I, ‘The Haven’
II, Thorns and Flowers
IV, “Stand firm. I’m on my way.”
V, The Troubadour
I – ‘The Haven’
It wasn’t an ugly place, but it wasn’t exactly beautiful either. It had that calm, satisfied look of someone who’s quite happy with the way they are.
The house was built on a terrace, a sort of step at the foot of a little hill at its back. Through gaps in the bamboo hedge at the front, a plain could be seen stretching away to the distant mountains. Cutting across it, parallel to the front of the house, was a creek with puddles of dirty, stagnant water. Further on, a ribbon of bare ground marked the railway line. On the left, a cart track, with houses on both sides, led to the station, crossing the stream and zigzagging across the plain as it did so. So Quaresma’s house looked out, towards the northeast, on a wide horizon; and its whitewashed walls made it look cheery and charming; and although – as is the way with our country houses – it completely lacked architectural merit, the rooms were huge and well-lit, and it had a rather eccentric colonnade. Apart from the house itself, ‘The Haven’ – as it was called – had two outbuildings: an old flour mill, with its oven still intact but its wheel dismantled, and thatched stables.
He’d been living there, in that solitary place (two hours by train from Rio), for less than three months, after spending six months in the Praia das Saudades asylum. Had he been cured? Who could tell? It seemed so; he was no longer delirious and he behaved like anyone else, except that there remained a hint, not of madness perhaps, but of the dreams he’d cherished for so many years. Those six months had been rather months of rest and beneficial retreat than exactly psychiatric therapy.
Quaresma had lived there, in the asylum, resignedly, chatting with his fellow inmates, with rich men who thought themselves poor, poor who thought themselves rich, intelligent men who cursed knowledge, and ignorant men who proclaimed themselves wise; but of them all, the one he admired most was an old, placid shopkeeper from the Rua dos Pescadores, who thought he was Attila the Hun. “Did you know?” the mild-mannered old fellow would say. “I’m Attila. Attila the Hun.” He scarcely knew anything about Attila the Hun beyond the name. “I’m Attila, I’ve killed lots of people,” and that was it.
The major left there sadder than he’d ever been in his whole life. Of all the sad things you can see in this world, the saddest, the most depressing and heart-wrenching is madness.
That quasi-continuation of our life, but with an imperceptible yet profound and almost always unfathomable derangement that renders it utterly useless, suggests something stronger than us, that directs and drives us, and in the hands of which we are mere puppets. At various times and in various places, madness has been considered sacred, and the reason must be that, when we see a raving lunatic, we immediately have the impression that it’s not him talking, it’s someone who sees and interprets things on his behalf, who’s behind him, invisible!…
So he left enveloped and penetrated by the asylum’s sadness and, although he returned to his home, the sight of those familiar things couldn’t remove that deep impression. He’d never been exactly cheery, but his face was more sorrowful than before and his spirits very low, and it was to try and pick himself up that he’d taken himself off to that delightful house in the country, where he was trying to grow a few things.
But it hadn’t been his idea: it was his god-daughter who’d suggested that pleasant way of ending his days. Seeing him in that depressed state, sad and taciturn, unable to pluck up the courage to go out, cloistered in his house in São Cristóvão, Olga had asked him one day, in her kind, daughterly way:
“Why don’t you buy a place in the country, Uncle Poli? It would be wonderful to look after the plants, to have an orchard, a garden… Don’t you think so?”
No matter how gloomy he’d been, his face immediately brightened up at the young woman’s suggestion. It had been a long-standing wish of his, to get one’s food, happiness and wealth from the land; and it was the memory of that wish that made him reply:
“I do, my daughter. What a wonderful idea! There’s so much fertile land everywhere that’s not being used… Brazil has the most fertile soils in the world… It can give two harvests of maize, and four hundred grains per ear…”
Fearing she might be inadvertently reviving old obsessions in him, the young woman rather regretted having said anything.
“But there’s fertile land all over the world, don’t you think, Uncle Poli?”
“But,” he hurried to correct her, “there are few soils so fertile as those of Brazil. I’ll do what you say: I’ll plant and cultivate… maize, beans, English potatoes… When you see what I’ve grown, my garden, my orchard – that will convince you how rich our soil is!”
Having been planted in his head, the seed immediately germinated. The ground had been prepared and was just awaiting that seed. Although he’d never been exactly the most cheerful person, his taciturnity and depression left him, and the restless mental activity of former times returned. He inquired about the current prices of fruit, green vegetables, potatoes and cassava; he worked out that fifty orange trees, thirty avocado, eighty peach and some other fruit trees, in addition to pineapples (what a goldmine!), pumpkins and other less important produce, would give an annual net income of four million réis. It would be tedious to list his detailed calculations here; suffice it to say it was all based on figures contained in the bulletins of the National Agricultural Association and that he took into account the average production of each fruit tree, every cultivated hectare, wages and the inevitable wastage; and as far as prices were concerned, he went to the market to check them himself.
He planned his agricultural life with the meticulous precision he brought to all his projects. He looked at it from all sides, the advantages and the disadvantages; and he was happy to see it was financially attractive, not because he wanted to make a fortune, but because it would be yet another proof of the excellence of Brazil.
It was in pursuit of these ideas that he bought that site, whose name – “The Haven” – was so appropriate for the new life he was adopting after the storm that had rocked him for nearly a year. It wasn’t far from Rio and he’d chosen it despite its abandoned, dilapidated state in order better to demonstrate the power of tenacity and care in agriculture. He’d produce large quantities of fruit, grain and vegetables, and his example would be followed by thousands of others so that, in no time, the capital would be at the centre of a land overflowing with enough milk and honey to supply Argentina and Europe as well.
How happy he was to go there! He scarcely missed his old house in São Januário, which he’d sold and which, perhaps, had already been put to the mercenary purpose of letting. It didn’t bother him that the huge room that had been the tranquil repository of his books for so many years might be turned into a frivolous dance hall, might be the scene of marital disharmony, of family hatred – that room which was so good, agreeable and welcoming, with its high ceiling and its smooth walls saturated with his hopes, just as the whole house was imbued with his dreams.
He was content. How simple it could be, living in this land! Four million réis per year, drawn easily, joyously from the bounteous soil. Oh! Blessed land! How was it everyone wanted to be a civil servant, to sit rotting at some desk, to lose one’s independence and one’s pride? How was it people preferred to live in cramped, airless, dark houses, breathing pestilent air, living on poor food, when they could so easily have a life that was happy, abundant, free, joyful and healthy?
Only now had he arrived at that conclusion, after suffering the miseries of city life and the emasculation of office work for so long! He’d arrived late, but not too late to become acquainted – before he died – with that delightful country life and that fertile Brazilian soil. It seemed to him now that all his plans for radical institutional and cultural reform had been in vain: the key thing for the grandeur of the beloved country was a strong agricultural base and reverence for its extraordinarily fertile soil, that firm foundation for all the various destinies of Brazil.
Given that agriculture should be easy and profitable with such fertile land and such a variety of climates, this was the obvious path to take.
He saw, before his very eyes, orange trees full of white, fragrant blossom, filing like bridesmaids across the hillsides; avocado trees, with their wrinkled bark, weighed down with big, green fruit; black jabuticabas bursting forth from the rigid bark; pineapples, crowned more magnificently than kings, being anointed by the sun; pumpkins sprawled on the ground, with pulpy pollen-rich flowers; melons of such even green that they seemed painted; velvety apricots, enormous jackfruit, rose apples, intoxicating mangos; and from the midst of all that there appeared a beautiful woman carrying a cornucopia and with one of her breasts bared, smiling at him so sweetly with the lingering, immaterial smile of a goddess – it was Pomona, the goddess of orchards and gardens!…
Quaresma spent his first weeks at The Haven making a thorough exploration of his property. There was a lot of land, which included old fruit trees and a big tract of scrub with red sage, fire trees, prickly-ash, robles, sucupiras and so on. Anastácio, who’d come with him, tried to remember his days as a farm slave in order to tell Quaresma – well-read and learned though he was in matters Brazilian – what all these country things were called.
In no time the major had set up a museum of natural products from The Haven. Species from forest and field were labelled with their common and – where possible – scientific names. The shrubs were displayed in a herbarium, together with little exemplars of the different types of wood, in both longitudinal and transversal sections.
In the course of his reading, Quaresma had come to study the natural sciences, and his passion for self-improvement had given him a sound knowledge of botany, zoology, mineralogy and geology.
It wasn’t just the flora that merited an inventory; so did the fauna, but as he didn’t have sufficient space, and keeping live specimens was more demanding, he limited himself to a museum on paper, which showed that the countryside was populated by armadillos, agoutis, guinea pigs, various types of snake, wood-rails, blackish rails, chestnut-bellied seed-finches, double-collared seedeaters, tanagers etc. But the land was poor in minerals: clay, sand and, here and there, some crumbling blocks of granite.
After completing this inventory, he spent two weeks organising his agricultural library and making a list of auxiliary meteorological instruments.
He ordered Brazilian, French and Portuguese books; he bought thermometers, barometers, pluviometers, hygrometers and anemometers. Having arrived, they were duly sorted and stowed away.
It was with growing astonishment that Anastácio helped set all this up. Why so many things, so many books, so many glass instruments? Was his old boss going to become a pharmacist? The old black man’s puzzlement was short-lived, however: once, when Quaresma was reading the pluviometer, Anastácio was watching him, wide-eyed, as if it were something to do with witchcraft. His boss noticed and asked:
‘Do you know what I’m doing, Anastácio?”
‘I’m seeing how much it’s rained.”
‘Why, Sinhô? Folk can see how hard it rennin’ jus’ by lookin’ out di window… Di men ting is do di weedin’, put di seed in di ground, let eet grow an’ den havvest eet.”
You could hear his conviction even through his unhurried, African lilt.
Although he didn’t dispense with the instrument, Quaresma took his employee’s advice to heart. His lands were covered with weeds and scrub. The orange, avocado and mango trees were full of dirt and dead wood, and were swathed in Medusa-like tendrils of mistletoe; but because it wasn’t the right time for pollarding, he made do with a bit of weeding at the foot of the trees. At daybreak, off he would go with Anastácio – hoes over their shoulders – to work in the fields. It was the height of summer and the sun was fierce, but Quaresma was the very model of persistence. He kept going.
So there he was – little, short-sighted Policarpo, wearing a coconut-leaf hat and wielding a big hoe with a knobbly handle as he did battle with an invasive white-fig tree. You’d have thought his hoe was a piece of civil-engineering equipment rather than a modest gardening tool. Standing nearby, Anastácio looked at him in pained amazement: fighting a losing battle with weeds in that heat?!… En’ nuttin’ as strenge as folk!
So they continued: the old black man cutting back the scrub with light, agile movements, his hoe slicing smoothly through the soil; Quaresma – puffing and panting, gouging out great random chunks of earth, taking an age with every piece of scrub, and occasionally raising clouds of dust when the blade of his furious hoe went skidding along the surface of the ground instead of slicing into it – at a distance you’d have thought a troop of cavalry was passing by. Occasionally Anastácio made a discreet intervention:
“You don’ do it like dat, Major! Di hoe en’ fo’ diggin’. Godda do it light, like diss.”
Thus did Anastácio try to teach this inexperienced Cincinnatus how to use that ancient tool.
Quaresma would grab hold of the thing again and do his darndest to imitate Anastácio, but in vain. More often than not, the blade would simply bounce back as, up above, an ironic bird chirruped, “Silly sausage! Silly sausage!” In his frustration, the major would try yet again, thumping the weeds ever more furiously, and quite often – exhausted and dripping with sweat – he’d miss altogether, lose his balance and end up sprawling on the bosom of bountiful Mother Earth. On one occasion, his pince-nez fell off and broke on a stone.
But that only made him ever more furious and determined not to be beaten; and it’s not totally impossible – so deeply ingrained in our muscles is the ancestral memory of that sacred work of gaining our sustenance – that even Quaresma’s muscles might eventually have worked out how to use the venerable hoe.
After a month, he’d done a fair amount of weeding, but not as much as he’d hoped: his age and his lack of practice forced him to take long breaks every so often.
Sometimes, faithful old Anastácio joined him in a break from work, and the two of them would lie under one of the larger fruit trees and gaze up through the leaves at the heavy, summer air, which seemed to imbue everything with a strong dose of morbid resignation. And it was some time in the early afternoon, when the heat had stupefied everything, drowning life itself in silence, that the old major began to see the very soul of the tropics, a soul made of just this: a bright, Olympian sun, way up above, blazing down upon a scene of deathly torpor, which it itself had caused.
For lunch they had food they’d prepared the previous night, and which they heated up on an improvised stove in the field; and then they carried on until dinner time. Quaresma was full of the ingenuous enthusiasm of an idealist who’s finally putting his ideas into practice. He didn’t let himself be defeated by the first signs of the earth’s ingratitude – its morbid love of weeds and incomprehensible hatred towards the life-giving hoe. And so he weeded and weeded right up until dinner time.
He took his time at dinner, chatting with his sister, telling her about the work they’d done that day and the land they’d cleared.
“You know, Adelaide, by the end of tomorrow the orange grove will be finished – not a bit of scrub left.”
His sister, who was older than him, didn’t share his enthusiasm for the country life. She looked at him in silence. The only reason she’d come here to live with him was because she was used to living with him, which is not to say she didn’t admire him, just that she didn’t understand him. She understood neither his gestures nor his internal agitation.. Why hadn’t he gone down the same path as everyone else? Why hadn’t he simply got his degree and gone into politics? It wasn’t as if he wasn’t good-looking… Why bury himself in books for years on end?! All for nothing. Madness! Having followed him to The Haven, she was amusing herself by keeping chickens, which greatly pleased her agricultural enthusiast of a brother.
“That’s good,” she said, when her brother had finished talking about the work. “But don’t overdo it. I don’t want you getting ill, working all day long in that sun…”
“Ill?! What nonsense, Adelaide! You can see how healthy the people are round here… If they get ill, it’s because they don’t work.”
When supper was over, Quaresma went over to the window that looked out on the poultry yard, and threw out some breadcrumbs.
He liked observing the internecine struggle between ducks, geese and chickens – large and small. It seemed to present a microcosm of life and its winners and losers. Afterwards he asked a few questions about the poultry:
“Have the ducklings hatched, Adelaide?”
“Not yet. They need another week yet.”
Then she added:
“Your god-daughter’s getting married on Saturday. Aren’t you going?”
