PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
The cuckoo clock in the dining room had just struck eleven. Jorge, sprawled in the old, dark morocco wing chair, closed the volume of Louis Figuier he had been slowly leafing through, stretched, yawned and said:
'Aren't you going to dress, Luiza?'
'In a minute.'
She was still in her black peignoir, with its braid edging and large mother-of-pearl buttons, and was sitting at the table reading the newspaper; her slightly tousled blonde hair, still dull from the warmth of the pillows, was coiled up on top of her small head with its pretty profile; her skin had the soft, milky whiteness of all fair-haired women; with one elbow propped on the table, she was stroking her ear, and that slow, gentle movement set the tiny scarlet rubies in her two rings sparkling.
They had just had lunch.
The carpeted room with its white-painted wooden ceiling and its pale, green-sprigged wallpaper was light and cheerful. It was July, a Sunday, and very hot; the two windows were closed, but one could sense the sun outside glittering on the glass panes and searing the stone balcony; an absorbed, sleepy, Sunday morning silence reigned, and a vague, languid lassitude brought with it drowsy longings, desires for the cushioned shade of a wood somewhere in the countryside, at the water's edge; the two canaries were asleep in their cages, which hung between the bluish cretonne curtains; a monotonous buzz of flies hovered over the table, settled on the unmelted sugar at the bottom of the coffee cups, and filled the room with a somnolent murmur.
Jorge rolled himself a cigarette and, very relaxed and cool in his cotton shirt, with no waistcoat on and with his blue flannel jacket unbuttoned, he sat staring up at the ceiling, thinking about his trip to the Alentejo. He was a mining engineer, and, the following day, he had to set off first to Beja, then to Évora, and then south again to São Domingos. The idea of that journey, in July, seemed to him an irritating interruption, a flagrant injustice. Fancy having to make such a journey in a blistering summer like this! Spending days and days being shaken about on the back of a hired horse, across those endless, dark, scrub-grown Alentejo plains that sweltered beneath the lustreless sun, to the accompaniment of the constant buzz of horseflies! Having to sleep in oak forests, in rooms that smelled of baked brick, while hearing all around him in the dark, torrid night the grunting of herds of pigs! Feeling the hot breath of the scorched fields waft in through the window! And he would be all alone!
Up until then, he had had a post at the Ministry. It would be the first time that he and Luiza had been apart, and he was already homesick for this room, whose walls he himself had helped to paper before their marriage, and where, after the joys of the night, they would sit on after lunch in this state of sweet indolence!
He stroked his short, fine, very curly beard, while his eyes lingered tenderly on those familiar pieces of furniture, all of which dated from the time when his mother was alive: the old cupboard with its glass doors, the decorative, gleaming silverware; the ancient, much-loved oil painting that he had known since he was a child, in which one could just barely make out, against a cracked background, the coppery tones of a plump saucepan and the faded pinks of a bunch of radishes! On the wall opposite hung the portrait of his father: he was dressed in the fashion of 1830, had a round face, bright eyes and a sensual mouth, and on his buttoned-up tail coat he wore the insignia of Our Lady of the Conception. He had been a most amusing fellow, a Treasury employee and a keen amateur flautist. Jorge had never known him, but his mother said that the portrait was so like his father that all it lacked was the power of speech. He had lived all his life in that same house with his mother, Isaura, a tall, rather anxious woman with a sharp nose, who always used to drink hot water with her meals; but, one day, after attending mass in Graça, she had died suddenly, without so much as a murmur.
Jorge had never resembled her physically. He had a strong, manly build. He had his father's admirable teeth and broad shoulders.
From his mother he had inherited a placid temperament and a gentle nature. As a student at the Politécnica, he used to go to his room at eight o'clock, light the brass oil lamp and open his textbooks. He never went to taverns or spent the night carousing. But twice a week, regular as clockwork, he would go and see a young seamstress, Eufrásia, who lived in Poço do Borratém, and who, on the days when her Brazilian lover was out playing whist at his club, would receive Jorge with a great show of caution and with passionate words; she was an orphan, and there was always a faint whiff of fever about her small, skinny body. Jorge deemed her overly romantic and used to tell her off about this. He had never been the sentimental type: his fellow students, who sighed over Alfred de Musset and wished they could have loved Marguerite Gautier, accused him of being 'prosaic' and 'bourgeois', but Jorge would simply laugh; he was always immaculately turned out, with never a button missing from his shirt; he admired Louis Figuier, Bastiat and Castilho, had a horror of debts, and was perfectly happy.
When his mother died, however, he began to feel very alone: it was winter, and his rather solitary, south-facing room at the back of the house received the full brunt of the gusting wind as it moaned long and sadly about the walls; at night especially, when he was bent over his books, his feet on the footwarmer, he would be filled by a languid melancholy; he would stretch out his arms, his heart filled with but one desire, to embrace a sweet, slender waist and to hear in the house the rustle of a dress. He decided to get married. He met Luiza in the summer, one evening in the Passeio Público, the main park and public promenade. He fell in love with her fair hair, her way of walking and her very large, brown eyes. The following winter, he was given a permanent post, and they were married. Sebastião, good old Sebastião, his closest friend, had said, nodding gravely and slowly rubbing his hands together:
'He got married on a whim, yes, almost on a whim.'
But Luiza - little Luiza - turned out to be an excellent mistress of the house: she was a careful and competent housekeeper; she was very clean and tidy, and happy as a bird, a little bird who enjoyed both her nest and her mate's caresses; and that small, gentle, fair-haired creature brought real charm to the house.
Kindly Sebastião then said, in his deep bass voice:
'She is indeed the worthiest of little angels!'
She and Jorge had been married for three years. And what good years they had been! He felt that he himself had improved; he was more contented, more intelligent even. And as he sat there now with his legs crossed, his soul overflowing, pondering that sweet, easy existence, exhaling the smoke from his cigarette, he felt as comfortable in his life as he was in his flannel jacket!
'Oh!' said Luiza suddenly, staring at something in the newspaper and smiling.
'What is it?'
'Cousin Bazilio is coming to Lisbon.'
And she read out loud:
'Arriving any day now from Bordeaux will be Senhor Bazilio de Brito, a familiar figure in Lisbon society. The gentleman in question - who, as you will know, emigrated to Brazil, where, by dint of honest toil, he has apparently recovered his fortune - has been touring Europe since the beginning of last year. His return to the capital is a cause of great joy to his friends, of whom there are many.'
'Absolutely!' said Luiza with great conviction.
'Well, I certainly hope so, poor chap!' said Jorge, still smoking, and smoothing his beard with the palm of his hand. 'And he's made himself a fortune, has he?'
'So it seems.'
She glanced at the advertisements, took a sip of tea, got up and went over to open one of the shutters.
'Goodness, but it's hot outside, Jorge!' She stood blinking in the harsh, white light.
The room, at the rear of the house, looked out onto an empty lot which was surrounded by a low wooden fence and overgrown with tall plants and random vegetation; here and there, amongst the scorched summer greenery, large stones glittered beneath the perpendicular sun; and an ancient fig tree, alone in the middle of the garden, held out its thick, motionless leaves which, in the white light, seemed tinged with bronze. Beyond were the backs of other houses, all with balconies; there were clothes hung out on canes to dry, the white walls surrounding other people's gardens, spindly trees. A kind of dust dimmed and thickened the luminous air.
'The birds are practically falling out of the sky!' she said, closing the window. 'Imagine what it will be like in the Alentejo!'
She came and stood next to Jorge's chair and slowly stroked his curly black hair. Jorge looked at her, already anticipating the sadness of separation; the top two buttons of her peignoir were undone, showing the beginning of her soft white breasts and the lace on her nightdress: very chastely, Jorge buttoned them up.
'And what about my white waistcoats?' he asked.
'They should be ready by now.'
And to confirm that this was so, she summoned Juliana.
There was a Sunday sound of starched petticoats, and Juliana came in, nervously fiddling with her collar and her brooch. She was getting on for about forty years old and was extremely thin. She had small, pinched features and the dull, yellow complexion of one who suffers with a weak heart. Her large, sunken, bloodshot eyes darted restlessly, curiously, here and there, from beneath red-rimmed eyelids. She wore a large false hairpiece in the form of imitation plaits, which made her head look enormous. Her nostrils twitched nervously. Her dress lay flat over her chest, and the skirt, puffed out by her stiffly starched petticoats, was short enough to reveal small, pretty feet, shod in tight serge bootees with gleaming toecaps.
In her strong Lisbon accent, she reported that the waistcoats were not yet ready, that she had not had time to starch them.
'But I asked you especially, Juliana!' Luiza chided. 'Oh, well, see what you can do, but the waistcoats have to be ready to be packed tonight.'
And as soon as Juliana had left the room, she said:
'I'm beginning to hate that creature, Jorge!'
Juliana had been working in the house for two months, and Luiza simply could not get used to her ugliness, her odd mannerisms and the affected way in which she said 'het' instead of 'hat' and 'scissoars' instead of 'scissors', the way she slightly rolled her 'r's, and the sound of the metal-tipped heels of her shoes; and, on Sundays, in particular, that hairpiece, that pretentious footwear and the fine black leather gloves she wore all grated on Luiza's nerves.
'She's just awful!'
'She's a poor woman with barely a penny to her name, and she does a first-rate job of starching and ironing.' (At the Ministry, his shirt fronts were a constant source of amazement!) 'As Julião so rightly says, I'm not so much starched as enamelled. True, she isn't very nice, but she's clean and she's discreet.'
Getting up, with his hands in the pockets of his loose flannel trousers, he added:
'And the way she looked after Aunt Virgínia when she was ill… She was an absolute angel!' He repeated this solemnly: 'Day and night, she was an absolute angel! We're in her debt, my dear.' Looking very serious, he began rolling another cigarette.
Luiza said nothing, but kicked at the hem of her peignoir with the toe of her slipper; then, frowning slightly and staring hard at her nails, she said:
'Well, I don't care. If I get fed up with her, I shall simply send her away.'
