The Promise, by Humberto de Campos

(A translation by Francis K Johnson of A promessa)

T

here was quite a commotion in the village when they found out that some of the lads had been called up. Some months previously a captain had arrived and taken down names and addresses. By the time the news came – to the horror, on the one hand, of mothers and fiancées, and the exhilaration, on the other, of the tough country lads who’d been called up – no one could remember either him or his uniform.

‘In the days of the Paraguayan War,’ the old men said, puffing away on their pipes in the cool shade of the vines, ‘the outback was the answer. Or else chop off a couple of fingers from your right hand so you couldn’t pull a trigger.’ And they’d reel off the names of those who’d escaped conscription in that way:

‘That was how Bernardo Viúvo got out of it, and Joaquim André and – Lord have mercy on them! – Casimiro, Rogério and Manuel Simeão, Sotero Boa-Vista’s dad.’

However, this human tax imposed, all of a sudden, on the village of Araçá was of such a kind as not to permit desertions. No fewer than eight lads had been called up and all eight had presented themselves without any fear or worries – cheerfully and cockily, in fact, as if they’d been waiting for ages for their patriotic mettle to be tested. A parade was organised to celebrate the event and, on the night before the departure of the conscripts, it passed through the four streets of the village, led by a band. There were resonant speeches, exhorting these sons of the village to bring honour on its name through discipline in the barracks and acts of heroism on the battlefield. And the next morning, wearing their best woollen or linen clothes, mounted on the best horses in the municipality and with several of their friends as outriders, the lads left at a gallop, in order to ride the eighteen kilometres for the train to the capital.

Among the mothers they left in tears no one cried as much as old Maria Inácia, João Vicente’s mother. Although she was poor, it was more her son’s love than his work which kept her going: in her dreary life, he was everything. At the time when the captain had visited the village, taking the lads’ names, she’d had another son and a daughter. The son had since died and the daughter had got married; and, from that day, João Vicente, the youngest, had become her treasure, her world.

He was a strapping lad, pale-skinned, handsome. Happy and carefree, he used to pass his evenings partying, serenading and turning the lasses’ heads. He was a superb guitarist and there wasn’t a moonlit night he wouldn’t be up, with friends he’d known since childhood, singing and making music beneath the windows of pretty girls’ houses. He’d pass his days at home, helping his mother look after their little piece of land, or rehearsing melancholy modinhas for his bohemian nights.

And it was because his mother still thought of him as a child, even though he was twenty, that she missed him even more. Friends had told her that, because he was her only son, it would be easy to get an exemption from military service; but João objected so strongly to the idea – even threatening to abandon her in her old age, leaving her without the light of her life – that the poor old woman felt constrained to stifle her heartfelt sobs and let him go… And off he went, resolute, intrepid, smiling, accompanied by applause from the lasses and tears from the other mothers.

Six months had passed since they’d left Araçá when their barracks received an order to prepare for battle. A rebellion had broken out in the south, catching the government by surprise with its violence and requiring the despatch of fresh military units to the turbulent region. Several regiments – on each side – had already been decimated. The hospitals were full of wounded soldiers and the smell of blood.

And the battalion departed.

Twelve days later, when they were camped near a small inland town in the war zone, João’s company received combat munitions. His cartridge belt was now full and heavy, but that caused him no problem. And at nine o’clock in the morning, after a two-kilometre march, the battalion was ordered to dislodge the rebels from a trench between a low ridge and a river.

They charged over open ground, under a fusillade from the rebels. A machine-gun camouflaged by a mound of stones was particularly deadly. Two of his comrades fell wounded. At an order from their commanders, the soldiers threw themselves to the ground and began to wriggle their way slowly forward, like reptiles, stomach pressed to the ground, chin scraping the grass, spitting fire from the dark spouts of their rifles.

Teeth clenched, eyes burning, his hands clasping his rifle feverishly, loading and firing continuously, João advanced, inch by inch, under enemy fire. The long line they’d been when they began the attack was becoming shorter and shorter, thinner and thinner. Bullets whistled over his head like diabolical needles stitching the air. If he’d looked back over the distance he’d crawled, he might well have lost heart: the ground was full of bodies, some writhing in pain from their wounds, others paralysed by instant death, eyes glazed, mouths wide-open and spewing blood. At that moment, however, he didn’t know whether he had any companions or whether he was advancing on his own. In front of him was the machine-gun, chattering mechanical death, fanning the ground with its bullets. But he was now only about twenty metres from the mound of stones. Ten metres more and he’d be below the line of fire of that terrible weapon… provided they didn’t see him. Sweat ran down his forehead, blinding him. Another five metres forward… Another three… And still more. When he was only four metres away, he could contain himself no more. Abandoning his rifle he unsheathed his sword and made a tiger leap, landing like a cannonball, with all the weight of his body, on the pile of granite stones, which collapsed noisily into the trench together with João, the machine-gun and – among the blocks of stone – the two gunners who’d been manning it.

Now that the weapon which had been putting up most resistance was silenced, the attackers – ignoring the remaining bullets – got to their feet again and charged the trench, roaring. And it wasn’t long – after a short cold-steel combat, in which men of the same country stabbed, slashed and hacked each other in blood-crazed fury – before the government troops took possession of the redoubt, where coagulated blood made a repulsive mixture, under the drone of flies, with pieces of human bodies and the mud of the evening rain.

Promoted to corporal, João took part in two more battles and in various reconnaissance missions. He was extremely brave, yet calm, and had always conducted himself to the satisfaction of his commander, who’d promised to get him promoted to sergeant. But he was no longer the pale-skinned lad who’d gone serenading in Araçá. He used to be clean-shaven, but now he had a full, thick beard. It made him look older, like one of those north-eastern outlaws he’d seen riding through the village occasionally, a dagger on one hip, a pistol on the other, and a carbine at the back of the saddle. Military life had absorbed the bohemian; he was a soldier.

After the conscripts had left, Araçá had been like an organism that’s suffered a haemorrhage. Without the Saturday festivities and the moonlit serenades, the houses were shutting earlier and opening later. It now seemed as if those eight lads had filled the streets of the village all on their own. They’d left behind a pall of sadness.

When they’d arrived at the capital, some had written home, and their letters, short and simple, had been passed from hand to hand, just like holy relics. The thoughts of the village had gone with them, so it caused a great commotion when, some months later, the news arrived that their battalion had set out – fêted by the population of the capital – for the fratricidal conflict in the south.

Of all the souls that suffered a calvary of anguish, however, there was none like that of old Maria, João’s mother. As soon as her son had departed, she lit an oil lamp in front of a crude altar, lined with blue cloth, where Our Lady of Sorrows wept, her heart pierced by a sword. Convulsed by faith and by fear, on her knees, her hands joined, and gazing imploringly at the consoling face of the statue, she made this promise:

‘Mother most holy! Thou art a mother too. Guard my son! Guide him through all evil, preserve him from death and from the perils of this world! And I promise to keep this light burning before thee, day and night!’

And, day and night, that votive flame at the feet of Our Lady of Sorrows never went out. Three, four, five times during the night, the little old lady would get up and, wrapped in her black shawl, would go to see if there was enough oil in the lamp and if the wick needed trimming. To her timorous soul it seemed as if that flame were the very life of her son and that, were it to expire, so would his existence; and, in this delirium, she redoubled her vigilance, guarding that shivering flame as if sitting at a sickbed where death lurks nearby.

Until one awful night… when, exhausted by her continual vigil, she fell into a deeper sleep than usual on her chair beside the altar. When she awoke, it was dark, despite the daylight outside.

‘Dear God! He’s dead..!’ she cried in sudden terror, staring wildly at the darkness, her hands groping shakily for the matchbox on the little table.

The old servant who kept her company came running, stumbling into the furniture on the way, and struck a match to relight the lamp.

‘Luiza, my son’s dead..! João’s dead, Luiza..!’ she cried, collapsing into Luiza’s arms.

‘There, there, Mrs Nacinha! Don’ you worry. He ain’ dead at all! Just you trust in God!’ Luiza murmured, trying to calm her, even though she was shocked, herself, by this premonition.

From that moment Maria’s life became a continuous agony, interrupted only by prayers in front of the altar; and more promises followed until one night, in a moment of even greater affliction, she made this offer, from the depths of her devoted soul:

‘Dear Lady of Sorrows! If thou wilt grant me to see my son once more, safe and sound, I shall give thee my life!’

And in the most contrite fervour, bursting into tears:

‘My life for his, Most Holy Mother..! My life for his..! But just let me see my son again..!’

Two months after this promise, and eight after the conscripts’ departure, with the first winter rains, the village of Araçá got ready for a big celebration, as if for a religious festival. In the church square, dressed in white, the band was waiting for the moment to let their brass instruments interrupt the silence of the neighbouring fields, with one of their resounding dobrados; the children were getting their feet wet, running through the clumps of dewy grass; shopkeepers, farmers and farmhands, in their Sunday best, were chatting in shop doorways – all because four of that year’s eight conscripts, who’d distinguished themselves in the campaign, were coming back to Araçá on leave. And among them – a sergeant now, sunburnt and with weariness written in his face – was João, Maria’s son.

All of a sudden, a shout: ‘They’re on their way..!’

In the distance, at the far end of the lane, a cloud of dust could be seen. And soon afterwards a rumbustious cavalcade – the four soldiers at the front, followed by friends and relatives – entered the square, at which point the band of musicians upped the enthusiasm of one and all by launching, with all the fury of their instruments, into the noisiest dobrado in their repertoire.

The day was nearing when the lads would have to return. There had been festivities the whole month in honour of these brave sons of the village; and the more the hours slid by, the greater was Maria’s torment. No matter how much she hugged her son, it was not enough for her heart. She stayed awake at night while he slept, running her hands through his hair, adjusting his sheet, kissing his face. At first she’d been sure Our Lady of Sorrows would regard her promise as an act of madness and would forgive her. Little by little, however, as the day of departure approached, she became more and more fretful. She’d promised her life for her son’s as long as she could embrace him once more. God had brought him to her arms, into her love, into her presence. Shouldn’t she fulfil her vow? And if she didn’t fulfil it, wouldn’t God strike her heart, wouldn’t João be sent to yet more battles… sent to his death?

That thought tormented her so much that she eventually resolved:

‘No! I must fulfil my promise. Yes, I must. Rather me than my son. How would I ever get over the pain of losing him if I lost him through my own fault, a fault before God?’

In the days just before the lads returned to the garrison, there had been torrential rain, especially up in the hills. Swollen by the mountain streams, the River Araçá had been transformed into a rolling deluge, dragging along branches together with clumps of aninga flowers and foliage in its tumultuous, seething waters. It made your head spin just to see it, hemmed in as it was by the riverbanks, which it licked furiously, voluptuously, lecherously. From time to time people who lived by the river were alarmed by a resounding dull crash: a gully collapsing, or a barrier at the river margin sucked into a whirlpool amid the thunderous noise of those waters.

They were due to leave at nine o’clock the next morning. Loving, gentle and attentive, Maria spent the whole day by her son’s side, outdoing herself in care, tenderness and devotion. She kissed him again and again and hugged him with all the strength of her weak frame, as if she wanted to stick to him, to keep him forever.

There was a farewell party at the house of one of the soldiers, but Maria stayed at home, kneeling in prayer in front of her altar. João returned in the small hours, sweaty and tired from dancing all night.

‘Get undressed and go to bed, son,’ said the old woman as she gave him her blessing.

The cocks are beginning to crow. A cool breeze is shaking the trees, sending the raindrops accumulated in their leaves splashing to the ground. With her shawl round her shoulders, Maria tiptoes into João’s room, kneels by his bed, kisses him on his forehead, on his hair, on the hand hanging limply to the floor. Then she stands up, goes back to the door, has a last look at her sleeping son and steels away like a shadow.

At the top of the river bank she stops and gazes at the torrent. The waters are gurgling eerily down there in the dark. She kneels, makes the sign of the cross and – trembling – mumbles the prayer for the dying. Drawing in her shawl around her thin body, she closes her eyes and lets herself go toppling, like a bale of hay, down the steep slope…

It was not until two days later that they found her body, fifteen kilometres downstream, wedged between two rocks. Her hands, which had prayed so much, had already been devoured by the fish.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 (The following biographical details have been translated from the Academia Brasileira de Letras website.)

Humberto de Campos (H. de C. Veras), a journalist, critic, short-story writer and writer of memoirs, was born on 25 October 1886 in Miritiba (currently renamed after him) in the State of Maranhão. He died in Rio de Janeiro on 5 December 1934.

His parents were Joaquim Gomes de Faria Veras, a tradesman, and Ana de Campos Veras. His father died when he was six years old, and his mother took him to the State capital, São Luís. Because they were poor, he began working when he was still a child.

At the age of 17 he went to live in the State of Pará, where he got a job as a correspondent and editor for the Folha do Norte newspaper and, shortly afterwards, for the Província do Pará. In 1910 he published his first book, a poetry collection called Poeira (Dust).

In 1912 he moved to Rio, where he got a job at the Imparcial newspaper at a time when a group of famous writers were working there as editors or correspondents. José Eduardo de Macedo Soares, the director, was a part of the Second Civilian Campaign, and Humberto de Campos joined the movement.

He immediately transformed himself, however, from a militant journalist into an intellectual under the pseudonym – amongst others – of Conselheiro XX, with which he signed short stories and feuilletons that can still be found today in various collections. In 1923 he became a critic for the Correio da Manhã newspaper.

In 1920 he was elected federal deputy for Maranhão, but he lost his position when the Congress was dissolved after the revolution of 1930. President Getúlio Vargas, who admired Humberto’s talent, tried to ease his problems by making him a schools inspector and director of the Casa de Rui Barbosa.

In 1933 he published what became his most famous book, Memórias, based on his early life. His Diário Secreto, which was published posthumously, caused a scandal on account of the irreverence and sarcasm with which he referred to his contemporaries.

Self-taught, he was a voracious reader and acquired great erudition, which he used in his feuilletons. As a neo-parnassian poet, he was part of a transitional group before the advent of modernism in Brazil with the Modern Art Week in São Paulo in 1922. Poeira was one of the last parnassian books in Brazil. He also produced impressionistic – but contentious and unduly personal – literary criticism.

His principal tactic for his feuilletons was to take well-known stories and give them a make-over via commentaries, digressions and comparisons with other works. His criticism was shallow and has not stood the test of time.

Publications: Poeira, poetry, 2 series (1910 and 1917); Da seara de Booz, feuilletons (1918); Vale de Josaphat, short stories (1918); Tonel de Diógenes, short stories (1920); A serpente de bronze, short stories (1921); Mealheiro de Agripa, miscellaneous (1921); Carvalhos e roseiras, criticism (1923); A bacia de Pilatos, short stories (1924); Pombos de Maomé, short stories (1925); Antologia dos humoristas galantes (1926); Grãos de mostarda, short stories (1926); Alcova e Salão, short stories (1927); O Brasil anedótico, anecdotes (1927); Antologia da Academia Brasileira de Letras (1928); O monstro e outros contos, short stories (1932); Memórias 1886-1900 (1933); Crítica, 4 series (1933, 1935, 1936); Os países, miscellaneous (1933); Poesias completas (1933); À sombra das tamareiras, short stories (1934); Sombras que sofrem, feuilletons (1934); Um sonho de pobre, memoirs (1935); Destinos, miscellaneous (1935); Lagartas e libélulas, miscellaneous (1935); Memórias inacabadas (1935); Notas de um diarista, 2 series (1935 and 1936); Reminiscências, memoirs (1935); Sepultando os meus mortos, memoirs (1935); Últimas crônicas, feuilletons (1936); Perfis, 2 series, biographies (1936); Contrastes, miscellaneous (1936); O arco de Esopo, short stories (1943); A funda de davi, short stories (1943); Gansos do capitólio, short stories (1943); Fatos e feitos, miscellaneous (1949); Diário secreto, 2 vols. (1954).

Translator’s note: Humberto’s literary production had a phantasmal extension after his death: a spiritist called Chico Xavier claimed to be automatically writing new works by the author from beyond the grave. These were initially published under the name ‘Humberto de Campos’ but subsequently – after a court case in which Humberto’s family demanded payment of royalties (and the court declared it wasn’t competent to pronounce on supernatural matters) – under the name ‘Irmão X,’ a clear reference to one of Humberto’s pseudonyms, ‘Conselheiro XX.’

Humberto himself had no illusions about the fate of his literary reputation: in the entry for 9 November 1933 in his Diário secreto, he wrote: ‘I have no doubt at all that, 50 years from now, not one single book will be printed in which my name is quoted, however vaguely.’ Almost 50 years later, in 1980, in an interview in the Veja magazine, the renowned poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade managed to prove him right and wrong at the same time:

VEJA: Are you concerned about posterity?

DRUMMOND: Not at all. On the contrary, I don’t give a fig. When I think of the poets who dominated Rio when I came here and who now have no one who’ll re-issue their works… There was a writer called Humberto de Campos who was top dog – until he died. The whole country was transfixed by his illness; there was a national outpouring of emotion. Everyone used to read his books. Nowadays, it wouldn’t even occur to a publisher to publish him.

I wonder whether you, dear reader, think he deserves his literary oblivion.

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