Dangerous Liaisons —79—


I INTENDED TO GO hunting this morning: but the weather was detestable. All that I have to read is a new romance which would bore even a schoolgirl. It will be two hours, at the earliest, before we breakfast: so that, in spite of my long letter of yesterday, I will have another talk with you. I am very certain not to weary you, for I shall tell you of the handsome Prévan. How was it you never heard of his famous adventure, the one which separated the inseparables? I wager that you will recall it at the first word. Here it is, however, since you desire it.

You will remember that all Paris marveled that three women, all three pretty, all three with like qualities and able to make the same pretensions, should remain intimately allied among themselves, ever since the moment of their entry into the world. At first, one seemed to find the reason in their extreme shyness: but soon, surrounded, as they were, by a numerous court whose homages they shared, and enlightened as to their value by the eagerness and zeal of which they were the objects, their union only became the firmer; and one would have said that the triumph of one was always that of the two others. One hoped at least that the moment of love would lead to a certain rivalry. Our rakesee disputed the honor of being the apple of discord;11 and I myself should have entered their ranks, had the great consideration in which the Comtesse de — was held at the time permitted me to be unfaithful to her before I had obtained the favors I demanded.

However, our three beauties, during the same carnival,ef made their choice as though in concert; and, far from this exciting the storms which had been predicted, it only rendered their friendship more interesting, by the charm of the confidences entailed.

The crowd of unhappy suitors was added, then, to that of jealous women, and such scandalous constancy was held up to public censure. Some pretended that, in this society of inseparables (so it was dubbed at that time), the fundamental law was the community of goods, and that love itself was included therein; others asserted that, if the three lovers were exempt from rivals of their own sex, they were not from those of the other: people went so far as to say that they had but been admitted for decency’s sake, and had obtained only a title without an officer eg

These rumors, true or false, had not the effect which one would have predicted. The three couples, on the contrary, felt that they were lost if they separated at such a moment; they decided to set their heads against the storm. The public, which tires of everything, soon tired of an ineffectual satire. Borne on the wings of its natural levity, it busied itself with other objects: then, casting back to that one with its habitual inconsequence, its criticism was converted into praise. As all things go by fashion here, the enthusiasm gained; it was become a real delirium, when Prévan undertook to verify these prodigies, and settle the public opinion about them, as well as his own.

He sought out therefore these models of perfection. He was easily admitted into their society, and drew a favorable omen from this. He was well aware that happy persons are not so easy of access. He soon saw, in fact, that this so vaunted happiness was, like that of kings, rather to be envied than desired. He remarked that, among these pretended inseparables, they were beginning to seek for pleasures abroad, and even to occupy themselves with distractions; and he concluded therefrom, that the bonds of love or friendship were already loosened or broken, and that those of self-conceit and custom eh alone retained some strength. The women, however, whose need brought them together, kept up among themselves an appearance of the same intimacy: but the men, who were freer in their proceedings, discovered duties to fulfill, or affairs to carry on; they still complained of these, but no longer neglected them, and the evenings were rarely complete.ei

This conduct on their part was profitable to the assiduous Prévan, who, being naturally placed beside the deserted one of the day, found a means of offering alternately, and according to circumstances, the same homage to each of the three friends. He could easily perceive that to make a choice between them was to lose everything; that false shame at proving the first to be unfaithful would make the preferred one afraid; that the wounded vanity of the two others would render them the enemies of the new lover, and that they would not fail to oppose him with the severity of their high principles; in short, that jealousy would surely revive the zeal of a rival who might be still to fear. Everything would be an obstacle; in his triple project all became easy: each woman was indulgent because she was interested in it; each man, because he thought that he was not.

Prévan, who had, at that time, but one woman to sacrifice, was lucky enough to see her become a celebrity. Her quality of foreigner, and the homage of a great Prince, adroitly refused, had fixed on her the eyes of the Court and the Town;12 her lover participated in the honor, and profited from it with his new mistresses. The only difficulty was to conduct his three intrigues at an equal pace; their progress had, of course, to be regulated by that of the one which lagged the most; in fact, I heard from one of his confidants, that his greatest difficulty was to hold in hand one which was ripe for gathering nearly a fortnight before the rest.

At last the great day arrived. Prévan, who had obtained the three avowals, was already master of the situation, and arranged it as you will see. Of the three husbands, one was absent, the other was leaving the next day at daybreak, the third was in town. The inseparable friends were to sup at the future widow’s; but the new master had not permitted the former gallantsej to be invited there. On the morning of that very day, he divided the letters of his fair into three lots; he enclosed in one the portrait which he had received from her, in the second an amorous device which she had painted herself, in the third a tress of her hair; each of the friends received this third of a sacrifice as the whole, and consented, in return, to send to her disgraced lover a signal letter of rupture.

This was much; but it was not enough. She whose husband was in town could only dispose of the day; it was arranged that a pretended indisposition should dispense her from going to supper with her friend, and that the evening should be given entirely to Prévan; the night was granted by her whose husband was absent; and daybreak, the moment of the departure of the third spouse, was appointed by the last for the shepherd’s hour.ek

Prévan, who neglected nothing, next hastened to the fair foreigner, brought there and aroused the humor which he required,el and only left after having brought about a quarrel which assured him four-and-twenty hours of liberty. His dispositions thus made, he returned home, intending to take some hours’ repose. Other business was awaiting him.

