My translation of Lima Barreto’s novel of the same name, which was first published in 16 instalments, between January 1923 and May 1924 in the Revista Souza Cruz. It was not published as a book until 1947.
Joaquim dos Anjos, the postman, wasn’t one for going out serenading in the streets, but he did like the guitar and modinha songs. He himself played the flute, an instrument more highly regarded in those days than it is now. Even today, seventy-year-olds in Rio de Janeiro still remember the famous polkas of Calados, especially “A word to my cousin”. But somewhere in between, the flute fell out of fashion, and in recent years there’s only been one flautist who’s managed, albeit only partially, to rehabilitate that mellifluous instrument that so beguiled our parents and grandparents. I’m talking about Patápio Silva. When Patápio died, however, the flute decidedly returned to the second rank of musical instruments, i.e. the rank to which doctors of music – whether practitioners or theoreticians – attach no importance. So, once again, it became a plebeian instrument.
Nevertheless, despite his humble origins and social status, Joaquim dos Anjos considered himself a musician of some standing because, apart from playing the flute, he used to composed waltzes, tangos and accompaniments for modinhas.
Two of his pieces, the polka “The Incomplete Sprite” and the waltz “Heartache”, were even quite successful, so much so that he sold the rights for each one, for fifty thousand réis, to a music and pianos business in the Rua do Ouvidor.
For all that, his musical knowledge was slight: more a matter of guesswork than of applying any theory he may have studied.
He’d picked up his musical knack in the district of his birth, on the outskirts of Diamantina, where his flute playing had been a feature of church festivals, and many had considered him the best flautist for miles around. But, although he was held in such high regard, he never sought to deepen his musicianship and stayed rooted at the level of Francisco Manuel, whose works he knew by heart.
And just as he wasn’t very ambitious in music, nor was he in the other aspects of life. When he was twenty-two, having grown tired of the constraints of life in his little home town, he accepted an invitation from an English engineer who was searching for diamonds in the area. Or at least that’s what everyone thought he was doing: in fact the erudite Englishman was engaged in completely disinterested – platonic, one might say – geological and mineralogical research. So it wasn’t diamonds he was after; but the people of the area were convinced that the land round about was still full of them, and they couldn’t get it into their heads that an Englishman who went out scouring the terrain all day long, taking notes and using impressive-looking equipment, was not a diamond-digger. In no way could the scientist persuade the simple people of the area that he had not the slightest interest in diamonds; and scarcely a day passed without Her Majesty’s subject being offered land for sale – land in which it much be obvious to the experienced eyes of the “diamond-digger” that there was an abundance of the precious stone.
No sooner had the geologist arrived, than Joaquim turned himself into his guide, fetcher-and-carrier, dog’s body etc., a role he performed so well that, when the erudite Englishman completed his research, he invited Joaquim to help him transport his literally rock-heavy luggage to Rio de Janeiro. All expenses paid, until the scientist embarked for Europe, plus the fare back to Diamantina, a cork hat, some gaiters, a pipe and a tin of Navy Cut tobacco; but, having become accustomed to Rio de Janeiro in the little over a month that he’d been there in the service of John Herbert Brown, of the Royal Society of London, Joaquim decided not to return to Diamantina. So he sold the gaiters and the cork hat to a second-hand shop and set to strolling around Rio, while puffing on the rich Navy Cut tobacco in his new pipe. Or rather, that’s what he did until his money ran out, at which point he sought out some acquaintances in the city and, in no time, he managed to get a job in the office of a top lawyer who was his fellow countryman, i.e. also from Minas Gerais.
“I’m not going to pay you much,” the lawyer said, with no beating about the bush, “but you’ll get to know people here and you’ll be able to get a better paid job later on.”
Joaquim had faith in what he was told and so he concentrated on getting a modest job in the civil service that would entitle him to a pension and a lump-sum, in the event of his death, for his future family. And he managed it within a month: a postman’s job, which he was really happy with, especially as he gained successive promotions. And that’s the job he’d been doing for the past forty years.
He’d married soon after becoming a postman and, when his mother died, back in Diamantina, he inherited – as the only child – the house and some land in Inhai, a parish belonging to that Mineiran town. He sold his modest inheritance and bought the little house in the suburbs of Rio where he was still living. Although the price was modest, the money from his inheritance hadn’t been sufficient, and he’d had to pay off the remainder in instalments. But now, for the past several years, he’d been in full possession of his “burrow”, as he called his modest little abode. It had only two bedrooms, one of which was accessed through the living room, on the right-hand side of the house, the other through the dining room, on the left-hand side. The front door opened straight into the living room. At the back of the house, accounting for more than a third of the total area, was an extension, containing the kitchen and a tiny pantry. The kitchen itself ran across the whole of the back, and the pantry was like a short corridor on the left-hand side of the kitchen. And the door between the dining-room and the extension was near another door that led from the dining-room to the yard. So that was the ground plan of Joaquim’s house.
At a little distance from the house, there was a shack containing the toilet, the washroom etc. And there was quite a large garden with various fruit trees: some goyabas, a few orange trees, a Galician lemon, some papayas and, right at the back, a huge tamarind.
The road in front of the house ran across a plain that turned into a swamp when it rained; but it was the main road between the city centre and the parish of Inhaúma. Carts, carriages and lorries used to go up and down the whole length of it almost every day, supplying the shops in those parts with goods from the wholesalers in the city, which suggested that it might merit more attention from the relevant authorities.
Nevertheless, it was generally a quiet sort of road, with the houses that ran along both sides of it built in the style of the old suburbs, with lots of chalets. From it you could see a beautiful panorama of the mountains, the colours of which changed in accordance with the weather and the time of day. During the day they were often washed with light, which brought out a range of greens and blues, whereas in the evenings they showed gold and purple. And, although they were far away, they seemed to press in on the road.
Apart from the classical chalets etc., there were some more recent houses, with a few modern flourishes to mask the matchbox-sized rooms and to justify the high rents. But there was one house that was really noteworthy. It was in the middle of a large farm and was a typical old farmhouse: a long façade, not much depth to it, tiles half way up the walls, and a squat roof. Rather ugly – truth to tell -, with no airs or graces, but all of a part with the mangos, the sturdy jackfruit trees, the petulant coconut palms and all the other venerable trees that had probably never born fruit for those who planted them. Between them, giving a rough indication of the layout of the old garden, were some Portuguese ceramic statuettes, with little blue plaques. One was “Spring” and another was “Aurora”, but almost all of them were in a deplorable state, some lacking an arm, others a head, and yet others lying on the ground, having fallen from their crude pedestals.
The walls that surrounded the house, at some distance, and even the wall supporting the iron railings at the front, were covered, either wholly or in part, with ivy. Rather than suggesting a shroud, these creepers rather enlivened the ruin, like a severe ceremonial cape that calls up visions of another time and another world. Nowadays it’s rare to see an ivy-covered wall in Rio de Janeiro but, thirty years ago, in Laranjeiras, the Rua Conde do Bonfim, Rio Comprido, Andarai, Engenho Novo, or any of the well-heeled districts, you could see them all over the place, those long, melancholy walls.
Joaquim dos Anjos had known the farm when it was still owned by a farming family. But eventually they’d move away and rented it out to some bible-bashers. Ever since then, on Saturdays (their Sabbath day), you could hear the bible-bashers singing their hymns just about every hour on the hour and filling the air with a heavy pall of mysticism. The locals were by no means hostile towards them. Some of them even started attending their services, either because they thought it gave them a sort of intellectual superiority over their neighbours, or that this new church – rather than their traditional religion – was more likely to provide some succour for their poor souls and the suffering that stalks each and every one of us.
And some of them, such as João Pintor, justified their attendance on the grounds that the bible-bashers weren’t like the catholic priests, who wanted to be paid for everything.
João worked as a painter – hence his nickname – in various factories in Engenho de Dentro. He was jet-black, with thick lips, prominent cheekbones, a low forehead, healthy, white teeth, long arms, enormous hands, long legs, and feet so large that none of the shoe shops had anything they could fit into. So he had to have his shoes made specially and, even then, the very next day after putting them on for the first time, he’d be trimming them with a knife to try and make them bearable.
Turuna – a follower of Fr Sodré, the chaplain at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes – said that João Pintor had joined up with the bible-bashers because they’d given him a room at the farm for free (except for having to carry out a few tasks). João denied it vehemently, but it was certainly true that he was living at the farm.
The leader of those protestants was an American called something like Mr Quick Shays, a resolute man, whose eloquence when expounding the Bible must have been magnificent in English; but in his halting Portuguese it was merely quaint. This Shays Quick, or Quick Shays, was one of those peculiar Yankees who go round founding new Christian sects. Once in a while, one of these Protestants who are so desirous of our happiness, on earth as in heaven, founds a brand-new sect, in accordance with their interpretation of one or more verses of the Bible, sets about proselytising, and immediately finds disciples. For their part, the disciples have very little idea why they’ve joined the new religion or what the difference is between it and their old one.
They make converts in the United States, and they make converts here in Brazil, although they’re more successful on their home territory. So, initially, Mr Shays gained a large audience – rather than converts as such – in the region where Joaquim dos Anjos lived, and about a fifth of the audience eventually converted. New groups of disciples slept in huts that were erected in the grounds round the house, in the spaces between the trees of that neglected, decrepit farm.
The ceremonies of initiation into Mr Quick Shays’ religion lasted a whole week and were full of fasting, hymn-singing, piety and contrite supplications to God Our Father; and, what with the military-style huts and the continual hymn-singing, that one-time leisurely place acquired a weird – and completely unexpected – aspect, something between an open-air monastery and a grim army encampment. You could easily have imagined them as warrior monks who were about to launch a crusade against the Turkish or Moorish infidels in Palestine or Morocco.
Most of Mr Shays’ congregation from the vicinity weren’t exactly orthodox followers of the new doctrine: in addition to the reasons already mentioned, some of them attended his sermons out of mere curiosity, or to enjoy the American pastor’s oratory. At all events, their temple was always full on their holy days.
Whatever their reasons, they all had no reluctance in going, because our common folk like to confabulate all sorts of religions and creeds, and to avail themselves of this one or that one as they feel more appropriate to the ups and downs of their lives. If you have set-backs in your life, you need a shaman; if you’re suffering from a chronic illness, you need a clairvoyant. But heaven help you if you tell our common folk not to have their child baptised by a Catholic priest! The response will be furious: “You’re mad! You want my child to be a pagan?! Whatever next?!”
Joaquim dos Anjos wasn’t one of Mr Shays’ disciples, nor – for that matter – was he a disciple of the Reverend Father Sodré, of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, because, although he’d been born in a city that reeked of incense and echoed with sonorous litanies and festive bells, he couldn’t summon up any great religious fervour. But his wife, Dona Engrácia, was extremely devout, even though her domestic chores prevented her from going to church as often as she’d have liked. Nevertheless, both of them agreed on one point relating to the Roman Catholic religion: the need to have their children baptised into Holy Mother Church as soon as possible. And that’s precisely what they did, not only with Clara, their only surviving child, but also with the others, who’d all died.
They’d been married for twenty years, and Clara, the second of their children, was coming up to sixteen years of age.
Her parents surrounded her with love, care and affection, and the only person she went out with, other than her mother or father, was Dona Margarida, a no-nonsense widow who lived nearby and who taught Clara how to sew and embroider.
What’s more, she only went out with her sewing and embroidery teacher on the occasional Sunday, when they’d go to the cinema in Méier or Engenho de Dentro. Joaquim wasn’t keen on going out on Sundays, because that was the day when he liked to treat himself to a game of solo with two of his old friends. And Dona Engrácia, who was a real home-bird, wasn’t keen on going out at all, either on Sunday or on any other day of the week.
Joaquim’s whist partners were almost always the same: Senhor Antônio da Silva Marramaque and Senhor Eduardo Lafões. (Joaquim was the godfather of Senhor Antônio’s only child, a girl.) Every Sunday, like clockwork, the two of them would knock on the door of the postie’s house. But, instead of entering, they always went round the side and headed towards a table under the big tamarind tree at the bottom of the garden. The table would already be furnished with their red counters, inlaid with black pepper seeds according to the different values, with the pack of cards, three saucers, three glasses and – lording it in the middle, like a cynical challenge to the proprieties and protocols of solo – a litre of rum.
Joaquim would be waiting for them in his chair, reading his favourite newspaper. After exchanging a few words, they’d sit themselves down, “wet their whistles” from the litre of rum, and set about playing. A vintém coin for each chip.
They played for hours and hours, drinking their fire-water and building their appetites for the hearty evening meal, which was almost always served at the same hour. Not once, in the meantime, did they glance at the surrounding, bare and rocky mountains, which cut a high horizon.
Every now and then Joaquim would shout in the direction of the kitchen, “Clara! Engrácia! Coffee!”
Which elicited the slightly irritated response: “In a moment!”
The thing is, in order to heat up the coffee that had just been ordered, the two women had to remove one of the pans on which they were preparing the dinner from one of the two brown-coal stoves, and this greatly slowed up proceedings.
While they were waiting for their coffee, the three men took a pause from the game and chatted for a while. Marramaque was, and had always been, something of a politician.
Although he was currently no more than a messenger at the ministry – and that only nominally, because he was half-paralysed on his left side and couldn’t really do any work -, he used to belong to a little circle of bohemian writers and poets that engaged in endless discussions about politics, in addition to poetry and literature. And the habit had stayed with him. After the revolt of ‘93, the circle had broken up. Some of them were for Admiral Custódio, others for Marshal Floriano. Marramaque was among the latter, and he even ended up as a second-lieutenant. That was when he had his first stroke, towards the end of the Marshal’s government, in ‘94.
His circle hadn’t included anyone of real distinction, but there were members of more distinguished groups who were perfectly happy to be associated with it.
When he told stories about his life, he always mentioned, with particular pride, that he’d known Paula Nei and had spoken to Luís Murat. This was quite true, although he omitted to mention what his role was in the literary circle. However, those who knew him from those days were more forthcoming about the matter. The thing is, he’d tried to write poetry, but had the good sense and integrity of character to recognise immediately that he wasn’t up to it. So he abandoned it and, instead, had devoted himself to word puzzles and that sort of thing. And he was very good at it, so much so that he’d often received proper paid work from the very newspapers where his bohemian friends had their literary scribblings published for next to nothing. As he got older, and especially after a second stroke, he’d been obliged to accept that messenger’s job, as a way of holding body and soul together. But, truth to tell, he was scarcely over-qualified for the job. He had a passing knowledge of a lot of things, which he made liberal use of in his conversation. That – and the illustrious acquaintances he’d had in his younger days – was the secret of his reputation. His poor state of health, and the difficulty he had nowadays in walking, hadn’t dampened his innocent political obsessions and he still went off to vote, despite the danger of finding himself in the middle of an electoral brawl that would have done honour to the Wild West, with knives pulled, head-butts, gunshots and all the other eloquent manifestations of our electoral system. And, of course, his poor old legs provided no guarantee of a quick getaway.
Having lived – as we’ve seen – among a better sort of people, on account of his educational, rather than material, attributes, and having dreamt of achieving much higher things than he’d managed, all of that, plus his infirmity, meant that he was a dyed-in-the-wool oppositionist. On that particular Sunday this took the form of badmouthing Dr Saulo de Clapin.
“Mark my word: Clapin’s a dead man walking politically. He had the gall to buck the trend, and now he’s been hoist with his own petard. The one who’s done well out of it is Melo Brandão, that half-caste Jew with the big beard. He’s a bastard, but he knows a thing or two about politics.”
Joaquim wasn’t particularly interested by this political stuff, but Lafões had his own ideas and promptly waded in;
“Stuff and nonsense, Marramaque! You think an intelligent man of the standing of Dr Clapin is going to be given the run-around by a miserable charlatan like Melo Brandão?! Stuff and nonsense! In any case, the workers…”
“What’s he ever done for the workers?” asked Marramaque.
You might have thought Lafões was one of the workers, but in fact he was a security guard for the city’s water authority. He was born in Portugal, but had come to Brazil as a child more than forty years before. In no time he’d got himself a job for said authority, where his exemplary work soon came to the notice of his superiors, who eventually put him in charge of security of the pipes and taps that supply the water for people’s houses. He was highly satisfied with his job, his letter of appointment and his certificate of naturalisation – probably more so than if he’d earned hundreds of milréis out of it, which he hadn’t, And, just like any backwoodsman who finds himself doing anything for the State, you could see how important he thought his job made him by the solemn way in which he walked along those rough-and-ready suburban streets.
He always wore his khaki uniform, and his cap with the water authority’s initials; and he always carried a parasol which – when he didn’t have it open to protect himself against the sun – he manipulated as if he were the priest in a Portuguese village, poking it firmly into the ground, lifting it, poking it, to the rhythm of his long steps.
So he was telling Marramaque that Dr Clapin had done lots for the workers: “In all the positions he’s had, Dr Clapin has always tried to give jobs to as many workers as possible.”
“Big deal! In the process he runs out of money and, after a few months, half of them are out of a job again… That’s not protecting the workers! It’s pulling the wool over their eyes!”
“Well, be that as it may, but at least he tries. What do the others do?! They don’t do anything! And, in any case, he’s a democrat. He’s always been for equality between civil servants. No distinctions between permanent staff and day-labourers. Anyone who serves his country, in whatever way, is a civil servant.”
“You can call them what you like! It doesn’t fill anyone’s stomach. Why doesn’t he do something to lower rents and the cost of living?!”
“But he is, Marramaque! Haven’t you read his plan for building houses for the poor?… Have you read it, Joaquim?”
The postman, who’d been listening quietly, said;
“I did read it, as a matter of fact, but I also read that he’s put up the rents of his own houses – he’s got them all over the place – by forty percent.”
“Exactly!” said Marramaque, hurriedly. “Clapin is generosity personified with other people’s money, with the money of the State. With his own money he’s as tight as a Jewish money-lender. He’s a two-faced Jesuit!”
Fortunately Clara arrived with the coffee at this moment, putting an end to the heated conversation.
“Your blessing, Godfather,” she said. “Good day, Seu Lafões.”
They greeted her in turn, and set about teasing her.
“So, when are you getting married, Goddaughter?” asked Marramaque.
“That’s the last thing on my mind,” she replied, grinning.
“I don’t believe it!” said Lafões. “I’m sure you’ve got your eye on some lad. Now look here, when it’s your birthday… Which reminds me, Joaquim…”
The postman put down his cup.
“What is it?”
“When it’s Clara’s birthday, would you mind if I bring a wonderful guitar-player and modinha-singer that I know.”
Clara couldn’t help asking, “Who is he?”
“It’s Cassi… You know…”
But the water-authority guard got no further before Marramaque burst in:
“Don’t tell me you have anything to do with that scoundrel! Definitely not a person any family should let into their house. I certainly wouldn’t let him into mine…”
“What’s the matter with him?” asked Joaquim.
“I’ll tell you why in a moment…” said Marramaque, clearly irritated.
When they’d finished their coffee, Clara left with the tray and the cups – and with a question buzzing like a malevolent old bumblebee in her head: “Who on earth is Cassi?!”
“Who on earth is Cassi?! Cassi Who?!”
Cassi Jones de Azevedo was the legitimate son of Manuel Borges de Azevedo and Salustiana Baeta de Azevedo. No-one knew where the “Jones” came from, but he’d been using it ever since he turned twenty-one. Some people surmised that he just liked the sound of that Welsh name. But they were wrong. The thing is, his mother was something of a fantasist and claimed to be a descendent of a Lord Jones, putative British consul in Santa Catarina; and Cassi thought the name of that aristocratic, albeit dubious, ancestor would add a certain distinction to the family.
He himself – of white, freckled complexion, and a little over thirty years of age at the time – was nothing much to look at; and although he was known as both a consummate modinha player and a scoundrel, he wasn’t a fully fledged lovable rogue in the grand tradition of our guitar virtuosos. He dressed himself soberly, following the fashions of the Rua do Ouvidor, but a certain suburban nonchalance in his otherwise all-too-perfect attire made the other young bucks of those parts eager to discover his tailor (who was no less than the masterly Senhor Brandão, down near Central Station. The only hint of the bohemian modinha singer about him was that he used liberal quantities of hair cream and had a perfectly straight “page boy” parting down the middle. He was clean-shaven and his shoes were fashionable,, but with those little embellishments expected of a suburban dandy whose trade is enchanting and seducing young ladies with his irresistible guitar.
A mysterious, talismanic guitar that seemed like a love-charm. But whether it was really the guitar, or was he himself, or was both of them together, what’s certain is that the relatively young Senhor Cassi Jones had already notched up about ten deflowerments and a considerably larger number of seductions of married women.
Most of these feats had duly caused public scandal, with reverberations in the papers, the police stations and the courts; but the eloquence of his lawyers – blackening the names of his victims and employing the basest methods to prove his innocence – had always managed to save him from either forced marriage or a few years of imprisonment.
Whenever the police or the victim’s relatives or guardians tried to bring down the weight of the law on his head, he’d run, snivelling, to his mother, Dona Salustiana, swearing his innocence and that Victim X, Y or Z was, in fact, little better than a prostitute, having already been deflowered or seduced by other men. In short, it was all a trap to cover up another man’s crime, or to extort money because they knew his family was well-off.
Most of the young women he violated were poor and of mixed-race. He wasn’t fussy as long as they didn’t have any relatives or friends whose influence matched those of his own mother and father.
Even when he owned up to his mother, she didn’t really believe him. With her aristocratic pretensions and prejudices she couldn’t stand the idea of her son marrying a black maid, a mulatto seamstress or a white, illiterate washerwoman.
So she had no hesitation in persuading her husband to ensure that their son didn’t get sent to prison or wasn’t forced to get married.
“But this is the sixth time it’s happened, Salustiana!”
“Nonsense! It’s all people’s lies!”
“Nonsense yourself! The boy’s a pervert. He’s got no shame. I can even tell you the names of the other ones if you want. Listen: Inês, that creole girl who was our scullery girl and maid; Luísa. who worked for Dr Camacho; Santinha, who used to help her mother with the sewing – they lived in the Rua Valentim; and Bernarda, who worked at ‘Joie de Vivre’…”
“But that’s all in the past, Maneco. Surely you don’t want to see your son go to prison?! And I’m certainly not going to allow him to marry one of those sluts.”
“He’d be much better off in jail than bringing shame on our house all the time.”
“Well, have it your own way but, if you don’t do something, I will,” she replied haughtily. “I’ll go and see my brother, Dr Baeta Picanço.”
Cassi’s father was, indeed, a respectable man. Having been an upstanding civil servant for about thirty years, he was profoundly moral and had firm ideas about right and wrong, all of which had guided him in bringing up his children. He’d never been outwardly affectionate; in fact, he studiously avoided any show of sentiment; but he did have a deep love for his children – it’s just that he never abdicated from his paternal duty of impartially judging, and punishing, their faults and failings.
A bit on the short and tubby side, he always held his head high. He had a high, straight forehead, a strong chin and, behind his gold-rimmed pince-nez, a steady gaze. In short, a nice, respectable old man who, despite being an old bureaucrat with cut and dried ways, was respected by one and all to just the same extent that his son was despised by one and all. Comparing his rectitude with the debauchery of his son, they even felt sorry for him.
Nor did his wife garner much love or respect. As we’ve seen, she saw herself as a great lady, far superior to her neighbours and acquaintances. In addition to the mythical Lord Jones, her pride rested on two principal foundations: that one of her brothers was an army doctor, and that she herself had attended the College of the Sisters of Charity.
If anyone asked about her father, she’d tell them he’d been in the army and move smartly on to another subject. But it wasn’t strictly true that he’d been in the army. Rather, he’d simply been a clerk in the Ministry of War. Thanks partly to his own sacrifices and partly to a small inheritance that had come his way, he’d managed to provide his two children with a better type of education.
Dona Salustiana’s pride wouldn’t let her admit all this, so much so that her two daughters, Catarina and Irene, always referred to their grandfather as if, at the very least, he’d been a general in the Paraguayan War. They themselves were less haughty than their mother, but much more ambitious when it came to marriage. Dona Salustiana had married Manuel when he was still a junior copy-editor for the newspapers, working nights to help with his family’s finances. Catarina and Irene dreamt about marrying men with the title “Dr”, a good job and plenty of money; and they thought it was high time, because they were both about to “graduate”: Catarina in music and piano from the cushy National Institute of Music, and Irene from this capital city’s staid and stolid Teacher Training School
It hardly needs saying that both of them had the greatest contempt for their brother, not only – and utterly deservedly – for his deplorable morals, but also for his gross ignorance and complete lack of refinement.
There was a time when their father still allowed Cassi – the illustrious Cassi – to sit with them at the family table. The only one of them who’d say a word to him was his mother. Catarina and Irene talked with their father or mother, or among themselves; and if Cassi plucked up the courage to say anything, old Manuel would glare at him, and the girls would fall silent.
Something happened, however, a dreadful thing caused by Cassi’s perversity, that led to Manuel expelling him not only from the table, but also from the house. Or rather – thanks to the supplications of Dona Salustiana – only half-expelling him.
Catarina and Irene had been friendly with a girl called Nair, who lived in the area and was very poor. She was an only child: her father had been a captain in the army, and her mother was now a widow. With the help of some of her relatives, the widow had been providing her daughter with an appropriate education. The girl liked music and sought Catarina’s help with some of the finer points. She was nineteen years old, very small but very lively, always cheerful, with a dark-brown complexion, jet-black hair and bright, restless eyes.
Cassi had had his eye on her for some time, seeing her as easy prey, even though she wasn’t totally unprotected. So he set about winning her over in his own home when she came to have lessons from Catarina. But Catarina soon got wise to it and threatened to tell their father if Cassi came into the room while she was giving the lessons. The mere mention of his father did the trick, not that Cassi had any great respect from him, but because, being so strict, the old man really was likely to throw him out of the house. And, if that happened, he wouldn’t have anywhere to go, and his meagre earnings – from gambling, cock-fights, commissions from loan sharks etc. – would be swallowed up by the costs of board and lodging, with little or nothing left over for clothes, shoes and ties. And, without all of that, he’d be lost! Farewell to his love life! If he wanted to carry on, there’d be a price to pay…
So it didn’t take him long to decide to obey his sister, although he soon began to stalk Nair when she was “out and about.” Just before the lesson ended, he’d go and wait for her in the doorway of a baker’s and exchange a few words when she passed. Eventually he managed, in the course of conversation, to give her the fateful letter confessing his love – the copy of a letter given to him by one of his disreputable chums, Ataliba do Timbó, who himself had copied it from a “writer of dirty ditties” who lived in Piedade. (This “writer of dirty ditties”, who the meddling Ataliba had referred to with such disdain, was actually the poet Leonardo Flores, who’s famous throughout Brazil and who lived a spotless life illuminated with the pure light of his dreams.)
It wasn’t long before little Nair, an innocent abroad on a sea of confused feelings, and without anyone to guide her, put her faith in Cassi’s honeyed words and found herself on the wrong path. Her mother duly discovered what had happened when her daughter’s belly began swelling. So she hurried to confront Senhor Manuel with the situation, only to find he wasn’t at home. Instead she spoke to Dona Salustiana, who immediately became huffy and said bluntly:
“My dear woman, as my son is an adult, I can’t do anything for you.”
“But you have daughters yourself. If you speak to your son, perhaps you could manage something. Take pity on me and my daughter, dear lady!”
And she burst into tears.
Dona Salustiana simply became even more huffy – not the slightest sympathy for the plight of the woman and her daughter.
“I can’t do anything about it, my dear woman. And that’s that! Go to the courts and the police if you like. That’s all you can do.”
Nair’s mother pulled herself together a bit and said:
“That’s what I wanted to avoid. It will only bring shame on me and on you and your family.”
“What Cassi does is his own business. Now, if it had been our daughter…”
Leaving the insult hanging in the air, she rose to her feet and extended her hand to the disconsolate mother as a sign that their conversation was at an end..
The widow left, crestfallen, and went to the district chief of police. After she’d told him what had happened, he said:
“Although I’ve only been in this district for six months, I’m well aware what a wretch that Cassi is and I’d like nothing better than to clap him in irons and take him through the courts. Except that I can’t in your case. The thing is, you’re not destitute: you’ve had a lump sum after your husband’s death, and you’re still being paid half his salary. I can only prosecute if the girl is from a family that’s completely destitute.”
“But is there nothing that can be done, Doctor?!”
“Only if you hire a lawyer.”
“Dear God! Where am I going to find money for that?! My poor, disgraced daughter! Dear God!”
And, once more, she burst into tears. When she eventually calmed down, he sent for a policeman to accompany her home and, after she’d left, he sat thinking about all the pain and misery hidden behind the walls of houses, as he was discovering every day in his job.
The next day, Nair’s mother killed herself by drinking Lysol. The newspapers immediately scavenged for details and duly divulged the cause of her suicide in great detail. The first Manuel de Azevedo knew of it was when he was sitting in the train reading the newspaper. He jumped out at the first station and went straight home, bursting into the house like a hurricane, his face a mask of disgust. No longer the reserved, kindly bureaucrat.
“Where the hell is he?!”
“Who?” asked his wife.
“Who do you think?! Cassi!” he shouted, his hands clenched into fists, and his eyes scanning the four corners of the room furiously.
“But what on earth has happened?!” wailed Dona Salustiana, terrified.
He gave her the journal, pointing to the article.
“But what fault is it of…”
Before she could finish, her husband interrupted:
“Fault?! That immoral swine! That murderer! That wretch who’ll happily corrupt any woman or girl who comes near him! I won’t tolerate him in this house a moment longer! I don’t want to see him here! Otherwise… I’m telling you, Salustiana… Otherwise I’ll kill him.”
The daughters had arrived and, guessing the cause of this explosion of hatred and fury – such a rare thing for their father – set about placating him:
“Calm down, Daddy! Calm down!”
Catarina glanced at the article and was mortified to discover what had happened to Nair. Sincerely distressed by the tragic death of her pupil, she turned and spoke to her father:
“Look, Daddy, I’m partly to blame, because I brought Nair here to have music lessons with me.”
After a pause she added:
“But what can we do? We can’t turn the clock back.”
“I won’t have him in the house any more,” repeated the head of the family.
The newspapers, however, weren’t content merely to report the suicide. They started rummaging in Cassi’s life and wrote about some of his other exploits, so much so that, on his mother’s advice, he went to live for a while with his uncle, the army doctor, who had a little farm in Guaratiba. By reading the reports in the daily papers, you get an idea of the web of outright lies and false promises that he wove round his poor, naive victim, whose dishonour brought about the suicide of her mother. He himself never talked about his amorous adventures to anyone, especially not to his mother or father; but to gain the poor girl’s confidence he’d written in the letter, in his idiosyncratic syntax and spelling: “Iv told my mum im madly in love wiv yu.” And he went on to say, “Plees dont tek any notis ov wot peepul sey and plees tek pity on my sufrins. Think abaut it an see wever yu ar priperd to do wot yu sed in yor leter” etc. And he added that he was desperate because he loved her so much, but with unrequited love.
In another letter, he expressed an interest in Nair’s health before going on to give her instructions about leaving the window open so that he could get in. “As soon as i faund aut that yu ad tekn to yor bed, i went to Dr R. S, to asc abaut yu an he told me that yu ad bin so stypid as to put yor feat in cold worter” etc, etc. And after mentioning some intimate feminine details he added; “I woz very sad to find aut that Dr R. S. nows abaut yor moral putikulers” (sic).
He finished off the letter thus; “Aftr awl, wot can i do wen yu dont wont to be awl mine like i am awl yors.”
He didn’t stay long in his uncle’s house: the doctor – the pride of his sister Salustiana, and the protector she always summoned up in the wake of Cassi’s shameless exploits – soon realised that his nephew had designs upon one of his own daughters, and was having assignments with her on the peripheries of the farm; so Cassi was promptly sent packing back home, with the message that Salustiana should keep him, because he, Dr Baeta Picanço, certainly didn’t want a nephew like that in his own house.
Cassi, however, didn’t go straight home, which would have meant getting off the train from Central at one of the first stations. Instead, he carried on to Engenho de Dentro, from where he sent a note to his mother, via Ataliba do Timbó, requesting her advice. She duly told him to come home, but to avoid his father at all costs. She said she’d arrange things so that he could have somewhere out of the way to eat and sleep.
The “somewhere” turned out to be a basement at the back of the house and, for recreation, the surrounding farmland: places where his father rarely went. So he started having all his meals in his living quarters in the basement. But the very first morning that he awoke in his humble abode within the family home, his first thought was to go and see his fighting cocks in their cages. (Fighting cocks are the most repulsively ferocious creatures you can lay your eyes on.) Everything was in order, because his mother had looked after them, just as he’d asked.
Fighting cocks were the unsavoury mainstay of his personal economy. Sometimes he’d win a fair amount of money at the cock fights, which made up for the money he was in the habit of losing on the dice; and that was how he managed to pay his tailor and buy smart shoes and showy ties. He used the cocks to make money in every possible way: bargaining with them, buying and selling them, breeding from them to sell the chicks, and giving some of them as presents to important people he thought might be useful one day to help him defend himself against justice and the police.
Given that he was otherwise incapable of applying himself to work, it was amazing to see him looking after those scary battle birds every morning, giving them their ground maize and groats, inspecting the chicks, one by one, for signs of omphalitis or fowl pox.
No matter how late he went to bed, he’d be there in the morning looking after his Malayan cocks and hens and all their chicks.
He’d never managed to hold down a job, and his lack of education prevented him from obtaining one that would meet the high expectations he’d inherited from his mother; in addition, he’d become almost chronically incapable of concentrating on work for any continuous length of time. In time, his mother’s pathological affection for him, which was not entirely divorced from her own vanity, together with his father’s indifference and disdain, had turned Cassi into the most typical sort of mummy’s boy imaginable – a category that’s very well-stocked in Brazil.
A born egoist, his upbringing had made him even more so. All he looked for in life was his own pleasure, and he never expected to wait for it. No consideration of morality, of friendship or of respect for the suffering and misfortune of others would detain him from seeking whatever satisfaction he was after. The only thing that worked on him was force. For instance, a gun pointing at him. In that case he might have second thoughts…
He’d had some pieces of luck. For instance he’d noticed once, on a train, that a young woman who was carrying some books, and looked like a student teacher, kept glancing at him.
He had a good look at her and, the next day, he waited for her on the platform at the same time; but she didn’t appear. He carried on waiting until the next train arrived, but still no sign of her. Nor did she appear for the one after that or the one after that. But the next day he struck lucky: she turned up. He sat down close to her in the train and proceeded to smile at her, nodding and winking as he did so. She ignored him. And this was repeated on the following days until the occasion when, stalking his ungrateful prey once more, she appeared in the company of a young man whose age and behaviour suggested he was her brother or husband. But Cassi wasn’t intimidated by relatives, especially if he thought they were weak. So, while the two of them were chatting on the bench by his side, he kept his eyes firmly on the young lady. When they arrived at Central Station, the young man took his leave of her and then went after Cassi.
“Is it you?”
“Yes, it’s me,” replied Cassi.
“I’d like to speak to you. Let’s go to a patisserie. We can have a vermouth while I talk to you about a private matter.”
Although he suspected something amiss, Cassi went with him. On the way, the man said:
“I imagine you don’t know me. But let me tell you, my dear sir, that I know you very well. Everyone in the suburbs seems to know your proclivities, Senhor Cassi Jones, and although I haven’t been living here long I’ve heard all about you.”
Alarmed by the young man’s sangfroid, Cassi started wondering how strong he was. He hadn’t brought his knife with him, because he was afraid of being arrested as a result of the business with Nair and her mother’s suicide. But, unarmed… Although the young man didn’t look particularly strong, he was clearly resolute. They entered the patisserie and sat down. After they’d been served their vermouth and had taken a few sips, the yound man suddenly said, “Do you know who that girl was, sitting beside me?”
With no room for prevarications, Cassi blurted out, “I’ve no idea.”
“She’s my sister.”
“I didn’t know,” said Cassi, his bravura rapidly evaporating.
“Of course you didn’t,” continued the young man. “I leave home early to go to the office and I return late. I have lunch and dinner in the city. Now, the reason I wanted to speak to you is to tell you that if you continue to bother my sister I’ll put five bullets in your head.”
So saying, he took out from inside his jacket a magnificent, shiny Smith & Wesson, its handle inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
Trying his best to hide his alarm, Cassi replied as calmly as he could, “My dear sir, I don’t think I’ve ever shown anything other than respect to your sister.”
“That’s as may be, but you need to stop pursuing her,” said the other in a tone that brooked no argument. Then he added, “Another drink?”
‘No thank you.”
They parted, without shaking hands, and Cassi went over to a table where his friends Ataliba do Timbó, Zezé Mateus, Franco Sousa and Arnaldo were sitting.
One of them asked, “What did that chap want?”
“Nothing. A new neighbour of mine. Wants me to sell a horse for him. On commission.”
This sort of nonchalance was how Cassi bolstered his reputation as a hard man. But it would be wrong to think that he had either respect or affection for the young men who accompanied him. Not only had he no affection for them – he had no affection or sympathy for anyone. Nevertheless, it was a cohort that was worthy of him and which made up for the wide berth given to him by most of the lads thereabouts.
Ataliba do Timbó was a fair-skinned, handsome mulatto, but rather off-putting on account of his arrogance and fatuousness. He used to be a labourer for the State government but, after falling in with Cassi, he’d eventually given up his job and abandoned his mother, who relied solely on him for support. His downfall was that he wanted to be just like Cassi. And, just like Cassi, he got into serious trouble with the police on account of a young lady. They forced him to marry her, and at least he had the decency to remain with her, even though she had to put up with all sorts of privations, in the horrible suburb of Dona Clara, while he played the man-about-town and played literally for various football teams.
He made a bit of money from the football, in which he was considered a star player, and also from playing dice.and poker. But he’d either been expelled, or left of his own accord, from a number of football clubs, where the other players suspected him of taking bribes in return for going easy on the opposition. And so he’d ended up as an agent for the illegal “animal” lottery, which at least made things a little more bearable for his wife.
Poor Ernestina! When she met Ataliba she’d been such a happy, talkative, good-looking girl, with a pretty little face and coffee-coloured skin – a bit on the dark side, but not so far as to make her ugly. And today? Gaunt, lots of children, weighed down with worries, and always in battered old shoes. (When she was single she loved nothing better than a good pair of shoes!) To see her then, and to see her now!
Zezé Mateus was an idiot of the first order. He couldn’t string two ideas together and he could hardly remember anything. His interests were simple: drinking and making out that he was a tough guy. But he’d turn his hand to anything: weeding, selling fish or vegetables, with a basket on his head, being a stone-cutter’s assistant, or catching and selling birds (like a child); and he had other skills of that ilk.
He was white, with a pasty face full of premature wrinkles and which – as he had no teeth – looked as if it was about to collapse in on itself. His forehead was low and his cranium long and narrow, giving him an almost Neanderthal appearance.
Completely inoffensive, but incapacitated both by his native imbecility and by alcohol, he performed odd jobs – shopping, washing the floors – for a family. In return they gave him a hut on their farm, and food – if he happened to be present at meal-times, that is. And, low and behold! that human ruin was the best of Cassi’s group; there wasn’t an ounce of malice in him. The worst you could say about him was that he used to be a man.
Whereas Franco Sousa, who occasionally joined the group, was a proper rogue. He called himself a lawyer and made his money by conning whichever credulous clients fell into his hands. And they had to be really credulous, because nearly everyone knew that he couldn’t do anything for them even if he’d wanted to, on the one hand because he knew nothing about the law, on the other because, indeed, he wasn’t a lawyer at all. But that didn’t stop naive country people and ingenuous widows seeking him out to help with boundary disputes or lodgers’ debts, in the belief that his services wouldn’t be too expensive. He took their deposits and, subsequently, whatever else he could get out of them, in proportion to their naivety and lack of experience. And he did nothing. As a result, he lived rather well, together with his wife, his sons and his daughters. He didn’t let Cassi enter his house, however, and, at the prompting of his wife, who was extremely concerned for the reputation of their daughters, gradually distanced himself from the guitar player.
The last of Cassi’s companions was known simply as Arnaldo and was, if anything, an even more repugnant type than Cassi himself. His occupation was stealing parasols, walking-sticks and packages on the train from passengers who’d dropped off to sleep or were otherwise distracted. He concentrated on packages in the afternoon and at night – sometimes quite late – he used to stand at the edge of the platform in out-of-the way stations and, when a train started moving, he’d reach through the windows and whip off passengers’ hats, especially if they were new-looking straw hats. These he sold the next day, along with the parasols, the walking-sticks and the contents of the packages, if it was saleable items like woollen or cotton clothes, books, crockery or cutlery.
But, if it was sweets, fruit, cheese, biscuits or grain, he’d take it home and tell his wife that he’d managed to scrape together some money to buy those treats for the children. And he used the most cunning strategies to avoid paying the rent. On one occasion, when the rent-collector brandished eight months worth of IOUs in front of his face, he asked to examine them and kept them, on the grounds that he needed to consult a competent person, because he didn’t think the receipt-stamps on the IOUs were genuine. Nor did he ever return them and, despite a barrage of threats, he managed to stay in the house for another four months. And his neighbours said he was even known to snatch banknotes from children’s hands when they were running errands for their parents, carrying the notes, in the careless way of children, for all to see.
Allow me to repeat that Cassi nurtured no sort of friendship for these young men. The reason was not repugnance for their morals, especially as he outdid them in that respect; it was simply that what should have been the emotional side of him was a desert. He didn’t have a speck of affection even for his parents or his sisters. Even in the case of his mother, who’d got him released, so many times, from police cells – and usually just in time to prevent his removal from police cell to prison, any shows of affection were strictly for the benefit of the police or the judges.
This moral and emotional aridity could partly be explained by his childhood; very little care had been taken with his education. He was the first-born, and when he was little his father had to work night and day to keep the family from destitution, as a result of which he hardly had time to look after his son’s upbringing. As for his mother, she treated him with kid gloves, despite his being a rebel from a tender age; and this, together with her own limitations, meant that she didn’t provide the discipline he so badly needed. He used to play truant, going off, together with other boys, into the scrub land around Itapiru, which is where the family lived at that time. You can well imagine what they got up to, but his mother pretended not to notice, merely patting him on the head, and certainly not saying anything to his father, who was working like a donkey all the hours that God gave. So that’s how he grew up, without the benefit of the only moral authority in the family – that of his father.
Thus, when his financial situation improved, with a promotion, with an inheritance that had come to his wife, and with the purchase of their present house, in Rocha, Manuel discovered that he had a thirteen-year-old son who was completely depraved, smoked openly, could hardly read, and whose writing was even worse than his reading. So he put him with the Salesians in Niteroi. But his son’s weekly reports were terrible and, in any case, after about three or four months in the college, the lad did some terrible thing or other; as a result, one fine afternoon, Cassi turned up at home, accompanied by a thin, angular, ascetic-looking priest, in order to be returned to his father. The reverend father took Manuel to one side and explained the reason; when the priest took his leave, Cassi’s father, fighting back tears, responded as follows to his heartfelt apologies;
“I can’t blame you in the least. It’s I who should apologise, for having a son who manages to be so wicked at such a young age. My God, what have I done to deserve it!”
His wife wanted to know the reason for Cassi’s expulsion, but her husband’s sense of dignity and shame stopped him from telling it even to her.
Some days later, he suggested to her that they should apprentice the boy to a trade, to give him a bit of discipline. But Dona Salustiana immediately flared up:
“My son apprenticed to a trade?! A labourer?! Whatever next?! He’s the nephew of a doctor and the grandson of a man who’s done great things for Brazil.”
Manuel had never forgotten the tough times he had in the beginning and how his wife had helped and encouraged him. He had great affection for her and would do almost anything not to upset her. And that’s why he didn’t insist on this occasion. And… some months later, as soon as he arrived home, his wife and his daughters ran to him in tears and begged him to go and get Cassi – who’d been arrested – released from the police cell. Almost sixteen years old, the lad was showing himself to be precocious in his chosen career of thieving: he’d been arrested for trying to rip out the lead piping from the interior of an empty house, with a view to selling it.
On that occasion, Manuel really did push through his idea of apprenticing Cassi to a trade: tiredness after a hard day’s work, together with the company of honest working people, would surely deflect him from the bad path he’d chosen. Very reluctantly, Dona Salustaina agreed, and so Cassi was apprenticed – to a typographer.
After just one month, however, he was sacked. Having gone to receive payment for some visiting cards – something in the region of five thousand réis – he’d returned empty-handed, saying that he’d lost it. He was duly searched, and the money was found stuffed into his sock.
Obsession with money – that was his weakness. He wanted it, but he didn’t want to work for it and he wanted it only for himself. He welshed on even his smallest debts and he certainly didn’t offer anyone money voluntarily. Some of those who knew him, and knew how almost pathologically avaricious he was, saw that as the principal reason for his continual deflowering of virgins and seduction of young married women: he could do it for free. The other reason was that he was stupid.
Whatever the reason, however, the truth was that he wasn’t psychologically ill in the least. On the contrary: he did everything calculatedly and patiently. As stupid as he may have been for anything else, he planned his seductions and debaucheries with the consummate skill that other types of villain applied to their particular villainy. He thought everything out clearly and was careful to remove any likely obstacles.
He chose his victims well and was expert at pretending to be in love. He wrote horribly sentimental letters, he pretended to be suffering dreadfully – in short he used the whole arsenal of lotharios’ tricks; and all this was very effective against the fragile amorous defences of the poor girls of those parts, whose deficiencies, in both intelligence and education, caused them to concentrate all their hopes of happiness in Love, a great and everlasting Love, a fully requited Passion.
Cassi Jones didn’t need to be a psychologist or anything of that sort to know how to turn the morbid mental state of his chosen victims to his advantage, preparing the ground for his horrendous and cowardly crimes. And, in this, his guitar and his modinhas were his almost constant companions.
Despite his deficient – nay, rudimentary – education, Marramaque had lived amongst well-educated people of all different classes. He came from a little town in the State of Rio, “near the Court,” as they said in those days. When he finished his basic education, his parents found him a job in a warehouse in the town. Slavery was still in full force, even though its end was near, and the ancient Province of Rio de Janeiro was rich and prosperous, with its bustling coffee farms populated by black slaves who lived under fear of the whip and of torture at the stake.
The warehouse in which Marramaque was employed (and where he lived) contained everything you could think of: ironware; coarse shirts, trousers and underpants for workmen; weapons; crockery etc., etc. Its owner bought directly from wholesalers at the Court; in addition, he acted as an intermediary between smallholders and the big retail stores of the imperial capital, i.e. he bought the produce of the former and sold it, at a hefty mark-up, to the latter.
Marramaque was contemplative and melancholy, and spent much of his time leaning on the warehouse counter listening to muleteers and foot-travellers telling all sorts of stories: deeds of derring-do, scary encounters on deserted roads, contests in guitar virtuosity, and romance in the outback.
Temperamentally he was just the same as his father: active, hard-working, reserved and prudent. In the few years he’d been in Brazil, he’d managed to get enough money together to buy a piece of land, on which he grew typical smallholders’ crops: manioc, sweet-potatoes, pumpkins, tomatoes, okra, oranges, cashew nuts and watermelons. The most profitable were the melons, during the winter months. After a while he bought himself a little boat, in which, twice a week, accompanied by one of his friends, whose help he paid for, he brought the produce of his smallholding to the city. In order to arrive at the Mercado, he had to sail down a small, more or less navigable river and across Guanabara Bay. The land breeze blew him there, and the sea breeze blew him back.
His son was incapable of such feats; but, like his mother (who, although almost white, still had noticeable Indian features), he was perfectly capably of singing languid, melancholy modinhas all day long.
As a lad, Marramaque had been a bit of a dreamer, and had longed to pour out – whether on paper in the form of poetry, or by some other means – the pain, the dreams and the strong feeling for justice that he carried inside him. In particular, he hated the existence of slavery, with all its evils.
One day, a traveller left behind a volume of Casimiro de Abreu’s “Poems for Springtime” in the room where he’d been staying in the warehouse. Marramaque had read only snatches of poetry before, either in newspapers – or bits of newspapers – he came across, or on the single magazine pages that were sent to the warehouse for use as wrapping-paper. Casimiro’s book found fertile ground in Marramaque’s melancholic soul and in his vague sense of how limited were his horizons. For him, it was like the revelation of a new earth and a new heaven. The heartfelt laments of that song-thrush of São João da Barra brought tears to his eyes and sparked his imagination; nor did he fail to notice that, like him, the author of “Poems for Springtime” had worked as a clerk in a country warehouse. One result of all the profound emotions stirred up in him by Casimiro’s poetry was that Marramaque resolved to educate himself and, yes, to write verses too. For which purpose he needed to go to the Court.
Once in a while, travelling salesmen from big retail stores in the Court who had business dealings with Senhor Vicente Aires, Marramaque’s boss, stayed in the warehouse. The young man’s good nature and helpfulness, together with an appealing air about him that was not unconnected with his vague dreams, made him admired by everyone. This was particularly the case with a young Portuguese man, Senhor Mendonça, or Henrique de Mendonça Souto, to give him his full name.
Senhor Mendonça was the complete opposite of poor Marramaque: cheerful, extrovert, talkative and liked a drink. But, most importantly, he was honest, loyal and straightforward.
One night, when he was staying at the back of Senhor Vicente Aires’s warehouse, this life and soul of any party returned from a game of trumps in the house of the sacristan of the parish church and came across Marramaque reading Casimiro de Abreu’s book of poems. Given that it had gone midnight and that the clerk would have to get up at five o’clock to open the warehouse and help the muleteers and travelling salesman get ready to leave, this caused Seu Mendonça no small surprise:
“You’re still reading, lad! Have you forgotten, my good fellow, that you’ll have to be up and about in no time?!”
“I was waiting for you.”
“What?! Surely you don’t think I’m incapable of getting undressed and into bed myself?!.. What are you reading?”
“Poems for Springtime, by Casimiro de Abreu.”
Once the travelling-salesman was lying comfortably in bed, he asked Marramaque,
“So you like poetry, lad?”
As the boy hesitated to reply, Mendonça carried on briskly:
“Say something, lad. It’s not a crime! You do, don’t you? Say something!”
“I do. Yes, sir,” said the clerk, timidly.
“Then you need to go to Rio,” was Mendonça’s immediate reply. “You need to study and then… who knows?”
“I would, if I could get a job at the Court…”
Mendonça thought a little before saying:
“Working in a store wouldn’t be the thing for you. Too much work, and you wouldn’t like it… You’re a budding poet, that’s the sort of thing you like… You’d be bored stiff in a store. But what about work in a chemist’s shop? Tell your father I’ll arrange it for you. I’ll write to you as soon as I get to Rio.”
Mendonça was as good as his word, and Marramaque’s father agreed to let him go to Rio to work in a pharmacy. At night the boy furthered his education as best he could in the philanthropic educational institutions that used to exist in those days.
Not only that, but he immediately set about writing poetry. Little surprise, then, that one of the habitués of the pharmacy came across him composing a poem. (Pharmacies used to be meeting-places for the local éminences grises; after lunch they’d go there for a chat.) The particular éminence gris in this case was Senhor José Brito Condeixa, Deputy Director of the Secretariat for Foreigners. And he was also a poet, although for some time past he’d only written poems for special occasions. Apart from publishing sonnets and others types of poems relating to the particular event, he was particularly assiduous in commemorating – in verse of the most florid ornamentation – the special occasions of the Imperial Family. He kept expecting to be awarded the Imperial Order of the Rose, but had to wait for it until the dying days of the Empire, when Volume III of The Synopsis of Brazilian Legislation – including his contribution about the Ministry of Foreigners –– was published.
Brito Condeixo read, and liked, the young shop assistant’s poem and vowed he’d do what he could for him. So he spoke to the pharmacist and managed to get Marramaque transferred to a stationer’s-cum-bookshop in the Rua da Quitanda. During the last fifteen years of the empire, this was frequented by young poets and men of letters. Marramaque got on well with them and they were always happy for him to help out – as secretary, treasurer or manager – with their ephemeral publications. Eventually he left his job at the stationer’s, without hard feelings on either side, and threw himself enthusiastically into the harsh and deceptive world of the small-scale press. He was a committed republican and, above all, a committed abolitionist.
This campaigning, ephemeral journalism earned him next to nothing for his upkeep, and so he lived a life of utter deprivation. Eventually, without turning his back on his friends among the poets, writers, parodists and artists, he set himself up as a peripatetic bookkeeper, which enabled him to house, feed and clothe himself and, occasionally, to held out his comrades. And all that time he remained a confirmed bachelor.
He had vivid memories of his life as an acolyte in that bohemian world of the literati, and he enjoyed recounting them, liberally interspersed with deep sighs. And so he’d chat, as if it were yesterday, about the ups and downs of this one, that one or the other; but, out of all of them, the one that seemed to have left the deepest impression on him was a little poet who never had his fifteen minutes of fame and today is completely forgotten. When he talked about him, you’d have thought he was talking about his favourite brother:
“Ah! Aquiles! What spirit! What a poet!”
And then he’d asked whoever he happened to be talking to, “You didn’t know him, did you?”
“No, I don’t think I did.”
“But you know him by name? You know his books?”
And his interlocutor would respond, diplomatically,
“Oh yes! I know of him very well.”
“What a spirit that man had! Aquiles Varejão… He died not long ago, in ‘94 or ‘95. In the Santa Casa, if I’m not mistaken. Utterly destitute, when he died, but right up until the end he always used whatever he earned – he was a typographer – to help out his friends. I wasn’t able to go and see him… I was being treated after my first attack. But I remember his last sonnet. It was published in the Gazeta. It was so beautiful! He was a born poet! Nothing was forced. Just listen to this!”
Then, with difficulty on account of the semi-paralysis on the left side of his mouth, and with his eyes bulging because he tried so hard to do justice to the words, he’d recite the following:
Laid on this bed, I feel my life slowly
Drain away, searching, searching for nothing.
No more for me will the sun rise at morning,
Only the shudder of light dying wholly.
Where are those pleasures? If I could only
See all the love that I passed on the road.
All of it gone, just this narrow abode,
Waiting to hear the parting bell call me.
Oh to have family! Oh for the kindness
Of mother, of wife! and then at the last
Not to face death so alone and so friendless!
But to this sad end cruel fate holds me fast.
Should I ride on the wind, a bird flown the nest,
Seeking a new world where suffering has passed?..
Almost always, Marramaque would have tears in his eyes by the time he got to the end of his friend’s poem, and the listener – impressed both by the elegiac tone of the sonnet and by Marramaque’s hearfelt rendition – would immediately exclaim:
“How lovely! Beautiful!”
Marramaque himself was only a second-rate poet but, as such, he had the great virtue of not denigrating his more successful friends, let alone those of them who became famous. He praised them all (even if he couldn’t help noticing the flaws in their characters).
Having lived a varied life and gained experience of and knowledge about people and the ways of the world, he was in a good position to answer the question “Cassi Who?” Not only that, but, living as he did among writers and poets, he’d acquired the iron habit of reading all the papers that he came across at work. (Given his precarious state of health, he didn’t do much else there.)
Once in a while he chanced upon lurid, scandalous reports in which the name of the famous guitarist was mentioned. He remembered one of them, in particular, because it caused so much revulsion in the soul of that old-fashioned idealist, dreamer and would-be romantic cavalier. Not being in the habit either of reading the papers or of chatting at length with his neighbours, Joaquim dos Anjos knew nothing about it. So Marramaque duly informed him. At length.
A married couple had recently moved to a suburb not far from Cassi’s house. She was young, tall, blonde and shapely, with big black eyes, looking very much like a typical woman from Rio Grande do Sul. He was a machinist at the Admiralty, short and swarthy, always bent forward slightly, and looking sad and pensive. Despite the difference in their characters and the even more obvious difference in their ages, they seemed to get on well together. They almost always went out in the evening, to parties or the theatre; on Sundays they liked to go somewhere picturesque in the vicinity, returning after nightfall. They ate out and, for the basic housework, they just had a black girl of about sixteen years of age. Goodness knows how, but Cassi managed to seduce the wife. No sooner had her husband left for work than in he’d come, guitar and all. Of course, it wasn’t long before the wife’s name was mud on the streets. Nor was it long before the husband found out from some source or other. The result was that, one day, completely beside himself with fury, he appeared in their house with a gun and shot his wife twice. She died a few hours later. But the husband was already hunting down Cassi, who, just in his trousers and unbuttoned shirt – he hadn’t had time to put on his shoes – was jumping over fences and walls to put as much distance as possible between himself and his pursuer.
The husband eventually handed himself over to the police and told them everything, including who was the first cause of this calamity. The commissioner sent the police after Cassi, and they managed to catch him that night, hiding out in the scrub land. He was arrested and imprisoned.
It was on that occasion that Cassi got to know Lafões. The latter had been jailed for causing a disturbance in a pub, where he’d got thoroughly drunk celebrating a big win on the animal game. When they brought Cassi in, Lafões had already been there for four hours.
Cassi had left his coat and waistcoat behind – and, with them, his money – when he was scrambling to get away from the police. So he hadn’t been able to buy any cigarettes. But Lafões had some. So the lothario asked him for one and, when Lafões obliged, Cassi said:
“I’ll get you off, my friend. You’re a good fellow.”
“And why are you here yourself?”
Cassi replied with calm indifference:
“A matter of nothing – women, old chap. They’ll be my downfall!”
Then Cassi turned to a soldier he knew and whispered something to him through the bars of the cell. Soon afterwards, the soldier on duty was replaced by another, and Cassi said to Lafões:
“You’re as good as free, old fellow. I sent that soldier to have a word with my political boss, and he’ll try and get you out.
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll have to make a statement…”
Lafões was indeed released, but without any intervention by Cassi’s political boss; it was the commissioner himself – the one who’d arrested him, but who knew that he was normally peaceable and well-mannered. Nevertheless, the security guard for the water authority was left with the conviction that it had been Cassi who’d got him realeased; and, for that, he was eternally grateful.
Lafões was a simple man whose only real astuteness was making sure he got paid properly. Not having any great experience of life, he tended to judge people by their clothes and their relatives, so he was incapable of realising what a base, wretched individual Cassi was or that he was hardly likely to help anyone out of altruism.
Marramaque was quite different from Lafões; his experience of life and of people was much wider and richer… So when Lafões suggested inviting the famous guitarist, his messenger friend immediately saw the dangers of allowing that Lothario into the peace and tranquility that had always reigned in the house of Joaquim dos Anjos.
Apart from the fact that Joaquim was his daughter’s godfather, Marramaque felt the deepest friendship for his postman friend. And Joaquim had helped him through all sorts of troubles, which were partly caused by his entrenched bohemian habits and partly because he was so poorly paid. (He was the main support of his widowed sister, who lived, with her two young children, not far from Joaquim.)
In his eventful life he’d often observed both the atmosphere of corruption to which poor mulatto girls like Clara could be easily exposed and the common assumption that they were naturally promiscuous. So they were condemned from the start and if they tried to raise their moral and social condition everything and everyone seemed to condemn them for that as well.
If even honest girls had to struggle against such odds, Marramaque could well imagine how such a cynical good-for-nothing as Cassi would view an invitation to Clara’s house.
They talked about it more during the meal, but were constrained in what they said by the girl’s presence.
“Let’s give it a try, Marramaque, dear fellow,” said Joaquim. “After all, Lafões knows the man…”
“I do indeed,” said Lafões, “and, as far as I’m concerned, I can’t say anything against him. He’s always been good to me and I’m very grateful to him.”
“That’s because you don’t read the papers, Lafões!” exclaimed Marramaque.
“Papers my foot! Everything you read in the papers is lies.”
Clara listened to the conversation attentively and with great curiosity. Eventually she just had to ask: “But what did this Cassi do, Godfather?”
Her mother, however, would have none of it:
“It’s none of your business, Little Miss Nosy!”
Being Joaquim’s only daughter, Clara had possibly been cocooned too much for her own good, especially in the case of a poor mulatto girl like her. In looks, she took after both her parents. Her postman father was coffee-coloured, but had what we call “bad hair”; whereas his wife, despite being darker, had smooth hair.
Their daughter had her father’s complexion and her mother’s hair.
Joaquim was much taller than average, with square shoulders and a wiry figure, whereas his wife was somewhat shorter than average. Her face was well-proportioned, without any particularly distinguishing features, which was not the case with her husband, who had a big, flat nose and prominent cheekbones. Half way in everything between the two of them, it was clear that Clara was the daughter of both.
Imbued with the music of her father and his friends, that poor mulatto girl was full – to the brim of her heart and soul – of the lilt of modinhas and the simple, hyper-romantic sentimentality of all those popular ballads and songs.
On the few occasions when she went out, it was not far: just a few steps to Dona Margarida’s house, for lessons in sewing and embroidery, or to go with Dona Margarida to the cinema or to buy cloth or shoes. Although it was usual, in the suburbs, for ladies and girls to go on their own to the shops, Clara’s mother never let her do that, even though Dona Engrácia could see, from her own house, everything that was going on in Seu Nascimento’s store, where the family got most of their things.
This virtual curfew exacerbated yet more Clara’s dreamy nature, which found an outlet in modinhas and in various popular poems.
So it can easily be imagined that she was anxious that her father should allow the famous guitar-player to visit them, especially as – cloistered as she was by her mother – she hadn’t the faintest idea about his reputation. All she could think was that he could conjure magical sounds from his guitar and would sing like angel.
In the end, Joaquim dos Anjos, with his wife’s agreement, and curious himself to witness Cassi’s skills as a guitar-player and a singer, consented that Lafões could bring him to the house on Clara’s birthday. “Just the once,” he added.
Even so, Lafões was delighted and immediately set about arranging things with the notorious guitarist. But his disreputable friends greeted the news less ingenuously:
“I know that fellow, the postman,” said Ataliba do Timbó. “He doesn’t work round here, he works in the city, something to do with the banks. He must have plenty of money. And, my God! what a tasty daughter he’s got. A nice piece of sugar-candy!”
“You’re well in there, then, aren’t you, Cassi?!” ventured the oafish Zezé Mateus.
Cassi, however, the suburban guitar maestro and modinha king, pretended to be offended:
“You don’t do me any favours, People tell lies, and no-one’s got a good word for me. A lot of them hate me. But I’m not like that.”
Timbó would have laughed out loud but, although he was stronger than Cassi, the guitar player had some sort of inexplicable hold over him. So it was left to Zezé Mateus to give his typical imbecilic half-laugh and proclaim:
“I was only joking, feller. I’m your friend, ain’t I?”
Their conversations usually took place when they were hanging about on street corners; it was only rarely that they went into a café and sat down. But, on this occasion, Ataliba and Zezé Mateus’s unwelcome remarks had dampened the conversation, so they split up and went their own ways.
Although Cassi had pretended to be offended by their comments, however, he was secretly delighted by what he’d heard from Ataliba. He’d initially decided not to go to the party, but now he thought he’d have nothing to lose. He’d give it a go.
Biting his lips, he set off for his club, feeling highly pleased with himself…
When the day of the birthday party arrived, the little house was full to overflowing and – what was rather strange – more middle-aged people had been invited than youngsters. The reason was that Clara and her parents had such a narrow circle of younger acquaintances. Among the girls, there were a few of Clara’s friends, Lafões’s daughter, a niece of Dona Engrácia, called Hermengarda, and that was about it. Among the boys, there were two young work colleagues of Joaquim’s, called Sabino and Honório, one of Hermengarda’s brothers, and Lafões’s godson, who was a watchman at the docks.
