When I said good-night to her to-day she seemed suddenly unaccountably distracted and moody. What was occupying her?
"I am sorry you are going," she said when I was already standing on the threshold.
"It is entirely in your hands to shorten the hard period of my trial, to cease tormenting me—" I pleaded.
"Do you imagine that this compulsion isn't a torment for me, too," Wanda interjected.
"Then end it," I exclaimed, embracing her, "be my wife."
"Never, Severin," she said gently, but with great firmness.
"What do you mean?"
I was frightened in my innermost soul.
"You are not the man for me."
I looked at her, and slowly withdrew my arm which was still about her waist; then I left the room, and she—she did not call me back.
A sleepless night; I made countless decisions, only to toss them aside again. In the morning I wrote her a letter in which I declared our relationship dissolved. My hand trembled when I put on the seal, and I burned my fingers.
As I went upstairs to hand it to the maid, my knees threatened to give way.
The door opened, and Wanda thrust forth her head full of curling- papers.
"I haven't had my hair dressed yet," she said, smiling. "What have you there?"
"Ah, you want to break with me," she exclaimed, mockingly.
"Didn't you tell me yesterday that I wasn't the man for you?"
"I repeat it now!"
"Very well, then." My whole body was trembling, my voice failed me, and I handed her the letter.
"Keep it," she said, measuring me coldly. "You forget that is no longer a question as to whether you satisfy me as a man; as a slave you will doubtless do well enough."
"Madame!" I exclaimed, aghast.
"That is what you will call me in the future," replied Wanda, throwing back her head with a movement of unutterable contempt. "Put your affairs in order within the next twenty-four hours. The day after to-morrow I shall start for Italy, and you will accompany me as my servant."
"I forbid any sort of familiarity," she said, cutting my words short, "likewise you are not to come in unless I call or ring for you, and you are not to speak to me until you are spoken to. From now on your name is no longer Severin, but Gregor."
I trembled with rage, and yet, unfortunately, I cannot deny it, I also felt a strange pleasure and stimulation.
"But, madame, you know my circumstances," I began in my confusion. "I am dependent on my father, and I doubt whether he will give me the large sum of money needed for this journey—"
"That means you have no money, Gregor," said Wanda, delightedly, "so much the better, you are then entirely dependent on me, and in fact my slave."
"You don't consider," I tried to object, "that as man of honor it is impossible for me—"
"I have indeed considered it," she replied almost with a tone of command. "As a man of honor you must keep your oath and redeem your promise to follow me as slave whithersoever I demand and to obey whatever I command. Now leave me, Gregor!"
I turned toward the door.
"Not yet—you may first kiss my hand." She held it out to me with a certain proud indifference, and I the dilettante, the donkey, the miserable slave pressed it with intense tenderness against my lips which were dry and hot with excitement.
There was another gracious nod of the head.
Then I was dismissed.
Though it was late in the evening my light was still lit, and a fire was burning in the large green stove. There were still many things among my letters and documents to be put in order. Autumn, as is usually the case with us, had fallen with all its power.
Suddenly she knocked at my window with the handle of her whip.
I opened and saw her standing outside in her ermine-lined jacket and in a high round Cossack cap of ermine of the kind which the great Catherine favored.
"Are you ready, Gregor?" she asked darkly.
"Not yet, mistress," I replied.
"I like that word," she said then, "you are always to call me mistress, do you understand? We leave here to-morrow morning at nine o'clock. As far as the district capital you will be my companion and friend, but from the moment that we enter the railway-coach you are my slave, my servant. Now close the window, and open the door."
After I had done as she had demanded, and after she had entered, she asked, contracting her brows ironically, "well, how do you like me."
"Who gave you permission?" She gave me a blow with the whip.
"You are very beautiful, mistress."
Wanda smiled and sat down in the arm-chair. "Kneel down—here beside my chair."
"Kiss my hand."
I seized her small cold hand and kissed it.
"And the mouth—"
In a surge of passion I threw my arms around the beautiful cruel woman, and covered her face, arms, and breast with glowing kisses. She returned them with equal fervor—the eyelids closed as in a dream. It was after midnight when she left.
At nine o'clock sharp in the morning everything was ready for departure, as she had ordered. We left the little Carpathian health- resort in a comfortable light carriage. The most interesting drama of my life had reached a point of development whose denouement it was then impossible to foretell.
So far everything went well. I sat beside Wanda, and she chatted very graciously and intelligently with me, as with a good friend, concerning Italy, Pisemski's new novel, and Wagner's music. She wore a sort of Amazonesque travelling-dress of black cloth with a short jacket of the same material, set with dark fur. It fitted closely and showed her figure to best advantage. Over it she wore dark furs. Her hair wound into an antique knot, lay beneath a small dark fur-hat from which a black veil hung. Wanda was in very good humor; she fed me candies, played with my hair, loosened my neck cloth and made a pretty cockade of it; she covered my knees with her furs and stealthily pressed the fingers of my hand. When our Jewish driver persistently went on nodding to himself, she even gave me a kiss, and her cold lips had the fresh frosty fragrance of a young autumnal rose, which blossoms alone amid bare stalks and yellow leaves and upon whose calyx the first frost has hung tiny diamonds of ice.
We are at the district capital. We get out at the railway station. Wanda throws off her furs and places them over my arm, and goes to secure the tickets.
When she returns she has completely changed.
"Here is your ticket, Gregor," she says in a tone which supercilious ladies use to their servants.
"A third-class ticket," I reply with comic horror.
"Of course," she continues, "but now be careful. You won't get on until I am settled in my compartment and don't need you any longer. At each station you will hurry to my car and ask for my orders. Don't forget. And now give me my furs."
After I had helped her into them, humbly like a slave, she went to find an empty first-class coupe. I followed. Supporting herself on my shoulder, she got on and I wrapped her feet in bear-skins and placed them on the warming bottle.
Then she nodded to me, and dismissed me. I slowly ascended a third- class carriage, which was filled with abominable tobacco-smoke that seemed like the fogs of Acheron at the entrance to Hades. I now had the leisure to muse about the riddle of human existence, and about its greatest riddle of all—woman.
Whenever the train stops, I jump off, run to her carriage, and with drawn cap await her orders. She wants coffee and then a glass of water, at another time a bowl of warm water to wash her hands, and thus it goes on. She lets several men who have entered her compartment pay court to her. I am dying of jealousy and have to leap about like an antelope so as to secure what she wants quickly and not miss the train.
In this way the night passes. I haven't had time to eat a mouthful and I can't sleep, I have to breathe the same oniony air with Polish peasants, Jewish peddlers, and common soldiers.
When I mount the steps of her coupe, she is lying stretched out on cushions in her comfortable furs, covered up with the skins of animals. She is like an oriental despot, and the men sit like Indian deities, straight upright against the walls and scarcely dare to breathe.
She stops over in Vienna for a day to go shopping, and particularly to buy series of luxurious gowns. She continues to treat me as her servant. I follow her at the respectful distance of ten paces. She hands me her packages without so much as even deigning a kind look, and laden down like a donkey I pant along behind.
Before leaving she takes all my clothes and gives them to the hotel waiters. I am ordered to put on her livery. It is a Cracovian costume in her colors, light-blue with red facings, and red quadrangular cap, ornamented with peacock-feathers. The costume is rather becoming to me.
The silver buttons bear her coat of arms. I have the feeling of having been sold or of having bonded myself to the devil. My fair demon leads me from Vienna to Florence. Instead of linen-garbed Mazovians and greasy-haired Jews, my companions now are curly- haired Contadini, a magnificent sergeant of the first Italian Grenadiers, and a poor German painter. The tobacco smoke no longer smells of onions, but of salami and cheese.
Night has fallen again. I lie on my wooden bed as on a rack; my arms and legs seem broken. But there nevertheless is an element of poetry in the affair. The stars sparkle round about, the Italian sergeant has a face like Apollo Belvedere, and the German painter sings a lovely German song.
"Now that all the shadows gather
And endless stars grow light,
Deep yearning on me falls
And softly fills the night."
"Through the sea of dreams
Sailing without cease,
Sailing goes my soul
In thine to find release."
And I am thinking of the beautiful woman who is sleeping in regal comfort among her soft furs.
Florence! Crowds, cries, importunate porters and cab-drivers. Wanda chooses a carriage, and dismisses the porters.
"What have I a servant for," she says, "Gregor—here is the ticket— get the luggage."
She wraps herself in her furs and sits quietly in the carriage while I drag the heavy trunks hither, one after another. I break down for a moment under the last one; a good-natured carabiniere with an intelligent face comes to my assistance. She laughs.
"It must be heavy," said she, "all my furs are in it."
I get up on the driver's seat, wiping drops of perspiration from my brow. She gives the name of the hotel, and the driver urges on his horse. In a few minutes we halt at the brilliantly illuminated entrance.
"Have you any rooms?" she asks the portier.
"Two for me, one for my servant, all with stoves."
"Two first-class rooms for you, madame, both with stoves," replied the waiter who had hastily come up, "and one without heat for your servant."
She looked at them, and then abruptly said: "they are satisfactory, have fires built at once; my servant can sleep in the unheated room."
I merely looked at her.
"Bring up the trunks, Gregor," she commands, paying no attention to my looks. "In the meantime I'll be dressing, and then will go down to the dining-room, and you can eat something for supper."
As she goes into the adjoining room, I drag the trunks upstairs and help the waiter build a fire in her bed-room. He tries to question me in bad French about my employer. With a brief glance I see the blazing fire, the fragrant white poster-bed, and the rugs which cover the floor. Tired and hungry I then descend the stairs, and ask for something to eat. A good-natured waiter, who used to be in the Austrian army and takes all sorts of pains to entertain me in German, shows me the dining-room and waits on me. I have just had the first fresh drink in thirty-six hours and the first bite of warm food on my fork, when she enters.
"What do you mean by taking me into a dining-room in which my servant is eating," she snaps at the waiter, flaring with anger. She turns around and leaves.
Meanwhile I thank heaven that I am permitted to go on eating. Later I climb the four flights upstairs to my room. My small trunk is already there, and a miserable little oil-lamp is burning. It is a narrow room without fire-place, without a window, but with a small air-hole. If it weren't so beastly cold, it would remind me of one of the Venetian piombi. Involuntarily I have to laugh out aloud, so that it re-echoes, and I am startled by my own laughter.
Suddenly the door is pulled open and the waiter with a theatrical Italian gesture calls "You are to come down to madame, at once." I pick up my cap, stumble down the first few steps, but finally arrive in front of her door on the first floor and knock.
I enter, shut the door, and stand attention.
Wanda has made herself comfortable. She is sitting in a neglige of white muslin and laces on a small red divan with her feet on a footstool that matches. She has thrown her fur-cloak about her. It is the identical cloak in which she appeared to me for the first time, as goddess of love.
The yellow lights of the candelabra which stand on projections, their reflections in the large mirrors, and the red flames from the open fireplace play beautifully on the green velvet, the dark-brown sable of the cloak, the smooth white skin, and the red, flaming hair of the beautiful woman. Her clear, but cold face is turned toward me, and her cold green eyes rest upon me.
"I am satisfied with you, Gregor," she began.
"Still closer," she looked down, and stroked the sable with her hand. "Venus in Furs receives her slave. I can see that you are more than an ordinary dreamer, you don't remain far in arrears of your dreams; you are the sort of man who is ready to carry his dreams into effect, no matter how mad they are. I confess, I like this; it impresses me. There is strength in this, and strength is the only thing one respects. I actually believe that under unusual circumstances, in a period of great deeds, what seems to be your weakness would reveal itself as extraordinary power. Under the early emperors you would have been a martyr, at the time of the Reformation an anabaptist, during the French Revolution one of those inspired Girondists who mounted the guillotine with the marseillaise on their lips. But you are my slave, my—"
She suddenly leaped up; the furs slipped down, and she threw her arms with soft pressure about my neck.
"My beloved slave, Severin, oh, how I love you, how I adore you, how handsome you are in your Cracovian costume! You will be cold to-night up in your wretched room without a fire. Shall I give you one of my furs, dear heart, the large one there—"
She quickly picked it up, throwing it over my shoulders, and before I knew what had happened I was completely wrapped up in it.
