The Prettiest Girl in Rio, by Artur Azevedo

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

I

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

Coffee-coloured – but that sort of fluid coffee colour that only Murillo could find on his wonderful palette – with dark, twinkling eyes, dilated nostrils, big but elegantly contoured lips that opened, once in a while, to reveal the most beautiful teeth, with abundant, slightly wavy hair as dark as her eyes, always arranged in an untidy, but aesthetically pleasing way so as to give a glimpse of her little ears, which were so faultlessly designed that it would have been a crime to cover them, and with all these aspects completing each other in the oval harmony of her face, there could be no doubt that Fadinha would win first prize by the unanimous decision of the most rigorous jury if it had only occurred to someone, in those days, to run a beauty contest in Rio de Janeiro. The rest of her body was a fitting complement to her head: slim, without being tall, robust without being fat, and her figure represented an extraordinary correctness of line. Her hands and feet were exemplary.

Perhaps you’ll think I’m exaggerating when I say that, in addition to these physical gifts, her character was outstanding; but the truth is, she was good, affectionate, submissive and understanding. She had a touch of vanity, I admit, but which other woman wouldn’t, were she so pretty?

However, there were two things she regretted: having been born on the second of May and thus being called Mafalda, when she could have been born on the tenth of July and been called Amélia – and not having been born rich, very rich, so as to enhance her beauty even more. Nevertheless, she cheerfully resigned herself to the precarious situation of being the daughter of a very poor public servant. Yes, that’s how it was, because her father, Raposo, had reached the age of fifty as a simple clerk at the secretariat and found himself obliged to supplement his wages by doing the books in a bakery or a shop or a pawn brokers. And his sedentary life caused him to become enormously fat. Dr Souto, the family doctor, used to say ‘Raposo is an apoplexy waiting to happen.’

Fadinha wasn’t the only child: she had an older brother who’d got a place in business, and another who was still very young and was studying to be a doctor, because his father considered him ‘the talented one.’

Their mother was forty-five years old and didn’t look anything like her daughter. I don’t know what physiological phenomenon caused this splendid specimen, this sculptural creature, this impossible beauty, to issue forth from such an ugly couple (because Raposo, poor fellow, was another one who’d not been blessed by nature)! Note also that the two boys were equally ugly, particularly the future doctor, who was big nosed, big-eared, rickety, anaemic, insignificant.

Not content with dedicating part of her existence to the saints of her private oratory, Sra. Firmina – the name of Fadinha’s mother – would constantly be visiting churches to adore yet more saints; but, despite all that piety, she could not forgive her daughter for being beautiful and was deeply bitter about the singular monopoly the girl had received from nature, as if it were something scandalous; nevertheless, all her hopes for good luck and better times resided in her daughter. Given that a prince didn’t come into the equation, her dream was to be the mother-in-law of a rich man. If Raposo hadn’t been a proper head of family, this woman would have dominated him, usurping all domestic authority; fortunately he put his foot down and wouldn’t agree to anything he didn’t like.

But our Fadinha has a boyfriend. It’s time to introduce him to the reader.

II

B

eautiful as she was, she had no shortage of admirers, of all ages and categories. Many decamped to Engenho Novo from the city centre just for the pleasure of contemplating her, many of them out of simple curiosity, many others spurred on by the vague hope of a promise hidden in a smile or a glance. It could be said that, for a long time, Fadinha’s famous beauty contributed to the increase in the profitability of the suburban trains and to the hustle and bustle of the district, which had a much smaller population in those days. Many of those admirers got as far as speaking, declaring their intentions to be of the purest, and among them were some who really were worthy of marrying Fadinha; she, however, rebuffed them all, with the greatest delicacy and composure.

One day, Raposo invited Remígio to come to his house for dinner. Remígio was his colleague, a good lad, employed in the same section in which Raposo carried out his official functions. This Remígio was one of the stars of the secretariat, a paragon of dedication, intelligence and assiduity, an official with ‘a very promising future,’ as everyone said; but he was neither good-looking nor elegant, nor was there anything else exceptional about his exterior. But, of all those who passed in front of Fadinha’s beautiful eyes, this was the only man who merited her attention. Accredited, wealthy traders, well-placed functionaries, lawyers, doctors, officials of the Army and Navy etc. – all of them had to give way, in Fadinha’s heart, to this pallid, clumsy, badly dressed amanuensis who earned just 166.666 reais a month.

