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'The Gentleman's Companion' by Machado de Assis

Updated: Feb 5

Introduction by James Young

I first read Machado de Assis in 2006, when the teacher of the Português Para Estrangeiros class at Paraíba Federal University handed me a still-warm photocopy of one of his greatest stories, ‘Midnight Mass’. Or I say read – due to my calamitous Portuguese, I could hardly have grasped much more than a few words of it, and certainly not the ironies and moral ambiguities, the nudges of self-awareness and playfulness, or the subtle, though needle-sharp, social insights of Machado’s work, all which make it seem so thrillingly modern. 

Later, I’d read him in English – the classic stories, such as ‘The Alienist’, in which a physician commits almost the entire population of a small town (including his own wife) to his mental asylum, and the novels, like The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, a wildly digressive account from beyond the grave in 160 short chapters, compared variously to everyone from Sterne to Calvino. And I connected most meaningfully with him last summer, when translating the ceaselessly inventive The Love of Singular Men by the Brazilian author Victor Heringer, who cites Machado as one of his greatest influences. Searching for the inspiration behind Heringer’s innovative spirit, the bond with Machado this time felt stronger and more personal, not least because Victor, his century-and-a-half-apart protégé, had died in 2018, aged just 29.

While author biographies aren’t always especially helpful, given Machado’s love of nimbly skewering the hypocrisies of the Rio de Janeiro society he inhabited, it’s worth noting that he was born to a white mother and a mixed-race father in 1839, almost 50 years before slavery was abolished in Brazil. His father’s parents had themselves been enslaved, and Machado’s family were poor, yet despite such obstacles he would go on to produce a vast body of work, including novels, short stories, plays, poems and crónicas (a delightfully free-roaming Brazilian form that combines newspaper column, personal essay and journal entry), found the Brazilian Academy of Letters, and come to be considered his country’s greatest ever author.

The story published here, ‘The Gentleman’s Companion’, in a marvellous recent translation by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, is a fine introduction to Machado’s work, its wit and its moral complexities, and I’m itching to talk more about it. But that would spoil the story. Instead, you should just read it, ignoring the doubts of its flawed, highly Machadian (yes, there’s even an adjective) narrator, Procópio José Gomes Valongo, who, right at the start, asks the unnamed recipient of his ‘scribblings’ if they really think what happened to him in 1860 could be made into a story. The answer is a definite yes.  


So you really think that what happened to me in 1860 could be made into a story? Very well, but on the sole condition that nothing is published before my death. You’ll only have to wait a week at most, for I’m really not long for this world.

I could even tell you my whole life story, which contains various other interesting episodes, but that would require time, energy, and paper, and I only have paper; my energy is low and time for me is like the guttering flame of a night lamp. Soon the sun will rise on a new day, a terrible sun, impenetrable as life itself. Farewell, my dear friend; read on and wish me well, forgive anything that offends, and don’t be surprised if not everything smells of roses. You asked me for a human document and here you have it. Do not ask me for the empire of the Great Mogul or a photograph of the Maccabees. Ask me, on the other hand, for my dead man’s shoes, and they will be yours and yours alone.

As you know, these events took place in 1860. Sometime around August of the preceding year, when I was forty-two, I became a theologian— or rather, I began copying out theological tracts for a priest in Niterói, an old friend from school, who thereby tactfully provided me with room and board. During that month of August 1859, he received a letter from a fellow priest in a certain provincial town, who asked him if he knew of a discreet, intelligent, patient fellow who would be willing to go and serve as gentleman’s companion to a Colonel Felisberto, in return for a decent wage. My friend duly consulted me, and I gladly accepted, for I was already becoming fed up with copying out Latin quotations and ecclesiastical formulas. I returned to Rio to say goodbye to a brother of mine, then set off for the provinces.

