With Muffled Drum, by Machado de Assis

(My translation of the short story Marcha Fúnebre)


ne night in August 1866, Senator Cordovil was having difficulty sleeping. He’d come away early from the Fluminense Casino, soon after the Emperor had left, and had felt perfectly well, both mentally and physically. Indeed it had been an excellent evening, especially as one of his enemies, who had a heart problem, had died at about ten o’clock, the news arriving at the Casino shortly after eleven.

You’ll be thinking, of course, that he was happy because the man had died… a sort of second-hand vengeance for cowards. But let me tell you you’re wrong: it wasn’t joy, it was relief. This death had been on the cards for a long time, one of those declines that seem never-ending, corroding, eating and crushing the poor person. Cordovil knew what his enemy had suffered. Thinking it would assuage old insults, some of his friends used to come and tell him what they’d found out about the invalid, who was confined to an armchair and enduring horrendous nights, after which the dawn brought no hope and the afternoon no calm. Cordovil responded with a few words of sympathy, which the messengers remembered and repeated, but which were more sincerely meant by him than by them. At last the suffering had ceased. Hence the feeling of relief.

A feeling that’s not so far from human pity. Except in politics, Cordovil did not enjoy the suffering of others. When he got up in the morning and prayed ‘Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…’ he was not imitating one of his friends who used to say the same words but without forgiving his debtors as the prayer would have it. No, that friend demanded more than they owed and if he heard a piece of slander he’d learn it by heart and pass it on with interest. Nevertheless, the next day Jesus’s beautiful prayer was being said once more by the same lips and with the same perfunctory charity.

Cordovil was not cast from the same mould as his friend: he really did forgive. Perhaps there was a touch of laziness in his forgiveness, but it wasn’t obvious. And laziness often eases the way for virtue: dulling the edge of evil is, after all, no mean thing. And let it not be forgotten that it was only in politics that the Senator enjoyed the misfortune of others. The deceased was a personal enemy. I don’t know what caused the enmity and—like his life—the man’s name has disappeared.

‘Poor man! He’s at rest,’ said Cordovil.

They were talking about the deceased’s long illness. They also talked about the various ways there are of dying in this world. Cordovil said he’d prefer Caesar’s, not for the dagger but for the unexpectedness and rapidity.

Tu quoque?’ asked a colleague, laughing.

Cordovil stuck to the theme:

‘If I had a son, I’d want to die at his hands. Because it’s rare, parricide would make the tragedy more tragic.’

All nice and cheerful! Cordovil had felt sleepy when he left the ball, and was nodding off in his carriage, despite the state of the roads. The carriage stopped near his house, in the Aterrado district, and he heard voices. It had to do with a dead body, which two policemen were removing.

‘Murdered?’ he asked the footman, who’d stepped down from his bench to find out what was going on.

‘I don’t know, Sir. I don’t know.’

‘Ask who it is.’

‘This lad knows what happened,’ said the footman, pointing out a stranger who was talking with the others.

The lad was at the carriage door before the Senator could refuse to speak to him, and he gave a brief account of the accident he’d witnessed.

‘I was walking along behind him. I think he was whistling a polka. When he was going to cross over the road towards Mangue, I saw him stop suddenly. His body sort of twisted and he passed out. A doctor arrived soon afterwards—he’d come out of a house. He examined the man and said he’d “died on the spot.” People started arriving and the police took ages. They’ve just picked him up. Do you want to see the body?’

‘No thank you. Can we get through now?’

‘You can.’

‘Thank you. Let’s go, Domingos.’

Domingos climbed back up beside the driver, the driver flicked his whip over the horses, and the carriage continued on its way to Sao Cristóvão Street , where Cordovil lived.

He spent the rest of the journey thinking about the death of the unknown man. In itself, it wasn’t bad. Compared to the death of his personal enemy it was excellent. Walking along whistling, thinking about God-knows-what past delights or future hopes. Reliving his life or anticipating what was to come when, all of a sudden, Death grabs his delights and hopes, and off he goes to his eternal home. He’d died without pain, or, if not, it had only been a moment, like lightning, which leaves the darkness darker.

Then Cordovil applied it to himself. What if it had happened to him in the Casino? He wouldn’t have been dancing. He was forty and no longer danced. In fact he’d more or less given up dancing after twenty. He wasn’t one for the girls. He’d only had one love in this life: married at twenty-five, he was a widower five weeks later and never married again. Not that he’d lacked would-be brides, especially after he lost his grandfather, who left him two farms. He sold them both and got on with living alone. He made two trips to Europe, and continued his political and social life. Recently he’d seemed fed up with both the one and the other, but—without anything else to fill his time—he kept them going. He even became a Minister once—in the Admiralty, I think—but it only lasted seven months. The job brought no glory and his removal from it no upset. He was not ambitious, being more attracted by quietude than bustle.

But what if he’d managed to die suddenly in the Casino, standing apart and watching a waltz or quadrille? That might have been great. He imagined the scene: him on the floor, face down or face up, the jollity stifled, the dance interrupted… Or perhaps not: just a ripple of shock and consternation, the men assuring the ladies that all was well, the orchestra continuing, hesitatingly, to follow the baton, not the confusion. There would be no shortage of arms to carry him to a private room. Already dead. Totally dead.

‘Just like Caesar,’ he told himself, only to change his mind immediately:

‘No, better than Caesar’s death. No threats, no weapons, no blood. Simply a fall and, simply, the end. Without feeling anything.’

Cordovil found himself laughing or smiling, a way of removing the scariness of it and leaving the sense of liberty. Yes, rather a death like that than after long days, long months, long years, like the enemy he lost a few hours ago. You couldn’t even call it dying: a sweep of one’s hat, dissolving in the air at the same time as the hand and soul which set it in motion. A snooze. The eternal sleep. He could find only one fault—the pomp and circumstance. A death like that, in the middle of a ball, in front of the Emperor, to the music of Strauss, talked about, illustrated, embellished in the newspapers… People would think it was staged. But, there again, as long as it was sudden.

He also thought about it happening the next day, in the Senate, at the beginning of the budget debate. He’d be well into his speech, full of algorithms and quotations. He tried to stop thinking about it—a waste of time—but he couldn’t. The Senate instead of the Casino. No ladies, or very few, in the galleries. Vast silence. After scanning the chamber and focussing on the Minister and the Chairman, Cordovil begins his speech: ‘I pray the Senate’s indulgence as it attends my words. I shall be brief. I shall try to be just…’ But here his eyes cloud over, his tongue is paralysed, his heart too, and he collapses. The chamber and the galleries are thunderstruck. Several Senators run to lift him. One—a doctor—confirms he’s dead. You couldn’t say it happened suddenly, like the doctor coming out of the house in Aterrado. This is more… technical. After some words from the Chairman and selection of a senatorial cortege, the proceedings are suspended…

It almost made him laugh, these post-mortem imaginings, the goings and comings, even the obituaries in the papers, which he imbibes instantaneously. He almost laughed, but would have preferred to doze. So near to home and bed, however, his wide-open eyes wouldn’t let him sleep so soon.

That’s when Death, which he’d imagined at the ball, before leaving, or the next day at a full session of the Senate, appears to him right there, in his carriage. When they open the carriage door, they see his corpse. Thus he passes from one – noisy – night to another night, quiet, no talking, no dancing, no meetings, and no struggle or resistance whatsoever.

A shiver made him realise it wasn’t true. In fact the carriage had passed through the gates and come to a halt. Domingos had jumped down from the bench to open the carriage door. Cordovil dismounted with legs and soul still quick, and entered through the side door, where his slave Florindo was waiting with a lighted candle. He climbed the stairs and his feet could feel they were real stairs. If they were other-world stairs, they would—of course—go down. When he entered his bedroom, he looked at the bed. The very same bed of his tranquil and generous sleep.

‘Has anyone called?’

‘No, Sir,’ the slave replied absent-mindedly, only to correct himself immediately: ‘Yes, Sir. Someone came. The doctor who took lunch with you last Sunday, Sir.’

‘Did he want something?’

‘He said he’d come to give you some good news, Sir, and he left a message, which I’ve placed here at the foot of the bed.’

The message referred to his enemy’s death. (The doctor was one of those friendly informants about how the illness was progressing.) He wanted to be the first—with a warm embrace—to let him know the happy outcome. ‘So, the scoundrel’s dead!’ The doctor didn’t say it quite that bluntly, but the words he used came to the same effect. And he added that his visit had not been just about that: he’d come to spend the night, only to discover that Cordovil had gone to the Casino. He’d been on the point of leaving when he remembered about the death and asked Florindo to give him pencil and paper. Cordovil understood what he meant, and once more felt the pain of that death. With a melancholy gesture he muttered:

‘Poor fellow! Long live sudden death!’

If he’d related the gesture and the words to the message, perhaps Florindo would have regretted providing pencil and paper. But he didn’t even think about it. He helped his master get ready for bed, received his final orders, and departed. Cordovil lay down.

He stretched his tired body. ‘Ah!’

And then he thought what if he were dead in the morning. This hypothesis—the best of all, being caught half-dead already—brought with it a thousand fantasies to keep Sleep from his eyes. This was partly a repetition: the announcement in the Senate, the words of the Chairman, representatives for the cortege etc. He hears condolences from his friends and his servants, he sees the obituaries, all of them flattering or, at least, true. He began to think he was already dreaming. He wasn’t. He called himself back to the room, to the bed, to himself. He was awake.

The lamp made things look more real. He beat off these funereal thoughts and waited for happy ones to arrive and dance about until they tired him out. To overcome one vision with another. He did something ingenious: he called on his five senses, each of which was a lively entrée to memory. And so he began reviving events and scenes from long ago. Gestures, society and family tableaux, panoramas—re-seeing things that now looked strange and remote. He helped himself to tit-bits he used to like, as if he were masticating them now. His ears heard footsteps, some light, some heavy; songs, some happy, some sad, and all sorts of words. Touch and smell, too. All five senses played their part, for… How long? He didn’t know.

He tried to sleep, shutting his eyes tight. He couldn’t, whether lying on his right, on his left, on his back or on his front. He got up and went over to his watch: three o’clock. He lifted it automatically to his ear to see if it had stopped. It hadn’t—he’d wound it. Yes, high time to be fast asleep. He lay down and covered his head to keep out the light.

Ah! That was the moment Sleep tried to come, quiet, mute, careful, like Death if she had wanted to carry him off suddenly to never never. Cordovil squeezed his eyes shut. A mistake, because the effort accentuated his desire to sleep. He stopped squeezing his eyes. Much better! Sleep, which had been slipping away, slipped back. Sleep lay down beside him and put her arms around him—arms simultaneously light and heavy, arms which stun. He could feel them, and wanted to welcome them with his. (Not a great simile but I don’t have another to hand, or the time to go and find one. Let me just tell you the result:) Sleep slipped away. The revivificator of the weary was not amused.

Were she to speak, she’d have asked ‘What’s he got against me tonight?!’

But, as you know, she’s essentially mute. When she seems to speak, it’s just a dream opening the person’s mouth. Sleep doesn’t speak; she’s like a stone… except that a stone speaks if you hit it, like the paviours now, in my street. Each blow sparks a sound from the stone, and the regularity of the blows makes that sound as punctual as the soul of a watch. Snatches of conversation or street cries, the trundle of wheels, footsteps, a window rattling in the wind. None of those sounds I hear now could Cordovil hear that night. Everything was propitious to sleep.

He was finally on the point, when the idea of being dead in the morning made a re-appearance. Sleep backed off and fled.

This alternation lasted for a long time. Whenever Sleep was about to seal his eyelids, the memory of Death opened them. In the end, he threw back the sheet and got up. He opened the window and leant on the sill. The sky was beginning to lighten. A few shapes were passing along the street: workers and tradesmen going down to the city. He shivered but, not knowing whether it was cold or fear, he went to put on a cotton jacket and returned to the window. It must have been the cold, because now he felt nothing.

People continued on their way. The sky got lighter still. A whistle from the station for a train about to leave. Men and things coming from their rest, the sky economising on its stars, turning them off as the sun arrived for its work. Everything gave the impression of life. Naturally, Death started to retreat and then completely disappeared, whilst our man, who’d been sighing for her in the Casino, who’d wanted her the next day in the Senate, who’d come face to face with her in his carriage, turned his back on her when he saw her entering with Sleep, her older sister (or younger, I don’t know).

When he eventually died, many years later, he’d started praying for—and had—a death which wasn’t sudden, a dawdling death, like a filtered wine which leaves one bottle impure and enters the other pure. The dregs are taken to the graveyard. Wisdom had arrived at last: there’s wine in both bottles until it passes completely, drop by drop, into the second. He never got to know what it meant, sudden death.