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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWithout Dogma - 2 April to 30 April
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Without Dogma - 2 April to 30 April Post by :Booklover Category :Long Stories Author :Henryk Sienkiewicz Date :May 2012 Read :1856

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Without Dogma - 2 April to 30 April

2 April.

Yesterday there was a thunderstorm. A strong southern wind drove the clouds along as a herd of wild horses. It pulled and tore, chased and scattered them, then got them under and threw them with a mighty effort upon the sea, which darkened instantly as man in wrath, and began in its turn to send its foam aloft,--a veritable battle of two furies, which, battering each other, produce thunder and lightning flashes. But all this lasted only a short time. We did not go out to sea, as the waves were too rough. Instead of it we looked at the storm from the glazed balcony, and sometimes looked at each other. It is no use deluding myself any longer; there is something going on between us,--a subtle change in our relations to each other. Neither of us has said a word or overstepped the boundary line of friendship; neither has confessed to anything, and yet speaking to each other we feel that our words serve only to disguise our thoughts. It is the same when we are in the boat, reading together, or when I listen to her music. All our acts seem mere shadows,--an outward form that hides the real essence of things, with its face still veiled, but following us wherever we go. Neither of us has given it a name; but we both feel its presence. Manifestations like these take place probably every time man and woman begin to influence each other. I could not tell exactly when it began; but I confess it did not come upon me quite unexpectedly.

I accepted their hospitality because Mrs. Davis was my father's friend; and it was she who, after his death, showed me more sympathy than any one else in Rome. I have so much consciousness of self, am so able to divide myself, that soon after my arrival here, in spite of my heavy sorrow I had the presentiment that our mutual relation would undergo a change. I hated myself that so soon after my father's death I should harbor thoughts like these; but they were there. I find now that my presentiments were right. If I said that the changed relation has still its face veiled, I meant to say that I do not know exactly when the veil will be torn asunder, and I am under the spell of expectation. I should be unsophisticated indeed, if I supposed she were less conscious of all this than I. She is probably more so. Most likely she is guiding all these changes; and everything that is happening happens according to her wishes and cool reflection. Diana the Huntress is spreading her net for the game! But what does it matter to me? what is there for me to lose? As nearly every man, I am that kind of game which allows itself to be hunted for the purpose of turning at a given moment against the hunter. In such circumstances we all have energy enough. In a hand-to-hand fight, like this, the victory rests always with us. I know perfectly well that Mrs. Davis does not love me, any more than I love her. We simply react upon each other through our pagan nature, our sensuous and artistic instincts.

With her it is also a question of vanity,--the worse for her, as it may lead her whither love leads. I shall not go too far. In my feeling for her there is neither affection nor tenderness,--nothing but rapture at the sight of nature's masterwork, and the attraction natural in a man when that masterwork is a woman. My father said that the height of victory would be to change an angel into a woman; I maintain that it is no less a triumph to feel around one's neck the arms, palpitating with life, of a Florentine Venus.

As far as beauty goes she is the highest expression of whatever the most exalted imagination is able to conceive. She is a Phryne. It would turn most men's heads to see her in a tight-fitting riding-habit that shows the outline of her figure as beautiful as that of a statue. In the boat, reading Dante, she looked like a Sybil, and one could understand a Nero's sacrilegious passion. Hers is an almost baleful beauty. Only the joining eyebrows make her appear a woman of our times, and this makes her all the more irritating. She has a certain habit of pushing back her hair by putting both hands at the back of her head; then her shoulders are raised; the whole shape acquires a certain curve, and the breast stands firmly out,--and one feels a desire to carry her off in one's arms from everybody's eyes.

In each of us there is a hidden Satyr. As to myself, as I said already, I am highly impressionable; therefore, when I think of it, that there is something going on between me and this live statue of a Juno, that some mysterious power pushes us towards each other,--my head is in a whirl, and I ask myself what would I wish for more perfect than this.

 

3 April.

As much as ever woman can show kindness and sympathy to a friend in trouble, she has shown to me. And yet, strange to say, all this kindness has upon me the effect of moonlight,--radiance without warmth; she possesses perfection of form, but there is no soul; with her all is premeditation, but not nature. There speaks again the sceptic; but I shall never be so intoxicated as to lose my capacity of observation. If this divinity were kind, she would be kind to everybody. Thus, for instance, the way she treats her husband is enough to destroy any illusion as to her heart. The unfortunate Davis is such a bloodless creature that he feels chilly in the hottest sunshine, and oh! so chilly at her side. I never noticed in her the slightest sign of compassion for his misery. He simply does not exist, for her. This millionnaire, in the midst of all his wealth, is so poor that it would rouse any one's pity. He is apparently indifferent to everything; and yet the human being, with ever so little consciousness, feels kindness. The best proof of it is that Davis feels grateful to me because I speak to him now and then about his health.

Perhaps it is the instinctive attraction of the weaker towards the stronger organism. When I look at that face as white as chalk, no bigger than my fist, those feet like walking-sticks, and that shrunken figure, wrapped up in a plaid during the hottest of weathers, I am truly sorry for him. But I will not make myself out better than I am. I may pity the man; but compassion will not stand in my way. It has often struck me that, when woman is in question, man becomes pitiless; it is still a remnant of the animal instinct that fights to the uttermost for the female. In such a fight between human beings, whatever shape it takes, the weaker goes to the wall. Even honor is no curb; it is only religion that condemns it absolutely.

 

12 April.

I have not written for nearly ten days. The veil was rent a week ago. I always suspected the sea would help us to an understanding. Women like Laura never forget the fitting background. If they do charitable deeds because it enhances their beauty, the more they want beauty when they fall. Joined to this is their passion for anything out of the common, which does not spring from the poetical faculties of their mind, but from a desire to adorn themselves. I have not so lost my head as not to be able to judge Laura, though really I do not know whether she has not the right to be what she is, and to think the sun and stars are made on purpose for her adornment. Absolute beauty, in the nature of things, must be essentially egotistic, and subject everything to its rule. Laura is the very incarnation of beauty, and nobody has the right to ask anything else from her than to be always and everywhere beautiful; at least, I do not ask for more.

Thanks to my skill in seamanship, we can be alone on our excursions. A week ago, on a sultry day, Laura expressed a wish to go out in the boat. Like a Hecate, she exults in heat. A gentle breeze drove us a long distance from the shore, and then the wind fell. The lateen sail hung motionless from the mast. The rays of the sun, reflected from the glassy surface of the water, increased the heat, although it was late in the afternoon. Laura threw herself on the Indian matting, and resting her head against the cushions, remained motionless, all in a red glow, from the sun filtering through the awning. A strange laziness had taken possession of me, and at the same time the sight of this woman with her Greek form that showed through the clinging drapery sent a thrill of admiration through my veins. Her eyes were veiled, the lips slightly parted; her whole presence expressed powerlessness, and seemed to say, "I am weak."

We came back late to the villa, and the return will remain for a long time in my memory. After a sunset in which sky and earth seemed to be wedded in a splendor without limit and without division, there came a night of such beauty as I had never seen on the Riviera. From the vast deep rose the immense red orb of the moon, which filled the air with a mellow light, and at the same time made a broad, luminous path on the sea, on which we glided towards the shore. There was a gentle swell on the water, like a heaving sigh. From the little harbor the voices of the Ligurian fishermen, singing a chorus, came up to us. A light breeze from the shore wafted towards us the scent of orange-blossoms. Although not prone to let myself be carried away by my sensations, I was under the spell of this unutterable sweetness that floated over land and sea, and clung like dew to soul and body.

From time to time my eyes rested upon the Helen-like woman whose white draperies glistened in the moonlight, and I fancied myself living in ancient Greece, and that we were floating somewhere, maybe towards the sacred olive groves where the Eleusinian mysteries were enacted. Our rapture did not seem any more a rapture of the senses, but a cult, a mystic alliance with that night, that spring, and all nature.

 

15 April.

The time fixed for our departure has arrived, but we do not depart. My Hecate does not fear the sun, Mr. Davis likes it, and as far as I am concerned, whether here or in Switzerland is a matter of indifference.

A strange thought has taken hold of me; I almost shrink from it, but nevertheless will confess: It seems to me that a Christian soul, though the spring of faith be dried up therein, cannot live altogether on the mere beauty of form. This means more sorrow in store for me; if the thought proves true the whole basis of my life falls to the ground. We are beings of a different culture. Our souls are full of Gothic arches, pinnacles, twisted traceries we cannot shake off, and of which Greek minds knew nothing. Our minds shoot upward; theirs, full of repose and simplicity, rested nearer the earth. Those of us in whom the spirit of Hellas beats more powerfully consider the beautiful a necessity of life, and search after it eagerly, but instinctively demand that Aspasia should have the eyes of Dante's Beatrice. A similar longing is planted within me. When I think of it, that a beautiful human animal like Laura belongs to me and will belong as long as I wish it, a twofold joy gets hold of me,--the joy of the man and the delight of the artist; and yet there is a want and something missing. On the altar of my Greek temple there is a marble goddess; but my Gothic shrine is empty. I admit that in her I have found something bordering upon the perfect, and I defend myself from a suspicion that this perfection throws a big shadow. I thought once that Goethe's words, "You shall be like unto gods and beasts," embraced all life and were the highest expression of his wisdom; now, when I follow the commandment, I feel that he omitted the angel.

 

17 April.

Mr. Davis came into the room when I was sitting at Laura's feet, my head leaning against her knees. His bloodless face and dim eyes showed no feeling beyond indifferent sullenness. In his soft slippers embroidered with Indian suns, he shuffled across the room, and into the library. Laura looked magnificent, her eyes flashing with unrestrained wrath. I rose and awaited what would happen. A thought crossed my mind that Mr. Davis might come back, a revolver in his hand. In such a case I should have pitched him through the window, revolver, plaid, and Indian slippers. But he did not come back; I waited a long time in vain. I do not know what he was doing there; whether he was thinking over his misery, weeping, or perfectly indifferent. We all three met again at lunch, and he was sitting there as if nothing unusual had happened. Perhaps it was my fancy that made me think that Laura looked menacingly at him, and also that his apathetic expression was even more mournful than usual. I confess that such a tame ending of the business is the most painful to me. I am not one to provoke a quarrel, but ready to answer for my deeds; finally, I would rather the man were not so defenceless, such a small, miserable creature. I have a nasty feeling, as if I had knocked down a cripple, and never yet felt so disgusted with myself.

We went out in the boat as usual. I did not want Laura to think I was afraid of Davis; but there we had our first quarrel. I confessed to her my scruples and she laughed at them. I said to her plainly,--

"The laughter does not become you; and remember, you may do most things, but not what is not becoming."

There was a deep frown on the meeting eyebrows, and she replied bitterly,--

"After what has passed between us, you may insult me even with more impunity than you could Davis."

After such a reproach there remained nothing else but to ask her forgiveness; and presently, harmony being restored, Laura began to talk about herself. I had another instance of her cleverness. Generally the women I have known intimately showed a desire to tell me their life. I do not blame them for it; it shows that they feel the need to justify themselves in their own eyes and ours. We men do not. Yet I never met a woman either so clever as not to overstep the artistic proportions in her confession, or so sincere as not to tell lies in order to justify herself. I call to witness all men who when the occasion occurs may verify how wonderfully similar all these cases of going astray are, and consequently how tedious. Laura, too, began to talk about herself with a certain eager satisfaction, but only in this respect did she follow the beaten track of other fallen angels. In what she told me there was a certain posing for originality, but she was certainly not posing as a victim. Knowing she had to deal with a sceptic, she did not want to call forth a smile of incredulity. Her sincerity was skirting upon the bold, almost the cynical, one might say, were it not that to her it is a system of life in which aestheticism has taken the place of ethics. She prefers simply a life in the shape of an Apollo to that of humpbacked Pulcinello; that is her philosophy. She had married Davis not so much for his wealth as for the purpose of making her life as beautiful as lay in human power,--beautiful not in the common meaning of the word, but in the highest artistic sense. Besides she did not consider she had any duties toward her husband, as she had never even pretended to love him; she had for him as much pity as repugnance, and as he was indifferent to everything, he was of no more account than if he were dead. She added that she did not take account of anything that was contrary to her ideas of a purely beautiful and artistic life. Regard for society she had very little, and who thought otherwise of her would be utterly wrong. She had felt friendship for my father, not because of his social position, but because she had looked upon him as a masterwork of nature. As to myself, she had loved me for a long time. She understood perfectly that I would have prized her more had the victory been less easy, but she did not care to bargain when her happiness was at stake.

