The Empty Canvas, p.29Alberto Moravia
'I can't tell you, I haven't thought about it.'
'Think about it now, then.' I saw her look round the room again; then she raised her glass to her lips, took a sip and remained silent. This was one of her ways of eluding me: by silence. 'But at any rate,' I insisted, 'I should like to know what you're thinking about.'
Almost brusquely, she replied: 'I was thinking that perhaps it might be better for us to go to some quieter place; then I could give you the answer you wanted.'
'About getting married.'
'Where would you like to go?'
'It's all the same to me.'
'Let's go upstairs. We can be quiet there. And you can see the house, too.'
We put down our two glasses on the window-sill, then I took Cecilia by the arm again and steered her through the crowd towards a door at the far end of the room. I opened the door and led her into the passage. Immediately the din, the smoke, the crowd were replaced by the customary air of the house, clean, deserted, and silent. I guided Cecilia to the staircase and started going up with her, one hand on the brass rail and the other on her shoulder. 'Would you like to live here?' I asked her.
'Here or in some other place, it's just the same to me.'
'But here there's my mother.'
'She's charming, your mother.'
I exclaimed, in astonishment: 'Good Heavens, what d'you find charming about my mother?'
'I don't know, she's charming.'
By this time we had reached the first floor. 'D'you want to see my room?' I asked.
I threw the door open and showed it to her. It had remained just as it was on the day when I ran away, leaving my trousers in the hands of Rita—with the shutters closed and the mattress rolled up on the bed. She gave it a cursory glance, with a complete absence of curiosity, and said: 'Does no one use it now?'
'There are some empty rooms upstairs,' I said. 'We could take them over, if we get married. Don't you think you'd be better off here, in a room like this, than in the one where you're living now?'
Her answer confirmed my conviction that she saw nothing, and that for her there was no difference between my mother's splendid Empire furniture and the junk in her own home. 'Why?' she said. 'The two rooms are much the same. There's a bed here as there is there, a wardrobe and chairs too, just as there are there.'
'At least you'll admit that it's larger?'
'Yes, it's larger.'
I shut the door again and said: 'Let's go to my mother's room. She's busy with her cocktail party. We can talk there as much as we like.'
I led her to the bedroom, opened the door and pushed her forward into the darkness, as I might have pushed her into a prison to shut her up for ever. Then I turned on the light. The big, comfortable room, in which there was not an inch of bare wall or uncarpeted floor and where everywhere there were curtains and hangings and rugs, seemed to me suffocating. I went to one of the windows, threw it open and looked out for a moment. The window overlooked the Italian garden, and beyond it the whole garden could be seen, with its avenues and trees, its fountain and pergola. Night had fallen now; the black, starless sky was dimly lit from time to time by flashes of lightning from some far-off thunderstorm, the air scarcely less hot and suffocating than inside the room. Lamps on the ground, concealed amongst the hedges, threw a false, quivering light upon the feet of the many guests who had gradually come out from the ground floor rooms and were scattered about the garden. Thus they appeared illuminated up to their knees, in a ghostly sort of way; but from their knees upwards they melted into the darkness, so that it looked as though the whole garden were populated by male and female legs without any bodies. While I was watching this spectacle, Cecilia's voice made me jump. 'Where is the bathroom?' she asked.
'That door over there.'
Without a word she went over to the bathroom door. I left the window and went and sat in an armchair at the foot of the bed, and lit a cigarette.
I was struck by a large, old picture hanging to the left of the bed. It represented Danaë and the shower of gold, and was probably a recent acquisition of my mother who, as I knew, sometimes 'invested' her money in works of art: I did not in fact remember having seen it before. Danaë was depicted lying on a bed very like my mother's bed, low and wide, with a canopy decorated with bronze ornamentations. Leaning against a pile of pillows, her bosom drawn back and her belly thrust forward, one leg stretched out along the mattress and the other bent and dangling in the air, she was looking complacently at her lap into which, out of the shadow of the heavy curtains, fell the shower of coins, of a gold as bright and shining as her own wanton hair lying scattered over her white shoulders and rosy bosom. It was an ordinary picture of a mythological subject, and in other circumstances I should not have paid it any attention. But at that moment it struck me as something which concerned me, if only in an indirect, obscure manner. So I went on contemplating the picture, wondering why it aroused my curiosity and what the significance of such curiosity could be. Then suddenly the bathroom door opened and Cecilia came back into the room.
She had undressed and had wrapped herself in a short towel which just covered her hips and bosom, and looked like one of these abbreviated pieces of material which women in the tropics wind round their bodies. Approaching me on tiptoe, she said: 'D'you know, my trouble is all over? So we can make love if you like.'
'Why not? It's so comfortable here.'
I had a sudden feeling that this was a treacherous, self-interested piece of generosity, as though Cecilia were intending, by offering herself in this unexpected way when I had already given up the idea, to compensate me in some way, in advance, for a loss of which I was still ignorant. I said brusquely: 'Very well, but first you must give me your answer.'
'Whether you'll agree to become my wife.'