The young lady seemed anxious to let her heart speak; she immediately gave Remígio to understand that it would be he – among her numerous admirers – who would be victorious. The clerk, who was modest by nature, and had never even dreamt that he’d marry the prettiest girl in Rio de Janeiro, was amazed by this preference that he’d never sought, and duly fell head over heels in love with Fadinha.

No sooner had the first symptoms of that love appeared than there was a commotion in the home. Sra. Firmina had seen the danger approaching and, after breakfast one day, when her husband was getting ready to leave the house and drag his obesity to the train station, she told him of her fears; but Raposo, who had a fatherly affection for Remígio, and didn’t look at all askance at the prospect of his marrying Fadinha, merely smiled and said:

‘It’s only natural they should be attracted to each other and get married.’

‘You mean that seriously?’

‘What a question! Of course I do! Who could possibly say Remígio isn’t worthy of our little girl!’

‘He’s a clerk!’

‘And what am I?.. And what was I when we went to the church?.. Fadinha will marry whoever she likes; if she prefers a clerk to a government minister, so be it! She doesn’t want to be rich, which is a good thing, because money doesn’t bring happiness. And anyway, Remígio isn’t some poor devil lugging all his possessions around in a carpetbag; his father left him a bit; he’s got two or three little houses, some insurance policies and, most importantly, lots of common sense. He’s so highly thought of in the secretariat I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s not head of section in five years’ time. Even if you go looking with Diogenes’s lamp, you won’t find a better son-in-law.’

‘Don’t talk nonsense! Our daughter is very pretty and…’

‘Off you go again about how pretty our daughter is! That means nothing, absolutely nothing! She’s very pretty, that she is, but she hasn’t got two cents to rub together, and if she was forced to marry some rich fellow the marriage would look more like a business deal than anything else. Anyway, it would be embarrassing for us: we could hardly be poorer. Damn it! I don’t want to speculate with my daughter’s beauty, and I don’t want to make her unhappy by opposing her wishes. I might have expected you, being so religious, to agree with me…’

‘But we could make Fadinha see that…’

‘That’s enough! It’s clear we’re not going to see eye-to-eye about this. In my opinion, Remígio is an excellent fellow, and I don’t see any reason why our little girl should want someone else!’

‘But…’

‘No buts! We’ll let her decide, because – and I want you to mark my words – Fadinha won’t marry who you or me want her to marry; she’ll marry the man she chooses of her own free will, whether he’s a clerk, a tradesman, the Tsar of Russia or the Shah of Persia!..’

‘I…’

‘Not one word more, Firmina! You know very well this house isn’t Gonçalo’s! Under this roof, no voice will be louder than mine!’

‘But you’re talking twaddle!’

‘Twaddle?!.. Twaddle?!.. How dare you say that to me?!..’

‘Yes, I do… Twaddle! I’m sick and tired of playing second fiddle in this house.’

‘In that case, why don’t you put on my trousers and I’ll put on your skirt! Don’t be ridiculous! I’m going to tell Remígio today that our little girl is his!..’

‘But I’m telling you she can’t be! I want good fortune for my daughter!’

‘Don’t lie!.. What you want is good fortune for yourself, not for her! Don’t force me to say what I think, because if I do I’ll create such a scene as you never ever saw!’

And Raposo forced himself, with difficulty, to whisper, so as not be heard by others in the house:

‘You never thought as much of her as you should have; you never loved her, never gave her a real mother’s love!.. And now you want to sell her… That’s good!.. I’m going to tell Remígio this very day!..’

‘This is scandalous! I know I’m her mother. Can you be sure you’re her father?..’

‘Eh?!.. What do you mean?..’

Raposo squared up to Sra. Firmina, but the blood rushed up to his head, his eyes and his mouth opened unnaturally wide, he waved his arms about and fell as if hit by lightning.

By the time Dr Souto arrived, having been summoned urgently, he was already dead.

‘Didn’t I say he was an apoplexy waiting to happen!’

III

R

emígio showed himself to be a real gentleman: he asked Sra. Firmina to let him take care of the funeral, and neither she nor the children have ever found out, right up until today, how much it all cost.

This great kindness, together with the bitter tears the young man shed over his old colleague’s corpse, enhanced Fadinha’s feelings for him even more; now it wasn’t just affection, it was also gratitude that drew those two hearts together. After Raposo’s death, they both felt like orphans, and this equivalence in their situations cemented still further the mutual sympathy that had taken hold of them.

