Passport to Crime

Pedro Antão’s Glasses

by Machado de Assis

 

Translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers

*   *   *

Close to three years ago I received the following letter from my friend José Mendonça:

“Pedro. Today I received the keys to my uncle’s house; I’m going to inspect it. Would you care to go with me? Don’t think it’s because I’m afraid to enter alone; it’s because I know of your interest in penetrating mysterious matters. And nothing is more mysterious than the house of my famous uncle. Come at noon. Yours, Mendonça.”

My reply: “José. “I’ll go, but not at noon. Entering a mysterious house when the sun is at its height is an anachronism. I’ll be there at eleven tonight, and at midnight on the dot we will enter the home of the deceased. Yours, Pedro.”

Close to eleven o’clock, after having told my family that I was off to see a gravely ill patient because I’m a doctor and often see patients at night, I set out for Mendonça’s house on Rua do Areal.

Mendonça was having dinner. I ate with him a bit of ham and cold stew, drank two glasses of Madeira as well as a cup of tasty tea, and at twenty before midnight we left for Pedro Antão’s house.

Pedro Antão had died ten months earlier; his will was found, in which he left the house, his books, and other objects to his nephew Mendonça—with the condition that he would not take possession of the house until ten months later. At the time, Mendonça was on the Boulevard of the Italians in Paris, the only part of Paris he knew and still knows intimately, when he received the news. He chuckled about his uncle’s oddities, but came to Rio de Janeiro expressly to claim the house. He observed to the letter the conditions of ownership, and on the morning of March 23 officially received the keys he awaited so anxiously.

The key and the lock resisted Mendonça’s and my efforts to open the door. Luckily, there had come with us a husky servant of his, a fellow who boasted of never having seen a door or a woman who could resist him. He attacked the door with uncommon force; it groaned, and within a few minutes we were in the hallway. We dismissed the servant after some objection from Mendonça, who felt it necessary to have someone with us. The servant left, and I closed the door. We then lit one of the candles we had brought and ascended an old and damp staircase that led to the upper floor.

The climb wasn’t easy, because now and again a rat would brush against our legs, not to mention two or three cockroaches, frightened by the visitors, flying and hitting the walls before sliding down to the floor. In addition, we could smell that unpleasant odor emanated by a house closed for a long period. Fortunately, Mendonça had taken the precaution of bringing aromatic plants and powders, which we burned in the parlor as soon as we entered.

Mendonça was ill at ease there. He was an elegant man of the first order, used to luxury, while I, without disdaining comfort and cleanliness, was willing to take advantage of the gloomy romance that appeared before me in the interior of that mysterious house.

“Decide,” said Mendonça. “Where do you want us to sit?”

“On these chairs.”

“Dirty the way they are?”

“They can be cleaned.”

“Who’s going to clean them?”

“I will.”

Mendonça shrugged; I took cloths from my pouch and used them to clean two of the chairs as best I could.

Mendonça watched me carry out this operation with the smile of a resigned man.

“The house isn’t bad,” I said, sitting down on one of the chairs by way of example. “And the furnishings can be restored. Your uncle had taste.”

“Let’s take a look at the rest of the house,” Mendonça said.

“Wait.”

“Wait for what? Are we going to stay here staring at the parlor?”

“You strike me as foolish,” I replied. “You want your uncle’s inheritance, but I want to get to know the man. The parlor is the first clue. See that panel above the table?”

“Yes,” he said, “it’s the Madonna of the Chair.”

“A copy of the Raphael original. By this alone we know the man was a lover of the arts. The copy isn’t bad, and the frame is ornate.”

“There’s another panel here,” said Mendonça, pointing to the wall.

I climbed onto the sofa and held the light up to the painting. “I’m not familiar with this one,” I said.

“It’s by Velázquez; I saw one like it in the home of the Count of Chantilly.”

“Which count is that?”

“He wasn’t a count,” answered Mendonça, lighting a cigar. “We called him that because he was one of the first heroes of the Chantilly races.”

“I’ll bet he lived on the Boulevard—”

“Of the Italians.”

I lit a cigar also while Mendonça recounted an adventure in Paris involving him, the count, and a star of the Bois de Bologne. I allowed the conversation to take that turn because it was the way to hold on to my companion.

“You can see,” I said, returning to my subject, “that your uncle had taste. Raphael and Velázquez are one indication. Let’s see the rest of the house.”

The next room, smaller than the first, held nothing of note. All we saw was a German pipe that must have once belonged to E.T.A. Hoffmann, as its form was nothing but fantastic: a figure of the devil wearing a tricorn hat, with his goat’s legs crossed.

“Well well,” said Mendonça, “my uncle smoked!”

“So it would seem, and the pipe doesn’t strike me as orthodox.”

Au contraire,” replied Mendonça. “What could be more orthodox than setting fire to the devil’s head? Doesn’t it appear worthy of a servant of God?”

“Right!” I said, smiling.

Mendonça had regained his good humor, which was precisely what I desired. If not, we probably would have left after ten minutes. Now he was calm; when Mendonça was in a good humor he would agree to anything.

After we examined the pipe, which exhibited no additional peculiarity, we made our way down a corridor to the dining room. Like other rooms in the house, it held nothing resembling a mystery. Passing down another corridor, we saw a staircase that led to an attic. In the middle of the stairs, Mendonça froze; he had heard a noise overhead.

“It’s rats,” I told him.“Really?” Mendonça asked, paling slightly.

“You’d prefer it were Antão’s ghost?”

I took the remaining steps boldly; Mendonça, abashed, followed. The courage of certain people defies explanation. As La Rochefoucauld says, it is not always from bravery that men are brave.

The attic was vast. It comprised a space for study and writing, an alcove in front, and a huge salon in the rear. It was, so to speak, another floor.

The first thing we examined was the anteroom, whose furnishings consisted of a few chairs, a desk, two bookcases, a sofa—all of it such as any other mortal might have. On the desk were two marble busts, and here begins the fantastic: one was a head of Christ, the other of Satan. Christ was on the right, Satan on the left.

“Bravo!” I exclaimed. “I’m beginning to understand the mind of the man. Do you find any orthodoxy in this proximity of busts?”

Mendonça, who was captivated by the quality of the sculpture, answered, “Absolutely.”

“Explain.”

“My uncle placed them together as a symbol of human life, which is made up of evil and good; the good is here to correct the evil. It’s Victor Hugo’s Ceci tuera cela. This will kill that.”

“You explain it all. But it’s because here the symmetry of things is in your favor. Christ and Satan side by side is the symmetry of a poet. But I believe Pedro Antão was something different. Observe this floor. This remarkable gathering of things. A pair of slippers, an image of the Virgin, a braid of blond hair, a deck of cards, a cross, a page in Hebrew script—do you see it?”

As I listed the objects found on the floor, Mendonça examined them carefully, having previously donned a pair of gloves in order not to soil his hands.

I opened a window to let some air into the rooms. Afterwards, shaking the dust from two chairs, I sat down in one and said to Mendonça:

“Besides, I’m not leaving here until you tell me something about your uncle. How old was he?”

“Forty.”

“Did he always live in isolation?”

“For a long time. In the last five years he never left the house. A servant would bring him whatever he needed. That same servant died the day before my uncle’s death.”

“What was the cause of the servant’s death?”

“I don’t know; apoplexy, I think.”

“Perhaps the death of the servant explains the death of your uncle. What I see here is a murder and a suicide. From what did your uncle die?”

“A fall.”

“In the house?”

“Yes.”

“Just as I thought; there’s something here. These objects clearly show that Pedro Antão was a sorcerer.”

Mendonça smiled disdainfully. Despite his superstitious and apprehensive nature, he didn’t put faith in witchcraft. At the time, I inclined toward such beliefs, and even today do not reject them. After modern philosophers, with their habit of destroying everything, declared the Creator to be an invention of men, I, who do not attribute the credit for creating the universe to chance, replaced God with a grand sorcerer, author of all things, and even so am no less absurd than the philosophers.

“What,” I continued, “does this hank of blond hair mean?”

“It’s just a hank of hair,” Mendonça answered, “yellowed by time.”

“And this page in Hebrew means nothing?”

“I don’t know if it’s Hebrew or Syrian.”

“It must be Hebrew. I don’t know those languages, but I recognize the characters; these are Hebrew. As for the cross placed amid a deck of cards, I believe you won’t argue it to be good and evil, a symbol of human life. But let it go. What was noteworthy in your uncle’s life?”

“Absolutely nothing. He lived here as a recluse, neither seeking out his family nor inviting them to his home. At first it was rumored that my uncle had some beautiful woman hidden away, and my father tried to find out by speaking with the servant, but the servant said there was no one. Actually, my cousin Antônio said that one night, as he was passing by here, he saw from the street a woman’s shadow pacing back and forth in the parlor. But I convinced him that it was our uncle himself, wrapped in a sheet.”

“What did the neighbors have to say?”

“Just one said that one night he had heard mournful sounds inside there; the next day, whether from humanity or curiosity, the neighbor sent a servant to inquire what it was. My uncle chased him away with a cudgel. Would you like my opinion?”

“No, don’t tell me. We’ll see if I can discover—”

“There’s nothing to discover; I think my uncle was crazy.”

“So it seems to you. We shall see. Perhaps the desk will tell us something, but it’s locked. How to open it?”

“We can break into it tomorrow.”

“Yes. But for now let’s take a look at the rest of the attic.”

I picked up the candle and we headed toward the inner room. In the hallway separating the two rooms, my foot made contact with an object that skittered three steps ahead.

It was a pair of gold-rimmed eyeglasses.

We examined the glasses, which evinced nothing in particular; the frame was heavy and the lenses were green and noncorrective. Pedro Antão must have used them to soften the light when he worked or read at night. One of the lenses was cracked.

We continued our search, taking the glasses with us.

The inner room had no furnishings. At its rear was a window that looked out over the roof. It was closed with a small latch.

“Nothing to see here,” said Mendonça, ready to turn away.

“Just the opposite,” I said. “Do you see this?”

The object that I showed Mendonça was a silken rope ladder tossed in a corner. It was worn from wear and damaged from disuse.

“I think this is something. Let’s take a look at the window.”

I opened the window, which was low. It faced the roof of the same building. I looked around; all the houses were low except the one to the left, a two-story structure that had a window opening onto the roof. Next to the attic window were a few broken tiles.

 

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