The Empty Canvas, p.12Alberto Moravia
I made up my mind to break with Cecilia on the very day when the cruel episode occurred which I have related. I made this decision abruptly, as soon as Cecilia had gone away; then, as I have already said, I allowed a couple of weeks to pass in order to find a decent excuse for the separation. Never, in spite of this, have I suffered so much from boredom as I did during that time; it seemed now to have become incarnate to my eyes in the person of my little mistress. I recall that, when I heard the bell ring in that familiar, brief, reticent manner, I would heave a deep sigh of impatient forbearance; and then everything that occurred after Cecilia had come into the studio seemed to be plunged in a dull, heavy inertness that nothing could shake, neither the usual operation of undressing, nor the kisses nor the caresses nor the other erotic incitements of which Cecilia was never niggardly, nor even, at the conclusion of the sort of monotonous rite that our love-making had become, the usual epileptic contortion of the final orgasm. Cecilia, whether naked or clothed, whether lying beneath me during our embrace or resting beside me when intercourse was over, whether in the dark or in the full light of day, seemed actually each day to lose, in my eyes, a little more of her substance as a person, in fact as a recognizable object. And since I did not wish to revert to cruelty, which without doubt would have restored, temporarily, a fleeting reality to our relationship, I saw the day approaching when I should behave towards Cecilia as though she were some kind of object of which one no longer has any need, and should break with her without producing any plausible reason either to her or to myself. It was therefore necessary for me to find an excuse before it was too late.
One morning I went to visit my mother, whom I had not seen since the day I ran away. I left, accordingly, for the Via Appia in my dilapidated old car and drove out along that ancient road of pagan and Christian times, so much in fashion now with rich people, past walls tumbling with greenery, past iron gates and villas hidden amongst trees; between long straight rows of cypresses and solitary pines, and grassy banks and red brick ruins adorned with fragments of white marble; then I turned between the two pillars and went up the drive of well-raked gravel to the open space surrounded with laurels and holm-oaks and the low, red villa. This time the door was opened to me not by Rita, the maid with the sly, bespectacled face, but by a thickset, bald butler with a plump face like a sacristan, in a striped working coat; and he, after addressing me as 'Signor Marchese', informed me that the 'Signora Marchesa' was at home. I was startled at this noble title, which was quite new to me, and went into my mother's study. She was sitting at her table, absorbed in the examination of a ledger, her spectacles on her nose and a long cigarette-holder between her teeth. After the usual ritual kiss on her thin, dry cheek I said to her: 'Whatever is this title of "Marchese" that your butler conferred upon me? And anyhow, where does this butler come from? What's happened to Rita?'
My mother took off her glasses and fixed her glassy blue eyes upon me for a moment without speaking. Then, in her most disagreeable voice, she said: 'I gave Rita the sack, because she was a bad lot.'
'Why, what did she do?'
'All the men,' said my mother, 'without one exception, both inside the house and out, for miles around. A nymphomaniac.'
'My goodness me!' I said. 'Who would have thought it? She looked so serious.'
My mother was silent again, as if she intended to wait until my mind had recovered the serenity required to receive the news she was going to give me. 'With regard to the title,' she then said, 'a specialist in heraldry came to see me some time ago and explained that we come of a noble house and that we are marquesses. It seems that the title was dropped by your father's family a century ago, no one knows why. I am now going to have the necessary researches made and so quite soon we shall have the right to use it. It seemed to me a pity not to make use of it, seeing that it belongs to us by right.'
I said nothing: my mother's snobbishness was well known to me and had long ceased to surprise me. After a moment she went on, in a reproachful tone: 'I don't know if you realize that this is the first time you've come to see your mother since your—shall we call it your disappearance?—on your birthday.'
'Yes, you're right,' I said in an adequately contrite tone of voice. 'But I've had a great deal to do.'
'Have you started painting again?' she asked.
'Don't worry about that,' I replied, 'I've been busy for other reasons.'
'I don't worry about anything. Personally, in fact, I should prefer it if you were painting.'
'Then you'd be thinking less about women,' said my mother in an unexpected and exceedingly unpleasant way. Then, looking me in the face, she went on: 'What d'you think? That one doesn't see?'
My mother did not give a direct answer. 'Do you know,' she said, 'that you're looking quite completely worn out?'
I did indeed know it. During the last two months I had been overdoing it, sexually; and, above all, I had done nothing else, I had become besotted. 'That may be so,' I said, 'but I feel perfectly well.'
'In my opinion you ought to have a rest, to get out in the open, take some exercise, breathe some good air. Why don't you go up into the mountains for a month or two?'
'Going up into the mountains needs money and I haven't any.'
Each time I pointed out my poverty, which was voluntary and, essentially, fictitious, my mother was indignant, as though it were an incomprehensible and fundamentally immoral quibble on my part. It was the same this time. 'Dino,' she said, 'you really ought not to say that.'
'Why not? It's the fifteenth of the month and I think I have barely forty thousand lire left out of my monthly allowance.'
