Conjugal Love, p.5Alberto Moravia
She was boiling over with impatience and anger; but she obeyed, though with a bad grace, and sat down on the chair. I took up a pencil, pretending it was the curling-iron, and leant over as though to curl her hair. And in fact, in that position, just as I had imagined, the lower part of my stomach was exactly at the level of her arm and shoulder and I could not help brushing against her.
'Look,' I said, 'it's just as I thought. ... He couldn't help touching you. If anything, then, it was you who ought to have drawn away a little to the other side.'
'That's just what I did; but then he went round to the other side.'
'Perhaps he had to do that in order to do your hair on that side.'
'But, Silvio - is it possible you can be so blind, so stupid? One would say you were doing it on purpose. ... I tell you, there was a deliberate intention in those contacts.'
A question was on my lips, but I hesitated to ask it. Finally I said: 'There's contact and contact. . . . Did it seem to you that while he was touching you he was - how shall I say? - excited?'
She was sitting huddled in the armchair, a finger between her teeth, with an expression of strange perplexity on her still angry face. 'Certainly,' she answered, shrugging her shoulders.
I was afraid I had not understood properly, or had not made myself clear. 'In fact,' I insisted, 'it was obvious that he was excited?'
I now realized that I was perhaps even more astonished by my wife's behaviour than by Antonio's. She was no longer a girl, but a woman of considerable experience; besides, I was not ignorant that, with regard to things of this kind, she had always had a sort of gay cynicism. All that I knew of her led me to think that she would not have made any fuss over this incident; or, at most, that she would have told me about it in a detached, ironical way. Instead of which, all this rage and hatred! I said, perplexed: 'But look, all this still doesn't mean anything. ... It might happen to anybody to get excited by certain contacts without wanting to, in fact not wanting to at all.. . . It's happened to me sometimes in a crowd or in a tram, that I found myself wedged against some woman and got excited without meaning to.. . . The spirit is willing,' I added jokingly, intending to calm her down, 'but the flesh is weak.. . . Why, good heavens . . .'
She said nothing. She appeared to be thinking deeply, biting the tip of her finger and looking towards the window. I thought she had calmed down and I went on, still in a joking manner: 'Even saints have their temptations, so what about barbers! . . . Poor Antonio, when he least expected it, made the unwilling discovery that you're a very beautiful and very desirable woman. Being close to you, he wasn't able to control himself. . . probably it was just as disagreeable for him as for you - and that's all there is to it.'
She was still silent. I concluded, cheerfully: 'When all's said and done, I think you ought to make light of this incident. It wasn't so much lack of respect as a kind of homage - a bit coarse and countrified, I agree, but - well, fashions vary, you know.'
Carried away by the usual bold gaiety that came over me after my work, I was becoming, as can be seen, deplorably facetious. I realized this just in time and, forcing myself to be serious again, I added hastily: 'Forgive me, I know I'm being vulgar - but to tell you the truth I cannot manage to take this whole business seriously ... all the more so because I'm sure Antonio is innocent.'
She spoke at last. 'None of this interests me,' she said; 'what I want to know is whether you're prepared to send him away - that's all.'
I have already observed that happiness makes us selfish. At that moment, probably, my selfishness reached its highest point. For I knew that there was no other barber in the village. I knew, besides, that it would be impossible to find one in the town who would be ready to travel several miles every day in order to come and shave me. It would mean giving up the idea of a barber altogether and shaving myself. But, since I don't really know how to shave myself, it would have led to skin inflammations, scratches, cuts and, in fact, all sorts of unpleasantnesses. Instead of that, I wanted everything to go on undisturbed and unchanged as long as I was working. I wanted nothing to come and upset the state of profound quietness which, rightly or wrongly, I considered to be absolutely indispensable if my work were to go well. I forced myself, all at once, to be very serious and said: 'But, my dear, you haven't succeeded in convincing me that Antonio was really lacking in respect towards you - I mean intentionally. . . . Why should I sack him? For what reason? What excuse could I make?'
'Any excuse. . . . Tell him we're leaving.'
'It isn't true . . . and he would find out at once.'
'What does that matter to me? - provided I don't see him again.'
'But it's not possible. . . .'
'You won't even do this to oblige me,' she cried, exasperated.
'But, my dear, think for a moment. . . . Why should I give gratuitous offence to a poor man who . . .?'
'Poor man, indeed! He's an outrageous, horrible, sinister man.'
'Besides, what am I to do about shaving? You know perfectly well that there are no barbers within fifteen miles of this house.'
'Shave yourself, then.'
'But I can't shave myself.'
'What sort of a man are you, if you can't even shave yourself?'
'No, I can't shave myself- so what am I to do?'
'Grow a beard, then.'
'Please, for goodness sake! I shouldn't be able to sleep a wink.'
She was silent for a time, and then, in a voice in which there seemed to be an echo of despair, she cried: 'Well then, you refuse to do what I ask you - you refuse to do it.'
'But, Leda . . .'
'Yes, you refuse to do it. . . and you want to force me to see that horrible, disgusting man again . . . you want to force me to come into contact with him.'
'But I don't want to force you to do anything. You needn't appear.. . .You can stay in your own room.. . .'
'So I've got to hide myself in my own house, because you won't do this to oblige me.'
'But, Leda .. .'
'Leave me alone.' I had moved close beside her, and I was trying to take her hand. 'Leave me alone. ... I want you to send him away, d'you understand?'
I decided that I must at last take up an attitude of firmness. 'Listen, Leda,' I said, 'please don't go on like this. This is just an idle caprice and I don't intend to yield to caprices. . . . Now I shall try and find out whether what you state is true; but only if the truth of your accusations can be proved shall I dismiss this man - not otherwise.'
She looked at me for some time and then, without saying a word, got up and left the room.
When I was alone, I spent some time thinking over the incident. I was sincerely convinced that the truth of the matter was as I had said. No doubt Antonio had been excited by the contact with her arm and had been unable to control his excitement. But I was sure that he had done nothing to facilitate or repeat such contacts, which anyway, in the postion he was in, were unavoidable. He was, in fact, to be blamed only for having failed to elude his involuntary desire. Such, moreover, is still my conviction, for I consider that certain temptations are all the stronger for being neither premeditated nor courted.
These considerations, made in solitude and in perfect good faith, dissipated the last of my remorse. I knew that, fundamentally, I had acted from selfishness; but this selfishness did not contradict what I held to be true justice. I was convinced of Antonio's innocence; and I therefore felt no scruple about placing my own convenience before what I judged to be a mere caprice on the part of my wife.
A few minutes later, I joined Leda at table. She seemed perfectly calm, not to say serene. During a moment when the maid had gone out of the room with the dishes, she said to me: 'All right. . . you can go on employing Antonio, but you must arrange things so that I don't see him. ... If I even meet him on the stairs, I won't answer for myself. .. . You've been warned.'
Filled with embarrassment, I pretended not to have heard. She added: 'It may be that it's only a c
It was just exactly the opposite of what I myself had decided; and I could not help making a mental note of it.
It so happened that, at that moment, the maid came in again and the conversation dropped. Later, during our walk, I tried to resume it: I was feeling remorse again and I wanted her to be convinced of my reasons. But this time, to my surprise, she said gently: 'Don't let's talk about it any more, Silvio, if you don't mind. This morning it seemed to matter a lot to me, I don't myself know why; but now, after having thought it over, I see that I was exaggerating.... I can assure you now that it no longer matters to me in the least. . . .'
She appeared sincere, and, in a way, to be almost sorry for her anger of the morning. 'Are you quite sure?' I insisted.
'Yes, I swear,' she said warmly; 'what reason could I have for lying about it?'
I was silent; and we continued our walk talking of other things. And so I was convinced that my wife had really dismissed the subject from her mind.
TODAY, in relating the incident of Antonio, I cannot but portray it in the perspective of events that occurred before and after it. The same thing, I imagine, happens when one writes history. But, just as events, in reality extremely important, pass almost unnoticed by their contemporaries; just as very few, not merely among the spectators but even among the actors, realized that the French Revolution was the French Revolution; so, at the moment when it took place, the Antonio episode did not strike my imagination at all forcibly - much less so, in fact, than these notes might lead one to suppose. I was really not prepared to attach importance to an incident of that kind: my relations with my wife had hitherto been rational and happy; and nobody would expect to find a medieval trap-door in the middle of a bright modern room. I must insist on this quality of innocence in my mind at that moment: it partly excuses my selfishness and explains my superficiality. In fact, whatever the reasons were, I was neither willing nor able, on that occasion, to think evil. So much so that, next day, when Antonio knocked at my study door at the usual time, I realized that I felt neither resentment nor agitation. In the state of extreme objective mental detachment in which I found myself, it seemed almost a pleasure to study the man in the new light that my wife's accusations had thrown upon him. In the first place, while he was shaving me and while I, as usual, was talking to him (and it was no effort for me to talk to him), I observed him closely. He was carefully intent, as always, upon his work and, as always, was doing his job lightly and skilfully. I thought to myself that, if my wife's accusations were true, it meant that he was exceptionally clever at dissimulation, so absorbed and so placid did that broad, rather plump face of his, with its cold yellowish-brown colour, appear to be. There still echoed in my ears those words of my wife's: 'He's an outrageous, horrible, sinister man' - but after examining him with extreme care, I was forced to conclude that there was nothing outrageous, horrible, or sinister about him. If anything, he had rather a fatherly appearance, the appearance of a man accustomed to looking after five small children, an appearance of purely physical, unconscious authority. Another thought came into my mind as I looked at him, and though I recognized in a confused way that it was a foolish thought, I immediately seized upon it as upon an irrefutable argument: so ugly a man - unless he was mad, which Antonio certainly was not - could not hope to have any success with women, least of all with a woman like my wife, who was so beautiful and of a class so different from his. Not without satisfaction, I noted that he really was fat in the face, and with an unattractive kind of fatness which did not give an impression of good health either - rather greasy, smooth and a little flabby, and with an unwholesomely swollen appearance between jaw and neck which reminded one of the similar swelling that is to be seen in certain tropical snakes at moments of anger. He had large ears, with flat, pendulous lobes; and his bald head, burnt, perhaps, by the summer sun, was brown in patches. Antonio was evidently a very hairy man: tufts of hair sprouted from his ears and from his nostrils, and even his cheekbones and the tip of his nose were hairy. After examining this ugliness for a long time with complacent minuteness, I chose a moment when Antonio had turned away to wipe his razor on a piece of paper, to say, in a careless tone: 'I've always wondered, Antonio, whether a man like you, married and with five children, can find the time and the opportunity to carry on with women.'
He answered without smiling, turning back towards me with his razor: 'For that particular thing, Signor Baldeschi, time can always be found.'
I confess I had expected a different reply and I was considerably surprised. I objected: 'But isn't your wife jealous?'
'All wives are jealous.'
'So you're unfaithful to her?'
He lifted the razor and, looking me in the face, said: 'Excuse me, Signor Baldeschi, but that is my business.'
I felt myself blushing. I had put that indiscreet question to him because I thought, rather stupidly, that I had the right to do so, as a superior to an inferior; but he had put me, as they say, in my place, as an equal to an equal, and this I had not expected. I had a feeling of irritation and was almost tempted to answer: 'It's not only your business but mine too, since you've had the impudence to annoy my wife.' But I controlled this impulse and said rather confusedly: 'You mustn't be offended, Antonio. ... I didn't mean anything.'
'Of course not,' he said; and then, applying the razor to my cheek and slowly shaving me, he added, as though he wanted to mitigate the sharpness of his first remark and soothe my mortification: 'Why, Signor Baldeschi, everybody likes women.. . . Even the priest over there at San Lorenzo has a woman, and that woman has presented him with two children. If you could look inside people's heads you'd see that everyone's got some woman or other . . . but no one wants to talk about them, because if you do, it gets known and then people start gossiping. . . . And women, as you know, only trust the ones who don't talk.'
Thus he read me a lesson on the importance of secrecy in love affairs; leaving me in doubt, however, as to whether he belonged to the category of men who do not talk and who are trusted by women. I said nothing more about it that morning, but changed the conversation. But the suspicion had crept into my mind that, after all, my wife's accusations might have some foundation. In the afternoon, as happened regularly once a week, the farmer's eldest son, Angelo, came to go over the accounts with me. I shut myself up with him in the study and, after examining the accounts, brought the conversation round to Antonio, asking him if he knew him and what he thought of him. Angelo, a young peasant with fair hair and an expression which combined cunning with foolishness, answered with a slightly malevolent smile: 'Yes, yes, we know him, we know him all right.'
'It seems to me,' I enquired, 'or am I mistaken? - that you don't much care for Antonio.'
After a moment's hesitation, he said: 'As a barber - there's no doubt he's a good barber. . . .'
'But he's a stranger here,' continued Angelo, 'and strangers have different ways, as everybody knows. . . . Perhaps things are different, where he comes from. . . . Certainly no one in these parts can abide him.'
'Well - so many things. . . .' And Angelo smiled again, shaking his head. It was a self-conscious, knowing smile and yet full of dislike for Antonio, as though the fault that the local people found with the barber was something that had a funny side to it.
'What sort of things, for instance?' I asked.
I saw him grow serious; and then he answered, stressing his words in a slightly unctuous way: 'Well, you see, Signor Baldeschi, in the first place he's always annoying women. . . .'
'Ugh - and how! . . . you've no idea.... Pretty or ugly, old or young, anything does for him.. . . And not only in his shop, where they go to get their hair curled - but outside it too, ask anyone you like. . . . On Sundays he takes his bike and goes prowling round the countryside - as you might go out shooting
'What about his wife?' I asked, interrupting him.
'His poor wife, what can she do? She cries and gets all worked up. . . . He's taught her to shave his clients, and every now and then he leaves her in charge of the shop and gets out his bike and tells her he's going into the town . . . but instead of that he goes round looking for a girl. Why, last year . . .'
I decided that Angelo had now given me all the information I needed; there was nothing more to be expected from him except more gossip about Antonio's shocking behaviour, and it seemed to me hardly dignified to drag it out of him and listen to it. And so I changed the conversation and soon afterwards sent him away.
When I was alone, I fell into a kind of thoughtful abstraction. So my wife had been right, or at least there was a strong probability that she had been right. This Antonio was a libertine, and it was even possible that he had actually tried to seduce my wife. I realized now that the mystery of Antonio - who did not seem to care much about his work, nor to be excessively fond of his family, nor interested in politics - did not exist. There was no mystery, and that was the whole mystery. Antonio was a commonplace Casanova, a perfectly ordinary fornicator. And those discreet, oily manners of his were the manners of a man who, as he himself had expressed it, was loved by women because he did not talk.
I had a strange feeling, almost of disappointment. At heart, and almost without realizing it, I had hoped that Antonio would not be so quickly and so easily deflated. I had liked Antonio, I now saw, just because there was in him - or so it had seemed to me - something mysterious. The mystery having been dispersed, nothing remained but a poor fellow who went about annoying women, all women, including, perhaps, women like my wife who were utterly out of his reach. There was something that irritated me in this discovery of the secret mainspring of the barber's life. Previously, if I had allowed myself to be infected by Leda's resentment, I might have hated him. Now that I knew all about him, however, I seemed to feel nothing except pity mingled with contempt - a feeling which was humiliating not only for him but for me also, since I now saw myself suddenly degraded to a mortifying rivalry with a village Don Juan.
Conjugal Love by Alberto Moravia / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes