“Come on, then, let’s show these youngsters that their elders still know a thing or two!”
Joaquim Fidélis protested with a smile, but did as he was told and danced. It was two o’clock in the morning when he left, wrapping his sixty years in a warm winter cape (for it was June 1879), covering his bald head with the hood, lighting a cigar, and hopping nimbly into his carriage.
He may well have nodded off in the carriage, but, once home, despite the late hour and his heavy eyelids, he went to his desk, opened a drawer, took out one of many notebooks, and, in three or four minutes, wrote some ten or eleven lines. His last words were these: “Altogether a vile ball; some aging reveler forced me to dance a quadrille with her; at the door, a dark-skinned country bumpkin asked me for a present. Simply vile!” He put the notebook back in the drawer, undressed, got into bed, fell asleep, and died.
Yes, indeed, the news dismayed the whole neighborhood. So beloved was he, with his fine manners and his ability to be able to talk to anyone; he could be educated with the educated, ignorant with the ignorant, boyish with the boys, even girlish with the girls. And then, most obligingly, he was always ready to write letters, speak to friends, patch up quarrels, or lend money. In the evenings, a handful of close acquaintances from Engenho Velho, and sometimes other parts of the city, would gather in his house to play ombre or whist and discuss politics. Joaquim Fidélis had been a member of the Chamber of Deputies until its dissolution by the Marquis of Olinda in 1863. Unable to get reelected, he abandoned public life. He was a conservative, a label he had difficulty in accepting because it sounded to him like a political Gallicism. He preferred to be called one of the “Saquarema Set.” But he gave it all up, and it seems that, in recent times, he detached himself first from the party, and, eventually, from the party’s politics. There are reasons to believe that, from a certain point onward, he was merely a profound skeptic.
He was a wealthy and educated man. He had qualified as a lawyer in 1842. Now he did nothing, but read a great deal. There were no women in his house. Widowed after the first outbreak of yellow fever, he refused to countenance a second marriage, to the great sorrow of three or four ladies, who for some time had hopes in that regard. One of them perfidiously managed to make her beautiful 1845 ringlets last until well after her second grandchild was born; another younger woman, also a widow, thought she could hold on to him with concessions that were as generous as they were irretrievable. “My dear Leocádia,” he would say whenever she hinted at a marital solution, “why don’t we carry on just as we are? Mystery is what gives life its charm.” He lived with a nephew called Benjamin, the orphaned son of one of his sisters who had died when the child was still very young. Joaquim Fidélis brought him up and made him study hard, so much so that the boy graduated with a law degree in the year of 1877.
Benjamin was utterly dumbfounded. He could not bring himself to believe that his uncle was dead. He rushed to his bedroom, found the corpse lying in bed, cold, eyes wide open, and a faintly ironic curl to the left-hand corner of his mouth. He wept profusely. He was losing not just a relative but a father, a tenderhearted, dedicated father, one of a kind. Finally, Benjamin wiped away his tears and, since it upset him to see the dead man’s eyes open and his lip curled, he rectified both defects. Thus, death took on a more tragic but less original expression.
“No! I don’t believe it!” cried Diogo Vilares, one of the neighbors, shortly after hearing the news.
Diogo Vilares was one of Joaquim Fidélis’s five closest friends. He owed to him the job he had held since 1857. Diogo was followed by the four others in quick succession, all speechless and unable to believe what had happened. The first was Elias Xavier, who had obtained a knighthood, thanks, it was said, to the deceased’s timely intervention; then came João Brás, another deputy who, under the rather peculiar rules of the time, had been elected to the Chamber thanks to Joaquim Fidélis’s influence. Last of all came Fragoso and Galdino, who, in lieu of diplomas, knighthoods, or jobs, owed him other favors instead. Fidélis had advanced Galdino a small amount of capital, and had arranged a good marriage for Fragoso. And now he was dead! Gone forever! Standing around the bed, they gazed at his serene face and recalled their last get-together the previous Sunday, so intimate and yet so jolly! And, even more recently, the night before last, when their customary game of ombre had lasted until eleven o’clock.
