Before evening fell, I had the desired information.
Wanda was still fully dressed when I returned. She reclined on the ottoman, her face buried in her hands, her hair in a wild tangle, like the red mane of a lioness.
"What is his name?" she asked, uncanny calm.
"A Greek, then,"
"He is very young?"
"Scarcely older than you. They say he was educated in Paris, and that he is an atheist. He fought against the Turks in Candia, and is said to have distinguished himself there no less by his race-hatred and cruelty, than by his bravery."
"All in all, then, a man," she cried with sparkling eyes.
"At present he is living in Florence," I continued, "he is said to be tremendously rich—"
"I didn't ask you about that," she interrupted quickly and sharply. "The man is dangerous. Aren't you afraid of him? I am afraid of him. Has he a wife?"
"What theaters does he attend?"
"To-night he will be at the Nicolini Theater, where Virginia Marini and Salvini are acting; they are the greatest living artists in Italy, perhaps in Europe.
"See that you get a box—and be quick about it!" she commanded.
"Do you want a taste of the whip?"
"You can wait down in the lobby," she said when I had placed the opera-glasses and the programme on the edge of her box and adjusted the footstool.
I am standing there and had to lean against the wall for support so as not to fall down with envy and rage—no, rage isn't the right word; it was a mortal fear.
I saw her in her box dressed in blue moire, with a huge ermine cloak about her bare shoulders; he sat opposite. I saw them devour each other with their eyes. For both of them the stage, Goldoni's Pamela, Salvini, Marini, the public, even the entire world, were non-existant to-night. And I—what was I at that moment?—
To-day she is attending the ball at the Greek ambassador's. Does she know, that she will meet him there?
At any rate she dressed, as if she did. A heavy sea-green silk dress plastically encloses her divine form, leaving the bust and arms bare. In her hair, which is done into a single flaming knot, a white water- lily blossoms; from it the leaves of reeds interwoven with a few loose strands fall down toward her neck. There no longer is any trace of agitation or trembling feverishness in her being. She is calm, so calm, that I feel my blood congealing and my heart growing cold under her glance. Slowly, with a weary, indolent majesty, she ascends the marble staircase, lets her precious wrap slide off, and listlessly enters the hall, where the smoke of a hundred candles has formed a silvery mist.
For a few moments my eyes follow her in a daze, then I pick up her furs, which without my being aware, had slipped from my hands. They are still warm from her shoulders.
I kiss the spot, and my eyes fill with tears.
He has arrived.
In his black velvet coat extravagantly trimmed with sable, he is a beautiful, haughty despot who plays with the lives and souls of men. He stands in the ante-room, looking around proudly, and his eyes rest on me for an uncomfortably long time.
Under his icy glance I am again seized by a mortal fear. I have a presentiment that this man can enchain her, captivate her, subjugate her, and I feel inferior in contrast with his savage masculinity; I am filled with envy, with jealousy.
I feel that I am a queer weakly creature of brains, merely! And what is most humiliating, I want to hate him, but I can't. Why is that among all the host of servants he has chosen me.
With an inimitably aristocratic nod of the head he calls me over to him, and I—I obey his call—against my own will.
"Take my furs," he quickly commands.
My entire body trembles with resentment, but I obey, abjectly like a slave.
All night long I waited in the ante-room, raving as in a fever. Strange images hovered past my inner eye. I saw their meeting—their long exchange of looks. I saw her float through the hall in his arms, drunken, lying with half-closed lids against his breast. I saw him in the holy of holies of love, lying on the ottoman, not as slave, but as master, and she at his feet. On my knees I served them, the tea-tray faltering in my hands, and I saw him reach for the whip. But now the servants are talking about him.
He is a man who is like a woman; he knows that he is beautiful, and he acts accordingly. He changes his clothes four or five times a day, like a vain courtesan.
In Paris he appeared first in woman's dress, and the men assailed him with love-letters. An Italian singer, famous equally for his art and his passionate intensity, even invaded his home, and lying on his knees before him threatened to commit suicide if he wouldn't be his.
"I am sorry," he replied, smiling, "I should like to do you the favor, but you will have to carry out your threat, for I am a man."
The drawing-room has already thinned out to a marked degree, but she apparently has no thought of leaving.
Morning is already peering through the blinds.
At last I hear the rustling of her heavy gown which flows along behind her like green waves. She advances step by step, engaged in conversation with him.
I hardly exist for her any longer; she doesn't even trouble to give me an order.
"The cloak for madame," he commands. He, of course, doesn't think of looking after her himself.
While I put her furs about her, he stands to one side with his arms crossed. While I am on my knees putting on her fur over-shoes, she lightly supports herself with her hand on his shoulder. She asks:
"And what about the lioness?"
"When the lion whom she has chosen and with whom she lives is attacked by another," the Greek went on with his narrative, "the lioness quietly lies down and watches the battle. Even if her mate is worsted she does not go to his aid. She looks on indifferently as he bleeds to death under his opponent's claws, and follows the victor, the stronger—that is the female's nature."
At this moment my lioness looked quickly and curiously at me.
It made me shudder, though I didn't know why—and the red dawn immerses me and her and him in blood.
She did not go to bed, but merely threw off her ball-dress and undid her hair; then she ordered me to build a fire, and she sat by the fire-place, and stared into the flames.
"Do you need me any longer, mistress?" I asked, my voice failed me at the last word.
Wanda shook her head.
I left the room, passed through the gallery, and sat down on one of the steps, leading from there down into the garden. A gentle north wind brought a fresh, damp coolness from the Arno, the green hills extended into the distance in a rosy mist, a golden haze hovered over the city, over the round cupola of the Duomo.
A few stars still tremble in the pale-blue sky.
I tore open my coat, and pressed my burning forehead against the marble. Everything that had happened so far seemed to me a mere child's play; but now things were beginning to be serious, terribly serious.
I anticipated a catastrophe, I visualized it, I could lay hold of it with my hands, but I lacked the courage to meet it. My strength was broken. And if I am honest with myself, neither the pains and sufferings that threatened me, not the humiliations that impended, were the thing that frightened me.
I merely felt a fear, the fear of losing her whom I loved with a sort of fanatical devotion; but it was so overwhelming, so crushing that I suddenly began to sob like a child.
During the day she remained locked in her room, and had the negress attend her. When the evening star rose glowing in the blue sky, I saw her pass through the garden, and, carefully following her at a distance, watched her enter the shrine of Venus. I stealthily followed and peered through the chink in the door.
She stood before the divine image of the goddess, her hands folded as in prayer, and the sacred light of the star of love casts its blue rays over her.
On my couch at night the fear of losing her and despair took such powerful hold of me that they made a hero and a libertine of me. I lighted the little red oil-lamp which hung in the corridor beneath a saint's image, and entered her bedroom, covering the light with one hand.
The lioness had been hunted and driven until she was exhausted. She had fallen asleep among her pillows, lying on her back, her hands clenched, breathing heavily. A dream seemed to oppress her. I slowly withdrew my hand, and let the red light fall full on her wonderful face.
But she did not awaken.
I gently set the lamp on the floor, sank down beside Wanda's bed, and rested my head on her soft, glowing arm.
She moved slightly, but even now did not awaken. I do not know how long I lay thus in the middle of the night, turned as into a stone by horrible torments.
Finally a severe trembling seized me, and I was able to cry. My tears flowed over her arm. She quivered several times and finally sat up; she brushed her hand across her eyes, and looked at me.
"Severin," she exclaimed, more frightened than angry.
I was unable to reply.
"Severin," she continued softly, "what is the matter? Are you ill?"
Her voice sounded so sympathetic, so kind, so full of love, that it clutched my breast like red-hot tongs and I began to sob aloud.
"Severin," she began anew. "My poor unhappy friend." Her hand gently stroked my hair. "I am sorry, very sorry for you; but I can't help you; with the best intention in the world I know of nothing that would cure you."
"Oh, Wanda, must it be?" I moaned in my agony.
"What, Severin? What are you talking about?"
"Don't you love me any more?" I continued. "Haven't you even a little bit of pity for me? Has the beautiful stranger taken complete possession of you?"
"I cannot lie," she replied softly after a short pause. "He has made an impression on me which I haven't yet been able to analyse, further than that I suffer and tremble beneath it. It is an impression of the sort I have met with in the works of poets or on the stage, but I always thought it was a figment of the imagination. Oh, he is a man like a lion, strong and beautiful and yet gentle, not brutal like the men of our northern world. I am sorry for you, Severin, I am; but I must possess him. What am I saying? I must give myself to him, if he will have me."
"Consider your reputation, Wanda, which so far has remained spotless," I exclaimed, "even if I no longer mean anything to you."
"I am considering it," she replied, "I intend to be strong, as long as it is possible, I want—" she buried her head shyly in the pillows —"I want to become his wife—if he will have me."
"Wanda," I cried, seized again by that mortal fear, which always robs me of my breath, makes me lose possession of myself, "you want to be his wife, belong to him for always. Oh! Do not drive me away! He does not love you—"
"Who says that?" she exclaimed, flaring up.
"He does not love you," I went on passionately, "but I love you, I adore you, I am your slave, I let you tread me underfoot, I want to carry you on my arms through life."
"Who says that he doesn't love me?" she interrupted vehemently.
"Oh! be mine," I replied, "be mine! I cannot exist, cannot live without you. Have mercy on me, Wanda, have mercy!"
She looked at me again, and her face had her cold heartless expression, her evil smile.
"You say he doesn't love me," she said, scornfully. "Very well then, get what consolation you can out of it."
With this she turned over on the other side, and contemptuously showed me her back.
"Good God, are you a woman without flesh or blood, haven't you a heart as well as I!" I cried, while my breast heaved convulsively.
"You know what I am," she replied, coldly. "I am a woman of stone, Venus in Furs, your ideal, kneel down, and pray to me."
"Wanda!" I implored, "mercy!"
She began to laugh. I buried my face in her pillows. Pain had loosened the floodgates of my tears and I let them flow.
For a long time silence reigned, then Wanda slowly raised herself.
"You bore me," she began.
"I am tired, let me go to sleep."
"Mercy," I implored. "Do not drive me away. No man, no one, will love you as I do."
"Let me go to sleep,"—she turned her back to me again.
I leaped up, and snatched the poinard, which hung beside her bed, from its sheath, and placed its point against my breast.
"I shall kill myself here before your eyes," I murmured dully.
"Do what you please," Wanda replied with complete indifference. "But let me go to sleep." She yawned aloud. "I am very sleepy."
For a moment I stood as if petrified. Then I began to laugh and cry at the same time. Finally I placed the poinard in my belt, and again fell on my knees before her.
"Wanda, listen to me, only for a few moments," I begged.
"I want to go to sleep! Don't you hear!" she cried, leaping angrily out of bed and pushing me away with her foot. "You forget that I am your mistress?" When I didn't budge, she seized the whip and struck me. I rose; she struck me again—this time right in the face.
With clenched fist held heavenward, I left her bedroom with a sudden resolve. She tossed the whip aside, and broke out into clear laughter. I can imagine that my theatrical attitude must have been very droll.
I have determined to set myself free from this heartless woman, who has treated me so cruelly, and is now about to break faith and betray me, as a reward for all my slavish devotion, for everything I have suffered from her. I packed my few belongings into a bundle, and then wrote her as follows:
I have loved you even to madness, I have given myself to you as no man ever has given himself to a woman. You have abused my most sacred emotions, and played an impudent, frivolous game with me. However, as long as you were merely cruel and merciless, it was still possible for me to love you. Now you are about to become cheap. I am no longer the slave whom you can kick about and whip. You yourself have set me free, and I am leaving a woman I can only hate and despise.
I handed these lines to the negress, and hastened away as fast as I could go. I arrived at the railway-station all out of breath. Suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my heart and stopped. I began to weep. It is humiliating that I want to flee and I can't. I turn back— whither?—to her, whom I abhor, and yet, at the same time, adore.
Again I pause. I cannot go back. I dare not.
But how am I to leave Florence. I remember that I haven't any money, not a penny. Very well then, on foot; it is better to be an honest beggar than to eat the bread of a courtesan.
But still I can't leave.
She has my pledge, my word of honor. I have to return. Perhaps she will release me.
After a few rapid strides, I stop again.
She has my word of honor and my bond, that I shall remain her slave as long as she desires, until she herself gives me my freedom. But I might kill myself.
I go through the Cascine down to the Arno, where its yellow waters plash monotonously about a couple of stray willows. There I sit, and cast up my final accounts with existence. I let my entire life pass before me in review. On the whole, it is rather a wretched affair—a few joys, an endless number of indifferent and worthless things, and between these an abundant harvest of pains, miseries, fears, disappointments, shipwrecked hopes, afflictions, sorrow and grief.
I thought of my mother, whom I loved so deeply and whom I had to watch waste away beneath a horrible disease; of my brother, who full of the promise of joy and happiness died in the flower of youth, without even having put his lips to the cup of life. I thought of my dead nurse, my childhood playmates, the friends that had striven and studied with me; of all those, covered by the cold, dead, indifferent earth. I thought of my turtle-dove, who not infrequently made his cooing bows to me, instead of to his mate.—All have returned, dust unto dust.
I laughed aloud, and slid down into the water, but at the same moment I caught hold of one of the willow-branches, hanging above the yellow waves. As in a vision, I see the woman who has caused all my misery. She hovers above the level of the water, luminous in the sunlight as though she were transparent, with red flames about her head and neck. She turns her face toward me and smiles.
I am back again, dripping, wet through, glowing with shame and fever. The negress has delivered my letter; I am judged, lost, in the power of a heartless, affronted woman.
Well, let her kill me. I am unable to do it myself, and yet I have no wish to go on living.
As I walk around the house, she is standing in the gallery, leaning over the railing. Her face is full in the light of the sun, and her green eyes sparkle.
"Still alive?" she asked, without moving. I stood silent, with bowed head.
"Give me back my poinard," she continued. "It is of no use to you. You haven't even the courage to take your own life."
"I have lost it," I replied, trembling, shaken by chills.
She looked me over with a proud, scornful glance.
"I suppose you lost it in the Arno?" She shrugged her shoulders. "No matter. Well, and why didn't you leave?"
I mumbled something which neither she nor I myself could understand.
"Oh! you haven't any money," she cried. "Here!" With an indescribably disdainful gesture she tossed me her purse.
I did not pick it up.
Both of us were silent for some time.
"You don't want to leave then?"
Wanda drives in the Cascine without me, and goes to the theater without me; she receives company, and the negress serves her. No one asks after me. I stray about the garden, irresolutely, like an animal that has lost its master.
Lying among the bushes, I watch a couple of sparrows, fighting over a seed.
Suddenly I hear the swish of a woman's dress.
Wanda approaches in a gown of dark silk, modestly closed up to the neck; the Greek is with her. They are in an eager discussion, but I cannot as yet understand a word of what they are saying. He stamps his foot so that the gravel scatters about in all directions, and he lashes the air with his riding whip. Wanda startles.
Is she afraid that he will strike her?
Have they gone that far?
He has left her, she calls him; he does not hear her, does not want to hear her.
Wanda sadly lowers her head, and then sits down on the nearest stone- bench. She sits for a long time, lost in thought. I watch her with a sort of malevolent pleasure, finally I pull myself together by sheer force of will, and ironically step before her. She startles, and trembles all over.
"I come to wish you happiness," I said, bowing, "I see, my dear lady, too, has found a master."
"Yes, thank God!" she exclaimed, "not a new slave, I have had enough of them. A master! Woman needs a master, and she adores him."
"You adore him, Wanda?" I cried, "this brutal person—"
"Yes, I love him, as I have never loved any one else."
"Wanda!" I clenched my fists, but tears already filled my eyes, and I was seized by the delirium of passion, as by a sweet madness. "Very well, take him as your husband, let him be your master, but I want to remain your slave, as long as I live."
"You want to remain my slave, even then?" she said, "that would be interesting, but I am afraid he wouldn't permit it."
"Yes, he is already jealous of you," she exclaimed, "he, of you! He demanded that I dismiss you immediately, and when I told him who you were—"
"You told him—" I repeated, thunderstruck.
"I told him everything," she replied, "our whole story, all your queerness, everything—and he, instead of being amused, grew angry, and stamped his foot."
"And threatened to strike you?"
Wanda looked to the ground, and remained silent.
"Yes, indeed," I said with mocking bitterness, "you are afraid of him, Wanda!" I threw myself down at her feet, and in my agitation embraced her knees. "I don't want anything of you, except to be your slave, to be always near you! I will be your dog-"
"Do you know, you bore me?" said Wanda, indifferently.
I leaped up. Everything within me was seething.
"You are now no longer cruel, but cheap," I said, clearly and distinctly, accentuating every word.
"You have already written that in your letter," Wanda replied, with a proud shrug of the shoulders. "A man of brains should never repeat himself."
