The Strange Vow of Dom Felipe
by Diana Pollin
part 1 of 2
I was in the middle of a rubber of bridge when a porter brought in the note. The day had been a long stretch of November dreariness which I intended to lighten in the usual manner: cards at the club, dinner on the town, and a music hall review with the girls, the easy, flighty ones who fear no breakage when dropped. In this manner, young Englishmen of my class sow their wild oats in the great city of London, before marriage and fatherhood take over.
However, I must confess I am English only on my mother’s side. My father, a Portuguese nobleman, died a few months ago, leaving me his entire estate, except for small gifts to the servants and charities. It thrills and frightens me to think that, at the age of 25, I am at the head of plantations in Sao Paolo, rubber-producing forests in the Amazon, timber fields in Bahia, shipyards in Lisbon, vineyards in Porto... The list of properties is long, and heavily weighted towards South America and Portugal.
My father, Dom Felipe Al-Miranda o Parsis, emigrated at an early age to Brazil to restore the waning family fortune, a feat he accomplished beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. And then, suddenly, at the height of his wealth and power, he abandoned South America for England for reasons he never explained to me, nor to Mother, whom I questioned from time to time.
He was about 45 when he came to London, determined to wed his way into Society. Before very long, he found a wife, Lady Jane Culver, who came from an ancient, illustrious and impoverished dynasty. The marriage, defying all gossipy predictions of impending disaster, was a great success. Mother, who died the year I went up to Cambridge, was gentle, adoring, and artistic, and Father was attentive, faithful to his wife and indulgent.
I said that I inherited my father’s fortune. The rest — my fair, fine- featured, and insipidly agreeable looks — are unmistakably from my mother. Father’s brilliant blue eyes, thick black hair and dark olive skin have passed me by. Only my name, Joaquin Al-Miranda o Parsis, has the romantic ring that I so thoroughly lack in scope and manner.
I might add that my character is also pure Culver in its dull observance of duty, which is probably a blessing, as my life is spent with accountants and solicitors. It is true that I dream, at times, of throwing it all away for la vie de bohème, but I have none of Father’s restless spirit, none of his power to dissolve past connections, past loves, and indeed, to dissolve the past itself. Or to try to dissolve it.
To return to my story, I followed the porter into a private room where club members hold conferences with outsiders. I was rather annoyed at the interruption and told the man so, but he answered in his Cockney English that the gentleman in the next room had come all the way from Brazil to see me and would be leaving for Paris in the morning. “Why hadn’t he rung in earlier?” I remember protesting.
“I had, Senhor,” a smooth, but firm voice interrupted, “but you were away from your apartments. Your caretaker guessed correctly that you were at your club. I came here. The matter is important, I feel, for both of us.”
The interrupter was devilishly handsome, tall, well-built, with dark hair curling about a face of classical Mediterranean features. An orientalist would have painted him as a Gypsy king, or a Royal Moroccan cavalier. In all other ways, he was the very opposite of wildness. His tailored suit was perfect; only the color, a light blue, and a white carnation in the boutonniere gave him away as either an eccentric or a foreigner. He immediately interested me. I waved the porter away.
“Permit me, Senhor Al-Miranda, to introduce myself. Ambrosio Gonçalves. A...” he hesitated as if he had wanted to disguise a fear of hurting me as an uncertain command of the language.
“A compatriot of my father? Are you a relative?” I threw him a harsh glance. After all, the man might be an adventurer.
“Not necessarily,” he responded, mysteriously, immediately catching my fear. “Our family names are not uncommon in my country. I prefer to think of us as one who knows and one who will learn.”
I was damned if I were to be caught by his slipperiness! I said in a rather harsh voice, “Please state your business, Senhor Gonçalves. I have things to do this evening.”
“I have crossed all boundaries of common courtesy. I beg your pardon, Senhor, it will not happen again. I want nothing from you, Senhor Al-Miranda. I will take nothing from you, but I will add something to your knowledge. I am the son of a dear friend of your father’s when he was a young man, I should say, a very young man, in Brazil.”
“Please continue. Shall I ring for tea? Brandy?”
“You are so kind, Senhor, but I must refuse. An armchair and a bit of warmth are the only comforts I require, and not for very long. I leave for Paris early in the morning and have arranged for a hansom cab to come for me shortly. I am neither a bandit nor a beggar. I want nothing, Senhor, but a talk with you. I am here to satisfy my curiosity and, perhaps, yours. You will understand after a certain time.”
Feeling reassured, I presented him with a chair, offered him a cigar, which he refused, and then I proceeded to light one for myself. “You know, I have absolutely no connections with the Portuguese-Brazilian branch of the family. When Father arrived, thirty years ago — at just about your age, I suspect (he nodded in agreement) — he had cut off all ties, for reasons of his own.”
“Senhor, did your Father believe in God? Was he a churchgoer?”
I bolted upright. “What a damned thing to ask!”
Gonçalves showed me a sad, patient and obstinate smile indicating he was conscious of what he said and that he had every intention of receiving an answer to his question. Strangely, the idea of showing him the door had not even entered my mind. He intrigued me, rattled me, for a moment I found myself quite on the spot, and half a minute later, I was blurting out the truth.
“Senhor, if atheism were a religion, my father would be its Pope! I have rarely met a man so utterly devoid of faith. No higher force, no afterlife, no holy family, no Trinity, no... avenging angels to weed out the good from the sinful! If he and my mother married in the Church of England, it was only to satisfy public opinion.
“My father was above all, a practical man; his compromises were always to a point. Wasn’t it some French king who said, ‘Paris vaut bien une messe?’ That could have been my father! Now it is my turn to ask you: How in the deuce did you come up with such a question?”
Gonçalves shifted about in his chair and said in a voice people use when reminiscing, which made me wonder if he were about to answer at all, “My parents... knew your father when he was a young man, starting out in the wilderness in what is now Sao Paolo. Your father had settled in that southern province of ours which is still far from civilized and was even wilder when he staked out his first plantation.
“Life was extremely difficult and whatever human contact there was in that jungle came from the Church of Rome and its persistent rival, the village sorcerer. Therefore, the only human contact a person could have was with the priest or with the witch doctor. And, oh yes, the brothel. But, I can assure you, your father never went to those. Your father was extremely passionate, idealistic and, I would say, incensed with purity.”
“Purity! Idealistic? My father! Come now! I have always thought of him as an extraordinarily astute and practical person. The kind that always does well for himself.” I looked away from Gonçalves, as I stroked my ashes into a dish.
“It was his daring and his imagination that founded his fortune, but I grant you that it was his cunning and practical nature that devised efficient ways of managing it.”
“I see your point. He was unusually blessed with a double nature.” I remarked coolly.
“Was he?” Gonçalves’ voice shot up an octave, as if I had offended him.
“Listen, Senhor, you obviously have something to tell me. I suppose the nature of your information has to do with religion, which my father detested, in all its forms. I think...”
“It was not always that way,” he interrupted. “When my father... when my father met yours, years and years ago, he was living in a city called Paraty, a magnificent coastal town in the south. As I said, the rest of the country was jungle wilderness, which explains why that outpost of civilization drew the settlers seeking company and memories of the country they left behind.
“Dom Felipe came down from his plantation whenever he could. There were no respectable women where he was living and he wanted a wife. He quickly became friends with my father who introduced him to the family of Elena da Salais.”
“Are you suggesting that my father was married before he met my mother!” I exclaimed, dropping my cigar ashes on the table.
Copyright © 2012 by Diana Pollin