After we had recovered from our long drive down, I went with El Patrón to visit the Countess at her small villa in a nearby village. An elegant lady, of graying blond hair, dressed in a loose cotton shift, her only companion a monstrous Great Dane the size of a small horse, who lies at her side on the couch, his great head, mournful-eyed, resting on her lap.
El Patrón had come to consult about servants, as he has fired the staff at his house, accusing them of having planted scorpions in his bed and a viper in his bath. The Condessa clearly knows of such things. She is plainly an aristocrat, despite the unpromising appearance of her present estate.
On the wall of the next room is a large oil painting which I guess to be of the Condessa, it being sufficiently modern in style that such identification must be guessed at. Yes, says the Condessa, it was painted when she was a dancer. Did I know of Martha Graham? She had danced with her. The film “Black Orpheus”? Yes, the Brasilan film. The Condessa did the choreography in that film and was herself responsible for introducing the Bossa Nova into the United States.
Which led to a story. One of many. Of how she brought the first Brasilian Bossa Nova dance troop to New York, children she had found in the slums of Rio, and how the ungrateful rascals, despite her many and explicit warnings, had smuggled in twenty kilos of marijuana hidden in their instruments, for which she had vouched in customs. When she found out she let them do their performance and then, three hours after they had finished, she had them on a plane back to Rio, smarting under her curses and tongue-lashing, for her father and grandfather had been admirals and she knew how to speak with the voice of command.
Then more stories. Of a local magnate who for his malefactions had been expelled from Europe by his family and sent, with scarcely a million to his name, to the most distant place they could think of, which was of course here, where the fellow had grown rich by dint of hard work, lies and ill-doing. The Condessa admired his piratical skills, but condemned him as ungenerous. One may forgive all sorts of villainy, she explained, if accompanied by a generous nature. But this pirate was a tightwad, for whom she had nothing but contempt.
Cold beer was brought and the Condessa took time to admonish the two young men who were working on her house and the young woman who was listlessly sweeping the floor. The house was small, under construction as Mexican houses seem always to be, with building litter in the yard, piles of tile and bags of cement scattered about. The Condessa was planning a water tank and -- when funds permitted -- a swimming pool.
Money, one gathered, was a problem at the moment, but one so formidable a woman would solve as she had solved other such problems in the past. An American admirer, whose name is a household word, had recently given her the automobile of his former wife, which the Condessa’s son was driving down from the States, along with twenty cartons of the Condessa’s favorite cigarette, a brand unfortunately unavailable in the Republic. Twenty cartons, said the Condessa, he is a fool, as are all twenty-year-olds. They will think he is a smuggler. It is always for the innocent offenses we are caught.
Our conversation then turns to the chronic misbehavior of Latin men. Mexican men are awful, said the Condessa. They cheat on their wives and if they are caught they arrogantly say ‘so what?’. Not at all like an Italian man. He will cheat just as much, but will lie about it and claim to be ashamed of himself. Whereupon the Condessa launched into a long and amusing story of the time she caught her Italian lover in flagrante delicto, and of the preposterous and operatic exertions he made to redeem himself, by sleeping five nights beneath her window, with gifts arriving hourly -- jewels, candy and flowers -- accompanied by florid and abject protestations of his love and remorse. After five days of course, she relented. Who could not?