This was true to such a degree that when Rene? relaxed his grip upon her - or when she imagined he had - when he seemed distracted, when he left her in a mood which she took to be indifference of let some time go by without seeing her or replying to her letters and she assumed that he no longer cared to see her and was on the verge of ceasing to love her, then everything was choked and smothered within her. The grass turned black, day was no longer day nor night any longer night, but both merely infernal machines which alternately provided, as part of her torture, periods of light and darkness. Cool water made her nauseous. She felt as though she were a statue of ashes - bitter, useless, damned - like the salt statues of Gomorrah. For she was guilty. Those who love God, and by Him are abandoned in the dark of night, are guilty because they are abandoned. They cast back into their memories, searching for their sins. She looked back, hunting for hers. All she found were insignificant acts of kindness or self-indulgence, which were not so much acts as an innate part of her personality, such as arousing the desires of men other than Rene?, men she noticed only to the extent that the love Rene? gave her, the certainty of belonging to Rene?, made her happy and filled her cup of happiness to overflowing, and insofar as her total submission to Rene? rendered her vulnerable, irresponsible, and all her trifling acts - but what acts? For all she had to reproach herself with were thoughts and fleeting temptations. Yet, he was certain that she was guilty and, without really wanting to, Rene? was punishing her for a sin he knew nothing about (since it remained completely internal), although Sir Stephen had immediately detected it: her wantonness.
O was happy that Rene? had had her whipped and had prostituted her, because her impassioned submission would furnish her lover with the proof that she belonged to him, but also because the pain and shame of the lash, and the outrage inflicted upon her by those who compelled her to pleasure when they took her, and at the same time delighted in their own without paying the slightest heed to hers, seemed to her the very redemption of her sins. There had been embraces she had found foul, hands that had been an intolerable insult on her breasts, mouths which had sucked on her lips and tongues like so many soft, vile leeches, and tongues and sexes, viscous beasts which, caressing themselves at her closed mouth, at the double furrow before and behind, which she had squeezed tight with all her might, had stiffened her with disgust and kept her stiffened so long that it was all the whip could do to unbend her, but she had finally yielded to the blows and opened, with disgust and abominable servility. And what if, in spite of that, Sir Stephen was right? What if she actually enjoyed her debasement? In that case, the baser she was, the more merciful was Rene? to consent to make O the instrument of his pleasure.
As a child, O had read a Biblical text in red letters on the white wall of a room in Wales where she had lived for two months, a text such as the Protestants often inscribe in their houses:
IT IS A FEARFUL THING TO FALL INTO THE HANDS OF THE LIVING GOD
No, O told herself now, that isn't true. What is fearful is to be cast out at the hands of the living God. Every time Rene? postponed, or was late to, a rendezvous with her, as he had done today - for six o'clock had come and gone, as had six-thirty - O was prey to a dual feeling of madness and despair, but for nothing. Madness was nothing, despair for nothing, nothing was true. Rene? would arrive, he would be there, nothing was changed, he loved her but had been held up by a staff meeting or some extra work, he had not had time to let her know; in a flash, O emerged from her airless chamber, and yet each of these attacks of terror would leave behind, somewhere deep inside her, a dull premonition, a warning of woe: for there were also times when Rene? neglected to let her know when the reason for the delay was a game of golf or a hand of bridge,
or perhaps another face, for he loved O but he was free, sure of her and fickle, so fickle. Would a day of death and ashes not come, a day in the long string of other days which would give the nod to madness, a day when the gas chamber would reopen? Oh, let the miracle continue, let me still be touched by grace, Rene? don't leave me! Each day, O did not look, nor did she care to look, any further than the next day and the day after; nor, each week, any further than the following week. And for her every night with Rene? was a night which would last forever.
Rene? finally arrived at seven, so happy to see her again that he kissed her in front of the electrician who was repairing a floodlight, in front of the short, red-haired model who was just coming out of the dressing room, and in front of Jacqueline, whom on one expected, who had come in suddenly on the heels of the other model.
