Her father was a general, her mother died when she was still a baby. After her mother’s death few ladies visited the house; the callers were mostly men. And her father took her education into his own hands.
She went out riding with him, was present at the manoeuvres, took an interest in gymnastics and attended the musters of the reserves.
Since her father occupied the highest rank in their circle of friends, everybody treated him with an amount of respect which is rarely shown to equals, and as she was the general’s daughter, she was treated in the same way. She held the rank of a general and she knew it.
There was always an orderly sitting in the hall who rose with much clanking and clashing of steel and stood at attention whenever she went in or out. At the balls none but the majors dared to ask her for a dance; she looked upon a captain as a representative of an inferior race, and a lieutenant as a naughty boy.
She fell into the habit of appreciating people entirely according to their rank. She called all civilians “fishes,” poorly-clad people “rascals,” and the very poor “the mob.”
The ladies, however, were altogether outside this scale. Her father, who occupied a position above all men, and who was saluted respectfully wherever he went, always stood up before a lady, regardless of her age, kissed the hands of those he knew, and was at the beck and call of every pretty woman. The result of this was that very early in life she became very firmly convinced of the superiority of her own sex, and accustomed herself to look upon a man as a lower being.
Whenever she went out on horseback, a groom invariably rode behind her. When she stopped to admire the landscape, he stopped too. He was her shadow. But she had no idea what he looked like, or whether he was young or old. If she had been asked about his sex, she would not have known how to reply; it had never occurred to her that the shadow could have a sex; when, in mounting, she placed her little riding-boot in his hand, she remained quite indifferent, and even occasionally raised her habit a little as if nobody were present.
These inbred conceptions of the surpassing importance of rank influenced her whole life. She found it impossible to make friends with the daughters of a major or a captain, because their fathers were her father’s social inferiors. Once a lieutenant asked her for a dance. To punish him for his impudence, she refused to talk to him in the intervals. But when she heard later on that her partner had been one of the royal princes, she was inconsolable. She who knew every order and title, and the rank of every officer, had failed to recognise a prince! It was too terrible!
She was beautiful, but pride gave her features a certain rigidity which scared her admirers away. The thought of marriage had never occurred to her. The young men were not fully qualified, and those to whose social position there was no objection, were too old. If she, the daughter of a general, had married a captain, then a major’s wife would have taken precedence of her. Such a degradation would have killed her. Moreover, she had no wish to be a man’s chattel, or an ornament for his drawing-room. She was accustomed to command, accustomed to be obeyed; she could obey no man. The freedom and independence of a man’s life appealed to her; it had fostered in her a loathing for all womanly occupations.
Her sexual instinct awoke late. As she belonged to an old family which on her father’s side, had squandered its strength in a soulless militarism, drink and dissipation, and on her mother’s had suppressed fertility to prevent the splitting up of property, Nature seemed to have hesitated about her sex at the eleventh hour; or perhaps had lacked strength to determine on the continuation of the race. Her figure possessed none of those essentially feminine characteristics, which Nature requires for her purposes, and she scorned to hide her defects by artificial means.
The few women friends she had, found her cold and indifferent towards everything connected with the sex problem. She treated it with contempt, considered the relationship between the sexes disgusting, and could not understand how a woman could give herself to a man. In her opinion Nature was unclean; to wear clean underlinen, starched petticoats and stockings without holes was to be virtuous; poor was merely another term for dirt and vice.
Every summer she spent with her father on their estate in the country.
She was no great lover of the country. Nature made her feel small; she found the woods uncanny, the lake made her shudder, there was danger hidden in the tall meadow-grass. She regarded the peasants as cunning and rather filthy beasts. They had so many children, and she had no doubt that both boys and girls were full of vice. Nevertheless they were always invited to the manor house on Midsummer day and on the general’s birthday, to play the part of the chorus of grand opera, that is to say, to cheer and dance, and look like the figures in a painting.
It was springtime. Helena, on her thoroughbred mare, had penetrated into the depths of the country. She felt tired and dismounted; she fastened her mare to a birchtree which grew near an enclosure. Then she strolled along by the side of a ditch and began to gather wild orchids. The air was soft and balmy, steam was rising from the ground. She could hear the frogs jumping into the ditch which was half-full of water.
All at once the mare neighed and, stretching her slender neck over the fence, drew in the air with wide-open nostrils.
“Alice!” she called out, “be quiet, old girl!”
And she continued to gather the modest flowers which so cleverly hide their secrets behind the prettiest and neatest curtains that for all the world look like printed calico.
But the mare neighed again. From behind the hazel bushes on the other side of the enclosure came an answer, a second neighing, deeper and fuller. The swampy ground of the enclosure shook, powerful hoofs scattered the stones, to right and left and a black stallion appeared at full gallop. The tense neck carried a magnificent head, the muscles lay like ropes under the glossy skin. As he caught sight of the mare, his eyes began to flash. He stopped and stretched out his neck as if he were going to yawn, raised his upper lip and showed his teeth. Then he galloped across the grass and approached the railings.
Helena picked up her skirt and ran to her mare; she raised her hand to seize the bridle, but the mare broke away and took the fence. Then the wooing began.
She stood at the fence and called, but the excited mare paid no heed. Inside the enclosure the horses chased one another; the situation was a critical one. The breath of the stallion came like smoke from his nostrils and white foam flecked his shoulders.
Helena longed to escape, for the scene filled her with horror. She had never witnessed the raging of a natural instinct in a living body. This uncontrolled outbreak terrified her.
She wanted to run after her mare and drag her away by force, but she was afraid of the savage stallion. She wanted to call for help, but she was loath to attract other eyewitnesses. She turned her back to the scene and decided to wait.
The sound of horses’ hoofs came from the direction of the highroad; a carriage appeared in sight.
There was no escape; although she was ashamed to stay where she was, it was too late now to run away, for the horses were slowing down and the carriage stopped a few yards in front of her.
“How beautiful!” exclaimed one of the occupants of the carriage, a lady, and raised her golden lorgnette so as to get a better view of the spectacle.
“But why are we stopping?” retorted the other, irritably. “Drive on!”
“Don’t you think it beautiful?” asked the elder lady.
The coachman’s smile was lost in his great beard, as he urged the horses on.
“You are such a prude, my dear Milly,” said the first voice. “To me this kind of thing is like a thunderstorm, or a heavy sea….”
Helena could hear no more. She felt crushed with vexation, shame and horror.
A farm labourer came shuffling along the highroad. Helena ran to meet him, so as to prevent him from witnessing the scene, and at the same time ask his help. But he was already too near.
“I believe it’s the miller’s black stallion,” he said gravely. “In that case it will be better to wait until it’s all over, for he won’t brook interference. If the lady will leave it to me, I will bring her mare home later on.”
Glad to have done with the matter, Helena hurried away.
When she arrived home, she was ill.
She refused to ride her mare again, for in her eyes the beast had become unclean.
This pretty adventure had a greater influence on Helena’s psychic development than might have been expected. The brutal outbreak of a natural instinct, the undisguised exhibition of which in the community of men is punished with a term of imprisonment, haunted her as if she had been present at an execution. It distressed her during the day and disturbed her dreams at night. It increased her fear of nature and made her give up her former amazon’s life. She remained at home and gave herself up to study.
The house boasted a library. But as misfortune would have it, no additions had been made since her grandfather’s death. All books were therefore a generation too old, and Helena found antiquated ideals. The first book which fell into her hands was Madame de Stael’s Corinna The way in which the volume lay on the shelf indicated that it had served a special purpose. Bound in green and gold, a little shabby at the edges, full of marginal notes and underlined passages, the work of her late mother, it became a bridge, as it were, between mother and daughter, which enabled the now grown-up daughter to make the acquaintance of the dead mother. These pencil notes were the story of a soul. Displeasure with the prose of life and the brutality of nature, had inflamed the writer’s imagination and inspired it to construct a dreamworld in which the souls dwelled, disincarnate. It was essentially an aristocratic world, this dreamworld, for it required financial independence from its denizens, so that the soul might be fed with thoughts. This brain-fever, called romance, was therefore the gospel of the wealthy, and became absurd and pitiful as soon as it penetrated to the lower classes.
Corinna became Helena’s ideal: the divinely inspired poetess who like the nun of the middle-ages, had vowed a vow of chastity, so that she might lead a life of purity, who was, of course, admired by a brilliant throng, rose to immeasurable heights above the heads of the petty every-day mortals. It was the old ideal all over again, transposed: salutes, standing at attention, rolling of drums, the first place everywhere. Helena was quite ignorant of the fact that Madame de Stael outlived the Corinna ideal, and did not become a real influence until she came out of her dreamworld into the world of facts.
She ceased to take an interest in everyday affairs, she communed with herself and brooded over her ego. The inheritance which her mother had left her in posthumous notes began to germinate. She identified herself with both Corinna and her mother, and spent much time in meditating on her mission in life. That nature had intended her to become a mother and do her share in the propagation of the human race, she refused to admit her mission was to explain to humanity what Madame de Stael’s Corinna had thought fifty years ago; but she imagined the thoughts were her own, striving to find expression.
She began to write. One day she attempted verse. She succeeded. The lines were of equal length and the last words rhymed. A great light dawned on her: she was a poetess. One thing more remained: she wanted ideas; well she could take them from Corinna.
In this way quite a number of poems originated.
But they had also to be bestowed on the world, and this could not be done unless they were printed. One day she sent a poem entitled Sappho and signed Corinna to the Illustrated Newspaper. With a beating heart she went out to post the letter herself, and as it dropped into the pillarbox, she prayed softly to “God.”
A trying fortnight ensued. She ate nothing, hardly closed her eyes, and spent her days in solitude.
When Saturday came and the paper was delivered, she trembled as if she were fever-stricken, and when she found that her verses were neither printed nor mentioned in “Letters to Correspondents,” she almost broke down.
On the following Saturday, when she could count on an answer with some certainty, she slipped the paper into her pocket without unfolding it, and went into the woods. When she had arrived at a secluded spot and made sure that no one was watching her, she unfolded the paper and hastily glanced at the contents. One poem only was printed, entitled Bellman’s-day. She turned to “Letters to Correspondents.” Her first glance at the small print made her start violently. Her fingers clutched the paper, rolled it into a ball and flung it into the underwood. Then she stared, fascinated, at the ball of white, glimmering through the green undergrowth. For the first time in her life she had received an insult. She was completely unnerved. This unknown journalist had dared what nobody had dared before: he had been rude to her. She had come out from behind her trenches into the arena where high birth counts for nothing, but where victory belongs to that wonderful natural endowment which we call talent, and before which all powers bow when it can no longer be denied. But the unknown had also offended the woman in her, for he had said:
“The Corinna of 1807 would have cooked dinners and rocked cradles if she had lived after 1870. But you are no Corinna.”
For the first time she had heard the voice of the enemy, the arch-enemy, man. Cook dinners and rock cradles! They should see!
She went home. She felt so crushed that her muscles hardly obeyed her relaxed nerves.
When she had gone a little way, she suddenly turned round and retraced her footsteps. Supposing anybody found that paper! It would give her away.
She returned to the spot, and breaking off a hazel switch, dragged the paper out from where it lay and carefully smoothed it. Then she raised a piece of turf, hid the paper underneath and rolled a stone on the top. It was a hope that lay buried there, and also a proof–of what? That she had committed a crime? She felt that she had. She had done a wrong, she had shown herself naked before the other sex.
From this day on a struggle went on in her heart. Ambition and fear of publicity strove within her, and she was unable to come to a decision.
In the following autumn her father died. As he had been addicted to gambling, and more often lost than won, he left debts behind him. But in smart society these things are of no account. There was no necessity for Helena to earn her living in a shop, for a hitherto unknown aunt came forward and offered her a home.
But her father’s death wrought a complete change in her position. No more salutes; the officers of the regiment nodded to her in a friendly fashion, the lieutenants asked her to dance. She saw plainly that the respect shown to her had not been shown to her personally, but merely to her rank. She felt degraded and a lively sympathy for all subalterns was born in her; she even felt a sort of hatred for all those who enjoyed her former privileges. Side by side with this feeling grew up a yearning for personal appreciation, a desire to win a position surpassing all others, although it might not figure in the Army list.
She longed to distinguish herself, to win fame, and, (why not?) to rule. She possessed one talent which she had cultivated to some extent, although she had never risen above the average; she played the piano. She began to study harmony and talked of the sonata in G minor and the symphony in F major as if she had written them herself. And forthwith she began to patronise musicians.
Six months after her father’s death, the post of a lady-in-waiting was offered to her. She accepted it. The rolling of drums and military salutes recommenced, and Helena gradually lost her sympathy with subalterns. But the mind is as inconstant as fortune, and fresh experiences again brought about a change of her views.
She discovered one day, and the day was not long in coming, that she was nothing but a servant. She was sitting in the Park with the Duchess. The Duchess was crocheting.
“I consider those blue stockings perfectly idiotic,” said the Duchess.
Helena turned pale; she stared at her mistress.
“I don’t,” she replied.
“I didn’t ask your opinion,” replied the Duchess, letting her ball of wool roll into the dust.
Helena’s knees trembled; her future, her position passed away before her eyes like a flash of lightning. She went to pick up the wool. It seemed to her that her back was breaking as she stooped, and her cheeks flamed when the Duchess took the ball without a word of thanks.
“You are not angry?” asked the Duchess, staring impertinently at her victim.
“Oh, no, Your Royal Highness,” was Helena’s untruthful reply.
“They say that you are a blue-stocking yourself,” continued the Duchess. “Is it true?”
Helena had a feeling as if she were standing nude before her tormentor and made no reply.
For the second time the ball rolled into the dust. Helena pretended not to notice it, and bit her lips to hold back the angry tears which were welling up in her eyes. “Pick up my wool, please,” said the Duchess.
Helena drew herself up, looked the autocrat full in the face and said:
And with these words she turned and fled. The sand gritted under her feet, and little clouds of dust followed in the wake of her train. She almost ran down the stone steps and disappeared.
Her career at court was ended; but a sting remained. Helena was made to feel what it means to be in disgrace, and above all things what it means to throw up one’s post. Society does not approve of changes and nobody would believe that she had voluntarily renounced the sunshine of the court. No doubt she had been sent away. Yes, it must be so, she had been sent away. Never before had she felt so humiliated, so insulted. It seemed to her that she had lost caste; her relations treated her with coldness, as if they were afraid that her disgrace might be infectious; her former friends gave her the cold shoulder when they met her, and limited their conversation to a minimum.
On the other hand, as she stooped from her former height, the middle-classes received her with open arms. It was true, at first their friendliness offended her more than the coldness of her own class, but in the end she preferred being first down below to being last up above. She joined a group of Government officials and professors who hailed her with acclamations. Animated by the superstitious awe with which the middle classes regard everybody connected with the court, they at once began to pay her homage. She became their chosen leader and hastened to form a regiment. A number of young professors enlisted at once and she arranged lectures for women. Old academic rubbish was brought out from the lumber-room, dusted and sold for new wares. In a dining-room, denuded of its furniture, lectures on Plato and Aristotle were given to an audience which unfortunately held no key to this shrine of wisdom.
Helena, in conquering these pseudo-mysteries felt the intellectual superior of the ignorant aristocracy. This feeling gave her an assurance which impressed people. The men worshipped her beauty and aloofness; but she never felt in the least moved in their company. She accepted their homage as a tribute due to women and found it impossible to respect these lackeys who jumped up and stood at attention whenever she passed.
But in the long run her position as an unmarried woman failed to satisfy her, and she noted with envious eyes the freedom enjoyed by her married sisters. They were at liberty to go wherever they liked, talk to whom they liked, and always had a footman in their husband to meet them and accompany them on their way home. In addition, married women had a better social position, and a great deal more influence. With what condescension for instance, they treated the spinsters! But whenever she thought of getting married, the incident with her mare flashed into her mind and terror made her ill.
In the second year the wife of a professor from Upsala, who combined with her official position great personal charm, appeared on the scene. Helena’s star paled; all her worshippers left her to worship the new sun. As she no longer possessed her former social position, and the savour of the court had vanished like the scent on a handkerchief, she was beaten in the fight. One single vassal remained faithful to her, a lecturer on ethics, who had hitherto not dared to push himself forward. His attentions were well received, for the severity of his ethics filled her with unlimited confidence. He wooed her so assiduously that people began to gossip; Helena, however, took no notice, she was above that.
One evening, after a lecture on “The Ethical Moment in Conjugal Love” or “Marriage as a Manifestation of Absolute Identity,” for which the lecturer received nothing but his expenses and a grateful pressure of hands, they were sitting in the denuded dining-room on their uncomfortable cane chairs, discussing the subject.
“You mean to say then,” said Helena, “that marriage is a relationship of co-existence between two identical Egos?”
“I mean what I said already in my lecture, that only if there exists such a relationship between two congruous identities, being can conflow into becoming of higher potentiality.”
“What do you mean by becoming?” asked Helena, blushing.
“The post-existence of two egos in a new ego.”
“What? You mean that the continuity of the ego, which through the cohabitation of two analogous beings will necessarily incorporate itself into a becoming….”
“No, my dear lady, I only meant to say that marriage, in profane parlance, can only produce a new spiritual ego, which cannot be differentiated as to sex, when there is compatibility of souls. I mean to say that the new being born under those conditions will be a conglomerate of male and female; a new creature to whom both will have yielded their personality, a unity in multiplicity, to use a well-known term, an ‘hommefemme.’ The man will cease to be man, the woman will cease to be woman.”
“That is the union of souls!” exclaimed Helena, glad to have successfullly navigated the dangerous cliffs.
“It is the harmony of souls of which Plato speaks. It is true marriage as I have sometimes visualised it in my dreams, but which, unfortunately, I shall hardly be able to realise in actuality.”
Helena stared at the ceiling and whispered:
“Why shouldn’t you, one of the elect, realise this dream?”
“Because she to whom my soul is drawn with irresistible longing does not believe in–h’m–love.”
“You cannot be sure of that.”
“Even if she did, she would always be tormented by the suspicion that the feeling was not sincere. Moreover, there is no woman in the world who would fall in love with me, no, not one.”
“Yes, there is,” said Helena, gazing into his glass eye. (He had a glass eye, but it was so well made, it was impossible to detect it.)
“Are you sure?”
“Quite sure,” replied Helena. “For you are different to other men. You realise what spiritual love means, the love of the souls!”
“Even if the woman did exist, I could never marry her.”
“Share a room with her!”
“That needn’t be the case. Madame de Stael merely lived in the same house as her husband.”
“What interesting topic are you two discussing?” asked the professor’s wife, coming out of the drawing-room.
“We were talking of Laocoon,” answered Helena, rising, from her chair. She was offended by the note of condescension in the lady’s voice. And she made up her mind.
A week later her engagement to the lecturer was publicly announced. They decided to be married in the autumn and take up their abode at Upsala.
A brilliant banquet, in celebration of the close of his bachelor life, was given to the lecturer on ethics. A great deal of wine had been consumed and the only artist the town boasted, the professor of drawing at the Cathedral School, had depicted in bold outlines the victim’s career up to date. It was the great feature of the whole entertainment. Ethics was a subject of teaching and a milch cow, like many others, and need not necessarily influence either the life of the community, or the life of the individual. The lecturer had not been a saint, but had had his adventures like everybody else; these were public property, for he had had no reason to keep them dark. With a careless smile he watched his career, pictured in chalk and colours, accompanied by witty verses, unfolding itself before his eyes, but when at last his approaching bliss was portrayed in simple but powerful sketches, he became deeply embarrassed, and the thought “If Helena were to see that!” flashed like lightning through his brain.
After the banquet, at which according to an old, time-honoured custom, he had drunk eight glasses of brandy, he was so intoxicated that he could no longer suppress his fears and apprehensions. Among his hosts was a married man and to him the victim turned for counsel and advice. Since neither of them was sober, they chose, as the most secluded spot in the whole room, two chairs right in the centre, immediately under the chandelier. Consequently they were soon surrounded by an eagerly listening crowd.
“Look here! You are a married man,” said the lecturer at the top of his voice, so as not to be heard by the assembly, as he fondly imagined. “You must give me a word of advice, just one, only one little word of advice, for I am extremely sensitive to-night, especially in regard to this particular point.”
“I will, brother,” shouted his friend, “just one word, as you say,” and he put his arm round his shoulders that he might whisper to him; then he continued, screaming loudly: “Every act consists of three parts, my brother: Progresses, culmen, regressus. I will speak to you of the first, the second is never mentioned. Well, the initiative, so to speak, that is the man’s privilege–your part! You must take the initiative, you must attack, do you understand?”
“But supposing the other party does not approve of the initiative?”
The friend stared at the novice, taken aback; then he rose and contemptuously turned his back on him.
“Fool!” he muttered.
“Thank you!” was all the grateful pupil could reply.
Now he understood.
On the following day he was on fire with all the strong drink he had consumed; he went and took a hot bath, for on the third day was to be his wedding.
The wedding guests had departed; the servant had cleared the table; they were alone.
Helena was comparatively calm, but he felt exceedingly nervous. The period of their engagement had been enhanced by conversations on serious subjects. They had never behaved liked ordinary, every-day fiances, had never embraced or kissed. Whenever he had attempted the smallest familiarity, her cold looks had chilled his ardour. But he loved her as a man loves a woman, with body and soul.
They fidgeted about the drawing-room and tried to make conversation. But an obstinate silence again and again reasserted itself. The candles in the chandelier had burnt low and the wax fell in greasy drops on the carpet. The atmosphere was heavy with the smell of food and the fumes of the wines which mingled with the voluptuous perfume of carnations and heliotrope, exhaled by Helena’s bridal bouquet that lay on a side-table.
At last he went up to her, held out his arms, and said in a voice which he hoped sounded natural:
“And now you are my wife!”
“What do you mean?” was Helena’s brusque reply.
Completely taken aback, he allowed his arms to drop to his sides. But he pulled himself together again, almost immediately, and said with a self-conscious smile:
“I mean to say that we are husband and wife.”
Helena looked at him as if she thought that he had taken leave of his senses.
“Explain your words!” she said.
That was just what he couldn’t do. Philosophy and ethics failed him; he was faced by a cold and exceedingly unpleasant reality.
“It’s modesty,” he thought. “She’s quite right, but I must attack and do my duty.”
“Have you misunderstood me?” asked Helena and her voice trembled.
“No, of course not, but, my dear child, h’m–we–h’m….”
“What language is that? Dear child? What do you take me for? What do you mean? Albert, Albert!”–she rushed on without waiting for a reply, which she didn’t want–“Be great, be noble, and learn to see in women something more than sex. Do that, and you will be happy and great!”
Albert was beaten. Crushed with shame and furious with his false friend who had counselled him wrongly, he threw himself on his knees before her and stammered:
“Forgive me, Helena, you are nobler, purer, better than I; you are made of finer fibre and you will lift me up when I threaten to perish in coarse matter.”
“Arise and be strong, Albert,” said Helena, with the manner of a prophetess. “Go in peace and show to the world that love and base animal passion are two very different things. Good-night!”
Albert rose from his knees and stared irresolutely after his wife who went into her room and shut the door behind her.
Full of the noblest and purest sentiments he also went into his room. He took off his coat and lighted a cigar. His room was furnished like a bachelor’s room: a bed-sofa, a writing table, some book shelves, a washstand.
When he had undressed, he dipped a towel into his ewer and rubbed himself all over. Then he lay down on his sofa and opened the evening paper. He wanted to read while he smoked his cigar. He read an article on Protection. His thoughts began to flow in a more normal channel, and he considered his position.
Was he married or was he still a bachelor? He was a bachelor as before, but there was a difference–he now had a female boarder who paid nothing for her board. The thought was anything but pleasant, but it was the truth. The cook kept house, the housemaid attended to the rooms. Where did Helena come in? She was to develop her individuality! Oh, rubbish! he thought, I am a fool! Supposing his friend had been right? Supposing women always behaved in this silly way under these circumstances? She could not very well come to him–he must go to her. If he didn’t go, she would probably laugh at him to-morrow, or, worse still, be offended. Women were indeed incomprehensible. He must make the attempt.
He jumped up, put on his dressing-gown and went into the drawing-room. With trembling knees he listened outside Helena’s door.
Not a sound. He took heart of grace, and approached a step or two. Blue flashes of lightning darted before his eyes as he knocked.
No answer. He trembled violently and beads of perspiration stood on his forehead.
He knocked again. And in a falsetto voice, proceeding from a parched throat, he said:
“It’s only I.”
No answer. Overwhelmed with shame, he returned to his room, puzzled and chilled.
She was in earnest, then.
He crept between the sheets and again took up the paper.
He hadn’t been reading long when he heard footsteps in the street which gradually approached and then stopped. Soft music fell on his ear, deep, strong voices set in:
“Integer vitae sclerisque purus….”
He was touched. How beautiful it was!
Purus! He felt lifted above matter. It was in accordance with the spirit of the age then, this higher conception of marriage. The current of ethics which penetrated the epoch was flowing through the youth of the country….
Supposing Helena had opened her door!
He gently beat time and felt himself as great and noble as Helena desired him to be.
Should he open the window and thank the undergraduates in the name of his wife?
He got out of bed.
A fourfold peal of laughter crashed against the windowpanes at the very moment he lifted his hand to draw up the blind.
There could be no doubt, they were making fun of him!
Beside himself with anger he staggered back from the window and knocked against the writing-table. He was a laughing-stock. A faint hatred against the woman whom he had to thank for this humiliating scene, began to stir within him, but his love acquitted her. He was incensed against the jesters down below, and swore to bring them before the authorities.
But again and again he reverted to his unpleasant position, furious that he had allowed himself to be led by the nose. He paced his room until dawn broke in the East. Then he threw himself on his bed and fell asleep, in bitter grief over the dismal ending of his wedding-day, which ought to have been the happiest day of his life.
On the following morning he met Helena at the breakfast table. She was cold and self-possessed as usual. Albert, of course, did not mention the serenade. Helena made great plans for the future and talked volumes about the abolition of prostitution. Albert met her half-way and promised to do all in his power to assist her. Humanity must become chaste, for only the beasts were unchaste.
Breakfast over, he went to his lecture. The serenade had roused his suspicions, and as he watched his audience, he fancied that they were making signs to each other; his colleagues, too, seemed to congratulate him in a way which offended him.
A big, stout colleague, who radiated vigour and joie de vivre, stopped him in the corridor which led to the library, seized him by the collar and said with a colossal grin on his broad face,
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” was the indignant reply with which he tore himself away and rushed down stairs.
When he arrived home, his flat was crowded with his wife’s friends. Women’s skirts brushed against his legs, and when he sat down in an armchair, he seemed to sink out of sight into piles and piles of women’s clothes.
“I’ve heard rumours of a serenade last night,” said the professor’s wife.
Albert grew pale, but Helena took up the gauntlet.
“It was well meant, but they really might have been sober. This excessive drinking among students is terrible.”
“What did they sing?” asked the professor’s wife.
“Oh! the usual songs: ‘My life a sea,’ and so on,” replied Helena.
Albert stared at her in amazement, but he couldn’t help admiring her.
The day went with gossip and discussions. Albert felt tired. Been joyed spending a few hours, after the daily toil was over, in pleasant conversation with women, but this was really too much. And moreover, he had to agree to everything they said, for whenever he attempted to express a contradictory opinion, they were down on him in a minute.
Night fell; it was bedtime. Husband and wife wished one another good night and retired to their separate rooms.
Again he was attacked by doubt and restlessness. He fancied that he had seen a tender look on Helena’s face, and he wasn’t quite sure whether she hadn’t squeezed his hand. He lit a cigar and unfolded his paper. As soon as he began to read of every-day matters, he seemed to see clearly.
“It’s sheer madness,” he said aloud, throwing the paper aside.
He slipped on his dressing-gown and went into the drawing-room.
Somebody was moving in Helena’s room.
“Is that you, Louise?” asked a voice from inside.
“No, it’s only I,” he whispered, hardly able to speak.
“What’s the matter? What do you want?”
“I want to speak to you, Helena,” he answered, hardly knowing what he was saying.
The key turned in the lock. Albert could hardly trust his ears. The door flew open. Helena stood on the threshold, still fully dressed.
“What is it you want?” she asked. Then she noticed that he was in his dressing-gown and that his eyes shone strangely.
She stretched out her hand, pushed him away and slammed the door.
He heard a thud on the floor and almost simultaneously loud sobs.
Furious, but abashed, he returned to his room. She was in earnest, then! But this was certainly anything but normal.
He lay awake all night, brooding, and on the following morning he breakfasted alone.
When he came home for lunch, Helena received him with an expression of pained resignation.
“Why do you treat me like that?” she asked.
He apologised, with as few words as possible. Then he repented his curtness and climbed down.
Thus matters stood for six months. He was tossed between doubt, rage and love, but his chain held.
His face grew pale and his eyes lost their lustre. His temper had become uncertain; a sullen fury smouldered beneath his outward calm.
Helena found him changed, despotic, because he was beginning to oppose her, and often left the meetings to seek amusement elsewhere.
One day he was asked to become a candidate for a professorial chair. He refused, believing that he had no chance, but Helena gave him no peace until he complied with the conditions. He was elected. He never knew the reason why, but Helena did.
A short time after there was a by-election.
The new professor, who had never dreamed of taking an active interest in public affairs, was nonplussed when he found himself nominated. His surprise was even greater when he was elected. He intended to decline, but Helena’s entreaties and her argument that life in a big city was preferable to an existence in a small provincial town induced him to accept the mandate.
They removed to Stockholm.
During these six months the newly-made professor and member of Parliament had made himself acquainted with the new ideas which came from England and purposed to recreate society and the old standards of morality. At the same time he felt that the moment was not far off when he would have to break with his “boarder.” He recovered his strength and vigour in Stockholm, where fearless thinkers encouraged him to profess openly the views which he had long held in secret.
Helena, on the other hand, scented a favourable opportunity in the counter-current and threw herself into the arms of the Church Party. This was too much for Albert and he rebelled. His love had grown cold; he found compensation elsewhere. He didn’t consider himself unfaithful to his wife for she had never claimed constancy in a relationship which didn’t exist.
His friendly intercourse with the other sex aroused his manliness and made him realise his degradation.
His growing estrangement did not escape Helena. Their home-life became unpleasant and every moment threatened to bring a catastrophe.
The opening of Parliament was imminent. Helena became restless and seemed to have changed her tactics. Her voice was more gentle and she appeared anxious to please him. She looked after the servants and saw that the meals were served punctually.
He grew suspicious and wondered, watched her movements and prepared for coming events.
One morning, at breakfast, Helena looked embarrassed and self-conscious. She played with her dinner napkin and cleared her throat several times. Then she took her courage in both her hands and made a plunge.
“Albert,” she began, “I can count on you, can’t I? You will serve the Cause to which I have devoted my life?”
“What cause is that?” he asked curtly, for now he had the upper hand.
“You will do something for the oppressed women, won’t you?”
“Where are the oppressed women?”
“What? Have you deserted our great cause? Are you leaving us in the lurch?”
“What cause are you talking about?”
“The Women’s Cause!”
“I know nothing about it.”
“You know nothing about it? Oh, come! You must admit that the position of the women of the lower classes is deplorable.”
“No, I can’t see that their position is any worse than the position of the men. Deliver the men from their exploiters and the women too will be free.”
“But the unfortunates who have to sell themselves, and the scoundrels who–“
“The scoundrels who pay! Has ever a man taken payment for a pleasure which both enjoy?”
“That is not the question! The question is whether it is just that the law of the land should punish the one and let the other go scotfree.”
“There is no injustice in that. The one has degraded herself until she has become a source of infection, and therefore the State treats her as it treats a mad dog. Whenever you find a man, degraded to that degree, well, put him under police control, too. Oh, you pure angels, who despise men and look upon them as unclean beasts!…”
“Well, what is it? What do you want me to do?”
He noticed that she had taken a manuscript from the sideboard and held it in her hand. Without waiting for a reply, he took it from her and began to examine it. “A bill to be introduced into Parliament! I’m to be the man of straw who introduces it! Is that moral? Strictly speaking, is it honest?”
Helena rose from her chair, threw herself on the sofa and burst into tears.
He, too, rose and went to her. He took her hand in his and felt her pulse, afraid lest her attack might be serious. She seized his hand convulsively, and pressed it against her bosom.
“Don’t leave me,” she sobbed, “don’t go. Stay, and let me keep faith in you.”
For the first time in his life he saw her giving way to her emotions. This delicate body, which he had loved and admired so much, could be warmed into life! Red, warm blood flowed in those blue veins. Blood which could distil tears. He gently stroked her brow.
“Oh!” she sighed, “why aren’t you always good to me like that? Why hasn’t it always been so?”
“Well,” he answered, “why hasn’t it? Tell me, why not?”
Helena’s eyelids drooped. “Why not?” she breathed, softly.
She did not withdraw her hand and he felt a gentle warmth radiating from her velvety skin; his love for her burst into fresh flames, but this time he felt that there was hope.
At last she rose to her feet.
“Don’t despise me,” she said, “don’t despise me, dear.”
And she went into her room.
What was the matter with her? Albert wondered as he went up to town. Was she passing through a crisis of some sort? Was she only just beginning to realise that she was his wife?
He spent the whole day in town. In the evening he went to the theatre. They played Le monde ou l’on s’ennuit. As he sat and watched platonic love, the union of souls, unmasked and ridiculed, he felt as if a veil of close meshed lies were being drawn from his reason; he smiled as he saw the head of the charming beast peeping from underneath the card-board wings of the stage-angel; he almost shed tears of amusement at his long, long self-deception; he laughed at his folly. What filth and corruption lay behind this hypocritical morality, this insane desire for emancipation from healthy, natural instincts. It was the ascetic teaching of idealism and Christianity which had implanted this germ into the nineteenth century.
He felt ashamed! How could he have allowed himself to be duped all this time!
There was still light in Helena’s room as he passed her door on tip-toe so as not to wake her. He heard her cough.
He went straight to bed, smoked his cigar and read his paper. He was absorbed in an article on conscription, when all of a sudden Helena’s door was flung open, and footsteps and screams from the drawing-room fell on his ears. He jumped up and rushed out of his room, believing that the house was on fire.
Helena was standing in the drawing-room in her nightgown.
She screamed when she saw her husband and ran to her room; on the threshold she hesitated and turned her head.
“Forgive me, Albert,” she stammered, “it’s you. I didn’t know that you were still up. I thought there were burglars in the house. Please, forgive me.”
And she closed her door.
What did it all mean? Was she in love with him?
He went into his room and stood before the looking-glass. Could any woman fall in love with him? He was plain. But one loves with one’s soul and many a plain man had married a beautiful woman. It was true, though, that in such cases the man had nearly always possessed wealth and influence.–Was Helena realising that she had placed herself in a false position? Or had she become aware of his intention to leave her and was anxious to win him back?
When they met at the breakfast table on the following morning, Helena was unusually gentle, and the professor noticed that she was wearing a new morning-gown trimmed with lace, which suited her admirably.
As he was helping himself to sugar, his hand accidentally touched hers.
“I beg your pardon, dear,” she said with an expression on her face which he had never seen before. She looked like a young girl.
They talked about indifferent things.
On the same day Parliament opened.
Helena’s yielding mood lasted and she grew more and more affectionate.
The period allowed for the introduction of new bills drew to a close.
One evening the professor came home from his club in an unusually gay frame of mind. He went to bed with his paper and his cigar. After a while he heard Helena’s door creak. Silence, lasting for a few minutes, followed. Then there came a knock at his door.
“Who is there?” he shouted.
“It’s I, Albert, do dress and come into the drawing-room, I want to speak to you.”
He dressed and went into the drawing-room.
Helena had lighted the chandelier and was sitting on the sofa, dressed in her lace morning-gown.
“Do forgive me,” she said, “but I can’t sleep. My head feels so strange. Come here and talk to me.”
“You are all unstrung, little girl,” said Albert, taking her hand in his own. “You ought to take some wine.”
He went into the dining-room and returned with a decanter and two glasses.
“Your health, darling,” he said.
Helena drank and her cheeks caught fire.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, putting his arm round her waist.
“I’m not happy,” she replied.
He was conscious that the words sounded dry and artificial, but his passion was roused and he didn’t care.
“Do you know why you are unhappy?” he asked.
“No. I only know one thing, and that is that I love you.”
Albert caught her in his arms and kissed her face.
“Are you my wife, or aren’t you?” he whispered hoarsely.
“I am your wife,” breathed Helena, collapsing, as if every nerve in her body had snapped.
“Altogether?” he whispered paralysing her with his kisses.
“Altogether,” she moaned, moving convulsively, like a sleeper struggling with the horrors of a nightmare.
When Albert awoke, he felt refreshed, his head was clear and he was fully conscious of what had happened in the night. He could think vigorously and logically like a man after a deep and restful sleep. The whole scene stood vividly before his mind. He saw the full significance of it, unvarnished, undisguised, in the sober light of the morning.
She had sold herself!
At three o’clock in the morning, intoxicated with love, blind to everything, half insane, he had promised to introduce her bill.
And the price! She had given herself to him calmly, coldly, unmoved.
Who was the first woman who found out that she could sell her favour? And who was the woman who discovered that man is a buyer? Whoever she was, she was the founder of marriage and prostitution. And they say that marriages are made in heaven!
He realised his degradation and hers. She wanted to triumph over her friends, to be the first woman who had taken an active share in the making of her country’s laws; for the sake of this triumph she had sold herself.
Well, he would tear the mask from her face. He would show her what she really was. He would tell her that prostitution could never be abolished while women found an advantage in selling themselves.
With his mind firmly made up, he got out of bed and dressed.
He had to wait a little for her in the dining-room. He rehearsed the scene which would follow and pulled himself together to meet her.
She came in calm, smiling, triumphant, but more beautiful than he had ever seen her before. A sombre fire burnt in her eyes, and he, who had expected that she would meet him with blushes and down-cast eyes, was crushed. She was the triumphant seducer, and he the bashful victim.
The words he had meant to say refused to come. Disarmed and humble he went to meet her and kissed her hand.
She talked as usual without the slightest indication that a new factor had entered her life.
He went to the House, fuming, with her bill in his pocket, and only the vision of the bliss in store for him, calmed his excited nerves.
But when, in the evening, he knocked quite boldly at her door, it remained closed.
It remained closed for three weeks. He cringed before her like a dog, obeyed every hint, fulfilled all her wishes–it was all in vain.
Then his indignation got the better of him and he overwhelmed her with a flood of angry words. She answered him sharply. But when she realised that she had gone too far, that his chain was wearing thin, she gave herself to him.
And he wore his chain. He bit it, strained every nerve to break it, but it held.
She soon learned how far she could go, and whenever he became restive, she yielded.
He was seized with a fanatical longing to make her a mother. He thought it might make a woman of her, bring out all that was good and wholesome in her. But the future seemed to hold no promise on that score.
Had ambition, the selfish passion of the individual, destroyed the source of life? He wondered….
One morning she informed him that she was going away for a few days to stay with her friends.
When he came home on the evening of the day of her departure and found the house empty, his soul was tormented by a cruel feeling of loss and longing. All of a sudden it became clear to him that he loved her with every fibre of his being. The house seemed desolate; it was just as if a funeral had taken place. When dinner was served he stared at her vacant chair and hardly touched his food.
After supper he lit the chandelier in the drawing-room. He sat down in her corner of the sofa. He fingered her needlework which she had left behind–it was a tiny jacket for a stranger’s baby in a newly-founded creche. There was the needle, still sticking in the calico, just as she had left it. He pricked his finger with it as if to find solace in the ecstasy of pain.
Presently he lighted a candle and went into her bedroom. As he stood on the threshold, he shaded the flame with his hand and looked round like a man who is about to commit a crime. The room did not betray the slightest trace of femininity. A narrow bed without curtains; a writing-table, bookshelves, a smaller table by the side of her bed, a sofa. Just like his own room. There was no dressing-table, but a little mirror hung on the wall.
Her dress was hanging on a nail. The lines of her body were clearly defined on the thick, heavy serge. He caressed the material and hid his face in the lace which trimmed the neck; he put his arm round the waist, but the dress collapsed like a phantom. “They say the soul is a spirit,” he mused, “but then, it ought to be a tangible spirit, at least.” He approached the bed as if he expected to see an apparition. He touched everything, took everything in his hand.
At last, as if he were looking for something, something which should help him to solve the problem, he began to tug at the handles which ornamented the drawers of her writing-table; all the drawers were locked. As if by accident he opened the drawer of the little table by her bedside, and hastily closed it again, but not before he had read the title on the paper-cover of a small book and caught sight of a few strange-looking objects, the purpose of which he could guess.
That was it then! Facultative Sterility! What was intended for a remedy for the lower classes, who have been robbed of the means of existence, had become an instrument in the service of selfishness, the last consequence of idealism. Were the upper classes so degenerate that they refused to reproduce their species, or were they morally corrupt? They must be both, for they considered it immoral to bring illegitimate children into the world, and degrading to bear children in wedlock.
But he wanted children! He could afford to have them, and he considered it a duty as well as a glorious privilege to pour his individuality into a new being. It was Nature’s way from a true and healthy egoism towards altruism. But she travelled on another road and made jackets for the babies of strangers. Was that a better, a nobler thing to do? It stood for so much, and yet was nothing but fear of the burden of motherhood, and it was cheaper and less fatiguing to sit in the corner of a comfortable sofa and make little jackets than to bear the toil and broil of a nursery. It was looked upon as a disgrace to be a woman, to have a sex, to become a mother.
That was it. They called it working for Heaven, for higher interests, for humanity, but it was merely a pandering to vanity, to selfishness, to a desire for fame or notoriety.
And he had pitied her, he had suffered remorse because her sterility had made him angry. She had told him once that he deserved “the contempt of all good and honest men” because he had failed to speak of sterile women with the respect due to misfortune; she had told him that they were sacred, because their sorrow was the bitterest sorrow a woman could have to bear.
What, after all, was this woman working for? For progress? For the salvation of humanity? No, she was working against progress, against freedom and enlightenment. Hadn’t she recently brought forward a motion to limit religious liberty? Wasn’t she the author of a pamphlet on the intractability of servants? Wasn’t she advocating greater severity in the administration of the military laws? Was she not a supporter of the party which strives to ruin our girls by giving them the same miserable education which our boys receive?
He hated her soul, for he hated her ideas. And yet he loved her? What was it then that he loved?
Probably, he reflected, compelled to take refuge in philosophy, probably the germ of a new being, which she carries in her womb, but which she is bent on killing.
What else could it be?
But what did she love in him? His title, his position, his influence?
How could these old and worn-out men and women rebuild society?
He meant to tell her all this when she returned home; but in his inmost soul he knew all the time that the words would never be said. He knew that he would grovel before her and whine for her favour; that he would remain her slave and sell her his soul again and again, just as she sold him her body. He knew that that was what he would do, for he was head over ears in love with her.
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