The letters of rupture had brought a flash of light to the disgraced lovers: none of them had any doubt but that he had been sacrificed to Prévan; and spite at being tricked uniting with the ill humor which is almost always engendered by the petty humiliation of being deserted, all three, without communicating with one another, but as though in concert, resolved to have satisfaction, and took the course of demanding it from their fortunate rival.em

The latter found the three challenges awaiting him; he accepted them loyally, but not wishing to sacrifice either his pleasures or the glamour of this adventure, he fixed the rendezvous for the following morning, and gave all three assignations at the same place and the same hour. It was at one of the gates of the Bois de Boulogne.13

When evening came, he ran his triple course with equal success; at least, he boasted subsequently that each one of his new mistresses had received three times the wage and declarationen of his love. In this, as you may imagine, proofs are lacking to history; all that the impartial historian can do is to point out to the incredulous reader that vanity and exalted imagination can beget prodigies; nay more, that the morning which was to follow so brilliant a night seemed to promise a dispensation from all concern for the future. Be that as it may, the facts which follow are more authentic.

Prévan repaired punctually to the rendezvous which he had selected; he found there his three rivals, somewhat surprised at meeting, and each of them, perhaps, a trifle consoled at the sight of his companions in misfortune. He accosted them with a blunt but affable air, and used this language to them—it has been faithfully reported to me:

“Gentlemen,” said he, “as I find you all here together, you have doubtless divined that you have all three the same cause of complaint against me. I am ready to give you satisfaction. Let chance decide between you which of the three shall first attempt a vengeance to which you have all an equal right. I have brought with me neither second nor witnesses. I did not include any in my offense; I seek none in my reparation.” Then, agreeable to his character as a gamester,eo he added, “I know one rarely holds in three hands running; but, whatever fortune may befall me, one has always lived long enough when one has had time to win the love of women and the esteem of men.”

While his astonished adversaries looked at one another in silence, and their delicacy, perhaps, reflected that this triple contest rendered the game hardly fair, Prévan resumed:

“I do not hide from you that the night which I have just passed has cruelly fatigued me. It would be generous of you to permit me to recruit my strength. I have given orders for a breakfast to be served on the ground; do me the honor to partake of it. Let us breakfast together, and, above all, let us breakfast gaily. One can fight for such trifles; but they ought not, I think, to spoil our good humor.”

The breakfast was accepted. Never, it is said, was Prévan more amiable. He was skilled enough to avoid humiliating any one of his rivals, to persuade them that they would have easily had a like success, and, above all, to make them admit that, no more than he, would they have let the occasion slip. These facts once admitted, everything arranged itself. The breakfast was not finished before they had repeated a dozen times that such women did not deserve that men of honor should fight for them. This idea promoted cordiality; it was so well fortified by wine that, a few moments later, it was not enough merely to bear no more ill will: they swore an unreserved friendship.

Prévan, who doubtless liked this dénouement as well as the other, would not for that, however, lose any of his celebrity. In consequence, adroitly adapting his plans to circumstances: “In truth,” he said to the three victims, “it is not on me but on your faithless mistresses that you should take revenge. I offer you the opportunity. I begin to feel already, like yourselves, an injury which would soon be my share: for if none of you could succeed in retaining a single one, how can I hope to retain all three? Your quarrel becomes my own. Accept a supper this evening at my petite maison, and I hope your vengeance may not be long postponed.” They wished to make him explain: but, with that tone of superiority which the circumstances authorized him to adopt, he answered, “Gentlemen, I think I have proved to you that my conduct is founded on a certain wit; trust in me.” All consented; and, after having embraced their new friend, they separated till the evening to await the issue of his promises.

Prévan returns to Paris without wasting time, and goes, according to the usage, to visit his new conquests. He obtained a promise from each to come the same evening and sup tête-à-tête at his pleasure house. Two of them raised a few objections; but what can one refuse on the day after? He fixed the rendezvous for a late hour, time being necessary for his plans. After these preparations he retired, sent word to the other three conspirators, and all four went gaily to await their victims.

The first is heard arriving. Prévan comes forward alone, receives her with an air of alacrity,ep conducts her into the sanctuary of which she believed herself to be the divinity; then, disappearing under some slight pretext, he allows himself to be forthwith replaced by the outraged lover.

You may guess how the confusion of a woman who had not yet the habit of adventures rendered triumph easy at such a moment: any reproach not made was counted for a grace;eq and the truant slave, once more handed over to her former master, was only too happy to be able to hope for pardon by resuming her former chain. The treaty of peace was ratified in a more solitary place, and the empty stage was successively filled by the other actors in almost the same fashion, and always with the same result. Each of the women, however, still thought herself alone to be in question. Their astonishment and embarrassment increased when, at suppertime, the three couples were united; but confusion reached its height when Prévan, reappearing in their midst, had the cruelty to make his excuses to the three faithless ones, which, by revealing their secret, told them completely to what a point they had been fooled.

However, they went to table, and soon afterward countenances cleared; the men gave themselves up, the women submitted. All had hatred in their hearts; but the conversation was nonetheless tender: gaiety aroused desire, which, in its turn, lent to gaiety fresh charm. This astounding orgy lasted until morning; and, when they separated, the women had thought to be pardoned: but the men, who had retained their resentment, made on the following morning a rupture which was never healed; and, not content with leaving their fickle mistresses, they sealed their vengeance by making their adventure public. Since that time one has gone into a convent, and the two other languish in exile on their estates.

That is the story of Prévan; it is for you to say whether you wish to add to his glory, and tie yourself to his car of triumph. Your letter has really given me some anxiety, and I await impatiently a more prudent and clearer reply to the last I wrote you.

Adieu, my fair friend; distrust those queer or amusing ideas which too easily seduce you. Remember that, in the career which you are leading, wit alone does not suffice; one single imprudence becomes an irremediable ill. In short, allow a prudent friendship to be sometimes the guide of your pleasures.

Adieu. I love you nevertheless, just as much as though you were reasonable.