"What a lovely sight," Jacqueline said to O. "I was just passing. I wanted to ask you for the last shots of me you took, but I gather this isn't the right moment. I'll be on my way."
"Mademoiselle, please don't go," Rene? called after her, without letting go of O, whom he was holding around the waist, "please don't go!"
O introduced them: Jacqueline, Rene?; Rene?, Jacqueline.
Piqued, the red-haired model had gone back into her dressing room, the electrician was pretending to be busy. O was looking at Jacqueline and could feel Rene?'s eyes following her gaze. Jacqueline was wearing a ski outfit, the kind that only movie stars who never go skiing wear. Her black sweater accentuated her small, widely spaced breasts, her tight-fitting ski pants did the same for her long, winter-sports-girl legs. Everything about her looked like snow: the bluish sheen of her gray sealskin jacket was snow in the shade; the hoar-frost reflection of her hair and eyelashes, snow in sunlight. She had on lipstick whose deep red shaded almost to purple, and when she smiled and lifted her eyes till they were fixed on O, O said to herself that no would could resist the desire to drink of that green and moving water beneath the silvery lashes, to rip off her sweater to lay his hands on the fairly small breasts. There, you see: no sooner had Rene? returned than, completely reassured by his presence, she recovered her taste for others and for herself, her zest for life.
They left together, all thee of them. On the rue Royale the snow, which had been falling in large flakes for two hours, fell now in eddies of thin little flakes for two hours, fell now in eddies of thin little white flies which stung the face. The rock salt scattered on the sidewalk crunched beneath their feet and melted the snow, and O felt the icy breath it emitted rising along her legs and fastened on her naked thighs.
O had a fairly clear idea of what she was looking for in the young women she pursued. It wasn't that she wanted to give the impression she was vying with men, nor that she was trying to compensate by her manifest masculinity for a female inferiority which she in no wise felt. It's true that when she was twenty she had caught herself courting the prettiest of her girl friends by doffing her beret, by standing aside to let her pass, and by offering a hand to help her out of a taxi. In the same vein, she would not tolerate not paying whenever they had tea together in some pastry shop. She would kiss her hand and, if she had a chance, her mouth, if possible in the street. But these were so many affectations she paraded for the sake of scandal, displayed much more from childishness than from conviction. On the other hand, her penchant for the sweetness
of sweetly made-up lips yielding beneath her own, for the porcelain or pearly sparkle of eyes half-closed in the half-light of couches at five in the afternoon, when the curtains are drawn and the lamp on the fireplace mantel lighted, for the voices that say: "Again, oh, please, again...," for the marine odor clinging to her fingers: this was a real, deeply-rooted taste. And she also enjoyed the pursuit just as much. Probably not for the pursuit itself, however amusing or fascinating it might be, but for the complete sense of freedom she experienced in the act of hunting. She, and she alone, set the rules and directed the proceedings (something she never did with men, or only in a most oblique manner). She initiated the discussions and set the rendezvous, the kisses came from her too, so much so that she preferred not to have someone kiss her first, and since she had first had lovers she almost never allowed the girl whom she was caressing to return her caresses. As much as she was in a hurry to behold her girlfriend naked, she was equally quick to find excuses why she herself should not undress. She often looked for excuses to avoid it, saying that she was cold, that it was the wrong time of the month for her. And, what is more, rare was the woman in whom she failed to detect some element of beauty. She remembered that, just out of the lyce?e, she had tried to seduce an ugly, disagreeable, constantly ill-natured little girl for the sole reason that she had a wild mop of blonde hair which, by its unevenly cut curls, created a forest of light and shade over a skin that, while lusterless, had a texture which was soft, smooth, and totally flat. But the little girl had repelled her advances, and if one day pleasure had ever lighted up the ungrateful wench's face, it had not been because of O. For O passionately loved to see faces enveloped in that mist which makes them so young and smooth, a timeless youth