by Olavo Bilac
Translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers
ou’ll know everything, because you want to know everything. Three years have gone by since that dark tragedy. And even today I carry it all in memory, and even today I ask you the same question that for three years I have asked myself, every day, without finding an answer: Was what I did a crime?
When Octávio knocked at my door at ten that night, I had a book open in front of me. I wasn’t reading. The rage that had agitated me all evening had given way to utter prostration. My misfortune seemed to have no solution after that certainty, after that terrible certainty. . . .
Loving her as I loved her, with the unfulfilled desire of possessing her, to face everything, to commit the crime of stalking her for two long years, to pursue her everywhere, to be forced constantly to dissimulate with her husband, hearing him praise me all the time, eating dinner every evening with them for the sake of being close to her—only to lose heart at last, to judge her honorable, to see her as a model wife, to pass from love to veneration, to resign myself to my defeat—and suddenly that certainty, that terrible certainty that my saint was a saint only in my mind but human with the other man, who was partaking of the supreme delight that I so longed for!
Octávio and I were inseparable. Linked by a distant kinship, almost the same age, we separated only when I had to go north to study for my law degree, leaving him behind in his third year of medical school.
In the five years of our separation, we wrote unfailingly, letters between friends, full of secrets and nostalgia. One of those letters, a few months before my graduation, brought word of his marriage. A humble marriage: an orphan girl whom he had met at the home of an aunt, in the Engenho Velho district of Rio.
The letter, lengthy and impassioned, closed with these lines:
“Emma, who is at my side, and watching me write, sends you a big hug. She already holds you in the highest esteem, even without having met you.”
And months later, on a luminous Sunday morning, seeing the launches and skiffs approach the steamship that had brought me, cutting through the green sun-swept water, the first face I perceived was Octávio’s. He waved happily, a bit stouter, wearing a light-colored cashmere suit. Beside him, all in white, his wife waved her handkerchief in greeting. Tall, slim, with a golden tan, large deep-set eyes, a small red mouth; under the brimless straw hat her hair could be seen, abundant and dark. She was first to climb the gangplank. She came to me, naturally and free of affectation, without formality, displaying a confidence that captivated me immediately:
“Good morning, Jacques!”
“Madam . . .”
And I greeted Octávio warmly. At lunch, in their home, we lingered over four hours at table, catching up. She took part in the conversation, an adorable eighteen-year-old chatterbox. I observed her. A delight of grace and beauty. Her skin was flawless, her small ears as delicate as a precious seashell.
When she looked at her husband her eyes clouded over with affection, sweetness, luxuriating in her contemplation of him.
From that day—perhaps the happiest day of my life!–was born this irremediable tragedy. If not for it, I would not have done the thing that even today causes me to ask myself, did I commit a crime . . . ?
* * *
I loved her from the habit of seeing her every day, sitting beside her every day, listening to her, intoxicated by her aroma, deliciously embraced by her large, deep eyes. She treated me informally, as she would a brother. She confided in me, her eyes very close to mine—when Octávio would leave to see some patient and we were alone–speaking of her former life of poverty as a young girl, without diversions, living with a querulous aunt in a large, gloomy house in Engenho Velho; her courtship with Octávio, the difficulties the engagement entailed—she, an orphan and poor, he, a young doctor without a clinic; she went on, speaking at length about her husband, praising his talent and his generosity—torturing me.
With the other man she was very much colder than with me.
His name was Barbosa. Sometimes he would go there for dinner, but he usually only showed up at night. He was rich, short, a dandy, with eyes that blinked from behind thick gold-framed pince-nez glasses, flashy clothes, a true popinjay. When we were introduced—do you believe in premonition?—I didn’t dislike him. I found him vulgar, and neither handsome nor ugly, neither a fool nor intelligent. Tolerable. And the idea that he loved Emma never entered my mind: He treated her with respect and was treated with coldness.
I went on loving her. After the period of contemplative love came another, that of fever. I thought myself an idiot—loving a woman without telling her. I became possessed by an insatiable wish to have her. I was hounded by the thought of her, by her gaze, her scent, without cessation, day and night. I tried to stop seeing her. Octávio dragged me back there, calling me ungrateful.
One night, the three of us were talking.
The other man had not come. The doorbell rang: It was a summons—they were there to ask Octávio to go at once to attend to a sick person.
We were alone. Emma began leafing through an illustrated weekly.
In the silent dining room, only the ticktock of the clock could be heard. I don’t know what gave me the courage. I took her hand, kissed it, knelt, told her everything, that I loved her, that I could not go on with that torture.
Emma, pale from surprise, rose to her feet.
“Oh! Have you lost your senses, Jacques? Get up!”
“Enough! Don’t insult me.”
And she pushed me away violently.
I fled, lashed by shame. I didn’t go back for a week. When Octávio came to my house looking for me, the servant had express orders to tell him I was out. But he found me in the street. What had he done to me? What did it all mean? Nothing! I must come dine with him, even if he had to drag me.
I went. She received me more affectionately than ever. In the friendliness with which she treated me, I seemed to detect a certain pity for my impossible passion. She made no reference to what I had done. And from that moment on, my love transformed into veneration; I lost hope.
Copyright © 2021 The Crime by Olavo Bilac