Some years ago, a new star appeared in the skies of Rio.
From the moment she rose, no one challenged her scepter; she was proclaimed queen of the ballrooms.
She became the goddess of the balls, the muse of poets, and the idol of eligible suitors.
She was rich and beautiful.
Two opulences that enhance each other like flowers in an alabaster vase; two splendors that reflect each other, like a ray of sun on the facet of a diamond.
Who can forget Aurélia Camargo, who crossed the heavens of the court like a shining meteor, suddenly to vanish amidst the wonder that produced her fire?
She was eighteen when she first appeared in society. No one knew her; and all searched immediately, avidly, for information about the great novelty of the day.
They said many things I shall not repeat here, for in due course we shall learn the truth, stripped of the petty comments in which telltales are wont to dress it.
Aurélia was an orphan; she lived in the company of an elderly relative, a widow, Dona Firmina Mascarenhas, her constant companion in society.
But this relative was merely a mother of convenience to comply with the scruples of Brazilian society, which at that time had yet to accept a certain emancipation of women.
Maintaining toward the widow a respectful deference due her age, the young lady never wavered for a moment from the firm purpose of running her household and acting in the manner she pleased.
Aurélia was also said to have a guardian; but this unknown entity, to judge by the character of his ward, must have exerted as little influence over her will as did the elderly relative.
It was generally believed that the girl's future depended exclusively on her own inclinations and whims; and therefore all types of veneration were laid directly at the feet of the idol.
Besieged by a mob of suitors who vied for her like a spoil of victory, Aurélia, wondrously shrewd for her age, assessed the dangers that threatened her and the difficult situation in which she found herself.
Hence, perhaps, the rather disdainful attitude and a certain air of coquettishness that ruffled her beauty, otherwise so proper and sculpted for the sweet and serene expansion of her soul.
Had the beautiful face not constantly betrayed, even in moments of contemplation and distraction, this tint of sarcasm, no one would see it as Aurélia's true visage, but as the mask of some deep disillusionment.
It is hard to believe that nature would limn such pure and clear features only to mar their harmony with a pungent, sardonic smile. God would not soften such large, wide eyes with charming tenderness if He had intended them to fire sparks of contempt.
Why that statuesque, perfect silhouette, if instead of breathing deep with the gentle flows of love, it only raged with scorn?
In the living room, surrounded by admirers, amid splendid reflections of beauty, Aurélia, far from becoming intoxicated by the adoration evoked by her beauty and by the homage paid her, on the contrary, showed only indignation toward this vulgar, contemptible horde.
It was not a triumph she considered worthy of her, these people's abject humiliation before her riches. It was a challenge she thrust upon the world, proud to crush it beneath her heel like a poisonous reptile.
Such is the world; the satanic fire of that woman's beauty was her greatest seduction. In the embittered ardor of her rebellious soul, one could fathom abysses of passion that foretold tempests of sensuality promised by the love of the virginal bacchante.
If the sinister glimmer were to vanish suddenly, leaving that beautiful statue in the soft penumbra of sweetness and innocence, the pure and chaste angel borne within her as in all young women, might pass unnoticed amidst the whirlwind.
Aurélia's most impetuous rebellions were directed precisely against the riches that enthroned her and without which, for all her gifts, she surely would never enjoy, disdainful as a queen, the vassalage rendered her.
It was for this reason that she considered gold a vile metal that debased men; and in her heart, she felt deeply humiliated thinking that to all these people who surrounded her, she, herself, merited none of the flattery that they dedicated to each of her thousands in capital.
Never from the pen of some unknown Chatterton came more excruciating diatribes against money than those that often vibrated on the perfumed lips of this young enchantress in the bosom of opulence.
One line is all we need to sketch her from this perspective.
Convinced that all those who professed love for her, without exception, sought only her wealth, Aurélia reacted to this affront by responding to these individuals in kind.
Thus she would indicate the relative merit of her suitors by attributing to each a certain monetary value. She quoted her worshipers in the language of finance, referring to the price each might reasonably be expected to bring on the matrimonial market.
One evening, at the casino, Lísia Soares, who was very close to her and would have liked to see her married, made a comment about Alfredo Moreira, an elegant young man who had just arrived from Europe.
"A very distinguished gentleman," replied Aurélia, smiling. "He is worth about a hundred thousand as a fiance, but I can afford a more expensive husband, Lísia; this one is not good enough for me."
Everyone laughed at these remarks of Aurélia's and considered them jests of a witty young girl. The majority of ladies, however, especially those with young daughters, were unrelenting in their criticism of this brazen conduct as improper for a well-bred young lady.
Aurélia's suitors knew of the value placed upon them in the girl's ledgers, for she made no secret of it. Rather than being upset at her honesty, however, they enjoyed the game—which often resulted in an increase in their stock in the nuptial business.