She said nothing, but wandered about the room for a little and then, with sudden decision, came and sat on my knee. She began to untie my tie and unbutton my collar, and said slowly: 'Dino, you're the only man I could marry because with you I can be natural and sincere and not hide anything.'
'Really?' I exclaimed, somewhat astonished by this preamble. 'Personally, I always have the impression that with me you hide everything, or nearly everything. If it's like that with me, whatever happens with other people?'
Bending her head as she puhed off my tie and then, one by one, undid the buttons of my shirt, she went on as if she had not heard what I said. 'And this is a lovely house. I should like to live in it with you.'
'Besides,' she continued, trying hard to pull my arm out of the sleeve of my coat, 'you've promised me so many nice things—travelling, clothes, parties.'
'But I must tell you I can't marry you. I ought to have told you at once, when you spoke to me about it, but I hadn't the courage, I saw you were so set on it.' By this time she had succeeded in taking off my jacket and my shirt too; she folded them and threw them aside, to the bottom of the bed.
I now had a feeling of immense astonishment; it was just as though I had really believed Cecilia would be flattered at the idea of becoming my wife. The fact of the matter, as I at last realized, was that, just as in the past I had hoped to possess her by means of money, so, this time, I had imagined I could achieve the same end by offering her something that women almost always place before money—marriage. I asked angrily: 'Why don't you want to?'
'I don't want to because I don't want to.'
'Because of Luciani,' she said drily. 'I don't want to leave him.'
'D'you want to marry him?'
'Oh no. I'm not thinking of that. Besides, he has a wife already.'
'Luciani has a wife?'
'Yes, and he has to support her, too.'
Exasperated, I cried: 'What does Luciani matter to me? I'd let you see him as much as you liked.'
'No. I said no
Speaking in the same tone with which she had answered me when I had offered to pay her a fixed monthly sum, a tone which suggested that she was attached to a convenient and cherished habit, she said: 'No, no, Dino, why should we get married? Let's stay as we are; it all works so well as it is.'
With almost unbelievable tenacity, I now clung more and more to the idea of marriage, possibly because Cecilia would have nothing to do with it. 'But if I let you see Luciani, or anyone else you like,' I said; 'if nothing changes except for the better, if instead of living in a wretched flat with your family you come and live in this villa with me, why on earth should you refuse? What is it that makes you refuse?'
'I don't want to get married, that's all,' she answered in a decisive manner; then, getting off my knee and pulling me by the hand, she added: 'Come on, come along now, let's make love.'
Mechanically, almost in spite of myself, I rose to my feet. And then a ridiculous thing happened: my trousers, the belt of which Cecilia had in the meantime undone, fell down to my feet and I stumbled over them. 'No,' I yelled, at the height of fury, 'no, I don't want to. I only want to know why you won't be my wife.'
She stood looking at me; then warned me, ambiguously: 'As you like. But if we don't do it today we shan't be able to do it for some time.'
'I'd decided not to tell you, so as not to make you angry. I would have written you a post-card and you'd have got to know like that. But after all it's best that you should know. Tomorrow morning I'm leaving for Ponza with Luciani and we're staying away for about a fortnight.'
I was already in a rage, and this revelation, which at last explained Cecilia's behaviour that day, redoubled my fury. So she had decided to spend a couple of weeks with Luciani at Ponza; it was for this reason, and for this reason only—that is, in order to console me in some degree—that she had suggested that morning that we should spend the day together; for this reason and for this reason only that she had suggested making love with me; and finally, however strange it may seem, it was for this reason and this reason only that she had refused to become my wife. I knew Cecilia pretty well by now and had had experience of her complete lack of imagination and of her indifferent, apathetic disinterestedness. I knew also that she was incapable of thinking of more than one thing at a time—the nearest and most immediate and most attractive. In this case the trip to Ponza with the actor was the nearest and most immediate and most attractive thing; for the sake of this trip, therefore, she did not hesitate to refuse a marriage which, at another moment, she might perhaps have accepted.
I was suddenly aware of the pain this caused me, and that, whereas shortly before I had wanted at all costs that she should become my wife, I should now be satisfied if she did not go to Ponza. I said, in a voice of deep distress: 'Don't go!'
She did not answer me; but she went to the bed, got on to it and lay down, slowly, complacently, placidly, her back against the pillows, one leg stretched out on the bed, the other bent, her foot dangling in the air; exactly like Danaë in the picture.
Then, starting to unwrap the towel from round her body, she said: 'Why d'you think about the future? Come here now and lie down beside me.'
'But I don't want you to go.'
'We've already booked the room.'
'Well, tell Luciani you don't feel well, and don't go.'
'It's not possible.'
'Because I like the idea of going to Ponza and I don't see why I shouldn't go.'
'If you don't go, I'll give you a present.'
She was naked now, lying in a relaxed attitude with her breasts free and her hips comfortably settled on the bed; and she was looking up in childish curiosity at the hangings. Without lowering her eyes, she asked in an absent-minded way: 'What sort of present?'
'Whatever you like.'
'But what, for instance?'
'For instance, a sum of money.'
