PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
A week later, the new priest was due to arrive on the coach from Chão de Maçãs that brought the post in the evening, and so from six o'clock onwards, Canon Dias and the coadjutor were strolling up and down the Largo do Chafariz, waiting for Amaro.
It was late August. Along the avenue by the river, between two lines of old poplars, one could see the ladies in their pale dresses as they walked to and fro. Beyond an archway, outside a row of lowly hovels, old women sat spinning at the door; grubby children played on the ground, revealing bare distended bellies; and chickens pecked ravenously amongst the filth and detritus. From around the bustling fountain came the scrape of water jugs on stone; bickering maidservants were ogled at by cane-wielding soldiers wearing dirty fatigues and huge misshapen boots; girls, each with a plump water jug balanced on her head, went about in pairs, swaying their hips; and two idle officers, their uniforms unbuttoned over their stomachs, stood chatting, waiting to see 'who might turn up'. The mail coach was late. As evening fell, a small light could be seen shining in the niche of a saint above the arch and, immediately opposite, the dim lights in the hospital came on one by one.
It was dark by the time the coach, lanterns glowing, appeared on the bridge, proceeding at the sedate pace dictated by the team of scrawny white horses drawing it, and coming to a halt by the fountain, outside the inn; the assistant from Patrício's shop immediately set off back across the square carrying a bundle of newspapers; Baptista, the innkeeper, a black pipe clamped in his mouth, was unhitching the horses, swearing softly to himself; and a man in a tall hat and a long ecclesiastical cloak, who had been sitting next to the driver, climbed gingerly down, clutching the iron guards on the seat, then stamped his feet on the ground to get the blood flowing again and looked around him.
'Amaro!' cried the Canon, who had gone over to him. 'How are you, you rascal!'
'Master!' said the other joyfully. And they embraced, while the coadjutor stood with head bowed and biretta in hand.
Shortly afterwards, the people still in the shops saw a slightly stooped man, wearing a priest's cape, walking across the square, flanked by the slow bulk of Canon Dias and the lanky form of the coadjutor. Everyone was aware that this was the new priest, and it was said in the pharmacy that he was 'a fine figure of a man'. Ahead of them, carrying a trunk and a cloth bag, went João Bicha, who was drunk already and kept muttering the Benedictus to himself as he went.
It was nearly nine o'clock, and night was closing in. Around the square the houses were already sleeping; the shops in the arcade glowed with the sad light of oil lamps, and one could make out indolent figures at the counters talking and arguing. The dark, twisting streets leading down into the square, lit by one moribund streetlamp, seemed uninhabited. And in the silence the cathedral bell was slowly tolling for the souls of the dead.
Canon Dias was patiently explaining the 'arrangements' to the new priest. He had not looked for a house for him because that would have involved buying furniture, finding a maid and endless other expenses. He had thought it best to take rooms for him in a respectable, comfortable boarding house, and (as the coadjutor could confirm) São Joaneira's house was without equal in that respect. It was clean and airy, with no unpleasant kitchen smells; the secretary-general had stayed there and the schools inspector; and São Joaneira (Mendes knew her well) was a thrifty, God-fearing woman, always ready to oblige.
'It will be a home from home. You'll have two courses at mealtimes and coffee...'
'And what about the price, Master?' said the priest.
'Six tostões. Why, she's almost giving it away! You'll have a bedroom and a sitting room...'
'A lovely sitting room,' remarked the coadjutor respectfully.
'And is it far from the cathedral?' asked Amaro.
'Two steps away. You could go and say mass in your slippers. Oh, and there is a young woman living there too,' continued the Canon in his slow way. 'She's São Joaneira's daughter. A very pretty girl of twenty-three. She has her moods, but she's got a good heart... This is your street.'
It was a narrow street of low, shabby houses cowering beneath the high walls of the old poorhouse, with one dim streetlamp at the far end.
'And this is your palace!' said the Canon, knocking on a narrow door.
On the first floor, overhanging the street, were two old-fashioned wrought-iron balconies adorned with rosemary bushes in wooden tubs; the upper windows were tiny and the wall so uneven that it looked like a piece of battered tin.
São Joaneira was waiting at the top of the stairs, accompanied by a skinny, freckled maidservant holding up an oil lamp to light the way. The figure of São Joaneira stood out sharply against the whitewashed wall. She was tall, stout and somewhat sluggish-looking, but with very white skin. She already had lines around her dark eyes, and her tangled hair, with a scarlet comb in it, was growing thin around the temples and near her parting; but she was also endowed with plump arms, an ample bosom and clean clothes.
'Here's your new lodger,' said the Canon, as he climbed the stairs.
'It's a great honour to have you here, a great honour. But you must be worn out. Come this way, and mind the step.'
She led him into a small room decorated in yellow, with a vast wickerwork sofa against one wall and, opposite, a table covered in green baize.
'This is your sitting room, Father,' said São Joaneira, 'where you can receive visitors and relax... Here,' she said opening a door, 'is your bedroom. And there's a chest of drawers and a wardrobe...' She pulled out the drawers and praised the bed, prodding the mattress. 'Oh and a bell you can ring should you need anything... The keys to the chest of drawers are here... And if you want a higher pillow... Now there's only one blanket at the moment, but you just have to ask...'
'That's fine, Senhora, excellent,' said the priest in his soft, low voice.
'And if there's anything else you require...'
'Dear lady,' cried the Canon cheerily, 'what he wants now is some supper!'
'Supper is ready too. The soup's been on since six o'clock...'
And she went off to chivvy the maid along, saying from the bottom of the stairs:
'Come on, Ruça, get a move on!'
The Canon sat down heavily on the sofa and took a pinch of snuff.
'You'll have to make do, my lad. This is the best we could get.'
'Oh, I'm quite happy anywhere, Master,' said Amaro, putting on his slippers. 'Remember what the seminary was like, and in Feirão, my bed used to get soaked every time it rained.'
From the square came the sound of bugles.
'What's that?' asked Amaro, going over to the window.
'It's the half-past nine call to quarters.'
Amaro opened the window. At the end of the street, the lamp was growing dim. The night was very dark, and the city was enclosed in a hollow silence, as if covered by a vault.
After the bugles came the slow roll of drums moving away towards the barracks; a soldier, who had been tarrying in one of the alleyways near the castle, hurried past beneath the window; and from the walls of the poorhouse came the constant shriek of owls.
'It's a bit gloomy,' said Amaro.
But São Joaneira was calling down to them:
'You can come up now, Father. The soup's on the table!'
'Go along now, you must be positively faint with hunger, Amaro!' said the Canon, heaving himself to his feet.
Then, seizing Amaro by the sleeve, he said:
'Now you'll find out what chicken soup is like cooked by São Joaneira. Absolutely mouthwatering!'
In the middle of the dining room, which was lined with dark paper, the table with its bright white cloth was a cheering sight, as were the china plates and the glasses glinting beneath the strong light of a green-shaded oil lamp. Delicious smells emerged from the soup tureen, and the plump chicken served on a platter with succulent white rice and pork sausages looked like a dish fit for a king. Slightly in the shadows, one could see the delicate colours of porcelain in a china cabinet; in one corner, by the window, was a piano, covered with a faded satin cloth. Sounds of frying came from the kitchen and these, combined with the fresh smell of laundered linen, made Amaro rub his hands in glee.
'This way, Father, this way,' said São Joaneira. 'You might be in a draught over there.' She closed the shutters on the windows and brought him a small box of sand in which to place his cigarette butts. 'And you'll have a little jelly, won't you, Canon?'
'Well, just to be companionable,' said the Canon jovially, sitting down and unfolding his napkin.
São Joaneira, meanwhile, as she bustled about the room, was admiring the new priest, who had his head bent over his plate, drinking his soup, blowing on each spoonful. He was a good-looking man with very dark, slightly curly hair. He had an oval face, smooth olive skin, large, dark eyes and long eyelashes.
The Canon, who had not seen him since the seminary, thought him much stronger and more manly-looking.
'You were such a skinny little lad...'
'It's the mountain air,' said Amaro, 'it did me good!'
Then he described his sad existence in Feirão, in Alta Beira, and the harsh winters spent alone with shepherds. The Canon held the wine bottle high above Amaro's glass and poured it in, making the wine bubble.
'Well, drink up, man, drink up! You never had wine like this at the seminary.'
They talked about the seminary.
'I wonder what happened to Rabicho, the bursar,' said the Canon.
'And Carocho, the one who used to steal potatoes.'
They laughed and drank, caught up in the pleasure of remembering, recalling old times: the rector's chronic catarrh, the teacher of plainsong who one day accidentally dropped the copy of Bocage's erotic poetry that he had been carrying in his pocket.
'How time flies!' they said.
São Joaneira then set down on the table a deep dish of baked apples.
'Well, I'll have to have some of that!' exclaimed the Canon. 'A baked apple is a thing of beauty, and I never turn down the chance to eat one. She's a wonderful housekeeper, our São Joaneira, oh yes, a wonderful housekeeper!'
She laughed, revealing the fillings in her two large front teeth. She went to fetch the port, then placed on the Canon's plate, with a great show of devotion, one crumbling baked apple dusted with sugar; and clapping the Canon on the back with her soft, plump hand, she said:
'He's a saint, Father, an absolute saint! I owe him so much!'
'Now, now, that's quite enough of that,' said the Canon, but a look of adoring contentment spread over his face. 'Lovely drop of port!' he added, sipping his wine. 'Lovely!'
'It's the same bottle we had for Amélia's birthday, Canon.'
'Where is Amélia?'
'She went over to Morenal with Dona Maria. Then, of course, they went to spend the evening with the Gansosos.'
'São Joaneira's a landowner too, you know,' explained the Canon, referring to Morenal. 'It's almost an estate!' And he roared with laughter, his shining eyes tenderly caressing São Joaneira's ample body.
'Don't listen to him, Father, it's just a little scrap of land,' she said.
Then, seeing the maid leaning against the wall, racked with coughing, she said:
'Go and cough in the other room, will you. Honestly!'
The girl left, pressing her apron to her mouth.
'She doesn't seem at all well,' remarked Amaro.
Yes, the girl was very sickly. The 'poor lamb' was her goddaughter, an orphan, and possibly tubercular. She had taken her in out of pity.
'And because the maid who was here before was carried off to the hospital, the shameless hussy! She got involved with a soldier you know.'
Father Amaro slowly lowered his eyes and, nibbling on a few crumbs, asked if there had been much illness that summer.
'Just a bit of colic from eating too much unripe fruit,' snorted the Canon. 'People stuff themselves with watermelons and then get bloated with all that water. And fevers of course.'
They talked then about the intermittent fever common in the country and about the air in Leiria.
'I'm much stronger these days,' said Father Amaro. 'Yes, thank God, my health is good now.'
'And may God keep you in good health too, because you don't know how precious it is until you lose it,' exclaimed São Joaneira. And she launched into an account of the household's one great misfortune: a sister, not quite right in the head, who had been paralysed for the last ten years. She was nearly sixty now and last winter she'd caught a very nasty cold and ever since then, poor dear, she'd been on the decline. 'Earlier this evening, she had a coughing fit, and I really thought her time had come. But she's quieter now.'
Sitting with the cat on her lap and monotonously rolling bread balls between her fingers, she spoke further about that 'misfortune', then about her Amélia, about the Gansosos, about the former precentor and about how expensive everything was. The Canon, replete, was finding it hard to keep his eyes open; everything in the room was gradually falling asleep, even the oil lamp was burning down.
'Well, my friends,' said the Canon, bestirring himself at last, 'it's getting late.'
Father Amaro got up and, eyes lowered, said grace.
'Do you need a nightlight, Father?' asked São Joaneira solicitously.
'No, Senhora, I never use one. Goodnight!'
And he went slowly down stairs, toothpick in mouth.
São Joaneira lit the way for him with the oil lamp. On the first stair, however, Father Amaro turned and said pleasantly:
'Of course, tomorrow is Friday and a fast day.'
'Oh, no,' said the Canon, who was pulling on his cloak, yawning, 'tomorrow you'll be having lunch with me. I'll call for you here, then we'll visit the precentor, go to the cathedral and take a turn about the town. We'll be having squid, you know, which is a near miracle here, because we almost never get fish.'
São Joaneira reassured Father Amaro:
Don't you worry, Father, I always keep the fast days.'
'I only mention it,' said Father Amaro, 'because nowadays, alas, no one bothers.'
'Oh, you're absolutely right,' she broke in, 'but I put the salvation of my soul above all else.'
Downstairs the bell rang loudly.
'That'll be my daughter,' said São Joaneira. 'Go and open it, will you, Ruça!'
The door slammed and they heard voices and laughter.
'Is that you, Amélia?'
A voice called out 'Bye, then!' And almost running up the stairs, her clothes slightly caught up at the front, came a lovely young woman, strong, tall and sturdy, a white shawl over her head and clutching a sprig of rosemary in her hand.
'Come along, dear. The new parish priest is here. He arrived tonight. Come along.'
Amélia had stopped, slightly embarrassed, looking up at the stairs where Father Amaro was standing leaning on the banister. She was breathing hard from running; her face was flushed, and her dark, lively eyes were shining; she exuded an air of freshness and of brisk country walks.
Father Amaro continued on down, keeping close to the banister to allow her to pass, and murmured 'Good evening', his eyes downcast. The Canon stumped down the stairs towards her saying:
'And what time do you call this, you scamp?'
She giggled shyly.
'Now off to bed with you,' he said, patting her cheek with his large, hairy hand.
She ran past him, and the Canon left, having fetched his umbrella from the downstairs living room, and having told the maid not to bother lighting the stairs for him:
'It's all right, I can see. Now don't you catch cold, young lady. I'll see you at eight then, Amaro. Be up and ready! Off you go, young lady, goodnight, and pray to Our Lady of Charity to get rid of that cough of yours.'
Father Amaro closed his bedroom door. The bed had been turned down, and the clean white sheets gave off the good smell of freshly laundered linen. Above the bed hung an old engraving of Christ crucified. Amaro opened his breviary, knelt down by the bed and made the sign of the cross; but he was tired and kept yawning; above him, too, through the ritual prayers he was mechanically reading, he began to hear the tick-tack of Amélia's shoes and the rustle of her starched petticoats as she undressed.