This happened whenever one of these young men was fortunate enough to do something that pleased the girl and fulfilled her fantasies. In such case, she raised his price, just as she similarly lowered that of those who displeased her or fell into disfavor with her.
Greed must have inured these men, or passion blinded them, for them not to see the cold scorn with which Aurélia deceived them in these silly games they took as girlish vanity, but which were, in fact, the impulses of a hidden, perhaps morbid, anger.
The truth is that they all persisted; at times caught up in temporary despair, but soon restored by an obstinate hope, none chose to abandon the field; least of all, Alfredo Moreira, who appeared to head the list.
I shall not follow Aurélia in her transient passage through the salons of the court, where she saw, coupled to her triumphant chariot, everything our society boasts of the most elevated and brilliant.
All I propose is to tell of the intimate and strange drama that decided the fate of this unique woman.
It must be about nine o'clock.
The hot March sun strikes the blinds that cover the balcony of a drawing room in Laranjeiras.
The light filtered through the green draperies outlines in its glow Aurélia's graceful bust against the velvety scarlet wallpaper of the study.
Reclining on the settee with her eyes wandering about the twilit room, the girl seems deeply immersed in thought. Her reverie dissolves from her features, as from her demeanor, the caustic sparks that usually emanate from her like the sulfurous flame of a bolt of lightning.
But the serenity that envelops her, if in some way attenuating her beauty, renders her irresistible by bathing her in an indescribable flow of sweetness and tenderness.
Her eyes no longer exhibit those tawny sparks, which burn like the cloudcovered sun, that they issue in the salons. On her lips, instead of a stinging smile, there springs forth a soul reflecting on innermost raptures.
Casting a shadow over her beauteous visage, there lingers a melancholy tone that, although not seen for some time now, could nevertheless be deemed more suitable for those delicate features. There are women whom the perfume of sadness elevates to perfection. The most violent passions are inspired by these angels in exile.
Aurélia is totally concentrated within herself; no one, seeing this sweet young girl, so calm and peaceful in appearance, would believe that at this very moment she is deliberating and deciding upon the problem of her existence, and preparing to sacrifice irredeemably her entire future.
Somebody, entering the study, tore the beautiful, pensive girl from her lengthy meditation. It was Dona Firmina Mascarenhas, the lady who served as Aurélia's chaperone.
The widow approached the settee and kissed the girl on the cheek, rousing her from the profound absorption in which she found herself.
Taken by surprise, Aurélia glanced about the room and consulted a miniature watch she carried around her waist on a matte gold chain.
Meanwhile, Dona Firmina, accommodating her fifty-year-old girth in one of the large armchairs next to the settee, was ready to wait for breakfast.
"Are you tired from yesterday?" asked the widow with the affected tenderness demanded by her role.
"Not really, but I feel faint; it is probably the heat," replied the young lady seeking an excuse for her meditative attitude.
"These balls that finish so late cannot do anybody's health any good; that is why there are so many thin and pale young girls in Rio de Janeiro. Why, yesterday, when they served supper it was almost time for the bells of Santa Teresa to sound matins. And the first quadrille began at the sounding of Aragão's curfew! There was a great deal of confusion; the service was not bad, but everything was jumbled—"
Dona Firmina went on and on describing her impressions of the previous evening's ball, without taking her eyes from Aurélia's face, on which she fixed her gaze to discern the effect of her words, ready to withdraw any comment at the slightest sign of disagreement.
The young woman let her speak, desirous of unburdening herself of her cares, and lulling in the sound of this voice she heard without understanding. She knew the widow was speaking of the dance, but did not follow what she was saying.
Suddenly, however, she interrupted her:
"What did you think of the Amaral girl, Dona Firmina?"
The older woman assumed the expression of attempting to remember.
"Amaral? That girl all in blue?"
"With silver sprigs in her hair and in the folds of her skirt, simple and in very good taste."
"I recall her. A very charming girl!" confirmed the widow.
"And well-bred. They say she plays the piano to perfection and that she has a very pleasant voice."
"But she does not usually appear in society. It is the first time we have met her. I do not remember seeing her before."
"It was the first time!"
As she pronounced these words, the girl seemed to feel her soul refract once again, drawn imperiously by the secret thought that absorbed her.
But she reacted against this preoccupation and said to the widow in a lively and urgent tone:
"Tell me something, Dona Firmina!"
"What is it, Aurélia?"
"But you must be honest. Do you promise me?"
"Honest? More than I am, madam? Why, that is my greatest shortcoming!"
The girl hesitated.
"Go ahead, madam."
"Whom do you find prettier, the Amaral girl or me?" Aurélia finally blurted out, turning slightly pale.
"Well, well!" laughed the widow. "Are you joking? How can the Amaral girl compare with you?"
"Others, much more beautiful than she, do not hold a candle to you."
The widow mentioned the names, which I no longer recall, of four or five girls then at the height of acclaim.
"She is so elegant!" said Aurélia as if completing an intimate thought.
"It is a matter of taste."
"In any case, is she more well-bred than I?"
"Than you, Aurélia? It is difficult to find in all of Rio de Janeiro another young lady with your upbringing. Even there in Paris, which they talk about so much, I doubt there is one."
"Thank you! Is this your honest opinion, Dona Firmina?"
"Yes, madam; my honesty lies in my telling the truth, not in hiding it. Besides, this is what everybody sees and repeats. That you play the piano like Arnaud, sing like a prima donna, and talk to politicians and diplomats, and bewitch them. And why should it be otherwise? When you so wish, Aurélia, you speak in a way that sounds like a novel."
"I can see that you are not at all flattering. You do not recognize my gifts," interrupted the girl stressing the last word with a slight ironic smile. "Don't you know, Dona Firmina, that I have a golden style, the most sublime of all styles, whose enrapturing eloquence none can resist? The ones who speak like a novel, in common prose, are those pale and romantic girls who are always dissolving into sighs; I speak like a poem: I am poetry that shines and dazzles!"
"I understand what you mean; money makes the ugly into beautiful; it provides everything, even health. But look here, your greatest admirers are precisely those who cannot aspire to your wealth; some are married, others already old..."
"When somebody smoked near you for the first time, didn't you feel sort of dizzy? Well, gold has an invisible smoke that intoxicates more than that from a Havana cigar, and even from that disgusting paper cigarette that young men today are so taken with. All those people who surround a rich old man—ministers, senators, and noblemen—certainly have no intention of marrying the man's coffers, but they are drawn by the attraction of money."
"At this very moment, Aurélia, you are saying that I am right, and displaying your education. Who would say that a girl of your age knows more than many of the men who attended the academies? And that's good; otherwise, with the wealth your grandfather bequeathed you, alone in the world, you would surely be duped."
"Would it were so!" replied the young lady, retreating into her meditations.
Dona Firmina still uttered some words, continuing the conversation, but noticed that the girl was not paying attention; rather, she seemed to avoid any impression from without to concentrate even more deeply on her thoughts.
Then, with the tact of those souls molded for moral domesticity, Dona Firmina rose, and taking some steps around the room, feigned interest in the alabaster statues and porcelain vases sitting on the red marble consoles.
Her back toward the settee, she appeared to take no notice of Aurélia's reverie for, upon her return from the distraction, the girl would surely take umbrage at anyone divining through her gestures the secret of her thoughts.
Scarcely five minutes had elapsed when Dona Firmina heard a crystalline, fluttering sound that she knew well from having heard it so often. She turned around and saw Aurélia, whose pink lips still vibrated with the chords of that harsh smile.
The gentle girl had emerged from her pensive languor, resembling a wax statue that, suddenly transforming itself into jasper, stood proud and disdainful, emitting livid, tawny reflections like those of polished marble.
She walked toward the windows and with a nervous, petulant gesture abruptly raised both blinds, which seemed excessively heavy for her thin and gentle hands.
The flood of light rushing through the open windows filled the room; the young lady advanced onto the terrace to bathe herself in the cascades of sunlight that swept over her forehead crowned by a tiara of brown hair and rippled down her magnificent shoulders like a golden tunic.
She steeped herself in light. One who saw her at that moment, so radiant, might believe that beneath the pleats of the fine linen robe undulated voluptuously the nymph of the flames, the lascivious salamander into which the enchanted fairy had suddenly transformed herself.
After drenching herself in sunshine, like the milky white poppy that blushes at the kisses of its royal lover, the young woman went to the piano and threw it open with an abrupt movement. From the maelstrom of the raucous chromatic storm that roiled the keys came Norma's magnificent imprecation, when raging with jealousy, she lashes out at Polion's betrayal.
Tempering the boldness of that dizzying arrangement in order to accompany it, the girl began to sing; however, at the first notes, feeling confined by her position, she abandoned the piano, and standing in the middle of the living room, trailing the skirt of her robe as if it were the train of a Gaulish canopy, she reproduced in voice and gesture that epic of a broken heart, one she had so often seen performed by Lagrange.
Never, even by that finest singer, had the ferocity of the woman betrayed, the rage of the wounded lioness, been expressed in a more resounding voice, in a more sublime gesture. The notes that flew from her lips, vigorous and harmonious, left behind a tremor that recalled the serpent's hiss, especially when her delicate, well-turned arm lunged out suddenly, stiffly, in a gesture of supreme contempt.
Dona Firmina, although quite accustomed to Aurélia's eccentric nature, was surprised at what she saw, and suspected that something extraordinary must have occurred in her life to first make her so pensive and then produce this outburst of emotion.
Nonetheless, as voluble as when she rose from the settee, she ran to Dona Firmina, and locked her hand about the lady's wrist as if she were Polion, giving a comical twist to the scene which ended in laughter.