"How wonderfully becoming furs are to your face, they bring out your noble lines. As soon as you cease being my slave, you must wear a velvet coat with sable, do you understand? Otherwise I shall never put on my fur-jacket again."
And again she began to caress me and kiss me; finally she drew me down on the little divan.
"You seem to be pleased with yourself in furs," she said. "Quick, quick, give them to me, or I will lose all sense of dignity."
I placed the furs about her, and Wanda slipped her right arm into the sleeve.
"This is the pose in Titian's picture. But now enough of joking. Don't always look so solemn, it makes me feel sad. As far as the world is concerned you are still merely my servant; you are not yet my slave, for you have not yet signed the contract. You are still free, and can leave me any moment. You have played your part magnificently. I have been delighted, but aren't you tired of it already, and don't you think I am abominable? Well, say something—I command it."
"Must I confess to you, Wanda?" I began.
"Yes, you must."
"Even it you take advantage of it," I continued, "I shall love you the more deeply, adore you the more fanatically, the worse you treat me. What you have just done inflames my blood and intoxicates all my senses." I held her close to me and clung for several moments to her moist lips.
"Oh, you beautiful woman," I then exclaimed, looking at her. In my enthusiasm I tore the sable from her shoulders and pressed my mouth against her neck.
"You love me even when I am cruel," said Wanda, "now go!—you bore me—don't you hear?"
She boxed my ears so that I saw stars and bells rang in my ears.
"Help me into my furs, slave."
I helped her, as well as I could.
"How awkward," she exclaimed, and was scarcely in it before she struck me in the face again. I felt myself growing pale.
"Did I hurt you?" she asked, softly touching me with her hand.
"No, no," I exclaimed.
"At any rate you have no reason to complain, you want it thus; now kiss me again."
I threw my arms about her, and her lips clung closely to mine. As she lay against my breast in her large heavy furs, I had a curiously oppressive sensation. It was as if a wild beast, a she-bear, were embracing me. It seemed as if I were about to feel her claws in my flesh. But this time the she-bear let me off easily.
With my heart filled with smiling hopes, I went up to my miserable servant's room, and threw myself down on my hard couch.
"Life is really amazingly droll," I thought. "A short time ago the most beautiful woman, Venus herself, rested against your breast, and now you have an opportunity for studying the Chinese hell. Unlike us, they don't hurl the damned into flames, but they have devils chasing them out into fields of ice.
"Very likely the founders of their religion also slept in unheated rooms."
During the night I startled out of my sleep with a scream. I had been dreaming of an icefield in which I had lost my way; I had been looking in vain for a way out. Suddenly an eskimo drove up in a sleigh harnessed with reindeer; he had the face of the waiter who had shown me to the unheated room.
"What are you looking for here, my dear sir?" he exclaimed. "This is the North Pole."
A moment later he had disappeared, and Wanda flew over the smooth ice on tiny skates. Her white satin skirt fluttered and crackled; the ermine of her jacket and cap, but especially her face, gleamed whiter than the snow. She shot toward me, inclosed me in her arms, and began to kiss me. Suddenly I felt my blood running warm down my side.
"What are you doing?" I asked horror-stricken.
She laughed, and as I looked at her now, it was no longer Wanda, but a huge, white she-bear, who was digging her paws into my body.
I cried out in despair, and still heard her diabolical laughter when I awoke, and looked about the room in surprise.
Early in the morning I stood at Wanda's door, and the waiter brought the coffee. I took it from him, and served it to my beautiful mistress. She had already dressed, and looked magnificent, all fresh and roseate. She smiled graciously at me and called me back, when I was about to withdraw respectfully.
"Come, Gregor, have your breakfast quickly too," she said, "then we will go house-hunting. I don't want to stay in the hotel any longer than I have to. It is very embarassing here. If I chat with you for more than a minute, people will immediately say: 'The fair Russian is having an affair with her servant, you see, the race of Catherines isn't extinct yet.'"
Half an hour later we went out; Wanda was in her cloth-gown with the Russian cap, and I in my Cracovian costume. We created quite a stir. I walked about ten paces behind, looking very solemn, but expected momentarily to have to break out into loud laughter. There was scarcely a street in which one or the other of the attractive houses did not bear the sign camere ammobiliate. Wanda always sent me upstairs, and only when the apartment seemed to answer her requirements did she herself ascend. By noon I was as tired as a stag- hound after the hunt.
We entered a new house and left it again without having found a suitable habitation. Wanda was already somewhat out of humor. Suddenly she said to me: "Severin, the seriousness with which you play your part is charming, and the restrictions, which we have placed upon each other are really annoying me. I can't stand it any longer, I do love you, I must kiss you. Let's go into one of the houses."
"But, my lady—" I interposed.
"Gregor?" She entered the next open corridor and ascended a few steps of the dark stair-way; then she threw her arms about me with passionate tenderness and kissed me.
"Oh, Severin, you were very wise. You are much more dangerous as slave than I would have imagined; you are positively irrestible, and I am afraid I shall have to fall in love with you again."
"Don't you love me any longer then," I asked seized by a sudden fright.
She solemnly shook her head, but kissed me again with her swelling, adorable lips.
We returned to the hotel. Wanda had luncheon, and ordered me also quickly to get something to eat.
Of course, I wasn't served as quickly as she, and so it happened that just as I was carrying the second bite of my steak to my mouth, the waiter entered and called out with his theatrical gesture: "Madame wants you, at once."
I took a rapid and painful leave of my food, and, tired and hungry, hurried toward Wanda, who was already on the street.
"I wouldn't have imagined you could be so cruel," I said reproachfully. "With all these, fatiguing duties you don't even leave me time to eat in peace."
Wanda laughed gaily. "I thought you had finished," she said, "but never mind. Man was born to suffer, and you in particular. The martyrs didn't have any beefsteaks either."
I followed her resentfully, gnawing at my hunger.
"I have given up the idea of finding a place in the city," Wanda continued. "It will be difficult to find an entire floor which is shut off and where you can do as you please. In such a strange, mad relationship as ours there must be no jarring note. I shall rent an entire villa—and you will be surprised. You have my permission now to satisfy your hunger, and look about a bit in Florence. I won't be home till evening. If I need you then, I will have you called."
I looked at the Duomo, the Palazzo Vecchio, the Logia di Lanzi, and then I stood for a long time on the banks of the Arno. Again and again I let my eyes rest on the magnificent ancient Florence, whose round cupolas and towers were drawn in soft lines against the blue, cloudless sky. I watched its splendid bridges beneath whose wide arches the lively waves of the beautiful, yellow river ran, and the green hills which surrounded the city, bearing slender cypresses and extensive buildings, palaces and monasteries.
It is a different world, this one in which we are—a gay, sensuous, smiling world. The landscape too has nothing of the seriousness and somberness of ours. It is a long ways off to the last white villas scattered among the pale green of the mountains, and yet there isn't a spot that isn't bright with sunlight. The people are less serious than we; perhaps, they think less, but they all look as though they were happy.
It is also maintained that death is easier in the South.
I have a vague feeling now that such a thing as beauty without thorn and love of the senses without torment does exist.
Wanda has discovered a delightful little villa and rented it for the winter. It is situated on a charming hill on the left bank of the Arno, opposite the Cascine. It is surrounded by an attractive garden with lovely paths, grass plots, and magnificent meadow of camelias. It is only two stories high, quadrangular in the Italian fashion. An open gallery runs along one side, a sort of loggia with plaster-casts of antique statues; stone steps lead from it down into the garden. From the gallery you enter a bath with a magnificent marble basin, from which winding stairs lead to my mistress' bed-chamber.
Wanda occupies the second story by herself.
A room on the ground floor has been assigned to me; it is very attractive, and even has a fireplace.
I have roamed through the garden. On a round hillock I discovered a little temple, but I found its door locked. However, there is a chink in the door and when I glue my eye to it, I see the goddess of love on a white pedestal.
A slight shudder passes over me. It seems to me as if she were smiling at me saying: "Are you there? I have been expecting you."