PART IV: THE OWL
What O failed completely to understand now was why she had ever been hesitant to speak to Jacqueline about what Rene? rightly called her true condition. Anne-Marie had warned her that she would be changed when she left Samois, but O had never imagined that the change would be
so great. With Jacqueline back, more lovely and radiant than ever, it seemed natural to her to be no more reticent about revealing herself when she bathed or dressed than she was when she was alone. And yet Jacqueline was so disinterested in others, in anything that did not pertain directly to herself, that it was not until the second day after Jacqueline arrived back and by chance came into the bathroom just as O was stepping out of the tub, that O jingled her irons against the porcelain to draw her attention to the odd noise. Jacqueline turned her head, and saw both the disks hanging between her legs and the black stripes crisscrossing her thighs and breasts.
"What in the world's the matter?" she said.
"It's Sir Stephen," O replied. And she added, as thought it were something to be taken completely for granted: "Rene? gave me to him, and he's had me pierced with his rings. Look." And as she dried herself with the bath towel she came over to Jacqueline, who was so staggered she had slumped onto the lacquered bathroom stool, close enough so that Jacqueline could take the disk in her hand and read the inscription; then, slipping down her bathrobe she turned around and pointed to the initials S and H engraved in her buttocks and said:
"He also had me branded with his monogram. As for the rest, that's where I was flogged with a riding crop. He generally whips me himself, but he also has a Negro maid whip me."
Dumbfounded, Jacqueline gazed at O. O burst out laughing and made as though to kiss her. Terror-stricken, Jacqueline pushed her away and fled into her own room. O leisurely finished drying herself, put on her perfume, and combed her hair. She put on her corset, her stockings, her mules, and when she opened the bathroom door she encountered Jacqueline's gaze in the mirror, before which she was combing her hair, without having the vaguest notion what she was doing.
"Lace up my corset, will you?" she said. "You really do look astonished. Rene?'s in love with you, did he say anything about it?"
"I don't understand," Jacqueline said. And she lost no time revealing what surprised her the most. "You look as though you were proud of it, I don't understand."
"You will, after Rene? takes you to Roissy. By the way, have you already slept with him?"
Jacqueline's face turned a bright crimson, and she was shaking her head in denial with such little conviction that once again O burst out laughing.
"You're lying, darling. Don't be an ass. You have every right in the world to sleep with him. And I might add that that's no reason to reject me. Come, let me caress you and I'll tell you all about Roissy."
Had Jacqueline been afraid that O's jealousy would explode in her face and then yield to her out of relief when it did not, or was it curiosity, did she want to hear the promised explanations, or was it merely because she loved the patience, the slowness, the passion of O's caresses? In any event, yield she did.
"Tell me about it," she later said to O.
"All right," O said. "But first kiss the tips of my breasts. It's time you got used to it, if you're ever to be of any use to Rene?."
Jacqueline did as she was bade, so well in fact that she wrested a moan from O. "Tell me about it," she said.
O's tale, however faithful and clear it may have been, and notwithstanding the material proof she herself constituted, seemed completely mad to Jacqueline.
"You mean you're going back in September?" she said.
"After we've come back from the Midi," O said. "I'll take you, or Rene? will."
"To see what it's like, I wouldn't mind that," Jacqueline went on, "but only to see what it's like."
"I'm sure that can be arranged," said O, though she was convinced of the contrary. But, she kept telling herself, if she could only persuade Jacqueline to enter the gates at Roissy, Sir Stephen would be grateful to her - and once she was in, there would be enough valets, chains, and whips to teach Jacqueline to obey.