Jorge stopped what he was doing, struck a match on the sole of his shoe and said:
'Only if I let you, my sweet. As far as I'm concerned, it's a question of gratitude.'
They both fell silent. The cuckoo clock sang out twelve noon.
'Right, I must be off,' said Jorge. He went over to her, cupped her face in his hands and, gazing tenderly down at her, murmured: 'My little viper!'
She laughed and looked up at him with her magnificent brown eyes, luminous with love. Touched, Jorge placed a resounding kiss on each eyelid. Then pouting, he asked her:
'Do you need me to bring anything back for you, my love?'
All she wanted was that he should not be home too late.
He had to deliver a few letters, he would take a carriage, it was only a step away…
And he left, singing in his fine baritone voice:
The Golden Calf is lord of the world,
La la ra, la ra.
Luiza yawned and stretched. It was such a bore having to get dressed! She would have liked simply to be dozing off in a pink marble bath full of warm, perfumed water! Or else to be rocking gently in a silken hammock, with all the windows closed, listening to music! She shook off one slipper and sat looking fondly at her small, milk-white foot with its tracery of blue veins, thinking about all kinds of things: the silk stockings she wanted to buy, the parcel of food she would make up for Jorge's journey, the three napkins that the laundress had lost…
She stretched again. And with one bare foot on tiptoe and the other shod, she went over to the sideboard where, from behind a jam jar, she removed a grubby, much-read book; then she sat down, legs outstretched, in Jorge's wing chair and, resuming that same loving, caressing touch of fingers on ear lobe, she began eagerly reading.
The book was The Lady of the Camellias. She read a lot of novels; she had a monthly subscription with a shop in the Baixa. When she was eighteen and still single, she had been mad about Walter Scott and about Scotland; at the time, she had wanted to go and live in one of those Scottish castles which bore the clan's coat of arms over its pointed arches and which was furnished with Gothic chests and displays of weapons and hung with vast tapestries embroidered with heroic legends which the breeze from the loch would stir into life; and she had loved Evandale, Morton and Ivanhoe, all so grave and tender and all wearing an eagle's feather in their cap, pinned in place with a brooch in the form of a Scottish thistle made out of emeralds and diamonds. But now she was captivated by the 'modern': Paris and its furniture and its romantic novels. She sniggered at troubadors and drooled over M. de Camors; and now her ideal men appeared before her wearing a white tie, leaning in the doorway of a ballroom; these men were endowed with a magnetic gaze, were consumed by passion and were always ready with some sublime remark. A week ago, she had discovered Marguerite Gautier, whose unhappy love affair filled her with a kind of misty melancholy; she imagined her as tall and thin, wearing a long cashmere shawl, her dark eyes burning with a mixture of passion and fever; even the names of the characters in the book - Julia Duprat, Armand, Prudence - had for her the poetic flavour of an intensely amorous life; and that whole destiny was played out, like a piece of sad music, against a backdrop of lavish suppers, wild, delirious nights, worries about money, and melancholy days spent sitting in the back of a carriage beneath an elegantly grey sky as the first snows fell upon the avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.
'Bye, Zizi!' called Jorge from the corridor, on his way out.
He came back into the room, doing up his gloves, his walking cane under his arm.
'Don't be too late, all right? And bring me some cakes from Baltreschi's for Dona Felicidade. Oh, and could you drop in at Madame François and ask her to send me that hat. Oh, yes, and…'
'Good heavens, what else?'
'No, it's all right, I was going to ask you to go to the bookshop and have them send me some more novels, but they're closed today!'
Tears shone in her eyes as she finished the last page of The Lady of the Camellias. And lounging in the chair, pushing back the cuticles on her nails, the book fallen in her lap, she began softly and tenderly singing the final aria from La Traviata:
Addio, del passato…
She suddenly remembered the item in the newspaper announcing the arrival of cousin Bazilio.
A slow smile spread across her full, red lips. Cousin Bazilio had been her first love! She had been eighteen at the time! No one knew about it, not even Jorge or Sebastião.
Besides, it had been a mere childhood romance: she herself would sometimes laugh, remembering certain sweet, sentimental outpourings, certain foolish tears! Cousin Bazilio must have changed a lot. She could picture him so clearly - tall and slim, with a distinguished air, a small, black, upturned moustache, a bold eye, and a habit of putting his hands in his trouser pockets and making his money and his keys jingle! That 'affair' had begun in Sintra, during long, hilarious games of billiards played at Uncle João de Brito's country house in Colares. Bazilio had just arrived back from England and looked terribly English, shocking all Sintra with his white flannel suit and his scarlet cravats, which he wore looped through a golden ring. Those games had taken place in the downstairs salon, which was painted ochre yellow and had about it an ancient, opulent air; a large glass door opened on to the garden, down three stone steps. Growing around the fountain were pomegranate trees from which she used to pick the scarlet flowers. The glossy, dark green leaves of the camellia bushes formed shady pathways; fragments of sunlight sparkled and shivered in the water of the pool; two doves, in a wicker cage, cooed softly; and in the rustic silence of the garden, the sharp click of the billiard balls had an aristocratic tone.