“No. I can’t… I don’t like all that pomp and circumstance… I’ll send them a suckling-pig and a turkey.”
“Heavens! What sort of present would that be?!”
“What’s wrong with it?! It’s traditional.”
It was just at that moment, as they were chatting in the dining room of the old country house, that Anastácio came to announce a gentleman at the front door.
This was the first time anyone had come to visit Quaresma since he’d moved there – not counting the poor of the neighbourhood, whose visits were little more than begging. He himself hadn’t gone out of his way to see anyone, so Anastácio’s announcement came as quite a surprise.
He hurried to the main room to meet the visitor, who – having climbed the short flight of steps at the front – was just crossing the veranda.
“Good afternoon, Major!”
“Good afternoon. Do come in.”
The unknown guest entered and sat down. The only thing notable about him was how fat he was – not grotesquely so, but somehow it gave him an air of dishonesty. It was as if all that fat came from stuffing himself as fast as he could, for fear of losing it just as quickly, like a lizard storing up fat against the lean days of winter. Underneath his fat cheeks, you could easily imagine his natural, normal face. And even if he was destined to be fat, it wasn’t at that age – he looked not much more than thirty –, before he’d had time to get fat all over: while his cheeks were fat, his hands were still slim, with long, slender, agile fingers. The visitor spoke:
“I’m Lieutenant Antonino Dutra, a clerk in the revenue office…”
“Official business?” asked Quaresma, nervously.
“Not at all, Major. We already know who you are; there’s nothing new, and no legal requirements.”
The clerk cleared his throat, took one cigarette from his pocket for himself and another, which he offered to Quaresma.
“Knowing that you’d moved here, I made so bold as to come and bother you… It’s nothing important… I believe, Major, that you…”
“Oh! Dear me! There’s no need to call me Major, Lieutenant!”
“I’ve come to make a little request… a donation for the feast of Our Lady of the Conception, the patroness of our guild. I’m the treasurer.”
“Of course. And quite right too. Although I’m not religious, I’m…”
“That doesn’t affect the matter in the least. It’s a local tradition, and we must maintain our local traditions.”
“The thing is,” continued the clerk, “the people round here are poor, and our guild is poor as well, so we’re obliged to appeal to the generosity of the few who are better-off. So, Major, that’s why…”
“No problem! Wait a moment, please…”
“Oh, Major, there’s no hurry! It can wait.”
Antonino wiped the sweat from his brow, put his handkerchief back in his pocket, looked outside for a bit, and added:
‘It’s so hot! I’ve never known a summer like it in these parts. How have you been getting on, Major?”
“Very well, thank you.”
“Do you intend to devote yourself to agriculture?”
“I do indeed. That’s why I came out to the country.”
“The land’s not up to it now. Not like the old days!… Once upon a time, this farm was a wonder to behold, Major! The fruit! The flour! But the land’s exhausted, and…”
“What do you mean, ‘exhausted’, Antonino?! There’s no such thing… Europe’s been cultivated for thousands of years, but…”
“But the land is worked in Europe.”
“So why can’t it be worked here as well?!”
“That’s true. It’s just that there are so many difficulties here that…”
“What difficulties, Lieutenant?! Where there’s a will there’s a way!”
“You’ll see in due course, Major. Everything in this country is politics. Politics, politics, politics… God help us! There’s a big bust-up going on now because of the election of the deputies…”
As he said this, the clerk raised his fleshy eyelids and glanced curiously at Quaresma’s ingenuous face.
“What bust-up?” Quaresma asked.
The lieutenant seemed to be expecting the question and replied airily, “So you don’t know?”
“Let me explain: Dr Castrioto is the government’s candidate. An honest chap and a good orator, but some of the district council presidents thought it was time to put one over the government, just because Senator Guariba fell out with the governor. And before you could blink, they’d presented someone called Neves, who’s never done anything for the party and has no influence whatsoever… What do you think about that?”
What a surprise for the revenue office clerk! Who would have believed there was a grown man living in the municipality of Curuzu who was not interested in the conflict between Senator Guariba and the state governor?! Impossible! He couldn’t resist a smile. I do believe, he thought, this old devil wants to have a foot in both camps. Clever. Hedging his bets… And so he came to the conclusion that Policarpo was a crafty fellow with an eye on the main chance, a Johnny-come-lately who could do with being cut down to size.
“I see you’re a philosopher, Major,” he said, grinning.
“Would that I were!” said Quaresma ingenuously.
Antonino made another attempt to involve the major in the question of the day but, finding it impossible to get him to lower his guard, soon gave up. Frowning, he made to take his leave:
“So I can count on you to support our festival, Major?”
“You certainly can.”
After he’d shown Antonino out, Quaresma lent on the balustrade in the veranda and watched him – sweating and agitated – haul his bulk on to his little brown horse. As the clerk disappeared into the distance, the major stood there and thought how strange it was that people took so much interest in politicking and electoral chicanery, as if there was something vitally important about it. He couldn’t understand why a squabble between two bigwigs should cause so much disharmony among people who had nothing to do with them. What about the soil that was just waiting to be cultivated?! Wasn’t there a crying need for hard, daily struggle on the land?! Why didn’t people re-direct the effort they put into meetings and votes and all that hoo-ha into making the land blossom, into drawing life from it – a task no less divine than that of artists? It was stupid to be thinking about governors and suchlike when our very life is totally dependent on the land, and when that land needs our effort, our work, our love…
Universal suffrage seemed like a curse.
He heard a whistle in the distance and waited to see the train appear. When you live in the back of beyond, it’s thrilling to see the arrival of something that connects you with the rest of the world – a mixture of elation and fear. It brings to mind good news, but also bad. It brings Fate nearer.
The train or ship from goodness-knows-where, from the lands of mystery, brings not only general news – whether good or bad – but also the gestures, smiles and voices of our dear ones from far away.
The train arrived in great puffs of smoke, stretching itself through the station like a reptile basking in the brilliant light of the setting sun. But not for long: the whistle sounded again and the train pulled out, carrying news, friends, riches and sadness to yet more stations. The major thought for a moment about how it was all so brutish and ugly, and about how these modern inventions were so distant from the ancient ideals of beauty. He looked at the road leading to the station. Someone was walking down it… towards Policarpo’s house… Who could it be? He gave his pince-nez a wipe and had a better look. The man was in a hurry… Who was it? That helmet-like hat… That long morning coat… Those mincing steps… And a guitar! Yes, it was him!
“Adelaide, Ricardo’s come to see us!”
II – Thorns and Flowers
When it comes to building a city, the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro are an oddity, to say the least. Of course, the whimsical, mountainous topography was a crucial factor, but the buildings themselves complete the effect in style.
You couldn’t imagine anything more irregular, more fanciful, more completely higgledy-piggledy. The houses sprang up as if from seeds scattered in the wind, and the roads made do as best they could. Some of them started off like boulevards and ended up as narrow little alleyways: they wound about randomly and seemed to have a superstitious aversion to straight lines.
Occasionally they’d run parallel, only to head off in different directions, leaving a rabbit-warren of houses in between. At one moment you’d find houses piled one above the other, as if gasping for air; in the next, you’d have a sweeping view across a vast open field.
A wild dance of houses and streets. Houses of all styles and shapes.
A row of humble houses lining the street, each with just a door and one window at the front, all huddled up against each other, and then, suddenly, a smart residence, the kind that has lacy parapets adorned with flowerpots at the top, and a tall basement with barred windows at the bottom. No sooner have you got over this surprise than you come across a mud hut, covered in zinc sheeting or just straw and hardly able to contain everyone who lives there. A little further on there’s an old country house, complete with veranda and columns in an indeterminate style; it looks disgruntled, as if it wants to hide from all these crazy new buildings.
Our suburbs aren’t remotely like those grand European suburbs, with their villas exuding comfort and satisfaction, their macadamised, well-kept roads and streets, not to mention their gardens which, in comparison with our poor, ugly, dishevelled things, could hardly be neater or better tended.
Meanwhile, the efforts of our municipalities are piecemeal and capricious. Some streets have a bit of pavement here, another bit there; some streets are surfaced, others – of no less importance – are still no more than tracks. Here there’s a well-appointed little bridge over a dry river, whereas a bit further on you have to cross a raging stream via a couple of misaligned tree trunks.
You can see elegant ladies doing their best to stop the dust and dirt from getting anywhere near their silks and brocades; you can see workmen in clogs; you can see the dandiest of dandies; you can see women in simple printed-cotton dresses; and later in the afternoon, when people are coming back from work or from a walk, you’ll see them all in the same few streets, and it won’t always be the best-dressed who enter the best houses.
All of which by no means exhausts the interesting features of the suburbs, such as the epidemic flirting, the endemic spiritualism and, not least, the slums – who’d have expected slums in the suburbs?! Houses barely big enough for a little family are divided and subdivided, and the tiny rooms that result are rented out to the poorest of the poor. And it’s in these little human pigeon-holes that one comes across our least studied fauna, a fauna condemned to wretchedness just as surely as the poor of London.
You can’t begin to imagine how sad – and often how unexpected – is the work carried out by the inhabitants of these matchboxes. Apart from office dog’s bodies and messengers, there are old women making bobbin lace, empty-bottle merchants, castrators of cats, dogs and cockerels, purveyors of charms and spells, collectors of medicinal herbs; in short, such a quantity of wretched professions as our burghers – whether of high or low estate – couldn’t begin to imagine. Whole families are often crammed into these cubicles, and not infrequently the head of the household has to walk all the way to the city centre for lack of a few coins for the train.
Ricardo Coração dos Outros lived in one of these suburban slums. It wasn’t one of the worst, but it was a suburban slum.
He’d lived there for years and liked the place. It was at the top of a hill and, from his window, he could look out over a sea of buildings all the way from Piedade to Todos os Santos. Seen, like that, from on high, the suburbs have a certain charm. The little houses, painted blue or white or ochre, set against the dark green of the mango trees or, here and there, a coconut tree or a tall, haughty palm tree, make a fine sight, and the absence of any sense of town planning lends the whole scene a nice feeling of democratic confusion, of perfect solidarity between the inhabitants. And the minuscule train darts through it all, curving left and right, looking for all the world – with its long, flexible vertebrae of carriages – like a snake slithering through stones.
It was from that window that Ricardo contemplated his joys, his contentment, his triumphs, but also his suffering and his troubles.
He was there now, leaning on the windowsill, resting his chin on the palm of his hand, taking in a great sweep of that fine, grand and original city, the capital of a great country of which, in a way, he felt himself to be the soul, turning its faint dreams and desires into verses which, although not everyone’s cup of tea, were gifted by his guitar with, if not sense exactly, then with a je ne sais quoi of the babbling, the wail, of this baby-country, a work in progress…
What was he thinking about? Well, he wasn’t just thinking: he was suffering too. You see, that black man was still set upon making the modinha say something. Not only that, but he had followers. Some of them were already speaking of him as a rival to Ricardo; others maintained that he’d left Coração dos Outros standing, and yet others – oh, the ingratitude! – others had completely forgotten all Ricardo’s selfless, steadfast efforts to ennoble the modinha and the guitar. In fact… his name didn’t even pass their lips.
Gazing into the middle distance, Ricardo remembered his childhood, the village in the outback, his parents’ house, the cattle pen, the lowing of the calves. And the cheese! That strong, rich cheese, as ugly as the dirt, and no less life-giving, so much so that all you needed was a little sliver and you’d feel full-up… And the parties!.. Ah, what memories!… And the guitar, how had he come to learn it? Hadn’t his teacher, Maneco Borges, foreseen his future: “You’ll go far, Ricardo. The guitar. Devote yourself to the guitar.”
So why were people so nasty, so hateful to him – he who’d shown this land of foreigners the true heart and soul of Brazil?!
Bitter tears came to his eyes. He gazed for a moment at the mountains, at the distant sea… Yes, it was a beautiful land, a majestic land, but the omnipresent granite seemed so hard and unforgiving that, were it not for the greenery of the trees, it would all be an evil black.
He was all on his own there, alone with his glory and his inner turmoil, without love, without a confidante, without a friend, alone like a god, or like an apostle in a hard-hearted, godless land.
If only he had a loved one, a friend on whose shoulder he could shed the tears that were about to fall on that indifferent ground. And here he remembered that famous verse: I weep… and the hot sand drinks my tears…
This thought made him lower his gaze, so that he noticed – slightly hidden from him – a black girl washing clothes in the communal cistern. She was bent over the washing, pressing it as hard as she could, then lightly soaping it, beating it against the stone, and then starting over again. He felt sorry for her, doubly burdened as she was by her class and her colour. Tenderness welled up inside him and he started thinking about the world, about all its sadness and tragedy, and about the enigma of our wretched human fate.
Distracted as she was by her work, and not having noticed him, the girl began singing:
The breeze blows with longing
For your sweet, sweet brown eyes…
It was his song! He smiled contentedly and was half-inclined to go and kiss that poor woman, to hug her…
So how did things stand? The girl was like a balm for his soul: her simple, plangent voice had quenched his anguish. And this, in turn, brought to mind those verses of his predecessor, Father Caldas, the one who’d even performed for noblewomen.
Lereno, who knew no joy,
Brought joy to all the world…
Yes, it was his mission!… When the girl finished singing, he couldn’t contain himself:
“Bravo, Dona Alice, bravo! May I ask for an encore?”
The girl looked up and recognised him:
“If I’d known you were there, I’d have kept quiet.”
“What nonsense! It was really, really good! Honest! Please sing.”
“Heaven forbid! In front of an expert?!..”
Despite all his entreaties, she wouldn’t continue. But the gloom seemed to have lifted from Ricardo’s soul. He returned to his room and sat down at the table, eager to write something.
The furniture in his room was spartan. There was a lace-fringed hammock, a pine-wood table with writing implements and a coffee pot on it, a chair, a bookshelf and, hung on one of the walls, his guitar in its suede bag.
He wanted to start writing a modinha on the theme of Glory, that elusive thing, that thing as impalpable as breath, but which burns and bruises us, tortures and torments us – just like Love.
He prepared a sheet of paper, but couldn’t get going. The idea of how he was being robbed of his just deserts had really got to him, had knocked him sideways. He couldn’t get his thoughts together, couldn’t pluck the words from the air, couldn’t hear the music buzzing in his ear.
The hours were passing. Through the window, he could hear the crickets chirping in the leafless tamarind tree. It was getting hot and the sky was a delicate, limpid blue. He felt like going out, finding a friend he could go for a stroll with, but who? If only Quaresma… Ah! Quaresma! Where better to find comfort and consolation?!
