1950s Archive

South American Journey


continued (page 2 of 5)

“No, Mollie, you've done enough. I think I know of a valet.”

I did not want any more of MoIlie's relations; I had seen enough of them at the art gallery. She left after kissing us, and I looked at Uncle Willie, who was savagely breaking the neck of his cigar in the hotel ash tray. “You may think me a coward, Stevie, to become engaged so easily. But I don't think we would have gotten a penny of our money otherwise. Don't worry; I've been engaged several times, but I've never married. I agree with the Bible: ’What they do in Heaven we know not, but there is no giving or taking in marriage.’ ”

“That's not in the Bible. Swift said that.” I corrected him.

Uncle Willie retorted coolly, as he usually did when caught up. “Swift is my Bible.”

I said, “I've got to go down to a bodegón and find a man I think will be our valet. We're traveling in style.”

Uncle Willie nodded. “About time. That vulgar life in Beverly Hills has made you lack.”

It was only when I got down to the street that I remembered I hadn't asked Uncle Willie for the money Mollie had given him.

The New Capurro was the haunt of cab drivers, horse dealers, and men with no known legitimate professions, and sure enough, against the teakwood bar, drinking a manda tin-juice gin fizz, was Rollo Lobengula Firbank, the big descendant of African kings, three hundred pounds of him in wrinkled linen.

I greeted him and ordered us two more fizzes. “Rollo, things are bad for you?”

His big black face became a sad mask. “I am no longer a diamond dealer. They have taken back my stock; it was only on consignment. I am an Oxford man, the great-grandson of Zulu war chiefs. I shall teach drawing in a girls' school. I like the way girls walk here on their high heels and—”

“Nuns teach the girls here, Rollo, If you're not too proud I have a job for you. Will you go back to an old trade? Valet, hundred a month, U. S. A., all your food, and travel.”

Rollo sighed, and his big body shook emotionally as he finished his fizz. He said, “And castoffs. Mr. Willie's foot size is the same as mine. Those snake-skin shots, he will be discarding them soon. Hope the chaps at Oxford never hear of this.”

I didn't know if Rollo had ever been to Oxford or was actually a descendant of Zulu kings. But I liked his spirit, his grace, and his style in facing a hard cruel world. If he was an actor he played his part well. I told him to meet us at the hotel at ten the next morning.

I left him telling the barman about his great-grandfather's 263 wives. “It was not just for pleasure or show, you know, but for watching one's wealth. Each wife cost two hundred long-horned cattle; a man could watch a wife easier than two hundred cattle. Figure out what those wives represented in cold solid cash. Why, it was like living with the Bank of England. And the rate of interest was the kids. Live dividends.”

At ten the next morning, packed, we sent the boys up for the baggage. Rollo showed up in a pith sun helmet and a freshly pressed white linen suit. He bowed to Uncle Willie, secured our luggage in the little Italian car with neatly spliced leather straps, lit our morning cigars, blew air into Mollie's leather driving gloves and handed them to her, and then got into the back with me. I could see he had pleased Uncle Willie, who didn't bother much about how a diamond salesman could suddenly become a valet.

Mollie, dressed in a snug green knitted dress with a white scarf tied around her sleek black hair, and wearing dark Hollywood smoked glasses, raced the motor and then Said. “Hokay, here we go.”

We passed (Rollo said) the Maipo, the local burlesque house, and then the Odéon, where a visiting French company was doing Un Tramway Nommé Désir. Soon the Avenida Corrientes led us out of town, towards Mar del Plata, 250 miles from the city, on the ocean, the Palm Beach of Argentina. We took our time, ate a good lunch on the road, and at four entered the beach town. Mollie suggested the Hotel Provincial, and Rollo said we must try our luck at the casino, Uncle Willie said Mar del Plata was famous for its sea food. We were all sun- and wind-burned.

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