In contrast, there seemed to be no end of married women. Noticeable among them was Dona Margarida Weber Pestana, on account both of her masculine appearance and of the fact that her fourteen-year-old only son – dressed in his school uniform – was always at her side. She was a sort of domestic heroine. She’d been very young when she came to Brazil with her father, who was German; she herself was Russian, like her mother, having been born in Riga. Her mother had died before she was sixteen, and her father had emigrated to Brazil to work on the final stages of the construction of the Candelária church. He was an expert in stucco and marble, and was also a bit of a sculptor; so he was a highly qualified workman, ideal for the finishing touches and internal decoration of sumptuous buildings.
It was not long before Margarida was enamoured by a typographer called Florêncio Pestana, who used to take his meals in the boarding-house she’d set up in the Rua da Alfândega. They married, but the husband died of consumption two years later, leaving her a son, Ezequiel, who wouldn’t leave her side. After a further year and a half her father died of yellow fever. She continued to run the “digs”, but only for a while, after which she bought a little house in the suburbs, very near Joaquim’s house. She did sewing and embroidery for people, kept chickens, ducks and turkeys and lived a life of unblemished serenity. There was, indeed, an occasion when Ataliba do Timbó started pestering her with lascivious comments, but she soon sent him packing.
Occasionally, at night, to defend the poultry from persistent poachers, she’d open a shutter she’d made in the kitchen window and fire a pistol out of it. She was respected for her courage, her kindness and the rigour of her widowhood. Her son, Ezequiel, had a lot of his father – who was a mulatto – in him, but he had greenish-blue eyes like his half-Slav, half-German mother – eyes that are so strange to us, especially in a mulatto.
Apart from Dona Margarida Pestana, something should be said about Dona Laurentina Jácome, a devout old lady who seemed to live more in the church than out of it; she had a pension from the ex-Emperor and she was employed in a local chapel, where she did the cleaning and washed the altar linen. She was almost incapable of talking about anything other than church events, which normally meant events at the chapel:
“Guess what, Dona Engrácia!”
“Last month, Fr Santos said more than twenty masses and only got a pittance for it. Poor Fr Santos! He’s a saint!”
And her wrinkled face would pucker even more and she’d raise her eyes to the heavens and clasp her hands together.
And then there was Dona Vicência, another near-neighbour, who made her living as a fortune-teller. Her procedure was unexceptionable and she exercised her profession with the greatest seriousness and conviction.
There were no other ladies of particular note and, among the gentlemen, there was only one who stood out (leaving aside Lafões and Marramaque, who were there in an honorary capacity). The gentleman of note was a short black man. He was slightly hunched, his right shoulder being higher than the left, and his head was enormous, with a prominent, bulging forehead and with his face tapering sharply down to his chin, giving the effect of a monstrous V. And, to complete the alarming effect, the back of his head was also disproportionately large. His name was Praxedes Maria dos Santos, but he preferred to be called Dr Praxedes.
The horrendous size of his cranium had given him delusions of grandeur. Because it was so big, he considered himself to be of exceptional intellect, and a legal expert to boot. So he’d started going to notaries’ offices, where he’d occasionally take the role of a witness, or go and buy stamps etc., etc.
In time he set up his own little office, where he organised documentation for weddings and established his own library of legal manuals, legislative indices etc., etc. He always wore a morning coat, with patent-leather shoes or spats, and he was forever carrying a quantity of papers, to indicate that he was a legal man. When it was the fashion to carry them rolled up, he carried them rolled up; and when the present fashion for carrying them in a briefcase arrived, he bought a luxurious one, of morocco leather with silver fasteners.
All he talked about was laws and decrees: “…because Act No. 1857, of 14 October 1879, says that a woman in the married state cannot dispose of her goods or have money in a bank or building society; whereas Decree No. 4572, of 24 July 1899, stipulates…” That sort of thing.
Apart from his love of red tape, he liked poetry, but not when it came to modinhas.
So he was the most notable gentleman at Clara’s birthday dance. But, to the great disappointment of the girls, even after Dr Praxedes had arrived there was still no sign of Cassi.
The disappointment was most evident in Clara herself, and one of her school friends whispered to her:
“Don’t be silly, Clara! He’s a good-for-nothing!”
Instead of replying, and to try and hide how upset she was, Clara went to the dining-room under the pretext of needing a drink of water.
She was wearing a lovely, crepe dress, with lace frills, which, although home-made, were beautifully done; her neck was bare and the collar of her bolero was fastened with a broach that was also adorned with lace. On her feet she had ankle socks and patent leather shoes. Her hair was tied back and at the nape of her neck it was fixed in place by what looked like a large tortoiseshell comb.
When she went for the water she was followed by her friend Etelvina, a lively creole girl who used to go to the same school as Clara. Etelvina was dressed in the most extraordinary bad taste. Her dress was sky-blue with frills of black lace; her shoes were yellow and her ankle socks were pumpkin-coloured. Round her head, and running straight across her forehead, was a ribbon of garish red. (The Greeks used to call this feminine adornment a “stephane”, and it seems they didn’t take it to be a sign of virtue.)
Not having missed a single quadrille, up until that point Etelvina had been the belle of the ball.
The orchestra comprised a flute, a cavaquinho and a guitar – a “threesome” as the street-serenaders call it.
The dances were in full swing when Lafões’s daughter came running from the gate of the well-tended front garden and excitedly announced, “Seu Cassi’s on his way.”
In he came, and it was as if an electric shock had run through everyone. All the girls, of all different skin colours – the differences being muted and harmonised by their common poverty and humble social status –, all of them were instantly enthralled by him, such is the power and fascination of perversity in female heads. Not even Cesare Borgia, dressed up for a masked-ball given by his father, Alexander VI, in the Vatican, would have caused such a to-do. So it would hardly have been a surprise if they’d murmured: “It’s Caesar! It’s Caesar!” But they contented themselves with: “It’s him! It’s him!”
Seeing the stir his arrival caused amongst the girls, the boys weren’t happy at all, so they made up for it by muttering about the modinha singer’s disreputable deeds. So much so that, when Lafões introduced him to Engrácia, Joaquim and their daughter, no-one noticed the lecherous glance the sybarite bestowed on Clara’s pert breasts.
The dancing was in full swing but, instead of joining in, Cassi went to reinforce the trio of musicians with his guitar.
Meanwhile the severe Dona Margarida was sitting with her son on the Austrian sofa and observing the other ladies. Polkas were the favourite dance music, with one and all disporting themselves as gymnastically as if it were a samba. Those who weren’t dancing had spread themselves in various parts of the house. Joaquim, Lafões and Marramaque were listening to Dr Praxedes explaining what a preventative habeas corpus was.
“Let me give you an example,” he was saying, with his right hand raised and his forefinger pointing at the ceiling as if he were giving a lecture. “It is a perfectly prophylactic juridical measure, because…”
At that point he was interrupted by another so-called doctor, Meneses, a bloated old man who thought he knew everything, worked as a clandestine dentist and, despite all that, lived in the most abject poverty:
“I do not think the analogy is appropriate, Dr Praxedes. Every science has its own terminology…”
While they were discussing, Joaquim stood up. Whenever he did that, Meneses followed the postman with his eyes to see if he was going to the kitchen to order that supper be served. The learned dentist, who hadn’t managed to scrape together enough money even to buy a bowl of soup, had delayed his arrival to coincide – so he hoped – with that event. And, indeed, Joaquim, who’d got bored with the conversation, had gone to the living room to announce:
“Anyone who’d like to eat or drink something, it’s over here. There are biscuits as well. Feel free!”
Thereafter, whenever his host repeated the invitation, Meneses took the opportunity to eat two pies and four sandwiches, and to have a good swig of rum.
Joaquim made a point of offering to bring Cassi a drink, but it turned out he wasn’t a drinker – that wasn’t his thing.
At one point, when Joaquim came back into the living room, he said, “Why don’t you sing us something, Seu Cassi?”
That was the first mention of singing. Up until then, the famous guitarist had been perfectly happy playing his instrument and surreptitiously following Clara’s swaying hips with his lascivious gaze.
No-one had plucked up the courage to ask him to sing; they were all waiting for their host to do so. But, having been invited, he played hard to get:
“My voice is no good today. I sang too long at the dance at Dr Raposo’s yesterday and…”
At that point, Clara timidly seconded her father’s invitation:
“Please sing, Seu Cassi. My friends say you’re a wonderful singer…”
(The “wonderful” was drawn out in the sweetest voice imaginable.)
Cassi picked up and fiddled around with the grubby folder containing his song-sheets. Then he set it down again, wiped his hands with his handkerchief and replied, with the most perfect appearance of diffidence:
“Oh, Senhorita! Your friends are too kind…”
But Clara was insistent:
“Please sing! Please do!”
Still feigning reluctance, and looking at the open palm of Clara’s raised right hand, he murmured:
“Your wish is my command, Senhorita. I shall sing.”
When he heard all this, Marramaque was amazed by the forwardness of his goddaughter. “God Almighty!” was what he said to himself.
But, having picked up his guitar, adopted a poetic pose and strummed a few chords, Cassi was already announcing:
“This is an old modinha, but very refined and literary. It’s called ‘In the country’.”
Many in his audience were disappointed, because they knew it already, but others fully approved the choice, because they not only knew it, but loved it.
So Cassi began:
Once, on the farm, I spied
A brown girl dance,
A girl with quicksilver eyes.
And I… I stood entranced…
He sang the words really slowly, without any modulation and to the accompaniment of the same notes on the guitar, producing a soporific and almost music-less monotony. The refrain was:
Having seen that smile –
So everyone said –
The farmer, all the while,
To all else was dead.
At this point, Cassi employed a trick that’s invincible for any guitarist and modinha singer who has the knack, i.e. rolling your eyes, while singing, as if you’re about to die. In his famous Memoirs, Cardinal de Retz said that Mme. de Montayon, or some Duchess or other, looked much more beautiful when she did a dying swan with her eyes. Perhaps Cassi would have done, too, if there’d been any beauty in him in the first place; but that didn’t stop the trick from impressing the ladies.
And those rolling eyes especially impressed Clara, who was always transfixed by modinhas; they instantly wafted her away to regions of perpetual happiness love and joy, so much so that, when she heard them, normal life was almost suspended as she let herself be totally entranced by the sonority of the words. She couldn’t help but think that so much suffering in a singer’s expression just had to be genuine.
So absorbed was she, and so up, off and away were her thoughts that, when Cassi finished singing, she even forgot to applaud the troubadour who had made such a strong artistic impression on her rudimentary taste.
Cassi was listening contentedly to all the words of praise for his performance when, suddenly, like a magician’s trap-door apparition, the famous suburban lawyer “Dr” Praxedes appeared in the middle of the room and announced:
“Senhoras, senhores! Kindly lend your ears for a moment to a recital of a lovely poem by a fellow-countryman of ours. A masterpiece of elegance and morality! The poet was Major Urbano Duarte, who – if my memory serves me aright – was a brigadier general when he died. If you will allow me, I shall now recite it. It is called ‘The Tear’.”
No sooner had he said this than, randomly flapping his stiff arms up and down like the sails of a windmill, he adopted an even more grotesque appearance than normal. Then he started barking out the first verse, with spittle spraying from his bloodless lips.
Beauteous Marieta gazes from the shore
At the wake of that sad, sad ship
Until it can be seen no more
Taking beyond the horizon’s lip
Her first and only love.
Meanwhile his arms flapped even more and even more spittle sprayed from his bloodless lips. By the time he got to the end of the first stanza, his voice had almost run out and his audience had been gripped by a manic desire to guffaw; many managed to contain themselves, whilst others left the room, to have a good laugh at a discreet distance. But, hearing and seeing nothing, Dr Praxedes ploughed on undaunted. Eventually he ended with:
After, when the moonlight bathed
The earth with its mysterious glow,
I saw among the pounding waves
A tear afloat upon the petal of a rose.
Exhausted with all the physical effort he’d put into it, he sat down, to mild applause, but he couldn’t help adding:
“The tear was the tear that Marieta shed at the beginning of the poem. It is important, senhoras and senhores, not to forget that detail.”
All this while, Marramaque had been surreptitiously observing how Cassi was devouring Clara with his eyes; and he resolved to teach him a lesson. Leaning heavily on his trusty walking-stick, dragging his left leg, and with his left arm bent at a right-angle – all as a consequence of the strokes he’d suffered –, he limped to the centre of the room. Now it was his turn to recite a poem. The left part of his mouth had also been affected, which made it difficult for him to enunciate clearly, but nothing was going to stop him, and so he got ready to begin.
He announced the title of the poem – “Perseverance” – and began reciting naturally, like someone who once upon a time could do it almost perfectly. And, as he recited, he kept his eyes on Cassi, who, like a well-behaved young man, was standing by the front window.
As he attacked the verses, Marramaque lifted himself up and down on the balls of his feet:
If you hear me bawling and braying
Like a donkey, as a way of saying
That I love you, run away!
And when, despite my tender charms,
You see my heart has feet of clay,
do not let me near your arms!
Leave me here to swear for evermore
that my love is true, eeh-aw!
For else, alas!
donkeys and the whole wide world will ask
“Between the two, who was the bigger ass?”
The final line triggered roars of laughter, and even Clara could hardly stop laughing. No-one asked, however, who’d written it, and even if they had Marramaque would have said he didn’t know, it had been printed anonymously in an old newspaper, it had caught his eye and he’d learnt it by heart.
People are little inclined to concern themselves with authors’ names, even when it comes to novels and serials that take days and days to read. For the ordinary man or woman, the work is all, the author nothing.
Cassi, who’d disliked Marramaque as soon as he set eyes on him, wasn’t slow to realise who the verses were aimed at. (But, given the way the infirm old man had stared at him, you’d have had to be even more of a donkey than the celebrated modinha singer not to realise.) And so he thought to himself: “You’ll pay me for that, you old cripple!”
What was so surprising about what Marramaque had done was his courage: he – the old, poor semi-cripple – had thrown down the gauntlet to that strong and healthy scoundrel, a man accustomed to bar-room brawls.
Cassi didn’t hang around much longer. He asked for his hat and took his leave of Dona Engrácia, Joaquim and their daughter. Then he gave a quick wave to the assembled company but, when he saw how Marramaque – mouth half-open, left arm at a right-angle – was once again giving him a weird look, his brio evaporated. It seemed like an apparition… Marramaque was no longer the crippled messenger boy, as Cassi had known him; he was now something else – something that put the fear of God into him.
Faced with the old man’s combativeness and the way in which he evidently – Cassi had no idea how – knew about his evil intentions regarding Clara, he realised something for perhaps the first time in his life: despite his almost congenital turpitude, he realised that there exists in life – or in human relations – a silent and secret guide that weighs our actions; a guide that prompts us to base all our actions on Justice, Loyalty, Truth and Generosity; a guide that can bring us inner peace and contentment; a guide that – as he could see now in the person of Marramaque – gives strength to the weak, courage to the fearful and an intimate, seraphic sense of satisfaction when we do our duty with dignity and honour. And that guide is Conscience.
This realisation caused him some confusion but, when the feeling of terror that Marramque’s steady, piercing, and almost supernatural gaze has caused – a gaze that, if only for an instant, had made him question his very soul –, when that feeling had passed, he rapidly returned to himself and thought once more: “You’ll pay me for that, you pathetic old puppet!”
After Cassi’s departure, the dancing continued until the first rays of dawn. Meneses had had a good snooze, and was sufficiently refreshed to partake of some fried chicken and pork that had remained from the dinner. In doing so he wasn’t able to engage Dr Praxedes in discussion, because the latter had already left, having to arrive in good time for a magistrate’s hearing at which – acting as a lawyer – he was going to question some witnesses about an important matter.
When everyone had left, and after Clara had gone to her bedroom, Joaquim and his wife stayed in the adjacent dining-room, eating some of the left-overs. “Didn’t it go well?!” said Engrácia. “Everyone behaved themselves… But there’s one thing I don’t want to see again.”
“I don’t want Cassi coming to this house. Donna Margarida told me he’s a libertine. Didn’t you see the dirty way he was singing, rolling his eyes… I don’t want him here again. If he does…”
“No need to get mad, Engrácia! I didn’t like him either, so he’s not setting foot in this house again.”
Lying on her bed, Clara had heard all this conversation. She started, silently, to weep.
Anyone who knew Engrácia would have been amazed at the decisiveness of her reaction to Cassi’s visit. Temperamentally she was normally completely inert, impassive. She was a very good person, honest and fastidious in carrying out her domestic tasks; but ordinarily she would have been incapable of taking the initiative in an emergency. She’d leave it all to her husband, who was, indeed, the one who managed the household. It was he who wrote out the shopping lists for Seu Nascimento’s and the greengrocer’s every day, and it was he who, every morning before he went to work, left the money to pay the greengrocer. On his way he dropped off the list of items from Seu Nascimento’s, which he paid for monthly.
If anything unexpected happened in their home it would send Engrácia into a tizz. She’d been brought up, in the house of her custodians, by an old black woman called Babá. (Her custodians were the one-time masters of her grandmother and it was possible that one of the men of the family had father Engrácia.) Eventually Babá went to live with Joaquim and Engrácia as their maid, and Engrácia almost went crazy when the old woman was struck down by a stroke. She didn’t have the faintest idea what to do, so Dona Margarida had to take charge of things, calling the doctor, getting the prescription made up etc. But the old woman died soon afterwards, of a cerebral embolism. Engrácia felt totally bereft, because she hadn’t known her own mother, who’d died when she was seven, and Babá had been like a mother to her. Her custodians – the family name was Teles de Carvalho – had been well-off, being the descendants of a second-lieutenant in the militia, who owned land around São Gonçalo, in Cubandê. Shortly after Pedro II became Emperor, the head of the house died and the children were moved to the Court, where the sons sought employment in government departments. One of the brothers already lived in the Imperial capital, where he was an army surgeon, eventually becoming chief surgeon and enjoying a considerable reputation. They didn’t bring any slaves with them to the city: they liberated their favourites and sold the rest. That’s to say, they only brought with them liberated slaves who were like family members. There weren’t many of these left in the patriarchal house when Engrácia was born: just Babá, Engrácia’s mother and a black man.
Engrácia herself had been raised just like a daughter of the family, as were the other children of ex-slaves who were born in the Teles household.
As a result it was rumoured that they’d been fathered by the males of the house; and the rumour wasn’t entirely without substance in that family of sisters and brothers, who were still well-off and who were given to treating like their own children the innocent creatures who saw the light of day for the first time in that house. Indeed, the ladies of the house were as loving and kind towards them as if they’d been their real mothers.
Given her status and her gender, Engrácia received a good education but, as generally happens with our Brazilian girls, once she’d got married she set about forgetting everything she’d learnt. She’d married Joaquim when she was eighteen.
Whether it was because she’d been spoilt as a child, or whether it was something in her nature, what’s certain is that she avoided expending effort on just about anything other than the domestic chores.
She hardly went out at all other than for two regular journeys: every fifteenth of August she went up the hill to the Glória church, to leave an offering for Our Lady of Glory, for whom she had a special devotion; and on the feast day of the Immaculate Conception she went to make her annual confession. She always took her daughter with her, but she didn’t let her out of her sight, being terrified that she’d get lost. Other than those excursions, Clara went out – with the extremely reluctant agreement of her mother – to the cinema, either in Méier or in Engenho de Dentro, and very occasionally to the draper’s, shoemaker’s and similar shops that were to be found in the suburbs.
Nevertheless, this sheltered life and, even more, her mother’s constant vigilance, didn’t at all make her want to flee from the perils to which this honest maiden might be exposed (especially in view of her colour and her humble circumstances). Rather, it just made her extremely curious to discover what her mother was trying to protect her from.
She used to see all the other girls going out with their parents, with their mothers or with their girlfriends for a walk or to enjoy themselves. So why couldn’t she?! The question always remained unanswered, because, in the isolation in which she lived, there was no way of finding an answer to it.
For all Engrácia’s maternal care, admirable though it was, she was incapable of providing her daughter with the ground rules for life. She didn’t know how to bring to Clara’s attention the facts and examples that would nurture her conscience and strengthen her character so as to enable her to resist the dangers of the world in which she lived.
Joaquim’s wife believed in doing things mechanically – hence the routines of the cloistered life that she imposed on her daughter.
She was deluded, however, about its effectiveness; because, shut away without company and without relationships, Clara was unable to learn much at all about life and about the misery of which it is full; and so the soul of this little woman could only break free of its fetters in dreams – in dreams of love, of a surreal love replete with strange illusions, both physical and mental.
It should be added that everyone in the house loved modinhas. Her mother loved them, her father loved them and so did her godfather. Guitar and modinha sessions were almost constant in the house. It’s a taste that can become contagious, especially for someone in Clara’s emotional state. Modinhas talk of love, some of them in a highly sensual way; and so she based her notion of love on the songs she heard from her father and his friends. And love is all-powerful, it knows no barriers of race, wealth or status; it conquers, with or without a magistrate’s order or condemnation by the Church or misfortune; being in love is the greatest delight of our existence and has to be enjoyed or suffered, as the case may be. In fact, suffering tends to make it even more exquisite.
All those emollient modinhas provided a release from the seclusion imposed on Clara by her mother, but they also had the effect of undermining her willpower and making her so maudlin that she’d have been capable of dissolving at the first kiss from any ne’er-do-well who happened to believe in the myths about the availability of girls of her colour.
Cassi was just such a ne’er-do-well and, for her part, Clara – in her understandable ignorance of the mechanisms of social life – thought the way her parents treated him was unjust and coarse.
One Sunday, about two weeks after Clara’s birthday party, he knocked on the door of her parents’ house. Engrácia, who was tidying the living-room at that moment, was visibly displeased to see him and shouted to the kitchen, where Clara was:
“Tell your father Seu Cassi’s here.”
Clara was about to go and talk to the modinha singer, but her mother barked at her:
“Go and call your father! Off you go!”
Joaquim came immediately and, after they’d exchanged compliments, he asked the young man, “What’s the purpose of your visit, dear sir?”
“None. I was on my way to see my friend and thought I’d pop in and say Hello.”
“Thank you very much, but I’m in the middle of a game of whist and must get back to it.”
Cassi gave the old mulatto a contemptuous look for a few moments, but didn’t dare say anything. So they stood in front of each other for two or three minutes before Cassi took the hint and left.
Clara was horrified when she heard her father telling her mother what had happened and felt even more resentful about the restrictions – and the suffering – they’d imposed on her. A feeling of revolt welled up in her. What did they want to make of her?! An old spinster?! A nun?! Didn’t she need to get married?! Of course, it was only to be expected that they’d die before her and then – the way things were going – she’d be left without any support at all. People – especially Dona Margarida and Clara’s godfather – said all sorts of bad things about Cassi: that he was dissolute, a rogue, that he led young girls astray, that he seduced married women. How could he be all of those things if he frequented the homes of doctors, colonels and politicians?
All of this was set against the lad’s merits, because all she could see in him was delicacy and modesty on the one hand, and the soulfulness of a consummate guitar player on the other.
Just one thing bothered her: he was white and she was a mulatto. But why should that matter? There were so many cases… She even knew some herself… So convinced was she that Cassi – the scoundrel – harboured a genuine passion for her that, after she’d taken herself off to her room and had debated all these questions with herself, she lay on her bed sighing and weeping; and her firm, virginal breasts ached with her longing to be loved.
Anyway, she needed freedom, to go for walks, to get the know the city, its theatres, its cinemas… She hardly knew any of it. She wasn’t even allowed to pop out on her own to Seu Nascimento’s store. One day, when they were preparing the meal, they discovered they’d run out of salt; not even then was she allowed to go to the store, nor would her mother go, so as not to leave her alone in the house. So they had to wait an hour until they saw the store-assistant pass by. Not that Nascimento’s was half-empty or was a hang-out for disreputable types; quite the contrary. And this observation of Clara’s was perfectly true.
Despite her miserable, dissolute life, even Rosalina – better known by the pejorative nickname “Madame Blunderbuss” – behaved herself impeccably in the store. She was a really unfortunate young woman, having been seduced at a tender age, and the police having forced the man to marry her. In the first three years of their marriage, things had gone more or less smoothly. But then, as a reaction to various misfortunes, her husband had begun to find fault with her, to blame her for his bad luck and even to beat her, although he still gave her some money to sustain herself and their children. He’d always been a heavy drinker but now his drinking started to get out of control. He’d drink anywhere: at home, in the bars, wherever; he often went for a drink instead of to his work in the factory; and he’d drink himself under the table. Rosalina picked up the habit from her husband and – either from the little money he gave her, or from what she occasionally earned herself – she started buying rum. Her husband owed six months rent for their wooden shack – a living-room, a bedroom and a lean-to kitchen. When the landlord started pressurising him, he did a bunk, leaving his wife to explain the arrears. One day, the landlord came to her house with two other men. Without saying a word they leant a ladder against the roof and set about removing the tiles. And they took everything she possessed. So Rosalina asked one neighbour to look after her older son, and another to look after the younger, and went and threw herself under the first train that came along. She suffered abrasions and fractures to an arm and a leg, but the doctors at the Santa Casa managed to save her life. She left their care like a new woman, and her little mulatto face had recovered some of the glow and the sauciness which it must have had when she was an adolescent.
In the meantime, her mother – a poor washerwoman – had taken over care of the children. (There was still no sign of Rosalina’s husband.) At first, Rosalina, who was now living with her mother, kept on the straight and narrow, but very soon she was having relations with one man after another. The result was continual venereal diseases, for which she had to keep going to the Santa Casa for injections and operations. The doctors told her to stop drinking, but she neither did that, nor followed their prescriptions. When she ran out of whatever money she’d managed to earn, she waited patiently for her or her mother’s hens to lay, and once they had she’d be off to the shop to exchange them for two or three hundred réis-worth of rum.
But she didn’t try to exchange them in Seu Nascimento’s store. Brought up and educated in the outback, and having gained his first business experience in the interior of the State of Rio de Janeiro, where he still had a farm, Seu Nascimento liked to have a rather select clientèle, who came to the store to read the papers and have a chat – a well-known custom in the interior. The store even had those old-fashioned collapsible stools that were common in shops in the old days and which you can still find in some stores out in the country. Not only that, but the store was in a picturesque, out-of-the-way position, with the old trees of Mr Quick Shays’ farm opposite and, in the distance, the crazy outline of the mountain peaks. And he had many regular customers.
One of them was Alípio, a strange lad who – although poor and over-fond of rum – was very well-mannered both in his speech and in his bearing. He looked like a fighting-cock but was far from having the ferocity of those Malayan birds; or, to be more precise, there was no ferocity in him whatsoever. He hadn’t had much of an education, but he wasn’t ignorant; on the contrary he was intelligent, and eager to find out about inventions and mechanical improvements.
Old Valentim was another regular at the store, and a very interesting and colourful one too. He was Portuguese, and although he was well over sixty he never stopped working, rain or shine. He was a farm manager, and the fact that he’d been doing that job for nearly forty years must have been the reason why his body was bent in a peculiar way. It was difficult to say whether he was bent more to the front or to the back – he was like a letter S without its extremities.
He used to tell never-ending stories, especially the one about João de Calais, the length and tedium of which he tempered with a generous helping of Portuguese sayings that were both witty and full of country wisdom. That – and the Portuguese accent he’d never lost – was the most appealing aspect of his conversation.
Leonardo Flores, a poet, used to appear on certain occasions. And he was a proper poet, who’d had him moment of fame throughout the whole of Brazil, and who’d had a big influence on the next generation of poets. Nowadays, however, as a result of alcohol and family troubles – not least the fact that one of his brothers had turned completely insane –, he was a wreck of a man, forgetful and half-imbecile, so much so that he was hardly able to follow the thread of the simplest conversation. He’d published about ten book, all of them successful, and from which he was the only one who didn’t make any money; consequently, he, his wife and his children were having to make do with a measly pension he received from the federal government.
He rarely went out, because his wife did everything she could to keep him at home. She used to send out for rum and would buy his favourite newspapers, all in order to stop him going out. And he usually complied; but, once in a while, he’d slip out, with five hundred réis of copper coins in his pocket, and he’d drink here and there, he’d sleep beneath a tree by the side of one of the quieter roads and he’d even go so far, when the alcohol really took hold, as to strip off all his clothes and shout out, like some sort of hero, in a pathetic, mortifying attempt at self-affirmation, “I am Leonardo Flores!”
People had a vague idea that he used to be famous and so they called him… “the poet.” At first they used to make fun of him but, when they got to know about his reputation, they treated him instead with a sort of pious curiosity.
“A great man ending up in that state! How dreadful!” someone would say.
“Dey ‘as put di evil eye on ‘im,’ coz dey was jeluss of ‘is intellijuns! said an old black woman. “Folk like us ain’ meant to ‘ave intellijuns. Dey ‘as ‘ad done di prayers to di Devil an’ ‘as sent dem on top of ‘im.”
With a bit of luck one of the bystanders would be more practical with his sympathy and would help the poet get dressed again and guide him home.
And he, Leonardo Flores, happened to be exactly the man Dr Meneses was looking for when, on one of the lesser saint’s days, the doctor entered Seu Nascimento’s store, limping on account of swelling in his legs, and with the fine hair of his abundant beard trimmed and set in the style of our last emperor.
After stepping over the threshold with some difficulty, Dr Meneses stopped to get his breath back, arms akimbo; and once he’d exchanged greetings, he asked, “Have you seen Flores?”
“He hasn’t been for ages,” said Seu Nascimento from behind the counter.
“But I’ve just been to his house,” said the dentist, “and his wife told me he’d gone out… I really need to see him…”
Having said this, he sat down on a stool that a store assistant had opened up and brought over to where the dentist was standing.
He rested himself for a while, took a deep breath and turned to Alípio.
“How are you, Alípio?”
Alípio was sitting reading a newspaper. The only other customer was old Valentim, who was standing leaning against the post of one of the side doors.
“I’m doing OK,” said Alípio, “but not so much as you, seeing as how you’ve got yourself bodyguards nowadays.”
“What?!” said the private dentist, amazed.
“That’s what they say. They say you spend every night with that guitar-wizard Cassi, him and his mates, in a bar in Engenho Novo.”
“That’s true. They’re all good lads. They…”
“Cassi’s the sharp dresser, isn’t he?”
“They say,” Seu Nascimento interrupted, “that that lad…”
“…is a brigand,” Alípio completed the sentence for him. “Jail’s too good for him! He should be burnt alive! There’s more than a dozen girls and I don’t know how many married women he’s brought shame on.”
“But it’s all lies!” Meneses protested. “They don’t know what they’re talking about…”
“Nonsense!” said Alípio. “It’s been all over the papers. He’s been up before court, but he always manages to wheedle his way out of it so he can carry on leading women up the garden path.”
“But why isn’t he sent to jail?” asked Seu Nascimento.
“First of all it was with the help of his dad,” Alípio explained. “But when there was a second and then a third case that became public, his dad refused to speak to him any more and wouldn’t raise a finger to keep him out of clink. But that didn’t stop his carrying-on, and then it was his mum’s turn – she called on a brother of hers, an army doctor, and they got hold of some shady lawyers who managed, in whatever underhand way, to get him released. With the help of Timbó, Arnaldo and some other witnesses, they managed to blacken the names of his victims. Vicência told me… You know her, don’t you, Seu Nascimento?”
“Remind me,” said the storekeeper.
“That old creole woman who comes sometimes to do the shopping for Major Carvalho. She worked for a long time in the house of Cassi’s father. One day – she didn’t know why – the father threw him out of the house. So his mother packed him off to her brother’s house in Guaratiba. And he was about to get up to his old tricks again, except that his uncle wasn’t born yesterday and promptly sent him back. So then the mother came up with some arrangement for him to live in a cellar at the back of the house that’s barely high enough for him to stand up in. And that’s where he lives and eats – in that hole in the ground. And he never goes up into the house, because he’s terrified of his dad. If the dad knew how he’s having the wool pulled over his eyes, you can be sure he’d throw him right out on the street.”
“So what do you say about that, Dr Meneses?” asked Nascimento, ironically.
“Nothing! Because I don’t stick my nose into other people’s business,” was all Meneses would say.
“It’s not about sticking your nose anywhere…” said Alípio, angrily. “It’s about putting a stop to the vile carryings-on of that good-for-nothing Cassi. He’s got no respect for family or friends… let alone the poor and the poorest of the poor. And that’s why…”
At this point Seu Nascimento saw the need to poor some oil on troubled waters. (He was a tall, fair-complexioned man, rather portly, like the farmer-patriarchs of the old country estates.)
“Now, now, Alípio! No need to lose your temper. Anyway, from what you say, this monster has run out of influential friends.”
“Not at all, Seu Nascimento! He’s got a real clever devil on board this time. A big shot.”
“Tell me more,” said Nascimento, even as he left them to serve a little boy who’d come to buy some sugar.
And the customers kept coming, mainly women and children, and their shopping was the shopping of poor people: two tostões of this, four hundred réis of that, so that a request for half a kilo of dried meat or a kilo of beans was a complete rarity. Nothing above a few tostões. But even when he was looking after customers on his own – because his assistants were out making deliveries to the regular customers – Seu Nascimento never lost the thread of a conversation.
Alípio was well aware of this ability of his, and so he continued as if nothing had happened.
“His latest protector is a Captain Barcelos, a party boss over on the south side. He’s got a lot of influence and that’s why Cassi made sure to get well in with him. Him and his mates helped out Barcelos in the last election for the post of superintendent. There wasn’t any trouble, because no other candidate put himself forward, but Cassi wanted to put on a show to gain prestige. And so, bit by bit, he went up in the party boss’s estimation, to the point where Freitas, the deputy, felt his nose had been put out of joint.”
“What else do you know about this Barcelos,” said Nascimento.
“He’s Portuguese, about fifty years old… a good man actually. It’s just that, some twenty years ago, he ended up in the clink, apparently because he shot some bloke who’d insulted his wife. There was a dust-up, which resulted in serious injuries. But it was when he was inside that he got the taste for politics and learnt the basics of that slippery science. And it was there that…”
“Ah!” exclaimed Nascimento.
“…that he met you, Alípio…” ventured Meneses.
But Alípio continued as if nothing had been said:
“…it was there that he met a politician from the capital who’d been detained on suspicion that he’d had someone murdered. Well, the fellow got in with Barcelos and they started talking – they weren’t being held in a cell, they were in the infirmary or in some sort of open room or compartment. And Barcelos told him his life story, and about how he’d never been in trouble before…”
“But, Seu Alípio, do you really believe there are people as evil as that Cassi’s made out to be?!”
“You bet! Plenty! And everything I know about it, I have from a completely reliable source. It’s as true as true can be.”
Dr Meneses had been getting more and more concerned about the way the conversation was going. The only reason he’d gone to the store was to do some private business with Leonardo Flores; and, instead, he’d found out that Alípio not only knew all about Cassi, but knew that he, Meneses, was hand in glove with him. God Almighty! he thought. Have I said too much? He’d already had four shots of rum but, before he left, he took a double. And then, once he was outside, he started thinking what to do. But after looking at it from all sides he thought, Keep on to the end! There’s no harm can come from it…
He wasn’t entirely convinced, however, so he tried to take his mind off the matter.
The curt, unfriendly manner in which Cassi was received on his second visit – it was a wonder the door wasn’t shut in his face – was in stark contrast to when he first went to the house of Joaquim dos Anjos. But, while it gave him cause for thought, it also made him even more determined to overcome any obstacles put between him and Clara. As far as he could see, there were only two people who could have put difficulties in the way of his plan, which had seemed to be going so well. So who were they? It could only be Margarida, on account of Timbó importuning her that time, or the old cripple who’d had a dig at him with his poem, calling him a donkey.
When it came to actual seduction, Cassi never used force, unlike those suburban libertines whose deaths were occasionally reported in the newspapers – the result of the desperate attempts of their victims to protect themselves against such vile people. But whenever Cassi found an obstacle put in the way of his conquests – by the victim’s brother, say – he’d immediately resort to violence in order to remove it.
It’s clear that he could see the problem but, because the obstacle in this case was a semi-invalid, he’d only need to apply minimum force; and, as to Dona Margarida, he wouldn’t have any trouble in sweet-talking her.
His reputation as a tough-guy, ready enough to use a knife, was more reputation than reality but, even so, it was enough to intimidate plenty of people. And this gave him an advantage over those who would otherwise have been decent enough to warn girls he set his eyes on, but were simply too scared to tell the whole truth about him. So they left the path clear for the modinha singer.
With the cynicism of a third-rate Lothario he’d dreamt up a convenient theory, which he condensed into one sentence: “Nothing can come between two hearts in love.” […he’d adopted the theory expressed in the one bit of Shakespeare he’d happened to come across: “Let me not unto the marriage of true minds admit impediments…”]
Putting this little theory alongside the fact that he didn’t use any sort of force resulted in a conscience tailor-made for a romantic modinha singer, i.e. he didn’t feel remotely culpable for having, up until that point, seduced about ten girls and a much larger number of married women. The suicides, murders and prostitution in brothels of all kinds that his base acts had led to were, in his opinion, nothing to do with him and would have happened anyway. None of it was his fault.
In order to find out who had blackened his name at the postman’s house, Cassi decided to go and see Lafões, who lived very close to the Engenho de Dentro reservoir. So, one afternoon, he took the tram from Piedade, the one that, as soon as it’s passed through Méier, heads up into the hills along little-populated roads before arriving at Engenho de Dentro. It was a scenic journey, on account not only of the remnants of thick scrub land but also of the rustic houses with old fashioned verandas and little windows. It’s possible it was a track used by the diamond-diggers of Minas in the old days, but what’s certain is that the Light Company engineers had done little more than basic levelling. The ups and the downs, the bogs and the swamps – made passable with brushwood and hay – transformed the tram route in that section into a big-dipper, giving a good idea, on both sides, of the roads of the interior that bring the grain and the meat that we eat.
Occasionally the tram would pass a convoy of donkey carts carrying charcoal from Jacarepaguá, from the Serra do Mateus or other places that still have usable forests. And what a vivid picture they presented! The wagoners were people of very mixed blood, big-boned, with thin, wiry legs and splayed feet. Although their features were regular enough, their faces were always covered with unkempt beards. And there was an enormous sadness about them.
In addition to the grown men, there were children, who kept the donkeys in line.
When the tram approached them, its ironwork rattling like some big cockroach, and warning them of its proximity with a continuous blast of a horn, or with a whistle like that of a locomotive, those men, who lived so near to the earth and to the spontaneity of nature, would always take fright and hurry to find safety both for themselves and for their patient donkeys. They’d either squeeze themselves to the bank at the side of the road if they happened to be on a slope, or they’d take themselves off some distance if they were on an open plain and the land was unfenced. And there they’d stand, looking incredulously at that clanking monster that moved by means of a thick wire. But, wherever they found themselves, the donkeys remained indifferent and merely set about grazing the scanty grass in the fields or the foliage giving them shade from the top of the roadside embankments.
It was almost evening by the time Cassi Jones got to Lafões’s house – a small house, but neat and tidy. The little garden at the front was well-tended and there were cabbages and greens in the back yard, giving the promise of a good Portuguese soup.
At that hour, just after dinner, Lafões was in the habit of sitting down, in a short-sleeved shirt, trousers and clogs, to finish the newspaper he’d begun reading in the morning. He’d be in an Austrian rocking-chair, which he positioned right beside the window, with another chair on his left, where he placed his lighter – he didn’t use matches – and his Fusilier cigarettes.
He was in just such attire and position, patiently rolling a cigarette, when there was a knock on the plank door. Raising himself a little, so that his head was almost at the level of the window-sill and was just about visible from outside, he asked, “Who is it?”
He recognised the voice immediately:
“It’s me, Cassi.”
Happy to see him, Lafões got up and went to let him in. He took Cassi’s panama hat and swish walking-stick, saying as he did so:
“What on earth are you doing in these parts?! Sit yourself down. What a surprise! You’re very welcome.”
The young man sat down and said, “Many thanks, my dear Seu Lafões.”
“Why don’t you come more often, Senhor Cassi?” asked Lafões.
“I’ve been busy. During the week there’s business and on Sundays I’m not one for visiting. I’ve come…”
“Why, Senhor Cassi?”
“…to ask you something.”
“What is it, Senhor Cassi?”
“I’ve heard the inspector in your office is taking on clerks for some special job, but I don’t know what it is. Could you find out if that’s true?”
“Of course. I’ll ask Braga, the messenger. He’s a live wire, doesn’t miss a trick.”
“When can I come for the answer?”
“Well, Senhor Cassi, not tomorrow afternoon, because I’ve got to go to a meeting of my association. But if you’re in a hurry you can come the next day, round about seven or eight.”
“That’ll be fine,” said Cassi, with a strained smile. “Thanks in advance. How’s your wife and the children?”
“They’re well. My wife’s gone out with the youngest, to some litany or other. I’ll be damned if the priests haven’t invaded these parts even faster than those Syrian travelling salesmen! It’s always an offering for this saint or that, an offering for the works of the church… I’m up to here with it! But Edméia’s out in the back yard. Would you like a coffee, Senhor Cassi?”
“Not if it’s inconvenient… I would if your wife was here, but…”
“It’s no trouble at all. Edméia will heat it up on the spirit stove… Unless you don’t like it hot, that is.”
“OK, so…” and he shouted out to his daughter, his voice hale and hearty: “Edméia! Edméia!”
It didn’t take long for his daughter to appear. She was a sweet, happy girl of twelve years of age, with a round face and firm, delicate features, a touch of gold in her hair, which was cut in the English style. When she entered she immediately exclaimed:
“Oh! Seu Cassi’s here. What a surprise! I didn’t know…”
Cassi muttered, “I haven’t seen you for a long time.”
“That true, not since Clarinha’s birthday… Have you been back?”
“I wasn’t able.”
“Why not? It seems they don’t like you much there… Especially that cripple…”
“Edméia!” shouted her father. “Don’t stick your nose into other people’s business. Go and heat up the coffee and bring us two cups. Off you go!”
Once she’d left, Cassi thought – in view of the real purpose of his visit – that an explanation was in order:
“They might not like me, but it’s all untrue what they say. I’ve never…”
“Senhor Cassi! You’re not going to take any notice of what children say! They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“But I did notice, Seu Lafões, on the day of the party, that one of Senhor Joaquim’s friends had taken a dislike to me.”
“That’s easily explained. The fellow used to be – maybe still is – a poet and looks down his nose at modinha singers. Where I come from, the hoity-toity poets can’t stand the fado singers out in the countryside. They call them country bumpkins and worse. You get it with every profession. Haven’t you noticed how coachmen look down on barbers. If they think one of their number’s no good they call him a “barber.” Marramaque is a sick old man and can’t disguise his prejudice against guitarists and modinha singers.”
“But… Seu Joaquim?”
“It’s just that the two of them are good friends, dear Cassi. As simple as that.”
The coffee arrived and they changed the subject to the forthcoming celebration of the Independence Centenary and then to the financial crisis, but Cassi’s mind was on other things. He was thinking about Marramaque, that insolent cripple who wanted to impede his love for Clara. Well, he’d pay a heavy price for it.
After a short while he took his leave and strolled back down through the suburbs. His ingrained resentment against Marramaque was rather strange. After all, Cassi wasn’t in the least the amorous type. When he was attracted by any woman, it didn’t result in a maelstrom of emotion, in dreams, anxiety or depression; not in the least. His feelings were confined to that primitive component of love called “lust.” As soon as his lust was satisfied, he soon felt unsatisfied with, and despised, his victim; at which point, feeling he no longer owed her anything, he looked for another.
His education had been of the most rudimentary sort but, even so, and perhaps because he felt a need to make up for it, he liked reading lyrical poems, especially those about love. Even these he read only in the odd page he happened to come across, or in some almanac or book that somehow came into his hands because, otherwise, he didn’t read anything, not even the newspapers But those sonnets and other poems that he happened to come across were sufficient to convince him, in his congenital stupidity and innate perversity, that he was justified in doing what he did, because the poets proclaimed the need for love and that love has no limits – and that Passion is above everything. It’s scarcely necessary to say he didn’t feel anything of what the mediocre poets he took as his guides wrote in their mawkish doggerel; or that, without any need to appeal to poets either major or minor, there wasn’t the slightest smidgeon of love in him. What there was, was concupiscence allied to sordid avarice, and to an absence of conscience worthy of a born criminal.
True love supposes a corresponding state of near madness and obsession, resulting in an emotional disequilibrium that swings from the most intense happiness to the most excruciating pain, from enthusiasm to apathy, from strength to weakness, from hope to despair; and all of it almost at the same time, regardless of the cause.
Cassi never felt anything like that. Once he’d chosen the victim of his lust, he’d seek to find out – if he didn’t know it already – her parents’ circumstances, how much they were worth and who their relatives were. Then he’d set about meeting her at a dance or a party and impressing her with the weeping and wailing of his guitar. As soon as he saw he was having some success, he’d redouble his efforts with a view to meeting up with her in cinemas, trams and stations until an opportune moment came for him to slip her the fateful letter. And he did all this very calmly, with great discernment and patience, not letting anything ruffle or dismay him. If the girl or the lady accepted his dalliance and his letters, he was sure of success; if not, he didn’t waste any more time and abandoned his groundwork, waiting for a more malleable victim to arrive.
As to Clara, he could scarcely believe that the first hypothesis had already proved to be the case, but what made him certain of it was the enchantment with which she’d listened to him sing on the night of her birthday party, and her eagerness to come and speak to him when he went to her house for the second, and last, time. And all the indications were that someone was standing in the way – between “the marriage of two minds” – and had informed her parents about his history as an inveterate Lothario, with the result that they’d shut the doors of their house to him.
It confirmed his suspicions when Lafões’s daughter Edméia had blurted out that Clara’s godfather, Marramaque, didn’t like him. So he needed to stop the cripple’s interference and sideline him altogether. Cassi knew that Marramaque usually popped into Seu Nascimento’s store on his way home from work and that he’d stay there, having a drink with the others, until closing time. There were all sorts of reasons for Cassi not to go there himself; nor could Timbó, because he was well-known in the locality and they all knew about Dona Margarida sending him packing; and Zezé Mateus was an idiot. So who could he send to find out the lay of the land?.. Arnaldo! Arnaldo wasn’t known in Seu Nascimento’s, nor would they know he was a friend of Cassi’s.
With little enthusiasm – he didn’t have enough money to go gambling – he set off for his parents’ house.
His “hidey hole” was directly under the dining room, which was at one end of the main body of the house. His route to it lay through the outbuildings, which were attached to the house. When he entered, he could hear that there was someone else up there, in addition to his mother and father and his sisters – someone who wasn’t a regular visitor. And, hearing Cassi’s steps, that person asked, “Is someone there?”
“It’s Cassi,” said his mother.
“Isn’t he coming up here?” the visitor asked.
All of them fell silent and looked at each other, leaving it to Manuel de Azevedo to explain the situation as best he could:
“You wouldn’t want a head of family like me, Augusto, a head of family who respects other people’s daughters as much as he respects his own, to let a miserable wretch like that sit at his side, would you? It was only thanks to his mother that I didn’t kick him out of the house altogether.”
“You’re quite right, brother. But all this they say about him could just be lies.”
“Exactly what I think, Augusto,” said Dona Salustiana.
The girls, meanwhile, stayed modestly silent, but old Azevedo put a stop to the arguments of his wife and his brother:
“Didn’t you read those typewritten documents they sent you at the hotel, two days after you arrived?”
“Did you read the dates, the statement of the facts, the letters?”
“I did, as well, but when…”
“Well it was all true. And unfortunately I’m in a better position than anyone to attest to that. In less than ten years, my wretched son has done all that. In all conscience, I can’t deny it. If I can’t…”
When he entered and heard that they were going to talk about him, Cassi crouched beneath the window. He didn’t miss anything and particularly noticed that his paternal uncle Augusto – who’d been working in a customs house in the north for many years – had taken his side.
Cassi had a nasty shock when he heard his old father mention the typewritten documents, with the evidence about dates and the statements about his troubles with the police and the courts. Who could it be who was quietly working to blacken his name? It wasn’t the first time he’d heard about the existence of that mysterious file and about how it how been posted to various people. A police inspector at a suburban police station had told him that, whenever there was a change of commissioner, it was sent to the new commissioner. This silent and gradual – but persistent – persecution filled him with apprehension. Given that he was completely indifferent to the fate of his victims, and stupid enough as to have no understanding of their despair, it was hardly surprising that he couldn’t work out who was sending the files.
His conclusion was that he needed to disappear. He felt himself threatened, not by evil spirits, but by trap-doors, masked men, secret dungeons, torture etc. – in short, by the whole arsenal of effects one sees in those marvellous cinema films.
First of all, however, he wanted to progress his designs on Clara, which, despite everything, he considered promising.
He went to bed and had a good sleep, right through till dawn.
As soon as there was enough light he went to check up on his caged fighting cocks. Everything was in order and off he went scattering their maize, which he took from a tin that he held in one hand. As he did so he looked at those repulsive creatures with such tenderness that you’d have thought him an honest goatherd among his frisky goats or a shepherd gazing into the tender eyes of his sheep. He gave the chicks ground maize and wheat chaff, the only reason he didn’t give them chopped-up eggs being that it was the wrong day. His fascination for those horrible birds was sincere in so much as they earned him money. As he looked at them he thought to himself, “How much would the whole lot be worth?”
He’d already been offered five hundred thousand réis for them and was inclined to sell them for that price as soon as he’d settled his current business…
He went to have his breakfast in his hidey-hole, where old Romualda brought it to him every morning. (She was old, and age was the perfect defence against any assault by Cassi.) He asked her, “Is my uncle still here?”
“Who is your uncle, Massa?”
“That man who was here yesterday evening.”
“Ah! He left right after tea.”
There were no more words between them. After he’d drunk his coffee and ate his bread and butter, and old Romualda had taken the cup and plate away on the tray, Cassi got dressed and went out.
He rarely stayed at home for long: on the one hand he was afraid he’d meet his father, if the latter decided to stay at home for whatever reason, and on the other because he couldn’t stand the disdain with which his sisters treated him. In fact, the house had become even more unpleasant than the jails he’d been held in so often.
He went to look for Arnaldo, who, as he lived on the Estrada Real, used to get the Cascadura tram to catch the train at Méier. Scarcely a day passed that Arnaldo didn’t go “down town.” He was always on the look-out for some odd-job he could get or, if necessary, a bit of thieving on the train.
Cassi wasn’t disappointed: Arnaldo – with his tapir-like nose and his little weasley eyes – had arrived a little after nine o’clock. Having paid for Arnaldo’s coffee, he told him to be back there at five o’clock that afternoon.
“Of course, Cassi. A friend in need is a friend in deed. I’ll be here.”
Sacrificing an afternoon’s pilferring, Arnaldo arrive at the appointed time and place. Cassi asked him to go, that evening, to Nascimento’s store, and he gave him the road and the number. When he got there he was to pretend to be looking for Seu Meneses, an acquaintance of his.
“And what if he’s not there?” asked Arnaldo.
“Say you’ll wait for him and listen to what people are saying there. One of them should be the cripple. He’s always in his messenger’s uniform. He doesn’t know you and I hope none of the others will. Remember what you hear, and tell me. If Meneses turns up, say I’d like a word about something that should interest him.”
Cassi gave him two thousand réis and Arnaldo headed off, but on foot, so as to save the hundred réis tram fare. But he had an unpleasant surprise as soon as he arrived at Seu Nascimento’s: there were two people there who knew him perfectly well. One of them was an English engineer called Mr Persons, from whom he’d pinched a raincoat; and the other was Alípio, who knew he was in Cassi’s circle.
He didn’t desist, however, but made his way between Alípio and old Marramaque, who were talking, and went up to the counter, asking nonchalantly, “You don’t happen to know an old dentist called Meneses?” And he added: “He hasn’t been here, has he?”
The storekeeper replied, “Not in the last few days,” and turning to his other clients he asked, in his turn, “ Has anyone seen Dr Meneses?”
But they all said no.
Amaldo was just about to say Thank you and leave when Mr Persons said:
“Senhor! Over here!”
Feigning joviality, Arnaldo replied:
“Oh! Seu Mister! How are you?”
“It’s not ‘Seu.’ That’s a mistake. But never mind about that… Where’s my raincoat?”
“I forgot. I’ll bring it in the next couple of days.”
“That’s the second time you’ve said that. I need my raincoat.”
“I won’t forget this time,” said Arnaldo, and he left in great haste.
The business with the raincoat can be stated quite simply. Persons hadn’t had his wits about him when he came back from the city one afternoon: he’d been snoozing in the train carriage, leaning against the window, with his raincoat on the seat beside him. Before the train arrived at one of the station, Arnaldo had sat down beside him, intending to run off with the raincoat. As soon as he put his intention into practice, Persons woke up, but he realised what had happened only when he saw Arnaldo running down the carriage. “My raincoat,” he shouted.
Although one of the ticket collectors had caught hold of the thief, who had the raincoat over his arm, by the time Persons got there Arnaldo had freed himself and the train was already moving again. But he remembered the face and when he happened to meet Arnaldo subsequently he asked about his raincoat. Arnaldo said he’d taken it by mistake.
That was why, just now, he’d left the store hurriedly and shamefaced; but when he saw that no-one had followed him he returned and, standing concealed at the door, started listening to the conversation.
The Englishman had just finished telling them about the incident with the raincoat when Alípio said contemptuously, “That fellow who’s just left is a pain in the butt.” He hadn’t known about the thieving on the trains, but it was sufficient for Alípio to know someone was in Cassi’s gang to know also that he was no good.
Then Marramaque joined in:
“I’ve never seen him before. I must mention him to Joaquim. What about what’s his name?.. Trembó or Tipó or something.
“Timbó,” said Alípio.
“Him I do know. I’ve already pointed him out to Joaquim,” said Marramaque. “By the way, my friends, guess what I received through the post a few days ago in the office!”
“What?” All eyes turned on Marramaque.
“Cassi’s life story!”
“No. Copied on a typewriter, with photographs of him and old newspaper reports. All about his crimes. Dates of the trials, the names of the judges and police officers – everything!”
“Who sent it?” asked Alípio.
“I don’t know. I received it in the secretariat. After I’d read it I gave it to Joaquim. Forewarned is forearmed!”
“Forearmed with a pistol, I should think,” said Nascimento.
“Or a proper revolver, more like it,” said Marramaque.
Having heard all this, and noticing that someone was heading for the store – it was nearly closing time -, Arnaldo abandoned his listening post and ran off to find Cassi.
He met up with him, as agreed, in Engenho Novo, and – something he wasn’t so accustomed to doing – told the whole truth about what he had seen and heard.
Although neither of them were great imbibers, Arnaldo thought the moment called for a drink and invited his good friend to have a bottle of beer with him. They drank almost in silence.
Afterwards, they paid and left, Arnaldo setting off on his own and Cassi walking down the gloomy Rua do Barão de Bom Retiro. Although it still wasn’t late, you could already hear, once in a while, the gunshots that used to be a way for people in the suburbs to ward off chicken thieves.
There was a bang very near to Cassi, but he managed not to avoid jumping in fright.
“Now’s not the time,” he muttered under his breath.
The suburbs, properly speaking, comprise a long swathe of land running from Rocha, or São Francisco Xavier, all the way to Sapopemba, with the Central Railway as their axis.
They don’t extend much to the sides, especially where they’re hemmed in by hills and mountains; but, even so, their tracks and lanes are continually invading heathland and hillsides. So, for instance, we could be passing through a place that looks empty and we chance upon the entrance to a cavern, where some calabash trees have taken root, and then we notice a shack that you need to climb down an almost sheer slope to get to. We carry on a bit, raise our eyes to a part of the horizon, and there, at the top of the slope, we see a few huts that the incline had prevented us from seeing a moment ago.
There are houses – sometimes tiny -, shacks and huts wherever four wooden poles can be fixed into the ground and joined by rickety walls. And anything and everything is used for their construction: flattened-out matchstick tins, old tiles, rolls of zinc and – as the mesh for the mud-and-wattle walls – bamboo, which is not cheap.
On the tops of the hills there are whole villages of such shacks, hidden behind trees and thickets of bamboo. Almost always they have just one waterpipe for all the inhabitants, and no sewerage system at all. And all those wretchedly poor people live in constant danger of smallpox which, when it arrives, causes utter devastation.
When we go still further from the axis of the suburbs, the look of the streets changes rapidly. There are no more iron railings or houses with aristocratic airs; there are just shacks and huts and, here and there, something more like a proper house. And all of them are at a good distance one from another; it’s just occasionally that you come across rows of little houses, each with two windows and a door in the middle, forming what we call an “avenue.”
The streets that are distant from the Central Railway are surrounded by patches of grass and capim, which are used by the families as grazing land. From morning to night they’re full of all sorts of domestic animals: chickens, ducks, goats, sheep and pigs, not to mention the dogs, which seem to get along with all of them.
When the afternoon draws to a close, you can hear the “revellé” from every front door. The call of “Sweetheart!” relates to a goat, “Mermaid!” to a piglet that a child lets run into the house, and so on.
All of them – sheep, goats, ducks, chickens, turkeys – go in through the main door of the house, march through the whole house and out into the back yard.
If one of the animals goes missing, the housewife raises a regular hue and cry, the children get a telling-off and the theft is blamed on one of the women across they way, who eventually comes over to see what it’s all about, which leads to a shouting match and, occasionally, to fistycuffs between the husbands.
The poor find it difficult to get on together. The least thing can be regarded as a point of honour and result in a blazing argument, especially among the women.
This state of irritability ensues from the constant difficulties the women have to confront and from the fact that they can’t get a wider perspective to explain their precarious situation. All of that makes them vent their complaints – in the form of thinly veiled threats – on neighbours they see as better-off than themselves. Although they’re all poor as poor could be, each of them has a high opinion of herself and regards herself as coming from the best stock. The slightest difference in skin colour is sufficient for one woman to consider herself superior to her neighbour, the fact that the neighbour’s husband earns more than hers being irrelevant. And so a whole rag-bag of trivialities puffs up their vanity and feeds their contempt for their neighbours.
These arguments don’t generally last long. All it needs is for one of this one’s children to get an illness and that one will be over in no time with her bottles of home-made medicines.
It’s in this labirinth of interwoven streets and alleyways that a large part of the city’s population lives – a part of the population that the government ignores, except for the imposition of swinging taxes, which are used for sumptuous (and useless) works in other parts of Rio de Janeiro.
It doesn’t even facilitate death for them by way of access to local cemiteries.
In the case of the Inhaúma cemitery, for instance, which serves a vast suburban area, the roads are in a deplorable state and – what’s worse – they twist round and about for no reason, which could easily be remedied without any great expense. Poor people conduct their funeral processions on foot and it’s easy to imagine how exhausted the pall-bearers must be by the time they reach that sacred municipal site. Anyone passing through the nearby streets almost always meets one such procession. The little coffins of babies are carried by girls, and the coffins of girls are, equally, carried by girls of the same age as the deceased. And there’s no special dress-code: they wear the same clothes they’d wear to a dance or a fair. So here they come, in pink, light-blue or white, carrying their poor friend under the fierce sun and breathing in enough dust as almost to suffocate them; or, when it’s raining or has rained recently, jumping with the coffin to avoid thick mud and pools of water.
Of course, adults’ coffins are carried by adults, but in this case there’s a bit of a dress-code in that the men try to wear dark clothes, even if they’re not black; but that doesn’t mean there’s not the occasional impropriety of one of them wearing his day-to-day white trousers. But it can’t be said their processions are particularly sad, especially as they stop off at every store to “toast the deceased” with a shot of rum. So, by the time they reach the cemitery their heads are quite fuddled. But the deceased gets buried…
Except on one occasion, when they drank so much along the way that the body didn’t reach its destination: they’d left the coffin at one of their stops. When each of them came out of that particular store he said, “The fellers inside can do the carrying now.” And it wasn’t until they got to the cemitery that they noticed the deceased was missing. “But wasn’t it your turn,” asked one. “No, it was yours,” said the other. And so each blamed the other.
Worn out and tipsy as they were, they hired a cart and went to search for their deceased comrade, for whom some pious soul had already lit two candles at the head of his coffin. And the poor man, who was meant to have received that touching homage of being carried to the cemitery by his comrades, received it only in part, the rest of the journey to his last resting place being accomplished thanks to a couple of donkeys that were used to pulling different loads – loads less worthy of respect.
So, more or less, that’s the suburbs for you, in their poverty and their official neglect. And, early in the morning, people emerge from all those tracks, alleyways, hills, streets and roads, making their way to the nearest station. Some of those who live further out, in Inhaúma, Caxambi or Jacarepaguá, don’t mind spending a few nickels to catch the trams, which arrive jam-packed at the stations. This toing-and-froing carries on until about ten in the morning, and it involves all sorts of people: factory workers, clerks, shops assistants, all sorts of soldiers, lower ranks of the militias, civil servants and people who, though honest as the day is long, have to scrape together a living through all sorts of wheeling and dealing.
The suburbs are the refuge of wretched souls – of those who have lost their jobs or their fortunes; of bankrupts; of all those who’ve slipped down life’s ladder. And every day, early in the morning, they go looking for a little help from loyal friends, in the hope they’ll give them something to keep their own and their children’s bodies and souls together.
In those early morning hours the stations fill up and the trains go down – bursting at the seams – to the city. Fullest of all are the express trains that come in from the boundaries of the city with the State of Rio. People everywhere, like peas in a pod inside the carriages, and it seems like half the number again is in the spaces between the carriages. Many of them have one foot on one carriage and the other on the next, holding on to the platform railings. Others go down to the city sitting on the steps up to the carriage; and yet others – the braver souls – hang on to the iron railing running along the carriage, with just one foot on one of the little steps.
The only reason all those people live over in Maxambomba or the neighbouring districts is that the rents are relatively low. That’s the only advantage: otherwise everything’s just as expensive as in the suburbs properly speaking. There’s no water, or, where there is, it’s in Federal District townships where the federal government has magnanimously provided a few public standpipes. There’s no sewerage system; there are no doctors; there are no pharmacies. Inside the city boundary the council have built some half-decent roads, but as soon as you get to the State boundary, there’s nothing – not even things in an embrionic state.
A traveller who looks a bit more closely at those fields of straggly, yellowish vegetables and those crumbling slopes, covered with thickets of holm-oaks where skeletal sheep and goats can be found grazing, cannot help but feel sad and depressed. There’s no agriculture and hardly any proper trees; only rarely does one see, outside a house, a healthy-looking orange tree; not even a pawpaw that’s grown semi-spontaneously by the front door
The streams are usually trenches of putrid mud which, in torrential rain, transform themselves into swift-flowing rivers carrying all sorts of revolting detritus. Gardens are impossible because of the impermeable, compact clay and the lack of water; as a consequence you’re more likely to see a cabbage in the Avenida Central than in those parts.
Front on, Rio de Janeiro displays on its forehead such a beautiful diadem of mountains and forests; but it doesn’t manage to carry it on at the back so as to turn it into a crown. As we’ve seen, further back there’s no sort of fastener worthy of the diadem that sparkles on the city’s olympian head…
Cassi Jones was standing at Méier station, watching the trains passing by, packed with workers. And it never occurred to him that, although he was almost thirty years old, he’d never really done any work: his thoughts were elsewhere.
