When she pushed open the door of the little Italian restaurant before which the car had stopped, the first person she saw, at the bar, was Rene?. He smiled at her tenderly, took her by the hand, and turning toward a sort of grizzled athlete, introduced her tin English to Sir Stephen H. O was offered a stool between the two men, and as she was about to sit down Rene? said to her in a half- whisper to be careful not to muss her dress. He helped her to slide her skirt out from under her and down over the edges of the stool, the cold leather of which she felt against her skin, while the metal rim around it pressed directly against the furrow of her thighs, for at first she had dared only half sit down, for fear that if she were to sit down completely she might yield to the temptation to cross her legs. Her skirt billowed around her. Her right heel was caught in one of the rungs of the stool, the tip of her left foot was touching the floor. The Englishman, who had bowed without uttering a word, had not taken his eyes off her, she saw that he was looking at her knees, her hands, and finally at her lips - but so calmly and with such precise attention, with such
self-assurance, that O felt herself being weighed and measured as the instrument she knew full well she was, and it was as though compelled by his gaze and, so to speak, in spite of herself that she withdrew her gloves: she knew that he would speak when her hands were bare - because she had unusual hands, more like those of a young boy than the hands of a woman, and because she was wearing on the third finger of her left hand the iron ring with the triple spiral of gold. But no, he said nothing, he smiled: he had seen the ring.
Rene? was drinking a martini, Sir Stephen a whisky. He nursed his whisky, then waited till Rene? had drunk his second martini and O the grapefruit juice that Rene? had ordered for her, meanwhile explaining that if O would be good enough to concur in their joint opinion, they would dine in the room downstairs, which was smaller and less noisy than the one on the first floor, which was simply the extension of the bar.
"Of course," O said, already gathering up her bag and gloves which she had placed on the bar.
Then, to help her off the stool, Sir Stephen offered her his right hand, in which she placed hers, he finally addressing her directly by observing that she had hands that were made to wear irons, so becoming was iron to her. But as he said it in English, there was a trace of ambiguity in his words, leaving one in some doubt as to whether he was referring to the metal alone or whether he were not also, and perhaps even specifically, referring to iron chains.
In the room downstairs, which was a simple white-washed cellar, but cool and pleasant, there were in fact only four tables, one of which was occupied by guests who were finishing their meal. On the walls had been drawn, like a fresco, a gastronomical and tourist map of Italy, in soft, ice cream colors: vanilla, raspberry, and pistachio. It reminded O that she wanted to order ice cream for dessert, with lots of almonds and whipped cream. For she was feeling light and happy, Rene?'s knee was touching her knee beneath the table, and whenever he spoke she knew he was talking for her ears alone. He too was observing her lips. They let her have the ice cream, but not the coffee. Sir Stephen invited O and Rene? to have coffee at his place. They all dined very lightly, and O realized that they had been careful to drink very little, and had kept her from virtually drinking at all: half a liter of Chianti for the three of them. They had also dined very quickly: it was barely nine o'clock.
"I sent the chauffeur home," said Sir Stephen. "Would you drive, Rene?. The simplest thing would be to go straight to my house."
Rene? took the wheal. O sat beside him, and Sir Stephen was next to her. The car was a big Buick, there was ample room for three people in the front seat.
After the Alma intersection, the Cours la Reine was visible because trees were bare, and the Place de la Concorde sparkling and dry with, above it, the sort of sky which promises snow, but from which snow has not yet fallen. O heard a little click and felt the warm air rising around her legs: Sir Stephen had turned on the heater. Rene? was still keeping to the Right Bank of the Seine, then he turned at the Pont Royal to cross over to the Left Bank: between its stone yokes, the water looked as frozen as the stone, and just as black. O thought of hematites, which are black. When she was fifteen her best friend, who was then thirty and with whom she was in love, wore a hematite ring set in a cluster of tiny diamonds. O would have liked a necklace of those black stones, without diamonds, a tight-fitting necklace, perhaps even a choker. But the necklaces that
were given to her now - no they were not given to her - would she exchange them for the necklace of hematites, for the hematites of the dream? She saw again the wretched room where Marion had taken her, behind the Turbigo intersection, and remembered how she had untied - she, not Marion - her two big schoolgirl pigtails when Marion had undressed her and laid her down on the iron bed. How lovely Marion was when she was being caressed, and it's true that eyes can resemble stars; hers looked like quivering blue stars.
Rene? stopped the car. O did not recognize the little street, one of the cross streets which joins the rue de l'Universite and the rue de Lille.
Sir Stephen's apartment was situated at the far end of a courtyard, in one wing of an old private mansion, and the rooms were laid out in a straight line, one opening into the next. The room at the very end was also the largest, and the most reposing, furnished in dark English mahogany and pale yellow and gray silk drapes.
"I shan't ask you to tend the fire," Sir Stephen said to O, "but this sofa is for you. Please sit down, Rene? will make coffee. I would be most grateful if you would hear what I have to say."
The large sofa of light-colored Damascus silk was set at right angles to the fireplace, facing the windows which overlooked the garden and with its back to those behind, which looked onto the courtyard. O took off her fur and lay it over the back of the sofa. When she turned around, she noticed that her lover and her host were standing, waiting for her to accept Sir Stephen's invitation. She set her bag down next to her fur and unbuttoned her gloves. When, would she ever learn, and would she ever learn, a gesture stealthy enough so that when she lifted her skirt no would notice, so that she could forget her nakedness, her submission? Not, in any case, as long as Rene? and that stranger were staring at her in silence, as they were presently doing. Finally she gave in. Sir Stephen stirred the fire, Rene? suddenly went behind the sofa and, seizing O by the throat and the hair, pulled her head down against the couch and kissed her on the mouth, a kiss so prolonged and profound that she gasped for breath and could feel her loins melting and burning. He let her go only long enough to tell her that he loved her, and then immediately took her again. O's hands, overturned in a gesture of utter abandon and defeat, her palms upward, lay quietly on her black dress that spread like a corolla around her. Sir Stephen had come nearer, and when at last Rene? let her go and she opened her eyes, it was the gray, unflinching gaze of the Englishman which she encountered.
Completely stunned and bewildered, as she still was, and gasping with joy, she none the less was easily able to see that he was admiring her, and that he desired her. Who could have resisted her moist, half-open mouth, with its full lips, the white stalk of her arching neck against the black collar of her pageboy jacket, her eyes large and clear, which refused to be evasive? But the only gesture Sir Stephen allowed himself was to run his fingers over her eyebrows, then over her lips. Then he sat down facing her on the opposite side of the fireplace, and when Rene? had also sat down in an armchair, he began to speak.
"I don't believe Rene? has ever spoken to you about his family," he said. "Still, perhaps you do know that his mother, before she married his father, had previously been married to an Englishman, who had a son from his first marriage. I am that son, and it was she who raised me, until she left my father. So Rene? and I are not actually relatives, and yet, in a way, we are brothers. That Rene? loves you I have no doubt. I would have known even if he hadn't told me,
even if he hadn't made a move: all one has to do is to see the way he looks at you. I know too that you are among those girls who have been to Roissy, and i imagine you'll be going back again. In principle, the ring you're wearing gives me the right to do with you what I will, as it does to all those men who know its meaning. But that involves merely a fleeting assignation, and what we expect from you is more serious. I say 'we' because, as you see, Rene? is saying nothing: he prefers to have me speak for both of us.
"If we are brothers, I am the eldest, ten years older than he. There is also between us a freedom so absolute and of such long standing that what belongs to me has always belonged to him, and what belongs to him has likewise belonged to me. Will you agree to join with us? I beg of you to, and I ask you to swear to it because it will involve more than your submission, which I know we can count on. Before you reply, realize for a moment that I am only, and can only be, another form of your lover: you will still have only one master. A more formidable one, I grand you, than the men to whom you were surrendered at Roissy, because I shall be there every day, and besides I am fond of habits and rites...." (This last phrase he uttered in English.)
Sir Stephen's quit, self-assured voice rose in an absolute silence. Even the flames in the fireplace flickered noiselessly. O was frozen to the sofa like a butterfly impaled upon a pin, a long pin composed of words and looks which pierced the middle of her body and pressed her naked, attentive loins against the warm silk. She was no longer mistress of her breasts, her hands, the nape of her neck. But of this much she was sure: the object of the habits and rites of which he had spoken were patently going to be the possession of (among other parts of her body) her long thighs concealed beneath the black skirt, her already opened thighs.
Both men were sitting across from her. Rene? was smoking, but before he had lighted his cigarette he had lighted one of those black-hooded lamps which consumes the smoke, and the air, already purified by the wood fire, smelled of the cool odors of the night.
"Will you give me an answer, or would you like to know more?" Sir Stephen repeated.
"If you give your consent," Rene? said, "I'll personally explain to you Sir Stephen's preferences." "Demands," Sir Stephen corrected.
The hardest thing, O was thinking, was not the question of giving her consent, and she realized that never for a moment did either of them dream that she might refuse; nor for that matter did she. The hardest thing was simply to speak. Her lips were burning and her mouth was dry, all her saliva was gone, an anguish both of fear and desire constricted her throat, and her new-found hands were cold and moist. If only she could have closed her eyes. But she could not. Two gazes talked her eyes, gazes from which she could not - and did not desire to - escape. They drew her toward something she thought she had left behind for a long time, perhaps forever, at Roissy. For since her return, Rene? had taken her only by caresses, and the symbol signifying that she belonged to anyone who knew the secret of her ring had been without consequence: either she had not met anyone who was familiar with the secret, or else those who had remained silent - the only person she suspected was Jacqueline (and if Jacqueline had been at Roissy, why wasn't she also wearing the ring? Besides, what right did Jacqueline's knowledge of this secret give her over O, and did it, in fact give her any?). In order to speak, did she have to move? But she could not move of her own free will - an order from them would immediately have made her get up, but
this time what they w anted from he was not blind obedience, acquiescence to an order, they wanted her to anticipate orders, to judge herself a slave and surrender herself as such. This, then, is what they called her consent. She remembered that she had never told Rene? anything but "I love you" or "I'm yours." Today it seemed that they wanted her to speak and to agree to, specifically and in detail, what till now she had only tacitly consented to.
Finally she straightened up and, as though what she was going to say was stifling her, unfastened the top hooks of her tunic, until the cleavage of her breasts was visible. Then she stood up. Her hands and her knees were shaking.
"I'm yours," she said at length to Rene?. "I'll be whatever you want me to be."
"No," he broke in, "ours. Repeat after me: I belong to both of you. I shall be whatever both of you want me to be."
Sir Stephen's piercing gray eyes were fixed firmly upon hers, as were Rene?'s, and in them she was lost, slowly repeating after him the phrases he was dictating to her, but like a lesson of grammar, she was transposing them into the first person.
"To Sir Stephen and to me you grand the right..." The right to dispose of her body however they wished, in whatever place or manner they should choose, the right to keep her in chains, the right to whip her like a slave or prisoner for the slightest failing or infraction, or simply for their pleasure, the right to pay no heed to her pleas and cries, if they should make her cry out.
"I believe," said Rene?, "that at this point Sir Stephen would like me to take over, both you and I willing, and have me brief you concerning his demands."
