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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.

The dining room was dim, blinds drawn against the tropic January summer. Lady Cynthia sat directly opposite me and you couldn't help thinking when she glanced at you, of an English garden in twilight … a garden path with long rows of deep blue delphinium, quiet and wistful in the fading twilight. There was only the flaming brash hibiscus outside the window to remind you that this was the upside-down land below the equator.

“I'm doing it because,” continued Lady Cynthia to me, “I. …”

“If you don't care for this wine,” said Juan to Lady Cynthia, “I can give you white Bordeaux 1927 … that was a good year for white … very bad for red.”

In all the time I knew Juan, I never could decide whether he was really a little deaf, or whether he just loved sometimes to make extraneous remarks—at other times catching everything that was said.

“But,” said Lady Cynthia, “this is delicious. Chablis, no?”

Juan nodded. “1921,” he said. “Greatest wine year in a century.”

The white-gloved major-domo held before Lady Cynthia a great earthenware dish wrapped in a linen towel. From it protruded a huge silver ladle of antique design. She dipped into the deep dish and the Frenchwoman said, “Ah, the little lady clams. We love them. Does your cook prepare them à la Vendenne?”

“Partly,” said Juan, “but we call these clams à la cocinera India. Clams à la the Indian cook.”

“Ah, truly,” said the French lady after the first sip, “I can see that something has been added. An herb flavor I do not recognize.”

“Probably celantro,” said Juan. “I don't know what it is either, but it gives that delicate strange flavor. I find all manner of new herbs in my kitchen for which I know no French, even Chinese equivalent.”

“So,” I said to Lady Cynthia, “you are divorcing Buzzy …”

“Yes,” she sighed, sipping the juice from a clam shell. “I think he's been unfaithful … she's a Rumanian gypsy. She dances at a night club.”

“Therefore you want to escape civilization …?”

“What,” said Juan, “is all this about civilization?”

“I said,” repeated Lady Cynthia, “that I'd love to go somewhere that tourists don't go …”

“How about a little jungle life for a while?” I asked.

“You mean with panthers and snakes and Indians?”

I nodded and smiled.

“Yes,” she said thoughtfully, “I think I'd like that.”

Juan and the Frenchwoman took the conversation from us and it wasn't until after liqueurs were served that she again referred to the subject. She sat sipping tzuica, the prune brandy from Rumania of which Juan was so justly proud, produced in its beautiful lavenderish-purple bottle of exquisite proportions only on special occasions. I think he did it because the bottle was tall and slender and almost the color of Lady Cynthia's eyes.

“If you come for tea at the Maury tomorrow I think I can fix up a jungle trip for you that you'll like,” I promised her.

So it was that Lady Cynthia appeared promptly at five the next afternoon in the old gold-mirrored dining room of the Hotel Maury. Sandoval had come early and he had already consumed a generous quota of the tea cake known as Los Tronadores: the Thunderers—just why I couldn't say—but which was something like an icebox cake put together with papaya jam. Sandoval as usual was immaculate in white linen, his bronze Indian face in sharp contrast. His black hair gleamed wet from recent showering. He said yes, he was going back shortly to Pangoa, his village in the jungles. He was noncommittal about taking a Gringa with him. I had previously explained to Lady Cynthia that Sandoval was an entomologist, not a professional guide, but that he might consent to take her with him on some of his collecting trips. She could live at the inn of his sister-in-law, Leandra.

That day Lady Cynthia was all in the palest of pale beige, a huge sand-colored straw hat which she casually dangled from its ribbons instead of wearing, and her jewels were topaz surrounded by small diamonds. She spoke enough Spanish to carry on a conversation with Sandoval and she asked not unintelligent questions about the jungle. Were there many parrots? Sandoval said yes, also toucans and many egrets.

Sandoval smiled a tolerant rather inscrutable small smile after a good deal of English conversation and said, “If the Señora so desires she might see for herself. I leave day after tomorrow for my village, if you care to travel with me?” I thought it was really very sporting of him to take on the responsibility, as travel after one left the railway was very precarious over rough mountain trails in trucks that carried assorted cargoes of ponchoed Indians, babies, dogs, ducks, pigs, with Indian chauffeurs who drove as if possessed of demons.

Lady Cynthia smiled her slow charming smile and thanked him, promising to be at the railway station at seven on the morning appointed. Sandoval rose, and bowing with courtly Spanish excuses of another obligatión at the Museum of Natural History, with our permiso took his hat and left. Lady Cynthia and I drove out the long palm-lined avenues to the Country Club where she was staying. We went over her wardrobe and selected the few simple things she'd need for the trip.

“How long do you think you'll stay?” I asked.

There was a dreamy expression in her blue eyes as she answered, “Oh, a long time, I think. I might even build a little house in the jungles and live there for the rest of my life. I've always wanted a little thatched house.”

Inwardly I couldn't help but smile, mentally picturing Lady Cynthia picking ticks from her toes, being bitten until she was red and mottled by every insect known to the tropics that always feast on a newcomer. But then Sandoval was a very attractive man.

I had meant to see Lady Cynthia and Sandoval off that morning but I'd been to a ten o'clock dinner party where Juan scolded me for sending anything as exquisitely helpless and beautiful as Lady Cynthia off into the jungles with an Indian … no matter how culto y correcto the Indian might be. “Be good for her,” I said brusquely and slept late the next morning.

Then a month slipped by swiftly; it seemed to me then a very busy month, but as someone has remarked “mañana is always the busiest day of the week in South America.” I thought vaguely of Lady Cynthia and wondered why I hadn't received the note she promised me. But then I remembered Clemencia, the village postmistress at Pangoa, who was in love with Sandoval, and knew that she'd probably confiscate the beautiful Gringa's mail. There was also Leandra, the jealous sister-in-law, who I suspected was also secretly in love with Sandoval. I grinned to myself, thinking of the sensation Lady Cynthia would be in a ragged jungle village where every move of your neighbor is a matter to be discussed and rediscussed for days.

Shortly after that I really became a little worried and rang Juan up one morning. “Oh,” he said, “I was just going to call you to ask you for lunch today. I'm having Lord Buzzy,” he said.

“That's fine,” I returned, “what are you having to eat?”

“Turbantes de pescado,” replied Juan affectionately.

“How do you make fish turbans?” I asked.

“Well, I've already been to market and bought six good big pompano filets. You brown about fifty grams of butter in an iron frying pan with salt, and three freshly crushed peppercorns. Then you take a half cup of milk with one well beaten egg, about a tablespoon of very finely chopped onion, and one of parsley, and cook it about fifteen minutes. Then you add a cupful of bread crumbs … real ones from Italian bread sticks, not this synthetic cracker dust …”

“Yes?” I said, scribbling rapidly on the telephone pad.

“Then I butter those individual Indian pottery baking dishes and line them with the filets and put the filling in and top with more bread crumbs and butter. You bake this twenty-five minutes and then turn them upside down on a very hot serving dish, and you have fish turbans with decorations of parsley. You, being a woman, would probably add other decorations.”

“Not so sure of that,” I retorted. “What else are we having?”

“Hearts of palm salad with French dressing. Also Lady Cynthia.”

“So she's back?”

“Yes … just last night and she doesn't know Buzzy's here. He flew over to find her. So it's a surprise party.”

I must admit that I went early, so as to miss nothing. Juan gave Lord Buzzy and me a drink in the bar and excused himself to supervise the fish turbans. I began to feel a little guilty because Buzzy was charm itself and very worried over Lady Cynthia. I was in the midst of reassuring him when Lady Cynthia herself walked in. I had thought she was beautiful before, but now she was utterly breathtaking. Again she was all in white, with pearls, but her creamy skin had turned a deep golden shade that made her pansy purple-blue eyes more startling than ever.

It was plain that Lord Buzzy was overcome, but with beautiful English reserve he just got up and said “Hello” and brushed his lips lightly over her tanned cheek.

Lady Cynthia said, “I am glad to see you, Buzzy. It's been rather a time.”

“Gin and tonic?” he asked and mixed it for her. He raised his glass and their eyes met, and I think they forgot that I was there. I picked up a magazine and pretended I wasn't.

“I've been in the jungles,” she told him, “far over the mountain passes and nearly to the Amazon … on mules and all that sort of thing. There were snakes and parrots and panthers … and Indians.”

“Indians,” he repeated.

“Yes,” she said, “Indians,” and shook her head in a strange negative little gesture.

“I might as well tell you now,” she said. “Sandoval isn't a very tall man, but he's very handsome. Very beautiful and courtly manners … rather like an ambassador, you know. Well, he's an entomologist and I went on collecting trips with him. We caught lots of butterflies and I helped him fix them in his sister- in-law's inn in the evening. She didn't like me and made remarks about me to the other boarders.”

The slightest flicker of annoyance shadowed Lord Buzzy's impassive English face.

“Then one day Sandoval asked me if I wanted to go on a long trip two days away to a savage Indian encampment by mule. They collected rare things for him and I said yes. Buzzy, you can't imagine what real jungle is like … just a few hundred yards away from Pangoa and you could lose yourself forever.

“You see, Sandoval hadn't been to this camp for a long time and we lost our way because the Indians had made a new trail and the old one was horribly overgrown. My mule was a stubborn beast and he kept on plowing through undergrowth and I got all scratched and torn. Then he jumped over a log and I fell headfirst into a thicket. I lost my turban and my hair got absolutely matted with burs.”

Lord Buzzy's eyes strayed momentarily from hers and rested affectionately on the satin-smooth ash blonde hair that was so naively innocent of permanents.

“Sandoval was worried because it had begun to rain and we were lost. We pushed on as fast as we could but the wind rose and it was terrifying, Buzzy … absolutely terrifying. Dangerous, too, because in the high wind lots of trees crashed and they sounded like great wounded beasts screaming before they died. We finally came to an old Indian clearing where there was a tiny abandoned hut, so we at least got out of the rain.”

Lady Cynthia ran one slender pearl-ringed hand over her hair and went on, “It was too late to go farther that day so we had to camp there for the night.” Lady Cynthia was silent for a time. “We cooked our supper and Sandoval set up my camp cot … he never used one … and we talked for a while by the fire. I got out my hair brush and tried to get the burs out of my hair, but it was so full of them I couldn't do a thing with it. Then Sandoval said, “Why don't you let me do that?”

A strange expression crept over Buzzy's face and he said, “Would you like another gin and tonic?” Lady Cynthia nodded.

“Then you know, Buzzy, he was so gentle brushing my hair and I was so miserable and wet—I kept thinking of you and that gypsy and I decided I'd be unfaithful to you.” She looked up at Lord Buzzy with utter candor in her fabulous blue eyes. The expression in his gray ones was pretty unfathomable, but I thought I detected besides affection and pride, a little amusement.

“Just how did you approach your subject?” he asked courteously.

“We stood up and I suddenly leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. I felt a little foolish as I am much taller than Sandoval and I had to lean down.”


“I don't think any Indian since Attahualpa has been taken so completely by surprise. He gasped and said, ‘Why, Señora!’”

Lord Buzzy bit his lip and turning his back mixed himself another drink at the bar.

Then what did you do?” he mumbled, his back still turned.

“I climbed into my camp cot very fast and Sandoval rolled himself in a blanket by the fire.”

I again ruffled the pages of my magazine rather ostentatiously without a flicker of recognition from the Lord and the Lady. A door banged somewhere and Juan, delicately patting the palms of his hands on a scented handkerchief, bent his distinguished height gracefully from the hips in a courtly bow to Lady Cynthia.

“And how,” he asked, “is the jungle dweller?”

“It goes without saying,” I said, “that she is living proof of the success of a little escape from civilization. More important just now is—how are the fish turbans?”