Garcia was standing, staring at his fingernails and cracking his knuckles from time to time; Fortunato, in a rocking chair, looked at the ceiling; Maria Luisa, near the window, was finishing off some needlework. For five minutes none of them had said a thing. They’d talked about the weather, which had been very pleasant – about Catumbi, where Fortunato and his wife lived, and about a private hospital, something we’ll explain later. As all three characters here present are now dead and buried, it’s time the story was told with no holds barred.
They had talked about something else too, something so serious, so nasty, that they hardly had the heart to talk about the weather, the neighbourhood and the hospital. Embarrassment held them back. Even now, Maria Luisa’s fingers look as if they’re trembling, while Garcia’s face wears a severe expression, unusually for him. In fact, the nature of what had happened was such that to understand it we’ll have to take the story back to its beginnings.
Garcia had graduated in medicine in the previous year, 1861. In 1860, when he was still a student, he met Fortunato for the first time, in the doorway of the Santa Casa hospital; as he was going in, the other man was coming out. Fortunato’s appearance made an impression; even so he would have forgotten him if it hadn’t been for the second encounter a few days later. Garcia was living in the Rua de Dom Manuel. One of his few amusements was to go to the São Januário theatre, which was nearby, between the street and the bay; he went once or twice a month – there were never more than forty people in the audience. Only the most intrepid ventured as far as that part of town. One night, when he’d taken his seat, Fortunato came in and sat next to him.
The play was a melodrama, clumsily put together, bristling with daggers, curses and pangs of conscience; but Fortunato watched with a singular interest. At painful moments, he was doubly attentive; his eyes eagerly went from one character to another, so intently that the student thought the play must be stirring personal memories. The melodrama was followed by a farce; but Fortunato didn’t see it through; he left, and Garcia went after him. Fortunato went along the Beco do Cotovelo and the Rua de São José, as far as the Largo da Carioca. He walked slowly, head bent, stopping at times to thwack some sleeping dog with his cane; the dog would yelp, and he would go on his way. In the Largo da Carioca he got into a cab and went off towards the Praça da Constituição. Garcia went back home none the wiser.
Some weeks went by. One night, about nine o’clock, he was at home when he heard voices on the stairway; he went down from his lodgings at the top of the house to the first floor, where an employee of the Arsenal lived. The man was being carried up the stairs, covered in blood. His black servant hurried to open the door; he was groaning, and there was a confusion of voices in the semidarkness. Once he’d been laid out on the bed, Garcia said they should call a doctor.
‘Here’s one,’ someone volunteered.
Garcia looked: it was the man from the Santa Casa and the theatre. He thought he might be a relative or a friend of the patient; but discarded the notion when he heard him ask if the man had any family or a close friend nearby. The servant said not. He then took charge of affairs, asked the strangers to leave, paid the people who had carried the man, and gave preliminary orders. Knowing Garcia was a neighbour and a medical student, he asked him to stay and help the doctor. Then he recounted what had happened.
‘It was a capoeira gang. I was coming from the Moura barracks where I’d been to visit a cousin when I heard shouting, and then a loud commotion. It seems they’d attacked another passer-by too, who disappeared up one of those alleyways; but I only saw this man – he was crossing the street when one of the gang brushed past, and knifed him. He didn’t fall to the ground straight away; he said where he lived, and as it was no distance away I thought it best to bring him back.’
‘Did you know who he was?’
‘No, I’ve never seen him. Who is he?’
‘He’s a good fellow, an employee at the Arsenal. His name’s Gouveia.’
‘I don’t know him.’
A doctor and a policeman arrived a short time later; his wounds were dressed, and information was taken. The unknown man said his name was Fortunato Gomes da Silveira; he was a bachelor, living off his investments, and came from Catumbi. They agreed the wound was serious. While the doctor was putting the dressings on, assisted by the student, Fortunato acted as servant, holding the bowl, the candle, the cloths, keeping out of the way, looking coldly at the patient, who was groaning out loud. In the end, he had a private conversation with the doctor, accompanied him to the doorway leading to the staircase, and again told the officer he was ready to help the police with their investigation. The doctor and the policeman left, and Fortunato and the student stayed in the room.
