The Empty Canvas, p.30Alberto Moravia
I was drawn out of these reflections by Cecilia's voice, saying: 'At least you must admit that I'm not mercenary.'
I asked, in surprise: 'Why d'you say that?'
'Any other woman, in my place, would have taken the money and then gone away just the same.'
'And what then?'
'Well, you must admit that, in a way, I've saved you a lot of money.'
'It's not I who have saved it,' I said, hoping, almost, that Cecilia had thought better of it and was going to accept my proposal; 'it's you who have lost it.'
'Just as you like. Now I want to ask you a favour.'
'What is that?'
'You were ready to give me nearly half a million lire if I didn't go away. Instead, lend me a small part of that amount, forty thousand.'
'But what d'you want it for?' I inquired stupidly.
'Luciani, as you know, is out of a job, and we have very little money. It would be useful for our trip to Ponza.'
Before I realized what was happening, I had leapt forward and fastened my hands round Cecilia's neck, shouting the first words of abuse that came into my head. They say that at certain moments of great intensity a man can think and act in contrary ways. In that second when I clasped Cecilia's neck, my thought was that perhaps the only way of possessing her was by killing her. By killing her I should snatch her away from all the things that rendered her elusive, and should shut her up, once and for all, in the prison of death. And so, for one instant, I thought of strangling her, there on my mother's bed, amongst the banknotes she had refused, in the house in which we should have lived together if we had got married. And I should certainly have done it if I had not realized, in that same lucid, lightning-like moment, that this crime, at least as far as my intended purpose was concerned, would be useless. Instead of achieving full possession of Cecilia and liberating myself from her, I should, in reality, merely succeed in establishing her complete and final independence; wrapped in a mystery doubly sealed by death, she would have then eluded me for ever, irreparably. I relaxed my grip and said in a low voice: 'Forgive me, for a moment you made me lose my head.'
She did not appear to have understood the danger in which she had been. 'You hurt me,' she said. 'Whatever put it into your head to get angry like that?'
'I don't know. Again, please forgive me.'
'Never mind. It doesn't matter.'
I raised myself slightly on my elbow, quickly collected some of the notes and handed them to her, saying: 'Here's seventy thousand lire: is that enough?'
'That's too much, forty thousand would be enough.'
'Take them, they'll come in useful.'
She kissed me with ingenuous, disarming gratitude, and again I felt desire for her, still from the same old reason that she was there in my arms and at the same time not there, and that possibly, possibly, if I took her once again, possibly she might be there and might stay there. And so, with no fury this time, but gently, tenderly, despairingly, I passed my arm under her back, being careful not to hurt her with my wrist-watch, and when my hand, encircling her slender waist, almost met my other arm, I insinuated my legs between hers, passed my other arm under her neck, and when I held her closely enveloped and confined, penetrated slowly into her, as though I were hoping, by this slowness, to achieve the full possession which on all other occasions had eluded me. At the end, I asked her: 'That was good, wasn't it?'
'Yes, it was good.'
'Very good or rather good?'
'Better than usual?'
'Yes, perhaps better than usual.'
'Are you happy?'
'Yes, I'm happy.'
'D'you love me?'
'Yes, you know I love you.'
These were words I had used countless times, but never with a feeling so utterly desperate. As I said them, I was thinking that Cecilia would now go away to Ponza and that her departure, the concrete symbol of her elusiveness, would inevitably give new strength to my love and to my consequent longing to free myself from her by possessing her. So, when she came back, everything would begin all over again, just as it had been before she went away, but worse than before. I felt a sudden desire not to stay with her any longer, to get away from her. I said, as gently as I could: 'It's time we went away. Otherwise my mother might come and find us here, and that would be tiresome.'
'I'll get dressed at once.'
'Don't be in too much of a hurry. I said it would be tiresome, but not more than tiresome. It isn't really important. At most, my mother would protest not so much at the thing itself as at the way it was done.'
'How d'you mean?'
'My mother attaches great importance to what she calls good form. That's what we've failed to observe, by making love in her bedroom instead of in my studio.'
'What is good form?'
'I don't know. Probably it's the result of thinking a great deal about money.'
We finished dressing in silence. Then I collected the banknotes that were lying scattered over the bed, went into the bathroom and wrote in pencil on the envelope: 'Have taken 70,000 lire. Thank you. Dino'; and I put the envelope back in the safe. Cecilia was rearranging the bed-covers. Then she asked: 'Where are we going now?'
A sudden impulse of rage swept over me. 'We're not going anywhere,' I said; 'it wouldn't be any use now, anyhow. I'll take you home.'
I almost hoped she might show displeasure or regret in face of this abrupt change in our programme. Instead of which she answered, with indifference: 'Just as you like.'
'Just as I like?' I insisted. 'No, it's just as you like; it's you who are going away tomorrow. It's up to you to say whether you want us to stay together until midnight or not.'
'It's all the same to me.'
'Why is it all the same?'
'Because I know I shall see you again in two weeks' time.'
'Are you sure of that?'
'Oh well, I'll take you home.'
During this little discussion we had left the bedroom and gone down to the ground floor. We walked along the passage; an intense hubbub, like the clamour of a disturbed beehive, could be heard on the other side of the closed doors; the party was still going on. We followed the passage into the hall and went out in front of the house.
The unexpected freshness of the summer night made me look up instinctively at the sky as I opened the door of the car: the storm which had been hanging over the city all day long had burst elsewhere; the sky had now cleared and stars were shining brightly, and here and there a few light clouds mingled their whiteness with the luminous whiteness of the Milky Way. Cecilia, I thought, would have fine weather for her trip to Ponza; and again I was conscious of jealousy gnawing at my anxious heart. Yes, I would be counting the days, the hours, the minutes and the seconds as I waited for her to come back, knowing all the time that during those same days and hours and minutes and seconds she would be joking, laughing, strolling about, going in a boat on the sea, and making love with Luciani—eluding me, in fact. And when she came back, I should not be able to restrain myself from starting to run after her again, like Balestrieri, in whose footsteps, it seemed, I was condemned to follow.
I do not think I spoke more than two or three times, and then more and more briefly, during our drive from my mother's villa to Cecilia's home. Once I asked her, stupidly, to write to me, although I was very well aware that Cecilia, so reticent in speech, must be utterly dumb in correspondence and so would not write anything, even a picture post-card. We reached the street in which she lived. I stopped and she got out and I said good-bye to her, after kissing her lightly on the mouth. I watched her as she crossed the street and thought: 'Let's hope that at least she'll turn round in the doorway and smile and wave to me.' But I was disappointed in my expectation. Cecilia crossed the threshold and disappeared without turning round.
As soon as she disappeared I realized that I had no desire to go to my studio or anywhere else. The only place where I wished to go
I do not know how long I debated this problem, sitting in my car in the deserted street in front of Cecilia's door. Finally I said to myself that Cecilia, after all, had almost insisted on our being together until midnight, and that therefore there would be nothing strange about it if I, regretting that I had left her so early, telephoned and suggested taking her out to dinner. Cecilia, as I knew, had an almost unlimited patience, and when she refused to do something she never refused because she did not want to do it but merely because she could not do otherwise. Suddenly making up my mind, I quickly backed the car to the corner, got out and went into the bar.
But the telephone was occupied by precisely the type of person whom one could not possibly expect to finish quickly—a girl of modest appearance, a servant-girl, perhaps, who was speaking and answering in an extremely low voice and with the long reflective pauses of one who is engaged in a sentimental conversation. I did not hesitate a moment, but went straight out again and walked back resolutely back to Cecilia's door. Why should I telephone? I would go up to the flat, find her there and hurry her into her bedroom.
