by Charles Edward Brooks
The ultimate misery is to be ridiculous after one dies.
(Agustina Bessa-Luís: Aforismos)
Two downy-cheeked students afflicted with spring fever leaned out of a window at the seminary and peered down into the Rua Dom Pedro de Castro.
“Blessed St. Eufémia!” cried one of them. “Did you ever see two women as ugly as that?”
His companion chuckled. “The Malgueiro sisters. I’ve been seeing them all my life. You didn’t grow up here in Vila, so you’re not used to them.”
“Are they twins?”
“Yes, but not identical.”
“I see that now, and it’s a relief, somehow. Two of either would be much worse than one of each.”
Three floors below, two elderly women in black silk trudged arm in arm up the hill. Their impeccably coiffed white hair and flawless grooming set off their ugliness quite as strongly as the same qualities can enhance beauty.
“Berta,” said the fleshier of the two, her full livery lips trembling, “the truth is that even after all these years we still know almost nothing about Dona Adelaide.”
Her sister pursed thin lips surmounted by a moustache. “Branca, they’ve always said that Senhor Manuel met her when he was at Coimbra. Maybe she was a law student, too.”
“But where did she come from?” Dona Branca fussed. “Who were her people?”
“It is odd that all that has remained a mystery,” observed Dona Berta. “But that’s not the only mystery about her. My theory is that she’s the real power in that marriage.”
“Oh, undoubtedly,” agreed her sister with a curious clucking sound. “I’ve always believed Senhor Manuel to be a nullity. And I’m sure Dona Adelaide writes his legal briefs and even runs the funeral parlor.”
“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if she knew how to embalm cadavers,” said Dona Berta with a phlegmy little giggle. “And I know that horrible servant of hers could.”
“Oh, Sister!” tittered Dona Branca.
The shoe store proprietor lolled in the entrance to his shop, sniffing the perfume of the lilacs in the seminary garden. “Diabo! Look across the street,” he called inside to his wife. “Those two vultures are out again. Off to make trouble somewhere.”
“That’s their specialty, all right,” concurred the woman. “They’ll take anything you say and twist it in the telling so that you end up in a bad light.”
The Malgueiro sisters remained as unaware of the couple as they had been of the budding theologians. “Of course, Senhor Manuel inherited the funeral parlor,” Dona Berta was saying. “And I’ve always believed his parents forced him to open the law practice. The fact is: He doesn’t have a smidgen of talent for either one.”
“The only thing I’ve ever heard him express enthusiasm about,” added Dona Branca, “is canon law. And I don’t know what use that is to a man in his position.”
“It seems he’s spent a fortune on books about it,” commented Dona Berta. “Some of them hundreds of years old.”
The two women snickered as they turned the corner by the market.
The dentist on the other side of the crossing gazed out the window while his assistant laid out a fresh set of instruments for the next patient. “Meu Deus! The Malgueiro girls: Dona Berta de Jesus and Dona Branca de Jesus,” he remarked. “What can they be up to this fine afternoon?”
“To make it not so fine for somebody else,” replied the young assistant. “They sow discord wherever they go. I wonder why people have anything to do with them.”
“People are afraid of them; that’s why,” laughed the dentist. “And then, they have connections. Their mother was an aristocrat, a Silvela de Gusmão. And on their father’s side they’re first cousins to the bishop. They have entrée everywhere.”
“Not in my house, they don’t,” the young woman declared with spirit.
Despite the warmth of the spring afternoon, blankets cocooned the frail sixtyish man in the bed. Illness had sharpened his patrician features; a series of little strokes had riddled his brain with lacunae. On his lap he held an open book, a hand-copied Decretum Gratiani, one of the classic texts of the canon law. Fingering each word lovingly as he went, he plodded through its Latin sentences at a snail’s pace.
A diminutive woman somewhat younger than the man approached the bed. “Manuel, I’m going across to the market for a few minutes. Maria de Lurdes will sit with you while I’m gone.”
“Está bem,” said the man thickly. “That’s all right, my dear.”
Cries from the market and the buzz of traffic from the street below penetrated the bedroom. So did the aroma of blooming trumpet vine from the rear of the house.
No sooner had the woman left than a bulky harridan lumbered in and took a seat by the bed. Some years older than the man she was to watch, she rivaled the Malgueiro sisters in homeliness. Without saying a word, she began to knit with amazing rapidity. At intervals a tic jerked her prognathous jaw violently to the left, but without affecting the deft fingers. The needles clicked unremittingly until the doorbell rang.
The Malgueiro sisters crossed over from the market to the handsome house in the center of the block. White marble faced the lower walls and blue tiles the upper ones. A single business establishment occupied the ground floor. Discreet gold lettering in the show window identified it as the
To the left of the funeral parlor entrance, steps led upward to another enterprise, this one named by a brass plate on the marble facing:
Dr. Manuel Teixeira Bompastor
The women mounted the stairs slowly, wheezing and coughing; the moist sound of the coughs hinted at chronic bronchial congestion. Once upstairs, they did not enter the law practice. Instead, Dona Berta rang the bell at the door opposite it. “It always gives me a turn when that horrible servant appears,” she whispered to Dona Branca. “She’s so unbelievably ugly!”
“Thank you, Senhora Maria de Lurdes,” answered Dona Branca. “We would enjoy a cup of tea.”
The servant’s jaw jerked as she tramped off to the kitchen. The visitors drew their armchairs closer to the bed.
“And now, senhor doutor,” said Dona Berta with a crooked smile, “tell us about your health.”
“It’s about the same,” began Manuel Bompastor, “that is—” As an artery ruptured in his brain, the sentence broke off. An expression of terror spread over the sharp face. Turning toward the Malgueiro sisters, he released his grip on the book and pointed to the wall behind them.
Tomes of canon law, many of them rare collector’s items, filled the open shelves that covered most of the wall’s surface. Three polished oak doors closed off cabinets in the center of the shelves. It was at the middle door that Manuel Bompastor’s clawlike finger pointed. He tried to say something too, but his organs of speech refused to obey the damaged brain.
The visitors’ black eyes glittered.
“Oh, senhor doutor,” cried Dona Berta, “you’re not well! Do you need something in this cabinet?”
“Shall we open it for you?” Dona Branca asked. And without waiting for an answer, she proceeded to do just that.
“Santíssima Virgem!” cried the women at the same time; a torrent of photographs poured out onto the floor.
And what photographs! The sisters bent over stiffly and poked about among them, groaning with loathing and delight: coitus, fellatio, cunnilingus, sodomy—the collection lacked nothing at all. Dona Berta reached into the cabinet and swept out the remaining contents with her hand. These, too, they perused closely.
“What is going on here?” yelled a voice from the other side of the room. Maria de Lurdes, a silver tea tray in her hands, stood motionless in the doorway.
The sisters straightened up in an ecstasy of triumph and indignation. The horrified gaze of Dr. Manuel Teixeira Bompastor had frozen in death on the open cabinet door.
The tiny Madonna-like face was as white as the marble facing on the house. But the expression on it betokened perfect self-possession. “Of course, we must see to it that they don’t spread this about,” said the mistress of the house to Maria de Lurdes. “Not after all we’ve done over the years to build up his name.”
“Certainly not, Dona Adelaide.” But the servant woman saw a difficulty: “The problem is, they’re not to be trusted. Even if they promised to keep it to themselves, they wouldn’t. The devil himself couldn’t stop their tongues from wagging.”
Still indignant, but now somewhat less than triumphant, the objects of this discussion were still standing by the pile of photographs. Their eyes darted back and forth at the two other women.
“Of course, he did have his…eccentricities, but I won’t have him made ridiculous after his death,” Adelaide Bompastor went on. “That would be the ultimate misery.”
“And after all your work, Dona Adelaide,” Maria de Lurdes said, “to make a success of the law practice and the funeral parlor. You know ten times more about both businesses than the senhor doutor ever did, but you always wanted him to have all the credit.”
The sisters exchanged a significant glance. Dona Berta shook herself and spoke up. “The authorities will have to be informed about this,” she said with a gleam in her eye.
“The temporal and the ecclesiastical,” clucked Dona Branca. “This kind of thing is against the laws of man and of God.”
“Quiet, you vultures!” bellowed the servant. And turning toward her mistress: “Dona Adelaide, there’s only one thing to do: see to it that they never leave this house alive.”
“That they never leave this house—period,” specified Adelaide Bompastor.
The sisters broke out in inarticulate cries. Dona Branca got hold of herself first. “You can’t prevent us from leaving. After all, it’s broad daylight, and we’re in the middle of town.”
“There will be people at the market who saw us come in,” continued Dona Berta, “who would say so to the police if need be.”
And triumph ignited anew in the visitors’ ghastly faces.
“We’ll see how many of them come forward,” leered Maria de Lurdes.
“None will,” observed Adelaide Bompastor quietly. “None at all.”
“How dare you say such a thing!” exclaimed Dona Berta. “To two daughters of the House of Silvela de Gusmão!”
“Where did you come from, you hussy?” Dona Branca almost shouted. “No one in Vila has ever known. Where did you meet your husband in the first place?”
“At Coimbra,” replied Dona Adelaide without raising her voice. “In the brothel where I was working at the time.” And with a slight nod to Maria de Lurdes, she slipped out of the room.
The clamor of the market, the hum of vehicles, and the honking of horns surged into the foreground. Before the sisters had time to speculate about what would happen next, the lady of the house returned—with a pearl-handled revolver in her dainty hand.
“What!” screamed Dona Berta. “You’re not really going to murder us?!”
“You can’t make people disappear just like that!” shrieked Dona Branca.
“You think not?” taunted the servant. “We have everything we need for the purpose right downstairs.”
Adelaide Bompastor lifted the weapon to cover the now cowering sisters. “Maria de Lurdes,” she said gently, “close the shutters, if you please.”
The bishop was lavish in his praise. Expressions like “devout Christian layman,” “eminent jurist,” and “outstanding businessman” laced his beautifully constructed address.
“Blessed St. Eufémia!” whispered one ripening theologian to another. “Our bishop should teach rhetoric at the seminary. He’s the best speaker in the whole diocese.”
With a dramatic gesture, the prelate lifted a folio volume bound in black leather up high for all to see. “This copy of the Corpus Juris Canonici, printed in Paris in the year 1500, is the only one in our country. Thanks to the generous legacy of which this is only a part, our students will now have access to it.”
The shoe store owner leaned close to his wife’s ear: “Diabo! Can you imagine what that thing cost? Can you picture spending that much money on a book?”
“To conclude,” the bishop was saying, “the legator’s largesse has made this addition to our library possible and furnished its shelves most splendidly…”
Meu Deus! said the dentist to himself. The old coot was even richer than the town thought he was. Embalming bodies and suing people must bring in a lot more than filling teeth does.
In the brand-new wing of the seminary’s library sat the widow of the man being eulogized, her old servant, and sundry representatives of Vila’s best society. Through the open windows the scent of lilacs wafted in from the garden.
At the end of his remarks, the high churchman turned to the tiny woman in black silk seated on his right: “Dona Adelaide, would you kindly unveil the plaque?”
When the plaque was exposed, the bishop read the wording on it aloud for the benefit of the assembly: “The seminary owes this library of canon law to a legacy from Dr. Manuel Teixeira Bompastor, scholar and faithful son of the Church. Requiescat in pace.”
At the end of the ceremony, Adelaide Bompastor and her loyal attendant bowed low before the bishop of Vila and kissed his ring. “Dona Adelaide, Senhora Maria de Lurdes, this has been a joyous occasion for me,” the dignitary said. “Tempered, of course, by lingering grief over my cousins’ disappearance.” And he dabbed at his perfectly dry eyes with a black silk handkerchief.
“We understand that, Your Excellency,” replied the widow. “And indeed we feel for you.”
“Two harmless seventy-year-old ladies vanish in broad daylight, and the police still haven’t the slightest clue as to their whereabouts. It’s been twelve months now.”
The women made sympathetic humming noises without actually uttering words.
“But then,” the bishop went on, “we must submit to the decrees of the Almighty, no matter how inscrutable they appear to our finite minds. May His will be done!”
“Amen!” added Adelaide Bompastor and Maria de Lurdes in unison as they bowed to take their leave.
Category: Fiction, Short Story