Captain Mendonça, by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story O Capitão Mendonça, which was published in the Jornal das Famílias in 1870)

H

aving had a bit of a contretemps with the object of my affections, and as happens in such situations, I found myself at a total loss for what to do one evening. I didn’t want to go home, because that would mean waging war with Loneliness and Reflection, two ladies who’ve taken it upon themselves to put a full-stop to lovers’ tiffs.

There was something on at the São Pedro Theatre. Not bothered what it was, I entered, bought a ticket and was just taking my seat when the curtain opened for the first act. It looked rather promising, beginning with a murder and ending with a vow. There was this girl, didn’t know her mother or father, kidnapped by someone in disguise, who I suspected of being said mother or father. There was vague talk about an anonymous marquis, and a hint of a second murder before too long. Intended victim: an old countess. The act finished to much applause.

 No sooner had the curtain come down than the usual kerfuffle began: people marking their seats and going for a breath of fresh air. Fortunately, I was in a seat where I couldn’t be inconvenienced, so I stretched out my legs and looked at the curtain, on which, without any effort on my part, I could see the disgruntled object of my affections glaring at me with clenched fists.

 ’What do you think of it, Mr Amaral?’

I turned. On my left, giving me a friendly smile, was an old man wearing a military greatcoat.

‘Surprised I know your name?’ he asked.

‘I am, rather,’ I replied. ‘I don’t recall having seen you…’

‘That’s because you never have; I arrived yesterday from Rio Grande do Sul; and I’ve never seen you either, but I recognised you immediately.’

‘Ah! They tell me I look very similar to my father. I take it you knew him.’

‘Knew him! We were comrades in arms. The friendship of Colonel Amaral and Captain Mendonça was the stuff of army legend.’

‘Now that you mention it, I do remember my father used to talk a lot about a Captain Mendonça.’

‘That’s me.’

‘It clearly meant a lot to him; he said you were his best and most loyal friend.’

‘The Colonel was unjust there,’ said the Captain as he opened his snuff box. ‘I was more than that; I was the only loyal friend he had. But your father was cautious; perhaps he didn’t want to offend anyone. He was rather weak; the only misunderstanding we had was one night when I called him a fool. The Colonel didn’t like it, but in the end he saw I was right… Fancy a pinch?’

‘Thanks.’

It amazed me that this ‘most loyal friend’ of my father should speak so disrespectfully about him and I immediately had my doubts about their being friends in the army. It confirmed my doubts when I remembered that, when my father talked about Captain Mendonça, he used to say he was an excellent man… with a screw loose.

I looked at the Captain while he inhaled a liberal pinch of snuff and then dusted his shirt with a handkerchief. He was an imposing figure: military bearing, despite a certain emptiness about the eyes, and full beard, like a real old-timer. His clothes were all new and he clearly didn’t have any money worries.

The fellow’s expression wasn’t all that bad, although his face was completely dominated by his empty eyes and pronounced, bushy eyebrows.

We talked about the past; he told me about the Rosas Campaign and the part he and my father had played in it. He was a fine raconteur with an encyclopaedic memory, all seasoned with humorous anecdotes.

After twenty minutes the theatre-goers were beginning to get restless with the length of the interval and started their own overture of stamping feet.

Exactly at that moment a man approached and invited the Captain to a box. The Captain tried to put it off until the next interval but, as the man was insistent, the Captain shook my hand: ‘See you soon.’

Once more I was alone; the stamping feet gave way to the violins and after a few minutes Act Two began.

I couldn’t get into it, so I made myself as comfortable as possible and shut my eyes. Meanwhile the hero was making a speech that tore not only at the heartstrings but also at the rules of grammar.

In no time I was awoken by the voice of the Captain. I opened my eyes and saw him standing in front of me.

‘Know what?’ he said. ‘I’m going for supper; care to join me?’

‘I can’t; awfully sorry,’ I replied.

‘No excuses! Just imagine I’m the Colonel and I’m saying:  “Come along, lad! We’re going for supper!”’

‘But I’m due to meet…’

‘You’re not due to meet anyone!’

Our conversation was giving rise to some tut-tutting, so, given that the Captain looked intransigent and in order to avoid a scene, I thought it prudent to accompany him.

We left.

‘I know it’s a bit late for supper,’ said the Captain, ‘for a lad like you, but I’m an old soldier.’

I said nothing.

To tell the truth, theatre or supper was all one to me: I just wanted to kill time. Although the Captain was a complete stranger to me, his familiar manner and the fact that he’d been my father’s comrade in arms meant that, at that moment, I found his company preferable to that of anyone else.

Anyway, my life had become so boring that a little entertainment from Captain Mendonça was more than welcome. I say ‘entertainment’ because there was something eccentric in his gestures and his eyes. To find a truly original character among the masses of boring humanity, how wonderful!

So off I went with my captain, who carried on talking all the time, me chipping in with the occasional monosyllable.

After a while we stopped in front of an old, dark house.

‘Come on in,’ said Mendonça.

‘Where are we?’ I asked.

‘You don’t know?! Dear me! You must walk round in a daze! This is Guarda Velha Street.’

‘Ah!’

The old man knocked on the door three times and after a while the hinges squealed and we were walking down a dark, dank corridor.

‘Didn’t you bring a light,’ Mendonça asked someone I couldn’t see.

‘I was in a hurry to open up.’

‘Alright. Close the door. Hold my hand, Mr Amaral; this entrance is a bit tricky; it’s better upstairs.’

I gave him my hand.

‘You’re trembling,’ said Captain Mendonça.

And I was, indeed, trembling: it had suddenly occurred to me that this supposed friend of my father might be nothing more than a thief, and this rabbit warren a trap for innocents abroad.

But it was too late to go back, and any indication of fear would not be advisable. So I tried to sound jocular:

‘Easier said than done not to tremble when walking down a corridor such as this; forgive me, but it looks like the corridor to Hell!’

‘You’re almost right,’ said the Captain as he guided me up the stairs.

‘Almost?’

‘Yes: not Hell, but Purgatory.’

I shuddered when I heard those words, and all my blood rushed to my heart, which began beating wildly. The peculiarity of the Captain, the peculiarity of the house, everything added up to a feeling of terror. Fortunately we arrived upstairs and entered a gas-lit room that was furnished just like any other room.

Still trying to be jocular and keep my spirits up, I smiled and ventured:

‘Well, well, well! Purgatory doesn’t look so bad after all! Sofas instead of cauldrons!’

The Captain stared straight at me, for the first time, because up till then I’d thought he was cross-eyed.

‘My dear sir,’ he said, ‘if you think you can get hold of my secret like that, you’re very much mistaken. I invited you to supper; you’ll have to content yourself with that.’

I said nothing; the Captain’s words dispelled my fears about why he’d taken me there, but they caused me to suspect he was mad; and a little incident immediately confirmed my suspicion.

‘Boy!’ shouted the Captain; and when the slave boy appeared: ‘Prepare supper, wine from Crate No. 25, go! I want everything ready in fifteen minutes.’

As the boy sped off to carry out Mendonça’s orders, the Captain turned to me and said:

‘Sit down and read a book. I’m going to get changed.’

‘You’re not going back to the theatre?’ I asked.

‘No.’

II

A few minutes later we were making our way to the dining room, which was at the back of the house. Supper was magnificent; the plate of cold meats at centre stage was surrounded by pastries, cakes and venerable bottles of vintage wine.

‘A banquet!’ I exclaimed.

‘Nonsense! Just a simple supper… nothing special.’

There were three chairs.

‘Sit yourself here,’ he said, pointing to the head of the table, while he himself took the chair on my left. I realised someone else was expected, but I didn’t enquire. Nor was it necessary: after a few seconds the door opposite me opened and a young lady – tall and pale – came in, nodded to me and headed for the chair on my right.

I stood up; the Captain introduced us. She was his daughter and went by the name of Augusta.

The presence of the young lady had a calming effect on me. Not only was I no longer alone with this strange Captain Mendonça, but her presence in that house indicated that, if the Captain was, as I suspected, a lunatic, he was at least a harmless lunatic.

While I set about making myself amicable to the young lady, the Captain niftily carved a big fish, giving a good idea of his proficiency in the gourmet arts.

‘Let’s be friends,’ I said to Augusta, ‘like our fathers used to be friends.’

Two of the most extraordinarily beautiful green eyes looked up at me. Then she smiled and lowered her head with an air either of coquetry or of modesty; it could’ve been either. I looked at the profile of her beautiful, perfectly modelled head; her skin was like satin, her eyelashes long, her hair golden – like the sun, as the poets would say.

Meanwhile Mendonça had concluded his task and started serving us. Augusta fiddled with her knife, perhaps to allow me to see the delicate beauty of her hand and arm.

‘Have you lost your tongue?’ the Captain asked as he put some fish on her plate.

‘I’m just sad, Papa.’

‘Sad?! What on earth’s the matter?’

‘I don’t know; I’m sad for no reason.’

More often than not, ‘sad for no reason’ means bored. That’s how I understood it and, for no very good reason, I felt wounded in my amour-propre. So I tried to cheer up the young lady by chatting away as if among old friends, all the while ignoring Mendonça’s apparently deeply disgruntled state of mind.

Augusta appeared to enjoy the conversation; even the Captain began chuckling in a way that almost made him look sane; I was in excellent form, throwing out one witticism after another, so much so that neither the one nor the other could avoid being drawn into the web of my word play.

By the end of supper we were as thick as thieves.

‘Want to go back to the theatre?’ asked the Captain.

‘Heaven forfend!’

‘So you prefer our company, or rather… Augusta’s.’

I thought this rather forward of the old man. I’m sure I must have blushed, but Augusta was not remotely disconcerted; she smiled and said:

‘In that case, we’re two of a kind because I, likewise, would now prefer your company to the best performance in the world.’

Augusta’s forwardness amazed me even more than Mendonça’s. But it wasn’t easy to ponder such things when her beautiful green eyes were staring straight at me, as if to say: ‘Keep on being nice!’

The Captain got to his feet and said, ‘Let’s go to the other room.’

So we went. I gave my arm to Augusta as the Captain guided us. In ‘the other room,’ which wasn’t the one I’d been in first, Augusta and I sat down while the old man went to light a cigarette from the candelabra. I glanced around the room; it appeared most strange. The furniture was antique, not only in style, but also in age. In the middle there was a large round table, covered with a green rug. On one of the walls some stuffed animals were hanging. On the opposite wall there was just an owl, also stuffed, with eyes of green glass which, although fixed, seemed to follow all our movements.

My fears returned. I looked at Augusta and she looked at me. That young woman was the only link between me and the outside world, because everything else in the house seemed completely fantastical and I no longer doubted the Captain’s words about Purgatory.

We were silent for a few minutes; the Captain walked up and down, smoking, with his hands behind his back: the meditation of a philosopher or the taciturnity of a rogue.

Suddenly he stopped in front of us, smiled and asked me:

‘Don’t you think she’s beautiful?’

‘More than beautiful,’ I replied.

‘Beautiful eyes, aren’t they?’

‘Truly enchanting, extraordinary!’

‘I can be justly proud of her, don’t you think?’

I responded with an affirmative smile. As for Augusta, she limited herself to saying, with delightful simplicity:

‘Papa is even vainer than me; he’s notorious for never tiring of hearing how beautiful I am.’

‘You’ll have noticed,’ said the Captain, as he took a seat, ‘that my little one is rather forward for her gender and age…’

‘I don’t see anything wrong with that…’

‘You don’t need to be polite; it’s the truth. Augusta’s not like other girls who, although they think highly of themselves, just simper when someone pays them a compliment and frown when they don’t.’

‘I’d say she’s an adorable exception,’ I replied, sending a smile in her direction, which she repaid.

‘That she is!’ said her father. ‘She’s an exceptional exception.’

‘An enlightened education,’ I continued, ‘can produce…’

‘Not just education,’ Mendonça interrupted, ‘but her origin as well. Origin is everything, or almost everything.’

I didn’t understand what he wanted to say, whereas Augusta appeared to understand, because she started looking at the ceiling, smiling wickedly. I looked at the Captain; the Captain looked at the owl.

We started talking again for a few minutes, at the end of which the Captain, who seemed to have a one-track mind, asked me:

‘So you think her eyes are pretty?’

‘As I said, they have the rarest beauty.’

‘Would you like to have them?’ the old man asked.

I bowed slightly as I sat there and said: ‘I would be most happy to possess something so exquisite, but…’

‘No need to stand on ceremony; I’ll give you them if you want; if not, I’ll just show you.’

So saying, the Captain got up and went over to Augusta, who lowered her head into his hands. The old man made a slight movement; the girl lifted her head; the old man showed me her two beautiful eyes in his hands.

I looked at Augusta. It was horrible. Instead of eyes, she had two big cavities, like a skull. I can’t describe how I felt; I wanted to scream, but couldn’t; I was frozen to the spot. The girl’s head was the most hideous thing the human imagination could possibly create; imagine a live skull, talking, smiling, looking at me with its two cavities which, just a moment before, had contained the most beautiful eyes in the world. The cavities seemed to see me; with an angelic smile, the girl observed my horrified reaction.

Standing in front of me, the old man said, ‘Have a good look at them; touch them; tell me if you’ve ever seen anything so perfect.’

What could I do, except do as he said? I looked at the eyes the old man was holding, one in each hand. But there was worse: the two eyes were staring at me, full of understanding, just like the cavities in the young lady’s face. Even though separated from that face, they were still alive; the retinas had the same light and the same reflexes. The old man’s hands were looking at me as if they were a face.

I don’t know how much time passed before the captain went over to Augusta again; she lowered her head, and the old man reinserted her eyes.

Utterly horrible!

‘You’ve turned pale!’ said Augusta, obliging me to look at her, now restored to her previous state.

‘Of course I have…’ I spluttered. ‘I’ve just seen…’

‘Incredible things?’ asked the Captain, rubbing his hands.

‘Yes, truly incredible,’ I replied. ‘I didn’t think…’

‘That’s nothing!’ exclaimed the Captain. ‘I’m delighted you’ve found this trifle incredible, because it’s proof that I’m going to stop the world in its tracks.’

I took out my handkerchief to mop my brow. Meanwhile Augusta stood up and left the room.

‘You see how gracefully she walks?’ asked the Captain. ‘That’s all my work… from my own workshop.’

‘Ah!’

‘It is; she’s my first masterpiece but, from your expression, I don’t think I need to tell you: you look enchanted…’

I bowed my head by way of agreement. What was I to do, a poor, helpless mortal, against a man and a girl who appeared to be in possession of unheard-of powers?!

My only thought was to get out of that house, but without upsetting them. I wanted time to have wings, but it’s precisely at moments of terrible crisis that it goes fatefully slow. I cursed the lovers’ tiff that had caused me to meet this character.

The Captain seemed to guess my thoughts because, after a moment’s silence, he said:

‘You must be enchanted, but perhaps – at the same time – you’re a little shocked and even regret agreeing to come here. But that’s childish: you haven’t lost anything by coming; on the contrary, you’ve gained; you’ve learnt things the world will only learn in the future. That’s good, is it not?’

‘It is,’ I replied, without knowing what I was saying.

The Captain continued:

‘Augusta is my masterpiece. She’s a product of chemistry; it took me three years to give that miracle to the world, but perseverance wins all and I’m blessed with obstinacy. My first experiments failed; three times the little thing emerged imperfect from my alembics. But the fourth time showed what science can do. I fell to my knees before such perfection, the creator adoring his creature!’

I must’ve had horror written on my face, because the old man said:

‘I see you’re frightened, but I think that’s only natural. What can you know about this sort of thing?!’

He got up, walked about a bit and then sat down again. At that moment the slave boy came in with the coffee.

On seeing him, I picked up my courage; I thought he was the only truly human person I could communicate with in that house. I started signalling to him, but he didn’t seem to understand. Then he left, leaving me alone with my interlocutor.

‘Drink your coffee, my friend,’ he said, seeing me hesitate – a hesitancy not caused by fear, but by the lack of any wish to drink anything whatsoever.

I obeyed as best I could.

III

Augusta came back to the room.

The old man turned to contemplate her; never did a father look at his daughter more lovingly. But it was clear this love was rooted in pride: there was a haughtiness in the Captain’s gaze which is not usually part of paternal affection.

He wasn’t her father, he was her author.

As regards the young woman, she too seemed proud of herself. She basked in her father’s admiration. She knew she was the apple of the old man’s eye and, in return, had nothing but admiration for the author of her life. If the Odyssey had been a young woman, it would have felt just the same under Homer’s gaze.

An extraordinary thing! Despite her mysterious, diabolical origin, that woman made such a deep impression on me; sitting beside her, I felt something new; whether through love, admiration or fatal sympathy, I don’t know.

When I looked into her eyes I could scarcely manage to look away, and yet I’d seen those beautiful, beautiful eyes in the hands of her father and I’d contemplated, with terror, those cavities, as empty as the eyes of death.

Night was slowly drawing in; the noises of the outside world were fading; we were entering a complete, melancholy silence – an appropriate backdrop to the room where I found myself with those companions.

It was time to go; I stood up and started to take my leave.

‘It’s too early,’ said the Captain.

‘But I’ll be back tomorrow.’

‘Come back tomorrow and whenever you like but, for today, it’s too early. It’s not every day you meet a man like me, a brother of God, a god upon earth, because I too can create like Him; even better than him, because I made Augusta and God doesn’t always make creatures like her. The Hottentots, for example…’

‘But there are people expecting me….’

‘That’s as may be,’ said the Captain, smiling, ‘but for now you can’t go…’

‘Why not?’ interrupted Augusta. ‘I don’t see why he can’t go, as long as he comes back tomorrow.’

‘I’ll come back.’

‘Promise?’

‘I promise.’

Augusta gave me her hand.

‘Agreed!’ she said. ‘But if you don’t keep your promise…’

‘You die,’ added her father

On hearing that last word, I shuddered. Nevertheless, I took my leave as cordially as I could, and departed.

‘Come in the evening,’ the Captain called after me.

‘See you tomorrow,’ I replied.

When I found myself on the pavement, I took a deep breath. I was free. The unimaginable torture was over. I scurried off and arrived home half an hour later.

But I couldn’t get to sleep. I kept seeing the Captain with Augusta’s eyes in his hands, and the image of that young woman floated in the fog of my imagination like something out of Ossian.

Who was that man? Who was that girl? Was she really the old man’s chemical concoction? That’s what they’d both been saying and, up to a point, I’d seen the proof. I might’ve thought they were mad, were it not for the episode with the eyes. And was I myself still in the world of the living, or was I entering the region of dreams and the unknown?

 It was thanks only to my strength of spirit that I resisted; a weaker person would’ve gone mad. And that would’ve been better. What made my situation still more awful and unbearable was precisely that I was perfectly sane. The torture I was going through was the result of the conflict between my reason and my senses: my reason denied what my eyes had seen. How could I reconcile such evidence with such incredulity.

I didn’t sleep a wink. The next day I greeted the sun like a long-lost friend. I was in my own bedroom; my servant brought me a breakfast consisting solely of things of this world; I went to the window and looked out at the National Assembly building. That sufficed: I was still on this earth – just like that accursed Captain and his daughter.

So I started thinking.

Could I make sense of it all? I thought of all the boasts about chemistry and alchemy. I remembered one of Hoffmann’s fantasies, where an alchemist builds a human automaton. Could yesterday’s fantasy be today’s reality? And, if what the Captain said were true, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could proclaim it to the world?

Everyone’s tempted to jump on a bandwagon and I must confess I immediately wondered whether, anticipating the Captain’s triumph, I might not grab a little of his immortal fame. It was difficult to believe, but who believed in Galileo? Just think how many didn’t believe Columbus. Today’s incredulity is tomorrow’s orthodoxy. A truth unknown is no less true for being unknown. It’s true on its own account, not through public acclaim. I thought of the stars astronomers are now discovering, but which have existed for centuries and centuries.

One way or another I convinced myself there might be something in it and for that reason, no less than on account of my fascination with the young lady’s eyes, no sooner had night fallen than there I was, presenting myself at the Captain’s house in Guarda Velha Street.

He was waiting for me.

‘I deliberately stayed in,’ he said. ‘I expected you’d come and I wanted to show you a chemical composition. I worked all day to get the ingredients ready.’

Augusta welcomed me with truly disarming charm. I kissed her hand, the usual way of greeting ladies before it was ousted by the handshake – a more sober greeting for a more sober century.

‘I missed you,’ she said.

‘Really?’

‘But I’m sure you didn’t miss me.’

‘I did.’

‘I don’t believe it.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I’m not a bastard daughter. Every other woman is a bastard daughter; it’s only I who can claim to be a legitimate daughter, because I’m the daughter of science and the will of man.’

I was no less impressed by Augusta’s language than by her beauty. It must have been her father who’d given her those ideas. The theory she’d just explained was just as fantastic as her birth itself. What’s certain was that I was beginning to feel quite at home in that house. So it wasn’t long before I was saying:

‘Much as I admire the Captain’s science, may I point out that, even so, all he’s done is apply natural components to create a being which had previously seemed unresponsive to chemical reactions and laboratory equipment.’

‘You’re right up to a point,’ said the Captain, ‘but does that make me any less admirable?’

‘On the contrary! There’s never been anyone who could boast of coming anywhere near you.’

Augusta gave me a grateful smile. I made a mental note of the smile, which must have shown on my face, because the Captain – also smiling – said:

‘After many attempts, my work has resulted in perfection. The product of my penultimate test lacked one little thing, and I wanted it to be just as perfect as the one He made.

‘So what was missing?’ I asked.

‘Don’t you see,’ the Captain continued, ‘how Augusta smiles happily whenever her beauty’s mentioned?’

‘That’s true.’

‘Well, the last Augusta I made in the laboratory was missing that: I forgot to include vanity. If I’d left it like that, I’m sure that, in many people’s eyes, it would’ve been even more perfect than this one. But I think not; what I wanted was to create a work which would equal His. Therefore I reduced everything once more to the primitive state and added more mercury to the mix.’

I don’t think my face gave me away at that moment, but inside I was grimacing. I was prepared to believe in Augusta’s chemical origin, but hearing the details strained that belief.

The Captain continued, looking alternately at me and at his daughter, who appeared entranced by her father’s story:

‘You know that one of the names the ancients gave to chemistry was “the Science of Hermes.” I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that Hermes is the Greek name of Mercury, and mercury is a chemical element. For a human creature to be self-conscious, you need to add an ounce of mercury to the alembic. To make vanity, you double the dose of mercury, because vanity, in my opinion, is nothing less than expanded self-consciousness. I call modesty “contracted self-consciousness.”‘

‘So you think,’ I said, ‘that a vain man is someone with a large dose of mercury in his organism?’

‘Without a shadow of doubt. It can’t be otherwise; man is composed of molecules and chemical elements; the man who knows how to mix them has achieved everything.’

‘Everything?’

‘You’re quite right: not everything; because the greatest secret consists in a discovery I made about the vital principle. That secret will die with me.’

‘But why not announce it, for the sake of human progress?’

The Captain’s only answer was a scornful shrug of the shoulders.

Meanwhile Augusta had gone to the piano and started playing something I thought was a German sonata. I asked the Captain if he’d mind if I smoked a cigar, and the slave boy came to take orders for tea.

IV

When tea was finished, the Captain said:

‘I’ve prepared an experiment in your honour, Doctor. You know that diamonds are nothing else than crystallised stone coal? A long time ago an outstanding chemist tried to transmute stone coal into diamonds; I read in a journal article that all he managed was to produce diamond dust – nothing else. It was I who did the rest; I’ll show you a piece of stone coal and transmute it into a diamond.’

Augusta was so excited that she clapped her hands. I smiled – surprised by this sudden joy – and asked the reason.

‘I love watching chemical operations,’ she replied.

‘It must be interesting,’ I said.

‘Oh yes! It is! But I wonder if Papa will be able to do something for me.’

‘What?’

‘I’ll tell you later.’

Shortly afterwards the three of us were in Captain Mendonça’s laboratory, which was a small, dark room, full of impressive-looking apparatus. Augusta and I took a seat, while her father started getting ready for the promised transmutation.

I must confess that, despite my curiosity as a man of science, my attention was divided between the father’s chemistry and the daughter’s charms. There really was something fantastical about Augusta: when she entered the laboratory, she took deep, pleasurable breaths, like someone breathing sweet meadow air. It was obvious she was at home here. I took hold of her hand and she – with the giddiness of an ingénue – pulled my hand to her, clasped it with both of hers and placed them in her lap. At that moment the Captain happened to pass by; he noticed, and smiled surreptitiously.

‘You see,’ she whispered in my ear, ‘Papa approves!’

 ’Ah!’ I said, half happy, half amazed at this candour on the part of a girl.

Meanwhile the Captain engrossed himself in transmuting the stone coal into a diamond. So as not to offend the inventor’s vanity, I put a question to him once in a while, to all of which he replied promptly. But my attention was really completely upon Augusta. I could no longer deny that I loved her; and, to my great good fortune, I too was loved. Marriage beckoned. But could I marry her and still be a good Christian? That question somewhat deflated my spirits. Scruples!

The young lady was a chemical product; her only baptism, a bath of sulphur. Everything could be explained by the science of that man, but my conscience recoiled. Why? Augusta was just as beautiful as any other woman, perhaps more so, in the same way that a painted leaf is more beautiful than a natural leaf. She was a product of art; the author’s knowledge had enabled him to strip the human type of its imperfections and create something ideal, unique. Unfortunately it was exactly that which would set us apart in the eyes of the world!

I couldn’t say how long the Captain took to transmute the coal; I spent the time looking at the young lady, particularly her beautiful eyes, in which there was all the vertiginous wonder of the sea.

Suddenly the air in the laboratory became even more acrid; it was too much for me and I felt rather unwell. If Augusta hadn’t asked me to stay by her side, I’d have left.

‘Nearly there! Nearly there!’ exclaimed the Captain ecstatically.

His exclamation was an invitation to draw near; I stood by his daughter’s side. There was a long silence, until the Captain interrupted my reverie by saying:

‘Finished! Here it is!’

And there, indeed, in the palm of his hand, was a diamond of the highest quality – perfect. It was half the size of the original lump of stone coal.  For my part, after the creation of Augusta, nothing could surprise me. I applauded the Captain; as for his daughter, she ran to embrace him and gave him two big hugs.

‘I see now, Captain, that you must be rich. You can transmute as much coal as you like into diamonds.’

‘Why should I?’ he replied. ‘To the eyes of a naturalist there’s no difference in value between diamonds and stone coal.’

‘Yes, but to the eyes of the world…’

‘I’m well aware that, in the eyes of the world, diamonds mean wealth; but only relative wealth. Suppose, my dear Mr Amaral, that the coal mines of the whole world were transmuted into diamonds in a monstrous alembic. The world would immediately collapse into the utmost misery. Coal is wealth; diamonds are superfluous.’

‘I agree.’

‘I did this to show you that I can and know how to, but I won’t tell anyone. It’s my secret.’

‘So you’re not working out of love for science?’

‘No. My love for science is platonic. I work to show that I know how to, that I can create. As for the others, I’m not bothered whether they know or not. They’d call me an egoist; I call myself a “philosopher.” Would you like this diamond as proof of my esteem and a sample of my knowledge?’

‘I would,’ I replied.

‘Here it is; but never forget that this shining stone, so sought-after in the world, and so valuable among men as to cause wars, this stone is nothing more than a piece of coal.’

I slipped that extraordinarily beautiful diamond into my pocket and accompanied them out of the laboratory. What impressed me more than anything else at the moment was the young lady. I wouldn’t have exchanged her for all the famous diamonds in the world. The more time I spent at her side, the more I was fascinated. I felt myself being invaded by the delirium of love; the next day I’d be irretrievably united to that woman; if we were separated, I would die.

When we reached the living room, Captain Mendonça clapped his hand on his temple and asked his daughter:

‘I’ve just remembered! Didn’t you say you had a request?’

‘Yes; but it’s too late now; it can wait till tomorrow. You will come back, won’t you, Doctor?’

‘Of course.’

‘Because,’ said Mendonça, ‘you have to get used to my work… and then you’ll believe…’

‘I believe already. I can’t deny the evidence; it’s you who’s right – the rest of the world knows nothing.’

On hearing my answer, Mendonça radiated pride; his eyes, which looked more hollow than ever, seemed to reflect the vertiginous depths of his spirit.

‘You’re right,’ he said after a few minutes. ‘I’m far ahead of other men. My masterpiece…’

‘…is this,’ I said, indicating Augusta.

‘For now…’ the Captain replied, ‘but I have even more momentous things in mind; for example, I think I’ve discovered how to create geniuses.’

‘How?’

‘I’ll get hold of a man, be he talented, renowned, a mediocrity or a complete idiot, and turn him into a genius.’

‘How easy would…’

‘Not easy at all. All I’m saying is it’s possible. I’ve learnt how to do it… or rather, discovered, with the help of a word I came across in a sixteenth-century Arabic book. Would you like to see it?’

I had no time to reply; the Captain departed and immediately returned with a large book crudely printed with Arabic characters in red ink. He explained his idea to me, but it went over my head: I wasn’t paying much attention; my eyes were drunk with Augusta.

It was midnight before I left. With a tender, pleading voice, Augusta said, ‘You’ll come back tomorrow?’

‘I shall!’

The old man had his back turned; I lifted her hand to my lips and imprinted on it a long, impassioned kiss.

Then I sped away, afraid both of her and of myself.

V

The next day I received a note from Captain Mendonça first thing in the morning:

Good news! It’s about our good fortune – yours, mine and Augusta’s. Be sure to come tonight.

I made sure.

I was welcomed by Augusta, who squeezed my hands feverishly. We were alone; I made so bold as to kiss her cheek. She went bright red, but immediately repaid the kiss.

‘I received a strange note from your father today…’

‘I know,’ she said. ‘It’s about us two.’

All of this happened at the top of the stairs.

‘Come in! Come in!’ shouted the Captain.

We entered.

The Captain was in the living room, smoking a cigar and pacing up and down with his hands behind his back, just like the first night I saw him. He embraced me and told me to sit down.

‘My dear Doctor,’ he said after we’d both sat down, with Augusta standing by her father’s chair, ‘my dear Doctor, it’s a rare occurrence for fortune to make three people completely happy. Happiness is the rarest thing in this world.’

‘Rarer than pearls,’ I said, a trifle pompously.

‘Much rarer and much more valuable. They say that Caesar bought a pearl for six million sesterces to give to Servilia. How much more was that other pearl worth which he received for free and which gave him power over the world?!

‘What was that?’

‘Genius. Genius is happiness.’

I was rather taken aback by what the Captain was saying. I’d been thinking that the happiness for me and Augusta was meant to be our marriage. When he started talking about genius, I gave the young lady such a disappointed look that she immediately sought to put things right: ‘But, Papa! Start from the beginning.’

‘Quite right! Forgive the sage for forgetting he’s also a father. My dear friend – you’ll allow me to call you such? –, it concerns marriage.’

‘Ah!’

‘My daughter confided in me this morning that she loves you madly and that her love is requited. Marriage is only a step away.’

‘She’s right! I love your daughter madly too and, with your consent, I’d like to marry her.’

‘You have not only my consent, but also my applause and my thanks.’

Do I need to say that – even though expected – the Captain’s reply filled my ambitious heart with happiness?! I got to my feet and shook the Captain’s hand warmly.

‘I know! I know!’ said the old man. ‘I have experience of these things. Love is almost everything in life; life has two principal aspects: love and science. Whoever doesn’t understand that, doesn’t deserve to live. Power and glory don’t stop Alexander’s skull from being exactly the same as an idiot’s. Earthly greatness is as nothing in comparison with a flower on the bank of a river. Love is about the heart, science about the head; power is simply the sword…’

‘I interrupted this rather tedious lecture about human pomp by saying to Augusta that I wanted to make her happy and to help her make her father’s old age full of peace and joy.

‘You don’t need to worry about that, Son-in-Law. I’ll be happy come what may. A man of my calibre is never unhappy. My happiness is in my own hands; it doesn’t depend on empty prejudice.’

We spoke a bit more in the same vein, before Augusta entered the conversation: ‘But, Papa, you haven’t told him our conditions yet.’

‘Don’t be impatient, my sweet; the night is young.’

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

Mendonça replied: ‘It’s a condition my daughter reminded me of; and which I’m sure you’ll accept.’

‘Of course!’

‘My daughter,’ continued the Captain, ‘wishes to have a husband who’s worthy both of her and of me.’

‘Don’t you think I…?!’

‘You’re excellent, all things considered, but you’re lacking one little thing…’

‘Wealth?’

‘Wealth!? I don’t need any more wealth! What you’re lacking, my dear sir, is exactly what I’ve got too much of.’

I nodded, but only as a formality, because I didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about.

The Captain immediately put me straight: ‘You lack genius.’

‘Ah!’

‘My daughter was quite right in thinking that, as the descendant of a genius, she can only marry another genius. I’m hardly going to entrust my creation to the rough hands of a Hottentot! And even though, compared with the generality of men, you are indeed a man of talent, in my eyes you’re no more than a very poor sort of animal, for the same reason that four candelabras may illuminate a room but won’t illuminate the heavens.’

‘But…’

‘If you don’t like that comparison, let me put it to you more plainly: at sunrise the most beautiful star is worth nothing. You’d make a pretty star, but I am the sun and, as against me, a star is no more than a lighted match or a glow-worm.’

The Captain looked quite diabolical when he said this; his eyes looked emptier than ever. I was afraid that my Captain, despite being a sage, was having a fit of madness. How to escape from under his claws? And would I have the strength in the presence of Augusta, to whom I was bound by a fatal attraction?

It was she who intervened:

‘We already know all that,’ she said to her father, ‘but it’s not about saying he’s worthless; it’s about saying he’s going to be worth… everything.’

‘How come?’ I asked.

‘By giving you genius.’

Despite the conversation we’d had about this the previous night, I didn’t immediately understand; but Mendonça graciously explained his idea more simply.

‘After profound and persevering investigation, I’ve discovered that talent is a little quantity of ether contained in a cavity of the brain; genius is the same ether to the power of ten. All that’s needed in order to mutate a man of talent into a genius is to introduce ninety nine extra units of pure ether into that cavity. That’s precisely the operation we’re about to carry out.’

I can leave the reader to imagine my shock on hearing my future father-in-law’s horrendous plan, shock which only redoubled when Augusta said:

‘How absolutely wonderful that Papa’s made this discovery!’ You won’t mind undergoing the operation today?’

Were they two lunatics? or had I found myself in a world of phantasmagoria? I looked at both of them; they were both smiling serenely, as if what they’d just said was the most natural thing in the world.

Little by little I calmed down. I reminded myself how strong I was and that it would take more than an old man and a weak girl to force me to undergo an operation I considered neither more nor less than murder.

‘The operation will take place today,’ said Augusta after a few moments.

‘Not today,’ I replied. ‘Tomorrow at this time, without fail.’

‘Why not today?’ she asked.

‘I’ve got lots to do.’

The Captain smiled, like someone not about to be fobbed off.

‘Dear Son-in-Law, I’m old and know all about lying. The postponement you want is a crude diversion tactic. Just think how much better it would be to become a great light to humanity today, a little God, than to remain a simple man – like all the others – until tomorrow!

‘Definitely, but we’ll have more time tomorrow…’

‘All I need is half an hour.’

‘Alright, today. But I just need three quarters of an hour, after which I’ll come back and put myself at your disposal.’

Old Mendonça made out he accepted my proposal.

‘That’s fine; but let me show you I’ll be as good as my word: come to the laboratory and see the ether I intend to place in your brain.’

We went to the laboratory. Augusta took my arm; the Captain walked ahead with a lantern. The laboratory was lit by three candles in the form of a triangle. On another occasion I might’ve asked why the candles were positioned like that; but at that moment all I wanted was to be as far as possible from that house.

And something, somehow, held me there, made it almost impossible to break free: Augusta! That young lady had a power over me which was simultaneously sweet and painful; I felt like her slave; it was as if my life were one with hers – a vertiginous fascination.

The Captain removed a vial of ether from a wooden box. Or rather, he told me what was in it, because I couldn’t see anything. When I pointed this out, he said:

‘Do you need to see genius? I’m telling you I’ve got ninety-nine units of ether in there; together with the one unit nature’s already given you they’ll form one hundred perfect units.’

The young lady took hold of the vial and examined it against the light. As for me, I tried to dissuade the Captain by means of my naiveté: ‘Are you telling me that’s top-class genius in there?!’

‘I am. But why rely on words? Find out for yourself.’

Having said that, he grabbed my arm with such force that I staggered. I realised the decisive moment had arrived. I tried to escape from the old man, but I felt three or four drops of a freezing-cold liquid on my head; my strength drained away, my legs turned to jelly and I fell on the floor, motionless.

I couldn’t begin to describe, here, the torture I endured; I saw and heard everything without being able to say a word or make the slightest gesture.

‘So you want to resist, you rascal?!’ said the chemist. ‘You want to resist your good fortune?! What foolish ingratitude! Tomorrow you’ll be embracing me out of sheer ecstasy.’

I turned my eyes to Augusta; she was preparing a long probe, while the old man was deftly inserting into the vial the thinnest imaginable rubber tube, which was destined to transport the ether from the vial to the interior of my brain.

I don’t know how long these preparations for my torture lasted; I know they both came up to me, the Captain carrying the probe, his daughter the vial.

‘Be careful not to let any ether escape, Augusta,’ said her father. ‘Bring that candle. Good! Now sit on the stool. I’m going to drill into his head. Once I’ve got the probe in place, feed the tube into it and open that little spring. Two minutes will be enough; here’s my watch.’

I heard all this soaked in cold sweat. Suddenly my eyes started sinking into my skull; the Captain’s features became enormous and weird; a yellowish green light filled the whole room; little by little the objects started dissolving, and everything around me became submerged in dark shadow.

I felt a sharp pain at the top of my head; a foreign body was penetrating right into my brain. I don’t know what happened then. I think I must have fainted.

When I awoke, the laboratory was deserted; both father and daughter had disappeared. I thought I could see a curtain in front of me. I heard a loud, harsh voice:

‘Come on! Wake up!’

‘What’s happened?!’

‘Wake up! If you want to sleep, you should do it at home, not in the theatre.’

I opened my eyes wide; in front of me I saw a stranger; I discovered I was sitting in a seat in the São Pedro Theatre.

‘Off you go!’ said the man, ‘I want to lock up.’

‘Has it finished?’

‘Ten minutes ago.’

‘I’ve been asleep all that time?’

‘Like a log.’

‘Oh my God!’

‘You didn’t do yourself any favours either; everyone round you was laughing. Fast asleep during a performance! And it didn’t look like you were having sweet dreams…’

‘No, I had a nightmare… I do apologise; I’m off now.’

And I left, promising myself the next time I had a lovers’ tiff not to resort to ultra-romantic drama: too heavy.

I was just about to step out on to the street when the doorman called me and gave me a note from Captain Mendonça. It said:

Dear Doctor,

It’s ten o’clock. I came in a little while ago, but when I saw you fast asleep I thought it better not to disturb you, but I’d be much obliged if you’d pay me a visit when you can.

Although I knew the real Mendonça was not the same as the one in my dream, I didn’t go to visit him. Let the cynics say what they like… Oh, Superstition! Thou art Queen of the World!

TRANSLATOR’S NOTES

The Rua da Guarda Velha, where Captain Mendonça lives, is frequently mentioned in Machado’s works. It was situated on a reclaimed swamp beside the Morro do Castello (Castle Hill) and is shown in section 13 of the 1886 map below.

Machado lived nearby, in the district of Catete, from 1876 to 1884. From 1856 to 1858 he had worked as a typographer at the Imprensa Nacional (like Lima Barreto’s father), which was in the Rua da Guarda Velha and where he became friends with the director, Manuel Antônio de Almeida, author of Memórias de um Sargento de Milícias (Memories of a Militia Sergeant). The building (with the Morro do Castello in the background) is shown below, c. 1886.

In 1888 the Rua da Guarda Velha was renamed Treze de Maio (13 May) in commemoration of the day on which the law abolishing slavery was signed. (The ‘guarda’ had referred to a sentry post – subsequently a police station – set up to supervise slaves who came to the street to draw water from a reservoir.) In 1923, on the occasion of his conversion to spiritism, Coelho Neto gave a speech in the Salão da Guarda Velha in the Rua Treze de Maio.

As to the Morro do Castello, in the process of construction of the Avenida Central in 1905, galleries were discovered beneath it, which led immediately to speculation that they contained treasures hidden there by the Jesuits before their expulsion from Brazil in the eighteenth century. (There was a Jesuit college on the hill.) Later that year, Lima Barreto wrote a series of feuilletons – O Subterrâneo do Morro do Castelo (Beneath Castle Hill), based on the subsequent excavations – for the Correio da Manhã, the newspaper from which he was sacked in 1909 after publication of Recordações do escrivão Isaías Caminha. The Morro, which had become an island of poverty, was razed to the ground in 1922. The photo below shows it, topped by the ruins of the former college, during the process of demolition.

In his novel Esaú e Jacó, Machado writes about the Morro do Castello as follows:

There are many people in Rio de Janeiro who have never been there, many who have died and never went, many yet to be born and yet to die who will never go. Few people can say they know a whole city.

The area, which has the oldest street in Rio, the Largo—formerly Rua—da Misericórdia, is now in the city centre again, but reminders of its watery past were unearthed when the metro was being built in the 1970s: remains of boats and, beneath the Glória metro station, the skeleton of a whale.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s