"The way you are treating me," I broke out, "what would you call it?"
"I might punish you," she replied ironically, "but I prefer this time to reply with reasons instead of lashes. You have no right to accuse me. Haven't I always been honest with you? Haven't I warned you more than once? Didn't I love you with all my heart, even passionately, and did I conceal the fact from you, that it was dangerous to give yourself into my power, to abase yourself before me, and that I want to be dominated? But you wished to be my plaything, my slave! You found the highest pleasure in feeling the foot, the whip of an arrogant, cruel woman. What do you want now?
"Dangerous potentialities were slumbering in me, but you were the first to awaken them. If I now take pleasure in torturing you, abusing you, it is your fault; you have made of me what I now am, and now you are even unmanly, weak, and miserable enough to accuse me."
"Yes, I am guilty," I said, "but haven't I suffered because of it? Let us put an end now to the cruel game."
"That is my wish, too," she replied with a curious deceitful look.
"Wanda!" I exclaimed violently, "don't drive me to extremes; you see that I am a man again."
"A fire of straw," she replied, "which makes a lot of stir for a moment, and goes out as quickly as it flared up. You imagine you can intimidate me, and you only make yourself ridiculous. Had you been the man I first thought you were, serious, reserved, stern, I would have loved you faithfully, and become your wife. Woman demands that she can look up to a man, but one like you who voluntarily places his neck under her foot, she uses as a welcome plaything, only to toss it aside when she is tired of it."
"Try to toss me aside," I said, jeeringly. "Some toys are dangerous."
"Don't challenge me," exclaimed Wanda. Her eyes began to flash, and a flush entered her cheeks.
"If you won't be mine now," I continued, with a voice stifled with rage, "no one else shall possess you either."
"What play is this from?" she mocked, seizing me by the breast. She was pale with anger at this moment. "Don't challenge me," she continued, "I am not cruel, but I don't know whether I may not become so and whether then there will be any bounds."
"What worse can you do, than to make your lover, your husband?" I exclaimed, more and more enraged.
"I might make you his slave," she replied quickly, "are you not in my power? Haven't I the agreement? But, of course, you will merely take pleasure in it, if I have you bound, and say to him.
"Do with him what you please."
"Woman, are you mad!" I cried.
"I am entirely rational," she said, calmly. "I warn you for the last time. Don't offer any resistance, one who has gone as far as I have gone might easily go still further. I feel a sort of hatred for you, and would find a real joy in seeing him beat you to death; I am still restraining myself, but—"
Scarcely master of myself any longer, I seized her by the wrist and forced her to the ground, so that she lay on her knees before me.
"Severin!" she cried. Rage and terror were painted on her face.
"I shall kill you if you marry him," I threatened; the words came hoarsely and dully from my breast. "You are mine, I won't let you go, I love you too much." Then I clutched her and pressed her close to me; my right hand involuntarily seized the dagger which I still had in my belt.
Wanda fixed a large, calm, incomprehensible look on me.
"I like you that way," she said, carelessly. "Now you are a man, and at this moment I know I still love you."
"Wanda," I wept with rapture, and bent down over her, covering her dear face with kisses, and she, suddenly breaking into a loud gay laugh, said, "Have you finished with your ideal now, are you satisfied with me?"
"You mean?" I stammered, "that you weren't serious?"
"I am very serious," she gaily continued. "I love you, only you, and you—you foolish, little man, didn't know that everything was only make-believe and play-acting. How hard it often was for me to strike you with the whip, when I would have rather taken your head and covered it with kisses. But now we are through with that, aren't we? I have played my cruel role better than you expected, and now you will be satisfied with my being a good, little wife who isn't altogether unattractive. Isn't that so? We will live like rational people—"
"You will marry me!" I cried, overflowing with happiness.
"Yes—marry you—you dear, darling man," whispered Wanda, kissing my hands.
I drew her up to my breast.
"Now, you are no longer Gregor, my slave," said she, "but Severin, the dear man I love—"
"And he—you don't love him?" I asked in agitation.
"How could you imagine my loving a man of his brutal type? You were blind to everything, I was really afraid for you."
"I almost killed myself for your sake."
"Really?" she cried, "ah, I still tremble at the thought, that you were already in the Arno."
"But you saved me," I replied, tenderly. "You hovered over the waters and smiled, and your smile called me back to life."