, we all separated.

I then started reflecting. I had no doubt but that Prévan would profit by the sort of rendezvous I had given him; that he would come early enough to find me alone, and that the attack would be a fierce one: but I was quite sure also that, owing to my reputation, he would not treat me with that lightness which, however little practice one has had, is only employed with women of occasion or with those who have no experience; and I foresaw a certain success, if he pronounced the word love, above all, if he had the pretension of obtaining it from me.

How convenient it is to have dealings with you people of principles! Sometimes a clumsy lover disconcerts us by his bashfulness or embarrasses us with his fiery transports; it is a fever which, like the other, has its chills and ardors, and sometimes varies in its symptoms. But the even tenor of your way is so easily divined!

The arrival, the aspect, the tone, the language: I knew it all the day before.

I will not report our conversation to you, then; you will easily supply it for yourself. Only remark that, in my feigned defense, I aided him with all my power: embarrassment, to give him time to speak; sorry reasons, that he might combat them; distrust and fear, to revive his protestations; and that perpetual refrain on his side of I ask you only for a word; and the silence on mine, which seemed but to delay him in order to make him desire the more: during all that, a hand seized a hundred times, a hand always withdrawn yet never refused. One might pass a whole day thus; we passed a mortal hour: we should be there, perhaps, still, if we had not heard a carriage entering my courtyard. This fortunate occurrence naturally rendered his entreaties livelier; and I, seeing the moment arrive when I was out of danger of any surprise, prepared myself by a long sigh, and granted him the precious word. The visitor was announced, and soon afterward, I was surrounded by a numerous circle.

Prévan begged to be allowed to come on the following morning, and I consented: but, careful to defend myself, I ordered my waiting maid to remain all through the time of this visit in my bedchamber, whence, you know, one can see all that passes in my dressing room, and it was there that I received him. Free in our conversation and having both the same desire, we were soon in agreement: but it was necessary to get rid of this inopportune spectator; it was for that I was waiting.

Then, painting an imaginative picture of my home life, I persuaded him without difficulty that we should never find a moment’s liberty, and that he must consider as a sort of miracle that which we had enjoyed yesterday, and even that contained too great a risk for me to expose myself to, since at any moment someone might enter my salon. I did not fail to add that all these usages were established, because, until that day, they had never interfered with me; and I insisted at the same time upon the impossibility of changing them without compromising myself in the eyes of my household. He attempted sadness, assumed ill humor, told me that I had little love; and you can guess how much all that touched me! But, wishing to strike the decisive blow, I summoned tears to my aid. It was precisely the Zaire, you are weeping. The empire which he thought to have gained over me, and the hope he had conceived of compassing my ruin at his will, stood him in good stead for all the love of Orosmane. 16

This dramatic scene accomplished, we returned to our arrangements. The day being out of the question, we turned our attention to the night: but my Swissfq became an insurmountable obstacle, and I would not permit any attempt to bribe him. He suggested the wicket gatefrof my garden; but this I had foreseen, and I invented a dog who, although calm and silent enough by day, became a real demon at night. The ease with which I entered into all these details was well fitted to embolden him. Thus he went on to propose the most ridiculous of expedients to me, and it was this which I accepted.

To begin with, his servant was as trusty as himself: in this he did not lie to me; the one was quite as little so as the other. I was to give a great supper at my house; he was to be there, and was to select a moment when he could leave alone. The cunning confidant would call his carriage, open the door, while he, Prévan, instead of entering it, would slip adroitly on one side. In no way could his coachman perceive this; so that, while everybody believed him to have left, he had really remained with me; the question remained whether he could reach my apartment. I confess that, at first, I had some difficulty in finding reasons against this project weak enough for him to be able to destroy; he answered me with instances. To hear him, nothing was more ordinary than this method; he himself had often employed it; it was even that one which he used the most, as being the least dangerous.

Subjugated by these irrefutable authorities,fs I admitted with candor that I had a private staircase which led to the near neighborhood of my boudoir;ftthat I could leave the key of it, and it was possible for him to shut himself in there and wait, without undue risk, until my women had retired; and then, to give more probability to my consent, the moment after I was unwilling: I only relented on the condition of a perfect docility, of a propriety—oh, a propriety! In short I was quite willing to prove my love to him, but not so much to gratify his own.

The exit, of which I was forgetting to tell you, was to be made by the wicket gate of my garden; it was only a matter of waiting for daybreak, when the Cerberus17 would not utter a sound. Not a soul passes at that hour, and people are in the soundest slumber. If you are astonished at this heap of sorry reasons, it is because you forget our reciprocal situation. What need had we of better ones? He asked nothing better than for the thing to be known, and as for me, I was quite certain that it should not be known. The next day but one was the day fixed.

You will notice that there is the affair settled, and that no one has yet seen Prévan in my society. I meet him at supper at the house of one of my friends, he offers her his box for a new piece, and I accept a place in it. I invite this woman to supper, during the piece and before Prévan; I can hardly avoid inviting him to be of the party. He accepts, and pays me two days later the visit exacted by custom. ’Tis true, he comes to see me on the morning of the next day: but besides the fact that morning visits no longer count, it only rests with me to find this one too free; and in fact I put him in the category of persons less intimate with me, by a written invitation to a supper of ceremony. I can well cry, with Annette:18 “Albeit that is all!”

The fatal day having come, the day on which I was to lose my virtue and my reputation, I gave my instructions to the faithful Victoire, and she executed them as you will presently see. In the meantime, evening arrived. I had already a great company with me, when Prévan was announced. I received him with a marked politeness, which testified to the slightness of my acquaintance with him; and I put him by the side of the Maréchale, as being the person through whom I had made it. The evening produced nothing but a very short note, which the discreet lover found a means of giving me, and which, according to my custom, I burned. It informed me that I could trust him; and this essential word was surrounded by all the parasitical words, such as love, happiness, etc., which never fail to appear at such a festival.

By midnight, the rubbers being over, I proposed a short medley.fu I had the double design of favoring Prévan’s escape, and at the same time of causing it to be noticed; that could not fail to happen, considering his reputation as a gamester. I was not sorry, either, that it might be remembered, if need were, that I had not been in a hurry to be left alone. The game lasted longer than I had thought. The devil tempted me, and I was succumbing to my desire to console the impatient prisoner. I was thus rushing on to my ruin, when I reflected that, once having quite surrendered, I should not have sufficient control over him to keep him in the costume of decency which my plans required. I had the strength to resist. I retraced my steps, and returned, not without some ill humor, to resume my place at the eternal game. It finished, however, and everyone left. As for me, I rang for my women, undressed very rapidly, and sent them also away.

Can you see me, Vicomte, in my light toilette, walking with timid and circumspect steps and trembling hand to open the door to my conqueror? He saw me; lightning is not more prompt. What shall I say to you? I was vanquished, quite vanquished, before I could say one word to arrest him or defend myself. He then wanted to take a convenient position and one more suitable to the circumstances. He cursed his finery which, he said, kept him aloof from me; he would combat me with equal arms: but my extreme timidity was opposed to this project, and my soft caresses did not leave him time. He was occupied with other things.

His rights were redoubled, his pretensions were renewed; but then: “Listen to me,” I said; “you will have thus far a merry story enough to tell the two Comtesses de P—, and a thousand others; but I am curious to know how you will relate the end of the adventure.” Speaking thus, I rang the bell with all my strength. For the nonce it was my turn, and my action was quicker than his speech. He had only stammered out something, when I heard Victoire running up and calling the servants, whom she had kept near her, as I had ordered. Then, assuming my queenly tone, raising my voice: “Leave me, Monsieur,” I went on, “and never come into my presence again.” Whereupon a crowd of my people entered.

Poor Prévan lost his head, and, fancying an ambush in what was at bottom no more than a joke, he betook himself to his sword. It did him no good, for my valet-de-chambre,fv who is brave and active, caught him round the body and hurled him to the ground. I was in a mortal fright, I vow. I cried to them to cease, and bade them let his retreat go unmolested, so long as they made certain that he was gone. My men obeyed me: but there was great commotion among them; they were indignant that anyone should have dared to fail in respect toward their virtuous mistress. They all accompanied the unfortunate Chevalier, noisily and with the scandal which I desired. Victoire only stayed behind, and we occupied ourselves during this interval in repairing the disorder of my bed.

My household returned in the same state of commotion; and I, still upset by my emotion, asked them by what lucky chance they happened to be not yet gone to bed. Victoire then related to me how she had asked two women friends to supper, how they had sat up with her, and, in short, all that we had together agreed upon. I thanked them all, and let them retire, bidding one of them, however, to go immediately and summon my physician. It seemed to me that I was justified in fearing ill effects from my mortal fright; and it was a sure means of giving wind and celebrity to the news. He came in effect, condoled with me mightily, and prescribed repose. In addition, I bade Victoire go abroad early in the morning and gossip in the neighborhood.

Everything succeeded so well that, before noon, and as soon as I was awake, my pious neighbor was already at my bedside, to know the truth and the details of this terrible adventure. I was obliged to moan with her for an hour over the corruption of the age. A moment later, I received from the Maréchale the note which I enclose. Finally, about five o‘clock, to my great astonishment, Monsieur — arrived.fw He came, he told me, to bring his excuses that an officer of his regiment should have been so grossly wanting in respect. He had only heard of it at dinner, at the Maréchale’s, and had immediately sent word to Prévan to consider himself under arrest. I asked for his pardon, and he refused it me. I then thought that, as an accomplice, I ought to dispatch myself on my side, and at least keep myself under strict guard. I caused my door to be shut, and word to be given that I was indisposed.

’Tis to my solitude that you owe this long letter! I shall write one to Madame de Volanges, which she will be sure to read aloud, and from which you will hear this story as it is to be told. I forgot to tell you that Belleroche is enraged, and absolutely wants to fight Prévan. The poor fellow! Luckily I shall have time to calm his head. In the meantime, I am going to repose my own, which is tired with writing. Adieu, Vicomte.