Chapter 1

“But the Almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman.”

—The Vulgate, Judith, xvi. 7.

My company was charming.

Opposite me by the massive Renaissance fireplace sat Venus; she was not a casual woman of the half-world, who under this pseudonym wages war against the enemy sex, like Mademoiselle Cleopatra, but the real, true goddess of love.

She sat in an armchair and had kindled a crackling fire, whose reflection ran in red flames over her pale face with its white eyes, and from time to time over her feet when she sought to warm them.

Her head was wonderful in spite of the dead stony eyes; it was all I could see of her. She had wrapped her marble-like body in a huge fur, and rolled herself up trembling like a cat.

“I don’t understand it,” I exclaimed, “It isn’t really cold any longer. For two weeks past we have had perfect spring weather. You must be nervous.”

“Much obliged for your spring,” she replied with a low stony voice, and immediately afterwards sneezed divinely, twice in succession. “I really can’t stand it here much longer, and I am beginning to understand—”

“What, dear lady?”

“I am beginning to believe the unbelievable and to understand the un-understandable. All of a sudden I understand the Germanic virtue of woman, and German philosophy, and I am no longer surprised that you of the North do not know how to love, haven’t even an idea of what love is.”

“But, madame,” I replied flaring up, “I surely haven’t given you any reason.”

“Oh, you—” The divinity sneezed for the third time, and shrugged her shoulders with inimitable grace. “That’s why I have always been nice to you, and even come to see you now and then, although I catch a cold every time, in spite of all my furs. Do you remember the first time we met?”

“How could I forget it,” I said. “You wore your abundant hair in brown curls, and you had brown eyes and a red mouth, but I recognized you immediately by the outline of your face and its marble-like pallor—you always wore a violet-blue velvet jacket edged with squirrel-skin.”

“You were really in love with the costume, and awfully docile.”

“You have taught me what love is. Your serene form of worship let me forget two thousand years.”

“And my faithfulness to you was without equal!”

“Well, as far as faithfulness goes—”

“Ungrateful!”

“I will not reproach you with anything. You are a divine woman, but nevertheless a woman, and like every woman cruel in love.”

“What you call cruel,” the goddess of love replied eagerly, “is simply the element of passion and of natural love, which is woman’s nature and makes her give herself where she loves, and makes her love everything, that pleases her.”

“Can there be any greater cruelty for a lover than the unfaithfulness of the woman he loves?”

“Indeed!” she replied. “We are faithful as long as we love, but you demand faithfulness of a woman without love, and the giving of herself without enjoyment. Who is cruel there—woman or man? You of the North in general take love too soberly and seriously. You talk of duties where there should be only a question of pleasure.”

“That is why our emotions are honorable and virtuous, and our relations permanent.”

“And yet a restless, always unsatisfied craving for the nudity of paganism,” she interrupted, “but that love, which is the highest joy, which is divine simplicity itself, is not for you moderns, you children of reflection. It works only evil in you. As soon as you wish to be natural, you become common. To you nature seems something hostile; you have made devils out of the smiling gods of Greece, and out of me a demon. You can only exorcise and curse me, or slay yourselves in bacchantic madness before my altar. And if ever one of you has had the courage to kiss my red mouth, he makes a barefoot pilgrimage to Rome in penitential robes and expects flowers to grow from his withered staff, while under my feet roses, violets, and myrtles spring up every hour, but their fragrance does not agree with you. Stay among your northern fogs and Christian incense; let us pagans remain under the debris, beneath the lava; do not disinter us. Pompeii was not built for you, nor our villas, our baths, our temples. You do not require gods. We are chilled in your world.”

The beautiful marble woman coughed, and drew the dark sables still closer about her shoulders.

“Much obliged for the classical lesson,” I replied, “but you cannot deny, that man and woman are mortal enemies, in your serene sunlit world as well as in our foggy one. In love there is union into a single being for a short time only, capable of only one thought, one sensation, one will, in order to be then further disunited. And you know this better than I; whichever of the two fails to subjugate will soon feel the feet of the other on his neck—”

“And as a rule the man that of the woman,” cried Madame Venus with proud mockery, “which you know better than I.”

“Of course, and that is why I don’t have any illusions.”

“You mean you are now my slave without illusions, and for that reason you shall feel the weight of my foot without mercy.”

“Madame!”

“Don’t you know me yet? Yes, I am cruel—since you take so much delight in that word-and am I not entitled to be so? Man is the one who desires, woman the one who is desired. This is woman’s entire but decisive advantage. Through his passion nature has given man into woman’s hands, and the woman who does not know how to make him her subject, her slave, her toy, and how to betray him with a smile in the end is not wise.”

“Exactly your principles,” I interrupted angrily.

“They are based on the experience of thousands of years,” she replied ironically, while her white fingers played over the dark fur. “The more devoted a woman shows herself, the sooner the man sobers down and becomes domineering. The more cruelly she treats him and the more faithless she is, the worse she uses him, the more wantonly she plays with him, the less pity she shows him, by so much the more will she increase his desire, be loved, worshipped by him. So it has always been, since the time of Helen and Delilah, down to Catherine the Second and Lola Montez.”

“I cannot deny,” I said, “that nothing will attract a man more than the picture of a beautiful, passionate, cruel, and despotic woman who wantonly changes her favorites without scruple in accordance with her whim—”

“And in addition wears furs,” exclaimed the divinity.

“What do you mean by that?”

“I know your predilection.”

“Do you know,” I interrupted, “that, since we last saw each other, you have grown very coquettish.”

“In what way, may I ask?”

“In that there is no way of accentuating your white body to greater advantage than by these dark furs, and that—”

The divinity laughed.

“You are dreaming,” she cried, “wake up!” and she clasped my arm with her marble-white hand. “Do wake up,” she repeated raucously with the low register of her voice. I opened my eyes with difficulty.

I saw the hand which shook me, and suddenly it was brown as bronze; the voice was the thick alcoholic voice of my cossack servant who stood before me at his full height of nearly six feet.

“Do get up,” continued the good fellow, “it is really disgraceful.”

“What is disgraceful?”

“To fall asleep in your clothes and with a book besides.” He snuffed the candles which had burned down, and picked up the volume which had fallen from my hand, “with a book by”—he looked at the title page—“by Hegel. Besides it is high time you were starting for Mr. Severin’s who is expecting us for tea.”

“A curious dream,” said Severin when I had finished. He supported his arms on his knees, resting his face in his delicate, finely veined hands, and fell to pondering.

I knew that he wouldn’t move for a long time, hardly even breathe. This actually happened, but I didn’t consider his behavior as in any way remarkable. I had been on terms of close friendship with him for nearly three years, and gotten used to his peculiarities. For it cannot be denied that he was peculiar, although he wasn’t quite the dangerous madman that the neighborhood, or indeed the entire district of Kolomea, considered him to be. I found his personality not only interesting—and that is why many also regarded me a bit mad—but to a degree sympathetic. For a Galician nobleman and land-owner, and considering his age—he was hardly over thirty—he displayed surprising sobriety, a certain seriousness, even pedantry. He lived according to a minutely elaborated, half-philosophical, half-practical system, like clock-work; not this alone, but also by the thermometer, barometer, aerometer, hydrometer, Hippocrates, Hufeland, Plato, Kant, Knigge, and Lord Chesterfield. But at times he had violent attacks of sudden passion, and gave the impression of being about to run with his head right through a wall. At such times every one preferred to get out of his way.

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