1940s Archive


Part IX

Originally Published October 1945

Señor Juan da Silva was a Portuguese gentleman of the old school—courtly, gracious and somehow tragic. He reminded one a little of a great comedian whose personal life had known much sorrow, even despair, but whose role in life was to entertain.

Juan was one of the brighter lights of Lima society. One found him at ambassadorial dinners, tall, elegant, and as the Latins would have it, culto y correcto—cultured and correct. But with a lightning wit that sometimes electrified his conversation which might be in Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, or English. Juan was in demand at Peruvian dinner parties as well as all of the foreign colony's parties, particularly the American ones.

It goes without saying that one so much entertained should entertain, and to be invited to one of Juan's small but elegant luncheon parties at his small but elegant home in the suburb of Orrantia, was by way of being something special. His servants were selected with as much care as were his guests, and how he managed in a country where everyone complained about the lack of really trained servants was Juan's own secret. Jack Parsons, his ribald American crony, accused him of promising to marry his cook (who was an Indian and very pretty), probably having first seduced her. But Juan always drew himself up to his full six feet and with a mocking, sardonic frown on his handsome hawk face would reply, “I am a Portuguese gentleman of honor; I have no need to seduce my cook. She loves art for art's sake.”

We all knew that Juan spent hours in his own kitchen teaching the cook his tested dishes, experimenting with new and exotic ones.

The luncheon that stands out most in my mind was the one he gave for Lady Cynthia, for it had an aftermath, and among the few of us who knew the story it became The Indian Said No Luncheon. It was one of those perfect summer days around the middle of January and Lady Cynthia, tall and slender, wore a tailored white suit of heavy Chinese silk, and pearls. She tossed off her small white felt hat and ran her pearl-ringed fingers over her ash blonde hair which was long, straight, and silky smooth, gathered into a knot at the nape of her neck.

“What kind of cocktail will you have?” Juan asked her, from behind his little bar which was stocked with everything from good Scotch whisky to pisco, the native grape aguardiente. Lady Cynthia's pansy-purple eyes looked as though her thoughts were a thousand miles away when she answered vaguely, “Oh, perhaps a gin and tonic.”

The French Ambassador and his wife took Pernod and then Juan whipped up a pisco sour for Olive, Jack and me. Usually I didn't like them, but the way Juan made them was perfection itself … two parts pisco, one part lime juice, a dash of sugar and the white of an egg. He always made them with a swizzle stick rather than in a shaker which might have accounted for their smoothness. Juan always swizzled the concoction in a glass pitcher until it was well frosted and foaming.

“Are you staying long in El Peru?” I asked Lady Cynthia.

“I don't know, actually,” she said turning her devastating flower-blue eyes in my direction. I thought there was an unhappy note in her voice.

“If you are,” I continued, “you certainly should go ‘up the hill.’” That is the term the Gringos use for the fantastic journey up into the Andes … the climb that takes you in less than a day over the 16,000-foot pass—the highest railway in the world.

“I'm so tired of the tourist thing,” Lady Cynthia said plaintively. “I'd love to go really, actually, far away from civilization.”

“Why?” I said with only the brashness that an American has.

“I'm trying to divorce Buzzy,” she replied, “which is difficult in England and it makes me unhappy.”

“Why are you divorcing him?” I asked conversationally.

“Because …”

“Amigos mios,” said Juan ducking out from under the little bar, “luncheon is served.” His dark-visaged, white- coated, white-gloved major-domo stood bowing in the doorway. Conversation for the moment stopped; one approached El Senhor da Silva's dining room with reverence. Once when I had gone upstairs to look over his first editions in the library, I had glanced into his bedroom. It was small but chaste, even severe. The hangings were of deep rich blue … the old carved bed reeked of another and more romantic century. A long refectory table stood at the foot of the bed covered with old brocade in soft and delicate shades of azure. In the exact center stood a small but lovely Madonna, her antique plaster robe also a tender pale shade of blue.

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