Conjugal Love, p.7Alberto Moravia
But when I went, that same afternoon, to examine my typewriter and see that all was in order, I discovered that I had left my typewriting paper behind in Rome. I knew that there was no question of being able to find this sort of paper in the village; so I decided to go and buy some in the town. There was a stationer's shop there that supplied all the offices of the neighbourhood. It was, however, impossible for me to go there that day, since the farmer's one-horse trap, my only available means of transport, had already gone out in the morning. I planned to go next day. That same evening I announced my intended expedition to my wife, telling her that I had to go into the town for some shopping but not specifying what it was I meant to buy; and, as a matter of form, I suggested that she should accompany me. I say 'as a matter of form' because I knew that there was not much room in the trap, and that she did not care for that slow and uncomfortable vehicle. In any case I was not sorry that she should not come: I was so happy that solitude seemed to me preferable to company. As I had foreseen, she refused, without even the slightest comment upon the purpose of my expedition. She asked, after a moment: 'What time will you be back?'
'Quite soon . . .at any rate for lunch.'
She was silent, and then went on, in a casual way: 'What's to be done if the barber comes?'
I thought for a moment, and then answered: 'I shall certainly be back before he comes. ... If by any chance I'm late, ask him to wait.' This reply was dictated by my dislike of having to make use of one of the barbers in the town, and of their razors which were used on other customers. Antonio brought with him nothing at all; all the required implements were supplied by me.
She said nothing, and we changed the conversation. Now that my work was finished I felt my love for my wife coming back as strong as before, and even stronger.
Or rather, I had loved her all the time, but, during those twenty days of work, I had, so to speak, suspended the expression of my love. We were sitting at table, in the little dining-room. Leda, as usual, was in evening dress, in a graceful white gown with long, flowing lines, low at the back and, with its simple draperies, rather like a Greek peplum. Round her neck, upon her fingers, and in the lobes of her ears were her jewels, all of them massive and of great value. The parchment-shaded lamp in the middle of the table lit up her face with a soft, golden light. Her face was expertly made up; and she had retained the short, curly coiffure that Antonio had devised for her. I noticed for the first time that her long, thin face, now that it had ceased to be enclosed between loose, trailing locks of hair, had assumed a quite different aspect from the one I was accustomed to: it appeared younger, less wistful, and had about it a look of cruel, archaic sensuality. No longer softened and caressed by the waving hair, the strained, unmoving slant of her enormous blue eyes, the sharp sensitiveness of her nostrils, the smiling bigness of her mouth - all were fully revealed. She seemed to have been stripped of something and therefore to be more real, with an antique, satyr-like appearance which reminded one at the same time of primitive Greek sculptures with set expressions of ironical ambiguity upon their brows, and of a goat's Semitic profile. To emphasize this appearance, my wife, as on the day of the Antonio incident, had fastened above her left temple, on the gold of her hair, a bunch of fresh, red flowers. Looking at her, I said: 'You know, after all, your hair as Antonio arranged it really suits you very well. . . . I've only just noticed it.'
She seemed to give an almost imperceptible start at the name of the barber and lowered her eyes. With her long fingers she was twisting the massive crystal stopper of a decanter, and between her pointed nails, red as rubies, the faceted stopper looked, in the lamplight, like an enormous diamond shot through with gleaming lights. She said slowly: 'The idea of doing my hair like this wasn't Antonio's, it was mine.. . . All he did was to do what I told him - and badly, too.'
'And how did you come to think of it?'
'I used to wear it like this when I was a girl, very many years ago,' she said. 'It's an arrangement that suits either very young women, or' - and she smiled slightly - 'middle-aged ones, like me.'
'What d'you mean, middle-aged? Don't say such silly things.. . . And those flowers suit you perfectly.. . .'
The maid came in and we helped ourselves in silence. Then, when she had left the room again, I put down my knife and fork and said: 'You look like a different person ... or rather, you're yourself all the time, but with a new appearance.' All at once I felt deeply disturbed, and I added in a whisper: 'You're very beautiful, Leda... it may be that I forget that, every now and then . . . but the moment always comes when I realize how utterly in love with you I am.'
She went on eating and did not reply; but there was no sign of disdain, in fact a certain satisfaction was visible in the faint quiver of her nostrils and the droop of her lowered eyelids. It was her way of accepting compliments that were agreeable to her and I knew it. All at once there came over me an indescribable turmoil of love. I placed my hand on hers and murmured: 'Give me a kiss.'
She raised her eyes, looked at me, and asked, with simplicity and perhaps without any intended irony: 'Is your work finished, then?'
'No,' I lied, 'but I can't look at you without loving you and without wanting to kiss you. . . . To hell with my work.'
As I said this I pulled her by the arm so that she leant over in my direction. She resisted, frowning, with an air half serious, half tempted, and said briefly, in a voice full of love: 'You're crazy'; then turning suddenly, gave me the kiss I had asked for, abruptly, impetuously, but with sincerity. We kissed in breathless haste, crushing our lips violently against each other's; it was like the kiss of two ingenuous but ardent youngsters who are not yet expert in love and who spoil their own enjoyment by nervousness and impatience. And I, in that fleeting kiss - which I seemed to be snatching rather than merely receiving from my wife's lips - felt that I had in truth gone back to my boyhood and that I was in danger of being surprised by a stern mother, instead of a devoted old servant who would be both embarrassed and sympathetic. Immediately after the kiss we became composed again, just like two children; she serene and quiet, I a little out of breath. But the maid did not come; and I looked at my wife and then I managed to laugh, both at myself and at her, and I laughed and slapped her hand. This made her suspicious and she asked: 'Why are you laughing?'
'I'm sorry,' I said. 'I'm not laughing at you. . . . I'm laughing because I'm happy.'
With her eyes lowered, and in a calm, conversational tone, as she went on eating, she asked: 'And what is it that makes you so happy?'
This time I could resist no longer and I said, ingenuously: 'For the first time in my life I have everything I wanted, and what's more - a thing which is much rarer - I know that I have it. . . .'
'What was it you wanted?'
'For years and years,' I said, 'I've wanted to love a woman and to be loved by her in return. . . . Well, now I love you, and you, I believe, love me. For years and years I've had an ambition to write something lasting, something alive, something poetical. . . . Now that I've finished my story, I can say that I've achieved that too.'
I had decided not to speak to my wife about the story until I had finished copying it. But my joy was so great that I couldn't resist it. Her reaction to the news surprised me, although I knew that she loved me and took a lively interest in all that I did. 'You've finished?' she exclaimed, with a delight that was flattering because sincere, 'you've finished?' - and her voice had a clear ring in it which enchanted me - 'Oh, Silvio - and you never told me anything about it!'
'I didn't tell you about it,' I explained, 'because, although in the strict sense of the word I've finished, I've still got to type out the manuscript. ... I shan't really have finished till the day when I've finished the typing.'
'That doesn't matter,' she said, with that same complete and flattering spontaneity, 'you've finished and this is a great moment. . . . We must drink to the health of your book.'
Her manner was charmingly, impetuously affectionate and her blue eyes, so
'Come on, Anna, you must drink too; this is a great day,' said my wife, with that graceful, authoritative naturalness with which she knew so well how to deal with the most embarrassing social situations. 'Silvio, give Anna some wine. Come on, Anna, drink Signor Silvio's health.' The old woman demurred, smiling ironically. 'Well, well, if it's a health to be drunk . . .' she said then; and, putting down the tray on the sideboard, she took the glass, raised it with an awkward gesture and drank the toast. My wife, with the same naturalness of manner, then helped herself and started eating again, still continuing to question me, in a simple way, about my work. 'And this time,' she asked, 'are you really certain that you've done something good?'
'Yes,' I answered, 'as far as one can be certain with this kind of thing . . . and I can be more certain than many other people might be, because I'm not a bad critic myself - of that, at least, I'm perfectly certain.'
'You know, I want to tell you how very pleased I am,' she went on after a brief silence, placing her hand on mine and looking into my face. I lifted her hand and kissed it. I was infinitely grateful to my wife for the way in which she had welcomed the news of the finishing of my work, by which she had once again revealed to me, as by an infallible touchstone, the pure gold of the feeling that she cherished towards me. I felt, also, intoxicated by the delight she showed, just as though that welcome had come from the most exacting of critics instead of from an ignorant outsider like herself. It was a callow feeling, but I believe that all writers, even the most sophisticated, experience it at least once in their lives, at the beginning of their careers, at a time when they are timid, though hopeful, candidates for the opinion of some more important, older colleague. Uplifted by this joyful atmosphere, I discovered all of a sudden that, without my being aware of it, we had finished our meal, had risen from the table, had walked into the drawing-room, and that my wife was standing in front of me pouring out the coffee.
I do not remember clearly the details of what happened that night, just as one does not remember people's faces and expressions when a sudden flash of lightning dazzles everybody with its blinding glare. I only remember that I was excited, hilarious, in a state of exaltation, and that I talked about my future and hers. Then I explained how it had happened that I had written the story. Taking us two and our marriage as subject, I analysed the material I had made use of, and described to her the changes and the profundities I had introduced into it. I also quoted other famous books, making comparisons, tracing precedents, linking up my own work with a tradition. Every now and then I broke off into sidelines of reflection or anecdote. Finally I picked up a book, an anthology which had recently appeared, and read aloud some poems by modern authors. My wife was sitting on the sofa, beautiful, elegant, her legs crossed and one silver-shod foot raised, smoking and listening to me; and I was aware that she was following all that I said with the same affection, truly as unchangeable as gold, that she had displayed to me with such spontaneity when I had announced that I had finished my story. Alone in that nineteenth-century drawing-room, amongst all those pieces of antiquated and creaking furniture, in that isolated villa in the depths of the country, we enjoyed - at least I enjoyed - two hours of incomparable intimacy. And then, exactly at the moment when I was finally closing the anthology, the lights went out.
It was no rare thing, in that part of the country, for the electric light to fail: it was the time of the olive-harvest and the current would be diverted to the presses. In the darkness I went over to the french window that gave on to the gravelled space in front of the house and threw it wide open. The drive was white in the moonlight, and behind the black trees which framed it the night sky, too, was silvered by the full moon. On the threshold I stood still, searching for the moon itself but unable to find it. Then, all of a sudden, turning, I saw it rising rapidly behind the mountain on whose top stood the ancient town, at first no more than a segment, then, as though pushed upwards by some irresistible movement, becoming steadily larger and rounder until it hung, complete, a solid globe bathed in silver light, in a brightened sky. Its rays, falling vertically upon the brown walls of the town, threw them into crumbling relief, imparting to them a quality of coldness and loneliness. They seemed to acquire an air of fearless expectation, of vigilant guardianship, as in the days when they had been raised with the true purpose of defending the town; and I forgot myself as I looked at them and as I looked at the moon hanging above them. Then, from the room behind, came the voice of my wife who had remained sitting on the sofa: 'Don't you think it's time to go to bed? It must be getting very late, you know.'
It was, possibly, merely a suggestion that we should go to our beds and sleep. But I, in my exalted state of mind, took it as a love invitation and turned hastily back into the room, saying: 'There's a magnificent moon . . . why shouldn't we go for a little walk?' Without a word my wife obeyed me and came forward out of the darkness of the room, and I was pleased by this docile agreement of hers. We went out together on to the gravelled space in front of the house.
The silence was profound, as it is on these autumn nights when all the insects of summer have retreated into silence until the following year. The two plaster dogs that gazed at the villa from the edges of the open space seemed also a part of this silence, lively, almost affectionate in their attitudes, but white and dumb. We started off down the drive, beneath the low vault of trees. While we were in this deep shadow, I put my arm round Leda's waist and felt her lean back against it lazily, gracefully, without trace of sentimentality, as though my gesture had been foreseen and already discounted. Thus linked together, we walked on down the drive, between the two slanting rows of trees whose trunks and foliage were flecked here and there with uncertain gleams of white by the moonlight as it filtered through the tangled undergrowth. We walked the whole length of the drive and, at a short distance from the gate, turned off into another path, between two rows of cypresses. Beyond the cypresses one could catch a glimpse of the wide plain, silent in the moonlight, and, at the top of the path, where there was a silvery emptiness, one could divine a further stretch of open country. My wife was leaning against my arm and I could feel, through her dress, the soft curve of her waist where it joined the roundness of her hip. At the end of the path we turned off along a track which divided the park from the fields. The park came to a natural end here in the open country: the last trees stretched out their boughs across the track to the first rows of vines. A little further on, on the top of a hill, were the farm buildings, whose rustic fronts, brilliantly lit by the moon, could already be partly seen. The track, still skirting the edge of the park, passed below the farm buildings, rounded a knoll upon which was a threshing-floor and three straw-stacks, and then lost itself in the countryside.
We walked slowly, with the trees of the park on one side and, on the other, the grassy slope of the hill. We passed the farm buildings and reached a point just below the threshing-floor; then I raised my eyes towards the three stacks. One of them was complete, made of fresh straw, of a bright, shining yellow; another was brown, the straw older; of the third there remained only a section, shaped like a rudder, against the crooked pole which had supported it. The moonlight, falling upon the three stacks and outlining their masses sharply against the dark, empty background of the open countryside, seemed to isolate them upon their knoll: the way they were placed, which was obviously not by mere chance, their monumental aspect, made one forget their real nature and suggested the idea of some mysterio
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