that does not restore childhood but enlarges the lips, widens the eyes the way make-up does, and renders the iris sparkling and clear. In this, admiration played a larger part than pride, for it was not her handiwork which moved her: at Roissy she had experienced the same uncomfortable feeling in the presence of the transfigured face of a girl possessed by a stranger. The nakedness and surrender of the bodies overwhelmed her, and she had the feeling that her girlfriends, when they simply agreed to display themselves naked in a locked room, were giving her a gift which she could never repay in kind. For the nakedness of vacations, in the sun and on the beaches, made no impression on her - not simply because it was public but because, being public and not absolute, she was to some extent protected from it. The beauty of other women, which with unfailing generosity she was inclined to find superior to her own, nevertheless reassured her concerning her own beauty, in which she saw, whenever she unexpectedly caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror, a kind of reflection of theirs. The power she acknowledged that her girlfriends had over her was at the same time a guarantee of her own power over men. And what she asked of women (and never returned, or ever so little), she was happy and found it quite natural that men should be eager and impatient to ask of her. Thus was she constantly and simultaneously the accomplice of both men and women, having, as it were, her cake and eating it too. There were times when the game was not all that easy. That O was in love with Jacqueline, no more and no less than she had been in love with many others, and assuming that the term "in love" (which was saying a great deal) was the proper one, there could be no doubt. But why did she conceal it so?
When the buds burst open on the poplar tree along the quays, and daylight, lingering longer, gave lovers time to sit for a while in the gardens after work, she thought she had at last found the courage to face Jacqueline. In winter, Jacqueline had seemed too triumphant to her beneath her cool furs, too iridescent, untouchable, inaccessible. And Jacqueline knew it. Spring put her back into suits, flat-heeled shoes, sweaters. With her short Dutch bob, she finally resembled those fresh school girls whom O, as a lyce?e student herself, used to grab by the wrists and drag silently
into an empty cloakroom and push back against the hanging coats. The coats would tumble from the hangars. Then O would burst out laughing. They used to wear uniform blouses of raw cotton, with their initials embroidered in red cotton on their breast pockets. Three years later, three kilometers away, Jacqueline had worn the same blouses in another lyce?e. It was by chance that O learned that one day when Jacqueline was modeling some high-fashion dresses and said with a sigh that, really, if only they had had as pretty dresses at school, they would have been much happier there. Or if they had been allowed to wear the jumper they gave you, without anything on underneath. "What do you mean, without anything on?" O said. "Without a dress, naturally," Jacqueline replied. To which O began to blush. She could not get used to being naked beneath her dress, and any equivocal remark seemed to her to be an allusion to her condition. It did no good to keep on repeating to herself that one is always naked beneath one's clothes. No, she felt as naked as that woman from Verona who went out to offer herself to the chief of the besieging army in order to free her city: naked beneath a coat, which only needed to be opened a crack. It also seemed to her that, like the Italian, her nakedness was meant to redeem something. But what? Since Jacqueline was sure of herself, she had nothing to redeem; she had no need to be reassured, all she needed was a mirror. O looked at her humbly, thinking that the only flowers one could offer her were magnolias, because their waxen whiteness is sometimes infused with a pink glow. As winter waned, the pale tan that gilded Jacqueline's skin vanished with the memory of the snow. Soon, only camellias would do. But O was afraid of making a fool of herself with these melodramatic flowers. On day she brought a big bouquet of blue hyacinths, whose odor is overwhelming, like that of tuberoses: oily, cloying, clinging, exactly the odor camellias ought to have but don't. Jacqueline buried her Mongolian nose in the warm, stiff-stemmed flowers, her small nose and pink lips, for she had been wearing a pink lipstick for the past two weeks, and not red any longer.
"Are they for me?" she said, the way women do who are used to receiving gifts.
Then she thanked O and asked her if Rene? were coming for her. Yes, he was coming, O said. He's coming, she repeated to herself, and it will be for him that Jacqueline will lift her icy, liquid eyes for a second, those eyes which never look at anyone squarely, as she stands there falsely motionless, falsely silent. No on would need to tech her anything: neither to remain silent nor now to keep her hands unclenched at her sides, nor indeed how to arch her head half back. O was dying to seize a handful of that too blonde hair at the nape of the neck, and pull her docile head all the way back, to run at least her finger over the line of her eyebrows. But Rene? would want to do it too. She was fully aware why she, once so daring and bold, had become so shy, why she had wanted Jacqueline for two months without betraying it by the least word or gesture, and giving herself lame excuses to explain her timidity. It was not true that Jacqueline was intangible. The obstacle was not in Jacqueline, it lay deep within O herself, its roots deeper than anything she had ever before encountered. It was because Rene? was leaving her free, and because she loathed her freedom. Her freedom was worse than any chains. Her freedom was separating her from Rene?. She could have taken Jacqueline by the shoulders any number of times and without saying a word, pinned her against the wall with her two hands, the way a butterfly is impaled; Jacqueline would not have moved, and probably not even done so much as smile. But O was henceforth like those wild animals which have been taken captive and either serve as decoys for the hunter or, leaping forward only at the hunter's command, head off the game for him.
It was she who sometimes leaned back against a wall, pale and trembling, stubbornly impaled by her silence, bound there by her silence, so happy to remain silent. She was waiting for more than permission, since she already had permission. She was waiting for an order. It cam to her not from Rene?, but from Sir Stephen.
As the months went by since the day Rene? had given her to Sir Stephen, O was terrified to note the growing importance Sir Stephen was assuming in her lover's eyes. Moreover, she realized at the same time that, in this matter, she was perhaps mistaken, imagining a progression in the fact or the feeling where actually the only progression had been in the acknowledgment of this fact or the admission of this feeling. Be that as it may, she had been quick to note that Rene? chose to spend with her those nights, and only those nights, following those she had spent with Sir Stephen (Sir Stephen keeping her the whole night only when Rene? was away from Paris). She also noticed that when Rene? remained for one of those evenings at Sir Stephen's he would never touch O except to make her more readily available or an easier offering to Sir Stephen, if she happened to be struggling. It was extremely rare for him to stay, and he never did unless at Sir Stephen's express request. Whenever he did, he remained fully dressed, as he had done the first time, keeping quiet, lighting one cigarette after another, adding wood to the fire, serving Sir Stephen something to drink - but not drinking himself. O felt that he was watching her the way a lion trainer watches the animal he trained, careful to see that it performs with complete obedience and thus does honor to him, but even more the way a prince's bodyguard or a bandit's second-in-command keeps an eye on the prostitute he has gone down to fetch in the street. The proof that he was indeed yielding to the role of servant or acolyte resided in the fact that he watched Sir Stephen's face more closely than he did hers - and beneath his gaze O felt herself stripped of the very voluptuousness in which her features were immersed: for this sensual pleasure Rene? paid obeisance, expressed admiration and even gratitude to Sir Stephen, who had engendered it, pleased that he had deigned to take pleasure in something he had given him.
Everything would probably have been much simpler if Sir Stephen had liked boys, and O did not doubt that Rene?, who was not so inclined, still would have readily granted to Sir Stephen both the slightest and the most demanding of his requests. But Sir Stephen only liked women.
O realized that through the medium of her body, shared between them, they attained something more mysterious and perhaps more acute, more intense than an amorous communion, the very conception of which was arduous but whose reality and force she could not deny. Still, why was this division in a way abstract? At Roissy, O had at the same time ad in the same place, belonged both to Rene? and to other men. Why did Rene?, in Sir Stephen's presence, refrain not only from taking her, but from giving her any order? (All he ever did was pass on Sir Stephen's.) She asked him why, certain beforehand of the reply.
