The Strange Vow of Dom Felipe
by Diana Pollin
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Gonçalves, looking steadily at me, proceeded in his damnably calm tone, “I am suggesting nothing, Senhor, I am stating a fact. I ask you to look at this portrait. Elena da Salais was a great beauty. Please see for yourself.” He removed a small oval portrait of a strikingly handsome lady from his pocket.
I judged her to be about 18 at the sitting. She was as dark as my mother was fair, as forthright about her appearance as my mother was shy and retiring.
Gonçalves continued, “Dom Felipe adored her. He kept this picture with him at all times. He had two portraits made of her. He gave one to my father after her death, and when he went away, he took the identical portrait with him. It is most certainly here in England.”
I looked him squarely in the eye and asked, “And that is why you are here? You want to find the other portrait?”
“No, Senhor, my version suffices. I am here only to satisfy my curiosity. And I believe we might be partners in the same cause.”
After groping for words a second or two, I said, “You know, Senhor, that was just like my father. He kept a very similar portrait of my mother on him at all times. It was oval, just like the one you picked out of your pocket.”
Gonçalves smiled wistfully and nodded. “A passionate nature, Dom Felipe.”
“You... you have something to tell me,” I stuttered out almost angrily, “and what does all this have to do with religion? Listen, Senhor, I am growing impatient. I can ask you to leave, return to my card game and my evening activities, or I can grant you the benefit of the doubt, play your game, give you credit. After all, my father was almost 50 when he wed my mother, so an earlier and insignificant marriage seems highly plausible. And probably one that was so disastrous that he never wanted it mentioned!”
Gonçalves reddened and explained, “Oh, but Senhor, it was not insignificant and if it was disastrous, it was because Don Felipe listened to religion and superstition and not to sound reasoning and common sense. I said that he adored Elena da Salais, courted her passionately, she was not a woman to him, but a paragon of beauty and purity. They were wed a mere three months after their betrothal.”
“Well,” I intervened, raising an eyebrow, “ there seems nothing unusual about that. Please continue.”
He shifted in his chair and said in a low voice, “shortly before the wedding, the Senhores da Salais’ gave a dinner party during which one of the guests, a Roman Catholic priest, started to brag about his fortune-telling powers. Soon the other guests, including Dom Felipe, were urging him to demonstrate his talents, and, a pack of cards was produced.
“I believe the clergyman was making a perfect fool of himself, until Dom Felipe sat down, cut the deck, turned over his cards and waited for the priest to mumble out some benevolent stupidity. Instead, the man of religion fell deathly silent. The story related to me was that somehow, after the dinner party, the priest took your father aside and told him that Elena would die in childbirth.”
“Did she?” I asked him, and immediately regretted it.
“There is more,” Gonçalves replied gloomily. “Dom Felipe was shaken to the core by what he had heard. As I said, he was young and headstrong and — begging your pardon — foolishly never doubted the priest nor his motives. It had not occurred to him that he might be the butt of a terrible joke, or that the priest was himself guilty of the sin of envy or in league with one of his enemies. Or simply drunk.”
“So, my father did not marry Elena?” I asked.
Gonçalves dropped his head. “ He married her, and... he did not marry her. He was convinced that consummating the marriage would mean death for the woman he adored. And yet he could not tolerate the thought of breaking the engagement, or imagining Elena da Salais in the arms of another man! His young bride tried in vain to bring him to his senses, but you must realize, Senhor, that irrationality grows like jungle weed, strangling the intelligent.”
I said loudly, “ I just cannot believe that Father would fall for such tripe!”
“They lived like brother and sister for a number of months,” Gonçalves continued, ignoring my outburst. “Then Dom Felipe was called away on business for several weeks. Elena went to live with her family until his return.”
“And when he returned to Paraty, Elena announced her pregnancy,” I boldly interrupted, snuffing out my cigar.
“Yes,” Gonçalves answered, squinting at me.
“Did the clergyman’s prediction come true?”
“Elena died of a fever a year after giving birth. But not in childbirth.”
“Did my father accept the situation? Was the child his?”
“I will leave you to draw your own conclusions,” he answered me succinctly. “After his wife’s death, Dom Felipe left the child with its grandparents, and wandered across the continent, piling up riches, until he came to England, for what motives, I cannot say, and started another family. The rest you know, Senhor.”
“I see,” I remarked distractedly.
Gonçalves rose to look out the window. Then, he turned to me, and held out his hand. “I must leave, Senhor. Undoubtedly you require time to make peace with what I have told you. I see that my cab has arrived, and I will no longer detain you from your evening activities.”
We shook hands, I rang for the porter to accompany him, and took his place at the window.
A thick fog was obscuring the streets of London. I could barely make out my half-brother’s form as it entered the cab. Because he was my half-brother. My intuition had turned to certainty when Elena da Salais’ portrait passed from his hand to mine. I was deeply grateful that he did not engage in a cheap vaudeville of identification. I have my life, he has his, our paths will never cross again , and, well, I believe that a certain degree of mendacity and omission are necessary to oil the mechanics of living. I prefer it that way, yet there are moments that bring necessary flashes into our dark seas, and this was one of those moments.
All passion and rage was my parent. He had to go to the end of his folly, which he paid for, but for which others, especially the innocent — and I believe that Elena da Salais was not an adulteress. Was her death really a fever? — paid more dearly. A vow was sacred, binding, and of far greater importance than his happiness or that of the woman he loved and tormented, as he tormented himself.
And as my father could not recognize a weakness in himself, the fault had to be his wife’s. The torment suddenly became monstrous and intolerable. He took the only course open to him, flight. In the same way, he flew from the religion of his fathers, and into the arms of a rationalistic denial with the fervor that he had brought to his early faith.
The final stage was to leave the continent where he made his fortune to begin anew in a land known for birthing practical and conquering men. To begin anew! It was not, however, my father’s past that plagued my thoughts, but my own... cowardice that beset me. I had — I have — a debt towards Senhor Gonçalves, and one that I will never repay. I scribbled a note to my companions at the card table, rang for a porter and ordered a cab.
I was met at the door by Hansen and Mrs. Sloan. No, I would not be going out later that night. Yes, have a pot of tea sent up, and yes, I wished to remain alone. But I did not go to my rooms immediately.
I detoured by my father’s bedroom which I had not entered since that tumultuous day when he announced at teatime that there was “a flurry” in front of his eyes, and we helped him up the stairs and to bed. In a matter of hours, he was dead.
Left alone with my dead parent, and perhaps to distract myself, I went through the pockets of his waistcoat that Mrs. Sloan had hung up in the wardrobe. I found several odd objects that day which I deposited in a cedar box he kept on his desk. I was not really paying attention to them at the time, but one of them was now of the utmost importance to me.
I opened the box, sifted through the assortment of pens, pocket knives, keys and key chains until I found what I wanted and my worst fears were confirmed. The portrait my father kept until his final hour was not the likeness of my mother.
Copyright © 2012 by Diana Pollin