She lowered her big dark eyes and looked at me in a vague, expressionless, slightly surprised sort of manner. 'How much would you give me?' she asked.
I looked back at her and then, struck by the resemblance of her attitude to that of Danaë in the picture on the wall close by, I had a sudden idea. 'I'll give you all the money it takes to cover you.'
'How d'you mean?'
'I mean that you're to lie still there on the bed and I'll cover you with banknotes from head to foot. If you give up the idea of going to Ponza, I'll give you, as I say, all the money it takes to cover you from head to foot.'
She started to laugh, flattered and attracted more, it would seem, by the novelty of the game than by the bargain I had suggested. 'What ideas you get into your head,' she said.
'Painter's ideas,' I said dishonestly.
'Anyhow, where have you got the money?'
I rose and ran into the bathroom, where I swiftly did what I had foreseen, during all that time, that I would eventually do: I moved the tiles, uncovered the steel door of the safe, turned the dials according to the secret combination which I knew by heart. I was hoping, all the time, that the money would be there. If it so happened that there was no money, I thought, I would cover Cecilia with share certificates, which anyhow were equivalent to money, as my mother had so often pointed out to me.
But the money was there. On top of the usual two or three rolls of bonds was the well-known yellow envelope, stuffed to bursting-point. I seized it, took out the notes which it contained and went back into the bedroom. As I went towards her, Cecilia looked at me with a kind of leer which, I could not help thinking, was positively mythological—much as Danaë must have looked when the first golden coin tumbled into her lap. 'Now,' I told her with a smile, 'lie down flat.'
As she lay down she looked at me with curiosity and amusement and also, I thought, with a touch of agitation. The bundle of notes that I had taken from the envelope was a thick one; I calculated there must be fifty notes of ten thousand lire each. I started from the bottom, symbolically, by spreading a single, carefully smoothed note over her dark, curly groin. Then, moving upwards, I covered the white, childish belly, the slim waist, and the beautiful brown bosom, placing one banknote on each breast. I wrapped another note across her neck; four I put on her shoulders and four on her arms. Then I went down again below her belly, and covered her legs with notes right down to her small feet. Cecilia at first followed this operation with childish, attentive curiosity, just as though it were a game; then all of a sudden she began to laugh, with nervous uncontrollable laughter. I could not help thinking hopefully that this was the laughter of a woman who finally yields to her lover, after repulsing him for a long time. In such a way, I reflected, must Danaë have laughed when she felt the divine shower of gold flooding her with amorous voluptuousness. Still laughing, Cecilia continued to take part in the game, pointing to the places that still remained to be covered: 'There's still room here, put one here, and here.' Finally she lay still, looking like some strange bedizened animal, flat on her back with her face turned towards me and her eyes wide open. I said curtly: 'There are twenty-four ten thousand-lire notes. If you don't go to Ponza, I'll give you the lot.'
She started laughing again and exclaimed: 'I thought there'd be more than that.'
I thought it might not be enough for her, so I went on: 'I'll give you twice the amount, the number that's needed to cover you back and front. That's fair, because after all you have a back and a front.'
Lying now beneath the banknotes, motionless and as though afraid of disarranging them and so spoiling the game, she looked at me with an expression of regretful perplexity. At last she said: 'I'm sorry, Dino, but it's not possible.' She was silent a moment, still looking at me, then she went on with an unusual gentleness that could not have been feigned: 'Let's make love now. Then, when I come back from Ponza, I promise you we'll do it more often than in the past and I promise you we'll see more of each other.'
I saw that the gentl
'No, it's not possible.'
She lay still, taking care not to move beneath her garment of banknotes, as though the game were going on and she were awaiting its final phase. Then suddenly I felt myself assailed by the usual blind male impulse, which urged me to take her because I could not succeed in possessing her, as if by taking her I could in fact possess her. I threw myself upon her and covered her body, and the banknotes that covered it, with my own body. Cecilia showed at once that she had expected the game to end in this way, clinging closely to me with her arms and legs, while the banknotes, horribly dirty and incongruous, crackled and slithered between our two ardent, sweating bodies. Other notes, meanwhile, had become scattered round us on the bed-covers; and yet others on the pillow, amongst Cecilia's hair.
Afterwards, Cecilia lay supine, her legs apart, motionless and sated like a great snake that has swallowed an animal bigger than itself. I lay on top of her, no less motionless; and when I reflected upon our two separate stillnesses, I realized that mine was the stillness that can follow a futile, exhausting effort, while hers had the quality of full, rich satisfaction. Suddenly I recalled the time when I was still painting, when, after working the whole day, I would feel tired, not with an exhausted tiredness such as I felt now but with a satisfied tiredness like Cecilia's; and I said to myself that in our relationship it was she, in reality, who possessed me and I who was possessed, although nature, for her own ends, deceived both Cecilia and me into thinking the opposite. And so, I thought, as a man I was finished: not only would I never paint again, but I should also destroy myself in the pursuit of that species of mirage which seemed to rise up from Cecilia's womb as from the sands of the desert; and in the end, like Balestrieri, I should sink into the darkness of mania.
The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes