Category Archives: Translations

From Portuguese: With Muffled Drum, by Machado de Assis

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


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)


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)


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.


From Portuguese: The Clairvoyant, by Lima Barreto

(My translation of the short story A Cartomante, by Lima Barreto, which was published in Histórias e Sonhos in 1951)

No doubt about it: only the evil eye could explain all the trials and tribulations of the past five years. Whenever he tried to achieve anything, it all went wrong. Take, for instance, his application for the public health job; no sooner had he secured the backing of a government bigwig than politics did a flip-flop. And if he bought a lottery ticket, it would always be the next group of numbers or the one just before. Everything seemed to be telling him he’d never get on in life again. If it wasn’t for his wife’s sewing, they’d really have been in dire straits. It was five years since he’d earned anything at all; and on the rare occasions he’d had such a thing as a banknote in his pocket it had been at the cost of grovelling to friends and acquaintances.


From Czech: Midnight Mass, by Jan Neruda

(My translation of the short story Svatováclavská mše by Jan Neruda, which was published in Povídky malostranské in 1877)

Portrait by Jan Vilímek

I was sitting at the bottom of the steps leading up to the choir lofts and could hardly breathe. Through the iron grill of the door, which stood ajar, I had a good view of the nave – as far as the silver tomb of St Jan on the right and the sacristy on the left. Benediction had finished a long time ago and St Vít’s cathedral was empty except for two people: my mother, who was kneeling at the tomb, lost in prayer; and the old sacristan, who was making his last round before locking up. He walked past me, only a few paces away, and turned to the exit under the royal oratory, where I could hear him turning the key in the door and then trying the handle to make sure it was locked. Then he carried on and, as he did so, my mother got to her feet, made the sign of the cross and walked off beside him, and both of them were soon hidden from view by the tomb. For a few moments I could only hear the echo of their footsteps and snatches of conversation before they reappeared over by the sacristy. I heard him shut the door and, once again, there was the sound of locking and making sure with the handle. Then they continued to the exit on the right. There were two metalic clicks, after which I was alone in the cathedral and unable to get out. A wave of heat seemed to sweep across my back – a strange feeling, but not unpleasant.


From Portuguese: A Christmas Miracle, by Lima Barreto

(My translation of the short story Milagre do Natal)

The Andaraí district is very melancholy and very damp. The mountains that adorn our city are even higher out there and are still covered by the dense vegetation that must have been even more abundant in bygone days. And the dark grey of the trees turns the horizon almost black, and the general ambience even sadder.


From Czech: The Lost Letter, by Karel Čapek

(My translation of the short story Ztracený dopis, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)


“Boženka,” said the minister of state to his wife as he took another generous helping of salad, “I got a letter this afternoon that I think will interest you. I’ll have to present it to the council of ministers. If people get to know about it, a certain political party will find itself in a pretty pickle. Take a look at it yourself.”


From Portuguese: Cazuza’s One and Only Murder, by Lima Barreto

(My translation of the short story O único assassinato de Cazuza, which was published in Contos reunidos in 1949. There’s a strong autobiographical element in this story.)

Hildegardo Brandão, known to his friends as Cazuza, had got to the age of fifty and a bit, and was down but not out. After acute crises of despair, bitterness and resentment brought on by the injustice which had thwarted him in all his worthy ambitions, a sort of grave and calm beatitude had descended on him, as if he were preparing himself for death.


From Portuguese: Revolver, by Lima Barreto

(My translation of the short story Despesa filantrópica, which was published in Histórias e sonhos in 1920.)

A farmer is talking to Felício, an old college-friend, about an incident at a farm he used to own in the Brazilian outback.


Farmer: I had no idea who it was when he arrived at the gate of my house, accompanied by an unpleasant-looking individual. After I’d invited them into the living room and they’d sat down, I ordered coffee. While we were waiting, he told me who he was. It was quite a surprise, I can tell you!


From Portuguese: Good Idea, by Lima Barreto

(My translation of the short story Boa medida, which was first published in the Careta newspaper in 1921. “Kambalu” = one of Lima’s satirical name’s for Brazil; “Sultan Abbas the First” = Epitácio Pessoa, President of Brazil between 1919 and 1922 – any similarity to the current president of the United States of America is purely coincidental.)


nce upon a time, Sultan Abbas the First of Kambalu, otherwise known as “The Magnificent,” – who was directly descended from Manuel José Fernandes from Trás-os-Montes in the Kingdom of Portugal, and Japira, a native of the Potiguar tribe, which used to inhabit the Empire of Brazil, but is now no more – seeing the misery of his people and the starvation and plague which were wiping them out, decided to convene the bigwigs of his domains, regardless of their religion or their theories, to help him solve the problem. There duly arrived: a bishop, a wise man from the orient, a learned doctor of medicine, a clairvoyant, a jurist, an engineer and a brahmin.


From Portuguese: Clara dos Anjos, by Lima Barreto

(My translation of the short story of the same name, which was written in 1919 and published in the collection Histórias e sonhos (1920, 1951, 1956))

Joaquim dos Anjos, the postman, wasn’t one for going out serenading in the streets, but he did like the guitar and modinha songs. He himself played the flute, an instrument more highly regarded in those days than it is now. He even considered himself a musician, because he used to compose waltzes, tangos and accompaniments for modinhas.

Continue reading From Portuguese: Clara dos Anjos, by Lima Barreto

From Portuguese: New California, by Lima Barreto

(My translation of the short story A Nova Califórnia, which was written in 1910 and first published in 1915)

No-one knew where he’d come from. All the postman knew was that the letters were sent to him under the name Raimundo Flamel. And there were a lot of letters! Almost every day the postman had to carry a great bundle of them from all over the world, thick journals in obscure languages, books and packets out to the very edge of the town, where the mystery man lived.

Continue reading From Portuguese: New California, by Lima Barreto

From Czech: Two Frankfurters and a Detective, by Karel Poláček

(My translation of the short story Dva párky a detektiv, which was published in Lidové noviny on 12 September 1937 and, in book form, in Soudničky [Little Stories from the Courts] in 1999)

Prague Regional Court

11 September 1937


hey say it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Without friends in the right places you won’t get anywhere. And, in these grim days, you can’t even get two frankfurters with mustard without friends in the right places, as is shown in the following incident.

Continue reading From Czech: Two Frankfurters and a Detective, by Karel Poláček

From Czech: Incontrovertible, by Karel Čapek

(My translation of the short story Naprostý důkaz, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)

“The thing is, Tondo,” said investigating magistrate Slavík to his best friend, “it’s a question of experience. I don’t believe any excuses, any alibis or any blah-blah-blah. I don’t believe either the accused or the witnesses. People lie, even when they don’t mean to. Say a witness swears blind he’s got nothing against the accused… it’s quite possible that, deep down, so deep down he’s not even aware of it himself, he hates him for whatever deep-down reason. And everything the accused says has been plannned to the last jot and tittle. And everything the witness says might very well be governed by a conscious or unconscious desire to help or hinder the accused. You can’t believe anyone, that’s what I say.

Continue reading From Czech: Incontrovertible, by Karel Čapek

From Czech: Reading Writing Right, by Karel Čapek

(My translation of the short story Tajemství písma, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)

“Rubner!” said the editor-in-chief. “Go and take a look at that graphologist, Jensen. He’s doing a demonstration tonight for members of the press. They say he’s quite a sensation, that Jensen. Write me a few lines about it.”