Sra. Firmina didn’t have a word of thanks for such kindness, but Remígio attributed this omission to the extremity of the widow’s grief, which she demonstrated through unending tears and groans. When the funeral took place, it needed three men to pull her away from the coffin and, seven days later, when the mass was over, she had such a violent attack of nerves in the sacristy of the church of São Francisco de Paulo that it seemed her last hour had arrived.

Nor did the boys, neither the student, nor the one employed in business, thank Remígio for arranging the funeral and the mass; it was as if everyone in the house considered it his duty.

Or rather, not everyone: Fadinha praised his generosity at every turn, but her words, to which no one replied, were heard with indifference by her mother and brothers.

The older one, Alexandre, a lad of twenty-two, who worked for Baron Moreira’s firm, felt flattered beyond words by the fact that his boss had deigned to attend the funeral personally. He could scarcely believe his eyes when, in an aisle of the church, he came across the Baron standing there, holding his hat behind his back with one hand, with his head raised, examining closely a portrait by Fragoso of one of the benefactors of the religious order. At first, the counter clerk assumed the Baron had come to attend some other mass but, despite his sadness, he felt as pleased as Punch when, once the ceremony had begun, the nobleman took his place among those who had come to pay their last respects to the deceased Raposo.

When the mass was over and the priest, accompanied by his acolyte, had returned to the sacristy, genuflecting at every altar along the way, the Baron was the first to embrace Alexandre, who was standing near his mother.

‘Courage! We all have to pass through these trials… That’s how it goes…’

‘Thank you, Baron.’

‘I don’t know your family – would you introduce me to the ladies?’

It wasn’t possible to introduce the widow, because she was shedding an ocean of tears and didn’t have time for anything except her spectacular grief; but the Baron, stupefied by Fadinha’s beauty, gave her a long handshake.

‘Young lady,’ he said, ‘your brother is an employee of my firm, and I greatly appreciate those who serve me well. Please tell your mother that Baron Moreira is at her disposal for anything at all she may wish to request.’

‘Thank you very much, Baron Sir.’

This offer surprised Alexandre, who wasn’t used to his boss being friendly – although the Baron was still young, he was humourless, severe, cold, proud of his education, his elegance, his title and his wealth; in his subordinate humility, Alexandre imagined the Baron wouldn’t even say ‘Hello’ to him, were they to meet in the street; so he was duly amazed that this rich egoist should have come all the way from Botafogo to attend mass for an obscure clerk and should show so much interest in the family. This phenomenon will be explained, for the benefit of the reader, a little later.

When all those invited had left and the Raposo family remained alone in the sacristy, the two boys took their leave of their mother and sister: the older went off to his workplace, which is where he also had lunch, and the younger to the medical school: the exams were coming up and he couldn’t afford to miss lectures; he took lunch at Rocher de Cancalle, just off Ouvidor Street.

Remígio offered to accompany the ladies to Engenho Novo, but the widow who, in the absence of spectators, no longer looked so grief-stricken, gave him an ornate refusal: ‘No, sir; I don’t want to put you to that trouble; you need to go to your workplace too.’

Fadinha interrupted:

‘One day won’t make any difference. Come and have lunch with us, Remígio.’

‘I’ve already said “No”!’

The clerk bowed and accompanied the two ladies to their tilbury: he helped them enter and closed the door.

‘Come and visit us,’ said Fadinha sadly, and she waved him a delicate little ‘Adeus.’

For her part, Sra. Firmina didn’t utter a word; but when the tilbury had drawn away, in the direction of Teatro Street, she pronounced the following, with an indescribable look of anger in her eyes:

‘What you’re going to do now is forget all about that fellow! You don’t have your soft-brained father with you anymore! I’m the one who gives the orders now, do you understand?..’

IV

A

nd now for the explanation of the phenomenon:

Baron Moreira had come to the office earlier than usual and was enjoying a conversation with his friend Pimenta, who occasionally came to have a chat with him and to remember the good old days when they’d both been students at Vitório College.

Pimenta had also gone into business, but he hadn’t been as fortunate as his old colleague. Over the years, he’d worked for a large number of firms, but in none of them had he found the fortune his prodigious activity merited. Already over thirty, he still didn’t have a definitive position in business, but he’d always managed to do a bit of goods brokerage, and the resulting sales, through an intermediary, brought him a profitable return.

