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The conformist, p.5
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       The Conformist, p.5

           Alberto Moravia
 
“Yes,” replied Marcello, somewhat vaguely, “sometimes.”

  “A lot or a few?”

  Marcello did not want to confess that the presents were few and that, at times, the holidays passed without any presents at all. He limited himself to answering, “About medium.”

  “Do you like to get presents?” asked Lino, opening a little door under the dashboard, taking out a yellow cloth, and cleaning the windshield.

  Marcello looked at him. The man was still in profile, sitting very erect, the cap’s visor shadowing his eyes. He said without thinking, “Yes, I like it.”

  “And what present would you like to get, for example?”

  This time the question was explicit and Marcello couldn’t help thinking that the mysterious Lino, for some reason of his own, really intended to give him a gift. He suddenly recalled his attraction to weapons; and at the same time, almost with the sensation of making a discovery, he told himself that the possession of a real weapon would ensure the esteem and respect of his companions. A little nervously, aware of asking too much, he suggested, “For example, a pistol.…”

  “A pistol,” repeated the man, without showing the least surprise. “What kind of pistol? A cap gun or a popgun?”

  “No,” said Marcello daringly, “a real pistol.”

  “And what would you do with a real pistol?”

  Marcello preferred not to give the true reason. “I’d target shoot,” he answered, “until I felt like I had perfect aim.”

  “Why does it matter to you so much to have perfect aim?”

  It seemed to Marcello that the man kept asking questions more for the pleasure of hearing him talk than from any real curiosity. Nonetheless, he replied seriously, “With perfect aim you can defend yourself against anybody.”

  The man was quiet for a moment. Then he suggested: “Put your hand in that pocket there, in the door next to you.”

  Curious, Marcello obeyed him, and felt the chill of a metal object beneath his fingers. The man said, “Go ahead and take it out.”

  The automobile swerved swiftly to avoid a dog that was crossing the road. Marcello pulled out the metal object: it really was a pistol — an automatic, black and flat, heavy with destruction and death, its barrel extended before it as if ready to spit out bullets. Almost without wanting to, with fingers trembling from pleasure, he grasped the butt in his hand.

  “A pistol like that one?” asked Lino.

  “Yes,” said Marcello.

  “All right,” said Lino, “if you really want it, I’ll give it to you … not that one, though, that belongs to the car … another one just like it.”

  Marcello said nothing. It seemed to him that he had entered the magic atmosphere of a fairytale, a world different from the ordinary one, in which unknown drivers invited you to climb into cars and gave you pistols. Everything seemed to have become extremely easy; but at the same time — even he was not quite sure why — it seemed that this ease, as enticing as it was, disclosed at second thought an unpleasant flavor, as if there were, linked to it and hidden by it, an as yet unknown but impending and soon-to-be-revealed danger. Probably, he thought coldly, there were two of them in that car with a purpose: his was to own a pistol, Lino’s was to obtain in exchange for the pistol something as yet mysterious and perhaps unacceptable. Now it was just a question of seeing who of the two would get the best of the barter. He asked, “Where are we going?”

  Lino replied, “We’re going to the house where I live … to look for the pistol.”

  “And so where’s the house?”

  “Here, we’re there now,” the man answered, taking the pistol out of Marcello’s hand and putting it in his own pocket.

  Marcello looked: the car had stopped on a road that by now seemed just an ordinary country road, with trees, boxelder hedges, and, behind the hedges, fields and sky. But a little further on you could see a gateway with an arch, two columns, and a gate painted green.

  “Wait here,” said Lino. He got out and went to the gateway. Marcello watched him as he shoved open the double doors of the gate and walked back to the car: he wasn’t tall, although sitting down he had seemed so; he had short legs in proportion to his trunk and broad hips. Lino climbed back into the car and drove it through the gateway. A graveled driveway appeared, winding between two rows of small, stripped cypresses that were being tossed and tormented by the gusting wind. At the end of the driveway something shone blindingly in a fleeting ray of sun against the background of the stormy sky: the glass door of a veranda built into a house of just two floors.

  “That’s the villa,” said Lino, “but there’s nobody home.”

  “Whose the owner?” asked Marcello.

  “A woman,” said Lino, “an American … but she’s out, she’s gone to Florence.”

  The car came to a halt in front of the house. The villa, long and low, with rectangular sides of white cement and red brick, alternating here and there with the strips of mirrorlike glass of the windows, had a portico supported by squared pillars of rough stone. Lino opened the car door and jumped to the ground, saying, “All right, let’s get out.”

  Marcello didn’t know what Lino wanted from him and hadn’t managed to guess it. But the diffidence of one who fears to be cheated was growing ever stronger in him. “And the pistol?” he asked, without moving.

  “It’s in there,” replied Lino with some impatience, pointing to the windows of the villa, “now we’re going to go get it.”

  “Will you give it to me?”

  “Certainly, a lovely new pistol.”

  Without saying a word, Marcello got out of the car as well. He was instantly assailed by a great gust, hot and full of dust, of the intoxicating and funereal autumn wind. He didn’t know why, but he felt at that gust a kind of presentiment and, still following Lino, he turned to look one last time at the graveled clearing surrounded by bushes and stunted oleanders. Lino was walking in front of him and Marcello noticed that something was bulging the side pocket of his tunic: the pistol that the man had taken from him in the car when they arrived. Suddenly he was sure that Lino had only that one pistol, and he asked himself why on earth he had lied and why he was now bringing him into the house. The suspicion of trickery grew in him, and with it a determination to keep his eyes open and not let himself be cheated. Meanwhile, they had entered a vast living room, scattered with groups of armchairs and sofas, with a fireplace with a red-brick hood at the back wall. Lino, still preceding Marcello, crossed the room and directed himself toward a door painted blue, in a corner. Marcello asked anxiously, “Where are we going?”

  “We’re going into my bedroom,” replied Lino lightly, without turning around.

  Marcello decided to put up some initial resistance, just in case, just so Lino would know that he had seen through his game. When Lino opened the blue door, he said, keeping himself at a distance: “Give me the pistol right now or I’m going away.”

  “But I don’t have the pistol here,” replied Lino, turning halfway around, “I have it in my bedroom.”

  “Yes, you do so have it,” said Marcello, “You have it in the pocket of your jacket.”

  “But this one belongs to the car.”

  “You don’t have any others.”

  Lino seemed to make a gesture of impatience, swiftly repressed. Marcello noticed again what a contrast there was between his dry, severe face and his soft mouth and anxious, pained, and pleading eyes.

  “I’ll give you this one,” he said at last, “but come with me … what’s it matter to you? Some farmer might see us here, with all these windows.”

  “So what if they see us?” Marcello would like to have asked; but he held back because he perceived dimly that, although he could not explain it, it really did matter. “All right,” he said childishly, “but then will you give it to me?”

  “Don’t worry.”

  They entered a little white hallway and Lino shut the door. At the end of the hall there was another blue door. This time Lino did not precede Marcello,
but came up beside him and put an arm lightly around his waist, asking, “Do you want your pistol so much?”

  “Yes,” said Marcello, incapable of speech because of the embarrassment that arm was causing him.

  Lino removed his arm and led Marcello into the bedroom. It was a small, white room, long and narrow, with a window at the end. There was nothing in it except a bed, a bedside table, a wardrobe, and a couple of straightbacked chairs. All the furniture was painted a light green. Marcello noticed that a bronze crucifix of the most common kind was affixed to the wall above the bed. On the bedside table there was a thick book bound in black with red edging, which Marcello figured was a book of devotions. The room, empty of objects and clothes, seemed extremely clean; nonetheless there was a strong odor in the air, like soap made from eau du cologne. Where had he smelled it before? Maybe in the bathroom in the morning, right after his mother had washed.

  Lino said to him carelessly, “Sit down on the bed, will you … it’s more comfortable,” and he obeyed in silence. Lino was now walking back and forth in the bedroom. He took off his cap and put it on the windowsill; he unbuttoned his collar and dried the sweat around his neck with a handkerchief. Then he opened the wardrobe, took out a big bottle of eau du cologne, wet the handkerchief with it, and rubbed it with relief over his face and forehead. “Do you want some, too?” he asked Marcello. “It’s refreshing.”

  Marcello would like to have refused, for the bottle and handkerchief inspired in him an inexpressible disgust. But he let Lino run the palm of his hand in a cool caress over his face. Lino put the eau du cologne back in the wardrobe and came to sit on the bed in front of Marcello.

  They looked at each other. Lino’s face, dry and austere, had now assumed a new expression — consumed, caressing, supplicant. He contemplated Marcello and said nothing. Marcello, losing his patience, and also to put an end to that embarrassing contemplation, finally asked: “And the pistol?”

  He saw Lino sigh and take the weapon, as if reluctantly, out of his pocket. Marcello held out his hand, but Lino’s face hardened; he withdrew the gun and said hurriedly, “I’ll give it to you … but you have to earn it.”

  Marcello felt almost a sense of relief at these words. So, just as he had thought, Lino wanted something in exchange for the pistol. Quickly, in a falsely ingenuous tone, as he did at school when he was bartering for pen nibs or marbles, he said: “You tell me what you want and we’ll make a deal.”

  He saw Lino lower his eyes, hesitate, and then ask slowly, “What would you do to have this pistol?”

  He noted that Lino had eluded his proposal: it wasn’t a matter of exchanging some thing for the pistol but of something he must do to obtain it. Although he had no idea what that might be, he said, in the same falsely ingenuous tone: “I don’t know, you tell me.”

  There was a moment of silence.

  “Would you do anything?” Lino suddenly asked in an urgent voice, grabbing him by the hand.

  The tone and gesture alarmed Marcello. He asked himself whether Lino were not a robber demanding that he join in. But a moment’s thought told him he could throw out this guess. All the same he replied cautiously, “Well, what is it you want me to do? Why don’t you tell me?”

  Lino was playing with his hand now, looking at it, turning it over, squeezing and releasing it. Then, with an almost rude gesture, he let it go and said slowly, looking at Marcello, “I’m sure there are some things you wouldn’t do.”

  “Just say it,” insisted Marcello, with a kind of goodwill all mixed up with embarrassment.

  “No, no,” protested Lino. Marcello noticed that a peculiar, mottled blush was staining his pale face at the top of his cheeks. It seemed to him that Lino was tempted to speak but wanted to be sure that’s what Marcello wanted. Then he made a gesture of deliberate yet innocent appeal; he leaned forward and held out his hand to grasp the hand of the man.

  “Say it, come on, why don’t you say it?”

  A long silence followed. Lino looked first at Marcello’s hand, then at his face, and seemed to hesitate. Finally he released the boy’s hand again, but gently this time, rose, and took a few steps across the room. Then he came back to sit down and took Marcello’s hand again in an affectionate way, a little like a father or mother taking the hand of their child. He said: “Marcello, do you know who I am?”

  “No.”

  “I’m a defrocked priest,” burst out Lino in a sorrowing, heartfelt, pathetic voice, “a defrocked priest, thrown out of the boarding school where I taught for indecent behavior … and you, in your innocence, don’t realize what I could ask from you in exchange for this pistol you want so much … and I was tempted to abuse your ignorance, your innocence, your childish greed! That’s who I am, Marcello.”

  He spoke in a tone of deep sincerity; then he turned toward the head of the bed and, in a wholly unexpected way, began to address the crucifix indignantly without raising his voice, as if complaining. “I’ve prayed to you so often … but you’ve abandoned me … and I always, always give in … why have you abandoned me?”

  These words lost themselves in a kind of murmur, as if Lino were talking to himself. Then he rose from the bed, went to get the cap he had left on the sill, and said to Marcello, “Let’s go. Come on, I’ll take you back home.”

  Marcello said nothing. He felt stunned and unable, for the moment, to judge what had happened. He followed Lino down the hallway and then across the living room. Outside in the clearing the wind was still gusting around the big black car under an overcast, sunless sky. Lino got into the car and he sat beside him. The car began to move, rolled down the driveway, drove gently through the gateway onto the road. For a long time neither of them spoke. Lino drove as before, his upper body erect, the cap’s visor pulled over his eyes, his gloved hands resting on the steering wheel. They had covered a good bit of road when he asked unexpectedly, without turning his head, “Are you sorry you don’t have the pistol?”

  At these words the avid hope of owning the object so greatly desired was rekindled in Marcello’s heart. After all, he thought, maybe nothing was lost yet. He answered sincerely, “Sure, I’m sorry.”

  “So,” asked Lino, “if I made an appointment with you for tomorrow at the same time as today, would you come?”

  “Tomorrow is Sunday,” Marcello replied judiciously, “but Monday’s all right … We can meet on the avenue, the same place as today.”

  The man said nothing for a moment. Then, suddenly, in a loud and sorrowful voice, he shouted: “Don’t talk to me anymore … don’t look at me anymore … and if you see me on the avenue at noon on Monday, don’t pay attention to me, don’t say hello to me … understand?”

  “What’s the matter with him?” thought Marcello, rather annoyed. And he answered, “I don’t care if I see you … it’s you that made me come to your house today.”

  “Yes, but it must never happen again, never again,” declared Lino. “I know myself and I know for certain that tonight all I’ll do is think of you … and that Monday I’ll be waiting for you on the avenue, even if today I decide not to do it.… I know myself … but you must pay no attention to me.”

  Marcello said nothing. Lino went on, still with the same fury, “I’ll think of you all night long, Marcello … and Monday I’ll be on the avenue … with the pistol … but you should ignore me.”

  He kept circling the same phrase, repeating it: and Marcello, with his cold and innocent perspicacity, understood that, in reality, Lino wanted to make the appointment and that, on the pretext of warning him off, he was actually doing so.

  After a moment of silence, Lino asked once more, “Did you hear me?”

  “Yes.”

  “What did I say?”

  “That Monday you’ll be waiting for me on the avenue.”

  “That’s not all I said to you,” said the man sorrowfully.

  “And that,” finished Marcello, “I should ignore you.”

  “Right,” confirmed Lino, “no matter what. Look, I
ll call out to you, I’ll plead with you, I’ll follow you with the car … I’ll promise you anything you want … but you have to keep on going and not listen to me.”

  Marcello replied impatiently, “All right, I understand.”

  “But you’re just a child,” said Lino, passing from fury to a kind of caressing sweetness, “and you won’t be able to resist me … you’ll come, there’s no doubt … you’re a child, Marcello.”

  Marcello was offended. “I’m not a child, I’m a boy. And besides, you don’t know me.”

  Lino stopped the car very suddenly. They were still on the hill road, under a high garden wall. A little ahead you could glimpse the arch of a restaurant, adorned with Venetian lanterns. Lino turned toward Marcello. “Really,” he asked, with a kind of painful anxiety, “Would you really refuse to come with me?”

  “Aren’t you,” asked Marcello, who by now knew the rules of the game, “the one who’s asking me to?”

  “Yes, it’s true,” said Lino desperately, starting up the automobile again, “yes, it’s true … you’re right … it’s me, madman that I am, who’s asking you to … me.”

  After this exclamation, he said no more and there was silence. The car descended to the bottom of the road and traveled once more through the filthy streets of the poor neighborhood. Here was the broad avenue with its high plane trees, naked and white, the heaps of yellow leaves on the deserted sidewalks, the factories full of windows. Here was the neighborhood where Marcello lived.

  Lino asked without turning, “Where is your house?”

  “It’s better if you stop here,” said Marcello, aware of the pleasure he was giving the man by this token of complicity, “otherwise they might see me getting out of your car.”

  The automobile came to a halt. Marcello got out and Lino handed him his books through the window, saying decisively, “Monday, then, on the avenue, same place as today.”

  “But I,” said Marcello, taking the books, “have to pretend I don’t see you, right?”

  He saw Lino hesitate and experienced a feeling of almost cruel satisfaction. Lino’s eyes, burning intensely in their sunken sockets, smoldered at him with a look both imploring and anguished. Then he said passionately, “Do what you think … do what you want with me.” His voice ended in a kind of sing-song, yearning lament.

 
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