One dreary December day of heavy rain, Afonso da Maia was sitting in his study reading, when the door flew open; he looked up and saw Pedro standing before him. He was muddy and dishevelled, and in his deathly pale face, beneath his wild hair, his eyes had a glint of madness. The old man sat up, terrified. And Pedro, without a word, threw himself into his father’s arms and burst into terrible sobs.
‘Pedro, my boy, what’s happened?’
Perhaps Maria had died. He was filled by a feeling of cruel joy at the idea of seeing his son free of the Monfortes and restored to him, filling up his solitude with two grandchildren – with a whole family to love! And with a trembling voice, he lovingly disengaged himself from Pedro:
‘Stop crying, my boy, and tell me what’s happened.’
Pedro fell back heavily onto the sofa, as a dead body might fall; then, his face suddenly haggard and old, he looked at his father and said in a faint voice, carefully enunciating each word:
‘I was away from Lisbon for two days. I came back this morning. Maria has left, taking the little girl with her. She’s gone off with a man, an Italian. And here I am!’
Afonso da Maia stood before his son, silent, dumbstruck, like a stone statue; and his handsome face, into which all his blood had rushed, very slowly and gradually filled with rage. He saw, in a flash, the scandal; the whole of Lisbon mocking him, the expressions of condolence, his name dragged through the mud. And it was his own son who, by rejecting his authority and marrying that creature, had tainted the blood of the family and was now covering his name in shame. And there he was, there he lay, not screaming or shouting, not even outraged, with none of the violent outbursts one might expect from a betrayed husband! No, he had simply flung himself down on a sofa, crying wretchedly! This enraged Afonso, and he started stiffly, sternly pacing the room, his lips pressed tightly together so as not to utter any of the words of anger and insult crowding his breast. But he was, nevertheless, a father; he could hear the deep pain in that weeping, he could see how those sobs shook the poor unhappy body he had once cradled in his arms. He stood next to Pedro, took his head gravely in his hands and kissed his brow, once, twice, as if he were still a child, restoring to him there and forever all his love and tenderness.
‘You were right, Father, you were right,’ murmured Pedro tearfully.
Then they fell silent. Outside, in a constant clamour, successive sheets of rain lashed the house and garden, and the branches of the trees, caught up in the great winter wind, whispered at the windows.
It was Afonso who broke the silence.
‘But where have they gone to, Pedro? Do you know? It’s no good just crying.’
‘I don’t know anything,’ Pedro managed to say. ‘I only know that she’s gone. I left Lisbon on Monday. That same night, she left the house in a carriage, with a suitcase, her jewel box, an Italian maid she’d hired recently, and with our daughter. She told the housekeeper and the boy’s nursemaid that she was going to join me. They thought it was odd, but what could they say? When I came back, I found this letter.’
It was a grubby piece of paper that had doubtless been read many times since the morning and angrily crumpled up. It contained these words:
It is fate, I am leaving with Tancredo, forget me, I am not worthy of you, and I am taking Maria, because I cannot bear to be parted from her.
‘And what about the little boy?’ exclaimed Afonso.
Pedro seemed to struggle to remember.
‘Oh, he’s in the other room with the nursemaid. I brought him with me in the carriage.’
Afonso immediately ran out of the room and reappeared shortly afterwards bearing in his arms the baby wrapped in a long, white, fringed cape and wearing a little lace cap. He was chubby, with very dark eyes and lovely rosy cheeks. His whole being seemed to be laughing, as he babbled and brandished a silver bell. With downcast eyes, the nursemaid stood glumly at the door, clutching a small bundle of clothes.
Afonso sat down carefully in his armchair and settled his grandson on his knee. His eyes were alight with tenderness; he seemed to forget his son’s agony, the familial shame; now there was only that small sweet face, wet with drool.
‘What’s his name?’
‘ Carlos Eduardo,’ murmured the nursemaid.
‘ Carlos Eduardo, eh?’
He sat gazing at him for a long time, as if searching for traces of a family resemblance; then he took hold of the boy’s two small red hands – which still kept a firm hold on the bell – and said very gravely as if the child could understand:
‘Take a good look at me. I’m your grandfather. And you must love your grandfather.’
And at the sound of that powerful voice, the boy did, in fact, open wide his fine eyes, suddenly serious and very focused, but entirely unabashed by Afonso’s grizzled beard; then he started fidgeting about until he had managed to free one of his hands and hit Afonso hard on the head with the bell.
The old man beamed at this joyful vigour; he held him for a long time pressed to his broad chest, and planted on his cheek a long, grateful, tender kiss, his first grandfatherly kiss; then, with great care, he returned the child to the nursemaid’s arms.
‘Off you go. Gertrudes is probably already sorting out a room for you, go and make sure you have everything you need.’
He closed the door and went and sat down next to his son, who had not moved from the corner of the sofa, and was still staring fixedly at the floor.
