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Venus in Furs

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<P>I am reading <I>Manon l'Escault</I> to her. She feels the association, she doesn't say a word, but she smiles from time to time, and finally she shuts up the little book.</P> <P>"Don't you want to go on reading?"</P> <P>"Not to-day. We will ourselves act <I>Manon l'Escault</I> to-day. I have a rendezvous in the Cascine, and you, my dear Chevalier, will accompany me; I know, you will do it, won't you?"</P> <P>"You command it."</P> <P>"I do not command it, I beg it of you," she says with irresistible charm. She then rises, puts her hands on my shoulders, and looks at me.</P> <P>"Your eyes!" she exclaims. "I love you, Severin, you have no idea how I love you!"</P> <P>"Yes, I have!" I replied bitterly, "so much so that you have arranged for a rendezvous with some one else."</P> <P>"I do this only to allure you the more," she replied vivaciously. "I must have admirers, so as not to lose you. I don't ever want to lose you, never, do you hear, for I love only you, you alone."</P> <P>She clung passionately to my lips.</P> <P>"Oh, if I only could, as I would, give you all of my soul in a kiss&mdash; thus&mdash;but now come."</P> <P>She slipped into a simple black velvet coat, and put a dark <I>bashlyk</I> [5] on her head. Then she rapidly went through the gallery, and entered the carriage.</P> <P>"Gregor will drive," she called out to the coachman who withdrew in surprise.</P> <P>I ascended the driver's seat, and angrily whipped up the horses.</P> <P>In the Cascine where the main roadway turns into a leafy path, Wanda got out. It was night, only occasional stars shone through the gray clouds that fled across the sky. By the bank of the Arno stood a man in a dark cloak, with a brigand's hat, and looked at the yellow waves. Wanda rapidly walked through the shrubbery, and tapped him on the shoulder. I saw him turn and seize her hand, and then they disappeared behind the green wall.</P> <P>An hour full of torments. Finally there was a rustling in the bushes to one side, and they returned.</P> <P>The man accompanied her to the carriage. The light of the lamp fell full and glaringly upon an infinitely young, soft and dreamy face which I had never before seen, and played in his long, blond curls.</P> <P>She held out her hand which he kissed with deep respect, then she signaled to me, and immediately the carriage flew along the leafy wall which follows the river like a long green screen.</P> <HR ALIGN="left" WIDTH="150"> <BR> <P>The bell at the garden-gate rings. It is a familiar face. The man from the Cascine.</P> <P>"Whom shall I announce?" I ask him in French. He timidly shakes his head.</P> <P>"Do you, perhaps, understand some German?" he asks shyly.</P> <P>"Yes. Your name, please."</P> <P>"Oh! I haven't any yet," he replies, embarrassed&mdash;"Tell your mistress the German painter from the Cascine is here and would like&mdash; but there she is herself."</P> <P>Wanda had stepped out on the balcony, and nodded toward the stranger.</P> <P>"Gregor, show the gentleman in!" she called to me.</P> <P>I showed the painter the stairs.</P> <P>"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.</P> <P>Venus in Furs has caught his soul in the red snares of hair. He will paint her, and go mad.</P> <HR ALIGN="left" WIDTH="150"> <BR> <P>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.</P> <P>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.</P> <HR ALIGN="left" WIDTH="150"> <BR> <P>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?"</P> <P>She looks at me without getting angry, shakes her head, and finally even smiles.</P> <P>"I feel sorry for him," she replies, "but I do not love him. I love no one. <I>I used to love you, as ardently, as passionately, as deeply as it was possible for me to love</I>, but now I don't love even you any more; my heart is a void, dead, and this makes me sad."</P> <P>"Wanda!" I exclaimed, deeply moved.</P> <P>"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."</P> <P>"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.</P> <P>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."</P> <P>"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."</P> <P>"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."</P> <HR ALIGN="left" WIDTH="150"> <BR> <P>To-day I visited the Venus of Medici.</P> <P>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.</P> <P>But I did not stand for long.</P> <P>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.</P> <HR ALIGN="left" WIDTH="150"> <BR> <P>My mistress's bell.</P> <P>It is noonday. She, however, is still abed with her arms intertwined behind her neck.</P> <P>"I want to bathe," she says, "and you will attend me. Lock the door!"</P> <P>I obey.</P> <P>"Now go downstairs and make sure the door below is also locked."</P> <P>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.</P> <P>"Come, Gregor, take me on your arms."</P> <P>"You mean, mistress?"</P> <P>"You are to carry me, don't you understand?"</P> <P>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.</P> <P>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.</P> <P>"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."</P> <P>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.</P> <P>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.</P> <P>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.</P> <P>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.</P> <P>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.</P> <P>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.</P> <P>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.</P> <P>"What is the matter?" asked Wanda.</P> <P>I pointed to the mirror.</P> <P>"Ah, that is really beautiful," she exclaimed, "too bad one can't capture the moment and make it permanent."</P> <P>"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.</P> <P>"The very thought that this extra-ordinary beauty is to be lost to the world," I continued still watching her enthusiastically, "is horrible&mdash;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!"</P> <P>Wanda smiled.</P> <P>"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.</P> <P>"Yes, he shall paint you, and I will see to it that the god of love mixes his colors."</P> <HR ALIGN="left" WIDTH="150"> <BR> <P>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.</P> <HR ALIGN="left" WIDTH="150"> <BR> <P>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.</P> <HR ALIGN="left" WIDTH="150"> <BR> <P>"Are you mad, me&mdash;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."</P> <P>Her head appeared in the window, luminous like a flame under the sunlight.</P> <P>"Gregor!"</P> <P>I hurried up the stairs, through the gallery, into the studio.</P> <P>"Lead him to the bath," Wanda commanded, while she herself hurried away.</P> <P>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."</P> <P>The painter had turned terribly pale. He devoured the scene with his beautiful dreamy blue eyes; his lips opened, but he remained dumb.</P> <P>"Well, how do you like the picture?"</P> <P>"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.</P> <HR ALIGN="left" WIDTH="150"> <BR> <P>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.</P> <P>Wanda stands in front of the canvas with her arms crossed over her breast.</P> <P>"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.</P> <P>"And what will you call it?" she asked, "but what is the matter with you, are you ill?"</P> <P>"I am afraid&mdash;" he answered with a consuming look fixed on the beautiful woman in furs, "but let us talk of the picture."</P> <P>"Yes, let us talk about the picture."</P> <P>"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: <I>Venus in Furs</I>."</P> <HR ALIGN="left" WIDTH="150"> <BR> <P>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.</P> <P>During the sitting she nibbles at candies, and rolls the paper- wrappers into little pellets with which she bombards him.</P> <P>"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."</P> <P>"The expression which you need for your picture," she replied, smiling. "Wait a moment."</P> <P>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.</P> <P>While whipping me, Wanda's face acquired more and more of the cruel, contemptuous character, which so haunts and intoxicates me.</P> <P>"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.</P> <P>"It is the expression&mdash;" he stammered, "but I can't paint now&mdash;"</P> <P>"What?" said Wanda, scornfully, "perhaps I can help you?"</P> <P>"Yes&mdash;" cried the German, as if taken with madness, "whip me too."</P> <P>"Oh! With pleasure," she replied, shrugging her shoulders, "but if I am to whip you I want to do it in sober earnest."</P> <P>"Whip me to death," cried the painter.</P> <P>"Will you let me tie you?" she asked, smiling.</P> <P>"Yes&mdash;" he moaned&mdash;</P> <P>Wanda left the room for a moment, and returned with ropes.</P> <P>"Well&mdash;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.</P> <P>"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.</P> <P>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.</P> <HR ALIGN="left" WIDTH="150"> <BR> <P>She is sitting for him now, alone. He is working on her head.</P> <P>She has posted me in the adjoining room behind a heavy curtain, where I can't be seen, but can see everything.</P> <P>What does she intend now?</P> <P>Is she afraid of him? She has driven him insane enough to be sure, or is she hatching a new torment for me? My knees tremble.</P> <P>They are talking. He has lowered his voice so that I cannot understand a word, and she replies in the same way. What is the meaning of this? Is there an understanding between them?</P> <P>I suffer frightful torments; my heart seems about to burst.</P> <P>He kneels down before her, embraces her, and presses his head against her breast, and she&mdash;in her heartlessness&mdash;laughs&mdash;and now I hear her saying aloud:</P> <P>"Ah! You need another application of the whip."</P> <P>"Woman! Goddess! Are you without a heart&mdash;can't you love," exclaimed the German, "don't you even know, what it means to love, to be consumed with desire and passion, can't you even imagine what I suffer? Have you no pity for me?"</P> <P>"No!" she replied proudly and mockingly, "but I have the whip."</P> <P>She drew it quickly from the pocket of her fur-coat, and struck him in the face with the handle. He rose, and drew back a couple of paces.</P> <P>"Now, are you ready to paint again?" she asked indifferently. He did not reply, but again went to the easel and took up his brush and palette.