All day long I didn’t dare to go near her. Toward evening as I was sitting in my arbor, her gay red head peered suddenly through the greenery of her balcony. “Why don’t you come up?” she called down impatiently.
I ran upstairs, and at the top lost courage again. I knocked very lightly. She didn’t say come in but opened the door herself and stood on the threshold.
“Where is my slipper?”
“It is—I have—I want,” I stammered.
“Get it, and then we will have tea together, and chat.”
When I returned, she was engaged in making tea. I ceremoniously placed the slipper on the table and stood in the corner like a child awaiting punishment.
I noticed that her brows were slightly contracted, and there was an expression of hardness and dominance about her lips that delighted me.
All of a sudden she broke out laughing.
“So—you are really in love—with me?”
“Yes, and I suffer more from it than you can imagine.”
“You suffer?” She laughed again.
I was revolted, mortified, annihilated, but all this was quite useless.
“Why?” she continued. “I like you, with all my heart.” She gave me her hand, and looked at me in the friendliest fashion.
“And will you be my wife?”
Wanda looked at me—how did she look at me? I think first of all with surprise, and then with a tinge of irony.
“What has given you so much courage, all at once?”
“Yes courage, to ask anyone to be your wife, and me in particular?” She lifted up the slipper. “Was it through a sudden friendship with this? But joking aside. Do you really wish to marry me?”
“Well, Severin, that is a serious matter. I believe you love me, and I care for you too, and what is more important each of us finds the other interesting. There is no danger that we would soon get bored, but, you know, I am a fickle person, and just for that reason I take marriage seriously. If I assume obligations, I want to be able to meet them. But I am afraid—no—it would hurt you.”
“Please be perfectly frank with me,” I replied.
“Well then, honestly, I don’t believe I could love a man longer than—” She inclined her head gracefully to one side and mused.
“What do you imagine—a month perhaps.”
“Not even me?”
“Oh you—perhaps two.”
“Two months!” I exclaimed.
“Two months is very long.”
“You go beyond antiquity, madame.”
“You see, you cannot stand the truth.”
Wanda walked across the room and leaned back against the fireplace, watching me and resting one of her arms on the mantelpiece.
“What shall I do with you?” she began anew.
“Whatever you wish,” I replied with resignation, “whatever will give you pleasure.”
“How illogical!” she cried, “first you want to make me your wife, and then you offer yourself to me as something to toy with.”
“Wanda—I love you.”
“Now we are back to the place where we started. You love me, and want to make me your wife, but I don’t want to enter into a new marriage, because I doubt the permanence of both my and your feelings.”
“But if I am willing to take the risk with you?” I replied.
“But it also depends on whether I am willing to risk it with you,” she said quietly. “I can easily imagine belonging to one man for my entire life, but he would have to be a whole man, a man who would dominate me, who would subjugate me by his innate strength, do you understand? And every man—I know this very well—as soon as he falls in love becomes weak, pliable, ridiculous. He puts himself into the woman’s hands, kneels down before her. The only man whom I could love permanently would be he before whom I should have to kneel. I’ve gotten to like you so much, however, that I’ll try it with you.”
I fell down at her feet.
“For heaven’s sake, here you are kneeling already,” she said mockingly. “You are making a good beginning.” When I had risen again, she continued, “I will give you a year’s time to win me, to convince me that we are suited to each other, that we might live together. If you succeed, I will become your wife, and a wife, Severin, who will conscientiously and strictly perform all her duties. During this year we will live as though we were married—”
My blood rose to my head.
In her eyes too there was a sudden flame—
“We will live together,” she continued, “share our daily life, so that we may find out whether we are really fitted for each other. I grant you all the rights of a husband, of a lover, of a friend. Are you satisfied?”
“I suppose I’ll have to be?”
“You don’t have to.”
“Well, then, I want to—”
“Splendid. That is how a man speaks. Here is my hand.”