For ten days I have been with her every hour, except at night. All the time I was allowed to look into her eyes, hold her hands, listen to what she said, accompany her wherever she went.
My love seems to me like a deep, bottomless abyss, into which I subside deeper and deeper. There is nothing now which could save me from it.
This afternoon we were resting on the meadow at the foot of the Venus-statue. I plucked flowers and tossed them into her lap; she wound them into wreaths with which we adorned our goddess.
Suddenly Wanda looked at me so strangely that my senses became confused and passion swept over my head like a conflagration. Losing command over myself, I threw my arms about her and clung to her lips, and she—she drew me close to her heaving breast.
"Are you angry?" I then asked her.
"I am never angry at anything that is natural—" she replied, "but I am afraid you suffer."
"Oh, I am suffering frightfully."
"Poor friend!" she brushed my disordered hair back from my fore- head. "I hope it isn't through any fault of mine."
"No—" I replied,—"and yet my love for you has become a sort of madness. The thought that I might lose you, perhaps actually lose you, torments me day and night."
"But you don't yet possess me," said Wanda, and again she looked at me with that vibrant, consuming expression, which had already once before carried me away. Then she rose, and with her small transparent hands placed a wreath of blue anemones upon the ringletted white head of Venus. Half against my will I threw my arm around her body.
"I can no longer live without you, oh wonderful woman," I said. "Believe me, believe only this once, that this time it is not a phrase, not a thing of dreams. I feel deep down in my innermost soul, that my life belongs inseparably with yours. If you leave me, I shall perish, go to pieces."
"That will hardly be necessary, for I love you," she took hold of my chin, "you foolish man!"
"But you will be mine only under conditions, while I belong to you unconditionally—"
"That isn't wise, Severin," she replied almost with a start. "Don't you know me yet, do you absolutely refuse to know me? I am good when I am treated seriously and reasonably, but when you abandon yourself too absolutely to me, I grow arrogant—"
"So be it, be arrogant, be despotic," I cried in the fulness of exaltation, "only be mine, mine forever." I lay at her feet, embracing her knees.
"Things will end badly, my friend," she said soberly, without moving.
"It shall never end," I cried excitedly, almost violently. "Only death shall part us. If you cannot be mine, all mine and for always, then I want to be your slave, serve you, suffer everything from you, if only you won't drive me away."
"Calm yourself," she said, bending down and kissing my forehead, "I am really very fond of you, but your way is not the way to win and hold me."
"I want to do everything, absolutely everything, that you want, only not to lose you," I cried, "only not that, I cannot bear the thought."
"Do get up."
"You are a strange person," continued Wanda. "You wish to possess me at any price?"
"Yes, at any price."
"But of what value, for instance, would that be?"—She pondered; a lurking uncanny expression entered her eyes—"If I no longer loved you, if I belonged to another."
A shudder ran through me. I looked at her She stood firmly and confident before me, and her eyes disclosed a cold gleam.
"You see," she continued, "the very thought frightens you." A beautiful smile suddenly illuminated her face.
"I feel a perfect horror, when I imagine, that the woman I love and who has responded to my love could give herself to another regardless of me. But have I still a choice? If I love such a woman, even unto madness, shall I turn my back to her and lose everything for the sake of a bit of boastful strength; shall I send a bullet through my brains? I have two ideals of woman. If I cannot obtain the one that is noble and simple, the woman who will faithfully and truly share my life, well then I don't want anything half-way or lukewarm. Then I would rather be subject to a woman without virtue, fidelity, or pity. Such a woman in her magnificent selfishness is likewise an ideal. If I am not permitted to enjoy the happiness of love, fully and wholly, I want to taste its pains and torments to the very dregs; I want to be maltreated and betrayed by the woman I love, and the more cruelly the better. This too is a luxury."
"Have you lost your senses," cried Wanda.
"I love you with all my soul," I continued, "with all my senses, and your presence and personality are absolutely essential to me, if I am to go on living. Choose between my ideals. Do with me what you will, make of me your husband or your slave."
"Very well," said Wanda, contracting her small but strongly arched brows, "it seems to me it would be rather entertaining to have a man, who interests me and loves me, completely in my power; at least I shall not lack pastime. You were imprudent enough to leave the choice to me. Therefore I choose; I want you to be my slave, I shall make a plaything for myself out of you!"
