Camilo Castelo Branco

Camilo Castelo Branco’s ‘Mysteries of Lisbon’ (1854): Chapter Two | [Trans. Stephen Basdeo]

Stephen Basdeo is a historian and lecturer based in Leeds, United Kingdom, who has published biographies of George W.M. Reynolds and Joseph Ritson.

Camilo Castelo Branco


Camilo Castelo Branco is one of Portugal’s most famous nineteenth century novelists and enjoys a posthumous fame in Portugal that is comparable to that enjoyed by Charles Dickens in England.

Born in Lisbon in 1825 to a middle-class family, Branco attended briefly attended the University of Coimbra and studied medicine. His passion for literature, however, soon saw him eschew the life of a medical man and take up writing instead, and he went on to write over 50 novels and romances.

Branco’s politics seem hard to place, at least for English readers seeking to make a comparison between the politics of the Portuguese nation in the nineteenth century and Britain at the same time. Some English-language biographies have called Branco a ‘conservative and Catholic traditionalist’.

Yet he also seems to have been something of a radical; he took part in the Revolution of Maria da Fonte in 1846 while his religious principles must have been, shall we say, ‘adaptable’. He was twice imprisoned for adultery, and he must have been something of a philanderer for in later life he went blind because he contracted syphilis.

As to the politics of Mysteries of Lisbon, what we can say is that the aristocracy do not come off well in it. So perhaps ‘anti-establishment’ is the best description we can apply to it.

Be that as it may, The Mysteries of Lisbon, published in three volumes in 1854, was his second novel, which is perhaps why he chose to capitalize on the European-wide mysterymania.

As a young novelist, his initial hesitation on writing a mysteries novel was revealed in the book’s preface, where he confessed that

If I was tempted to write about the hidden life of Lisbon, I wouldn’t be able to write two good chapters. What I know of Lisbon are the reliefs, which stand out in the pictures of all the populations, with the status of cities and towns. This is not worth the honour of the novel. If I had the resources of imagination, I would not come here to consume them in an inglorious task. And without these resources, it has always seemed impossible to me to write the mysteries of a land that has none, and, invented, nobody believes them. I was wrong. It is because I did not know Lisbon, or not able to calculate the power of a man’s imagination. I thought that the horizons of the fantastic world are set in the Pyrenees, and that one could not be a romanticist without having been born Cooper or Sue. I have never been saddened by this persuasion. I rather fancied I was born in the land of real men, because, I beg to believe, novels are a string of lies, from the famous Astrêa of Urfê, to Lamartine’s whining Jocelyn.[1]

Could anyone truly emulate Eugene Sue? Did Portugal even have enough mysteries to write about? Was he up to the task of writing about those mysteries? These are some of the questions with which Branco grappled. Yet in spite of his hesitation, Branco pressed on and, in the process, produced one of the greatest Portuguese-language novels of the nineteenth century.

The novel has never before been translated into English and what is presented below is the second chapter of Castelo Branco’s novel, translated by Stephen Basdeo. For those wishing to read the first instalment please click here.

Chapter Two

Since that day I ignored the swallows. From heaven did I lower my sights towards to the things of this world. Within me vanity reared its head. It seemed, now, repugnant and low to compare one as great as myself to a bird.

Before I was told that delicate feet and hands were marks of an illustrious birth, I was content with being the son of a shoemaker, a foot-soldier, or a waterman. Afterwards this was not so. Little Elizabeth gilded my imagination—made my spirit swell—and filled me with a vanity that I could no longer hide from my fellow pupils!

It was a terrible occasion when they came to call me ‘dull’ and ‘brown’! On that day, when I was lamenting the lowliness of my name, and had come to believe that João was an ignoble name, some of the boys came to insult me in my solitude.

The haughtiest among them—who boasted the longest in heroic surnames—crossed his arms in dramatic posture before me. He said with a sneering smile: ‘João! João! João! three times João! Why aren’t you yet confirmed, wretch? We all lament the misfortune of having someone called João in our company! Wash this affront from us—if you can!’

I looked at him with contempt. I replied bitterly and firmly: ‘It never surprises me when boys of my own age mock my name; but you—who are twenty-two years old—inspire in me more pity than anger! Why not make better use of your time by getting better acquainted with Virgil, your cruel enemy? Have you not forgotten that you failed Latin last year? You’ll fail next year, too, if you only spend your time composing little speeches to make my fellows laugh at my expense?’

This answer irritated my adult companion, especially because the other boys began laughing at him. He glared at me angrily. He reached over to me and mercilessly yanked my ear.

The pain was strong. But the moral pain—the shame—stung me no less.

For the first time in my life the desire for vengeance erupted inside me. The closest thing to me was a small vase. It had a cactus in it—thorny like a cedar tree. I took the vase. I hit him in the face with it. His pain must have been unspeakable for he covered his face with his hands and made not the slightest movement against me.

All were dumbfounded. I stood among them, erect, my face bearing the hallmarks of my puerile pride in my legitimately noble deed. The other boys cleared the way for me to pass and I retired to my room to read the first chapter of my Mada.

I was not alone for long. D. Antonia, choleric and discomfited, entered suddenly. From her cawing I gathered that I was going to face tremendous justice as soon as the priest came home.

When the heat of my heroics began to cool, I became afraid. It seemed as if my heart was being torn out of me when I heard footsteps approach my room. To soften my anxiety I tried to simply resign myself to the fact that I would be punished. I imagined I would receive a broken arm, perhaps eight days of bread and water, or worst of all: The priest’s hatred and ire forevermore. Thus, however I tried to downplay my worries, nothing could lessen the seizure of fear.

I felt a fever! My head began to spin. It was ill!

All I know is that I fell on my bed, broken and drained, as if a catapult had thrown me there.

I do not know the time that elapsed from when I collapsed until I opened my eyes and saw the priest, the sister, and the college surgeon. I thought I was dreaming.

The surgeon placed his hands on my forehead and my wrist.

The priest gave me a kindly look. D. Antonia looked anxiously at the surgeon.

‘What’s wrong, João?’ asked the master in a friendly tone.

‘I don’t know, Father’, I answered.

‘Did they beat you?’ he asked.

I kept quiet because I didn’t know whether it was convenient to tell the truth.

‘Did they beat you, João?’ again he asked, lowering his voice so as not to be too severe.

‘Hardly at all’, I answered, as my body began shaking.

The surgeon who was measuring my pulse recognised the anxiety that the priest’s questions provoked in me so he bade him be silent, a command which the priest promptly obeyed.

The priest and the surgeon went away, leaving me alone with D. Antonia. This poor woman had the heart of an angel. Devout and charitable towards all who were poor, she was always good to me. Even when the priest condemned me to eat only bread, she came, like the dove of the desert hermits, to bring me meat. What she didn’t want was for me to ask of my father or mother because, so she reasoned, the Lord had adopted me just as he takes unto himself all outcasts.

In the short time that she was with me in my room, she prayed in front of an image of John the Baptist, the advocate of infirmities of the head. From time to time she asked me if my head hurt; and, in fact, it wasn’t just a headache but a veritable Vesuvius, boiling and swaying in my eyes like the entrails of an explosion.

D. Antonia was still praying when the priest and the surgeon came in.

The priest had a sombre expression looked at me with extraordinary gentleness. The surgeon carried a variety of poultices which he wrapped around my feet. Both of them carefully studied my slightest movement of my eyes, with the surgeon also paying some attention to my ears.

I learnt much later in life that twitches of the ears were symptoms of brain inflammation but at the time I assumed they were looking at me for visible injuries in that area.

I could not linger long on these suppositions for I fell into a deep drowsiness.

What I actually suffered was a cerebral congestion, if we are to believe the surgeon, who explained it—in very scientific language—as the consequence of extreme anxiety. The good doctor was probably right; there are some days of this period of which I have no recollection at all. I must have spent them in delirious spasms.

After this interval of life, which I have perhaps forgotten, because it was confused with the insensibility of the dying man, I remember that I saw a lady at the foot of my bed.

I know it must have been at night when I saw her because there were lights in the room. She was there alone. She seemed to me like a figure from my febrile dreams. I long doubted whether she was real even though I looked into those dark black eyes.

She was tall and seemed to me neither young nor fair. She wore a dark cloak and a black handkerchief on her head, which must have been put on with the raggedness of a serving maid. Under this handkerchief, one could see the curves of her untied hair braids. This, in truth, is all I remember about that figure.

I remember that I heard her speak some words, the gist of which ran thus:

‘João, how do you feel?’

‘My head aches, and my eyes, and my whole body. Who are you?’

‘I’m a friend of yours—of your master’s sister’.

‘And what’s your name? I’ve never seen you in this house!’

‘That’s because I’ve been away from Lisbon for a long time’.

‘I’m thirsty’, I said as if begging for a drop of water.

‘Be patient—the boy has a fever and can’t drink water’.

‘Give me a drop of water, or I’ll die’.

‘I won’t, because if you drink it you’ll die’.

And thirst devoured me. I saw at the foot of the bed a vase of flowers. It reminded me that there was water in that vase. I made a desperate effort. I leaped out of bed; but this leaping of mine was to fall flat on the floor.