Although his friend’s interest in the modinha had waned of late, Quaresma did, at least, understand what Ricardo was about, the significance and the scale of his life’s work. What a shame the major had moved so far away! He rummaged through his pockets and discovered he didn’t even have two thousand réis. What to do? He’d just get a ticket and go. But then there was a knock at the door: a letter. Not recognising the writing, he opened it hurriedly. What could it be?! And then he read:
Dear Ricardo – I hope this letter finds you well. My daughter Quinota is getting married on Thursday. Both she and her fiancé would be delighted to see you there. If you don’t have anything on, grab your guitar and pop over here to have a cup of tea with us. Kind regards – Albernaz
The further he read, the more the expression changed on the troubadour’s face – from dark and dour, when he started reading, to a beaming smile by the time he’d finished. At least the general hadn’t abandoned him! As far as that venerable military man was concerned, Ricardo Coração dos Outros was still King of the Guitar. He’d go, and Quaresma’s old neighbour would be sure to help him buy a train ticket. He gazed at his guitar tenderly and gratefully, as if it were an idol that had brought him good luck.
By the time Ricardo got to General Albernaz’s house, the final toast had just been drunk and everyone was heading, in little groups, to the living room. Dona Maricota was wearing a mauve silk dress, the sort of expensive material that’s made to adorn elegant, sinuous bodies, but in which, with her flat chest, she looked even more awkward and uncomfortable. For her part, Quinota looked radiant in her wedding-dress. She was tall, her features more clean-cut than those of her sister Ismênia but, for all her jollity, she was less interesting and not as bright. Lalá, the general’s third daughter, who already had the air of a young lady, and had been liberal with the face powder, was continually fiddling with her hairdo, whilst beaming at Lieutenant Fontes. The wedding itself – the long-expected wedding – met with everyone’s approval. Genelício was walking arm-in-arm with his bride. His coat was ill-fitting, and his patent-leather shoes were too tight, all of which emphasised his stooping gait
Ricardo didn’t see the couple pass by, but he did see the general, who was wearing a uniform from his glorious past that he’d managed to unearth, and which made him look like a reservist in his Sunday best. But the one who really did impress with his eminently martial, but no less courtly, bearing was the best man: Rear Admiral Caldas. His uniform-coat couldn’t be faulted. His anchor badges shone like the metalwork on a ship about to be inspected, and his sideburns wafted from his face in abundant arabesques, as if longing for the mighty winds of the vast, endless ocean. Ismênia, in a rose-coloured dress, was wandering listlessly from room to room, making sure that all was in order, and looking doleful, as was her wont. Lulu, the general’s only son, looked impressive in his Military College uniform, replete with gold braid, which matched his golden locks. (Thanks to his father’s influence, he’d passed his exams.)
The general soon came to speak to Ricardo, and the happy couple thanked him warmly for his best wishes. Quinota even went so far as to say “I’m very happy…,” at which point she put her head to one side and smiled at the floor – a smile that gladdened the troubadour’s candid soul.
The dancing was about to begin, and the general, the admiral, Major Inocêncio Bustamante – who’d also come uniformed, complete with honorary purple sash –, Dr Florêncio, Ricardo and two other guests retreated to the dining room for a bit of conversation.
The general was as happy as could be. He’d dreamt for so many years of a ceremony like this in his house, and at last it had come true.
Of course, there’d been that sad business with Ismênia… Cavalcanti – the wretch! But there was no point in mulling over it.
The compliments kept coming.
“A fine young lad, your new son-in-law,” said one of the younger guests.
The general removed his pince-nez, which was held in place by a thin gold chain and, while he was cleaning it, he replied, squinting myopically:
“Indeed. I’m very pleased.”
He replaced his pince-nez, adjusted the chain, and continued:
I do believe I’ve married my daughter well: the lad’s a graduate, he’s intelligent and he’s got a bright future.”
It was the admiral’s turn:
“And what a future! I don’t say it because I’m related to the boy, but to be first clerk of the treasury at the age of thirty-two… Unheard of!”
“Isn’t Genelício at the court of auditors? Didn’t he pass?” asked Florêncio.
“He did, but it’s the same sort of thing,” replied the other young guest, who was a friend of the groom.
In fact, Genelício had got himself a transfer, but that wasn’t the only thing that had made him decide to marry. Having written a Synthesis of the Science of Public Accounting, he’d been not a little surprised to find it praised to the skies in the press. The book had been published in the National Print Works at the expense of the State, and the Minister had awarded Genelício two million réis for its exceptional merits. It was a weighty tome of four hundred pages, 12-point, written in the style of an official communication, with a vast collection of decrees and directives occupying two thirds of its bulk.
The first sentence of the first part, the only bit that was truly synthetic and scientific, had been much commented upon and praised by the critics, on account both of the novelty of the thought and of how beautifully it was expressed.
The sentence read as follows: Public Accounting is the art or science of efficiently recording the income and expenditure of the State.
In addition to the award and his transfer, he’d already been promised an assistant directorship as soon as a vacancy arose.
Having heard all that the admiral, the general and the young guests had to say, the major couldn’t help remarking:
“After the military, the best career is the treasury, don’t you think?”
“Yes… You could say that,” said Dr Florêncio.
“Taking nothing away from the importance of having a degree…” the major hastened to add. “College graduates…”
Ricardo was feeling that he really ought to say something, so he said the first thing that came into his head:
“As long as you’re good at it, one job’s as good as another…”
“Not… not exactly,” replied the admiral rather disapprovingly, whilst stroking one of his sideburns. “No disrespect to the other professions, but our profession…, our profession, eh, Albernaz? Eh, Inocêncio?”
Before replying, Abernaz raised his head as if trying desperately to remember something:
“Yes, but our profession does have its drawbacks. When you’re in the thick of it, fire from here, fire from there, one falling dead here, another crying out over there, like in Curupaiti that time, that’s when…”
“Were you there, General?” asked Genelício’s friend.
“No, I wasn’t. I was taken ill and had to come back to Brazil. But Camisão… You can’t imagine what it was like – you know, don’t you, Inocêncio?”
“Yes…, in a manner of speaking.”
“Polidoro had been ordered to attack Sauce, with Flores on the left, and we fell upon the Paraguayans. But the devils were well dug-in, they’d made the most of the time…”
“It was Mitre,” said Inocêncio.
“That’s right… We attacked like wild things. The terrifying thunder of the canons, bullets whistling everywhere, men dying like flies… Hell on earth!”
“Who won?” asked one of the young guests.
The others looked at each other in surprise – all except the general, who regarded himself as a specialist on Paraguay.
“The Paraguayans. That’s to say, they repulsed our attack. That’s why I say our profession is a wonderful one but has its drawbacks…”
“That’s nothing. Now, take the attempt to bypass Humaitá…” said the admiral.
“Were you part of it, Admiral?”
“No, I went… later. I was the victim of departmental politics – if I’d embarked, they’d have had to give me a promotion… But coming back to the attempt to bypass Humaitá…”
In the drawing room, the dancing was in full swing. It was only once in a while that someone came into the dining room. Neither the laughter, nor the music, nor anything else, could distract those old men from their bellicose ruminations.
Their civilian colleagues were duly impressed by these tales of the general, the admiral and the major about battles they’d been nowhere near and derring-do they’d not dared to do.
No-one like a peace-loving citizen, after good food and plentiful wine, to appreciate tales of warfare! All he sees is its picturesque aspect, the spiritual aspect, so to speak; the firing is no more than ceremonial salvos, and any deaths that result are a minor detail. In narratives of this type, Death itself loses its tragic grandeur: only three thousand dead!!!
As told by General Albernaz, who’d never seen war, the thing was educational: The War of the Rose-Tinted Glasses, The Patriotic War, in which the essential ingredients of carnage, brutality and ferocity fail to make an appearance.
Ricardo, Dr Florêncio (the hydrological engineer), and Albernaz’s two recent acquaintances were open-mouthed, entranced and envious when presented with the imaginary feats of these three military men. (Of the three, it was the honorary major who was perhaps the least pacific, being the only one who’d taken part in anything remotely warlike.) But these blood-curdling events were interrupted by Dona Maricota – the ever diligent, ever active Dona Maricota, with the little head and the enormous body –, who was busy ensuring that the festivities were festive. She was younger than her husband, without a single strand of grey in her black hair. And here she was, puffing and panting, in front of her husband:
“So, Chico, what’s all this?! You and your friends are sitting comfy here, leaving me to look after the party… Into the drawing-room with all of you!”
“We’ll be there in a moment, Dona Maricota,” said one of them.
“No, now!” was the immediate riposte from the lady of the house. “Let’s go! Seu Caldas! Ricardo! Gentlemen!”
She gave each of them a little shove on the shoulder.
“Quickly, quickly! Lemos’s daughter is going to sing. And then Senhor… Did you hear me, Ricardo?!”
“I did, Dona Maricota.”
“It’s an order!…”
Off they went. On the way, the general sidled up to Coração dos Outros and said:
“Tell me something: how’s our friend Quaresma?”
“Has he written to you?”
“A few times. But what I wanted to ask you, General…”
The general lowered his head, lifted his pince-nez a little – it had begun to slip again – and asked, “What?”
Ricardo was taken aback by Albernaz’s marshal air but, after a little hesitation, he replied all at once, as if he was afraid he’d forget his words:
“I wondered if you’d arrange me a pass, a ticket, so I can go and see him.”
After lowering his head again for a few moments and ruffling his hair, the general said, “That’s difficult, but come and see me in the department tomorrow.”
They continued on their way. As they went, Coração dos Outros added:
“I miss him and, then, there are things troubling me… As you know, when a man has a certain reputation…”
“Come and see me tomorrow.”
Dona Maricota reappeared in front of them, agitated:
“Are you coming or not?!”
“We’re on our way,” said the general.
Then he turned to Ricardo again:
“That Quaresma, he would have been fine if he hadn’t got involved with books… That’s the root of it! Me, I haven’t looked at a book in forty years…”
They arrived in the enormous living room. The only items of decoration, however, were an oval mirror, some little pictures and two big, bravura oil portraits in heavy, gilded frames, one of Albernaz, the other of his wife. As for the furniture, apart from a sofa it had all been removed, to give more space for dancing. And sitting on the sofa, presiding over the party, were the bride and groom. There were a few low-cut dresses among the women and, among the men, a few tail coats, some frock coats and lots of morning coats Ricardo could see the street through the curtains at one of the windows. The pavement outside was full of people. The house was a tall building with a garden and it was only from that bit of pavement that the curious and the well-wishers could see something of the festivities. The general spotted Lalá speaking to Lieutenant Fontes in the bay of a balcony window and bestowed a look of approval upon them…
Lemos’s daughter, the famous singer, was getting ready to perform. She went and sat at the piano, arranged her music and began to sing an Italian romanza with all the perfection and bad taste typical of a well-educated young lady. It was met, at the end, by unanimous, but polite, applause.
Dr Florêncio, who was standing behind the general, commented:
“She’s got a fine voice, that girl. Who is she?”
“It’s Lemos’s daughter, Dr Lemos of the Sanitation Department,” replied the general.”
“She sings very well.”
“She’s in her last year at the Conservatoire,” Albernaz added.
Now it was Ricardo’s turn. Standing in a corner of the room, he picked up his guitar, tuned it, played a scale, assumed a tragic pose as if about to play Oedipus Rex, and announced in a deep voice, “Senhoritas, senhores and senhoras.” He stopped, adjusted his voice and continued: “I’m going to sing ‘In your arms’. It’s a modinha I’ve composed – words and music. A tender composition. Ardently poetic. But decent.” Meanwhile, his eyes were almost popping out of his head. “Pray silence, lest the inspiration escape. The guitar is a very, very, very de-li-cate instrument… OK.”
There was complete silence. And he began, gently, plaintively at first, with soft, extended notes, like the sighing of waves. This was followed by a rapid, exuberant section, as if the guitar were about to burst and, after a couple of andante passages, the modinha came to an end.
It had struck a chord in one and all – the chord of dreams in the young ladies, and of desire in the young men. The applause came in wave upon wave. The general embraced Ricardo; Genelício stood up and shook his hand, as did Quinota, in her sparkling white bridal gown.
To escape from all the compliments, Ricardo hurried off to the dining room. In the corridor, he heard a woman’s voice behind him: “Senhor Ricardo! Senhor Ricardo!” He turned round. “At your service, Senhora” It was the young lady who’d requested a copy of the modinha.
“Please don’t forget!” came the sweet voice. “Please don’t forget. I love your modinhas… So tender, so delicate… What about if you gave it to Ismênia to give to me?”
Cavalcanti’s bride was approaching. On hearing her name, she asked:
“What is it, Dulce?”
Once Dulce had explained, Ismênia accepted the task and then, in her doleful voice, directed a question of her own to Ricardo.
“Seu Ricardo, when will you be seeing Dona Adelaide?”
“The day after tomorrow, I hope.”
“Will you be going there?”
“Well, please ask her to write to me. I’d so like to receive a letter from her…”
She hastily put her little lace handkerchief to her eyes.
III – Goliath
On the Saturday of the week following the marriage of the General’s daughter to that pride and glory of our civil service, the grave and stooping Genelício, Olga herself had got married. The ceremony had taken place with the pomp and circumstance appropriate for someone of her class, including some Parisian flourishes, such as the bride’s corbeille. But although neither that, nor the other little refinements, were disagreeable to her, they didn’t make her any happier than most brides. And perhaps not even that.
She hadn’t gone to the church with any great enthusiasm. Although she didn’t appear to be acting against her wishes, she’d certainly never felt particularly motivated to get married. Her husband, on the other hand, could hardly be happier, not so much on account of his bride, as on account of the turn for the better his life was about to take. He’d be rich, he’d be a doctor, with an excellent college record and, stretching before him, he could see a broad triumphant path through his professional career in the clinical business. Not having any money to speak of, he regarded the simple title “Dr” as his elevation to the nobility, in just the same way that marriage to a real European noble can embellish the origins of a Yankee pork butcher’s daughter. Although his father was a notable landowner somewhere in this vast country of ours, it was his father-in-law who’d given him everything, and he’d accepted that everything without the slightest demure, like a duke laden with honours and medals receiving homage from some country bumpkin who’d never even seen a college bench.
He thought his bride had accepted him on account of that wonderful doctoral certificate; and so, in a way, it was – not so much for the title as for the aura it gave him of intelligence, love for science and limitless horizons. This image of him had soon evaporated, and it was Olga’s timidity in the face of the tyranny of social conventions that finally led her to the altar. She thought that, even if she didn’t marry him, she’d end up marrying someone much like him, so why wait?
That’s why one couldn’t say she’d gone to the church against her wishes, even though she hadn’t gone with any great enthusiasm.
Glittering occasion though it was, she wasn’t a radiant bride. She was only little, despite her European origins, and she looked even smaller beside the tall bridegroom, whose face was glowing with happiness; and so she seemed to disappear inside her dress, her veil and all those obsolete decorations that brides have to wear. And in any case she didn’t have any of that classical beauty we require of rich brides.
There was no Grecian aspect – whether authentic or artificial – to her face, nor any of the majesty of lyric opera. In fact, her features lacked symmetry but, for all that, there was a profundity and rightness about her face, with those big, black, flashing eyes, which almost filled the whole of her ocular cavities, and that finely sculpted little mouth which, even before it was opened, spoke of kindness and wit. The overall effect was of reflection and curiosity.
Unusually, instead of leaving the city, they went to live in the house of the former tradesman.
Quaresma hadn’t gone to the reception. Instead he’d sent a sucking-pig and turkey – as was done in olden times – and had written a long letter. He’d become obsessed by his piece of land, the hot season was about to give way to the rainy, it would soon be time for sowing, and he was reluctant to leave. Even though it would only be a short journey, it seemed to him like deserting the battlefield.
The orchard had been tidied up, and the vegetable plots prepared. Ricardo’s visit distracted him somewhat, but didn’t deflect him from his agricultural tasks.
Ricardo was there a month, and his visit was a triumph. His fame had preceded him, so that people in the municipality were falling over themselves to grab his attention.
His first task had been to go to the town, which was four kilometres from Quaresma’s house. Although there was a station near the house, Ricardo went on foot along the road – if that’s what you can call a track full of large potholes that wandered uphill and downhill and crossed rivers on rough-and-ready bridges. And the town!… It had two main streets: an old one that followed the ancient mule track, and a new one, which was built to connect the old one with the railway line. They met at a T-junction, the vertical arm being the station road, and the other streets ran off those two. The houses gave a town-like appearance in the middle, but rapidly thinned out until giving way completely to scrub land and fields. The old road was called Marechal Deodoro (formerly ‘Imperador’); the new one, Marechal Floriano (formerly ‘Imperatriz’). At one end of the Rua Marechal Deodoro, a lane led up to the parish church – an ugly building in the Jesuit style – at the top of a hill. To the left of the station, a straggly row of houses led to an open space, the Praça da República. That’s where the Town Hall was.
This was a large, unprepossessing brick block, with a cornice, a few windows and a couple of iron-work balconies. Anyone familiar with the medieval town halls in little French and Belgian towns would have found the lack of taste lamentable.
Ricardo entered ‘The Rio de Janeiro Saloon’, a barber’s shop in the Rua Marechal Deodoro, and had a shave. The barber told him a few things about the town, and Ricardo introduced himself. One of the other customers took him under his wing and it wasn’t long before they were the best of friends.
By the time he returned to the Major’s house, he’d already been invited to Dr Campos’s ball the next Wednesday. (Dr Campos was the president of the town council.)
Having arrived on a Saturday, Ricardo went back to the town on the Sunday.
He watched the people coming out of church after mass. There’s never a big congregation out in the sticks, but Ricardo could see some of those typical country girls – anaemic and melancholy, dressed up to the nines, full of ribbons and bows – as they silently descended the hill from the church and disappeared, here and there, in houses where they’d be ensconced for another week of boredom. And it was whilst he was watching that he was introduced to Dr Campos.
He was the local doctor, but he lived outside the town, on his farm, and had come, in his horse and trap, to hear mass with his daughter Nair.
While the troubadour and the doctor chatted, the girl – pale and very thin, with long skinny arms – adopted a coy pose by staring at the dusty surface of the street. After they’d left, that blossom of the fresh air of Brazil still hung in Ricardo’s mind.
Dr Campos’s ball was followed by others that Ricardo honoured with his presence and with the joy of his voice. Quaresma didn’t accompany him, but felt a vicarious pleasure in his success. Although the major had given up the guitar, he still had great regard for that quintessentially Brazilian instrument. The catastrophic effects of his proposal had done nothing to dampen his patriotic convictions. They were as deeply rooted in him as ever; but he tried to hide them nowadays, so as not to arouse incomprehension and mockery.
So he was delighted at how Ricardo had won everyone over, which indicated that there was still some national pride in the local population, some resistance to the invasion of foreign tastes and fashions.
Praise was heaped upon him from all sides, but especially by Dr Campos, the president of the town council. One morning he was due to go for a horse ride to Carico with him. Whilst he was waiting, he said to Quaresma, who had not yet left for the fields:
“It was a good idea to come out here, Major. It’s a nice life, and one can mix in the right circles…”
“I don’t have any interest at all in that sort of thing. It’s all foreign to me, as you probably know.”
“Yes… I understand… I’m not saying one should be pushy, but if one is offered… one shouldn’t turn down the opportunity, don’t you think?”
“It all depends, my dear Ricardo. I wouldn’t accept, even if they wanted to make me first lord of the admiralty.”
“Well, I won’t be progressing that far, that’s for sure. But look, Major… I love the guitar, I’ve dedicated my life to getting it accepted as an erudite and noble instrument but, even so, if the president were to say to me tomorrow: ‘Seu Ricardo, I want you to be a congressman’, I’m not going to say no, am I?! Especially knowing what a chance it would be to promote the guitar. No, no, no! One mustn’t let an opportunity go to waste, Major.”
“Well, one could say that.”
“One certainly can. And what’s more, Major: do you know Dr Campos?”
“Only by name.”
“Did you know he’s the president of the town council?”
Quaresma cast a sceptical glance at Ricardo, but the troubadour didn’t notice. He continued:
“He lives about three miles away. I’ve been to his house, and today I’m going horse-riding with him.”
“He’d like to meet you. Can I bring him here?”
At that moment, one of Dr Campos’s friends had arrived at the gate, leading the horse that Ricardo had been promised. After Ricardo had rode off, Quaresma went to see his two employees. There were two of them now because, in addition to Anastácio – who was actually more like a member of the household – he’d taken on Felizardo.
It was a summer morning, but the continuous rain of the previous days had taken the edge off the temperature.
The fields were full of light, and there was a sweet smell in the air. And so Quaresma went walking amidst the country sounds – the susurration of the undergrowth and the chirping of the birds. Scarlet tanagers and whole flocks of white-collared seedeaters and smooth-billed anis flitted above him; when the anis alighted in the trees, it was as if black fruit had suddenly appeared amongst the leaves. And even the flowers – those melancholy flowers of our Brazilian fields – seemed to be reaching out to the light, not only to grow, but also to become radiantly beautiful.
Quaresma and his workers were making a clearing some distance from the house, and that’s why he’d taken on Felizardo, a tall, skinny fellow, with long, almost simian, arms and legs. His face was copper-coloured, he had a wispy beard and, although he didn’t look strong, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better man for clearing scrubland. But he was an awful gossip. When he arrived in the morning, at about six o’clock, he already knew every bit of tittle-tattle in town.
The purpose of the clearing, which was on the north side of the land, was to reclaim ground that had been overtaken by brushwood. Once it was done, the major was planning to plant a large quantity of maize, interspersed with English potatoes as an experiment – and one he considered very promising. The scrub had been cut down and a firebreak was ready around it, but Quaresma was reluctant to set it alight, his reason being that he didn’t want to burn the ground and, with it, its nutrients. So his plan was to separate the larger branches – for use as firewood – from the smaller ones and the leaves, which he’d remove further off and burn in small bonfires.
That took time and he kept falling over, because he wasn’t used to trudging around in scrubland, but it promised a better crop yield.
To distract himself during the work, Felizardo chatted away about the latest gossip. Where other people might sing, he talked, with hardly a care whether anyone was listening.
“Dem people in di town ! What dey get up to!,” he’d say as soon as the major arrived.
Quaresma asked him the odd question and listened here and there to what he had to say. Whereas Anastácio was the opposite: silent and grave. All he did was work and, once in a while, stop and ponder, adopting the same sort of pose as priests on a Theban mural. The major asked Felizardo, “What’s the latest?”
Felizardo lay the thick trunk of leopard tree he was carrying on the pile, and wiped the sweat from his face with his fingers.
“Politic business,” he said in his soft, sibilant tones. “Seu Lieutenant Antonino, he nearly have fight yestahdeh with Seu Dr Campo’.”
“At di steyshun.”
“Party business. From what I hear, Seu Lieutenant Antonino, he suppot di guvannah, an’ Seu Dr Campo’, he suppot di senattah. Sumtin got to give, Sinhô!”
“And you, who do you support:”
Felizardo didn’t reply immediately. Instead he picked up his machete and finished cutting away a branch entangling the trunk he was removing. Anastácio was standing looking at his garrulous colleague. Finally Felizardo said:
“Me?! What does I know?!… ‘Seu Nobody don’ mix with Seu Noble,’ as dey say. It mo’ like question fo’ you, Sinhô.”
“But I’m just the same as you, Felizardo.”
“Oh!…now dat is too much exaggerretin’, Sinhô. It were only tree day’ ago dat I hear you is big friend of di mashall.”
He dragged the trunk away and, when he returned, Quaresma, who’d been much surprised by this news, asked, “Who told you that?”
“Sure, I don’ know, Sinhô. It were jus’ sometin’ I hear at di shop of di Spanish man, sayin’ as Dr Campo’ is proud as frog to be friend wid you, Sinhô.”
“But it’s not true, Felizardo. It’s nonsense… I scarcely know him… And I’ve never said anything of the sort to anyone… Friend! What friend?!”
“Oh! Dat is good!” spluttered Felizardo, laughing out loud. “You is jus’ pullin’ di wool on me, Sinhô!”
Try as he might, the major couldn’t convince his child-like worker that he really wasn’t a friend of Marshal Floriano. “I only knew him through my job,” the major protested. Once again, Felizardo gave a knowing smile: “Very good! You is as crafty as di snake, Sinhô!”
Quaresma was amazed at Felizardo’s insistence. What did it all mean? And the hints Ricardo had dropped in the morning… He’d thought of the troubadour as a good man and a loyal friend, someone incapable of using him for some sort of intrigue: but perhaps his own enthusiasm, together with his desire to be a good friend, had deluded him, and made him an instrument of something sinister. He stood for a moment in thought, ignoring the cut branches that needed to be carried away; but in a moment he came to himself and carried on as usual. When he went back for dinner in the evening, he’d already forgotten about his conversation with Felizardo, and the meal passed as usual, neither jolly nor sad, but without any black thoughts on his part.
Dressed in her usual cream blouse and black skirt, Dona Adelaide was seated at the head of the table, with Quaresma on her right and Ricardo on her left. And it was Quaresma’s older sister, as usual, who got Ricardo talking:
“How did you enjoy the ride, Senhor Ricardo?”
She was never going to use “Seu” instead of “Senhor.” Her old-fashioned education wouldn’t permit her to abbreviate “Senhor”, no matter what the common usage was. Her parents had been dyed-in-the-wool Portuguese, who always addressed others formally, and that’s what she still did, as a matter of course.
‘A lot. What a wonderful place! And that waterfall… A marvel! I feel so inspired, out here in the country.”
He had that ecstatic look again; a face like a mask from Greek tragedy, and a stentorian voice that rolled like distant thunder.
“Have you done much composing, Ricardo?” asked Quaresma.
“I finished off a modinha today.”
“What’s it called?” asked Dona Adelaide.
“The Lips of Sweet Carola.”
“How lovely!” exclaimed Dona Adelaide. “And have you written the music?”
Ricardo had just raised his fork to his mouth; keeping it in mid-air, he replied solemnly:
“Senhora, the music is always my first concern.”
“You must sing it to us,” said Quaresma.
“With pleasure, Major.”
After dinner, Quaresma and Coração dos Outros took a walk round the grounds. This was the only concession Policarpo made to his friend in respect of his agricultural routine. He always brought a piece of bread to break up for the hens in the poultry house. Watching the subsequent fierce dispute between the birds, he couldn’t help but wonder about those lives, created, maintained and protected in order to sustain his own. And he’d smile at the chickens, pick up the still featherless, struggling chicks, and observe the stupid turkey-cock as – puffing itself up – it strutted uselessly round and round. Then he’d go to the pigsty and help Anastácio tip the feed into the troughs. The enormous hog, with big floppy ears, struggled to its feet and came solemnly over to immerse its head in the trough; in another section, the piglets trotted up, grunting, with their mother, to wallow in their food.
Their rapaciousness was repugnant, and yet their eyes were infused with an almost human sweetness that made them somehow lovable.
Ricardo had little time for those inferior life-forms, but Quaresma was able to stand watching them for ages, lost in thought. Afterwards they’d sit against a tree trunk, and Coração dos Outros would tell some story or other while Quaresma observed the heavens.
It was late afternoon The day was beginning to soften after the slow, burning heat of the sun. The bamboo murmured, the cicadas chirped, the doves cooed lovingly. The major heard steps and turned round.
A moment later they were in each other’s arms, and when they separated they stood looking at each other, still clasping each other’s hands. And then came the hackneyed words that are used for happy encounters: ‘When did you arrive?’ ‘I wasn’t expecting…’ ‘It’s a long way…’ Ricardo looked on, entranced by such tenderness; Anastácio had taken off his hat and was looking at the sinhazinha with his soft, blank African gaze.
When the moment had passed, the young woman looked into the pigsty and then all around.
“Where’s your husband?”
“The doctor?… He’s in the house.”
Her husband had refused to come out with her, not approving of such intimacy with someone who had no title, no social status and no fortune. He didn’t understand how his father-in-law, despite being a wealthy man of elevated social standing, had been able to have a minor civil servant, in a department of no consequence, as a friend, let alone a best friend! And let alone choose him as godfather for his daughter! If everyone were to behave like that, it would mean the total destruction of the whole hierarchy of Brazilian society. Nevertheless, he was greatly mollified by the immensely respectful and attentive way in which he was greeted by Dona Adelaide, and which duly flattered all his little vanities.
Dona Adelaide was a woman from the old times when the Empire created all that academic nobility, and she had the greatest admiration for anyone called ‘Doctor’. So it wasn’t difficult for her to demonstrate her respect when she found herself in the presence of Dr Armando Borges, of whose distinctions and awards she was well aware.
Quaresma, too, had welcomed him with the greatest respect and, buoyed up by his superhuman prestige, the doctor had slipped into his slow, sententious, dogmatic manner of speaking; and perhaps so as not to lose the effect, the more he talked, the more he fiddled with the large doctoral ring – his talisman – on his left index finger. One would think him a marquis at the very least.
They talked a lot. The young couple told their hosts about the political upheaval in Rio, and about the revolt at Santa Cruz Fort; in return, Dona Adelaide told them the epic story of their move to the countryside, and all the furniture etc. that got broken in the process. They went to bed – all in the best of spirits – about midnight, whilst the frogs in the rivulet in front of the house were intoning their solemn paean to the transcendent beauty of the deep, black, starry sky.
All four awoke early. Quaresma delayed leaving for the fields. He had breakfast and had a chat with the doctor. The post had just delivered his newspaper. He tore open the package and saw that it was The Municipality, the local, weekly paper that supported the government party. As the doctor had wandered off, the major took the opportunity to have a read. He put on his pince-nez, leant back in his rocking-chair and opened the paper. He was on the veranda; the west wind was blowing through the gently swaying bamboos. He began to read. The editorial was headed ‘Interlopers’ and was a tirade against people who’d moved into the area – complete outsiders who’ve come to disturb the peace and tranquillity of the private and public life of our families in Curuzu.
What the blazes did it mean?! He was just about to discard it, when he thought he caught sight of his name in a poem.
Looking more closely, he read the following:
Major Dumbo! Major dear!
Dear Dumbo, dear, dear Major!
We don’t want English spuds round here,
Let the beans grow at their leisure.
You haven’t got the first idea,
Dear, dear Major Dumbo!
You’re much, much better off, I fear,
It was signed ‘Vigilante’.
The major was flabbergasted. What was it all about?! Why?! And who was Vigilante?! For the life of him he couldn’t understand what could have provoked such a diatribe. His sister and his god-daughter had come out on to the veranda. He held out the newspaper, with a shaking hand: “Read this, Adelaide.”
Noticing immediately how upset her brother was, the old lady read it speedily, with furrowed brow. She possessed the ample maternal feelings spinsters often have: it can seem as if the lack of children of their own reinforces and widens their concern for the misfortunes of others. While she was reading, Quaresma was running his fingers through his greying hair and muttering:
“But what have I done? What have I got to do with politics?”
Then Dona Adelaide said soothingly:
“Don’t worry, Policarpo. It’s nothing to worry about! Silly nonsense!”
The major’s god-daughter read the verses as well and asked him:
“You haven’t got mixed up in local politics, have you, Uncle Poli?”
“Me?! Never!… In fact, what I’ll do is make a declaration that…”
“No, no, no!” exclaimed the two women in unison, his sister adding:
“That would be only playing into their hands… Don’t even think of it!
At this moment Ricardo and the doctor returned, and they immediately noticed the alteration in Quaresma’s demeanour. He was pale, his eyes were damp and he kept rubbing his head.
“What’s the matter, Major,” asked the troubadour.
The ladies immediately explained and gave them the verses to read. Afterwards Ricardo related what he’d heard in the town: everyone thought the major had come there to make his mark in politics; the evidence was that he was giving alms, letting people collect firewood from his land, and distributing homoeopathic medicines. Antonino had declared that such hypocrisy had to be unmasked.
“But didn’t you tell him that was nonsense?!” asked Quaresma.
Ricardo said he had, but the clerk wouldn’t believe him and had reiterated his hostile intentions.
The major was deeply distressed by all this but, as was his way, he bottled it up, at least initially. So, while his friends were with him, he appeared to have regained his equanimity.
Olga and her husband stayed at The Haven for about a fortnight. At the end of the first week, Dr Borges already seemed tired. They hadn’t gone on many walks. In general, our famous towns – just like every other village in Europe – have some item of particular historical interest.
The place to go in Curuzu was the Carico Falls, which were about ten kilometres from Quaresma’s house, in the mountains that his front windows looked out on. Dr Campos had already made the major’s acquaintance, and it was he who provided the horses and a side-saddle for Olga.
They went one morning – the president of the town council, the doctor, Olga and Dr Campos’s daughter. The place wasn’t exactly ugly. It was a small waterfall, some fifteen metres high, falling in three stages at the foot of the mountain. The ribbons of water seemed to twirl in the air before exploding, in a cacophony of groans and snorts, in a big stone basin. There was plenty of greenery around, with a great arch of trees above the waterfall. So it was a shady spot, dappled with little, variform flashes where the sunlight touched the water or the stones. And the bright-green parakeets on the branches were like incrustations in that magical chamber.
Olga was at liberty to wander from one side to the other, because the president’s daughter was as silent as the grave, and her father was talking to Dr Borges about medical innovations. How’s St Anthony’s fire treated nowadays? Do they still make much use of emetic tartar?
What most impressed Olga about the excursion, however, was the widespread poverty, the uncultivated land, the wretched houses, and the apathy of the poor. Having been brought up in the city, she’d had a vision of country people as happy and healthy. With so much clay and water around, why weren’t the houses made of bricks, and why didn’t they have tiled roofs? Everywhere there was that grim mixture of reeds and mud, through which you could glimpse the beams, like the skeleton of an invalid. Why wasn’t the land round the houses cultivated? Why no gardens, no orchards? It wouldn’t be so difficult, would it?! Just a few hours work. And there were no cattle of any kind other than the odd sheep or goat. Why?! Nor did the farms present a much more encouraging picture. All of them were glum, tumble-down things with hardly a fragrant orchard or verdant kitchen-garden to be seen. Apart from coffee and a field of maize here and there, she couldn’t see any sort of cultivation. It couldn’t just be indolence. People always have enough energy at least to provide for their immediate needs, surely?! In Africa, in India, in Cochinchina – everywhere –, couples, families, tribes plant something for themselves, don’t they?! Could it be something to do with the soil? Or what? And all of these questions were running through her head, feeding her desire to know, but also her empathy for those wretched, poorly clothed, poorly housed, half-starved and almost completely abandoned people!…
If only she were a man! If she were, she’d spend months and years there and elsewhere, asking, observing and, by hook or by crook, she’d find the cause and the remedy. It was as if there had been no progress since the Middle Ages; and we’re back with La Bruyère’s famous animal with a human face and an ability to articulate sounds.
The next day she went for a walk in her godfather’s grounds and took the opportunity to put some questions on this point to Felizardo, the chatterbox. The work was almost at an end; the large stretch of ground had been almost entirely cleared, making it easier to see the slope of the hill, with the house at the top.
When she came across him, Felizardo was cutting the thicker trunks with his machete; Anastácio was higher up the slope, at the edge of the scrub, gathering up fallen leaves with a rake.
“Good mornin’, Sá Dona,” said Felizardo.
“How’s the work going, Felizardo.”
“Well, now, so-so.”
“I went to Carico yesterday, a lovely place… Where do you live, Felizardo?”
“Over di udda side, on di town road.”
“Do you have much land?”
“Well, now, I does have a bit, Sá Dona,” said Felizardo.
“Why don’t you grow food for yourself?”
“Grow sometin’ fo’ mysel’, Sá Dona?! What we gonna eat?!”
“What you plant, or what you can buy from selling what you grow?”
“Well, now, Sá Dona, you has got di wrong end of di stick. Di plant grow, an’ den what? Ah, no, Sá Dona, it en’ like dat at all!”
He swung his machete; the tree trunk bounced away; he readjusted it on the saw-horse and, before trying again, muttered:
“Di land is no’ our land… An’ what about di big ant what is everywhere?… We has no equipamen’… Equipamen’ is fo’ di Italian’ an’ di German’. For dem, di guvanmen’ give evritin’… Di guvanmen’ no’ like us…”
He swung the machete again, firm and true; and the gnarled trunk split into almost equal parts, light yellow inside with a trace of black at the centre.
On her way back she tried to put that ‘misunderstanding’ with Felizardo to the back of her mind, but she couldn’t. He was right. For the first time, she realised that the ‘self-help’ advocated by the government was just for Brazilians, whereas immigrants received every help and facility in addition to being better educated and having the support of their fellow countrymen.
If people like Felizardo didn’t own their land, who did? When there was so much abandoned land all around?! The farms she’d seen that were closed down, the houses in ruins… Why so much land in so few hands? Such massive estates, useless, unproductive?
It was all too much. She hurried on to the house: it was dinner-time and she was beginning to feel hungry.
She found her husband and godfather in conversation. The doctor had lost a little of his sepulchral gravity; there were even odd moments when you would have thought him normal. The first thing she heard was her godfather shouting:
“Fertilisers, my foot! How can a Brazilian think of something like that?! We’ve got the most fertile soil in the world!”
“But it’s becoming exhausted, Major,” said the doctor.
Dona Adelaide and Ricardo were also sitting there – the former concentrating on her crochet, the latter clearly taken aback by the major’s vehemence. Olga interrupted:
“What’s all this anger, Uncle Poli?”
“It’s your husband. He’s trying to tell me our Brazilian land needs to be fertilised… It’s almost an insult to say that!”
“Well,” said the doctor, “if I were you, I’d certainly try phosphates…”
“Certainly, Major,” Ricardo ventured hesitantly. “Take me: when I started with the guitar, I wouldn’t hear of learning music… What for?! No need! All you need is inspiration!… But now I can see it’s not enough… And that’s how it is,” he concluded.
All of them looked at each other nervously, except for Quaresma, who blurted out:
“Brazil is the most fertile country in the world, Doctor, the best-endowed, and its soil doesn’t need any ‘extras’ in order to feed our people. And that’s how it is!”
“There are more fertile countries, Major,” continued the doctor.
“Yes, in Europe. The black lands of Russia, for instance.”
The major looked at the young man for a while before exclaiming, as if it were his trump card:
“In that case, you’re no patriot! These young men nowadays…”
Fortunately the atmosphere at dinner was calmer. Ricardo made a few remarks about the guitar and, that night, the troubadour sung his latest creation: ‘The Lips of Sweet Carola’. (There was a suspicion – which no-one voiced – that Carola was Dr Campos’s maid.) They all listened intently and clapped enthusiastically. Olga played some pieces on Dona Adelaide’s old piano and, by eleven o’clock, they’d all taken themselves off to bed.
When Quaresma got to his room, he undressed, put on his nightshirt and, once in bed, began reading an old encomium about the riches and opulence of Brazil.
The house was silent, not a murmur from outside. The frogs had taken a short break from their nocturnal orchestrations. Quaresma went on reading, and he remembered that Darwin used to enjoy listening to those swamp concerts. Everything in this country is extraordinary! he thought. Suddenly he heard a strange sound from the storeroom, which was next to his bedroom. He listened more intently. The frogs had recommenced their hymnody – the full gamut of basses, baritones, tenors and counter-tenors; one followed another until, at a given moment, they all combined in unisono sostenuto. And then, for an instant, they were quiet again. The major listened; the noise in the pantry continued. What could it be? It was crackling and shuffling, as if twigs were being snapped and some of them were falling to the floor… The frogs were about to start again; no sooner had the choirmaster given the beat than here were the basses and tenors… They went on for some time, time enough for Quaresma to read about five pages. They stopped; the noises in the pantry continued. The major got up, grabbed his candlestick and went off – just as he was, in his nightshirt – to the storeroom.
He opened the door, but couldn’t see anything. He was about to look in the corners when he felt a sharp sting on top of his foot. It almost made him cry out in pain. He lowered the candle and saw an enormous leaf-cutter ant gripping his paper-thin skin furiously. He’d discovered the cause of the noise. Having got in through a hole in the floor, the ants had invaded the storeroom and were helping themselves to the maize and beans – some of the containers hadn’t been closed properly. The floor was black with them as, loaded with grains, they marched in tight columns before disappearing back down to their subterranean city.
Trying to drive them away, he killed one, two, ten, twenty, a hundred; but there were thousands of them and, the more he killed, the more their army grew. Another one bit him, and another, they were biting his legs, biting his feet and climbing over his body. It was unbearable! He screamed, hopped up and down, and let the candlestick fall.
Now he was in the dark. He groped around to find the door, found it, and fled from that tiny enemy which, even in broad daylight, wouldn’t have seen him properly…
IV – “Stand firm. I’m on my way.”
Dona Adelaide, Quaresma’s sister, was a good-looking old lady of medium stature; her complexion was beginning to acquire the patina of advanced age, and her thick hair had turned a yellowish grey, but her eyes were full of calm and kindness. She was unexcitable and unimaginative, lucid and positive. All in all, a marked contrast to her brother, from whom she’d never been really distant but whom, equally, she’d never really understood. She didn’t understand, and hadn’t sought to understand, what drove him, and he, in turn, was impervious to her methodical, ordered nature and her clear, simple, ordinary ideas.
She was now fifty years old and he was forty-six; but both of them looked healthy, they weren’t prone to illness, and everything pointed to many years ahead. The calm and comfortable lives they’d always led until recently had played a great part in their good health. Quaresma’s manias had been dormant until he was in his forties, and she’d never had any.
For her, life was a simple thing: it was about living, i.e. having a house, food and drink, clothes – everything modest and ordinary. She was free of ambitions, passions, desires. As a girl, she’d dreamt of neither princes, beauty, triumphs,… nor a husband. The reason she hadn’t married was she’d never felt the need: sex wasn’t important to her, and she’d always felt complete, both in soul and in body.
Her calm demeanour and the tranquillity in her emerald-green eyes, which had an almost lunar glow to them, were in sharp contrast to the agitation, inquietude and affliction of her brother.
Let it not be supposed that Quaresma was walking around raving. Fortunately that wasn’t the case. On the surface, you could even imagine that nothing was worrying him; but if you looked at his habits, gestures and demeanour a little more closely, you’d see that peace and calm were far from his mind.
Sometimes, lost in contemplation, he’d stand and stare at the distant horizon for minutes on end; at other times, when he was out working on the land, he’d seem to freeze for a while, fixing his eyes on the ground and scratching one hand with the other; then he’d tut-tut and carry on with his work; and there were even moments when he’d blurt out an exclamation or a whole phrase.
At such moments, Anastácio cast a glance of his weak, heavy-lidded eyes at his boss, but said nothing.. Meanwhile, Felizardo would continue with the latest news, such as the elopement of Custódio’s daughter with Manduca from the shop. And so the work continued.
Dona Adelaide hadn’t noticed anything amiss, principally because, apart from at breakfast and dinner, they were rarely together. Quaresma would be out in the fields and she’d be supervising the running of the house.
Nor could the major’s other acquaintances notice how preoccupied he was becoming, for the simple fact that they were all far away.
Ricardo and Olga hadn’t been to see him for six months; the last letters he’d received from his god-daughter and her father were a week old; and the last time he’d seen Coleoni was almost a year ago, before he’d moved out to The Haven.
Quaresma was as keen as ever on making full use of his land, and his routine continued unchanged. That’s to say, apart from the meteorological instruments.
He no longer consulted the hygrometer, the barometer or their companion pieces, and he no longer recorded his findings. He hadn’t been able to get along with them. Whether it was his inexperience or his theoretical ignorance or whatever, what’s certain is that all his forecasts, based on all the data he’d collected, were wrong. When he expected good weather, it rained; when he expected rain, it was dry.
As a result, he’d lost a quantity of seeds, and all those instruments made Felizardo smile his big, wide-open caveman’s smile.
“Hevenn above, Sinhô! Di ren, it come when God wan’ dat it come”
The hand of the aneroid barometer in the corner still did its little jig, but unnoticed; the maximum/minimum thermometer, a genuine Casella, was still hanging in the veranda without ever attracting a friendly look; the pluviometer bucket had been moved to the poultry house, where it provided drinking-water for the birds; only the cup-anemometer – now missing its wires – continued stubbornly spinning round at the top of its mast, as if it wanted to protest against Quaresma’s disregard for science.
That’s how Quaresma lived, fearing that, although there were no further signs of the campaign against him, it was still being waged surreptitiously. It was in his nature to want to be done with it, but how, if there was no accusation, if they didn’t state their case directly? A battle with shades and shadows, on which it would be ridiculous to embark.
In addition, the general situation all around him, the miserable state of the rural population – something he’d never expected –, and the abandonment of agriculture, caused extreme anxiety to his meditative, patriotic soul.
It hurt him to see no sense of solidarity, of mutual support, amongst those humble people. They didn’t get together for anything, and they lived separately, isolated and generally in irregular family groups, without feeling the need to join forces to cultivate the land. And this was despite seeing how, in Portuguese settlements, six or more would combine and manage, jointly, to clear and plough reasonably productive fields in the midst of the scrub land. Even the old custom of joining forces on certain days had fallen into disuse.
But what to do about it?
He felt helpless…
The excuse that there weren’t enough workers seemed either perverse or stupid, just as the government was either stupid or perverse in importing thousands of immigrants without a thought for the people already here. It was as if, to a field in which a dozen head of cattle were grazing, another three were added to increase the amount of manure!…
From his own experience he could clearly see the difficulties – the encumbrances of all kinds – preventing the land from becoming productive and profitable. One of those problems had been demonstrated to him only too eloquently. Once the abundant mistletoe and the neglect and abandonment of so many years had been overcome, the avocado trees had at last been able to produce fruit – not much, but more than enough for the needs of the house.
He was delighted. For the first time, he’d have profit from the land – from the land that’s always mother and always virgin. And he set about trying to sell the produce, but how? and to whom? In the locality a few were interested in buying, but at ridiculously low prices, so he upped and went to Rio to find a buyer. He went from door to door, only to be turned down: they already had plenty. But he was advised to go and find Senhor Azevedo, ‘The Fruit King’, in the market. So off he went.
“More avocados! Look, I don’ need no more avocados! They’re dirt cheap!”
“But,” protested Quaresma, “I asked in a shop this morning and they wanted five thousand réis for a dozen.”
“But that’s retail prices… That’s different… but if you want, send ‘em over…”
Then, rattling his heavy gold chain with one hand, he stuck the other in his waistcoat pocket, and turned his back on the major, merely pausing to remark:
“I’ll need to see them first… It depends how big they are…”
Quaresma sent them over and, when he received the money, he was as pleased as if he’d just won a great victory. One after another, he patted flat those crumpled, dirty banknotes, read each number and stamp, laid them out side by side on a table, and left them like that for quite a while, hardly daring to touch them.
In order to work out his profit, he subtracted the cost of carriage, by railway and cart, the cost of the boxes, the wages of his assistants and, after that rather straightforward calculation, discovered he’d earned one thousand five hundred réis. For one hundred, Senhor Azevedo had paid him a price for which, after costs, he could have bought just a dozen in a shop.
But even then his pride wasn’t deflated and, for him, that ludicrously small profit might just as well have been a huge amount.
Thus he went back to work with redoubled enthusiasm. He told himself the profits would soon rise. The task now was to clean the fruit trees. Anastácio and Felizardo were continuing their work in the big plantations, so he hired another worker to help him take care of the old fruit trees.
So it was with Mané Candeeiro that he began sawing the branches that were either dead or in which weeds had taken root. It was arduous and difficult work. Sometimes they had to climb right to the top of the trees to remove an affected branch; the thorns tore their clothes and ripped their skin; and quite often either Quaresma or his helper were in danger of coming toppling down, accompanied by the saw.
Unless the topic was hunting, Mané Candeeiro was a man of few words. But when it came to singing… he could outdo the birds. While sawing away, he’d sing simple country ballads in which, to the major’s surprise, there was hardly a mention of the local flora or fauna, nor of country work and customs. Instead, they were either steamily sensual or cloyingly sentimental; and the major only listened when, on one occasion, there was mention of a local bird:
I’ll give the same goodbye
As gave the pauraque bird
With one foot in the sky
While its body hasn’t stirred.
This mention of the pauraque bird brought Quaresma great consolation: at last people were beginning to take an interest in their spectacular environment, at last it was speaking to them and, at last, Brazilians were putting down roots in their great country! He made a copy of the song and sent it to the old poet in São Cristóvão. Although Felizardo claimed that Mané Candeeiro was a liar, because all those hunts for peccaries, guans and pumas were nothing but fibs, the major just had to admire his poetic talent and, especially, his gift for improvisation: a clever rascal!
Mané was pale-skinned, with regular, strong, Roman features, softened a little by his African blood.
Quaresma tried to find in him that repulsive aspect that Darwin found in people of mixed race but, try as he might, he couldn’t.
With Mané’s help, he managed to finish cleaning those old fruit trees, which had been left to their own devices for almost ten years. But no sooner had they finished, than he felt sorry for them, amputated and mutilated as they were, some of them with leaves, others without… They seemed to be in pain, and he thought of the hands that had planted them twenty or thirty years ago, slave hands perhaps, apathetic and hopeless!…
It didn’t take long, however, for the buds to burst forth and for everything to turn green, and the rebirth of the trees seemed to be a magnet for the birds. In the mornings, the scarlet tanagers arrived, peeping feebly – a bird so useless, but so beautifully feathered, that it seems ready-made for ladies’ hats; then ground-doves and flocks of black-bellied ducks, descending on the freshly weeded ground; later, palm tanagers, singing in the high branches, Dubois’ and rusty-collared seedeaters, whole clouds of them; and in the afternoons it was as if they all met up, peeping, chirruping, chirping, up in the mangos, cashews and avocados, singing the praises of old Quaresma’s steadfast and fecund work.
But joy was short-lived. An enemy appeared unexpectedly, with the daring speed of a consummate general – an enemy that, until then, had seemed timid, only sending a few scouts forward every now and then.
Ever since that attack on Quaresma’s storeroom, and the subsequent expulsion of the ants, there’d been no more sign of them; but that morning, when he went to look at his field of maize, he was left dumbstruck, with tears in his eyes.
The last time he’d looked, the field had been covered with tiny, bright-green stalks, just a few inches above the soil, like timid little children; he’d even ordered some copper sulphate to use in solution for washing the English potatoes which he was going to plant between the maize.
Every morning he’d gone there and, in his mind’s eye, he could see the maize full-grown, a sea of white tassels and cobs topped by wine-coloured silks. But on this morning, he saw nothing. Even the tender stems had been cut and carried off somewhere! “Dat mus’ bin people what done dat,” said Felizardo; but it was the ants, those terrible hymenoptera, miniature pirates who’d attacked the crop like rapacious Saracens… There was no time to lose: the major needed to take up arms. He located the main openings of the anthills and burnt formicide in each of them. Days passed and the enemy seemed to have been defeated but, one night, on his way to the orchard to look at the starry sky, he heard a weird noise, as if someone were crushing dead leaves… Crack!… Somewhere near… He lit a match and saw… dear God! Almost all the orange trees were black with huge ants. There were hundreds of them, on the trunks and all the way up through the branches, moving, marching, as if they were the populace of a great city streaming through streets and lanes, ascending, descending, without collisions or confusion – everything in good order. It was like a military operation. Up above, some of them were cutting through the stalks of the leaves while, down below, others sawed them into pieces, and yet others, in long columns, carried them off along a track through the grass, lifting them above their disproportionately large heads.
For a moment, the major couldn’t resist the wave of despair. He hadn’t expected this enemy, nor had he foreseen its strength. But now he could see he was up against a whole society – an intelligent, organised, daring and tenacious society. And he remembered Saint-Hilaire’s saying: If we don’t get rid of the ants, they’ll get rid of us.
He wasn’t sure whether those were the exact words, but that was the gist of it, and he was mortified that it had only occurred to him now.
The next day, he’d taken heart once more. He bought some ingredients and – behold! – there he was again with Mané Candeeiro opening up holes, doing his utmost to locate the central redoubts – the headquarters – of those terrible insects. And then the bombardment began: the sulphate burned and blasted in wave after wave of devastating, lethal attacks!
From then on, it was a battle to the death. If the tiniest hole appeared, ant-killer was immediately applied, because otherwise no plantation would be possible, especially as, once the ants native to the major’s lands were destroyed, their neighbours from both private and public places wouldn’t hesitate to plant their thin little legs on his property.
It was a punishing, prostrating effort, like trying to stop a dam-burst, and it made Quaresma realise that only some sort of central authority or government, some kind of alliance of farm workers, could extinguish that plague – a plague more devastating than hail, frost or drought, and which was always present, winter or summer, autumn or spring.
Despite this daily battle, the major didn’t become disheartened; he even managed to harvest some produce from the plantations he’d made. If he’d been happy about the avocados, his happiness was even greater, more intense and more profound now, when he saw carts laden with sacking-covered baskets of pumpkins, celery and sweet potatoes setting off for the station, The avocados had been partly the work of other hands: it wasn’t he who’d planted the trees; but this lot now was entirely the result of his sweat, his initiative and his work!
He even went to see them off at the station, with all the tenderness of a father whose son is leaving to conquer the world. Some days later he received the money, counted it up and worked out the profit.
This accountancy work prevented him from going to the fields that day. His powers of concentration – especially for numbers – were not what they used to be, so it wasn’t until midday that he was able to say to his sister:
“Guess what the profit was, Adelaide.”
“Erm… Less than the avocados?”
“A little more.”
“Well, then… How much?”
“Two thousand five hundred and seventy réis,” replied Quaresma, pronouncing each syllable clearly.
“That’s what it was. I paid a hundred and forty two thousand and five hundred just for transport.”
Dona Adelaide sat silent for a while, looking down at her sewing. Then she looked at him:
“Goodness gracious, Policarpo, you’d do better to forget it! You’re spending so much money… Just for the ants!”
“Come now, Adelaide! You don’t think I want to make a fortune out of it, surely?! I’m doing it to provide an example, to ennoble agriculture, to tame the wilderness…”
“That’s just it… You always have to lead the way… Have you seen the high and mighty making these sort of sacrifices?!… No, you haven’t! Not a bit of it… They put their money into coffee, which gets all sorts of subsidies…”
“But I’m not them.”
His sister picked up her sewing again. Policarpo stood up and went to look out of the window at the poultry-house. It was a grey, sultry day. He adjusted his pince-nez and peered out. Suddenly he exclaimed:
“Oh! Adelaide! Is that a dead chicken?…”
The old lady got up – still carrying her sewing –, went to the window and glanced out:
“It is. That’s the second one that’s died today.”
After this little exchange, Quaresma returned to his study. He was planning big agricultural reforms and wanted to examine some catalogues he’d ordered. He was already thinking about a double plough, a mechanical weeder, a seeder, a stump grubber and some harrows, all of it American, steel, and as effective as twenty men. Up until then, he hadn’t wanted to countenance such innovations; the most fertile land in the world didn’t need such artificial aids to grow things; but now he was prepared to try them out. He still drew the line at fertilisers, however, agreeing with Felizardo that “Diggin’ is dungin’.” It seemed to Quaresma that it was a sacrilege to employ nitrates, phosphates, or even ordinary manure, on Brazilian soil… An insult!
Were he to convince himself otherwise, it would be as if his whole belief system had come crashing down, as if his raison d’être had disappeared. Thus, he was engrossed in choosing ploughs and other ‘Planets’, ‘Bajacs’ and ‘Brabants’ of various kinds, when his little butler came to announce a visitor – Dr Campos.
In came the councillor, accompanied by his joviality, his mild manners and his great, pot-bellied bulk. He was tall as well as fat, with brown, prominent eyes, a smooth, straight forehead and a misshapen nose. His skin was rather swarthy, his hair was straight and already grey. He was mixed-race Indian and White – what was called in those part a ‘caboclo’ –, even though his moustache was frizzy like an African’s. He hadn’t been born in Curuzu: he was from Bahia or Sergipe, but he’d lived there for more than twenty years and it was where he’d married and prospered – thanks to his wife’s dowry and his medical practice. He didn’t expend much mental energy on the latter: having learnt half a dozen remedies by heart, he’d always managed to make the local illnesses fit his meagre repertoire.
As president of the town council, he was one of the most eminent people in Curuzu, but Quaresma mainly appreciated him for his affability and simplicity.
“Good to see you, Major! How’s it going? Still battling the ants? We’ve got none left at home.”
Quaresma’s response was less fulsome, but he couldn’t help but be warmed by the doctor’s contagious cheerfulness.
“Do you know why I’ve come?” continued the doctor in his open and frank way. “You haven’t a clue, have you?! Well, I need to ask a little favour.”
The major was not remotely alarmed; he rather liked the man and was ready to offer help in any way.
“As you know, Major…”
The doctor’s voice had become so sweet and mellifluous that you could almost imagine his words slipping and slithering as they came out of his mouth.
“As you know, Major, the elections are coming up. Victory’s in the bag. All the districts are on our side… except one. And so, if you’d be willing, Major…”
“But how? I’m not even an elector, I don’t get involved – and don’t want to get involved – in politics,” said Quaresma ingenuously.
“That’s precisely why!” said the doctor, raising his voice, before readopting his smooth tone:
“That district includes your neighbourhood; the polling station’s over there, in the school. If…”
“I’ve got a letter from Neves here, addressed to you. If you’d like to tell him, Major, – the sooner the better – that there was no election… Will you?”
Stroking his goatee beard, Quaresma looked the doctor in the eyes for some moments before responding clearly and firmly, “Certainly not.”
The doctor didn’t get annoyed. Indeed, his voice became ever more mellifluous as he set about making his case: it was for the party, the only one that was fighting for agriculture. But Quaresma was inflexible: no, he hated political disputes, he didn’t have a party and, even if he did, he wouldn’t state anything he didn’t know it to be true.
Campos still gave no sign of being disconcerted. Instead, he turned the conversation to everyday things and took his leave with – if anything – an even more pronounced air of affability.
This took place on that grey and sultry Tuesday. In the afternoon there was a thunderstorm, and the heavens opened. The weather didn’t improve until the Thursday, when the major was surprised by a visit from a man in an old, threadbare uniform, who announced he’d brought an official communication for the proprietor of The Haven.
What it said was that, pursuant to the municipal laws and bye-laws, Senhor Policarpo Quaresma, the owner of ‘The Haven’, was ordered, under the penalties set out in the said laws and bye-laws, to clear and weed the parts of his lands adjacent to public highways.
The major thought for a moment. The order was ridiculous. Surely it was some kind of joke?!… He read it again and saw that it was signed by Dr Campos. So… But how absurd, to demand he clear and weed land running for one thousand two hundred metres! (There was a road to the front of the house that ran for four hundred metres and another to the side that ran for eight hundred.) Could it really be serious?!
They were treating him like a serf!… Absurd! He’d rather let them confiscate the land than obey. He told his sister, who recommended he speak to Dr Campos. Quaresma mentioned the conversation he’d had two days earlier.
“But don’t you see, Policarpo?! It was him all along…”
Suddenly he understood… All that network of laws, bye-laws, codes and regulations was transformed, in the hands of these tin-pot deities, into thumbscrews and chairs of nails, instruments for torturing their enemies, for oppressing the ordinary people, for robbing them of independence and initiative, for crushing and demoralising them.
All of a sudden, before his eyes there passed those pinched and sickly faces of people lounging against the shop doorways; he saw the dirty, raggedy children, their eyes cast down, begging surreptitiously in the streets; he saw the unproductive lands, abandoned to weeds and pests; he saw Felizardo’s apathy, a good man, active and hard-working, but without the motivation to plant even a grain of maize at home, and drinking away whatever money passed through his hands – these images passed in front of him with the sudden and sinister glow of a lightning strike. And the impression faded only when he received a letter from his god-daughter.
It was a cheerful, lively letter recounting little episodes from her life: how her father would be going to Europe; what a flap her husband had been in when he’d left the house without his doctoral ring. And she asked for news about her godfather and Dona Adelaide, whom she teasingly reminded to take good care of the Duchess’s ermine mantle.
The ‘Duchess’ was a large white duck, with lovely downy feathers. Because of her long neck and slow, firm and stately step, Olga had given her that noble title. What Olga didn’t know was that the animal had died some days ago. And what a death! An epidemic had killed two dozen of the ducks, including the Duchess. The symptoms had been a kind of paralysis that struck the legs first and then the rest of the body. The Duchess had taken three days to die, lying on her breast, her beak wedged against the ground, attacked by ants. The only sign of life she’d given had been a slight quivering around her beak, which helped to scare away the flies that pestered her in her final moments.
The major had been struck by how, at that time, a life so foreign to us could affect us so much, making us feel its suffering, its agony and its pain.
The poultry house had been like a devastated village: the disease had attacked the chickens, the turkeys and the ducks; and one way or another, it had carried on killing until more than half of them were dead.
No-one knew how to stop it. In a country where the government had so many schools producing so many wise men, there wasn’t a single one who could find a way of reducing such enormous losses!
All these contretemps and frustrations were a heavy blow to the major, who’d been so enthusiastic in the first months; but the possibility of giving up didn’t even enter his mind. He bought some veterinary tomes and was still looking into buying some of the agricultural machines described in the catalogues.
One afternoon, however, he was waiting for a pair of oxen to arrive that he’d ordered for the ploughing, when a policeman appeared at the door with an official paper. Policarpo remembered the summons. With no intention of giving in, he wasn’t unduly worried.
He took the paper and read it. It wasn’t from the municipality this time, but from the revenue office, the clerk of which, Antonino Dutra, was informing him that he had to pay five hundred thousand réis as a fine for sending agricultural products without paying the relevant taxes.
He was well aware this was motivated by petty-minded revenge but, guided by his deep patriotism, his thoughts turned immediately to the overall situation.
Could it really be that, four hundred kilometres from Rio, you had to pay tax to send some potatoes to market? After Turgot, after the Revolution, were there still internal customs-houses?
How could agriculture ever flourish, with so many barriers and taxes? If extortion by the state were added to the monopoly of the profiteers in Rio, how could the land provide any sort of comfortable income?
The images that passed in front of him when he received the summons from the municipality came back to him, only even more stark and grim; and he foresaw an age in which the poor would have to eat toads, snakes and dead animals, like French peasants at the time of the great kings.
Then he recalled his Tupi, his folklore, the modinhas, his agricultural experiments…, and it all seemed insignificant and puerile.
There were greater, more profound tasks to be tackled: it was necessary to change the government. He imagined a strong, well-respected, intelligent government removing all those obstacles, those barriers, like Sully and Henri IV implementing wise agrarian laws, raising the farm worker… That would be the day! The barns would be full and Brazil would be happy.
Felizardo handed the major the newspaper that he sent for every day from the station.
“Sinhô,” he said, “I don’ come workin’ tomorrow.”
“Ah, yes! it’s a holiday… Independence Day.”
“Dat no’ di reason, Sinhô.”
“What’s the reason, then?”
“Dem sayin’ in Rio dat dey gonna come recrutin’, so I’s agoin’ to hide me in di scrub… Dey no gonna catch me!”
“Di people dat write di paper, Sinhô.”
Policarpo opened the paper and immediately saw a report that some ships of the fleet had revolted, demanding that the president abdicate. He remembered what he’d just been thinking: a strong government with an iron fist… Agricultural measures… Sully and Henri IV…
Hope shone from his eyes. He let Felizardo go. He went inside the house and, saying nothing to his sister, took his hat and set off for the station.
Having arrived at the telegraph office, he wrote:
Marshal Floriano, Rio. Stand firm. I’m on my way. Quaresma.
V – The Troubadour
“You’re quite right, Albernaz, things can’t carry on like this… Some nobody climbs on to a ship, points the cannons landward and says: ‘Off you go, Seu President!’ and the man’s supposed to go?… No! It’s necessary to make an example…”
“My thoughts entirely, Caldas. The Republic needs to stay strong, consolidated… This land needs a government that commands respect… It’s incredible that a country like this, so rich, perhaps the richest in the world, is simultaneously poor, in debt to the whole world… Why?! Because we’ve had governments that have no prestige, no force… That’s why.”
They were walking – both of them uniformed and with swords at their sides – in the shade of the big, majestic trees in the abandoned park. After a while, Albernaz continued:
“Take the Emperor, Pedro II… You’d be lucky to find a local rag or scandal sheet that didn’t call him ‘Pedro Banana’ and all that… They used to lampoon him in the carnival… Scandalous! And what happened? He had to slink off like a trespasser.”
“But he was a good man,” said the admiral. “He loved his country… Deodoro didn’t know what he was doing.”
They continued walking. The admiral stroked one of his sideburns; Albernaz looked all around for a moment, lit a straw cigar, and continued:
“He died repentant… He didn’t even want to be buried in his uniform!… Between you and me – I don’t think anyone can hear us –, he bit the hand that fed him; the emperor did so much for all his family, don’t you think?
“Without the slightest doubt!… You want to know something, Albernaz? They can say what they like, but we were better off in those days…”
“How could anyone disagree? There was more morality then… Where to find a Caxias nowadays? or a Rio Branco?”
“And more justice, that’s the thing,” said the admiral forcefully. “What I went through, it wasn’t the old man’s fault, it was that scum… They’re beneath contempt…”
“I don’t understand,” said Albernaz emphatically, “how anyone wants to get married nowadays… It’s all going to wrack and ruin!”
They looked for a moment at the old trees of the Imperial Park, through which they were walking. They’d never really thought about them before, and now it occurred to them they’d never seen trees so superb, so beautiful, so tranquil, so majestic as these, under the great branches of which they were walking, through this vast, sombre and deliciously soft shade. It seemed these trees had grown and thrived because they felt the land belonged to them, so that they’d never be cut down for building shacks; and this feeling had given them great vegetative force and a huge desire to expand. The soil from which they’d grown was their soil, and in gratitude they spread their branches over it, weaving dense foliage to provide Mother Earth with freshness, and protection against the heat of the sun.
The mangos were the most grateful of all: their long, leafy branches almost kissed the ground. The jackfruit trees stretched their limbs; the bamboos leant over from both sides of the alleyway, creating a soaring green vault…
The old imperial palace stood on a little hill. They were facing the rear, older part, dating from the time of Dom João, with the clock tower at a little distance from the body of the building.
There wasn’t the slightest hint of beauty about the palace; it was just plain and dull. The windows were too small for that old façade, and the ceilings too low. Nevertheless, perhaps it did possess a certain air of self-confidence (quite rare in our dwelling places) and of existing not just for now, but for years, for centuries… It was surrounded by erect, sturdy palm trees, topped by great, green plumes of leaves
They were like the imperial guard of the palace, proud of their place and function.
Albernaz was the first to break the silence:
“How’s it all going to end, Caldas?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“The Big Man must be worried… First Rio Grande and now Custódio… hmm!”
“Might is right, Albernaz.”
Coming up to São Cristóvão Station, they walked diagonally across the old Imperial Park, from the Iron Gate to the railway. It was a clear and cool morning.
They were walking purposefully, but without hurry. Just before leaving the park, they came across a soldier asleep in the bushes. Albernaz couldn’t resist waking him: “Comrade! Comrade!” The soldier got to his feet in a daze but, when he saw those two superior officers in front of him, he pulled himself together quickly, clicked his boots and saluted – a salute that soon slackened.
“At ease!” said the general in the brisk tones of command. “What are you doing here?”
With his voice heightened by fear, the private explained he’d been patrolling the coastline all night. When the troops were returning to barracks, he’d been given leave to go home but, overcome by tiredness, had lain down here.
“So, what’s the latest?” asked the general.
“I don’ know, Sinhô, I don’ know.”
“Are they surrendering, or not?”
The general looked more closely at the soldier. He was white, with scruffy blond hair, prominent cheekbones, a bony forehead and a thoroughly awkward posture – not a good-looking man.
“Where are you from?” Albernaz continued.
“Fro’ Piauí, Sinhô, dat where I from.”
“From the capital?”
“Fro’ di scrub, Sinhô, fro’ Paranaguá.”
Seeing that the soldier was so scared and jittery, the admiral, who’d so far said nothing, tried a softer approach:
“Comrade, do you happen to know what ships they’ve got?”
“Dey got di Aquidaba…, di Luci…”
“The Luci isn’t a ship.
“Dat right, Sinhô, no it no’ a ship.” Dey got di Aquidaba… Dey got lot of ship’, Sinhô.”
The general intervened again, this time in a gentle, familiar, almost paternal voice:
“That’s OK. Don’t worry, lad. Perhaps you’d better go home, before someone steals your sword and you find yourself in trouble.
The admiral and the general continued on their way and were soon on the station platform. The little station was quite busy. A large number of officials – some active, some retired, some honorary – lived in the area and they’d all been summoned to present themselves to the relevant authorities. Albernaz and Caldas were met by salutes as they walked down the platform. Unlike the admiral, the general was well known, on account of his job. They heard one person asking, after they’d passed, “Who’s the admiral?” Caldas was flattered and felt rather proud, both of his post and of his incognito.
There was only one female, a young woman, at the station. She reminded Albernaz of his daughter Ismênia… The poor thing!… Would she be alright?
Whatever had possessed her? And what would become of her? Tears welled up, but he fought them back.
He’d already taken her to half a dozen doctors, and none of them had been able to stem her gradual mental deterioration.
His thoughts were interrupted by the rumbling, clattering and furious whistling of an express train, and the rolling cloud of thick smoke that accompanied it. The monstrous machine passed by, full of uniformed soldiers. Even when it had passed, the rails still quivered.
Bustamante appeared; he lived nearby and was going to take the train to report for service. He had on his old Paraguay uniform, which he’d adapted on the lines of a photo he’d seen from the Crimean War. With his forward-leaning shako, purple sash and short coat, he looked like he’d just leapt out of a painting by Vitor Meireles.
“Well, well, well!… What are you doing here?…” asked the honorary major.
“We came through the park,” said the admiral.
“The thing is, the trams run a little too close to the sea…” added the general. “I’m not bothered about dying, but I want to die in battle. Dying any old how, any old place, willy-nilly, that’s not for me…”
The general had raised his voice a little and was attracting disapproving looks from some young officers standing nearby. Noticing this, Albernaz immediately chipped in:
“No-one can tell me anything about gunfire… I’ve been in the thick of it… Did you know, Bustamante, that in Curuzu…”
“It was terrible,” Bustamante said.
Softly and slowly, the train was coming into the station. The locomotive, black as soot, was puffing and panting; with its big, cyclopic lantern at the front, it was looming up like some sort of supernatural apparition. Finally it shuddered to a halt.
It, too, was full of uniformed officers. Judging from this station, you’d have thought Rio had a garrison of a hundred thousand men. The military personnel were chatting away, whereas the civilians were quiet and downcast, scared even. If they spoke, it was only in whispers, and looking warily over their shoulders.
Secret agents, the eyes and ears of the Republican ‘Holy Office’, were everywhere in the city, and denunciation was a currency for gaining positions and rewards.
The least criticism was sufficient to lose someone their job, their freedom and – who knows? – even their life. The revolt had only just begun, but the regime had already made its position clear, and everyone had been warned. Without fear or favour, the police chief had drawn up a list of suspects. Whether it was a poor messenger or an influential senator, a professor or a clerk, everyone had the same right to be persecuted by the government. And then there was the petty settling of scores… Everybody was giving orders; authority was a hydra.
In Marshal Floriano’s name, any official, or even any ordinary citizen, could make an arrest, and woe betide anyone who ended up in prison, where they’d languish under the whims of a Dominican imagination. Civil servants outdid each other in flattery and obsequiousness… It was terror, an anonymous, cowardly terror, bloody, surreptitious, totally ignoble and unforgivable, totally stupid and irresponsible… But although there were executions, there was never a Fouquier-Tinville.
The military were happy, especially the lower ranks, the first and second lieutenants and the captains. The source of satisfaction for most of them was the conviction that they’d be extending the authority they had over their platoons and companies to all these civilians; but there were many whose feelings were more disinterested, more sincere. The latter, however, were the adepts of that nefarious and hypocritical positivism, that tyrannical, blinkered pedantry that justified all sorts of violence, assassinations and ferocity in the name of maintaining social order, the necessary condition – so it says – for progress and the advent of the ‘normal regime’, the religion of humanity, and the adoration of the great fetish, all to the accompaniment of fanfares and detestable poetry, in other words – paradise, with phonetic inscriptions and the chosen ones in rubber-soled shoes…
The positivists discussed and cited mechanical theorems to justify their ideas about government, which differed not one jot from those of the oriental emirates and potentates.
The mathematics of positivism never amounted to anything more than babble, but babble that, in those days, succeeded in cowing everyone. There were even people who were convinced that mathematics had been created especially for positivism, as if the Bible had been created solely for Catholics, not for Anglicans. And therefore its prestige was enormous.
The train stopped at one more station before arriving at the Praça da República, whence the admiral – keeping close to the walls – made his way to the naval arsenal, and Albernaz and Bustamante to the army headquarters. The two of them entered the huge building, which rang with the clinking of swords and blasts from bugles; the large courtyard was full of soldiers, flags, cannons, stacks of weapons and bayonets glinting in the slanting rays of the sun…
Upstairs, near the minister’s office, there was a constant coming and going of uniforms, gold braid, cloth of all different colours, uniforms of regiments and militias, in the midst of which the dark clothes of the civilians made them look like importunate flies. It was a conglomeration of officers of the national guard, the police, the navy, the army, the fire brigade and the recently formed patriotic battalions.
Albernaz and Bustamante reported for duty, together, to the adjutant general and minister of war, after which they ended up chatting in a corridor, because they’d bumped into Lieutenant Fontes, and they were both glad to see him.
The general was glad, because Fontes was engaged to his daughter Lalá, and Bustamante was glad, because he could learn from him some of the names of the modern weapons.
Fontes was so inflamed against the rebels that he could hardly find words bad enough for them, or think of punishments horrible enough.
“They’ll see where it gets them!… Pirates! Bandits! If I was the marshal, if I caught them…, woe betide them!”
The lieutenant was neither cruel nor bad; he was actually good and even generous, but he was a positivist and had religious, transcendental ideas about the republic. It was in the republic that he placed all his happiness and he couldn’t accept that a republic could be anything other than how he imagined it. Anyone who thought otherwise was dishonest, insincere, self-seeking and heretical. So Fontes was like a Dominican in a Phrygian cap who saw a whole series of heretics – penitent, relapsed, contumacious, false, simulated – walking about freely, without samarras – and was furious that he couldn’t burn them in autos-da-fé…
Albernaz had no such fury against their adversaries. Deep down he even liked them; he had friends in their camp and, with his age and experience, he thought nothing of their differences.
Nevertheless, he was somewhat hopeful about the marshal’s actions. He’d found himself in straitened circumstances, his pension and his honorarium for managing the Largo do Moura archive being insufficient. So he was hoping to obtain another commission, which would allow a more extravagant trousseau for Lalá.
The admiral, too, had great confidence in Floriano’s talents as a military leader and a statesman. His appeal wasn’t going well: he’d been unsuccessful at the first hearing and was losing large sums of money. The government needed naval officers, since most of them had joined the revolt; perhaps they’d give him a fleet to command… It’s true that… But what the heck! If it was commanding a ship, that might be another thing; but a fleet wouldn’t be difficult – all you needed was courage.
Bustamante hadn’t the slightest doubt about General Peixoto’s abilities, so much so that, to support him and defend his government, he was thinking of organising a patriotic battalion, for which he already had a name – ‘The Southern Cross’ – and which would naturally be under his command, with all the advantages ensuing from the rank of colonel.
Genelício, who was not remotely warlike, expected much from the energy and decisiveness of Floriano’s government, i.e. he expected a deputy directorship. A serious, honest and energetic government – one that wanted his department to be well run – would give him nothing less.
Such secret desires were more general than might have been thought. The government rules our lives, and the revolt brought confusion into the jobs, privileges and positions that the State bestows. Dedication to the cause was more important than qualifications or skill when it came to filling vacancies; and needing both dedication and men, the government had to be prodigal and inventive in creating and distributing jobs, salaries, promotions and rewards.
No less than Dr Armando Borges, Olga’s husband, who’d been such a wise, serene and dedicated student, saw great prospects for personal advancement as a result of the revolt.
Even though he was a doctor, and rich on account of his wife’s fortune, he wasn’t content. Ambition for money and fame spurred him on constantly. He was already working at the Syrian Hospital, where he went three times a week and saw more than thirty patients in half an hour. When he arrived, the nurse would give him a report, and he’d go from bed to bed asking, “How are you?” “I’m feeling better, Doctor,” the Syrian would say, in a guttural voice. At the next bed, he’d ask, “Are you better?” And that’s how his visit went. When he got to the office, he’d prescribe, “Patient No. 1, repeat the medication; Patient No. 5… Which one’s that?…” “It’s that one with the beard.” “Ah!” And he’d carry on prescribing.
Being a doctor in a private hospital, however, isn’t going to make anyone famous: what was indispensable was to have a top job, otherwise he’d never be anything other than a simple practitioner. He wanted to have an official position as doctor, director or even professor in the medical school.
As long as he got together some good references, that shouldn’t be difficult, as he was already quite well-known, thanks to his enterprise and his wealth.
Once in a while, he’d publish a pamphlet, such as The Aetiology, Prophylaxis and Treatment of Herpes Zoster, or A Contribution to the Study of Scabies in Brazil. He sent them – about fifty pages apiece – to interested journals, which published them two or three times a year: by Dr Armando Borges, illustrious clinician and proficient hospital doctor etc., etc.
He had these outlets thanks to the care he’d taken as a student to cultivate contacts with the press.
Nor was he content to leave it at pamphlets: he also wrote lengthy compilations in which there was nothing of himself, but plenty of French, English and German citations.
A professorship was what he most coveted, but he was scared of the examination. There was much in his favour – he was well-connected and respected in the profession –, but that business of the disputation terrified him.
Hardly a day passed when he didn’t buy books, in French, English or Italian; he’d even engaged a German teacher as an entrée to German science; but whatever stamina he’d had as a student for serious study had evaporated now that he was comfortably off.
The high-ceilinged front room of the basement had been transformed into a library. The walls were lined with shelves groaning under the weight of those mighty treatises. In the evening, he’d open the shutters, turn on all the gas lamps and, dressed all in white, sit at the table with an open book in front of him.
He’d hardly get to the end of the fifth page before falling asleep. Damnation! He tried his wife’s books instead. These were French novels: Goncourt, Anatole France, Daudet, Maupassant, which lulled him to sleep just as much as the treatises. He didn’t understand the grandeur of those analyses, those descriptions, nor how interesting and valuable they were, revealing the life, feelings and sufferings of those characters – a whole world! As a result of his pedantry, pseudo-science and paucity of general knowledge, all he could see in those novels was frippery and nonsense, especially as they sent him to sleep.
Nevertheless, he needed to deceive both himself and his wife. And what’s more, he could be seen from the street. What if they saw him asleep at his books?!… He solved the problem only when he got himself some Paulo de Kock novellas and changed the covers.
Meanwhile his clinical practice was flourishing. In cahoots with the tutor of a rich orphan, he made six million réis by ‘treating’ her fever.
It didn’t take long for his wife to realise his intelligence was feigned, but that dirty trick really annoyed her. Why did he have to do that?! Wasn’t he already rich?! Wasn’t he young?! Didn’t he have the privilege of a university degree? It seemed to her even more vile, even lower, than Jewish usury or hiring a ghost-writer…
It wasn’t disdain or disgust she felt towards her husband, but a calmer, more passive feeling: she simply stopped caring about him, detached herself. She felt that any bonds of affection and sympathy between them – any moral unity – had been severed.
Even when she’d been engaged to him she’d noticed that his ‘love of study’, his ‘interest in science’, and his ‘passion for discovery’, were thoroughly superficial; but she’d been prepared to overlook the fact. After all, we often deceive ourselves about our own strength and ability: William McGonagall probably dreamt of being Shakespeare. All that was forgivable, but… a charlatan?! That was too much!
A bad thought came into her mind, but what would be the point of that sort of indignity?… All men were probably the same, so why exchange one for another…
Having come to this conclusion, she felt suddenly liberated and her face lit up again, as if a cloud obscuring the sun had floated away.
He, however, in his headlong pursuit of easy renown, didn’t even notice the changes in his wife. She dissimulated her true feelings, more out of dignity and delicacy than anything else, whereas he lacked the judgement and subtlety to discover them in their hiding place.
They continued to live as if nothing had happened, but when they were far, one from the other!…
That’s how it was between them when the revolt broke out, and for three days he’d been planning how to use it to his social and monetary advantage.
His father-in-law had put off his voyage to Europe and, on that particular morning, after breakfast, was reclining in a beach chair, as was his wont, reading the papers. Dr Borges was getting dressed and Olga was sitting at the head of the dining room table, sorting out her correspondence. Although she had her own luxurious office, with a writing table and shelves full of books, she liked to write there, in the mornings, near her father. This room seemed lighter, and the view it gave of the ugly, all-embracing mountain, lent a gravity to her thoughts, whilst the sheer size of the room made her feel freer in her writing.
So her father was reading and she was writing. Suddenly he asked:
“Guess ’oo eez commin’ to Rio, Olga.”
“Your godfazza. ’Ee sent a telegramma to Floriano, tellin’ ’eem ’ee was on ’eez way… It eez written ’eer, in O País.”
Aware of how volatile Quaresma was, Olga immediately guessed the reason. Much as she wanted to disapprove, she couldn’t help but smile at the thought of how typical it was of him and how much of a piece it was with his strange way of life.
“…eez madda,” exclaimed Coleoni. “Per la madonna! Jus’ when ’ee ’as gotta ’eemself a quiet an’ calma way ovva life-a, ’ee decide’ to jumpa into zees hell ovva messa!…”
The doctor entered, wearing a funereal overcoat and carrying his gleaming top hat in one hand. Apart from the large area shaded by his moustache, his round and shiny face was radiant. He’d heard his father-in-law’s last words, pronounced in that husky Portuguese-Italian of his.
“What’s up?” asked Borges.
Coleoni explained, and repeated his comments.
“No…, not so mad,” said the doctor. “It’s the duty of every patriot… How old is he? Something over forty, no?… That’s not so old. He can still fight for the Republic…”
“Butta what az eet gotta to do wid ’eem?!” objected the old man.
“Should it be only those with a vested interest who fight for the Republic?!” asked the doctor.
Olga had just finished reading through the letter she’d written. Without even lifting her head she said, “Of course.”
“Ah! You and your theories, my dear! I suppose you think patriotism is something one can eat…”
He smiled a crooked smile, which was made even more crooked by the pallid glimmer of his false teeth.
“Is it only your side that speaks of patriotism?” asked Olga. “What about the other side? Is there a monopoly of patriotism on your side?”
“Of course. If the other side were patriots, they wouldn’t be shelling the city and trying to disable and demoralise the established authority.”
“Are they meant to look on idly at all the arrests, deportations, firing-squads and all the violence that’s being perpetrated here and in the South?”
“You might as well be one of them,” said the doctor, by way of conclusion.
He was right. The sympathies of almost everyone who didn’t have a vested interest in the regime were with the insurgents. This happens all over the world, of course, but in Brazil a multiplicity of factors makes it almost normal.
With their inevitable violence and hypocrisy, governments alienate their original supporters while forgetting how impotent and ineffective they really are and promising what they can’t do, with the result that they create more and more desperate people, who demand more and more changes.
So it was no surprise that Olga should incline towards the rebels, or that Coleoni, a foreigner who had experience of our authorities, should prudently keep his sympathies to himself.
“Hm… You notta go getta me mix’ up in anytin’, Olga?”
Getting up to see her husband out, she paused, turned her big bright eyes to her father and, frowning, said, “You know very well I’d never get you mixed up in anything.”
The doctor went down the veranda steps, crossed the garden and, at the gate, turned to say adeus to his wife, who – in the time-honoured fashion of wives, whether happily or unhappily married – watched him leave.
Meanwhile, the dreams of Coração dos Outros were completely disconnected from current goings-on.
He was still living in the tenement block in the suburbs, with the view extending from Todos os Santos to Piedade, a huge panorama full of houses and trees.
He no longer spoke about his rival, and he was no longer so disconcerted.
That was because his triumph was now complete. Almost the whole city admired him, and he considered himself more or less at the peak of his career. He even expected to win over Botafogo in the near future.
He’d published more than one volume of songs, and now he was thinking of publishing another.
For some days he’d mainly been staying at home, preparing his book. Confined to his room, he had coffee and bread for lunch, but in the evenings he went to a canteen near the station.
He noticed that, whenever he entered, the cartiers and labourers having their dinners at the dirty tables lowered their voices and looked suspiciously at him, but he didn’t let it bother him.
Despite his local fame, he hadn’t come across anyone he knew in the last three days. And he was avoiding conversations himself: at home, he limited himself to wishing the neighbours ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’.
He liked passing days in this way, in his own world, listening to his heart. Nor was he reading the papers, so as not to distract himself from his work. He was just thinking all the time about his modinhas and his book, which would be yet another victory for him and his beloved guitar.
That afternoon he was sitting at the table, going over one of his most recent pieces of work, the one he’d composed at Quaresma’s farm – ‘The Lips of Carola’.
First, he read it all, humming as he did so. Then he read it again and picked up his guitar to get a better idea of the effect:
More beautiful is she
Than Helena or Margarida
And when she smiles at me
While fluttering a fan
Such sweet illusion do I see
In the lips of Carola!…
At that point, he heard cannon fire, then again, and again… What the devil’s that?! he thought. Must be a salute for some foreign ship. He strummed his guitar and continued his paean to the sweet lips of Carola, in which such sweet illusion did he see…