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       Boredom, p.26

           Alberto Moravia
 

  I noticed that she did not appear surprised nor yet displeased at finding me in her husband’s studio. She introduced herself, saying in a warm, low voice, a regular peasant’s voice: “I am Signora Balestrieri.”

  I hastened to offer my apologies. “Forgive me, I found the door open and came in to have a look at the pictures.”

  She answered promptly: “Please, Professor, do come in here whenever you like. I know my poor husband was a great friend of yours.”

  I dared not contradict her. Now she was looking at me and smiling; and in her smile there seemed to be a kind of affectionate indulgence which I did not understand. “I came to look for you in your studio, Professor,” she said, “because I must speak to you about something that may interest you. I found your door open, saw that you weren’t there, and then I thought you might be here.”

  “Why did you think I was here?”

  “Because I knew that you have the key of my husband’s studio.”

  “Who told you that?”

  “Why, the caretaker, Professor.”

  “And you wanted to speak to me?”

  “Yes,” she said quietly. “I looked for you the other day, but you weren’t there.” Then, changing the subject, she went on, with awkward, countrified tactlessness: “How d’you like these pictures, Professor?”

  Embarrassed, I replied: “Your husband, as a painter, was full of quality.”

  “They’re good, aren’t they?” she resumed, starting to walk around the studio and look at the canvases on the walls. “You know, Professor, that they’re all done from the same model?”

  I said nothing. After a moment she went on, still in that same countrified manner, full of allusions and irony: “What a pretty girl, isn’t she, Professor? Look what a chest she has, what legs, what shoulders, what hips! She’s really what they call a lovely girl, Professor.”

  “But you,” I said, seeking to turn the conversation, “didn’t your husband ever paint you?”

  “Yes, many, many times in the old days. But there’s no picture of me here. When we separated, my husband took down all the paintings of me off the walls and sent them to where I lived. I have them all still. But I was not as pretty as this girl. Mine was a classical beauty, I was made like a statue. But this is a modern kind of beauty, half child and half woman; that’s what they like nowadays. Yes,” she reaffirmed with a sigh, “really a beautiful girl. Pity she’s not as good as she’s beautiful.”

  I could not refrain from asking, not altogether ingenuously: “You know her, then?”

  “Yes, of course I know her. How could I fail to know her? My poor husband died because of her, you might say.”

  “So they say.”

  “Yes,” she corrected with dignity, “I know what they say. The usual disgusting things. And indeed that may have happened, but it could have happened with any other woman just as well. No, I did not mean that. I meant that he died because of this girl from the heartbreak that she caused him.”

  “In what way?”

  “With her wickedness.”

  “Is this girl so wicked?”

  She answered with reason and moderation. “I don’t say she’s altogether wicked. Women, as everyone know, are good or bad according to whether they love or not. In any case she was wicked to my husband. With you, I daresay, she’s good.”

  At last I understood the obscure allusiveness of her looks and words; she knew that Cecilia was my mistress. Pretending to be surprised, I said: “How do I come into it?”

  She lifted her hand and slapped me on the shoulder, in a gesture of rustic sympathy. “Poor Professor—well, well, well, poor Professor!” Then she walked away from me and, pointing to the wall, asked suddenly: “D’you like that picture, Professor?”

  I went up and looked at it. It was a singular picture inasmuch as Balestrieri, who generally limited himself to depicting Cecilia alone, in various attitudes, had here sketched in a kind of composition. Against the usual muddy, sticky looking background Cecilia was to be seen, naked and clothed in a spectral light, astride a dim human shape on all fours. It was one of Balestrieri’s worst pictures: in order to convey the idea of Cecilia triumphant, the best he had been able to do was to make her raise one victorious hand in the air, while with the other she grasped the nape of the neck of the shapeless Caliban who served her as a mount. I said dryly: “Yes, it’s not bad.”

  “You know who the man on all fours is?” asked the widow, going up to the picture and looking at it with vindictive intentness. “It’s hard to tell because the face isn’t clear; but I know. It’s he himself, my husband. You may think that by painting himself in that way he intended to show that the girl trampled him, so to speak, underfoot. Not at all. He did it quite seriously.”

  “But what did he mean?”

  “He used to go down on all fours, and she climbed on his back and he jumped about all over the studio. Like little boys playing at horses. And then, believe it or not, he would rear up and throw her on the floor with her legs in the air. I saw them one day, with my own eyes, through the window. Oh, they were enjoying themselves all right!” For a moment she was silent as she continued to look at the picture. Then she added: “If you like that picture, Professor, I’ll sell it to you.”

  So little was I expecting such a proposal that for a moment I did not know what to say; then I understood: the widow knew of my passion for Cecilia and wished to speculate upon it. All of a sudden I had a feeling of shame, like someone with a vice which he thinks he has kept secret and who then finds himself being offered, in the street, a packet of obscene photographs portraying precisely that same vice. I asked, in irritation: “Why the devil should I buy that picture?”

  Serenely, she answered: “I asked in case it might interest you. In a few days’ time I have to take away the pictures, because I have managed to sublet the studio and the new tenant does not want them. He says they’re too daring. So I thought you might like to have one of them as a souvenir.”

  “A souvenir of what? Of whom? Of your husband? We scarcely knew each other.”

  Again she made a gesture of roguish compassion, slapping me on the shoulder and shaking her head. “Professor, Professor, let’s try and understand one another,” she said. “Why don’t you want to be honest with me? My hair is white, now”—and she indicated her raven-black hair, combed back in two smooth bands to a bun on the back of her neck, in which a few white threads were visible—“and I could easily be that girl’s mother; why won’t you be honest with me?”

  I now sat down at the table, on which was the telephone; and I made a sign to the widow to sit down too; and then, pretending not to have heard her appeal to my honesty, I said to her solemnly and at the same time rather threateningly: “Signora Balestrieri, kindly tell me exactly what this is all about. You have made certain allusions which I do not understand. I should like you to explain them to me.”

  Slightly intimidated, she took refuge, like a true peasant woman, in a tone of lamentation. “My husband, alas, did not leave me at all well off. I thought that you, as a painter yourself, would really understand my husband’s pictures, and might possibly buy at least one of them. I’ve tried to sell them but people don’t understand them.”

  “But I haven’t any money,” I replied. “I’m just a painter, and a painter who doesn’t paint, into the bargain.”

  She was genuinely astonished. “How strange,” she said; “I’ve been told that your mother’s so rich.”

  “My mother is, but I’m not.”

  “Then forget about it, Professor, forget about it.”

  “One moment,” I insisted; “just now you made a certain allusion. Why, in point of fact, should I acquire this picture as a souvenir? A souvenir of whom?”

  She opened her fine black eyes very wide and stared at me. “Of that model, of course,” she said.

  “And why?”

  “Professor, you know why.”

  “Signora Balestrieri, I don’t understand you.”

 
; “Well, Professor, you know what people say? That that girl is your mistress.”

  “Who says so?”

  “Everyone.... The caretaker, to begin with.”

  I pretended to be disconcerted. Then, slowly and firmly, I said: “Ah, so that’s the reason. Then you’re mistaken. That girl is nothing to me.”

  She gave a little laugh of indulgent complicity. “Ah, Professor! Ah, Professor!” but I interrupted her, raising my voice in a conventional show of annoyance: “If I say a thing, I mean it!”

  Again she withdrew into her shell, like a snail. But next moment she peeped out again with the remark: “I believe you, Professor. Well, you know what I say? For your sake, I’m glad.”

  “Why?”

  “I told you: that girl is beautiful but she isn’t good.”

  “In what way?”

  She sighed. “My husband could have told you better than I can,” she said. “But my husband is dead. I don’t know anything precise, you must understand. I know only one thing: my husband owned a five-room flat in the neighborhood of Piazza Bologna, worth several million lire. But when he died, it was discovered that he had sold the flat. However, the millions were not to be found. What was found was an account book in which my husband, who was an orderly man, noted down his expenses. On almost every page there was an entry: Cecilia, so much and so much.”

  “You mean to say that this girl exploited your husband?”

  “Exactly, Professor.” She sighed again and then went on in a low voice, very hurriedly: “She’s a deep one, that girl, Professor. Heartless, false, mercenary. And she was unfaithful to him, into the bargain; she took money from him and gave it to another man.”

  “Gave the money to another man?” I could not help exclaiming.

  “Certainly she did—a miserable creature that she went to see every evening after she’d been with my husband during the day.”

  “But who was this man?”

  “A saxophone player. He played in a night club. They spent my husband’s money together. He even bought a car.”

  “Then your husband gave this girl a great deal of money?”

  “Millions, Professor. It’s all noted down in the account book. But, do you know, Professor?”

  “What?”

  “Although we were separated, my husband and I remained friends, so to speak. Well, he used to come and see me sometimes and he always talked to me about this girl. It was too much for him, he couldn’t help it, and he took me into his confidence. And do you know? A man like him, who had had so many women, a man with his experience and intelligence—he used to cry.”

  Recalling that Cecilia, too, had spoken to me of Balestrieri’s tears, I said: “But he cried easily, your husband.”

  “Easily? Don’t you believe it. We were together for years and I never saw him shed a tear. He cried because this girl had reduced him to despair. D’you know what he used to say? That this girl would be the death of him. He had a presentiment about it.”

  “What was the name of the saxophone player to whom Cec—to whom the girl gave the money?”

  She understood that I was interested and she wished to make me understand that she had understood. She drew herself up with dignity. “Call her by her name, Professor, call her Cecilia,” she said. “The name of the saxophone player was Tony Proietti. He plays at the Canarino, a club in the neighborhood of Via Veneto. Well, Professor, I must go. Again, please excuse me. If the pictures interest you, you can always find me at home. I’m in the telephone book: Assunta Balestrieri. Or possibly you might even make your mother buy one—eh, Professor? Are you staying, or are you coming out with me?”

  I did not stay, but said good-bye to her and went back to my own studio, where I threw myself on the divan and fell into deep meditation. The proofs of Cecilia’s venality were multiplying, but, strangely enough, these proofs did not prove anything. In fact, no sooner was her venality demonstrated than something came to light to contradict it: Balestrieri’s money, according to the widow, was passed on by her to her lover, to Tony Proietti. And the truth of this seemed to be borne out by the poverty of Cecilia’s wardrobe and by the fact that she did not possess even the smallest piece of jewelry. If she had not given it to Proietti, where had Balestrieri’s money gone?

  The day after the widow Balestrieri’s visit, as soon as Cecilia appeared at my studio I asked her point-blank: “Who is Tony Proietti?”

  Without hesitation she replied: “A saxophone player who plays at the Canarino.”

  “Yes, but what has he been to you?”

  “I was engaged to him.”

  “You were engaged?”

  “Yes.”

  “And then?”

  “And then what?”

  “Then what happened?”

  Reluctantly she answered: “He left me.”

  “Why?”

  “He liked someone else.”

  “Did Balestrieri know you were engaged?”

  “Of course he knew; I was engaged to Tony when I was fourteen, a year before I met Balestrieri.”

  I was astonished. “But you told me,” I stammered, “that Balestrieri knew nothing and was jealous and for that reason employed a private detective agency.”

  She answered simply: “Balestrieri wasn’t jealous of Tony, because he came after Tony and knew at once that I was engaged to him. He was jealous when he thought I was being unfaithful to him with someone else.”

  “But did this ‘someone else’ really exist?”

  “Yes, but it was a thing that only lasted a short time.”

  “Was that at the same time as Tony?”

  “No, it was immediately after Tony and I parted.”

  “Did Tony know about Balestrieri?”

  “What are you thinking about! If he’d known he’d have killed me.”

  “Who, actually, was the first, with you?”

  “What d’you mean, the first?”

  “The first you made love with.”

  “Tony.”

  “At what age?”

  “I’ve told you already. I was fourteen.”

  “And d’you ever see Tony now?”

  “We meet sometimes and greet each other.”

  “Tell me another thing: did Balestrieri give you money?”

  She looked at me for a moment and then replied with her usual mysterious reluctance: “Yes, he did.”

  “Much or little?”

  “That depended.”

  “Depended on what?”

  She was silent again; then she said: “I didn’t want it, but he insisted on giving it to me.”

  “How do you mean?”

  “He insisted. He knew that Tony hadn’t a penny and that in the evening, when Tony and I went out together, we couldn’t even go to the pictures; so he insisted on my accepting the money and giving it to Tony.”

  “It was he who made you give it to Tony?”

  “Yes.”

  “What happened the first time?”

  “I told him that as we hadn’t any money we spent the evenings in the streets. Then he took out a ten-thousand-lire note and put it in my hand and said: ‘Take this, then you can go to the pictures.’”

  “And what did you do?”

  “I didn’t want to take it, but he forced me to. He threatened to tell Tony that I made love with him if I didn’t take it, so I took it.”

  “And then he went on giving you money?”

  “Yes.”

  “Did he give you bigger sums, too?”

  “He knew that Tony and I were going to get married and set up house, so he insisted on my buying furniture for it with his money.”

  “What happened to the furniture?”

  “Tony has it in his house, I left it for him.”

  “And the car?”

  “What car?”

  “Didn’t Balestrieri pay for Tony’s car, too?”

  “Yes, he did—a small car. Who told you that?”

  “Balestrieri’s widow.”

  “Oh
, that woman.”

  “Do you know her?”

  “Yes. She came to see me, she wanted the money back.”

  “And what did you say to her?”

  “I told her the truth. I told her that her husband had insisted on my accepting the money and that I had nothing, because I had given it all to Tony, as her husband wished.”

  “How long did Balestrieri go on giving you money?”

  “For almost two years.”

  “And with Tony—how did you explain the money you gave him?”

  “I told him I had a rich uncle who was fond of me.”

  “And after Tony had left you, did Balestrieri go on giving you money?”

  “Yes, now and again, when I asked him.”

  “But that other man who came afterward—the one that Balestrieri was suspicious of—didn’t you give him money?”

  “No, he didn’t need it. He was the son of an industrialist.”

  “And did he leave you too?”

  “No, it was I who left him, because I had stopped being fond of him.”

  “Who were you fond of, then?”

  “You. You remember when I used to meet you in the corridor and look at you? Well, it was then that I left him.”

  “Did Balestrieri ever realize that you were fond of me?”

  “No.”

  “Did you ever talk about me to Balestrieri?”

  “Yes, once. He couldn’t bear you.”

  “What did he say about me?”

  “That you were very conceited.”

  “Conceited?”

  “Yes, he hated your painting. He said you didn’t know how to paint.”

  This conversation left me with the conviction that my attempt to prove to myself that Cecilia was venal had failed: Cecilia was not venal; in other words, her character could not be said to be merely acquisitive. It was clear that Balestrieri had tried to assert his own superiority over Tony by supporting him through the medium of Cecilia, without the saxophone player being aware of it; and that Cecilia, on her side, had lent herself to Balestrieri’s psychological maneuver without sharing in it or understanding it. As in my case, therefore, Cecilia had succeeded instinctively in keeping the two worlds of money and of love separate and apart. Balestrieri and I could have certainly affirmed that we had given her money; but she, on her side, could have always made it clear that she had not been paid. And my behavior toward Cecilia tended increasingly to resemble Balestrieri’s; with this difference, however, that the old painter had gone further than I had. To counterbalance that, my folly was greater than his; for he had had no predecessor to serve him as a mirror, so that it was more or less understandable that he should not have been able to stop. But I had his example to warn me at every step of the risks I was running, yet in spite of this I was repeating the same mistakes that he had made, and in fact almost taking pleasure in doing so.

 
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