He didn’t always walk with a slow, stiff step. He would also fidget in a flurry of gestures and was often swift and agile in his movements, as natural moving in this way as the other. Likewise, he would let fly, whenever necessary, with a great hollow laugh that was nonetheless infectious, so heartily did his cheeks, his teeth, his eyes, his whole face, his whole person, the whole world seem to laugh with him. In moments more serious, he’d indeed be very serious.
He had been our dependant for many years. My father was still on the old fazenda in Itaguaí and I had just been born. One day he turned up there offering his services as a homeopathic doctor; he carried a Manual and a case of medicines. There was an outbreak of fever going round at the time; José Dias cured the overseer and a female slave but would not accept a cent in remuneration, so my father suggested he stay there living with us on a small stipend. José Dias refused, saying that it was his duty to bring health to the thatched huts of the poor.
“Who’s stopping you from getting around? Go wherever you like, but stay here living with us.”
“I’ll come back in three months.”
He came back two weeks later. He accepted food and lodging without further recompense, except for whatever might be given him on holidays. When my father was elected deputy and came to Rio de Janeiro with the family, José Dias came too, and at the back of the estate he had his lodging. One day, when fever was again raging through Itaguaí, my father told him to go and attend to our slaves. José Dias remained silent for a moment; finally, with a sigh, he confessed that he was no doctor. He had taken on the title to help spread the ideas of the new school, which he’d done only after having studied a great deal, but his conscience would not permit him to accept any more patients.
“But you cured the sick those other times.”
“I believe I did. Nevertheless, it would be more correct to say that that was due to the remedies prescribed in the books. The remedies, amen, the remedies — under God. I was a charlatan… Don’t deny it; my motives could be considered noble, indeed they were – homeopathy really does work, and, to serve the truth, I lied. But now it’s time to set the record straight.”
He wasn’t dismissed as he requested at the time: my father could not do without him. He had the gift of making himself agreeable and indispensable; his absence was felt as strongly as anybody else’s in the family. When my father died, José Dias was terribly distressed, or so they tell me — I don’t remember.
My mother remained grateful and would not hear of his leaving his lodgings on the estate. After the seventh-day mass, he went to take leave of her.
“Stay, José Dias.”
“As you wish, Senhora.”
He was left a small legacy in the will, a gilt-edged bond and a few words of praise. He copied out the words, framed them and hung them in his room above his bed. “This is the best bond,” he would often say. Over time, he acquired a certain authority in the family, enough to be heard out at least. He didn’t overdo things, and he knew how to express his opinions submissively. Ultimately, he was a friend, I wouldn’t say the best of friends, but not everything can be the best in this world. And don’t suppose he was subservient; his politeness was more a product of calculation than natural inclination. His clothes lasted him a long while. Unlike those who soon wear out a new suit, he continued wearing his brushed, smoothed, mended, buttoned and with a poor, modest elegance. He was well-read, though haphazardly so, enough anyway to be amusing of an evening or over dessert; to explain some phonemenon; to talk about heat’s or cold’s effects, the Earth’s poles, Robespierre. He often recounted a trip he’d made to Europe and confessed that if it hadn’t been for us he would have already gone back there. He had friends in Lisbon, but our family, he would say, under God, was everything to him.
“Under or above?” Uncle Cosme asked him one day.
“Under,” repeated José Dias reverently.
And my mother, who was religious, was pleased to see that he put God in his proper place and smiled approvingly. José Dias nodded in thanks. My mother would give him a little money from time to time. Uncle Cosme, who was a lawyer, entrusted him with the copying of legal documents.
Chapter 5 in the original Portuguese