Narrated by M. Pierre Lenoir, 69, rue des Dames, Paris.

I do not know why I undertook to court that woman. She was neither beautiful, nor pretty, nor even agreeable. As for myself (and I say this without conceit, dear ladies), there are those who have not been indifferent to me. It is not that I am extraordinarily endowed by nature, physically or mentally, but simply – may I confess it? – that I have been spoiled when it comes to the fairer sex. Oh, do not be alarmed: I am not going to inflict upon you a vain recital of my conquests. I am a modest man. In any case, this story is not about me. It is about a particular woman, or rather, a particular young lady, an Englishwoman, whose strange face enchanted me for an hour or so.

She was a peculiar specimen. When I approached her for the first time, a great beast was sleeping in the trailing folds of her skirt. I had on my lips the amiably banal remarks that break the ice between strangers. Words mean nothing in such cases; the art of pronouncing them is everything… But the great beast, lifting its muzzle, growled ominously just as I reached the interesting stranger.

I drew back a step, despite myself. ‘You have quite a vicious dog there, mademoiselle,’ I observed.

‘It is a she-wolf,’ she replied, somewhat sharply. ‘And since she sometimes turns on people, violently and inexplicably, I think you would do well to step back a bit.’ With one stern word, she silenced the wolf: ‘Helga!’

I left, somewhat humiliated. It was a stupid business, you must admit. Fear is foreign to me, but I hate ridicule. The incident bothered me all the more since I thought I had seen a glimmer of liking in the young lady’s eye. I certainly pleased her somewhat. She must have been as vexed as I at this regrettable setback. What a pity! A conversation that had been so promising at the outset…

She was dressed in a thick material which looked like fur. She was neither beautiful, nor pretty, nor charming. But she was the only woman on board the ship. So, I courted her.”

I do not know why the frightful animal later ceased its display of hostility. I was able to approach its mistress without fear. I had never seen such a strange face. Her pale grey complexion glowed white under heavy blonde hair, which was both fiery and colourless, like burning ashes. Her emaciated body had the fine and fragile delicacy of a lovely skeleton. (We are all a little artistic in Paris, you see.) This woman radiated an impression of tough and solitary pride, of flight and of fierce recoil. Her yellow eyes resembled those of her she-wolf. They both wore an expression of sly hostility. Her footsteps were so silent that they became disturbing. No one had ever walked so quietly. She was dressed in a thick material which looked like fur. She was neither beautiful, nor pretty, nor charming. But she was the only woman on board the ship.

So, I courted her. I played by rules based on my already extensive experience. She had the intelligence not to let me see the deep pleasure my advances afforded her. Even her yellow eyes maintained their usual mistrustful expression. A remarkable example of feminine wiles! This only made me more violently attracted to her. Drawn-out resistance sometimes leads to a pleasant surprise, rendering the victory all the more brilliant… You would not contradict me on this point, would you, gentlemen? We all share the same sentiments to some degree. There is such complete fraternity of spirit between us that conversation is almost impossible. That is why I often flee the monotonous company of men – they are too identical to myself.

Admittedly, the Woman of the Wolf attracted me. And furthermore – dare I confess it? – the enforced chastity of that floating jail made my feelings yet more turbulent. She was a woman… and my courting of her, respectful until then, became each day more insistent. I built up blazing metaphors. I elegantly elaborated eloquent expressions.

Renée Vivien photographed by Otto Wegener, c. 1900. The Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia Commons

Look at the extent of the woman’s deceitfulness! In listening to me, she adopted an air of moonstruck distraction. One would have sworn she was interested only in the foaming wake which looked like steaming snow. (Women are by no means indifferent to flowery similes.) But I, who had long studied the feelings behind the feminine face, understood that her heavy, lowered eyelids concealed vacillating glimmers of love.

One day I was particularly bold, combining flattering gestures with delicate words, when she turned to me with the spring of a she-wolf.

‘Go away,’ she commanded, with almost savage decisiveness. Her teeth, like those of a wild beast, glittered strangely behind lips drawn back in menace.

I smiled, without any anxiety. You must have patience with women, must you not? And you must not believe a single word they say. When they order you to depart, you must remain. Really, gentlemen, I am rather ashamed to give you the same old mediocre banalities.

The lady considered me with her large, yellow eyes. ‘You have not worked me out. You are foolishly running up against my insurmountable contempt. I know neither how to hate nor love. I have not yet met a human worthy of my hatred. Hatred, which is more patient and more tenacious than love, deserves a great adversary.’

She caressed Helga’s heavy head. The wolf looked back at her with the deep eyes of a woman. ‘And love? I know as little about that as you know about concealing your inherent masculine conceit, a technique which is elementary among us Anglo-Saxons. If I were a man, I would have perhaps loved a woman, for women possess the qualities I value: loyalty in passion and selflessness in affection. In general, women are simple and sincere. They give of themselves without restriction and without counting the cost. Their patience is as inexhaustible as their kindness. They are able to forgive. They are able to wait. They possess a superior kind of chastity: constancy.’

I do not lack finesse and I can take a hint. I smiled meaningfully in response to her outburst of enthusiasm. She gave me a distracted look, taking me in.

‘Oh, you are strangely mistaken. I have observed women in passing who are generous in spirit and in heart. But I have never become attached to them. Their very gentleness sets them at a distance from me. My spirit is not sufficiently noble, and so I lose patience in the face of their excessive candour and devotion.’

She was beginning to bore me with her pretentious discourse. A prude and a bluestocking, and a brat too!… But she was the only woman on board. And she was only putting on airs of superiority to make her imminent capitulation the more precious.

Men, she insisted, live for self-interest and debauchery alone. Morally, they sicken me; physically, I find them repugnant.”

‘I have affection for Helga alone. And Helga knows it. As for you, you are probably a nice enough little man, but you cannot imagine how much I despise you.’

By hurting my pride, she was trying to make me want her even more. She was succeeding, too, the little hussy! I was red with anger and lust.

‘Men who hover around women, any women, are like dogs sniffing after bitches.’ She gave me one of her long yellow looks. ‘I have for so long breathed the forest air, air that quivers with snow; I have spent so much time amid vast, barren whiteness, that my soul is not unlike the souls of fleeting she-wolves.’

The woman had finally frightened me. She perceived it and changed her tone. ‘I love clarity and freshness,’ she continued, with a little laugh. ‘Thus, the crudeness of men is as off-putting as the stench of garlic, and their dirtiness as repulsive as the waft of a drain. Men,’ she insisted, ‘are only really at home in brothels. They love only courtesans. For in them they discover their own rapacity, their sentimental unintelligence, their stupid cruelty. They live for self-interest and debauchery alone. Morally, they sicken me; physically, I find them repugnant… I have seen men kissing women on the lips while obscenely fondling them. A gorilla’s performance would not have been more repellent.’

She ceased for a minute. ‘Even the severest legislator only escapes by a miracle the deplorable consequences of the carnal promiscuity of his youth. I do not understand how even the least sensitive woman could endure your filthy embraces without retching. Indeed, my virgin’s contempt is equal in disgust to the courtesan’s nausea!’

Really, I thought, she is overdoing it, though she understands her part very well. She is overdoing it.

(If we were among ourselves, gentlemen, I would tell you that I have not always despised public houses, and have even picked up a few pitiful whores on the street. Parisian women were nonetheless more accommodating than that hypocrite. I am by no means smug, but one must be aware of one’s own worth.)Deeming that the conversation had gone on long enough, I took dignified leave of the Woman of the Wolf. Helga slyly followed me with her long yellow gaze.

Towering clouds loomed on the horizon. A streak of dull blue-green sky was winding like a moat beneath them. I felt as though I were being crushed between stone walls… And the wind was getting up…

Renée Vivien photographed by Sehab & Joaillier, c. 1901. The Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia Commons

I was seized with seasickness – I do beg your pardon for such an inelegant detail, dear ladies. I was horribly indisposed… I fell asleep around midnight, feeling more pitiful than I could tell you.

Around two o’clock in the morning, I was awakened by a sinister impact, followed by an even more sinister grinding sound. The darkness emitted an inexpressible terror. I realized that the ship had struck a reef. For the first time in my life, I neglected my clothes. I appeared on deck in extremely skimpy attire.

A confused crowd of half-naked men were already swarming about up there. They were hurriedly launching the lifeboats. Looking at those hairy arms and shaggy chests, I could not help remembering, not without a smile, something the Woman of the Wolf had said: ‘A gorilla’s performance would not have been more repellent…’ I do not know why that unimportant memory came back to mock me in the midst of the common danger.

The waves looked like monstrous volcanoes wreathed in white smoke. Or, rather, they looked like nothing at all. They were themselves – magnificent, terrible, mortal… The wind was blowing across their enormous wrath and so increasing their frenzy. The salt bit at my eyes. I shivered in the spray as though in a cold drizzle, and the crashing of the waves obliterated all my thoughts.

The Woman of the Wolf was calmer than ever. And I was faint with terror. I could see death looming before me. I could almost touch it. I distractedly put my fingers to my forehead, where I could feel the bones of my skull bulging frightfully. The skeleton within me terrified me. Idiotically, I started to cry…

My flesh would be black and blue, more swollen than a bulging wineskin. The sharks would snap at my dismembered limbs. And, when I sank beneath the waves, the crabs would climb sideways along my rotten corpse and gluttonously eat their fill.

The wind was blowing over the waters…

I relived my past. I repented my idiotic life, my spoiled life, my lost life. I tried to remember one act of kindness I may have performed, either absent-mindedly or inadvertently. Had I ever been good for anything, useful to anyone? And the dark side of my conscience cried out, as horrifying as a mute who has miraculously recovered his speech: ‘No!’

The wind was blowing over the waters…

I do not know why her howls chilled me even more than the sound of the wind and the waves. She howled at death, that damned devil-wolf. I wanted to knock her senseless just to shut her up.”

I vaguely remembered the sacred words which encourage repentance and which promise salvation to the contrite sinner even at the hour of death. I strove to retrieve from my memory, drier now than an empty goblet, a few words of prayer… And lustful thoughts came to torment me, like little red devils. I again saw the soiled beds of chance companions. I heard their stupidly obscene cries once more. I re-experienced loveless embraces. I was overwhelmed with the horror of Pleasure…

Faced with the terror of the Mysterious Immensity, all that survived in me was the rutting instinct, as powerful for some as the instinct of self-preservation. It was Life, crude, ugly Life, screaming its ferocious protest against Annihilation.

The wind was blowing over the waters…

One has peculiar ideas at times like that, all the same… There I was – a very decent fellow, admired by all, except for a few who were jealous of me, even loved by some – so bitterly reproaching myself for an existence which was neither better nor worse than anyone else’s. I must have succumbed to a moment of madness. We were all a little mad, anyway …

The Woman of the Wolf was looking out at the white waves, completely calm… Oh! they were whiter than snow at twilight! And, sitting up on her haunches, Helga was howling like a dog. She howled pitifully, like a dog baying at the moon. She understood.

I do not know why her howls chilled me even more than the sound of the wind and the waves. She howled at death, that damned devil-wolf. I wanted to knock her senseless just to shut her up, and I looked for a plank, a spar, an iron bar, anything on the deck to beat her with… I found nothing.

The lifeboat was finally ready to leave. The men leapt frantically towards salvation. Only the Woman of the Wolf did not move.

‘Get in, then,’ I shouted at her as I took my turn.

She came slowly over to the boat, followed by Helga.

‘Mademoiselle,’ said the lieutenant, who was commanding us as well as he could, ‘we cannot take that animal with us. There is only enough room for people.’

‘In that case, I will stay,’ she said, stepping back…

The terror-stricken men rushed forward with incoherent cries. We had to let her stay behind.

I really couldn’t be bothered with such a silly girl. And she had been so insolent to me! You understand that, gentlemen, don’t you? You would not have acted any differently.

Finally I was saved, or just about. Dawn broke and, my God, what a dawn! There was a shiver of chilling light, a grey stupor, a swarm of people and unformed shapes in a dusky confusion of limbs…

And we saw the blue of distant land…

Oh, what joy and comfort to see the trusty, welcoming sun! …

Since that horrible experience I have only once travelled by sea, and that was to return here. I won’t be doing it again, you can be sure of that!

I must not be too egotistical, dear ladies. In the midst of such unspeakable uncertainty, and though I had narrowly escaped Destruction, I was still brave enough to concern myself with the fate of my companions in misfortune. The second lifeboat had been swamped by too many frenzied madmen. With horror, I saw it sink… The Woman of the Wolf had taken refuge on a broken mast, along with her obedient animal. I was quite certain that she would be saved, as long as her strength and endurance did not fail her. I hoped so, with all my heart… But there was the cold, her slow, fragile improvised raft, which lacked sails and rudder, her fatigue, her feminine weakness!

They were not far from land when the Woman, exhausted, turned to Helga, as if to say, ‘I am finished…’

And then a most mournful and solemn thing occurred. The she-wolf, who had understood, hurled her howl of despair at the close yet inaccessible shore… Then, standing up, she put her two front paws on the shoulders of her mistress, who took her in her arms. Together, they disappeared beneath the waves.

From The Woman of the Wolf and Other Stories, translated by Karla Jay and Yvonne M. Klein (Editions Gallic, £9.99)

 

Renée Vivien was a British poet who wrote in the French language. Born Pauline Mary Tarn in London in 1877, she spent most of her life in Paris, where she was part of the glittering set of American expatriate lesbians who gathered around Natalie Barney. She soon became established as one of the finest second generation Symbolists. She died in 1909 at the age of 32. The Woman of the Wolf and Other Stories, the first title in their new Revolutionary Women collection, is published in paperback and eBook by Editions Gallic.
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Author portrait/cover illustration  © Ella Masters

Karla Jay is an award-winning author, activist and academic, and a distinguished professor emerita at Pace University, where she taught English Literature and directed the women’s and gender studies programme.
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@KarlaJayAuthor

Yvonne M. Klein is a retired college teacher and an award-winning translator. She was Professor of English at Dawson College in Montreal, where she taught courses in women’s literature and Modernism.

The next books in Editions Gallic’s Revolutionary Women collection are Three Rival Sisters by Marie-Louise Gagneur (published 24 November) and Asphyxia by Violette Leduc (3 December).
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