Dangerous Liaisons —23—


I LEFT OFF AT my return to the château: I resume my tale.

I had only time to make a hurried toilette, ere I repaired to the drawing room, where my beauty was working at her tapestry, while the curé of the place was reading the gazette to my old aunt. I went and took my seat by the frame. Glances sweeter than were customary, and almost caressing, enabled me soon to divine that the servant had already given an account of his mission. Indeed, the dear, inquisitive lady could no longer keep the secret which she had acquired ; and without fear of interrupting a venerable pastor, whose recital indeed resembled a sermon: “I too have a piece of news to recite,” said she; and suddenly related my adventure, with an exactitude which did honor to the intelligence of her historian. You may conceive what play I made with my modesty: but who can stop a woman, when she praises the man whom, without knowing it, she loves? I decided therefore to let her have her head. One would have thought she was making the panegyricbj of a saint. All this time I was observing, not without hope, all the promises of love in her animated gaze; her gesture, which had become more lively; and, above all, her voice, which, by its already perceptible alteration, betrayed the emotion of her soul. She had hardly finished speaking when: “Come, my nephew,” said Madame de Rosemonde to me, “come and let me embrace you.” I felt at once that the pretty preacher could not prevent herself from being embraced in her turn. However, she wished to fly; but she was soon in my arms, and, so far from having the strength to resist, she had scarcely sufficient to maintain herself. The more I observe this woman, the more desirable she appears to me. She hastened to return to her frame, and to everybody had the appearance of resuming her tapestry. But I saw well her trembling hand prevented her from continuing her work.

After dinner, the ladies insisted on going to see the unfortunates whom I had so piously succored; I accompanied them. I spare you the tedium of this second scene of gratitude and praise. My heart, impelled by a delicious recollection, hurries on the moment for return to the château. On the way, my fair Présidente, more pensive than is her wont, said never a word. Occupied as I was in seeking the means of profiting by the effect which the episode of the day had produced, I maintained the same silence. Madame de Rosemonde was the only one to speak, and obtained from us but scant and few replies. We must have bored her; that was my intention, and it succeeded. Thus, on stepping from the carriage, she passed into her apartment and left my fair one and myself tête-à-tête,bk in a dimly lighted room—a sweet obscurity which emboldens timid love.

I had not to be at the pains to lead the conversation into the channel which I wished. The fervor of the amiable preacheress served me better than any skill of my own.

“When one is capable of doing good,” said she, letting her sweet gaze rest on me, “how can one pass one’s life in doing ill?”

“I do not deserve, either that praise or that censure,” said I, “and I cannot imagine how you, who have so clear a wit, have not yet divined me. Though my confidence may damage me in your eyes, you are far too worthy of it that I should be able to refuse it. You will find the key to my conduct in my character, which is unhappily far too easygoing. Surrounded by persons of no morality, I have imitated their vices; I have perhaps made it a point of vanity to surpass them. In the same way, attracted here by the example of virtue, without ever hoping to come up to you, I have, at least, endeavored to imitate you. Ah, perhaps the action for which you praise me today would lose all value in your eyes if you knew its true motive!” (You see, my fair friend, how near the truth I touched.) “It is not to myself,” I went on, “that these unfortunates owe their rescue. Where you think you see a praiseworthy action, I did but seek a means to please. I was nothing else, since I must say it, but the weak agent of the divinity whom I adore.” (Here she would have interrupted me, but I did not give her time.) “At this very moment even,” I added, “my secret only escapes from my weakness. I had vowed that I would be silent before you; I made it my happiness to render to your virtues as much as to your charms a pure homage of which you should always remain ignorant; but incapable of deception, when I have before my eyes the example of candor, I shall not have to reproach myself to you with guilty dissimulation.bl Do not believe that I insult you by entertaining any criminal hope. I shall be miserable, I know; but my sufferings will be dear to me: they will prove to me the immensity of my love; it is at your feet, it is on your bosom that I will cast down my woes. There shall I draw the strength to suffer anew; there shall I find compassionate bounty, and I shall deem myself consoled because you will have pitied me. Oh, you whom I adore! hearken to me, pity me, succor me!”

By this time I was at her feet, and I pressed her hands in mine; but she suddenly disengaged them and, folding them over her eyes, cried with an expression of despair, “Oh, wretched me!” then burst into tears. Luckily I was exalted to such a degree that I also wept; and, seizing her hands again, I bathed them with my tears. This precaution was most necessary; for she was so full of her grief that she would not have perceived my own, had I not taken this means of informing her. I moreover gained the privilege of considering at my leisure that charming face, yet more embellished by the potent charm of her tears. My head grew hot, and so little was I master of myself that I was tempted to profit by that moment.

What is this weakness of ours? of what avail is the force of circumstances if, forgetting my own projects, I risked losing, by a premature triumph, the charms of a long battle and the details of a painful defeat ; if, seduced by the desires of youth, I thought of exposing the conqueror of Madame de Tourvel to the pain of plucking, for the fruit of victory, but the insipid consolation of having had one woman more? Ah, let her surrender, but let her first fight; let her, without having strength to conquer, have enough to resist; let her relish at her leisure the sentiment of her weakness and be constrained to confess her defeat!Let us leave it to the obscure poacher to kill at a bound the stag he has surprised; your true hunter will give it a run. Is not this project of mine sublime? Yet perhaps I should be now regretting that I had not followed it, had not chance come to the rescue of my prudence.

We heard a noise. Someone was coming to the drawing room. Madame de Tourvel, in alarm, rose precipitately, seized one of the candles, and left the room. I could not but let her go. It was only one of the servants. As soon as I was assured of this, I followed her. I had hardly gone a few paces, before, whether that she had recognized me, or for some vague sentiment of terror, I heard her quicken her steps, and flung herself into, rather than entered, her chamber, the door of which she closed behind her. I went after her; but the door was locked inside. I was careful not to knock; that would have been to give her the chance of a too easy resistance. I had the good and simple idea of peeping through the keyhole, and I saw this adorable woman on her knees, bathed with tears, and fervently praying. What God did she dare invoke? Is there one potent enough to resist love? In vain, henceforward, will she invoke extraneous aid! ’Tis I who will order her destiny.

Thinking I had done enough for one day, I too withdrew to my own room, and started to write to you. I hoped to see her again at supper; but she had given out that she was indisposed, and had gone to bed. Madame de Rosemonde wished to go up to her; but the cunning invalid alleged a headache which prevented her from seeing anybody. You may guess that after supper the interval was short, and that I too had my headache. Withdrawing to my room, I wrote a long letter to complain of this severity, and went to bed with the intention of delivering it to her this morning. I slept badly, as you can see by the date of this letter. I rose and reread my epistle. I discovered that I had not been sufficiently restrained, had exhibited less love than ardor, less regret than ill humor. It must be written again, but in a calmer mood.

I see the day break, and I hope the freshness which accompanies it will bring me sleep. I am going to return to my bed; and, whatever may be the power of this woman over me, I promise you never to be so occupied with her as to lack time to think much of you. Adieu, my lovely friend!