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Conjugal love, p.11
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       Conjugal Love, p.11

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  The blue and red glass door of the drawing-room was lit up, and the whole house appeared to be awake. I went into the room, sure that I should find my wife there, but it was deserted. The book that she was reading was on the table, open and upside down, as though she had put it down in the midst of her reading. Beside the book was an ashtray full of long cigarette-ends, all stained with lipstick. My wife had obviously come downstairs again shortly after saying good-night to me and had spent the evening in the drawing-room, smoking and reading. Then she must have gone out for a walk in the garden; but not long before, since the air was still filled with smoke in spite of the french window being wide open. Perhaps she had only just that moment gone out and I could catch her up. So I, in my turn, went out on to the open space in front of the house.

  The white gleam of the moonlight on the gravel reminded me of our walk the night before to the farm buildings ; and all of a sudden, in my state of combined despair and exaltation, I was overcome with the desire to do, now, that thing which it had not been possible for me to do then. I would make love to Leda on the threshing-floor, by the light of that magnificent full moon, in the silence of the sleeping countryside, with all the passion that came to me from the sense of my own impotence. It was certainly a very natural, very logical, very ordinary impulse that suggested this plan to me; but this time I was content to let myself go, both in feeling and action, like a peasant who seeks, in the docile embrace of his wife, comfort and a sort of compensation for damage done by a hailstorm. After all, nothing remained to me, in the wreck of my ambition, but to accept my status as a human being, similar in all respects to that of other men. After that night I would be content to be just a decent fellow with some knowledge of letters and modestly conscious of his own limitations, but at the same time the lover, and the beloved, of a young and beautiful wife. It would be upon her that I would exercise my unfortunate passion for poetry. I would live this amorous experience of mine poetically, seeing that I could not write about it. Women love these unsuccessful men who have renounced all ambitions except that of making them happy.

  Thinking thus, I had started down the drive, deeply absorbed as I walked, and with head bowed. Then I raised my eyes and saw Leda. Or rather, I caught a glimpse of her just for one moment, a long way away, as she rounded the curve of the drive and disappeared. A ray of moonlight lay across the road at that point. For one instant I saw distinctly her white dress, her bare neck and the fair gold of her hair. Then she vanished, and I was convinced that she was going towards the farm buildings. It pleased me to think that she was making her way to the threshing-floor, to the place where I wanted to make love to her, just as though she were going to keep an appointment and yet without knowing that the appointment was with me. I too rounded the curve, and then I saw her again as she turned into a side lane which, as I knew, led into the path that ran between the fields and the park. I almost called out to her but checked myself, thinking that I would catch up with her and throw my arms round her, taking her by surprise.

  I was in the lane when she turned into the path; and when I started along the path, she was already walking along the bottom of the knoll on which the farm buildings stood. She was almost running, and for the first time her white face, as it passed quickly through the black shadows of the trees, gave me a feeling of strangeness. When I in turn arrived below the farm buildings I stopped, struck by some presentiment that I could not explain. I could see her now climbing up the steep slope towards the threshing-floor, where stood the round masses of the straw-stacks. Bending forwards, she clutched at the bushes as she slipped and stumbled, and in her strained, eager face with its staring eyes, in the movement of her whole body, I was once more conscious of her resemblance to a goat, climbing a slope in search of food. Soon, when she reached the top, the figure of a man appeared out of the shadow, bent down and, taking her by the arm, pulled her up almost bodily. Twisting round in order to steady her, the man turned and I recognized Antonio.

  Now I understood everything. A great coldness came over me, and at the same time an utter astonishment that I had not understood before - not just a short time before, when I had gone into her room and found it empty, but three weeks ago, when she had asked me to dismiss the barber. This wondering astonishment was mingled with a cruel distress which took my breath away and lay heavy on my heart. I wanted not to look, if only out of self-respect; instead of which I stared greedily, with straining eyes. The threshing-floor was like a stage high above me, lit by the moon. When Leda was standing upright again, I saw the man seize her by the arms, seeking to pull her towards him, and she, twisting and pulling herself back was trying to resist. The moonlight fell on her face, and then I saw that it was distorted into that mute, tense grimace that I had noticed on other occasions; her mouth was half open in a grin that displayed both disgust and desire, her eyes were dilated and her chin thrust out. Meanwhile her whole body, with its violent writhings that suggested some kind of dance, seemed a continuation of her facial distortion.

  Antonio was trying to draw her to him and she was resisting him and pulling away from him. Then - I do not know how - she turned her back on him, he seized her by the elbows and she started twisting and writhing again with her back against him, throwing herself back into his arms and yet all the time refusing him her mouth. I noticed that, in these spasmodic contortions of hers, she raised herself upon the tips of her toes; and again the idea of a dance came to me. For a short time they continued struggling together in this way, one behind the other, and then, changing position - as though in some new kind of minuet - there they were, side by side. Her arm was thrown across his chest, his arms were round her waist and her head was flung back. Then they slipped back, one against the other, and were face to face again. This time she drew back her head and her breast as he held her in his arms, and at the same moment lifted her dress, uncovering her legs and her belly. For the first time I realized that those legs were the legs of a dancer - white, muscular, slim, with feet extended and supported on the tips of the toes. She threw back the upper part of her body and thrust forward her belly against his, while he stood still and tried to make her stand straight so that he could embrace her. The moonlight shone upon the pair, and it looked now as though they were really performing some kind of dance, he erect and motionless, she circling about him: a dance without music and without rules but none the less obedient to a frantic rhythm of its own. Finally she caused him to lose his balance, or he did so deliberately; and they fell back together, disappearing into the shadow of one of the stacks.

  15

  I WAS almost sorry to see them disappear. The moon, between the two straw-stacks in shadow, was shining brilliantly on the empty threshing-floor, upon the spot where I had seen them pressed together in their dance, and for a moment I thought that it had not been my wife and the barber whom I had seen, but two nocturnal spirits conjured up by the splendour of the moonlight. I was overwhelmed by what I had witnessed, but I made a great effort to control myself and to take a detached view of it; in this my aesthetic sense came to my rescue, and for the first time I felt that it was being put to a supreme test. I remembered that, on the previous night, the moonlight on the threshing-floor had suggested to me the idea of a panic love, in the mild, silent night; and I saw that my thought and my desire had been right. Only, at the last moment, someone else had taken my place. I had divined, instinctively, the beauty of that embrace; but the embrace had taken place without me. There flashed upon me, however, a sudden suspicion that this effort to be objective was merely a device on the part of wounded pride; and I said to myself that I could reason and understand as much as I liked, but the fact remained: I had been cruelly deceived, my wife had betrayed me with a barber, and this betrayal stood between me and my wife. At this thought I felt a sharp pain; and I realized that, for the first time since I had seen Leda in Antonio's arms, I was assuming the role that had been forced upon me - that of the husband of an unfaithful wife. But at the same time I knew that I was neit
her willing nor able to accept that position. I had not hitherto been a husband like other husbands; our relations had been just as I had wished them to be and not as our married state might have prescribed; and so they must remain. I must continue to be reasonable and, above all, understanding. This was my vocation, and not even betrayal could justify my abandoning it. Even as I ran back towards the villa, I started feverishly reconstructing in my mind the exact course events had taken between myself, my wife and Antonio.

  The man, it was certain, was a libertine, but it was possible that at the beginning there had been no deliberate intention on his part, and that the first contact with my wife had been merely accidental. In the same way she had been truly and sincerely indignant at what she had called 'want of respect' on the part of the barber - although the excess of this indignation concealed, even at that time, the beginnings of an unconscious excitement and attraction. Actually, in asking me to dismiss the barber, she had asked me to defend her, not so much against the barber as against herself; but I had not understood and, selfishly, had thought of nothing but my own immediate convenience. She had not discerned the selfishness in my behaviour, just as she had not understood the deeper motives of her own, and she had resigned herself, as she usually did, out of affection and goodwill. She had thus endured a situation in which the man who had insulted her, and towards whom she did not know she was so violently attracted, came to the house every day. Several days had passed in this way, in a disingenuous truce to our disagreements and our passions - a truce selfishly intended by me in order that I might bring my work to an end, and which had merely served to sharpen the disagreements and bring the passions to a head. After three weeks my work had been finished, but, during the same period, my wife had - perhaps without realizing it - reached the extreme limit of her confused, obscure desire. My expedition to the town had then been all that was needed to make her see the true nature of her first disdain for the barber.

  Antonio had arrived, had failed to find me; somehow or other they had met, on the stairs or in the study; perhaps he had made violent advances to her, or perhaps she had taken the initiative. Anyhow, there had been an understanding, a sudden, complete, final understanding. From that moment onwards Leda's behaviour had been characterized by the inflexibility, the velocity, the weight, of a stone that plunges through space to the bottom of a deep ravine. With a cruelty that was perhaps not unconscious, she had made an appointment with Antonio at that same place at which, the night before, I had tried to make love to her. After Antonio had gone, she had acted with cold and brutal determination, without scruples either of delicacy, of caution, or even of ordinary good taste, just as an enemy might act, not a wife who still loves her husband. She had made sure that I should be working that night when she went to her appointment, and she had played with me like a cat with a mouse in telling me that tale of her adventure with the Alpini officer, obviously suggested by her meeting with Antonio that morning. When evening came she had taken care, in dressing, not to put on the American elastic belt, so as to be more expeditious, more naked, more tempting. While I was eating she had made no attempt to conceal her own harsh impatience, disdaining even to have recourse to the hypocrisy which, in such cases, implies a homage, if not to virtue, at least to good manners. It had needed all my blindness not to see that her lack of appetite was due to that other appetite, so far more masterful. But, fearing that I should take her pretended indisposition too seriously and might even wish to keep her company in her room, she had explained it, cynically, by letting me suppose it was her monthly disorder. While I shut myself up to write in my study, she had been sitting downstairs for three hours, smoking one cigarette after another, counting the minutes and the seconds. When the time came, she had run to her appointment; and that kind of dance, at which I had been a spectator, had been simply the final explosion of the powerful too-long-repressed mechanism of her lust.

