:: Article

The Episode of the Stolen Trunks: An Extract from Sade’s Aline and Valcour

By Marquis de Sade.

Marquis de Sade, Aline and Valcour (Contra Mundum Press, 2019)

Translators’ Note: Young Léonore, a principal character in Aline and Valcour, forges an early and lively incarnation of the Sadean woman who repeatedly escapes servitude and sexual enslavement through guile and intelligence. Men of every class and status, captivated by her beauty and charm, try to use and abuse her but always fail. Léonore is the original escape artist as she’s propelled through rocambolesque adventures in the company of her lively Spanish-born companion Clémentine, as they make their way from deepest Africa to Portugal, Spain and France. Strangely enough, their story has much in common with Huckleberry Finn—an early road novel replete with crime, fraud, deception, sexual incontinence, and interrogation of the larger world.

While composing Aline and Valcour, Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille. Somewhere concealed in his cell sat another manuscript: 120 Days of Sodom. The now famous scroll of “the most impure tale” ever penned would be lost to him when the ancient fortress and symbol of royal oppression was stormed in 1789, and only published in the early twentieth century. In what must be considered a secret and private joke, Sade channeled the four libertines who direct the sexual outrages in 120 Days—a judge, a banker, a priest, and a noble—into cameo appearances in Aline and Valcour.  Léonore and Clémentine confront them after their trunks and money are stolen when their ship lands in Lisbon. They barely escape only to be rescued from destitution by a Bohemian gypsy.

This brief extract begins as Léonore (the narrator) and Clémentine spend their last pennies on a scant meal, discussing their fate, when a messenger arrives.

 

*

No sooner had we finished dinner than the valet reappeared, asking permission to introduce a messenger charged with delivery of an important letter.

“Show him in,” I replied. “In our situation we neglect nothing. The faintest glimmer can bring a new dawn.”

A lackey without livery appeared but only to drop a letter on the table and rush out without a word. I opened the letter and read:

The Duke of Cortéreal has news and can provide sure and certain information concerning your stolen possessions. The same man who brought this note shall return with a carriage at sunset; he will drive you to a country estate several miles outside the suburb of Belem, owned by a lord who evinces interest in you. Once there, for the price of unlimited obedience, your trunks will be returned plus one-third of their value.

Our first reaction was mute surprise that left us staring open-mouthed, holding our breath. Clémentine, always more alert to misfortune than me, called to the servant.

“Who’s the fellow just brought this letter?”

“In truth, I don’t know. He’s never set foot here before.”

LÉONORE: “He said he belongs to the Duke of Cortéreal. Do you know of this man?”

THE VALET: “Of course. One of the wealthiest lords in Lisbon.”

CLÉMENTINE: “A great libertine?”

THE VALET: “He likes women and pays them well.”

CLÉMENTINE: “How old?”

THE VALET: “Fifty years.”

CLÉMENTINE: “Tell us, my friend—you seem an honest fellow. How can the Duke possibly know anything about our trunks?”

THE VALET: “Does he?”

LÉONORE: “Yes.”

“Listen,” said the fellow, shutting the door for fear of being overheard: “I’m going to reveal part of the mystery—but, for the love of Saint Jacques, don’t betray me.”

“Fear nothing, serve us well and be sure that a good action is always rewarded.”

“Have no doubt: he’s got the trunks. But you’ll never get them back unless you gratify the desires of the Duke and his friends—three of them. They’ve been companions for thirty years. All are about the same age. They partake their pleasures together. Of their prodigious fortunes they spend two-thirds on women. They and their agents invent every kind of stratagem to trap them like birds in a net. Money, seduction, low schemes and lawsuits, prison, thievery, stupration and maybe worse. Nothing costs them much and, as one of them serves as director general of domains, their favorite method is to send hired rascals to the customs rooms where the baggage is searched, to observe travelers arriving by land or sea. They do what was done to you when they find quarry they like. If you go see these lords, you’ll have your possessions returned; if instead you use this note to lodge a complaint, they’ll deny they wrote it. They’ll claim your trunks were seized because they were full of contraband; and if you persist, they’ll use their powerful reputations to have you arrested on some pretext and thrown in a prison for debauched women. There they’ll abuse you all the same and never let you out of their grasp.”

“Leave us, my friend,” said Clémentine.  “Sincere thanks for your clarifications. Be sure once we’re able, you’ll be rewarded.”

Once alone, she turned to me:

“Did you ever in your life hear of criminal doings more odious? With men forever setting traps to innocence, aren’t women right to deceive them! But this isn’t the time to waste words. We must act. What do you say?”

“We must flee Lisbon.”

“What? When we’re down to nothing?”

“What difference if virtue’s intact?”

“So we should play dupes to these scoundrels?”

“Only if we surrender. If we don’t fall into their trap, they’ll be the dupes.”

“No! You’re not showing enough courage,” said Clémentine. “We’ll go there to get our trunks back. By resistance and reproach, we’ll grind them down and crush them!”

“Vice accomplished laughs at virtue and pays it no mind. We’d be braving certain perils for nothing.”

“She who fears has no courage!”

“She who confronts, too much pride!” …

“So together we’ll go, afraid of nothing. Take these weapons.” From the table she seized one knife and handed me another. “We won’t be gentle with cowards who want to sacrifice us to their shameful passions.”

“All right,” I agreed. “Let’s go.”

It seemed best. We might recover our belongings and escape crime or else be consigned to utter poverty from which only crime would free us. We agreed on a plan, rehearsed what we’d say, and awaited the fatal hour that would decide our fate. The valet returned. Had we made up our minds?

“Yes,” I said, “We’re ready. Is the carriage waiting?”

“Nearby. We’ll meet it on foot, if you don’t mind.”

“Very well.”

We went out. At the corner we entered a vis-á-vis and the valet jumped on behind. The coachman drove fast.

I can hardly describe my state of mind. My circulation seemed stilled as if only the palpitations of my heart kept me alive—fewer of them and I would’ve succumbed. Clémentine, either bolder or more determined, was silent and somber. From time to time she squeezed my hand and said not a word. The route was long and obscurely explained. After leaving Lisbon we followed the banks of the Tage for about two leagues, turned sharply left toward Leivia, then suddenly veered off the main road and passed through a wooded leaf-covered path, finally to arrive at the grand entrance to a beautiful but wholly isolated estate. Entering the courtyard, the gates shut behind us. The valet jumped down and opened the coach door. He led the way in the dark and showed us into a second anteroom, also without light. He asked us to wait.

I placed a hand on the heart of my companion. It beat as strong as mine.

“Courage,” I told her now in turn. “So you exhorted this afternoon, now let me do the same. I feel ready for anything. Heaven fills my soul with strength always lent to virtue when vice must be defeated.”

We looked around; the house seemed almost uninhabited. Too much effort to enshroud itself can sometimes turn against it.  At last an old duenna appeared, illumined by a candle she held aloft.

“My beautiful children,” she said, “be kind enough to comply with the rules of the house. None but undressed women may enter the apartments where my respectable lords await. I’m going to help you if you don’t mind.”

She had already removed the pins from Clémentine’s corset, but the latter gently stopped her.

“My dear lady,” she said, “we are repelled, my companion and I, by this degrading ceremony. We won’t submit. Be good enough to tell your masters that we insist they exempt us from the practice.”

The old woman went out, leaving us in the dark.

“No doubt about it,” I said to Clémentine. “To tell the truth, it’s foolish to go further.”

“Let’s see what they say.”

When the woman returned, it was to assure us that our reluctance was absurd, that sooner or later it must be done. Why not now?

“At least these,” she continued, designating our clothes from the waist down, “in return for which perhaps they’ll spare you the rest.”

“Not in the slightest, Madame,” said Clémentine, “yet we beg you, once within we will fully comply.”

“So you must.  They’ll make you do as they say, all right. But since you’re as stubborn as Galician mules—come with me.”

And so we did. We passed through three more rooms, each cloaked in darkness.

At last a bright-lit drawing room opened at the far end. The old woman entered, we followed. Four men, aged fifty to fifty-five, were attired in flowing taffeta robes that left them half naked. They were pacing the room nervously when the door opened. Just as we laid eyes on them, we were astounded to see our baggage, all three trunks, set out on a table.

“Why these difficulties?” asked one of them while the other three stopped to gaze at us attentively. “Does it not seem,” he continued, “that it would be a fine mysterious thing to see two naked wh—s! Did they think they were coming here to lay down the law?”

“No,” said another. “Perhaps they’re virgins—afraid of coming down with a cold.”

“Not a bit,” said a third. “They want us to admire their magnificent finery.”

“Dona Ruffina,” said the last, addressing the old woman, “grab one of these vestals and strip her clean in a trice.”

The old woman approached.

“Stop, Madame” I spoke her with such prideful resolve that she gasped. “We didn’t come for that. Tell me, messieurs,” I said, addressing them all: “Which of you is the Duke of Cortéreal?”

“What on earth does she mean?” asked the one who had spoken first. “And why’s she come here looking here for the Duke?”

“Is this not his house?”

“Credulous innocents,” said the second.  “How readily misled. You happen to be at the home of the First Magistrate of Lisbon. Here he is”—he pointed to the oldest among them—“gathered here with three friends, like himself men of justice, intent on amusing themselves with little imbeciles like yourselves who, from time to time, fall into our hands.”

“Those trunks belong to us,” said Clémentine. “How can men charged with maintaining law and order so meddle with it!”

“Dom Carles,” said the one introduced as First Magistrate, “I’m hoping here’s where we’ll learn about the law from a veritable bachelor of Salamanca. She’ll instruct us as to our duty.”

“Be patient,” replied Dom Carles, “we’ll send them to our own school soon enough.”

“Monsieur,” I said to the chief, cutting him short, “Our stolen trunks, we want them back.”

“So you shall have them,” said the first magistrate, “but you must understand: First things first. Would it have been worth taking them if we didn’t want you to earn their return?”

“Earn back what belongs to us!” Haughtily I replied: “A magistrate dares talk like that? How can you impose conditions? Just give back what’s ours.”

“That’s not got a logic we share,” said one of these eminent scoundrels. “The one who’s stronger is ever master of the law. A glance shows you’ve nothing. Alone and abandoned, pray tell: how wise to refuse our offer to help?”

“What’s help got to do with giving back what’s ours? To dare take it in the first place is a cruel insult.”

“Dom Carles, you were right,” said the first magistrate. “Yesterday I should have had these creatures thrown into the dungeon. They’d be more flexible today. Dona Ruffina, if I need ask you again, tomorrow I’ll send you to a house with which you’re familiar, and you’ll never again see the sun shine.”

At these words, that impudent broker seized me by my dress and dragged me toward the settee. But I twisted out from under, escaped her grip and took firm hold of the knife I was armed with.

“Miserable witch!” I cried. “One step more and you’ll be dead!”

At that moment the four friends thrust themselves upon Clémentine and me. But my valorous companion, armed just like me, knocked down one with a free hand and brought the blade point to the chest of the other. I did the same with the other two.

“May our distinguished rascals,” she exclaimed as we rushed for the door, “see how innocence and virtue triumph over villainy!”

She fled with me right behind. We thundered through the apartments and made the courtyard. Whether because they were cowards or weakened by vice, none had the courage or strength to come after us,

“Open the gate!” Clémentine demanded of the same valet who’d brought us. “Try and stop us, it’ll cost your life.”

The no-good knave, frightened at the sight of the knives, complied. We escaped. Not stopping to look back, we ran on through the dark night, passing through woods and emerging onto an open field.

“And so!” Clémentine threw herself down from fatigue and exhaustion beside a nearby hovel. “You see, my friend, how we escaped without shedding a drop of blood or giving up that precious flower of modesty you so value. But it’s expensive to do good. Truly, vice gives less pain. Had we cut the throat of one of those wretches, it’s a sure bet we’d have been sorry of your fine plan to stay chaste? Vice can be found in the same breast as virtue and the best actions might not be right if crime wins in the end.”

“By God!” I exclaimed, equally out of breath and exhausted. “Vile prostitution on one side, foolish imprudence on the other!”

“At least,” continued Clémentine, “we know where our possessions are.”

“And know too that there are countries on earth where abuse of all that’s respectable is so rampant that the first to break the law is the one who’s supposed to enforce it!”

“No secret there. Impunity encourages it. Elevate one man and you place within him eagerness to do wrong the moment he has a chance.”

“Should then no man be superior to another?”

“Not kept so for long. Fear of being treated as weaker, of being done to just like one’s done to others is always a restraint on passion. But all that aside, what’s to become of us? Our ruin is more certain than ever. What refuge would welcome our poverty and what resources do we have left? And I don’t think we’ll be returning to Lisbon.”

“Agreed,” I said. “Let’s get to Madrid. Maybe we’ll find souls less corrupt than in Portugal. Maybe —”

God almighty!” exclaimed Clémentine suddenly. She jumped up and recoiled in fright. “I’ve been sitting next to a dead man!”

No, not dead.”

A tall and well-built fellow stood up.

“My beautiful angel,” he continued, taking my companion by the arm, “you weren’t sitting beside a dead man—but one asleep. A horseman of upright disposition who means you no harm.”

“But who are you?” said Clémentine, still in his grasp.

“Who am I?” Returned the swashbuckler: “Someone surely enigmatic to the likes of you. If I were I to tell you, you’d know scarce more.”

“Do tell us then” I came forward, heartened by his appearance and voice.

“My good friends,” our stranger said, “I am an enemy of God, servant of the Devil, friend to my fellows and devoted to their well-being.”

“Well, that says it all,” said Clémentine, “By great Saint Christopher. I don’t understand. Say what you mean.”

“Hush,” replied the stranger. “Start by telling me about yourselves. In my trade we’ve the habit of never confiding in the fox. So speak, you, before I answer.”

The more we examined this comic character, the more surprised we were. As much as we could make out by the feeble light of a rising moon, he wore a green doublet beneath a yellow coat. He sported a huge handlebar mustache and his hat was decorated with feathers five feet high. Taking him for a harmless charlatan, Clémentine innocently recounted our adventure, concealing nothing.

“Ah! Young maidens then!” our man exclaimed. “Which is to say: empty stomachs by dint of virtue. Come, come, follow me. Rascals they were who owed you hospitality. Hypocrisy, debauchery, infamy among high chiefs of justice and everywhere hearts of stone. Come, I say—you shall find friends among a troupe of Bohemians.”

 

ABOUT THE TRANSLATORS
Jocelyne Geneviève Barque and John Galbraith Simmons served on the Board of Translators for the 3-volume International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (Gale/Thomson 2005) and also translated for the multi-volume Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction (2006). A novelist and nonfiction author, Simmons also translated Return to Vietnam by Jean-Claude Guillebaud (Verso, 1994). His most recent book, in collaboration with Justin A. Zivin MD, PhD, is tPA for Stroke: The Story of a Controversial Drug (Oxford University Press 2011). His other nonfiction titles include The Scientific 100 (Carol 1996) and Doctors and Discoveries: Lives That Created Today’s Medicine (Houghton Mifflin, 2002).  Barque and Simmons are currently translating Rédoine Faïd’s Outlaw: Author Armed & Dangerous (Contra Mundum Press, 2020).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 24th, 2020.