Garcia was astonished. He looked at him, saw him calmly sit down, stretch out his legs, put his hands in his trouser pockets, and stare at the sick man. His eyes were pale, the colour of lead; they moved slowly, and had a hard, dry, cold expression. His face was thin and pallid; there was a narrow strip of beard under the chin and from one temple to the other, short, reddish and sparse. He’d be about forty. From time to time, he turned round to the student and asked him something about the patient; but he soon turned back to look at him, in the middle of the young man’s answer. Garcia felt repelled as well as curious; there was no denying he was witnessing an act of rare dedication, and if Fortunato was as disinterested as he seemed, the conclusion seemed to be that the human heart is a well of mysteries.
Fortunato left a little before one in the morning; he came back during the next few days, but the recovery was quick, and before it was complete he disappeared without telling the man where he lived. It was Garcia who gave him the name, the street and the number.
‘I’ll go and thank him for his kindness as soon as I can get out,’ said the convalescent.
Six days later, he hurried to Catumbi. Fortunato greeted him with embarrassment, listened impatiently to his words of thanks, replied in an offhand manner and ended up tapping the tassels of his dressing gown on his knee. Gouveia sat silently opposite him and smoothed his hat with his fingers, lifting his eyes from time to time, finding nothing else to say. After ten minutes, he begged leave, and left.
‘Steer clear of the capoeiras!’ Fortunato said, laughing.
The poor fellow came away exasperated, humiliated, chewing over the contempt he’d been treated with, struggling to forget it, explain it or forgive it, and let the favour itself dwell alone in his memory; but all in vain. Resentment, a new and exclusive lodger, moved in, and threw the favour out – all it could do was hide itself at the back of his brain, reduced to a mere idea. Thus it was that the benefactor himself prompted the feeling of ingratitude the man felt.
All this astonished Garcia. The young man had the beginnings of a capacity to decipher men’s characters and examine them; he was fond of analysing, and enjoyed the pleasure, than which he knew no greater, of cutting through many moral layers till he felt the living heart of an organism. His curiosity was aroused, and he thought of going to Catumbi to see the man, but then he remembered he hadn’t even been formally invited. At the least he needed a pretext, and he couldn’t find one.
Some time later, after he’d graduated, and was living on the Rua de Mata-Cavalos, near the Rua do Conde, he met Fortunato on a horse-drawn bus, then ran into him a few more times, until they became familiar with one another. One day Fortunato invited him to go and visit him nearby, in Catumbi.
‘You know I’ve married?’
‘No, I didn’t know.’
‘I got married four months ago; it seems like four days. Come and have dinner with us on Sunday.’
‘Don’t be making up excuses; I’ll have none of it. Come on Sunday.’
Garcia went on the Sunday. Fortunato gave him a good dinner, good cigars and good conversation, in the company of his wife, who was an interesting woman. His appearance hadn’t changed; his eyes were the same tin plates, hard and cold; his other features were no more attractive than before. However, if the welcome didn’t exactly compensate for the nature of the man, it made up for it somewhat, and made a difference. Maria Luisa charmed him, both in her manners and in herself. She was slim, graceful, with soft, submissive eyes; she was twenty-five, but looked no more than nineteen. Garcia, the second time he went there, saw that there was a kind of lack of harmony in their characters, little or no moral affinity, and on the woman’s side there were some signs of feelings that went beyond respect, and looked more like resignation or fear. One day, when the three of them were together, Garcia asked Maria Luisa if she’d been informed of how he had met her husband.
‘No,’ the young woman replied.
‘Get ready to hear about a good deed.’
‘It’s not worth telling,’ Fortunato interrupted.
‘You’ll see whether it’s worth telling or not,’ the doctor insisted.
He told the story of the Rua de Dom Manuel. She listened, astonished. Instinctively, she stretched out her hand and grasped her husband’s wrist, grateful and smiling, as if she’d just discovered his heart. Fortunato shrugged his shoulders, but he wasn’t unmoved. He himself then told the story of Gouveia’s visit, with all the details of his appearance, his gestures, the words struggling to get out, the silences – he was a halfwit, in fact. He laughed a lot as he told the story. It wasn’t false laughter either. Falsity is evasive and oblique; his laughter was jovial and open.
‘Strange man!’ thought Garcia.
Maria Luisa was upset by her husband’s raillery; but the doctor brought back her previous happiness by retelling the story of Fortunato’s dedication, and his rare qualities as a nurse; such a good nurse, he concluded, that if one day I set up a private hospital. I’ll take him on.
‘Shall we?’ asked Fortunato.
‘Shall we what?’
‘Let’s set up a hospital.’
‘No, no, I’m only joking.’
‘We could do something; and for you, just starting out on your career, I think it’d be ideal. I’ve got a house that’s coming vacant, just the thing.’
Garcia refused then, and the next day; but the idea had got into Fortunato’s head, and there was no going back. True, it was a good start for him, and might be a money-maker for both. Finally, a few days later, he accepted, to Maria Luisa’s disappointment. A nervous, fragile creature, she suffered at the mere notion of her husband being in daily contact with human disease, but she dared not oppose him, and bowed to the inevitable. The plans were quickly laid and carried out. It must be said that Fortunato thought about nothing else, then or later. When the hospital was open he was the administrator and chief nurse, inspected everything, organized everything, stores and soups, pills and accounts.
Then Garcia was able to observe that the dedication to Gouveia was not an isolated case; it was inherent in the man’s very nature. He watched him carry out his duties with more dedication than the servants themselves. He flinched at nothing; there was no disease too painful or repellent; he was ready for anything, at any time of the day or night. Everyone was amazed and delighted. Fortunato studied and followed the operations, and no one else was allowed to apply the caustics. ‘I’ve a lot of faith in caustics,’ he’d say.
Their common interest brought them closer together. Garcia was always at their house; he dined there almost every day, observing Maria Luisa’s character and her life, as her moral solitude became more obvious. The solitude only seemed to double her charms. Garcia began to notice that he felt uneasy when she appeared, when she spoke, when she was silently working by the window, or playing some sad tune on the piano. Softly, slowly, love entered his heart. When he realized what was happening he tried to blot it out, so there should be nothing other than friendship between him and Fortunato: but he couldn’t. All he could do was shut it in; Maria Luisa saw both the affection and the silence, but she didn’t let it show.
At the beginning of October something happened that made the young woman’s situation even clearer to Garcia. Fortunato had started studying anatomy and physiology, and spent his spare time poisoning cats and dogs and cutting them up. As the animals’ squeals unnerved the patients, he moved his laboratory to their house, and his wife, with her nervous disposition, had to put up with them. One day, however, unable to bear it any longer, she went to Garcia and asked him, as a favour to her, to get her husband to stop these experiments.
‘But you yourself…’
Maria Luisa replied with a smile:
‘Of course, he’d say I’m a child. What I want is form you, as a doctor, to tell him that it’s doing me harm; and it is, believe me …’
Garcia easily got Fortunato to give up these studies. If he continued them elsewhere, nobody found out; maybe he did. Maria Luisa thanked the doctor, for her own sake and that of the animals, for she couldn’t bear to see suffering. She coughed from time to time; Garcia asked if there was anything wrong with her; she said no.
‘Hold out your wrist.’
‘There’s nothing the matter.’
She didn’t give him her wrist, and left the room. Garcia felt concerned. On the contrary, he thought, maybe there was something wrong, and her husband ought to be warned in time.
Two days later – just the day we first came across them, in fact – Garcia went there to dine. In the parlour, they told him Fortunato was in the study, and he headed that way; as he got near the door, Maria Luisa was coming out, in distress.
‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘The mouse! the mouse!’ the young woman exclaimed in a stifled voice, leaving hurriedly.
Garcia remembered that, the day before, he’d heard Fortunato complaining about a mouse that had chewed some important piece of paper; but he was far from expecting what he saw. He saw Fortunato sitting at the table, in the middle of the study, on which he had placed a saucer filled with alcohol. The burning liquid flickered. Between his thumb and index finger he held a piece of string, tied round the mouse’s tail. In his right hand he held a pair of scissors. At the moment Garcia came in, Fortunato cut one of the mouse’s legs off; then he lowered the poor beast into the flame, quickly, so as not to kill it, and started to do the same with the third leg; he’d already cut one off. Garcia stopped in his tracks, horrified.
‘Kill it at once!’ he said.
‘Any minute now.’
And with an inimitable smile, the true reflection of a contented soul as it savoured inwardly the most delicious of sensations, Fortunate cut the third leg off the mouse, and for the third time lowered it into the flame. The miserable animal twisted this way and that, squealing, bleeding, scorched, and still it didn’t die. Garcia averted his eyes, then looked again, and held out his hand to stop the torture, but he couldn’t, because this man, with the radiant serenity of his features, inspired fear. There was one leg left; Fortunato cut it very slowly, following the scissors with his eyes; the leg fell off, and he stopped to look at the half-dead mouse. As he lowered it for the fourth time to the flame, he did it deftly, so as to save, if possible, any shred of life.
Garcia, facing him, managed to control his disgust at the spectacle and observe the man’s expression. No anger, no hatred; just a vast pleasure, quiet and profound; what you might get from hearing a beautiful sonata, or looking at a perfect piece of sculpture – something like a pure aesthetic sensation. It seemed to him, rightly, that Fortunato had completely forgotten he was there. If that was true, he couldn’t be play-acting – this was the real thing. The flame was dying, the mouse might possibly have a little life left in it, the shadow of a shade; Fortunato turned it to good account by cutting off its nose and again lowering the flesh to the fire. Finally, he let the body drop into the saucer, and pushed the mixture of blood and burned skin away.
When he got up, he saw the doctor and got a shock. He made a show of anger at the animal that had eaten his piece of paper, but it was obviously put on.
‘There’s no anger in the punishment,’ the doctor thought, ‘he does it out of the need for a pleasurable sensation, which can only be provided by another creature’s pain; that’s the man’s secret.’
Fortunato laid great stress on the importance of the piece of paper and what he’d lost – only time, admittedly, but time was very precious to him these days. Garcia just listened to him, not saying a word; he didn’t believe him for a moment. He remembered his actions, trivial or not, and found the same explanation for all of them. It was as if the man’s sensibility had gone through a key-change, to a peculiar kind of dilettantism – he was a Caligula in miniature.
When Maria Luisa came back into the study, a little bit later, her husband went to her, took her hands and quietly said: ‘Such a delicate little thing!’
And, turning to the doctor, he said: ‘Can you believe she nearly fainted?’
Maria Luisa timidly defended herself, saying she was nervous and a woman, then went and sat by the window with her wool and her needles, her fingers still trembling, just as we found her at the beginning of the story. You’ll recall that, after they’d talked about other things, the three of them went quiet, the husband sitting and looking at the ceiling, the doctor cracking his knuckles. A little later they went to have dinner – but it wasn’t a happy occasion. Maria Luisa was brooding and coughing; the doctor was wondering if she might not be in some danger in the company of such a man. It was only a possibility; but love turned it into a certainty; he feared for her and determined to keep an eye on them.
She coughed and coughed, and it wasn’t long before the disease unmasked itself. It was tuberculosis, that insatiable old hag that sucks life away and leaves only the bones. It was a blow to Fortunato; he really loved his wife in his way, he was used to her, and losing her was a wrench. He spared no effort, doctors, medicines, a change of air, every possible expedient and palliative. But it was all in vain. She was mortally ill.
In the final days, as he watched the girl’s final struggle, her husband’s nature subdued any other passion. He never left her side; he fixed his cold, dull eyes on the slow, painful decomposition of life, drank in the beautiful creature’s afflictions one by one. She was thin, transparent, devoured by fever and riddled with death itself. His exacerbated egotism, hungry for sensations, did not make him hang on every minute of her agony, nor did he pay for this with a single tear, public or private. Only when she died was he stunned. When he came back to his senses, he saw he was alone again.
At night, when a relative of Maria Luisa’s, who had assisted her while she was dying, went to rest, Fortunato and Garcia stayed in the room, keeping vigil, both of them lost in thought; but the husband was tired, and the doctor told him to go and rest awhile.
‘Go and lie down, have a couple of hours’ sleep: I’ll go later.’
Fortunato went out, lay down on the sofa in the next room, and soon went to sleep. Twenty minutes later he woke up, tried to go to sleep again, nodded off for a few minutes, then got up and went back to the sitting room. He went on tiptoes, so as not to wake the relative, who was sleeping nearby. When he got to the door, he stopped short, astonished.
Garcia had approached the body, lifted the veil and looked at her dead features for a few moments. Then, as if death had spiritualized everything, he bent over and kissed her on the forehead. That was when Fortunato came to the door. He stopped short, astonished; it wasn’t a kiss of friendship – it might even be the epilogue of an adultery novel. He wasn’t jealous, be it noted; nature had made him in such a way that he was neither jealous nor envious, but it had made him vain, and no less subject to resentment than the next man. He looked on in shock, biting his lip.
Meanwhile, Garcia leaned over to kiss the dead body again, but he could control himself no longer. The kiss burst into sobs, the eyes couldn’t hold back the tears, which flowed thick and fast; the tears of silent love and irremediable despair. Fortunato, at the door, where he had stopped, quietly savoured this explosion of moral pain, which lasted a long, long, deliciously long time.
*© Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, 2008, “A Chapter of Hats and Other Stories”, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.