The Adventure of a Soldier
In the compartment, a lady came and sat down, tall and buxom, next to Private Tomagra. She must have been a widow from the provinces, to judge by her dress and her veil: the dress was black silk, appropriate for prolonged mourning, but with useless frills and furbelows; and the veil went all around her face, falling from the brim of a massive, old-fashioned hat. Other places were free, there in the compartment, Private Tomagra noticed, and he had assumed the widow would surely choose one of them. But, on the contrary, despite the vicinity of a coarse soldier like himself, she came and sat right there ?— ?no doubt for some reason connected with travel, the soldier quickly decided, a draft, or the direction of the train.
Her body was in full bloom, solid, indeed a bit square. If its upper curves had not been tempered by a matronly softness, you would have said she was no more than thirty; but when you looked at her face, at the complexion both marmoreal and relaxed, the unattainable gaze beneath the heavy eyelids and the thick black brows, at the sternly sealed lips, hastily colored with a jarring red, she seemed instead past forty.
Tomagra, a young infantryman on his first leave (it was Easter), huddled down in his seat for fear that the lady, so ample and shapely, might not fit; immediately he found himself in the aura of her perfume, a popular and perhaps cheap scent, but now, out of long wear, blended with natural human odors.
The lady sat down with a composed demeanor, revealing, there beside him, less majestic proportions than he had imagined when he had seen her standing. Her hands were plump, with tight, dark rings; she kept them folded in her lap, over a shiny purse and a jacket she had taken off to expose round white arms. At her first movement Tomagra had shifted to make space for a broad maneuvering of her arms; but she had remained almost motionless, slipping out of the sleeves with a few brief twitches of her shoulders and torso.
The railroad seat was therefore fairly comfortable for two, and Tomagra could feel the lady’s extreme closeness, though without any fear of offending her by his contact. All the same, Tomagra reasoned, lady though she was, she had surely not shown any sign of repugnance toward him, toward his rough uniform; otherwise she would have sat farther away. And at these thoughts his muscles, till now contracted and tensed, relaxed freely, serenely; indeed, without his moving, they tried to expand to their greatest extension, and his leg ?— ?its tendons taut, at first detached even from the cloth of his trousers ?— ?settled more broadly, tightening the material that covered it, and the wool grazed the widow’s black silk. And now, through this wool and that silk, the soldier’s leg was adhering to her leg with a soft, fleeting motion, like one shark grazing another, and sending waves through its veins to those other veins.
It was still a very light contact, which every jolt of the train could break off and recreate; the lady had strong, fat knees, and Tomagra’s bones could sense at every jerk the lazy bump of the kneecap. The calf had raised a silken cheek that, with an imperceptible thrust, had to be made to coincide with his own. This meeting of calves was precious, but it came at a price, a loss: in fact, the body’s weight was shifted and the reciprocal support of the hips no longer occurred with the same docile abandon. In order to achieve a natural and satisfied position, it was necessary to move slightly on the seat, with the aid of a curve in the track, and also of the comprehensible need to shift position every so often.
The lady was impassive beneath her matronly hat, her gaze fixed, lidded, and her hands steady on the purse in her lap. And yet her body, for a very long stretch, rested against that stretch of man. Hadn’t she realized this yet? Or was she preparing to flee? To rebel?
Tomagra decided to transmit, somehow, a message to her: he contracted the muscle of his calf into a kind of hard, square fist, and then with this calf-fist, as if a hand inside it wanted to open, he quickly knocked at the calf of the widow. To be sure, this was a very rapid movement, barely long enough for a flicker of the tendons; but in any case, she didn’t draw back ?— ?at least not so far as he could tell, because immediately, needing to justify that covert movement, Tomagra extended his leg as if to get a kink out of it.
Now he had to begin all over again; that patient and prudently established contact had been lost. Tomagra decided to be more courageous; as if looking for something, he stuck his hand in his pocket, the pocket toward the woman, and then, as if absently, he left it there. It had been a rapid action, Tomagra didn’t know whether he had touched her or not, an inconsequential gesture; yet he now realized what an important step forward he had made, and in what a risky game he was now involved. Against the back of his hand, the hip of the lady in black was now pressing; he felt it weighing on every finger, every knuckle; now any movement of his hand would have been an act of incredible intimacy toward the widow. Holding his breath, Tomagra turned his hand inside his pocket; in other words, he set the palm toward the lady, open against her, though still in that pocket. It was an impossible position, the wrist twisted. And yet at this point he might just as well attempt a decisive action: and so he ventured to move the fingers of that contorted hand. There could no longer be any possible doubt: the widow couldn’t have helped noticing his maneuvering, and if she didn’t draw back, but pretended to be impassive and absent, it meant that she wasn’t rejecting his advances. When Tomagra thought about it, however, her paying no attention to his mobile right hand might mean that she really believed he was hunting for something in that pocket: a railroad ticket, a match .?.?. There: and if now the soldier’s fingertips, the pads, seemingly endowed with a sudden clairvoyance, could sense through those different stuffs the hems of subterranean garments and even the very minute roughness of skin, pores and moles ?— ?if, as I said, his fingertips arrived at this, perhaps her flesh, marmoreal and lazy, was hardly aware that these were in fact fingertips and not, for example, nails or knuckles.
Then, with furtive steps, the hand emerged from the pocket, paused there undecided, and, with sudden haste to adjust the trouser along the side seam, proceeded all the way down to the knee. More precisely, it cleared a path: to go forward, it had to dig in between himself and the woman, a route that, even in its speed, was rich in anxieties and sweet emotions.
It must be said that Tomagra had thrown his head back against the seat, so one might also have thought he was sleeping. This was not so much an alibi for himself as it was a way of offering the lady, in the event that his insistence didn’t irritate her, a reason to feel at ease, knowing that his actions were divorced from his consciousness, barely surfacing from the depths of sleep. And there, from this alert semblance of sleep, Tomagra’s hand, clutching his knee, detached one finger, and sent it out to reconnoiter. The finger slid along her knee, which remained still and docile; Tomagra could perform diligent figures with the little finger on the silk of the stocking, which, through his half-closed eyes, he could barely glimpse, light and curving. But he realized that the risk of this game was without reward, because the little finger, scant of surface and awkward in movement, transmitted only partial hints of sensations and was...