II, “You’re a dreamer, Quaresma”
III, …gliding silently back…
IV, The Boqueirão Jail
I – Patriots
He’d been there for over an hour, in a great hall of the palace, occasionally glimpsing the marshal, but unable to speak to him. He’d had almost no trouble in getting into the marshal’s presence, but speaking to him was another matter.
The palace had an intimate, relaxed air about it – a spacious eloquence. Here and there, in other rooms, you could see aides-de-camp, orderlies and messengers half-asleep on the sofas, their jackets unbuttoned. Everywhere there was slovenliness. The corners of the ceilings were cobwebbed, and any heavy tread on the carpets raised a little cloud of dust, carried in from the ill-swept streets.
Contrary to his telegraphed declaration, Quaresma hadn’t been able to come immediately. First of all he had to put his things in order and arrange for someone to stay with his sister. Dona Adelaide had raised endless objections to his departure; she’d emphasised how incompatible the risks of combat and war were for his age and declining strength. But it was impossible to deter him – he’d made his mind up: all the force of his will, all his intelligence, all his capacity and all his life was going to be put at the service of the government, so that… Oh!
In the meantime, he’d written a proposal, which he was going to give to Floriano. In it he set out the measures needed for agriculture to flourish and pointed out all the obstacles arising from the great landholdings, excessive taxes, lack of transport, restrictions on markets and from sheer political brutality.
The major had this treatise in his hand now, as he thought about his house, far away, in a corner of that ugly plain, with a view of the mountain chain in the west on clear days. He thought about his sister, who’d looked so unnaturally impassive as, with her green, placid eyes, she’d watched him leave; but what stuck in his mind most of all at that moment was Anastácio, the old black man, giving him a strange look – no longer with that passive tenderness of a domestic animal, but full of fear, astonishment and pity, with much rolling of the bright white sclera in his eyes – as he watched the major climb into the train. It was as if he foresaw disaster… He rarely had this expression in his face but, when he did, it almost always meant a presentiment of bad things… What nonsense!…
So Quaresma went on waiting his turn in a corner of the room, while one person after another entered the president’s office. It was almost midday, and Floriano still had a toothpick, a relic of his lunch, in his mouth.
He’d spoken first to a commission of ladies who’d come to offer their efforts and their blood in defence of Brazil and its institutions. Their spokeswoman was a little fat lady, with a short bust and large, prominent breasts, brandishing a closed fan in her right hand as she spoke.
It was difficult to say what colour or race she was: there was such a mixture in her that one colour and one set of racial features merged with another.
While she spoke, her large eyes sparkled in the marshal’s direction, and this seemed to disconcert Floriano, as if he were afraid of melting in the heat of that look, which was more suggestive of seduction than patriotism. Like an awkward adolescent he diverted his gaze, lowered his head and drummed his fingers on the table…
When it was time for him to speak, he raised his head a little, but without looking directly at her and, with a big, lopsided smile, declined the offer on the grounds that the Republic already had enough forces to ensure victory.
He drew those last words out, so that they sounded almost sarcastic. When the ladies had taken their leave, the marshal looked around the hall and noticed the major:
“Ah! Is that you, Quaresma?” he said in a familiar tone.
The major stood up and started forward, but could only take a few steps: a huddle of non-commissioned officers and cadets had surrounded the dictator, distracting his attention. Quaresma couldn’t hear what they were saying. They were muttering into Floriano’s ear and touching him on the shoulder. Quaresma could see, from the movement of the marshal’s lips, that he spoke only in monosyllables, nodding or shaking his head as he did so.
The soldiers began to leave, shaking hands with the dictator, and one of them, who was particularly jovial and familiar, shook Floriano’s limp hand with particular force, patted his shoulder and exclaimed loudly, “Be strong, Marshal!”
All of this seemed perfectly natural and normal, characteristic of the new ceremonial style of the Republic. It certainly didn’t surprise anyone, least of all Floriano; on the contrary, some of them were visibly delighted to see the caliph, the emir, the shah, transmit some of his sacred aura to those importunate subalterns. They didn’t all leave at once, one of them in particular hanging behind to share yet more nuggets of information with the supreme authority of the country. He was a cadet from the Military College, in turquoise uniform, sash and standard-issue sabre.
The Military College cadets formed a sort of sacred phalanx.
They had all sorts of rights and privileges; they even had precedence over ministers in access to the dictator; and they abused their position of favourites to oppress and harry the whole city.
Some bits and pieces of positivism had percolated into their brains, where they were transformed into a peculiar religiosity, in which authority – in particular Floriano and, more vaguely, the Republic – became an article of faith, a fetish, a Mexican idol, on whose altar every kind of violence and criminality was a worthy oblation.
The cadet was still there…
So Quaresma was able to have a better look at the physiognomy of the man who would wield such great power for almost a year – the power of a Roman emperor, power that hovered over everything and limited everything, without encountering the slightest obstacle to its whims, foibles or wishes, neither in law, in custom, nor in universal, human pity.
His face was vulgar in the extreme: a droopy moustache, a soft, sagging lower lip with a large wart on it and, generally, a flaccid and flabby look. Nothing – not the shape of his chin, nor the quality of his gaze – suggested any superior qualities. In fact his eyes were dull and bulging, lacking in any expression other than our typically Brazilian melancholy, and he had a gelatinous, nerveless air about him.
The major tried to convince himself that such attributes had nothing to do with his character, intelligence or temperament. Such things aren’t important, he told himself.
His enthusiasm for that political idol was strong, sincere and disinterested. He regarded Floriano as energetic, sharp, all-seeing, tenacious, someone who knew exactly what the country needed, and perhaps a bit crafty – a sort of Luis XI dressed up as Bismarck. But he was wrong. With a complete absence of intellectual qualities, there were just two predominant traits in Marshal Floriano: apathy and overwhelming laziness. But the latter was not the laziness we all suffer from; it was a morbid laziness, like a lack of nervous irrigation, resulting from insufficient fluid in his organism. Wherever he went, he distinguished himself by his indolence and disinclination to carry out the duties of his office.
When he was director of the Pernambuco arsenal, he didn’t even have the energy to sign documents; while he was minister for war, he spent months and months without going to his office, leaving his deputy with the onerous task of signing absolutely everything.
Anyone familiar with the documentary activity of a Colbert, a Napoleon, a Philip II, a Wilhelm I of Germany, indeed of almost any great statesman, would find it hard to comprehend Floriano’s indifference when it came to issuing orders or explaining to his subordinates what he wanted or what he thought. Certainly you’d have thought such communication essential for imbuing the day-to-day operation of government with his superior world-view.
This laziness – both mental and physical – was the cause of his taciturnity, his mysterious monosyllables (treated at the time like Sibylline pronouncements) and the legendary Maybe this, but maybe thats, which so impressed everyone, destitute as we are of heroes.
This pathological indolence – also reflected in his wearing slippers during the day – gave him an air of superior calm, the calm of a great statesman or an extraordinary warrior.
Everyone still remembers what the first months of his government were like. Faced with a revolt by prisoners, privates and subordinates at Santa Cruz Fort, he ordered an inquiry, only to countermand it out of fear that the people shown to be the instigators would engage in yet more sedition; what’s more, he saw to it that those people were well rewarded.
In any case, no-one can conceive of a strong man, a Caesar, a Napoleon, who’d permit such humiliating intimacies and liberties to his subordinates, allowing his name to be used as an imprimatur for a vast number of crimes of all kinds.
One instance will suffice. It’s well known that it was in an atmosphere of ill will that Napoleon assumed command of the army in Italy. After speaking to him, Augereau, who called him “a street general”, said, “That man terrifies me”; and thus the Corsican became master of his army without any need for taps on the shoulder, or delegating his authority, either tacitly or explicitly, to irresponsible subordinates.
What’s more, the dilatory way in which Marshal Floriano suppressed the revolt of 6 September clearly shows the uncertainty and lack of willpower of a man who had such extraordinary resources at his command.
But there was another side to him that goes a long way to explaining his actions and comportment. This was his love for his family, the deep-rooted, rather patriarchal love of an old man who sees himself being left behind by the march of civilisation.
Because of the failure of two of his farms, his financial situation was precarious and he didn’t want to die without leaving his family those properties unencumbered by debt.
Honest and upright as he was, the only hope remaining to him was to save what he could from his emoluments. And so he entered into a game of duplicity that was indispensable to conserving his well-paid positions, and which made him cling with such tenacity to the Presidency of the Republic. The mortgage for the ‘Brejão’ and ‘Duarte’ farms was his Cleopatra’s nose…
His lethargy, his timidity and his fervent love of his home produced that ‘Maybe Man’ who, once refracted in the mental and social needs of the people of the time, was transformed into a statesman, a Richelieu, who could resist a serious revolt more through stubbornness than vigour, and could attract lives, money and even enthusiasm and fanaticism.
That enthusiasm and fanaticism, which supported, animated and sustained him, were only possible after he’d been adjutant-general of the empire, senator and minister, that’s to say, after he’d been ‘fabricated’ in front of everyone and after his myth had crystallised in everyone’s mind.
His favoured form of government was neither despotism, democracy, nor aristocracy: it was domestic tyranny. If the baby misbehaves, it gets punished. Applying this on a grand scale, misbehaving meant opposing him, having opinions contrary to his, and the punishment was no longer a smack, but prison and death. If there’s no money in the Treasury, put the notes withdrawn from circulation back into circulation, just like when visitors arrive and you haven’t got enough soup: add more water.
Moreover, his military education and his lack of culture imbued this infantilism with violence, not so much because of his own, natural perversity and contempt for human life, but because of the weakness that made him hide away and do nothing to rein back the ferocity of his auxiliaries and associates.
Such thoughts were a long way from Quaresma’s mind; rather, like many honest, sincere men of that time, he’d been possessed by the contagious enthusiasm that Floriano had managed to awaken. He was thinking about the great work Destiny had reserved for that placid, sad figure, and about the radical reform he was about to effect in the debilitated organism of Brazil, which the major was accustomed to regard as the richest country in the world although, in recent times, he’d begun to have a few doubts in that respect.
He was confident that Floriano wouldn’t let him down, and that his power would extend to the whole eight million square kilometres of Brazil, bringing with it roads, safety, protection for the poor, employment and wealth.
It wasn’t long, however, before his train of thought was interrupted. After hearing Floriano address Policarpo familiarly, another man who was waiting turned his attention to the taciturn, bespectacled figure of the major, sidled up to him and, as if imparting a great secret, said:
“It’s your turn to see The Caboclo… Have you known him long?”
The major muttered something in reply and stood up, hardly noticing the next question. He stepped forward: the president was waiting.
“So, what is it, Quaresma?” said Floriano.
“I’ve come to offer Your Excellency whatever modest support I can.”
For a few moments the president looked at the little man in front of him. He felt gratified by this further proof of his popularity, not to mention the justice of his cause. He smiled a little, crooked smile.
“Thank you very much… What have you been up to? I heard you left the arsenal.”
Floriano had a talent for remembering the faces, names, jobs and circumstances of his subordinates. There was something Asiatic about him: cruel and paternal at the same time.
Having explained what he’d been doing, Quaresma took the opportunity to speak about the need for laws to bring new life and freedom to our agriculture. The Marshal listened impatiently, grimacing slightly.
“I’ve brought this proposal for Your Excellency…”
The grimace became more apparent, signalling ‘Don’t bother me’. His Excellency muttered, “Leave it there…”
No sooner had Quaresma deposited it, than the dictator directed his attention to someone else:
“What news, Bustamante? How’s the battalion doing?”
The man approached, rather sheepishly:
“It’s doing well, Marshal, but we need barracks… If Your Excellency would…”
“Quite so. Speak to Rufino in my name. He’ll sort it out. Or rather, take him this note.”
Without more ado, he ripped a piece from one of the first pages of Quaresma’s manuscript and wrote a few words on it, in blue ink, for his minister of war. It was only when he’d finished that he noticed what he’d done:
“Dear me! I’ve torn your manuscript, Quaresma!… But… no harm. It was the top of the page – nothing on it.”
The major was about to confirm that there was, indeed, nothing on it, but the president had already turned back to Bustamante:
“Take Quaresma into your battalion. What post do you want?”
“Me?!” Quaresma blurted out.
“Well, sort it out between the two of you.”
Bustamante and Quaresma took their leave of the president and slowly descended the stairs of Itamarati. All the way down, not a word passed between them. Quaresma was rather downcast. Outside it was clear and hot and, at first sight, the revolt didn’t seem to have had a significant impact on the life of the city. There was the same confusion of trams, carriages and carts; it was just in people’s faces you could see the fear, as if some terrible threat was hanging in the air.
Finally Bustamante introduced himself. He was Major – now Lieutenant-Colonel – Bustamante, an old friend of the marshal, and his comrade in Paraguay.
“But we know each other!” he said.
Quaresma looked at that old, dark mulatto, at his crafty eyes and big, patriarchal beard, but he didn’t remember ever having met him.
“I don’t recall… Where?”
“In General Albernaz’s house… Don’t you remember?”
Yes, Policarpo vaguely remembered, and Bustamante went on to explain about the creation of his patriotic ‘Southern Cross’ battalion.
“Would you like to be part of it?”
“I would,” said Quaresma.
“We’ve got some difficulties… Uniforms, boots for the lower ranks… But we have to think of the government before splashing out… Mustn’t bleed the treasury dry, must we?!”
“Certainly not!” said Quaresma, decidedly.
“I’m so glad you agree with me… I can see you’re a patriot… That’s why I’ve decided to have a whip-round among the officers according to rank: one hundred thousand réis from second lieutenants, two hundred from first lieutenants… What rank would you like?… Ah! I’ve just remembered: you’re a major, aren’t you?”
Quaresma explained why people called him ‘Major’. An influential friend of his in the ministry of the interior had put the title against his name in a list of national guards. Although he’d never paid the fee, Quaresma found that everyone started calling him ‘Major’ – try as he might to disabuse them – and the thing had stuck.
“Well, in that case,” said Bustamante, “you can stay a major.”
“How much do I need to contribute?”
“Four hundred thousand réis. It’s a bit steep but, as you know, it’s an important post… Is that OK?”
Bustamante took out his pocket-book, made a note in it with a pencil stub and took his leave in the best of spirits: “So I’ll see you at six, Major, in the provisional barracks.”
This conversation took place on the corner of the Rua Larga and Campo de Sant’Ana. Quaresma decided to take a tram to the city centre to use the time remaining until his military initiation by visiting his friend Coleoni in Botafogo.
There was little traffic in the square, other than the odd mule tram passing by at a stately pace. Every now and then a bugle sounded, followed by a drum-roll, and the gates of the headquarters would disgorge a column of recruits, their rifles dancing on their shoulders, and the sunlight glinting – harsh and unpleasant – on their bayonets.
He was just about to step on to a tram when he heard the sound of artillery fire and rifle shots. It didn’t last long; before the tram had reached the Rua da Constituição, all those bellicose noises had ceased and you could easily have thought you were living in normal times.
Quaresma sat down in the middle of one of the benches and was listlessly opening the newspaper he’d bought when he was suddenly interrupted: someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned round.
“Oh! It’s you, General!”
They were glad to see each other. General Albernaz loved nothing better than meeting old friends and re-establishing ties loosened for whatever reason. He was wearing his rather shabby old uniform, but didn’t have a sword. His eternal pince-nez was attached by its gold chain to his left ear.
“So, you’ve come to see what it’s all about?”
“Yes. I’ve already reported for service to the marshal.”
“The rebels are going to find out what they’ve let themselves in for. If they think they’re dealing with another Deodora, they’re in for a surprise!… Thank God the Republic now has a real man at its helm… The Caboclo has a fist of iron… In Paraguay…”
“Is that where you got to know him, General?”
“Well, not exactly… We didn’t meet, as such, but Camisão… He’s a hard man, The Caboclo. I’m in charge of munitions… He’s got his head screwed on; he didn’t want me down on the coast. He knows very well what I can do and that any munitions I supply will be proper munitions… There’s not one box, in the depot, that I don’t examine… It’s got to be done… In Paraguay there was a lot of confusion and corruption: lots of lime was sent instead of gunpowder… Didn’t you know?”
“It’s true. If I’d had my way, I’d have been fighting down on the beach, but the Man wanted me to stay with the munitions… What could I say, other than ‘Aye, aye, Cap’n!’? He must know what he’s doing…”
He shrugged his shoulders, adjusted the gold chain, which was about to fall from his ear, and sat in silence for a moment. Eventually, Quaresma asked, “How’s your family?”
“They’re fine. Did you know that Quinota got married?”
“I did. Ricardo told me. And how’s Dona Ismênia?”
A shadow fell over the general’s face. The question was clearly not welcome.
“She’s still the same.”
Shame prevented him from telling the whole truth. His daughter had turned into a docile, infantile lunatic. She spent whole days sitting in a corner looking stupidly at everything with the dead gaze of a statue, inert and apathetic; except on one occasion, when she carefully combed her hair and did herself up before running to her mother:
“How do I look, Mama? My fiancé will be here any minute… I’m getting married today.”
At other times she’d cut up paper into would-be wedding announcements, and write: Ismênia de Albernaz and So-and-So – it varied – announce their forthcoming wedding.
The General had already consulted a dozen doctors, he’d tried spiritualism and had recently even engaged a miracle-worker, but all to no avail – her madness remained. Indeed, she’d become more and more obsessed with marriage, the aim of her life, as she’d been trained to regard it and, when she failed to achieve that aim, both her spirit and her youth had been struck down in full bloom.
The general’s house, which had once been so happy, was now a place of sadness. There were fewer parties and, when they were obliged to hold one, on the main festive occasions, Ismênia was inveigled, at the cost of all sorts of promises, into going and staying with her married sister, so that the others could dance and forget her suffering for a few moments.
Albernaz didn’t want to talk about that grief of his old age, so he repressed his emotions and continued in his most natural voice – that familiar, intimate tone that he used for everyone:
“It’s a disgrace, Senhor Quaresma! This has set the country right back. The damage it’s done! A port like this closed to the world is going to set us back how many years?!”
The major agreed and emphasised the need to strengthen the government so as to prevent any more rebellions and insurrections.
“Definitely,” said the general. “We’re not going to get anywhere like this. And the picture it must give abroad!”
When the tram arrived at the Largo de São Francisco, the two of them separated. Quaresma went directly to the Largo da Carioca and Albernaz set off to the Rua do Rosário.
It was without the old rush of joy that Olga saw her godfather enter. It wasn’t that she was indifferent: it was rather shock, astonishment and foreboding, even though she’d known perfectly well he was on his way. But there was no difference in the way Quaresma looked, either in his face or in his overall appearance. He was completely the same pale-faced little man as always, with that little pointy beard and those penetrating eyes behind his pince-nez… Nor was he any more tanned than usual, and his way of pursing his lips was the same that she’d known for so many years. Nevertheless, he seemed a changed man, as if he’d been impelled to enter, pushed by a strange force, by a whirlwind; and yet, when she thought about it, he’d entered naturally, with his short, firm steps. So what was it that stifled her joy at seeing someone she loved so much? She couldn’t work it out. When Quaresma walked in, unannounced as was his habit, she was reading in the dining room. When she responded to his greeting, she was still under the unpleasant impression she’d had a moment earlier.
“Papa’s gone out and Armando’s downstairs, writing something.”
In fact, he was writing, or rather translating into the classical mode, a big article about ‘Wounds from firearms’. This classical business was his latest intellectual trick, his way of distinguishing himself intellectually from the fellows who wrote all those stories in the newspapers. An intellectual – and above all a doctor – like him couldn’t possibly write in the same way. His superior wisdom and academic title didn’t permit him to use the same language, the same turns of phrase or the same syntax as those hacks and scribblers. And that’s when the idea of the classical mode came to him. The recipe was simple: write ordinarily, using everyday words and style; next, turn it all back to front, sprinkle it with commas and replace ‘bother’ with ‘incommode’, ‘but’ with ‘nevertheless’ and ‘former’ with ‘quondam’; then add a helping of ‘a posterioris’ and ‘ceteris paribuses’ and there it was: the classical mode (which was already winning admirers among his peers and the general public).
In particular he loved the word ‘unconscionable’; he used it as often as he could and every time he put it on paper he felt as if he’d given his style a force and brilliance that were simply Pascalian, and his ideas a transcendent auto-sufficiency. In the evenings he tried to read Padre Vieira, but in no time he’d be asleep and dreaming about being a physician back in the 17th century, addressed as ‘Master’ and prescribing sangria and hot water, just like Dr Sangrado.
His translation was almost ready. He was quite adept at it now, because over time he’d acquired an extensive vocabulary of little-known words, most of which he could call readily to mind. He was rather displeased when his wife told him about the visit but, as he was finding it difficult to come up with a classical equivalent for ‘hole’, he thought a break might be useful. (He was, of course, aware both of ‘aperture’ and ‘orifice’, but he couldn’t decide which was the more obscure.) Confident he’d hit on the right one later, he went upstairs and – his round face, with its unruly moustache, looking the picture of happiness – entered the dining room. He found Quaresma deep in discussion with his god-daughter on the subject of authority.
Olga was just saying:
“I can’t understand why they talk about authority in such reverent tones. The governors don’t govern in the name of God any more, so why do they still treat them with such respect and veneration?!”
No sooner had he heard this than the doctor couldn’t contain himself:
“But respect and veneration are indispensable… Although we know very well that they are people like us, nevertheless, without respect and veneration, everything would go to wrack and ruin.”
Quaresma chipped in:
“Government’s essential for both the internal and the external functioning of our society.. Look at the ants and the bees…”
“Yes,” interrupted Olga, “but are there revolts among the ants and the bees, and is authority maintained over them at the cost of assassinations, extortion and violence?!”
“Well, that’s a question… Who knows? Perhaps…” muttered Quaresma evasively.
But the doctor had no such doubts:
“What have bees got to do with us?! I hope you’re not saying that we men, the pinnacle of zoological development, should go looking among the insects for our norms of behaviour!”
“No, no, dear doctor!” said Quaresma in a soothing tone. “It’s just that we can look to their example for confirmation of the generality of the phenomenon, its immanence, so to speak…”
Before he could finish, Olga said:
“It wouldn’t be so bad if this revered authority actually brought us happiness, but it doesn’t, so what’s the point?!”
“It will bring us happiness one day,” said Quaresma categorically. “It’s just necessary to consolidate it.”
The conversation continued. Eventually the major told them about his visit to Floriano and about how he’d been appointed to the Southern Cross Battalion. (When the doctor heard how familiarly Floriano had spoken to Quaresma, he felt a twinge of jealousy.)
After they’d had a light lunch, Quaresma left.
He felt the need to see those narrow streets again and the dark interiors of the shops, where the assistants moved about like troglodytes. And he had fond memories of the Rua dos Ourives, the potholed Rua da Assembleia and the dandyish Rua do Ouvidor.
Life was continuing much as usual. Groups of people were standing around, the girls were promenading and the Café do Rio was as crowded as ever with the avant-garde, the ‘Jacobins’, the republican fanatics in whose eyes moderation, tolerance and respect for freedom and difference of opinion were treasonable crimes, symptoms of criminal monarchism and deceitful capitulation to foreigners. The ‘foreigners’ were principally the Portuguese, even though the editors of some of the most Jacobin newspapers were thoroughbred Portuguese themselves.
Were it not for that demonstrative, fanatical group, the Rua do Ouvidor was much as it had ever been: flirting, and the comings and goings of the girls. Whenever an artillery shell whizzed through the clear, blue sky, they screeched like frightened cats and ran into the shops, where they waited a little before emerging, grinning, the blood returning slowly to their faces.
Quaresma dined in a restaurant before making his way to the barracks, which were temporarily located in Cidade Nova, in a tenement block condemned by the sanitary authority. It had two floors, both of which were divided into cubicles the size of cabins in a ship. A rickety wooden staircase, which groaned under the lightest step, led up to a veranda. The command room was in the first compartment upstairs, and the courtyard – from which the washing lines had been removed, but where the flagstones were still stained with lye and soap – served as a training ground for the recruits. The instructor was a retired, slightly lame sergeant, who’d been admitted to the battalion with the post of second-lieutenant, and who’d bark in majestic staccato, “Shoooul.. daaah.. arms!”
The major gave his subscription to the colonel, who, in turn, showed him the design for the uniform.
This was most peculiar, like something dreamt up by a lace-maker: the dolman was bottle-green with dark-blue piping, gold braid and four silver stars, in the shape of a cross, on the collar.
An outburst of shouting brought them on to the veranda. A man – struggling, weeping, begging – was being led into the courtyard between soldiers, who were giving him occasional blows with their rifle butts.
“That’s Ricardo!” exclaimed Quaresma, looking on with amazement and concern… “Don’t you know him, Colonel?”
Bustamante stood impassively on the veranda for some time before replying:
“I do. He’s a recalcitrant volunteer, a rebellious patriot.”
When the soldiers had hauled the ‘volunteer’ upstairs, Ricardo immediately recognised the major and began imploring, “Save me, Major!”
Quaresma called the colonel to one side and entreated him to have Ricardo set free, but in vain…
“We need soldiers. I’ll make him a corporal.”
Straining to hear what they were saying, Ricardo guessed that the answer was no.
“Yes,” he shouted. “I’ll join up, but make them give me back my guitar.”
Bustamante clicked his heels and shouted at the soldiers, “Give Corporal Ricardo his guitar back!”
II – “You’re a dreamer, Quaresma”
It’s eight in the morning. Everything’s swathed in mist. You can hardly see the bottom of the nearby buildings, and the sea is completely blanked out by that great, shimmering, opaque, dirty-white wall, the flakes of which are reassembling here and there into apparitions of real things. The sea is silent except, once in a while, for the distant sound of waves. You can’t see more than a little bit of the beach, dirty, covered in sea-weed; but the mist seems to make the smell even stronger. Look to left or right, and all you see is Nothing – Mystery. But that thick, luminous paste is full of sounds. On this indecipherable, taciturn morning, you can hear the whispering of the wind in the mountains, whistles from factories and steam engines, the creaking of winches on the ships, and even the dull slap of oars. Easy to believe that it’s Charon rowing his boat to one of the margins of the river Styx.
But what’s that?! Everyone peers at the curtain of dense fog. Their faces are pinched with fear; it seems as if demons are about to emerge from the bosom of the mist.
The slap of the oars can no longer be heard; the boat must have gone. Relief is evident on their faces.
It’s neither night nor day, neither dawn nor dusk; it’s the anxious hour, lit by uncertainty. Neither stars nor sun to guide the souls at sea; on land, birds fly into the white walls of houses and die. We could hardly feel more wretched, and the inability to see the silent marks of our activity only compounds the feeling of our loneliness deep within the enormity of nature.
The sounds continue but, because nothing can be seen, they appear to come from the bowels of the earth or to be auditory hallucinations. Reality comes to us only from that bit of sea, from the lazy swell of the waves before they break, almost timidly, on the sands of the seaweed-strewn beach.
Once the sound of oars has passed, groups of soldiers lie down on the grassy fringes further back. Some of them are already dropping off to sleep; others try to see the sky through the mist that’s moistening their faces.
Wearing his beret, and with his rifle at his side, Corporal Ricardo Coração dos Outros is sitting by himself on a stone, gazing at that sinister morning.
It’s the first time he’s seen the sea mist – and experienced its baleful force – at such close quarters. In the past, he’d had eyes only for daybreaks that were clear, radiant, soft and fragrant; this foggy, ugly daybreak is something completely new.
In his corporal’s uniform, however, the troubadour isn’t downhearted. He’s finding barracks life surprisingly relaxed; it rather suits him. They let him keep his guitar and, when he’s got a moment, he accompanies himself on it as he sings sotto voce. It’s important not to let your fingers get rusty… The one thing that does rather bother him, though, is not being permitted to sing aloud.
The commander of the detachment is Quaresma. Perhaps he’ll agree…
The major’s inside the house that’s serving as headquarters. He’s reading about what’s currently his favourite subject: explosives. He’s bought whole compendiums about it but, to make up for his lack of knowledge, he’s gone on from explosives to ballistics, from ballistics to mechanics, from mechanics to calculus and analytical geometry; then down a step to trigonometry, axiomatic geometry, algebra and arithmetic. And he’s progressing through these interlinked sciences with absolute faith that something will come of it. But it takes him consultations in this, that and the other compendium before he can glean even the most rudimentary notion; and that’s how he’s been spending these days of phony war: immersed in a subject that elderly brains find so intractable and unpalatable.
Although the detachment has a Krupp cannon and he’s studying explosives, he has nothing to do with that lethal device. It’s been entrusted to Lieutenant Fontes, who’s not inclined to obey the patriotic major. But this doesn’t bother Quaresma, who goes on – slowly – learning how to use a cannon, whilst submitting to the impudence of his subordinate.
The commander of the Southern Cross, Bustamante – he of the patriarchal beard – is still at the barracks, overseeing the life of the battalion. The unit has few officers and even fewer privates, but the state is paying as if there were four hundred. There aren’t enough captains; there’s enough second – and almost enough first – lieutenants; but now there’s a major – Quaresma. And then there’s the commander, Bustamante, who – out of modesty – made himself simply a lieutenant colonel.
Quaresma’s detachment has forty privates, three second lieutenants and two first lieutenants, but the officers are little in evidence. In fact, they’re nearly all sick or on leave: only the ex-farmer from The Haven and a second lieutenant, Polidoro, are at their posts – the latter only for the night shift. A soldier entered.
“Senhor Commander, requesting permission to go for breakfast!”
“Permission granted. And tell Corporal Ricardo I want to see him.”
The private limped out in his big army boots. That item of protective clothing was like a punishment for the poor man; whenever he found himself in the scrub land near his home, he’d take them off and feel the breeze of liberty on his face.
The commander walked over to the window. The mist was slowly clearing and he could see the sun shining like a disc of tarnished gold.
Ricardo appeared in the doorway, looking distinctly odd in his corporal’s uniform: the jacket was far too short, as if it had shrunk, and the sleeves reached only half way down his forearms, whilst the trousers were far too long, the bottoms dragging along the ground.
“How are you, Ricardo?”
“I’m fine. And how are you, Major?”
Quaresma cast his sharp, lingering eyes on his friend and subordinate:
“Something’s bothering you, isn’t it?”
The troubadour felt flattered by his commander’s concern:
“No… Or rather, I mean, yes, Major… If it’s like this all the time, that won’t be so bad… but when there’s firing, it’s just awful… And another thing, Major: couldn’t I, sort of, when there’s nothing to do, go off into the mangos and have a bit of a sing-song?…”
The major scratched his head, stroked his goatee beard and said:
“I really don’t know… The thing is…”
“But you know this business of keeping my voice down is like rowing without water… They say that in Paraguay…”
“Alright. You can go and sing in the mangos; but not too loud, OK?”
They were silent for a while, and Ricardo was on the point of leaving when the major said, “Tell them to bring my lunch.”
Quaresma had his meals there (brought over from a nearby canteen) and he often slept there as well, amid decayed imperial splendour, because the house was a former imperial pavilion, situated in the old Ponta do Caju Estate. Also within the grounds of the old estate were the Rio Douro railway station and a large and noisy sawmill. Quaresma went over to the door, looked at the dirty beach and wondered how on earth the emperor could have wanted to bathe there. The mist had almost cleared completely and the forms of things – looking happy that the nightmare was over – were emerging from the depths of that heavy mass of fog. The lower halves were the first to appear – slowly –, followed, almost suddenly, by the tops.
On the right he could see the districts of Saúde and Gamboa, and the trading ships appearing from the mist: three-masted ones, steam freighters and haughty sailing boats. For a moment it all looked like a Dutch landscape; on the left, Raposa Creek, Retiro Saudoso, the horrendous Sapucaia, Governador Island and the blue Órgãos Mountains, soaring into the sky; in front, Ferreiros Island, with its coal depots; and looking further, across the calm sea, Niterói, the mountains of which had just emerged against the blue sky on this tardy morning.
The last remnants of the mist dissolved and a cock crew. It was as if happiness had returned to the Earth; it was like an alleluia. And all of a sudden those whispering, whistling and creaking sounds took on a cheerful note.
Quaresma’s lunch arrived, followed by a sergeant who’d come to report two more desertions.
“Two more?!” said the major, amazed.
“Yes, Senhor. Numbers one hundred and twenty five and three hundred and twenty didn’t respond at roll-call.”
“Make a note of it.”
Quaresma had no sooner started his lunch than Colonel Fontes, the cannon man, arrived. Fontes hardly ever slept there: he usually went home, returning the next morning to see how things were going.
One morning he didn’t turn up. It was a very dark morning, and the sentry had spotted a shadowy shape rocking to and fro out at sea. He hadn’t brought any sort of light with him, so it was only the movement of that shadow, together with a slight phosphorescence from the water, that revealed the presence of a boat. He raised the alarm, the little contingent of soldiers took up their posts, and Quaresma appeared.
“The cannon!” he ordered. “Now! Forwards!” This was followed, in a nervous voice, by, “Hold on a minute!”
He ran back to the house to consult his compendiums and tables. This took a while, the boat was approaching, and the soldiers were getting edgy. In the end, one of them took the initiative: he loaded the cannon and fired.
Quaresma reappeared at a gallop, greatly alarmed, and shouted – between his puffing and panting:
“Did you check… the distance,… the target,… the angle? It’s necessary… always… to bear in mind… the efficiency… of the shot.”
When Fontes came the next day and found out about it, he had a good laugh:
“Look, Major! You think you’re on the artillery range, taking practice shots… Open fire!”
That’s how it went. There was a bombardment almost every afternoon, from the sea towards the forts, and from the forts towards the sea – both ships and forts emerging unscathed from such terrible travails.
There was one occasion, however, when they did score a hit. So one of the papers duly reported: Yesterday, cannon such-and-such at Acadêmico Fort scored a direct hit against the Guanabara. The following day, the paper printed a correction at the request of the Pharoux Quay Battery: it was they who’d scored the direct hit. Some days later, when it had almost been forgotten, a letter from Niterói appeared in the paper, claiming that the honour belonged to their Santa Cruz Fort.
Lieutenant Fontes arrived and went to examine the cannon with the air of someone in the know. It was in a trench made of bales of alfafa, from which its nozzle emerged, strewn with hay, like the maw of some hidden, ferocious beast.
Having finished his inspection, he was looking out towards the horizon and Cobra Island when he heard the plangent tones of a guitar, and an even more plangent voice:
“By the most Sacred Sacrament I vow…”
He set off towards the source of these sounds and came across the following touching picture: some of the soldiers were lying in the shade of a big tree, while other were sitting in a circle around Ricardo Coração dos Outros, who was intoning his heart wrenching lamentations.
Having just finished their lunch and drunk their cachaça, the soldiers were so mesmerised by Ricardo’s song that they didn’t even notice the young officer.
“What’s all this?!” he barked.
The soldiers all got to their feet and stood to attention, including Ricardo – sort of: his right hand was in salute position by his beret; his left was holding the neck of his guitar, the body of which was resting on the ground.
“Seu Lieutenant, the major said I could,” he said. “You know we wouldn’t be doing it if we hadn’t been allowed, Senhor.”
“That’s as may be, but I don’t want any more of it,” said the officer.
“But,” objected Ricardo, “Seu Major Quaresma…”
“There is no ‘Major Quaresma’ here. I don’t want any more of it. Understand?!”
The soldiers dispersed and Lieutenant Fontes went to the old imperial house to see the major of the Southern Cross Battalion. Quaresma was still deep in his studies – a Sisyphean task, certainly, but entered into voluntarily and for the sake of Brazil. No sooner had he entered than Fontes burst out:
“What’s all this, Seu Quaresma?! You’ve allowed sing-songs in the detachment?!”
The major, who’d forgotten all about it, was taken aback by the young man’s brusqueness and severity. Fontes repeated his question:
“So you’re happy for the lower ranks to sing modinhas and play the guitar while they’re on duty?!”
“But where’s the harm in that? I’ve heard it said that during the campaign in…”
“And what about discipline?! And respect?!”
“Alright, I’ll forbid it,” said Quaresma.
“No need. I’ve already forbidden it.”
Quaresma didn’t show any irritation; in fact he didn’t see any reason to get angry.
“You did well,” was his mild response, before going on immediately to ask Fontes how to extract the square root of a decimal fraction. After the young man had explained, they continued having an amicable conversation about everyday things. Fontes was the fiancé of Lalá, General Albernaz’s youngest daughter, and he was planning to marry her once the revolt was over. They spoke for more than an hour about this one little family matter, which was somehow linked to all those bangs, all that shooting and all that solemn struggle between two rival ambitions. Suddenly the metallic voice of the bugle sounded. Fontes listened carefully.
“What call is that?” asked the major.
Both of them left the house, Fontes looking very smart in his uniform, the major struggling to fasten his baldric without tripping over the ancient sword that kept getting in the way of his short legs. The soldiers were already in the trenches, with their weapons primed, and a pile of shells had been placed by the cannon. A boat was slowly approaching, with its prow pointing straight at them. Suddenly a puff of thick smoke leapt from its deck. “Fire!” someone shouted. Everyone crouched down, but the shot fizzed and whistled inoffensively overhead. The boat continued to advance relentlessly. In addition to the soldiers, there were some little boys who’d come to watch. In fact, it was one of them who’d shouted “Fire.”
That’s what it was always like. Sometimes the bystanders came right up to the troops, standing by the trenches and getting in the way; on other occasions, one of them would sidle up to the officer and ask, very politely, “Would you allow me to fire a shot, Senhor?” The officer would agree, some soldiers would load the cannon, the man would point it, and off went the shot.
In time, the revolt became a sort of carnival, an entertainment for the city… Whenever a bombardment was announced, the terrace of the Passeio Público would fill up in no time. It was like back in the days when it was fashionable on a moonlit night to go to the old Dom Luís de Vasconcelos Gardens to observe our lonely satellite filling the sky and scattering silver on the waters.
You could hire binoculars and both young and old would follow the bombardment as if it were a theatrical production: “Fire from Santa Cruz! Now it’s the Aquidabã! There it goes!” And thus, before long, the revolt had become part of the habits and customs of the city.
On the Pharoux Quay, little boys, newspaper sellers, bootblacks and peddlers would hide in doorways, behind the public lavatories and under trees, waiting to see the shells fall; if one landed near them, they’d all run out and try to grab it, as if it were a coin or a sweet.
Bullets were in fashion. Tie pins, watch ornaments and pencil cases were made from little rifle bullets; collections of larger bullets – together with their sandpapered and polished cartridges – were displayed on console tables in better-off houses; and large artillery shells – ‘melons’ or ‘pumpkins’, as they were called – were used as garden ornaments, flowerpots or statues.
The boat continued firing; Fontes fired back. The cannon vomited the projectile, rocked back a little and was immediately repositioned. The crew returned fire, and the little boy cried out once more, “Fire!”
It was always those boys who announced enemy fire. No sooner had they seen the flash from a boat, followed by the roll of thick smoke, than they cried “Fire!”
One of them, in Niterói, even became famous, albeit briefly. They called him ‘Thirty Réis’, there were articles about him, and money was collected for him. A hero! But once the revolt was over he was promptly forgotten, as was Luci, a beautiful boat that captured the imagination of the city, creating enemies and admirers in the process.
Meanwhile, the boat had ceased to provoke the fury of the Caju brigade and, having given instructions to his assistant, Fontes departed.
Quaresma, for his part, ensconced himself in his room and continued to study the art of war. And thus time passed, one day much like the next, and one event much like another. As a result, the war became thoroughly banal.
Sometimes it all became too tedious even for Quaresma and he’d go down to the city, leaving Fontes in charge – or Polidoro, if Fontes wasn’t there.
He rarely went during the day, because Polidoro, the most assiduous of them, was a carpenter who still worked in a furniture workshop by day and only came at night.
In the city centre, the nights were free and easy. The government was paying double wages and occasional bonuses, so there was plenty of money which, together with the constant threat of death, encouraged everyone to have a good time. The theatres and restaurants were full.
However, Quaresma didn’t throw himself into the gay abandon of a city half under siege. At the most, he’d go to the theatre in civvies and, as soon as the performance was over, go back to his room in the city or to his post.
On other evenings, as soon as Polidoro arrived, he’d go for a walk through the surrounding streets, or along the beach as far as Campo de São Cristóvão.
The walk to São Cristóvão took him past a succession of cemeteries, with white gravestones climbing the mountains like freshly shorn, grazing sheep, guarded by meditative cypresses. It seemed almost as if that part of the city was under the dominion of Death.
Even the houses – secluded and huddled together – had a funereal look; the sea churned against the muddy shore; the palm trees moaned in the breeze; and even the clanging of the tramcar bells was lugubrious.
The landscape was impregnated with Death, as must have been the mind of anyone passing that way.
When he got to the Campo, it occurred to him to go and have a look at his old house. In the end, he went to General Albernaz’s. It was high time he paid a visit.
They were just finishing dinner. Apart from the general, Lieutenant Fontes and Admiral Caldas, there was Quaresma’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Inocêncio Bustamante.
Bustamante was an active commander, but only inside the barracks. No-one took a more lively interest in bookkeeping and, in particular, the standard of calligraphy in the ledgers, registers, company charts and other documents. As a result, the organisation of his battalion was faultless, and that was the reason why he visited the detachments of his battalion once in a while: to keep an eye on the bookkeeping.
It was ten days since Quaresma last saw him. After they’d said hello, Bustamante immediately asked the major, “How many deserters?”
“Nine so far,” said Quaresma.
Greatly perturbed, Bustamante scratched his head:
“I don’t understand how they can do it… It’s unspeakable!… A complete lack of patriotism!”
“I don’t blame them… What do you expect?!” said the Admiral.
Caldas was depressed, pessimistic. His appeal was going badly: so far he hadn’t got anything out of the government. His patriotism was weakening in line with his hopes of being made a vice-admiral. It’s true the government hadn’t yet organised a squadron for him but, if the rumours were to be believed, he wouldn’t even be in charge of a division. A disgrace! On the other hand, although he was getting on a bit, not being in charge of anything meant he could devote himself to his cause like a young’un.
“You shouldn’t speak like that, Admiral… Patriotism is next to Positivism.”
“But, my dear Lieutenant, you’re still young… I’ve seen a bit of the world…”
“You shouldn’t despair,” insisted Fontes. “We’re not working for ourselves, but for the good of others and those yet to come.”
“What’ve they got to do with me?!” said Caldas irritably.
Bustamante, the general and Quaresma listened to this little argument in silence, the first two rather amused to see Caldas so furious, continually jogging his leg up and down, and stroking his long, white sideburns.
“A lot, Admiral,” replied the lieutenant. “It’s the duty of all of us to work for a better future, a future of order, happiness and moral evolution.”
“Never was and never will be!” Caldas fired back.
“I agree,” Albernaz chipped in.
“Nothing will ever change,” seconded Bustamante.
The major, apparently uninterested in the conversation, said nothing. Faced with all this opposition, Fontes – unlike his fellow positivists – didn’t get annoyed. He was a skinny man, of dark-brown complexion, and his oval face was rather misaligned.
Once he’d heard what the others had to say, his nasal drawl took on a portentous tone as, waving his right hand like a preacher, he pronounced:
“There’s already a blue-print: the Middle Ages.”
None of those present could contest this: Quaresma’s knowledge of history was limited to Brazil; the others had no knowledge of history at all.
So, doubt it as they may, this mediaeval blueprint shut them up. But it must be said that this business about the moral superiority of the Middle Ages is curious: no-one knows when and where. If you object, “But it was in the Middle Ages that King Clothar, with his own hands, set alight the hut in which he’d locked his son Chram, Chram’s wife and their children,” a positivist will say, “Ah! but the dominion of the church wasn’t yet complete.” And if we go on to say, “St Louis wanted to execute a feudal lord because he’d had three children hung for killing a rabbit on his lands,” the indefatigable positivist will say:
“Don’t you know: for us, the proper Middle Ages only go up to the appearance of the Divine Comedy? In St Louis’ time, they were already decadent”…
You can cite plague and pestilence, the poverty of the serfs, the plundering by the barons, millennial ravings, Charlemagne’s massacre of the Saxons, but all to no avail: either the moral authority of the church hadn’t yet been full established, or it had already disappeared.
None of these objections, however, were put to our positivist, and so the conversation turned to the revolt. The Admiral was very critical of the government.
There was no planning at all, which was the cause of all this random shooting. In his opinion, the government should have done everything possible to capture Cobras Island, even if that meant rivers of blood. Bustamante wasn’t sure what he thought, but Quaresma and Fontes disagreed: it would be far too risky and would have no clear benefit. Finally Albernaz gave his opinion: “But we reconnoitred Humaitá, and we almost took it!”
“But you didn’t,” said Fontes. “The natural conditions were different and, even so, the reconnaissance was perfectly useless… You should know – you were there!”
“Well, not exactly… I fell ill shortly before it started, and had to return to Brazil, but Camisão told me it was very risky.”
Quaresma had fallen back into silence. He wanted to see Ismênia. Fontes had told him about her illness, and the major somehow felt enormous sympathy for the girl. He could see them all in his mind’s eye: Dona Maricota, always flitting about, always attentive; Lalá, trying to catch her fiancé’s eye during his interminable conversation; and the others, passing – every now and then – from the living room to the dining room, where Quaresma was. In the end he couldn’t help asking, and was told it wasn’t good: she was at her married sister’s house and was becoming increasingly manic and frail. Having given a frank account of this family calamity, the general gave a deep sigh: “I don’t know, Quaresma… I just don’t know.”
It was ten o’clock when the major left. He caught the tram back to the Ponta do Caju. When he got there, he went straight to his room, in a state of mental turmoil, which was somehow exacerbated by that beautifully tender, milk-white, moonlit night. It was the sort of liquescent night when your body seems to dissolve, when there’s just your soul, swathed gently by dreams and chimeras. Without knowing it, however, the major was more affected by the cold, pallid moonlight than by any transcendent feelings. He lay on the bed for a bit, fully dressed, not because he was sleepy, but in a sort of moon-induced drunkenness.
After a while, Ricardo came to call him: the marshal was there. It was his habit to go out at night, or at dawn, and visit the detachments. This fact soon became known to his adoring public, who regarded him as an even greater statesman on that account.
Quaresma went out to meet him. Floriano was wearing a broad-brimmed felt hat and a short, weather-beaten overcoat. He had a shifty air about him, like an exemplary head of family looking for extra-marital sex.
The major greeted him and started giving him a report on the most recent attack on the detachment. Meanwhile the marshal looked about him, responding only in lazy monosyllables. Just before he left, he muttered, “I’ve got to get a searchlight set up here.”
Quaresma went with him to the tram. On the way, they passed through the grounds of the old imperial seaside palace. A little way out of the station, a steam engine was puffing sluggishly as if snoring in its sleep, and the little wagons, bathed in moonlight, were asleep too, but silent. The old mangos, missing a branch here and there, seemed powdered with silver. The moon was magnificent. As they were walking, the marshal asked, “How many men have you got?”
“Not a lot,” murmured the marshal, before falling silent again. After a while, Quaresma turned and saw the dictator’s face illuminated by the moonlight. It made him look more sympathetic. What if Quaresma were to speak to him?…
He knew what he wanted to ask, but he didn’t have the courage… They continued walking. The major thought: What’s the harm? It wouldn’t be in the least disrespectful. They were approaching the gate when they heard a noise behind them. Quaresma turned to look, but Floriano hardly gave a glance.
The buildings of the sawmill seemed covered in snow, so strong was the moonlight. The major was still agonising over his question; he had to ask it; it was indispensable; they’d soon be at the gate. Taking his courage in both hands, he said, “Have you read my proposal, Your Excellency?”
Almost without moving his pendulous lower lip, Floriano replied, “Yes.”
This encouraged Quaresma to continue:
“So you’ll have seen, Your Excellency, how easily this country can be raised to great things. As long as we get rid of all the obstacles I pointed out in the proposal you’ve had the kindness to read, Your Excellency, and as long as all the errors of our legislature – so defective and inadequate for the needs of the country – are corrected, everything will change, Your Excellency, and instead of being debt-ridden we’ll have our independence… Should you only wish it, Your Excellency…”
The more Quaresma talked, the more enthusiastic he became. He didn’t have a good view of the dictator’s face any more, as it was covered by the brow of his felt hat; if he’d seen that thunderous expression, he’d have thought twice about continuing Much as he’d have liked to ignore Quaresma’s diatribe and all that stuff about legislation and government measures, Floriano couldn’t help himself: he was very annoyed. After a while, he said:
“Are you trying to say, Quaresma, that I should personally put a hoe into the hands of all those good-for-nothings?! Even if I had the biggest army in the world…”
Quaresma went cold.
“Erm…that’s not… erm… what I meant, Marshal” he said. With your power and… erm… prestige, Your Excellency, you could favour forceful and appropriate measures… erm… initiatives, for setting the work in motion, for… erm… making it profitable… It would… erm… be sufficient, for example…”
They were just going through the gateway of Pedro the First’s old estate. The moon was still beautifully opalescent, so much so that it made a large, unfinished building in the road appear finished, its windows and doors magicked up by that wonderful light. A palace of dreams.
Floriano was becoming more and more irritated. But when the tram arrived, he took his leave of the major by saying, in his usual soporific voice, “You’re a dreamer, Quaresma”
The tram departed. The moon was populating the spaces, giving physiognomies to things, making our souls dream, and filling our lives with its borrowed light…
III – …gliding silently back…
“I’ve tried everything, Quaresma, but I don’t know… It’s hopeless!”
“Have you taken her to a medical specialist?”
“I have. Doctors, spiritualists, even shamans, Quaresma!”
Beneath his pince-nez, the old man’s eyes moistened. The two had met at the payments office in the ministry of war and were ambling across the Campo de Sant’Anna, chatting. The general was taller than Quaresma and, while the latter had a long neck, the former’s head was sunk between his prominent shoulders, which looked like the stumps of wings.
“And the treatments!” continued Albernaz. “Different doctors, different prescriptions. The spiritualists are the best – homoeopathy. The shamans recommend herbs, prayers and fumigations… I really don’t know, Quaresma!”
He raised his eyes to the overcast heavens. But he didn’t remain dispirited for long; his pince-nez wouldn’t let him – it was beginning to slip.
Quaresma bowed his head and looked at the granulations in the granite pathway as they walked on. After a while, he lifted his head and said, “Why not put her in a nursing home, General?”
“My doctor’s already recommended that… My wife doesn’t want it and – the way the girl is at present – it’s just not worth it…”
He explained that, in the last months, Ismênia had got much worse, not so much because of her mental state, but physically – confined to bed, continually feverish, pining and wasting away, marching quickly towards the cold embrace of Death.
It was all true: he’d tried everything and followed the advice of everyone, to try and cure her both of her madness and of her subsequent physical illness.
It was touching to see that man – a general with a career in government behind him – seeking out mediums and shamans to try and cure his daughter.
Sometimes he even brought them to his house. The mediums would come close to the young woman, shudder and, boggle-eyed, shout, “Leave her, Brother!” And in great agitation they’d repeatedly flutter their hands from their chests towards Ismênia, to sprinkle her with their fluence.
The shamans had other routines, and their ceremonies for contacting the occult forces that surround us were slow and complicated. Most of them were black Africans. After arriving, they’d light a fire in the bedroom, take a stuffed toad – or something equally weird – out of a basket, shake bundles of herbs, perform a few dance steps and make unintelligible pronouncements.
When the shaman was on his way out, Dona Maricota, who was somewhat less active and diligent nowadays, would look tenderly at his big black face – made even more venerable by a majestic white beard – and ask, “So, Grandfather?…”
The shaman would ponder for a moment, as if receiving the last communications from an oracle, and then he’d say, with his African grandeur:
“You go see, Sá Dona… Granfadda gone done di speshall magic…”
Dona Maricota and the general had been present at the ceremony, and her mother’s love, together with that deep-down superstition that all of us have, made her desperate to believe in ‘Grandfather’.
“So someone put a spell on my daughter?” she asked.
“Dey has, yo, Sá Dona.”
“Di Sent he no wan’ seh.”
That old, jet-black ex-slave, who’d been dragged out of Africa half a century ago, took his leave, trailing his venerable age behind him and leaving a fleeting hope in those two hearts.
It was a singular situation: that African, who was unlikely to have forgotten the tribulations of his long captivity, availing himself of the remnants of his ingenuous tribal beliefs – remnants that had survived, at such cost, their forced transplantation to the lands of other gods – and using them for the consolation of his one-time masters. It was as if the gods of his infancy and of his race, those bloodthirsty idols of darkest Africa, had wanted to wreak vengeance, in this piquant way, on the Christ of the Gospels…
Ismênia suffered it all without understanding – or having the least interest in – the rituals conducted by those extraordinary men who could not only communicate with, but even give orders to, forces above and beyond our ken.
Walking along beside Quaresma and recalling all this, the general couldn’t suppress his bitterness against science, against the spiritualists, against the shamans and against the God who was slowly and pitilessly taking his daughter away.
The major didn’t know what to say in the face of such immense paternal pain; words seemed pathetic and idiotic. Nevertheless, in the end he ventured, “Would you permit me to have her seen by a doctor, General?”
“My god-daughter’s husband… You know him… He’s young. Maybe he’ll know something new. It’s worth a try, don’t you think?”
The general agreed and, once more, the hope of seeing his daughter cured lit up his wrinkled face. Every doctor he consulted, every spiritualist and every shaman filled him with fresh hope; from each and every one he expected a miracle. That same day, Quaresma went looking for Dr Armando.
The revolt had been rumbling on for four months, and it was hard to say if the government was winning. In the south the insurrection had arrived at the outskirts of São Paulo; only Lapa was putting up a determined resistance – one of the few commendable pages in the whole wretched story. In Colonel Gomes Carneiro, the little city had within its fortifications a leader who radiated a sense of energy, calm enthusiasm, confidence and, above all, justice. He didn’t permit any violent over-reactions, and yet he was a true embodiment of that grandiloquent but hackneyed phrase: fight to the death.
Governador Island had been occupied and Magé had been taken; but the rebels controlled the vast bay and its narrow bar, through which they could sail in and out without fearing much hindrance from the forts.
News of the crimes of gratuitous violence committed during the government’s taking of the island and Magé greatly perturbed Quaresma.
Governador Island had been thoroughly plundered, and what couldn’t be carried off had been destroyed by fire and axe.
The occupation of the island has scarred the memories of the islanders, who still remember, in particular, the ferocity and boundless avarice of a Captain Ortiz, who was a volunteer or national guardsman or something of the sort. On one occasion, he was standing in a doorway when a fisherman was walking past with a basket of fish, and he called the poor man over: “Come here!”
The man approached, nervously, and Ortiz asked, “How much for that?”
“Three thousand réis, Cap’n.”
Smiling unpleasantly, the captain started to haggle, as if nothing were amiss:
“Couldn’t you knock it down a bit? It’s too much… It’s only silver perch! Ridiculous!”
“Alright, Cap’n, you can have it for two fifty.”
“Put it inside over there.”
The fisherman did as he was told, came out again and waited to be paid. But Ortiz just shook his head and said sarcastically:
“The money, eh?! Go and get it from Floriano.”
At the other extreme was the famous Colonel Moreiro César, who is still fondly remembered by the beneficiaries of his many acts of kindness.
The rebels didn’t seem to have been weakened. They had, however, lost two ships, including the Javari, which had gained a considerable reputation in the revolt. The land forces had a particular hatred of it. Made in France, it was a shallow-draft monitor, lying low in the water, like an iron lizard or turtle Its artillery was fearsome, but what most infuriated its adversaries was that it lay so low in the water, making it very difficult to hit with the inaccurate gunfire from the land. Its engines didn’t function, however, and the big turtle had to be towed into combat position by a tug.
It sank one day when it was near Villegaignon – it’s still not clear why. The government side claimed it was a shell from Gragoatá that did it, but the rebels were adamant: it was the opening of a valve, or some such accident.
As in the case of its sister ship, the Solimões, which disappeared off Cape Polônio, what happened to the Javari is still a mystery.
Quaresma had come from the Caju garrison to collect some money. He’d left Polidoro in charge, because the other officers were either ill or on leave and Fontes, who’d turned into a sort of inspector general, had – contrary to his habits – slept that night in the little imperial pavilion and was going to stay on till afternoon.
Ever since he’d been forbidden to play the guitar, Ricardo Coração dos Outros had been utterly downcast. They’d taken his lifeblood, his raison d’être, so he spent his days leaning, taciturn, against a tree trunk and heartily cursing both the incomprehension of men and the whims of destiny. Having noticed how crestfallen he was, Fontes had tried to soften the blow by getting Bustamante to make him a sergeant. This had not been easy, because the veteran of Paraguay regarded a sergeantship as something that could only be given exceptionally, or when required by VIPs.
Thus the troubadour’s life had become like that of a caged blackbird, and once in a while he’d wander off a bit and try out his voice, to see if it hadn’t disappeared with the gun smoke.
Knowing that the garrison was in good hands, Quaresma decided to delay his return and, after taking his leave of Albernaz, headed for Coleoni’s house to fulfil the promise he’d made to the general.
Coleoni had still not decided whether to go to Europe. He thought he’d wait until the rebellion was over, but there was no end in sight. It didn’t have anything to do with him and, up until then, he hadn’t told anyone what he thought about it; if pressed, he’d point out that he was a foreigner and maintain a prudent silence. But he was greatly alarmed by the need for a passport, which had to be collected from the police headquarters. In those days, everyone was afraid of having to deal with the authorities. There was so much ill will towards foreigners, and the civil servants were so arrogant, that he had little appetite for going to get it. He was afraid that a single word, look or gesture, misinterpreted by an overzealous official, could end up causing him no end of trouble.
It was true he was an Italian and that Italy had already reminded Floriano of its power but, as far as he remembered, the case in question – the death of an Italian sailor, who’d been hit by government gunfire – had been settled by the payment of a hundred million réis. However, he – Coleoni – wasn’t a sailor and he doubted whether, if he were arrested, the Italian embassy would show much interest in securing his liberty.
Not only that but, not having confirmed his nationality when the provisional government issued the infamous Naturalisation Decree, it was quite possible the Italians might use that fact to wash their hands of him, and the Brazilians might use it to put him in the dreaded Gallery 7 of the reform school, which had been transformed, at the stroke of a pen, into a State prison.
It was a period of fear and alarm, but he spoke about it only to his daughter, because his son-in-law was becoming a die-hard Florianist and Jacobin; Coleoni had often heard him inveighing against foreigners.
The doctor had good reason: the government had been so good as to appoint him doctor at the Santa Bárbara Hospital after the previous incumbent had been dismissed, in the public interest, for visiting a friend in prison. But as the hospital was located on the island of the same name within Guanabara Bay, opposite Saúde, and as the bay was still controlled by the rebels, there was nothing for him to do because, as yet, the government hadn’t accepted his offer to help in treating the wounded.
The major found both father and daughter at home; the doctor had gone to flaunt his dedication to the government cause in various parts of the city, conversing with the top Jacobins in the Café do Rio and walking the corridors at Itamarati so as to be seen by the aides-de-camp, secretaries and others who had some influence over Floriano.
When Olga saw Quaresma enter, it was with the same strange sensation that she always had when she saw him nowadays, a sensation that was even stronger when she heard him talking about the military exploits of his garrison – the flying shells, the gunfire from the boats – as if it were a matter of nothing, the details of a party, a sporting event, or some such entertainment in which there was no hint of death.
Even worse on this occasion was that she could see how apprehensive he was, and could hear the desolation and despair in his voice.
Something, indeed, was eating away at the major. The reception Floriano had given his reminder about the proposed reforms had been a heavy blow to his naive enthusiasm, not to mention his image of the dictator. He’d expected to meet a Henri IV, a Sully, and instead he’d come across a president who called him a dreamer, had no appreciation of his far-reaching proposals, hadn’t even read them, had no interest in the higher good, and for whom he might as well not have existed!… So it was in support of such a man that he’d left the peace and quiet of his home and was risking his life in the trenches?! It was for that man that so many were dying?! How could he have the power of life and death over his fellow citizens when he had no interest in what happened to them, in whether their lives were happy and fulfilled, in Brazilian economy or agriculture, or in the well-being of the rural population?
Plagued by these thoughts, he had moments of the most abject despair, of self-hatred; but then he’d always think: He’s got so much to worry about, he can’t do it now, he’ll do it later, no doubt about it…
It was these anguished deliberations, going round and round in his head, that caused the apprehension, disillusion and despair Olga could see in his face.
However, it wasn’t long before he left off recounting stories from his life in the army and explained the reason for his visit.
“But which of them?” asked his god-daughter.
“The second one, Ismênia.”
“The one who was going to marry the dentist?”
This ‘Ah’ was long and deep, as if it contained everything she wanted to say on the matter. The immediate cause of the young woman’s despair was clear, but Olga was even more aware of the underlying cause: the obligation to marry at all costs that’s instilled into girls, making marriage seem the be all and end all of life, and spinsterhood seem like an abomination.
Marriage is no longer about love or motherhood or anything of the kind: it’s an end in itself, an empty thing, without foundation either in our nature or our needs.
Ismênia’s insipidity, apathy and intellectual poverty had turned her fiancé’s desertion into the certainty that she’d never marry, and everything else had collapsed into that one certainty.
All of this touched Coleoni greatly and he listened intently. He was basically a good man and, although he’d made himself out to be hard and sharp when fighting his way up – better to be good and strong than good and weak –, now he was rich he’d shed all that.
As for the major, his interest in the girl had receded somewhat amid the mental maelstrom currently afflicting him; but even though the plight of Albernaz’s daughter was no longer at the front of his mind, there was still ample room for her in his profound goodness and humanity.
He didn’t stay long in Coleoni’s house, because he wanted to go to the battalion headquarters before returning to Caju. He was going to see if he could get leave to go and visit the sister he’d left behind in The Haven, and who was sending him three letters a week with clockwork regularity. It was lovely to receive her letters, but he really needed to see both her and Anastácio, the people he’d lived with every day for so many years and missed so much. Perhaps seeing them again would restore his peace of mind.
In Dona Adelaide’s last letter, she’d written something that made him smile: Don’t put yourself in unnecessary danger, Policarpo. Take great care. Poor Adelaide! She’d almost made it sound as if going out in the gunfire was like going out in the rain!
The barracks were still in the condemned slum, over towards the Cidade Nova. As soon as the major appeared on the corner, the sentry stood to attention with a great roar and a noisy manoeuvring of his rifle. Policarpo entered, taking his bowler hat off as he did so. (He was in civvies and had abandoned his top hat for fear it would offend the republican sensibilities of the Jacobins.)
In the courtyard, the lame sergeant major was putting a new set of volunteers through their paces, and his bellowed commands – “Shoooul… daaah… arms!… Le-e-eft… turn!… Riiight… turn” – rose to the skies and reverberated from the walls of the old hostelry.
Bustamante was in his cubicle – otherwise known as “office” – and was immaculately dressed in his bottle-green uniform, with its gold braid and metallic-blue piping. With the assistance of a sergeant, he was studying the barracks inventory.
“Red ink, Sergeant! As per the 1864 instructions.”
It had to do with a correction, or something of the sort.
As soon as he saw Quaresma enter, the commandant’s face brightened up: “You guessed!”
While Quaresma was calmly hanging his hat on a peg and drinking a little water, Colonel Inocêncio explained the cause of his excitement: “Did you know we’ve had marching orders?”
“I don’t know… I’ve just got the order from Itamarati.”
He never said ‘from headquarters’ or even ‘from the Ministry of War’: it was always ‘from Itamarati’, ‘from the President’ or ‘from the Supreme Commander’. It was like a way of enhancing both his own importance and that of his battalion, which he regarded as the dictator’s elite bodyguard. Although he remained impassive, Quaresma realised it would now be impossible to get leave and that he’d have to switch to studying infantry – rather than artillery – warfare.
“Did you know you’ll be in charge of the body of the troops?”
“No, Colonel. Won’t you be going yourself?”
“No,” said Bustamante, speaking out of the left side of his mouth as he stroked his patriarchal beard. “I’ve got to finish organising the unit and I can’t… But don’t worry!… I’ll be there later…”
Dusk was falling by the time Quaresma left the barracks. The sergeant major was still emitting great, sonorous vocal explosions: “Shoooul… daaah… arms!” For his part, the sentry wasn’t able to repeat his cacophonous present-arms: by the time he saw him, the major was a distant figure. Policarpo went down to the post-office in the city. Occasional shots could be heard. In the Café do Rio, the Levites were still exchanging ideas about how to secure the Republic for all time.
Before he got to the post-office, Quaresma remembered his impending departure. He hurried to a bookshop and bought some books about infantry warfare; he’d also need to get a copy of the regulations from headquarters.
Where would they be going? To the South? to Magé? to Niterói? He didn’t know… He didn’t know… Ah! if only it meant the realisation of his dreams! But who knows?… It could be… perhaps… later on…
He spent the rest of the day tormented by the thought that he was wasting both time and effort.
Olga’s husband was only too happy to go and see the general’s daughter. He had not the slightest doubt that, with his knowledge of the latest science, he’d manage to achieve something. But it didn’t turn out like that.
The young woman continued to waste away and, although her mania seemed to have abated a little, she was rapidly deteriorating physically. She was thin and frail, so much so that she could hardly even sit up in bed. It was her mother who spent most time with her; her sisters – given the exigencies of their youth – had rather lost interest.
Dona Maricota no longer had any enthusiasm for parties and dances; she was spending all her time in her daughter’s bedroom, consoling, encouraging and sometimes – when she looked at her closely – appearing to feel some responsibility for her unhappiness.
The illness had given a certain sharpness and distinction to Ismênia’s features, and had made her eyes more lively and her beautiful brown hair – with its glints of gold – even more magnificent, now that it was set against that pale face.
She rarely spoke much, and Dona Maricota was greatly surprised to find her so talkative that particular day.
“Mama, when’s Lalá getting married?”
“Once the rebellion’s over.”
“Hasn’t it finished yet?”
When her mother had answered, Ismênia lay silent for a while, looking up at the ceiling. Finally she said, “Mama… I’m going to die…”
She said this in a firm, sweet voice, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Dona Maricota lent over her:
“Don’t say that, my daughter. What nonsense! You’re going to get better; your father will take you to Minas; you’ll put on weight, you’ll get your strength back…”
She said all this slowly, stroking Ismênia’s face, as if she were talking to a child. Ismênia listened patiently, before replying calmly:
“No, no, Mama! I know: I’m going to die. And I’d like to ask a favour…”
The gravity and implacability of these words horrified Dona Maricota. She looked around and, seeing that the door was ajar, got up to close it. She still wanted to try to convince her daughter otherwise, but Ismênia kept repeating the same thing, patiently, sweetly and serenely.
“I know, Mama.”
“OK. Let’s say you’re right: what is it you want?”
“What I want, Mama, is to go as a bride.”
Once again, Dona Maricota tried to make fun of it, but her daughter just turned on her side and fell asleep. Her breathing was shallow and difficult. Deeply perturbed, her mother left the room, with tears in her eyes and with the horrible certainty that what she’d just heard was true.
It wasn’t long before that was confirmed. It was the morning on which Dr Armando visited her for the fourth time. She seemed to have improved during the last few days, she’d been sitting up in bed, speaking lucidly and enjoying conversation.
Dona Maricota had to visit someone and had left the patient in the care of her sisters. They went to Ismênia’s bedroom several times and she seemed to be sleeping, so eventually they turned their minds to other things.
Ismênia awoke and saw her wedding dress through the half-open door of the wardrobe. Wanting to have a better look, she got up and went barefoot to bring it out and lay it on the bed. Then she got the idea of putting it on. She put the skirt on and was soon reliving the wedding that never happened. She remembered her fiancé, his large, bony nose and those staring eyes; but the memory wasn’t unpleasant – it was more like revisiting an impressive place that she hadn’t seen for a long time.
The person she did remember with disgust was the fortune-teller. One day, she’d managed to elude her mother and, accompanied by a maid, had gone to consult a certain Madame Sinhá, who’d told her, with complete indifference, “He won’t come back.” That really hurt… What a wicked woman! And from that day… Ah! She finished buttoning up the skirt over her petticoat and went to the mirror. (She hadn’t been able to find the bodice.) She looked at her naked shoulders and snow-white neck… It surprised her: was that really her? She touched her skin for a moment, before putting the diadem on her head. It was so pleasant to feel the veil fall over her bare shoulders, like the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings. Suddenly she buckled and, with a stifled cry, fell backwards on to the bed, with her legs dangling over the side… When they came to check, she was dead. She still had the diadem on her head, and one of her breasts – very round and very white – had freed itself from her petticoat.
She was buried the very next day and, during the next two days, Albernaz’s house was full – as full as on those festive, long-gone days.
Quaresma came to the funeral, much as he disliked these ceremonies; but he came to see the poor girl, in her coffin, in her wedding dress and surrounded by flowers. She seemed hardly to have changed. It was her lying there; it really was the mournful, insipid Ismênia, with her delicate features and her beautiful hair, who was lying inside that box. Death had frozen her modest beauty and her childlike features and she was on her way to the grave with just the same insignificance, innocence and lack of personality that she’d had in life.
Contemplating those sad remains, Quaresma saw the hearse stop at the cemetery gate and then thread its way along the paths between the sepulchres – such a crowd of them, climbing, jostling and struggling for space on the floor and slopes of that narrow valley. Some of the tombs seemed to be looking at one another affectionately, eager for company, whilst others seemed to shrink back in disdain. That mute laboratory of decomposition contained solicitation, incomprehension, repulsion, sympathy and antipathy; some tombs were arrogant, vain and proud; some were humble; some cheerful, some sad; and many seemed to be striving to escape death’s levelling, its snuffing out of individual fame and fortune.
Beyond the girl’s corpse the cemetery surged forward, with its sculptures one on top of the other, with urns, crosses and inscriptions on some graves and, on others, pyramids of rough-hewn stone, portraits, extravagant pergolas, convoluted ornamentation – baroque and delirious –, and all to deny the anonymity of the tomb, the end of all ends.
Inscriptions everywhere: some long, some short, with forenames, dates, surnames, relationships, whole birth certificates of the deceased who, putrid mud down below, no longer know themselves.
There’s a feeling of gloom in not coming across a familiar name: no names of the great and the good, none of those names that span decades and make the long-dead seem alive. All are unknown; all those struggling to flee from their tombs to the memories of the living are the happily inconspicuous, the mediocre, who passed through this world without being noticed.
That’s where this girl was heading, into the dark hole, to the end, without having left, in this life, any deeper trace of herself, of her feelings, of her soul!
In an effort to dispel this grim vision, Quaresma walked out of the living-room, where Dona Maricota was surrounded, in silence, by female friends, where Lulu, in his college uniform, was dozing in a chair, with a cigarette in his hand, and where Ismênia’s sisters kept coming and going. In the dining room, the general was sitting – also in silence – with Fontes and some other friends.
Caldas and Bustamante were conversing in low voices to one side and, when Quaresma passed them, he could hear the Admiral saying:
“Nonsense! They’ll be here in no time… The government’s had it.”
The major stood at the window that looked out on the garden. The air seemed thinner somehow; the sky was like delicate, blue silk; and everything was tranquil and serene.
Estefânia, the schoolteacher with the lively, roguish eyes, passed by with Lalá at her side. Every now and then Lalá dabbed her tearless eyes with her handkerchief.
“If I were you, I wouldn’t buy anything there…” said Estefânia, “It’s too expensive! Go to ‘Bonheur des Dames’… They say they’ve got good things and plenty of bargains.”
The major resumed his contemplation of the sky and the garden. The sky was so serene as to be almost indifferent. Genelício appeared, looking exaggeratedly funereal. All in black, his face had turned into a mask of the most profound sadness. Even his blue-tinged pince-nez seemed to be in mourning.
It had been impossible for him not to go to work: an urgent task had made his presence indispensable in the office.
“That’s how it is, General. If I’m not there, nothing gets done… Otherwise there’s no way of getting the correct documents from the Admiralty… It’s so sloppy…”
The general didn’t reply; he had no need to feign sorrow. Meanwhile Bustamante and Caldas continued in their murmured conversation. The wheels of a carriage could be heard in the road. Quinota came into the dining room: “The carriage has arrived, Papa.”
The old man stood up, with difficulty, and went to the living room, where he spoke to his wife. When she got up from her chair, you could see how her face had crumpled under the weight of her sorrow. There were already many silver strands in her hair. She didn’t move. After standing still for a few moments, she fell back into her chair, weeping. Everyone was watching, and no-one knew what to do. Some were crying. To keep himself occupied, Genelício was removing the candles from around the coffin. Eventually Dona Maricota stood up again; she went to the coffin and kissed the corpse: “My daughter!”
Quaresma started making his way out, his hat in his hand. In the corridor, he heard Estefânia saying, “Isn’t the carriage pretty?!”
He went outside. You’d have thought it was a street party. The local children were thronging round the hearse, agog at all the gilding and other embellishments. Wreaths were being brought and hung on the tops of the carriage columns. ‘To my beloved daughter’, ‘To my sister’. The purple and black ribbons, with gold lettering, fluttered in the faint breeze.
The coffin appeared, swathed in purple cloth decorated with gleaming gold braid. All destined for the earth. The neighbouring windows filled up on both sides of the street; across the way, a little boy shouted back into the house, “Mama, the girl’s funeral’s here!”
As the coffin was finally strapped securely on to the carriage, the grey horses, covered in black cloth, pawed the ground impatiently.
Those who were going to the cemetery went to their carriages. When everyone was ready, the procession set off.
They’d gone no more than a few paces before, somewhere nearby, a flight of snow-white doves – those birds of Venus – rose into the air, fluttering noisily, and circled above the hearse, before gliding silently back to the dovecot, hidden somewhere in those suburban gardens…
IV – The Boqueirão Jail
Quaresma’s farm in Curuzu was slowly returning to the state of abandonment in which he’d found it. The weeds were growing and covering everything. The plantations he’d created had disappeared under an invasion of beaksedge, tick clover, nettles and a sea of scrub. The view from the house was grim, despite the best efforts of the African Anastácio, who was still working away, but he was getting on in years, and his efforts lacked initiative, method and continuity.
One day he’d do some weeding over here, the next over there, and the result of all this jumping about was that you couldn’t see any permanent result, and the sight of that unkempt land revealed not a trace of all his hard work.
The ants had returned as well, only more terrible and more destructive, swarming over obstacles, devastating everything – the remaining crops, the buds on the fruit trees, even the guavas – with an energy and bravura that mocked the frail intelligence of that ex-slave, incapable as he was of beating them back or smoking them out.
Nevertheless, it didn’t stop him growing things. It was his mania, his addiction – the stubbornness of an old man. He had a garden in which he waged war every day with the ants; and because animals from the vicinity got into it one day, he’d doggedly constructed a fence from the most peculiar assortment of materials: flattened kerosene cans, serviceable pieces of timber, coconut leaves and slats from crates, completely ignoring the ready supply of bamboo in the vicinity.
He had a predilection for the convoluted, and this was apparent in everything he did, whether it was speaking in great circumlocutions, or tracing out irregular flowerbeds – larger here, smaller there, manically avoiding regularity, parallelism and symmetry with the horror of a true artist.
The revolt had had a conciliatory effect on local politics. All the parties had declared themselves staunch supporters of the government, as a result of which the two main rivals, Dr Campos and Lieutenant Antonino, had reached a common understanding. The thing was that their little internecine dispute had been overtaken by a larger problem that threatened to destroy both of them, and which put them – suddenly united – on guard.
The elections were approaching and a candidate had been imposed by the central government. Elections in the interior are quite extraordinary. They cause all sorts of exotic characters to crawl out of the woodwork – characters so exotic, in fact, that you’d hardly be surprised if they were dressed up like olden-day pirates. There are great, belted overcoats, bell-bottom trousers, silk hats – it’s a whole museum of dress those backwoodsmen suddenly bring to life on the potholed streets and dusty roads of the towns and villages. Not to mention the ruffians in breeches, carrying big pequi-wood sticks for all eventualities.
Given the monotony of Dona Adelaide’s life, this procession of museum mannequins filing past her gate on their way to the nearby polling station was a welcome diversion because, otherwise, her days in that outpost were long and sad. For some time she’d had the company of Sinhá Chica, Felizardo’s wife, an old lady of African and native Indian descent who looked like a kind of skeletal Medusa, and who was famous in those parts as a healer. There was no-one like her when it came to curing aches and pains, fever or shingles, nor anyone so knowledgeable about herbal medicines: arnica, ferns, flatglobe dodders – all that apothecary’s shop that grew in the fields, in chicken-runs and up tree trunks.
In addition to all that knowledge, which made her so highly esteemed, she was a skilful midwife. All the poor women round about, and even some of the better-off, were happy to entrust themselves to her care when the time came to give birth.
It was quite something to see her with a little knife in her hand, repeatedly making the sign of the cross with it over the focus of the pain or of her work, praying in a low voice, muttering supplications to expel the evil spirit. Tales were told about miracles she’d performed, extraordinary victories demonstrating her almost magical powers over the occult forces that pursue us either for good or ill.
One of the most curious tales, which was told over and over again, was about the expulsion of the caterpillars. Thousands of the creatures had infested a field of beans, covering the leaves and the stalks. The desperate farmer was on the point of giving it all up for lost, when he remembered the marvellous powers of Sinhá Chica. And so the old lady was summoned. She put crosses made of twigs along the edges of the field, as if laying siege to something invisible, except that she left one end open, after which she went and stood at the opposite end and began praying. And, sure enough, the miracle was not long in coming. The little creatures, as if touched by a shepherd’s stick, turned into a sluggishly writhing flock, and off they went, slowly, in twos, in fours, in fives, in tens, in twenties, until not one remained.
Dr Campos, however, was not in the least jealous of his rival. Armed with an insouciant disdain for the woman’s superhuman powers, he declined to avail himself of the arsenal of laws that forbade the practice of that transcendent medicine. It would only attract unpopularity; he was a politician…
In the interior – and you don’t need to go far from Rio de Janeiro –, the two kinds of medicine coexist amicably, and both attend to the mental and economic needs of the population.
Sinhá Chica’s medicine, which was virtually free, was mainly for the poor, who still believe – whether by contagion or inheritance – in the existence of all those evil spirits that need to be expelled by exorcisms, conjurations and fumigations. But her clientele comprised more than just poor people who’d been born or brought up in the region: it extended to recent immigrants from other areas, Italians, Portuguese and Spanish, who turned to her and her supernatural powers not just to save money or on account of her local reputation, but also because of that strange European belief that every black or coloured person must know how to uncover those evil forces, and control them by magic.
So Sinhá Chica’s fluidic and herbal treatments were mainly for the poor and the poorest, whereas what Dr Campos had to offer was for the cultured and the rich, whose mental evolution demanded orthodox, official medicine.
Occasionally, however, someone from one group would desert to the other if Sinhá Chica’s prayers didn’t work in serious, complex, incurable cases, or if the doctor’s syrups and pills proved impotent.
Sinhá Chica wasn’t the most agreeable company. She was continually immersed in the other world, absorbed in the mysterious powers of magic, and she’d sit cross-legged, staring at the ground with her dull eyes that looked like the enamel eyes of a mummy, so wizened was she.
Nor did she forget the saints, Holy Mother Church, the commandments or orthodox prayers; although she couldn’t read, she knew the catechism and sacred history backwards, enlivened by her own interpretations and picturesque interpolations.
Together with Apolinário, the famous ‘Chaplain of the Litanies’, she was the spiritual power in those parts. That left the parish priest relegated to an administrative role, a sort of civil registrar of births, deaths and marriages, because all communication with God and the Invisible went through Sinhá Chica or Apolinário. What’s more, when it comes to holy matrimony, our poor people make very little use of the sacrament, and common-law marriage is regularly substituted for that solemn Catholic institution.
Sinhá Chica’s husband was Felizardo, who rarely made an appearance in Quaresma’s house. When he did, it was only at night, because he was spending his days in the scrub, for fear of conscription, and his first question was always whether the hubbub had died down.
He was living in constant fear, sleeping fully dressed and jumping out of the window and disappearing in the bushes at the slightest sound.
They had two sons – and what a pair they were! They combined the backwardness of their parents with an indolence that was simply repugnant. The oldest, José, was getting on for twenty; both of them were practically inert, devoid of both vigour and beliefs; they didn’t even believe in the magic, prayers and incantations that absorbed their mother and had the respect of their father.
There was no-one capable of teaching them anything or getting them to do any continuous work. About once a fortnight, they’d chop up some firewood and sell it to the first innkeeper for half its value, after which they’d come back home as pleased as could be, carrying a brightly coloured handkerchief, a bottle of eau-de-cologne, or a mirror – trinkets for tastes not far removed from those of savages.
Then they’d spend a week at home, sleeping or strolling round the streets and the shops. At night – almost always on Sundays and feast days – they’d go out with their barrel organ, on which they were virtuosos, so their presence at local dances was much in demand.
Although their parents were living in Quaresma’s house, the brothers appeared there rarely, and then only when they had nothing to eat. Their carelessness and improvidence was such that they weren’t even scared of conscription. Nevertheless, they were capable of dedication, loyalty and kindness; it’s just that working all day was repugnant to them, like a punishment.
This apathy of our people, this kind of pathological listlessness and drowsy indifference to everything, surrounds our race like an insidious fog and removes the charm, the poetry and the seductive vigour that should be theirs.
It seems that none of the other great, but subjugated, countries – Poland, Ireland or India, for instance – has the cataleptic look of our hinterland. Here, everything is asleep, drowsy, moribund; there, you have revolts, you have idealism; here… Oh!… we’re still sleeping.
Quaresma’s absence had brought that general atmosphere of our countryside to The Haven: it seemed to be deep in an enchanted sleep, waiting for the prince to come and wake it.
Agricultural machinery – yet to be used – was rusting away, with the manufacturers’ labels still attached. Those steel-tipped ploughs that had arrived with blades that had a lovely bluish gleam were now hideous things, abandoned and dying of boredom, gesticulating in anguish at the mute sky. In the morning you no longer heard the clucking in the poultry-house or the fluttering of doves’ wings; that great matinal hymn to life and work no longer accompanied the rosy dawn and the busy chirruping of the birds; and no-one noticed the silk-cotton trees in bloom, with their beautiful pink-white flowers that, one by one, fell gently to the ground, like wounded birds.
Dona Adelaide had neither the desire nor the energy to oversee all the work that was needed and to enjoy the poetry of the countryside. She missed her brother greatly and lived as if she were still in the city, buying what she needed at the little shop and not bothering about the farm.
She couldn’t wait for Policarpo to return, and sent him desperate letters, to which he replied urging calm and promising to be back soon. But the last one she’d received had a hint of something else: the tone was no longer confident and enthusiastic; it betrayed disillusion and even despair.
My dear Adelaide, I haven’t been able to reply sooner to your letter of two weeks ago. It arrived just after I’d been wounded. It’s only a light wound, but it put me in bed and it will be a long convalescence. What a battle, dear Adelaide! What horror! Whenever I remember it, I rub my eyes as if to dispel a nightmare. It’s left me with an unimaginable horror of war… The utter confusion, the infernal whizzing of shells, weeping and wailing, imprecations – and all this in the darkest of nights. There were moments when we had to abandon our firearms and fight with bayonets, with rifle butts, with axes and machetes. It was like a battle between troglodytes, dear sister… something prehistoric. I doubt – I really doubt very much – the justice of all this, I doubt its raison d’etre, and I’m certain something must be done to expel, from the depths of our souls, the ferocity that lies there, deposited during thousands of years of fighting with wild animals for the right to live… What I saw wasn’t men of today: it was Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals armed with flint axes, killing mercilessly, completely untouched by love or generous ideals, killing, killing, killing… And I, too, the brother you know so well, I, too, did my bit; I, too, discovered within me my own brutality, my own ferocity, my own cruelty… I killed, my dear sister, I killed! And, not content with killing, I even shot one of the enemy when he was breathing his last at my feet… Forgive me! I’m asking you for forgiveness, because I need forgiveness and I don’t know who I should ask, which god, which man, I just don’t know… You can’t imagine how it’s making me suffer… When I fell under a cart, what hurt wasn’t the wound, it was my soul, my conscience; and when I heard Ricardo, who was wounded and fell by my side, groaning and pleading “Major, my cap, my cap!” it seemed to sum up the futility of my destiny…
This life is absurd and illogical, so much so that I’m afraid of living, Adelaide. I’m afraid, because we don’t know where we’re going, what we’ll be doing tomorrow, how we’ll be going against our better nature all the livelong day…
Best to do nothing, Adelaide, and as soon as I’m freed from my responsibilities I’ll go and live quietly, as quietly as possible, so that no action of mine can summon, either from the depths of my own being or from the mystery of things, forces contrary to my will to make me suffer still more and remove still further from me the sweet taste of living…
Apart from which, I think everything I’ve sacrificed has been in vain. All the thought I put into it has achieved nothing; and the blood I’ve shed and my lifelong suffering have been used, wasted, exhausted, traduced and vilified, all for the sake of some political stupidity or other…
No-one understands what I want, no-one wants to understand; they think I’m mad, stupid, a lunatic… and life goes on inexorably with its brutality and its ugliness.
As Quaresma said in his letter, his wound wasn’t serious; but it did need time and careful treatment to heal properly, not to mention his profound psychological suffering. Ricardo’s physical wounds were more serious, and his psychological suffering was scarcely less: his continual groans were interrupted by imprecations against the fate that had made him an unwilling combatant.
The hospitals in which they were being treated were on opposite sides of the bay, a good twelve hours by train in current circumstances, as it was still impossible to cross by boat.
Both on the way there and on the way back, the train passed through the station in Curuzu, but without stopping. So he had to content himself, wounded as he was, with giving a long, heartfelt look over at The Haven, with its poor soil and its old trees – at the place where he’d hoped to live in peace for the rest of his life, the place whence he’d departed for that most terrible of adventures.
He asked himself where, on earth, was there a true haven? Where to find the peace for body and soul he so longed for, after all the upheavals in his life? Where?! And he saw before his eyes an atlas of the world and maps of countries and cities, but he couldn’t see any country, any province, any city, any street where you’d find it.
He felt exhausted, not physically, but intellectually, spiritually. Ah, to think no more! Ah, to love no more! But he wanted to live, for the physical pleasure of it, for the pure, simple, material feeling of living.
His convalescence continued, long, slow and melancholy, without a single visit, without seeing a single friendly face.
Coleoni had moved out of Rio with his family, and the general didn’t come, more out of laziness than anything else. And so he was living alone, ensconced in his convalescence and pondering Destiny, his life, his ideas and, above all, his disillusionment.
Meanwhile the revolt in the bay was coming to an end; everyone could sense it – everyone had had enough.
The admiral and Albernaz were sorely disappointed by this development, for a similar reason in each case. For the former it meant the end of his dream of commanding a squadron and thus regularising his position; for the latter, the loss of his commission, the income from which had done so much to improve his family’s situation.
Dona Maricota woke her husband early that morning:
“Get up, Chico! You’ve got to go to the mass for Senator Clarimundo…”
As soon as he heard these words, Albernaz sat up in bed. He had to be there, no question about it. During the Empire, Clarimundo had been a fiery and fearsome republican leader but, under the Republic, he hadn’t managed to suggest anything remotely useful in the Senate. Nevertheless, his reputation still warranted him the title – along with various other eminences – of ‘Father of the Republic’. The republican grandees have an extraordinary need for – and are extraordinarily diligent in promoting – a glorious reputation for themselves for all eternity.
Clarimundo was no different and, during the rebellion, his reputation grew still further (for no obvious reason) and there was even talk of his replacing the marshal. Although Albernaz had only been vaguely acquainted with him, attendance at the mass was politically de rigueur.
The pain of his daughter’s death had already greatly diminished. What had made him suffer most was seeing her lost in that half-life between illness and madness. Death has the virtue of being short and sharp – not eating slowly away at us like the long-term illness of someone we love; once the shock is over, we’re left with a gentle memory, a fine portrait always present to our mind’s eye.
That’s how it was with Albernaz, and his natural joie de vivre was slowly returning.
In obedience to his wife, he got himself dressed and ready, and left. Although the revolt was still rolling on, these funerary ceremonies continued to be held in the city centre. The general arrived in good time. There was a great huddle of uniforms and top hats pushing forward to sign the lists of those present – not so much because they wanted to pay this formal respect to the family of the deceased, but rather to get their names in the newspapers.
Albernaz, too, pushed his way towards those lists on the tables in the sacristy, and he was on the point of signing when someone spoke to him. It was the admiral. Although the mass was about to begin, they didn’t go into the crowded nave, but stayed chatting in the recess of one of the sacristy windows.
“So it’ll soon be all over, eh?” said Caldas.
“They say the squadron’s already left Pernambuco.”
The general’s reply elicited an ironic smile from the admiral: “At last!”
“The bay’s surrounded by canons,” continued the general, after a pause, “and the Marshal’s going to call on them to surrender.”
“High time,” said Caldas. “If I’d been in charge, it would already have been over… Seven months to finish off a few rust buckets!…”
“You exaggerate, Caldas. It wasn’t that simple… And what about the sea?”
“Why did the squadron have to spend so much time in Recife?! Tell me that. Ah! If it had been yours truly, I’d already have left and attacked… Prompt decisions, that’s me!”
Inside the church, the priest was continuing to ask God to grant repose to the soul of Senator Clarimundo. The mystic smell of incense wafted as far as the sacristy, but that votive offering to the God of peace and harmony didn’t deflect them from their bellicose thoughts.
“There aren’t any decent Brazilians left,” said Caldas. “The country’s a lost cause – we’ll end up an English colony…”
Stroking one of his sideburns nervously, he stared for a moment at the tiled floor. Albernaz’s reply was half-sarcastic:
“Not just yet! The government’s consolidated itself gloriously, and a new era of progress is about to open up for Brazil.”
“What new era of progress?! When did you ever see a government…”
“Not so loud, Caldas!”
“When did you ever see a government that doesn’t make use of its most capable people, abandons them, leaves them to rot?!… And the same thing goes for our natural resources: nothing’s done with them!”
The little bell rang and they glanced at the crowded nave. Through the door, they could see a number of men, all dressed in black, who were kneeling, beating their breasts and confessing: mea culpa, mea maxima culpa...
A sunbeam filtered through one of the openings up above and picked out a few heads.
The two of them in the sacristy automatically raised a hand to their breasts and joined in confessing: mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.…
When the mass ended, they went to give the customary respects. The air was heavy with incense, as if laden with immortality.
The faces were all solemn: friends, relatives, acquaintances and others, everyone appeared to be suffering equally. Once in the nave, Albernaz and Caldas adjusted their expressions to suit the profound sentiment that was hanging in the air.
Being a great one for masses for important people, for condolence cards and birthday greetings, Genelício was there as well. For fear that his memory might fail him, he kept a meticulously indexed pocketbook with dates of birthdays, together with the relevant addresses. There wasn’t a mother-in-law, aunt or sister-in-law of an important man who didn’t receive birthday greetings from him, and he was a regular attender at masses of the seventh day.
His mourning attire was of thick, black material, which made him look like some sort of Dantesque punishment.
Out in the road, he was brushing his top hat with the sleeve of his overcoat and saying to his father-in-law and the admiral, “It’ll soon be over!…”
“And what if they resist?” asked the general.
“No chance! They won’t resist. Apparently they’re already suing for peace… It’s time for a rally to acclaim the marshal…”
“I don’t believe it,” said the admiral. “I know Saldanha very well; he’s too proud to surrender just like that…”
Genelício was rather alarmed by his father-in-law’s tone; he was afraid he’d raise his voice, create a bit of a scene and that he – Genelício – would find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. So he remained silent; but that didn’t stop Albernaz continuing: “Pride’s no use against a more powerful squadron.”
“Powerful! A load of wrecks, man!”
Caldas could hardly contain the fury in his soul. The sky was blue and serene, with light, wispy, white clouds wafting slowly here and there, like sails, through that infinite sea. Genelício looked at him for a second before whispering:
“Admiral, you mustn’t speak like that… Look…”
“Look what?! I’m not afraid… Stuff and nonsense!…”
“I’ve just remembered,” said Genelício, “I need to go to the Rua Primeiro de Março and…”
So he departed, in his leaden outfit, stooping, gazing at the ground through his pince-nez, and creeping along with his little, cautious steps.
Albernaz and Caldas remained chatting for some time and when they took leave of each other they were still good friends, though each with his own particular grievance.
The rumours were right: the revolt was over within a few days. The government squadron had forced entry, the rebellious officers had sought refuge on Portuguese warships, and Marshal Floriano was master of the bay.
On the day the government squadron entered the bay, many people, believing there’d be a huge bombardment, fled the city for the suburbs, seeking safety under trees, in friends’ houses or in the sheds specially constructed by the government.
You could see the anxiety, anguish and sheer terror in their faces as they carried with them bundles, baskets, small trunks and wailing babies; and sometimes there’d be a pet parrot or dog, or a little bird that had done so much to leaven the sadness of a poor house.
What scared them most was the famous ‘Dynamite Cannon’ on the Niteroi, a terrible, ostentatious American invention, that was reputed to be capable of causing earthquakes and of cracking the foundations of the granite mountains of Rio.
Even when they were beyond its range, the women and children were terrified of hearing its roar; and yet that Yankee phantom, that nightmare, that virtual force of nature, ended up abandoned by a wharf, defunct and despised.
When the uprising – which had become so monotonous – finally ended, it was a huge relief, and the victory made the marshal seem almost superhuman.
Quaresma was discharged from the hospital about that time, and a unit of his brigade was detailed to garrison the Isle of Enxadas. Inocêncio Bustamante continued to oversee his battalion, with great zeal, in his office in the condemned hostelry that served as his barracks. All the records were up to date and beautifully written.
Policarpo was very reluctant to accept the role of prison warder – the old naval school on the Isle of Enxadas was being used as a prison camp for rebel sailors – and carrying it out only made his mental torment worse. He tried not to look at them, such was his shame and his pity, and he thought one of them must know the secrets of his conscience.
In any case, the whole ideological edifice that had caused him to volunteer had come crashing down. He hadn’t met Sully, and he certainly hadn’t met Henri IV. What’s more, he was sure that, of all the people he’d met, not one of them was motivated by what had motivated him. None of them were inspired by higher ideals: all of them were there either for banal political reasons or out of self-interest. Even among the many young men, if it wasn’t pure self-interest, it was a fetishistic adoration – and exaggeration of the virtues – of the republic, together with a predilection for despotism, which the major, after all his study and meditation, just couldn’t countenance. His disillusionment was complete.
The prisoners were packed into the old classrooms and dormitories of the cadets. Among them were simple mariners, lower ranks, clerks and deckhands: whites, blacks, mulattoes, people of every colour and every persuasion, people who’d got mixed up in it through blind obedience, people who had nothing at all to do with it, people who’d been press-ganged out of their homes or off the streets, little people, gentle people, people who’d enlisted because of extreme poverty, ignorant people, simple people – sometimes cruel and perverse like thoughtless children –, people as meek and mild as lambs, powerless people, without political ambitions, without a will of their own, simple automatons in the hands of their superiors, who’d now abandoned them to the victor’s mercy.
In the evenings, he’d go for a walk and look at the sea. There was a sea breeze and the seagulls would still be fishing. Boats passed by: smoky steamers heading into the bay, small craft and sailing boats, skimming gently over the waters, leaning first this way and then that as if their billowing white sails wanted to stroke the mirrored surface of the abyss. The Orgãos Mountains would slowly fade in the soft, violet sky, and the rest would be blue, an ethereal, inebriating blue, like a heady liquor.
For a long time, he’d stand looking and, when he turned, he’d see the city receding into the shadows under the blood-red kisses of the west.
When the night drew in, he’d continue to walk along by the sea, meditating, thinking and suffering from all those memories of hatred, bloodshed and ferocity.
Society and life seemed horrible things that automatically produced the very crimes society then punished, castigated and tried to suppress. His thoughts were so black and desperate that he often thought he’d gone mad.
He found himself so alone, without a friend to talk to, someone who could help to dispel the melancholy thoughts besieging his mind and becoming an obsession.
Ricardo was part of the garrison on Cobras Isle but, even if he’d been there, the rigours of military discipline wouldn’t have allowed them a proper conversation. When the night had unfurled completely, and silence and darkness had covered everything, Quaresma would remain outside for hours, thinking, and gazing at the inner rim of the bay, where there were hardly any lights to interrupt the black of the night.
He’d strain his eyes in that direction, as if trying to penetrate indecipherable things and to discern, in the black shadows, the shape of the mountains, and the islands the night had swallowed.
He’d go to bed tired. Although he suffered from insomnia, he found it difficult to read, because his vagabond thoughts would wander so far from the book.
One night in which he’d managed to sleep better, a soldier came to wake him early in the morning:
“Di man fro’ Itamarati is here, Seu Major.”
“Di offissah dat has come fo’ di men fo’ di Boqueirão.”
Without understanding what it was about, the major got up and went to meet the visitor, who was already inside one of the dormitories. A guard was standing at the door, and some soldiers were entering, one of whom had a lantern that spread a pale yellow light. The huge room was full of recumbent, half-naked bodies, showing the whole gamut of human skin colours. Some were snoring, other sleeping quietly and, when Quaresma entered, one of them cried out in his sleep, “Ah!” Quaresma and the emissary from Itamarati greeted each other, but said nothing else. Both feared to speak. The officer woke up one of the prisoners and said to a soldier, “Take him.”
Then he went and woke another: “Which ship were you on?”
“Me?” said the sailor. “On the Guanabara…”
“Ah! Scum!” said the man from Itamarati… “This one too… Take them…”
The soldiers took the prisoner outside and returned.
The officer passed by some more without saying anything until he came across a thin, fair-skinned lad, who was already awake. “Get up!” he shouted. The lad got up, trembling. “Where are you from?” asked the officer. “I was a nurse,” replied the lad. “Fuck that!” said the emissary. “Take this one too.”
“But, Seu Lieutenant, let me write to my mother first,” the lad asked, almost in tears.
“Fuck your mother!” barked the man from Itamarati. “Move! Go!”
Eventually a dozen had been chosen, randomly, and they were marched off to board a barge that a boat immediately towed away from the island.
It was only afterwards that Quaresma realised what it was about.
He was assailed once more by questions about the mysterious force, the cynical injunction, that had embroiled him in such murky events and turned him into an accomplice…
The boats were still in sight. The sea was moaning against the stones of the quay. The wake of the barge was like twinkling stars. Up above, in the deep, black sky, the real stars shone serenely.
The boats disappeared in the darkness of the inner bay. Where could they be heading? To Boqueirão Jail.
V – Olga
How illogical it all seemed, to find himself in that narrow cell. How could someone as placid as him, someone so profoundly patriotic, deserve this wretched end? In what cunning way had Fate dragged him there, without the slightest inkling on his part of its extravagant designs, which clearly had nothing to do with the rest of his life? Could it have been his own past actions, strung out in time, one after another, that had made it so easy for that ancient god to bring him to his current pass. Or was it events outside his control that had defeated him and made him a slave to the dictates of the omnipotent divinity? He didn’t know, and the more he thought about it, the more the two things got thoroughly mixed up, making any clear conclusion impossible.
He hadn’t been there for long, having been arrested that morning as soon as he’d got out of bed. Without his watch – and even if he’d had it he wouldn’t have been able to decipher it in the gloom of that dungeon – he guessed it must be about eleven.
Why had they arrested him? He didn’t know for sure: the officer who’d escorted him hadn’t wanted to say anything; and since he’d been taken from the Isle of Enxadas to Cobras Isle he’d neither exchanged words with anyone, nor seen anyone he knew – not even Ricardo, who might have been able to send a kind glance or gesture in his direction. But he thought it was most likely the letter he’d written to the president, protesting about the scene he’d witnessed the day before.
He just had to do it. That band of wretched prisoners, picked at random and marched off to some distant butchery, had left him stunned; it had challenged all his moral principles, his moral courage and his human solidarity; and so he’d written a vehement, passionate, indignant letter, omitting nothing, speaking clearly, frankly and to the point.
That must have been why he found himself shut up in that dungeon, isolated from other people like a wild beast, like a criminal, interred in that dank and dirty darkness, with almost nothing to eat… How will it finish?! How will it finish?! And the question kept echoing amidst a whirlwind of anxious thoughts. It was impossible to know. The government’s conduct was so irrational and unpredictable that anything could happen: liberty or death. But more likely the latter.
It was a time of death and violence; a mania for killing had been unleashed, to drive home the victory, to make the killers feel the victory was really theirs, and that it couldn’t be more honourable.
Would he die that very night? And what had he done with his life? Nothing. He’d spent his whole life studying Brazil, because he loved Brazil, was devoted to it and wanted to contribute to its happiness and prosperity; but it had all been a mirage. He’d sacrificed his youth and his virility to that mirage; and now that he was an old man, how was Brazil going to repay him, how was Brazil going to recognise and reward his efforts? By killing him. What sights, pleasures and enjoyments had he sacrificed in his life? Everything! No games, no fun, no love; he hadn’t seen, hadn’t tasted, hadn’t experienced any of that side of life; it had seemed to shy away from his innate melancholy.
Ever since he was eighteen he’d been obsessed with that so-called patriotism that had led him to study futilities. What were Brazil’s rivers to him? They were big, were they? So what…?! In what way had it contributed to his happiness to know the names of Brazilian heroes? Not in the least. The important thing was to be happy. And was he? No. He remembered his passion for Tupi, for folklore and for agricultural experiments… Had any of that brought happiness to his soul? Not a bit! Not a bit!
Tupi had met with universal incredulity, with laughter and mockery, and it had led him to madness. Deception…
And agriculture? Nothing. The land was not so fertile, nor agriculture so easy, as the books would have us believe. More deception. And when patriotism had made him a soldier, what had he found? Yet more deception. Where were the sweet and gentle Brazilians? Hadn’t he just seen those sweet and gentle Brazilians fighting like wild animals?! Hadn’t he just seen those sweet and gentle Brazilian mass-murdering prisoners?! Another deception. His life was a deception or, rather, one long chain of deceptions.
The Brazil he’d envisioned was a myth, a phantom he’d conjured up amid the silence of his books. He’d believed in a physical, moral, intellectual and political Brazil that didn’t exist. What did exist, incontestably, was the Brazil of Lieutenant Antonino, of Dr Campos and of the man from Itamarati.
When he thought about it, even in its purest form, what was Brazil? If only he hadn’t spent all his life chasing an illusion, a worthless, baseless idea, and a god or goddess whose empire had no more substance than smoke! How had he not realised that the idea was no more than an amplification of the ancient Greek and Roman superstition that our dead ancestors continue to live as shadows and will haunt us if we don’t feed them? He remembered Fustel de Coulanges’s La Cité antique… And he recalled that the idea of Brazil meant nothing to the Menenanã tribe, nor to many, many other people… It seemed to him now that the idea had been exploited by the conquerors as a way of subjugating us psychologically and facilitating their own ambitions.
He thought of all the chopping and changing of countries in history, and he asked himself, if someone had lived for four centuries under French rule, English rule, Italian rule and German rule, what would their homeland be?
One moment Franche-Comté was the land of a Frenchman’s grandparents, the next it wasn’t; one moment Alsace didn’t exist, then it did, then it didn’t again.
Didn’t we ourselves have the Cisplatine Province and then lose it? And do we feel some sort of anguish on account of the spirits of our ancestors still being there?
The notion of ‘patria’ was based on very shaky foundations: it needed to be reconsidered.
How was it that he – such a calm and lucid person – had spent his whole life and wasted so much time running after that chimera?! How had he not immediately seen and realised what was staring him in the face?! How had he allowed himself to be deceived by a false idol, to dedicate himself to it, to sacrifice his whole life to it?! It was his isolation, the way he’d forgotten about himself; and that’s how he’d go to the grave, without leaving a trace, without a child, never having known love or received a single tender kiss, never even a bit of fun!
There’d be nothing to mark his passing nor, equally, had the world given him much joy.
Perhaps those who followed in his footsteps would be happier. But how, if he hadn’t communicated, if he hadn’t spoken, if he hadn’t grasped his dream, giving it body and substance?
Would following in his steps bring any advantage anyway? Would that continuity make the world a happier place? Just think of all the people who were better than him in the past, who’d offered themselves, sacrificed themselves, and everything had stayed the same: misery, oppression, sadness.
He remembered that, a hundred years ago and more, in that very place, perhaps in the very same jail, generous and illustrious men had been imprisoned for wanting to improve things in their time. Even though it may only have been an idea, they’d suffered for that idea. And had anything come of it? Had conditions improved? On the surface, yes, but – looking at it more deeply – no.
Those men, who’d been accused of such a terrible crime in the eyes of the law of the time, had waited two years to be tried, while he – who hadn’t committed any crime and who’d been neither questioned nor tried – would simply be executed!
He’d been good, he’d been generous, he’d been honest, he’d been virtuous – and in return he’d be going to his grave without the company of a relative or friend…
Where were they all? Ricardo Coração dos Outros, so harmless and innocent, with his guitar obsession – would he never see him again? If only he could, so that he could send a last message to his sister, an adeus to the black Anastácio, and a hug to his god-daughter. He’d never see them again, never!
He shed a few tears.
He wasn’t completely right, however: Ricardo had heard about his arrest and was trying to get him freed. He knew the charge as well, but he didn’t let that scare him off. He knew perfectly well that he was running a big risk because, in the palace, Quaresma’s name was mud. Victory had made the victors merciless and vicious, and they regarded the major’s protest as lèse-majesté. They no longer had pity, no longer had sympathy, nor respect for human life; what was needed was to carry out a clandestine, Turkish-style massacre, so that the established authority would never again be attacked, or even queried. That was the social philosophy of the age, backed up by the forces of the positivist religion, by its fanatics, its priests and preachers, and that philosophy was as malign as any strong belief on which people’s happiness is made to depend.
Nevertheless, far from being intimidated, Ricardo sought out influential friends. When he entered the Largo de São Francisco, he came across Genelício, who was leaving the mass for the sister of Councillor Castro’s mother-in-law. As usual, he was wearing a black overcoat that looked as heavy as lead. He’d been appointed a sub-director, and his main occupation now was thinking up ways and means of becoming director. It wasn’t easy, but he was working on a book, Audit Courts in Asiatic Countries, which, as it demonstrated superior erudition, might secure him the coveted position.
When he saw him, Ricardo immediately ran up and said, “Doctor, would you be so kind as to permit me to have a word with you?”
Genelício drew himself up and – like someone who’s got a terrible memory for the faces of unimportant people – asked in a grand voice, “And what might you be wanting, my friend?”
As Ricardo was in his Cruzeiro do Sul uniform, it wasn’t at all agreeable to Genelício to be seen consorting with a common soldier. Thinking that Genelício really couldn’t remember him, the troubadour asked ingenuously, “Don’t you remember me, Doctor?”
Genelício screwed up his eyes behind his blue-tinted pince-nez and replied drily, “No.”
“I’m Ricardo Coração dos Outros,” he said respectfully. “I sang at your wedding.”
Genelício neither smiled nor gave any other indication of happiness.
“Ah!” he said. “It’s you. Right. What do you want?”
“Did you know that Major Quaresma’s been arrested?”
“Your father-in-law’s neighbour.”
“Ah! That madman… And what about it?”
“I’d like you to do something to help…”
“I don’t get involved in that sort of thing, my friend. The government always has its reasons. Good day to you.”
Genelício continued on his way, stepping cautiously, as if anxious not to wear out his shoe leather, while Ricardo stood looking round the square, at the passers-by, the ugly houses, the church… Everything seemed hostile, bad or indifferent, and peoples’ faces had grown animals’ snouts; for a moment he would have cried in despair at not being able to save his friend.
But then he remembered Albernaz and ran to find him. The ministry wasn’t far away, but the general hadn’t arrived yet. It was an hour before he did arrive and, when he saw Ricardo there, he asked, “What’s up?”
With his voice choking with emotion, the troubadour explained everything. Albernaz adjusted his pince-nez and the gold chain connecting it to his ear, and said gently:
“My dear boy, there’s nothing I can do… I’m firmly on the government side as you know and, were I to make representations on behalf of a prisoner, it would look like backsliding… I’m most awfully sorry, but… what is one supposed to do?! One must be patient.”
Quite unruffled and very sure of himself in his general’s uniform, he went and ensconced himself in his comfortable office.
Officers kept coming in and out; little bells rang; messengers came and went; and Ricardo kept looking, among all those faces, to see if there was one – just one – who might be willing to help. But there wasn’t, and he was at his wits end. Who could he turn to? Who? Then he remembered: the commander; and he went to see Colonel Bustamante in the old hostelry that served as the barracks of the glorious Southern Cross.
The battalion was still on a war footing. Although the revolt was over in the port of Rio de Janeiro, forces had to be sent to the South, as a result of which the battalions hadn’t been disbanded, and one of those due to leave was Bustamante’s.
The lame sergeant major, in the scrubbed courtyard, was continuing in his job of training new recruits. “Shoooul.. daaah.. arms! Leeeft… turn!”
Ricardo entered and hurried up the rickety staircase of the old slum. As soon as he arrived in the commander’s compartment, he shouted, “Permission to enter, Commander!”
Bustamante was in a bad mood. This business of leaving for Paraná was the last thing he’d wanted. How was he meant to oversee the battalion’s bookkeeping in the heat of battle and in the confusion of marches and countermarches. What nonsense, to have a commander marching! The chief should stay in reserve to make sure the paperwork is kept in good order.
All of this was on his mind when Ricardo asked for permission to enter.
“Enter,” he said.
The valiant colonel was scratching his long, patriarchal beard; his dolman was unbuttoned, and he’d just finished putting on his second ankle boot, in order to receive his subordinate with more dignity.
Ricardo made his request and waited patiently for the reply; he had to wait for a long time. Eventually, Inocêncio shook his head and glowered at Ricardo:
“Out, or I’ll have you arrested! Now!”
He pointed at the door in a gesture that was both marshal and energetic. The private didn’t wait to be told again. In the courtyard, the lame instructor, the Paraguay veteran, continued filling the ruined hostelry with his stentorian commands:
“Shoooul… daaah… arms! Leeeft… turn!”
Ricardo felt utterly depressed. The world seemed a place completely without feeling, without love. He’d always filled his modinhas with love, dedication, empathy – but now he saw that there are no such feelings. He’d been on a wild goose chase for things that don’t exist, for chimeras. He looked up into the sky. It was tranquil. He looked at the trees. The palms were like proud titans reaching to touch that tranquil sky. He looked at the houses, the churches, the palaces, and he thought of the wars, the blood, the pain that all that had cost. And that’s what life, history and heroism were all about: violence towards others, oppression and suffering.
It was not long, however, before he remembered that he had to save his friend, that he had to find a way. Who now? He wracked his brains, thinking of one, then another, before remembering Quaresma’s god-daughter and setting off to Real Grandeza.
As soon as he arrived, he told her what had happened and what he was so afraid was about to happen. She was alone, because her husband was working harder and harder to benefit from the spoils of victory; he couldn’t afford to lose a minute of seeing the right people.
Olga had the fondest memories of her godfather: his eternal dreaming, his gentleness, his tenacity in pursuing his ideas, his innocence… like that of a damsel from the age of chivalry…
For a moment she was overcome by a great wave of sorrow and felt totally helpless. She felt that her sympathy was all she had – perhaps it would somehow assuage her godfather’s suffering; but then she seemed to see the bloodied body of that good and generous man; how could she save him?
“But what can be done, my dear Senhor Ricardo, what can be done? I don’t know anyone… I don’t have connexions… My friends… Alice, Dr Brandão’s wife, is away… Cassilda, Castrioto’s daughter, wouldn’t be able… Dear God, I just don’t know!”
These last words were drowned in despair. The two of them fell silent. The young woman leant forward in her chair, rested her elbows on the table in front of her, took her head in her hands and dug her long, opalescent finger nails into her black hair. Ricardo remained standing, at a loss for what to do now.
“Dear God, I just don’t know!” she repeated.
She’d never been so aware of how cruel life could be. She’d do anything to save him, she’d sacrifice everything, but it was impossible – impossible! She had no means, no way. And he’d have to carry his cross and climb his Calvary without hope of resurrection.
“Perhaps your husband…,” said Ricardo.
She thought for a moment, weighing up her husband’s character; but it didn’t take long for her to see that his egoism, ambition and fierce self-interest would prevent him from even lifting a finger.
“You don’t know my husband…”
At a loss for what to say, Ricardo looked helplessly round at the furniture and at the soaring, black mountain visible through the window. He was desperate for an idea, a suggestion; but there was nothing!
Olga still had her fingers dug into her hair and was still staring down at the table. The silence was horrible.
All of a sudden, Ricardo’s face brightened up, “What if you went there yourself?!…”
She looked up – her eyes wide and her face frozen. After a moment she said firmly, “Yes, I’ll go.”
She went to get ready. Ricardo, alone in the room, sat down.
He thought, with great admiration, of that young woman who, for simple friendship, was prepared to do something so dangerous, and who was so straightforward and honest; he thought of how far she was from this world of ours, from our selfishness and venality. He couldn’t have thought more highly of her.
She was soon ready and was just buttoning up her gloves, in the dining room, when her husband entered. His round face, with its lavish moustache, was radiant with self-satisfaction. Without even acknowledging Ricardo, he went straight to his wife: “You’re going out?!”
Desperate to save Quaresma, and feeling the blood rushing to her face, she said, with as much vivacity as she could muster, “Yes, I’m going out.”
Armando was taken aback by the tone of her voice. He turned for a moment to Ricardo, thinking of asking him what was going on, but then he turned back to his wife and asked her sharply, “And where are you going?”
As she didn’t reply immediately, he turned again to the troubadour: “What are you doing here?”
Not wishing to make things even more unpleasant, Coração dos Outros didn’t know what to say; but Olga spoke for him:
“He’s going to go with me to Itamarati, to save my godfather’s life. OK?”
Her husband seemed to calm down. He was perfectly sure he’d be able to dissuade her from going ahead with something so dangerous for his interests and ambitions.
“That’s not a good idea,” he said softly.
“Why not?” she demanded.
“You’ll get us into trouble. You know that…”
She said nothing for a moment; instead, she stood looking at him, her eyes full of scorn; she stared at him for a long time; then she gave a little laugh and said:
“That’s what it is! ‘I’, because ‘I’, because ‘I’, it’s only ‘I’, ‘I’ here, ‘I’ there… That’s all you think of… Life’s been made to measure just for you, everyone else has to fit in as best they can… Most amusing! With the result that I – yes, I can also say ‘I’ – have no right to sacrifice myself, to prove my friendship, to have a trace of something higher in my life?! Very interesting! I am not nothing! I am not nothing! You think I’m a piece of furniture, a decoration, that I don’t have friends or acquaintances, that I don’t have a character?! Well, you’re wrong!…”
Her words went from slow and sarcastic to rapid and passionate, and they left her husband speechless. Having kept himself aloof from her, he’d never have judged her capable of such an outburst. Where was the girl he thought he knew?! Where was his bibelot?! Who could have taught her such things?! Resorting to his own sarcasm, he laughed and said, “Are you rehearsing for a play?”
She immediately replied, “If great things happen only in theatres…, I am!”
Then she added resolutely:
“So what I’m saying is: I’m going, and I’m going because I have to, because I want to, and because it’s my right.”
She snatched up her parasol, adjusted her veil and left, tall, strong and magnificent. Her husband didn’t know what to do. He stood, mouth open, and watched as she walked away.
She was soon in the palace in the Rua Larga. Ricardo didn’t go in with her; instead he went to wait in the Campo de Sant’Anna.
She ascended the stairs. People were coming and going all around and there was a great babble of voices. Everyone wanted to be noticed by Floriano, they all wanted to congratulate him, to show their dedication, to show how much they’d done, to show they were co-victors. And they’d do anything, anything at all, to achieve this. But the dictator, previously so accessible, had suddenly become reclusive. Some of them wanted to kiss his hand, as if he were a pope or an emperor, and he was sick of all that subservience. Knowing he wasn’t divine, the caliph was thoroughly fed up.
Olga told the messengers she wanted to see the marshal, but all to no effect. Eventually, with great difficulty, she managed to speak to some sort of secretary or aide-de-camp. When she explained why she’d come, the man’s ruddy face suddenly turned pale, and his eyes flashed under his thick, frowning eyebrows.
“Who?! Quaresma?!” he barked. “A traitor! A bandit!”
Then, as if regretting this outburst, he lowered his voice and said:
*I’m afraid it’s not possible, Senhora. The Marshal won’t see you.”
She didn’t even wait for him to finish. She calmly got to her feet and turned her back on him, feeling ashamed for having asked, for having lowered herself, for having sullied her godfather’s moral grandeur by her request. With people like this, it would have been better to leave him to die alone, heroically, on some island or other, to let him go to the grave with his pride, gentleness and moral character intact, unblemished by anything that might diminish the injustice of his death, might make his executioners believe, in whatever way, that they had a right to kill him.
She walked out. She looked at the sky, the air, the trees in Santa Teresa, and she remembered that these lands had been traversed by savage tribes, one of whose chiefs had boasted he had the blood of ten thousand enemies in his veins. That was four hundred years ago. She looked again at the sky, the air, the trees in Santa Teresa, the houses, the churches; she saw the trams passing; a locomotive blew its whistle; a carriage – pulled by two beautiful horses – passed in front of her at the entrance to the common… There’d been all sorts of changes. This park, what did it used to be? A quagmire, probably. There’d been huge modifications, in the look of the land, perhaps even in the climate… Keep hoping, she thought. And she carried resolutely on, to meet Ricardo Coração dos Outros.
Todos os Santos (Rio de Janeiro) – January–March 1911