"Your frankness," I said, "delights me, and not it alone—"
My confounded dilettantism again throttled me as though there were a rope around my neck.
"You were about to say—"
"I was about to say—I was—I am sorry—I interrupted you."
A long pause. She is doubtless engaging in a monologue, which translated into my language would be comprised in the single word, "donkey."
"If I may ask," I finally began, "how did you arrive at these—these conclusions?"
"Quite simply, my father was an intelligent man. From my cradle onward I was surrounded by replicas of ancient art; at ten years of age I read Gil Blas, at twelve La Pucelle. Where others had Hop-o'-my-thumb, Bluebeard, Cinderella, as childhood friends, mine were Venus and Apollo, Hercules and Lackoon. My husband's personality was filled with serenity and sunlight. Not even the incurable illness which fell upon him soon after our marriage could long cloud his brow. On the very night of his death he took me in his arms, and during the many months when he lay dying in his wheel chair, he often said jokingly to me: 'Well, have you already picked out a lover?' I blushed with shame. 'Don't deceive me,' he added on one occasion, 'that would seem ugly to me, but pick out an attractive lover, or preferably several. You are a splendid woman, but still half a child, and you need toys.'
"I suppose, I hardly need tell you that during his life time I had no lover; but it was through him that I have become what I am, a woman of Greece."
"A goddess," I interrupted.
"Which one," she smiled.
She threatened me with her finger and knitted her brows. "Perhaps, even a 'Venus in Furs.' Watch out, I have a large, very large fur, with which I could cover you up entirely, and I have a mind to catch you in it as in a net."
"Do you believe," I said quickly, for an idea which seemed good, in spite of its conventionality and triteness, flashed into my head, "do you believe that your theories could be carried into execution at the present time, that Venus would be permitted to stray with impunity among our railroads and telegraphs in all her undraped beauty and serenity?"
"Undraped, of course not, but in furs," she replied smiling, "would you care to see mine?"
"Beautiful, free, serene, and happy human beings, such as the Greeks were, are only possible when it is permitted to have slaves who will perform the prosaic tasks of every day for them and above all else labor for them."
"Of course," she replied playfully, "an Olympian divinity, such as I am, requires a whole army of slaves. Beware of me!"
I myself was frightened at the hardiness with which I uttered this "why"; it did not startle her in the least.
She drew back her lips a little so that her small white teeth became visible, and then said lightly, as if she were discussing some trifling matter, "Do you want to be my slave?"
"There is no equality in love," I replied solemnly. "Whenever it is a matter of choice for me of ruling or being ruled, it seems much more satisfactory to me to be the slave of a beautiful woman. But where shall I find the woman who knows how to rule, calmly, full of self-confidence, even harshly, and not seek to gain her power by means of petty nagging?"
"Oh, that might not be so difficult."
"I—for instance—" she laughed and leaned far back—"I have a real talent for despotism—I also have the necessary furs—but last night you were really seriously afraid of me!"
"Now, I am more afraid of you than ever!"
We are together every day, I and—Venus; we are together a great deal. We breakfast in my honey-suckle arbor, and have tea in her little sitting-room. I have an opportunity to unfold all my small, very small talents. Of what use would have been my study of all the various sciences, my playing at all the arts, if I were unable in the case of a pretty, little woman—
But this woman is by no means little; in fact she impresses me tremendously. I made a drawing of her to-day, and felt particularly clearly, how inappropriate the modern way of dressing is for a cameo- head like hers. The configuration of her face has little of the Roman, but much of the Greek.
Sometimes I should like to paint her as Psyche, and then again as Astarte. It depends upon the expression in her eyes, whether it is vaguely dreamy, or half-consuming, filled with tired desire. She, however, insists that it be a portrait-likeness.
I shall make her a present of furs.
How could I have any doubts? If not for her, for whom would princely furs be suitable?
I was with her yesterday evening, reading the Roman Elegies to her. Then I laid the book aside, and improvised something for her. She seemed pleased; rather more than that, she actually hung upon my words, and her bosom heaved.
Or was I mistaken?
The rain beat in melancholy fashion on the window-panes, the fire crackled in the fireplace in wintery comfort. I felt quite at home with her, and for a moment lost all my fear of this beautiful woman; I kissed her hand, and she permitted it.
Then I sat down at her feet and read a short poem I had written for her.
VENUS IN FURS."
"Place thy foot upon thy slave,
Oh thou, half of hell, half of dreams;
Among the shadows, dark and grave,
Thy extended body softly gleams.
And—so on. This time I really got beyond the first stanza. At her request I gave her the poem in the evening, keeping no copy. And now as I am writing this down in my diary I can only remember the first stanza.
I am filled with a very curious sensation. I don't believe that I am in love with Wanda; I am sure that at our first meeting, I felt nothing of the lightning-like flashes of passion. But I feel how her extraordinary, really divine beauty is gradually winding magic snares about me. It isn't any spiritual sympathy which is growing in me; it is a physical subjection, coming on slowly, but for that reason more absolutely.
I suffer under it more and more each day, and she—she merely smiles.
Without any provocation she suddenly said to me to-day: "You interest me. Most men are very commonplace, without verve or poetry. In you there is a certain depth and capacity for enthusiasm and a deep seriousness, which delight me. I might learn to love you."