I ran all the way up the stairs, ran across to ring the bell, then stopped panting on the landing, waiting for the door to open so that I could rush into the flat. But it was not Cecilia who came to open the door; it was her mother, with a troubled expression, I at once noticed, on her worn, painted face. 'Cecilia?' I inquired.
She replied, in a voice of distress: 'Cecilia's not here, Professor.'
'What, she's not here?'
'She went out just two minutes ago.'
'But where has she gone?'
'She's gone out to dinner.'
'What time will she back?'
'She's not coming back, Professor. She took her suitcase with her. She's going with a girl friend to Ponza. She's sleeping at her friend's house tonight and she'll be back in a fortnight.'
Thus, while I had been debating whether it was advisable to telephone her, Cecilia had run up to the flat, fetched her already packed suitcase, gone out by the usual door which opened on to the other street and made her way to Luciani's. I looked up at her mother's face and saw that she was biting her handkerchief and that her eyes were filled with tears. 'But what has happened?' I could not help asking.
'Cecilia has gone away, and her father is dying. She's left me alone in this empty house. My husband was taken off yesterday to the clinic, and there's no hope now.'
'There's no hope?'
'No, the doctors give him only two or three days to live.'
'But isn't Cecilia fond of her father?'
'Ah, Cecilia's not fond of anyone, Professor.'
All at once I remembered, for some reason, how Cecilia had come to look for me on the very day on which Balestrieri died. 'I'm sorry,' I said abruptly, 'I'm truly sorry'; and after listening impatiently, with a set face, to a few further laments, I went away.
As I walked back to the car, I realized that I could not endure the idea that Cecilia was with the actor at that very moment. I was faced with the usual impossibility of doing anything at all except what I felt I ought not to do; and this was confirmed and made even more hopeless by my recent disappointment. I jumped into the car and very soon became aware that I was driving in the direction of Via Archimede, where Luciani lived. I say I became aware because I was acting in an automatic fashion with the type of automatism which goes with extreme rage. When I reached Via Archimede, I drove at headlong speed down the narrow, winding street as far as the bar, where I stopped and looked across at Luciani's windows. They were in darkness, and at once I was sure that the two lovers were not there. Nevertheless I got out of the car, entered the building and went and rang the bell of the actor's flat on the ground floor. I do not know what came into my mind as I listened to the prolonged ringing of the bell inside the empty flat; I only know that two minutes later I was in the bar dialling the telephone number of a procuress through whom, in the past, I had made contact with girls of easy virtue. When the woman came to the end of the line, she told me there was a girl available at the usual place, a villa on the Via Cassia.
Back in the car, I reflected that the girl whom I was now preparing to visit was the exact opposite of Cecilia: she was at my entire disposal for a sum of money and I should possess her completely, with no margins of independence or mystery, thanks to that same sum of money. Thus, what I had not succeeded in doing in the villa on the Via Appia, with a proposal of marriage and half a million lire, I should now achieve, at small expense, in the maison de rendez-vous on the Via Cassia. But the girl was not Cecilia; why, then, was I going to visit her?
I realized to my astonishment, when I tried to answer this question, that at the back of my absurd telephone call to the procuress there was a strange, almost unbelievable hope. In the midst of my fury I hoped, I truly hoped that in the villa on the Via Cassia I should find Cecilia herself waiting for me, ready to give herself to me and to allow me, at last, full possession. I really do not know whence this hope came to me; partly, perhaps, from the alluring words of the procuress who, like all her kind, had made marvellous promises of the very thing she could not in any possible way provide—that is, love; but partly also from the fact that, all rational means of possessing Cecilia having proved vain, my only hope now lay in a miracle.
With these thoughts in my head, or rather, in this raging, almost mystical state of mind, I drove out of the city and started along the Via Cassia. The villa was in the open country; I went on for about twenty minutes or so and then arrived at a rustic iron gate, wide open, with a rough lane leading up from it to the top of a hill upon which could be seen a white building. I drove quickly through the gate and up the road between little stunted trees that appeared to have been only recently planted. Leaning forward on the steering-wheel, I could see that all the windows in the villa were dark; then one of these windows was lit up. The car came out on to an open, gravelled space; I stopped and got out.
The villa was a building of great simplicity, with two floors and three windows on each floor, and with an outside staircase of a countrified type going up to the first floor. The staircase led to a little balcony, upon which, just as I was getting out of the car, a lighted lantern suddenly appeared. Then a small black figure was outlined against the yellow light of the lantern, that of a girl with luxuriant hair, a prominent bosom, a slim waist—in fact, I was sure of it, Cecilia.
I thought: 'It's Cecilia!', and rushed up the staircase; while the dark figure, leaning placidly with her elbows on the balustrade, watched me as I came up. When I reached the top, she straightened up and came forward to meet me, saying: 'Good evening.'
She was against the light and I could not see her face, but her voice seemed to me to be Cecilia's and I took her in my arms. I saw, then, the pretty, plump face of a very young girl, a face covered with the fashionable livid, corpse-like powder, with lilac-painted lips, eyes encircled with black, and fair, straw-coloured hair. She had Cecilia's prominent bosom; her waist, round which I had put my arms, was as slim as Cecilia's. But it was not Cecilia.
But, in my stupefaction, I exclaimed: 'Cecilia!'
The girl smiled and replied: 'My name isn't Cecilia, my name's Gianna.'
'But I wanted Cecilia.'
'I don't know who Cecilia is, there's no Cecilia here. Well, shall we go in?'
I said: 'Cecilia, I came for Cecilia'; then I tore myself away from the girl, ran down the stairs, crossed the open space and got back into my car. A moment later I was driving along the Via Cassia,
For some time now I had been conscious, when driving my car, of a frequent temptation to go off the road and rush at full speed into the first obstacle I encountered. This temptation, singularly hard to resist, was enticing and at the same time reassuring—like the temptation a child feels when he plays with his father's revolver and from time to time raises it to his forehead. And yet I did not think of killing myself; the idea of suicide was never in my mind. The desire for death was, on the contrary, in my body, which was worn out with anguish, so that I often felt that my arm would very easily give the steering-wheel the half-turn which was all that would be required to hurl the car against a boundary wall or a white-banded plane-tree. It was, as I have said, an almost irresistible temptation, sweet and reassuring; and it made me think of the temptation to fall asleep which sometimes gets the better of us in spite of ourselves, causing us to dream that we are resisting sleep and are awake, when in reality we are already fast asleep. Thus I already knew in advance that, if I killed myself in my car, I should do it without realizing it and without intending it, just as though I had really followed an imaginary road different from the one along which I was driving, a road which took no account of boundary walls or trees or houses, and at the end of which was death.
Now that evening, as I was driving along the Via Cassia, in a haphazard way, out into the country, there flashed into my mind a remark I had once heard, I do not know when or where: 'Humanity is divided into two main categories; those who, when faced with an insurmountable difficulty, feel an impulse to kill, and those who, on the contrary, feel an impulse to kill themselves.' I said to myself that I had tried the first horn of the dilemma and had failed in the attempt: I had been incapable of killing Cecilia, shortly before, on my mother's bed. Now, therefore, there was nothing left but to kill myself. It occurred to me that, if I killed myself, I should be behaving exactly like any other lover, ever since the world began: Cecilia was going off to Ponza with Luciani and so I killed myself. But it was precisely this reflection upon the banality and normality of my position that inspired in me a destructive fury more intense than ever. At that moment I came on to a straight stretch of road bordered with trees; there was a slow-moving lorry in front of me. I changed gear in order to overtake it, and it was possibly this change of gear, with its consequent slowing down, that saved my life. Immediately after changing gear, just as though I had really seen another road on my left into which I wanted to turn, I drove the car into a plane-tree.
The Empty Canvas by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes