Contempt, p.22Alberto Moravia
IT WAS LATE when I awoke—judging, at least, by the rays of sunshine which penetrated into the room between the slats of the shutters—and for a moment I lay listening to the profound silence of the place, so different from silence in a town which, even when it is complete, seems always somehow to retain wounds and aches from sounds already past. Then, as I lay motionless on my back, I listened more carefully to this virgin silence, and suddenly it seemed to me that there was something lacking—not just one of those quiet sounds such as that of the electric pump drawing up water into the cistern in the morning or the servant sweeping the floor, which seem to stress the silence and make it more profound, but rather a presence. It was not a silence that was complete yet full of life, but a silence from which something vital had been withdrawn. A silence, I said to myself, finding the right word at last, a silence of abandonment. This word had barely crossed my mind before I had jumped from the bed and gone to the communicating door that led to Emilia’s room. I opened it, and the first thing my eyes lit upon was a letter lying on the pillow at the head of the wide, disordered, deserted bed.
It was brief. “Dear Riccardo, Seeing that you do not want to go away, I am going myself. Perhaps I might not have had the courage to go all alone: but I am taking advantage of Battista’s departure. Also because I am afraid of being left alone, and Battista’s company, after all, seems preferable to solitude. But in Rome I shall leave him and go and live on my own. However, if you hear that I have become Battista’s mistress, don’t be surprised: I’m not made of iron, and it will mean that I haven’t been able to manage it and couldn’t stand it. Good-bye. Emilia.”
After reading these lines, I sat down at the head of the bed with the letter in my hand and stared straight in front of me. I saw the wide-open window, and, beyond the window-sill, a few pine-trees, and, behind the trunks of the pine-trees, the wall of rock. Then I removed my eyes from the window and looked all round the room: all was in disorder, but it was an empty, blank disorder; no clothes, no shoes, no toilet articles, nothing but open, or half-open, empty drawers, gaping wardrobes with bare, dangling coat-hangers, vacant chairs. I had often thought recently that Emilia might leave me and I had thought of it as one thinks of some dreaded calamity; and now, here I was in the midst of such a calamity. I had a dull feeling of pain which seemed to start from the very depths of my being; just as an uprooted tree, if it felt pain, would feel it in the roots that held it upright in the ground. I had, in truth, been suddenly uprooted, and my roots, like those of the tree, were up in the air, and the sweet earth, Emilia, who had nourished them with her love, was far away from my roots, and those roots would never again be able to sink themselves in that love and feed upon it but would gradually dry up, and I felt that they were already drying up and it made me suffer unspeakably.
Finally I rose and went back into my room. I felt stunned and distracted, like one who has had a bad fall from a height and who feels a dull pain and knows that this pain will soon burst forth into an acute spasm, and fears this moment but does not know when it will come about. Carefully watching this hidden pain as one watches a wild beast which one fears may leap upon one at any moment and tear one to pieces, I automatically took my bathing costume, went out of the house, walked along the path that runs round the island and reached the village piazza. There I bought a newspaper, sat down in one of the cafés, and, almost to my own surprise, since it seemed to me that in my situation I would not have been able to think of anything except the situation itself, I read the whole newspaper through, from the first to the last line. In the same sort of way, I reflected, a fly whose head has been torn off by some cruel child seems, for a time, to feel no effect from the mutilation but walks about or cleans its feet until suddenly it collapses and dies. At last midday struck, and the clock in the campanile filled the square with the din of its chimes. A bus was on the point of leaving for the Piccola Marina, and I got into it.
Shortly afterwards I was in the open, sun-filled space where, amid a sharp smell of urine, stood the little carriages with their horses, while their drivers sat together in a group, quietly chatting. I went off with a light step down the stairs leading to the beach-houses, and looked down from above upon the short stretch of white shingly beach and the sea lying blue beneath the tranquil sky. Utterly calm was the sea, smooth and glossy as satin right to the horizon, with great, diaphanous current-tracks winding idly over its surface in the dazzling sunlight. I thought it would be good to go out in a boat that afternoon; rowing would be a distraction, and then I should be completely alone, which, on the already frequented beach, would be impossible. When I reached the beach-houses, I called the attendant and asked him to get a boat ready for me. Then I went into one of the houses to undress.
When I came out, I walked barefoot along the little terrace in front of the houses, looking down and taking care not to hurt myself on the roughness of the warped, salt-worn planks. The June sun blazed overhead, enveloping me in its strong light, burning my back. It gave me a sensation of well-being which was in bitter contrast with my mental state of stunned suspense. My eyes still lowered, I went down the steep steps and walked towards the edge of the beach over the scorching stones. It was only when I was a short distance from the edge that I raised my eyes; and then I saw Emilia.
The attendant, a thin, vigorous old man, brown as leather, with a big straw hat pulled down over his eyes, was standing beside the boat which he had already pushed half into the water; Emilia was sitting in the stern, wearing a two-piece costume that I knew well, of a rather faded green. She was sitting with her legs pressed closely together, her arms stretched backwards to support herself, her bare, slender waist slightly twisted in relation to her hips, in an attitude that was insecure yet full of feminine grace. Aware of my surprise, she was smiling and looking straight into my eyes, as much as to say: “I’m here...but don’t say anything...Pretend you knew I was here.”
I obeyed this unspoken advice and, in silence, more dead than alive, deeply troubled, my heart in a tumult, mechanically took the hand which the attendant held out to me and jumped into the boat. The attendant came into the water up to his knees, slipped the oars into the oarlocks and pushed the boat off. I sat down, took hold of the oars and started rowing with my head down, in the burning sun, towards the promontory that enclosed the little bay. I rowed with energy and in about ten minutes reached the promontory, still in silence and still without looking at Emilia. I felt a kind of restraint at the thought of talking to her as long as the beach, with its huts and its bathers, was still in sight. I wanted solitude around myself and her, as I had wanted it in the villa, as I always wanted it when I wished to say certain things to her.
But, as I rowed, I became aware that, in a sudden overflowing of bitterness mingled with a new, strange joy, tears had started flowing from my eyes. I rowed on and felt my eyes burning with tears and my face burning each time one of these tears detached itself from my eyes and slid down my cheek. When I was opposite the end of the promontory, I rowed more strongly so as to make headway against the current, which at that point made the water rough and boisterous. On my right was a small black rock with a jagged crest sticking up out of the water, on my left the high, rocky wall of the promontory; I thrust the bow of the boat into this passage, rowed vigorously through the swirling water and thus passed the end of the point. The rock, where it plunged into the sea, was white with salt, and each time the water ebbed one could see green beards of seaweed, brilliant in the sun, and here and there a red fruit like a sea tomato. Beyond the promontory appeared a huge amphitheater of fallen rock, backed by the perpendicular mountain wall, and here and there, between one mass of rock and the next, little beaches of white shingle, completely deserted. The sea, too, was deserted, with neither boats nor bathers; and the water, in this inlet, was of a thick, oily blue that appeared to indicate great depth. Farther off, other promontories were outlined one behind the other upon the flat, sun-filled sea, like the wings of some fantas
I slowed down at last and lifted my face towards Emilia. And as though she too had been waiting to speak until we had rounded the promontory, she smiled at me and asked in a gentle voice: “Why are you crying?”
“I’m crying for joy at seeing you,” I replied.
“You’re glad to see me?”
“Very, very glad...I was sure you had gone away...but after all you haven’t!”
She lowered her eyes and said: “I had made up my mind to go away...and I went down to the harbor this morning with Battista...Then at the last moment I thought better of it and stayed.”
“And what have you been doing all this time?”
“I wandered about down by the harbor...I sat in a café... Then I went up to the village in the funicular and telephoned to the villa...I was told you had gone out...Then I thought perhaps you’d gone to the Piccola Marina, so I came here...I undressed and waited for you...I saw you asking the attendant to get you a boat...I was lying in the sun and you passed quite close to me without seeing me...Then, while you were undressing, I got into the boat.”
For some moments I said nothing. We were now halfway between the promontory we had passed and another point which enclosed the inlet. Beyond that point, I knew, was the Green Grotto, in which, in the first place, it had been my intention to bathe. Finally I asked, in a low voice: “Why didn’t you go away with Battista, as you had decided? Why did you stay?”
“Because this morning, on thinking it over, I saw I had been mistaken about you...and that the whole thing had been a misunderstanding.”
“What was it made you see that?”
“I don’t quite know...lots of things...chiefly, perhaps, the tone of your voice, yesterday evening.”
“And are you really convinced now that I’ve never done all those dreadful things you accused me of?”
“Yes, I am convinced.”
There still, however, remained one thing that I had to know, perhaps the most important of all. “But you,” I said, “you don’t think I’m a despicable person do you?...even though I haven’t done those things...despicable because made of despicable stuff...Tell me, you don’t believe that, Emilia?”
“I’ve never believed it...I thought you’d behaved in a certain way, and that’s why you lost my esteem...But now I know that it’s all been a misunderstanding...Let’s not talk about it any more, if you don’t mind.”
This time I said nothing, and she was silent too, and I started rowing with greater energy, with an energy that was now redoubled, it seemed to me, by a feeling of joy which gradually, like a rising sun, grew and mounted within me, warming my spirit which till then had been aching and numb. Meanwhile we had reached a point opposite the Green Grotto, and I steered the boat towards the cave, already visible, and appearing to hang, dark and crooked, above an expanse of cold green water. “And you do love me?” I went on.
She hesitated and then answered: “I’ve always loved you... I always shall love you”; but she said it with a kind of sadness that surprised me. “Why,” I insisted in alarm, “why do you say that in such a sad way?”
“I don’t know...perhaps because it would have been better if no misunderstanding had ever come between us and we had always loved one another as we did in the past.”
“Yes,” I said, “but all that’s over now...We mustn’t think about it any more...Now we’re going to love each other forever.” She appeared to nod her head, but without raising her eyes, and still rather sadly. I stopped rowing for a moment, and, leaning forward, added “We’ll go to the Red Grotto now... It’s a smaller cave and very deep, beyond the Green Grotto... There’s a little beach at the end of it, in the dark...We’ll make love there, shall we, Emilia?”
I saw her lift her head and nod her assent, in silence, gazing fixedly at me, with a look of discreet, and even rather bashful, complicity. I started rowing again energetically. We entered the grotto, beneath the great vault of rugged rock upon whose surface water and sunlight threw gay reflections, casting upon it a close net of quivering emerald. Farther on, at the place where the sea penetrated only at intervals, making the vault resound with hollow reverberations, the water was dark, with a few smooth, black rocks emerging from it like the backs of amphibious beasts. Here was the tortuous opening, a narrow passage between two rocks, that led through to the Red Grotto. Emilia was sitting quite still now, looking at me and following each one of my movements with her eyes, in an attitude of sensual but patient docility, like a woman who is ready to give herself and is only awaiting the signal. By thrusting, first with one oar then with other, against the walls of the channel, beneath the stalactite-hung vault, I brought the boat through into the open and then steered it towards the dark mouth of the Red Grotto. “Look out for your head,” I said to Emilia; and then, with one stroke of the oars, I propelled the boat over the smooth water into the cave.
The Red Grotto is divided into two parts. The first, like an entrance hall, is separated from the second by a lowering of the vault overhead; beyond this point the cave bends sharply and runs a considerable distance back to the beach at its farthest end. This second part is plunged in almost complete darkness, and one’s eyes have to become accustomed to the gloom before one can discern the little subterranean beach, which is strangely colored by the reddish light that gives its name to the grotto. “It’s very dark inside the cave,” I went on to say, “but we’ll be able to see as soon as our eyes get used to it.” In the meantime, carried along by the force of my initial stroke, the boat slid along in the darkness, under the low vault of rock; and I saw nothing more. At last I heard the bow strike the beach, thrusting into the gravel with a moist, resonant sound. Then I let go of the oars and, half rising, put out my hand towards the point in the darkness where the stern of the boat should be, saying: “Give me your hand and I’ll help you to get out.”
No answer came to me. I repeated, in surprise: “Give me your hand, Emilia!” and for the second time leaned forward, holding out my hand. Then, since there was again no reply, I leaned still farther forward and, cautiously, so as not to strike the face of Emilia, I felt about for her in the darkness. But my hand met nothing but empty air, and when I lowered it I felt beneath my fingers, at the spot where they should have encountered Emilia’s seated figure, nothing but the smooth wood of the empty seat. My astonishment was mingled with a feeling of terror. “Emilia!” I cried, “Emilia!” The only answer was a thin, icy echo. In the meantime my eyes had become accustomed to the darkness and could at last distinguish, in the thick gloom, the boat with its bow lying on the beach, the beach itself, of fine, black gravel, and the glimmering, dripping vault curving over my head. And then I saw that the boat was completely empty, with no one sitting in the stern, and that the beach was empty too, and that all round me there was no one, and that I was alone.
Looking towards the stern, I said, in astonishment: “Emilia!” but this time it was in a low voice. And I repeated again: “Emilia, where are you?”—and at that same moment I understood. Then I got out of the boat and threw myself down on the beach and buried my face in the moist pebbles and I think I fainted, for I remained motionless, almost without feeling, for a time that seemed endless.
Later I rose to my feet, automatically got into the boat again and pushed it out of the cave. At the mouth of the grotto the strong sunlight, reflected off the sea, smote me. I looked at the watch on my wrist and saw that it was two o’clock in the afternoon. I had been in the cave for more than an hour. And I remembered that noon was the hour for ghosts; and I realized that I had been talking and weeping in the presence of a ghost!
MY RETURN TO the beach-houses was slow; every now and then I stopped rowing and sat still, resting on my oars, my eyes fixed dreamily upon the blue, shining surface of the sea. It was clear that I had had a hallucination, of the same kind as I had had two days before, when Emilia was lying naked in the sun and I had imagined that I had bent over her and kissed her, whereas in reality I
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