Fifteen years of employment in a haberdashery store in Ouvidor Street, which he’d left with his hopes and dreams unfulfilled, infuriated with his bosses, and none the richer, had at least bestowed on him unrivalled knowledge in two areas: that particular branch of business, and comings and goings in Rio de Janeiro. There was no event, scandalous or not, that Pimenta hadn’t stored away in his memory, and that he couldn’t avail himself of at an opportune moment.

He was a backbiter and, without that defect, he’d perhaps have been rich and free like Baron de Moreira, with no need to hawk samples, bills and gossip from door to door, up and down, sweating blood. Some people said: ‘Pimenta’s not a bad sort, if it wasn’t for his tongue’; others: ‘For all his being busy and clever, nothing seems to go right for him.’ But, as he was still single and didn’t have any family obligations, he put up with his ill-fortune cheerfully and contented himself with earning enough to live on without being a burden to his friends.

As I’ve already mentioned, on that day he’d appeared in Baron Moreira’s office for a bit of a chin-wag with his childhood friend and, if he was lucky, a free lunch.

They were both chatting when Alexandre entered the office to inform the Baron that he’d just received the news of his father’s sudden death and to ask for a few days of compassionate leave.

The Baron, who maintained an autocratic hauteur towards his firm’s employees, said, without lifting his eyes:

‘That’s a matter for Sr. Motta; have you spoken to him?’

‘Sr. Motta’s not in.’

‘Alright, you may go.’

And Alexandre left, without hearing a single word of condolence.

‘Do you know that employee?’ Pimenta asked the Baron.

‘No; it was my partner, Motto, who took him on; I think that’s the first time I’ve spoken to him; as you well know, I don’t generally pay much attention to the clerks.’

‘That’s why I asked if you know him.’

There was a pause.

‘In that case, you won’t have known his father, Raposo, who’s just died suddenly?’

‘No, I didn’t know him.’

‘And you don’t know that his sister’s the prettiest girl in Rio de Janeiro?’

‘No!’

‘How strange! You’ve never heard of Fadinha from Engenho Novo?’

‘I think, perhaps…’

‘Well, that’s her!’

‘And is she really pretty?’

‘What a question! She’s beautiful! She’s more than beautiful!.. Take my word for it!’

‘You’re whetting my appetite, damn it! How can I get to see her?’

‘Simple! Go to the mass of the seventh day. Because her brother works in your firm, you can use that as a pretext for offering your services to the family, right there in the church, and you’ll be able to get a close look at her.’

‘Good point. That’s the only way I could go to the mass for the father of Sr… what’s the boy’s name?’

‘Alexandre.’

And that’s how it came about that Baron Moreira appeared at the mass: simple sacrilegious curiosity.

When the aristocrat returned from the church, he found Pimenta waiting for him in the office.

‘Well?’

‘She isn’t the prettiest girl in Rio de Janeiro, my friend, she’s the most beautiful woman in the world!..’

V

I

f Alexandre had been amazed to see Baron Moreira appear at the church, he was even more amazed when, from that day forward, his boss began treating him kindly and affably, which didn’t take long to turn into familiarity. He summoned him to help in all the office work, entrusted important tasks to him, let him handle large sums of money or take them to the bank and, one day when the young man was making the fair copy of a letter – a confidential letter, a very important letter –, his boss offered him one of his magnificent Havana cigars, with the words: ‘Have a puff, Alexandre.’

Motto, the Baron’s partner and his antithesis, being good company, affable, friendly towards the staff, was nonplussed and had no idea what could have caused this favouritism; but the book-keeper and the other clerks, who’d become jealous and had perhaps picked up a thing or two from Pimenta’s caustic remarks, murmured: ‘There’s nothing like having a pretty sister…’

The Baron was constantly asking for news of the family and showed great solicitousness for the widow, repeating, almost daily, his offer of help and friendship, in order to prevent, remove or resolve any difficulties resulting from old Raposo’s sudden demise. The lad couldn’t thank him enough and, when he got home, he’d tell his mother all the marks of kindness he’d received from his boss that day.

Perspicacious and crafty, Sra. Firmina soon realised it was the effect of Fadinha’s beauty that was causing the Baron to find every means he could of inveigling himself into the family; so one day she advised her son to invite him home and tell him that she, Sra. Firmina, was very grateful for all the Baron’s kindness and would be very happy if she could thank him personally.

