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What is a novel? A correct picture of morals put in motion.—What should be the aim of a novel? To blend instruction with amusement.—When the morals of the actors are corrupt, is it allowable, with deference to decency, to draw them in their proper shades and colours? Undoubtedly it is; but with the greatest caution, lest by giving vice, whose contagion must be dreaded, its true, though seducing and agreeable aspect, without resisting, diminishing, or rendering useless, the effect it may produce by the contrast of gentleness, peace, and happiness, which virtue secures.
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The VISCOUNT DE VALMONT to the MARCHIONESS DE MERTEUIL.
Your orders are enchanting, and your manner of giving them still more delightful; you would even make one in love with despotism. It is not the first time, you know, that I regret I am no longer your slave; and yet, monster as you style me, I recall with rapture the time when you honoured me with softer names. I have often even wish'd again to deserve them, and to terminate, by giving along with you an example of constancy to the world. But matters of greater moment call us forth; conquest is our destiny, and we must follow it: we may, perhaps, meet again at the end of our career; for permit me to say, without putting you out of temper, my beautiful Marchioness! you follow me with a pretty equal pace; and since, for the happiness of the world, we have separated to preach the faith, I am inclined to think, that in this mission of love, you have made more proselytes than I. I am well convinced of your zeal and fervour; and if the God of Love judged us according to our works, you would be the patron saint of some great city, whilst your friend would be at most a common village saint. This language no doubt will surprise you; but you must know, that for these eight days I hear and speak no other; and to make myself perfect in it, I am obliged to disobey you.
Don't be angry, and hear me. As you are the depository of all the secrets of my heart, I will intrust you with the greatest project I ever formed. What do you propose to me? To seduce a young girl, who has seen nothing, knows nothing, and would in a manner give herself up without making the least defence, intoxicated with the first homage paid to her charms, and perhaps incited rather by curiosity than love; there twenty others may be as successful as I. Not so with the enterprise that engrosses my mind; its success insures me as much glory as pleasure; and even almighty Love, who prepares my crown, hesitates between the myrtle and laurel, or will rather unite them to honour my triumph. Even you yourself, my charming friend, will be struck with a holy respect, and in a fit of enthusiasm, will exclaim, This is the man after my own heart!
You know the Presidente Tourvel, her devout life, her conjugal love, and the austerity of her principles; that is the object I attack; that is the enemy worthy of me; that is the point I intend to carry. I must tell you, the President is in Burgundy, prosecuting a considerable suit, (I hope to make him lose one of greater importance,) his inconsolable partner is to remain here the whole time of this afflicting widowhood. A mass each day, a few visits to the neighbouring poor, prayers morning and evening, a few solitary walks, pious conferences with my old aunt, and sometimes a melancholy game at whist, are her only amusements: but I am preparing some of a more efficacious nature for her. My guardian angel led me here for our mutual happiness. Fool that I was! I used to regret the time that I sacrificed to the customary ceremonies. How should I now be punished, by being obliged to return to Paris! Fortunately there must be four to make a whist party; and as there is no one here but the curate of the place, my eternal aunt has pressed me much to sacrifice a few days to her; you may judge, I did not refuse her. You can't conceive how much she caresses me ever since; and above all, how much she is edified by seeing me so regular at mass and at prayers. But little does she imagine the divinity I adore there.
Thus, in the space of four days, have I given myself up to a violent passion. You are no stranger to the impetuosity of my desires, and how readily all obstacles fly before me: but I'll tell you what you don't know, that solitude adds immensely to the ardour of desire. I have but one idea; I cherish it by day, and dream on't by night. I must possess this woman, lest I should be so ridiculous as to be in love; for whither may we not be led by frustrated desire? Oh, delicious enjoyment! I implore thee for my happiness, and, above all, for my repose. How happy it is for us, that the women make so weak a defence! Were it otherwise, we should be but their cowardly slaves. I feel myself at this moment penetrated with gratitude towards complaisant ladies, which, naturally leads me to you, at whose feet I prostrate myself to obtain my pardon, and finish this already too long letter. Adieu, my charming friend!
Castle of ——, Aug. 3, 17—.
The MARCHIONESS DE MERTEUIL, to the VISCOUNT VALMONT.
Do you know, Viscount, your letter is wonderfully insolent, and has almost made me angry? But it plainly proves that you have lost your reason; and that consideration alone suppresses my indignation. Like a tender and generous friend, I forget my own injury, and am wholly taken up with your danger; and irksome as it is to enter into argument, I yield to the necessity of it at this time.
You possess the Presidente Tourvel! What a ridiculous extravagance! I here plainly perceive your downright folly, whose nature is to desire that you cannot obtain. But let's examine this woman. She has regular features, it's true, but a total want of expression; a tolerable shape, but without the least elegance; dresses most horridly, with a bundle of ruffs about her neck, and her stays up to her chin. I tell you as a friend, two such women would be quite sufficient to ruin your reputation. Do you remember the day she collected for the poor at St. Roch, when you thank'd me so much for the view of so curious an exhibition. I think I see her still giving her hand to that great looby with the long hair, ready to fall at each step with her calash of four ells over every one's head, and blushing at every courtesy. Who then would have dared to tell you, you will sigh for this woman? For shame, Viscount! Blush yourself, and return to reason. I'll promise to keep this matter secret.
Let us now examine the disagreeable consequences that await you. What rival have you to encounter? A husband. Don't you feel yourself humiliated at that name? What a shame if you fail! and if you succeed, where is the glory?—I go farther: pleasure is out of the question; for who ever had any with a prude? I mean, with a sincere one: reserv'd in the very bosom of pleasure, they give you but half enjoyments. The entirely devoting one's self, that delirium of voluptuousness, where pleasure is refined by excess—all those gifts of love are strangers to them. I'll prognosticate for you: suppose your summit of happiness, you'll find your Presidente will think she has done enough in treating you as a husband; and, be assured, that in the most tender conjugal tête-à-tête, the numerical distinction two is always apparent. But in this case it is much worse; your prude is a devotee, and of that sort you are in a perpetual state of childhood; perhaps you may get over this obstacle: but don't flatter yourself that you'll annihilate it. Should you conquer the love of God, you'll not be able to dispel the fear of the devil; and though in holding your charmer in your arms, you may feel her heart palpitate, it will be from fear, not love. You might, perhaps, had you known this woman sooner, have made something of her; but she is now two-and-twenty, and has been married almost two years. Believe me, Viscount, when a woman is so far incrusted, she must be left to her fate; she will never be any thing more than an undistinguishable individual of a species.
And for such a curious object you refuse to obey me; you bury yourself in your aunt's sepulchre; you abandon a most delicious adventure that is marked out for the advancement of your reputation. By what fatality is it, that Gercourt must always have the advantage of you?
I declare I am not out of temper: but at this instant I am inclined to think you don't deserve the reputation you possess; and I consider your conduct with such a degree of indignation, as tempts me to withdraw my confidence from you. No, I never can bring myself to make Madame de Tourvel's lover the confidant of my secret designs.
I will tell you, however, that the little Volanges has made a conquest. Young Danceny is distracted for her. He has sung with her, and she really sings better than belongs to a convent boarder. They have yet many duos to rehearse together, and I am much mistaken if she would not readily get into unison with him; it is true, Danceny is but a boy yet, who will waste his time in making love, but never will come to the point. Little Volanges is wild enough; but at all events, it will never be so pleasing as you could have made it. I am out of temper with you, and shall most certainly fall out with the Chevalier when he comes home. I would advise him to be mild, for at this time I should feel no difficulty to break with him.
I am certain that if I had sense enough to break off with him now, he would be a prey to the most violent despair; yet nothing diverts me more than an enraged lover. He, perhaps, would call me perfidious, and that word has ever pleased me; it is, after the epithet cruel, the sweetest to a woman's ear, and the least painful to deserve. I will seriously ruminate on this rupture. You are the cause of all this—I shall leave it on your conscience. Adieu! recommend me to your Presidente in her prayers.
Paris, Aug. 7, 17—.
VISCOUNT DE VALMONT to the MARCHIONESS DE MERTEUIL.
There is then no woman that does not abuse the empire she has gained; and you, whom I have so often called my indulgent friend, are no longer so, you are not afraid to attack me even in the very object of my affections. What a picture have you drawn of Madame de Tourvel! What man would not have forfeited his life by so daring an act of insolence? And what woman but you would not, at least, have determined me to blast her reputation? For heaven's sake! never put me to such rude trials again. I will not be answerable for the consequence. In the name of friendship, have patience till I have this woman, if you must slander her. Don't you know, that the time for its causing any impression on me will be after I have enjoyed her? But where do I wander? Does Madame de Tourvel, in order to inspire a passion, need any deception? No; to be adorable, 'tis enough she is herself. You find fault with her dress: you are right; all ornaments are prejudicial to her; every thing that hides her lovely form is hurtful. It is in unaffected negligence she is truly ravishing. Thanks to the suffocating heat of the season, a deshabille of plain lawn adorns her charming, easy shape. A thin muslin handkerchief covers her bosom; and my stolen, but penetrating glances, have already seized its enchanting form. You say her figure has no expression. What should it express, when nothing speaks to her heart? No, indubitably, she has not, like our coquettes, those false looks, which sometimes seduce, but ever deceive. She knows not how to fill up a void of phrase by an affected smile; and though she has the finest teeth in the world, she only laughs at what pleases her. But she is particularly admirable in the most trifling amusements, where she gives the picture of the frankest and most natural gaiety. In visiting a wretched being that she hastens to relieve, her looks declare the unsullied joy and compassionate bounty of her heart. At the most trifling expression of praise or flattery, the tender embarrassment of unaffected modesty is suffused over her celestial figure. She is a prude and devotee, and thence you conclude, she is cold and inanimate. I think quite otherwise. What astonishing sensibility must she not have, to diffuse it as far as her husband, and to love a being always absent! What stronger proof can you require? I found out a method, however, to obtain another; I directed our walk in such a manner that we had a ditch to leap over, and although very active, she is still more timid—you may very well judge a prude dreads taking a leap. She was obliged to trust herself to me. I raised this modest woman in my arms. Our preparations, and the skip of my old aunt, made our sprightly devotee laugh most immoderately: but as soon as I seized on her, by a dexterous awkwardness, our arms were mutually entwined in each other; I pressed her bosom against mine, and in this short interval I felt her heart palpitate more quickly; a lovely blush covered her face, and her modest embarrassment informed me her heart beat with love and not with fear. My aunt was deceived as you had been, and said, "The child is frightened;" but the charming candour of this child would not permit her to countenance a lie, and she ingenuously answered, "Oh, no; but—" That word alone has cleared up my doubts. From this instant, sweet hope has banished cruel inquietude. I will have this woman. I will take her from a husband who does not deserve her. I'll even snatch her from the god she adores.
How delicious to be by turns the object and conqueror of her remorse! Far be from me the idea of curing her of her prejudices! they will add to my glory and happiness. Let her rely on her virtue, and sacrifice it. Let her crime terrify her, without being able to resist its impulse; and, alarmed with a thousand terrors, let her neither be able to forget or conquer them but in my embraces.
Then I'll consent to her saying, "I adore thee." She, of all your sex, will be the only one worthy to pronounce that word. Then shall I truly be the god of her idolatry. Confess ingenuously to me, that in our arrangements, as indifferent as they are free, what we style happiness scarce deserves the name of pleasure. I'll freely acknowledge, I imagined my heart withered, and incapable only of sensual gratification; I began to deplore my prematurely advanced age; Madame de Tourvel has restored me to the illusive charms of youth. With her, actual enjoyment is not necessary to my happiness. The only thing that alarms me is the time this adventure will take up; for I am resolved to risk nothing. In vain do I bring to remembrance my successful acts of temerity on many occasions; I can't think of attempting them now. To crown my bliss, she must give herself up, and that's not an easy matter to accomplish.
I am confident even you must approve my discretion, for as yet I have not mentioned the word love; but we are already got as far as those of friendship and confidence. In order to deceive her as little as possible, and, above all, to guard against any thing that may come to her knowledge which might shock her, I have myself related to her, by way of self-accusation, some of my most remarkable adventures. You would be delighted to see how innocently she catechises me. She says she is determined to make a convert of me: but has not the least suspicion how much the purchase will cost her. She does not think, that her becoming advocate, to use her own words, for the many I have undone, she is beforehand pleading her own cause.
This idea struck me yesterday, in the midst of one of her little sermons, and I could not resist the pleasure of interrupting her, to tell her that she spoke like a prophet. Adieu, my lovely friend! you see I am not totally lost.
P. S. But what's become of our poor Chevalier? Has he destroyed himself in a fit of despair? Indeed you are a million of times worse than I; and if I was vain, you'd mortify me to be so much outdone.
From the Castle of ——,Aug. 9, 17—.
CECILIA VOLANGES to SOPHIA CARNAY.
If I have not said any thing to you as yet of my marriage, it is because I am as ignorant of the matter as the first day I came home. I begin to accustom myself not to think about it, and I am very happy as I am. I practice my harpsichord and singing much; and I am fonder of them than when I had a master, or rather now I have got a better one. The Chevalier Danceny, the gentleman I mentioned to you before, with whom I sang at Madame Merteuil's, is so obliging to come every day to sing with me for hours together. He is exceedingly agreeable. He sings like an angel, and sets the words of his own composition to very pretty music. It is a great pity he is a Knight of Malta! I think, were he to embark in wedlock, his wife would be very happy. He is the sweetest creature breathing. Without the affectation of complaisance, every thing he does is endearing. He always chides me about music, or some other trifle; but he blends with his censures so much concern and good nature, that one can't help being pleased. His very looks seem to speak obliging things. And with all this, he is the most complaisant man possible: for instance; yesterday he was asked to a private concert, but spent the evening at Mamma's, which gratified me exceedingly; for, when he is absent, I have no one to speak to, and am quite stupid: but, when he is with us, we chat and sing together, and he always has something to say to me. Madame de Merteuil and he are the only two amiable persons I yet know. Adieu, my dear friend! I promised to be perfect to-day in a little air, with a very difficult accompaniment, and I must keep my word. I must set about practising it against his return.
From ——, Aug. 7, 17—.
 Not to tire the reader's patience, we suppress many of the letters of this daily correspondence, and give only them we think necessary for unfolding the events of this society. For the same reason we suppress all those of Sophia Carnay, and several of those of the actors in this piece.
Presidente DE TOURVEL to MADAME DE VOLANGES.
Permit me, Madam, to assure you, no one can be more sensible of the confidence you repose in me, nor have more at heart the happy establishment of Mademoiselle de Volanges than I have. With my whole soul I wish her that felicity which I am confident she merits, and which I have no doubt she will obtain through your prudence. I have not the honour of knowing Count Gercourt, but conceive the most favourable opinion of him, as he is your choice. I limit my good wishes to the hope that this match may be as happy as mine, which was also one of your making, and which gratitude daily calls to my remembrance. May the happiness of Mademoiselle de Volanges be the reward of that I enjoy, and may the best of friends be also the happiest of mothers!
I am really mortified that I am not at present able, personally, to assure you of the grateful sentiments of my heart, and to accomplish what I wish for much, an acquaintance with Mademoiselle de Volanges.
After having experienced your maternal fondness, I think I am entitled to the tender friendship of a sister from her. I entreat you, Madam, to claim it for me, until I have it in my power to deserve it. I propose residing in the country during Mr. de Tourvel's absence. I now enjoy and improve in the respectable company of Madame Rosemonde. This lady is ever delightful; her great age has not the least impaired her gaiety or memory; her body may be eighty-four, but her understanding is only twenty. Our retirement is enlivened by the Viscount Valmont, her nephew, who has condescended to spend a few days with us. I only knew him by character, which gave me an unfavourable opinion of him, that now I don't think he deserves. Here, where the bustle of the world does not affect him, he is very agreeable, and owns his failings with great candour. He converses with me very confidentially, and I sometimes sermonize him with asperity; you, who know him well, will, I dare say, think such a conversion worth attempting: but I am afraid, notwithstanding all his promises, eight days in Paris will destroy all my labours; however, his residence here will be so much gained from his general course of life, and I am clear, that the best thing he can do will be to remain in inactivity. He knows that I am now writing to you, and begs leave to present his most respectful compliments. I beg you'll also accept mine with that condescension you have ever had for me, and be assured of the sincerity of the sentiments with which I have the honour to be, &c.
From the Castle of ——,Aug. 9, 17—.
MADAME DE VOLANGES to the Presidente DE TOURVEL.
I never yet doubted, my young and charming friend, of your friendship for me, nor of the interest you take in all my concerns. It is not to clear up this point, on which I hope we are for ever agreed, that I reply to your answer; but I think myself obliged to say a word or two relative to Viscount Valmont.
I must own, I did not expect to meet such a name in a letter from you. How is it possible there can be any communication between you and him? You do not know that man. Where did you find the idea you have imbibed of the heart of a libertine? You tell me of his uncommon candour; yes, truly, Valmont's candour is very uncommon. He is yet more false and dangerous than he is lovely and seducing: never since his earliest youth, has he taken a step, or spoke a word, without a design; and never formed a design that was not criminal or improper. My dear friend, you know me; you know that of all the virtues I endeavour to acquire, indulgence is the one I cherish most; and if Valmont had been hurried away by the impetuosity of his passions, or if, like a thousand more at his time of life, he had been seduced by the errors of youth, I would have compassionated his person, blamed his conduct, and have patiently waited until time, the happy maturer of green years, should have made him fit for the society and esteem of worthy people: but that's not Valmont's case; his conduct is the result of principle; he calculates how far a man can proceed in villainy without risking reputation, and has chosen women for his victims, that his sacrifices may be wicked and cruel without danger. I shall not dwell on the numbers he has seduced; but how many has he not utterly undone? Those scandalous anecdotes never come within the sphere of your retired and regular course of life. I could, however, relate you some that would make you shudder; but your mind, pure as your soul, would be defiled with such descriptions: convinced, as I am, that Valmont will never be an object of danger to you, such armour is unnecessary to guard you. I can't, however, refrain telling you, that successful or not, no woman he ever yet dangled after, but had reason to repent her folly. The only exception to this general rule is the Marchioness de Merteuil; she alone has been capable not only of resisting, but of completely defeating his wickedness.
I must acknowledge, this trait in her character strikes me the most forcibly; and has amply justified her to the world for some trifling indiscretions in the outset of her widowhood. However, my charming friend, authorised as I am, by age, experience, and much more by friendship, I am obliged to inform you, the world take notice of Valmont's absence; and that if they come to know that he has for any time formed a trio with you and his aunt, your reputation will be at his mercy, which is the greatest misfortune that can happen to a woman. I therefore advise you to prevail on his aunt not to detain him longer; and if he should still determine to remain, I think you should not hesitate a moment on quitting the place. But why should he remain? How does he employ himself in the country? I am certain, if his motions were watched, you would discover that he has only taken up his residence in that commodious retreat for the accomplishment of some act of villainy he meditates in the neighbourhood.
When it is not in our power to prevent an evil, let us at least take care to preserve ourselves from its consequences. Adieu! my lovely friend. An accident retards my daughter's marriage for some little time. Count Gercourt, whom we daily expected, informs me his regiment is ordered for Corsica; and as the military operations are not yet over, it will be impossible for him to return before winter: this disconcerts me; however, it gives me hope we shall have your company at the wedding; and I was vexed it should take place without you. Adieu! I am as free from compliment as reserve, entirely yours.
P. S. Bring me back to the recollection of Madame de Rosemonde, whom I shall always love for her great merit.
 Madame de Volanges' error informs us, that Valmont, like most profligate wretches, did not impeach his accomplices.
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