Translated from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar.
There was a knock at the door late one evening, after dinner, while mother was getting ready for bed and father was still out at work, on the late shift at the newspaper. Father had a particular way of knocking. It wasn’t him. Nor were we expecting visitors.
Mother liked the short stories that came in a pull-out with Jornal das Moças, a women’s weekly magazine, and she pronounced a phrase she must have read a hundred times:
‘Who can that be, at this time of night?’
It was her father, my grandfather, Horácio Dias de Moraes.
He walked in as if it were his own home. I always loved his white hair, his even whiter moustache, his blue eyes—he was the only close relative I had with blue eyes, as far as I remember.
He had with him a small suitcase, a sign that he was planning to stay for a few days, and he was wearing his big green overcoat, a railway coat left over from when he was stationmaster at Barra do Piraí. The coat was open at the front and he was wearing pyjama bottoms underneath, although he was dressed formally from the waist up—jacket, shirt and tie.
My mother wasn’t at all surprised by his outfit. She seemed to know why grandfather was wearing his pyjama bottoms.
I couldn’t sleep, excited as I was by his presence, and I listened to the conversations that punctuated the night. Once father came home, I soon found out what was happening.
Grandfather was ill, something to do with his kidneys. He could no longer cope with the home care he was getting in Barra de Piraí and so he’d come to Rio. He’d come to his daughter’s house because she was a member of the congregation of the Third Order of St Francis of Paola, which was based in Tijuca and back then ran one of the best hospitals in the city.
Grandfather’s arrival was the first in a series of family dramas that disrupted our lives, the beginning of an unsettled period that lasted beyond his death, which came a few months later. But any change to the daily routine was a novelty to me. That night I slept on the sofa in the lounge, my bedroom being given over to grandfather; my room became his: Horácio Dias de Moraes’s room; the room he would die in.
But much would happen before then.
Grandfather was no stranger to me. I’d lived with him in my early childhood and when we lived in Icaraí he used to come and stay with us regularly. He liked taking me to the beach, where he would soak up so much sun that his red face made a wonderful contrast with his white hair and blue eyes.
He was the main protagonist in one of my father’s possibly made-up, undoubtedly embellished, favourite stories. I heard him tell it many times. As he had the habit of adapting his stories to suit the time, place and audience, I know two or three versions. Here I’ll stick to the backbone of the story, and give a summary of its body.
In 1922, as part of commemorations to mark the first centenary of Brazil’s independence, Epitácio Pessoa’s government invited King Albert of Belgium over to visit. There were economic interests behind the trip as a number of foundries had recently been opened: Brazil, on a modest scale, had begun to produce its first steel.
If the centenary celebrations already had the whole country enthralled, the prospect of being visited by a European king brought excitement to fever pitch. The grandson of Queen Victoria no less, a monarch who’d been known as the ‘Soldier King’ since the First World War: a few field hospital visits during battle had been enough to earn him his glorious title.
The King’s itinerary was split between Rio and São Paulo. To transport the sovereign from one city to the other, a special train had been bought, top of the range for the time. Stationed next to the wagons that usually served the Central Brazilian network, the new train looked the epitome of luxury, a palace on rails.
The first half of the visit took place in Rio and passed by without incident, the King visiting schools and monuments, honouring and being honoured with acts of homage.
The journey to São Paulo on the special train was scheduled for nine o’clock at night. The sovereign would have supper in the restaurant car before retiring to his cabin where he would rest until they reached the Paulista state capital.
The train would make a single stop in Barra do Piraí, the most important branch station of the Central Brazilian network, where the tracks divided, some heading to Rio, some to São Paulo and others to Belo Horizonte. Father used to say that in the event of war, the enemy had only to take Barra do Piraí and it would have taken the whole country, having blocked off communications between the three main cities.
The Belgian and the Brazilian governments took a number of precautions to avoid attacks or embarrassments. After all, the pretext for the First World War had been the assassination of the Archduke of Austria: it would have been ridiculous for another world war to have started because of an attack on the King of Belgium at Barra do Piraí.
The stop-off would last just five minutes, enough time to switch engines. The
route from Rio passed through the Serra do Mar, a mountain range that followed the coastline, meaning it was full of steep twists and turns and the train required a powerful, slower engine. From Barra do Piraí to São Paulo the terrain was flat and straight and the train could switch to a lighter, quicker engine.
This was all explained to the King and his entourage. He was asked if he would like some kind of homage in Barra but the King declined, saying they were due in around midnight and he’d rather be asleep, worn out as he was from all the ceremonies and protocol.
The itinerary organisers limited themselves to arranging for a few soldiers to surround the station and keep any undesirables at bay. Nobody would be allowed anywhere near the platform other than the mechanics in charge of changing the engines and the stationmaster, Horácio Dias de Moraes, my grandfather.
For years father kept a cutting of an interview with King Albert published in the Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, in which the Belgian sovereign talked about his trip to Brazil, his impressions, thoughts and conclusions.
The interviewer asked what the trip’s outstanding moment had been, the ‘finest hour’ of such a momentous pilgrimage, a European sovereign, grandson of Queen Victoria, the Soldier King of the battle fields, at large in the immensity of the tropics. Albert I cleaned his frameless glasses and fixed his gaze on a spot on the royal palace office wall, then began:
‘There were many wonderful moments. The generous Brazilian people received me with open arms; men, women and children lined the streets to greet me. But all things considered, the most thrilling moment, the one that most astounded me (at which point the King started coughing, because it truly had been astounding), was an unexpected one, almost savagely so. They were taking me from Rio to São Paulo, the two most important cities in the country, one a night’s train ride from the other. The train was modern and new, having been unveiled especially for my visit, and had all the comforts we enjoy here in Europe, made all the more comfortable by the friendliness and warmth of the Brazilians. The train pulled out of the station in Rio, I had a light supper in the restaurant car and retired to my cabin. The following day was to be a long one, full of ceremonial acts to preside over, and I needed to rest. Before we set off, the Foreign Minister advised me that there’d be a brief stop at a station somewhere between the two cities, a technical stop, to change engines. They asked me if I wanted a reception there, with school children, soldiers and members of the general public, but a ceremony at that time of night would have been inconvenient for everyone, not least the children. I declined the offer and said I’d rather rest in preparation for the next day. And so it was left. But God moves in mysterious ways! I’d retired to my cabin and was lying awake in my bed. The bed was comfortable enough but the route was full of twists and turns, making the train shake, and so I hadn’t managed to get off to sleep. I was in a state of heavy drowsiness when I felt the train come to a stop. I’d left the cabin curtain half open as I like to be able to look out at the night when I travel, watch the lights twinkling in the countryside. I took a quick look out and saw a deserted platform. The light from a gas lamp down by the station lit up the cabin. I thought I might make the most of the pause in the shaking, twisting and turning, and drop off to sleep. I really was exhausted from everything, which by then included the train ride. However (the King again looked away into the distance, fixing his gaze upon some unknown spot on the royal palace ceiling), something strange happened, from which I struggled to recover and which even now, many weeks later, still amazes and bewilders me. I realised there was someone trying to force the door to my cabin. I thought it must be one of the ministers or aides who, though I had asked them not to disturb me in the night, had come to see if I needed anything. But no. Into the cabin came a man of medium height, wrapped in a huge overcoat. The light from outside the train lit up his white hair and no more. He burst in and made straight for the bed, where I lay startled and trembling: for a few moments I feared an assassination. This man, I must repeat, came closer and closer and (the King held his gaze on the unknown spot of the royal palace ceiling for quite some time)… and then he knelt down beside my bed, took hold of my hands and respectfully and affectionately kissed them.’
Such was the King’s version of events in Barra do Piraí, which my father cut out of the Italian newspaper and got his friend Captain Giordano of Caporetto to translate. Father loved showing the interview to friends and guests. He was enthralled by it. Because the man with the white hair and the heavy overcoat was his father-in-law, Horácio Dias de Moraes.
Father always wanted to read the King Albert interview whenever grandfather came to the house, but grandfather refused to listen, snarling swearwords, saying the King was a scoundrel, a wretch and a liar. My grandfather’s version was quite different.
The train did stop in Barra do Piraí, the King was indeed in his cabin, worn out, wanting to sleep and unable to do so. But the Central Brazilian network’s beds were in a terrible state back then: the springs in even the most modern of the sleeping carriages would not have allowed the Belgian sovereign a peaceful night’s sleep.
It was also true that, on government orders, the station was deserted. The only people allowed on the platform were the switchmen, to change the engine, and the stationmaster, that’s to say he himself, Horácio Dias de Moraes, the government official authorised to protect the safety and well-being of the royal visitor.
It was cold, Barra being five hundred odd feet above sea level. Grandfather was wearing his thick green overcoat—the same one he wore the night he appeared at our house. As soon as the train pulled to a standstill, he made sure the shunting got underway up front. Then, a minute before the train was due to depart, he climbed aboard the King’s carriage.
Two officials, one Brazilian and one Belgian, saw him enter. But knowing he was
the stationmaster they stayed where they were at the back of the corridor, assuming it was a matter of some routine inspection of the carriage equipment.
With a strong arm, Horácio Dias de Moraes forced open the door to the King’s cabin. In the light that came in from the window, Horácio Dias de Moraes saw the sovereign in his nightgown and sleeping cap. The King tried to get up, fearing the assassin’s dagger had come to stain Barra do Piraí with the blood of Queen Victoria’s descendant.
For an instant the King must have thought about how such a treacherous attack would provoke his cousins, in-laws and blood relations across Europe to start a new world war, a terrible, deadly war to avenge the slaying in Barra do Piraí. He, the King, would go down in history, albeit forever associated with Barra do Piraí. Nothing was ever perfect.
He feared in vain. Horácio Dias de Moraes approached, then turned his back on the King and his silly nightgown and cap. He lifted up the heavy green Central Brazilian railway overcoat, pulled down his pants and showed the King his bum.
Horácio Dias de Moraes liked to imagine the foolish face of the King contemplating that mysterious white bum, lit up by a distant gas lamp from the station platform, out in the depths of Barra do Piraí.
Horácio Dias de Moraes had been an anarchist in his youth. He’d fallen in love with a Basque dancer he’d seen in a show with the Great Vale do Paraíba Circus. He had to compete for her affections with the lion tamer, another Basque. The lion tamer was an anarchist. He taught Horácio Dias de Moraes a popular saying of the time: ‘Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.’
There were plenty of priests in Barra do Piraí, far too many in fact. But Horácio Dias de Moraes couldn’t bring himself to hate them, try as he might. Instead he scorned them, and decided that was enough.
But a king was something else. And what a king! A grandson of Queen Victoria, the Soldier King, the Belgian Sovereign! It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: such a king, right there in Barra do Piraí, in his station.
Over the next few days, he told his closest friends the story of his encounter with the King. Some believed him, others didn’t. Horácio Dias de Moraes was a man of few words and he left it at that, satisfied he’d done his duty: life had presented him with an opportunity and he’d made the most of it.
Whenever father mentioned the cutting from the Corriere della Sera and threatened to read the interview with King Albert for the hundredth time, grandfather simply took himself away, so as not to have to contradict the King and spoil my father’s fun. And so it went on as long as he had his health.
That health began to weaken the night he entered our house with his green railway overcoat, suitcase, white hair and blue, rather startled eyes. Eyes that knew they were nearing the end.