Eight Years in the Making
A Londoner who cherishes every vestige of the cockney, WOLF MANKOWITZ graduated from Cambridge University and now divides his time between authoritative studies of the Portland vase, humorous articles for Punch, and fiction. His first two novels, Make Me an Offer and A Kid for Two Farthings, were made into films, and his latest, Old Soldiers Never Die, was very favorably reviewed in its American edition last fall.
by WOLF MANKOWITZ
MRS. TOSHAK was forty-two when she first saw the archangel Michael at an auction rooms off Bond Street. She knew his name was Michael for the auctioneer called it as he made a note of the fact that a small collection of cracked Greek pots had changed hands. And she could see at once that he must be an archangel for he was nearly six and a half feet tall, and his classical features were set in a pale skin and topped with a growth of closely curled golden hair. He for his part —being older than he looked and admiring Mrs. Toshak’s experienced figure as much as the encrustations of diamonds about her person — remarked to himself that there was much of the untamed gypsy in this still elegant lady who watched him in so predatory a manner.
Now to tell the truth, Mrs. Toshak was an Armenian carpet-dealer’s wife who had come to London by way of Smyrna, Budapest, and Paris, where Toshak himself had had the decency to die after taking out a very sizable insurance policy with a gullible English company. Thence London, in the area of Sloane Street, with a small elegant shop in gilt and black and stripes, hung with dubious landscapes of blotched satyrs and forced nymphs. Mrs. Toshak was an interior decorator. She could at a glance tell just how well Michael would fit into her decor and business. As an experienced dealer, she could sense almost to the pound his market price.
The archangel Michael, for his part, was a recent importation from Vienna. His sponsor, a collector of Spanish Baroque furniture, had picked him up in a cafe in the Ringstrasse and had recognized immediately how well he would tone with the Baroque. As a valet Michael had left nothing to be desired, but his employer, who had at first been quite enchanted by his man’s innate sense of the aesthetic, began to worry at the gaps in his collection of Hispano-Mauresque plates. A dealer from whom he was about to buy one of his own pieces was stupid enough to mention an Austrian count who had sold it to him. “Was he six foot six tall and blond?” asked the collector. Michael and his employer parted company that same afternoon. The employer sighed for a week or so and then found a new valet through a fellow collector. And Michael found himself, without surprise, in the fine art business.
Thus it was then that Mrs. Toshak and Michael met in the pursuit of business at the very heart of the heartless world of their refined trade. Michael turned to leave the rooms after his last purchase, a slight sneer wrinkling his lips. He always bore in mind the fact that in the not far distant future he would be buying for much more than shillings, and he was cultivating a bidding manner suited to the higher levels of dealing. Mrs. Toshak cut across his exit swift as a dark cobra, and the two drew level at the swing doors.
“The last lot — you bought?” inquired Mrs. Toshak with a hard glitter in her eyes showing to advantage against the velvet of her voice.
“That is so, madame,” replied Michael, making his words drip slowly with tenderness. “But surely —it must be — but no, how could it? — it is the Princess von Dorfensleben. My dear Princess, enchanted,” and he stooped low to kiss Mrs. Toshak’s hand.
Although Mrs. Toshak could not resist a smile of amusement at Michael’s methods, she w as forced to admire the ease with which he fell into so patent a lie. In this way he was like her own dead Florio — a man capable of selling a silk Bokhara every day of the week. But so tall, so blond, so aristocratic. She introduced herself and enjoyed Michael’s apologies for a minute or two. Then she returned to the matter in hand.
“Come to my shop at six with this rubbish you have bought,” Mrs. Toshak ordered, and with a scintillating wave of her fingers she leaped into a taxi, leaving Michael to smile indiscriminately at the street.
In spite of his willingness to wait upon events with the same devotedness he had shown as a valet, Michael was a little perplexed by his new friend. With mixed feelings but with a delicious sense of anticipation he drew up at Mrs. Toshak’s shop front, a discreet affair of gold and black cupidons surmounted by white brocade drapes with tassels everywhere. He entered, walking reverently upon the black carpet, his eyes turned down modestly as Mrs. Toshak came toward him from the shadowed depth of the room. They had hardly time to exchange the courtesies appropriate to such a meeting when the door opened again and in came Mrs. Toshak’s expected clients — a portly gentleman with white mustaches, and a lady elegantly dressed as only a woman past her second youth need be.
Mrs. Toshak glided forward to greet them like a grande dame afflicted with the intimate huskiness of a brothel madam. She introduced them to Michael by his full title, and then as they looked together at a superb chandelier, she whispered to Michael, “Sell her the Greeks— he is mine.” With the formal politeness of an old dance the four then paired off, Michael telling ihe lady of the glory that is still to be found in Greece. “O Athens,” said the lady, “O Sparta — I’ve never been to Greece. How lovely.”For Michael had led from the general discussion to the particular pots he had to offer.
When it was all over, Mrs. Toshak and Michael looked at each other. Their faces were flushed and their eyes swam. Mrs. Toshak put out her hand and Michael’s slipped a check into it. Then together they breathed, “Three hundred and seventy pounds.” A moment later Mrs. Toshak had clasped Michael to her breast. He settled with her for a hundred and fifty. Only at one point in the discussion it seemed that a promising relationship was in danger. But he looked at her with a sudden, poignant expression of regret in his eyes. Her heart melted like the polar cap of the earth enjoying the first heat in its history. He got his hundred and fifty in cash.
Mrs. Toshak is now fifty. Michael is a little stouter, and he wears glasses. Many are the killings they have enjoyed together, Mrs. Toshak confidently directing, Michael leaping into the battle like a Prussian Guards officer and winning golden commissions every week. Soon he will be earning enough to keep himself in the style to which his employer has accustomed him—and a little later on perhaps he w ill be able to steal enough from Mrs. Toshak to buy a full half share in her prosperous business.