</P> <P>The painting is marvellously successful. It is a portrait which as far as the likeness goes couldn't be better, and at the same time it seems to have an ideal quality. The colors glow, are supernatural; almost diabolical, I would call them.</P> <P>The painter has put all his sufferings, his adoration, and all his execration into the picture.</P> <HR ALIGN="left" WIDTH="150"> <BR> <P>Now he is painting me; we are alone together for several hours every day. To-day he suddenly turned to me with his vibrant voice and said:</P> <P>"You love this woman?"</P> <P>"Yes."</P> <P>"I also love her." His eyes were bathed in tears. He remained silent for a while, and continued painting.</P> <P>"We have a mountain at home in Germany within which she dwells," he murmured to himself. "She is a demon."</P> <HR ALIGN="left" WIDTH="150"> <BR> <P>The picture is finished. She insisted on paying him for it, munificently, in the manner of queens.</P> <P>"Oh, you have already paid me," he said, with a tormented smile, refusing her offer.</P> <P>Before he left, he secretly opened his portfolio, and let me look inside. I was startled. Her head looked at me as if out of a mirror and seemed actually to be alive.</P> <P>"I shall take it along," he said, "it is mine; she can't take it away from me. I have earned it with my heart's blood."</P> <HR ALIGN="left" WIDTH="150"> <BR> <P>"I am really rather sorry for the poor painter," she said to me to- day, "it is absurd to be as virtuous as I am. Don't you think so too?"</P> <P>I did not dare to reply to her.</P> <P>"Oh, I forgot that I am talking with a slave; I need some fresh air, I want to be diverted, I want to forget.</P> <P>"The carriage, quick!"</P> <P>Her new dress is extravagant: Russian half-boots of violet-blue velvet trimmed with ermine, and a skirt of the same material, decorated with narrow stripes and rosettes of furs. Above it is an appropriate, close-fitting jacket, also richly trimmed and lined with ermine. The headdress is a tall cap of ermine of the style of Catherine the Second, with a small aigrette, held in place by a diamond-agraffe; her red hair falls loose down her back. She ascends on the driver's seat, and holds the reins herself; I take my seat behind. How she lashes on the horses! The carriage flies along like mad.</P> <P>Apparently it is her intention to attract attention to-day, to make conquests, and she succeeds completely. She is the lioness of the Cascine. People nod to her from carriages; on the footpath people gather in groups to discuss her. She pays no attention to anyone, except now and then acknowledging the greetings of elderly gentlemen with a slight nod.</P> <P>Suddenly a young man on a lithe black horse dashes up at full speed. As soon as he sees Wanda, he stops his horse and makes it walk. When he is quite close, he stops entirely and lets her pass. And she too sees him&mdash;the lioness, the lion. Their eyes meet. She madly drives past him, but she cannot tear herself free from the magic power of his look, and she turns her head after him.</P> <P>My heart stops when I see the half-surprised, half-enraptured look with which she devours him, but he is worthy of it.</P> <P>For he is, indeed, a magnificent specimen of man, No, rather, he is a man whose like I have never yet seen among the living. He is in the Belvedere, graven in marble, with the same slender, yet steely musculature, with the same face and the same waving curls. What makes him particularly beautiful is that he is beardless. If his hips were less narrow, one might take him for a woman in disguise. The curious expression about the mouth, the lion's lip which slightly discloses the teeth beneath, lends a flashing tinge of cruelty to the beautiful face&mdash;</P> <P>Apollo flaying Marsyas.</P> <P>He wears high black boots, closely fitting breeches of white leather, short fur coat of black cloth, of the kind worn by Italian cavalry officers, trimmed with astrakhan and many rich loops; on his black locks is a red fez.</P> <P>I now understand the masculine Eros, and I marvel at Socrates for having remained virtuous in view of an Alcibiades like this.</P> <HR ALIGN="left" WIDTH="150"> <BR> <P>I have never seen my lioness so excited. Her cheeks flamed when she left from the carriage at her villa. She hurried upstairs, and with an imperious gesture ordered me to follow.</P> <P>Walking up and down her room with long strides, she began to talk so rapidly, that I was frightened.</P> <P>"You are to find out who the man in the Cascine was, immediately&mdash;</P> <P>"Oh, what a man! Did you see him? What do you think of him? Tell me."</P> <P>"The man is beautiful," I replied dully.</P> <P>"He is so beautiful," she paused, supporting herself on the arm of a chair, "that he has taken my breath away."</P> <P>"I can understand the impression he has made on you," I replied, my imagination carrying me away in a mad whirl. "I am quite lost in admiration myself, and I can imagine&mdash;"</P> <P>"You may imagine," she laughed aloud, "that this man is my lover, and that he will apply the lash to you, and that you will enjoy being punished by him.</P> <P>"But now go, go."</P> <HR ALIGN="left" WIDTH="150"> <BR>
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