  I must state, at this point, that I recognized in the whole of Leda's behaviour the deceitful yet transitory resoluteness of actions that break suddenly out from the buried places of the consciousness and are then reabsorbed, like rivers in the desert. I recognized, in other words, in these actions the furious but short-lived impetus of the involuntary infraction of an acknowledged rule. All that had happened between her and Antonio had not affected in the slightest degree her relations with me. Her intrigue with the barber - which, in all probability, would not survive that night - and her ties with me, of a year's duration, were two different things, on two entirely different planes. I was sure that, if I said nothing, Leda would go on loving me as in the past, and perhaps more; and that she herself would take steps to get rid of Antonio next day, even if she had not already done so. But this thought, far from comforting me as it should have done, depressed me even more. It was one more proof of my incapacity, of my feebleness, my impotence. To me, both creative art and my wife were granted only through pity, through affection, benevolence, reasoned goodwill; the fruits of this concession would never be either love or poetry, but merely a process of forced, decorous composition, a tepid, chaste felicity. Not for me the true masterpiece, not for me the dance on the threshing-floor. I was relegated, for ever, to mediocrity.

  Meanwhile, still carried along by my grief as though by a wind, I had crossed the park, I had entered the house, I had mounted the stairs, I had returned to my task. There I sat, pen in hand, in front of a sheet of paper at the top of which I had written: 'Dearest Leda.' It was the letter of final and absolute farewell to my wife. Then I realized that I was weeping.

  I do not know how much I wept; I only know that I wept and wrote at the same time, and that, as I wrote, the tears fell upon the words and blotted them out. I wanted to tell her that all was over between us two and that it was better for us to part, but as I thought and wrote down these things, I felt a violent pain and, as it were, a refusal on the part of my whole body, which seemed to express itself in this uninterrupted flood of tears. I realized that I was closely tied to her, that it did not in the least matter to me that she had betrayed me, and that, in the long run, it did not matter to me even if she gave herself to others for love and reserved, for me, nothing but simple affection. I tried to imagine, at moments, what life would be like without her, and I knew that, after having for so many years thought of suicide, I should really kill myself this time. Nevertheless I went on writing and weeping. And so I finished the letter and signed it. But, when I started reading it over, I saw that it was all blotted out by tears and I knew I should never have the courage to send it.

  At that moment I had an exact perception of the weakness of my own character, made up, as it was, of impotence and morbidity and selfishness; and I accepted it completely, all at once. I knew that, after that night, I should be a much more modest man, and that perhaps, if I so wished, I should be able, if not exactly to change, at least to correct, myself, since in that one single night I had learned more about myself than in all the other years of my life. This thought calmed me. I rose from the desk, went into my bedroom and bathed my red, swollen eyes. Then I went back into the study and stood at the window that looked out to the front of the house.

  I stood there for about ten minutes, thinking of nothing and allowing the silence and serenity of the night to calm the tumult of my spirit. I was not thinking about Leda, and was surprised when I saw her suddenly appear at one corner of the open space and run towards the door. In order to move more speedily, she was holding up, with both hands, her long dress; and, seen like that from above, as she darted across the moonlit gravel, she made me think of some little wild animal, a fox or a weasel, which, furtive, innocent, its coat still stained with blood, scurries back to its lair after a raid on a chicken-run. This sensation was so strong that I almost seemed to see her transformed into an animal, and I was conscious, for one moment, of that look of innocence as of a physical quality - almost like some wild odour. And, in spite of myself, I could not help smiling affectionately. Then, still running, she raised her eyes towar
ds me as I stood at the window. Her eyes met mine, and I thought I detected in hers a presentiment of an unpleasant scene. She lowered her head immediately and went into the house. Slowly I drew back from the window, and went and sat down on the sofa.

  16

  A MOMENT later the door opened and she swept in. I recognized, in this aggressiveness of hers, a defensive move, and I could not help smiling again. Still holding the door-handle, she asked: 'What are you doing - aren't you working?'

  Without raising my head, I answered: 'No.'

  'I went for a stroll in the park, as I couldn't sleep,' she said, providing me with an explanation which I had not asked for; 'but what's the matter with you?'

  In the meantime she had walked towards the desk. But clearly she did not dare to come any nearer to me. Standing upright beside the desk, she looked at the scattered papers. I went on, with an effort: 'This evening I made a discovery - a decisive discovery . . . which is going to have an important effect on my life.'

  I looked at her. Still standing beside the desk, she was staring at the typewriter, frowning, and with a fixed, angry look. In a loud voice she asked: 'What discovery?'

  So she was preparing to answer me back, I found myself thinking. Her attitude reminded me of that of certain insects, which, in danger, rise threateningly on their hind feet - an attitude which is called by naturalists the 'spectral' attitude. I seemed to hear her voice shouting: 'Yes, I gave myself to the barber, I like the barber. . . . Well, now you know; do what you like.' I sighed and went on: 'I discovered, when I read over my story, that it's quite worthless and that I shall never be a writer.'

 
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