'But, Dino, you haven't any money because you don't want to have any. You're rich, Dino, you're very rich, and it's no good your pretending to be a poor man. You're rich, and whatever you do you remain rich.'
It was exactly what I was thinking myself. I replied, stressing each syllable: 'If you want me to come and see you, please stop reminding me that I'm rich, d'you see?'
'But why? It's only the truth.'
'Yes, but it's a truth that depresses me.'
'Why does it depress you? Think how many people would be happy to be in your place. My dear son, why must you be depressed by a thing that would make anyone else happy?'
My mother's voice was truly distressed; and I could not help a sudden feeling of irritation and weariness. 'There are some people,' I said, 'who have an idiosyncrasy about strawberries; if they eat them, they come out in red spots all over. Well, I have one about money. And I blush at the idea of having it.'
There was a moment's silence. Then my mother resumed, in a tone of goodwill: 'All right, then: you're a poor man. But you're a poor man with a rich mother, at least you'll admit that.'
'And what then?'
'Then your mother will lend you the money to go to the mountains—to Cortina d'Ampezzo, for instance.'
I was on the point of letting forth the howl of indignation to which my mother's highly foreseeable and conventional advice usually prompted me—winter at Cortina d'Ampezzo, summer at the Lido and spring on the Riviera; when all of a sudden I realized that, without intending it, she had provided me with the excuse I was seeking for a final break with Cecilia. I would get her to give me the amount needed for a stay at Cortina; with this money I would buy a present for Cecilia; at the same time I would announce to her that I had to accompany my mother to the mountains. The present would soften the parting which, in any case, I would propose as temporary: later on I would write Cecilia a farewell letter. 'All right,' I said in a submissive tone. 'Cortina. Then you must give me the money.'
My mother evidently had not expected so rapid a surrender. She peered at me disconcertedly, and then asked: 'Why, when d'you want to leave?'
'At once. Today is the fifteenth; the eighteenth, for instance.'
'But you must reserve a room at an hotel.'
'Two or three weeks.'
My mother appeared now to be positively regretting her offer; or rather—so it seemed to me—not so much regretting she had made it as that she had failed to make sure she was getting a bargain: the habit of speculation was so strong in her that it did not cease even in her dealings with me. In an irresolute tone of voice, full of uncharitableness, she said: 'Of course I'll give you the money you need; I promised it and I shan't go back on my word.'
'All right; then give it me.'
'What a hurry you're in! Besides, how much d'you need?'
'Say twenty thousand lire a day. Let me have two hundred thousand lire, in the meantime.'
'Twenty thousand lire a day! '
'Am I or am I not rich, according to what you said? I shan't go to a first-class hotel. Twenty thousand lire a day is only just enough for an unpretentious place.'
'I haven't got it here,' said my mother, making up her mind at last to oppose my request with a disguised refusal; 'I never keep money here.'
'All right,' I said, rising to my feet, 'then let's go upstairs to your room.'
'I haven't got it in my room either. I had to pay out money only this morning.'
'Then write me a cheque. You must certainly have your cheque-book here.'
'Oddly enough, she changed her mind at this perfectly reasonable suggestion. 'No,' she said, 'after all I'll give it to you in cash, because I came to an end of my cheque-book yesterday. Come upstairs.'
She rose and I followed her out of the study, wondering at the reason for this sudden change in the method of payment. I did not wait long to discover it. While we were going upstairs my mother, who was in front of me, said without turning round: 'I'll give you a first instalment—a hundred thousand lire. The rest I'll give you tomorrow. I can't give you any more now because it's all I have.'
So my mother had changed her mind because, while she could not have avoided making out a cheque for the whole amount, in cash she could give me only half, with the excuse that it was all she had. Why this sudden avarice? Probably, I thought, so as not to lose control over me and so as to obtain at the same time something in exchange for the money. I said nothing, but followed her up the stairs and into her bedroom. It was a large, very comfortable room, in the modern style, in various shades of grey and white, with carpets and hangings and curtains in such profusion as to give the rather suffocating impression that there was not a single inch of floor or wall that was not covered with material. In the subdued light which lent an air of mysterious and almost guilty complicity to the reflections of our two figures in the mirrors, my mother went to the door of the bathroom, at the farther end of the room, and opened it. I remained standing where I was. 'Why do you stand there?' said my mother. 'Come along, I've no secrets from you.'
'You've no secrets,' I said, 'because you know that I don't want your money. If I did, you'd have plenty.'
'What nonsense,' she replied; 'you're my son, aren't you?' And she went in front of me into the bathroom. This was a very large room, with the ostentatious, wasteful, useless spaciousness which, in the houses of the rich, is characteristic of places devoted to the care of the body. Between the bath and the wash-basin there were at least four yards of marble floor; and, between the basin and the water-closet, as many of tiled wall. I watched my mother as she went up to the wall, took hold of one of those hooks that are used for hanging towels on, turned it from left to right and then pulled it towards her. Four white tiles opened like a little door, uncovering the neat grey surface of a steel safe. 'Now let's see,' said my mother with schoolmistressy complacency, 'let's see: you try and open it, with the secret combination.'
My mother had taught me the combination of the safe, and I had learnt it almost against my own will, perhaps merely because I had a good memory; but I was most unwilling to make use of it, especially in her presence—rather as one is unwilling to take part in the rites of a religion in which one does not believe. 'Why?' I said. 'You open it; what's it got to do with me?'
'I wanted to see if you remembered it,' said my mother gaily. Rapidly, with her nervous white hand laden with massive rings, she turned some little wheels on the quadrant of the safe and then opened it. I had a glimpse of some rolls of share certificates and a number of white and yellow envelopes lying in confusion inside the deep recess. My mother, changing suddenly from gaiety to suspiciousness, threw me a mistrustful glance. I lowered my eyes in embarrassment. I saw, lying stranded on the porcelain surface of the lavatory pan, a wad of cotton wool; I put out my hand and pressed down the lever, and the water came gushing out. When I looked up again, my mother had already taken a bulging white envelope out of the safe and was now pushing the white tiles back into place. Then, turning back into the room, she said: 'I'll give you fifty thousand lire, for today. I've remembered that I need the other fifty thousand to pay a tradesman's bill.'
Thus the sum I had asked for was again reduced. I had counted on giving Cecilia a present to the value of two hundred thousand lire; I had resigned myself to accepting a hundred thousand; but fifty thousand seemed to me really a very small amount to alleviate the pain of our parting. I protested firmly. 'I need a hundred thousand lire today,' I said. 'You can pay the tradesman some other time.'
'No, I can't.' My mother went over to a tall, antique chest-of-drawers and, turning her back upon me, opened the envelope—as far as I could see—on the marble top. Without moving from the middle of the room, I said to her: 'In that envelope there are certainly more than fifty thousand lire, perhaps more than three hundred thousand, even. In that envelope you probably have at least half a million, so why do you tell me all these stories?'
She answered hastily, without turning round: 'No, there are only a hundred thousand lire in this envelope.'
'Let me see, then.'
She turned abruptly, with an unexpected movement, hiding the money with her shoulders and showing me a face which, beneath its usual withered dryness, had in it a trace of emotion. 'Dino,' she said, 'why don't you want to come and live with your mother again? if you were here, you'd have all the money you want.'
Such, then, was the bargain that my mother asked of me; and it mattered little that, instead of confronting me with a clear-cut dilemma, as she would have done with an insolvent debtor, she presented her proposal in the form of a pathetic appeal. I asked her, in my turn: 'What's that got to do with it, now?'
'I can't help noticing that you've come to see me simply in order to ask me for money, after I've not seen you for two months.'
'I've already told you that I've been busy.'
'If you came here, you could do just as you like. I wouldn't interfere in your life in any way at all.'
'Oh well, give me the money and don't let's speak of it any more.'
'You could come and go, stay out late at night, invite anyone you wanted, see all the women you wanted.'
'But I've no need to see anybody.'
'You ran away that day because you perhaps had the impression that I should have prevented you having a relationship with Rita. You're wrong: provided you had observed the decencies, I should not have prevented anything.'
This left me truly astonished. So my mother had noticed that there was something between me and Rita; but she had held her tongue, hoping, evidently, that an intrigue between the girl and myself would have strengthened my ties with the villa and therefore with her as well. And when had she noticed it? During luncheon? Or later? I had a sudden, unpleasant feeling of guilt, a familiar feeling, as though I were a little boy again and my mother had the right to put me in disgrace; but I managed to get the better of it by reflecting that, after all, my feeling of attraction towards Rita had its origin in the sense of despair which a visit to my mother never failed to arouse in me. Looking her straight in the face, I answered, in a tone of resentment: 'No, it wasn't because of Rita that I ran away, but because of you.'
'Because of me? Why, I even pretended not to notice how you were laying hands on h
This remark and, even more, the tone in which it was spoken, made me furious. 'Exactly: and it was entirely because of you that I laid hands on her, as you call it.'
'Why, how do I come into it? So now it's my fault, is it, if you annoy the maids?'
'I laid hands on her because you put your feet on me.'
'Feet—whatever d'you mean?'
'By telling me not to talk about money affairs in front of servants. And also, let me tell you'—I had moved close to her now and was talking right into her face—'let me tell you, once and for all: all the stupid things I've ever done in my life, I've done because of you.'
'Because of me?'
'I spent whole years of my youth,' I suddenly shouted, overcome by a terrible rage, 'dreaming of being a thief, a murderer, a criminal, just so as not to be what you wanted me to be. And you can thank heaven I didn't become one, for lack of opportunity. And all this because I lived with you, in this house.'
This time my tone of voice seemed really to frighten my mother, who, as long as it was a question of words, generally showed herself an intrepid adept in the game of give and take. But now, with a bewildered look on her face, she started shaking her head from side to side in a frightened way. 'Oh well,' she stammered, 'if it's like that, don't come and see me any more, don't come again to this house.'
The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes