Category Archives: Machado de Assis

Translations of some of the short stories of the famous Brazilian author Machado de Assis.

From Portuguese: THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS, by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the story O caminho de Damasco, which was originally published in the Jornal das Famílias in Rio de Janeiro in 1871.)

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I

THE THREE FRIENDS

It was two o’clock of an afternoon in June and it was a magnificent winter’s day – neither cold, nor rainy, nor sunny. That’s to say, the emperor star was still dominating the skies with his splendid rays but, on that particular day, his rays were soft and gentle. So, it wasn’t a sun for lizards to warm themselves by, but it was just the right sun for someone who was walking across Aclamação Square.

Ouvidor Street was just as busy as usual. There were people standing in front of the shops or sitting inside them; people walking down the street, people walking up; men, ladies and, once in a while, a horse-drawn carriage – all of which gave the principle road in Rio de Janeiro a bright and breezy look. Here and there, you could see a group of politicians exchanging news or ogling the ladies as they passed by, which, after all, is far more pleasurable than talking about the defence budget. As it happens, the minister of defence was speaking about that very thing in the House of Representatives at that very moment.There were also dandies – la jeunesse dorée –, who were discussing the latest goings on or the latest fashions. And amongst them, funnily enough, were some grey beards and even white beards. But if you were to ask those grey beards and white beards what they were doing there, they would no doubt have replied that youth has more to do with what’s inside than what’s out, and that ice can cover the mountain tops without descending to the plain. (And by “the plain” they mean “the heart.”)

Near Quitanda Lane, between the Garnier bookshop and the offices of the Jornal do Commercio, three elegant young men had been having a chat. One of them was just heading off downhill, another uphill and the third was about to get into a tilbury, which was standing there waiting for him. The first had black sideburns, the second a full beard, while the third just had an elegantly waxed, chestnut-brown moustache.

“So we’re agreed,” the sideburns called out to the others. “Ten o’clock at the door of the Alcazar Theatre.”

“Whoever arrives first will need to wait,” said the full beard.

“Yes,” said sideburns. “But let’s try not to be late.”

The moustache agreed, but asked for some laxity for himself. “I need to take care of the old lady.”

Sideburns shook his head impatiently.

“Really, Aguiar! I don’t know what to make of you. You’re a grown man, but you live like a nun!”

Full beard couldn’t help smiling: he was well aware of how little his friend resembled a nun. And he knew that sideburns was equally well informed about what Aguiar got up to.

Aguiar explained, as well as he could, the situation with the old lady, and the three of them promised to be at the door of the Alcazar at 10 o’clock that evening.

And just when Aguiar was about to say his final goodbye, a carriage drove out of Quitanda Lane into Ouvidor Street. It was pulled by a chestnut horse and driven by a youth dressed in white, whose expression of disdain for the pedestrians he passed would almost make you think that Cleopatra or Achilles must be inside the carriage; but one glance would disabuse you of such a notion: lolling on the seat of the carriage was a thin, blond girl, whose looks might have come from heaven, but whose dress and adornments were more reminiscent of purgatory.

The tears of sinners were crystallised in the refulgent jewellery that adorned her ears, her neck and her fingers. She was looking lazily at the passers-by to the left of the carriage, but without moving her head, and with such an aristocratic expression that one could understand both the arrogance of the coachman and the curiosity of the passers-by.

When she saw our three friends, she smiled and inclined her head slightly. Sideburns gestured something to her, to which she responded with a raised hand. All of it without the carriage stopping.

“Good – Candinha knows,” said sideburns. “We won’t have to send a note.”

And, after once more promissing to be there at ten, the three friends continued on their separate ways.

Of the three, it’s Aguiar who’s of most interest to us. He’s off in the tilbury, but it doesn’t matter: we’ll arrive in time to enter his house with him.

II

THE BLACK SPOT

At the time, Jorge Aguiar was 23 years old. The previous year he’d returned from São Paulo with a degree certificate in his pocket and a number of young ladies jostling in his heart. I could say he also brought some knowledge of the law in his head, that is, if I didn’t intend to be scrupulously historically accurate. The fact is, he’d learnt only the minimum necessary to scrape through the exams, and even that minimum had remained behind on the Cubatão Mountains, without him missing it at all. The young ladies in his heart had been carried as far as Guanabara Bay, but it’s certain they didn’t disembark with him. Anyway, they weren’t worth it: his affection for none of them had merited being brought back home.

He’d have had a hard time if he’d had to make his living from what he’d learnt at college. But even though some say fortune is blind, in his case it had the eyesight of a lynx and knew it would have to make some adjustments to his life if he wasn’t to come a cropper. Jorge’s family was sufficiently well-off to keep him in the style to which he was accustomed. So he could sleep soundly and awaken in peace.
But it wasn’t all roses for him. There was a black spot in his blue sky. A black spot that wasn’t his father, who had that sort of blind affection for him that would accept no ifs or buts. In that respect he was a sort of Dr Pangloss, seeing a good reason for each and every deviation of his son from the straight and narrow. Not only that, but he nursed a dream of seeing Aguiar become a government minister. For that, he said, it was necessary to allow him a few months of freedom; after which he’d rein him in and try and get him the first seat that became available in a provincial assembly.
Such were the thoughts and plans of old Silvestre Aguiar, whose own youth had not been exactly monastic.
No, the black spot was Jorge’s mother. Dona Joaquina was an austere and respectable lady, even though sharp-tongued, loud, despotic and possessed of unusual energy for a fifty-two-year-old. No-one in the Aguiar household could remember her ever having been quiet for a whole hour – other than when she slept, of course, which did provide some blessed relief for the rest of the family. But she slept very little, waking at five in the morning.
You wouldn’t need to be terribly perspicacious to notice that Dona Joaquina was the real boss of the house. Silvestre was one of those anything-for-a-quiet life husbands: he never got annoyed, impatient or bored; he was known to have had various affairs, but none of those ladies had displaced his affection for his “plump little pudding.”
“Nature,” he used to say, “includes raging rivers and placid streams. If we were all raging rivers, humanity would have no placid streams. It’s good to have both. Providence likes there to be a tranquil rivulet, like me, at the foot of a mighty waterfall like Joaquina. And that’s called ‘harmony’.”
I should point out that, when he married Dona Joaquina, Silvestre was aware neither of her garrulousness, nor of her impetuosity. But it’s possible that, at the time, those gifts of hers weren’t yet fully developed. Their romance had begun on the occasion of the coronation festivities. One of Silvestre’s relatives had given a dinner, at which the two families – his and Joaquina’s – had met. It was generally thought she’d never marry because she’d already had five or six suitors and had despatched each and every one with a decisiveness that gave a foretaste of her future modus vivendi. So it was quite a surprise when, three months later, after Silvestre had gone to ask her parents for her hand, she replied to them in the affirmative.
“They’ll be happy together,” said her mother. “The reason she refused all those offers of marriage must be that God has been keeping this one for her especially.”
And, indeed, they were happy, Silvestre’s character perfectly complementing that of his wife. Dona Joaquina would occasionally get annoyed with the passivity of her husband, and would have no hesitation in letting him know; but, as he didn’t offer any sort of resistance, she always ended up having – as he explained it to himself – to “forego the joys of battle.”
So, this was the Dona Joaquina who was the black spot in Jorge’s sky. He had to be home by 10 p.m. at the latest, despite Silvestre’s feeble attempts to support his son’s cause. This he’d do by remarking that the lad couldn’t be expected to live the life of a nun; and that word “nun” – so insignificant in the mouth of anyone else – would then, in Dona Joaquina’s, give material for a lecture running to ten fullscap pages. Her husband would resort to silence, and 10 p.m. at the latest it was.
For a long time, Jorge followed his mother’s orders, but his friends helped to pervert his upright and chaste character; with the result that one night he arrived home at 11. His mother was still up and came to open the door for him in person.
“Oh! Mummy!” he exclaimed in shock.
Dona Joaquina said nothing. She closed the door and ascended the stairs quietly in front of him. It was the only occasion she hadn’t used her mouth to deal with a problem, and her reaction was all the more sublime on that account.
From then on, Jorge was scared of disobeying his mother; but, as strolls and visits to the theatre and to parties didn’t really fit with such obedience, the young man eventually got a key made for himself, which gave him ample opportunities to take wing.
In addition he managed to conjure up lots of invitations to dinner parties and dances, which the good lady didn’t object to.
And in these ways, and various others, our Jorge Aguiar managed to evade the vigilance and the orders of his mother. The one who wasn’t fooled was his father, who frequently saw him slipping out and guessed the real reason for all those invites; but good old Silvestre applauded his son’s craftiness, thinking it augured well for a career in politics.

III

CLARINHA

When Jorge Aguiar arrived home, Dona Joaquina was giving her final orders in respect of a large quantity of coconut cakes and checking on the task she’d given to two young seamstresses that morning. Silvestre was playing backgammon with Fr Barroso, and Clarinha was playing some German variations on the piano.

This Clarinha, who’s suddenly appeared in this story unannounced, was a niece of Dona Joaquina, and thus a cousin of Jorge. She’d lost here mother while still a child; and her father had become infatuated, two years before, with an Italian woman who’d arrived in Rio on the dubious pretext of being a singer; so he’d hitched his star to the lady of his dreams and was now accompanying her around Italy. Thus, to all intents and purposes, Clarinha had lost both her parents. But Dona Joaquina treated her just as if she were her own daughter.
The young woman was extraordinarily beautiful, which was only enhanced by her air of deep melancholy – a melancholy that was understandable, given that, having been born into a well-off family, she’d seen her father squander his inherited wealth and had lost her mother at an age when she most needed her; and then to be completely abandoned by her father and obliged to depend on the goodwill of her aunt and uncle. Consequently it was no surprise that she didn’t often laugh.
However, she overcame the slings and arrows of her outrageous fate by learning to work with a docility which her aunt found enchanting. Dona Joaquina used to say her neice had inherited her own competence in the art of home management. Indeed, it would have been difficult to find another young woman – Clarinha was 18 at the time – possessed of such gravity, prudence, energy and orderliness. She spent such spare time as she had in studying music and French, because she was hoping to become a teacher eventually and to be able to make her own way in the world.
Whilst admiring her niece’s prudence, Dona Joaquina sought to allay the fears that gave rise to it by assuring her that, for as long as she was alive – and even afterwards – Clarinha would want for nothing. In addition, she was young, and it wouldn’t be long before marriage would provide her with absolute security.
“Marriage?” said Clarinha, sadly. “That’s not for me.”
“Why not?”
“Who’d want to marry me?”
“Any young man who’s not an idiot, Clarinha. You think it’s easy to find a wife like you?”
Clarinha shook her head and said nothing.
Indeed, her behaviour confirmed a predisposition to spinsterhood. She seemed indifferent to men, she didn’t beautify herself before going to balls, she didn’t dance at them, she didn’t linger by the window, and she was perfectly deaf to the admiration that her beauty elicited. She usually wore dark clothes because she was drawn to their melancholy colours; her manners were modest and reserved; she didn’t talk much and, as I said, she laughed even less.
So, at the request of Fr Barroso, she was playing the piano in the lounge. The priest was crazy about music and, with the insouciance of a born backgammon player, was wont to remark that music would take the edge off Aguiar’s defeats. It certainly was the case that the host rarely overcame his guest.
“A two and a one,” said Commander Aguiar as he threw the dice and tapped one of the priest’s boards.
“No chance!” replied the priest as he shook the dice.
“Now you’ll see what it’s all about! I need double four.”
“Stop gabbing and throw!”
The priest threw the dice.
“Double four!”
Silvestre Aguiar scratched his nose, while the implacable priest, having beaten his opponent twice, blew his nose noisily into a red handkerchief.
“It’s no good without snuff,” he muttered.
“Hasn’t the boy come back yet?” said Aguiar. “It was careless of me. I should have bought some yesterday.”
Clarinha stopped playing and was just about to go and check whether the boy had returned when her uncle told her there was no need.
At that moment, Jorge entered the lounge. He kissed his father’s hand, shook hands with Fr Barroso and went to greet his cousin.
“You know what?” the priest whispered to the commander. “Why don’t the two of them get married?”
“I wouldn’t get in their way, if they wanted,” Silvestre replied. “But it’s up to them. I don’t think they’re courting. And anyway, the lad hasn’t quite left the folly of youth behind yet.”
“Forgive me for saying so,” said the priest, “but he’s heading for trouble like this. Youthful habits are rarely left behind. You need to rein him in before it’s too late.”
“I was no different myself at his age,” said Silvestre, “but nowadays I’m second to none when it comes to behaviour. Leave him be. He’ll follow the same path as his father.”
Jorge exchanged a few words with his cousin before heading to his room, leaving her to continue playing the piano, and the two old gentlemen to finish their game.
But then a new character appeared upon the scene: Dr Marques – forty-four years old, ruddy-faced, energetic, with greying hair and beard. He was the family’s doctor and had known the commander since they were boys. Indeed, they were the closest of friends. He and the priest were the most regular guests in the house.
“Just the person!” said the priest. “Have you got the box?”
“Of course,” said the doctor, after going to shake hands with Clarinha.
“Thanks be to God! Let’s have a pinch then.”
“Two!” Silvestre corrected him. “Two pinches! The attack has to come from both port and starboard.”
The two backgammon players wiped their fingers before each taking a generous pinch from the doctor’s bag. The priest inserted his in both nostrils, after which he used his handkerchief to brush off the dust that had fallen on his shirt. For his part, the commander pressed down his right nostril with his thumb before introducing the whole pinch into his left.
Dr Marques left them to carry on with the backgammon and went over to the piano, just as Clarinha was about to get up and leave the room.
“Don’t you want to play any more?” he asked.
“I need to do something,” she whispered, without looking up.
Dr Marques gave a quick glance at the two backgammon players. Seeing they were concentrating on the dice, he whispered in her ear:
“And your reply?”
“Let me go…”

She walked rapidly to the door and disappeared, leaving Marques standing awkwardly by the piano – as the reader will certainly imagine. Meanwhile Fr Barroso threw the dice before exclaiming happily:

“Poor you, Commander! Poor you!”

IV

A PIECE OF ADVICE

Dr Marques went to look for Jorge and found him in the study, sitting in the sofa and reading a novel by Feydou. He shut the door and pulled up a chair. Without changing his position, Jorge closed the book, using a bill from his tailor as a bookmark.

“Any news?” he asked.
“No,” came the reply. “And that’s the worst of it.”
“How come?”
“I asked her for her reply just now, but she didn’t say anything; and the way she left the room has left me with no hope. I think your advice about writing the letter wasn’t so good.”
“Nonsense! It was perfectly good advice: a letter doesn’t prove anything about her not liking you. It could still turn out fine. Let me tell you something.”
“What?”
“Don’t get disheartened. My cousin will have to yield because she won’t find a better husband than you… You’ll make her happy. The only reason she didn’t reply is because she’s so shy. She’s worried it might be taken amiss. Look, why don’t you have a word with my mother?”
“Your mother?”
“Yes. Clarinha has great respect for her; I’m sure it’s the thing to do. Go and speak to her. That should do the trick.”
Dr Marques stood up, took a pinch of snuff, walked to the mirror, patted his whiskers and returned to his seat by the sofa.
“Are you sure she hasn’t got another suitor?”
“Well, I can’t be absolutely sure, but nothing suggests she has. Clarinha’s a very private person; she spends her time looking after the house. So, I can’t see inside her head, but I haven’t heard anything… Take my advice: speak to my mother.”
“Fair enough!” said Marques. “I will.”
As can be seen, the family doctor was in love with Silvestre Aguiar’s niece. I don’t want to make out that this was one of those fiery, unbridled passions of youngsters, nor one of those mellow, latter-day loves of maturity. Rather, it was a mild, temperate and considered affection. Dr Marques had never married; everything suggested permanent bachelorhood, and so it would have been until the day he died, if Clarinha’s qualities – her industry and her innocent and grave demeanour – had not impressed themselves on him so far as to awaken the idea of marriage.
The prospect of staid family life began to seduce him. And reason soon backed up the idea, comparing a solitary old age with an old age made easier by the care of a worthy and solicitous wife. Clarinha seemed to have all the necessary qualities to be his companion, and he’d confided in his friend Jorge. In turn, Jorge had recommended an epistolary approach, and – with the docility of an obedient dog – Dr Marques had duly plucked up the courage to write a letter to the young lady.
And that’s the letter they’d been talking about. We already know that the young lady not only had not responded, but had even, apparently, fled from her suitor. This could have been because she was in love with someone else, as he’d suggested to Jorge, or it could simply have been the result of her timidity, accustomed as she was to comply with the rigid doctrines of Dona Joaquina. In the opinion of that good lady, a bride should only get to know the groom on the day of her marriage.
“And that’s more than enough,” she used to say.
It’s certainly the case that old Aguiar’s wife no longer remembered their wedding day, not to speak of their courtship. But that’s only natural: people have ideas appropriate to their age; fifty-year-olds don’t have much sympathy for the folly of twenty-year-olds, and the latter find the austerity of fifty-year-olds distinctly odd.
Clarinha, however, was happy to be guided by the ideas of her aunt, and it’s quite possible that her reserve was simply the result of that influence.
What’s certain is that Marques had made no progress when Jorge suggested going to speak with his mother, a suggestion which the doctor accepted and resolved to put into practice the following day.
It should not be thought, however, that Jorge’s advice originated in sympathy for his friend’s cause. In fact he was completely indifferent who his cousin might marry. He would have given the same advice to any man who’d asked for it. The principal concern of the commander’s son was to be completely free to enjoy life as he wished, without the need to worry about anything. The lady who’d passed by when he was talking with his friends in Ouvidor Street was – hard as it is to say – more important to him than his cousin. In a nutshell, he was well advanced in the career of a libertine.
As soon as the doctor had left the study, Jorge resumed his reading. Shortly after that, he was called to dinner. He dined, he dozed a little, later on he pretended to be having a cup of tea and, at half past ten, when his mother thought the whole house was reposing in the lap of her virtuous doctrines, our Jorge opened the door and hurried eagerly towards pleasure.

V

HOW A LAD IS LOST

I  think the reader can do without a description of the party at which Jorge was the life and soul. It was one of the most magnificent suppers there had ever been in the hotels of Rio. And it finished when dawn was sweeping the darkness from the sky, and the sweepers were sweeping the streets.

Jorge had rather overdone it with the wine, as a consequence of which his mind was a little dulled. Fortunately no-one saw him enter the house, where he slept until midday, having ordered the servant – who was privy to his adventures – to tell the old lady he had been unwell in the night. The good woman was greatly alarmed when she was told, but nevertheless she ordered that he should not be woken up – exactly as her son wanted.
Jorge’s adventures were legion. He’d completed his education so successfully that he’d acquired the reputation of being one of the greatest madcaps in the whole of Rio. As a result, there was hardly a banquet, an outing or some hare-brained scheme in which he wasn’t a conspicuous participant.
His father was giving him a generous allowance, and Jorje didn’t tarry in squandering it. Although he used it, at first, for his necessities, it wasn’t long before his allowance became much less than his expenditure; and when such a situation arises, either in the finances of an individual or in those of a country, the result is a thing called “a deficit.” Finding himself in possession of such a thing, Jorje was faced with two choices: work or credit. The latter had the great advantage of dispensing with the former. So, Jorge addressed the problem partly by leaving some of his debts open and partly by having recourse to lenders.
He did this without losing either his glittering social position or the disinterested affections of some of the young ladies of that time. These affections generally showed themselves in the form of a mad, headlong passion. And during two or three weeks they’d conjure up for him visions of a heavenly, romantic life, filled with the purest and most devoted love. They wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice, for his sake, all and every suitor, past or present. Jorge was in seventh heaven. Although, in theory, he didn’t believe in love, whether in relation to these young ladies or to anyone else, in practice he was flattered by the attentions of such frivolous and giddy butterflies.
His self-satisfaction, however, tended to be dented somewhat, round about the end of the second or third week, when the butterfly would send the object of her attentions a bill for some present he’d bought her, or a simple request for repayment of a loan. So Jorge’s illusions proved costly.
And there were other outgoings. In the society in which he occupied such a prominent position, there was a certain class of men whose communist ideals had only one defect: they related to other people’s pockets. Jorge’s pocket – ever available and ever generous – was one of that number. Not only that, but the commander’s son had his pride and would have been mortified to have been called a cheapskate.
The real person who suffered all those setbacks was his father, who paid for his son’s frivolities, including his bills and debts. After a few months, the Commander came to the conclusion that Jorge’s apprenticeship was proving rather costly. So he decided it was time for it to end.
After all, he thought, he must be bored with bachelor life by now and ready to turn to more serious things. It’s very wrong to try and engage young men in serious things before they’ve become bored with frivolities. A man who doesn’t make mistakes in his youth, makes them in his old age. So, let’s sort it out.
But it was too late.
Jorge was thoroughly entrenched in his bad habits; he’d gone further in that direction than many others in a lifetime. He was no longer open to reason. Silvestre tried gentle persuasion, but to no avail. And when he tried more robust methods, the resistance he encountered made him realise how bad the situation was – the situation he himself had created.
Dona Joaquina didn’t let the opportunity pass of justifiably pointing out to her husband, in the strongest possible terms, the error of his ways. The boy wouldn’t obey her any more, which she blamed on Silvestre’s complacency when their son first set out on the wrong road. I could give a verbatim transcript of the speech in which Dona Joaquina described the situation to her crestallen and shamefaced husband; but I won’t, if you don’t mind, because she didn’t stop until she ran out of breath.

VI

THE WEDDING

During those months in which Jorge gave free rein to his every whim, Dr Marques had advanced his cause vis-à-vis Clarinha, albeit only a little. After hesitating for two months, he’d plucked up the courage to reveal his feelings to the young lady’s aunt. The latter responded favourably, imposing just one condition: that her niece should love him.

“Ah! Senhora,” said Marques, “I can’t guarantee anything in that regard. I don’t know whether she loves me or not. Donna Clarinha is so shy that there’s no way of knowing…”
“Fair enough,” replied Donna Joaquinha. “I’ll make it my job to find out. But the reason I imposed that condition is that I know Clarinha very well; I know she’s a very sensible girl who is perfectly able to choose her own husband. Were it otherwise, it would be down to me to find her a fiancé.”

***

Donna Joaquina was as good as her word. She asked Clarinha if she’d ever thought of marriage.
“Marrying? Me?”
“Yes, you.”
“No, I’ve never thought about it.”
Clarinha’s tone was cold and indifferent; nevertheless, it seemed to her aunt that the idea had saddened her.
Perhaps she’s already in love with him, she thought.
There followed some moments of silence.
“Did you know that a man has expressed a desire to marry you?” asked Aguiar’s wife in the end.
Clarinha’s eyes opened wide. “To marry me?”
“Yes, you.”
“You’re pulling my leg, Auntie.”
“Why would I do that? Don’t you deserve to have a husband?”
Clarinha didn’t reply.
“And that man is a good acquaintance of ours.”
“Ah!”
“So you’ve noticed?”
Clarinha laid her hand on her heart.
“No,” she murmured.
“Can you guess who it is?”
“No, I’ve no idea.”
“It’s Dr Marques.”
Clarinha went pale. The dear old lady kept her eyes on her face, trying to read her feelings. But – truth be told – Donna Joaquina didn’t know how to read physiognomies. Whatever the cause of the commotion in Clarinha’s face, her aunt decided it was a good omen for the doctor.
She loves him, she thought. There’s no doubt. Everything’s settled.
It took Clarinha ten minutes to recover her voice.
“You know what’s best for me, Auntie. I’ll do as you wish.”
“What I wish!” exclaimed Donna Joaquina. “No, no!
Nothing of the kind! This is just a discussion.”
“Dr Marques is an excellent man,” said Clarinha.
“And will be an excellent husband?” asked a smiling Donna Joaquina by way of conclusion.
Clarinha didn’t reply, which the Commander’s wife took for agreement. Consequently she lost no time in letting the doctor know the result of her mission.

***

As soon as Clarinha was alone, she ran to her room and burst into tears – silent, stifled tears, so that no-one would hear or even suspect. Then she took a portrait from a draw, gazed at it for a long time and kissed it over and over again. When she reappeared in the sitting room, there was no sign that’s she’d been crying. She just looked sad but, as that was her natural state, no-one sought to know why.

***

When Marques heard how Donna Joaquina had got on, he couldn’t contain his joy.

“But,” said Aguiar’s wife, “I think it would be a good idea for you to hear it from Clarinha’s own lips, because I was only reading her face.”
Marques lost no time to personally sound out Clarinha’s heart. He was an honest man and would have hated to think of her marrying him against her will.
The result of this new attempt was more satisfactory than the result of the first. Although the young lady didn’t exactly confess her love in the words of a passionate heart, she did speak very affectionately to the doctor. So Donna Joaquina set about arranging the wedding.
Silvestre Aguiar’s participation in that process amounted to suggesting that his niece’s wedding should take place within a month and a half. His agreement to the wedding itself had been requested as a mere formality, because Donna Joaquina’s decision was perfectly sufficient in that respect. And, in any case, Aguiar had no objections at all; on the contrary, he was all in favour.
“I always said the doctor was a crafty old so-and-so,” he observed. “The way in which he’s stolen the young lady from us is proof perfect.”
However, Fr. Barroso, who was considered one of the family, was not so happy when it was his turn to be approached for approval.
“I’ve nothing against it,” he said, “but… does Clarinha love him?”
“No question!” said Dona Joaquina.
The priest looked at the commander’s niece; the satisfaction he saw in her face was so pronounced that he did no more than shrug his shoulders and congratulate her and her aunt and uncle.
But that afternoon, finding himself alone with the young lady, he asked her:
“What’s this all about, Clarinha? What about your love for…?”
“It died,” she replied sadly. “It was a hopeless love – the sort of love that kills you if it doesn’t die. It probably would have been better if it had killed me; but God just wanted it to die. I’m not complaining; I’m resigned to my fate.”
The priest shook his head.
“No, Clarinha. Your love didn’t die: you still feel it, and that’s bad, my daughter; it’s wrong to be marrying one man when you love another…”
“Oh, no!” said Clarinha. “No! I assure you it died; and even if it hasn’t yet, I swear that it will.”
“You swear! My poor child! Do you know what you’re saying?”
Two tears appeared in her eyes. The priest saw them and embraced her.
“Never!” she said. “What would be the point of being married to a man who doesn’t love me, who can’t love me?”
“Yes,” the priest murmured sadly, “Jorge is on the road to ruin.”
“I’ll be marrying an honest man,” Clarinha continued. “It’s true I don’t love him; but I do have some affection and respect for him; you might even say I’m happy – as happy as a wretched person can be. But please don’t mention any of this; it would only cause trouble for all of us.”
Barroso hugged her again.
“You’re a good soul, Clarinha, and you deserve to be happy. This is all your father’s fault. If he hadn’t abandoned you, you would probably never have fallen in love with your cousin; it all came from living in the same house. Your father…”
“Forgive him,” she answered. “My father has a bad head but a good heart. Come now! Promise me you won’t try to stop this marriage.”
“If that’s your wish, I promise.”
She kissed his hand. “Thank you.”
And it was good old Fr Barroso who celebrated the marriage, and who was trembling when he had to say the sacred words. When the ceremony was over, he whispered – with a tear in his eye – to the groom:
“Make her happy. She deserves it.”
Jorge attended the wedding. He complimented the bride rather nonchalantly, made a few off-colour jokes to some of his male friends, and left to spend the night in the Alcazar.

***

Now we leap forward about eleven months. All the main characters in this story are still alive. The commander still plays backgammon with the priest; Donna Joaquina’s loquacity has diminished somewhat with the passage of time; and, as for Jorge, he’s making the most of the debauched reputation he’s gained at his father’s expense. Silvestre has tried everything he could think of to drag his son back from the benighted path on which he himself unwittingly set him, but in vain; the die’s been cast.

Aguiar had achieved something, however: he’d arranged a civil-service job for his son, to see if he’d get the habit of work. But Jorge saw it principally as a source of income and spent as few hours on it as he could. He clocked in at 9 a.m., which was, in itself, quite an effort, and left the office at 11 a.m. On many occasions he didn’t go into work at all, so that the state wouldn’t get into the habit of expecting him. But he always went in on the first day of the month, which was pay day.
Meanwhile, Marques was happy; his wife was all he could have dreamt of: homely, affectionate, devoted and respectful. For her part, Clarinha wasn’t happy, but it could have been worse. Her husband was an honest man, who lived for her and tried as hard as he could to make her happy. And it pained him to see the melancholy look in her face; but she assured him it was just her nature.
“I’ve always been like this. It’s just how I am. You’ve never known me any different, have you?”
“That’s true,” the doctor replied, “but if only I could find a way…”
“I’m happy, I really am,” she said, smiling sadly.

***

One night, Commander Aguiar, who rarely, if ever, went to the theatre and had very old fashioned ideas on the subject, decided to go to see a play by Ginásio. His wife didn’t accompany him; she hated the theatre.

Having bought his ticket, he entered the auditorium. At the end of the first act, he went out to the vestibule, where he came across a friend.
“Fancy seeing you here!” said the friend.
“Yes, I know,” said Aguiar. “But, just like anyone else, I do like to see new things once in a while. And you?”
“I still haven’t retired… Where are you sitting?”
“In the gallery.”
“Come to my box.”
So Aguiar went to his friend’s box, which was at the second level.
The curtain was raised, and the second act began. Half way through, the door of the next box opened, and a woman entered. From the extravagance of her dress and her manners, it was clear she was a lady of fashion. All eyes, all binoculars and all eyeglasses turned in her direction and, for five minutes, the action wasn’t on the stage but in the auditorium. And although the anonymous lady had the air of an ingénue, she wasn’t: she’d elicited exactly the effect she wanted.
Like everyone else, Silvestre turned to look at her. And shortly afterwards a young man followed her into the box – an elegant, red-faced young man who was a little unsteady on his feet.
It was only with difficulty that Aguiar managed to keep quiet: it was Jorge.
Shaking with anger, Silvestre stood up and glared at his son. But Jorge didn’t notice; instead he scanned the opposite boxes before sitting down on the far side of the your lady, which was about all he could do for the sake of decorum.
The commander stayed on his feet, still glaring at his son. It was not until after Jorge had looked through his binoculars at the stage and then at some of the boxes on the other side, and until after he’d stretched himself lazily on his chair, that he noticed his father.
He froze.
Silvestre continued to glare at him. Jorge diverted his eyes twice, only to return them – twice – to his father. Finally he stood up, picked up his hat and left.
Aguiar didn’t wait for the play to finish.
He returned home and asked if his son had arrived; he was told that he had. He ordered that Jorge be summoned, and the latter was not tardy in arriving; on entering his father’s study, he flung himself at his feet.
The commander gave him a thorough dressing-down, with the conclusion that, if he didn’t mend his ways, he’d be thrown out of the house.
Jorge returned to his room, embarrassed and annoyed – but still not repentant. What extraordinarily bad luck to have met his father in the theatre, given that his father almost never went! He imagined some ill-wisher must have been behind it. He ran various plans through his head before falling into a deep sleep, from which he didn’t wake until breakfast-time.
Old Aguiar told the priest what had happened in the theatre and asked for advice what to do if his son didn’t mend his ways. After a few moments thought, Fr Barroso replied:
“I don’t know what to say. Maybe it would be best to wait and see if he does mend his ways… Would you like me to speak to him?”
“Yes please.”
“But it’s your own fault, Commander. Spare the rod, spoil the child. How many times did I tell you it was a bad idea to let him run wild like that? And this is the result.”
So Fr Barroso sent an invitation to Jorge to come to the presbytery – an invitation that caused the young man some alarm. What might the priest want to talk about? But, deep down, he knew.
His first instinct was to ignore the invitation but, eventually, he went. The priest was awaiting him impatiently.
The presbytery was a modest building, modestly furnished. The priest was sitting in a high-backed leather chair in front of a writing desk and was engrossed in a large book. He didn’t move when the commander’s son was shown into the room by the servant. After a few moments, he gestured for the servant to leave and continued reading until he got to the bottom of the page. Then he closed the book and invited the young man to take a seat in front of him.
“Jorge,” he asked, “how long are you intending to continue with this sort of life?”
As the priest expected, there was no answer. So he continued:
“Your father had such hopes for you! He did his utmost to get you a good job and a position in society. And you’ve squandered it all for the life of a libertine. By the time your father realised how bad it had got, it was almost too late. But he never expected to see what he saw last night. Imagine – if you can – the shame and the pain that it caused him.”
The priest fell silent again before continuing:
“There’s still time; everything’s not lost. You can save yourself; you must save yourself.”
“Fr Barroso,” said Jorge, “I don’t deny my life’s been a bit free and easy, but I haven’t done anything so completely out of the ordinary.”
“And well do I know it,” replied the priest. “You’ve been doing the ordinary things of this world. And some of the ordinary things of this world are among the very worst things…”
“But I don’t do anything that needs to be changed…”
The priest made a gesture of impatience.
“And what about the scandal yesterday evening?”
“What happened yesterday was just a coincidence.”
“An honest man wouldn’t expose himself to such a coincidence.”
Jorge frowned.
“Oh! Forgive me for being taken aback! I’m old, I’m simple, and I’m a priest; but I have the right to tell you the truth: you’re an idiot. That’s the least I can say to you.”
The priest had raised his voice, and his anger was more than evident. Despite himself, Jorge felt cowed by the authority of that good, old man. He said nothing, but Fr Barroso insisted he promise to devote himself to his career and overcome his bad habits.
Jorge thought for a while before replying, “Alright, I promise to turn over a new leaf.”
“And you really mean it?”
The young man hesitated again before saying, “Yes.”
He didn’t really mean it, but the reverend father was an honest man who preferred to believe in the honesty of others.
“Glad to hear it. Turn over a new leaf, Jorge; it will only do you good, you’ll see. Just think how happy it will make your parents! When I think…”
The old man sighed.
“When you think?” said Jorge.
“When I think,” Fr Barroso continued, “that today you could have been a happy man alongside a happy wife… a woman who loved you…”
“Which woman?” asked Jorge. “Who was she?”
The priest was just about to say, when he suddenly remembered how inappropriate that would be, given that Clarinha was now married. So he said nothing.
“Which woman?” Jorge repeated.
Without replying, the old man stood up.
Jorge stared at him, trying as hard as he could to think who it could be. But he couldn’t think of anyone, so he asked yet again, “Which woman?”
“What’s the point?” said the old priest. “The benefits she would have brought you are no longer available…”
“No longer?”
“That’s right: no longer.”
“Why? …”
“Because… Because she’s dead.”
Jorge couldn’t believe what the priest had just said.
“But if she’s dead, what harm is there in telling me her name? … Hold on! … Are you trying to tell me… It’s Clarinha, isn’t it?!”
The priest shook his head.
I’m right, Jorge thought. It’s her.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Fr Barroso. “The past is the past. You’ve promised to turn over a new leaf; are you prepared to do that?”
Jorge at least felt sufficiently constrained as to avoid repeating a promise he had no intention of keeping; instead he proferred his hand, as if in response to the question.
“May God be your guide,” said the priest. “It was I who baptised you; don’t let me die knowing I couldn’t save, for a second time, a soul entrusted to my care.”
Having summoned up an appearance of humility in response to those heartfelt words, Jorge took his leave as soon as he could.

VII

PITCHED BATTLE

The austere old priest was wrong: Jorge hadn’t left as a changed man; all the advice and all the promises had evaporated from his mind. Of all that Fr Barroso had said, the only thing that remained with him was the thought of Clarinha’s love.

If he’d been told back then, he’d almost certainly have shrugged and gone to tell his closest friends about it. Being loved by her was one thing, but marriage would have meant less freedom and serious obligations, things that were anathema to his way of thinking. But now the situation was different; the idea that a married lady was in love with him when she was single opened his eyes to new hopes and possibilities.
It’s true, he thought to himself, it’s all getting a bit tedious. It will be good to take a break; I can get back into the swing of things afterwards. An affair would be something new. Clarinha used to love me; who knows if she won’t love me again?
Jorge spent the whole night entertaining himself with these and similar thoughts. A passionate affair with his cousin would have the advantage of making it look as if he really had turned over a new leaf, as he’d necessarily have to devote to it the time that he’d otherwise devote to painting the town red.
It was with these ideas that he awoke the following day. His father still looked like thunder; so, to start creating the illusion he planned, he stayed at home that day. He took himself off to his study, where his mother found him reading. And from that day forward he adopted a way of life that completely fooled both his family and Fr Barroso. So much so, that Silvestre recovered the cheerfulness that his visit to the theatre had caused him to lose; and the priest – delighted to see the change in the young man – readily forgave all his previous stupidity. Happiness was flowering once more at home.

***

Up until that point, whenever Clarinha went to visit her aunt and uncle, her cousin hadn’t been home, which had been a great relief to her. After the apparent change in Jorge’s habits, however, not only did she find him at home, but he seemed to have a much better relationship with his parents. Whereas, before, they preferred not to talk about him, now they were overflowing with joy at the return of the prodigal son. Marques expressed his amazement to Jorge at the sudden change.

“Well,” said Jorge, “it’s simply that I’ve turned over a new leaf.”
“Really?”
“Really.”
Marques was delighted at this unexpected turn of events – unlike Clarinha, who saw Jorge’s presence as an obstacle to her relationship with her aunt and uncle; not because she still loved him, nor because she was afraid for herself, but because he’d be a constant reminder of a recent past.
Jorge had acquired skills of dissimulation beyond his years. He treated his cousin with no more than routine affability and didn’t let slip the slightest sign that he knew she used to love him.
He did notice, however, her reserve towards him, and the awkwardness his presence caused her – those vague signs that she really had been in love with him before she married the doctor.
Very well, Doctor! Jorge said to himself. You’ve got a new and more difficult campaign in front of you. Before it was just skirmishes. Now I’m challenging you to pitched battle: winner takes all!
He began to frequent the doctor’s house; at first, Clarinha didn’t appear; but, one day, her astute cousin invited himself for dinner. The young woman had to make her appearance. She managed to remain reserved, but it was difficult when faced with Jorge’s respectful manners and affectionate language. The sinner appeared to have undergone a Damascene conversion.
In addition, Clarinha’s innocence and naivety led her to a dangerous conclusion: that to continue to steer clear of her cousin would be a proof of weakness and unjustifiable fear; and that it would be more appropriate to her married state if she faced up to him. Avoiding him would be like acknowledging he still had some power over her, whereas she now knew he didn’t.
So it was not long before their old intimacy was re-established, even though – as in the past – an intimacy that was no more than superficial. Jorge deluded himself into thinking she was in love with him again. Even so, he’d wait for her to make the first move; to do so himself would be too risky.
Let the enemy get tired, he thought. A good tactic. Worthy of a general!
And with that thought he let the days pass without breaking his self-imposed silence.
He noticed how attentive and affectionate the young woman was to her husband, and the peace that reigned between them – so much so that he began to envy Marques. It might be said it was only then that a window of redemption, however small, began to open up for him. The sight of the others’ happiness invited him to seek his own happiness, but he was convinced his happiness lay only in his cousin, and she was lost for him.
One morning, between puffing on his cigar and drinking his coffee, his train of thought ran as follows:
What am I doing? It can’t go on like this. I need to do something. The poor girl must think I’m a terrible lover.
So, later that day, while sitting talking to his cousin, he came straight out with a declaration of love.
Furious, Clarinha immediately stood up, responding to what he’d said with chilly silence before leaving him alone in the room.
But the young man was not to be rebutted so easily. He ceased his visits for a few days; and when he did return it was together with his mother and father, so that Clarinha could hardly fail to appear. Jorge calculated, correctly, that she wouldn’t have confided in her husband about what had happened.
Good! he thought. All is not lost.
In time, the situation returned more or less to what it had been before.
One day he wrote a letter to Clarinha, left it on the piano while she was playing, and promptly headed for the door. She called him back. He turned and said, “You need to open it.” She didn’t. Instead, when he approached, she returned it to him unopened.
“Cousin,” she said. “You might at least acknowledge the kindness I’ve shown you as a relative. Because it is kindness, to have heard your insulting words and not to have conveyed them to my husband. If there’s one thing you could do to make up for it, it would be to forget I exist and never return to my house.
“But why such cruelty?” said Jorge, trying to give his voice a tone of misery and despair.
Clarinha didn’t reply.
“And yet,” said Jorge, “once upon a time…”
The young woman looked at him in astonishment.
“Once upon a time you were head over heels in love with me.”
Clarinha went pale.
“That’s nonsense. I always treated you with respect, but… My husband’s coming! Try repeating to him what you’ve just said to me.”
Indeed, she’d heard his footsteps in the corridor, and he was just entering the room. She’d raised her voice for the final words, in the hope of resolving things with a short, sharp shock; but Marques hadn’t heard; he approached and shook Jorge warmly by the hand.
For the next three days, the latter refrained from visiting; on the fourth day, he entered the room with the intimacy of a family member – an intimacy that Marques was only too happy to encourage between the two families.
On this occasion, Marques was sitting on the sofa and Clarinha was sitting in front of him on a stool; she was looking at him with such affection and respect that the young man felt forced to avert his eyes. It was the first time the serpent of jealousy had bitten his heart.
“Come in!” said the doctor, noticing how Jorge had hesitated at the door. “Don’t be alarmed! We’re just two happy creatures, and that’s partly thanks to you.”
Clarinha looked at her husband.
“That’s a surprise for you, isn’t it?” Marques said to his wife. “It was Jorge who encouraged me when I didn’t dare do more than admire you in silence. The idea of writing that first letter, to which you didn’t reply, was his.”
“Ah!” she said, before extending her hand to her cousin and adding, “Thank you!”
The happiness that seemed to be expressed by that gesture and those words delighted her husband; whereas Jorge, offended and jealous, hardly touched her fingers.
Meanwhile Clarinha was thinking:
So he had no idea at that time that I loved him; but who could have told him? Fr Barroso? … Impossible! … And yet no-one else knew; it was him, it had to be. But why?

VIII

FROM BAD TO WORSE

One shouldn’t play with fire – a simple truth that Jorge learnt the hard way when he found himself engulfed in the flames he’d lit so carelessly.

Just to be clear, they weren’t purifying flames; his love had not been ignited in heaven. The fire came from the earth or from hell: a raging, voluptuous, insensitive passion, a mixture of caprice, sensuality and madness.
But the situation had changed: he noticed that the doctor’s affability towards him had completely disappeared.
She’s told him everything, he thought.
He tried to find out the truth, but how? He could drag it out of Clarinha, but she wasn’t giving him the opportunity: she would no longer receive him when she was alone, only speaking to him in the presence of her husband.
Jorge was desperately trying to find a way of resolving the crisis caused by the free rein he’d given to his criminal passion; he was furious with his cousin and he hated Marques; in fact, he hated the whole world in so far as it was placing obstacles in the way of his deplorable ambition.
One Sunday, when he was mulling over all this in his room, Fr Barroso appeared at the door. Jorge stood up to speak to him but, with a look of thunder, the priest ignored him and went to sit in a chair.
Jorge tried to make a joke about how grumpy Fr Barroso looked, but the priest interrupted the attempt:
“I haven’t come to make jokes, Jorge, but to give you a piece of my mind and, if needs be, to punish you. Don’t be surprised! I can easily tell all to your father, who’s an honest man. You might think I’m meek and mild, but it’s just my thin outer shell; inside I’m burning with hatred for anything that offends morality and virtue.”
“But I’ve mended my ways…”
“No,” said the priest. “It’s even worse than it was. New wine shouldn’t be poured into old bottles.”
Jorge realised that the reference was to the current state of his passions and, in his heart of hearts, he had to admit that he hadn’t changed for the better.
The priest sat in silence for a while, before saying, “I know everything.”
“What everything?”
“I know that you dared to set your sights on someone who only deserved your respect; and I regret that, inadvertently, I was the cause of it; but that doesn’t excuse you: it was vile, what you did. She told me everything and asked my advice. I advised her to tell her husband, but she didn’t want to; she said it would only make him feel ashamed, and she didn’t want that. I accepted her point of view, but I too had something on my conscience, and I told her everything.”
“You did!” Jorge got to his feet all of a sudden.
“Yes, I did,” said the priest calmly. “What’s that to you? I did what I saw as my duty: I listened to my conscience.”
Furious, Jorge stood there biting his lips.
Fr Barroso continued:
“I also asked her not to let it become a scandal, for her own sake and for the sake of your parents, who are decent people. You yourself were irrelevant to my request. She promissed, and she was as good as her word – which doesn’t prevent her from holding you in contempt.”
“And?” said Jorge, with a gesture of impatience.
“At first she wasn’t in agreement: she was afraid that if she said anything it would disrupt her domestic harmony and the happiness of her aunt and uncle. But when I assured her that nothing of the kind would happen, she thanked me… I can see you find all this mortifying, but bear with me… Clarinha deserves to be adored like an angel. You have forfeited that treasure… Yes, I can say that now, given that you already know it; you’ve forfeited it because she loved you in silence and you knew nothing about it, so immersed were you in the world of bought love and futile pleasures.”
This was salt added to Jorge’s wound. He felt humiliated and angry. He wanted to speak, but the priest wouldn’t let him.
“So,” said Fr Barroso, “I’ve come to ask you or, to be more precise, to insist, that you never go back to your cousin’s house, and that you forget her. You must do that whether you like it or not. And let me tell you: I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to protect her.”
“Protect her?” said Jorge, after a pause. “But she doesn’t need to be protected: I’ve never done her any harm. Is it my fault that I fell…”
The priest interrupted him.
“Let’s not talk about love, let’s talk about duty. Do you agree never to return to her house and to stop thinking about her?”
“Fair enough,” said Jorge. “I won’t go there again, but when it comes to thinking about her…”
“My son,” said the priest, lowering his voice. “There are sins of thought as well as of deed. It will be better if you wipe her from your mind. May I give you some advice.”
“What advice?”
“Leave Rio for a while. When you return, I’m sure you’ll come and give me a hug because you’ll have realised what an abyss I’ve saved you from.

IX

GOING AND COMING

Fr Barroso’s visit had left the amorous young man irritated, but a few hours of reflection were enough to convince him that further efforts would be in vain. Everything and everyone was against him; it was a contest he couldn’t win.

Added to this was his growing annoyance at the knowledge that his cousin had been in love with him and that he hadn’t noticed.

The most sensible thing would be to call it a day.
But his vanity got in the way; that great motor of human activity is often more powerful than any reasons of conscience or impulses of the heart. Jorge asked himself if it was appropriate to lay down his arms in the face of danger, no matter how great; and if it was appropriate to succumb to a stupid imposition of polite society. His vanity said No. But, as his vanity was saying one thing, and reality another, he found it best – like it or not – to adopt the priest’s suggestion.
When she finds out, he thought, that I’ve left for her sake, in order to assuage the pain, she’ll believe my pain is real, and that will only be to the good. Once upon a time she loved me, and she won’t have forgotten that.
Having obtained permission from his work, he left Rio after a few days. He told his father he hadn’t been feeling too well and needn’t to go to the country for a bit of rest and quiet. Aguiar and Dona Joaquina were suspicious, but Fr Barroso managed to convince them their son was telling the truth.
“Off you go,” said the priest to Jorge the day before his departure. “I’m glad you’ve listened to me and that you can still hear the voice of your conscience.”
The poor priest! If he’d only known that this was just another ruse! A way of giving the rejected lover a certain je ne sais quoi.
And so Jorge departed.

***

That night, Aguiar and Fr Barroso sat down to start a game of backgammon.

“Tell me, Father: do you think my son has really turned over a new leaf?”
“Yes, I do, Silvestre. He’d gone off the straight and narrow, but his heart is sound and he’s pulled himself together now. Believe me!”
In recent times, Clarinha had looked even sadder than usual but, after her cousin’s departure, she looked really cheerful and was even more affectionate towards her husband. This was due, in no small part, to the unshakeable confidence the doctor had shown in her during the previous goings-on.
When she consulted her heart, she found nothing relating to her cousin.
Or rather, there was something: a shade of disgust, a bitter memory that this honest wife could not forgive. A comparison of the affection, kindness and respect she received from her husband with Jorge’s cold and calculating passion was all in favour of the former.
This is the way things were when Dr Marques fell gravely ill. From the very first days, it was clear the illness was terminal. His suffering was considerable and, if anything, Clarinha’s was even more so. A secret voice seemed to be whispering to her that she was going to lose her companion. One of the doctors who was attending Marques thought it best to tell her the sad truth; on hearing it, she held herself together bravely, even though the depth of her sorrow was clear. Meanwhile Fr Barroso visited the patient as often as the priest’s age and duties permitted.

***

One day, Jorge appeared from out of the blue. He’d found out about Marques’s illness and had returned to Rio as fast as he could. At least, that was the explanation he gave. The truth was that he was fed up with being away; he’d only heard that Marques was ill when he arrived in Rio. He’d gone to his home, but his parents weren’t in. One of the servants, however, had told him the illness was terminal.

He hurried to his cousin’s house.
The sight that met him affected him more than he’d expected. Clarinha was sitting beside her husband’s bed, sad but resigned, and indifferent to everything around her.
Marques looked at Jorge and recognised him. He extended a skinny and tremulous arm, and the young man grasped and held his hand. Jorge then offered his hand to Clarinha, but she either didn’t notice his gesture or didn’t want to cause grief to Marques. The patient smiled weakly.
Jorge left the room.
The doctors gave Marques only five or six days more. He was aware of his state and was preparing himself to die.
No matter how sad all this was, however, it wasn’t enough, at first, to stop Jorge thinking almost exclusively of his cousin – except that he eventually started to experience a new sensation. It was as if the presence of death had started to purify his passion. Seeing the poor wife on the verge of widowhood and dedicating herself entirely to caring for her life’s companion until his last breath; seeing how zealously she was looking after him, her silent tears, the hours and hours she stayed with him, her words of consolation, her tenderness; it was as if all of this awakened something that had lain dormant in his heart, and the pure flower of his eighteen-year-old self began to bloom anew.
On many occasions he sat with the patient himself, in the course of which he often found himself alone with his cousin. They helped each other with whatever needed to be done; but whenever Marques fell asleep, they both remained silent, she with her eyes fixed on her husband, he with his on her.
It wasn’t easy for her to agree to her cousin’s presence; but her uncle had insisted on it, and she had to concede.
The old priest was also not happy about Jorge being there, but it was the young man himself who’d said to him, the day after he’d arrived, “You’re probably surprised that I’m here.”
“I am,” said the priest.
“I swear to you that…”
“Swear nothing,” said Fr Barroso. “All I ask is that you respect death.”
When it came to the end, Marques died in the arms of his wife. The widow’s tears and despair were heart-rending. Everyone tried to console her – everyone except Jorge, who left the house and didn’t return until the next day.

X

THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS

Three months later, Fr Barroso was in the house when Jorge appeared. He was cheerful and unusually polite.

“Father,” he said. “I’m arriving happy, but I could be leaving sad. It all depends on you.”
“On me?”
“Yes, Father.”
“Explain.”
Jorge sat down.
“Do you remember me telling you I’d turned over a new leaf?”
“I do.”
“I was lying.”
“And I’m sorry to hear it.”
“Yes, I was lying, Father. You shouldn’t be surprised. At that time, I thought common sense was just prejudice, and that I was right while everyone else was wrong. But now, Father, I’ve really turned over a new leaf.
The priest smiled.
“And you won’t be surprised,” he said, “that I have every right not to believe you.”
“You do, but I hope to convince you this time.”
After a few moments, Jorge continued.
“When I agreed to leave Rio, it was not with the best of intentions. I was just pretending to go along with your advice; but, in the depths of my soul, I was only interested in one thing. I returned unexpectedly because the thought of… of the person we both know had taken control of me.”
“I guessed as much,” said the priest.
“But when I arrived,” Jorge continued, “and when I saw that divine woman, so tormented, so sad, at the side of her dying husband, lavishing ever care on him that nature or religion could inspire, when I confronted that sombre spectacle, I swear to you, Father, that at that moment all my recent past dissolved, and I became a new man.”
What? thought the old priest. Is this really the same Jorge?
“I didn’t tell you this at the time,” Jorge continued. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t mistaken, that I really loved that girl with the pure adoration she deserves. Three months have passed, and I still feel the same… I love her, and I beg you to say a word on my behalf.”
“What do you want then?” asked the priest.
“I want to marry her.”
“Really?”
“With all my heart and soul.”
The priest stood up and took the young man in his arms.
“That’s good,” he said, “that’s very good. You can count on me, Jorge. I shall be the advocate for your cause. Didn’t I say you still had a good heart? Everything was not lost…”
Jorge’s response to the old priest’s kindness was no less sincere; he told him all his hopes and fears, the greatest of which was that he’d be turned down.”
“Why?”
“It would be entirely understandable if she won’t forgive me for the way I behaved.”
“She will forgive you,” said the priest. “Perhaps she won’t love you now, but she’ll grow to love you. Go in peace and leave it to God, who loves sinners who repent.”
Jorge left the presbytery torn between fear and hope. But he believed in the old priest, and he knew that if anyone could convince Clarinha it was he. And when his parents got to know the situation, they too would speak in his favour.
Jorge didn’t want to get married without there being an alliance of hearts first; but what seemed most essential to him was to convince his cousin that he was desperate for her love.
Would she grow to love him again? Aye, there’s the rub, as Hamlet said.
Jorge headed straight for home. On the way, he met some friends. All of them were amazed at the change that had come over him.
“God help us!” said one. “You look like an anchorite!”
“Finally!” said another, who was standing a little way off.”
“Finally what?” asked Jorge.
“You’ve finally fallen in love. Why else would you look so pale?”
Others – those who owed him money – gave him a wide berth. Jorge didn’t even notice them; he had just one thought: Clarinha.
No surprise, therefore, that when, continuing on his way, the lady we met briefly in the first chapter of this story called his name on passing him by, he didn’t so much as raise his hat. She felt mortally offended and, that night, seated between two acquaintances at the Alcazar, painted a sorry picture of him.
“Do you remember,” said one of them, “that it was Jorge who bought you your carriage?”
“That’s all water under the bridge,” she replied philosophically. “Whatever he bought me or didn’t buy me back then, he’s turned into a complete lout.”

***

Fr Barroso was as good as his word; he went to speak to Clarinha. The widow greeted her old friend with real affection. It was a week since he last visited, and she was becoming concerned for his health.

“It’s good to see you,” she said. “I was worried you might not be well.”
“No, I’m perfectly well,” he said. “On the contrary, I’ve never been so healthy. And do you know why?”
“Why?”
“Because I was talking to your cousin Jorge yesterday.”
Clarinha said nothing.
“He’s saved, he’s cured, the good fellow. He’s just worried about one thing: that you won’t forgive him. You need to forgive him, Clarinha.”
“I forgive him everything.”
“No, not like that; you need to forgive him sincerely, with a bit of oomph! Because he’s truly sorry, and all he needs to be as happy as he was once upon a time, and as he should be now if he hadn’t gone off the rails, is to be pardoned by you. You will pardon him, won’t you?”
“You know very well,” said Clarinha, “that I can’t disobey you. I grant him forgiveness as you request.”
“With all your heart?”
“With all my heart.”
“It’s a question,” said Fr Barroso, “of saving a soul. Anyone else would happily refuse to get involved, but I’m a priest; it’s my duty to contribute to the cessation of sin. Jorge has come back to life, but anything could knock him off course again, and forever.”
Clarinha had already guessed the rest.
“It’s only three months since my husband died,” she said. “Give me time to grieve for the best of men. As for Jorge, his soul is beyond saving. I’ve forgiven him; that’s all.”
The young woman remained resolute, and Jorge didn’t find out how the conversation had gone because the old priest thought it best not to tell him – perhaps, despite everything, because he still felt a touch of resentment about the way Jorge had behaved. But he did try to console him.
Old Aguiar insisted on his niece coming to live in her old home; but she declined – she didn’t want to live so close to her cousin.
Meanwhile Jorge lost no opportunity to meet her and see her. His presence, the respect he showed her, the proofs of his dedication, his exemplary life and, in addition, certain memories that remained in the young woman’s heart, all of this set in motion the natural denouement.

***

A year after the death of Dr Marques, the cousins got married. The news caused amazement in the dubious society that had been Jorge’s early education in adulthood.

“He was half lost already,” was the mocking comment of the lady he’d accompanied that night at the Ginásio when the Commander had seen him.
It was Fr Barroso who conducted the wedding ceremony. His joy can hardly be imagined, almost as if it was all his own work. And, in truth, he wouldn’t have been far wrong.
A month later, when he was visiting the new couple in their house, Jorge recalled the profound impression he had in the five days during which he’d accompanied the death throes of Dr Marques.
“It was only then,” he said, “that I really fell in love.”
The priest smiled.
Nihil sub sole novum,” he said. “Nineteeen centuries ago, the same thing happened to a famous man who used to persecute Christians. When he was on his way to Damascus, a vision turned his life around. That man was St Paul. He married the best of brides, the Church, and – please God – you two will love each other as those two did. God will forgive me the comparison because to love is to be close to heaven.”

TRANSLATIONS FROM PORTUGUESE

From Portuguese: With Muffled Drum, by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story Marcha Fúnebre by Machado de Assis)

O

ne night in August 1866, Senator Cordovil was having difficulty sleeping. He’d come away early from the Fluminense Casino, soon after the Emperor had left, and had felt perfectly well, both mentally and physically. Indeed it had been an excellent evening, especially as one of his enemies, who had a heart problem, had died at about ten o’clock, the news arriving at the Casino shortly after eleven.

Continue reading From Portuguese: With Muffled Drum, by Machado de Assis

From Portuguese: Our Song, by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story Cantiga de esponsais by Machado de Assis – 1839-1908)

I

magine it’s 1813. You’re in the Carmelite Church, listening to one of those marvellous old masses that used to be the essence of public entertainment and musical artistry. You know what a sung mass is; you can imagine what a sung mass would have been in those far-off times. I’m not asking you to concentrate on the priests and sacristans, nor the sermon, nor the eyes of the Cariocan girls (already beautiful in those days), nor the mantillas of the dour senhoras, nor the shoes, hairdos, pelmets, lights, incense… none of that. I’m not even talking about the orchestra (which is excellent). I’m just pointing out the white-haired old man who—with all his devoted soul—is conducting the orchestra.

Continue reading From Portuguese: Our Song, by Machado de Assis

From Portuguese: Looking after, by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story O enfermeiro by Machado de Assis)

S

o you think what happened to me in 1860 warrants a few pages? Fair enough, but on condition you don’t let anyone see it until I’m dead. You won’t have to wait long, maybe a week, if not less; I don’t have any illusions about that.

Continue…

From Portuguese: 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.

From Portuguese: Brother Simão, by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story Frei Simão, which was published in Jornal das Famílias in 1864 and, in book form, in Contos fluminenses in 1870.)

I

B

rother Simão was a Benedictine monk. You’d have thought he was fifty when he died, but in fact he was only thirty-eight. The reason for that premature ageing was the same as for his having entered the cloister at the age of thirty and, as far as one can tell from some fragmentary memoirs he left, it was a sufficient reason.

Taciturn and distrustful by nature, he used to spend entire days in his cell, leaving it only at meal times and for the divine office. He didn’t have any friends at all in the monastery, because he wasn’t even open to the preliminaries of making a friendship.

In a monastery, where the communion of souls should be easier and more profound, he seemed an exception to the rule. One of the novices gave him the nickname ‘The Bear,’ which caught on, although it didn’t really go beyond the novices. As for the professed monks, they felt a certain respect and admiration for him, despite any aversion caused by his solitary spirit.

One day it was announced he’d become seriously ill. Help was called and every possible care provided, but his illness was terminal: he died five days later.

During those five days of his illness, with at least one monk continually in attendance, he hadn’t said a word; it was only on the last day, when his final moment was approaching, that he sat up in his bunk, asked the abbot to come closer and whispered in his ear, in a strange, strangulated voice:

‘I die hating humanity.’

When he heard these words and the way they were said, the abbot retreated to the wall. Meanwhile Brother Simão fell back on his pillow and slipped into eternity.

After it had paid the respect due to its dead brother, the community asked its leader what the dreadful words were that had shocked him so much. The abbot obliged, crossing himself at the same time. The monks, however, thought those words could only refer to some past secret, no doubt important, but not sufficient to explain the abbot’s horrified reaction. So the abbot explained that, when he heard Brother Simão say those words, accompanied by that tone of voice and that piercing look, it had occurred to him he was mad; and, even more, that he’d been mad when he entered the monastery – the taciturn life of a hermit to which he’d dedicated himself being symptomatic of a sort of mild and pacific mental disturbance; the monks said they thought it almost impossible that insanity wouldn’t have become evident in a more obvious way in the course of eight years; but the abbot persisted in his opinion.

Meanwhile an inventory was made of the deceased’s possessions, among which was found a neatly tied roll of papers, labelled as follows: ‘Notes for Memoirs, Brother Simão de Santa Águeda, Benedictine monk.’

This roll of papers was a great discovery for the curious community: at last the mysterious veil covering Brother Simão’s past would be lifted slightly and perhaps the abbot’s suspicions would be confirmed. The roll was opened and read out in front of everyone.

In the main it contained incomplete and intractable fragments – jottings and notes – but, even so, there was enough to conclude that, for some time, he really had been mad.

Ignoring those parts of the Memoirs that have no importance whatsoever, the narrator will avail himself of the parts that are less irrelevant or less obscure.

II

B

rother Simão’s notes don’t say anything about where he was born, nor do they mention the names of his parents. What we do know about his youth is that, when he’d finished his basic education, he couldn’t follow a literary career as he’d wanted, because he had to become a book-keeper in his father’s firm.

At that time a female cousin of Simão was living in his father’s house; she was an orphan, and Simão’s father had been entrusted with her education and upkeep. Evidently Simão’s father had enough money for that. As for the father of this orphan cousin, he’d gone from riches to penury, having lost all his money on gambling and ill-fated business ventures.

The orphan was called Helena; she was beautiful, sweet and extremely good. Simão, who’d been brought up alongside her, living under the same roof, couldn’t resist his cousin’s outstanding charm and beauty. They fell in love. Their dreams of the future revolved around marriage, which seems the most natural thing in the world for loving hearts.

It didn’t take long for Simão’s parents to find out the two of them were in love. But I should say – even though there’s nothing explicit about it in the monk’s notes –, I should say that the above-mentioned parents were uncommonly selfish. They were ready enough to provide Helena with her daily bread, but letting their son marry the poor orphan was out of the question. They’d set their sights on a rich heiress and, as far as they were concerned, she was the one their son would marry.

One afternoon, when the boy was getting on with entries in the master ledger, his father walked into the office wearing a serious sort of smile and told his son to stop working and listen. The boy obeyed.

‘You’re going to leave for the province of ***,’ his father said. ‘I need to send some letters to Amaral, my business partner, and because they’re very important I don’t want to trust them to our hit-and-miss postal service. Would you prefer to go by steam boat or in our ketch?’

The old businessman had put the question carefully, in such a way that his son had to reply, but couldn’t object. Well aware of that, the boy looked down at the floor and replied: ‘I’ll go whichever way you prefer, Father.’

Mentally thanking his son for being so compliant, thus saving him the price of a steam-boat ticket, the father went off happily to tell his wife that the boy had no objections at all.

That night the two lovers had a chance to meet alone in the dining-room and Simão told Helena what had happened. They both shed some furtive tears and hoped he’d be away for no more than a month.

At the supper table, Simão’s father talked about the boy’s journey and about how it should only take a few days, which gave fresh heart to the two lovers. The rest of the evening was spent with the old man giving his son tips about how to behave in the business partner’s house. At ten o’clock they all went off to bed as usual.

The days passed quickly until the day finally dawned when the ketch was due to leave. Helena emerged from her room with her eyes red from crying. In reply to her aunt, who asked her brusquely what the matter was, she said her eyes were inflamed from reading too much the previous evening. Her aunt told her to abstain from reading and to bathe her eyes in marshmallow water.

Meanwhile her uncle called Simão over, entrusted him with a letter for the business partner and embraced him. Suitcase and servant were ready. It was a sad parting. The parents wept a little; the girl wept a lot.

As for Simão, his eyes were dry and burning. He wasn’t good at crying and therefore suffered even more.

The ketch set sail. As long as he could see land, Simão stayed on deck, but when – in Ribeyrolles’ picturesque phrase – the walls of his mobile prison closed in, he went down to his cabin, sad and heavy-hearted. A presentiment was telling him, inside, that he’d never see his cousin again. It seemed like he was heading into exile.

When he arrived at his destination, he went to look for his father’s business partner and gave him the letter. Mr Amaral read the letter, looked at the boy and, after a long silence and much twiddling of the letter, he said:

‘Right. You need to stay here now, until I carry out your father’s request. In the meantime my home will be your home.’

‘When will I be able to return?’ Simão asked.

‘In a few days, as long as things don’t get complicated.’

In Amaral’s mouth, this ‘as long as’ sounded like the main thing he had to say. The letter from Simão’s father read as follows:

My dear Amaral,

I have serious reasons for needing to send my son away from this city. Please keep him there as long as you can. I have informed him that his voyage has been necessitated by my need to complete some business with you. Please make the little fellow think that he will be coming home in next to no time. Having entertained, in your youth, the ill-conceived idea of becoming a novelist, you should not have any difficulty in contriving such pretexts and eventualities as will result in his not returning until I summon him.

I remain, as always etc.

III

D

ays passed and more days passed, without any hint of a time for going home. The ex-novelist was, indeed, imaginative and didn’t tire of thinking up new obstacles in such a way as to convince the boy.

Because, however, lovers are no less ingenious than novelists, Simão and Helena discovered a way of writing to each other and thus each of them was able to find consolation for the absence of the other in the form of paper and ink. (So Héloïse was quite right when she said the art of writing was invented by a lonely lover.) In those letters the two of them vowed to be ever faithful.

After two months’ fruitless waiting and busy correspondence, Helena’s aunt came across one of Simão’s letters – his twentieth, if I’m not mistaken. There was a great to-do in the house. Her uncle, who was in the office, rushed out to discover what it was all about. The result was that ink, pens and paper were banished from the house and the unfortunate girl was kept under rigorous watch.

So the letters to the poor deportee became less frequent. He wrote asking the reason in long, tearstained letters but, as the vigilance in his father’s house had acquired extraordinary dimensions, all Simão’s letters were ending up in the old man’s hands, who – after appreciating the style of his son’s amorous epistles – had them burnt.

Days and months passed by, without any letter from Helena. The seam of the business partner’s imagination was wearing thin and he was hard pressed to find new ways of holding on to the boy.

A letter arrived for Simão. It was a letter from his father. The only difference from the others he’d received from his father was that this was longer – much longer. The boy opened the letter and read it, pale and trembling. The distinguished businessman related in the letter that Helena – that fine girl whom he’d intended to become his daughter through marriage with Simão – had died. The old man had added some homely words of consolation (which he’d plagiarised from a recent funeral notice he’d seen in the papers). The final consolation was that Simão should sail back to discuss his future with his father.

The last sentence read:

In any case, things have not worked out as I intended; I have not been able to marry you to Helena, given that God has taken her from us. But you must come home, my son; come home, where you will find consolation in marrying another girl, Counsellor ***’s daughter, who is of age and a good match. Do not be disheartened and please think of me.

Simão’s father wasn’t well-versed in his son’s love and, even if he were, he’d have needed the eyes of an osprey to plumb its depths. Pain of this kind is not assuaged by a letter, nor by wedlock. It would have been better to summon him home and then prepare him for the news; but doing it cold like this, by letter, was certain death for the boy.

Although Simão was still physically alive, his spirit was dead, so dead that he left that place with the intention of finding his own grave. It might have been helpful, at this point, to include some of Simão’s notes about the suffering the letter caused him; but they’re full of mistakes and I don’t intend to correct the monk’s honest but artless writing.

The grave he chose was a monastery. He sent a reply to his father, thanking him in respect of the counsellor’s daughter, but averring that henceforth his life belonged to God.

His father was amazed. He never suspected anything like that could enter his son’s head and hurriedly wrote to persuade him to change his mind, but without success.

As to the business partner, he’d lost any desire to continue playing a part in a plot that was becoming thicker and thicker, and he was quite happy to see the boy leave for the monastery.

IV

A

 long time after the events I’ve just narrated, Brother Simão de Santa Águeda was entrusted with a religious mission in his native province. He made his preparations and embarked.

Although the mission wasn’t in the State capital but in the interior, when he got to the capital he thought he should visit his parents. They’d changed, both physically and mentally, no doubt through the pain and remorse of having forced their son to take that fateful decision. They’d sold the firm and were living off the proceeds.

It was with real emotion and true love that they welcomed him. After shedding tears and proffering heartfelt words, they broached the purpose of his visit: ‘What brings you, my son?’

‘A priestly mission: I’ve come to preach, to exhort the Lord’s sheep never to stray from the true path.’

‘Here in the capital?’

‘No, in the interior, beginning in the town of ***.’

The old couple turned pale, but Simão didn’t notice. He departed the next day, not without some further efforts by his parents to make him stay. Although they themselves had no intention of raising the painful subject, they were aware he hadn’t once mentioned Helena.

Some days later, in the town Brother Simão had mentioned, people were impatient to hear the missionary preach. The old church was full to overflowing.

At the appointed hour, he ascended the pulpit and began his sermon. Before long half the congregation had left in disgust. The reason was simple: accustomed as they were to vivid evocations of hellfire and brimstone – and suchlike pearls – from the ordinary run of preachers, they were hardly going to enjoy listening to simple, mild and reasoned language based on the words of the founder of our religion.

The preacher was about to finish when a married couple hurriedly entered the church; he was a small-holder, a decent type of man, not too badly off what with his piece of land and his willingness to work; she was a woman renowned for her virtue but who always seemed irredeemably sad. After blessing themselves with holy water they positioned themselves where they could easily see the preacher.

A scream rings out. Everyone runs to the woman, who’s just fainted. Brother Simão has to interrupt his discourse while she’s attended to, but there’s a gap in the crowd around her. He can see her wan face.

It’s Helena.

At this point in the monk’s manuscript there are eight lines of dots, as if to say ‘I’ve no idea what happened next,’ although what did happen next was that no sooner had he recognised her than he resumed his sermon; but it was now something else: a discourse with neither head nor tale, no subject, nothing but delirium.

General consternation.

V

B

rother Simão remained delirious for several days. With care and attention he came round and everyone thought he was better, except the doctor, who wanted to continue the treatment. The monk, however, insisted on returning to the monastery, and there wasn’t a person on earth who could have stopped him.

The reader will have had no difficulty in realising that Helena had been forced to marry by her uncle and aunt.

The effect of seeing Simão was traumatic. She died two months later, leaving her husband – who had truly loved her – inconsolable.

Back in the monastery, Brother Simão became even more solitary and taciturn. A touch of insanity remained.

We already know the circumstances of his death and the impression it made on the abbot.

For a long time, out of piety, the empty cell of Brother Simão de Santa Águeda remained shut. It wasn’t opened till some time later, when an old layman was admitted; with the help of a donation he’d managed to get the abbot to allow him to end his days among doctors of the soul. It was Simão’s father, the mother having died.

The word was – during that old man’s last years – that he was even madder than his son.

TRANSLATOR’S NOTE

A quote from Gilberto Freyre may help to explain why the congregation, ‘accustomed as they were to vivid evocations of hellfire and brimstone,’  would have been quite so disgusted by Brother Simão’s simple sermon. In his 1957 book Ordem e progresso, Freyre refers to the ‘over-valuation’ of oratory, eloquence and rhetoric in Brazil during this period and calls the phenomenon ‘a sticky and contagious flower.’

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

Machado de Assis (Joaquim Maria M. de A.), a journalist, short-story writer, feuilletonist, novelist, poet and playwright, was born in Rio de Janeiro on 21 June 1839, and also died there, on 29 September 1908. He was the founder of Chair No. 23 of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. A good friend and admirer of José de Alencar, who died about twenty years before the establishment of the Academy, it was natural that Machado should choose the name of the author of O Guarani as his patron. He was President of the Brazilian Academy of Letters for more than ten years, the Academy becoming known, familiarly, as ‘The House of Machado de Assis.’

He was the son of Francisco José, a labourer, and Leopoldina Machado de Assis. His mother died when he was little, but information is scarce about his early years. He was brought up on Livramento Hill and was an altar server at Lampadosa church.

Without the means to have proper schooling, he published his first literary work – a poem called Ela (She) – in the Marmota Fluminense magazine in 1855. The next year he got a job at the National Press Works as an apprentice typographer.

By 1859 he was a proof-reader and correspondent for the Correio Mercantil newspaper and in 1860 he became a member of the editorial staff of the Diário do Rio de Janeiro newspaper. He also wrote regularly for the magazine O Espelho, where he made his debut as a theatre critic, for the Semana Ilustrada – from 1860 to 1875 – and for the Jornal das Famílias, where he mainly published short stories.

His first book, Queda que as mulheres têm para os tolos (How Women are Attracted to Fools), was printed by Paula Brito in 1861, although he was described as its translator. In 1862 he became theatre censor, an unpaid role, but one which gave him free entry to performances. He also began to collaborate with O Futuro, which was produced by Faustino Xavier de Novais, the brother of his future wife.

His first book of poetry, Crisálidas (Chrysalids), was published in 1864. In 1867 he was appointed assistant director of the government bulletin Diário Oficial. Three months after Faustino Xavier de Novais’s death in 1869, he married his friend’s sister, Carolina Augusta Xavier de Novais. She was a perfect companion during the remaining 35 years of his life and introduced him to the Portuguese classics and the works of various English authors.

His first novel, Ressurreição, was published in 1872. Shortly afterwards he was appointed first official at the state secretariat of the ministry of agriculture, commerce and public works, thus embarking upon the civil service career that would be his main source of income throughout the rest of his life.

In 1874 he began to publish, in instalments in the Globo newspaper, the novel A mão e a luva (The Hand and the Glove). He also wrote feuilletons, short stories, poetry and serialised novels for newspapers and magazines such as O Cruzeiro, A Estação and Revista Brasileira.

One of his plays, Tu, só tu, puro amor (You, just You, Pure Love) was staged at the Imperial Dom Pedro II Theatre in 1880. From 1881 to 1897 he published his best feuilletons in the Gazeta de Notícias.

1881 saw the publication of the book which would give a new direction to his literary career – Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memories of Brás Cubas), which had been published in instalments in the Revista Brasileira from 1879 to 1880. He also revealed himself as an extraordinary short story writer in Papéis Avulsos (Loose Pages, 1882) and in a number of subsequent collections of short stories.

In 1889 he was promoted to director of commerce at the ministry.

He had continued to work for the Revista Brasileira in the period when it was under the direction of his great friend José Veríssimo. The group of intellectuals connected with the Revista had the idea for creating a Brazilian Academy of Letters and, when the Academy was inaugurated in 1897, he was elected President, a task he devoted himself to for the rest of his life.

His oeuvre covers practically all literary genres. His first works of poetry were the Romantic Crisálidas (1864) and Falenas (Moths, 1870); this was followed by indianism in Americanas (1875) and parnassianism in Ocidentais (Occidentals, 1901).

The Contos fluminenses (Rio Stories) were published in 1870 and the Histórias da meia-noite (Midnight Stories) in 1873; the novel Ressurreição (Resurrection) in 1872, A mão e a luva in 1874, Helena in 1876 and Iaiá Garcia in 1878, all of which were considered part of his Romantic period. From that point onwards he moved into the phase of his masterpieces, which evade literary categorisation and which make him the greatest Brazilian writer and one of the greatest authors in the Portuguese language.

During his life, his work was edited by the Livraria Garnier from 1869; in 1937, W. M. Jackson, of Rio de Janeiro, published the Obras completes (Complete Works) in 31 volumes. Raimundo Magalhães Júnior organised and published, in Civilização Brasileira, the following volumes of Machado de Assis: Contos e crônicas (Stories and Feuilletons, 1958); Contos esparsos (Random Stories, 1956); Contos esquecidos (Forgotten Stories, 1956); Contos recolhidos (Collected Stories, 1956); Contos avulsos (Separate Stories, 1956); Contos sem data (Undated Stories, 1956); Crônicas de Lélio (Lélio’s Chronicles, 1958); Diálogos e reflexões de um relojoeiro (Dialogues and Reflections of a Watchmaker, 1956). In 1975 the Machado de Assis Commission, which was established by the ministry of education and culture and was chaired by the president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, organised and published, also in Civilização Brasileira, the Edições críticas de obras de Machado de Assis (Critical Editions of the Works of Machado de Assis), in 15 volumes, comprising short stories, novels and poetry by that greatest of Brazilian writers.

Publications: Desencantos, comedy (1861); Queda que as mulheres têm para os tolos, prose satire (1861); two comic plays: O protocolo and O caminho da porta (1863); Quase ministro, comedy; Crisálidas, poetry (1864); Os deuses de casaca, comedy (1866); Falenas, poetry (1870); Contos fluminenses, short stories (1870); Ressurreição,  novel (1872); Histórias da meia-noite, short stories (1873); A mão e a luva, novel (1874); Americanas, poetry (1875); Helena, novel (1876); Iaiá Garcia, novel (1878); Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas, novel (1881); Tu, só tu, puro amor, comedy (1881); Papéis avulsos, short stories (1882); Histórias sem data, short stories (1884); Quincas Borba, novel (1891); Várias histórias, short stories (1896); Páginas recolhidas, short stories, essays, plays (1899); Dom Casmurro, novel (1899); Poesias completas (1901); Esaú e Jacó, novel (1904); Relíquias da casa velha, short stories, criticism, plays (1906); Memorial de Aires, novel (1908).

Published posthumously: Crítica (1910); Outras relíquias, short stories, criticism, theatre (1932); Crônicas, feuilletons (1937); Correspondência (1932); Crítica literária (1937); Páginas escolhidas (1921); Casa velha (1944).

To mark the centenary of Machado’s birth, in 1939, Monteiro Lobato wrote the following at the request of the Argentinian newspaper La Prensa:

‘The short stories of Machado de Assis! Where can we find stories more perfect in form, more sparkling with ideas and more permeated by philosophy? Where can you find stories more universal and more human whilst simultaneously local and individual? We’d need to go to France to find one of his brothers in the person of Anatole France. But Anatole France blossomed in the most propitious of gardens, amidst a highly developed civilisation, encouraged by all sorts of awards, and surrounded by all the finesse of comfort and art; Machado de Assis was born into poverty, amidst the squalor of colonial Rio, and received no awards other than his own auto-approval, and his monthly wage was scarcely enough to live on. Rather than having readers throughout the world, like Anatole France, Machado de Assis had just half a dozen friends as his readers. The paltry sum for which he sold the copyright for all his works to the Garnier publishing house […] shows clearly how limited was his readership.

Even so, despite all these limitations, it was his pen that produced the first masterpiece of Brazilian literature, Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas), a book that’s going to surprise the world one day. They’ll all be saying: ‘How on earth could this have appeared in such an inferior country, in a South American backwater?!’

And then he gave us Dom Casmurro (Mr Grumpy), that perfect novel, and Esaú e Jacó (Esau and Jacob) and Quincas Borba and, finally Memorial de Aires, a work that brings style and romance to emptiness, to the emptiness of old age, to the emptiness of his own almost seventy years.

In between the novels, he was producing short stories – and what stories! What marvellous stories, different from anything produced in Brazil, or in the whole of America! Stories without tricks, without stage props, without lots of landscape, everything based on the most meticulous design, like the paintings of Ingres. Human types and more human types, souls and more souls – an immense procession of figures more vivid even than their models. And with what style, with what purity of language!

There are few great heights in Brazilian literature: plenty of writers, plenty of books, plenty of printed paper, but also plenty of vain pretension and, in recent times, plenty of impostors. But all those defects have been redeemed by the appearance of works of eternal value, works that will endure as long as the language in which they were written. ‘Missa do Galo’ (Midnight Mass), ‘Uns Braços’ (A Pair of Arms), ‘Conto Alexandrino’ (An Alexandrian Tale), ‘Capitulo dos Chapeus’ (A Chapter of Hats), ‘Anedota Pecuniária’ (A Pecuniary Anecdote) [Translations of the first four are available in John Gledson’s A Chapter of Hats (2008)] – it’s difficult to choose between Machado’s stories, because they’re all drawn from the same spring. Ah! If only Portuguese wasn’t this clandestine language…

Before writing these lines, I re-read several of Machado de Assis’s works and it’s only because I promised La Prensa I would that I forced myself to speak about him, so little, so insignificant, so miserable did I feel! I felt ashamed of judgements I’d made previously in which, either out of snobbery or stupidity, I’d dared to make ironic remarks about such work. And, given that I didn’t withdraw from this undertaking, at least it gives me a chance to undergo public penance – because, in all honesty, I find it grotesque that anyone nowadays should dare to speak about Machado de Assis without removing their hat. Our attitude should be marked by complete and reverential humility. If anyone doubts that, let them re-read ‘Conto Alexandrino’ or ‘Missa do Galo.’

In your presence, Machado, we’re all bit players…

The wariness with which Machado de Assis lived his life in Rio de Janeiro was supremely felicitous in his case – a difficult case, of extreme intellectual superiority allied to extreme awareness that it wouldn’t do to flaunt it, in view of the colour of his skin and his mundane job in public administration. How many proud but empty ministers must have been his legal and social superiors – superior to him, who was, simply on his own merits, the highest of the highest in Brazil! Time’s broom has already swept the names of all those bigwigs, all those ‘superiors,’ into the bin; but the name of Machado de Assis continues to rise higher and higher.

He was oddly gregarious. He always liked literary associations and societies, going so far as to found an academy of ‘immortals’ (the Brazilian Academy of Letters), of which he was the president, and he was the only one who really became an immortal, without the quotation marks. The explanation may reside in his innate need to observe ‘the puppet show’: gathering the puppets around whatever human stupidity, he had them conveniently to hand for his study, just as, in his laboratory, an anatomist has a collection of rabbits, dogs and monkeys in cages for his experimentation.

Machado’s philosophy was permeated by melancholy: he’d studies the guinea pigs too much, he knew the human soul too well. A calmly resigned philosophy, the ultimate point of which appears in Brás Cubas, that hero of self-satisfied vulgarity, who concludes his posthumous memoirs with the balance sheet of his earthly existence, a positive balance sheet. How come, positive? ‘I didn’t have children, I didn’t pass on to any other being  the legacy of our misery.’

The life of Machado de Assis also had a positive balance. He didn’t have children and, given that he couldn’t pass on his genius, at least he didn’t pass on to any other being the colour of his skin, his stutter, his epilepsy, his disenchantment with the puppets. And there could have been nothing more generous in his life. What a terrible thing for any being – even for a being of some capacity – to carry the stupendous burden, for your whole life, of being the child of Machado de Assis!

‘Do you know who that is, the sad old crow coming out of that office?’

‘That miserable-looking mulatto, the one with the hunchback?’

‘Yes, that one. That’s the son of Machado de Assis…’

Just imagine the look of pious sympathy this piece of information would evoke!

Nature permits geniuses only one child: their work. Machado de Assis understood this better than anyone and, having given the world this most beautiful child, he walked sadly away from the madding crowd, with the tranquillity of those who’ve succeeded in the most challenging of all tasks – that of not leaving behind the merest shadow of pain.’

For his part, Lima Barreto – who was initially often referred to as the true successor of Machado – was less fulsome in his praise:

Not denying his merits as a great writer, I’ve always found a considerable aridity in Machado, a marked lack of sympathy, a lack of generous impulses, some puerile characteristics. I’ve never imitated him and he’s never been my inspiration. You can mention Maupassant, Dickens, Swift, Balzac, Daudet, perhaps, but Machado, never! You could go as far as Turgenev or Tolstoy in order to find my exemplars; but Machado, no! […] Machado wrote […] hiding what he felt so as not to be humiliated […] I’m not afraid to say what I think and what I feel, without calculating whether I’m going to be humiliated or praised. I think that’s a big difference.

(Obras Completas de Lima Barreto, Correspondências, Vol.2, 1956).

From Portuguese: Mr Barreto, by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story O caso Barreto, first published in the newspaper A Estação  in 1892 and in the collection Relíquias de Casa Velha in 1938.)

‘D

on’t be late tomorrow, Mr Barreto,’ said his section head. ‘We have to deliver this copy to the Minister.’

‘No problem. I’ll come early.’

‘But if you go to the dance, you will wake up late.’

‘No, Sir. I’ll get up early.’

‘Is that a promise?’

‘I’ll get up early. Don’t worry. I’ll see to the copy. Bye for now.’

Continue reading From Portuguese: Mr Barreto, by Machado de Assis

From Portuguese: Life Eternal, by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story A vida eterna)

E

veryone agrees that nothing compares to that state of being neither asleep nor awake when the soul frees itself from affliction and seeks rest from the cares of life. For me, at least, I must say I’ve never experienced more pleasurable moments, especially when my stomach’s full and I’m inhaling the smoke of a fine Havana.

After an ample, refined supper, in the company of my good friend Dr Vaz, who’d appeared at my house for the first time in two years, we went – the two of us – to my study and started talking about the past, like two oldies whose grammar of life no longer has a future tense.

Vaz was sitting in the leather-upholstered easy chair – you can still find them in sacristies – and I was stretched out on the similarly upholstered sofa. We were both smoking excellent cigars that I’d been sent as a present a few days before.

Our conversation started desultory and became even more so, until each of us, without removing our cigars, closed our eyes and entered into the state I’ve just alluded to, hearing the mice in the wainscot, but completely oblivious one of the other.

It would have been natural to pass on to real sleep and I’d have arrived there, were it not for three resounding knocks on the door. I stood up in surprise. Vaz remained in the same position, which made me suppose he must be asleep; if he’d been only half-asleep, like me, the knocking would have produced the same effect.

I went to see who was knocking. It was a tall, thin individual with a cloak wrapped round him.. No sooner had I opened the door than the man entered without so much as ‘By your leave.’ I waited for him to explain the reason for his visit, but I waited in vain, because the stranger sat down comfortably in a chair, crossed his legs, took his hat off and began to tap on its crown, producing a sound I wouldn’t know how to describe, but which must have been some demented symphony, because it looked like he’d come straight from the Red Beach Lunatic Asylum.

I glanced over at my friend, who was deep asleep in the easy chair. The mouse saturnalia continued in the wainscot.

I remained standing for a few moments to see if the stranger would deign to say anything. Meanwhile, despite the unpleasant impression I had of the man, I assessed his appearance and attire.

As I say, he was wrapped in a cloak. When he sat down, the cloak fell open and I saw white leather shoes, yellow trousers and a green waistcoat – colours which look good on a flag, but you couldn’t say they adorn or embellish the human body.

His features were even stranger than his clothes: squint-eyed, big moustache, Roman nose, wide mouth, salient chin, mauve lips, bushy eyebrows, long eyelashes, a perpendicular forehead and – crowning everything – grey, unkempt hair.

When he’d finished tapping out the tune on the crown of his hat, the stranger raised his eyes to me and said:

‘Sit down, dear fellow!’

What audacity! Giving me orders in my own house! I should have sent the fellow packing without more ado; his tone was so imperious, however, that I obeyed willy-nilly and went to sit down on the sofa. From there, with the light of the lamp that hung from the ceiling, I could see his face better and my second impression was even worse.

‘My name is Tobias. I’m a graduate of mathematics.’

I bowed slightly.

The stranger continued:

‘I think I’m going to die tomorrow… Don’t be alarmed! I’m sure that, tomorrow, I’ll be going to the other world. It’s no problem. “To die, to sleep,” as the poet says. Nonetheless, I don’t want to leave this world without fulfilling a pressing, inescapable duty. Have a look at this.’

He took a little picture from his pocket and handed it to me. It was a miniature, a portrait of an extraordinarily beautiful young woman. I returned the picture to my interlocutor and awaited an explanation.

‘This portrait,’ he continued, looking at the miniature, ‘is of my daughter Eusébia. She’s twenty-two and as rich as Croesus, because she’s my sole heir.’

I’d have been amazed at the contrast between the stranger’s wealth and his appearance, had it not been that I was already convinced he was mad. What I was thinking about was how to get this man out of the house, but I confess I was afraid there’d be a struggle, so I waited to see how things went.

Meanwhile I was asking myself how it was that my slaves had allowed a stranger to get as far as the door of my study even though I’d given strict orders that this sort of thing shouldn’t happen. I was already pondering what type of punishment I’d impose for such carelessness – or connivance –, when the stranger shot these words at me:

‘Before I die, I want you to marry Eusébia. That’s the proposal I’ve come to make: if you agree to marry her, I’ll leave you this wad of notes right here, as pin money; if you refuse, I’ll simply put a bullet from this revolver through your head.’

And he lay the wad of banknotes on the table, together with the cocked revolver.

The scene was taking on a dramatic aspect. My first impulse was to wake up Dr Vaz and see if I could get the man out of the house with his help; but I was afraid – and with good reason – that if the stranger saw what I intended he’d put into effect the second part of his proposal.

There was only one thing to do: play for time.

‘My dear Mr Tobias, it goes without saying that I feel enormously flattered by the proposal you’ve put to me. Nothing could be further from my mind than to refuse the hand of such a beautiful creature – or the banknotes. Look at me, however! I’m seventy years old! Miss Eusébia is only twenty-two! Don’t you think it’d be too much to impose me on your daughter?’

Tobias smiled, glanced at his revolver, and started tapping on the crown of his hat again.

‘Far be it from me,’ I continued, ‘to wish to offend you; on the contrary, if I were thinking of myself, I wouldn’t say a word; but it’s purely for the sake of that most gentle gentlewoman – I’m already in love with her, despite my seventy years –, purely for her sake that I draw attention to the disparity between us.’

I raised my voice as I said this, to see if I could wake up Dr Vaz. But my friend continued fast asleep in his chair.

‘I don’t want to know about your age,’ said Tobias, putting his hat on and picking up his revolver. ‘What I want is you and Eusébia to marry. Today. If you refuse, I’ll kill you.’

He pointed the revolver at me. What could I do, despite all my qualms, other than accept the girl and the money?

‘I’ll marry her!’ I blurted out.

Tobias put the revolver back in his pocket and said:

‘Good! Get changed.’

‘Now?!’

‘Now. Get changed while I have a read.’

He stood up, went to my bookshelves, took out a volume of Don Quixote, and went to sit down again. Whilst I – more dead than alive – went to get my coat from the wardrobe, the stranger took out some glasses and prepared to read.

‘Who’s this, sleeping here so peacefully?’ he asked as he cleaned his glasses.

‘That’s Dr Vaz, dear sir. Shall I introduce you to him?’

‘No, it’s not necessary,’ Tobias replied with a malicious smile.

I got myself ready slowly in the hope that something would happen to interrupt that unpleasant scenario. What made it worse was I’d started shaking – I was all fingers and thumbs.

Once in a while I glanced at the stranger, who was calmly reading Cervantes’ immortal work.

The clock struck eleven.

Suddenly it occurred to me that, once in the street, I’d be able to find a policeman, alert him to my predicament and free myself from the awful fate of having Mr Tobias as father-in-law.

But there was another option, an even better one: wake up Dr Vaz before leaving – which would only be natural – and get rid of the stranger with his help.

Whereupon I got dressed as fast as I could and put myself at Mr Tobias’s disposal. He closed the book, went to replace it on the shelf, wrapped himself in his cloak and said: ‘Let’s go!’

‘Would you mind if I wake up Dr Vaz first? He can’t stay here. He needs to go back home.’

As I said this, I stepped towards the chair where Vaz was sleeping.

‘No need,’ said Tobias. ‘We’ll be back soon.’

I didn’t insist: there was still the chance of coming across a policeman, or perhaps one of the slaves – as long as I’d have time to say something. But the slave option proved impossible: when we left my study, the stranger gave me his arm and guided me rapidly down the stairs and out to the street.

A carriage was standing outside the front door. Tobias gestured for me to get in.

I hadn’t foreseen this. My legs went weak and I lost all hope of giving my executioner the slip. It was dangerous – nay, impossible – to resist: the man had the trump card in his pocket and what’s more, I told myself, one doesn’t argue with a lunatic.

We got into the carriage.

I don’t know how long we travelled or which way we went, but I’d guess we passed everything that was passable in Rio de Janeiro. After several centuries of the most extreme anguish, we stopped in front of a house that glowed like a lantern.

‘This is it,’ my companion said. ‘We can get out.’

The house was a real palace, the entrance ornamented with Doric columns, the vestibule paved with black and white marble and illuminated by a stupendous antique bronze chandelier.

The two of us ascended a magnificent marble staircase. At the top there were two little statues, one of Mercury, the other of Minerva. When we reached them my companion pointed them out and said:

‘You know what they represent, my dear Son-in-Law? Minerva is Eusébia – Knowledge; Mercury is me – Commerce.’

‘So you’re a businessman?’ I asked the stranger ingenuously.

‘I used to be a merchant in India.’

We passed through two rooms and when we reached the third we came across an old man. Tobias introduced me:

‘This is Dr Camilo da Anunciação; take him to the guest room while I go and get changed. I’ll see you soon, my dear Son-in-Law.’

And he turned his back on me.

The old man – I subsequently discovered he was the major-domo – took me by the hand and led me to a great hall, where the guests were.

Despite the profound effect of the adventure itself, I have to confess I was more and more amazed by the sumptuousness of the house, and not only its sumptuousness, but also the taste and artistry with which it was all put together.

The guest room was closed when we got there; the major-domo knocked three times, and a valet – also old – came to open the door and took hold of my hand. The major-domo remained outside.

I’ll never forget my first sight of that room when the doors opened. Everything was strange but magnificent. Against the far wall there was a big, imitation-bronze eagle, made of wood, with its wings extended as if about to take flight. From the eagle’s beak there hung a mirror, the lower part of which was clasped in its claws in such a way that it leant forward in the usual fashion of wall mirrors.

Instead of paper, the walls were lined with white silk; the ceiling was artfully wrought; large candelabras, magnificent furniture, a profusion of flowers, carpets – simply, everything that luxury and taste might suggest to a rich man’s soul.

There were only a few guests and by some coincidence – like the major-domo and the valet and my future father-in-law and, indeed, like me too – they were all old.

After the servant introduced me, those present greeted me with such attentiveness that I couldn’t help but feel well-disposed towards them. I sat in a chair and they came to form a circle round me, all smiles and happiness at seeing the son-in-law of the ‘Incomparable Tobias’ – that’s how they called the man with the revolver.

I answered their questions as best I could and it seemed that all my replies caused them satisfaction, because I was swamped with more and more praise and compliments.

One of the guests – a man of about seventy, breast covered with medals, bald – said amidst universal acclamation:

‘Tobias couldn’t have found a better son-in-law even if he’d taken a lantern and searched the whole city – what am I talking about?! – the whole Empire! Anyone can see that Dr Camilo da Anunciação is a perfect gentleman, distinguished by his talents, his gravitas and, not least, by the admirable white hair adorning his head, which makes him more fortunate than I, who lost mine long ago.’

Then he sighed so profoundly he seemed to be entering his death throes. Applause welled up over the final words of the orator.

I’d scarcely mouthed a ‘Thank you’ before I had to prepare myself to listen to another discourse, directed to me this time by a retired colonel, and then a final one from a lady who hadn’t taken her eyes off me ever since I came in.

When she’d finished speaking, the Colonel said: ‘Wouldn’t you agree, Countess, the young men of today are as nothing alongside this patriarch, Tobias’s future son-in-law?!’

‘I couldn’t agree more, Colonel! When it comes to bridegrooms, only the last century can provide adequate ones. Weddings nowadays?! Heaven help us! The bridegrooms are no more than fops and dandies! No gravity! No dignity! No honesty!’

The conversation continued on the same lines. They subjected the past century to a wide-ranging investigation and – perhaps it’s just an old man’s prejudice – they spoke so well and made such fine and telling points that I couldn’t help but admire.

But, during all this, I was anxious to get to know my bride. That was all I was curious about now; and if, as I imagined, she was both beautiful and extremely rich, what more could I ask?!

I made so bold as to put a question to that effect to a lady who was sitting beside me, opposite the Countess. She told me my bride was at her dressing table and it wouldn’t be long before I saw her. She added that she was as radiant as the sun.

Meanwhile, an hour had gone by and neither my bride nor her father, the Incomparable Tobias, had appeared in the room. What could have delayed my future father-in-law? One didn’t need all that time to get dressed. I must confess that, despite the scene in my study and the circumstances in which I’d met the man, I’d have been calmer if he’d been present. You see, I’d already seen the old fellow in my house and had got used to his gestures and his way of talking.

After an hour and a half the door opened to admit a new guest. Imagine my amazement when my eyes alighted on my friend Dr Vaz! Unable to stifle a shout of surprise, I ran to him.

‘You?! Here?!’

‘Some friend!’ replied Vaz, smiling. ‘You get married and don’t even invite your old chum! If it wasn’t for this letter, I’d still be stranded in your study.’

‘What letter?’ I asked.

Vaz opened the letter he had in his hand and gave it me to read, while the other guests stood back a little and contemplated this scene – unexpected as it was, both for me and for them!

The letter was from Tobias and was to the effect that, since I was due to get married that evening, he was taking the liberty – as father-in-law – of inviting Vaz to be present at the ceremony.

‘How did you get here?’

‘Your father-in-law sent a carriage to collect me.’

At this point I had to agree, in my mind, that Tobias merited the title of Incomparable just as much as Aeneas the title of Pious. Now I understood that the only reason he hadn’t wanted me to wake Vaz was so I could have this pleasant surprise later.

My friend, of course, wanted me to tell him all about how I came to be getting married so suddenly and I was on the point of obliging him when the door opened and in walked the owner of the house.

He was different.

He was no longer wearing the weird clothes, nor did he have the peculiar air about him that he had when I’d seen him in my study; he was now dressed with the sober elegance that befits an old man, and the most amiable smile was hovering on his lips.

‘So, my dear Son-in-Law,’ he said to me after he’d greeted everyone, ‘what do you say to your friend’s arrival?!’

‘I say, my dear Father-in-Law, that you’re a diamond. You can’t imagine the pleasure this surprise has given me, because Vaz is my oldest and dearest friend.’

I took the opportunity to introduce Vaz to all the other guests, who were in general agreement that Dr Vaz was a friend worthy of Dr Camilo da Anunciação. The Incomparable Tobias expressed his firm hope that, within a short while, he’d be personally tied to both of us in such a way that the three of us would be known as ‘the bosom pals.’

A clock struck midnight on some church tower – I don’t know which – nearby. The Incomparable Tobias rose to his feet and said to me:

‘My dear Son-in-Law, let’s go and pay our respects to your bride. The wedding hour’s approaching.’

Everyone stood up and headed for the door, with me, Tobias and Vaz in front. I must say, of all the incidents that night, this was the one that affected me most. The idea of going to see a beautiful maiden, in the blossom of her youth, who was going to be my wife – the wife of an old philosopher who’d long ago seen through life’s illusions – that idea, I confess, was flabbergasting.

We passed through a hall and arrived in front of some double doors, which stood ajar, leading to a brilliantly illuminated room. Two valets opened the doors wide and we all entered.

On the other side of the room, seated on an exquisite blue divan, was Miss Eusébia, ready for me and dazzlingly beautiful. I’d seen many fascinating women in my life, but none of them came anywhere near this one. She must have been created by some oriental poet. When I compared my old age with Eusébia’s youth I felt ashamed and was on the point of refusing to get married.

I was introduced to my bride by her father, and she received me with such affability and tenderness that my qualms were soon completely assuaged. After two minutes I was besotted.

Fixing her bright, pellucid eyes on me, she said: ‘My father could not have chosen a better husband for me; I sincerely hope I shall prove myself worthy.’

I gibbered something – I don’t know what – in reply; I had eyes only for her. Eusébia rose to her feet and said to her father ‘I’m ready.’

I requested that Vaz be one of the witnesses, which was accepted; the other witness was the Colonel. The Countess would be the bridesmaid.

We departed for the chapel, which was a little distance away in the same house; the priest and sacristan were already there. Like everyone in the house except Eusébia, they were both old.

My bride said ‘Yes’ with a firm voice, I in a feeble whisper; our roles seemed reversed.

After we’d exchanged our vows, we listened to a short sermon from the priest about the duties imposed by marriage and the sanctity of the sacrament. The priest was a well of knowledge and a miracle of concision: he said a lot in just a few words. (I subsequently discovered he’d never studied proper oratory.)

After the wedding ceremony there was a light tea and a little music. The Countess danced a minuet with the old fellow with all the medals, and that was the end of the party.

On the way to my apartments, accompanied by all the guests, I discovered that Vaz would sleep there that night at the express invitation of the Incomparable Tobias, who’d shown the same kindness to the others.

When I found myself alone with my bride, I fell to my knees and said:

‘I’ve lived so long to receive only now – one foot in the grave – the greatest good fortune any man could ever have, because the love of a woman like you is truly a present from heaven! I speak of love, but I don’t know if I have the right to… because I’m old and you…’

‘Be quiet! Be quiet!’ said Eusébia, greatly perturbed.

And she collapsed on to the sofa, hiding her face in her hands.

I was astounded and, for some minutes, remained kneeling, stock-still, without knowing what to say.

Eusébia seemed to be weeping.

Finally I lifted myself up, went to the sofa, and asked her why.

She didn’t reply.

It struck me that perhaps Eusébia had loved someone else and that, as a punishment for the crime of that love, they were forcing her to marry an elderly stranger – someone she couldn’t love.

Something of Don Quixote awoke within me. She was a victim: therefore I must save her. I bent down and told her what I suspected and what I’d resolved.

I was expecting to see her clasp my knees in gratitude for the noble impulse behind my words, but – to my surprise – all I saw was a look of pity, and all I heard, as she shook her head, was:

‘You poor, poor man! It’s you who’s the victim!’

‘Me?!’ I exclaimed, a shudder running through me.

‘Yes, you!’

Cold sweat broke out on my forehead, my legs began to shake and, to stop myself from toppling over, I sat down beside her on the sofa. I asked her to explain herself.

‘I suppose I might as well,’ she said. ‘If I hid it from you, I’d be an accomplice in the eyes of God, and God knows I’m only a passive tool in the hands of all those men. Listen! You’re my fifth husband. Every year, on the same day and at the same hour, this house is the scene of the ceremony you’ve just witnessed. And afterwards they all bring me here with my new husband, who…’

‘Who what?!’ I asked, sweating.

‘Read this,’ said Eusébia. She went to a chest of drawers and took out a parchment. ‘I discovered this just a month ago; for only one month have I known the reason why I must marry each year.’

Trembling, I opened the parchment she’d handed me and read – horror-struck – the following words:

‘Elixir of eternal life, found in Egyptian ruins in the year 402. In the name of the Black Eagle and of the Seven Little Children of the Septentrional, salve! When there come together twenty people desirous of the inestimable privilege of Life Eternal, let them form a secret society and have for supper ever year, on St Bartholomew’s Day, an old man of over sixty years of age, roasted in the oven, and washed down with pure wine.’

Could anyone possibly understand my situation?! In front of me was Death, certain Death, painful Death; but, at the same time, all I’d just learnt was so outlandish – the purchase of eternal life through a cannibal banquet – that my spirit hovered between doubt and fear; I believed, I didn’t believe; I was afraid, and I was asking ‘Why?!’

‘That is the fate which awaits you!’

‘But this is madness!’ I exclaimed. ‘To buy eternity with a man’s death?! And, in any case, how do you know this parchment has anything to do…?’

‘Because I do,’ Eusébia replied. ‘Haven’t I just told you this was my fifth wedding?! Where are my four previous husbands? All of them entered this room, only to leave half an hour later. Each time, someone came to call them – under some pretext or other – and I never saw them again. I suspected it must mean something awful. Now I know!’

I started walking to and fro, feverishly; was it true I was going to die? Was this my last hour alive? Sitting on the sofa, Eusébia’s gaze flitted between me and the door.

I stopped in front of her and asked: ‘But that priest, mademoiselle…?! ‘Is that priest in on it too?’

‘He’s the head of their society.’

‘And you, mademoiselle..?! You’re an accomplice: your words were nothing but a trap! If it wasn’t for them, I’d never have agreed to marry you…!’

‘Oh, sir!’ she replied, her cheeks wet with tears. ‘I’m weak, yes, I am, but I’m not an accomplice. What I said to you… I was forced to say it.’

At that moment I heard slow footsteps: it was them, of course.

Eusébia – terrified – rose from the sofa and dropped to her knees at my feet, murmuring: ‘I’m not to blame for anything that happens, but forgive me for being the unwitting cause!’

I stared at her and told her I forgave her.

The footsteps were getting nearer.

I got ready to go down fighting, quite forgetting that, apart from having no weapon, I had no strength at all.

Whoever was approaching arrived at the door and knocked. I didn’t reply straight away, but as the knocking became insistent I asked:

‘Who’s there?’

‘It’s me,’ Tobias replied softly. ‘Would you mind opening the door?’

‘Why?’

‘I need to tell you a secret.’

‘At this hour?!’

‘It’s urgent.’

I looked questioningly at Eusébia; she shook her head.

‘Let’s leave the secret for tomorrow, Father-in-Law.’

‘It really is very urgent,’ Tobias replied, ‘and to save you the trouble I’ll open the door myself with another key I’ve got here.’

I ran to the door, but it was too late; Tobias was at the threshold, beaming as if entering a ball-room.

‘My dear Son-in-Law,’ he said, ‘would you accompany me to the library? I’d like to tell you an important secret about our family.’

‘Wouldn’t tomorrow be better?’ I said.

‘No, it has to be now!’ Tobias replied, frowning.

‘I don’t want to!’

‘You don’t want to..?! But you must.’

‘I’m perfectly aware I’m your fifth son-in-law, my dear Mr Tobias.’

‘Ah! You know..! Eusébia’s told you about the other weddings. So much the better!’

And turning to his daughter he hissed, icily:

‘There’s a price to pay for indiscretion.’

‘Mr Tobias, she’s not guilty.’

‘Was it not she who gave you that parchment?’ Tobias asked, pointing at the parchment, which was still in my hand.

We froze!

Tobias took a little whistle from his pocket and blew it; other whistles were blown in response and, within a few minutes, the boudoir had been invaded by all the old people in the house.

‘Supper time!’ said Tobias.

I grabbed hold of a chair and was on the point of throwing it at my father-in-law when Eusébia caught hold of my arm.

‘He’s my father!’

‘That won’t help you, Eusébia,’ Tobias said with a diabolical smile. ‘You’re going to die.’

And grabbing her by the neck he handed her over to two of his lackeys, saying: ‘Kill her!’

The poor girl screamed, but in vain: the two lackeys bundled her out while the other old people caught hold of my arms and legs and carried me in procession to a hall that was covered totally in black. I arrived there more dead than alive. And the priest was already there, dressed in his cassock.

Before dying I wanted to see my poor friend Vaz, but the Colonel told me he was sleeping and wouldn’t be leaving the house: he was next year’s supper.

The priest offered to hear my confession, but I refused to receive absolution from the very person who was going to kill me. I wanted to die impenitent.

They laid me out – with my hands and feet bound – on top of a table, and then they all surrounded me. Behind my head stood a lackey, a dagger in his hand.

Then the whole company began chanting something. The only words I could make out were: ‘In the name of the Black Eagle and of the Seven Little Children of the Septentrional.’

Sweat was pouring down me; I could hardly see. Despite my seventy years – an age at which one no longer feels nostalgia for this world – the idea of dying was horrible.

The chanting stopped and the priest said, loud and slow:

‘And now..! Let the dagger do its work!’

The blade flashed in front of my eyes and buried itself completely in my heart; blood gushed out of my chest and soaked the table; my death throes; my last breath.

I was dead – really dead – and yet I heard everything around me; I still had a certain consciousness of this world to which I no longer belonged.

‘Has he died?’ asked the Colonel.

‘Completely,’ replied Tobias. ‘You can call the ladies now.’

The ladies – eager and curious – arrived shortly.

‘Well?’ asked the Countess. ‘Do we have our man?’

‘Behold!’

The women came up to me and I heard their unanimous cannibal approval; they all agreed I was plump and should be an excellent dish.

‘We can’t roast him whole: he’s too big and fat; he won’t fit in the oven. We’ll just have to quarter him. Knives!’

Those words were said by Tobias, who immediately proceeded to allocate tasks: the Colonel would cut off my left leg, the one with all the medals my right, the priest one arm, Tobias himself the other, and the Countess – a connoisseur of the human nose – would cut off mine to have with the giblets.

The knives arrived and the operation began; I must say I didn’t feel a thing; I only knew they’d cut off a leg when it landed on the floor with a thump.

‘Good! Into the oven,’ said Tobias.

Suddenly I heard Vaz’s voice.

‘What’s all this, Camilo! What’s all this?!’ he was saying.

I opened my eyes and found myself lying on my sofa at home; Vaz was standing beside me.

‘What the Devil’s the matter with you?!’

I looked at him in amazement and asked: ‘Where are they?’

‘They who?’

‘The cannibals!’

‘You’re mad, old fellow!’

I looked at myself: I had my legs, my arms and my nose. The room was my room. Vaz was the same old Vaz.

‘That must have been some nightmare!’ he said. ‘I was asleep and you woke me up with your yelling.’

‘Thank heavens!’ I said.

I got up, drank some water and told my friend about the dream. He roared with laughter, but decided to stay with me that night. The next day we woke up late and ate a hearty breakfast. When he left, Vaz said to me:

‘You should write down your dream for the Family Digest.’

‘I might just do that, old fellow.’

‘Do! I’ll send it to Garnier.’

TRANSLATOR’S NOTE

Translator’s note: The last word of this story, ‘Garnier,’ refers to a famous publishing firm in Rio de Janeiro whose publications included the Jornal das Famílias – here, the Family Digest –, which was in circulation from 1863 to 1878.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

Machado de Assis (Joaquim Maria M. de A.), a journalist, short-story writer, feuilletonist, novelist, poet and playwright, was born in Rio de Janeiro on 21 June 1839, and also died there, on 29 September 1908. He was the founder of Chair No. 23 of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. A good friend and admirer of José de Alencar, who died about twenty years before the establishment of the Academy, it was natural that Machado should choose the name of the author of O Guarani as his patron. He was President of the Brazilian Academy of Letters for more than ten years, the Academy becoming known, familiarly, as ‘The House of Machado de Assis.’

He was the son of Francisco José, a labourer, and Leopoldina Machado de Assis. His mother died when he was little, but information is scarce about his early years. He was brought up on Livramento Hill and was an altar server at Lampadosa church.

Without the means to have proper schooling, he published his first literary work – a poem called Ela (She) – in the Marmota Fluminense magazine in 1855. The next year he got a job at the National Press Works as an apprentice typographer.

By 1859 he was a proof-reader and correspondent for the Correio Mercantil newspaper and in 1860 he became a member of the editorial staff of the Diário do Rio de Janeiro newspaper. He also wrote regularly for the magazine O Espelho, where he made his debut as a theatre critic, for the Semana Ilustrada – from 1860 to 1875 – and for the Jornal das Famílias, where he mainly published short stories.

His first book, Queda que as mulheres têm para os tolos (How Women are Attracted to Fools), was printed by Paula Brito in 1861, although he was described as its translator. In 1862 he became theatre censor, an unpaid role, but one which gave him free entry to performances. He also began to collaborate with O Futuro, which was produced by Faustino Xavier de Novais, the brother of his future wife.

His first book of poetry, Crisálidas (Chrysalids), was published in 1864. In 1867 he was appointed assistant director of the government bulletin Diário Oficial. Three months after Faustino Xavier de Novais’s death in 1869, he married his friend’s sister, Carolina Augusta Xavier de Novais. She was a perfect companion during the remaining 35 years of his life and introduced him to the Portuguese classics and the works of various English authors.

His first novel, Ressurreição, was published in 1872. Shortly afterwards he was appointed first official at the state secretariat of the ministry of agriculture, commerce and public works, thus embarking upon the civil service career that would be his main source of income throughout the rest of his life.

In 1874 he began to publish, in instalments in the Globo newspaper, the novel A mão e a luva (The Hand and the Glove). He also wrote feuilletons, short stories, poetry and serialised novels for newspapers and magazines such as O Cruzeiro, A Estação and Revista Brasileira.

One of his plays, Tu, só tu, puro amor (You, just You, Pure Love) was staged at the Imperial Dom Pedro II Theatre in 1880. From 1881 to 1897 he published his best feuilletons in the Gazeta de Notícias.

1881 saw the publication of the book which would give a new direction to his literary career – Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memories of Brás Cubas), which had been published in instalments in the Revista Brasileira from 1879 to 1880. He also revealed himself as an extraordinary short story writer in Papéis Avulsos (Loose Pages, 1882) and in a number of subsequent collections of short stories.

In 1889 he was promoted to director of commerce at the ministry.

He had continued to work for the Revista Brasileira in the period when it was under the direction of his great friend José Veríssimo. The group of intellectuals connected with the Revista had the idea for creating a Brazilian Academy of Letters and, when the Academy was inaugurated in 1897, he was elected President, a task he devoted himself to for the rest of his life.

His oeuvre covers practically all literary genres. His first works of poetry were the Romantic Crisálidas (1864) and Falenas (Moths, 1870); this was followed by indianism in Americanas (1875) and parnassianism in Ocidentais (Occidentals, 1901).

The Contos fluminenses (Rio Stories) were published in 1870 and the Histórias da meia-noite (Midnight Stories) in 1873; the novel Ressurreição (Resurrection) in 1872, A mão e a luva in 1874, Helena in 1876 and Iaiá Garcia in 1878, all of which were considered part of his Romantic period. From that point onwards he moved into the phase of his masterpieces, which evade literary categorisation and which make him the greatest Brazilian writer and one of the greatest authors in the Portuguese language.

During his life, his work was edited by the Livraria Garnier from 1869; in 1937, W. M. Jackson, of Rio de Janeiro, published the Obras completes (Complete Works) in 31 volumes. Raimundo Magalhães Júnior organised and published, in Civilização Brasileira, the following volumes of Machado de Assis: Contos e crônicas (Stories and Feuilletons, 1958); Contos esparsos (Random Stories, 1956); Contos esquecidos (Forgotten Stories, 1956); Contos recolhidos (Collected Stories, 1956); Contos avulsos (Separate Stories, 1956); Contos sem data (Undated Stories, 1956); Crônicas de Lélio (Lélio’s Chronicles, 1958); Diálogos e reflexões de um relojoeiro (Dialogues and Reflections of a Watchmaker, 1956). In 1975 the Machado de Assis Commission, which was established by the ministry of education and culture and was chaired by the president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, organised and published, also in Civilização Brasileira, the Edições críticas de obras de Machado de Assis (Critical Editions of the Works of Machado de Assis), in 15 volumes, comprising short stories, novels and poetry by that greatest of Brazilian writers.

Publications: Desencantos, comedy (1861); Queda que as mulheres têm para os tolos, prose satire (1861); two comic plays: O protocolo and O caminho da porta (1863); Quase ministro, comedy; Crisálidas, poetry (1864); Os deuses de casaca, comedy (1866); Falenas, poetry (1870); Contos fluminenses, short stories (1870); Ressurreição,  novel (1872); Histórias da meia-noite, short stories (1873); A mão e a luva, novel (1874); Americanas, poetry (1875); Helena, novel (1876); Iaiá Garcia, novel (1878); Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas, novel (1881); Tu, só tu, puro amor, comedy (1881); Papéis avulsos, short stories (1882); Histórias sem data, short stories (1884); Quincas Borba, novel (1891); Várias histórias, short stories (1896); Páginas recolhidas, short stories, essays, plays (1899); Dom Casmurro, novel (1899); Poesias completas (1901); Esaú e Jacó, novel (1904); Relíquias da casa velha, short stories, criticism, plays (1906); Memorial de Aires, novel (1908).

Published posthumously: Crítica (1910); Outras relíquias, short stories, criticism, theatre (1932); Crônicas, feuilletons (1937); Correspondência (1932); Crítica literária (1937); Páginas escolhidas (1921); Casa velha (1944).

To mark the centenary of Machado’s birth, in 1939, Monteiro Lobato wrote the following at the request of the Argentinian newspaper La Prensa:

‘The short stories of Machado de Assis! Where can we find stories more perfect in form, more sparkling with ideas and more permeated by philosophy? Where can you find stories more universal and more human whilst simultaneously local and individual? We’d need to go to France to find one of his brothers in the person of Anatole France. But Anatole France blossomed in the most propitious of gardens, amidst a highly developed civilisation, encouraged by all sorts of awards, and surrounded by all the finesse of comfort and art; Machado de Assis was born into poverty, amidst the squalor of colonial Rio, and received no awards other than his own auto-approval, and his monthly wage was scarcely enough to live on. Rather than having readers throughout the world, like Anatole France, Machado de Assis had just half a dozen friends as his readers. The paltry sum for which he sold the copyright for all his works to the Garnier publishing house […] shows clearly how limited was his readership.

Even so, despite all these limitations, it was his pen that produced the first masterpiece of Brazilian literature, Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas), a book that’s going to surprise the world one day. They’ll all be saying: ‘How on earth could this have appeared in such an inferior country, in a South American backwater?!’

And then he gave us Dom Casmurro (Mr Grumpy), that perfect novel, and Esaú e Jacó (Esau and Jacob) and Quincas Borba and, finally Memorial de Aires, a work that brings style and romance to emptiness, to the emptiness of old age, to the emptiness of his own almost seventy years.

In between the novels, he was producing short stories – and what stories! What marvellous stories, different from anything produced in Brazil, or in the whole of America! Stories without tricks, without stage props, without lots of landscape, everything based on the most meticulous design, like the paintings of Ingres. Human types and more human types, souls and more souls – an immense procession of figures more vivid even than their models. And with what style, with what purity of language!

There are few great heights in Brazilian literature: plenty of writers, plenty of books, plenty of printed paper, but also plenty of vain pretension and, in recent times, plenty of impostors. But all those defects have been redeemed by the appearance of works of eternal value, works that will endure as long as the language in which they were written. ‘Missa do Galo’ (Midnight Mass), ‘Uns Braços’ (A Pair of Arms), ‘Conto Alexandrino’ (An Alexandrian Tale), ‘Capitulo dos Chapeus’ (A Chapter of Hats), ‘Anedota Pecuniária’ (A Pecuniary Anecdote) [Translations of the first four are available in John Gledson’s A Chapter of Hats (2008)] – it’s difficult to choose between Machado’s stories, because they’re all drawn from the same spring. Ah! If only Portuguese wasn’t this clandestine language…

Before writing these lines, I re-read several of Machado de Assis’s works and it’s only because I promised La Prensa I would that I forced myself to speak about him, so little, so insignificant, so miserable did I feel! I felt ashamed of judgements I’d made previously in which, either out of snobbery or stupidity, I’d dared to make ironic remarks about such work. And, given that I didn’t withdraw from this undertaking, at least it gives me a chance to undergo public penance – because, in all honesty, I find it grotesque that anyone nowadays should dare to speak about Machado de Assis without removing their hat. Our attitude should be marked by complete and reverential humility. If anyone doubts that, let them re-read ‘Conto Alexandrino’ or ‘Missa do Galo.’

In your presence, Machado, we’re all bit players…

The wariness with which Machado de Assis lived his life in Rio de Janeiro was supremely felicitous in his case – a difficult case, of extreme intellectual superiority allied to extreme awareness that it wouldn’t do to flaunt it, in view of the colour of his skin and his mundane job in public administration. How many proud but empty ministers must have been his legal and social superiors – superior to him, who was, simply on his own merits, the highest of the highest in Brazil! Time’s broom has already swept the names of all those bigwigs, all those ‘superiors,’ into the bin; but the name of Machado de Assis continues to rise higher and higher.

He was oddly gregarious. He always liked literary associations and societies, going so far as to found an academy of ‘immortals’ (the Brazilian Academy of Letters), of which he was the president, and he was the only one who really became an immortal, without the quotation marks. The explanation may reside in his innate need to observe ‘the puppet show’: gathering the puppets around whatever human stupidity, he had them conveniently to hand for his study, just as, in his laboratory, an anatomist has a collection of rabbits, dogs and monkeys in cages for his experimentation.

Machado’s philosophy was permeated by melancholy: he’d studies the guinea pigs too much, he knew the human soul too well. A calmly resigned philosophy, the ultimate point of which appears in Brás Cubas, that hero of self-satisfied vulgarity, who concludes his posthumous memoirs with the balance sheet of his earthly existence, a positive balance sheet. How come, positive? ‘I didn’t have children, I didn’t pass on to any other being  the legacy of our misery.’

The life of Machado de Assis also had a positive balance. He didn’t have children and, given that he couldn’t pass on his genius, at least he didn’t pass on to any other being the colour of his skin, his stutter, his epilepsy, his disenchantment with the puppets. And there could have been nothing more generous in his life. What a terrible thing for any being – even for a being of some capacity – to carry the stupendous burden, for your whole life, of being the child of Machado de Assis!

‘Do you know who that is, the sad old crow coming out of that office?’

‘That miserable-looking mulatto, the one with the hunchback?’

‘Yes, that one. That’s the son of Machado de Assis…’

Just imagine the look of pious sympathy this piece of information would evoke!

Nature permits geniuses only one child: their work. Machado de Assis understood this better than anyone and, having given the world this most beautiful child, he walked sadly away from the madding crowd, with the tranquillity of those who’ve succeeded in the most challenging of all tasks – that of not leaving behind the merest shadow of pain.’

For his part, Lima Barreto – who was initially often referred to as the true successor of Machado – was less fulsome in his praise:

Not denying his merits as a great writer, I’ve always found a considerable aridity in Machado, a marked lack of sympathy, a lack of generous impulses, some puerile characteristics. I’ve never imitated him and he’s never been my inspiration. You can mention Maupassant, Dickens, Swift, Balzac, Daudet, perhaps, but Machado, never! You could go as far as Turgenev or Tolstoy in order to find my exemplars; but Machado, no! […] Machado wrote […] hiding what he felt so as not to be humiliated […] I’m not afraid to say what I think and what I feel, without calculating whether I’m going to be humiliated or praised. I think that’s a big difference.

(Obras Completas de Lima Barreto, Correspondências, Vol.2, 1956).