José de Medeiros E Albuquerque
Old Felix had followed his trade of digger in all the quarries that Rio de Janeiro possessed. He was a sort of Hercules with huge limbs, but otherwise stupid as a post. His companions had nicknamed him Hardhead because of his obstinate character. Once an idea had penetrated his skull it would stick there like a gimlet and the devil himself couldn’t pull it out. Because of this trait there arose quarrels, altercations on points of the smallest significance, which the man’s acquaintances would purposely bring up, knowing his evil humor. But Felix, despite his vigorous and sanguine constitution, was by no means quick to anger, nor immediately responsive to injury; on the contrary he was exceedingly patient in his vindictiveness. For the longest time he would ruminate upon his vengeance, most astutely, and he would carry it out at the moment when he believed himself perfectly secure. Oh! His ruses were not of very great finesse and required very little talent; but by dint of considering and reconsidering the case, by dint of waiting patiently for the propitious opportunity to present itself, he finally would play some evil trick upon his comrades. So that nobody liked him.
Felix had married, but his wife did not long survive. Just long enough to leave him a son and a daughter, who grew up knowing little restraint, chumming around with all the good-for-nothings of the vicinity, plaguing all the neighbors, who on their part, were not slow to punish the rascals. Thus several years went by. The son became a notorious character, the daughter an impudent, cynical little runabout who, on certain occasions, would fill their rickety abode with her chatter about affairs concerning the “man” of so-and-so or such-and-such. And thus things were going when the old man took it into his head to fall ill. An excruciating rheumatism attacked both his legs, rendering him incapable of moving about, and confining him to an old, lame armchair that was balanced by a complicated arrangement of old boxes that could never be got to remain steady. The illness became chronic. The daughter helped out the finances of the house with her earnings as laundry-woman….and perhaps by earnings of a different nature. Anyway, they got along. The old fellow, willy-nilly, spent his days invariably riveted to his armchair, groaning with pain at the least movement, swearing, fretting and fuming, despairing of life. And, since his daughter simply refused from the very beginning to let him have even a drop of brandy, he was perforce cured of his vice.
Just about this time there happened to them the worst of all possible adventures. The son, whom the father had not seen for several weeks, one fine day attacked a peaceful citizen and, with a terrible knife thrust in the stomach, despatched him to a better world; as to which event circumstances seemed so contrary that the son allowed himself to be arrested.
The old man was in the habit of reading his gazette religiously, from the first line to the last; thus he learned the news. And it was through the same newspaper that he followed the trial and learned of his son’s conviction. This made him furious, not so much because of the sentence as because of a special circumstance. The policeman who had arrested his son was – just think of it! – Bernardo, – yes, Bernardo, his own neighbor – the same chap who would greet him daily with the ironic words: “How are things, Felix old boy? And when will you be ready for a waltz?”
Even on the day of imprisonment and during those that followed Bernardo had permitted himself these witty remarks.
Bernardo was a cabra of Bahai, a pretentious mulatto whose enormous head of hair, carefully parted in the middle into two flourishing masses, was kept so only through the services of odorous pomade that cost four sous a pot. He had been, in his day, a dishonest political henchman, well-known for his exploits; then, supported by the liberal leader whose election he had worked for, he escaped prison and entered the police service. At that time police officers were called “bats”, – a sobriquet that troubled Bernardo very little. And it had been he – what anger flashed in old Felix’s eyes as he thought of it! – he, whose past activities would well bear examination, he who had arrested Felix’s son!
From that moment one preoccupation alone filled Felix’s hours—vengeance! This hatred dominated his existence and became the only power that could vanquish the ever-growing misery of his broken-down body. The mere thought that he could not grow well, while the cabra would daily continue to live in insolent impunity, was enough to give him convulsions of rage; he would foam at the mouth, gnash his teeth and, in that obtuse brain of his, concoct scheme upon scheme of vengeance, almost all of them impracticable, for he was chained to the spot in stupid impotence.
At times he would wish to call Bernardo and with thunderous violence pour torrents of insult upon his head. But what end would that serve? Felix’s treacherous, cowardly nature counselled him to have prudence. So, on the first days after the arrest, when the mulatto would go by, the old man feigned slumber. Then, in the continuing uncertainty as to what method of vengeance to pursue, and in order not to let his hatred betray itself, he spoke to the policeman as if nothing had happened. Nevertheless there was one thing that puzzled him greatly: his daughter had said nothing to him about the entire affair. Did she know nothing about it? It was almost impossible that the mulatto, with his chatterbox habits, had not spoken of the matter. Had his daughter feared to shock him with the news? This was all the less probable since she had never had any particular love for him. Scarcely did a day pass that she did not call him a “good-for-nothing,” “a lazy lout,” and other similar tendernesses. So he breathed not a word, and continued to ruminate upon his vengeance.
Months rolled on. Far from getting better the illness increased. As soon as the old fellow tried to move, horrible pains seized him at every joint. His daughter maltreated him, and at the height of his attacks she would reply to his complaints that he’d do better if he left the house, and she even threatened to send him to the hospital. It was now June. The weather was one long succession of heavy rains; the invalid suffered atrociously from the cold and the damp, and his daughter, disgruntled at the bad weather, which interfered with her washing, lived in unbroken sulkiness. She treated him worse than a dog, and it was truly with the patience of a dog that he endured everything, so much did he fear being sent away. A plan of vengeance had arisen in his brain, and slowly, during the months, ever since he had learned that his case was incurable, his project had absorbed his entire mental activity, – indeed, his whole existence. He breathed only for his plan, for the sure, propitious opportunity.
At last it came, and a terrible day it was. At dusk his daughter had left, closing the door, as was her habit, and had not returned at night. The old man was parched with thirst and his physical torture had doubled. He resolved upon quick action.
In the morning, – it might have been about seven o’clock – his daughter returned, or rather, rolled into the room, and with her, pell-mell came “Jane”, Bernardo’s “friend”. Jane was roundly berating his daughter. “You rotten thing!” she cried. “I’ll show you! Trying to take away somebody else’s man.” And the two women came to blows, rousing the entire neighborhood. They tried at last to separate the combatants, but it would have been easier to break them to bits, so fiercely did they struggle against each other. There was a whistle; the police arrived, and the women were taken to the lock-up. All this as quick as a flash.
The old man had not had time to utter a word. But an extreme rage, blind, – an anger such as only savage beasts can know, overpowered him. What! His daughter, the mistress of Bernardo! This was the last straw!
Towards noon the mulatto came back. He had spent the night away from home, under the pretext of a special patrol; he returned, ignorant of the morning’s events. He came in smiling, in that measured walk of his, waddling along. He approached Felix and asked him the classic question: “Now then, how goes it?”
Felix did not reply and merely made a sign with his hand. The policeman entered. When he had come near, Felix said to him in a low voice that he had something very serious to tell him. But first of all he insisted that Bernardo go and bring his large knife.
“Why that, Felix? What do you want to do with a knife?” asked the other.
The old man smiled mysteriously. “Quick, my boy, I’ll tell you afterwards, and you’ll see that my story will be worth the trouble.”
“All right, I’ll get it,” replied the officer. And a minute later he was back with the knife, which he gave to the invalid.
“Now,” continued the latter, “go and close the door, so that nobody will hear. Close it well, and turn the key.”
Bernardo felt some mistrust at all this mystery, but knowing for certain that the helpless old man could do him no harm, he obeyed, curiously waiting to learn what the other was up to.
“So, you want to tell me now? – Not yet! Here, first put this watch in your pocket.” And the old man drew from his pocket an ancient nickel watch which he gave to the cabra.
“What am I to do with this, Felix?” asked the mulatto.
“Keep it, I tell you,” was the reply.
“The old duffer is crazy for sure,” thought Bernardo, nevertheless doing as he was told. Then, seeing in what manner the invalid had grasped the knife he discreetly withdrew a few paces.
Well, almost immediately Felix made a sudden movement that caused his pain to increase anew, and he began to groan, to utter most terrible cries, almost shrieks.
“I am dying! I am dying!”
Bernardo had never heard such awful groaning; his mistrust grew, and, seeing that the old man still clutched the knife, he thought the invalid would kill him if he should attempt to approach. He therefore again stepped back a few paces and awaited developments, persuaded that he had a lunatic in front of him. The groaning became louder and louder, so that it was easily to be heard outside. Finally, the cabra, tired of waiting, said, “I’ll be back right away, Felix.” And he was about to leave.
Brusquely, the old man uncovered his own breast, and with a rapid movement, right over the heart, he thrust in the blade with all his might, up to the hilt. Not a drop of blood spurted out, the thick blade obstructing the wound. His face convulsed with an expression of excruciating torment; his hanging arms grew rigid.
The officer rushed to the door, opened it, called for help and returned to pull the knife from the wound, and to see whether it was yet possible to save the unfortunate man. Men and women, wildly excited, ran up to the house crying loudly, and, seeing this man with a long knife whence the blood was dripping, seeing also the pierced breast of old Felix, the whole populace rushed upon Bernardo, disarmed him, crying “Kill him! Kill him!” Bernardo was punched and kicked and cudgelled from one infuriated person to the other in the crowd, and led to the police-station by a multitude which every moment waxed greater and more threatening.
Several months later the trial came to an end. Bernardo was sentenced to hard labor for life. Nobody would believe his story. The proofs were overwhelming. Had he not been caught red-handed? The presence of the nickel-watch in his pocket indicated sufficiently that the motive of the crime was robbery. The vengeance of old Felix had been well calculated: the result was there. The old man had conquered.