“Don’t come tomorrow,” Joaquim Fidélis had said to them. “I’m going to Carvalhinho’s ball.”
“And after that?”
“I’ll be back the day after tomorrow.”
And, as they left, he gave each of them a box of excellent cigars, as he sometimes did, with a little bag of sweets for the children and two or three fine jokes . . . All lost! Vanished! Gone!
Many persons of note came to the funeral: two senators, a former minister, a few noblemen, wealthy businessmen, lawyers, merchants, and doctors; but the coffin was carried by Benjamin and those five close friends. None of them would yield this honor to anyone, considering it their final and inalienable duty. The graveside eulogy was given by João Brás; it was a touching address, slightly too polished for such an unexpected event, but nonetheless excusable. When everyone had deposited their shovelful of earth on the coffin, the mourners slowly slipped away from the graveside, apart from those six, who stayed to oversee the gravediggers as they went indifferently about their work. They stayed there until the grave had been filled to the very top and the funeral wreaths laid out upon it.
The seventh-day mass brought them together again at the church. When the mass was over, the five friends accompanied the deceased man’s nephew home. Benjamin invited them to stay for breakfast.
“I hope that Uncle Joaquim’s friends will also be my friends,” he said. They went in and, while they ate, they talked about the dead man,
each one recounting some story, some witty remark; they were unanimous in their praise and fond regrets. Since each of them had asked for a lit tle memento of the deceased, when they finished breakfast they all went through into his study and chose something: an old pen, a glasses case, a little pamphlet, or some other personal token. Benjamin felt greatly consoled. He informed them that he intended to keep the study exactly as it was. He hadn’t even opened the desk yet. He did so then, and, with the others, drew up a list of the contents of some of the drawers. There were letters, loose papers, concert programs, menus from grand dinners; all of it in an enormous muddle. Among other things they found some notebooks, numbered and dated.
“A diary!” exclaimed Benjamin.
It was indeed a diary of the deceased’s thoughts and impressions, a sort of collection of secret memories and confidences that the man had shared only with himself. The friends were greatly moved and excited; reading them would be just like conversing with Joaquim again. Such an upright character! And the soul of discretion! Benjamin began reading, but his voice broke, and João Brás had to carry on.
Their interest in what they heard soothed the pain of death. It was a book worthy of being published. It was filled with political and social observations, philosophical reflections, anecdotes about public men such as Feijó and Vasconcelos, others of a rather racier nature, the names of ladies, among them Leocádia’s; an entire repertoire of events and comments. They all admired the dead man’s talent, his graceful style, and the fascinating subject matter. Some were in favor of having it printed; Benjamin agreed, on condition that they excluded any elements that might be unsavory or excessively personal. And they continued reading, skipping whole sections and pages, until the clock struck noon. They all stood up. Diogo Vilares had been due at his office hours ago; João Brás and Elias also had to be else-where. Galdino went off to his shop. Fragoso had to change out of his black clothes and take his wife shopping on Rua do Ouvidor. They agreed to meet again and continue their reading. Some of the details had given them an itch for scandal, and itches need to be scratched, which is precisely what they intended to do, by reading.
“Until tomorrow, then,” they said. “Yes, until tomorrow.”
Once he was alone, Benjamin carried on reading the manuscript. Among other things, he marveled at the portrayal of the Widow Leocádia, a masterpiece of painstaking observation, even though the date coincided with the time when they were still lovers. It was proof of a rare impartiality. The deceased, it turned out, was a master of portraits. The notebooks were full of them, stretching back to 1873 or 1874; some were sketches of the living, others of the dead, some were of public men like Paula Sousa, Aureliano, Olinda, etc. They were brief and to the point, sometimes only three or four lines, drawn with such confident fidelity and perfection that the image seemed almost like a photograph. Benjamin carried on reading. Suddenly he came across Diogo Vilares, about whom he read the following:
DIOGO VILARES—I have referred to this friend many times and will do so yet again, provided he doesn’t kill me with boredom, a field in which I consider him a true professional. Many years ago, he asked me to get him a job and I did. He did not warn me of the currency in which he would repay me. Such singular gratitude! He went so far as to compose a sonnet and publish it. He wouldn’t stop talking about the favor I’d done him, paying me endless compliments; finally, though, he relented. Later on, we became more closely acquainted. I got to know him even better. C’est le genre ennuyeux. Not a bad partner at ombre, though. They tell me he owes nothing to anyone. A good family man. Stupid and credulous. Within the space of four days, I’ve heard him describe a government as both excellent and detestable, depending on who he is speaking to. He laughs a lot and usually inappropriately. When they meet him for the first time, everyone begins by assuming he is a serious fellow; by the second day, they snap their fingers at him. The reason is his face, or, more particularly, his cheeks, which lend him a certain air of superiority.
Benjamin’s first reaction was that he’d had a lucky escape. What if Diogo Vilares had been there? He reread the description and could scarcely believe it. But there was no denying it: the name was definitely Diogo Vilares and it was written in his uncle’s own hand. And he wasn’t the only friend mentioned, either; he flicked through the manuscript and came across Elias:
ELIAS XAVIER—This Elias is a subordinate fellow, destined to serve someone, and serve him smugly, like a coachman to a fashionable household. He vulgarly treats my personal visits with a certain arrogance and disdain: the policy of an ambitious lackey. From the first weeks I knew him, I realized that he wanted to make himself my intimate friend, and I also understood that on the day he really became one, he would throw all the others out in the street. There are times when he calls me to one side to talk to me secretly about the weather. His aim is clearly to instill in the others a suspicion that there are private matters between us, and he achieves precisely this, because all the others bow and scrape before him. He is intelligent, good-humored, and refined. He’s an excellent conversationalist. I don’t know anyone with a sharper intellect. He is neither cowardly nor slanderous. He only speaks ill of someone when his own interests are at stake; when such interests are absent, he holds his tongue, whereas true slander is gratuitous. He is dedicated and persuasive. He has no ideas, it’s true, but that’s the difference between him and Diogo Vilares: Diogo simply parrots the ideas he hears, whereas Elias knows how to make them his own and choose the opportune moment to introduce them into the conversation. An event in 1865 provides a good illustration of the man’s shrewdness. He was due to be granted a knighthood by the government for providing some freed slaves for the war in Paraguay. He had no need of me, but he came to see me on two or three occasions, with a dismayed and pleading air, to ask me to intercede on his behalf. I spoke to the minister, who told me: “Elias knows the document has already been drafted and only awaits the Emperor’s signature.” I understood then that this was simply a way of showing how deeply indebted he was to me. A good partner at whist; a touch quarrelsome, but he knows what he’s doing.
“Well, really, Uncle Joaquim!” exclaimed Benjamin, getting to his feet. A few moments later, he thought to himself: “Here I am reading the unpublished book of his heart. I only knew the public edition, revised and expurgated. This is the original, internal text, exact and authentic. But who would have thought it of Uncle Joaquim!”
He sat down again, slowly reread the portrait of Elias, pondering its features. While he lacked the necessary knowledge to evaluate the truth of the sketch, he thought that, in many aspects, at least, the portrait was a true likeness. He compared these iconographic notes, so crude and cold, with his uncle’s warm, elegant manners, and felt gripped by a certain fear and disquiet. What, for example, might his uncle have said about him? With this thought, he again leafed through the manuscript, skimming over various ladies and public men, and came upon Fragoso—an extremely brief sketch that came immediately after Galdino and four pages before João Brás. He remembered that the former had, only a short time before, taken a pen as a memento; perhaps the very pen with which the dead man had drawn his portrait. The sketch was only a few lines long, as follows:
FRAGOSO—Honest, saccharine manners, and handsome. Wasn’t difficult to marry him off; he gets on very well with his wife. I know he adores me—almost as much as he adores himself. Polished, insipid, and commonplace conversation.
GALDINO MADEIRA—The warmest heart in the world and a spotless character, but the qualities of his mind destroy all the others. I lent him some money for family reasons and because money is not something I lack. There is in his brain a hole of some sort, through which his mind slips and falls into a vacuum. He is incapable of three minutes’ consecutive thought. He subsists mainly on images and borrowed phrases. The “teeth of calumny” and other such expressions are his perennial delight—as worn out as the mattress in a cheap boardinghouse. He is easily vexed at cards, and, once vexed, makes a point of losing, making it clear that this was deliberate. He doesn’t dismiss any employees, however bad. If he didn’t have bookkeepers, it’s doubtful he could keep track of his earnings at all. A friend of mine, who is a civil servant, owed him some money for more than two years and used to say to me with a grin that, whenever Galdino saw him in the street, instead of asking for his money, he would ask him how things were going at the ministry.
JOÃO BRÁS—Neither foolish nor stupid. Very attentive, despite having no manners. Cannot bear to see a minister’s carriage go by; he turns pale and averts his eyes. I believe he’s ambitious, but at his age, with no settled career, ambition is slowly turning to envy. In the two years he served as a deputy, he performed his duties honorably: he worked hard and made several good speeches; not brilliant, but solid, full of facts, and well thought out. Proof that he retains a residue of ambition lies in his ardent pursuit of certain prominent, honorific posts; a few months ago, he allowed himself to be appointed honorary president of a São José lay brotherhood, and according to what I hear, he performs his duties with exemplary zeal. I believe he is atheist, but I can’t be sure. He smiles little and discreetly. He lives a pure and rigorous life, but his character has one or two fraudulent notes to it, which he lacks the skill to conceal; he lies easily about trivial matters.
At last, with a feeling of dread, Benjamin found himself described in this diary.
This nephew of mine [said the manuscript] is twenty-four years of age, engaged on a project for judicial reform, has abundant hair, and he adores me. I adore him no less. Discreet, loyal, and kind—even to the point of gullibility. As firm in his affections as he is fickle in his opinions. Superficial and a lover of novelty; very fond of legal vocabulary and formulas.
He tried to reread this, but couldn’t bear to; those few lines were like gazing into a mirror. He stood up, went over to the window, looked out at the garden, and came back inside to contemplate once again his own features. He reread what his uncle had written: it was rather scant and thin, but not slanderous. If someone had been there with him, it’s likely that the young man’s feelings of mortification would have been less intense, because the need to dispel the impressions formed by the others would have given him the necessary strength to react against what was written. Alone, however, he had to bear it with no contrasting light and shade. Then he wondered whether his uncle might have composed these pages when he was simply in a bad mood; he compared them to others in which the phrasing was less harsh, but he had no idea whether or not the milder tone was deliberate.
To confirm his hypothesis, he recalled his uncle’s customary good manners, the happy hours he had spent alone with him or in conversation with his friends. He tried to summon up his uncle’s face, the kindly, amused look in his eyes, and his rather solemn sense of humor; but instead of those innocent, friendly features, all he could see was his uncle lying dead, stretched out on the bed, his eyes open and his lip curled. He tried to banish this image from his mind, but it refused to budge. Unable to drive it away, Benjamin tried mentally to close the man’s eyes and straighten his mouth; but no sooner had he done so than the eyelids would lift once again, and the lips resume that ironic sneer. It was no longer the man he had known, but the author of those portraits.
Benjamin ate and slept badly. The five friends returned the following afternoon to continue their reading. They arrived eager and impatient, asking many questions and insisting on seeing the notebooks. Benjamin, however, put them off, making one excuse after another; unfortunately for him, there in the room, behind the others, he could still see the dead man’s eternally curling lip, and this made him seem even more awkward and withdrawn. Benjamin’s demeanor toward the others turned chilly, for he wanted them to leave, and to see if that vision would disappear with them. Thirty or forty minutes went by. Eventually, the five friends looked at each other and decided to go; they bade him a ceremonious farewell, and returned to their houses deep in conversation:
“What a difference from his uncle! What a gulf separates them! Puffed up by his inheritance, no doubt! Well, we’ll leave him to it. Alas, poor Joaquim Fidélis!”
“Posthumous Photo Gallery” is excerpted from The Collected Stories of Machado De Assis by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson. © 2018 by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson. Foreword © 2018 by Liveright Publishing Corporation. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.