Ever since Arnaldo had told him what he’d heard at the store, Cassi had been feeling rather dejected with respect to his designs on the postman’s daughter. But, at the same time, he was aware that all the hoo-há about him was probably because the girl wasn’t indifferent towards him. So his conclusion was that, before more ado, he needed to satisfy himself that she really was attracted to him. He needed to hear it from her own lips; but how? It wouldn’t be advisable for him to hang around near the house, because people knew him and would tell her father, who’d be bound to confront him. And whatever the result of a spot of fisticuffs, he could only lose out. His notoriety had taken physical form in the mysterious dossier that was popping up all over the place. This was no longer a question of a bit of gossip – generally anonymous – here and there. No, this time it was all documented and precisely detailed.
There was enough in it to condemn a saint and, if he injured Joaquim the postman, everyone’s sympathy would be for the father who’d done everything he could to defend his daughter’s honour, leaving not a speck of sympathy for him, an inveterate and cynical libertine. Up until that point he’d been able to rely on the tacit benevolence of judges and police chiefs, who’d secretly thought it absurd, on every occasion, for him to have to marry his victim, given the difference in upbringing, birth, colour and education. As to colour, it was impossible to deny the difference; as to birth, it would often have been difficult to confirm whether his victims were really illegitimate; but, as to upbringing and education, the supposed difference was completely wrong, because Cassi was just as ignorant and ill-mannered as most of the poor girls he lead, irredeamably, into disgrace.
Now, however, he had no-one to protect his back.
In the beginning it was his father; then his uncle, the army doctor – both of them pressured into action by his mother; but now? Now he was certain that neither of them would raise a finger to help him. He couldn’t even expect much, if anything, from Captain Barcelos. If it were something minor, something that wouldn’t cost anything, perhaps; but, otherwise, he wouldn’t touch Cassi with a barge pole. So he needed to be careful…
He continued to consider how he could meet up with Clara to confirm her feelings towards him. He couldn’t count on Lafões any more – he’d seen, from his last visit, that the old Portuguese man was crafty and that he wouldn’t get anywhere with him. So, what to do?
Crowds of people were still piling out of the trams and hurrying to the railway-station platform. Some of them bought themselves a coffee before finally heading off to their offices; others went to buy a ticket for the animal-game; but all of them were eventually going to go to work, to do something to earn some money. All of them except Senhor Cassi Jones de Azevedo…
“Oh! Seu Cassi, how’s tricks?”
The suburban minstrel of languid modinhas accompanied by bedroom-eyes turned and immediately recognised the speaker:
“How are you, Praxedes?”
“Me, Seu Cassi? I’m fine. Yesterday I presented a claim of incompetency. I thought it would be ruled on immediately, but the judge turned the hearing into an investigation… The last thing I needed. Today I’m going to see if some of my other claims have been received. So I have to go down town… Occasionally one of them’s successful, which brings in twenty, thirty, even fifty…”
Seeing that Cassi wasn’t remotely interested,, he changed the subject:
“Have you been back to the postman’s house, over there in the Rua Teresina?”
“Not for ages. And you?”
“I went there only because one of the musicians invited me. I don’t know the family very well. Talking of which, guess who’s just left!”
“Dr Meneses, that eminence gris with the beard. Don’t you know him?”
This gave Cassi an idea so, instead of replying, he asked:
“Where’s he gone?”
“To the postman’s house. He’s treating their daughter’s teeth and he almost always has his lunch there. A good thing too, because poor old Meneses may be a very knowledgeable man, but he’s old and hardly eats anything. Only drinking, which isn’t doing him any good – corroding his insides. It’s OK to drink, but you need to eat as well, don’t you think?”
During all this, Praxedes never stopped twitching with his arms and struggling to keep his grotesque head up, even though it seemed more and more determined to sink back down between his shoulders.
“Yes, good for him,” said Cassi, desguising his satisfaction with the news he’d just received. “I’ve also got something I want Meneses to do… If you meet him, please tell him I’d like to speak to him.”
“I will. But if you’re in a hurry you can find him in the evening over at the Bar do Fagundes, near the firestation. See you soon! I need to get down to the city early.”
Cassi set off as well, placing all his hopes in Meneses for arriving at an understanding with Clara. After all, he was old, decrepit, careworn, alcoholic and penniless, so it would be easy to overcome his distaste for Cassi. But first of all, the modinha-singer thought to himself, it’s gonna cost a bit…
He was rather underestimating the task, however: although Meneses was in a wretched state, he’d never done anything dishonest in his whole life. Without exaggerration you could describe him as pure as the driven snow.
José Castanho de Meneses had been born of Portuguese parents in a coastal town in the south of the state of Rio de Janeiro. At the time, those towns used to be prosperous but, at the moment, a mark of their irreversible decline is that, as far as one can tell, not a single house has been built in any of them during the last forty years.
His father owned a general store, which had originally been prosperous; but its fortunes had declined in tandem with those of the town – due, in no small part, to the construction of the Central Railway. So he found himself having to cut back on his expenses, including those for the upkeep and education of his children. José, who was now sixteen years old, went to help his father in the store, and the others were put to work here and there, in the little fisheries and the rudimentary fish-salting business that Meneses Senior had set up.
When he reached the age of twenty-two, José, who hated the life he was living, left home to seek his fortune. In the course of the next thirty years, his travels took him through the interiors of the old provinces of Rio, Minas and São Paulo. He did all sorts of jobs and suffered all sort of privations; but, through it all, he remained unshakeably honest. At one place he was the book-keeper in a warehouse; at another he was a farm manager; in a village school he taught the children to read. And there came a point when he met a chemist, with whom he became good friends and who taught him not only how to make simple medicines but also how to fill and clean teeth. That’s where he spent the longest period, but it was already at the end of his nomadic career, when wanderlust was in his blood.
Near the town, they were building a depot and some small repairshops for a branch line that was coming that way. Watching all the work and the machines, José was fascinated by all the fantastical boilers, furnaces, rods, handles and levers that worked together to make those hellish iron monsters – the locomotives – start and stop. He wanted to find out all about it and kept asking questions. At first, the labourers were happy to explain, but the questions kept coming, like an avalanche, and, in due course, they got fed up with the old man.
Meneses, however, was not to be put off, because he felt he had a vocation to be an engineer. But there was nowhere to study round there; if he wanted to attend technical classes and get appropriate practice, he’d need to go down to Rio. Although he didn’t have much money, the chemist used to help him out and his wage had increased thanks to the influx of labourers to work on the branch line. Not only that, but he was also drawing up recipes. So he was saving some money – but he needed to save more. And that’s what he did, so that, after a year, he had enough to find a place to live in Rio and look for a job.
His friend, the pharmacist, didn’t try to dissuade him. All he said was:
“If you were younger, I’d say ‘Go for it!’ because there’s going to be a lot of construction work in Rio. But, seeing that you’re over fifty, you’ll have to decide for yourself. In any case, I’ll ask Colonel Carvalho to give you a reference.”
During all the time that he’d lived away from his family he’d had hardly any news about them. All he knew was that his parents and all except one of his brothers had died; the one who remained was an oarsman for the port authority, who lived, with the only sister, over in Saúde.
Meneses was in good spirits when he embarked for Rio: at last he was going to fulfil his vocation. It had taken him so long to discover it but, ever since he saw those machines and mechanisms, he’d felt drawn to it as if by magnetism. Nevertheless, he was shrewd enough to bring with him his bag of dentist’s instruments, together with the letter of reference from the Colonel.
After an uncomfortable night in a hotel, he managed to find his way to the port authority.
He inquired after his brother, the oarsman, and was duly informed that he’d be coming soon. And, indeed, he didn’t have to wait long before a swarthy bull of a man, dressed like a sailor, arrived at the gatehouse.
“Who’s looking for me?”
The gatekeeper pointed at Meneses, who was sitting on a bench, and said:
“That gentleman there.”
As his brother hardly moved, Meneses got up immediately and hurried over to him, asking, “Don’t you recognise me any more?!”
“I’m your brother Juca.”
After they’d given each other a big hug, Leopoldo told the gatekeeper who his visitor was.
“You haven’t seen each other for thirty years?!” exclaimed the gatekeeper. “Not since you were a little child, then, Leopoldo?”
“I’d only have been five,” said Meneses.
Leopoldo went to get permission to accompany this brother who he hadn’t seen for thirty years. And meanwhile Meneses got talking with the gatekeeper about life in the interior.
“Ah! You’re an engineer then?”
“Yes, a mechanical engineer. But I work as a civil and transport engineer.”
“There should be plenty of work for an engineer at the moment. Big construction works coming up… Make the most of it, doctor!”
“I’ve got a letter here for Sepúlveda, the State Deputy. Has he got much influence?”
“Loads! He’s the main man of Mineiran politics… Stick to him like glue, doctor!”
Their conversation was interrupted by the return of Leopoldo, who’d been given permission to leave. After they’d left, he told Meneses about all the deaths in the family, about how he’d got himself the job at the port authority, and about how he’d arranged for their sister to marry a mate of his, Pedro Rocha, a good, well-behaved lad, with whom she’d had a son, Edmundo, who was now six years old and lived with his mother in the Rua do Livramento.
When they arrived at Pedro and their sister’s house, Etelvina – who’d been seven or eight when Meneses left – didn’t recognise him either. But it didn’t take long, once her husband had arrived, before they were all in high spirits (all except Edmundo who, snotty-nosed and dressed in tattered clothes, kept clinging shyly to his mother’s skirt, and resolutely refusing to accept his uncle’s blessing).
It didn’t take long for Etelvina to invite her older brother to stay with them. There was a shed in the yard which, once it was done up a bit, Leopoldo could move into, and Juca could have his brother’s room – if he didn’t mind sleeping in the same bed as Leopoldo while the shed was done up. Meneses accepted the offer, saying:
“I’d prefer to pay rent to you than to…”
But he was immediately interrupted:
“Not a bit of it, Juca!” said Leopoldo.
“I wouldn’t hear of it!” said Pedro.
“Don’t even think of it!” said Etelvina.
Meneses thanked them all sincerely, adding:
“…especially as I need one of you to help me speak to Dr Sarmento Sepúlveda in the Chamber of Deputies. I’ve got a letter for him.”
His brother-in-law immediately exclaimed:
“Wow! He’s a big shot!”
Once they’d settled all this, Meneses installed himself in their house, together with the bag containing the dentistry equipment. Then he took Colonel Carvalho’s letter of recommendation to the Deputy, who received him attentively, asked about the principal people where Meneses had been previously, and gave him another letter for the construction manager for the Avenida Central. And the very next day Meneses got a job there.
He made a fair amount of money, but he didn’t keep it – not for any wastefulness on his part however. The thing was that, before long, his brother fell ill and died, and not long after that his brother-in-law died as well. He paid for the treatment for both of them and when, soon afterwards, the work on the avenue was completed, he was left with hardly anything. His sister had a small monthly pension from the Oarsmen’s Fund, about thirty thousand réis, with which to try and look after herself and her son. He himself was left with little more than his dentist’s instruments.
It’s true that he’d built up a small library on mechanical engineering: The Great Inventions, by Luís Figuier; Tirrandier’s The Wonders of Science; and manuals about all sorts of specialisms, together with newspaper cuttings about science or related material, which he’d stuck into bound scrapbooks. And he never let go of his library.
Although he’d always liked a drink, misfortune and poverty tempted him to drink more and more heavily, until he became an out-and-out alcoholic. In that suburban hovel where he lived with his sister and his simpleton nephew, he was continually plagued by visions of impending catastrophe; and this undermined his spirit and his resolution, making a refuge in drink ever more attractive. It was the same thing when he went out on his own. Only when he was with company did he manage to ignore the lure of drink.
Despite the wretched conditions in which he, his sister and his nephew lived, he never did anything that could cause him pangs of conscience. He used the small amounts of money he earned from his dentistry, or which he was give by friends, to help out Etelvina and Edmundo. (His sister paid the rent out of her pension.)
Cassi, meanwhile, was planning to get the better of him by stealth, and to do it in such a way that – before he knew it – Meneses would be virtually bound hand and foot. As soon as Cassi had found out the bar where Menneses hung out in the evenings, he went to meet him. Juca was sitting in a corner, reading a paper and looking glum, with an empty glass beside him. The modinha singer went up to him and sat down without saying a word.
“Good evening, Doctor!”
“Good evening, Cassi,” said Meneses, lifting his head from the newspaper.
“What’s new? Plenty of work?”
“Here and there. At the moment, things are going a bit better. Joaquim dos Anjos asked me to treat his daughter’s teeth and, although he doesn’t pay me much, at least he pays promptly. And that’s something!”
“You’re a dreamer, Doctor! People take advantage of you.”
“Not really. When I did that work for one of your sisters I was very well paid. My difficulty is that I don’t have a degree and don’t have decent clothes… The calamanco shoes I wear – because I can’t wear any others – I’ve had to sweat blood to pay for them…”
“Patience, Doctor! Let me get you a drink,” said Cassi in his most friendly tones.
Meneses accepted, before muttering, “I’m seventy, and what have I done with my life?!”
“Don’t let it get you down. You know Captain Sebastião, who works for the council. He told me a few days ago he needs an inexpensive dentist for one of his little boys whose second teeth are coming up under his milk teeth. It’s not much, but it could lead to something…”
“I’ll take on anything…”
“And another thing, Dr Meneses…”
“You’re good friends with the poet Leonardo Flores, aren’t you?”
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“Because I’d like him to write some poetry in my name…”
Meneses didn’t hide his amazement, so Cassi – without even pretending he hadn’t noticed – immediately sought to explain himself:
“I’m not joking! It won’t be any trouble for either of you… In fact, I’ll pay for it!”
“The thing is, you’ve no idea what a proud man Flores is. You might think he’s just a pile of dirt and rags but, inside it all, he’s a God. So you don’t want to start making light of poetry in front of him, because…”
“I know. But I also know he has high regard for you. You can sort it for me, can’t you? Look, Doctor, I hope it won’t offend you, but here’s ten thousand réis for initial expenses – five for you and five for him”
“It’s not necessary,” said Meneses, who was already softening. It was his wretched state that was speaking, even though his honesty remained intact – especially as he couldn’t see that anyone was being belittled or insulted.
“Steady on there, Doctor! Everything has to be paid for. Doesn’t have to be much: just a few amorous verses, but they’ve got to be sensitive, refined and decent… OK, Doctor?”
Meneses promised to get Flores to write something, and Cassi left. It had just gone seven o’clock.
As soon as the guitarist had disappeared, Meneses got up, went to a corner of the bar and gave the barman the ten thousand réis note that Cassi had given him.
“This is for the six hundred réis I’m owing. And you can give me another shot.”
After knocking it back he resumed his seat at the table. He bought the evening papers from a passing newspaper seller and remained there at the table, only getting up once in a while to have another furtive shot. And it was not until just before ten that, with a wodge of newspapers under his arm, he set off for home, firmly intending to carry out his promise to Cassi.
The house was a fair distance away, if one kept to the better streets; but it was possible to take a shortcut, up hill and down dale, along deserted alleys through the slums. That’s was he did, without hesitation, because he knew it well, and he duly arrived – almost without looking where he was going – at his home.
The house was situated on a barren plain and was fenced only at the front and – thanks to their neighbour – on one side. There was also a scruffy cashew tree that hid the house a little and offered some meagre shade round the water pump, where his sister used to wash clothes, both for themselves and for others. Once in a while, Meneses persisted in planting a row of fast-growing trees, to provide more shade; but, every time, the local goats would come and eat the sapplings. With great difficulty he managed to build a lean-to, which gave shade to the dining room, where he slept, and which they used as a kitchen on most days.
Apart from the lean-to, the house only had two rooms: the dining room and a living room, which were connected by a door. The living room was divided by a curtain, hanging from ceiling to floor and which ran from the connecting door to the front door of the house, the space behind the curtain being a makeshift bedroom for Etelvina. Structurally, however, the two rooms were identical, so that it was really only the road which indicated where the front of the house was.
When Meneses got home, the first thing he did was eat the beans, rice and cornmeal porridge that his sister always left out for him. This he did by the light of a “vagabond”, a sort of poor man’s querosene lantern. He drank a few glasses of rum, of which he always kept a bottle in the house. Then he undressed, laid his clothes carefully over the back of a wooden chair – the only chair in the house – and lay down on an old couch, which rested on some wooden boxes that were lined on top with newspapers. (The rest of the dining room was taken up with a pine table and a worm-eaten old kitchen table, which was where his simpleton nephew slept.)
Having covered himself with a blanket made from pieces of two other blankets, he fell into a deep sleep.
First thing in the morning, his sister woke him up in a state of alarm:
“What is it, woman?! Can’t a man sleep any more in this house…”
But then he softened his tone:
“What’s up, Etelvina?”
“We haven’t got any sugar or coffee, and we already owe the baker six hundred réis.”
“Go and take all the silver and nickel coins you can find in my waistcoat pocket. Just leave me four hundred réis. I think there should be somewhere between three and four thousand réis there. Take it all. And give me a drink of something!”
You wouldn’t have known his sister was fifteen years younger than him. She looked an old woman, gaunt and wrinkled, with hardly any teeth left, and her hair was completely white – a picture of exhaustion and despair.
She shouted “Edmundo!” and her son immediately appeared. He was slow-witted and insipid, so much so that he’d soon been sacked from his job. What he did nowadays was hunt for guinea-pigs and frogs to sell to foreigners at the factory, catch little birds and, once in a while, help with the fishing at the port of Inhaúma.
It was his mother, with her meagre income as a washerwoman, who kept him clothed, because he drank all his earnings. But he rarely drank from his uncle’s bottle and he never brought drink home.
After Etelvina had given her brother a glass of rum, he noticed there wasn’t much left in the bottle, so he asked her to add another half-bottle to the shopping list. What remained he poured into a chemist’s bottle.
At this point his sister could no longer contain herself:
“My God! Rum and ruination!”
“You’re quite right, sister, but, if I stop now, I’ll die… The newspaper!” he shouted at Edmundo.
“Yes, uncle,” said his nephew, already on his way out of the door.
As he was also in a hurry to have his coffee, Edmundo did the shopping quickly. And, heated by a brushwood fire, the coffee was soon ready. They drank it around the table, Etelvina sitting on the chair, Meneses and Edmundo on the old couch.
The old dentist sipped his coffee and read the paper while lying back on the couch. It was a holy day, a kind of public holiday – so what was he going to do? He remembered that he needed to go to see Leonardo Flores. Indeed, it was his duty. So, as soon as he’d finished his breakfast, he’d go and see him at his house. And that’s what he did.
He set off immediately, along the Estrada Real, to Leonardo’s house, which wasn’t far away. When he arrived there, he was shown in by Leonardo’s wife, Castorina, who looked old and spent. As in Etelvina’s case, however, this wasn’t because of age – she couldn’t have been fifty yet – but because of all the problems she’d had with her husband (much more than with her children). But no one ever heard her complain – not even a grumble on Leonardo’s account. She put up with all the grief she suffered from him with resignation and magnanimity. And it was due only to this sweet and forgiving temperament of hers in the face of all his ranting and raging like a madman that he managed to produce anything at all. If it wasn’t for her – for that little, thin mulatto woman who was forever laughing, but with the deepest melancholy in her dark, sad eyes –, if it wasn’t for that humble little mulatto woman, who was now standing there in front of Meneses, Flores would probably have been unable to write a single line.
Flores knew this, and he loved her even more for it; and she, likewise, despite all his unruliness, nurtured deep within her a great pride on account of that glorious poet, her husband.
Dona Castorina told him that Leonardo had gone, with their son, to see a friend, and they’d probably be there all day. So Meneses stayed and talked a bit and had two glasses of Mangaratiba rum that one of Leonardo’s sons, who worked on the trains, had brought for his father.
Expecting – not unreasonably, given Leonardo’s habits – that he’d have popped into Seu Nascimento’s store, that’s where Meneses went next. But Leonardo wasn’t there, and Meneses left the store dejected after what he heard from Marramaque, Alípio and the others.
Perhaps he was beginning to feel ashamed of what he was doing. What good did he think he was doing, trying to get that poem written?
He headed off to Engenho de Dentro to see if he could find someone to talk to – someone who might dispel the twinge of guilt he was beginning to feel. And, indeed, he came across a group of railway workers who were always kind to him. So he sat down among them, but… no words came out of his mouth.
“What’s up, Meneses?! Have a drink!” one of them said.
He had a drink, but it did nothing to assuage his guilty conscience. Although he eventually managed to say a few words, he could see that he was like a wet blanket there, with his sadness and the repentance welling up inside him. So he took his leave. One of them asked:
“Are you going home? Have you got enough money?”
“Yes, I’m going home,” he said, “but no, I haven’t got any money.”
They had a whip-round, which raised two thousand réis, and as he was leaving one of them waved an old-fashioned, cherry-wood walking stick in the air and shouted at the clerk:
“Antunes, give a bottle of your finest – ‘your finest’, do you hear me? – to our friend Meneses here, to help cheer him up a bit.”
When Meneses finally got home, his sister immediately said:
“Juca, it’s just as well you’ve turned up. I haven’t got a single tostão to pay for the coal, flour and kerosene. You didn’t leave me enough… I had to spend it all on dried meat.”
Half-drunk as he was, and therefore unable to think straight, Meneses took the five thousand réis for Flores that he’d stashed away in his pocket, added another ten tostões to them, and said to his sister:
“Here’s six thousand réis until Monday, Sis. Until then I don’t want to hear anything more about money. Today’s Friday, so the weekend’s no problem.”
He drank a glass of rum, lay down, and tried to read the newspapers the railway workers had given him. But he couldn’t: he was soon fast asleep, and he slept through to dinner time. When he eventually opened his eyes and remembered what he’d done with the five thousand réis he was meant to give to Fores for the poem, he felt dreadful. But only for a moment: after thinking about it, he felt sure he’d sort something out.
So he enjoyed his meal and, while there was still light, he had a good read of the newspapers. When night fell he was still reading them, with a nearly empty bottle of rum beside him.
First thing the next day, while it was still dark, he went to the tap and washed himself thoroughly. Then he made himself a coffee –followed by a few glasses of rum – and was out of the house by seven o’clock.
It was too early to go straight to his friend Leonardo’s house, so he went to the station and bought a newspaper and read it there before continuing on his way. When he arrived, Flores and almost everyone else was up and about. Flores himself was in a pair of old trousers and a vest. He was writing.
When he saw his friend, he had a good look at him and then, throwing back his head and his arms, and sticking out his chest (in the time-honoured thespian manner of indicating a joyful encounter), he said in a solemn and hollow voice:
“Meneses, can it be you?! Can it really be you, the apple of my eye?! No news have I had of thee these many moons. Enter my mansion, dear friend and rest from thy weary journey in yonder chair from Cordoba, which Abd al-Malik, having descended from the Atlas Mountains, ordered be sent me from Marocco, and it was the last King of Granada, Boabdil, who, weeping…”
“Flores, you’re suffering from verbal diarrhea again,” said Meneses, sitting himself down on the afore-mentioned antique Cordovan chair, which was, in fact, a common or garden Austrian wicker chair.
“And now you must drink the nectar of true friendship, the genuine product of my ancestral estates in Mangaratiba.”
So they drank some of the “nectar of true friendship,” after which the poet, reverting to his natural voice, asked:
“How are you, Meneses?”
“So, so. And you?”
“Sometimes OK, sometimes not. It all depends. Have you had a coffee yet?”
Although Meneses said he had, Flores insisted on serving him another cup and went off to the kitchen to arrange it. The living room hadn’t changed in twenty years, resisting every change and every expense – a shabby old Austrian settee, together with two armchairs of the same ilk, all made of wicker, and three other chairs, each totally different. Among the paintings on the walls, there was one – a magnificent portrait in oils, painted by a famous artist when he was just starting out. Then there was an old iron bookshelf, with some brochures on it, in disarray, and a lattice-work table covered with a linen cloth, which was embroidered with wool of various colours. The picture was completed by an inkwell, some pens and other writing implements.
Flores returned with full cups of coffee and some bread and butter. He placed it all on the table and then sat down.
Meneses was glad to see that his friend showed no sign of being either unsteady on his feet or drunk. So, after taking a sip of his coffee, he asked:
“Do you still write poetry, Flores?”
“What a question! Do you think, you barbarian, that I, Leonardo Flores would ever stop writing poetry?! Poetry is my life. My head is an unending poem, set to the beat of my heart. That’s the only language I really know, the divine language of the Muses… I don’t much care for speaking in ordinary language…”
He fell silent for a while and each of them took a big slurp of coffee and a big bite of bread an butter. When Flores had finished chewing, he asked:
“What makes you ask if I still write poetry?”
“I’d like to place an order for a bit of ghost-writing,” said Meneses disingenuously.
“What?!” shouted Flores, jumping to his feet and nearly upsetting the coffee cups on the table. “So you don’t know me! You don’t know Leonardo Flores! You don’t know that, for me, poetry is my joy and my pain, it’s my very life. You don’t know that I’ve suffered everything – pain, humiliation, setbacks –, all for the sake of my ideals. You don’t know that I’ve passed up whatever privileges I might have had, I haven’t been able to provide my wife with the comfort she deserves, I haven’t been able to bring my children up properly, and all for the sake of my art. I was born poor, a mulatto, I only had a rudimentary education, which I finished – as best I could – under my own steam. Night and day I read and re-read books, especially poetry. Night and day I searched for the hidden order in this rough and ready world, for the thought that unites it all – perfume with colour, sound with the anxious silence of my soul, light with the joy of the birds in the morning, dusk with the melancholy chirping of the cicadas. All of that is what I did, sacrificing advantage, without a thought for wealth, position or respectability. I’ve been humiliated and ridiculed. And I suffered it all – me, a fighter! – I suffered it all with resignation. Until, finally, my name meant something in this mean and ungrateful land of ours. But that didn’t stop me from getting poorer and poorer, from having to live off a miserable pension, with my head full of mirages of gold and my soul illuminated by the etherial light of the Elysian Fields. I was blinded by the searing light of my ideals, and life, untranslated into poesy, became a burden. I was always living in the realm of ideals and, if that belittled me in people’s eyes, because they didn’t understand my eccentricities, it raised me up in my own eyes and in my own conscience, because I was doing my duty and carrying out my mission: I was a poet! That was the reason for all my sacrifices. Art only loves those who love only her and love her completely. And I needed to love her, because she represented not only my redemption, but the redemption of all my suffering brothers and sisters. Was I mad?! Would anyone have been strong enough to withstand such unexpected blows, such fierce conflicts and all those collisions with this brutal, indifferent world?! Would they?!”
Flores had said all this standing in the middle of the room, and accompanying it all with grand, sweeping gestures and dramatic rises and falls in his voice as the waves of indignation washed over him. So much so that, in the end, he tired himself out and fell silent for a bit, clasping his arms in front of him and burying his long, bearded chin in his chest, while he shook his head slightly and, turning slightly to his left, cast occasional, desolate glances at his friend.
He was a light-skinned mulatto, with straight hair that had been jet black but was now turning rapidly white. He had prominent cheekbones and a finely shaped mouth. And he was of medium height.
Faced with this emotional outpouring from his friend, Meneses couldn’t think what to say. Or rather, he thought it more prudent to say nothing and to avoid the poet’s eyes, where all he’d see would be reproof together with sadness that an old friend like Meneses didn’t understand the true nature and power of his talent and his burning artistic passion.
When Leonardo had calmed down a bit, he continued:
“Yes, my dear old friend, I was a poet – just a poet! And that’s why I have nothing and why nobody’s ever given me anything. If I’d produced fripperies – patchwork quilts with silks from China or Japan – I’d probably have been an ambassador or a minister by now; but instead I expressed the imaginations of my pain and my suffering. As Camões said, ‘Sadness did the writing, I did the translation.’ And I translated, in my poetry, the pain, the suffering and the dreams that so many generations of my people wrote with blood and tears. And I, too, write with the blood that runs in my veins. Dear Meneses, you think someone who feels all this could ghost-write poems? Well?!”
“No. They should always be in your own name.”
“Exactly. I won’t demean myself, come what may. Suffering, dreaming and drinking rum, that’s OK, but it’s not enough – you have to have been poor like me, to have lost all your brothers and sisters to poverty, to have one of them suffering for the past twenty years from out-and-out madness. That’s what you need to write poetry. No-one can do it of their own free will. Blessed be thy name!”
He sat down, with tears in his eyes, took a swig of the “Mangaratiba” and prepared himself for writing. As he did so, he said to his friend:
“Lie down on the sofa and read the papers until lunchtime. I’m going to write something.”
Meneses did exactly that, except that he eventually fell asleep. When he woke up he was amazed to see how large the room was and that he could move his legs. He’d dreamt that he was chained up in a little prison cell…
One of the most appealing things about Joaquim dos Anjos was that he put such trust in other people. As the saying goes, there wasn’t a bad bone in his body.
He wasn’t intelligent, but he wasn’t stupid either; he wasn’t wise, but he wasn’t daft. He found it hard, however, not to trust others, because he’d have found it difficult to reconcile that with his conscience – which is not to say he believed absolutely everything he was told, but there was certainly plenty of room for people to take advantage of his good nature.
In general he was ready to give a warm welcome to anyone, whoever it was. In his simplicity, he found it hard to believe that people could be evil, deceitful, perverse or double-faced – it was almost as if you’d need a team of scientific explorers to uncover such undesirable specimens.
Up until now – his fiftieth year – his trustfulness had been rewarded and he considered his life to have been happy. So he regarded the world, despite what one read in the papers, as a kingdom of peace, undertanding, honesty and loyalty.
Not that he was a great reader of the newpapers – they tended to send him to sleep. He found it easier to understand things he heard rather than things he read. He didn’t comprehend drawings or caricatures, no matter how obvious and rudimentary they were. And he often said, himself, that he needed to hear things with his own ears in order to receive any lasting impression.
As long as it was the type he liked, music fascinated him; songs – even trivial modinhas – enthralled him; he loved poetry, but only when it was recited; and – regardless of the subject, and provided they were delivered by great orators – he was uplifted by long speeches that he’d never have been able to read from beginning to end. Not only that, but his eyesight was bad, so it’s no surprise that he restricted his reading to basic necessities.
Although he had a reasonable job, he’d never abandoned music. He didn’t play in a group or an orchestra but, once in a while, he earned a bit extra by doing some arranging and composing. Every afternoon, after work, he’d meet up with some other keen musicians for a drink and a chat about their “Art”, about cinema orchestras, about this or that piece of music, and about deceased friends; and at about six o’clock he’d set off for home, always carrying a roll of sheet music with him.
After dinner he used to work on any orders he’d received. Wearing trousers and an undershir, when it was hot, or putting on an old jacket as well when it was cold, he’d bury himself in chords and flats and sharps until the small hours. He’d taught his daughter the rudiments of music and notation, but he hadn’t taught her how to play an instrument, because the only one he’d allow was the piano. The flute wasn’t appropriate for a girl, the violin was too doleful, and the guitar was disreputable – other people could play it, with or without music, but not his daughter. Only the piano for her, but he couldn’t afford to buy one. He could have rented one, but then there would have been the expense of hiring a teacher as well; it would have been beyond his means. He didn’t have any steady income from music, and he had to use his salary to feed and clothe himself, his wife and their daughter.
As a result, his daughter’s study of music never advanced beyond what her father was able to teach her, and that was minimal because of lack of time. And, in any case, Clara had no real passion for music, nor patience for the hard slog of repetition and creation. She liked listening to it, and that was sufficient for her simple nature. Not even the modest independence the study of music and the piano could have given her were sufficient incentive for her to devote herself to it single-mindedly. Her ideal in life wasn’t to become her own person, but to be an adjunct to her father while she was single, and an adjunct to her husband when she married. She didn’t even think about the unforeseen catastrophes of life that can push us to places where we never dream of ending up. So it didn’t occur to her that, if she acquired an honest skill and a job appropriate for a woman, she’d be able to help out her parents and, once she was married, her husband. And she had an example down the road in Dona Margarida Pestana who, after she was widowed (without a cent), had managed to acquire a house, become a respected woman and bring up her son so well that he looked set to get a university degree or something of the sort.
It was because of Dona Margarida’s insistence that Clara had agreed to help with the embroidery she did for other people, and which now brought Clara a little income as well. Not that she was a good-for-nothing – quite the contrary; but she had the silly idea that earning a living by manual work was an unpleasant thing for a girl or woman to have to do.
Clara was a rather lacklustre girl, who could have done with some firm guidance to bring her out of herself. But her parents weren’t capable of providing it – certainly not her mother, who limited herself to keeping a beady eye on her daughter at all times; and, what with his work and his music, her father saw little of her. And so she lived in a languid dream-world of modinhas and ballads sung by Prince Charmings who, did she but know, were represented in the real world by the likes of Cassi and other exploiters of the morbid sentimentality of the guitar. She saw herself as longing for an impossible love, to the quavering accompaniment of violins. It never entered her head that life in this world has a serious side to it, that needs us to accept responsibility – whatever our status or our gender. No matter how humble our circumstances, each of us should meditate on the terrible mystery of Death and on the way in which we lead our lives.
Clara didn’t even have a vague idea of herself as an individual within society, nor did she have any wish to fight against her circumstances. Although she wasn’t exactly empty-headed, this postman’s daughter had very limited powers of thought and not for a moment did she think about life and fate, let alone draw the lessons that such meditation might have suggested. Her age, her gender and her deficient upbringing were largely responsible for this, but it was all exacerbated by her lack of individuality. So, as far as she was concerned, her parents’ opposition to Cassi was unreasonable. Even if he had done things he shouldn’t have done, why would he do them in her father’s house?
After all, her father had a job and was well-connected and respected. Surely Cassi wouldn’t be so stupid as to dishonour an honest family, and one that had such a man for its head. And, anyway, lads like that aren’t responsible for what happens – it’s the girls being too forward…
It’s hardly surprising that, in combination with her youth, ingenuity, lack of contact with the world and inability to compare and contrast, thoughts of that kind easily led Clara to believe that Cassi was a worthy suitor who loved her sincerely.
She could see that her godfather, Marramaque, was no friend of his: he never lost an opportunity to recount some disreputable story about Cassi. Occasionally she was even tempted to say: “Cassi must be a very rich man, Godfather if he can buy off the police and the judges like that. Don’t you think, if he was found guilty of half the crimes you say, he’d be in prison by now, for thirty years or more.”
All this self-deception, because she didn’t know life. The fact was that, in order to escape the consequences of his crimes, all Cassi needed was to be well connected and brazen-faced.
Thus she lived in a whirl of anxiety and longing, half wanting and half not wanting to see the modinha singer again, sometimes believing all she heard about him, sometimes putting the case for the defence in her own head. And this was the state she was in when Meneses came to treat her teeth after she’d taken to her bed with an awful toothache.
One day, before he left for work, her father gave her some music to copy by that evening. It wasn’t a long piece, but it needed concentration. So, after she’d had breakfast, at about eleven o’clock, she started work on it.
Suddenly, however, she was beset by a sharp toothache, which made her groan and brought tears to her eyes. Engrácia hurried to help her but, as ever, she didn’t really know what to do. So Clara, between gritted teeth, begged her to call Dona Margarida.
When Dona Margarida arrived, she gave Clara some home-made medicine and sent her maid to get some mallow. Then, after she’d got Clara to do a mouth rinse, she went back home to carry on with her embroidery and sewing.
Engrácia, however, was still not happy about it and was pacing to and fro, impacient for her husband to return. You’d have thought her daughter was suffering from all the naturally occurring illnesses, plus all those that doctors create in order to ward off boredom!
She lost all contact with common sense whenever something half serious happened to her, and even more so when it happened to her daughter. Her love for her daughter was pathological – mute and all-absorbing. Although she always wanted to have Clara by her side, she hardly talked to her, let alone told her what she needed to know about life as a girl on the verge of womanhood. Except in the case of Cassi, where her mother’s instinct had overridden her natural inertia, she’d never provided her daughter with anything effective in the way of guidance. Somehow, she’d just never got round to it.
The two women spent almost the whole day, every day, alone together. Dona Margarida would wash the clothes in the tub at the side of the house while her daughter carried out other household chores. And they both did the cooking together, except when Clara had to copy music for her father, or when Dona Margarida had lots of washing to do.
Joaquim (or “Quincas”, as his wife used to call him), would leave home in the early hours, stopping off at the store, where he’d place some orders, have a shot of rum and chat a bit with Seu Nascimento.
“I can’t see him becoming president,” Joaquim was saying one morning, “and I can’t see the other one making himself comfortable in the presidential palace in Catete either.”
“It’d be good for you…” said Nascimento.
“What?! I don’t even know him… Not at all! I don’t know the one or the other…”
“But he’s a fellowcountryman of yours…”
“No more than you are or anyone else is! We’re all Brazilians… All I’m interested in, Seu Nascimento, is first my wife and daughter and then a little music.”
“Talking about music, what became of that Cassi?”
“I’ll tell you one thing: he’s a lousy musician. One mistake after another…”
“But he’s famously…”
“Famously rakish, more like it. That louche way of singing. Indecent, I’d call it! He sings as if he’s in a sleazy bar, full of easy women…”
“But there are plenty of girls that love him…”
“They’re the stupid ones, without anyone to open their eyes for them… Well, as far as I’m concerned, Seu Nascimento, he’s not setting foot in my house again.”
“Your friend Marramaque already told me, and also that…”
“Marramaque tends to be oversensitive about these things. He’s got his principles as a poet… You know that he used to be quite someone… he’s written in newspapers and magazines, he used to have quite a distinguished circle of friends, so he can’t countenance someone like Cassi, who’s almost illiterate, being considered famous… But it’s not Cassi’s fault; it’s people’s lack of education.”
“But you’ve seen the documents that Marramaque was sent about this Cassi, Seu Joaquim?”
“And what did you think of it?”
“If it’s true, he deserves to be hung.”
“Well, they say it is true… Do you know Vicência, the old lady who lives near here, in the Rua da Redenção?”
“But I do. She works in Cassi’s house and she says it’s all true. And she knows even more than what’s in the documents.”
“And who is it who’s been sending the copies?”
“As far as I know, it’s a qualified army engineer. His wife was seduced by Cassi, and her mother killed herself on account of it, five years ago.”
“Who told you that?”
“Vicência. Not only does she know the guitarist’s family, she also knows a lot of his victims. And she says the only reason the army engineer didn’t kill him was to avoid a scandal. But he says as soon as he hears of Cassi seducing another woman, he will.”
Joaquim dos Anjos listened to this in silence, and all he said was:
“I need to be getting on… Don’t forget to send the stuff, especially the firewood. We’ll need it for cooking lunch… See you later!”
As he left, however, he was thinking about Cassi. In fact, as much as he might have wanted to, he couldn’t get him out of his mind. It was as if the man was some big shot, a very important person. And why were people telling him all this stuff? Were they trying to warn him? The postman smiled to himself: But he wouldn’t dare! And he thought about his two-barrelled gun from Minas, a present from his first boss, the Englishman.
A strong, loyal and straightforward man, Joaquim was as boundlessly trusting of others as he was of himself. Normally he wouldn’t let the slightest doubt enter his mind; but this Cassi…
Joaquim’s unbounded trust applied to both his wife and his daughter. But whilst that was justified in the case of Engrácia, it wasn’t in that of Clara. He should have borne in mind his daughter’s age, the narrowness of her upbringing and the corruption that was rife in the world around them, and he should have seen that, without good care, she’d be destined for the fate of “the others”. But he didn’t have the intellectual capacity for all that…
He stopped thinking about Cassi and started to think about work, and about tips and bonuses. When he arrived at the office, he clocked in, said hello to his colleagues and his bosses and, when it was time for his walk, took the post and set off, delivering letters and packets to businesses and offices.
Many of the addressees’ names, being French, English, German, Italian etc., were difficult for him to decipher but, because they were always the same he’d learnt them off by heart and could pronounce them more or less correctly. He liked meeting those robust, rubicund men, blond-haired and blue-eyed, amongst whom he couldn’t tell the bosses from the lower ranks – except when there were Brazilians present, who, he surmised, could hardly be the bosses. He usually had a modest lunch and worked right through to five o’clock, taking care of various postal deliveries.
When he finished work, he’d meet up with some of his musician friends and then, about half past five, he’d catch the train home.
Everything went as normal on that particular day, as if by clockwork. When he arrived home it was already getting dark and the street lamps had been lit; but they had to struggle to stand out from the dying light of the mighty sun as it went down in a corruscating light display behind the mountains, which were silhouetted against that sky of silver, gold and purple.
No sooner had Dona Engrácia opened the door than she blurted out:
“Dear me, Quincas! You can’t imagine how worried I’ve been here today… If it wasn’t for Dona Margarida…”
“But, what’s happened, Engrácia?”
“It’s Clara. She was taken ill all of a sudden. She started groaning and, all on my own, I didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, Dona Margarida was at home, and she came when I called.”
“But what was the matter with Clara?”
“Her teeth, Quincas, but this time she was in terrible pain.”
“What a softy you are! All this fuss just about a toothache!”
“But you didn’t see it.”
“Let’s have a look.”
And he went to his daughter’s room, where he found her with a folded kerchief tied under her chin.
“What’s the matter, Clarinha?”
“Nothing. I’ve got a hole in a tooth, which gives me pain every now and then. But today the pain was unbearable and I had to come and lie down. Luckily the medicine Dona Margarida gave me made the pain go away, but my jaw’s swollen…”
“So it’s nothing serious?”
“I don’t think so,” said Clara, before adding, “but I’m sorry, Daddy, I couldn’t write out a clean copy of the music.”
“That’s no problem. I’ll do it myself.”
Then Joaquim turned to his wife and said:
“We need to take her to the dentist, Engrácia, before it gets any worse.”
“A dentist! God save me from dentists!”
“What on earth’s the matter with dentists?!”
“Dentists’ houses are places of perdition, Quincas!”
“What a load of nonsense! The only people who are damned are those who want to be or who already are.”
“Well, you take her then, Quincas. I can’t keep going out… You know very well that I can’t walk far…”
“How can I though, when I’ve got to go to work?!”
Looking at his daughter as she lay on her bed, Joaquim started thinking. She, in turn, had turned her beautiful eyes to her father, as if in supplication. All of a sudden, Joaquim had an idea:
“I know! I’ll call Meneses. He’s not qualified, but he’s had plenty of practice and will certainly know what to do in this case. What do you think, Engrácia?”
“That would be fine, if he can come tomorrow.”
“I’ll get him to come in the morning. He can have lunch with the two of you and I’ll give him something for it… Will you be happy with that, Clara?”
“Yes, that sounds good. It won’t be necessary to leave home and Mummy won’t have to trouble herself.”
That’s how it was that Meneses started giving Clara dental treatment, as Cassi had been conveniently informed by Doctor Praxedes in Méier. For old Dr Meneses it was a blessing, because he was hardly earning anything at the moment. Doing this work at the postman’s would not only bring him some money, but would mean he could have lunch every day – a not inconsiderable advantage in his present circumstances.
Knowing that Meneses was visiting Clara every day, Cassi, who was determined to lay seige to the girl, set about making the most of the abject state the old dentist was in, in order to achieve his designs. That’s why he’d paid Meneses to get Flores to write some poetry, knowing that Meneses would spend the money on drink and wouldn’t get any verses. And that’s exactly what happened, except that, when he remembered, the following day, how Flores had refused to write anything, and how he himself had squandered the money, the only solution Meneses could think of was to write some verses himself. So he’d spent a whole Sunday sweating over them, with copious crossings out and amendments but, by the end of the day, he had some stanzas that more or less made sense. Although he’d never tried writing poetry before, he’d travelled a lot and had got to know several poets; he also had a good ear for it.
He’d chosen the popular format of four-line stanzas, with seven syllables per line, and when he’d finished it the poor old man was as happy as if he’d just completed a masterpiece. So he had a few drinks and went to bed, highly pleased with himself. He’d kept his word, more or less: although the poem wasn’t by Leonardo Flores, at least it was an original poem; and, although it couldn’t be as good as one of Leonardo’s, at least it made up for the five thousand réis he’d squandered – something that had been preying on his mind.
On Monday night, having spent the day lugging his old dentistry bag here and there, Meneses went for a drink to Fagundes’s bar. As was his want, he sat down at the furthest table, by the wall at the back, and set about reading the paper, and taking liberal swigs from the glass of rum in front of him. He was never a problem for the other customers.
The rum didn’t do him any good, of course, just as it doesn’t do any good to anyone. But he felt driven to it by the need to numb himself, to forget, not to be all alone with his past, to escape from his fear of life, from the wretched poverty that – now in his seventies – he found himself in. He was a broken man, sick, without any real friends, without any relatives who could support him and without any sort of pension.
Cassi came upon him when he was engrossed in the newspaper.
“I thought you must have forgotten, Doctor,” he said, sitting himself down.
Meneses put the paper down on the table and then placed his rudimentary pince-nez on top of it.
“Not a bit of it!” he replied. “I’m a man of my word… Especially when I’m being paid for it.”
Cassi always had great difficulty in being pleasant, in adopting the right tone of voice and in looking less than combative. And, if that was the case when he was being sincere, it’s easy to imagine what he was like when he wasn’t! Rude, uncouth, curt…
“No, no, Doctor! Money doesn’t come into it. It was just so you could get yourself a few drinks… Well, have you done it or not?”
“I have, but I didn’t get it from Leonardo.”
“He didn’t want to, or something?”
“Well, as I think I told you once, Flores can be quite prickly when it comes to his poetry. So when I started talking about a “transaction” he launched into a big speech about this, that and the other, about all the things he’s done and he ended up by saying he doen’t sell poetry.”
“Not even anonymously?”
“I didn’t get that far, but I’m sure he wouldn’t. From what he said he only ever writes verses under his own name.”
“So who did you get it from?”
“I wrote it myself. It won’t be…”
“Let’s see it, then…”
Meneses pulled out a wodge of greasy papers from the inside pocket of his grey jacket, and looked for his poem. Once he’d found it he put his pince-nez back on and said:
“I’ll read it to you, so you can understand it better. My handwriting’s awful.”
“Read it, then.”
Meneses adjusted the pince-nez so as to catch the light better, and began:
Don’t weep, my poor, dear darling
Shut away yond prison wall!
My love won’t leave you pining
So please don’t be sad at all…
When he finished, he looked inquisitively at the modinha singer. Cassi, however, was pretending to be mentally digesting what he’d just heard. So Meneses asked him explicitly what he thought of it, to which the artful guitarist replied:
“It’s not exactly what I asked for. But it’s not such a bad poem. In fact it’s quite good. It would do for a modinha… Do you know anyone who writes music for modinhas, Doctor?”
“There’s Joaquim dos Anjos.”
“Ah, yes! So, there is! So how could that be done…” Cassi asked, trying to look sheepish.
“You know him, don’t you?”
“I do, but not very well. Maybe you could ask his daughter to get her dad to do it.”
“I could, but her godfather doesn’t like you for some reason. I don’t know why. If he knew…”
Meneses immediately regretted what he’d said, but he was in such a confused state of mind that he couldn’t think what to do about it. And Cassi immediately took the opportunity he’d been given:
“I know, but I can write to Dona Clara so that we can leave her godfather out of it and she’ll know that the modinha’s…”
Meneses couldn’t help looking alarmed.
“Nothing to worry about, Doctor! I mean no harm at all. I’ll give you the letter to read first.”
This made Meneses feel happier about it, and so he continued drinking in a more relaxed frame of mind, while Cassi told him all about the extraordinary winnings he’d made from cangueiro, a game that was popular in the suburbs. He finished off by saying:
“Look, Doctor. Whenever you need a bit of money, just ask.”
The dentist was becoming more and more drunk. When he heard this he looked at the guitarist in the way a drowning man would look at someone trying to pluck him from the raging waters.
“How much do you need, Doctor?”
“Just two thousand réis.”
“That’s nothing,” said Cassi, taking a wad of notes from his wallet. “Take five, and make sure you’re here tomorrow at seven. I need to have the music soon.”
On his way home, Meneses didn’t even think about what he’d just promised. Once again, as if guided by instinct, he went up hill and down dale and through the shortcuts, before eventually subsiding on to his battered old sofa. He was so drunk he didn’t even want to eat anything.
He woke up the next day without remembering what he’d agreed when he’d been out the previous night. He was just about aware that he’d stopped off at his usual bar. He went outside to wash his face and go to the toilet and, when he returned, his sister was waiting for him, as happened almost every day:
“We’ve got nothing at all in the house, Juca.”
Meneses didn’t know if he had any money or not but, to help himself feel less guilty, he went and searched through his pockets. He came across a few coins and thought, Well, at least we’ve got enough for coffee and sugar. But when he carried on looking he was amazed to find, folded neatly at the bottom of a pocket, a note for five thousand réis. Who could have given it to him? He tried as hard as he could to remember, while his sister carried on complaining:
“Didn’t you hear what I said, Juca?!”
“I did, I did! Hold on! I’m looking for some cash.”
After straining his memory, his conversation with Cassi slowly came back to him. He’d happily have torn up the banknote and gone back on his promise, but he felt completely enervated and fearful of absolutely everything – a breath of wind, the least rustling of leaves in a tree. The whole of creation seemed to be against him, was conspiring for his damnation. What could he do, poor and hungry as he was, against everything and everyone?! If he kicked over the traces, what would become of him, debilitated as he was, without a future, without a job, without friends or relatives?! What use were his mechanics and his engineering now?! All those pathetic notes he’d taken! All for nothing!
He’d spent fifty years, ever since he’d left the family home, leading a nomadic life without every seriously applying himself to a single profession, doing this one day and that the next. What had been the point of it all?! No point at all. And here he was, in the declining years of his life, forced to do things he’d surely never have lowered himself to when he was sixteen, forced – in particular – to more or less beg for food for himself, his sister and her son. He would have wept, had it not been for his sister shouting from the yard:
“Have you found the money yet?”
Having said that, he poured himself a generous shot of rum, which he downed at one go.
He was still thinking about the life that seemed to have been so sterile, so lonely, and he felt enormously sorry for himself, for the miserable state his life had resolved itself into. So what should he do about Cassi and the letter? He shrugged his shoulders and thought: What the heck! It’s out of my hands…
Cassi duly arrived at the bar, together with the letter, which he read to Meneses as he’d promised. During the rest of the day, the poor travelling dentist tried to drown his distaste, together with his feelings of guilt, in drink.
He’d arrived early at Joaquim’s house and, finding him still there, had asked him for money. He had lunch there and, after he’d left, had gone for a drink in every bar he came across. When he got to Fagundes’s bar there was a letter waiting from him from one of his clients. He opened it and found that it contained ten thousand réis from the fifty thousand that the client owed him. Having given five thousand to the shop-assistant for safe-keeping, he set off for the city; and when he got there everyone seemed to want to buy him a drink, so that, by the time he met up with Cassi, he was scarcely able to think straight, even though he tried not to show it.
The guitarist read out what he wanted from the letter, put it back in the envelope and gave it, sealed, to the poor old man. Meneses had already made up his mind: there was nothing for it but to let fate take its course and let himself be swept along by the flood of poverty, pain and humiliation that was engulfing him. It had carried him along thus far; there was no longer any point in resisting.
So he delivered the letter to Clara and, the next day, he received her reply, which he duly handed over to Cassi. And thereafter, for more than a month, he carried on being the intermediary between the two. Having resigned himself to that ignoble role, as if to an inescapable imposition of fate, it didn’t even cause him repugnance any more. There was no point in fighting against superior force; it was best to submit. And he no longer waited for Cassi to offer him money – he asked for it directly. Initially the guitarist gave him whatever he requested; then he cut it by half before, finally, saying he no longer had money to hand and not giving him anything.
Even so, Meneses continued mechanically to carry out his undignified task. He still considered it undignified, but he felt his miserable destiny had determined that this was what he must do. He hardly considered himself a human being any more…
For her part, Clara received those letters with such elation that you’d think they were divine messages – despite being terribly written, to such an extent that they were often unintelligible, so awful was the spelling. But the postman’s daughter didn’t notice any of that; she’d even forgotten everything that was said behind Cassi’s back. For her, he was the very model of an honourable and loyal gentleman. And she was always dreaming about him, about Cassi the guitarist.
Her moods started swinging between joy and tears, so much so that her mother noticed and asked what it was all about – only to receive rude, even insolent, answers. And Clara became careless in her tasks, or didn’t carry them out at all. Engrácia told her husband all about it.
“You’re right, Engrácia,” he said. “Something’s going on with the girl… Her sheet music used to be faultless, but not any more. Now it’s full of crossings-out, errors and blots… What on earth’s the matter with her?!.. How about if I take her to the doctor. What do you think?”
“That might be a good idea.”
So a few days later Joaquim had a day’s leave from the office and took his daughter to the doctor. After he’d examined her the doctor said:
“There’s nothing wrong with your daughter. It’s just her age and her sex… What she needs is a bit of entertainment, walks in the fresh air… But, just to be on the safe side, I’ll prescribe…”
Joaquim duly reported this to his wife, who asked Dona Margarida if she’d take Clara with her more often when she went out to the shops etc. And, the next Sunday, Joaquim himself took his dauughter for a walk in Niterói.
The sea, however, didn’t do the girl any good. Her head was already full of the vague and the ethereal, and seeing the huge expanse of the sea only encouraged her to lose herself in this limitless universe of ours.
When she got back, she cried all night without knowing why. And she woke in the morning with blood-shot eyes, an aching body and a great aversion to everybody and everything. Life seemed bitter to her and she could see no way of sweetening it. But, at the same time, whenever she thought of Cassi she seemed full of hope.
When she went out with Dona Margarida, that German lady – who was much more astute than Clara’s parents – quickly realised what the problem was and soon got the girl talking. So much so, that Clara readily told her what was the cause of it all.
“But he’s a rogue…”
“Not in my eyes. I believe that…”
“And the things they say about him!..”
“It’s because he got caught, whereas there are others who… And he admits that he’s sorry for it, and now he wants to get a job and marry me.”
Dona Margarida gave the girl an old-fashioned look, her enquiring eyes fixed on Clara’s face. And she thought to herself, Am I hearing things?!
She lost no time in reporting their conversation to Clara’s mother. Engrácia hated Cassi, perhaps more than she’d ever hated anything or anyone. She didn’t really know how to explain it, but she felt such repulsion for the guitarist that she’d happily have seen him dead. So when Dona Margarida told her what Clara had confessed to her, she was filled with a blind rage – not only on his account but also on that of her daughter, who she’d brought up with such love and devotion only to see her enfatuated with that good-for-nothing, who was despised by everyone, even by his own father. Once she’d calmed down she decided to pass the news on to Joaquim before that immoral guitarist tried any tricks.
Joaquim received the news without displaying alarm. He, too, didn’t like Cassi. It was hardly surprising that such a hardworking, upstanding man as Joaquim should see Cassi – who’d so often had trouble with the police and about whom so many bad things were said – as a rogue, someone beyond the pale. But, if he wanted to marry his daughter, he wouldn’t say no, despite the man’s disreputable past. Should he speak to him? Should he go to see him in his house? Wouldn’t it be better to wait?
After thinking about it he decided to ask the advice of his friend Marramaque. The postman set great store by the old messenger’s opinions in both moral and intellectual matters, so much so that he accepted them blindly.
That Sunday the game of solo continued into the night and it must have been around eleven o’clock when they decided to call it a day. Joaquim, Marramaque and Lafões had been playing in the dining room; Dona Engrácia was there too, but Clara had already gone to bed. Thinking she was asleep, Joaquim decided to grasp the nettle. So he explained to his friends how agitated she’d been, and how he’d taken her to the doctor’s. But when he came to the nub of the matter Marramaque jumped to his feet, enraged:
“You’re not saying you’d let a scumbag like that into your house, are you?! Don’t you know what sort of a person Cassi is?! If his father doesn’t want to have anything to do with him, that tells you all you need to know. Not only does he bring shame on other families, he brings shame on his own. His sisters, who are accomplished young women, should have been married by now, but no-one wants to have Cassi as their brother-in-law. He always swears he’s in love and wants to get married etc., just so he can have his way. Once he’s had his pleasure, he always manages to escape the clutches of the law, and cares nothing for the poor girls he’s brought into desgrace. Don’t you realise that, if he really wanted to marry, he wouldn’t choose Clara, a poor mulatto girl, the daughter of a plain and simple postman? I’m speaking as your friend, Joaquim…
“I agree,” said Dona Engrácia. “He could find lots of better-off girls.”
Meanwhile, Clara, who’d been listening to all this in her room, and weeping silently, was sorely tempted to shout out her disagreement and to argue the case. But she restrained herself.
Having listened to Marramaque’s passionate outburst, Joaquim said:
“I think you’re right, but what’s the answer?”
“Not to give way… But how is it that my goddaughter managed to receive his letters?” Marramaque asked Dona Engrácia.
“She says it was one of her girlfriends who brought them,” said the postman’s wife.
“Some friend!” muttered Marramaque. “What you need to do, Joaquim, is not give way. Make it clear you’re not happy for him to pester your daughter.”
“But what if he won’t give up?” asked Engrácia.
“Give the newspapers the documents I received. Go to the police. Put him off once and for all, and let him go and mind his own business.”
As there was silence for a while, the postman turned to Lafões, who hadn’t yet said anything, and asked:
“What do you think, Lafões?”
“Well… it’s an awkward question. As I’m not a family member I don’t really think I’ve got the right…”
“Nor am I,” butted in Marramaque. “I’m just giving an honest answer to the question; but what I can tell you, Joaquim, is that, although I’ve got the highest regard for you, if you let that scoundrel into this house, I won’t set foot in here again.”
At which point, Marramaque picked up his walking-stick and walked out into the black, almost starless night, heading slowly – because of his limp – for his modest little home. He arrived there calm and with a clear conscience.
Try as she might, Clara couldn’t get to sleep, her head being full of the most ridiculous ideas, such as eloping with Cassi, killing herself etc. She was furious with her godfather. In the end she decided to write to her lover and tell him everything that had happened.
In the morning she left the room as soon as she heard that her father had left for the office. As if she was aware of nothing amiss she received the habitual blessing from her mother, had a wash and poured some coffee for herself. She told her mother she’d copy some music before the food was delivered from the store. But it was only a pretext for her to write a long letter about everything she’d heard, the previous night, about herself and Cassi. When Meneses arrived, she handed it to him before he started treating her teeth, and the poor old man, who bitterly regretted what he was doing, immediately placed it in his pocket. Why did I have to live so long? he thought, as he cleaned his instruments on a snow-white cloth.
When he found out what had happened, that his plans had come to nothing all because of that miserable worm Marramaque and, especially, that all his scandalous past might be published in the newspapers, Cassi was livid and resolved there and then to clear the wretched old cripple out of the way once and for all. Just to think of all the money he’d spent!.. (In fact it amounted to no more than fifty thousand réis.)
When he was reading the letter under his breath, sitting beside Meneses in the bar, a look of such fury came into his face that the old man could not but notice it. Cassi’s eyes seemed to burn, his teeth were gritted and all his baseness, nastiness and brutality were compressed into a horrible scowl.
He bought Meneses a drink and left without saying a word, leaving the old man to take solace from alcohol as he asked himself, over and over again, What on earth’s going to come of all this?
What Cassi had decided was going to come of it all was, quite simply, coldly and cruelly, that he was going to kill Marramaque. But, when he spoke to Arnaldo about it, he limited himself to saying, “We’ll just knock him about a bit.”
“Why?” asked Arnaldo.
“Because the old man’s thinks he can insult me just because he’s a cripple. He deserves to be shown what’s what.”
But both these individuals knew they weren’t going to show him what’s what; they were going to kill him.
It was a Saturday, the day on which Marramaque used to spend most time in Seu Nascimento’s store. It was raining and night had arrived early – a dark night, with big, black, low-lying clouds. The gas lamps, swaying in the wind, emitted a feeble light in those obscure suburban roads, full of trees and dense clumps of shrubs.
After leaving the office, Marramaque had stayed in the store until eight o’clock, when he took his leave and set off for home. The way he chose to go was via an unfinished road that tailed off into a deserted dirt track up a slope. There was wasteland on the left-hand side, over-run with tall scrub; and, on the right, big trees at the back of a farm that fronted on to a parallel road. And not only was this area deserted, it was also very dark, especially on a night like that.
Wrapped in a rubber cape, and under the persistent rain, Marramaque had just struggled to the top of the slope and was about to negotiate a ditch – with his house in sight on the other side – when two shadowy figures appeared in front of him. One of them said:
“This’ll teach you not to stick your nose into other people’s business, you old cripple!”
Marramaque didn’t even have time to open his mouth before they set about hitting him with cudgels. At the very first blow, the poor old man fell on his side, gasping and unable to speak. But still the blows rained down, over his head and over his whole body, brutally, mercilessly. When they were done, the two men slipped away hurriedly.
It wasn’t till the next day that the old man’s body was found by the first people walking that way. And so died poor, brave Antônio da Silva Marramaque who, at eighteen years of age, at the back of a warehouse out in the country, had dreamt of being another Casimiro de Abreu, only to end up as a messenger at the secretariat and, eventually, murdered on account of the greatness of his soul and his moral courage. He never wrote poetry – or, rather, the little he did write wasn’t up to much; nevertheless, in his own way, he was both a poet and a hero… God rest his soul!
A mysterious and dreadful crime, like Marramaque’s murder, was bound to set tongues wagging in the city. An “ordinary” murder, where the details soon come to light, particularly the cause and the perpetrator – whether captured or not – soon loses interest and becomes just another banal, and unfortunately inevitable, part of city life, like births, disasters and funerals. But the clubbing to death of a poor, old, inoffensive cripple immediately reminded everyone that, freely going about among us, in the streets, in the squares, in the shops and in the trains, there are cold-blooded killers, who kill for the pleasure of killing. So, one more thing to add to the long, long list of insidious threats to human existence: murder as a form of entertainment, a passtime, a sport.
So, whether it’s one or many, there’s always some sort of a threat hanging over each and every one of us, with no concessions for the poor, the timid, the peace-loving…
Marramaque wasn’t rich, never wore any jewellery and it was clear enough that he wouldn’t have had much money with him. So the motive for the crime couldn’t have been robbery. On the contrary: a thorough search of his pockets suggested that nothing had been taken. The few coins he’d had on him, amounting to just over three thousand réis, were still there, and a wallet that was found in one of the inside pockets of his short cape contained nothing but papers.
When he was killed he was wearing his messenger’s uniform: dolman and trousers, both navy-blue. Under the dolman he was wearing an ordinary black waistcoat, where he had a silver watch, attached by an intricate, antique gold chain to a clip in the form of a little stirrup, the footplate of which was made from jet. And not even this item, which did had some value, had been stolen.
But if the motive hadn’t been robbery, what could it have been? The victim’s precarious state of health immediately ruled out affairs of the heart or anything of the sort. Politics? A family feud? Nothing that could explain the crime. Surely, the only reason could be that the murderer was so wicked and bloodthirsty, that he enjoyed killing. At least, that’s what everyone was saying.
It didn’t take long for the news of the crime to spread through the area, even though the body was found on a Sunday. Marramaque had been well-known, and was easily recognised on account of his deformity, all of which made the dreadful news even more prominent.
The police followed their normal procedures, but only began their investigation on the following day. They interviewed everyone who’d been at Seu Nascimento’s store, but without finding a lead – which was hardly surprising.
When Marramaque had arrived on the Saturday, the rain had already stopped and all the regulars were there, including Meneses, who’d been bright and breazy. The conversation had flowed back and forth, and Meneses had caused great amusement when he explained his “transcendental” theory about Columbus’s egg.
Somebody – probably Marramaque – had said, “That’s like Columbus’s egg,” and Alípio had asked:
“What the devil is Columbus’s egg?! I keep hearing about it and haven’t a clue what it is!”
One of the group was Senhor Monção, who was a young, very personable, Portuguese salesman at the big grain business Belmiro, Bernardes & Cia. He had an enquiring mind and liked a bit of banter as a way of relaxing from the hard grind of trying to sell beans, rice and maize to retailers at a decent price. And everyone liked to listen to him.
“You don’t know what Columbus’s egg is Alípio?!”, he said.
“No,” Seu Mindela.
“It’s simple. After his first voyage to America, Columbus was told by some supposedly wise Spaniards that his discovery had actually been much easier than it was made out to be. So, in return, he challenged them to stand an egg on its end.”
“And did they?” asked Alípio.
Before Mindela could reply, Meneses – eager to show off his knowledge – took over the story:
“Columbus applied rotation to the egg, this way and that way, so as to cause the yoke to slip down to the bottom through gravitation, thus creating a new centre of gravity, which meant it could be stood on its end.”
Everyone looked doubtfully at each other, but no-one had the heart to say that Meneses’s explanation was absurd. Until, that is, Marramaque jumped into the fray, just as Mindela was opening his mouth.
“A load of nonsense, Seu Meneses!” he said, good-naturedly. “All that stuff about rotation and gravitation is rubbish. The thing is…”
“Rubbish, Marramaque?! It’s transcendental mechanics, just like in the case of cats always falling on their paws – whatever their starting position – if they’re thrown from a height.”
Marramaque replied without missing a beat:
“We’re not talking about cats. An egg’s got about as much in common with a cat as it has with a skewer. You’re talking bollocks, Seu Meneses!”
At which they all burst out laughing, leaving Meneses to stroke his big white beard and digest his resounding defeat on the subject of mechanics. Before long, however, he perked up again and set the old messenger a challenge:
“OK, Marramaque, tell us how Columbus managed to stand the egg on its end.”
“Nothing easier, Meneses. I’ll tell the story just as I read about it. At a banquet, some Spanish noblemen were trying to play down the importance of Columbus’s discovery. One of them said: ‘The Indies were already there and, if you hadn’t discovered them, someone else would.’ Without replying, Columbus asked for an egg. When they brought him one, he challenged them to stand it on its end. ‘Impossible!’ they all shouted. But the navigator simply took the egg, gave its big end a little knock so that the shell cracked a bit, and then he set it upright on the table. ‘That’s not fair!’ they complained. ‘We could have done that ourselves!’ To which, Columbus said, ‘Yes, but only after you saw me do it. It’s simple, but it needs a bit of thought.’ So that’s the story. Nothing to do with gravitation or rotation or transversion or constellation or repulsion – in fact, nothing ending in ‘shion’, Meneses!”
This sparked a new burst of laughter, while Meneses – greatly embarrassed – muttered:
“That’s not scientific. It’s just a humorous explanation from some almanac. I could demonstrate my interpretation with the aid of calculus, but this isn’t the right place to do it… It’ll have to wait for another occasion.”
Thus the conversation continued that afternoon inside the store, without a thought for the wet and windy weather outside. And it continued once Marramaque had left. None of them, of course, could have foreseen what was about to happen to him on his way home.
It was raining again when the poor old messenger left – persistent rain, but not exactly a downpour. The night, however, was so terribly dark, especially as the clouds were ominously low, that the street lamps – buffeted by fierce winds – had very little effect. As people say on such a night, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.
It seemed to the police that the motive for the mysterious murder must have been linked to some secret that only Marramaque would have been able to tell them. Or perhaps his papers – so they set about reading them.
Marramaque had been living with a maternal aunt, who was a little younger than him and who had two sons, one twelve years old, the other ten. They’d lived out in the country when she’d been widowed and, because she had a bit of money, she’d decided to buy her present house and invite her nephew to come and live there. He’d be company and support for her and could help with the upbringing and education of the boys.
Her house was the complete opposite of Meneses’. It was neat and tidy, with a fence all round it, and the front garden was well looked-after. Helena, Marramaque’s aunt, was methodical and thrifty, as a result of which their home was an oasis of calm. She used to do sewing for the army ordenance office and – together with Marramaque’s meagre earnings – this was sufficient to keep things on an even keel. He could easily get to the Central Line stations, as the Inhaúma tram passed by the end of their street. And, just as on the fateful night of his murder, whenever he went to Seu Nascimento’s store or to Joaquim’s house, he always took the short cuts, no matter how uninviting they seemed.
Helena lived for her sons and rarely went out. Usually this would be something to do with her sewing; she’d been to the postman’s house a few times, but was put off by Engrácia’s taciturnity. And it was she who had to watch as the police went through boxes and drawers in search of any notes left by her poor nephew.
The police authorities had asked her permission very courteously, and the chief inspector himself had come to examine the deceased messenger’s papers. But he failed to find anything significant. They contained family letters, notes from friends, draft poems (including one from Raul Braga, who’d been one of his friends) and a copy of the notorious documents about Cassi, another copy of which was already in the chief inspector’s possession. Apart from these things of no importance, they found a notebook full of poems, which Marramaque was on the point of having printed. The title on the cover was Dandelions and Daisies and the poems themselves were the work – sorry to say – of a good and honest man who was not a poet. They also came across a portrait of a woman in a classical pose, her left arm leaning on a column and an enormous fan hanging from her right hand, which was by her side. She looked about thirty years of age, pretty, strong and healthy. On the reverse there was a dedication: “To my Antônio, from Eponina. 25 December 1892”. Beneath this, Marramaque had written: “Love conquers all, but musn’t override the demands of true friendship. May God go with you!”
Who could she be? the police asked, but Dona Helena had no idea. At the time she wasn’t yet married, whereas her nephew was already in Rio. Who could she be? indeed!
Thus, with the police unable to find a lead, the crime was gradually forgotten. Only two people could have pointed the police in the right direction: Clara and Meneses.
As soon as she heard of her father-in-law’s murder, Clara was utterly distraught. She remembered the veiled threats to Meneses in Cassi’s letters and she remembered, in particular, her own letter to Cassi in which she told him about Marramaque’s reaction when her father said he’d have a man-to-man talk with the guitarist. On account of these and other hints, she suspected that it really was Cassi who had killed her godfather, and she almost felt like his accomplice.
All of a sudden she felt terribly afraid of that smarmy, sentimental singer with the iron-hard look in his eyes; and it occurred to her how much pretence and falsity there was in his letters, for all their apparent tenderness and protestations of honourable intent and true love.
No sooner had she thought all this, however, than the crime seemed explicable to her as a momentary act of madness, provoked by his love for her. The man was an obstacle and… She liked this new way of looking at it and, in any case, they could soon discuss it face-to-face, because she’d agreed to speak to him through the grille in the front door, once her parents had gone to bed. So she’d be able to assess whether her suspicions were right or wrong.
Meneses had taken a letter from her about their forthcoming conversation, but the approach of her mother had prevented Clara from sealing it, so she’d hurriedly handed it to him, still open. Meneses stowed it away happily and, as soon as he got an opportune moment, read it.
Like any uneducated woman, once Clara had started writing she didn’t know when to stop. She went into endless details, wanted to be reassured that he’d keep his promises and demanded still more promises. One of them was that he should always respect her. And if he didn’t, she’d cease all contact with him. She’d wait for him at ten o’clock at night, on the same day next week, and she was going to do that because Seu Meneses had completed her dental treatment.
The truth is that Meneses was heartily sick of carrying letters between them, of the contempt Cassi showed him and, generally, of the ludicrous and ignoble situation he’d got himself into. So he’d decided to call a halt.
What he read in the letter didn’t surprise him: he half expected as much. But he felt so crushed by fate that it left him indifferent. It was as if he were bound hand and foot, and unable either to criticise or advise. But he hadn’t yet heard the news about Marramaque’s barbarous murder.
When he did hear about it, he was overwhelmed by shame on account of what he’d been doing and his cowardice. He realised that Cassi’s comments about Marramaque, and the evil look he’d seen on his face when he’d been talking about the messenger, had been premonitions of the premeditated murder of that kind old man. And so, feeling utterly wretched, Meneses passed a whole day and a whole night examining his conscience. Although he wasn’t one to cry, his remorse was intense, and he saw himself as the accomplice of that blackguard. Why had he kept quiet about what he knew?! Why had he been so lilly-livered that he allowed himself to act as their go-between?! Oh! He no longer had a scrap of dignity! He was less than human!
Meanwhile, Cassi wasn’t displaying the least concern. He read the news in the papers and the torrent of maledictions against the perpetrators. And he heard the same kind of thing everywhere – in cafés, on the trams, in the streets… But he felt no remorse whatsoever. All that was wanting from his inhumanity and self-regard was a secret pride for his remarkable deed. That, however, was something he didn’t feel; instead he felt a sort of relief at having rid himself of that phantasmagorical goblin who’d been taking every opportunity to make his life difficult.
The same couldn’t be said about Arnaldo. Afterwards, when he read what was in the papers and heard what was on everyone’s lips – even the lips of other criminals –, Cassi’s accomplice, although he didn’t feel remorse, was beginning to feel terrified. Somehow something had forced him to go and see Marramaque’s corpse, which was more or less as it had been found. (The doctors hadn’t yet conducted the postmortem.) The head was smashed, the eyeballs were out of their sockets, and all the rest of the body was covered with bloodsoaked mud, as were the clothes. And the old man’s semi-paralytic arm was broken… It was ghastly!
There was a crowd of people in the morgue and all of them, under there breath, were cursing the wicked perpetrators of this bizarre, unimaginable crime… Outside, a big, burly, jet-black criole could be heard saying:
“I is no saint… I ’as done some bad tin’… I even been inside. But God punish me, God send lightnin’ bolt down on me and mek me rot in diss life if I ever do a tin’ like dat… Dem wot done it, iven skinnin’ alive not good enough fo’ dem… Why dey gone kill dat por’ ol’ man?!”
By the time he got back to the suburbs, Arnaldo was a bag of nerves. Even though he still didn’t feel any remorse, he was now terrified of being discovered and of having to sit in jail for the maximum term of thirty years. But, when he came across Cassi, he tried to hide his fears and just said, as casually as he could:
“Yuck! What a horrible sight, the body…”
The guitarist turned and glared at him with blank, expressionless eyes:
“Shut your mouth, you idiot! You want to get us caught?!”
Despite being afraid of incurring the wrath of his accomplice, however, Arnaldo was even more afraid of the police. And he took refuge in drink, to such an extent that Cassi felt he had to keep an eye open to make sure he didn’t blurt something out; so, when they were in company, he never left him alone.
If they were in a bar, no-one could enter the place without Arnaldo looking him up and down suspiciously. At times he couldn’t restrain himself and would say something like:
“Cassi, that one’s a policemen from District 18…”
To which the modinha singer would reply, firmly but under his breath:
“Are you mad or something?! Do you want us to end up in the clink for the rest of our lives?!”
In the beginning, Cassi was afraid Arnaldo would give the game away when he was drunk. But he soon noticed that his drunkenness took a lacrimose form: he’d become effusive, would want to embrance everyone and, in a self-pitying whine, would repeat – regardless of what was being said –, “I’m not really so bad…”, “I’m a good lad at heart…”, “I’ve never done anyone any harm” etc.
At some point, Zezé Mateus, who’d be slouched in his chair, drunk out of his head, dribbling and with glazed, unfocussed eyes, would stammer out something like: “My d… dear Ar… Ar… Ar… Arnaldo, you are a… swee… swee… sweet little dove.” Then he’d wipe the dribble from his moth with his handkerchief and say: “’oo was it… was it… that said you… said you was a bad boy?” before adding: “Tell me… ’oo it… it was and I’ll go and s… s… smash ’is face in f… f… for ’im.”
Arnaldo would be sufficiently moved by this to get up and embrace Zezé Mateus, who – firmly planted in his chair – would raise his arms, with difficulty, in order to reciprocate the embrace.
This scene would then be repeated, with minor variations, at intervals. Cassi forced himself to joke about it, even though he was actually horrified by the way Arnaldo was making a spectacle of himself. Everyone else, however, just had a good laugh, without thinking twice about it.
Nor was Cassi confident that Arnaldo would restrict himself to this sort of thing. He knew very well that drunkenness is capricious, random, and that something about the crime could easily slip out. So he redoubled his vigilance.
His tryst with Clara was due at the weekend. He had to make sure he got what he wanted after going to such trouble – and getting into such trouble – over it. But, first of all, it would be necessary to prepare himself. Except when it came to insignificant tasks before elections, Barcelos was a waste of space. And, outside election times, all he did was nurse his glass of cachaça, looking like a heap of woe…
Cassi needed to have everything ready to do a bunk from Rio de Janeiro at the first sign of trouble, especially as he’d found out, from something Meneses let slip in Seu Nascimento’s store, that Nair’s husband – she was the young woman Cassi had seduced and whose mother had killed herself – was determined to make full use of the notorious documents as soon as the time was right. So Cassi knew that things would be more difficult this time. The stones he’d been scattering along his path were beginning to trip him up.
He even went so far as to sell his fighting cocks, with a view to depositing the money in the savings Bank so he could get hold of it quickly if he needed to scarper. When his mother saw the carts arriving at the house and the birds being taken out in cages, she went and asked him what it was all about:
“Nothing, Mum. I’m going away, to work…”
“Going where, Cassi?”
“To Mato Grosso, to help build a railway line.”
“As a labourer?”
“No, Mum. I’m going to be a chargehand and a technician until I can get a section manager’s job.”
Even after hearing this, Dona Salustiana wasn’t happy. She was well aware how ignorant and ill-educated her son was, and that he was incapable of applying himself to anything that required the least intellectual effort. So she knew very well that the only work he’d be able to do on a railway line was that of a simple manual labourer, clearing away scrub with a scythe, chopping down brushwood with a machete or digging with a pickaxe – nothing else!
When she went back inside to her daughters, she was in tears:
“Have you heard, Catarina?! Have you heard, Irene?! Oh, my dear God!”
“What’s the matter, Mummy?” they both asked.
“You’ve no idea… What a disgrace for our family!… Cassi…”
“What’s he done?” asked Catarina, alarmed.
“The mad boy wants to bring shame on us all! Oh, my dear grandfather must be turning in his grave! To think Cassi’s greatgrandfather was the Brazilian Consul in England!..”
“But what’s Cassi done?” Irene asked calmly.
“He’s going to be a manual labourer on a railway line in Matto Grosso!”
Irene was cool, calm and collected in such matters, never having forgiven her brother for the malicious questions her school colleagues had put to her whenever his name had appeared in the papers in connection with some scandal or other. All she said was:
“Don’t think twice about it, Mummy! He’s fit and healthy, so it’s better for him to be working than galavanting about bringing shame on us wherever he goes. Who knows?! Maybe he’ll come to his senses.”
Looking at her daughter in amazement, Dona Salustiana said, in the most pitiful voice:
“It’s because you’re not a mother, Irene. But you will be one day, and then…”
Here Catarina interrupted her:
“Mummy, I don’t think there’s the slightest reason to get upset. What is worth getting upset about is the way he leads his life… It will be best all round for him to go and try and make his way…”
When Cassi’s father – who hadn’t set eyes on his son for two years – heard of his decision he couldn’t contain his satisfaction:
“Let him go! Let him go to the devil! It’s high time!”
Then he added:
“I bet you he’s done something else disreputable. He’s going to clear off and leave us to pick up the pieces. But let him go, for God’s sake! Otherwise we’ll never have a moment’s peace!”
Once the cocks, hens and chicks had been sold, Cassi was going to deposit the five hundred thousand réis he got for them, the very next day, in the savings bank.
He woke early on that day, had a good bath, selected fresh underclothes, made sure that his socks had no holes in them, brushed his suit, pulled out a belt for his trousers and set about dressing himself smartly before going down to the city.
He rarely went to the centre of town, usually going no further than the Campo de Sant’Ana. In fact, he didn’t like going to the centre, because all those elegant men standing on the pavements and street corners annoyed him. He thought they looked ridiculous, showing off their luxurious walking sticks, theirs rings and their watch chains. It wasn’t that he didn’t use such things himself; it was just that he didn’t flash them around like that. He wasn’t a poseur, in other words, and even if he were… not to that ludicrous extent. And he felt the same way about the young women: how affected they were! Why did they have to walk with such dainty little steps?! Why such elaborate ways of saying Goodbye?!
He found it all ridiculous, exaggerated and foreign, although he had no idea which country or countries they were copying. But what he really felt wasn’t exactly what he told his friends or the suburban beauties that he happened to set his sights on. What he really felt in front of all that – all the elaborate etiquette, all those conversations he didn’t understand – was how ignorant and vulgar he was, and how lacking in education and good taste. But the principal objects of his hatred were poets and, especially, journalists. He couln’t forgive the slighting, scornful way they wrote about him when they had to report one of his shameful feats. “Pigs!” he’d say. “Low life who think they can tell other people how to behave.”
When he read articles about himself, his first inclination was to go an find one of the journalists – preferably the weakest one – and beat him up. But he always restrained himself because he knew that, if he did do that, the game would be up: it would be all-out war, and they’d dig up every single thing they could about him. Although he didn’t admit it, he did have respect for the city, the respect of the genuine suburbanite that he was – rude, crude and illiterate.
As soon as he’d had his breakfast, he adjusted his tie once more and set out. Although it was early, he was concerned about the large amount of money he had in his pocket. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had so much with him and he especially didn’t want anybody to know that he was intending to clear off. He got on the first train that came along and managed to travel all the way to Central Station without meeting anyone who could have asked him awkward questions.
So, before too long, Cassi Jones found himself among the crowds spilling out from the Central Station into the Campo de Sant’Ana. Unlike most of the other people, however, he wasn’t driven by the honest sense of hurry that people have when they’re on their way to work.
He felt as if he were in a foreign city. The suburbs were where he conducted his love affairs and made his enemies; they were where he had his friends and where his fame as a guitarist was such that people even pointed him out in the street; they were where, quite simply, he was someone, he was the one and only Cassi Jones de Azevedo. But there, from the Campo de Sant’Ana all the way down into town, what was he? Nothing. Where the Central Line ended, that’s where his renown and his field of activity ended too. He felt annihilated by all those people who didn’t even give him a second glance. Be it in Riachuelo, be it in Piedade, be it in Rio das Pedras, he’d always meet someone he knew out in the suburbs, even if he didn’t speak to them; but here, in the middle of the city, if he happened to see someone he knew in a group in the Rua do Ouvidor or in the Avenue, it would be another suburbanite, who was scarcely worth noticing. So how was it that there, in those elegant streets, someone like that, someone so poorly attired, was welcomed, whilst he, Cassi, passed by as if he were invisible? He more or less knew the answer, but he didn’t really want to know it. And no sooner had he put the question to himself than he hurriedly turned his thoughts to something else.
The thing was that “in town” he became fully aware of his inferiority with respect to both intelligence and education. He felt like a country bumpkin in the presence of these lads who talked and joked about things he didn’t even understand, and who read the newspaper placards so eagerly to find out about events the importance of which he had no way of knowing. It bothered him that he couldn’t stand reading; and when he thought about the ease with which people in bars asked for the most varied and often exotic-sounding drinks, the names of which he could hardly pronounce, and when – like the Barbarian who thought all the senators in the Roman Senate were kings – he saw all those ladies and young women who looked to him like queens and princesses, he felt like nothing. All those fine things, all that urbanity and refinement, all that liberality with money, turned this suburban Jack the Lad into a complete nobody.
Instead of looking for a tram he let himself be swept along in the stream of people walking down to the Council House. When he got to the Largo do Rossio he stopped in front of some of the shop windows. He was particularly interested in a display of jewellery that was protected behind thick glass. His attention was directed more towards the rings and watches than the bracelets and earrings, because he never felt any need to give presents to the objects of his affections. What a waste of money that would have been!.. He was particularly tempted by a raffish, cane walking stick, with a gold handle. The five hundred thousand réis in his pocket seemed to be murmuring their approval, but he forced himself to walk away. He was going to need the money for other things…
When he got to the Rua Sete de Setembro, he started looking at the shop windows all the way along the front of the Parc Royal, where there were clothes and dress accessories for men – morning coats, braces, garters, collars, shirts… What beautiful things!
Then he started walking down the Rua do Ouvidor, still stopping in front of stores that had items for men. For a change, he also had a look in the window of a bookshop. Then he went inside. Books from floor to ceiling! Why so many?! That quantity of books was enough to drive anyone mad! He had books himself, certainly, but only a few, and they were all about love stories… Pretty tasty too, by God!
He was almost going to go for a coffee, but decided not to, because it was nearly time for the savings bank to open. When he got there he had to join a queue outside. There were all sorts of people waiting: old women in mantillas, stooping young women, Portuguese labourers, salesmen, tram drivers, waiters from the hotels and bars, cooks with scarred hands and of all different skin colours, washerwomen with wrinkled fingers – a whole world of poor people who’d come to deposit the savings that must have been so hard for them to scrape together or to withdraw money to help overcome some crisis in their wretched lives. Cassi felt revulsion just to be standing so close…
When he got into the vestibule he started reading the posters informing the customers of the rules and regulations… But what was that?! Damn it! He wouldn’t be able to get his money out!.. To find out if that was really the case he went to see a clerk behind a counter window with “Information” written above it. No, he definitely wouldn’t be able to get his money out; in order to withdraw more than two hundred thousand réis, he’d need to give prior notice. No, no – in that case he wasn’t going to deposit the money. He needed to have it readily available…
When he left the bank he was anxious not to be seen by anyone he knew, so he headed for the Largo de São Francisco, cutting through those old, dirty alleys that begin at the Rua da Misericórdia and end at the Rua Dom Manuel and the Largo do Moura. (This ancient part of the city, which is now full of dismal boarding houses, was quite swanky once upon a time.) The area was full of bars and dives that catered for the most wretched section of our population. Those dark, dirty alleyways, little frequented and with tall buildings on each side, with washing hanging out to dry from the upstairs windows, formed a strange city apart, the final refuge of those who’d fallen to the lowest level of society. It was in the shadow of those colonial alleyways and in the murky depths of the squalid hostelries of that grim district that they hid away their misery, their shame and the boundless unhappiness of those who’ve been disinherited of everything good that this world has to offer.
Among the men there were still some who had a specific occupation: sailors, porters, soldiers etc. But the women you could see in those parts had fallen irredeemably into the deepest degradation. Dirty and dishevelled, some of them barefoot, others in slippers or clogs, all of them without exception elicited sympathy rather than desire. As in any section of our society, this conglomeration of the wretched was a good reflection of it, including, as it did, blacks, whites, mulattoes and copper-coloureds, all of them brought low by the same forces and by the same sad fate.
So Cassi Jones was walking through that peculiar, dark district when someone suddenly called out to him from deep inside a bar:
“Oy! Seu Cassi!.. Oy! Seu Cassi!..”
Without thinking, he stopped, to see who it was. Out from the building came a black woman, dirty, her curly hair all matted and with a bit of broken comb stuck in the top; on her feet were some slippers made from pieces of carpet; and she was drunk.
Cassi was alarmed that someone like that appeared to know him. Looking at her contemptuously he asked:
“What do you want”
Swaying about unsteadily, the black woman put her hands on her hips and said defiantly:
“So you don’ recognise me no mo’, Seu Toe-rag?! You don’ ’memba Inês, di criole gal fro’ yo’ mudda’s house dat you…”
Suddenly Cassi remembered who she was. She’d been his first victim, the one his mother – without the least compunction – had thrown out of the house in an advanced state of pregnancy. As soon as he remembered this, all Cassi wanted to do was get away from her, but the woman caught him by the arm:
“Don’ run away, Seu Toe-rag! You needs to lissun to a littal mo’ of di music.”
By this time the regulars of the nearby bars and dives – both men and women – had come out and had formed a circle round the two of them.
“What’s up, Ines?” asked one.
“What dat boy do to you?” asked another.
Cassi was becoming more and more flustered in the midst of those hostile faces. They all looked to him like ruffians and murderers.
“I s… s… swear,” he stammered, “that I haven’t the f… faintest idea who th… this lady is…”
“‘Leddy’, no!” said the woman he now knew to be Inês, as she wiggled her hips. “When you was meckin’ whoopy wid me, when you was kissin’ and cuddlin’ me, you din’ call me ‘Leddy’. Di nem you had fo’ me was anudda nem, Seu Piece-of-shit.”
A lanky black man, with the look of someone you wouldn’t want to argue with, said:
“But, Inês, ’oo is dis boy?”
“He di man ’oo done it to me, ’oo brought shem an’ disgress on me.”
“Me?!” exclaimed Cassi.
“Yes! You yo’seff, Seu Slime-ball! I ’memba well… It was iven in di room of yo’ mudda… I was tidyin’ di house.”
A white woman, with beautiful chestnut-coloured hair – beautiful, that is, were it not for the nits – said:
“Always di same. Spoild liddle rich boy puts bun in di oven, bring shame on a gal and don’ wanna know no more about it. Di gal can look after hersel’.”
Meanwhile Cassi had turned white. He was listening to all this with no idea what to do. Glancing sheepishly at all those people, all he could do was hope that the police or someone – anyone! – would come to his aid.
“You know where yo’ son is?” the black woman said, resuming her littany of complaint. “He be in prison, so dat you knows. He got in wid bad crowd and stat feevin’ and now he in jail. See what you done, Seu Devil-man, Seu Go-to-hell?! Di only one what worse dan you is dat draggon-wumman, yo’ mudda, Seu Shemliss!”
Cassi stepped back from her in disgust.
“Lookee der!” she said to the others. “He say it not him. But he show dat it is him when I calls his rat of a mudda ‘draggon’… An’ she is a real draggon – an old wumman who tink she an English leddy. If she English, I am…”
Then she said something very rude, accompanied by an equally rude gesture, which made all the other bystanders laugh. Cassi, meanwhile, continued to stand rooted to the spot, mute and fearful.
“You is bad, but yo’ mudda is worse,” continued the wretched woman. “When she discuvva dat I got bebby in me belly she kick me out, wid no mussy, wid not a tought dat I got nowheres to go. An’ di bebby werr herr granson, an’ I bin browd up in dat house. I cem fro’ di country… Ah! My God! If it werr not fo’ my fren’, I would have lef’ my bebby wid di nuns… God fo’give yo’ mudda what she done to me an’ me bebby. An’ God fo’give di bebby fadda, what stand in front o’ me now!”
The poor black woman bent down to grab the hem of her muddy skirt in order to wipe the tears from her eyes – tears for her sad fate and, perhaps even more, for that of her son, who’d become acquainted with the prison system ten years ago…
Thanks to the intervention of the bar owner, who’d been commissioned by the local police to help maintain order in “the redoubt”, the gathering broke up, enabling Cassi to continue on his way. But, even so, he left accompanied by jeers and spicy insults from the women and by a final outburst from Inês:
“Seu Toe-rag! Seu Piece-of-shit! Seu Slime-ball! You gonna pay fo’ everytin’, Seu Go-to-hell!”
As soon as he was out of harm’s way, Cassi stopped for a moment, took some deep breaths, ran his hand across his face, patted the money in his pocket, and said to himself:
“Who’d have guessed?! Just my luck to bump into her!.. Thank God none of the others know me, otherwise… it’d be all over the place. The papers!.. Still, I’m not going back there, and she can go to hell herself. As to the money, I’ll just have to keep it with me.”
The thought that his first child had been imprisoned so young caused him not the slightest concern…
Half leaning out of her bedroom window, Clara dos Anjos was looking at the motionless trees that were merged in night shadows and at the deep, starry sky. She was waiting.
It was a beautiful, moonless night, silent and solemn, with the tall trees silhouetted against the sky. There wasn’t the slightest breeze, but the air was fresh. No natural sounds could be heard at all, not even the chirping of a cricket or the hooting of an owl. It was as if that quiet, mysterious night was waiting for a troubled soul to come and find peace within it.
When Clara looked at the multitudinous stars in that black sky, they seemed to be palpitating. The darkness wasn’t total, because of what seemed like a layer of luminous dust way up above. From her window, which was at the back of the house, she had a panoramic view of that marvellous sky. Apart from the Southern Cross, she didn’t know the names of any of those tiny diamonds up in the heavens, but she marvelled at them all as her gaze ranged from one side right across to the other. Finally she looked again at the Southern Cross, near which, for the first time, she noticed what looked like a flat, coal-black stain. This made her think, So are there stains in the sky as well?
This discovery immediately brought her back to the recent, shocking events: Dear God, what will become of me?!
If Cassi abandoned her she’d feel completely at a loss – helpless and utterly demoralised… Full of life and in the flower of youth, as she was, she’d yet be like that beautiful sky, so seductively illumined by the stars, but which, alongside all its beauty, all its light and a sort of sublime poetry that she couldn’t even begin to name, also contained that coal-black stain. Had he really abandoned her? She found it hard to believe, even though he hadn’t come to see her for almost ten days. If he had abandoned her, what would become of her?! And then she asked herself why she’d given herself to him. Why had she allowed herself to be led, irretrievably, into catastrophe?
She found it hard now to recall all the stages of her fall; she could only remember parts of it, and not very clearly. It had been like a gallop towards disgrace… Her first impressions, at the party, had been so wonderful: the soulful sound of the guitar, the sweet sadness in the eyes of the guitar player – a sadness that seemed to contain within it, as if by magic, the flickering flames of love. She’d already been looking forward to hearing the guitar, but had never dreamt that it would all be so marvellous…
Afterwards there’d been all the opposition to him, everyone running him down, not only her godfather, but also her mother and Dona Margarida. All this denigration of him had produced the opposite effect in her: she’d begun to think of him as an exceptional man, and had concluded that people were simply jealous of him on account of his courage and his skill as a singer and a guitarist. She just didn’t believe in what they were saying about him…
From the very first moment she’d set eyes on him he’d seemed so modest, so reserved and so delicate that he couldn’t possibly be the person they said he was. When, months later, she’d spoken to him, for the first time, through the grille in the front door, she’d been even more convinced: his words were so innocent and so honest as he kept saying he wanted to get a job and marry her. And he replied openly and straightforwardly to her doubts and worries about the possibility of their marrying: it was, of course, true that she was mulatto and he was white, but that should be set against his passionate love for her and against the fact that he was poor, was put upon by his parents, that he was lacking in social standing and education – all of which meant he couldn’t aspire to any grand marriage, with a woman who was better educated and more knowledgeable than him…
Clara was his ideal woman: poor, meek, simple and modest, and one who’d make a good, prudent housewife, able to get by on the paltry wage that was all he could expect…
With every passing day he’d gained the girl’s confidence more and more. And the more certain she became, the more she dreamt of that “little white house in the hills” where they’d nurture their love. Every time she spoke to him she’d asked what steps he’d taken to get a job and he’d always replied, with such sweet reassurance:
“Don’t worry, my darling little one! Rome wasn’t built in a day… You have to be patient… I spoke to Dr Brotero, who gave me a reference to take to Senator Carvalhais. But the Senator told me he couldn’t get me anything on the docks at Porto… I’ve made so many enquiries, I feel ‘frazzled’, as they say!”
Hearing all this – the warmth, the sweetness and the loving tone of his voice – Clara seemed to feel her heart melting within her. Yes, Cassi really was good and sincere. He was her lover and, above all, he was her fiancé.
“Why don’t you ask Daddy for my hand?” she asked one day.
To which, without the slightest hesitation, and in a completely open and reassuring tone, he replied:
“I can’t yet, my darling. Your parents… It’s true that your godfather is no longer with us…”
At these words, Clara shuddered and looked at him in alarm; but he failed to notice, just as he hadn’t noticed the suspicions that came into her mind, every now and then, about his involvement in her godfather’s murder. At first she’d been almost certain that he’d had a hand in it, but when she spoke with him a few days later – whether it was the emotion of their first face-to-face conversation, or whether it was the great tenderness that emanated from him – she soon changed her mind and lost the terror he’d begun to arouse in her. Her weak intelligence, her lack of experience and knowledge of life, together with the growing attraction she felt towards the guitarist, all combined in such a way as to convince her that he was blameless in the mysterious case of her godfather’s death. That’s not to say that she didn’t still have an occasional doubt, but he was so good…
So Cassi, had responded to her question without the least hesitation and in a completely open and reassuring tone:
“I can’t yet, my darling. Your parents… It’s true that your godfather is no longer with us, but Dona Engrácia can’t stand me. And then there’s Dona Margarida, who also doesn’t like me… Isn’t it strange what happened between her and Timbó?..”