When I arrived in the town, I heard dire reports about the colonel. He was, it seemed, a quite unbearable man, eccentric and demanding; no one, it was said, could stand him, not even his friends. He had been through more gentleman’s companions than medicines. Indeed, he had punched two of them in the face. I replied that I was not afraid of healthy folk, still less of the sick; and after discussing matters with the priest, who confirmed what I had heard and recommended an attitude of meekness and loving charity, I proceeded to the colonel’s residence. 

I found him stretched out in a chair on the veranda, breathing heavily. He did not receive me badly; at first he said nothing and merely fixed me with his eyes like a watchful cat. Then a malevolent smile spread across his harsh features. Finally, he told me that none of his previous gentleman’s companions had been any use at all— always sleeping, answering back, chasing after the female slaves. Two of them had been downright thieves!

“Are you a thief?”

“No, sir.”

Then he asked me my name. I told him and he looked startled. Colombo? No, sir: Procópio José Gomes Valongo. Valongo? He thought this a preposterous name and proposed calling me just plain Procópio, to which I replied that he could call me whatever he pleased. I’m telling you this detail not just because I think it gives you an idea of what he was like, but also because my reply made a very favorable impression on the colonel. He himself said so to the priest, adding that I was the most agreeable of all the gentleman’s companions he’d had. The honeymoon lasted for seven days.

On the eighth day, my life became exactly the same as that of my predecessors. It was a dog’s life, with no sleep, no thoughts of my own, and being constantly showered with insults, which, at times, I laughed at with an air of resignation and deference, for I had noticed that this was one way of mollifying him. His rudeness stemmed as much from his illness as from his temperament, for he suffered from a litany of complaints: an aneurism, rheumatism, and three or four lesser afflictions. He was nearly sixty, and from the age of five everyone had indulged his every whim. Had he been merely grumpy, that would have been fine; but he had a mean streak in him, and took pleasure in the pain and humiliation of others. At the end of three months I’d had enough and decided to leave; I waited only for the right opportunity.

It wasn’t long in coming. One day, when I failed to give him his embrocation at the correct time, he grabbed his stick and struck me two or three times. That was the last straw; I quit there and then and went to pack my bags. Later, he came to my room and begged me to stay, saying that there was no need to take offense at an old man’s bad temper. He was so insistent that I stayed.

“I’m in a terrible pickle, Procópio,” he told me that night. “I won’t live much longer. One foot in the grave, you might say. But you must go to my funeral, Procópio; I absolutely insist. You must go, and you must pray at my graveside. If you don’t,” he added with a chuckle, “I’ll come back at night and torment you. Do you believe in spirits from the other world, Procópio?”

“Certainly not!”

“Why wouldn’t you believe, you donkey?” he retorted excitedly, opening his eyes very wide.

If these were the truces, just imagine the wars! He stopped hitting me with the stick, but the insults were just as bad, if not worse. With time I became inured to them and stopped noticing; I was an ass, a dolt, an idiot, a good-for-nothing lazybones, everything under the sun. There wasn’t even anyone to share these insults with me. He had no relatives; there had been a nephew up in Minas Gerais, but he had died of consumption sometime between the end of May and the beginning of July. His friends came by occasionally to flatter and indulge him; a five- or ten- minute visit, nothing more. So there was no one but me, just me, for an entire dictionary of expletives. More than once I resolved to leave, but each time, at the priest’ insistence, I ended up staying.

Not only were relations between us becoming increasingly strained, I was also keen to return to Rio. At forty- two I wasn’t yet ready to become a complete recluse tending to a petulant old invalid in the back of beyond. To get an idea of my isolation, suffice it to say that I didn’t even read the newspapers; apart from the odd piece of news that reached the colonel, I was totally cut off from the rest of the world. I therefore decided to return to the capital at the first opportunity, even if it meant crossing swords with the local priest. Seeing as I’m making a general confession, I should perhaps add that, since I was spending nothing and saving up all of my wages, I was eager to come and squander them here in the city.

Such an opportunity seemed imminent. The colonel’s health was steadily deteriorating and he had drawn up his will, managing to offend the notary almost as much as he had me. His manners became ever coarser, and the brief lapses of peace and affability were now rare. I had already lost the meager dose of pity that had made me overlook the sick man’s excesses; inside, I was seething with hatred and revulsion. At the beginning of August, I resolved definitively to go; the priest and the doctor, while accepting my reasons, asked me to stay just a little longer. I granted them one month; at the end of the month I would leave, no matter what the patient’s condition. The priest took it upon himself to find my replacement.

Now here comes the event itself. On the evening of the twenty-fourth of August, the colonel fell into a fit of rage and knocked me down, calling me all sorts of vile names, threatening to shoot me, even ending up by throwing a bowl of porridge at me because he said it had gone cold. The bowl hit the wall and shattered into pieces.

“You’ll pay for that, you thief!” he bellowed.

He rumbled on in this manner for quite some time. At eleven o’clock he fell asleep. While he slept, I pulled from my pocket an old translation of a d’Arlincourt novel which I had happened to find lying about. I sat down in his room to read it, a short distance from the bed, since I would have to wake the colonel at midnight to give him his medicine. Whether it was the effects of tiredness or the book itself, before I had reached the end of the second page, I, too, fell asleep. The colonel’s shouts woke me with a start and I sprang to my feet, still half asleep. He seemed delirious and kept on shouting, finally flinging the water jug at me. There was no time to duck; the jug caught me hard on the left cheek. Blinded by pain, I lunged at the invalid and grabbed him by the throat; we struggled, and I strangled him.

When I realized he had stopped breathing, I stepped back in alarm and cried out, but no one heard me. I shook him then, trying to bring him back to life, but it was too late; the aneurism must have burst, and the colonel was dead. I went into the adjoining room and for two hours did not dare return to the bedroom. I cannot even begin to describe what went through my mind during that time. I was in a complete daze, a kind of vague, vacant delirium. It seemed to me that the walls had faces, and I could hear muffled voices. The victim’s cries, both before and during the struggle, continued to reverberate inside me, and whichever way I turned, the air seemed to shake with convulsions. Do not imagine that I’m simply making up colorful imagery for mere stylistic effect; I am telling you that I distinctly heard several voices crying: “Murderer! Murderer!”

Otherwise, the house was silent. The slow, staccato tick tick of the clock only emphasized the silence and solitude. I put my ear to the bedroom door hoping to hear a groan, a word, an insult, anything that would indicate that he was alive and restore some peace to my conscience. I would have willingly taken ten, twenty, a hundred blows from the colonel’s fists. But nothing, absolutely nothing; all was silent. I began to pace the room once again; I sat down, my head in my hands, wishing I had never come to this place. “Damn and blast their wretched job!” I exclaimed. And I cursed the priest from Niterói, the doctor, the local priest, everyone who had gotten me the job and begged me to stay just a little longer. I clung to their complicity.

When I began to find the silence too terrifying, I opened a window in the hope of hearing the sound of the wind, but there was no wind. The night was utterly still and the stars shone with the indifference of those who remove their hats when a funeral passes by but carry on with their conversation. I leaned out of the window for some time, staring into the darkness, mentally reviewing my life in the hope that this might ease my present anguish. Only then can I say that I thought clearly about my possible punishment. A heinous crime weighed upon me and certain retribution awaited. At this point, fear was added to my feelings of remorse. I felt my hair stand on end. A few minutes later, I saw three or four human shapes peering in at me from yard, as if ready to pounce; I stepped back into the room, the shapes vanished into thin air; it was a hallucination.

Before day broke, I carefully cleaned the wound on my cheek. Only then did I dare return to the bedroom. Twice I drew back, but, finally, there was no avoiding it and I went in; even then I couldn’t go near the bed. My legs shook, my heart pounded; I considered fleeing the scene, but that would be tantamount to confessing my guilt, when what I urgently needed to do was to remove all traces of it. I went over to the bed and looked at the corpse, at its staring eyes and open mouth, as if it were uttering those eternal, centuries-old words: “Cain, what hast thou done with thy brother?” I saw the marks of my fingernails on his neck; I buttoned his nightshirt as high as I could and drew the sheet up to his chin. Then I called one of the slaves, told him the colonel had died in the night, and sent word to the local priest and the doctor.

