The bell at the garden-gate rings. It is a familiar face. The man from the Cascine.
"Whom shall I announce?" I ask him in French. He timidly shakes his head.
"Do you, perhaps, understand some German?" he asks shyly.
"Yes. Your name, please."
"Oh! I haven't any yet," he replies, embarrassed—"Tell your mistress the German painter from the Cascine is here and would like— but there she is herself."
Wanda had stepped out on the balcony, and nodded toward the stranger.
"Gregor, show the gentleman in!" she called to me.
I showed the painter the stairs.
"Thanks, I'll find her now, thanks, thanks very much." He ran up the steps. I remained standing below, and looked with deep pity on the poor German.
Venus in Furs has caught his soul in the red snares of hair. He will paint her, and go mad.
It is a sunny winter's day. Something that looks like gold trembles on the leaves of the clusters of trees down below in the green level of the meadow. The camelias at the foot of the gallery are glorious in their abundant buds. Wanda is sitting in the loggia; she is drawing. The German painter stands opposite her with his hands folded as in adoration, and looks at her. No, he rather looks at her face, and is entirely absorbed in it, enraptured.
But she does not see him, neither does she see me, who with the spade in my hand am turning over the flower-bed, solely that I may see her and feel her nearness, which produces an effect on me like poetry, like music.
The painter has gone. It is a hazardous thing to do, but I risk it. I go up to the gallery, quite close, and ask Wanda "Do you love the painter, mistress?"
She looks at me without getting angry, shakes her head, and finally even smiles.
"I feel sorry for him," she replies, "but I do not love him. I love no one. I used to love you, as ardently, as passionately, as deeply as it was possible for me to love, but now I don't love even you any more; my heart is a void, dead, and this makes me sad."
"Wanda!" I exclaimed, deeply moved.
"Soon, you too will no longer love me," she continued, "tell me when you have reached that point, and I will give back to you your freedom."
"Then I shall remain your slave, all my life long, for I adore you and shall always adore you," I cried, seized by that fanaticism of love which has repeatedly been so fatal to me.
Wanda looked at me with a curious pleasure. "Consider well what you do," she said. "I have loved you infinitely and have been despotic towards you so that I might fulfil your dream. Something of my old feeling, a sort of real sympathy for you, still trembles in my breast. When that too has gone who knows whether then I shall give you your liberty; whether I shall not then become really cruel, merciless, even brutal toward; whether I shall not take a diabolical pleasure in tormenting and putting on the rack the man who worships me idolatrously, the while I remain indifferent or love someone else; perhaps, I shall enjoy seeing him die of his love for me. Consider this well."
"I have long since considered all that," I replied as in a glow of fever. "I cannot exist, cannot live without you; I shall die if you set me at liberty; let me remain your slave, kill me, but do not drive me away."
"Very well then, be my slave," she replied, "but don't forget that I no longer love you, and your love doesn't mean any more to me than a dog's, and dogs are kicked."
To-day I visited the Venus of Medici.
It was still early, and the little octagonal room in the Tribuna was filled with half-lights like a sanctuary; I stood with folded hands in deep adoration before the silent image of the divinity.
But I did not stand for long.
Not a human soul was in the gallery, not even an Englishman, and I fell down on my knees. I looked up at the lovely slender body, the budding breasts, the virginal and yet voluptuous face, the fragrant curls which seemed to conceal tiny horns on each side of the forehead.
My mistress's bell.
It is noonday. She, however, is still abed with her arms intertwined behind her neck.
"I want to bathe," she says, "and you will attend me. Lock the door!"
"Now go downstairs and make sure the door below is also locked."
I descended the winding stairs that lead from her bedroom to the bath; my feet gave way beneath me, and I had to support myself against the iron banister. After having ascertained that the door leading to the Loggia and the garden was locked, I returned. Wanda was now sitting on the bed with loosened hair, wrapped in her green velvet furs. When she made a rapid movement, I noticed that the furs were her only covering. It made me start terribly, I don't know why? I was like one condemned to death, who knows he is on the way to the scaffold, and yet begins to tremble when he sees it.
"Come, Gregor, take me on your arms."
"You mean, mistress?"
"You are to carry me, don't you understand?"
I lifted her up, so that she rested in my arms, while she twined hers around my neck. Slowly, step by step, I went down the stairs with her and her hair beat from time to time against my cheek and her foot sought support against my knee. I trembled under the beautiful burden I was carrying, and every moment it seemed as if I had to break down beneath it.
The bath consisted of a wide, high rotunda, which received a soft quiet light from a red glass cupola above. Two palms extended their broad leaves like a roof over a couch of velvet cushions. From here steps covered with Turkish rugs led to the white marble basin which occupied the center.
"There is a green ribbon on my toilet-table upstairs," said Wanda, as I let her down on the couch, "go get it, and also bring the whip."
I flew upstairs and back again, and kneeling put both in my mistress's hands. She then had me twist her heavy electric hair into a large knot which I fastened with the green ribbon. Then I prepared the bath. I did this very awkwardly because my hands and feet refused to obey me. Again and again I had to look at the beautiful woman lying on the red velvet cushions, and from time to time her wonderful body gleamed here and there beneath the furs. Some magnetic power stronger than my will compelled me to look. I felt that all sensuality and lustfulness lies in that which is half-concealed or intentionally disclosed; and the truth of this I recognized even more acutely, when the basin at last was full, and Wanda threw off the fur- cloak with a single gesture, and stood before me like the goddess in the Tribuna.
At that moment she seemed as sacred and chaste to me in her unveiled beauty, as did the divinity of long ago. I sank down on my knees before her, and devoutly pressed my lips on her foot.
My soul which had been storm-tossed only a little while earlier, suddenly was perfectly calm, and I now felt no element of cruelty in Wanda.
She slowly descended the stairs, and I could watch her with a calmness in which not a single atom of torment or desire was intermingled. I could see her plunge into and rise out of the crystalline water, and the wavelets which she herself raised played about her like tender lovers.
Our nihilistic aesthetician is right when he says: a real apple is more beautiful than a painted one, and a living woman is more beautiful than a Venus of stone.
And when she left the bath, and the silvery drops and the roseate light rippled down her body, I was seized with silent rapture. I wrapped the linen sheets about her, drying her glorious body. The calm bliss remained with me, even now when one foot upon me as upon a footstool, she rested on the cushions in her large velvet cloak. The lithe sables nestled desirously against her cold marble-like body. Her left arm on which she supported herself lay like a sleeping swan in the dark fur of the sleeve, while her left hand played carelessly with the whip.
By chance my look fell on the massive mirror on the wall opposite, and I cried out, for I saw the two of us in its golden frame as in a picture. The picture was so marvellously beautiful, so strange, so imaginative, that I was filled with deep sorrow at the thought that its lines and colors would have to dissolve like mist.
"What is the matter?" asked Wanda.
I pointed to the mirror.
"Ah, that is really beautiful," she exclaimed, "too bad one can't capture the moment and make it permanent."
"And why not?" I asked. "Would not any artist, even the most famous, be proud if you gave him leave to paint you and make you immortal by means of his brush.
"The very thought that this extra-ordinary beauty is to be lost to the world," I continued still watching her enthusiastically, "is horrible—all this glorious facial expression, this mysterious eye with its green fires, this demonic hair, this magnificence of body. The idea fills me with a horror of death, of annihilation. But the hand of an artist shall snatch you from this. You shall not like the rest of us disappear absolutely and forever, without leaving a trace of your having been. Your picture must live, even when you yourself have long fallen to dust; your beauty must triumph beyond death!"
"Too bad, that present-day Italy hasn't a Titian or Raphael," she said, "but, perhaps, love will make amends for genius, who knows; our little German might do?" She pondered.
"Yes, he shall paint you, and I will see to it that the god of love mixes his colors."
The young painter has established his studio in her villa; he is completely in her net. He has just begun a Madonna, a Madonna with red hair and green eyes! Only the idealism of a German would attempt to use this thorough-bred woman as a model for a picture of virginity. The poor fellow really is an almost bigger donkey than I am. Our misfortune is that our Titania has discovered our ass's ears too soon.
Now she laughs derisively at us, and how she laughs! I hear her insolent melodious laughter in his studio, under the open window of which I stand, jealously listening.
"Are you mad, me—ah, it is unbelievable, me as the Mother of God!" she exclaimed and laughed again. "Wait a moment, I will show you another picture of myself, one that I myself have painted, and you shall copy it."
Her head appeared in the window, luminous like a flame under the sunlight.
I hurried up the stairs, through the gallery, into the studio.
"Lead him to the bath," Wanda commanded, while she herself hurried away.
A few moments passed and Wanda arrived; dressed in nothing but the sable fur, with the whip in her hand; she descended the stairs and stretched out on the velvet cushions as on the former occasion. I lay at her feet and she placed one of her feet upon me; her right hand played with the whip. "Look at me," she said, "with your deep, fanatical look, that's it."
The painter had turned terribly pale. He devoured the scene with his beautiful dreamy blue eyes; his lips opened, but he remained dumb.
"Well, how do you like the picture?"
"Yes, that is how I want to paint you," said the German, but it was really not a spoken language; it was the eloquent moaning, the weeping of a sick soul, a soul sick unto death.
The charcoal outline of the painting is done; the heads and flesh parts are painted in. Her diabolical face is already becoming visible under a few bold strokes, life flashes in her green eyes.
Wanda stands in front of the canvas with her arms crossed over her breast.
"This picture, like many of those of the Venetian school, is simultaneously to represent a portrait and to tell a story," explained the painter, who again had become pale as death.
"And what will you call it?" she asked, "but what is the matter with you, are you ill?"
"I am afraid—" he answered with a consuming look fixed on the beautiful woman in furs, "but let us talk of the picture."
"Yes, let us talk about the picture."
"I imagine the goddess of love as having descended from Mount Olympus for the sake of some mortal man. And always cold in this modern world of ours, she seeks to keep her sublime body warm in a large heavy fur and her feet in the lap of her lover. I imagine the favorite of a beautiful despot, who whips her slave, when she is tired of kissing him, and the more she treads him underfoot, the more insanely he loves her. And so I shall call the picture: Venus in Furs."
The painter paints slowly, but his passion grows more and more rapidly. I am afraid he will end up by committing suicide. She plays with him and propounds riddles to him which he cannot solve, and he feels his blood congealing in the process, but it amuses her.
During the sitting she nibbles at candies, and rolls the paper- wrappers into little pellets with which she bombards him.
"I am glad you are in such good humor," said the painter, "but your face has lost the expression which I need for my picture."
"The expression which you need for your picture," she replied, smiling. "Wait a moment."
She rose, and dealt me a blow with the whip. The painter looked at her with stupefaction, and a child-like surprise showed on his face, mingled with disgust and admiration.
While whipping me, Wanda's face acquired more and more of the cruel, contemptuous character, which so haunts and intoxicates me.
"Is this the expression you need for your picture?" she exclaimed. The painter lowered his look in confusion before the cold ray of her eye.
"It is the expression—" he stammered, "but I can't paint now—"
"What?" said Wanda, scornfully, "perhaps I can help you?"
"Yes—" cried the German, as if taken with madness, "whip me too."
"Oh! With pleasure," she replied, shrugging her shoulders, "but if I am to whip you I want to do it in sober earnest."
"Whip me to death," cried the painter.
"Will you let me tie you?" she asked, smiling.
"Yes—" he moaned—
Wanda left the room for a moment, and returned with ropes.
"Well—are you still brave enough to put yourself into the power of Venus in Furs, the beautiful despot, for better or worse?" she began ironically.
"Yes, tie me," the painter replied dully. Wanda tied his hands on his back and drew a rope through his arms and a second one around his body, and fettered him to the cross-bars of the window. Then she rolled back the fur, seized the whip, and stepped in front of him.
The scene had a grim attraction for me, which I cannot describe. I felt my heart beat, when, with a smile, she drew back her arm for the first blow, and the whip hissed through the air. He winced slightly under the blow. Then she let blow after blow rain upon him, with her mouth half-opened and her teeth flashing between her red lips, until he finally seemed to ask for mercy with his piteous, blue eyes. It was indescribable.