That lady let out a scream. She threw, with eagerness, her arms about me to lift me up but she could not. She bounded to the door and knocked with distress and, when the door opened, I saw that she burrowed into her cloak, leaving only half a face in sight of the priest and his sister, who entered.

Lifted by my master’s sturdy arms, I lay prostrate on the bed. I asked for water in anguish, and they gave me something that quenched my thirst.

And then they left, except for the mysterious lady. I noticed that not two words were exchanged between the priest and her. D. Antonia only said to him when she left: ‘Five minutes to go. And my unknown nurse came to sit at my bedside’.

‘The boy’s very impatient,’ she said with motherly affection, ‘what if he died?’

‘I wish I were dead…’


‘I don’t know what good life is when one suffers as much as I!’

‘And you’re suffering?’

‘Very much’.

‘Because you’re ill, isn’t that so?’

‘And when I’m healthy’.

‘Well, what do you lack? Have you nothing to eat or wear?’

‘I have not walked naked, nor died of hunger: but that doesn’t mean I don’t suffer’.

‘What do you need, child?’


There was a few minutes’ silence.

‘But hasn’t this priest been a father to you?’

‘He’s not my father, as far as I know’.

‘I’m sure he isn’t’.

‘Surely not?’ I exclaimed hastily. ‘Then you know who my father is?’

‘I don’t know, my child, but I know that this good priest and Dona Antonia are very good friends of yours. Isn’t she so affectionate?’

‘She’s not my mother…’

There was the same silence as before but this time I noticed that the lady was holding a handkerchief to her eyes.

She took my hand. I felt her kiss my hand and felt a warm tear drop on to my hand at the same moment. All this seemed extraordinary to me! My head was too weak for such commotions; it disturbed me, and I felt myself overcome by a sleep, which was always my salvation in the agony of fainting.

I heard yet another a knock at the door. I felt another kiss—more kisses and more tears. And then that woman ran away from me like the beautiful image of a dream. And with her, my breath ran away from me, because I fainted.

Later that night, D. Antonia kept her sweat-soaked hair away from my eyes. I was her adopted son and this good lady watched over me with a mother’s trembling, overwhelmed with pain.

‘That lady?’ I asked.

‘She’s gone to her house’.

‘Who was she?’

‘A friend of mine’.

‘She’s mine, isn’t she?’

‘That’s right, my son … she seems to be a very good friend of yours’.

‘What’s her name?’

‘It’s Maria’.

‘Is it only Maria?’

‘Isn’t that such a beautiful name? Isn’t that what the Mother of God is called?’

‘The forerunner of Jesus Christ was also called John, and his beloved disciple was also John, and yet they say my name is ugly!’

‘No, it isn’t, my boy. Don’t worry, they won’t take your name away from the disciples’.

‘So, was that lady really called Dona Maria?’

Mrs. Antonia’s hesitation was a sort of rebuke to her lie but the remark I am making today I did not make then, because I did not even dare to imagine the importance of that woman’s name.

‘If only I could see her again,’ I said, deeply longing for her.

‘You’ll see her again, but ask the Lord God to give her health’.

The priest came in at this time and said to his sister ‘don’t you know that the child is forbidden to speak?’

We all fell into a deep silence.


[1] Camilo Castelo Branco, ‘Provenções’, in Mistérios de Lisboa, ed. by Alexandre Cabral, 3 vols, Obras Escholhidas de Camilo Castelo Branco (Lisbon: Circulo de Leitores, 1999), I, p. 9. Se eu me visse assaltado pela tentaçao de escrever a vida oculta de Lisboa, não era capaz de alinhavar dois capitulos com jeito. O que eu conheço de Lisboa são os relevos, que se destacam nos quadros de todas as populações, com foro de cidades e de vilas. Isso não vale a honra do romance. Recursos de imaginação, se os eu tivera, não viria consumi-los aqui numa tarefa inglória. E, sem esses recursos, pereceu-me sempre impossivel escrever os misterios de uma terra que não tem nenhuns, e, inventados, ninguém os crê. Enganei-me. É que não conhecia Lisboa, ou não capaz de calcular a potência da imaginação de um homem. Cuidei que os horizontes do mundo fantástico se fevacham nos Pirenéus, e que não podia ser-se romanticista sem ter nascido Cooper ou Sue. Nunca me contristei desta persuasão. Antes eu gostava gustava muito de ter nascido na terra dos homens verdadeiros, porque, peço me acreditem, que os romances são uma enfiada de mentiras, desde a famosa Astrêa de Urfê, até ao choramingas Jocelyn de Lamartine’. Translation my own.