"Out of respect," Rene? replied. "But I belong to you," O had said. "You belong to Sir Stephen first."
And it was true, at least in the sense that when Rene? had surrendered her to his friend the surrender had been absolute, that Sir Stephen's slightest desired took precedence over Rene?'s decisions as far as she was concerned, and even over her own. If Rene? had decided that they
would dine together and go to the theater, and Sir Stephen happened to phone an hour before he was to pick up O, Rene? would come by for her at the studio as agreed, but only to drive her to Sir Stephen's door and leave her there. Once, and only once, O had asked Rene? to please ask Sir Stephen to change the day, because she so much wanted to go with Rene? to a party to which they were both invited. Rene? had refused.
"My sweet angel," he had said, "you mean you still haven't understood that you no longer belong to me, that I'm not longer the master who's in charge of you?"
Not only had he refused, but he had told Sir Stephen of O's request and, in her presence, asked him to punish her harshly enough so that she would never again dare even to conceive of shirking her duties.
"Certainly," Sir Stephen had replied.
The scene had taken place in the little oval room with the inlaid floor, in which the only piece of furniture was a table encrusted with mother-of-pearl, the room adjoining the yellow and gray living room. Rene? remained only long enough to betray O and hear Sir Stephen's reply. Then he shook hands with him, smiled at O, and left. Through the window, O saw him crossing the courtyard; he did not turn around; she heard the car door slam shut, the roar of the motor, and in a little mirror imbedded in the wall she caught a glimpse of her own image: she was white with fear and despair. Then, mechanically, when she walked past Sir Stephen, who opened the living- room door for her and stood back for her to pass, she looked at him: he was as pale as she. In a flash, she was absolutely certain that he loved her, but it was a fleeting certainty that vanished as fast as it had come. Although she did not believe it and chided herself for having thought of it, she was comforted by it and undressed meekly, on a mere signal from him. Then, and for the first time since he had been making her come two or three times a week, and using her slowly, sometimes making her wait for an hour naked without coming near her, listening to her entreaties without ever replying, for there were times when she did beg and beseech, enjoining her to do the same things always at the same moments, as in a ritual, so that she knew when her mouth was supposed to caress him and when, on her knees, her head buried in the silken sofa, she should offer him only her back, which he now possessed without hurting her, for the first time, for in spite of the fear which convulsed her - or perhaps because of that fear - she opened to him, in spite of the chagrin she felt at Rene?'s betrayal, but perhaps too because of it, she surrendered herself completely. And for the first time, so gentle were her yielding eyes when they fastened on Sir Stephen's pale, burning gaze, that he suddenly spoke to her in French, employing the familiar tu form:
"I'm going to put a gag in your mouth, O, because I'd like to whip you till I draw blood. Do I have your permission?"
"I'm yours," O said.
She was standing in the middle of the drawing room, and her arms raised and held together by the Roissy bracelets, which were attached by a chain to a ring in the ceiling from which a chandelier had formerly hung, thrust her breasts forward. Sir Stephen caressed them, then kissed them, then kissed her mouth once, ten times. (He had never kissed her.) And when he had put on the gag, which filled her mouth with the taste of wet canvas and pushed her tongue to the back of
her throat, the gag so arranged that she could scarcely clench it in her teeth, he took her by the hair. Held in equilibrium by the chain, she stumbled on her bare feet.
"Excuse me, O," he murmured (he had never before begged her pardon), then he let her go, and struck.
When Rene? returned to O's apartment after midnight, after having gone alone to the party they had intended to go to together, he found her in bed, trembling in the white nylon of her long nightgown. Sir Stephen had brought her home and put her to bed himself and kissed her again. She told Rene? that. She also told him that she no longer had any inclination not to obey Sir Stephen, realizing full well that from this Rene? would conclude that she deemed it essential, and even pleasant to be beaten (which was true; but this was not the only reason). What she was also certain of was that it was equally essential to Rene? that she be beaten. He was as horrified at the idea of striking her -