"Oh, please do," I cried half-shuddering, half-enraptured. "If the foundation of marriage depends on equality and agreement, it is likewise true that the greatest passions rise out of opposites. We are such opposites, almost enemies. That is why my love is part hate, part fear. In such a relation only one can be hammer and the other anvil. I wish to be the anvil. I cannot be happy when I look down upon the woman I love. I want to adore a woman, and this I can only do when she is cruel towards me."
"But, Severin," replied Wanda, almost angrily, "do you believe me capable of maltreating a man who loves me as you do, and whom I love?"
"Why not, if I adore you the more on this account? It is possible to love really only that which stands above us, a woman, who through her beauty, temperament, intelligence, and strength of will subjugates us and becomes a despot over us."
"Then that which repels others, attracts you."
"Yes. That is the strange part of me."
"Perhaps, after all, there isn't anything so very unique or strange in all your passions, for who doesn't love beautiful furs? And everyone knows and feels how closely sexual love and cruelty are related."
"But in my case all these elements are raised to their highest degree," I replied.
"In other words, reason has little power over you, and you are by nature, soft, sensual, yielding."
"Were the martyrs also soft and sensual by nature?"
"On the contrary, they were supersensual men, who found enjoyment in suffering. They sought out the most frightful tortures, even death itself, as others seek joy, and as they were, so am I—supersensual."
"Have a care that in being such, you do not become a martyr to love, the martyr of a woman."
We are sitting on Wanda's little balcony in the mellow fragrant summer night. A twofold roof is above us, first the green ceiling of climbing-plants, and then the vault of heaven sown with innumerable stars. The low wailing love-call of a cat rises from the park. I am sitting on footstool at the feet of my divinity, and am telling her of my childhood.
"And even then all these strange tendencies were distinctly marked in you?" asked Wanda.
"Of course, I can't remember a time when I didn't have them. Even in my cradle, so mother has told me, I was supersensual. I scorned the healthy breast of my nurse, and had to be brought up on goats' milk. As a little boy I was mysteriously shy before women, which really was only an expression of an inordinate interest in them. I was oppressed by the gray arches and half-darknesses of the church, and actually afraid of the glittering altars and images of the saints. Secretly, however, I sneaked as to a secret joy to a plaster-Venus which stood in my father's little library. I kneeled down before her, and to her I said the prayers I had been taught—the Paternoster, the Ave Maria, and the Credo.
"Once at night I left my bed to visit her. The sickle of the moon was my light and showed me the goddess in a pale-blue cold light. I prostrated myself before her and kissed her cold feet, as I had seen our peasants do when they kissed the feet of the dead Savior.
"An irresistible yearning seized me.
"I got up and embraced the beautiful cold body and kissed the cold lips. A deep shudder fell upon me and I fled, and later in a dream, it seemed to me, as if the goddess stood beside my bed, threatening me with up-raised arm.
"I was sent to school early and soon reached the gymnasium. I passionately grasped at everything which promised to make the world of antiquity accessible to me. Soon I was more familiar with the gods of Greece than with the religion of Jesus. I was with Paris when he gave the fateful apple to Venus, I saw Troy burn, and followed Ulysses on his wanderings. The prototypes of all that is beautiful sank deep into my soul, and consequently at the time when other boys are coarse and obscene, I displayed an insurmountable aversion to everything base, vulgar, unbeautiful.
"To me, the maturing youth, love for women seemed something especially base and unbeautiful, for it showed itself to me first in all its commonness. I avoided all contact with the fair sex; in short, I was supersensual to madness.
"When I was about fourteen my mother had a charming chamber-maid, young, attractive, with a figure just budding into womanhood. I was sitting one day studying my Tacitus and growing enthusiastic over the virtues of the ancient Teutons, while she was sweeping my room. Suddenly she stopped, bent down over me, in the meantime holding fast to the broom, and a pair of fresh, full, adorable lips touched mine. The kiss of the enamoured little cat ran through me like a shudder, but I raised up my Germania, like a shield against the temptress, and indignantly left the room."
Wanda broke out in loud laughter. "It would, indeed, be hard to find another man like you, but continue."
"There is another unforgetable incident belonging to that period," I continued my story. "Countess Sobol, a distant aunt of mine, was visiting my parents. She was a beautiful majestic woman with an attractive smile. I, however, hated her, for she was regarded by the family as a sort of Messalina. My behavior toward her was as rude, malicious, and awkward as possible.
"One day my parents drove to the capital of the district. My aunt determined to take advantage of their absence, and to exercise judgment over me. She entered unexpectedly in her fur-lined kazabaika, followed by the cook, kitchen-maid, and the cat of a chamber-maid whom I had scorned. Without asking any questions, they seized me and bound me hand and foot, in spite of my violent resistance. Then my aunt, with an evil smile, rolled up her sleeve and began to whip me with a stout switch. She whipped so hard that the blood flowed, and that, at last, notwithstanding my heroic spirit, I cried and wept and begged for mercy. She then had me untied, but I had to get down on my knees and thank her for the punishment and kiss her hand.
"Now you understand the supersensual fool! Under the lash of a beautiful woman my senses first realized the meaning of woman. In her fur-jacket she seemed to me like a wrathful queen, and from then on my aunt became the most desirable woman on God's earth.
"My Cato-like austerity, my shyness before woman, was nothing but an excessive feeling for beauty. In my imagination sensuality became a sort of cult. I took an oath to myself that I would not squander its holy wealth upon any ordinary person, but I would reserve it for an ideal woman, if possible for the goddess of love herself.
"I went to the university at a very early age. It was in the capital where my aunt lived. My room looked at that time like Doctor Faustus's. Everything in it was in a wild confusion. There were huge closets stuffed full of books, which I bought for a song from a Jewish dealer on the Servanica; there were globes, atlases, flasks, charts of the heavens, skeletons of animals, skulls, the busts of eminent men. It looked as though Mephistopheles might have stepped out from behind the huge green store as a wandering scholiast at any moment.
"I studied everything in a jumble without system, without selection: chemistry, alchemy, history, astronomy, philosophy, law, anatomy, and literature; I read Homer, Virgil, Ossian, Schiller, Goethe, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Voltaire, Moliere, the Koran, the Kosmos, Casanova's Memoirs. I grew more confused each day, more fantastical, more supersensual. All the time a beautiful ideal woman hovered in my imagination. Every so and so often she appeared before me like a vision among my leather-bound books and dead bones, lying on a bed of roses, surrounded by cupids. Sometimes she appeared gowned like the Olympians with the stern white face of the plaster Venus; sometimes in braids of a rich brown, blue-eyes, in my aunt's red velvet kazabaika, trimmed with ermine.
"One morning when she had again risen out of the golden mist of my imagination in all her smiling beauty, I went to see Countess Sobol, who received me in a friendly, even cordial manner. She gave me a kiss of welcome, which put all my senses in a turmoil. She was probably about forty years old, but like most well-preserved women of the world, still very attractive. She wore as always her fur-edged jacket. This time it was one of green velvet with brown marten. But nothing of the sternness which had so delighted me the other time was now discernable.
"On the contrary, there was so little of cruelty in her that without any more ado she let me adore her.
"Only too soon did she discover my supersensual folly and innocence, and it pleased her to make me happy. As for myself—I was as happy as a young god. What rapture for me to be allowed to lie before her on my knees, and to kiss her hands, those with which she had scourged me! What marvellous hands they were, of beautiful form, delicate, rounded, and white, with adorable dimples! I really was in love with her hands only. I played with them, let them submerge and emerge in the dark fur, held them against the light, and was unable to satiate my eyes with them."
Wanda involuntarily looked at her hand; I noticed it, and had to smile.
"From the way in which the supersensual predominated in me in those days you can see that I was in love only with the cruel lashes I received from my aunt; and about two years later when I paid court to a young actress only in the roles she played. Still later I became the admirer of a respectable woman. She acted the part of irreproachable virtue, only in the end to betray me with a rich Jew. You see, it is because I was betrayed, sold, by a woman who feigned the strictest principles and the highest ideals, that I hate that sort of poetical, sentimental virtue so intensely. Give me rather a woman who is honest enough to say to me: I am a Pompadour, a Lucretia Borgia, and I am ready to adore her."
Wanda rose and opened the window.
"You have a curious way of arousing one's imagination, stimulating all one's nerves, and making one's pulses beat faster. You put an aureole on vice, provided only if it is honest. Your ideal is a daring courtesan of genius. Oh, you are the kind of man who will corrupt a woman to her very last fiber."