This kind of principles, announced by that perfect mouth in a soft voice full of metallic vibrations, gave me a strange sensation. While speaking to me she drew her draperies close to her as if to make room for me at her side. At times her eyes followed the motions of the sea-gulls circling above our heads, then again they rested keenly upon my face as if she wanted to read the impression her words had made upon me. I listened to her words with a certain satisfaction, as they proved to me that I had judged her pretty correctly. Yet there was something in them quite new to me. I had always rendered her justice as to her cleverness, but I thought her acts were the instinctive outcome of her nature. I had never supposed her capable of inventing a whole system in order to support and justify the impulses of her nature. This showed her in a somewhat nobler light, as it proved that where I had suspected her of more or less mean calculation, she only acted according to her own principles,--maybe bad, even terrible, but always principles. For instance, I had suspected her of wanting to marry me after Davis's death,--she proved me utterly in the wrong. She herself began to talk about it. She confessed that if I were to ask her for her hand she might not be able to refuse me, as she loved me more than I believed (here as I am a living man I saw a warm blush mounting to her neck and brow), but she knew this would never happen; sooner or later I would leave her with a light heart,--but what of that? If she dipped her hand into the water and felt the refreshing coolness, should she refuse herself this delight because the sun would suck the cool moisture?

Saying this she bent over the gunwale, which showed her figure in all its immaculate perfection, and after plunging her hands into the water, she stretched them out to me moist and pink and gleaming in the sunshine. I took hold of the hands, and she, as if echoing my sensations, said in a caressing voice, "Come."

 

20 April.

I did not see Laura the whole of yesterday, as she was not well. She had caught a chill sitting out late on the balcony, and it had affected her teeth. What a nuisance! Fortunately the day before yesterday a doctor arrived who is to remain in attendance upon Mr. Davis; otherwise I should not have a soul to speak to. He is a young Italian, small of stature, very dark, with an enormous head and very sharp eyes. He seems very intelligent. It is evident that from the very first he has grasped the situation, and found it very natural, for without hesitation he addressed me as the master of the house. I could not help laughing when he came this morning and asked me whether he could see the countess so that he might prescribe for her. They have some very quaint notions in this country. Usually, when a married woman is suspected to belong to somebody else, the world is in arms to hunt and run her down, often with thoughtless cruelty. Here, on the contrary, they worship at the altar of love, and one and all take sides with and plot for the lover. I told the doctor I would see whether the countess would see him. I penetrated into Laura's sanctum. She received me unwillingly, because her face is a little swollen, and she did not wish me to see her in that state. And in truth her face reminded me of my old drawing lessons. I noticed even then that with a modern face one may commit inaccuracies, change this or that, and provided the expression, the idea of the face remain intact, the likeness will not suffer. It is quite a different thing drawing from the antique; the slightest inaccuracy, the least deviation, destroys the harmony of the face and makes it different altogether. I had an example in Laura. The swelling was very slight,--I scarcely noticed it as she obstinately turned the sound part of her face to me; but as her eyes were a little reddened, the eyelids heavier than usual, it was not the same face, perfect in its harmony and beauty. Of course I did not let her see this, but she received my greeting half-disturbed, as if troubled with a bad conscience. Evidently according to her principles toothache is a mortal sin.

Queer principles these, anyway! I too have the soul of an ancient Greek, but beyond the Pagan there is something else in me. Laura will be sometime very unhappy with her philosophy. I can understand that one may make a religion of beauty in a general sense, but to make a religion of one's own beauty is to prepare great unhappiness for ourselves. What kind of religion is that which a simple toothache undermines, and a pimple on the nose shatters into ruin?

 

25 April.

We shall have to leave for Switzerland, for the heat is almost unbearable. Besides the heat, there is the Sirocco, that comes now and then like a hot breath from Africa. The sea-breezes somewhat mitigate the fierceness of this visitor from the desert, but it is none the less very disagreeable.

