Sunday, March 9, 2008

Ten Centavos

Of course it wasn’t in our country, no papers write like that here, and the voice of society, of the people, of the streets, or however you call it, doesn’t turn a corner so quickly at home. It was in Lisbon during one of their political coups; one regime fell, the government embraced another—you know how it happens in those foreign countries. Senhor Manoel Varga didn’t concern himself too much with it, for politics was not his field; he was just faintly disappointed and sighed sometimes over the disquiet that aroused people’s thoughts and turned them from matters (in his mind) that were more useful and noble. For Don Manoel loved his quiet and his work; he was chair of the Society for Public Education and adamantly believed that higher education opened the gates of the nation to well-being and freedom, that work and learning were our salvation, and so on. That morning, he had just finished attending to some correspondence on the popular astronomy course in Monsaras and a lecture on the health of nursing infants in the town of Moura, when his housekeeper came back from shopping, her eyes streaming and face red.

“Here you have it, sir,” she proclaimed, and tossed a crumpled newspaper onto the table. “And I am quitting this place! I am an honorable woman, and I cannot work in such a place!”

“Come now, come now,” Mr. Varga said in surprise, and looked over his glasses at the newspaper. He froze for a moment; the following headline appeared in bold on the front page: “HANDS OFf, SENHOR MANOEL VARGA!!!” Senhor Varga couldn’t believe his eyes. “Where did you get this, woman?” he sputtered.

From the butcher, supposedly. The butcher had showed it to her, and everyone was talking about it. And everybody was saying something had to be done and such a wretched traitor and dog like Don Varga couldn’t be allowed to live on their street.

“What everybody?” Mr. Varga asked uncomprehendingly.

“Everybody; the maids, the servants, the butcher, the baker— “And I can’t stay,” she managed through furious tears. “People will come here with torches—and they have every right to! It’s right there in the papers, who’s doing what and why…that’s what someone gets for their faithful service!”

“Please, leave me be,” said Don Varga. “And if you want to go, I won’t stop you.”

Now he could read what the newspaper said. “Hands up, Senhor Manoel Varga!” Perhaps it was another Varga, he thought a moment in relief, and read on. No, it was about him. “The public has been taking account of your ‘humanitarian’ actions, Mr. Varga, and you have poisoned the soul of our nation for years and years! We will not stand for your rotten, outlandish education, which only aggravates our moral decay, weakness and internal division; moreover, we will not allow you to spread your subversive opinions among our youth and our simple people under the name of useful education any longer…”

Mr. Manoel Varga set the newspaper down in sorrow. He could not grasp what was subversive in popular astronomy or the hygiene of nurselings, and he didn’t even try. He simply believed in education, and liked people, and that was all. So many people came to his lectures, and now they wrote that people thought them worthless and abhorred them. Mr. Varga shook his head and read on. “If our officials will not intervene with your little arrangement, then our awakened public will have to take matters into its own hand. Until then, be on guard, Mr. Manoel Varga!”

Senhor Manoel Varga carefully folded the newspaper and put in down. So this is the end, he told himself. He could not understand what had changed so abruptly in people that what had been good yesterday was harmful and subversive today; but he understood even less how so much hatred had sprung up between men. God in heaven, there was so much hatred! Old Don Manoel shook his head and looked out at the suburb of Sao Joao. It was lovely and dear as always; you could hear the happy cries of children and barking dogs—Mr. Varga took his glasses off and slowly cleaned them. God, so much hatred! What has happened to everyone! It was as if they had changed overnight. Even the housekeeper; she had been there for so many years…Mr. Varga remembered wistfully that he was a widow. If my poor late wife were alive—would she have changed too?

Senhor Manoel Varga sighed and picked up the telephone. I’ll call my old friend de Souza, he told himself, he’ll advise me—

“Hello, this is Varga.”

A moment of silence. “Souza. What do you want?”

Mr. Varga gulped. “I just wanted…to ask. Have you read the article?”

“I have.”

“Please…what should I do about it?”

A slight hesitation. “Nothing. You must realize, that… that circumstances have changed. See? Well. Get used to it.” Click. Mr. Varga couldn’t even find the cradle for the telephone. That had been his best friend. How could everything have changed so? Get used to it—but how? How could a men get used to being hated? And how could a man get used to hate when he had preached love his whole life?

Well, I must get used to it—at least formally, Don Manoel decided; so he sat down at his desk and carefully drafted a letter, stating he was resigning his post of chair of the Society for Public Education. In light of the changed circumstances, and so on. Mr. Varga sighed and took his hat; he would deliver it himself, to have it done with all the sooner.

He went across town on back streets with the feeling that even the buildings were looking at him differently, almost inimically, perhaps also in the light of the changed circumstances. Perhaps the neighbors were talking about that Varga who poisons our very nation. Someone might have been slowly closing their door as he went by—it wouldn’t be surprising. Mr. Varga walked quickly, also in light of the changed circumstances. I might have to move somewhere else, he thought, sell my summer camp and…well, get used it to, right?

Mr. Varga got onto a tram and sat in a corner. Two or three people were just then reading that very paper. Hands off, Senhor Manoel Varga! What if they knew it was me, Don Manoel thought—that gloomy-looking one might point and say: ‘Do you see him! It is that Varga who spreads his subversive ideas! And he is not ashamed to be out in public!’ I should get off the tram, Mr. Varga thought, feeling unfriendly eyes about him…Christ in heaven, how well people’s eyes could show hate!

“Ticket, sir,” the conductor’s voice boomed over him. Mr. Varga almost took fright, and was taking a handful of change out of his pocket; at this a small coin of ten centavos fell and rolled under a seat.

The conductor looked for it. “Leave it,” Mr. Varga said at once, counting change—he didn’t want to call attention to himself.

The gloomy-loking man set down his paper and bent over, looking under the seat for the coin. “Honestly, sir, it isn’t worth it,” Mr. Varga assured him, quite nervously.

The man grumbled something and crawled under the bench after the coin; the others in the tram watched him in interest and understanding.

“I think it fell here,” a second man mumbled, sitting on his heels to look for it. Mr. Varga was on tenterhooks.

“Thank you…thank you,” he stammered, “but it’s really not necessary—”

“There it is,” the second man proclaimed, his head underneath the bench, “but it fell between the boards, the little devil! Do you have a knife?”

“I don’t,” Mr. Varga apologized, “but please…it’s not worth the effort—”

A third senhor put down his paper and dug in his pockets without a word; he took out a leather case and from it a little silver knife. “Show me,” he told the second man, “I will get it out.”

The whole tram looked on intently, delighting in watching the third man probe the gap between the boards with his blade. “It’s coming along,” he rumbled contentedly, and at that the coin jumped out and rolled merrily along. A fourth man bent over, hunting under the bank.

“Here it is,” he announced triumphantly, and stood up, red with exertion. “There you are, sir,” he wheezed, and handed the coin to Mr. Varga.

“Thank…thank you, sir,” Senhor Manoel Varga babbled, touched. “You were very kind, and the other gentlemen as well,” he added, bowing politely in all directions.

“It was noting,” the third man grumbled.

“Glad to do it,” spoke the second.

“At least you found it,” said the first.

The people on the tram smiled and nodded their heads. At least the coin was found—kudos! Manoel Varga, blushing in embarrassment over attracting so much attention, sat rigidly, watching the third man, the one with the knife, pick up his newspaper once more and begin to read the article: “Hands off, Senhor Varga!”

When Mr. Varga got off, everyone in the tram nodded at him in a friendly way; even the ones reading the newspaper raised their eyes and grumbled: “Adios, senhor!”

LN, 20 November 1938

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