Then came all those episodes so typical of any Lisbon love affair that has its beginnings in Sintra: slow moonlit walks across the pale grass in Seteais, with long, silent pauses on the Penedo da Saudade to look out over the valley and the beaches beyond, lit by a white, nostalgic, idealising light; and the hot afternoons spent in the shade of the Penha Verde, listening to the cool, dripping murmur of water on stone; the evenings spent in the valley below Colares, rowing in an old boat on waters made dark by the shadows cast by the ash trees - and how they laughed when they ran aground in the tall reeds or when her straw hat caught on the low branches of the poplars!
She had always loved Sintra! The dark, whispering groves of Ramalhão at the entrance to the town filled her with happy melancholy!
They were left almost entirely free, she and cousin Bazilio. Her mama, poor thing, nervous, rheumaticky and self-absorbed, would smile and nod off and leave them to their own devices. Bazilio was rich then; he used to call her mother 'Aunt Jojó' and bring her little bags of sweets…
Winter came, and their love found shelter in the old room lined with dark red paper in Rua da Madalena. What delicious evenings they had spent there! Mama would be snoring softly, her feet wrapped in a blanket, and a volume from The Ladies' Library open on her lap. And they would sit contentedly, very close, side by side on the sofa. Ah, the sofa! What memories! It was a low, narrow sofa, upholstered in a pale woollen fabric, with a panel down the middle which she herself had embroidered with yellow and purple pansies on a black background. Then one day came 'the end'. João de Brito, who formed part of Bastos & Brito, went bankrupt. The house in Almada and the estate in Colares were both sold.
Finding himself suddenly penniless, Bazilio had left for Brazil. How she had missed him! She spent the first few days sitting on their beloved sofa, sobbing softly, with his photograph clasped in her hands. Then came the agonising wait for letters, the impatient messages sent to the shipping company when the steamship was delayed…
A year passed. And one morning, after some weeks of silence from Bazilio, she received a long letter from Bahia which began: 'I have been thinking long and hard lately and I believe that we should consider our feelings for each other to have been mere childish nonsense…'
Luiza fainted. In the ensuing two pages of explanations, Bazilio affected to feel great sorrow: he was still poor; he would have to struggle hard before he would ever earn enough for two to live on; the climate was horrendous; he did not want her to suffer, poor angel; he called her 'my dove' and signed his whole name, using a very elaborate signature.
For months, she was plunged in sadness. It was winter and, as she sat on the window seat with her wool embroidery to hand, she was, she thought, utterly without illusions now; she even considered entering a convent, as she glumly watched the dripping umbrellas pass by below in the teeming rain; or else, in the evening, she would sit at the piano and sing that song by Soares de Passos:
Ah, farewell, farewell!
Gone now are the days
When I lived happy by your side…
or the final aria from La Traviata or the sad, sad fado that Bazilio himself had taught her.
But then her mother's heart condition worsened; there were anxious, sleepless nights. During her mother's convalescence they went to Belas: there she became friends with the tall, skinny, frivolous Cardoso sisters, who went everywhere together, trotting along beside each other like a pair of greyhounds. Goodness, how they laughed! And the things they said about men! A lieutenant in the artillery had fallen in love with her. He had a squint and wrote her a poem entitled 'To the Lily of Belas':
On the side of the hill
Grows the virginal lily…
It was a very happy time, full of consolations.
When they returned to Lisbon in the winter, her figure had filled out and she had a healthy glow in her cheeks. And one day, on opening a drawer and finding a photograph of Bazilio in white trousers and panama hat - a photograph he had sent her from Bahia when he first arrived there - she had looked at it hard and shrugged.
'And to think I tormented myself over the likes of him! What a fool I was!'
Three years had passed by the time she met Jorge. She had not, at first, felt drawn to him. She did not like bearded men; then she realised that it was his first beard, fine, close-cropped and doubtless very soft; she began to admire his eyes, his youthfulness. And, although she did not love him, whenever she was near him, she felt a weakness, a dependency and a lassitude, a desire to fall asleep on his shoulder and to stay there comfortably for many years, fearing nothing. What a shock when he had said to her: 'Let's get married, shall we?' She had suddenly seen that bearded face, those shining eyes, on the same pillow next to her, and she had blushed scarlet. Jorge had clasped her hand, and she was aware of the warmth of that broad hand penetrating and possessing her; she had said 'Yes' and stood there like an idiot, but beneath her merino wool dress, her breasts swelled slightly. She was engaged, at last! How wonderful, and what a relief for her mama!
They were married at eight o'clock one misty morning. They had to light a lamp in order for her to be able to see to put on her circlet and her tulle veil. She remembered that whole day as being swathed in mist, with all the edges blurred, as if in some ancient dream, out of which emerged the flabby, sallow face of the priest and the terrifying figure of an old woman, who, with fierce insistence, held out her claw-like hand, pushing and cursing, as Jorge, somewhat shaken, stood at the church door distributing alms. Her satin shoes had been too tight. She had felt sick in the morning, and they had had to make her some very strong green tea. And how tired she had felt that night in her new home after unpacking her trunks! When Jorge hesitantly blew out the candle, luminous S's flickered and danced before her eyes.
But he was her husband, he was young, strong and cheerful, and she dedicated herself to adoring him. She took an immense interest in his person and in his things; she was always fussing with his hair, his clothes, his pistols and his papers. She studied other women's husbands, compared them with her own and felt proud of him. Jorge showered her with tender, loving attentions; he knelt at her feet, and he was so very charming. He was always good-humoured and full of fun, except, that is, when it came to anything to do with his profession or his personal pride, for then he could be extremely stern and became gruff and solemn in word and manner. A rather romantic friend of hers, who saw potential tragedies lurking everywhere, had said to her: 'He's just the sort of man who could stab his wife to death.' She, not yet fully aware of Jorge's essentially placid nature, believed her friend, and this belief added a thrilling edge to her love for him. He was 'everything' to her - her strength, her goal, her destiny, her religion, her man! She thought about what would have happened had she married cousin Bazilio. It would have been dreadful! What would have become of her? She grew absorbed in imagining other destinies: she saw herself in Brazil, amongst coconut palms, lulled to sleep in a hammock, surrounded by black slaves and watching the parrots flutter and fly.
'Dona Leopoldina is here,' Juliana announced.
Luiza sat up, greatly surprised.
'What? Dona Leopoldina? Why ever did you let her in?'
She hurriedly buttoned up her peignoir. Goodness, if Jorge were to find out… And he had told her so often that he did not want Leopoldina in the house! But if the poor woman was already there in the drawing room…
'All right, tell her I'll be with her shortly.'
She was Luiza's closest friend. They had been neighbours in Rua da Madalena before they were married and they had studied at the same school, in Rua da Patriarcal, taught by poor, lame Rita Pessoa. Leopoldina was the only child of the ancient, dissolute Visconde de Quebrais, who had been page to the usurper Prince Miguel. She had made an unhappy marriage to one João Noronha, a clerk in the Customs office. People called her 'that Quebrais woman'; they also called her 'The Ever-Open Door'.
It was well known that she had had lovers, and it was said that she had other vices too. Jorge loathed her. And he had often said to Luiza: 'You can see anyone you like, but not Leopoldina!'
Leopoldina was twenty-seven. She was not tall, but she was considered to have the best figure of any woman in Lisbon. She always wore very close-fitting dresses that emphasised and clung to every curve of her body, with narrow skirts gathered in at the back. Men rolled their eyes and said: 'She's like a statue, a Venus!' She had the full, softly rounded shoulders of an artist's model; and one sensed, even beneath the bodice of her dress, that her breasts had the firm, harmonious form of two lovely lemon halves; the luscious, ample line of her hips and certain voluptuous movements of her waist attracted men's lustful glances. Her face, though, was somewhat coarse; there was something too fleshly about her flared nostrils; and her fine skin, with its warm, olive glow, bore the marks of faded smallpox scars. Her greatest beauty lay in her intensely dark eyes, liquid and languid, and their very long lashes.
Luiza walked over to her with open arms and they embraced each other warmly. And Leopoldina, seated now on the sofa, slowly furling her pale silk parasol, launched into a litany of complaints. She had been unwell, in low spirits, and suffering from dizzy spells. The heat was killing her. And what had Luiza been up to? She seemed plumper.
Since she was rather short-sighted, Leopoldina screwed up her eyes slightly in order to confirm this, and opened her full, warm red lips.
'It seems that happiness brings everything, even rosy cheeks!' she said, smiling.
She had come to ask Luiza for the address of the Frenchwoman who made her hats. Besides, it had been ages since she and Luiza had seen each other and she missed her!
'But you've no idea what this heat is like! I'm dead on my feet!'
And she slumped back against the sofa cushions as if overcome, smiling broadly and showing her large, white teeth.
Luiza told her the Frenchwoman's address and praised her work: she was very reasonable and had excellent taste. Then, since the room was in darkness, she went over to the window and opened the shutters just a crack. The upholstery and the curtains were all made from the same dark green fabric; the sprigged wallpaper and the carpet were of the same colour too, and this sombre décor highlighted the heavy, gilt frames of two engravings (Delacroix's Medea and Delaroche's Martyr), the scarlet bindings of two vast volumes of Dante illustrated by Doré and, between the windows, the oval mirror in which was reflected the bisque statuette on the console representing a Neapolitan dancing the tarantella.
Above the sofa hung the portrait in oils of Jorge's mother. She was seated and dressed in opulent black - very erect in her severe, corseted bodice: one of her heavily beringed hands, deathly pale, rested on her knees, the other was lost amongst the intricate lacework on her short satin cape; and that tall, gaunt figure, with her great dark eyes, was set against a scarlet curtain, drawn back to form copious folds and to reveal, beyond, blue skies and the round tops of trees.
'And how's your husband?' asked Luiza, moving still closer to Leopoldina.
'Oh, much the same. Not exactly fun,' replied Leopoldina, laughing. Then, looking very serious, her brow furrowed, she added: 'You know, of course, that I've finished with Mendonça?'
Luiza blushed slightly.
Leopoldina immediately gave her all the details.
She was extremely indiscreet and talked a great deal about herself, her feelings, her boudoir and her accounts. She had never had any secrets from Luiza, and in her need to share confidences and to enjoy Luiza's somewhat scandalised admiration, she would describe her lovers, their opinions, their lovemaking, their eccentricities, their clothes - all, of course, wildly exaggerated. These whispered conversations on the sofa were always highly titillating and accompanied by much giggling; Luiza, pink-cheeked, used to listen with a somewhat pious air, fascinated and astonished, drinking it all in. She found it so very strange and interesting!
'This time I can honestly say that I was wrong, my dear!' exclaimed Leopoldina, looking at her bleakly.
'But you nearly always are!'
It was true! She was a poor unfortunate wretch!
'Each time I think it's true love, and each time I'm disappointed.'
Prodding the carpet with the end of her parasol, she said:
'But one day I'll get it right.'
'See that you do,' said Luiza. 'It's about time.'
Sometimes, in her conscience, she felt that Leopoldina's behaviour was indeed 'indecent', but she had a soft spot for her; and she had always greatly admired the beauty of her body, which aroused in her a feeling almost of physical attraction. She would make excuses for her: she was, after all, so very unhappy with her husband. What the poor thing wanted was passion. And that glittering, mysterious word, from which happiness drips like water from an overflowing bowl, seemed to Luiza to be justification enough; she regarded her almost as a heroine, and she looked at her with amazed eyes as one might at someone returned from a marvellous and difficult voyage, full of thrilling incident. The only thing she did not like was the whiff of strong tobacco, mingled with cheap cologne, that clung to Leopoldina's clothes, for Leopoldina smoked.
'And what did he do, Mendonça?'
Leopoldina gave a bored shrug.
'Oh, he wrote me a really stupid letter, saying that, all things considered, it was best if we finished once and for all, because he didn't want to get too involved! The fool! Actually, I've probably got the letter with me.'
She felt in the pocket of her dress and pulled out a handkerchief, a small purse, some keys, a little box of face powder…but found only a programme from the circus.
She then talked about the circus. Dreadfully dull. The best thing had been the young trapeze artist. Terribly handsome and with a wonderful physique.
'I see your cousin, Bazilio, is coming to Lisbon.'
'So I read today in the newspaper. I was amazed.'
'Oh, there's one other thing I wanted to ask you before I forget. What edging did you use on that blue check dress of yours? I want to have the same thing.'
Luiza had had the dress edged in a slightly darker shade of blue.
'Come and have a look. Come inside.'
They went into the bedroom. Luiza opened the window and then the wardrobe. It was a small, pleasantly cool room, decorated with pale blue cretonne. There was a cheap rug on the floor, with blue designs on a white background. Positioned between the two windows was a tall dressing table adorned with a canopy of thick lace and crowded with cut-glass bottles. Between the curtains, the lush, healthy leaves of luxuriant plants, begonias and palms in glazed earthenware pots, drooped decoratively from small claw-footed tables.
This cosy décor doubtless reminded Leopoldina of tranquil pleasures. Looking around, she said slowly:
'And you're still in love with your husband, I suppose. And quite right, my dear, quite right.'
She stopped in front of the dressing table to dab some face powder on her throat and cheeks.
'Oh, yes, quite right,' she said again. 'But who could possibly feel fond of a husband like mine!'
She plumped herself down on the sofa, with an air of abandonment, and started on her usual complaints about her husband. He was so coarse! He was so selfish!
'You won't believe this, but lately, if I'm not home by four o'clock, he has taken to beginning his meal without me and leaving me nothing but the leftovers. And he's so slovenly and dirty, always spitting on the carpets… And his room - because, as you know, we have separate rooms - is an absolute pigsty!'
Luiza said sternly:
'That's awful, but, to be honest, it's as much your fault as his.'
'Mine!' Leopoldina sat up straight, her eyes glittering and seemingly even larger and darker. 'That's all I need, having to concern myself with his room as well!'
Oh, she was a poor wretch, the unhappiest woman in the world.
'He's not even jealous, the brute!'
At this point, Juliana entered the room and gave a cough; then, again fiddling nervously with her collar and her brooch, she said:
'Do you still want me to starch all the waistcoats?'
'Yes, I've told you already. They've all got to be packed into the trunk tonight before you go to bed.'
'What trunk is that? Is someone going away?' asked Leopoldina.
'Yes, Jorge. He's off to visit some mines in the Alentejo.'
'That means you'll be alone and I can come and see you. Good!'
And she sat down next to her, her eyes suddenly alight with love.
'I've got so much to tell you. If only you knew, my dear.'
'What's this? Not another grand passion,' said Luiza, laughing.
Leopoldina's face grew grave.
It was nothing to laugh about. She was in a terrible state. That was why she had come, in fact. She had felt so alone at home, so tense. 'I'll go and see Luiza, I thought to myself, and have a nice chat.'
And in a quiet, almost solemn voice:
'This time it's serious, Luiza!' She gave more details. He was a tall, fair, handsome lad. 'And so talented! He's a poet!' She spoke the word devoutly, emphasising the first syllable. 'He's a poet!'
She undid two buttons on her bodice and removed from her bosom a folded piece of paper. It was a poem.
And moving closer to Luiza, her nostrils flaring with delight and excitement, she read in hushed tones, proudly and slowly:
Farol da Guia, 5th June
When, at the sunset hour, I pause and think,
As I lean out over the rocks where the wild sea roars…
It was an elegy. In four-line stanzas, the young man described the long meditations during which he imagined he could see Leopoldina - that 'radiant vision slipping lightly by' - in the sleeping waters, in the red skies of sunset, in the white foam. It was a clumsy composition, full of lines that did not scan and with a sickly, vulgarly sentimental, very 'Lisbon' feel about it. And it closed by telling her that it was 'not in splendid salons' that he loved to see her, not at 'febrile dances'; it was there, amongst those rocks…
Where, each day, at sunset, I watch the vast sea fall asleep.
'Lovely, isn't it?'
They both fell silent, feeling rather moved.
Leopoldina, her eyes wild, lovingly repeated the place and date:
'Farol da Guia, 5th June!'
But the clock in the room struck four. Leopoldina leapt anxiously to her feet, replacing the poem in her bosom.
She had to leave. It was getting late, and that other man would be sitting down to eat. They were having baked mullet for dinner. And there was nothing worse than cold fish.
'Goodbye, then, and see you soon.' While Jorge was away, she would visit often. 'Goodbye. And the Frenchwoman is in Rua do Ouro, above the tobacconist's, is that right?'
Luiza went out onto the landing with her. Leopoldina, when she was at the bottom of the stairs, shouted up:
'So you think I should edge the dress with blue, do you?'
Luiza leaned over the banister:
'That's what I decided, I think it's best.'
'Bye, then. Rua do Ouro, above the tobacconist's.'
'That's right. Rua do Ouro. Goodbye.' And in a shrill little voice: 'The door on the right, Madame François.'
Jorge returned at five o'clock, and no sooner had he entered the room and placed his cane in one corner than he said:
'I know about your visitor.'
Luiza turned, reddening slightly. She was standing at the dressing table, wearing a white linen dress trimmed with lace and with her hair carefully coiffed.
It was true, Leopoldina had called round. Juliana had shown her in. She had been most put out. Leopoldina had wanted the address of that Frenchwoman who makes hats. She had only stayed ten minutes. Who had told him?
'Juliana. And according to her, Dona Leopoldina was here all afternoon.'
'All afternoon! What nonsense, she was here for ten minutes, if that.'
Jorge was silently pulling off his gloves. He went over to the window and started brushing at the stiff leaves of a begonia which had unhealthy red spots on them and a kind of silvery slime. He was whistling softly and seemed entirely absorbed in rearranging an amaryllis bud, which nestled amongst its glossy foliage like a small, startled heart.
Luiza was threading a gold medallion onto a long black velvet ribbon; her hands were trembling and she was still blushing.
'This heat doesn't suit them,' she said.
Jorge did not respond. He merely whistled more loudly, went over to the other window, and flicked his fingers at the supple red- and green-tinged leaves of a palm, then, impatiently tugging at his collar as if he were suffocating, he said:
'Look, you've got to stop seeing that woman. Once and for all.'
Luiza blushed scarlet.
'It's for your own sake. And for decency's sake, because of what the neighbours might say. '
'But it was Juliana who…' stammered Luiza.
'You should simply have sent her away again. You should have said you were out or in China or ill!'
He stopped and, opening wide his arms, added in a sad voice:
'My dear girl, everyone knows her. She's "that Quebrais woman"! She's "The Ever-Open Door"! She's nothing but a shameless hussy!'
In exasperation, he listed her lovers: Carlos Viegas, that thin man with the droopy moustache who used to write plays for the Ginásio! Santos Madeira, with the pockmarked face and the great shock of hair! Melchior Vadio, a spineless good-for-nothing, with eyes like a dead sheep, and that ridiculously long cigarette holder! That very pretty young man, Pedro Câmara! And Mendonça, the martyr to his corns! Tutti quanti!
Then shrugging his shoulders, he said angrily:
'As if I wouldn't have known she had been here anyway! The smell is enough to give her away. That awful cheap cologne! I know you were brought up together, etc. etc., but, I'm sorry, if I meet her on the stairs, I'll send her packing! I mean it!'
He stopped for a moment and said tenderly:
'Tell me, Luiza, I'm right, aren't I?'
Luiza, her thoughts confused, was looking in the mirror, putting on her earrings.
'Of course,' she said.
He left the room angrily.
Luiza did not move. A small, clear, round tear trickled over one nostril. She mournfully blew her nose. That Juliana! That tattletale! And out of pure spite too! Just to cause trouble!
She was filled with anger. She went to the ironing room and flung open the door.
'Why did you have to say who had or hadn't been here?'
Juliana, greatly surprised, put down the iron.
'I didn't know it was a secret, madam.'
'Of course, it wasn't, you fool. No one said it was. But why did you show her in? How often have I told you that I don't receive Dona Leopoldina?'
'You've never told me any such thing,' Juliana replied, in offended, self-righteous tones.
'Shut up! You're lying!'
Luiza turned on her heel and went back to her bedroom, greatly agitated, and stood leaning at the window, looking out.
The sun had disappeared; the uniform darkness of a windless evening filled the narrow street; on the balconies of the unlit houses, which were all old buildings, stood red earthenware pots containing the occasional miserable, shrivelled plant, a marjoram or a carnation; somewhere, on the melancholy keys of a piano, a little girl was playing 'A Virgin's Prayer', as befitted the indolent, sentimental, Sunday mood; and at the window opposite, Teixeira Azevedo's four skinny, curly-haired, hollow-eyed daughters were spending the evening of this day of rest gazing out at the street, at the air, at the neighbouring windows, whispering if they saw a man walk past, or else leaning out, and with an absurd degree of concentration, aiming their gobs of spit at the pavement below.
Jorge was right, poor love, thought Luiza. But what more could she do? She no longer went to Leopoldina's house, she had removed her photograph from the album in the living room, she had felt obliged to tell her of Jorge's dislike for her, they had both even wept together about it. The poor thing! She hardly ever received her, or only very rarely, and then only for a moment! And since she had already been shown into the drawing room, she could scarcely have pushed her down the stairs!
A thickset, bow-legged man, hunched over a hurdy-gurdy, appeared at the end of the street; he had a fierce-looking black beard; he stopped where he was and began turning the handle of the machine, gazing up at the windows with a sad smile that revealed white teeth; 'Casta Diva', in harsh, tremulous, metallic strains, rang out along the street.
Gertrudes, the mathematics teacher's housekeeper and mistress, immediately appeared at her narrow window and rested her broad, swarthy face - the face of a plump, contented forty-year-old - against the window frame; further along, on the open balcony of a second-floor apartment, the gaunt figure of Cunha Rosado leaned out, clutching his dressing gown to his belly with hands so thin they looked almost transparent; he wore a cap with a tassel on it and the disconsolate look of a man with digestive problems. Other bored faces looked out from behind cotton curtains.
In the street, the woman who owned the tobacconist's came to her door, dressed in deep mourning; she peered out with her ugly, widowed face, her arms folded over her black-dyed shawl, a lanky, scrawny figure in her narrow skirts. From the shop beneath Azevedo's house emerged the coal merchant's wife, hugely, bestially pregnant, her dry, thinning hair all dishevelled, her face greasy and grimy with coal, with three half-naked, almost black children, snivelling and hirsute, clinging to her cotton print skirts. Senhor Paula, who owned the junk shop, strode out into the middle of the street; the polished peak of his black cloth cap was never raised to reveal his eyes and, as if to appear still more reserved, he always hid his hands behind his back beneath the tails of his thin jacket; the grubby heel of his socks showed above his bead-embroidered slippers; and chronic catarrh meant that he was constantly, angrily clearing his throat. He hated kings and he hated priests. He was enraged by the state of public amenities. He often whistled revolutionary songs and in his every word and attitude revealed himself to be a patriot at the end of his tether.
The man with the hurdy-gurdy took off his broad slouch hat and, still playing, held it out to the windows, with a pleading look in his eye. The Azevedo girls immediately slammed the window shut. The coal merchant's wife gave him a few copper coins, but she asked him questions too; she wanted to know what country he was from, what roads he had travelled and how many tunes the instrument could play.
People in their Sunday best were wending their way home, with the exhausted air of those returning from a long walk, their boots all dusty; women in shawls, were coming back from their vegetable plots, carrying children lulled to sleep by the walking and by the heat; placid old men in white trousers, hat in hand, were enjoying the cool, taking a turn about the neighbourhood; people stood at their windows yawning; the sky was taking on the blue, polished sheen of porcelain; a bell was tolling in the distance at the end of some church festival; and Sunday was drawing to a close in an atmosphere of tired, sad serenity.
'Luiza,' said Jorge's voice.
She turned round and uttered a vague: 'Hm?'
'Let's have supper, my dear. It's seven o'clock.'
In the middle of the room, he put his arms about her waist and spoke very softly, his lips brushing her cheek:
'Were you angry with me just now?'
'No, you're right. I know you're right.'
'Aha!' he said in a victorious tone, very pleased with himself: 'So it's a case of:
What better friend and counsellor
Than the husband of my own soul's choosing.'
Then he added, tenderly and gravely:
'My love, our little house is so honest and decent that it pains my soul to see that woman come in here, smelling of cheap cologne, cigarettes and all the rest! Mà, di questo non parlaremo più, o donna mia! Our soup awaits!'