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The conformist, p.31
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       The Conformist, p.31

           Alberto Moravia
 

  “Yes,” answered Marcello, leaving the chair to sit on the edge of the bed.

  “She had four kittens.”

  “So?”

  “Those girls’ governess said that if I want to, I can have one of those kittens … can I take one? That way I can bring him to Tagliacozzo with me.”

  “When were these kittens born?” asked Marcello.

  “The day before yesterday.”

  “Then it’s not possible,” said Marcello, stroking his daughter’s head. “The kittens have to stay with their mother as long as they’re nursing … you can have one when we come back from Taglicozzo.”

  “What if we don’t come back from Tagliacozzo?”

  “Why wouldn’t we come back? We’ll come back at the end of the summer,” replied Marcello, curling his daughter’s soft, dark hair around his fingers.

  “Ow, you’re hurting me,” complained the child immediately, at the first gentle tug.

  Marcello let go of her hair and said with a smile, “Why are you saying that? You know it’s not true.”

  “Yes it is, you were hurting me,” she answered emphatically. Then, bringing her hands up to her temples in a stubbornly feminine gesture, she added, “Now I’m going to get a big headache.”

  “Then I’ll pull your ears instead,” said Marcello playfully. Very very gently, he lifted the hair away from her small, round, rosy ear and gave it the slightest of tugs, ringing it like a little bell.

  “Ow, ow, ow,” she yelled in a shrill voice, pretending she was in pain, her whole face suffused with a faint blush, “ow, ow, you’re hurting me!”

  “Look what a liar you are,” Marcello reproached her, letting go of her ear. “You know you’re not supposed to tell lies.”

  “This time,” she said judiciously, “I swear you really hurt me.”

  “Do you want me to give you a doll for the night?” asked Marcello, turning to look at the carpet scattered with toys.

  She launched a look of calm disdain at the dolls and replied condescendingly, “If you want to.”

  “What do you mean, if I want to?” asked Marcello, smiling. “You talk as if you’re doing me a favor. Don’t you like to sleep with a doll?”

  “Yes, I like to,” she conceded. “Give me that one in the pink dress.”

  Marcello stood up and looked down at the carpet. “They all have pink dresses.”

  “There’s pink and pink,” said the child, conceited and impatient. “That doll’s pink is exactly the same as the pink of the pink roses on the balcony.”

  “This one here?” asked Marcello, picking up the biggest and most beautiful of the dolls from the carpet.

  “See how you don’t understand anything?” she said severely. Suddenly she jumped out of bed, ran in her bare feet to the corner of the rug, and gathered up a very ugly cloth doll with a squashed and blackened face. Then she ran back to bed and said, “There!”

  This time she settled down on her back under the sheet, her peaceful, rosy face pressed fondly against the dirty, astonished face of the doll. Giulia came back in with a bottle and a spoon in her hand.

  “Come on,” she said, coming over to the bed, “take your medicine.”

  This time the child didn’t make her plead. She lifted herself halfway up in the bed and obediently offered up her face and opened her mouth, like a baby bird waiting to be fed. Giulia popped the spoon into her mouth and then tipped it up quickly, pouring out the liquid. Lucilla lay back down, saying, “It tastes awful!”

  “Good-night, then,” said Giulia, leaning over to kiss her daughter.

  “Good-night, mamma, good-night, papà,” trilled the child.

  Marcello took his turn and kissed her on the cheek, then followed his wife out of the room. Giulia turned off the light and closed the door.

  In the hallway she half turned toward her husband and said, “I think it’s ready.”

  Then Marcello noticed for the first time, in that accusing shadow, that Giulia’s eyes were swollen, as if she had been crying. His exchange with Lucilla had refreshed him; but looking at his wife’s eyes, he was afraid again that he wouldn’t be able to act as firmly and calmly as he wished. Meanwhile, Giulia had preceded him into their tiny dining room with its little round table and its sideboard. The table was set, the ceiling lamp lit, and from the open window they could hear the voice of the radio describing, in the breathless and triumphant style usually reserved for soccer matches, the fall of the Fascist government. The maid entered, served the soup, and went back out. They began to eat slowly, with composed gestures. All of a sudden the radio became frenetic. The announcer was now saying, in exalted terms and a fevered voice, that a huge crowd was collecting in the streets of the city to applaud the king.

