Part III: Anne-Marie and the Rings
O had believed, or wanted to believe, in order to give herself a good excuse, that Jacqueline would be uncommonly shy. She was enlightened on this score the moment she decided to open her eyes.
The modest air Jacqueline assumed - closing the door to the mirrored make-up room where she dressed and undressed - was in fact clearly intended to inflame O, to instill in her the desire to force the door which, had it been left wide open, she would never have made up her mind to enter. That O's decision finally came from an authority outside herself, and was not the result of that basic strategy, could not have been further from Jacqueline's mind. At first O was amused by it. As she helped Jacqueline arrange her hair, for example, after Jacqueline had taken off the clothes she had posed in and was slipping into her turtle-neck sweater and the turquoise necklace the same color as her eyes, O found herself amazingly delighted at the idea? that the very same evening Sir Stephen would be apprised of Jacqueline's every gesture - whether she had allowed O to fondle, through the black sweater, her small, well-spaced breasts, whether she had lowered her eyelids till those lashes, fairer than her skin, were touching her cheeks; whether she had sighed or moaned. When O embraced her, she became heavy, motionless and seemly expectant in her arms, her lips parted slightly and her hair cascaded back. O always had to be careful to hold her by both her shoulders and lean her up against the frame of a door or against a table. Otherwise she would have slipped to the floor, her eyes closed, without a sound. The minute O let go of her, she would again turn into ice and snow, laughing and distant, and would say: "You've got lipstick on me," and would wipe her mouth. It was this distant stranger that O enjoyed betraying by carefully noting - so as not to forget anything and be able to relate everything in detail - the slow flush of her cheeks, the smell of sage and sweat. Of Jacqueline it was impossible to say that she was forbearing or that she was on her guard. When she yielded to the kisses - and all she had so far granted O were kisses, which she accepted without returning - she yielded abruptly and, it seemed, totally, as though for ten seconds, or five minutes, she had become someone else. The rest of the time she was both coquettish and coy, incredibly clever at parrying an attack, contriving never to lay herself open either to a word or gesture, or even a look which would allow the victor to coincide with the vanquished or give O to believe that it was all that simple to take possession of her mouth. The only indication one had as a guide, the only thing that gave one to suspect troubled waters beneath the calm surface of her look was an occasional, apparently involuntary trace of a smile on her triangular face, similar to the smile of a cat, as fleeting and disturbing, and as uncertain, as a cat's. Yet it did not take O long to realize that this smile could be provoked by two things, and Jacqueline was totally unaware of either. The first was the gifts that were given to her, the second, any clear evidence of the desire she aroused - providing, however, that the person who desired her was someone who might be useful to her or who flattered her vanity. In what way was O useful to her? Or was it simply that O was an exception and that Jacqueline enjoyed being desired by O both because she took solace in O's manifest admiration and also because a woman's desire is harmless and of no consequence? Still in all, O was convinced that if, instead of bringing Jacqueline a mother-of-pearl brooch or the latest creation of Hermes' scarves on which I Love You was printed in every language under the sun, she were to offer Jacqueline the hundred or two hundred francs she seemed constantly to need, Jacqueline would have changed her tune about never having the time to have lunch or tea at O's place, or would have stopped evading her caresses. But of this O never had any proof. She had only barely mentioned it to Sir Stephen, who was chiding her for her slowness, when Rene? stepped in. The five or six times that Rene? had come by for O, when Jacqueline had happened to be there, the three of them had gone together to the Weber bar or to one of the English bars in the vicinity of the Madeleine; on these occasions Rene? would contemplate Jacqueline with precisely the same mixture of interest, self-assurance, and arrogance with which he would gaze, at Roissy, at the girls who were completely at his disposal. The arrogance slid harmlessly off Jacqueline's solid, gleaming armor, and Jacqueline was not even aware of it. By a curious contradiction, O was disturbed by it, judging an attitude which she considered quite natural and normal for herself, insulting for Jacqueline. Was she taking up cudgels in defense of Jacqueline, or was it merely that she wanted her all to herself? She would have been hard put to answer that question, all the more so because she did not have her all to herself - at least not yet. But if she finally did succeed, she had to admit it was thanks to Rene?. On three occasions, upon leaving the bar where they had given Jacqueline considerably more whisky than she should have drunk - her cheeks were flushed and shining, her eyes hard - he had driven her home before taking O to Sir Stephen's.