‘Now, Pedro, tell me everything. We haven’t seen each other for three years.’
‘For more than three years,’ murmured Pedro.
He sat up and looked out at the garden, so sad beneath the rain; then he glanced slowly round the library, his eyes lingering for a moment on his own portrait, painted in Rome when he was twelve years old, dressed all in blue velvet and holding a rose in his hand. And he repeated bitterly:
‘You were right, Father, you were right.’
And gradually, pacing up and down and sighing, he began to speak about the last few years, the winter spent in Paris, their life at Arroios, how the Italian had become a close family friend, his own plans for a reconciliation, and, finally, that vile, shameless letter invoking fate and throwing in his face the other man’s name! At first, his one thought had been to pursue them and exact a bloody revenge. However, a glimmer of reason remained. It would be ridiculous. The flight had obviously been planned beforehand, and he couldn’t possibly go trawling the inns of Europe in search of his wife. What about complaining to the police and having them arrested? Absurd. That wouldn’t prevent her already having slept with the other man. All that was left to him was scorn. She was a pretty woman who had been his mistress for a few years and had now run off with another man. Good riddance! He was left with a motherless son and a besmirched name. But what could he do? He needed to forget, to set off on a long journey, to America perhaps; he would be sure to return stronger and with his heart mended.
He said all these sensible things as he paced slowly up and down, still holding an extinguished cigar between his fingers, talking in a voice that grew calmer as he spoke. Suddenly, however, he stopped in front of his father, gave a short laugh, and said, with a fierce glint in his eyes:
‘I’ve always wanted to go to America, and now is a good opportunity…a splendid opportunity, don’t you think? I could even become an American citizen, become President, or, of course, die… Ha!’
‘Yes, yes, all right, my son, let’s think about that later,’ said Afonso, alarmed.
Just then, the dinner bell began to ring slowly at the far end of the corridor.
‘You still have dinner early, then,’ said Pedro. He let out a slow, weary sigh and muttered: ‘We used to have dinner at seven.’
He urged Afonso to eat. There was no reason for his father to miss a meal. He would go upstairs for a while, to the room he had slept in when he was single. His bed was still there, wasn’t it? No, he wanted nothing to eat.
‘Ask Teixeira to bring me up a glass of gin. Teixeira, poor thing, is still here, I see.’
And when his father did not get up out of his chair, he said urgently:
‘Go and have dinner, Father, go on, please.’
He left the room. His father heard his footsteps on the floor above and the sound of windows being flung open. Only then did he go to the dining room where the servants, whom the nursemaid had doubtless informed of the misfortune, were creeping about on tiptoe, with the same sad slowness as if there had been a death in the house. Afonso sat down alone at the table, but Pedro’s place had been laid there once again; winter roses in a Japanese vase dropped their petals; and the old parrot, made restless by the rain, was furiously bobbing up and down on its perch.
Afonso took a spoonful of soup, then drew his armchair closer to the fire, and there he sat, becoming gradually immersed in the melancholy December twilight, staring into the flames, listening to the southwest wind battering the window panes, thinking about all the terrible things invading his peaceful old man’s life like a grim unruly throng. However, in the midst of his sorrow, deep as it was, he was aware that somewhere, in one corner of his heart, something very sweet and very new was beating with all the vigour of things reborn, a spring rich in future joys; and his face lit up, and he smiled into the bright flames, seeing again the rosy cheeks beneath the white lace of a baby’s cap.
Meanwhile, in the house, the lights had been turned on. With a sudden pang of anxiety, Afonso went up to his son’s room; it lay in darkness, as damp and cold as if the rain were falling inside. A tremor ran through the old man, and when he called his son’s name, Pedro’s voice responded from the blackness of the window; there he was, with the window wide open, sitting on the balcony, staring out at the stormy night and the gloomy rustling of the branches, his face lifted to the wind, the rain, and the wild winter weather.
‘There you are, Pedro!’ cried Afonso. ‘The servants will be wanting to prepare the room, come downstairs for a moment. You’re soaked, Pedro.’
He felt his son’s knees and grasped his icy hands. Pedro stood up with a shudder and impatiently drew back from the old man’s tender gestures.
‘Oh, of course, the room, yes. But the air does me good, you know, it really does.’
Teixeira brought some candles and behind him came Pedro’s servant, who had just arrived from Arroios, carrying a large travelling bag covered in oilskin. He had left the other luggage downstairs, and the coachman had come too, since neither master nor mistress was at home.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Afonso. ‘Senhor Vilaça will go to Arroios tomorrow and sort everything out.’
The servant then tiptoed in and placed the travelling case on the marble top of the chest of drawers; on it stood a few old bottles of toilet water that had once belonged to Pedro; and the candlesticks on the table illumined his large, sad, bachelor bed with the covers turned down.
Gertrudes bustled in with her arms full of bed linen; Teixeira vigorously plumped up pillows and bolsters; the servant from Arroios, still on tiptoe, put down his hat and came to help too. Pedro, meanwhile, like a sleepwalker, had gone back out onto the balcony and had turned his face once more to the rain, drawn to the churning darkness of the garden, which roared like a sea.
Afonso tugged almost roughly at his arm.
‘Pedro, come downstairs for a moment. Let them prepare the room!’
Pedro mechanically followed his father down to the library, chewing on the spent cigar he had kept in his hand all this time. He sat away from the lamp, at one end of the sofa, and remained there silent and numb. For a long time, only the slow steps of his father, back and forth in front of the tall shelves, broke the drowsing silence of the room. The flames were dying down in the hearth. The night seemed to have grown still wilder. Caught up by the wind, gusts of rain would suddenly flail the windows, while, with a persistent clamour, it continued to pour in torrents from the roof; then there would be an eerie lull, with only the distant whisper of the wind in the branches; in the silence, the drip-drip of water kept up a slow lament; and then another furious blast of air would whirl about the house, rattling the windows, only to depart once more, uttering mournful whistles.
‘It’s real English weather tonight,’ said Afonso, bending down to stir the fire.
But at the word ‘English’ Pedro got abruptly to his feet. He had doubtless been pierced by the idea of Maria, far away, in some strange room, snuggling down in her adulterous bed in the arms of that other man. He clasped his head in his hands for a moment, then went unsteadily over to his father; his voice, however, was quite calm.
‘I’m really terribly tired, Father. I’m going to bed. Goodnight. We’ll talk again in the morning.’
He kissed his father’s hand and slowly left the room.
Afonso lingered for a while longer, with a book unread in his hands, as he listened for any noise from above, but everything lay in silence.
Ten o’clock struck. Before going to bed, he went to the room set aside for the nursemaid. Gertrudes, Teixeira, and the servant from Arroios were all standing by the chest of drawers, talking in whispers, in the shadow cast by a book placed in front of the lamp; they all crept away when they heard his footsteps approaching, and the nursemaid continued putting clothes in the drawers. In the vast bed, the boy was sleeping like a weary Baby Jesus, still clutching his bell. Afonso did not dare to kiss him lest he woke him with his rough beard, but he stroked the lace nightshirt, tenderly tucked the bedclothes in against the wall and adjusted the curtain, feeling all his sorrow dissolve in the darkness of the bedroom where his grandson lay sleeping.
‘Do you need anything?’ he asked the nursemaid, lowering his voice.
Then, he went noiselessly up to Pedro’s room. There was a line of light under the door; he pushed the door open. His son was writing by the light of two candles, with his travelling bag open beside him. He seemed startled to see his father, and in his pale, drawn face, the two dark frown lines between his eyes made his gaze seem harder and brighter.
‘I’m writing,’ he said.
He rubbed his hands together, as if suddenly aware of the coldness of the room, and added:
‘I’ll need Vilaça to go to Arroios first thing tomorrow morning. The other servants are still there, as well as two of my horses, and there are various other things that need sorting out. I’m writing to him now. He lives at number 32, doesn’t he? Teixeira will know. Goodnight, Father, goodnight.’
In his own room, next to the library, Afonso could not sleep, gripped by a feeling of oppression and disquiet that made him raise his head from the pillow every few moments to listen; now, the wind had died down and in the silent house Pedro’s slow pacing echoed above him.
Day was breaking and Afonso was just dozing off, when a shot rang out in the house. He leapt out of bed and, still in his nightshirt, called for a servant who appeared immediately, bearing a lantern. From Pedro’s room, the door of which was still ajar, came the smell of gunpowder; and at the foot of the bed, Afonso found his dead son, still holding a pistol in his hand, lying face down in a pool of blood that was already soaking into the carpet.
Between the two guttering candles, their flames grown small and pale, Pedro had left a sealed letter bearing these words, written on the envelope in a firm hand: ‘For Papa’.
Two days later, the house at Benfica was closed up. Afonso da Maia, with his grandson and all the servants, left for the house at Santa Olávia.
When, in February, Vilaça accompanied Pedro’s body there for burial in the family vault, he could not keep back his tears when he saw that house where he had spent many a happy Christmas. A black baize cloth covered the coat of arms above the main door, and the blackness of that funereal drapery seemed to have leached into the silent façade and into the fine chestnut trees growing in the courtyard; inside, the servants, in heavy mourning, spoke in muted voices; there was not a single flower in any vase; the natural charm of Santa Olávia, the cool babble of running water in pools and fountains, now had the yearning cadence of falling tears. Vilaça found Afonso in the library, the curtains closed to the lovely winter sunshine; he was slumped in an armchair, his face gaunt beneath his long, white hair, his hands lying thin and idle in his lap.
Vilaça returned to Lisbon and reported that the old man would not last another year.