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The conformist, p.29
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       The Conformist, p.29

           Alberto Moravia
 

  “I’d prefer her not to come … she never leaves me in peace with that love of hers.”

  Marcello said nothing.

  After a moment, Giulia went on, “What’s the plan for the next few days?”

  Before he could hold himself back, Marcello answered, “We’re leaving,” in a voice that he knew sounded almost dismal, such was the strength of his sorrow.

  This time Giulia roused herself; without detaching herself from him, she pulled her head and shoulders back a little and said in a surprised, already alarmed voice, “Leaving? So soon? We just got here and already we have to leave?”

  “I didn’t tell you last night,” he lied, “so as not to ruin your evening. But yesterday afternoon I received a telegram calling me back to Rome.”

  “What a shame … really, what a shame,” said Giulia in a good-natured, already resigned tone of voice. “Just as I was starting to enjoy myself in Paris. And we haven’t even seen anything yet.”

  “Are you very disappointed?” he asked gently, stroking her head.

  “No, but I would have preferred to stay here a day or so, at least … if only to get some idea of Paris.”

  “We’ll come back.”

  A silence followed. Then Giulia threw her arms around him and pressed her whole body against his, saying, “Then at least tell me what we’re going to do in the future … tell me what our life is going to be like.”

  “Why do you want to know?”

  “Just because,” she answered, hugging him even more tightly. “Because I love to talk about the future … in bed … in the dark.”

  “All right,” began Marcello, in a calm and colorless voice. “First we’ll go back to Rome and look for a house.”

  “How big?”

  “Four or five rooms with a kitchen and bath. Once we’ve found it, we’ll buy everything we need to furnish it.”

  “I’d like an apartment on the ground floor,” she said in a dreamy voice, “with a garden. It wouldn’t have to be big … but with flowers and trees, so we could sit out there when the weather’s nice.”

  “Nothing could be easier,” confirmed Marcello. “So, we’ll set up house.… I think I’ll have enough money to outfit it completely. Not with expensive furniture, of course.…”

  “You’ll make a nice study for yourself,” she said.

  “Why should I have a study, when I do my work at the office? Better to have a big living room.”

  “Yes, a living room, you’re right … sitting room and dining room together. And we’ll have a beautiful bedroom, won’t we?”

  “Certainly.”

  “But no couches that fold out, they’re so squalid … I want a regular bedroom, with a big double bed. And tell me, will we have a nice kitchen, too?”

  “A nice kitchen, why not?”

  “I want a double-burner stove, with gas and electricity, and I want to have a big beautiful frigidaire.… If we don’t have enough money, we could buy them on the installment plan.”

  “Of course, on the installment plan.”

  “Tell me some more. What will we do in this house?”

  “We’ll live there and be happy.”

  “I need to be happy so much,” she said, curling herself even more tightly against him, “so much. If you only knew … it feels like I’ve wanted to be happy ever since I was born.”

  “All right, we’ll be happy,” said Marcello firmly, almost aggressively.

  “Will we have children?”

  “Certainly.”

  “I want a lot of them,” she said in a lilting voice, “I want one for every year, at least for the first four years of our marriage. That way we’ll have a family, and I want to have a family as soon as possible.… It seems to me we shouldn’t wait, otherwise it will be too late … and when you have a family, all the rest comes by itself, doesn’t it?”

  “Certainly, all the rest comes by itself.”

  She was quiet for a minute and then asked, “Do you think I’m already pregnant?”

  “How would I know that?”

  “If I was,” she laughed, “it would mean that our child was conceived on a train.”

  “Would you like that?”

  “Yes, it would be a good omen for him. Who knows, maybe he’d become a great traveler! I want the first one to be a son … for the second, I’d prefer a girl … I’m sure she would be really beautiful. You’re so handsome and I’m not exactly ugly.… The two of us will surely give birth to really beautiful children.”

  Marcello said nothing and Giulia went on, “Why aren’t you saying anything? Wouldn’t you like to have children with me?”

  “Certainly,” he replied; and all of a sudden, to his astonishment, he felt two tears well up from his eyes and slide down his cheeks. And then two more — hot, burning, as if they had already formed in some remote, long-ago time and remained in his eyes to fill them with fiery pain. He understood that what had made him cry was Giulia’s earlier discourse on happiness, although he wasn’t sure why. Maybe because this happiness had been paid for in advance and at such great cost; maybe because he realized that he would never be happy, at least in the simple and affectionate way Giulia had described. With an effort, he finally stifled his desire to weep and, without letting Giulia see it, dried his eyes with the back of his hand.

  In the meantime Giulia was hugging him ever more tightly, gluing her body seductively to his, trying to guide his inert and distracted hands to hold and caress her. Then he felt her raise her face to his and start to kiss him hard, all over his cheeks, on his mouth, on his forehead, on his chin, with frenetic and infantile greed. At last she whispered, almost wailing, “Why don’t you come into me … take me,” and in her imploring voice he seemed to hear some reproach for having thought more of his own happiness than of hers. Then, as he was embracing her and sweetly and smoothly penetrating her; as beneath him, her eyes closed and her head on the pillow, she was beginning to raise and lower her hips in a regular, passive, and obscurely reflexive movement, like the motion of a wave in the sea that swells and flattens according to the ebb and flow, there was a resounding knock at the door.

  “Express!”

  “What can that be,” she murmured, panting, half-opening her eyes,” don’t move. What do you care?”

  Marcello turned and glimpsed — down on the floor, in the faint light by the door — a letter being pushed through the crack. At the same moment, Giulia fell back and stiffened beneath him, throwing back her head, sighing deeply, and digging her nails into his arms. She tossed her head back and forth on the pillow, and murmured, “Kill me.”

  For no reason Marcello suddenly remembered Lino’s cry, “Kill me like a dog,” and felt a terrible anxiety invade his spirit. He waited a long moment for Giulia’s hands to fall back on the bed; then he switched on the lamp, put his feet on the floor, went to pick up the letter, and returned to stretch out beside his wife. Giulia had turned her back to him now and was curled up on herself with her eyes shut. Marcello looked at the letter before putting it on the edge of the bed, near her open, still panting lips. On the envelope was written: “Madame Giulia Clerici,” in a clearly feminine hand.

  “A letter from Signora Quadri,” he said.

  Giulia murmured, without opening her eyes, “Give it to me.”

  A long silence followed. The letter, placed at the level of Giulia’s mouth, was plainly illuminated by the lamp; Giulia, motionless and collapsed, seemed to be asleep. Then she sighed, opened her eyes, and, holding the letter by its corner in one hand, tore the envelope open with her teeth, pulled out the paper, and read.

  Marcello saw her smile; then she murmured, “They say that in love, they win who flee.… Since I treated her badly yesterday evening, she’s informing me that she changed her mind and left this morning with her husband. She hopes that I’ll join her.… Have a good trip.”

  “She left?”

  “Yes, she left this morning at seven o’clock with her husband to go to Savoy. And you know why she le
ft? Do you remember last night when I danced with her the second time? I asked her to dance, and she was happy since she hoped that I was finally going to give in to her. Well, instead I told her very frankly that she must absolutely leave me alone, and that if she kept it up I’d stop seeing her altogether and that I only loved you and would she leave me in peace and wasn’t she ashamed of herself.… Well, I gave her such a talking- to that she almost cried. So today she left. You understand how calculated it was … I’m leaving so that you can run after me.… She’ll wait a while.”

  “Yes, she’ll wait a while,” repeated Marcello.

  “But, I’m glad she’s gone,” continued Giulia. “She was so insistent and annoying. As far as running after her, let’s not even talk about it. I don’t ever want to see that woman again.”

  “You’ll never see her again,” said Marcello.

  9

  THE ROOM MARCELLO worked in at the ministry looked out on a secondary courtyard. It was very small, asymmetrical in shape, and contained only a desk and a couple of bookshelves. It was located at the bottom of a dead-end hallway far away from the rooms in the front; to get there Marcello climbed up a backstairs that came out behind the palazzo into a more or less deserted alleyway.

  One morning, a week after his return from Paris, Marcello was sitting at his desk. Despite the intense heat, he had not taken off his suit jacket or unknotted his tie, as his colleagues generally did; it was his punctilious habit not to modify his street clothes in any way when he was in the office. Completely dressed, then, his neck squeezed into a high, tight, detachable collar, he began to examine the foreign and Italian newspapers before starting work. This morning, too, although six days had passed, he looked first for news of Quadri’s murder. He noticed that the articles and headlines about it were much reduced, undoubtedly a sign that the investigation had not made much progress. A couple of left-wing French papers were going over the tale of the crime one more time, dwelling on their interpretations of some of its strangest or most significant details: Quadri knifed to death in the thick of the woods; his wife, instead, struck by three pistol bullets at the edge of the road and then dragged, already dead, to lie beside her husband; the car taken into the woods as well and hidden in the brush. This careful concealment of the car and the corpses among the trees, far from the road, had kept them from being discovered for two days. The left-wing newspapers were sure that that the married couple had been murdered by hired assassins come up from Italy for the express purpose of killing them. A few of the foreign right-wing papers ventured to print, somewhat hesitantly, the official explanation of the Italian newspapers: that they had been assassinated by anti-Fascist companions over dissensions regarding the conduct of the war in Spain.

  Marcello hurled away the papers and picked up an illustrated French magazine. He was struck immediately by a photograph, printed on the second page as part of the whole journalistic coverage of the crime. It bore the caption Tragedy of Gevaudan Forest and must have been taken at the moment of discovery or shortly after. You could see underbrush, with the straight trunks of the trees bristling with branches, lighter splashes of sun between one trunk and another, and, on the ground, sunk in the tall grass, almost invisible at first sight in that shifting confusion of light and woodland shadow, the two bodies. Quadri was stretched out on his back and all you could see of him were his shoulders and head, and of this only the chin and the throat, sliced across with the black line of a knife cut. You could see Lina’s whole body, however, thrown partway across her husband’s. Marcello placed his lit cigarette calmly on the edge of the ashtray, took up a magnifying glass, and scrutinized the photograph with care. Although it was gray and out of focus, as well as being further blurred by splashes of sun and shade from the underbrush, he recognized Lina’s body, both slender and generous, pure and sensual, beautiful and strange: the broad shoulders under the delicate nape of the neck and slender throat, the exuberant breasts above the wasp-small waist, the fullness of the hips and the elegant length of the legs. She was covering her husband with part of her body and with her widespread dress and seemed to want to speak into his ear; she was turned to one side, her face immersed in the grass, her mouth against his cheek. Marcello gazed at the photograph through the lens for a long time, trying to study every shadow, every line, every detail. It seemed to him that that image, full of an immobility that went beyond the mechanical immobility of the instant to reach the definitive immobility of death, breathed forth an air of enviable peace. It was a photograph, he thought, full of the last, profound stillness that must have followed the sudden, terrible agony. A few instants before all had been confusion, violence, terror, hatred, hope, and desperation; a few instants afterward, all was over and peaceful. He recalled that the two bodies had remained in the underbrush a long time, almost two days; and he imagined that the sun, after having warmed them for many hours and attracted the buzzing insects to them, had gone down slowly, leaving them to the silent shadows of the sweet summer night. The night dew had wept on their cheeks, the light wind had murmured through the highest branches and the bushes of the undergrowth. With sunrise the lights and shadows of the day before had returned, as if for a meeting, to play over the two outstretched, motionless figures. Cheered by the freshness in the air and the pure splendor of the morning, a bird had perched on a limb and sung. A bee had flown around Lina’s head, a flower had opened near Quadri’s ruined forehead. It was for them, so silent and still, that the babbling waters of the brooks that snaked through the forest had spoken, their bodies the inhabitants of the woods had skirted around — the secretive squirrels, the leaping, wild rabbits. And meanwhile, beneath them, the burdened earth had slowly shifted the rigid shapes of their bodies on their soft bed of grasses and moss; she was prepared for them, and had accepted their mute request that she receive them into her womb.

  He started at a knock on the door, threw away the magazine, and shouted out, “Come in.”

  The door opened slowly and for a moment Marcello saw no one. Then the broad, honest, peaceful face of agent Orlando peered warily in through the crack.

  “May I, dottore?” asked the agent.

  “Please come in, Orlando,” said Marcello in an official tone of voice. “Make yourself comfortable. Did you have something to tell me?”

  Orlando came in, shut the door, and approached Marcello, staring at him intently. For the first time, Marcello noticed that everything was affable in that florid, heated face except for the small, deepset eyes, which sparkled weirdly beneath the bald forehead.

  “Strange,” thought Marcello, looking at him, “how I wasn’t aware of that sooner.” He nodded to the agent to sit, and Orlando obeyed without saying a word, still fixing him with those shining eyes.

  “A cigarette?” offered Marcello, pushing the box toward Orlando.

  “Thank you, dottore,” said the agent, taking one. A silence followed. Then Orlando blew some smoke from his mouth, looked for an instant at the lit end of the cigarette, and said, “Do you know, dottore, what the most curious aspect of the Quadri affair is?”

  “No, what?”

  “It wasn’t necessary.”

  “Meaning what?”

  “Meaning that after I got back from the mission, right after I crossed the border, I went to find Gabrio at S. to check in. Do you know the first thing he says to me? Have you received the counterorder? I ask: what counterorder? The counterorder, he says, to suspend the mission. And why is it suspended? It’s suspended, he answers, because all of a sudden in Rome they’ve discovered that right now it would be useful to have a rapprochement with France and they think the mission could compromise the negotiations. So I say: I didn’t receive any counterorder all the time I was in Paris, obviously it was sent too late.… Anyway, the mission has been carried out, as you’ll see in tomorrow morning’s papers. When I say this, he begins to yell: you’re all beasts, you’ve ruined me, this could blow French-Italian relations at a very delicate point of international politics, you’re cr
iminals, what will I tell Rome now? You’ll tell them, I answer calmly, the truth: that the counterorder was sent too late. Get it, dottore? All that effort, two people dead, and it wasn’t necessary, in fact it was counterproductive.”

  Marcello said nothing. The agent breathed in another mouthful of smoke and then said, with the naive and satisfied emphasis of the uncultured man who loves to fill his mouth with solemn words: “Fate.”

  A new silence followed. The agent went on, “But this is the last time I accept a mission like this … someone else can do it next time. Gabrio yelled, you’re beasts … but that’s not really true … we’re human beings, not beasts.”

  Marcello ground out the cigarette he had smoked halfway down and lit another. The agent continued, “They can say what they want, but some things are really unpleasant … Cirrincione for one.”

  “Who’s Cirrincione?”

  “One of the men who was with me. Right after the hit, in all that confusion, I turn around for no special reason and what do I see? He’s licking his knife. I yell at him, what are you doing? Are you crazy? And he says, ‘Humpback’s blood is good luck.’ Understand? Barbarian … I almost shot him.”

  Marcello lowered his eyes and reshuffled the papers on his desk mechanically. The agent shook his head in deprecation and then continued, “But what got to me most was the wife, she had nothing to do with it, she shouldn’t have died … but she threw herself onto her husband to protect him and took two slugs for him. He ran away into the woods where that barbarian Cirrincione reached him. She was still alive and I had to give her the coup de grace … that woman was braver than a lot of men.”

  Marcello raised his eyes toward the agent to signify that the visit was over. The agent understood and got to his feet. But he didn’t leave immediately. He put his two hands on the desk, looked at Marcello for a long moment with his sparkling eyes, and then, with the same emphasis with which he had uttered, “Fate,” shortly before, he said, “Anything for the family and homeland, dottore.”

 
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