O was listening to her lover, and the words which he had spoken to her at Roissy came back to her: they were almost the same words. But then she had listened snuffled up against him, protected by a feeling of improbability, as though it were all a dream, as though she existed only in another life, and perhaps did not really exist at all. Dream or nightmare, the prison setting, the lavish party gowns, men in masks: all this removed from her own life, even to the point of being uncertain how long it would last. There, at Roissy, she felt the way you do at night, lost in a dream you have had before and are now beginning to dream all over again: certain that it exists and certain that it will end, and you want it to end because you're not sure you'll be able to bear it, and you also want it to go on so you'll know how it comes out. Well the end was here, where she least expected it (or no longer expected it at all) and in the form she least expected (assuming, she was saying to herself, that this really was the end, that there was not actually another hiding behind this one, and perhaps still another behind the next one). The present end was toppling her from memory into reality and, besides, what had only been reality in a closed circle, a private universe, was suddenly about to contaminate all the customs and circumstances of her daily life, but on her and within her, now no longer satisfied with signs and symbols - the bare buttocks, bodices that unhook, the iron ring - but demanding fulfillment.
It was true that Rene? had never whipped her, and the only difference between the period of their relationship prior to his taking her to Roissy and the time elapsed since her return was that now he used both her backside and mouth the way he formerly had used only her womb (which he continued to use). She had never been able to tell whether the floggings she had regularly received at Roissy had been administered, were it only once, by him (whenever there was any
question about it, that is when she herself had been blindfolded or when those with whom she was dealing were masked), but she tended to doubt it. The pleasure he derived from the spectacle of her body bound and surrendered, struggling vainly, and of her cries, was doubtless so great that he could not bear the idea of lending a hand himself and thus having his attention distracted from it. It was as though he were admitting it, since he was now saying to her, so gently, so tenderly, without moving from the deep armchair in which he was half reclining with his legs crossed, he was saying how happy he was that she was handing herself over to, the commands and desires of Sir Stephen. Whenever Sir Stephen would like her to spend the night at his place, or only an hour, or if he should want her to accompany him outside Paris or, in Paris itself, to join him at some restaurant or for some show, he would telephone her and send his car for her - unless Rene? himself came to pick her up. Today, now, it was her turn to speak. Did she consent? But words failed her. This willful assent they were suddenly asking her to express was the agreement to surrender herself, to say yes in advance to everything to which she most assuredly wanted to say yes but to which her body said no, at least insofar as the whipping was concerned. As for the rest, if she were honest with herself, she would have to admit to a feeling of both anxiety and excitement caused by what she read in Sir Stephen's eyes, a feeling too intense for her to delude herself, and as she was trembling like a leaf, and perhaps for the very reason that she was trembling, she knew that she was waiting more impatiently than he for the moment when he would place his hand, and perhaps his lips, upon her. It was probably up to her to hasten the moment. Whatever courage, or whatever surge of overwhelming desire she may have had, she felt herself suddenly grow so weak as she was about to reply that she slipped to the floor, her dress in full bloom around her, and in the silence Sir Stephen's hollow voice remarked that fear was becoming to her too. His words were not intended for her, but for Rene?. O had the feeling that he was restraining himself from advancing upon her, and regretted his restraint. And yet she avoided his gaze, her eyes fixed upon Rene?, terrified lest he should see what was in her eyes and perhaps deem it as a betrayal. And yet it was not betrayal, for if she were to weigh her desire to belong to Sir Stephen against her belonging to Rene?, she would not have had a second's hesitation: the only reason she was yielding to this desire was that Rene? had allowed her to and, to a certain extent, given her to understand that he was ordering her to. And yet there was still a lingering doubt in her mind as to whether Rene? might not be annoyed to see her acquiesce too quickly or too well. The slightest sign from him would obliterate it immediately. But he made no sign, confining himself to ask her for the third time for an answer. She mumbled:
"I consent to whatever you both desire," and lowered her eyes toward her hands, which were waiting unclasped in the hollows of her knees, then added in a murmur: "I should like to know whether I shall be whipped...."
There was a long pause, during which she regretted twenty times over having asked the question. Then Sir Stephen's voice said slowly:
"From time to time."
Then O heard a match being struck and the sound of glasses: both men were probably helping themselves to another round of whisky. Rene? was leaving O to her own devices. Rene? was saying nothing.
"Even if I agree to it now," she said, "even if I promise now, I couldn't bear it."
"All we ask you to do is submit to it, and if you scream or moan, to agree ahead of time that it will be in vain," Sir Stephen went on.
"Oh, please, for pity's sake, not yet!" said O, for Sir Stephen was getting to his feet, Rene? was following suit, he leaned down and took her by the shoulders.
"So give us your answer," he said. "Do you consent?"
Finally she said that she did. Gently he helped her up and, having sat down on the big sofa, made her kneel down alongside him facing the sofa, on which reclined her outstretched arms, her bust, and her head. Her eyes were closed, and an image she had seen several years before flashed across her mind: a strange print portraying a woman kneeling, as she was, before an armchair. The floor was of tile, and in one corner a dog and child were playing. The woman's skirts were raised, and standing close beside her was a man brandishing a handful of switches, ready to whip her. They were all dressed in sixteenth-century clothes, and the print bore a title which she found disgusting: Family Punishment.
With one hand, Rene? took her wrists in a viselike grip, and with the other lifted her skirts so high that she could feel the muslin lining brush her cheek. He caressed her flanks and drew Sir Stephen's attention to the two dimples that graced them, and the softness of the furrow between her thighs. Then with that same hand he pressed her waist, to accentuate further her buttocks, and ordered her to pen her knees wider. She obeyed without saying a word. The honors Rene? was bestowing upon her body, and Sir Stephen's replies, and the coarseness of the terms the men were using so overwhelmed her with a shame as violent as it was unexpected that the desire she had felt to be had by Sir Stephen vanished and she began to wish for the whip as a deliverance, for the pain and screams as a justification. But Sir Stephen's hands pried open her again, caressed her until she moaned. She was vanquished, undone, and humiliated that she had moaned.
"I leave you to Sir Stephen," Rene? then said. "Remain the way you are, he'll dismiss you when he sees fit."
How often had she remained like this at Roissy, on her knees, offered to one and all? But then she had always had her hands bound together by the bracelets, a happy prisoner upon whom everything was imposed and from whom nothing was asked. Her it was through her own free will that she remained half naked, whereas a single gesture, the same that would have sufficed to bring her back to her feet, would also have sufficed to cover her. Her promise bound her as much as had the leather bracelets and chains. Was it only the promise? And however humiliated she was, or rather because she had been humiliated, was it not somehow pleasant to be esteemed only for her humiliation, for the meekness with which she surrendered, for the obedient way in which she opened?
With Rene? gone, Sir Stephen having escorted him to the door, she waited thus alone, motionless, feeling more exposed in the solitude and more prostituted by the wait than she had ever felt before, when they were there. The gray and yellow silk of the sofa was smooth to her cheek; through her nylon stockings she felt, below her knees, the thick wool rug, and along the full length of her left thigh, the warmth from the fireplace hearth, for Sir Stephen had added three logs which were blazing noisily. Above a chest of drawers, an antique clock ticked so quietly that it was only audible when everything around was silent. O listened carefully, thinking how
absurd her position was in this civilized, tasteful living room. Through the Venetian blinds could be heard the sleepy rumbling of Paris after midnight. In the light of day, tomorrow morning, would she recognize the spot on the sofa cushion where she had laid her head? Would she ever return, in broad daylight, to this same living room, would she ever be treated in the same way here?
Sir Stephen was apparently in no hurry to return, and O, who had waited so submissively for the strangers of Roissy to take their pleasure, now felt a lump rise in her throat at the idea that in one minute, in ten minutes, he would again put his hands on her. But it was not exactly as she had imagined it.