The Sirocco acts injuriously on Mr. Davis. The doctor watches him closely lest he should take opium, and consequently become either very irritable or else quite stupefied. I notice that in his greatest fits of anger he is afraid of Laura and myself. Who knows whether a homicidal mania is not already germinating in the half-insane brain? or maybe he is afraid we are going to kill him. Generally speaking, my relation with him is one of the darkest sides of the part I am enacting. I say one of the darkest, because I am fully aware that there is more than one. I should not be my own self if I did not perceive that my soul not only is stagnating, but is getting swiftly corrupted in the arms of that woman. I cannot even express what loathing, what bitterness and pangs of conscience, it caused me at first that I should have plunged myself into the depth of sensuous raptures so soon after the death of my father. It was not only my conscience, but also the delicacy of feelings which I undoubtedly possess, that revolted against it. I felt this so deeply that I could not write about it. I have grown more callous since. I still reproach myself from time to time, and seriously reflect, but the feeling has lost its poignancy.

As to Aniela, I try to forget her, because the memory is troublesome, or rather I cannot arrive at a clear understanding as to the whole Ploszow episode. At times I feel inclined to think that I was not worthy of her; at others, that I made an ass of myself over a girl like dozens of others. This irritates my vanity, and makes me feel angry with Aniela. One moment I feel an unsavory consciousness of guilt in regard to her, in another the offence appears to me futile and childish. Taken altogether, I do not approve of the part I played at Ploszow, nor do I approve of the part I am playing here. The division between right and wrong is becoming more and more indistinct within me, and what is more I do not care to make it clearer. This is the result of a certain apathy of mind, which again acts as a sleeping draught; for when the inward struggle tires me out I say to myself: "Suppose you are worse than you were--what of that? Why should you trouble about anything?"

Then I see another change in myself. Gradually I have got used to what at first chafed my honor,--the insulting of the crippled man. I notice that I permit myself hundreds of things I would not do if Davis, instead of being physically and mentally afflicted, were an able-bodied man capable of defending his own honor. We do not even take the trouble of going out to sea. I never even imagined that my sensitiveness could become so blunted. It is very easy to say to myself: "What does the wretched Eastern matter to you?" But verily I cannot get rid of the thought that my black-haired Juno is no Juno at all,--that her name is Circe, and her touch changes men (as one might say in correct mythological language) into nurslings of Eumaeus.

And when I ask myself as to the cause, the answer shatters many of my former opinions. It is this: our love is a love of the senses, but not of the soul. The thought again comes back that we, the outcome of modern culture, cannot be satisfied with it. Laura and I were like unto gods and beasts with humanity left out. In a proper sense our feelings cannot be called love; we are desirable to each other, but not dear. If we both were different from what we are, we might be a hundred times more unhappy, but I should not have the consciousness that I am drawing near the shelter of Eumaeus. I understand that love merely spiritual remains a shadow, but love without spiritualism becomes utter degradation. It is another matter that some people touched by Circe's wand may find contentment in their degradation. It seems a sad thing and very strange that I, a man of the Hellenic type, should write thus. Scepticism even here steps in, and in regard to Hellenism I begin to have my doubts whether life be possible with those worn-out forms; and as I am always sincere, I write what I think.

 

30 April.

Yesterday I received a letter from my aunt. It was sent after me from Rome and dated two weeks back. I cannot understand why they kept it so long at Casa Osoria. My aunt was sure I had gone to Corfu, but thought I might have returned by this, and writes thus:--

"We have been expecting to hear from you for some time, and are looking out with great longing for a letter. I, an old woman, am too deeply rooted in the soil to be easily shaken, but it tells upon Aniela. She evidently expected to hear from you, and when no letter came either from Vienna or Rome, I saw she felt uneasy. Then came your father's death. I said then, in her presence, that you could not think now of anything but your loss; by and by you would shake off your trouble and return to your old life. I saw at once that my words comforted her. But afterwards, when week passed after week and you did not send us a single line, she grew very troubled, mostly about your health, but I fancy because she thought you had forgotten her. I, too, began to feel uneasy, and wrote 'poste restante' to Corfu, as we had agreed. Not getting any reply, I am sending another letter to your house at Rome, because the thought that you may be ill makes us all very unhappy. Write, if only a few lines; and, Leon, dear, pull yourself together, shake off that apathy, and be yourself again. I will be quite open with you. In addition to Aniela's troubles, somebody has told her mother that you are known everywhere for your love affairs. Fancy my indignation! Celina was so put out that she repeated it to her daughter, and now the one has continual headaches, and the other, poor child, looks so pale and listless that it makes my heart bleed. And she is such a dear girl, and as good as gold. She tries to look cheerful so as not to grieve her mother; but I am not so easily deceived, and feel deeply for her. My dearest boy, I did not say much to you at Rome, because I respected your affliction; but a sorrow like that is sent by God, and we have to submit to His will and not allow it to spoil our life. Could you not write a few words to give us some comfort,--if not to me, at least to the poor child? I never disguised it from you that my greatest wish was to see you two happily married if it were in a year or two, as Aniela is a woman in a thousand. But if you think otherwise it would be better to let me know it in some way. You know I never exaggerate things, but I am really afraid for Aniela's health. And then there is her future to be thought of. Kromitzki calls very frequently upon the ladies, evidently with some intentions. I wanted to dismiss him without ceremony, especially as I have my suspicions that it was he who spread those tales about you; but Celina solemnly entreated me not to do this. She is quite distracted, and does not believe in your affection for Aniela. What could I do? Suppose her motherly instinct is right, after all? Write at once, my dear Leon, and accept the love and blessing of the old woman who has only you now in the world. Aniela wanted to write to you a letter of condolence after your father's death, but Celina did not let her, and we had a quarrel over this. Celina is the best of women, but very provoking at times. Kind greetings and love from us all. Young Chwastowski is establishing a brewery on the estate. He had some money of his own, and the rest I lent him."

At first I thought the letter had not made any impression upon me; but presently, when walking up and down the room, I found that I had been mistaken. The impression increased every minute, and became very strong indeed. After an hour I said to myself with amazement: "The deuce is in it! I cannot think of anything else but that." Strange how quick my thoughts travel, chasing each other like clouds driven by the wind. What a creature of nerves I am! First, a great tenderness for Aniela woke up within me. All that I had felt for her not long ago, and that had lain dormant in odd nooks of my soul, stirred into life. To go at once, soothe her, make her happy, was the first impulse of my heart,--not clearly defined, perhaps, but very strong all the same. When I imagined to myself the tearful eyes, her hands resting within mine, the old feeling for her woke up with renewed strength. Then the idea crossed my mind to compare her to Laura,--with a fatal result for Laura. I felt sick of the life I was leading; felt the want of a purer atmosphere than I was breathing here,--of restfulness, gentleness, and above all, rectitude of feeling. At the same time a great joy filled my heart, that nothing was lost yet, everything could be made right; it depended only upon my will. Suddenly I bethought myself of Kromitzki, and of Aniela's mother, who, not trusting me, is evidently on his side. A dull anger rose within me, which, gradually increasing, smothered all other feelings. The more my reason acknowledged that Pani Celina was right in mistrusting me, the more I felt offended that she should harbor that mistrust. I worked myself up into a terrible rage against everybody, including myself. What I thought and felt can be expressed in a few words: "Very well, let it be as they wish!"

The letter came yesterday; to-day, analyzing myself more quietly, I find to my own astonishment that the offence not only rankles in my mind, but also has taken firmer root. I say to myself all that a soberly thinking man can say in mitigation thereof, and yet I cannot forgive either Aniela or her mother the Kromitzki business. Aniela could have put a stop to it with one word, and if she has not done it, she is sacrificing me to her mother's headaches. Besides, Kromitzki lowers Aniela in my eyes, stains her, and brings her down to the level of marriageable girls. I cannot even speak of it quietly.

Maybe my reasoning and feeling are those of an exasperated man; maybe that love of self is too predominant in me. I know that I am able to look at and judge myself as a stranger would; but this dualism does not help me in the least. I am more and more embittered. To write about it irritates my nerves,--therefore, enough!

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