Jacqueline lived in one of those lugubrious Passy lodging houses into which hordes of White Russians had piled immediately following the Revolution, and from which they had never moved. The entrance hall was painted in imitation oak, and on the stairway the spaces between the banisters were covered with dust, and the green carpeting had been worn down till it was threadbare in many places. Each time Rene? wanted to come in - and to date he had never got beyond the front door - Jacqueline would jump out of the car, cry "not tonight" or "thanks so much," and slam the car door behind her as though she had suddenly been burned by some tongue of flame. And it was true, O would say to herself, that she was being pursued by fire. It was admirable that Jacqueline had sensed it, even though she had no concrete evidence of it as yet. At least she realized that she had to be on her guard with Rene?, whose detachment did not seem to affect her in the slightest. (Or did it? And as far as seeming unaffected, two could play at that game, and Rene? was a worthy opponent for her).
The only time that Jacqueline let O come into the house and follow her up to her room, O had understood why she had so adamantly refused Rene? permission to set foot in the house. What would have happened to her prestige, her black-and-white legend on the slick pages of the posh fashion magazines, if someone other than a woman like herself had seen the sordid lair from which the glorious creature issued forth every day? The bed was never made, at most the bedclothes were more or less pulled up, and the sheet which was visible was dirty and greasy, for Jacqueline never went to bed without massaging her face with cold cream, and she fell asleep too quickly to think of wiping it off. Sometime in the past a curtain had apparently partitioned off the toilet from the room: all that remained on the triangular shaped curtain rod were two rings and a few shreds of cloth. The color was faded from everything: from the rug, from the wallpaper whose pink and gray flowers were crawling upward like vegetation gone wild and become petrified on the imitation white trellis. One would have had to throw everything out and start again from scratch: scrape off the wallpaper, throw out the rug, sand the floors. But without waiting for that, one could in any case have cleaned off the dirt that, like so many strata, ringed the enamel of the basin, immediately wiped off and put into some kind of order the bottles of make-up remover and the jars of cream, cleaned up the powder box, wiped off the dressing table, thrown out the dirty cotton, opened the windows. But, straight and cool and clean and smelling of eau de Cologne and wild flowers, dirt-proof and impeccable, Jacqueline could not have cared less about her filthy room. What she did care about, however, what caused her no end of concern, was her family.
It was because of her hovel, which O was frank enough to have mentioned to Rene?, that Rene? made a proposal which was to alter their lives, but it was because of her family that Jacqueline accepted. Rene?'s suggestion was that Jacqueline should come and live with O. "Family" was a gross misunderstatement: it was a clan, or rather a horde. Grandmother, mother, aunt, and even a maid - four women ranging in age from fifty to seventy, strident, heavily made up, smothered beneath onyx and their black silks, sobbing and wailing at four in the morning in the faint red light of the icons, with the cigarette smoke swirling thickly about them, four women drowning in the clicking of the tea glasses and the harsh hissing of a language Jacqueline would gladly have given half her life to forget - she was going out of her mind having to submit to their orders, to listen to them, merely having to see them. Whenever she saw her mother lifting a piece of sugar to her mouth before drinking her tea, Jacqueline would set down her own glass and retreat to her dry and dusty pigsty, leaving all three of them behind, her grandmother, her mother, and her mother's sister, with their hair dyed black, their closely knit eyebrows, and their wide, doelike, disapproving eyes - there in her mother's room which doubled as a living room, there where, besides, the fourth female, the maid, ended by resembling them. She fled, banging the doors behind her, and they called after her: "Choura, Choura, little dove," just as in the novels of Tolstoy, for her name was not Jacqueline. Jacqueline was her professional name, a name chosen to forget her real name, and with it this sordid but tender gynaeceum, and to set herself up in the French sun, in a solid world where there are men who do marry you and not disappear, as had the father she had never known, into the vast arctic wastes from which he had never returned. She took after him completely, she used to tell herself with a mixture of anger and delight, she had his hair and high cheekbones, his complexion and his slanting eyes. All she was grateful for to her mother was having given her this blond devil as a father, this demon whom the snows had reclaimed as the earth reclaims other men. What she resented was that her mother had forgotten him quickly enough to have given birth one fine day to a dark-complexioned little girl the issue of a short-lived liaison, her half-sister by an unknown father, whose name was Natalie. Now fifteen, Natalie only saw them during vacation. Her father, never. But he provided for Natalie's room and board in a lyce?e not far from Paris, and gave her mother a monthly stipend on which the three women and the maid - and even Jacqueline till now - had subsisted, albeit poorly, in an idleness which to them was paradise. Whatever remained from Jacqueline's earnings as a model, after she had bought her cosmetics and lingerie, and her shoes and dresses - all of which came from the top fashion houses and were, even after the discount she received as a model, frightfully expensive - was swallowed by the gaping maw of the family purse and disappeared, God only knows where.