  “They make me sick,” said Giulia, putting down her spoon and looking out the window.

  “Why?”

  “Up until yesterday they were clapping their hands for Mussolini. A few days ago they were applauding the pope because they hoped he would save them from bombing. Today they’re cheering the king who kicked out Mussolini.”

  Marcello said nothing. Giulia’s reactions and opinions about public affairs were so well known to him that he could anticipate them in his mind. They were the reactions and opinions of a very simple person, completely devoid of curiosity about the underlying motives that gave rise to events, guided more by personal and emotional reasons than by anything else. They finished eating their soup in silence as the radio continued its torrential shouting. Then, all of a sudden, after the maid had brought them the second course, the radio cut off and there was silence. And with the silence, the suffocating closeness of the still summer night seemed to come back to oppress them.

  They looked at each other and then Giulia asked, “Now what will you do?”

  Marcello replied briefly, “I’ll do what everyone in my situation will do … there are a lot of us here in Italy who believed.”

  Giulia hesitated before speaking. Then she said slowly, “No, I mean what are you going to do about the business with Quadri?”

  So she knew, maybe she had always known, after all. Marcello was aware that at those words his heart had skipped a beat, as it would have done ten years before if someone had asked him, “Now what are you going to do about the business with Lino?” Then, if he had possessed the gift of prophecy, he would have answered, “Kill Quadri.” But now? He set his fork down by his plate and, as soon as he felt sure that his voice wouldn’t waver, he said, “I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

  He saw her lower her eyes, her face twisting as if she were about to cry again. Then she said in a slow, sad voice, “In Paris Lina, maybe because she wanted to get me away from you, told me that you were part of the political police.”

  “And what did you answer her?”

  “That it didn’t matter to me … that I was your wife and that I loved you no matter what you did … that if you were doing it, it meant that you thought it was right to do it.”

  Marcello said nothing, moved despite himself by her blind, inflexible loyalty.

  Giulia continued in a hesitant voice, “But then when Quadri and Lina were murdered, I was so afraid that you had had a hand in it … and from that time on I’ve hardly thought about anything else. But I never talked to you about it because you’d never said anything about your work, so I thought that I in particular couldn’t talk to you about this.”

  “And what do you think now?” asked Marcello, after a moment of silence.

  “Me?” said Giulia, raising her eyes and looking at him. Marcello saw that her eyes were brimming and understood that her tears were already an answer. All the same, she went on with an effort, “In Paris you yourself told me that the visit to Quadri was crucial to your career … so I think it might be true.”

  He said immediately, “It is true.”

  In that instant he understood that Giulia had hoped till the last minute that she was wrong. Now, at his words, as if at a signal, she threw her head down on
the table with her face in her arm and began to sob. Marcello stood up, went to the door, and turned the key in the lock. Then he walked up to her and without bending over, rested his hand on her hair and said, “If you want, we can separate after tomorrow … I’ll drive you to Tagliacozzo with Lucilla and then I’ll go away and won’t show my face again … is that what you want us to do?”

  Right away Giulia stopped sobbing, as if, he thought, she couldn’t believe her own ears. Then, from the hollow of her arm where she was hiding her face, her sad, surprised voice reached him. “What are you talking about? Separate? That’s not it … I’m just so afraid for you … what will they do to you now?”

  So, he thought, Giulia felt no horror of him, no remorse for Quadri’s and Lina’s deaths; only fear for him, for his life, for his future. This insensitivity, strengthened by the force of her love, affected him strangely. He felt like someone who, climbing stairs in the dark, lifts up his foot thinking to find another step and encounters instead the emptiness of a landing. In truth, he had expected and even hoped for horror and severe judgment. And instead he had found only her usual blind and supportive love.

  He said, a little impatiently, “They won’t do anything to me, there’s no proof. And besides, I was only following orders.” He hesitated a moment, feeling a sort of shame mixed with repugnance for the cliche, then finished with an effort, “All I did was do my duty, like a soldier.”

  Immediately Giulia clutched at this worn-out phrase, which, in its time, had not sufficed to pacify even agent Orlando.

  “Yes, I thought so, too,” she said, raising her head, grabbing his hand and covering it with frantic kisses, “I’ve always told myself: Marcello is actually just a soldier … and soldiers kill because they’re commanded to … it’s not his fault if they make him do certain things … But don’t you think they’ll come after you? I’m sure the men who gave you the orders will escape … while you, who had nothing really to do with it and were only doing your duty will get caught in the middle.…” Having covered the back of his hand with kisses, she turned it over and started kissing his palm with the same fury.

  “Calm down,” said Marcello, stroking her gently, “right now they have other things to do besides looking for me.”

  “But people are so awful … all it takes is one person who doesn’t like you. They’ll denounce you … That’s the way it always goes. The big guys who give the orders and make millions save themselves, and the little guys like you who do their duty and can’t save a cent suffer for it … Oh, Marcello, I’m so frightened!”

  “Don’t be frightened, it will all work out.”

  “Oh, it won’t all work out, I know it, I feel it … and I’m so tired.” Giulia was talking now with her face pressed against his hand, although she was not kissing it. “After I had Lucilla, even though I knew what you did for a living, I thought: now I’m set. I have a child, a husband I love, a house, a family … I’m happy, really happy … it was the first time in my life I was happy and it felt like it couldn’t be true. I almost couldn’t believe it … and I’ve always been so afraid that it would all come to an end and that happiness couldn’t last. And in fact, it hasn’t lasted, and now we have to escape … and you’ll lose your job and who knows what they’ll do to you … and that poor creature will be worse off than if she were an orphan … and we’ll have to start all over again from the beginning … and maybe we won’t even be able to start over and our family will be destroyed.” She burst out crying again and threw herself back down with her face in her arm.

  Marcello suddenly recalled the image that had flashed through his mind before: the divine rod, mercilessly striking down his whole family, not only himself, who was guilty, but his wife and his daughter, who were innocent; and he shivered at the thought.

  Someone knocked at the door and he shouted to the maid that they had finished eating and had no more need of her. Then, leaning toward Giulia, he said gently, “I beg you to stop crying and calm down. Our family won’t be destroyed. We’ll go to America, Argentina … We’ll start a new life … We’ll have a home there, too, and I’ll be there, Lucilla will be there … have a little faith, you’ll see, it will all work out.”

  This time Giulia lifted her tear-streaked face toward him and said, full of sudden hope, “We’ll go to Argentina … when?”

  “As soon as possible. As soon as the war is really over.”

  “And in the meantime?”

  “In the meantime we’ll go away from Rome and stay in Tagliacozzo. No one will look for us there … you’ll see, things will be fine.”

  Giulia appeared to cheer up at these words and, above all, at the firm tone in which they had been uttered, thought Marcello, watching her get up and blow her nose.

  “Forgive me,” she said. “I’m so stupid … I should be helping you and instead all I know how to do is cry, I’m such an idiot.” She started clearing up the table, taking away the plates and stacking them on the sideboard.

  Marcello went to the window and looked out, leaning on the sill. Through the opaque windows of the house in front of him the dull lights of the staircase shone, floor after floor, all the way up to the sky. In the deep cement courtyards the shadows were thickening, black as coal. The night was still and hot; even the most attentive ear could not have heard a sound except for the sizzling of a garden hose where someone, down in the courtyard, was watering the grass in the dark. Marcello said, turning, “Shall we go for a walk downtown?”

  “Why?” she asked. “What for? Who knows what kind of crowd there’ll be?”

  “So you can see,” he replied almost lightly, “how a dictatorship falls.”

  “And then there’s Lucilla … I can’t leave her alone. What if the airplanes come?”

  “Don’t worry, they won’t come tonight.”

  “But why go downtown?” she protested suddenly, “I really don’t understand you. It’s like you want to suffer … what do you get out of it?”

  “You stay,” he said. “I’ll go by myself.”

  “No, then I’ll come, too,” she said quickly. “If something happens to you, I want to be there, too. It means the maid will look after the child.”

  “But don’t be afraid. Tonight the airplanes won’t come.”

  “I’m going to change,” she said, leaving the room.

  Left alone, Marcello went back to the window. Someone was climbing the stairs in the house in front, a man. He could see the profile of his shadow moving steadily from one floor to the next behind the opaque glass. He was climbing carelessly; judging by the slenderness of the shadow, he must be a young man; maybe, thought Marcello enviously, he was whistling. Then the radio started up again. Marcello heard the same voice concluding, as if ending a conversation: “… and the war continues.”

  It was the message of the new government; he had heard it already, shortly before. Marcello drew his case from his pocket and lit a cigarette.

  2

  The streets of the periphery were deserted, silent, and dark, almost dead, like the extremities of a big body whose blood has suddenly gathered in one place alone. But the closer the car got to the center of town, the more frequently Marcello and Giulia saw groups of people, gesturing and shouting. Marcello slowed down at an intersection and stopped to let by a line of trucks, crowded with young men and women waving flags and posters with writing on them. These beflagged and overloaded trucks, with people clinging to the fenders and footboards, were greeted with confused applause by the people crowding the sidewalks. Someone stuck his head in the car window to yell in Giulia’s face, “Viva la libertà!” and then vanished immediately, as if sucked back into the multitude darkening the streets.

  Giulia said, “Wouldn’t it be better to go back home?”

  “Why?” asked Marcello, keeping an eye on the street through the glass of the windshield. “They’re so happy, they’re surely not out to hurt anyone … we can park the car somewhere and then walk back to see what’s going on.”

  “Wo
n’t they steal the car?”

  “How ridiculous.”

  In his usual thoughtful, placid, patient way, Marcello drove the car through the packed streets of the center of town. In the faint penumbra of the antiaircraft blackout, they could distinctly see the movements of the crowd, its many ways of gathering, colliding, spreading, and running — all different, but all pervaded and united by a single, sincere exultation at the dictatorship’s collapse. People who didn’t know each other hugged in the middle of the street; a man who had watched the passage of a flag-waving truck in speechless attention for a long time suddenly took off his hat, shouting and cheering; people rushed around like couriers from one group to another, repeating phrases of incitement and joy; a few, as if overwhelmed by a sudden outburst of hatred, raised threatening fists toward the dark, closed palazzi that had been, until today, the seats of public officials. Marcello noticed that many women were out on the arms of their husbands, sometimes even with children in tow, something that hadn’t happened for a long time in the forced demonstrations of the fallen regime. Columns of resolute men, seemingly united by some secret party tie, gathered in formation and marched briefly to cheers and applause, then melted back into the crowd. Large, approving groups surrounded spontaneous orators, while others gathered together to sing libertarian anthems at the top of their voices. Marcello drove the car slowly and patiently, respectful of every assembly, moving at a snail’s pace.

  “How happy they are,” said Giulia in a good-natured, almost supportive tone, suddenly forgetting her fears and self-interest.

  “In their place, I would be, too.”

  They drove much of the length of the Corso, which was packed with people all the way, behind a couple of other cars advancing just as slowly. Then Marcello turned at the entrance to an alleyway and, after waiting for a column of demonstrators to go by, managed to slip into it. He drove the car swiftly into another, completely deserted alley, stopped, turned off the motor, and said, turning to his wife, “Let’s get out here.”

  Giulia got out without saying a word and Marcello, after carefully shutting the doors, joined her and headed toward the street they had come from. Now he felt completely calm, in control of himself and detached, as he had wished to be all during the day.

 
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