Continue reading From Czech: Reading Writing Right, by Karel Čapek

From Czech: The Fortune Teller, by Karel Čapek

(My translation of the short story Věštkyně, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)


nyone with half a brain will realise that this incident couldn’t have happened here or in France or Germany. As is well known, here and in those countries judges are required to punish wrong-doers according to the letter of the law rather than according to their ineffable acuity as superior gentlemen. This story involves a judge who made a judgement based not on the relevant sections of law but on his trusty common sense. So, as you will see, it has to do with England or, to be more precise, London, or, to be even more precise, Kensington; or perhaps Brompton or Bayswater – anyway, somewhere thereabouts. The judge was His Honour Judge Kelly and the woman who was the object of his ineffable acuity was Miss Edith Myers.

Continue reading From Czech: The Fortune Teller, by Karel Čapek

From Portuguese: Estanislau’s Widow, by Artur Azevedo

(My translation of the short story A viúva do Estanislau, which was published in Contos ligeiros in 1974)

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after the death of her husband – poor Estanislau who’d been finally defeated by tuberculosis after a long and terrible struggle –,  it seemed that Adelaide would die as well. People said she loved her husband so much that she’d done everything possible to catch the same disease and lie near him in her grave. She got visibly thinner and everyone said that sooner or later God would grant her wish; but time, which smooths over and repairs everything, was stronger than the pain and, a year and a half later, Adelaide was rosier-cheeked and more beautiful than she’d ever been. Estanislau had left her destitute. The poor boy had not expected to have to put his things in order so soon or, to put it another way, had no way of preparing for the future. While he lived, nothing was lacking; after he died,  everything was lacking and Adelaide, who fortunately didn’t have children, accepted the hospitality offered by her parents. ‘Come and live with us again,’ the old couple said; ‘we’ll pretend you never married.’

Continue reading From Portuguese: Estanislau’s Widow, by Artur Azevedo

From Portuguese: The Blue Rose, by Humberto de Campos

(My translation of the short story A rosa azul, which was published in the collection A serpente de bronze in 1921.)


hen I met Knight Commander Luiz de Faria, he was waiting for his carriage at the door of the funeral directors. It wasn’t long since he’d closed the eyes of the old Marchioness of São Justino, having sweetened the moment of her death with the auspicious – if untrue – news that her grandson, Guilherme de Araújo, a student, was now a completely reformed character. Still downcast by the emotions of that moment, when he’d had to resort to a falsehood to perfume the last breath of a life of virtue and suffering, the former peer of the Portuguese realm accepted a lift in my vehicle and confided in me along the way:

‘A lie is necessary at times, my friend. The lie I availed myself of half an hour ago, to soothe the death of a saint, of a lady whose main hope was the future of a grandson who’d renounced his home, was just as necessary as the lie the Carthusian prior told to assuage the death throes of the famous monk Bussaco.’

Continue reading From Portuguese: The Blue Rose, by Humberto de Campos

From Czech: The Blue Chrysanthemum, by Karel Čapek

(My translation of the short story Modrá chryzantéma, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)


o let me tell you – said old Fulinus – how Klára came into the world. It was that time when I was managing Prince Lichtenberg’s park in Lubenec. And the old prince, he was some connoisseur, Mr Čapek, believe me! He used to get mature trees sent over from Veitsch in England, and when it came to Dutch tulip bulbs – seventeen thousand! But that’s by the by. It was when I was walking down the street in Lubenec one Sunday that I met Klára. She was the village idiot – a deaf-mute and as mad as a hatter, but wherever she went she hee-hawed, but hee-hawed like the happiest person in the world. What is it, Mr Čapek, that makes those village idiots so happy? I was just going to get out of her way, so that she wouldn’t give me a kiss, when I noticed she was carrying a bouquet. Just some dill and some common-or-garden weeds from the meadows but, all of a sudden, I noticed something that made me stop in my tracks. In amongst it all, Mr Čapek, that nutty woman had a big, blousy chrysanthemum, which was blue! And what a blue, Mr Čapek! A bit like Phlox Laphamii, but with a touch of slate-grey and with a deep-pink border. And the inside was a beautiful saturated blue, like Campanula Turbinata. But even that’s not everything. The point is, Mr Čapek, in the case of the Chrysanthemum Indicum, a colour like that was – and to all intents and purposes still is – completely unknown! Some years ago I visited old Veitsch, and Sir James was boasting about how, the year before, they’d had a chrysanthemum – imported from China – that had bloomed with a touch of lilac but unfortunately it had died in the winter. And here was this cackling scarecrow of a woman with a chrysanthemum as blue as the bluest blue you can think of!

Continue reading From Czech: The Blue Chrysanthemum, by Karel Čapek

From Czech: PC Mejzlík’s Dilemma, by Karel Čapek

(My translation of the short story Případ Dr. Mejzlíka, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)

A pub in Prague. Mr Mejzlík, a young police constable, is having a drink with his elderly friend Mr Dastych.

M: (Frowning) It’s like this, Mr Dastych. I need your advice. I’ve had a case I can’t make head or tale of.

Continue reading From Czech: PC Mejzlík’s Dilemma, by Karel Čapek

From Portuguese: The Man Who Spoke Javanese, by Lima Barreto

(My translation of the short story O homem que sabia javanês, which was published in the Gazeta da Tarde in 1911)


 was in a coffee shop, telling my mate Castro how I’d conned people in order to earn a living. Once, when I was in Manaus, I’d even had to pretend I hadn’t been to university so that my clients wouldn’t think me unqualified for being a fortune-teller-cum-magician.

Continue reading From Portuguese: The Man Who Spoke Javanese, by Lima Barreto

From Portuguese: Top Down, by Artur Azevedo

(My translation of the short story De cima para baixo)




ne day the minister arrived in his office in a bad mood and immediately sent for the director general of the Secretariat.

The latter, as if propelled by an electric battery, promptly appeared before His Excellency, who received him with clenched fists.

“I’m furious!” the minister shouted. “I’ve just been humiliated in the presence of His Majesty the Emperor. And all because of you!”

Continue reading From Portuguese: Top Down, by Artur Azevedo

From Portuguese: The Prettiest Girl in Rio, by Artur Azevedo

(My translation of the short story A moça mais bonita do Rio de Janeiro, which was published in Contos cariocas in 1928.)


t was 1875. In a small house in the suburb of Engenho Novo lived the prettiest girl in Rio de Janeiro, together with her parents. Because she was born on the second of May, she’d been given the name of Mafalda at the baptismal font, simply because it was the feast of St Mafalda; but no one knew her by that name – ever since she’d been little, everyone in the house had called her Fadinha, a diminutive and corruption of Mafalda, meaning Little Fairy. And those three syllables suited her well because, when she was eighteen, she possessed all the charms that the faries have, or should have; and in her extraordinary beauty there really was something supernatural and magic.

Continue reading From Portuguese: The Prettiest Girl in Rio, by Artur Azevedo

From Portuguese: Late Bet, by Lima Barreto

(A translation by Francis K Johnson of O número da sepultura, which was published in the Revista Sousa Cruz in 1921)

Translator’s note: The ‘animal game’ mentioned in this story originated in 1892 when, in order to attract more visitors, the Vila Isabel Zoo in Rio de Janeiro gave its entry tickets an extra function as raffle tickets. Each ticket had the picture of one of 25 animals on it – the example below is from 1895 – the winning animal being revealed at the end of each day. The game soon ‘escaped’ from the zoo, combinations of numbers were added to the tickets, and the jogo do bicho took hold of Brazil.

The number in the story – 1724 – comprises ‘the ten’ (24), ‘the hundred’ (724) and ‘the thousand’ (the whole number.


fter three months of marriage, what did she have to say about it? Was it good? Was it bad? She couldn’t really say one way or the other. Basically it seemed to come down to a simple change of house.

The house she’d left had neither more nor less rooms than the house she’d moved to. The latter wasn’t bigger, as such, but it had a tiny little garden and a sink in the dining room. When all was said and done, the difference between the two was no more than that.

Passing from filial to uxorial obedience, what she felt was what one feels when one moves house. In the beginning there’s hustle and bustle; there’s thinking of ways to adapt the furniture to the new house and, consequently, of ways to adapt the new occupants themselves. But that doesn’t last long. After a month, each item of furniture is firmly anchored to its spot and the inhabitants forget they’ve only recently arrived.

A further factor that stopped her feeling marriage had profoundly altered her way of life was the great similarity between the characteristics and habits of father and husband. Each of them was not only courteous towards her, mild-mannered, calm and well-spoken, but also meticulous, precise and methodical. Thus her transplantation from one home to the other had been uneventful.

Nevertheless, she’d expected marriage to bring something completely new: a radiant and continual joy in being alive, in being a woman. Quite the contrary, however: she felt nothing of the sort.

Whatever was special in her change of status was insufficient to cause her to look at life and the world in an entirely new way. She didn’t notice anything particularly novel…

That lustrous, roseate-and-gold aurora with which marriage beckons all young men and women…. she never saw it at all. That feeling of complete liberty, embracing walks, parties, theatres, visits – everything the idea of marriage suggests to a woman – lasted just one week in her case.

During that week she’d promenaded and gone to parties and theatres, but none of it had greatly engaged her; she’d not been surprised by any great or profound emotion; nor had she dreamt about anything other than the trivialities of day-to-day life. She’d even found it all rather boring! At first she’d felt a certain happiness and contentment; by the end, however, it all seemed tedious and she was looking forward to returning to her quiet suburban home, where she was at ease and could daydream without worrying that people would discover the vague yearnings of her misty, bourgeois, nostalgic little soul.

It was also not uncommon for her, under the influence of all that theatre and cinema stuff, to think nostalgically of her paternal home. She wouldn’t have been able to describe her feelings on remembering the old furniture and other familiar things that had surrounded her in her childhood home. There’d been an old rocking-chair made of jacaranda wood, an antique china milk-jug, painted blue, the octagonal clock without a pendulum – also old – and other domestic knick-knacks, which had engraved themselves on her memory much more strongly than the furniture and utensils she’d recently acquired.

Her husband was a young man of excellent matrimonial qualities and, even in the nebulous state of Zilda’s soul, there was no question of her disliking him or of his having disappointed her. Well-bred, and scrupulous in carrying out his duties in the section presided over by her father, he had all those middling qualities necessary for being a good head of family, a dutiful continuator of the species, and a good chief in a secretariat or some other department, or in a bank or a commercial office.

On the other hand, he had nothing to distinguish him whatsoever with respect to intelligence or activity. He was, and would always be, a serviceable piece of machinery, well-fitted, well-polished and which – properly oiled – would maintain output but always need an external force to set it in motion.

Zilda’s parents had brought the two of them together; her grandmother, whom she thought the world of, had made the usual encouraging noises; and, seeing that everyone was for it, she’d decided – more from curiosity than from love or anything like that – to marry her father’s clerk. They married. They lived very well. Not the faintest shadow had fallen between them, nor was there the least misunderstanding that might mar their married life; but neither did there exist the expected deep and constant mutual empathy with respect to desires, feelings, pain and happiness.

They lived in the placid tranquillity of a lake surrounded by high mountains that prevent gales from ruffling the still surface of the water.

The beauty of the life of that novice couple wasn’t that they managed to make one mind out of two, but rather that each of them continued to be a separate personality, without, however, ever finding the least cause for conflict. Once, however… But we’ll leave that for later – it had a lot to do with their respective character and education.

He, a fastidious bureaucrat, was sober, calm, prudent and dry as dust. She was almost passive and, having been educated under the ultra-conformist, spit-and-polish regime of her father, an old administrator – obedient to the chiefs, the ministers, the ministers’ secretaries and other sycophants, and to the laws and regulations – had neither fits of anger nor whims, nor any strong desires. She found refuge in dreams and was in favour of anything that was generally acceptable.

Her husband’s habits were as regular as clockwork, without the least variation. He’d get out of bed very early, almost at sunrise, even before Genoveva, the maid. Once up, he’d percolate some coffee and, as soon as it was ready, pour himself a large cup. Whilst awaiting the paper (just one), he’d go into the little garden, sweep it, make sure the rose bushes and carnations were tied back, and then feed some maize to the hens and chicks and look after the birds. When the paper arrived, he’d read it meticulously, imbibing his daily quota of opinions about literature, science, art and society, not to mention international politics and the various wars around the world. As for Brazilian politics, he had some opinions but didn’t reveal them to anyone, because they were mainly anti-government and he was looking for promotion.

At half past nine, breakfasted and dressed, he’d take leave of his wife with a perfunctory kiss and off he’d go to catch the train. He’d clock in as per the regulations, i.e. never later than half past ten.

In the office he’d fulfil his most sacred clerical duties with religious fervour.

It had always been thus, except that, after the marriage, his zeal had increased still further, with a view to making his father-in-law’s section a byword for celerity and promptitude in the expedition of paperwork. When he was short of work himself, he’d patrol the desks of his clerical colleagues and if he found a job that was late he wouldn’t hesitate to get stuck into it himself.

After returning from such a day at the office, he’d get changed, sit down to his dinner, and his first words would be: ‘My God, Zilda, I’ve been working like the Devil today!’


‘Well might you ask! Those colleagues of mine are a bunch of…’

‘Why?! What happened?’

‘Would you believe that Pantaleão’s a week late with that file of his, the one for the Admiralty?! I had to sort it out for him…’

‘Was it Daddy who asked you to do that?’

‘No, but it was my duty, as his son-in-law, to prevent the section he’s responsible for being labelled as sloppy. And anyway… I can’t stand seeing work that’s late…’

‘Does that Pantaleão take much time off?’

‘I should say so! His excuse is that he’s studying for a law degree. But I also studied, and I hardly had any time off.’

With information of this sort, together with titbits he told her about the private lives, moral defects and vices of his colleagues, Zilda became acquainted with life in the directorate where her husband worked: not just the bureaucratic life, but the personal and family life of the individual employees. She knew that Calçoene drank cachaça, that Zé Fagundes lived in sin with a Creole woman who’d borne him children, one of whom had successfully applied to the section and would soon be a colleague of her husband; that Feliciano Brites das Novas had gambled away all his savings; that Nepomuceno’s wife was the lover of General T, with whose help he’d got promoted ahead of all the others etc., etc.

This office stuff was all Zilda’s husband talked to her about; he had no other topic of conversation for her. With visitors and the odd colleague from work he discussed patriotic subjects: the army and navy, our natural resources etc.

He had a special predilection for such discussions and would always find a way to bring them round to the bee in his bonnet, i.e., everything Brazilian was No.1 in the world or, at least, in South America. And woe betide anyone who disagreed! Before they knew it, he’d hit them with his shibboleth: ‘And that’s why Brazil’s not progressing: the worst enemies of Brazil are Brazilians!’

Zilda was a petit-bourgeois woman of limited education and, like any woman, she didn’t have much intellectual curiosity when she heard him talk like this with his friends; it made her bored and sleepy; she much preferred the tittle-tattle about his colleagues’ home life…

Thus her married days slipped by. Already three months had passed and there’d only been one event that had broken the rigid monotony, an event that caused her anguish, that tortured her but which had, at least, dispelled the tedium of her bland, anodyne life for a few hours. Let me tell you about it.

Augusto – Augusto Serpa de Castro, that was her husband’s name – had a dour and grumpy air about him; there was something of the native Indian in his shiny, silky, intensely black hair and coppery complexion. His eyes were large, black, inert and dull, lacking in expression, especially with respect to happiness.

He was five or six years older than his wife, who was coming up to twenty. She, for her part, had a vivacious physiognomy, very supple and varied, although her light-brown eyes generally had a notably melancholic and dreamy expression. Of fine and delicate features, quite tall and with an attractive, slender figure, she had the gracefulness of a reed: not fearing the wind, simply bending even more elegantly under its force, while rustling complaints about being fated to be fragile, quite forgetting that her very fragility is what makes her strong.

After their marriage, they came to live in Saudade Street. It’s a picturesque road, only a little distance from the railway lines of the Central Station, an up-and-down road, blessed with a capricious wobbliness, both along and across. It’s populated with trees and bamboo on both sides, and runs almost directly north-south. The numerous dwellings on its east side crouch in a dip formed by the unevenness of the road, and are even more obscured by the liana-strung trees. The dwellings on its west side, however, rise up and gaze directly out – over those on the other side – at the dawn, with its indescribable sheen of colours and hues.

Just as Augusto had done at the end of the previous month, at the end of the next month – the second since his marriage –, as soon as he’d been paid and had checked the bills, he gave his wife the wherewithal to pay them, together with the money for the rent.

Zilda promptly paid the butcher, the baker and the vintner, but their landlord’s agent was rather tardy in calling. She mentioned this to her husband one morning when he was giving her a small amount to pay the greengrocer and for other little domestic expenses. But he left the rent money with her.

The rent was already four days overdue, and the rent-collector had still not appeared.

On the morning of that fourth day, she woke up happy and apprehensive at the same time. She’d had a dream, and what a dream! She’d dreamt about her grandma, whom she loved deeply and who’d been so much in favour of her marrying Augusto. Grandma had died a few months before they married, but they were already engaged.

The number of her grandma’s grave plot – 1724 – had appeared in her dream and she’d heard her grandma’s voice saying: ‘Bet on this number, my sweet!’

The dream made a deep impression on her, but she said nothing to her husband. After he’d left for the office, she gave instructions to the maid and tried to put the strange dream out of her mind; but there was no way of doing that. Despite all her efforts to the contrary, she couldn’t stop thinking about it; and thinking about it exerted a pressure on her brain that demanded a way out, a safety valve, because she couldn’t contain it any more. She had to speak, to talk, to tell someone about it…

She confided in Genoveva. The cook thought for a moment and said: ‘If I was you, Ma’am, I’d take a bet on the animal game.’

‘What animal is it?’

‘Twenty-four’s the goat, but you shouldn’t just bet on one side. You need to cover each part and give weight to the ten, the hundred, even the thousand. You don’t have a dream like that for no reason.’

‘Do you know how to make out the card?’

‘No, Ma’am. When I place a bet it’s Mr Manuel from the bar who does my card, but Mrs Iracema next door can tell you all about it, Ma’am.’

‘Call her and say I want to speak to her.’

The neighbour arrived in due course and Zilda told her about the dream. Mrs Iracema thought about it for a moment before giving her advice:

‘You can’t ignore a dream like that, young lady. If I was you, I’d make a big bet.’

‘But, Mrs Iracema, I’ve only got eighty thousand for the rent. What can I do?’

The neighbour was cautious with her reply:

‘I can’t give you any advice about that. Do what your heart tells you, but a dream like that…’

Zilda was much younger than Iracema and deferred to her experience and wisdom. She immediately sensed that Iracema was in favour of a bet. That’s what her neighbour’s forty-something-year-old eyes were saying.

It didn’t take long before Zilda blurted out ‘I’ll bet the lot!’

And she added:

‘Let’s do a card. What do you say, Mrs Iracema?’

‘How do you want to do it?’

‘I don’t really know, but Genoveva will.’ And she shouted into the interior of the house:

‘Genoveva! Genoveva! Come here quickly!’

The cook arrived in no time. As soon as her mistress had put the problem to her, the humble negress hastened to explain:

‘I told you, Ma’am, you should cover the group on all sides; you should bet on the ten, the hundred and the thousand.’

Zilda asked Mrs Iracema: ‘Do you understand all that?’

‘Do I understand it?! Of course I do! How much do you want to bet?’

‘Everything! Eighty thousand!’

‘That’s too much, my dear. No one round here would accept it. It would have to be over in Engenho de Dentro, in Halavanca’s house. The bank’s strong there. But who’s going to place the bet? Have you got someone?’


The cook, who’d remained standing in the corner, listening to the preparations for this domestic derring-do, spoke up at once:

‘I can’t go, Ma’am! They’d only bamboozle me and if you win they won’t pay out to me. You need someone they’ll respect.’

At that point, Mrs Iracema interjected:

‘Carlito may be back from visiting his granny in Cascadura… Maybe he could… Go and find out, Genoveva!’

The girl went, and returned accompanied by Carlito, Mrs Iracema’s son. He was an eighteen-year-old lad, big, strapping, broad-shouldered. The card was duly made out and the lad carried it off to the ‘banker.’

It was just after one o’clock in the afternoon. The draw wasn’t till two. And it was at this moment that Zilda remembered the rent-collector. But there was no danger: if he hadn’t come by now, he wouldn’t come at all.

Mrs Iracema went home, Genoveva went to the kitchen and Zilda went to lie down to try and still the crisis of conscience and the mortifying uncertainty brought on by the risk she was taking. But as soon as she lay down she regretted what she’d done.

What would happen if she lost the money? Her husband… angry… stern… She didn’t know what had possessed her, she was mad… She tried to doze off but, as soon as she shut her eyes, there was the number – 1724. That gave her back some courage and stilled her jangled nerves a little.

And so – with Zilda alternating between hope and despair, anticipating both the satisfaction of winning and the distress of losing, on a roller-coaster of the most fretful imaginings – two o’clock arrived. It was time to find out what luck had in store. She went to the window.

Once in a while a person appeared in that dead and forgotten road. She was tempted to ask these passers-by what numbers had been drawn, but she felt too ashamed.

Suddenly Carlito appeared, shouting: ‘Mrs Zilda! Mrs Zilda! You’ve won!.. On the ten!’

Without even uttering an ‘Ah!’ Zilda fell on to the sofa of her modest lounge in a faint. But she came to quickly, thanks to the vinegar Mrs Iracema and Genoveva rubbed on her face.

Carlito went off to collect the winnings, which came to over two million. When he handed it over, she gave generous tips to him, his mother and Genoveva, the cook.

She’d calmed down completely by the time Augusto got home. She waited for him to get changed and come into the dining room, before announcing: ‘Augusto, if I’d bet the rent money on the animal game… would you have been mad with me?’

‘Of course I would! I’d be really mad with you and I’d tell you off in no uncertain terms, because a housewife does not…’

‘Well, I bet the rent money.’

‘You bet the rent money, Zilda?!’

‘I bet the rent money.’

‘Who on earth made you do such a stupid thing?! Don’t you realise we’re still paying for the wedding?!’

‘Well, we’ve certainly paid for it now!’

‘What do you mean? Don’t tell me you won?!’

‘I won! Here’s the money.’

She took the bundle of notes from her décolletage and gave it to her husband, who’d turned speechless from shock. He counted the notes very carefully, stood up and, hugging and kissing her, said to his wife with great feeling: ‘Aren’t you the lucky one, my sweet angel?!’

And all the rest of that afternoon there was nothing but joy in that house.

Mrs Iracema came, with her husband, their daughters, Carlito and some other neighbours. There was beer and cakes. Everyone was smiling and chatty, and it was only because the newlyweds had no piano that the general contentment didn’t erupt into dance. Augusto even had a patriotic discussion with Iracema’s husband.

The next month – just to be on the safe side – Augusto paid the bills himself.

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)


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?’


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.’


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.


‘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.



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.’


‘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.


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.’


‘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.


‘But I’m sure you didn’t miss me.’

‘I did.’

‘I don’t believe it.’


‘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.’


‘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.


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.’


‘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.’


‘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.


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.’


‘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!? 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.’


‘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.’


‘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!


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.