She already knew that the summer house that Sir Stephen had rented near Cannes on the Riviera, where she was scheduled to spend the month of August with Rene?, Jacqueline, and him (and with Jacqueline's younger sister, whom Jacqueline had asked if she could bring along, not because she cared especially to have her but because her mother had been hounding her to obtain O's permission), she knew that her room, to which she was certain she could entice Jacqueline, who would be unable to refuse when Rene? was away, was separated from Sir Stephen's bedroom by a wall that looked as though it was full but actually was not; the wall was decorated with a trompe l'oeil latticework which enabled Sir Stephen to raise a blind on his die and thus to see and hear as well as if he had been standing beside the bed. Jacqueline would be surrendering to Sir Stephen's gaze while O was caressing her, and by the time she found out it would be too late. O was pleased to think that she could deliver Jacqueline by an act of betrayal, because she had felt insulted at seeing Jacqueline's contempt for her condition as a flogged and branded slave, a condition of which O herself was proud.
O had never been to the south of France before. The clear blue sky, the almost mirror-like sea, the motionless pines beneath the burning sun: everything seemed mineral and hostile to her. "No real trees," she remarked sadly to herself as she gazed at the fragrant thickets full of shrubs and bushes, where all the tones, and even the lichens, were warm to the touch. "The sea doesn't even smell like the sea," she thought. She blamed the sea for washing up nothing more than an occasional piece of wretched seaweed which looked like dung, she blamed it for being too blue and for always lapping at the same bit of shore. But in the garden of Sir Stephen's villa, which was an old farmhouse that had been restored, they were far from the sea. To left and right, high walls protected them from the neighbors; the servants' wing faced the entrance courtyard, while the side of the house overlooking the garden faced the east; O's bedroom was on this side, and opened directly onto a second story terrace. The tops of the tall black cypress trees were level with the overlapping hollow tiles which served as a parapet for the terrace, which was protected from the noon sun by a reed latticework. The floor of the terrace was of red tile, the same as the tiles in her bedroom. Aside from the wall which separated O's bedroom from Sir Stephen's - and this was the wall of a large alcove bounded by an archway and separated from the rest of the room by a kind of railing similar to the railings of stairways, with banisters of hand-carved wood - all the other walls were whitewashed. The thick white run on the tile floor was made of cotton,
the curtains were of yellow-and-white linen. There were two armchairs upholstered in the same material, and some triple-layered Oriental cushions. The only furniture was a heavy and very handsome Regency bureau made of walnut, and a very long, narrow peasant table in light- colored wood which was waxed till it shone like a mirror. O hung her clothes in a closet.
Jacqueline's little sister Natalie had been given a room near O's, and in the morning when she knew that O was taking a sunbath on the terrace, she came out and lay down beside her. She had snow-white skin, was a shade plump, but her features were none the less delicate and like her sister, she had slanting eyes, but hers were black and shining, which made her look Chinese. Her black hair was cut in straight bangs across her forehead, just above her eyebrows, and in the back was also cut straight, at the nape of the neck. She had firm, tremulous little breasts, and her adolescent hips were only beginning to fill out. She too had chanced upon O, and had taken her quite by surprise, one day when she had dashed out onto the terrace expecting to find her sister but found O instead, lying there alone on her stomach on the Oriental pillows. But what had shocked Jacqueline filled Natalie with envy and desire. She asked her sister about it. Jacqueline's replies, which were intended to shock and revolt young Natalie by repeating to her what O had related, in no wise altered Natalie's feelings. If anything, it accomplished the contrary. She had fallen in love with O. For more than a week she managed to keep it to herself, then late one Sunday afternoon she managed to be alone with O.
The weather had been cooler than normal. Rene?, who had spent part of the morning swimming, was asleep on the sofa of a cool room on the ground floor. Nettled at seeing that he should prefer to take a nap, Jacqueline had gone upstairs and joined O in her alcove. The sea and sun had already made her more golden than before: her hair, her eyebrows, her eyelashes, her nether fleece, her armpits, all seemed to be powdered with silver, and since she was not wearing any make-up, her mouth was the same color pink as the pink flesh between her thighs.
