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The conformist, p.27
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       The Conformist, p.27

           Alberto Moravia
 

  “You were right,” said Marcello, who had been weighing the pros and cons of the proposal in the meantime. “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel I can do you this favor.”

  “My husband doesn’t involve himself with politics,” explained Giulia quickly, in a frightened tone. “He’s an employee of the state.”

  “Of course,” said Quadri with an indulgent, almost affectionate air, “of course: he’s an employee of the state.”

  It seemed to Marcello that Quadri was strangely satisfied with his response. His wife, however, seemed annoyed. She asked Giulia in an aggressive tone, “Why are you so afraid for your husband to get into politics?”

  “What good would it do him?” said Giulia unaffectedly. “He has to think about his future, not about politics.”

  “See how the women in Italy reason?” asked Lina, turning to her husband. “And then you’re surprised at the way things go.”

  Giulia was annoyed. “Really, Italy has nothing to do with this. Under certain circumstances women from any country would feel the same way … if you lived in Italy, you’d think like I do.”

  “Come on, don’t get mad,” said Lina with a dark, sad, affectionate laugh, passing a hand over Giulia’s frowning face in a rapid caress. “I was joking.… You may be right. And anyway, you’re so sweet when you get mad and defend your husband.… Isn’t that true, Edmondo? Isn’t she sweet?”

  Quadri nodded his head distractedly and a little irritably in assent, as if to say, “Woman talk,” and then said seriously, “You’re right, signora. You should never put a man in the position of having to choose between truth and bread.”

  The subject, thought Marcello, was exhausted. Yet he was still curious to know the real reason for Quadri’s proposal. The waiter changed the plates and placed a full basket of fruit on the table. The wine steward came and asked if he could uncork the bottle of champagne.

  “Yes,” said Quadri, “go ahead and open it.”

  The steward drew the bottle up out of the bucket, wrapped its neck in a napkin, pushed up on the cork, and then swiftly poured the foaming wine into their chalicelike glasses. Quadri stood up, his glass in his hand.

  “Let us drink to the health of the cause,” he said; and then, turning to Marcello, “You didn’t want to take the letter, but at least you’ll want to make a toast, won’t you?”

  He appeared to be moved, and his eyes were shining with tears; and yet, as Marcello observed, in both the gesture of the toast and the expression of his face, there was a certain slyness, almost a calculation. Marcello glanced at his wife and at Lina before responding to the toast. Giulia, who had already gotten to her feet, gave him a look as if to say, “It’s all right to toast to it.” Lina, her chalice in hand, her eyes lowered, had an annoyed, cold, almost bored air about her.

  Marcello stood up and said, “Then here’s to the health of the cause,” and clinked his glass against Quadri’s. A childish scruple made him want to add mentally, “of my cause,” even though he no longer seemed to have any cause to defend, only a painful, incomprehensible duty to carry out. He noticed with displeasure that Lina avoided touching her glass to his. Giulia, on the other hand, exaggerating her cordiality, was making sure she got everyone’s glass, pathetically calling out their names: “Lina, Signor Quadri, Marcello.”

  The sharp yet faint clinking of crystal made him shiver again, as the strokes of the grandfather clock had done earlier. He looked up at the mirror and saw Orlando’s head suspended in midair, staring at him with gleaming, inexpressive eyes, like the eyes of a decapitated head.

  Quadri held his glass out to the wine steward, who filled it once more. Then, putting a certain sentimental emphasis into the gesture, he turned toward Marcello, raised his glass, and said, “And now to your own personal health, Clerici … and thank you.” He underlined “thank you” in an allusive tone, emptied the glass in a breath, and sat down.

  For some minutes they drank in silence. Giulia had emptied her glass twice and was now gazing at her husband with a tender, grateful, drunken expression.

  Suddenly she exclaimed, “How good the champagne is! Say, Marcello, don’t you think the champagne is good?”

  “Yes, it’s a very good wine,” he admitted.

  “You don’t appreciate it enough,” said Giulia. “It’s really delicious … and I’m already drunk.” She laughed, shaking her head, and then added suddenly, raising her glass, “Come on, Marcello, let’s drink to our love.”

  She held out her glass, laughing drunkenly. The professor looked away; Lina looked cold and disgusted and made no effort to conceal her disapproval. Immediately, Giulia changed her mind.

  “No,” she shouted. “You’re too austere, it’s true … you’re ashamed to toast to our love … so I’ll toast, alone, to life! that I love so much, that’s so beautiful … to life!” She drank down the champagne with a joyful, clumsy, impetuous gesture, so that some of it spilled on the table. Then she cried, “It’s good luck!” and, wetting her fingers with wine, tried to touch them to Marcello’s temples. He couldn’t help making a gesture as if to shield himself. Giulia got to her feet, crying out, “You’re ashamed! Well, I’m not ashamed!” And coming round the table, she hugged Marcello, almost falling on top of him and kissing him hard on the mouth. “We ’re on our honeymoon,” she said in a challenging tone as she went back to her place, breathless and laughing. “We ’re here on our honeymoon and not to do politics and get letters to take to Italy.”

  Quadri, to whom these words seemed directed, said placidly, “You’re right, signora.”

  Marcello, caught between Quadri’s conscious and his wife’s unconscious and innocent allusions, preferred to say nothing, lowering his eyes.

  Lina waited for a moment of silence to pass and then asked, as if it were a casual question, “What are you doing tomorrow?”

  “We’re going to Versailles,” answered Marcello, wiping Giulia’s lipstick off his mouth with his handkerchief.

  “I’ll come, too,” said Lina quickly. “We can leave in the morning and have breakfast there. I’ll help my husband pack his bags and then I’ll come get you.”

  “Fine,” said Marcello.

  Lina added conscientiously, “I wish I could drive you there in the car, but my husband’s taking it.… We’ll have to go by train. It’s more fun, anyway.”

  Quadri seemed not to have heard her; he was paying the bill, extracting the banknotes folded in quarters from the pocket of his striped pants with a hunchback’s particular gesture. Marcello tried to offer him some money, but Quadri waved him away, saying, “You can get it the next time … in Italy.”

  Giulia said suddenly, in a very loud and drunken voice, “In Savoy we can be together, but I want to go to Versailles alone with my husband.”

  “Thank you,” said Lina ironically, getting up from the table. “I’d say you put that clearly enough.”

  “Don’t be offended,” began Marcello, embarrassed. “It’s the champagne.… ”

  “No, it’s the love I feel for you, stupid,” yelled Giulia. Laughing, she headed toward the door with the professor. Marcello heard her asking him, “Does it seem unfair to you that I should want to be alone with my husband during my honeymoon?”

  “No, dear,” answered Quadri gently, “you’re absolutely right.”

  Meanwhile, Lina was commenting in a bitter tone, “I’m such a fool, I hadn’t thought about that … of course, a trip to Versailles is the ritual for newlyweds.”

  At the door, Marcello stepped back so that Quadri could go through ahead of him. As he was leaving he heard the clock strike again: it was ten o’clock.

  9

  ONCE THEY WERE OUTSIDE, the professor sat down behind the wheel of the car, leaving the car door open.

  “Your husband can go in front with mine,” Lina said to Giulia, “and you can sit back here with me.”

  But Giulia answered in a tipsy, teasing voice, “Why? I prefer to sit in front, myself,” and she climbed in and sat down firmly be
side Quadri.

  So Marcello and Lina found themselves next to each other in the back seat. Now Marcello wanted to take the woman at her word, acting as if he really believed that she loved him. There was, in this desire, not only a vindictive impulse, but also almost a last little bit of hope, as if, after all, he was still deluded about Lina’s feelings for him in some contradictory and involuntary way. The car was moving and slowed down to turn into a cross-street at a particularly dark spot. Taking advantage of the darkness, Marcello grabbed the hand Lina had placed on her knees and brought it down to the seat, between their two bodies. He saw her turn at the touch with an angry start, which she quickly transformed into a false, complicit gesture of pleading admonishment. The car rolled on, turning down one narrow street after another of the Latin Quarter, and Marcello squeezed Lina’s hand. He felt it tense within his own, as if she were rejecting his caress not only with her muscles but even, he thought, with her skin; disgust, indignation, and anger were mixed in the powerless twitching of her fingers. The car skidded around a turn and they fell on top of each other. Marcello grabbed Lina by the neck, as if she were a cat that could twist and scratch him, and turning her face to one side, kissed her on the mouth. At first she tried to free herself, but Marcello held her shaved, slender, boyish neck even more firmly; with a low moan of pain, she stopped resisting altogether and submitted to the kiss. But Marcello clearly felt her lips twist in a grimace of disgust; and at the same time her hand, which he was still grasping in his own, stuck its sharp nails into his palm — an apparently voluptuous gesture which Marcello knew in reality was burning with repugnance and aversion. He made the kiss last as long as possible, looking now into her eyes, sparkling with hatred and repulsed impatience, now at the two black and motionless heads of Quadri and Giulia in the front. Then the headlights of an oncoming car cast a bright light onto the windshield; Marcello let Lina go and threw himself back on the seat.

  Out of the corner of his eye he saw her fall back, too, and then slowly, raising a handkerchief to her mouth, wipe it off with a reflexive gesture filled with disgust. As he watched the care and repugnance with which she was wiping her lips — which, according to the pretence, should have still been throbbing and avid for the kiss — he felt a desperate, obscure, frightening sorrow and pain.

  “Love me!” he wished he could shout. “Love me … for the love of God!” It suddenly seemed to him that not only his own life, now, but hers as well, depended on Lina’s loving him, which he desired so much and which was so impossible. Now, in fact, as if Lina’s irreducible aversion were contagious, he realized that he, too, was feeling a bloody, murderous hatred, mixed in with and inseparable from his love. He felt he could gladly have killed her at that moment, since he couldn’t stand knowing she was at once alive and his enemy; and he also thought, though it frightened him to think it, that by now watching her die might even inspire more pleasure in him than being loved by her. Then, with an instant and generous motion of the heart, he reproached himself, thinking, “Thank God she won’t be in Savoy when Orlando and the others get there … thank God.” And he understood that he had truly wanted for a moment to make her die with her husband, in the same way and on the same occasion.

  The car came to a halt and they got out. Marcello glimpsed a dark suburban street between a crooked row of little houses and a garden wall.

  “You’ll see,” said Lina, taking Giulia by the arm, “it’s not exactly a place for schoolgirls … but it’s interesting.”

  They were walking toward an illuminated door. Above it on a small rectangle of red glass was written La Cravate Noire in blue letters.

  “The Black Tie,” Lina explained to Giulia, “the tie men wear with their tuxedos and that all the women in here wear, from the waitresses to the owner.”

  They entered the vestibule; and right away a face with hard features and short hair, but beardless, with a woman’s figure and pale complexion, appeared behind the counter of the coatroom, saying in a dry voice, “Vestiaire.” Amused, Giulia went up to the counter and turned around, letting her cape slide down her bare shoulders into the hands of this checkroom attendant in a black jacket, starched shirt, and bowtie. Then, in the air thick with smoke, deafened by music and the roar of voices, they passed into the dance hall.

  A full-bodied woman of an uncertain age but surely past youth with a fat, pale, smooth face squeezed under the chin by the uniform black bowtie came to meet them between the crowded tables. She greeted Quadri’s wife with affectionate familiarity and then, raising a monocle tied by a silken cord to the lapel of her masculine jacket to her imperious eye, she said, “Four people.… I have just what you need, Signora Quadri. Please follow me.”

  Lina, whom the place seemed to have put into a good mood, leaned on the woman with the monocle’s shoulder and said something gay and malicious to which the woman responded, exactly like a man, with a shrug and a wry face. Following her, they reached the other end of the room, where there was an empty table.

  “Voilà,” said the manager. It was her turn to lean over Lina, who was sitting down, and whisper something in her ear with a playful, even mischievous air; then she strutted off between the tables, her body and her small, shining head held ramrod straight.

  A short, stocky, very dark waitress came up, dressed in the same style, and Lina, with the careless and happy security of someone who finally finds herself in a place that suits her, ordered the drinks. Then she turned toward Giulia and said gaily, “Do you see how they’re dressed? It’s a real convent … isn’t it curious?”

  Marcello thought Giulia was looking embarrassed by this time; she was wearing a set, completely conventional smile. In a small round space between the tables, under a kind of overturned cement mushroom vibrating with false neon light, many couples were pressed tightly together, some of them pairs of women. The orchestra, which was also composed of women dressed like men, was confined under the stairway that led to the balcony.

  The professor said, somewhat distractedly, “I don’t like this place.… These women seem to me to deserve more compassion than curiosity.”

  Lina did not appear to have heard her husband’s observation. She was looking at Giulia, her eyes filled with a voracious light. Finally she said to her with a nervous laugh, as if yielding to an irresistible desire, “Shall we dance together? That way they’ll take us for two of them … it’s fun … let’s pretend to be like them. Come on, come on.…” Laughing and excited, she had already gotten to her feet and was urging Giulia to get up, putting one hand on her shoulder. Giulia was looking at her and then at her husband irresolutely.

  Marcello said dryly, “Why are you looking at me? There’s nothing wrong with it.” He understood that he must second Lina this time, too. Giulia sighed and stood up slowly and reluctantly.

  Meanwhile, Lina, who had completely lost her head, was repeating, “If even your husband says there’s nothing wrong with it … come on, come on.”

  Giulia seemed put out and said as she was going, “To tell the truth, I don’t care to be taken for one of them.”

  But she continued walking in front of Lina and, when they had reached the space reserved for dancing, turned toward her with her arms outstretched, waiting to be embraced. Marcello watched Lina move close, put her arm around Giulia’s waist with masculine certainty and authority, and then dance her onto the floor among the other couples. For a moment he watched, with obscure and painful amazement, the two embraced and dancing women. Giulia was smaller than Lina and they were dancing cheek to cheek; and at every step, Lina’s arm seemed to squeeze Giulia’s waist more tightly. It was a sad and incredible sight. This, he couldn’t help thinking, was the love that in a different world, with a different life, would have been destined for him, the love that would have saved him, the love he would have enjoyed. But a hand was touching his arm. He turned and saw Quadri’s shapeless red face bent toward his own.

  “Clerici,” said Quadri in an emotional voice, “don’t think I didn’t understand
.”

  Marcello stared at him and said slowly, “Excuse me, but now I don’t understand.”

  “Clerici,” the professor replied quickly, “you know who I am. But I, too, know who you are.” He had taken the lapels of Marcello’s jacket in both hands and was looking at him with great intensity.

  Marcello, disturbed, frozen with a kind of terror, stared back into his face: no, there was no hatred in Quadri’s eyes, only a sentimental, tearful, yearning emotion that was still, thought Marcello, discreetly calculating and malicious.

  Then Quadri went on, “I know who you are and I realize that by speaking in this way I may give you the impression that I’m living under an illusion, that I’m naif or just plain stupid … it doesn’t matter. Clerici, despite everything, I want to speak sincerely, and I’m telling you: thank you.”

  Marcello looked at him and said nothing. His jacket lapels were still in Quadri’s hands and he felt the jacket pull tightly around his neck, as it does when someone grabs you to fling you away.

  “I say to you, thank you,” continued Quadri, in a moved voice. “Don’t think I haven’t understood you. If you had done your duty, you would have taken the letter and showed it to your superiors … to decipher, to arrest the people it was addressed to. You didn’t do that, Clerici, you didn’t want to do it … out of loyalty, a sudden realization that you were mistaken, an instant of doubt, honesty … I don’t know … I only know that you didn’t do it, and once more I say to you, thank you.”

  Marcello made a move as if to respond, but Quadri, finally letting go of the jacket, stopped his mouth with his hand. “No,” he said, “don’t tell me you didn’t want to accept the letter so I wouldn’t get suspicious, so you could remain faithful to your obligatory role of a newlywed on his honeymoon.… Don’t say it because I know it isn’t true. In reality, you’ve taken the first step toward redemption, and I thank you for having given me the opportunity to help you take it. Keep on, Clerici, and you can be truly reborn to a new life.” Quadri sat back in his chair and pretended to quench his thirst with a long swallow from his glass. “But here are the ladies,” he said, standing back up. Marcello, who was dumbstruck, stood up with him.

 
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