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Conjugal love, p.8
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       Conjugal Love, p.8

           Alberto Moravia
 
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  11

  I TOLD her that I wanted to climb up to the threshing-floor and look at the immensely wide view that could be obtained from there; she agreed and, still linked together, we scrambled up the steep slope, over the slippery grass. When we reached the threshing-floor we stood quite still for a moment gazing at the landscape. The whole wide plain stretched away as far as the eye could see, in the clear night, and the moonlight, falling upon that vast area of growing things, showed up the rows of fruit-trees, the hedges, the empty spaces of the fields, the vineyards. Here and there its brilliance was concentrated upon the front of some farmhouse, bathing it in silver. At the horizon, a row of black mountains made a clear line between the earth and the tranquil sky. A far-away murmur, as of a train running hidden amongst the cultivated fields, passed across the sleeping countryside and emphasized its vastness and its silence.

  My wife gazed at this landscape almost in bewilderment, as though she wished to penetrate the secret of its serenity and its silence; and I, putting my arm round her waist again, began talking to her in a low voice, pointing out now one place, now another, in the plain below us, and exalting in the beauty of the night. Then, as we still conversed together, I made her turn round towards the mountain that rose behind us and pointed out the walls of the town upon its top. We had moved, as we talked, close to one of the straw-stacks: on the ground there was scattered straw where the farmer's children played in the daytime. Suddenly I embraced her, murmuring: 'Leda . . . isn't it better here than in your room?' And, as I spoke, I tried to push her gently to the ground.

  She looked at me, her shining blue eyes dilated by a sudden temptation. Then, resisting me, she said: 'No . . . the straw isn't clean. . . . Besides, it's so prickly. . . . I should ruin my frock.'

  'What does your frock matter?'

  'Your work isn't finished yet,' she said all of a sudden, with a laugh that was unexpected and full of coquettishness;' the day you've really finished it, we'll come back here, at night. ... Is that all right?'

  'No, it's not all right, there won't be any moon then. . . . Tonight.'

  Softly, and as though she were still hesitating, she said: 'Let me go, Silvio'; and then, all at once, she freed herself and ran off, down the hill, laughing. It was a fresh, childish laugh, full of an affectionate nervousness in which there seemed still to be a tremor of the temptation that I had discerned, a moment before, in her eyes; and this seemed to recompense me for the way in which she repulsed me. Perhaps it was better that it should have happened like this, I thought, as I ran after her: a gentle refusal and a gracious laugh. She was running in front of me along the path between the park and the vineyards, but I caught her up easily and took her in my arms. But now I felt that that laugh had satisfied every desire of mine; and, after kissing her, I started walking along beside her, holding her hand tightly. The moonlight threw our two shadows in front of us - separate, but with the hands joined; and this chaste return of ours now appeared to me more truly loving than the embrace which she had evaded at the threshing-floor. We walked the whole length of the drive and reached the front of the house. The electric light had come on again in the meantime, and the french window of the drawing-room had a bright and welcoming look. We went into the house, and straight upstairs. She walked in front of me up the stairs and never had she looked so beautiful to me as in that soft, graceful movement of ascent which showed off the lines of her figure. On the landing she said again, in a characteristically jocular, and at the same time sensual, manner: 'Finish your work, then . . . and we'll go together to the threshing-floor.' I kissed her hand and went to my room. Very soon afterwards I was asleep.

  Next morning, my feeling of exaltation, far from having evaporated, had perhaps reached its highest point. My wife was still asleep when I climbed into Angelo's trap and drove off with him towards the town. Angelo perhaps thought it his duty to talk to me of the state of affairs of the countryside; and I let him chatter away almost without listening to him, being absorbed in my thoughts, or rather in my feelings. The trap started off down the drive, where the first rays of the morning sun were already playing, skirted the old boundary wall and turned into the main road. The air was mild, and the soft splendour of autumn lay upon all things; I looked round over the countryside, already partly despoiled and weary-looking, and all about me, in the accurate light, so different from the devouring glare of summer, all things were clearly visible, each thing could be clearly distinguished, even to the finest detail and the subtlest shade of colour; and I could not have enough of looking. Here was a red leaf which, at a breath of wind, detached itself from the bough of a vine; there a changing network of light and faint shadow upon an old brown, green and grey wall; farther on a lark, rising from the road almost under the horse's hoofs, punctured space with brief flights and came to rest beside a clod of earth in a bare field, and the clod had been freshly turned and still had upon it the gloss of the spade. There were patches of verdigris, of a poisonous blue, upon the white walls of farm buildings; there was moss, yellow as gold, on the weathered roof-tiles of a little church that looked like a barn; there were big, pale green acorns amongst the darker leaves of a young oak that hung out over the road from the field beside it. I rejoiced in these and other similar minute details as though they had been rich with some ineffable meaning; and I was aware that I owed this new way of looking at things, as though I were in love with them, to my own happiness, which, also, was new and ineffable. After crossing part of the flat plain, the road attacked the mountain slope, rising gently but unceasingly. The trap proceeded at walking pace. I looked then for the first time at the ancient walls rising sheer on the mountain-top, brown but with edges glowing in the sunlight; and all at once I felt myself flooded with an uncontrollable rapture, as though those walls had been the goal, now at last visible, not of my brief morning expedition but of my whole life. The trap climbed slowly, and I, for a moment, as I looked at the walls, saw myself not as I was, a mass of confused and transient thoughts and feelings, but firmly established in time, wearing, like a mantle, the predestined, the mysteriously simple, character that history attributes to its heroes. Thus, beneath this same sun, on a morning like this, along just such a road, had moved those great men, the bringers of consolation, whom I admired; and in this certainty I seemed to find confirmation that I myself, perhaps, would one day become one of these men. I seemed to divine it in the intensity of that moment as I lived it; it seemed to me the clearest possible sign of my entry into greatness and into eternity. I was surprised to find myself murmuring : 'The twenty-seventh of October nineteen hundred and thirty-seven' over and over again, in time to the hard, insistent, regular beat of the horse's hoofs as it mounted the hill, and I had the feeling that the magic charm of that date, as I pronounced each of its syllables distinctly, already held in itself some sort of foreboding. Our slow progress had brought us by now to the town gate, which consists of enormous masses of Etruscan masonry surmounted by a slender medieval arch. It stood golden in the sunshine; peasants driving donkeys or carrying baskets went through it in front of us: and it was, in fact, a morning just like any other morning, on top of this mountain as elsewhere. After we had passed the gate, my mood of exaltation fell suddenly flat as the trap went up over the cobbles of a steep street, between two rows of old houses. When we reached the main square I got down, asking Angelo to meet me there in an hour's time, and I went off to look for the paper I needed. The shop that I had in mind was further on along the Corso, and I had little difficulty in finding it. But I discovered to my Surprise that the stationer kept no typewriting paper, only foolscap. I resigned myself disgustedly to buying a hundred of these double sheets, thinking that I could cut them up and make two sheets out of each. With my roll of paper under my arm I then went into the principal cafe and drank a vermouth, standing at the bar: it was an old-fashioned cafe, dark and dusty, with few bottles, of dubious aspect, upon the bar shelves, and no customers on the red divans round the walls. I left the cafe, returned to th
e square, went over to the newspaper kiosk and, after examining at length the four or five illustrated magazines and comic papers hung up there, I bought the morning paper and went and sat down on the stone seat in front of the Town Hall, beneath the convoluted coats-of-arms of extinct noble families and the iron rings for tying up horses. I was sorry now that I had told Angelo to come back in an hour's time, but consoled myself with the thought that he had things to do and that I should anyhow have had to wait for him. The irregular piazza, narrow, surrounded by medieval palaces, half in sunshine and half in shadow, was deserted, since it was not market-day: during the space of an hour and more that I remained there I could not have seen more than ten people or so go past, of whom at least half were priests. I read the newspaper right through and realized that I was not in the least disturbed at having to wait, since my work was so satisfactorily finished and I should not in any case have started the typing that morning. I felt calm and in a perfectly normal state of mind, and when I had finished the paper I started watching the numerous artisans who were at work in their shops all round the square. Meanwhile, the sun was climbing higher and the shadow of the Town Hall, with its severe outline, grew less as it retreated across the cobble-stones. From somewhere or other a bell - a convent-bell, perhaps - began to ring violently; and this was at once followed by the graver tones of the bells in the tower of the principal church. It was noon; the whole town seemed to re-awaken, and groups of people came into the piazza. I too, moved. I went slowly down the entire length of the Corso to the public gardens, a sunny meeting-place where I thought I might find Angelo. And there, in fact, he was, in the midst of a discussion with some country people. We started off at once on our homeward journey.

  On the way back, perhaps owing to fatigue, my thoughts assumed a more rational turn. I began, I remember, to think about the publisher whom I should prefer to publish the book, about the binding I should choose, the critics who would write about it, and who would like it and who would not. Then I thought of Leda, and I said to myself that I had been very lucky to find her, and, perhaps for the first time since our marriage, it dawned upon my mind how fragile was the link that bound us. I was almost frightened when I thought how my whole life depended upon her feelings for me and mine for her, how everything might change and how I might lose her. My spirit was troubled at this thought, to the point of anguish; and, feeling my breath fail and my heart tremble, I understood how closely I was now bound to Leda and how I could no longer get on without her. I realized that, in possession of her, I felt myself to be so rich that I sometimes thought I would be able to live without her; but as soon as I imagined myself separated from her, I saw that I should be the most helpless, the most wretched, the most forlorn of men. And this separation might come about any day. All at once I felt utterly depressed - though the sun was hot - chilled and shuddering from head to foot; my eyes filled with tears and I knew I was growing pale. Almost hysterically I ordered Angelo to quicken the horse's pace: 'Good God!' I cried angrily, 'we shan't be home till evening, at this rate.' Luckily we had by now reached the flat ground, and the horse, knowing its stable was near, broke into a quick trot. I started watching the road anxiously, longing to reach home as soon as possible and to see Leda and find her just as I had left her. Here was the first stretch of main road across open country, then the second, beyond the bridge; and here at last was the final stretch of road along the wall that skirted the park. Here was the gate, and here was the drive. The open space in front of the house was full of sunshine, and on the threshold of the french window, just as though she had been waiting for me there for years - an almost incredible sight after my recent terror - was Leda, in a light-coloured dress, a book in her hand. I noticed with delight, from a long way off, her attitude of expectation: evidently she had settled down to read in the drawing-room, leaving the french window open, and at the sound of the trap wheels on the gravel of the drive had at once come out to meet me. The trap stopped, I jumped out and, after greeting her, went into the house.

  'It's late,' she said, following me; 'the barber's been here quite a long time. He's waiting for you upstairs.'

  'What time is it?' I asked.

  'It's after one.'

  'It was Angelo's fault,' I said; 'I'll go at once and get shaved and come down again.'

  She said nothing and went out into the garden. I rushed up the stairs, four at a time, and went into the study. Antonio stood waiting for me beside the table upon which the razors were laid out; he welcomed me with a good morning and a slight bow. In a mad hurry I said to him: 'Quick, Antonio . . . it's very late. Be as quick as you can,' and threw myself into the armchair.

  I realized now that I was in a hurry mainly because I was hungry. In the early morning I had had nothing but a cup of coffee, my stomach was empty and my head felt dizzy, and my hunger brought with it a kind of irritability which soon showed itself when Antonio, with his usual slowness, began to unfold the towel to put it round my neck. 'Why can't he make haste?' I thought; 'I told him I was in a hurry. . . . Devil take him.' The composure of Antonio's movements, which formerly had so much pleased me, had now become hateful. I should have liked to tell him to hurry, but since I had already done so I saw that I could not repeat myself and this irritated me afresh. As he turned his back upon me and began stirring the brush round in the wooden soap-bowl, I followed his movements with an impatient eye, counting the seconds. My haste and my hunger increased simultaneously.

  When he had worked the soap into a good lather, Antonio, holding the brush up in the air, turned to me and began soaping my face. He was unsurpassed in the art of concentrating upon his client's face a whole enormous mass of thick, white foam; but that morning his skilfulness irritated me. Every time the brush circled my cheek I thought it was for the last time, but always I was wrong: catching, with the point of his brush, a flake of froth that threatened to fall, Antonio would begin all over again, always with the same regular movement, to work up the lather on my face. I do not know why, but the idea of lying there in the armchair with froth all over my face gave me a feeling of absurdity; and - even worse - it almost seemed to me that Antonio consciously intended to make me look absurd.

  This last suspicion was ridiculous and I immediately rejected it; but it shows how my hunger had upset me. At last, as the movement of the brush over my cheeks seemed to be going on for ever, I exclaimed angrily: 'I told you to hurry up . . . and you go on and on soaping my face.' I saw Antonio throw me a quick glance out of those round, bright, astonished eyes of his, and then, without a word, he put down the brush in the bowl and took up the razor.

  But, before he turned away and after I had spoken, he had not been able to resist a final whisk to the lather on my right cheek. I noted this gesture of his as an act of disobedience which, I felt, came very near to insolence, and my irritation grew.

  He took a moment to strop the razor, then bent over me and started shaving me. With his usual lightness and skill he removed the greater part of the lather from my right cheek, and then stretched forward to start on the left. In so doing, he pressed with his body against my arm, and I, for the first time since he had been shaving me, was aware of this pressure and at the same time could not help remembering Leda's accusations. There was no doubt about it, as he bent over me he pressed his body against my arm and shoulder, and I, at this contact, was conscious of a feeling of frantic repugnance, I could feel the softness of the lower part of his stomach, which I pictured to myself as hairy, muscular and sweaty, and enveloped in linen of a doubtful cleanliness ; and all at once, through my shudder of disgust, I seemed to understand that of my wife. It was a disgust of a particular kind, such as is inspired by this type of promiscuous, sensual contact which, though entirely casual, cannot but arouse, because of some quality in itself, the suspicion that it is deliberate.

  I waited a moment, hoping that he would move. But he did not, nor, indeed, could he; and suddenly my disgust overcame my prudence. With a quick movement I drew back. At the same momen
t I felt the coldness of the razor as it cut into my cheek.

  Immediately, from whence I know not, there descended upon me a fury of hatred against Antonio. He had at once drawn back the razor and was looking at me in astonishment. I leapt to my feet, raising my hand to my cheek from which blood was already spurting, and shouted: 'What on earth are you doing? Are you mad?'

  'But, Signor Baldeschi,' he said, 'you moved . . . you moved violently.'

  'That's not true,' I yelled.

  'Signor Baldeschi,' he insisted almost beseechingly, with the respectful, as it were heartbroken, moderation of a social inferior who knows he is in the right, 'how could I possibly have cut you if you hadn't moved?'

  'Believe me, you did move . . . but it's nothing much - just wait a moment.' He went to the table, uncorked a little bottle, took a piece of cotton-wool from a packet and soaked it in the spirit.

  Beside myself with rage, I shouted: 'What d'you mean, it's nothing much? . . . it's a very bad cut'; and, snatching the cotton-wool out of his hand, I went over to the mirror. The burning sensation of the spirit gave the final touch to my exasperation. 'So it's nothing much, eh?' I shouted, throwing away the blood-stained cotton-wool in a fresh access of fury. 'You don't know what you're talking about, Antonio . . . and look here - you'd better clear out.'

  'But, Signor Baldeschi... I haven't finished shaving you . . .'

  'That doesn't matter. . . . Clear out and don't show yourself here again,' I cried. 'I don't want to see you here again - d'you understand?'

  'But, Signor Baldeschi . . .'

  'That's enough ... go away and don't let me see you again . . . never again . . . get out - d'you understand?'

  'Am I to come tomorrow?'

  'No - not tomorrow nor any other day. . . . That's enough, I tell you.' I stood shouting in the middle of the room, the towel still tied round my neck. Then I saw him make a slight bow - an ironical bow, I dare say - murmuring 'As you wish'; then he went to the door and disappeared.

 
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