“Why do you still have anything to do with him, Cassi?”
“What can I do?! He’s never done me any harm. He always wants to keep in touch and I can’t very well send him packing.”
“But is that the only reason why you don’t ask for my hand? Because they don’t see eye to eye with you? It can’t be just that!”
“No, it’s not just that. It’s because I’m still unemployed. If I was employed, I could win them all over. And you can be certain that, as soon as I find a job, I’ll ask for your hand in marriage.”
Recalling all this, Clara once more gazed at the myriads of stars above her; but almost immediately her attention was drawn back to that pitch-black stain, and her sadness returned.
When she tried to remember the conversations and the facts, all her effort went into analysing the emotions around them; but she just couldn’t comprehend how she’d allowed Cassi into her bedroom, in the middle of the night, under the pretext that it was about to start pouring with rain. She couldn’t make it out, she just couldn’t understand it. In her memory it seemed as if her free will had somehow been paralysed, as if she’d ceased to be herself and had turned into a thing, a doll, in his hands. A fog had come over her eyes and she’d seemed to float out of herself, leaving all her memories and recollections behind. And she’d felt so light – she’d no idea how – as, insensibly and without any sort of brutality or violence, he’d taken possession of her, had stolen the treasure of her virginity, had damned her for the rest of her life and, from that moment on, had irredeemably shamed her in the eyes of the world.
She began to cry silently. From the depths of the night, the whistle of a steam engine echoed like a groan, and the trees seemed to shudder; a glow-worm was emitting its silvery-blue light above a nearby meadow; bats were flitting noiselessly above the house; in the distance, the mountains looked ominous, like black giants on guard; everything was silent and, no matter how much she listened or how much she looked, that mysterious night offered neither an answer to her question about what her fate would be, nor any path to salvation…
She looked again at that sky adorned with stars that never tired of glowing so brightly. She sought out the Southern Cross and prayed to God for forgiveness and salvation. Then her eyes slipped a little further across the sky, and there was that indelible, coal-black stain…
He didn’t come. The cocks began crowing. She closed the window, weeping, and, weeping, she lay down on her bed. But she found it very difficult to get to sleep: the idea of her parents finding out she was pregnant terrified her almost as much as if an evil green gobling had been standing there learing at her.
At present, no-one – either inside or outside the home – suspected anything, the signs not yet being evident. That’s to say, although she was suffering from morning sickness, she was managing to hide it successfully from her mother.
In any case, Dona Engrácia – not the most astute person – felt sure that her vigilance had been effective. And, on working days, Joaquim hardly saw his daughter: just when he was leaving in the morning and at night when he came back from work.
The death of his good friend Marramaque had left him devastated. Theirs had been an old friendship and it was impossible to forget everything the poor old messenger had done for him out of the kindness of his heart. It was he, for instance, who’d helped Joaquim fill some of the large gaps in his education, to enable him to get the postman’s job. And, more than once, Marramaque had managed to get him references for promotion. As a result, it was, in no small part, thanks to his friend that Joaquim had got as far as he had.
The games of solo on Sundays had ceased. Lafões had been transferred to the water department. The wily old fellow, originally from the remote Portuguese province of Minho, had sensed that the business with Cassi was going to end badly. But, much as he would have liked to – because he was deeply sorry that he’d been the unwitting cause of Cassi’s introduction to the house – he felt he could do little to prevent imminent disaster. The wretch had deceived him!..
The only one who still turned up was Meneses, but he, for his part, had turned into a half-mad old obsessive: he avoided any conversations that didn’t give centre stage to him expalining his idea of a motorcar without wheels. “…Yes, completely without wheels! A groundbreaking invention!” was how he’d finish off.
“You see, Joaquim, wheels are holding back our mechanical progress. As a resultt of the friction of the axles against the passive resistence of the bearings and other mechanical parts, a lot of the energy is wasted. If we – or for that matter horses, elephants or any other animals – were to use wheels for getting from one place to another, the force expended would be many times greater than when they just use their legs. So in my “Ambu-go” (that’s the name I’ve given it) I’ve done away with the wheels and simply imitate the method of ambulation employed by terrestrial animals. At first I wasn’t sure whether to model it on reptiles or mammals, but in the end I opted for the latter. And, with the aid of joints, swivels, springs and connected gear chains, I’ll be able to make a machine that, with the same expenditure of force and fuel as an ordinary locomotive, will produce twice the effect.”
Joaquim was unable to suppress a yawn, but Meneses was so immersed in his mechanical dream that he didn’t notice his friend was bored. And so he carried on and on expatiating about his ambu-go, taking the odd sip of rum as he did so.
Sometimes he had lunch with the family but, at the table, he avoided talking to Clara, fearing that he’d let slip the secret that had connected the two of them.
At other times, the old dentist looked up Leonardo Flores for lunch and another opportunity to talk. Flores wasn’t that badly off: with his pension and the help he received from his sons, he always had enough to eat. And, thanks to his dedicated wife, his home was kept in good order.
He himself took no part in their domestic economics, apart from handing over all of his pension to his wife after he, or she, had gone to collect it. And it was she who bought his clothes, his newspapers, his tobacco and his cachaça. At the beginning, Dona Castorina (that good woman) had wanted to see if she could get away without buying the cachaça; but when she saw that, without it, he turned completely apathetic she decided to make this sacrifice as well, for the sake of her melancholy marriage. So she carried on supplying him with cachaça, and when he went out she gave him some nickels for his favourite drink.
She particularly welcomed Meneses’ visits because, not only did they keep her husband occupied but they also made him less inclined to go out.
Flores had periods when he hardly left the house, except – reluctantly – to go to the Treasury to pick up his pension. But there were other periods when he was overtaken by a mania for walking. Meanwhile, although Dona Castorina understood that her husband couldn’t sit at home all day, she tried to reduce the frequency of his excursions, knowing only too well the fixes he was capable of getting himself into. But one day, in particular…
When Meneses called on Sundays, Flores always used to welcome him with a grandiloquent word-burst that had something aristocratic, and even heraldic, about it. But then, giving vent to a deep sadness for which he knew there was no remedy, he’s just said:
“You’re the only one who comes, Meneses! The others have all abandoned me… Ah! Poetry! She’s given me some great moments, but she’s kept me going for too long…
They’d sit down and start drinking, and when they were quite far gone, each of them would subside into his own mania. Meneses would launch into an exposition of his ambu-go, and Leonardo Flores would follow this with a recital of his latest sonnet which, although incoherent, would still always possess a certain musicality, an imponderable nostalgia for things half-seen in a dream, and an obsession with perfume – all characteristic of his poetry.
Before long Meneses would start snoring on the sofa and, emerging from his sonorous world of verses and rhymes, Leonardo would get up, stand there with his arms crossed, staring at his friend, and all he’d say was:
“That’s right, sleep on, you imbecile! You Philistine! You petit bourgeois!”
And he’d go back to writing verses, as more or less the only thing to do until dinner time. Just before the meal he’d wake Meneses up with a shower of barked insults.
The habit in our poorer familes was to serve dinner early on Sundays, replacing the midday lunch of the other days. And Sunday dinner replaced lunch in Flores’s house as well, except that Castorina served it almost at the normal dinner time.
The meal was rarely a happy affair. Both Meneses and Flores would still be full of their respective manias, each of them talking extravagantly about things no-one else understood. Meneses usually managed to keep calm, but his friend would grumble and mutter as he ate, and would manically stroke his – still black – goatee beard.
Every now and then the long-suffering Dona Castorina would give him a ticking-off, just as if he were a little boy.
“Manners, Flores! You’re behaving like a child.”
Her two sons rarely joined them at the Sunday dinner, because they’d usually be off watching the football, and their mother would serve them dinner later. If they did happen to be present, they’d look at their father indifferently, neither bold enough to reprehend him, nor insensitive enough to laugh at him.
Flores’s madness was erratic: not only could it break out after a long interval of lucidity, but it could also come and go during a single day. Alcohol was partly to blame but, even without it, his madness would have developed sooner or later. Everyone who’d known him as a young man realised that he had a strong predisposition in that direction. His tics, his whims and his enthusiasms, together with other odd symtoms here and there, made his friends perpetually concerned about his mental health. But it has to be admitted, for a proper understanding of his insanity, that the symptoms were exacerbated by his taste for spirits, whether whisky, gin, rum, cachaça or parati.
On one occasion, after dinner, when they were having a cup of coffee in the little garden, which he himself looked after (with surprising dedication, given his mental state), Leonardo, placing his cup on a chair beside him, looked up at the sky and shouted at his friend:
“Meneses! Look at this beautiful evening! It’s not just the gold and purple of the dusk that one sees. It’s not only the deep blue of the mountains as it shades into black with the advent of night… It’s something more, dear Meneses: there’s green in that sky, an immaterial green that’s not the green of the sea, and which is not the green of the trees, nor that of emeralds, nor that of Minerva’s eyes – it’s a heavenly green, a green that’s unlike any green we know… Let us go out to enjoy nature!”
“Forget it, Flores. We can see it from here…”
“Idiot! You’re no artist… If you won’t come with me, I’ll go on my own!..”
At this point, Dona Castorina calmly intervened:
“Why do you want to go out, Leonardo?! You’re better off here, with Seu Meneses… You need peace and quiet…”
“Woman! Do you know who I am?” asked Flores, arms crossed and with his chin buried in his chest, as was his wont when he was speaking solemnly.
“I know very well who you are,” his wife replied, smiling. “You’re Leonardo Flores, my husband.”
“Not just that. I’m more than that!” Flores insisted, scowling.
“What are you, then?” Dona Castorina asked.
“I’m a poet!”
He was already entering the living room as he said this, and heading for his bedroom.
“Where are you going?” his wife asked.
“I’m going to get dressed. I want to see this gemstone sunset, all these precious metals, all these dreams and chimeras. I’m a poet, woman!”
Dona Castorina knew well that, when this fury took hold, it was better not to contradict him. So she said nothing to her husband, and simply asked Meneses to accompany him. The old dentist wasn’t feeling too well and would rather have had a rest but, faced with Dona Castorina’s request, he felt he had no choice.
So off they went, and they walked all over the place, having a drink whenever they came across a bar or something of the sort. Meneses was soon flagging a bit, whilst Flores was still striding along, taking deep breaths, grimacing horribly, stroking his beard and saying:
“What beauty! What beauty! I want to breathe in, to smell, to absorb all the perfume of this divine dusk… Were it not for nature, the heavens, the birds and the murmuring streams, how could we possibly live?!”
But after a moment his mood collapsed:
“Life is so banal, so drear… We’re also part of nature, but what’s the use?! We’re smothered by the bourgeoisie and their regulations…”
By now dusk had turned into night, but Leonardo Flores showed no inclination to turn back home, even though Meneses was getting slower and slower. They were walking down an empty stretch of road when the old dentist said to his friend:
“Leonardo, I’m done in. Let’s have a rest.”
“We can sit on the grass, away from the road, behind those trees over there… I’m really all in, dear fellow.”
So the two of them left the road and made their way over to the trees. Meneses sat down with some difficulty, and Leonardo immediately stretched himself out on the grass. Both of them were already drunk. Nevertheless, Leonardo was still capable of exclaiming, as he gazed at the stars, which were beginning to appear:
“What a beautiful sky! You can bet there won’t be ministers up there, there won’t be senators, there won’t be presidents… How wonderful it must be!”
After a while the dentist lay down as well. And, soon after he’d said those words, Leonardo fell asleep. And then Meneses – both of them asleep on the grass, with their unseeing eyes turned to the starry sky…
The sun was already up the next morning when Leonardo, groggy and not yet sure where he was, woke up in that meadow. When he saw Meneses lying beside him he tried to wake him too. But in vain – the old man was dead, heart failure having carried him off in the night. When he saw his friend had died, Leonardo got up, removed Meneses’ hat, so that his face, with the venerable white beard, was clearly visible, and began to declaim:
“Glorious Sun of auroras and resurrections! Divine Sun, containing us all, men and plants, beasts and geniuses, insects and vampires, slugs and beauties! You who make fecund! You who transform! Come, oh Sun, and kiss this august, imperial head” – here he pointed at the rigid body of Meneses – that is sinking for ever into the darkness and will see the light anew only when he becomes a tree, when he becomes a bush, when he becomes a bird and when, once more, he becomes a man. Kiss him one last time! Kiss him, because he loved you and so many times his spirit soared high, anxious to see your brilliance, and longed to die at the sight.”
Leonardo hadn’t noticed that some passers-by in the road had stopped to listen and to watch his strange gesticulations. The more curious among them came near and were met by that bizarre spectacle of a man who looked either mad or drunk making incomprehensible pronouncements – gesticulating as he did so – in front of the dead body of a poor old man.
They called the police and Leonardo was duly taken – still discoursing and gesticulating – to the police station whilst, after the police had taken photographs and carried out the other forensic preliminaries, the body was taken to the morgue.
The first inclination of the sergeant at the police station was to send Leonardo immediately to an asylum or something of the sort. Indeed, the poet wasn’t making any sense – they couldn’t even get him to tell him who he was. A lot of people knew him by sight but, as far as they were concerned, he was just “the poet”.
Things changed when Praxedes turned up. He was in the habit of arriving early at the police stations, to see if he could pick up any work. So, on that morning, he found Leonardo there and was told that an old alcoholic, who’d often been seen in his company, had been found dead near Flores, and that his body had been taken to the morgue. Praxedes, who was always eager to help, to the point of obsequiousness, and who was on familiar terms with the police, told the commissioner who Leonardo was and who Meneses was. And the police asked him to inform the relatives and friends of each of them about what had happened.
Praxedes hurried off, first, to the house of Joaquim dos Anjos, where he was received by Dona Engrácia and her daughter.
“Quincas isn’t here,” said Dona Engrácia. “He left early.”
“You could telephone the Post Office,” Clara suggested.
“That occurred to me, but I didn’t know which section.”
After Clara had told him, he stood up, bowed diplomatically and, as he was leaving, begged pardon for disturbing them:
“Please forgive me, senhoras, but I had to come here. I only know of two good friends of Dr Meneses. One of them’s Senhor Cassi and he’s left from the city…”
A look of alarm came into Clara’s face:
“What’s so special about that?” her mother asked.
“Nothing… It’s just that, a few days ago, Seu Meneses told Daddy that he’d been with him,” said Clara, to cover up her shock.
“It must have been a while ago, senhora, “ said Praxedes, with affected politeness, “because he embarked for São Paulo, in Cascadura, a fortnight ago. I said goodbye to him myself…”
As soon as she could after Praxedes had left, Clara ran to her room and burst into tears. She was irredeemably lost! He’d abandoned her once and for all! What was going to happen? How was she to continue hiding her pregnancy, which was gradually becoming obvious? What would her parents do? What an awful destiny awaited her!
She could find no answers to any of these questions, however. Cassi had left, had fled… And now, all of a sudden, she could see what sort of a person he really was. What everyone had been saying about him was the truth, pure and simple. Her innocence, her simple life, her trustfulness and her childish ardour, all of it had made her completely blind. It was just as they’d said… Why had he picked on her? Because she was poor, and not only poor, but mulatto. Her poor godfather had been right… And it was Cassi who’d killed him.
He was counting not exactly on the support, but on the indifference of everyone to the fate of a poor girl like her. That’s simply how things were. And such indifference, such half-heartedness in pursuing him and making him pay for his deeds, was what encouraged him to continue on exactly the same path. That – and the fact that he was a coward. He didn’t give in to his desires in respect of just any girl who took his fancy: he always chose his victims from among poor girls who didn’t represent any threat to him, either from the authorities or from the girls’ parents or guardians.
That was his speciality; the rest was just a matter of employing his repertoire of modinhas, sweet guitar tunes, love letters and sighs – the whole arsenal of amorous simulation that he, shallow and cynical as he was, knew how to employ better than anyone.
So what was to become of her now, dishonoured, shamed in the eyes of the world, with that indelible stain on her life?
She felt all alone, completely isolated. Her parents would never look at her in the same way again; when her acquaintances found out, they’d make fun of her; and there’d be no end to the scorn, on the principle that one sin leads to another. Thus, on the verge of being exposed to all this shame and denigration, she wished for nothing more than to run away and hide herself. But where? Given her inexperience, her youth and her poverty, it would be risking the sexual voracity of a whole pack of Cassis, or of men even worse than him, so that she’d end up like that poor girl everyone called Madame Bacamarte – dirty, drinking parati and beset by all kinds of shameful diseases.
She thought about death, about killing herself; but all she could do was cry, and pray to Our Lady for courage. But then it suddenly occurred to her: what if she could hide her pregnancy? what if she could “get rid of it”? It would be a crime and she could easily die in the process, but perhaps it was worth the risk.
Who could tell her how to go about it? Of her few friends, the only likely one she could think of was – Dona Margarida.
At that point, her mother shouted to her from the back of the house.
“Clara, are you still asleep? Can’t you hear someone’s knocking on the door?!”
“Just coming, Mummy.”
It was the telegraph courier, who had a message from her father, telling them he’d be late for dinner, because he was going to Meneses’ funeral.
Clara and her mother didn’t wait for him – they had dinner at the usual time. The daughter was preoccupied with the “medication” she was going to see if Dona Margarida could arrange for her, whereas Dona Engrácia was preoccupied with Meneses’ death.
“Poor Meneses!” she said. “To die like that, out in the open! Why didn’t he go home?!.. He was a fair age, wasn’t he, Clara?”
“He must have been over seventy.”
“That’s nothing. Some people live much longer than that… Have you noticed, Clara, how many bad things have been happening to us recently?”
“Not really – just two: godfather and…”
“You call that not much?! And such horrible things! God protect us! Bad things come in threes!”
“That’s nonsense, Mummy! It’s all very sad, but there’s no way of knowing…”
“At least that dreadful Cassi has gone away. Let him go to the Devil, as far as I’m concerned!”
Clara could easily have cried, but she forced herself not to. She’d made her mind up: tomorrow she’d ask Dona Margarida for an abortive medicine.
When Joaquim arrived he told them how things had happened with Meneses and Leonardo. Because there’d been no-one to arrange Meneses’ burial, he’d looked after it himself. As for Leonardo, as soon as the police were satisfied that the death wasn’t suspicious, and as soon as his mental state became clear, they’d handed him back to his wife. It was only when she got home with him that Flores came to his senses and realised that his friend really had died. And it was in a state of perfect lucidity that this, the real Leonardo, now wept for his friend and sensed in his death, at the same time, a premonition of his own imminent demise.
After listening to what Quincas had to say, Dona Engrácia asked disingenuously:
“Leonardo’s an intelligent man, isn’t he, Quincas?”
“He is, Engrácia. Why do you ask?”
“Because, in that case… why does he drink so much?”
“Who knows?!” said her husband. “A vice? A habit? A quirk of his nature? Because of all the disappointments he’s had? Impossible to say.”
“But I know lots of doctors who don’t drink.”
“Surely you don’t think everyone who’s called Doctor is intelligent, Engrácia.”
“Well, it’s what I used to think.”
Clara was taken aback at the idea that her mother could have been wrong. She herself shared the common, blinkered opinion that anyone called Doctor was automatically wise and intelligent.
At this point, Joaquim said he was tired, and went to bed. Shortly afterwards his wife and daughter did the same.
Before long there was complete silence both inside and outside the house. Clara had given up waiting, at the half-open window, for her seducer to reappear. She’d grown weary of doing so, night after night, and any way, after the news from Praxedes, she’d completely given up hope. He’d run away, leaving her with a child stirring in her womb – a child that would bring shame on her and torture on her parents. And, in no time, her thoughts turned to the “remedy” that would get rid of it before they realised. She felt both afraid and remorseful: afraid of dying and guilty for bringing about the cold-blooded murder of an innocent baby. But… it had to be done.
Then she started thinking about what Dona Margarida might say to her. She tried to weigh up the pros and the cons; she thought long and hard about what sort of person her Russo-German friend was; and, in the calm of her bedroom, she realised her friend would neither give her an illegal “remedy” nor tell her where to get one. Margarida was a serious, steadfast woman who was nothing if not honest and brave, and she wouldn’t agree to do anything criminal, no matter how Clara might beg and weep.
So, what to do? In her mind she went through her acquaintances to see if one of them might help her… But she couldn’t think of even one and, in any case, there were so few of them… If she had the money and could get the help of Madame Bacamarte…
Then she had an idea.
She was helping Dona Margarida with her embroidery and sewing, which was earning Clara a little money. Her friend didn’t owe her anything, but there’d be no harm in asking, under some pretext, if she could borrow, say, twenty or thirty thousand réis, which she’d pay back with her work. But what could the pretext be?.. She thought hard, she considered various lies and, finally, she hit on it. She’d say it was to buy a present for her mother’s birthday, which was coming up soon. She smiled at the thought of how clever this was. Salvation!
Except that she’d underestimated the Russo-German lady’s sagacity… Dona Margarida was a tall, stout lady, with a large, imposing face, blue eyes and blond hair with a touch of auburn. Her whole life had been characterised by heroism and goodness. Although she’d been born in another clime and among a different sort of people, her innate humanitarian mysticism – which she’d inherited from her maternal grandparents, who’d suffered cruelly under the Tsar’s police – made her identify deeply with the strange sort of people she eventually found herself living amongst in Brazil. She’d learnt the language, acquainted herself with the country’s vices and idiocies, adopted its habits, appreciated its cuisine, and all of this without losing any of the tenacity, strength of character and sheer courage she’d brought with her. And, although she was very fond of the postman’s family, she thought – although she kept it to herself – that they were too passive, almost fatalistic, and poorly prepared for the struggle against the perfidy of this world.
She was amazed when Clara enquired about a loan or an advance. The “postie’s daughter” (as she was wont to refer to her) had never asked for anything of the sort before; what on earth could it mean?! So she didn’t immediately reply, but looked firmly at Clara – the sort of look that suggested she could read her like a book – and asked, in her turn:
“Why do you want the money, Clarinha?”
Unable to stand her friend’s gaze, Clara lowered her eyes and, sotto voce, explained the putative purpose of the money. Dona Margarida didn’t believe her and continued looking inquisitively. Finally, with a firm but maternal voice, she said:
“You are not telling the truth, Clara. You are hiding something.”
The girl was about to deny this when Dona Margarida, who’d already realised she was concealing something important, began firing questions. In the end, Clara could do nothing but tell the truth.
During the whole of her confession – more dragged out of her than spontaneous –, Dona Margarida, who didn’t allow herself to be side-tracked by the girl’s tears, was racking her brains what to do. And, all the while she felt overwhelming pity for that disgraced girl and for her parents, a pity that only deepened with the premonition of poor Clara’s horrible fate. But, even so, she gave no indication of what was going through her mind.
All of a sudden, without giving any explanation, she stood up, went over to Clara and said, in a voice that brooked no argument:
“We are going to speak to your mother.”
The postman’s daughter meekly obeyed.
When they arrived at the house, Dona Engrácia was inside, going about her business with no idea of what awaited her. Dona Margarida called her to one side and began to tell her what had happened to her daughter. And, as soon as she realised the gravity of what she was being told, Dona Engrácia crumpled into a heap of woe, alternately wailing and sighing, and blurting out between floods of tears:
“But, Clara!.. Clara, my daughter!.. My God, my God!..
Weeping too, her daughter came up to her, knelt down at her feet, joined her hands as if in prayer and, between sobs, kept saying, over and over again:
“Please forgive me, Mummy! Forgive me! For the love of God!”
Meanwhile Dona Margarida stood there, saying nothing, but watching, with the deepest sorrow, that devastating picture of a poor, honest household brought into disgrace. But her calm, firm eyes still gave nothing away.
Finally, when she thought both seemed calmer, she said:
“Clara, do you know where that wretch’s family live?”
Still sobbing, Clara replied:
“But why?” asked Dona Engrácia.
Dona Margarida explained that, before anything else, and even before telling Seu Joaquim, it would be best to sort things out with Cassi’s family. And she suggested that Clara should go there with her immediately, to which both mother and daughter agreed. So Clara went to get dressed.
Cassi’s parents house was in what was thought of as an elegant suburb. (There are, indeed, these sorts of distinctions in the suburbs. Some are considered elegant and certain parts of particular suburbs may be as well, although often for no particular reason. For example, Méier’s not considered elegant, but Boca do Mato is, or was; Cascadura doesn’t enjoy a particularly elevated reputation either for nobility or anything else, whilst Jacarepaguá, right beside it, is held in the highest esteem.)
The home of the famous guitarist’s family wasn’t in the roads running next to the Central Line station but in one of the cobblestoned side streets – well looked-after and clean. (Which is another characteristic of the suburbs: you can come across a swish street of town houses right next to a road that’s almost buried in thick scrub. And when you ask the local historians why that particular public thoroughfare warranted such special care and attention they’ll explain it was because, years ago, Deputy So-and-So, Minister Such-and-Such or Superintendent What’s-His-Name lived there.)
Senhor Azevedo’s house was rather grand but, if you looked at it more closely, you’d notice that the most imposing part of it – the upper part, with ironwork balconies and ornamental urns on the parapets – was new. In fact, when Cassi’s father bought the house it was a simple and modest cottage but, with the passage of time, and as he slowly but surely became more prosperous, he was able, also slowly but just as surely, to expand it, so that it eventually had a well-off, bourgeois, look. The front wasn’t high but the ground sloped rapidly down towards the back, so that there was a fair-sized cellar in that part, which is where Cassi had baeen living until recently. There was also a cellar in the annexe at the rear of the house, but the rooms there didn’t amount to much; they were where Cassi had kept his chickens and where the family stored old things, or things without value they didn’t have the heart to get rid of.
Dona Margarida gave the bell a decisive ring and climbed up the little staircase that led into the house. She told the maid she wanted to speak to the lady of the house.
A visit such as this, and the message that came with it, was the last thing Dona Salustiana was expecting, so she happily told the maid to show them in. Both the visitors were well-dressed and there was nothing about them – other than Clara’s red eyes, which Dona Salustiana didn’t notice – that suggested why they’d come.
So the lady of the house duly welcomed them, rather grandly, at the door to the living room. And, without hesitation, Dona Margarida explained what it was about. After hearing what she had to say, Cassi’s mother thought for a moment before saying, with a touch of sarcasm in her voice:
“And what do you want me to do about it, exactly?”
Until that point, Clara hadn’t said a word, but she noticed that, even after Dona Salustiana had found out she was yet another victim of her libidinous son, she hardly looked at her and, when she did, it was with evident disdain. It made her furious to have to pass through this humiliation after everything she’d already suffered and in view of everthing she’d still have to suffer.
So when she heard Dona Salustiana’s question she couldn’t contain herself and almost screamed:
“I want him to marry me!”
This enraged Dona Salustiana in her turn and she bestowed a lingering look of indignation and bile upon the mulatto girl. In the end she almost spat out:
“What did you say, blackie?”
Before Clara could react to the insult, Dona Margarida immediately raised her voice and said, firm and unbowed:
“Clara is right and her request is fully justified. And allow me to point out we are here to ask for justice and not to listen to insults.”
Dona Salustiana turned to Dona Margarida and asked, placing an exaggerated emphasis on each syllable:
“And who are you, senhora, to presume you have the right to raise your voice in my house?”
But Dona Margarida wasn’t intimidated:
“I am who I am, senhora – a person who, when she stands up for what is right, is not afraid of anything.”
Confronted with Dona Margarida’s sangfroid, Dona Salustiana decided to change her tactics and shouted:
“Catarina! Irene! Come here! This woman’s insulting me!”
Her daughters duly hurried to the living room and, when they saw the resolute air of the Russo-German lady and the pitiful figure of Clara, they immediately realised that it had to do with Cassi. After they’d calmed their mother down and had asked what it was all about, Dona Margarida set about explaining but, as soon as she mentioned marriage with Cassi, Dona Salustiana interrupted her:
“Do you hear that?! Can you believe it?! My son marrying that…”
And now it was the daughters’ turn to interrupt:
“Calm down, Mummy!”
“…with someone of that ilk!.. Never!.. My grandfather, Lord Jones, who was the English consul in Santa Catarina, would turn in his grave if he heard such a improper suggestion!.. Never!”
She stopped speaking, only to start again almost immediately:
“They make me laugh, these people! Complaining they’ve been abused… Always the same old song… Does my son tie them up and gag them, by any chance?! Does he threaten them with a knife or a gun?! Of course not! It’s their own fault! Entirely their own fault!..”
Dona Margarida was just about to ask, “What are you going to do, then?” when steps were heard on the staircase. It was the head of the household.
When he entered and was met by that scene, Azevedo came to a halt in the middle of the room. He looked all around and asked:
“Daddy,” one of his daughters started saying; but, now that she knew who he was, Clara ran over to him, fell to her knees before him and begged:
“Have pity on me, Seu Azevedo! Have pity on a wretched girl! Your son has brought shame on me!”
Old Azevedo put down some packages he was carrying, helped the girl to her feet and made her sit down. Then he sat down too and looked – full of pity – at the girl’s anguished face. Everyone was staring at him in silence.
Finally he said:
“My dear girl, I can’t do anything for you. I’ve no longer got any sort of authority over that wretch… I’ve cursed him already… What’s more, he’s cleared off and I’m not surprised to hear it’s because of yet another shameful deed… You were kneeling in front of me just now, my dear, but it is I who should be kneeling in front of you and begging forgiveness for having given life to that scoundrel… that scoundrel, my son… As his father, I do not forgive him, but I beg God to forgive me for the crime of being the father of such a horrible man… My dear, have pity on me, on this poor old man, on this embittered father who, for ten years, has been suffering on account of the shame his son has brought to so many households… But I can’t do anything… Forgive me, my dear! Care for your child and come and see me if…”
Before he could finish, his voice failed him, his body sank back in the chair and his eyes glazed over.
His daughters ran to him, as did his wife. One of the daughters, in tears, turned to Clara and Dona Margarida and said:
“Please leave us, senhoras.”
Out on the street again, Clara thought about everything that had happened – the pitiful scene they’d been part of and the way she’d been treated by that woman. And now she realised exactly what her position in society was. It had been necessary for her, a single girl, to be mortally offended by the mother of the man who’d been her nemesis in order to see she wasn’t a girl like other girls; she was much lower in everyone’s eyes. How clearly her poor godfather had foreseen this!..
Her upbringing – a mixture of over-indulgence and over-protection – had been wrong. Her parents should have made it abundantly clear to her that her virtue, as a girl and as a woman, would be threatened on all sides…
When they climbed on to the tram, which was full, she looked around at all those men and women… There probably wasn’t a single one, of either sex, who wasn’t indifferent to her disgrace… (What do you expect? Some little mulatto girl, a postman’s daughter!) What was needed, not only for her but for all the girls like her, was to educate their character, to strengthen their will and to nurture the fortitude of a Dona Margarida, so as to defend themselves against the likes of Cassi and to fight against anyone who might oppose, in any way, their social and moral elevation. After all, the only thing that made her inferior to other girls was endemic prejudice and the cowardice that allowed it.
When they got back home, Joaquim hadn’t yet arrived, so it was just to Engrácia – accompanied by the tears and sobbing of both her and her daughter – that Margarida reported the failure of their visit.
Suddenly Clara got up from her chair and ran and embraced her mother, saying as she did so, in a voice of deep despair:
“What is it, my daughter?”
“In this life, we’re nothing.”
December 1921 – January 1922
Todos os Santos, Rio de Janeiro