After a short but severe shower we went out together to the meadow and the statue of Venus. All about us the earth steamed; mists rose up toward heaven like clouds of incense; a shattered rainbow still hovered in the air. The trees were still shedding drops, but sparrows and finches were already hopping from twig to twig. They are twittering gaily, as if very much pleased at something. Everything is filled with a fresh fragrance. We cannot cross the meadow for it is still wet. In the sunlight it looks like a small pool, and the goddess of love seems to rise from the undulations of its mirror-like surface. About her head a swarm of gnats is dancing, which, illuminated by the sun, seem to hover above her like an aureole.
Wanda is enjoying the lovely scene. As all the benches along the walk are still wet, she supports herself on my arm to rest a while. A soft weariness permeates her whole being, her eyes are half closed; I feel the touch of her breath on my cheek.
How I managed to get up courage enough I really don't know, but I took hold of her hand, asking,
"Could you love me?"
"Why not," she replied, letting her calm, clear look rest upon me, but not for long.
A moment later I am kneeling before her, pressing my burning face against the fragrant muslin of her gown.
"But Severin—this isn't right," she cried.
But I take hold of her little foot, and press my lips upon it.
"You are getting worse and worse!" she cried. She tore herself free, and fled rapidly toward the house, the while her adorable slipper remained in my hand.
Is it an omen?
All day long I didn't dare to go near her. Toward evening as I was sitting in my arbor her gay red head peered suddenly through the greenery of her balcony. "Why don't you come up?" he called down impatiently.
I ran upstairs, and at the top lost courage again. I knocked very lightly. She didn't say come-in, but opened the door herself, and stood on the threshold.
"Where is my slipper?"
"It is—I have—I want," I stammered.
"Get it, and then we will have tea together, and chat."
When I returned, she was engaged in making tea. I ceremoniously placed the slipper on the table, and stood in the corner like a child awaiting punishment.
I noticed that her brows were slightly contracted, and there was an expression of hardness and dominance about her lips which delighted me.
All of a sudden she broke out laughing.
"So—you are really in love—with me?"
"Yes, and I suffer more from it than you can imagine?"
"You suffer?" she laughed again.
I was revolted, mortified, annihilated, but all this was quite useless.
"Why?" she continued, "I like you, with all my heart."
She gave me her hand, and looked at me in the friendliest fashion.
"And will you be my wife?"
Wanda looked at me—how did she look at me? I think first of all with surprise, and then with a tinge of irony.
"What has given you so much courage, all at once?"
"Yes courage, to ask anyone to be your wife, and me in particular?" She lifted up the slipper. "Was it through a sudden friendship with this? But joking aside. Do you really wish to marry me?"
"Well, Severin, that is a serious matter. I believe, you love me, and I care for you too, and what is more important each of us finds the other interesting. There is no danger that we would soon get bored, but, you know, I am a fickle person, and just for that reason I take marriage seriously. If I assume obligations, I want to be able to meet them. But I am afraid—no—it would hurt you."
"Please be perfectly frank with me," I replied.
"Well then honestly, I don't believe I could love a man longer than— " She inclined her head gracefully to one side and mused.
"What do you imagine—a month perhaps."
"Not even me?"
"Oh you—perhaps two."
"Two months!" I exclaimed.
"Two months is very long."
"You go beyond antiquity, madame."
"You see, you cannot stand the truth."
Wanda walked across the room and leaned back against the fireplace, watching me and resting one of her arms on the mantelpiece.
"What shall I do with you?" she began anew.
"Whatever you wish," I replied with resignation, "whatever will give you pleasure."
"How illogical!" she cried, "first you want to make me your wife, and then you offer yourself to me as something to toy with."
"Wanda—I love you."
"Now we are back to the place where we started. You love me, and want to make me your wife, but I don't want to enter into a new marriage, because I doubt the permanence of both my and your feelings."
"But if I am willing to take the risk with you?" I replied.
"But it also depends on whether I am willing to risk it with you," she said quietly. "I can easily imagine belonging to one man for my entire life, but he would have to be a whole man, a man who would dominate me, who would subjugate me by his inate strength, do you understand? And every man—I know this very well—as soon as he falls in love becomes weak, pliable, ridiculous. He puts himself into the woman's hands, kneels down before her. The only man whom I could love permanently would be he before whom I should have to kneel. I've gotten to like you so much, however, that I'll try it with you."
I fell down at her feet.
"For heaven's sake, here you are kneeling already," she said mockingly. "You are making a good beginning." When I had risen again she continued, "I will give you a year's time to win me, to convince me that we are suited to each other, that we might live together. If you succeed, I will become your wife, and a wife, Severin, who will conscientiously and strictly perform all her duties. During this year we will live as though we were married—"
My blood rose to my head.
In her eyes too there was a sudden flame—
"We will live together," she continued, "share our daily life, so that we may find out whether we are really fitted for each other. I grant you all the rights of a husband, of a lover, of a friend. Are you satisfied?"
"I suppose, I'll have to be?"
"You don't have to."
"Well then, I want to—"
"Splendid. That is how a man speaks. Here is my hand."