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The Relic

Author: Eça de Queiroz

Translator: Margaret Jull Costa  

My grandfather was Father Rufino da Conceição, graduate in Theology, author of a devout Life of St Filomena and prior at Amendoeirinha. My father, a protégé of Our Lady of the Assumption, was called Rufino da Assunção Raposo and he lived in Évora with my grandmother, Filomena Raposo, nicknamed 'the Dumpling', a confectioner who lived in Rua do Lagar dos Dízimos. Papa had a job in the post office and amused himself writing articles for O Farol do Alentejo, the local newspaper. In 1853, a famous cleric, Dom Gaspar de Lorena, bishop of Chorazin (which is in Galilee) came to Évora to celebrate the feast of St John. He stayed at Canon Pita's house, where Papa often used to go in the evenings and play his guitar. Out of courtesy to the two priests, Papa published a report in O Farol, laboriously gleaned from The Clergyman's Treasury, congratulating Évora on 'its great good fortune to be sheltering within its walls that eminent prelate, Dom Gaspar, shining light of the Church and a renowned pillar of sanctity'. The Bishop of Chorazin cut out this article from O Farol and placed it between the pages of his breviary. And he began to find everything about Papa pleasing, from his spotlessly clean linen to the melancholy grace with which he sang the 'Ballad of Count Ordonho', accompanying himself on the guitar. But when he found out that this same Rufino da Assunção Raposo, with his dark good looks and pleasant manner, was the godson of old Rufino da Conceição, who had studied with him at the São José seminary and had mixed in the same theological circles at university, his affection for Papa knew no bounds. Before leaving Évora, the bishop gave him a silver watch and it was through the bishop's influence that, after spending a few slothful months in the customs house in Oporto as an apprentice, Papa was named director of the customs house in Viana, an appointment that caused considerable scandal.
When Papa reached the soft, fertile plains of Entre Minho e Lima the apple trees were just coming into blossom and that same July he met a gentleman from Lisbon, Knight Commander G. Godinho, who was spending the summer with his two nieces in a riverside villa called Quinta do Mosteiro, the former home of the Counts of Lindoso. The elder of these two ladies, Dona Maria do Patrocínio, wore dark glasses at all times and every morning, accompanied by a liveried servant, she would ride down to the city on a donkey in order to hear mass at the church in Santana. The other lady, Dona Rosa, was a plump brunette, who played the harp, knew by heart the words of 'Love and Melancholy' and would spend hours by the water's edge, her white dress sweeping the grass, making nosegays of wild flowers beneath the shade of the alder trees.
Papa became a frequent visitor to Quinta do Mosteiro. An officer from the customs house would carry his guitar for him and, whilst the Knight Commander and another friend of the house, Dr Margaride, a politician, [?] sat absorbed in a game of backgammon and Dona Maria do Patrocínio was bent in prayer over her rosary, Papa would sit on the verandah by Dona Rosa's side, gazing at the moon, round and white above the river, and in the silence, he would gently pluck the strings of his guitar and sing of the sorrows of Count Ordonho. At other times he too would play backgammon and Dona Rosa, a flower in her hair, a book lying neglected in her lap, would sit at her sister's feet and Papa, shaking the dice, would feel the promising caress of her long-lashed eyes.
They got married. I was born one Good Friday evening but Mama died even as the rockets were exploding in the joyous Easter morn. She lies in the cemetery in Viana do Castelo, in a grave overgrown with gillyflowers, by a path near the wall, in the damp shade of the weeping willows, where she liked to walk on summer evenings, all dressed in white, with the shaggy little puppy she called Traviata.
The Knight Commander and Dona Maria never returned to Quinta do Mosteiro. I grew up, I caught measles. Papa got fatter and his guitar slept, forgotten, in a corner of the living room, inside its green baize case. One very hot July day, my maid Gervásia dressed me in my heavy black cotton suit and Papa put a black crepe band around his straw hat. We were in mourning for Knight Commander G. Godinho, whom Papa often used to refer to under his breath as 'that old rogue'.
Later, one night during Carnival, Papa died suddenly of a stroke, as he was coming down the stone steps of our house dressed up in a bear costume ready to go to a dance held by the Misses Macedo.
I was seven at the time and I remember seeing in our courtyard the next day a tall, stout lady, wearing an ornate mantilla of black lace, sobbing over the bloodstains left by Papa, which no one had washed away and which had dried on the stones. An old woman was waiting at the gate, hunched inside her woollen cape, praying.
The windows at the front of the house were shut. In the dark corridor, on a bench, stood a flickering candle in a brass holder, giving off the guttering, smoky light of a candle in a chapel. It was windy and rainy. Through the kitchen window, while Mariana snivelled and fanned the fire, I saw a man crossing the Largo da Senhora da Agonia bearing Papa's coffin on his shoulder. In the high, cold hills, the little chapel of Our Lady, with its black cross, looked sadder than ever, white and naked amongst the pines, almost lost in the mist, and beyond, amongst the rocks, a heavy winter sea endlessly rolled and moaned.
That night, in the room where she did the ironing, my maid Gervásia sat me on the floor swathed in a woollen petticoat. From time to time, outside in the corridor, I would hear the creaking boots of João, the customs officer, who was fumigating the house with lavender. The cook brought me a slice of sponge cake. I fell asleep and dreamed I was walking along the banks of a clear river, whose ancient poplars seemed possessed of souls that sighed, and with me walked a naked man with two wounds in his feet and two wounds in his hands, it was Jesus Christ Our Lord.
After some days had passed, I was woken up one morning by the sun shining full on my bedroom windows so that they glittered prodigiously, as if presaging some holy event. Beside my bed stood a plump, smiling figure, who was gently tickling my feet and calling me 'little rascal'. Gervásia told me the man's name was Senhor Matias and that he was going to take me a long way away to Aunt Patrocínio's house. And Senhor Matias, a pinch of snuff halfway between snuffbox and nose, looked shocked at the holey socks Gervásia put on my feet. They wrapped me in Papa's grey cloak. João, the customs officer, picked me up and carried me in his arms as far as the street door where a litter was waiting; it had curtains made out of oilcloth and was drawn by two mules.
We then set off down long roads. Even when I slept, I was aware of the slow ringing of the bells round the mules' necks and, every now and then, Senhor Matias, sitting opposite me, would stroke my face and say: 'There now.' One evening, as it was growing dark, we came to a sudden halt in a deserted place, where there was a bog. The muledriver was furious and swore loudly, brandishing a flaming torch. We were in the middle of a pinewood, black and doleful, that murmured all about us. Senhor Matias grew pale, took his watch out of his pocket and hid it in the top of one of his boots.
One night, we crossed a city, where streetlamps in the form of open tulips gave off a cheery light, strange and brilliant, unlike anything I had ever seen. At the inn where we stopped, the servant there, called Gonçalves, knew Senhor Matias and after bringing us our steaks, he stayed with us, leaning casually on the table, a napkin over his shoulder, retailing gossip about the Baron and the Baron's English ladyfriend. When we went up to our room, our way lit by Gonçalves, a tall, white-skinned woman pushed past us in the corridor, with a loud rustle of pale silk and wrapped in a cloud of musky perfume. It was the Englishwoman. Lying in the iron bedstead, kept awake by the noise of the coaches, I thought about her as I said my prayers. I had never before been in close contact with such a beautiful body, with such a potent perfume. She was full of grace, the Lord was with her and she passed, blessed amongst women, in a rustle of pale silk. The next day we left in a large carriage that bore the King's coat of arms and set off along a smooth road to the rhythmic trot, heavy and ponderous, of four sturdy horses. Now and then Senhor Matias, his slippers on his feet and taking a pinch of snuff, would tell me the name of some hamlet we passed, huddled around an old church in the cool of a valley. Sometimes, as evening fell, the windows of a some quiet house on a hillside would glitter with the brilliance of new gold. The coach would pass by, leaving the house asleep amongst the trees; I would see Venus shining through the steamed-up windows of our coach. In the depths of the night, a bugle would sound and we would ride into a sleeping town, thundering along its paved streets. At the door of the inn, dim lanterns would be swaying silently. Above, in a cosy room, the table would be set with knives and forks and steaming soup tureens; unkempt, yawning travellers would pull off their thick woollen gloves. In a daze, not even hungry, I would drink my chicken soup, beside Senhor Matias, who always knew at least one of the waiters, who would ask him how he was and how things in government were going.
At last, one drizzly Sunday morning, we reached a large house standing in a muddy square. Senhor Matias told me this was Lisbon and, wrapping me in my cloak once more, he sat me down on a bench, at the back of a damp room full of luggage and huge iron scales. A bell was slowly tolling for mass. A group of soldiers passed by the door, their guns beneath their oilskin capes. A man took charge of our trunks and we got into a carriage where I fell asleep on Senhor Matias' shoulder. When he set me down on the ground again, we were in a gloomy courtyard, strewn with gravel, with black-painted benches. On the steps sat a fat girl whispering to a man wearing a scarlet surplice, who was clutching a poor box in his arms.
The girl was Vicência, Aunt Patrocínio's maid. Senhor Matias chatted to her as he went up the steps, leading me tenderly by the hand. In a room lined with dark wallpaper, we met a very tall, thin lady, dressed in black, with a heavy gold chain about her neck. A purple scarf, tied beneath her chin, formed a lugubrious hood about her head and in the depths of the shadow it cast I caught the black glint of a pair of dark glasses. Behind her, on the wall, an image of Our Lady of Sorrows was watching me, her breast pierced by swords.
'This is your Auntie,' Senhor Matias said to me. 'You must love her and always do as she says.'
Slowly, reluctantly, she lowered her greenish, sunken-cheeked face to mine. I felt the vague brush of a kiss, cold as stone. My aunt recoiled at once, furious.
'Good gracious, Vicência! How dreadful! I think someone's put oil on his hair!'
Frightened, my lower lip already trembling, I looked up at her and mumbled:
'Yes, they did, Auntie.'
Then Senhor Matias praised my character, my courage on the journey and how cleanly I had eaten my soup at table in the inns we stopped at.
'Just as well,' my aunt grunted. 'Considering what I'm doing for him, any bad behaviour on his part really would be the last straw. Go on, Vicência, take him inside. Wash the sleep out of his eyes and see if he knows how to make the sign of the cross.'
Senhor Matias gave me two resounding kisses and Vicência led me into the kitchen.
That night they dressed me in my velvet suit and Vicência, wearing a clean apron and looking very serious, led me by the hand into a room hung with curtains made from scarlet damask, where the table legs were golden like the pillars of an altar. My aunt was sitting in the middle of the sofa, wearing a black silk dress and black lace covering her hair, and her fingers glittered with rings. By her side, on golden chairs, two ecclesiastics sat talking. One of them, plump and smiling, with prematurely white curly hair, opened his arms to me in a fatherly manner. The other, dark and sad-looking, merely mumbled a 'Good evening'. And from the table, where he was leafing through a large book of prints, a small man, with a clean-shaven face and a huge collar, gave an embarrassed bow that sent his pince-nez sliding down his nose.
Each of them gave me a tentative kiss. The sad priest asked me my name, which I pronounced 'Tedrico'. The affectionate one, revealing a set of perfect teeth, said I should separate the syllables and say Te-o-do-ri-co. Then they commented on my resemblance to Mama, especially round the eyes. My aunt sighed and gave thanks to our Lord that I looked nothing like my father. And the fellow with the huge collar shut the book he was reading, put away his pince-nez, and enquired timidly whether I missed Viana do Castelo. Terrified, I murmured:
'Yes, Auntie.'
Then the older, plumper priest took me on his knee and told me I must fear God, be very quiet around the house, and always obey my Auntie.
'You haven't got anyone else but your Auntie. You must always do what your Auntie says.'
Shyly I repeated:
'Yes, Auntie.'
My aunt ordered me brusquely to remove my finger from my mouth. Then she told me to go back to the kitchen, to Vicência, straight down the corridor...
'And when you pass the chapel, where you'll see a light and a green curtain, kneel down and make the sign of the cross.'
I didn't make the sign of the cross, but I did peer behind the curtain. I found my aunt's chapel truly dazzling. The walls were all lined with purple silk, with painted panels set in flowery frames, touchingly depicting the works of our Lord. The lace on the altar cloth brushed the carpeted floor; the saints carved in ivory and wood, with gleaming haloes, inhabited a little wood of violets and red camellias. Two fine silver salvers, leaning against the walls like holy shields, glinted in the light from the wax candles and, raised up on his blackwood cross, beneath a canopy, was our Lord Jesus Christ, burnished and golden.
I went slowly over to the green velvet cushion placed before the altar and which still bore the imprint of my aunt's pious knees. I raised my sweet, dark eyes up to the figure of the crucified Jesus. And I thought that Heaven must be like that, that all the angels and saints, Our Lady and Our Father must be made out of gold, studded perhaps with precious stones, and that their brilliance gave us the light of day and that the stars were the light that glanced off the precious metals, glinting through the black veils in which the holy love of men wrapped them at night, when it was time to sleep.
After tea, Vicência put me to bed in a small room next to hers. She made me kneel down in my nightshirt, put my hands together and raise my face to Heaven. Then she dictated the prayers that I should say for my aunt's health, my Mama's peace and tranquillity and for the soul of a certain Knight Commander, who was very good, very holy and very rich and whose name was Godinho.

I was barely nine years old when my aunt had shirts and a black suit made for me and placed me, as a boarder, at the Colégio dos Isidoros, which at the time was in Santa Isabel.
Within the first few weeks I had embarked on a warm, affectionate friendship with a boy called Crispim, who was older than me, the son of Teles, Crispim & Co., owners of the textile mill in Pampulha. Crispim assisted at mass on Sundays and, with his long, golden hair, he looked as gentle as an angel when he knelt at the altar. Sometimes he would grab hold of me in the corridor and plant voracious kisses all over my face, which at the time was soft and girlish. At night, in the study room, at the table where we would sit leafing through the sleepy pages of dictionaries, he would scribble notes to me in pencil, calling me 'his idol' and promising me presents of boxes of steel-nibbed pens.
Thursday was the day set aside for the unpleasant task of washing our feet. And three times a week grubby Father Soares would come, toothpick in mouth, to question us about doctrine and to tell us about the life of our Lord.
'Then they took him and dragged him to the house of Caiphas... Hey, you, the one on the end of the bench, who was Caiphas? Wrong. Wrong again! No, that's not right either! You dimwits. He was a Jew, one of the worst there was. Now, they say that in a very ugly place in Judaea there is a tree covered in thorns, which would make your flesh creep...'
The bell for break would ring and we would all simultaneously slam shut our books on Christian doctrine.
Due to its proximity to the latrines, an unpleasant smell pervaded the gloomy, gravelled playground and the older boys' chief delight was to sit passing round a cigarette in a room on the ground floor where, on Sundays, we were taught mazurkas by the old dancing master, Cavinetti, who wore pumps and curled his hair.
Each month, Vicência, in cloak and scarf, would come to meet me after mass, to carry me off to spend a Sunday with my aunt. Before I left, Isidoro Junior would always examine my ears and fingernails. Often he would give me a furious soaping, in his own basin, muttering under his breath: 'filthy little pig'. Then he would take me to the door, pat me on the head, call me 'his dear little friend' and ask Vicência to send his respects to Senhora Dona Patrocínio das Neves.
We lived in Campo de Santana. When I walked down the Chiado, I would stop outside a shop selling prints, to gaze upon a picture of a young woman, blonde and languid, with bare breasts, reclining on a tigerskin and holding in the tips of her fingers, finer even than Crispim's, a heavy pearl necklace. The paleness of her naked skin made me think of the Baron's English ladyfriend and I would smell again the perfume that had so troubled me in the corridor at the inn, scattered now along the sunny street, amongst the silk dresses of the grave, elegant ladies heading for mass at Rua do Loreto.
At home, my aunt would hold out her hand for me to kiss and I would spend all morning leafing through volumes of The Universal Panorama in her sitting room, where there was a striped sofa, a fine blackwood wardrobe and coloured lithographs of effecting scenes from the purer than pure life of her favourite saint, the patriarch St Joseph. With her purple scarf pulled well down over her forehead, my aunt would sit at the window poring over a large accounts book, a blanket tucked round her feet.
At three o'clock she would close the book, peer out at me from the shadows cast by her headscarf and start questioning me about doctrine. Eyes lowered, I would say the creed and list the Ten Commandments, all the time aware of the smell she gave off, the bittersweet odour of snuff and parsimony.
On Sundays the two ecclesiastics came to dine with us. The one with curly hair was Father Casimiro, my aunt's proctor. He would smile and hug me, invite me to decline arbor, arboris, currus curri and affectionately declare me to be 'a boy of great talent'. The other ecclesiastic gentleman would praise the Colégio dos Isidoros as being a splendid educational establishment, whose peer was not to be found even in Belgium. His name was Father Pinheiro. He seemed to me to grow ever darker, ever sadder. Every time he passed a mirror, he would stick out his tongue and stand there studying it, a look of suspicion and terror on his face.
At dinner, Father Casimiro was always pleased to see that I had a good appetite.
'Go on, have another mouthful of this veal stew. Boys should be well-fed and contented!'
And Father Pinheiro would pat his stomach and say:
'Ah, happy days, when one wasn't afraid to risk a second helping of veal!'
He and my aunt would then discuss illnesses. Father Casimiro, his face slightly flushed, his napkin tied about his neck, with plate piled high and glass brimming, would smile beatifically.
When the gaslamps amongst the trees in the square began to glow, Vicência would put on her old plaid shawl and take me back to school. At that hour, on Sundays, the fellow with the clean-shaven face and huge collar would arrive. He was Senhor José Justino, secretary to the Brotherhood of St Joseph and my aunt's notary, with an office in the Praça de São Paulo. In the courtyard, where he would already be taking off his coat, he would chuck me under the chin and ask Vicência about Senhora Dona Patrocínio's health. Then he would go up the steps and we would close the heavy door behind us. And I would breathe a sigh of relief, because that big house with its red damasks, innumerable saints and its churchy smell depressed me.
Along the way, Vicência would talk to me about my aunt, who, six years before, had plucked her from the poorhouse. Thus I learned that my aunt had problems with her liver, that she always kept large quantities of gold coins in a green silk bag and that Knight Commander Godinho, her and my own mother's uncle, had left her two hundred contos in the form of property, investments, the Quinta do Mosteiro near Viana, as well as silver and porcelain from India... Auntie was very rich! I must always be good and always please her!
At the school door Vicência would say 'Goodbye, my love' and give me a big kiss. Often at night, clutching my pillow to me, I would think of Vicência and of her arms, plump and white as milk, which I had seen when she rolled up her sleeves. And so there grew up in my heart a chaste passion for Vicência.
One day in the playground, a boy, who already sported an incipient beard, called me 'a sissy'. I invited him to meet me in the latrines and, with one fearful blow, I bloodied his whole face. I became an object of fear. I smoked cigarettes. Crispim had left the school and my one ambition was to learn how to fence. One day, my noble love for Vicência suddenly disappeared, almost without my noticing, like a flower one drops in the street.
And so the years passed: towards Christmas the stove would be lit in the refectory and I would put on my wool-lined greatcoat with its astrakhan collar; the swallows would arrive in the eaves and, in my aunt's chapel, perfuming Christ's golden feet, instead of camellias there would be armfuls of the first red carnations of the season; then it was the time for seabathing and Father Casimiro would send my aunt a basket of grapes from his farm in Torres... I began studying Rhetoric.
One day, our good proctor told me that I would not be going back to school, but would instead complete my secondary education in Coimbra, in the house of Dr Roxo, a teacher of theology. New linen was made for me. Written on a piece of paper, my aunt gave me a prayer to São Luís Gonzaga, patron saint of all studious youths, to whom I was to pray every day, asking him to preserve in my body a shining chastity and in my soul the fear of the Lord. Father Casimiro accompanied me to that gracious city, where Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, slumbers.
I took an instant dislike to Dr Roxo. I led a harsh and cloistered life in his house and it was a cause of ineffable joy to me, when, in my first year of studying Law, that unpleasant cleric died a miserable death from anthrax. I moved into far more congenial lodgings with the Pimenta family. And, immediately and quite immoderately, I discovered all of life's freedoms and potent pleasures. I never again mumbled that presumptuous prayer to São Luís Gonzaga or bent my manly knee before some holy image wearing a halo on its head. I got roaring drunk at Camelas, I proved my strength by bloodily defeating a bruiser from the Trony. I sated my carnal desires with delicious love affairs at Terreiro da Erva; I wandered in the moonlight, wailing out fados; I used a cane; and when my beard grew dense and black I proudly accepted the nickname 'Raposão' - the Big Fox. Nevertheless, every fortnight, in my best handwriting, I would write my aunt a humble, pious letter, in which I would tell her how difficult my studies were, how modest my habits, about my copious prayers and stringent fasts, the sermons with which I sustained myself, the sweet unburdenings of my soul to the Heart of Jesus in the evenings in the cathedral and the novenas with which I salved my soul in Santa Cruz during the quiet hours of my free days.
The summer months in Lisbon were, therefore, painful. I could not go out, not even to get my hair trimmed, without having slavishly to beg permission from my aunt. I didn't dare to smoke after coffee. I had to return virginally home as soon as night fell and, before going to bed, I had to spend a long time in the chapel praying with my aunt. I had condemned myself to this detestable life of devotion!
'When you're studying do you usually say your rosary?' my aunt would ask me coldly.
And I would smile abjectly:
'Of course I do! I can't get to sleep if I haven't!'
The Sunday gatherings continued. Father Pinheiro, sadder than ever, was complaining now not only about his heart but also about his bladder. And there was another regular guest, an old friend of Knight Commander Godinho, a faithful visitor from Neves [?], Dr Margaride, the one who was public prosecutor in Viana, later judge in Mangualde. Made wealthy by the death of his brother Abel, who had been secretary of the Patriarchal Council [?], the doctor, weary of lawsuits, had retired and now lived a life of leisure, reading the newspapers, in a house he owned in Praça da Figueira. Since he had known my father and had often visited him at the Quinta do Mosteiro, he treated me from the start with a mixture of authority and informality.
He was a stout, rather solemn man, already completely bald, with a large, pale face in which the most striking feature were his thick eyebrows, black as coal. The moment he entered my aunt's living room, no sooner was he through the door, than he would deliver himself of some titbit of terrible news: 'Haven't you heard? There's been a terrible fire in the Baixa!' In fact, it would turn out to have been nothing more serious than a chimney on fire. But, as a young man, Dr Margaride, in an access of sombre imagination, had written two tragedies, which had left him ever after with a morbid taste for exaggeration and a desire to shock. 'I'm the only one,' he would say, 'who has a true appreciation of the grandiose.'
And, as he terrified my aunt and the two priests with some new tale, he would always take a large pinch of snuff.
I liked Dr Margaride. He had known my father in Viana do Castelo and so had often heard him play his guitar and sing the 'Ballad of Count Ordonho'. They had spent whole evenings together wandering poetically by the water's edge at the Quinta do Mosteiro, whilst Mama sat in the shade of the alder trees making her nosegays of wild flowers. And he it was who sent me a gift of almonds as soon as I was born, as night fell on Good Friday. More than that, he would speak openly to my aunt - even in my presence - in praise of my intellect and my discreet manners.
'Our Teodorico, Dona Patrocínio, is a young man any aunt could be proud of. In him, dear lady, you have found another Telemachus!'
And I would blush modestly.
Now one day in August, as I was walking with him in the Rossio, I first made the acquaintance of a relative of ours, a distant relative, a cousin of Knight Commander G. Godinho. Dr Margaride introduced us, saying only: 'This is Xavier, your cousin, a young man of great gifts.' He was a grubby fellow, with a blonde moustache, who had once been an elegant gentleman, but had wildly squandered the thirty contos inherited from his father, the owner of a rope factory in Alcântara. Just months before he died of pneumonia, Knight Commander G. Godinho had, out of charity, given him a job at the Secretaria da Justiça with a salary of twenty milréis a month. Xavier was now living in a tenement in Rua da Fé with a Spanish woman called Carmen and her three children.
I went there one Sunday. There was almost no furniture. The one and only washbasin was fixed in the broken wicker seat of a chair. Xavier spat blood all morning. And Carmen, dishevelled and in slippers, her wine-stained, cotton dressing gown dragging along the floor, was sullenly walking up and down the room rocking a child swathed in rags, its head badly cut.
Xavier, who right from the start addressed me as 'tu', immediately spoke to me about Aunt Patrocínio. She was his one hope in the midst of all that gloomy poverty. As a servant of Jesus and the owner of so much property, she could not allow a relative, a Godinho, to waste away in that hovel, with no sheets, no cigarettes, with ragged children all around him crying for a bit of bread. What would it cost Aunt Patrocínio to set him up, as the State already had done, with a little allowance of twenty milréis?
'You're the one who should talk to her, Teodorico! You're the one who should tell her... Look at those children. They haven't even got any socks. Come here, Rodrigo, and talk to your Uncle Teodorico. Tell him what you had for lunch today? A mouthful of stale bread! With no butter or anything! That's what our life is like, Teodorico. You've no idea how hard it is!'
Touched, I promised to speak to my aunt.
Speak to her! I did not even dare tell my aunt that I knew Xavier and had gone to that filthy hovel inhabited by a scrawny Spanish woman steeped in sin.
And so in order that they should not witness my ignoble terror of my aunt, I did not return to Rua da Fé.
Towards the middle of September, on the day of the Birth of Our Lady, I learned through Dr Barroso that my cousin Xavier was near death and wanted to speak to me in private.
Somewhat irritated, I went there that evening. You could smell the fever on the stairs. Carmen was sobbing in the kitchen, talking to another very thin Spanish woman, who was wearing a black mantilla and a sad, skimpy camisole in cherry-red satin. On the floor, the children were scraping out a casserole dish. And in the bedroom Xavier lay coughing his lungs out, a blanket wound about him, a bowl at his head full of gobbets of blood.
'You came then.'
'What's all this, Xavier?'
Using an expletive, he told me that he was ruined. And lying back, his dry eyes glittering, he spoke to me about my aunt. He had written her a beautiful, heartrending letter; the cruel creature had not even replied. So now he intended putting an advertisement in the Jornal de Notícias, a plea for alms, which he would sign: 'Xavier Godinho, cousin of the wealthy Knight Commander G. Godinho'. He wanted to see if Dona Patrocínio das Neves would allow a relative, a Godinho, to beg publicly like that in a newspaper.
'But I need your help to soften her heart! When she reads the advertisement, tell her about the poverty we live in. Appeal to her generous side. Tell her it's shameful to allow a relative, a Godinho, to die penniless. Tell her that tongues are already wagging! I've had some soup today, but that's only thanks to Lolita, one of Benta Bexigosa's girls, who gave us four coroas. You see how low I've sunk!'
Deeply affected, I rose to my feet.
'You can count on me, Xavier.'
'Look, if you've got five tostões to spare, give them to Carmen.'
I gave them to him and went out, swearing solemnly, in the name of the Godinhos and in the name of Jesus, that I would speak to my aunt!
After lunch the next day, toothpick in mouth, my aunt was languidly unfolding the Jornal de Notícias. She obviously came upon Xavier's advertisement at once, for she stared for a long time at one corner of page three where it gleamed blackly: distressing, shaming, terrifying.
At that moment, I seemed to see turned towards me, set against the stark backdrop of the hovel they lived in, Xavier's sad eyes, Carmen's sallow face bathed in tears, the children's poor, thin little hands held out in expectation of a crust of bread. And every one of those unfortunate beings anxiously awaited the words I was about to address to my aunt, forthright, moving words that would surely save them and give them their first taste of meat in that whole wretched summer. I opened my mouth. But, leaning back in her chair, my aunt was already muttering, smiling a fierce little smile as she did so:
'They'll just have to put up with it. That's what happens to people who lose their fear of God and become entangled with drunken sluts. He shouldn't have frittered everything away on loose living. Frankly, any man who ruins himself over a woman, any man who's a skirt-chaser, is a lost cause in my opinion. He forfeits both God's forgiveness and mine. Let him suffer, let him suffer just as our Lord Jesus Christ suffered.'
I lowered my head and murmured:
'Nor have we yet suffered enough. You're quite right, Auntie. He should never have got himself involved with that woman!'
She stood up and gave thanks to the Lord. I went to my room and locked myself in, trembling, my aunt's words, chilling and threatening, still echoing in my head, my aunt, for whom any man who got himself entangled with women was a lost cause. I had got involved with women in Coimbra, at the Terreiro da Erva. I had documentary evidence of my sins in my trunk, a photograph of Teresa dos Quinze, a silk ribbon and a letter, the sweetest of them all, in which she called me 'her soul's one true love' and asked if she could borrow eighteen tostões! I had sewn these relics into the lining of a woollen waistcoat, fearing my aunt's incessant rummagings amongst my underwear. But there they were, in the trunk to which she had the key, a cardboard-hard lump inside the waistcoat on which, any day now, her suspicious fingers might well alight. And then, in the eyes of my aunt, I would be as good as dead.
Very slowly I opened the trunk, unstitched the lining of the waistcoat, took out Teresa's delicious letter, the ribbon still impregnated with the smell of her skin and the photograph of her wearing a mantilla. Out on the balcony, I mercilessly burned it all, the sweet words, the sweet face, and desperately swept the ashes of my love out into the courtyard.
I didn't dare go back to Rua da Fé that week. Then, one drizzly day, I did return, hunched beneath my umbrella, as it was growing dark. Seeing me staring up at the dead, black windows of the hovel, a neighbour told me that Senhor Godinho, the poor man, had been carried away to hospital on a stretcher.
Sadly, I went down the Passeio steps. And in the damp evening, I bumped against another umbrella and heard someone gaily call out my Coimbra nickname:
'Raposão!'
It was Silvério, known as Rinchão (or Woodpecker), my fellow student and lodger in the Pimenta household. He had been spending that month in the Alentejo with his uncle, the famously wealthy Baron de Alconchel. And now that he was back, he was on his way to see a certain Ernestina, a little blonde girl, who lived in Salitre, in a pink house with roses growing over the verandah.
'Do you want to come along, Raposão? There's another pretty young thing there too, Adélia. What, you don't know Adélia? Well, come and meet her then. She's quite a girl!'
It was a Sunday, the night my aunt held her social gathering; I should be home at eight o'clock on the dot. I scratched my beard indecisively. Rinchão began describing the whiteness of Adélia's arms and I began to walk along beside him, pulling on my black gloves.
Armed with a packet of cakes and a bottle of Madeira, we found Ernestina sewing elastic into a pair of serge gaiters. And, languidly smoking a cigarette, stretched out on a sofa, was Adélia, wearing only a dressing gown and a white underskirt, her slippers lying where they had fallen on the carpet. I sat down next to her, dumb with desire, my umbrella clasped between my knees. Only when Silvério and Ernestina ran off into the kitchen, their arms about each other, to fetch some glasses for the Madeira wine, could I bring myself to ask Adélia blushingly:
'And where are you from?'
She was from Lamego, she said. Engulfed by shyness again, I could only stammer out some remark about how depressing this rainy weather was. She politely asked me for another cigarette, addressing me as 'sir'. I appreciated her good manners. The long sleeves of her dressing gown fell back to reveal arms so white and soft that were one to die whilst in their embrace, death itself would seem delicious.
I held out to her the plate on which Ernestina had arranged the cakes. She asked my name and told me she had a nephew called Teodorico and that remark was like a strong, subtle thread that she unwound from her own heart and wound about my own.
'Why don't you put your umbrella over there in the corner, sir?' she said, laughing.
The piquant gleam of her small teeth caused a compliment to bloom inside me.
'Because I don't want to leave your side, not even for an instant.'
She stroked my neck very slowly. Dazed with pleasure, I drank down the Madeira wine she had left in her glass.
Ernestina was in poetic mood and lay, nestled on Rinchão's lap, singing a fado. Then Adélia turned languidly towards me and drew my face close to hers; our lips met in the most serious, most passionate, most profound kiss that had ever stirred my being.
At that sweetest of moments, a hideous clock with a moon face, which seemed to be spying on me from the marble top of a mahogany table, from between two vases bereft of flowers, began to strike ten o'clock in nasal, ironic, phlegmatic tones.
Good grief! That was the time we took tea at my aunt's house! Terrified, not even bothering to open my umbrella, I trudged panting along the dark, unending streets that lead to Campo da Santana! When I reached the house, I did not even stop to remove my muddy boots, but slipped into the living room, where I saw at once, at the far end, waiting for me on the damask sofa, my aunt's glasses, blacker than ever, blazing anger. I stammered out:
'Auntie...'
But she was already shouting and shaking her fists, her face almost green with rage:
'I will not permit such laxity in my house! Anyone who lives here must keep the hours that I choose! There'll be no debauchery or goings-on whilst I'm alive! And if you don't like it, you can leave!'
Father Pinheiro and Justino the notary had meekly bent their heads beneath the strident storm of Senhora Dona Patrocínio's indignation. Dr Margaride, in order to gauge the full measure of my guilt, had taken out his heavy gold watch. And it was left to good Father Casimiro, as priest and proctor, to intervene in a tone of gentle persuasion.
'You're quite right, Dona Patrocínio, quite right to want order in your house. But perhaps our Teodorico dallied in the Café do Martinho a little longer than usual in order to discuss his studies or some coursebook perhaps...'
I exclaimed bitterly:
'No, Father Casimiro, I wasn't there. I wasn't at the Martinho! Do you know where I was? I was at the Convento da Encarnação! It's true, I did meet a fellow student there, he'd gone to pick up his sister. It was a holiday today and his sister had gone there to spend the day with an aunt, a commander of the order... We waited, walking in the courtyard. His sister is about to be married and he was telling me about her fiancé, her trousseau, how in love she is... I was dying to get away, but I didn't want to offend the young man, he's a the Baron de Alconchel's nephew. And he was going on and on about his sister, her fiancé, about the letters they write...'
Aunt Patrocínio let out a furious roar.
'What kind of conversation is that! I've never heard anything so disgusting! What kind of indecent talk is that for the courtyard of a house of religion! Be silent, you lost soul, you should be ashamed of yourself! And make no mistake, the next time you come home this late, I won't let you in. You can stay out in the street, like a dog...'
Then Dr Margaride held out a solemn, pacifying hand:
'Now I see what happened. Teodorico was perhaps imprudent but he was at least in a respectable place. And I know Baron de Alconchel. He's a most discreet gentleman and one of the wealthiest men in the Alentejo, possibly one of the richest landowners in the whole of Portugal...I'd even go so far as to say the richest. Even abroad there can't be many who own more land than he does. There's no comparison! Why, in pigs and cork trees alone he's worth hundreds of contos, millions!'
He had stood up, his great, bombastic voice rolling over those mountains of gold. And good Father Casimiro murmured gently at my side:
'Drink your tea, Teodorico, drink your tea. Your aunt only wants what's best for you.'
With trembling hand, I picked up my teacup and, stirring feebly at the sugar in the bottom, I considered how I might escape for ever from the house of that terrifying old woman, who had so shamed me before the Magistrature and before the Church, showing no respect whatsoever for my incipient beard which was already a respectable growth, black and thick.
But on Sundays, tea was served in Knight Commander G. Godinho's china. I observed its heavy splendour: the big teapot, its spout in the form of a duck's beak; the sugarbowl with a handle in the shape of an angry snake; and the elegant toothpick holder, a mule trotting along beneath the weight of its saddlebags. It all belonged to my aunt. She was so rich. I must always be good and I must always be grateful to Auntie!
That's why, later on, when she came into the chapel to say her rosary, I was already there on my knees, moaning and beating my chest and begging the golden figure of Christ to forgive me for having offended my aunt.

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RRP: £9.99

No. of pages: 288

Publication date: 31.03.2003

ISBN numbers:
Paperback
978 0 946626 94 6
Kindle Ebook
978 1 907650 91 8