Dangerous Liaisons —76—


EITHER YOUR LETTER is a piece of banter which I have not understood, or you were in a dangerous delirium when you wrote it. If I knew you less well, my lovely friend, I should truly be most alarmed; and, whatever you may say, I do not take alarm too easily.

It is in vain that I read and reread your letter, I am none the more advanced; for to take it in the natural sense which it presents is out of the question. What was it then you wished to say? Is it merely that it was useless to take so much trouble with an enemy who was so little to be feared? In that case, you might be wrong. Prévan is really attractive; he is more so than you believe; he has, above all, the most useful talent of interesting people greatly in his love, by the skill with which he will bring it up in society, and before the company, by making use of the first conversation which occurs. There are few women who do not fall into the trap and reply to him, because, all having pretensions to subtlety, none wishes to lose an opportunity of displaying it. Now you are well aware that the woman who consents to talk of love soon finishes by feeling it, or at least by behaving as if she did. He gains again at this method, which he has really brought to perfection, in that he can often call the women themselves in testimony of their defeat; and this I tell you, as one who has seen it.

I was never in the secret except at secondhand; for I have never been intimate with Prévan: but, in a word, there were six of us: and the Comtesse de P—, thinking herself very artful all the time, and having the air indeed, to any one who was not initiated, of conversing in the abstract, told us, with the utmost detail, both how she had succumbed to Prévan, and all that had passed between them. She told this narrative with such a sense of security that she was not even disturbed by a smile which came over all our six faces at the same time; and I shall always remember that one of us, having sought, by way of excuse, to feign a doubt as to what she said, or rather of what she had the air of saying, she answered gravely that we were certainly, none of us, so well informed as she was; and she was not afraid even to address herself to Prévan, and ask him if she had said a word which was not true.

I was right then in believing this man dangerous to everybody: but for you, Marquise, was it not enough that he was handsome, very handsome, as you tell me yourself? Or that he should make one of those attacks on you which you sometimes amuse yourself by rewarding, for no other reason than that you find them well contrived? Or that you should have found it amusing to succumb for any reason whatever? Or—what do I know? Can I divine the thousand and one caprices which govern a woman’s head, and in which alone you continue to take after your sex? Now that you are forewarned of the danger, I have no doubt that you will easily avoid it: but it was nonetheless necessary to forewarn you. I return to my text therefore: what did you mean to say?

If it is only a piece of banter against Prévan, apart from its being very long, it was of no use, addressed to me; it is in society that he must suffer some excellent piece of ridicule, and I renew my prayer to you on this subject.

Ah! I think I hold the key to the enigma! Your letter is a prophecy, not of what you will do, but of what he will think you ready to do, at the moment of the fall which you have prepared for him. I quite approve of this plan: it requires, however, great precautions. You know as well as I do that, as far as the public is concerned, to have a man or to receive his attentions is absolutely the same thing, unless the man be a fool, which Prévan is very far from being. If he can gain the appearances, he will boast, and all will have been said. Fools will believe him, the malicious will have the air of believing; where will your resources be? Remember, I am afraid. It is not that I doubt your skill: but it is the good swimmers who get drowned.

I hold myself to be no duller than another: as for means of dishonoring a woman, I have found a hundred, I have found a thousand; but when I have busied myself to seek how the woman could escape, I have never seen the possibility. You yourself, my fair friend, whose conduct is a masterpiece, I have a hundred times found you to have had more good luck than you have shown skill.

But, after all, I am, perhaps, seeking for a reason where none exists. I am amazed, however, to think that, for the last hour, I should have been treating seriously what is surely a mere jest on your part. You intend to make fun of me! Ah well! so be it; but make haste, and let us speak of something else. Something else! I am mistaken, it is always the same; always women to have or to ruin, and often both.

I have here, as you remark, the wherewithal to exercise myself in both kinds, but not with equal ease. I foresee that vengeance will go quicker than love. The little Volanges has succumbed, I answer for that; she only awaits an opportunity, and I undertake to bring it about. But it is not the same with Madame de Tourvel: this woman is disheartening, I did not conceive it of her; I have a hundred proofs of her love, but I have a thousand of her resistance; and, in truth, I am afraid lest she escape me.

The first effect which my return produced gave me more hope. You will guess that I wished to judge for myself; and, to make sure of seeing the first emotions, I sent no one ahead to announce me, and I calculated my stages so as to arrive when they should be at table. In fact, I dropped from the clouds, like a divinity at the opera,10 who comes to effect a dénouement.

Having made enough noise at my entry to attract all eyes to me, I could see, in one glance, the joy of my old aunt, the annoyance of Madame de Volanges and the confused pleasure of her daughter. My fair one, owing to the seat she occupied, had her back turned to the door. Busy at the moment in carving something, she did not even turn her head: but I said a word to Madame de Rosemonde ; and at the first sound, the sensitive Puritan, recognizing my voice, uttered a cry in which I thought I distinguished more love than terror or surprise. I was then in a position to see her face; the tumult of her soul, the struggle between her ideas and sentiments, were depicted on it in a score of different fashions. I sat down to table by her side; she did not know precisely anything of what she did or said. She endeavored to go on eating; it was out of the question: finally, not a quarter of an hour later, her pleasure and confusion becoming too strong for her, she could devise nothing better than to ask permission to leave the table, and she escaped into the park, on the pretext that she needed to take the air. Madame de Volanges wanted to accompany her; the tender prude would not permit it, too happy, no doubt, to have a pretext for being alone, and to give way without constraint to the soft emotion of her heart!

I made the dinner as short as it was possible to do. Dessert was hardly served, when the infernal Volanges woman, pressed apparently by her need to injure me, rose from her seat to go and find the charming invalid: but I had foreseen this project and I thwarted it. I feigned therefore to take this particular movement for the general signal; and, having risen at the same time, the little Volanges and the curé of the place followed the double example; so that Madame de Rosemonde was left alone at the table with the old Commandanteade T—; and they also both decided to leave. We all went then to rejoin my fair one, whom we found in the grove near the château: as it was solitude she wanted and not a walk, she was just as pleased to return with us as to make us stay with her.

As soon as I was certain that Madame de Volanges would have no opportunity to speak apart with her, I thought of fulfilling your orders, and busied myself about the interests of your pupil. Immediately after coffee, I went up to my room, and went into the others also, to explore the territory; I took measures to ensure the little girl’s correspondence; after this first piece of benevolence, I wrote a word of instruction to her and to beg for her confidence; and I added my note to the letter from Danceny. I returned to the salon.eb I found my beauty reclining on a long chair, in an attitude of delicious unconstraint.

This spectacle, while exciting my desires, illumined my gaze; I felt that this must be tender and beseeching, and I placed myself in such a position that I could bring it into play. Its first effect was to cause the big, modest eyes of the heavenly prude to be cast down. For some time I considered that angelic face; then, glancing over all her person, I amused myself by divining forms and contours through the light clothing, which I could have wished away. After having descended from head to feet, I returned from feet to head…. My fair friend, her soft gaze was fixed upon me; it was immediately lowered; but wishing to promote its return, I averted my eyes. Then was established between us that tacit convention, a first treaty of bashful love, which, in order to satisfy the reciprocal need of seeing, allows the looks to succeed one another, until the moment comes when they are mingled.

Convinced that this new pleasure occupied my fair one completely, I charged myself with the task of watching over our common safety; but, having assured myself that conversation was brisk enough to save us from the notice of the company, I sought to obtain from her eyes that they should frankly speak their language. For this, I began by surprising certain glances, but with so much reserve that modesty could not take alarm; and to put the bashful creature more at her ease, I appeared to be as embarrassed as herself.

Little by little our eyes, grown accustomed to encounter, were fixed for a longer interval; until at last they quitted each other no more, and I saw in hers that sweet languor which is the happy signal of love and desire: but it was only for a moment; soon recovering herself, she changed, not without a certain shame, her attitude and her look.

Being unwilling that she should suspect I had observed her different movements, I rose with vivacity, asking her, with an air of alarm, if she were unwell. At once, everybody rushed round her. I let them all pass in front of me; and as the little Volanges, who was working at her tapestry near a window, needed some time before she could leave her task, I seized the moment to deliver Danceny’s letter.

I was at a little distance from her; I threw the letter into her lap. In truth she did not know what to do. You would have laughed over much at her air of surprise and embarrassment; however, I did not laugh, for I feared lest so much clumsiness might betray us. But a quick glance and gesture, strongly accentuated, gave her to understand at last that she was to put the packet in her pocket.

The rest of the day contained nothing of interest. What has passed since will, perhaps, bring about events with which you will be pleased, at any rate in so far as your pupil is concerned: but it is better to employ one’s time in carrying out one’s projects than in describing them. This is, moreover, the eighth sheet I have written, and I am wearied; and so, adieu.

You will rightly suppose, without my telling it you, that the child has replied to Danceny.ec I have also had a reply from my fair, to whom I wrote on the morrow of my arrival. I send you the two letters. You will or you will not read them: for this incessant, tedious repetition, which already is none too amusing to me, must be insipid indeed to any person not concerned.

Once more, adieu. I am ever mightily fond of you; but I beg you, if you write to me of Prévan, do so in such a manner that I may understand you.