Dom Casmurro Chapter 90


Next day I passed by the dead boy’s house without going in or even stopping – or if I did stop it was only for an instant, shorter than the time it takes to write this. If I remember rightly I even quickened my step for fear they might call to me as they had done the day before. Since I was not going to the funeral it was better to keep my distance than hang around. I went on my way thinking about the poor devil.

We were not friends, neither did we know each other very well. Intimacy? What intimacy could there be between him, an invalid, and me, bursting with health? Our contacts were brief and remote. I thought about them, turning some of them over in my mind. All they amounted to was a polemical discussion we had had two years previously, concerning … You will hardly credit what it was about. It was the Crimean War.

Manduca lived at the back of the house, lying in bed reading to pass the time. On Sunday afternoons his father used to dress him in a dark nightgown and bring him into the shop, from where he had a glimpse of a stretch of the road and people passing by. It was there that I saw him once – and not a little to my terror: the disease was eating up his flesh and his fingers seemed to be closing together. His appearance was certainly not attractive. I was then about thirteen or fourteen years old, and as we were talking about the Crimean War, which was all the rage in the papers just then, Manduca declared that the allies were bound to win, and I said that they weren’t.

‘Well, we shall see,’ he replied. ‘Unless it is decreed that justice is not to be victorious in this world, which is impossible. Justice is on the side of the allies.’

‘No, senhor, it is the Russians who are in the right.’

Naturally we were going by what we read in the local papers, which transcribed the foreign ones, but it could be, too, that each was guided by his own temperament. I was always something of a Muscovite in my ideas. I stood up for Russia, Manduca did the same for the allies, and on the third Sunday I went to the shop we took up the same subject. Manduca then proposed that we debated the issue in writing, and on the following Wednesday or Thursday I received two sheets of paper outlining and defending the case for the allies and the integrity of Turkey and concluding with the prophetic phrase: ‘The Russians will never enter Constantinople.’

I read it and set about refuting it. I do not remember a single one of the arguments I employed, and they are unlikely to be of interest now that the century is drawing to a close, but I do remember that they seemed to me irrefutable. I took my paper to him myself. They showed me into the bedroom, where he was lying stretched out on the bed, half covered by a patchwork blanket. Either a taste for polemics, or some other reason I can’t identify, prevented me feeling repulsion at the sight of the invalid and the bed, and the pleasure with which I handed him the paper was sincere.

For Manduca’s part, his face was lit up by a smile that effectively disguised his normally repulsive features. I cannot find words in our own or any other language adequately and fully to describe the assurance with which he took the paper, telling me that he would read it and give me his reply. He displayed no excitement nor was he demonstrative, his disease allowing him little movement, but he revealed simply and deeply a delicious foretaste of victory even before knowing my arguments. There was pen, paper and ink already beside the bed. Two days later I received his reply. I don’t know whether he brought up anything new or not, but his enthusiasm had certainly increased and the conclusion was the same: ‘The Russians will never enter Constantinople.’

I wrote my reply, and the fierce polemic continued for some time, neither of us giving way and each defending his protégés with dash and vigour. Manduca wrote at greater length and more promptly than I did. Naturally I had a thousand and one things to divert me, my studies, my games, my family and my own good health, which permitted other amusements. Apart from that stretch of road which he saw on a Sunday afternoon, Manduca had only this war, a daily topic in the city and the world but which no one ever came to discuss with him. Chance brought him myself as an adversary, and since he loved writing he devoted himself to the debate as if it were some new and potent remedy. The long, dreary hours were now short and cheerful, and his tears, if he shed any before, no longer flowed. I noticed the change in him from the reactions of his father and mother.

‘You can’t imagine the difference in him since you started writing those letters,’ said the shopkeeper one day at the front door. ‘Now he talks and laughs a lot. No sooner have I sent the errand boy to deliver his letters than he starts asking about your answer, whether it will take long, and to be sure to ask the boy when he comes by. While he’s waiting he rereads the newspapers and takes notes. Then as soon as he receives your letter he reads it anxiously and immediately starts to write his answer. There are times when he won’t eat or eats very little, so there is something I wanted to ask you, which is not to send your letter at lunch or dinner time …’

I tired of it first. I began to delay sending my answers until finally I sent none at all. Even then he persisted two or three times after I had fallen silent, but not receiving any answer he, too, stopped writing, either like me from weariness or so as not to pester me. His last letter, like the first, like all of them, maintained the same eternal affirmation: ‘The Russians will never enter Constantinople.’

They did not in fact enter, neither then nor afterwards nor up till now. But will his prediction prove eternal? Will they not enter some day? A difficult question. Manduca himself, to enter his grave, took three years of decomposition, which shows that nature, like history, is not to be taken lightly. His own life resisted as Turkey did, and if at last it was vanquished it was because it lacked an alliance like the Anglo-French one, since we cannot consider as such the mere agreement between the medical and pharmaceutical sciences. He died as nations die; in this particular case the question was not whether Turkey would die, because death spares nobody, but whether the Russians would one day enter Constantinople. That was the issue for my leprous neighbour, lying there under his wretched, torn, noisome patchwork blanket.