To make sure that Sir Stephen could see Jacqueline in detail - and O thought to herself that if she were Jacqueline she would have guessed, or noticed, his invisible presence - O took pains to pull back her legs and keep them spread in the light of the bedside lamp which she had turned on. The shutters were closed, the room almost dark, despite the thin rays of light that spilled in where the wood was not snug. For more than an hour Jacqueline moaned to O's caressed, and finally, her breasts aroused, her arms thrown back behind her head while her hands circled the wooden bars of the headboard of O's Italian-style bed, she began to cry out when O, parting the lobes hemmed with pale hair, slowly began to bite the crest of flesh at the point between her thighs where the dainty, supple lips joined. O felt her rigid and burning beneath her tongue, and wrested cry after cry from her lips, with no respite, until she suddenly relaxed, the springs broken, and she lay there moist with pleasure. Then O sent her back to her room, where she fell asleep.
Jacqueline was awake and ready, though, when Rene? came for her at five o'clock to go sailing, with Natalie, in a small sailboat, as they had grown accustomed to doing. A slight wind usually came up at the end of the afternoon.
"Where's Natalie?" Rene? said.
Natalie was not in her room, nor was she anywhere in the house. They went out to the garden and called her. Rene? went as far as the thicket of scrub oak at the end of the garden; no one answered.
"Maybe she's already down at the inlet," Rene? said, "or in the boat." They left without calling her any more.
It was at that point that O, who was lying on the Oriental pillows on her terrace, glanced through the tile banisters, and saw Natalie running toward the house. She got up, put on her dressing gown - it was still so warm, even this late in the afternoon, that she was naked - and was tying her belt when Natalie erupted into the room like one of the Furies and threw herself at O.
"She's gone," she shouted, "she's finally gone. I heard her, O, I heard you both, I was listening behind the door. You kiss her, you caress her. Why don't you caress me, why don't you kiss me? Is it because I'm dark, because I'm not pretty? She doesn't love you, O, but I do, I love you!" And she broke down and began to sob.
"All right, fine," O said to herself.
She eased the child into an armchair, took a large handkerchief from her bureau (it was one of Sir Stephen's), and when Natalie's sobs had subsided a little, wiped away her tears away. Natalie begged her forgiveness, kissing O's hands.
"Even if you don't want to kiss me, O, keep me with you. Keep me with you always. If you had a dog, you'd keep him and take care of him. And even if you don't want to kiss me, but would enjoy beating me, you can beat me. But don't send me away."
"Keep still, Natalie, you don't know what you're saying," O murmured, almost in a whisper. The child, slipping down and hugging O's knees, also replied in a near-whisper:
"Oh, yes I do. I saw you the other morning on the terrace. I saw the initials, I saw the long black- and-blue marks. And Jacqueline has told me..."
"Told you what?"
"Where you've been, O, and what they did to you there."
"Did she talk to you about Roissy?"
"She also told me that you had been, that you are..."
"That I was what?"
"That you wear iron rings."
"That's right," O said, "and what else?"
"That Sir Stephen whips you every day."
"That's correct," O repeated, "and he'll be here any second. So run along, Natalie."
Natalie, without shifting position, raised her head to O, and O's eyes encountered her adoring gaze.
"Teach me, O, please teach me," she started in again, "I want to be like you. I'll do anything you tell me. Promise me you'll take me with you when you go back to that place Jacqueline told me about."
"You're too young," O said.
"No, I'm not too young, I'm fifteen going on sixteen," she cried out angrily. "I'm not too young. Ask Sir Stephen," she said, for he had just entered the room.
Natalie was granted permission to remain with O, and extracted the promise that she would be taken to Roissy. But Sir Stephen forbade O to teach her the least caress, not even a kiss on the lips, and also gave strict instructions that O was not to allow Natalie to kiss her. He had every intention of having her reach Roissy completely untouched by hands or lips. By way of compensation, what he did demand, since Natalie was loath to leave O, was that she not leave her a single moment, that she witness O caressing both Jacqueline and himself, that she be present when O yielded to him and when he whipped her, or when she was flogged by old Norah. The kisses with which O smothered her sister, O's mouth glued to her, made Natalie quiver with jealousy and hate. But glowering on the carpet in the alcove, at the foot of O's bed, like little Dinarzade at the foot of Scheherazade's bed, she watched each time that O, tied to the wooden balustrade, writhed and squirmed beneath the riding crop, saw O on her knees humbling receiving Sir Stephen's massive upright sex in her mouth, saw her, prostate, spread her own buttocks with both hands to offer him the after passage - she witnessed all these things with no other feelings but those of admiration, envy, and impatience.
It was about this same time that a change took place in Jacqueline: perhaps O had counted too heavily both on Jacqueline's indifference and her sensuality, perhaps Jacqueline herself naively felt that surrendering herself to O was dangerous for her relations with Rene?: but whatever the reason, she suddenly ceased coming to O. At the same time, she seemed to be keeping herself aloof from Rene?, with whom, whoever, she was spending almost every day and every night. She had never acted as though she were in love with him. She studied him coldly, and when she smiled at him, her eyes remained cold. Even assuming that she was as completely abandoned with him as she was with O, which was quite likely, O could not help thinking that this surrender was superficial. Whereas Rene? was head over heels in love with her, paralyzed by a love such as he had never known before, a worrisome, uncertain love, one he was far from sure was requited, a love that acts not, for fear of offending. He lived, he slept in the same house as Sir Stephen, the same house as O, he lunched, he dined, he went on walks with Sir Stephen, with O, he conversed with them both: he didn't see them, he didn't hear what they said. He saw, he heard, he talked through them, beyond them, and as in a dream when one tried to catch a departing train or clings desperately to the parapet of a collapsing bridge, he was forever trying to understand the raison d'e?tre, the truth which must have been lurking somewhere inside Jacqueline, under that golden skin, like the mechanism inside a crying doll.
"Well," thought O, "the day I was so afraid would arrive is here, the day when I'd merely be a shadow in Rene?'s past. And I'm not even sad; the only thing I feel for him is pity, and even knowing he doesn't desire me any longer, I can see him every day without any trace of bitterness, without the least regret, without even feeling hurt. And yet only a few weeks ago, I dashed all the way across town to his office, to beg him to tell me he still loved me. Was that all my love was, all it meant? So light, so easily gone and forgotten? Is solace that simple? And solace is not even
the right word: I'm happy. Do you mean to say it was enough for him to have given me to Sir Stephen for me to be detached from him, for me to find a new love so easily in the arms of another?"
But then, what was Rene? compared to Sir Stephen? Ropes of straw, anchors of cork, paper chains: these were the real symbols of the bonds with which he had held her, and which he had been so quick to sever. But what a delight and comfort, this iron ring which pierces the flesh and weighs one down forever, this mark eternal, how peaceful and reassuring the hand of a master who lays you on a bed of rock, the love of a master who knows how to take what he loves ruthlessly, without pity. And O said to herself that, in the final analysis, with Rene? she had been an apprentice to love, she had loved him only to learn how to give herself, enslaved and surfeited, to Sir Stephen. But to see Rene?, who had been so free with her - and she had loved his free ways - walking as though he were hobbled, like someone whose legs were ensnarled in the water and reeds of a pond whose surface seems calm but which, deeper down, swirls with subterranean currents, to see him thus, filled O with hate for Jacqueline. Did Rene? dimly perceive her feelings? Did O carelessly reveal how she felt? In any case, O committed an error.
One afternoon she and Jacqueline had gone to Cannes together to the hairdresser, alone, then to the Reserve Cafe? for an ice cream on the terrace. Jacqueline was superb in her tight-fitting black slacks and sheer black sweater, eclipsing even the brilliance of the children around her she was so bronzed and sleek, so hard and bright in the burning sun, so insolent and inaccessible. She told O she had made an appointment there with the director whose picture she had been playing in in Paris, to arrange for taking some exteriors, probably in the mountains above Saint-Paul-de- Vence. And there he was, forthright and determined. He didn't need to open his mouth, it was obvious he was in love with Jacqueline. All one had to do was see the way he looked at her. What was so surprising about that? Nothing; but what was surprising was Jacqueline. Half reclining in one of those adjustable beach chairs, Jacqueline listened to him as he talked of dates to be set, appointments to be made, of the problems of raising enough money to finish the half- completed picture. He used the tu form in addressing Jacqueline, who replied with a mere nod or shake of her head, keeping her eyes half-closed. O was seated across from Jacqueline, with him between them. It took no great act of perception to notice that Jacqueline, whose eyes were lowered, was watching, from beneath the protection of those motionless eyelids, the young man's desire, the way she always did when she thought no one was looking. But strangest of all was how upset she seemed, her hands quiet at her side, her face serious and expressionless, without the trace of a smile, something she had never displayed in Rene?'s presence. A fleeting, almost imperceptible smile on her lips as O leaned forward to set her glass of ice water on the table and their eyes met, was all O needed to realize that Jacqueline was aware that O knew the game was up. It didn't bother her, though; it was rather O who blushed.
"Are you too warm?" Jacqueline said. "We'll be leaving in five minutes. Red is becoming to you, by the way."
Then she smiled again, turning her gaze to her interlocutor, a smile so utterly tender that it seemed impossible he would not hasten to embrace her. But he did not. He was too young to know that motionlessness and silence can be the lair of immodesty. He allowed Jacqueline to get up, shook hands with her, and said goodbye. She would phone him. He also said goodbye to the shadow that O represented for him, and stood on the sidewalk watching the black Buick disappear down the avenue between the sun-drenched houses and the dark, almost purple sea.
The palm trees looked as though they had been cut out of metal, the strollers like poorly fashioned wax models, animated by some absurd mechanism.
"You really like him all that much?" O said to Jacqueline as the car left the city and moved along the upper coast road.
"Is that any business of yours?" Jacqueline responded. "It's Rene?'s business," she retorted.
"What is Rene?'s business, and Sir Stephen's, and, if I understand it correctly, a number of other people's, is the fact that you're badly seated. You're going to wrinkle your dress."
O failed to move.
"And I also thought," Jacqueline added, "that you weren't supposed to cross your legs."
But O was no longer listening. What did she care about Jacqueline's threats. If Jacqueline threatened to inform on her for that peccadillo, what did she think would keep her from denouncing Jacqueline in turn to Rene?? Not that O lacked the desire to. But Rene? would not be able to bear the news that Jacqueline was lying to him, or that she had plans of her own which did not include him. How could she make Jacqueline believe that if she were to keep still, it would be to avoid seeing Rene? lose face, turning pale over someone other than herself, and perhaps revealing himself to be too weak to punish her? How could she convince her that her silence, even more, would be the result of her fear at seeing Rene?'s wrath turned against her, the bearer of ill tidings, the informer? How could she tell Jacqueline that she would not say a word, without giving the impression that she was making a mutual non-betrayal pact with her? For Jacqueline had the idea that O was terrified, terrified to death at what would happen to her if she, Jacqueline, talked.
From that point on, until they got out of the car in the courtyard of the old farm, they did not exchange another word. Without glancing at O, Jacqueline picked a white geranium growing beside the house. O was following closely enough behind to catch a whiff of the strong, delicate odor of the leaf crumpled between her hands. Did she believe she would thus be able to mask the odor of her own sweat, which was marking darkening circles beneath the arms of her sweater and causing the black material to cling to her armpits.
In the big whitewashed room with the red-tile floor, Rene? was alone.
"You're late," he said when they came in. "Sir Stephen's waiting for you in the next room," he added, nodding to O. "He needs you for something. He's not in a very good mood."
Jacqueline burst out laughing, and O looked at her and turned red.
"You could have saved it for another time," said Rene?, who misinterpreted both Jacqueline's laugh and O's concern.