Obviously, Jacqueline could have chosen to have a lover to support her, and she had not lacked the opportunity. She had in fact had a lover or two, less because she liked them - not that she actually disliked them - than because she wanted to prove to herself that she was capable of provoking desire and inflaming a man to the point of love. The only one of the two - the second - who had been wealthy and made her a present of a very lovely pearl with a slight pink tint which she wore on her left hand, but she had refused to live with him, and since he had refused to marry her, she had left him, with no great regrets, merely relieved that she was not pregnant (she had thought she was, for several days had lived in a state of dread at the idea). No, to live with a lover was lose face, to forsake one's chances for the future, it was to do what her mother had done with Natalie's father, and that was out of the question.
With O, however, it was quite another matter. A polite fiction made it possible to pretend that Jacqueline was simply moving in with a girl friend, with whom she was going to share all costs. O would be serving a dual purpose, both playing the role of the lover who supports, or helps to support, the girl he loves, and also the theoretically opposite role of providing a moral guarantee. Rene?'s presence was not official enough, really, to compromise the fiction. But who can say whether, behind Jacqueline's decision, that very presence might not have been the real motivation for her acceptance? The fact remained that it was left up to O, and to O alone, to present the matter to Jacqueline's mother. Never had O been more keenly aware of playing the role of traitor, of spy, never had she felt so keenly she was the envoy of some criminal organization as when she found herself in the presence of that woman, who thanked her for befriending her daughter. And at the same time, deep in her heart O was repudiating her mission and the reasons which had brought her there. Yes, Jacqueline would move in with her, but never, never would O acquiesce so completely to Sir Stephen as to deliver her into his hands. And yet! ... For no sooner had she moved into O's apartment, where she was assigned, at Rene?'s request, the bedroom he sometimes pretended to occupy (pretended, given that he always slept in O's big bed), than O, contrary to all expectations, was amazed to find herself obsessed with the burning desire to have Jacqueline at any price, even if attaining her goal meant handing her over to Sir Stephen. After all, she rationalized to herself, Jacqueline's beauty is quite sufficient protection for her, and besides, why should I get involved in it anyway? And what if she were to be reduced to what I have been reduced to, is that really so terrible? - scarcely admitting, and yet so overwhelmed to imagine, how sweet it would be to see Jacqueline naked and defenseless beside her, and like her.
The week Jacqueline moved in, her mother having given her full consent, Rene? proved to be exceedingly zealous, inviting them every other day to dinner and taking them to the movies which, curiously enough, he chose from among the detective pictures playing, tales of drug traffic and white slavery. He would sit down between them, gently hold hands with them both and not utter a word. But whenever there was a scene of violence, O would see him studying Jacqueline's face for the slightest trace of emotion. All you could see on it was a hint of disgust, revealed by the slight downward pout at the corners of her mouth.
Afterward he would drive them home in his convertible, with the top down, and in the open car with the windows rolled down, the speed and the night wind flattened Jacqueline's generous head of blond hair against her cheeks and narrow forehead, and even blew it into her eyes. She would toss her head to smooth her hair back into place and would run her hand through it the way boys do.
Once she had accepted the fact that she was living with O and that O was Rene?'s mistress, she consequently seemed to find Rene?'s little familiarities quite natural. It did not bother her in the least to have Rene? come into her room under the pretense of looking for some piece of paper he had left there, and O knew that it was a pretense, for she had personally emptied the drawers of the big Dutch writing desk, with its elaborate pattern of inlay and its leather-lined leaf, which was always open, a desk so utterly unlike Rene?. Why did he have it? Who had he gotten it from? Its weighty elegance, its light-colored woods were the only touch of wealth in the somewhat dark room which faced north and overlooked the courtyard and the steel gray of its walls and the cold, highly waxed surface of the floor provided a sharp contract with the cheerful rooms which faced the river. Well, there could be a virtue in that: Jacqueline would not be happy there. It would make it all the easier for her to agree to share the two front rooms with O, to sleep with O, as on the first day she had agreed to share the bathroom and kitchen, the cosmetics, the perfumes, the meals. In this, O was mistaken. Jacqueline was profoundly and passionately attached to anything that belonged to her - to her pink pearl, for instance - and completely indifferent to anything that was not hers. Had she lived in a palace, it would have interested her only if someone had told her: the palace is yours, and then proved it by giving her a notarized deed. She could not have cared less whether the gray room was pleasant or not, and it was not to get away from it that she climbed into O's bed. Nor was it to show her gratitude to O, for she in fact did not feel it, though O ascribed the feeling to her and was delighted to abuse it, or think she was abusing it.
Jacqueline enjoyed pleasure, and found it both expedient and pleasant to receive it from a woman, in whose hands she was running no risk whatever.
Five days after she had unpacked her suitcases, whose contents O had helped her sort out and put away, when for the third time Rene? had brought them home about ten o'clock after having dined with them, and had then left (as he had both other times), she simply appeared, naked and still wet from her bath, in O's doorway and said to O:
"You're sure he's not coming back?" and without even waiting for her answer, she slipped into the big bed. She allowed herself to be kissed and caressed, her eyes closed, not responding by a single caress; at first she moaned faintly, hardly more than a whimper, then louder, still louder, until finally she cried out. She fell asleep sprawled across the bed, her knees apart but her legs flat again on the bed, the upper part of her body slightly turned on one side, her hands open, her body bathed in the bright light of the pink lamp. Between her breasts a trace of sweat glistened. O covered her and turned out the light. When, two hours later, she took her again, in the dark, Jacqueline did not resist but murmured:
"Don't wear me out completely, I have to get up early tomorrow."
It was at this time that Jacqueline, in addition to her intermittent assignments as a model, began to engage in a more absorbing but equally unpredictable career: she was signed up to play bit parts in the movies. It was hard to tell whether she was proud of this or not, whether or not she considered this the first step in a career which might lead to her becoming famous. In the morning she would drag herself out of bed more in anger than with any show of enthusiasm, would take her shower, quickly make herself up, for breakfast would accept only the large cup of black coffee that O barely had time to make for her, and would let O kiss the tips of her fingers, responding with no more than a mechanical smile and an expression full of malice: O was soft and warm in her white vicun?a dressing gown, her hair combed, her face washed, looking for all the world like someone who plans on going back to bed. And yet such was not the case. O had not yet found the courage to explain why to Jacqueline. The truth of the matter was that every day, when Jacqueline left for the film studio at Boulogne where her picture was being shot, at the same time as the children left for school and the white-collar workers for their offices, O, who in the past had indeed whiled away the morning in her apartment, also got dressed.
"I'm sending you my car," Sir Stephen had said, "to drive Jacqueline to Boulogne, then it will come back to pick you up."
Thus O found herself headed for Sir Stephen's place every morning when the sun along the way was still striking the eastern faces; the other walls were still cool in the shade, but in the gardens the shadows were already growing shorter.
At the rue de Poitiers, the housework was still not finished. Norah, the mulatto maid, would take O into the small bedroom where, the first evening, Sir Stephen had left her alone to sleep and cry, wait till O had put her gloves, her bag, and her clothes on the bed, and then she would take them and put them away, in O's presence, in a closet to which she alone had the key. Then, having given O the patent-leather high-heeled mules which made a sharp clicking sound as she walked, Norah would precede her, opening the doors as they went, till they reached Sir Stephen's study, when she would stand aside to let O pass.
O never got used to these preparations, and stripping in front of this patient old woman, who never said a word to her and scarcely looked at her, seemed to her as dangerous and formidable as being naked at Roissy in the presence of the valets there. On felt slippers, the old lady slipped silently by like a nun. As she followed her, O could not take her eyes off the twin points of her Madras kerchief and, every time she opened a door, off her thin, swarthy hand on the porcelain handle, a hand that seemed as hard as wood.
At the same time, by a feeling diametrically opposed to the terror she inspired in her - a contradiction O was unable to explain - O experienced a kind of pride that this servant of Sir Stephen (and just what was her relation to Sir Stephen, and why had he entrusted her with this task as costume and make-up assistant for which she assumed so poorly suited?) was a witness to the fact that she too - like so many others, perhaps, whom she had guided in the same way, and why should she think otherwise? - was worthy of being used by Sir Stephen. For perhaps Sir Stephen did love her, without a doubt he did, and O sensed that the time was not far off when he would no longer be content to let her suspect it but would declare it to her - but to the very degree that his love and desire for her were increasing, he was becoming more completely, more minutely, and more deliberately exacting with her. Thus retained by his side for whole mornings, during which he sometimes scarcely touched her, waiting only to be caressed by her, she did whatever he wanted of her with a sentiment that must be qualified as gratitude, which was all the greater whenever his request took the form of a command. Each surrender was for her the pledge that another surrender would be demanded of her, and she acquitted herself of each as though of a duty performed; it was odd that she would have been completely satisfied by it, and yet she was.
Sir Stephen's office, situated directly above the yellow and gray drawing room where he held sway in the evening, was smaller and had a lower ceiling. It contained neither settee nor sofa, only two regency armchairs upholstered in a tapestry with a floral pattern. O sat in one occasionally, but Sir Stephen generally preferred to keep her near at hand, at arm's length, and while he was busy with other things, to none the less have her seated on his desk, to his left. The desk was set at right angles to the wall, which allowed O to lean back against the shelves which contained some dictionaries and leather-bound phone books. The telephone was snug against her left thigh, and every time the phone rang she jumped it. It was she who picked up the receiver and answered, saying: "May I ask who's calling?" then either repeating the name out loud and passing the receiver to Sir Stephen, or, if he signaled to her, making some excuse for him. Whenever had a visitor, old Norah would announce him, Sir Stephen would have him wait long enough for Norah to conduct O back to the room where she had undressed and where, after Sir Stephen's visitor had left, she would come to fetch her again when Sir Stephen rang for her.
Since Norah entered and left the study several times each morning, either to bring Sir Stephen his coffee or to bring in the mail, to open or draw the blinds or to empty the ashtrays, and since she alone had the right to enter and had been expressly instructed never to knock, and since, finally, she always waited in silence whenever she had something to say, until Sir Stephen spoke to her to ask her what it was she wanted, it so happened that on one occasion when Norah came into the room O was bent over the desk with her rear exposed, her head and arms against the leather top, waiting for Sir Stephen to impale her. She raised her head. If Norah had not glanced at her, and she invariably never did, that would have been the only movement O would have made. But this time it was obvious that Norah was trying to catch O's eye. Those black, beady eyes fastened on her own - and it was impossible for O to tell whether they bespoke indifference or not - those eyes set in a deeply furrowed, impassive face so bothered O that she made a movement to try and get away from Sir Stephen. He gathered what it was all about, and with one hand pinned her waist to the table, while prying her open with the other. She who was constantly striving to cooperate and do her best was now, quite involuntarily, tense and contracted, and Sir Stephen was obliged to force his way. Even when he had done so, she felt that the ring of her buttocks was tightening around him, and he had trouble forcing himself all the way into her. He withdrew only when he was certain he could come and go with ease. Then as he was on the point of taking her again, he told Norah to wait, and said that she could help O get dressed when he had finished with her. And yet, before he dismissed her, he kissed O tenderly on the mouth. It was that kiss which, several days later, gave her the courage to tell him that Norah frightened her.
"I should hope so," he retorted. "And when you wear my mark and my irons, as I trust you soon will - if you will consent to it - you'll have much more reason to be afraid of her."
"Why?" O asked, "and what mark and what irons? I'm already wearing this ring...."
"That's completely up to Anne-Marie, to whom in fact I've promised to show you. We're going to pay her a visit after lunch. I trust you don't mind? She's a friend of mine, and you may have noted that, till now, I've refrained from ever introducing you to my friends. When Anne-Marie is finished with you, I'll give you genuine reasons for being afraid of Norah."