My first thought was to leave immediately, on the pretext that my brother was ill, for I had indeed received a letter from him a few days earlier saying he was not feeling well. But I realized that such a sudden departure might arouse suspicions, and so I stayed. I laid out the body myself, with the help of a shortsighted old Negro. I sat with the body, afraid others might notice something. I wanted to scrutinize their faces for some flicker of suspicion, and yet I dared not look at anyone. Everything made me jittery: the quiet footsteps stealing into the room, the whispers, the priest’s rituals and mumbled prayers. When the time came to close the coffin, my hands trembled so much that someone commented pityingly to their neighbor:

“Poor Procópio! See how moved he is, despite all he had to put up with.”

Fearing this might be an ironic remark, I was desperate to get it all over with. We moved outside. Passing from the half darkness of the house into the bright light of the street terrified me, convinced now that my crime would be impossible to hide. I fixed my eyes on the ground and kept walking. When it was all over, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was at peace with my fellow men, if not with my conscience; the next few nights were naturally ones of anxiety and affliction. I need hardly say that I came straight back to Rio de Janeiro and that I lived here in terror, even though I was far removed from the scene of the crime. I never laughed and barely spoke; I ate badly and suffered from hallucinations and nightmares . . .

“Let the dead rest in peace,” people would say to me. “There’s no reason to be so upset.”

And I took full advantage of this illusion, singing the praises of the dead man, calling him a fine old fellow, a little rough around the edges, perhaps, but with a heart of gold. And as I praised him, I almost persuaded myself that this was true, at least for a few moments. Another interesting aspect, which may be of some interest to you, is that, although I wasn’t a religious man, I had a mass said for the eternal rest of the colonel’s soul, at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament. I didn’t send out any invitations, or mention it to anyone; I went to hear it alone, kneeling throughout and crossing myself many times. I paid the priest double the usual amount and distributed alms at the door of the church, all in the name of the deceased. I wasn’t trying to deceive anyone, the proof being that I went to the mass alone. I should also add that I never mentioned the colonel without saying, “God rest his soul!” And then I would tell a couple of lighthearted anecdotes about him and some of his more amusing outbursts.

Seven days after arriving in Rio de Janeiro, I received the letter from the priest that I showed you, telling me they’d found the colonel’s will and that I was his sole heir. You can imagine my astonishment. I thought I had misread the letter; I showed it to my brother and some friends; they all interpreted it in exactly the same way. It was there in writing: I was the colonel’s sole heir. I even wondered if it was a trap, but quickly realized that there were other means of ensnaring me if the crime had been discovered. Furthermore, I knew the priest to be an honest man and a most unlikely instrument for such a scheme. I reread the letter countless times; there it was in black and white.

“How much was he worth?” my brother asked me.

“I don’t know, but he was rich.”

“Well, he’s certainly proved himself to be your friend.”

“He has . . . yes, he has . . .”

Thus, by some strange irony of fate, all the colonel’s worldly goods came into my possession. I considered refusing the inheritance. Taking even a penny from his estate seemed odious to me, worse even than being a hired killer. I thought about it for three days, and every time I bumped up against the argument that my refusal might arouse suspicion. At the end of the three days, I settled on a compromise: I would accept the inheritance and secretly give it all away, little by little. It wasn’t just a matter of scruples; it was also a way of redeeming my crime through an act of virtue— by doing so, my accounts would be settled.

I made preparations and set off for the town. The closer I got, the more vividly I recalled the whole sad adventure; an air of tragedy surrounded the town, and the colonel’s shadow seemed to loom out at me from every side. My imagination re-created every word, every gesture, the whole horrendous night of the murder . . .

Murder or self-defense? Surely the latter, for I had been defending myself from an attack, and in my defense . . . It was an unfortunate accident, just one of those things. I gladly seized upon this idea. And I weighed up all the aggravating circumstances, the blows, the insults . . . I knew very well that the fault lay not with the colonel, but with his illness, which had made him surly, even wicked. But I forgave him everything; nothing, though, could erase what had happened that fateful night. However, I took into account that the colonel could not in any event have lived much longer; he was clearly at death’s door— he himself knew it and said so. How long would he have lived? Two weeks? One? Perhaps even less? It wasn’t a life, it was a tattered old toe-rag of a life, if even that could describe the poor man’s continual suffering. And who knows, perhaps our struggle and his death were simply coincidental? It was possible, even probable; indeed it could not have been otherwise. I seized upon this idea too.

When I reached the town, I felt my heart sink, and I wanted to turn back, but I pulled myself together and carried on. Everyone congratulated me. The priest explained the various provisions of the will, the usual charitable gifts and legacies, all the while praising my Christian patience and devotion in serving the colonel, a man who, for all his harsh behavior, had nonetheless shown his gratitude.

“Indeed,” I said, looking away. 

I was dumbstruck. Everyone praised my dedication and patience. The initial formalities of drawing up the estate detained me in the town for some time. I appointed a lawyer and everything proceeded smoothly. During this time, there was much talk of the colonel. People came to tell me things about him, in rather less moderate terms than the priest; I defended the colonel, pointing out his few virtues, yes, he could be stern perhaps . . . 

“Stern, you say? Well, he’s dead now and good riddance, but he was the very devil, that’s for sure.”

And they described incidents of extraordinary, even perverse, cruelty. What could I say? At first I listened with curiosity; then I began to feel a singular pleasure, which I made a genuine effort to drive out. I continued to defend the colonel, explain his actions, and attribute certain things to local rivalries. He was, I confessed, somewhat violent . . .

“Somewhat? He was a vicious snake-in-the-grass!” said the barber. The tax collector, the pharmacist, the notary, and everyone else agreed. Other stories followed, encompassing the entire life of the dead man. Older people recalled his cruelties as a little boy. And that secret, silent, insidious pleasure grew inside me like a kind of moral tapeworm, which for all that I tried to extract it, ring by ring, would always recover and keep on growing.

The legal formalities kept me busy, and, besides, since no one in the town had a good word to say about the colonel, I began to find the place less forbidding than I had at first. Once I took possession of my inheritance, I converted it into bonds and cash. Many months passed, and the idea of distributing it all in charitable gifts and worthy donations no longer held me in such a firm grip; I even began to consider this rather presumptuous. I trimmed back the initial plan; I gave something to the poor, new vestments to the parish church, and a donation to the Santa Casa Hospital: thirty-two contos in all. I also had a tomb built for the colonel, all marble, the work of a Neapolitan sculptor who was here in Rio until 1866, before going off to die, I believe, in Paraguay.

The years have rolled by and my memories have grown faded and gray. I still sometimes think about the colonel, but without the terror of those early days. I told several doctors about the colonel’s illnesses and they all agreed that death would have been imminent; they were only surprised he hadn’t succumbed earlier. I may have unwittingly exaggerated his ailments, but the truth is he was going to die, no matter what happened . . .

Anyway, farewell, dear friend. If you judge these scribblings of any value, then repay me with my own marble tomb, on which you may carve as an epitaph this little amendment I have made to the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are they that possess: for they shall be comforted.”

Translation by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson from The Collected Stories of Machado de Assis, published by Liveright.

James Young is a writer and translator from Northern Ireland. His short fiction has been published by a wide range of literary journals, and shortlisted for the Fish, Wasafiri, Bath and Sean O'Faolain short story prizes. He is also the editor of Short Fiction literary journal. His first novel-length translation, The Love of Singular Men by Victor Heringer, was published by Peirene Press this year. 

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