At three A.M., a few Negro slaves could still be seen carrying barrels filled with trash and excrement from the whorehouses on Regente Street. Everything was stacked at a nearby spot, creating yet another of the dunghill embankments that dotted the landscape of the city of Rio de Janeiro in that month of May 1886. Some of the slaves competed to see who could most quickly make the largest pile, and banderoles were implanted atop the filth when they saw that no more ordure could be accommodated there. Then the populace waited for the rains, the natural drainage that would carry everything out to sea, washing the streets and contaminating the city. Once the storms passed, small perfumed handkerchiefs raised to the nose would allow the wealthy and the noble to pretend that the precarious drainage supplied by the City Improvements Company was comparable to the enviable network of sewers in Paris.
At the corner where Regente crossed Hospício Street, a pale figure dressed in black, a wide-brimmed hat pulled over his eyes, waits motionless for the final customers to depart. Despite the heat, he is wearing a cape that covers him to his ankles. Under the cape, which accentuates his thinness, is an indistinct object which might be a package or a cudgel. A young woman, almost a girl, tipsy from wine, comes out of the third whorehouse. Her red skirt is open at the side up to the hip and her breasts are exposed, for her thin, cheap yellow blouse had not withstood the voracious attacks of her drunker clients. Completely intoxicated, she is barely aware of the exhibition of her breasts. She looks for a less filthy corner to vomit in, and then laughs at her concern: "Since it's vomit, why not look for the dirtiest place?" Deep down, it's a matter of pure superstition. Even though it's vomit, it's hers, and it displeases her to see the fruit of her nausea added to the feces of others. She turns into a dark alleyway and contests with some large rats for the dubious honor of occupying the territory. She leans against the fence behind one of the bordellos and, her chin inside the house's backyard, awaits the disgorgement. As if it were all merely a well-rehearsed scene from Grand Guignol, the man in black leaps upon her, a dagger in one hand, and lays open her neck with surgical precision. Through the open gullet surges a cascade of blood mixed with the first outpouring of vomit that was already making its way through her throat. Without haste, the man kneels beside the young whore. With the knife he slices a twelve-inch flap of skin from the left side of the woman's torso and carefully stores it in the pocket of his frock coat. Rising, he finally reveals the object concealed under his cape. Neither a package nor a cudgel: a violin. He rips out a string, the mi, or E, and, lifting the young woman's skirt, coils the string torn from the tuning peg into the curly hair of the cadaver's pubis. Satiated, he leaves calmly down Regente Street, playing one of Paganini's twenty-one capricci on the instrument's three remaining strings.
The audience, applauding excitedly, sensed it was experiencing an historical moment in Brazilian theater. For months the entire city had prepared itself to receive her, and the Imperial Theater of São Pedro de Alcântara, on Constituição Square, in the Rossio district, had been remodeled in anticipation of her arrival. The dressing room had been redecorated by Madame Rosenvald, of the House of Parasites, on Ouvidor Street, and enlarged following instructions sent ahead by letter from the actress's secretary. There was now a new set of armchairs, a sofa, and a chaise longue in green velvet capitoné. A screen separated this part of the room, where she would receive her visitors, from the smaller area where the actress changed clothes. On the stage, the dazzling, the unique, the eternal Sarah Bernhardt acknowledged in French the Brazilian applause. The première, the day before, of Fédora, by Victorien Sardou, had been a colossal success; however, tonight's Camille had not been without incident. The actor Philippe Gamier, in the role of Armand Duval, had committed the imprudence of appearing smooth-shaven, without the lustrous mustache hitherto characteristic of Marguerite Gauthier's lover. From the upper gallery, a few students essayed a boo, hurling lit cigarette butts upon the elegant folk who jammed the fauteuils of the parterre. Artur Azevedo had risen from his seat and proffered a vehement defense of the play, saying that la Bernhardt "represented France itself." The author had met Sarah in Paris, and it was he who had given her the title "Divine." At the end of the play, four small boys in livery came onstage bearing flowers from the emperor. Picked from the gardens of the imperial palace, they were in extremely good taste, save, perhaps, the enormous hydrangeas that comprised the bouquet brought from Petrópolis. The young romantics who had occupied the front rows rained on the Divine One a shower of camellias, the symbol of abolitionism, grown in the slave district of Leblon, and at the same time a less than subtle allusion to the primary vehicle associated with the world's greatest actress.
"C'est pardonable et c'est charmant " said la Bernhardt sotto voce to her colleagues onstage, who were holding back smiles as they attempted to dodge the pelting flowers. The curtain at the São Pedro descended for the twenty-third time.
"Ça suffit," said Sarah, "otherwise we'll be here thanking them longer than we were to present the play. Alexandre would never forgive us," she concluded, referring to Dumas, the author of the text.
Sarah and her troupe had arrived in Rio on the Cotopaxi, a few days earlier, on a Thursday, the 27th of May 1886. Despite its being one of the most pleasant months of the year, she complained of the heat, but was enchanted by the reception at dockside and further yet when students unharnessed the animals from her carriage and insisted on taking the horses' place pulling the vehicle about the quay. Later, en route to the hotel she requested that the coachman raise the top so she might better observe the landscape and the people crowding the streets for a glimpse of the Frenchwoman, but the Brazilian interpreter accompanying her intervened.
"No, madame. In Brazil it's not considered chic to travel with the top raised."
"I do not know, madame. I think it's to give the impression that it's not all that hot here."
Now, she couldn't wait to return to her dressing room and remove her character's heavy clothing. At forty-two, she still looked like a girl and her energy was almost that of an adolescent, but the tropics are the tropics. She did not have a chance to do as she desired. At the dressing room door, surrounded by his retinue, Pedro de Alcântara João Carlo Leopoldo Salvador Bibiano Francisco Xavier de Paula Leocádio Miguel Gabriel Rafael Gonzaga, Emperor Pedro II of Brazil, awaited her. The sovereign had seen her on one of his trips to Europe and was one of the most fervent supporters of Sarah Bernhardt's coming to Rio. He had journeyed from Petrópolis especially for the première.
"Vive l'empereur!" she shouted from a distance as soon as the myth saw His Majesty, and those who heard could not detect if there was a touch of irony in the exclamation. Dom Pedro II flushed with pleasure. It was the first time he had received the greeting in French.
"Et vive la reine du talent!" rejoined the emperor.
The flatterers who surrounded him commented amongst themselves, pretending to speak softly, as if for Dom Pedro not to hear:
"What wit! What a riposte!"
In the dressing room, they sat on the new furniture that decorated the small room. Everyone was impeccably attired, in uniforms and gala dress. One could have thought they were installed in some Paris salon if not for the circles of sweat under every armpit. Sarah asked her secretary, Maurice Grau, for champagne while she went behind the screen and, aided by her dresser, removed pounds of drenched skirts and petticoats.
"I hope Your Excellency enjoyed the play."
"How not? I merely regret that our stages are not yet at the level of European theaters."
"Oh, vous savez... A stage is a stage. What matters is what is put on them..."
"In that case, today we had the greatest, the most beautiful, the most illuminated stage in the world," replied the emperor gallantly. "I only lament the absence of a good friend and probably one of your greatest admirers, the baroness of Avaré, Maria Luísa Catarina de Albuquerque. She speaks French like us and acted as a schoolgirl. The nuns said she had great talent. In one Christmas play staged by the Carmelites, she made the students' parents weep with her interpretation of an angel of the Lord."
"And what has prevented such a gifted spectator from coming to the play?" asked Sarah, taking a sip of champagne to conceal the sarcasm of the question.
"It happens that the baroness possessed an extremely rare violin, a Stradivarius. Her violin was stolen a few days ago, and since then Dona Luísa has been unable to reconcile herself to the loss. No pumpkin candy or slave's song can draw her from her profound melancholia. Her Negroes have commented that their mistress has banzô."
Sarah smiled, not understanding half of what was said.
"Banzô?! Qu'est-ce que c'est?"
"That's what the slaves call melancholia, sadness, madame. They miss Mother Africa. Imagine, some of them even die of saudades. As a matter of fact, saudades is an untranslatable word. It would be more or less like avoir le cafard."
"What about the police? What do they say?"
"Unfortunately, the baroness Maria Luísa does not wish to involve the authorities. The violin was a gift from me, and, despite our friendship being purely platonic, the empress would not look kindly upon the story were it to appear in the newspapers."
"Then perhaps I can help you and your baroness," she said. "It so happens, Your Excellency, that I am very good friends with the greatest detective in the world: Sherlock Holmes. Naturally, Your Majesty has heard of Sherlock Holmes."
"I must confess my ignorance, madame. This is the first time I have heard that name."
"That's why I'm constantly telling his friend, Dr. Watson, to shake off his sloth and narrate the fantastic adventures of Holmes. Perhaps one day the good doctor will take my advice. Sherlock Holmes is the world's first deductive detective. He once found the missing jewels of a Russian singer after examining the clothes she had worn at a banquet offered for the emperor."
"No, Majesty, Napoleon III..."
"I don't know any detectives," replied Dom Pedro, skipping over the small error. "Even though I do enjoy reading mystery stories. I don't know if Madame is familiar with the prose of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe created a fascinating character, a detective named Auguste Dupin. He appears in `Murders in the Rue Morgue' and later in other stories such as `The Mystery of Marie Roget' and `The Purloined Letter.' I was quite impressed, because Dupin even succeeds in guessing what a person is thinking, solely through the use of deduction."
"Then I am certain that this fictional character cannot hold a candle to Holmes. I think he would love to see Brazil and would be unable to refuse an invitation from Your Majesty. In a short time he would find your friend's violin," concluded Sarah Bernhardt, emerging in her splendor from behind the screen, wearing a magnificent white dress. "And now, if Your Majesty will permit, a dinner awaits me at the Grande Hotel.
I'm dying of hunger. I don't eat before a performance and I'm mad to finally try Brazilian cuisine, about which I hear so much."
Having spoken, the actress extended her hand to the emperor, who kissed it respectfully. Everyone left the dressing room enchanted by the Divine One's charm. In a small notebook, Dom Pedro discreetly wrote down the detective's name.
The Grande Hotel was in the Catete district, on Marquês de Abrantes Street. Situated at the top of a small hill completely covered with gardens and groves of trees, it was the beneficiary of breezes from the ocean that could be seen in the distance. It was known for its spacious rooms and excellent service. Trolleys, ascending and descending beyond the entrance gate, afforded the hotel a romantic touch. The enormous dining room was decorated in the most refined taste: lace tablecloths from Ceará, huge candlesticks in the center of the table, Limoges dishes, Baccarat crystal, and heavy Christofle silverware in vermeil. Standing in wait around the table were several journalists and a few names from the city's literary bohemians. Present were the journalist Pardal Mallet, editor of the News Gazette, and the amusing Guimarães Passos, poet and archivist of the Household of the Royal Palace, one of the best-paid public servants in the empire. Passos was wont to say that he was a public servant but a private poet; a vested defender of the empire, he spent sleepless nights in the city's bars heatedly debating with his republican friends. Besides these two, Múcio Prado, editor and social chronicler of the Journal of Commerce? Belmiro de Almeida, creator of the recently launched magazine Rataplan; Eduardo Joaquim Correa, of the humorous newspaper The Meddler; Angelo Agostini, of the Illustrated Review, who unceasingly published cartoons caricaturing the emperor; and the millionaire dandy Alberto Fazelli, the son of Italian immigrants, who fancied himself irresistible. Considered the most sought-after fop in the city, Alberto had decided that he would die old and a bachelor, preferably in Paris. His friends mocked him, saying it would be better to live in Paris and die here. With the journalists were the young book dealer Miguel Solera de Lara, owner of the Aphrodite's Retreat bookstore, one of the meeting places of the city's intellectuals; the marquis of Salles, with heavy rings under his eyes and always dressed in black, a kind of enfant gâté of the court, an assiduous reader of his near-namesake the Marquis de Sade; and the famous tailor Salomão Calif, who clothed half the elegant population of the city, not to mention the plantation owners from São Paulo who would travel to the capital just to make use of his magic scissors. Also present was the owner of the hotel, Aurélio Vidal, with his friends, who filled most of the room. Curiously, no actors had been invited, and not a single woman was to be seen, save the Negro slaves who, with the other servants, would serve the dinner. The windows were open, displaying an incomparable view of the bay. At that time of year, four Negroes with fans were sufficient to cool the setting. Suddenly, one of the Negro boys who carried bags from the receiving area came running in.
"Mista Aurélio! Mista Aurélio! The lady is arriving!"
Over the head of the panting Negro lad, every male eye in the room caught sight of the marvelous Frenchwoman dressed in white. The boy nearly died of fright and ran rapidly back to the receiving area. Sarah Bernhardt stepped aside and let him pass. There was a pause, a beat of silence, and suddenly the entire room burst into frenetic applause: "Bravo!Bravo!"
"Messieurs, please! The performance is over and I'm hungry."
Everyone laughed and approached to observe at close range that phenomenon who had elected to grace Brazil's shores with her presence. The actress entered the room accompanied by her son, Maurice Bernhardt, a strikingly handsome young man of twenty-two. Maurice's father was the Belgian prince Henri de Ligne, with whom the actress had fallen in love while still young. Sarah had registered the boy with only her own name, as the son of an unknown father. The story of that romance is worthy of a melodrama. The prince, madly in love, had decided to marry the actress, then beginning her career. Henri's uncle, General de Ligne, like Duval's father in Camille, sought her out in Paris, without the prince's knowledge. In a polite but objective conversation, he made the actress understand that if the marriage were to come about, the prince would be immediately disinherited by the royal family, losing both his position and his patrimony. Her heart in shreds, Sarah Bernhardt left the prince, alleging that her career was more important to her. Prince Henri de Ligne never learned the true motive behind that painful separation.
If that night Sarah truly expected to experience the food of the country, she was to be disappointed. The menu, prepared by a French chef brought in especially for the occasion, copied to the letter that of the restaurants of Paris. Roland Blanchard had come to Brazil to make his fortune and had lived in the Botafogo district for many years. Sometimes he cooked for the emperor, and he had published a book of tips and recipes in which, among other things, he taught that one should not put on the platter a spoon that had previously been in the mouth. He further explained that, if a person felt an irresistible urge to spit, it was better to do so onto the floor than into the plate. On the menu that night were game, salads, fish, ham, cheeses, various wines, and champagne. Not even rice had been included to Brazilianize, however lightly, the French recipes. Sarah sat to the right of Aurélio Vidal, who occupied the place at the head of the table, with the marquis of Salles beside her, and across from Guimarães Passos. Seated beside the latter, Alberto Fazelli made every effort to get as close as possible, with his elbow almost in his neighbor's plate. The journalists immediately began their questions, transforming the dinner into a collective interview:
"What do you eat when you wake up?"
"Do you drink between acts?"
"What superstitions do you have?"
"What do you think of Brazil?"
"What shoe size do you wear?"
"How much do you weigh fully dressed?"
"It is true you can only memorize your lines while having a hot footbath?"
"How old are you?"
"What do you think of Brazilian men?" Alberto Fazelli asked lasciviously; he was not a journalist but was nevertheless impertinent.
"For the moment, I think only that they ask too many questions," said Sarah, emptying a goblet of wine.
To change the subject, Guimarães Passos interrupted these high-level questions:
"I trust you will forgive my colleagues' enthusiasm. I only regret that some of my friends were unable to come to the dinner. I'm sure you would love to speak with Olavo Bilac, who is an extraordinary poet. A pity he has yet to publish a book."
"And why did he not come?"
"Unfortunately, my friend Olavo took it in his head to become a republican and is in hiding at the moment. He published a small tract against the monarchy and is being sought by Mello Pimenta, of our police. Mello swore that Bilac will spend a night in jail. Do you agree that it's too soon for changes in our politics?"
"Je ne me mêlle pas de ces affaires " said Sarah, smiling.
"What did she say?" Pardal Mallet asked eagerly, from the other end of the table.
Alberto Fazelli translated as he had heard:
"She understands Mello has had seven affairs."
Múcio Prado, of the Journal of Commerce, quickly corrected:
"It's not quite that, Albertinho. She merely said she doesn't involve herself in these matters." And, taking advantage of the misunderstanding, he interjected a question: "I know that you were with our emperor. What can you tell us about the meeting?"
"Only that the emperor is very nice and is worried," the comédienne disclosed in a soft voice to the journalist. "Just think, they stole a Stradivarius violin from a friend of his, a baroness, who is disconsolate. I even suggested that he invite an English detective whom I know well, Sherlock Holmes, to unravel the mystery."
Múcio saw immediately that he had a good item for his column: baroness, friend of the emperor; it could only be Maria Luísa Catarina de Albuquerque. Until then, the only Stradivarius which he knew of in Rio was the extremely valuable instrument belonging to the violinist José White, the excellent Cuban musician who was an habitué of the court. Obviously, this other violin must have been a secret gift from Dom Pedro. Around the table, few took any notice of the information, perhaps because they had not understood the actress's rapid, whispered French, but the journalist knew that the potin would cause a small scandal in the court.
The food was so good that, despite the Divine One's presence, everyone fell silent around the table. When they were about to resume their questions after dessert, Sarah rose rapidly: "Gentlemen, everything was delicious, but tomorrow I have a rehearsal. Please, don't get up." Before anyone could help her, she stood up nimbly, allowing her napkin to fall to the floor. She left the room, light as a feather despite a full stomach, heading toward the stairs that led to her quarters.
Alberto Fazelli picked up the napkin, sniffed the cloth as if it were the lace handkerchief of his beloved, and declared profoundly, "That is what is known as taking French leave."
Police Inspector Mello Pimenta had, at the moment, greater worries than chasing after Olavo Bilac. The statement that he would oblige the poet to spend a night in jail had been more of a letting off of steam than a declaration of intent. In reality, there was no reason to pursue the "subversive" Bilac. Especially now, given the murder that he had begun to investigate. Mello Pimenta was short and fat, sporting a huge black beard à la Balzac. He suffered greatly from the heat, but nevertheless he was always to be seen in a suit with waistcoat, a shirt with a starched collar and stiff cuffs, very snug at the neck. Curiously, Pimenta never sweated. The policeman's corpulent appearance had deceived many a malefactor who underestimated his quickness: Mello Pimenta could run like a gazelle. Beside him, wearing a medical apron covered with coagulated bloodstains, was Dr. Saraiva, the state coroner. Extremely thin, Saraiva had a goatee and long white hair, also stained, for the coroner had the habit of absentmindedly scratching his head as he meditated over the autopsy he was performing. Seeing them side by side, it was impossible not to think of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, his faithful squire. The two would meet at the morgue of the Third Order of Penitents, on Carioca Square. The police used the locale whenever the official morgue of the Santa Casa da Misericórdia, on Moura Square, was overcrowded with cadavers. Lying on the cold stone table, the body of the murdered girl was open, offering itself in even more obscene form than when she had practiced the oldest profession. She had been found by a Portuguese broom vendor crying his wares in the early hours: "Brooooooms! Duuuusters!" As soon as he entered the still dark alley of Regente Street and sighted that horror, the poor man had dropped everything on the ground and run away screaming, "Oh, Jesus! It's Dantas' inferno, it's Dantas' inferno!" thus transporting pell-mell the Italian masterpiece to Iberian lands.
With the skilled hand of a professional of many years' practiceSaraiva had begun his career as an army doctor in the Paraguayan War; according to legend, he had performed the autopsy on the Paraguayan dictator Solano Lópezthe professor had made the classic incision, in the shape of a Y, exposing the young prostitute's internal organs. To Pimenta the ritual seemed useless, for the cause of death could only be the slashed throat, cut so deeply that the head had nearly been severed from the body. But to Saraiva, procedure was procedure. In a monotonous voice as he dissected, he discoursed to the inspector.
" By the advanced stage of rigor mortis, death must have occurred early the morning of Wednesday, the twenty-sixth day of May 1886. The victim appears to be between fifteen and twenty-one years of age. The body was found totally cold and bloodless. Lips cyanotic, pupils round and regular, bilaterally dilated. Liver damage, probably owing to excessive ingestion of alcoholic beverages. If she had not died from the murderous attack, the victim would in all certainty have been a candidate for early cirrhosis. The cause of death is the wound to the neck, which dilacerated the larynx and pharynx in a horizontal cut initiated from left to right. The injury was caused by a sharp instrument. It is clear from the pressure involved that the aggressor possesses great physical strength. A rectangular flap of skin approximately twelve inches by four inches was skillfully excised from the left side of the victim's torso, beginning with the uppermost sternal rib. The victim"
Impatiently, Mello Pimenta interrupted: "Saraiva, we know all that. There's no detail that might have gone unnoticed in the first examination?"
"Of course there is. I've left the best for last." So saying, he placed in the inspector's hands the coiled violin string that he had found in the young whore's pubic hair.
"I don't know exactly. It appears to be a string from a mandolin or some other musical instrument."
"At least it's a clue. A mandolin string."
"Or a ukulele, I'm not sure. Beyond any doubt it's from a musical instrument."
"Could the killer be a musician?"
"He might be and he might not be. From the violence of the crime and the place where I found the string, what I do know is that he's rather crazy."
"Why? Where was the string?" asked Pimenta suspiciously.
"Mixed in with the girl's pubic hairs. Poor thing, they were still quite sparse...."
With a certain repugnance, Pimenta wrapped the string in a handkerchief and cleaned his hands on his own lapels. "May I take it?"
"Certainly, it's yours. Do you want me to wrap it as a gift?" laughed Dr. Saraiva, in a clear demonstration of the morbid sense of humor so common to his profession.
At 221 B, Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes had just served tea for himself and Dr. Watson. The doctor appeared totally absorbed in his newspaper.
"Two cubes, Watson?"
"Eh? Yes, please.... Strange.... Very strange...."
"May I ask what is so strange?" said Holmes, handing him the cup and settling into his favorite armchair.
"As I read this news item, I experienced a curious sensation of déjà vu."
"Elementary, my dear Watson," said Sherlock Holmes, speaking the phrase that so irritated his friend.
"You are reading yesterday's Times."
As Watson drew in his jaw, which had dropped, the door opened and Mrs. Hudson, the housekeeper, came in with a telegram. She was very excited.
"Calm yourself, Mrs. Hudson. I presume it is a message from Inspector Lestrade," stated the detective.
"You presume wrong, Mr. Holmesit's a telegram from Brazil. From the emperor himself!"
"From the emperor of Brazil? Whatever can he want with you?" asked Watson, intrigued.
"I'll only know after reading it," replied Holmes. "Thank you, Mrs. Hudson. I see that despite doctor's orders you continue secretly eating eggs for breakfast."
Startled, the poor woman stammered with embarrassment: "That's true, Mr. Holmes. I can't resist them.... How did you find out?"
"Very simple, Mrs. Hudson. In your haste to ingest them, you allowed a speck of yolk to fall onto your blouse, causing a yellow stain. Thus I deduced that you disobeyed the doctor's orders."
Excerpted from A Samba for Sherlock by Jô Soares, translated by Clifford E. Landers, Pantheon Books, 1997, 274 pp. Published by permission.