She couldn’t have been more pleased with the result of Alexandre’s missive: the Baron wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity which, as we’ve seen, he’d been fishing for during the past two months. One fine Sunday he decided to go for lunch to Engenho Novo. To give extra solemnity to the visit, Sra. Firmina went to wait for him at the station, accompanied by her two sons, because Fadinha, knowing that the Baron was coming, had shut herself in her room on the pretext of a terrible migraine, and neither pleading nor chiding, neither kindness nor threats, could make her come out.

The girl was desperate: she hadn’t seen her dear Remígio for more than a month. Firmina and the boys were so rude to him that, understanding their wish to be rid of him, and seeing the impossibility of standing firm against that pack of ingrates, he did as they wanted, without, however, abandoning his marriage plans, because Fadinha was still the same and he considered her worthy, in all respects, of his affection and constancy.

‘They can do what they like, I’ll be yours, just yours – I promise you on the soul of my father! The more they constrain me, the more they offend you, the stronger, were it possible, will my love for you burn. I’m your betrothed!’

Uplifted by these ardent words, in which Fadinha had put all the energy of her soul, all the sincerity of her heart, Remígio waited resignedly for an opportunity to secure the rights that his love merited; but – it has to be said – his vacillating and timorous spirit didn’t have enough strength for the battle being fought against him. He really was in love, but he began silently to curse the singular beauty that turned Fadinha into an object to be coveted, a pledge of good fortune, a type of life assurance for a whole family. Notwithstanding the venerable Raposo’s last wish, his ultimate and sacred desire, Remígio was afraid that his insistence would bring disunity and disgrace to the family. Meanwhile, whenever she managed to escape her mother’s vigilance and write to him, Fadinha repeated over and over again her vehement promises of fidelity.

But let’s return to Baron Moreira who, at Engenho Novo station, in his light flannel suit, his white straw hat, his multi-coloured cravat, his bejewelled tie-pin and an enormous rose in his lapel, contrasted markedly with that matron and her two boys, who were dressed in the most severe mourning, so that even their cuffs and collars were black.

VI

W

hen he entered the Baron’s office the next day, Pimenta found him in a bad mood.

‘Well? Did you go?’

‘I did. I went to Rome and didn’t see the Pope.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Engenho Novo is Rome and Fadinha is the Pope; do you understand now?’

‘You didn’t see her?’

‘As I’ve already said. She was unwell; she didn’t make an appearance.’

‘Really?’

‘How stupid is that? To have lunch with Sra. Firmina and her sons, and not even catch sight of her! “Have lunch” in a manner of speaking, because I didn’t eat anything. I was desperate!’

‘And what did the old woman say?’

‘She was even more annoyed than I was. I could see it in her eyes. She kept apologising for her daughter’s absence and telling me – but completely without conviction – that she really was unwell.’

‘You don’t think she was.’

‘Of course I don’t think so.’

‘You’ve got a rival.’

‘I thought as much.’

‘A serious rival. They told me everything this morning.’

And Pimenta told the Baron what the reader already knows: about the love of Remígio and Fadinha, old Raposo’s last wish, the kindness shown to the family, the opposition of Sra. Firmina and her sons, Remígio’s retreat – and he added:

‘The girl suspected they wanted to force her to marry you, and she shut herself in her room. So that’s how you went to Rome and didn’t see the Pope.’

‘What’s your advice?’

‘Before I can answer that question, I need to know, first of all, what your intentions are.’

There was a long silence.

‘Do you like her?’

‘A lot. I liked her already and, after that wretched lunch, I liked her even more!’

‘Are you prepared to be her husband?’

There was another silence, even longer than the first.

‘If you don’t want to make her a baroness,’ Pimenta continued, ‘forget about her. Devil take it! She might well be happy with that Remígio, seeing he’s an honest fellow.’

‘But who told you my intentions weren’t good?’

‘You didn’t say anything…’

‘I didn’t say anything because marriage scares me. My liberty is so deliciously complete! Yes, I admit that marriage has never figured in my plans, but were it necessary…’

‘What do you mean, “were it necessary”? You haven’t been thinking that Fadinha could belong to you without the intervention of a priest?! The family is poor, but it’s just as respectable as yours! If you want to be her husband, fight for her and – perhaps – you’ll win her; if not, abandon an idea that’s unworthy of you!’

The Baron had a good, long look at the Havana cigar he was holding between his fingers, let the ashes fall into a spittoon, stuck the cigar in his mouth, stood up and announced resolutely, amid a cloud of cigar smoke:

‘I shall fight!’

When Pimenta left the office, he met Alexandre in the store and muttered to him in passing:

‘He’s going to marry her.’