We looked around the magnificent antique shop in wonderment as the smooth-skinned, elderly proprietor followed our curious gaze, his hand folded priest-like above his stomach. This would-be-nice-to-have. Wouldn't have-that-even-if-it were-free. This one over here if-only-it-wasn't so-expensive. That one over there handsome-but-not-quite-our-cup-of-tea. My wife was inspecting a dog. It was an enormous guard-dog, a Newfoundland, sprawled sociably on a thick wool rug, but underneath the black jowls lurked neck-crunching jaws that boded ill for intruders. It was only by the enamel lustre of his eyes that you could tell he was made of terracotta and not alive after all.
"Used to be very fashionable at one time," said the: soft-spoken antique dealer officiously.
"We should not be holding the gentleman up," I said to my wife. "there's a customer been waiting to be served here for goodness knows how long:'
And I pointed at the distinguished-looking gentleman in a shiny coat sitting with his back to us.
"Him!" said the dealer, lowering his voice still further, perhaps so '- as not to embarrass his customer. "Him?!" And he led me between stacked crates of antiques to bring me face to face with him. "Take a good look".
l let my eyes rest upon him a moment, then quickly looked away. My wife gave him a passing, stealthy glance, nonchalant, indifferenst, as though she were looking at something quite different.
"Take a closer look, take your time", - the shop owner urged in that throaty voice. I wished I knew what to make of his reverential whisper, but I took him at his word. Now, as I stood facing the customer, his eyelids seemed to flicker as he gave a slight nod, registering our presence, but waiting calmly, patiently, to be introduced.
"A collector?" I asked in a whisper, for the manner of the antique dealer seemed infectious, and began making guesses as to which category of curioso hunters the ruddy-cheeked stranger, sprawled so comfortably in his chair should be included: as a collector of watches or of stuffed birds, bronzes or mounted butterflies?
"Him?" the antique dealer stared at me, feigníng surprise. "He's no colIector. He' a collector's showpiece."
I did my best to conceal my shock and now gave the seated gentleman a thorough looking-over.
"Good God!" cried Kornelia, and her hand flew to her mouth in an effort to stifle what she had just uttered in the manner that dawning; upon one is generally portrayed in old novels.
"That's right, Madam, you've got it," the dealer said, confirming her inference in a meaningful whisper.
He was a gentleman of between thirty and forty dressed somewhat in the fashion of the last century - though these days, when it was no longer in fashion to be fashionable, it could as well have been the fashion of tomorrow as that of yesterday . The colours, the cut and the material of his clothing all bespoke quality and faultless elegancy alien to cheap modern shoddiness. Brown and red checks; tobaccocoloured (or perhaps well-used meerschaum-coloured) spats, cherryred patent-leather shoe, a velvety silk smoking jacket with lapels and facings, ruffled shirt-front, cuffs that flashed díamond studs, and tapering slim fingers toying-fidgeting with a talisman dangling from a watch-chain, legs nonchalantly, elegantly crossed. What made mc think he was closer to forty were the first crow's feet around the eye, though the face was mischievously youthful with a boyish half-smile. the suspended smile of a man who knows too much about the world to... but who is still young enough to... I sensed an imposing private library behind those eyes, rows upon rows of leather bound volumes, that the owner of that civilized brain had absorbed from all the erudition worth assimilating. Familiarity with the ways of men and serenity radiated from this captivating person - from the distinguished, silvery-white, downy sideburns (which have come into fashion again) - this man knew the tribulations of ecstasy, the fiery bitterness of libertine epicureans faced with the purity of the gospel, the pleasures of forgiveness, and the art of chasing the ever lurking Tempter away. Travel, contentment, a wide circle of influential relatives, family and parliamentary connections, blasé dalliance with a paramour, the taste in one's mouth before and after assignatíons, and moderation in the arrangement of these trysts that begin at home with a bath, of rest and end with the reading of a Greek author, musing upon this and that while reading, dipping into the book now and then while musing; and the only reason that the much-sought man about town, the esteemed causeur does not now practice the art of conversation is that he is at present sharpening the sword-blades of his wit - the dreaded dagger of raillery - on the grindstone of melancholy; which grindstone is the dearly acquired spoils of the worldly-wise and is granted only to those who, sitting quiet and still in such a cushioned, ample, scarlet plush armchair, gazing out of palatial windows, can range their eyes over woodlands and snowcapped mountains that they can call their own, the likes of which we, ordinary mortals can only rarely, reverently view on the occasion of conducted tours of great houses, in snowy woodland heights in which age does not entail proprietory rights.
"l warmly recommend him," the proprietor continued in a whisper, and adjusted the price-tag peeping out from beneath the fringed trimming ot the armchair at the back, in order that it should escape our attention.
"What is it?" Kornelia and I asked almost simultaneously, thinking the same thoughts, as old married couples used to each other tend to do.
"This? It dates back to the last century. Seventies or eighties. Dogs l aIways keep in stock, they had many of those made. They were lifelike enough to scare off burglars prowling around the house in the twilight, they made hundreds of dogs. This is something different. It's a rarity. The price, naturally is proportional.
The antique dealer was in high spirits and in his elemest, but would say no more.
"Yes, but what is it?"
"Take a look at this, if you will. There is no flaking, no cracks or flaws, the glaze is still perfect. If you would just step over here, Madam, and take a look from over here, in semi-profile. Who'd say he wasn't alive?"
"You're right. Who would? It's not only that he seems alive, his mouth seems ready to speak, I can almost hear what he would say... Or if he doesn't say it," continued Kornelia, "it's only because he is biting it back so as to let someone else speak, wishing to be tactful and considerate."
"The genleman! The ideai guest!" "The platonic idea of a guest!"
"That's right, sir. You have hit the nail on the head. That is what he is, absolutely."
"A spare guest."
We turned to face each other. Kornelia and I, and laughed, enchanted. A spare guest! How glorious! The dealer continued to explain in his throaty voice:
"That's right. A spare guest. Lends itself particularly well to it. For example. One of your guests unexpectedly cries off at the last minute. Or refuses your invitation, or accepts but forgets to turn up after all. You just carry your spare guest in from the store-room, put him in the drawing room, seat him in the missing guest's place.
"Carry him in? We'd break our backs. He must weight a ton."
"Trundle him in,"
"You mean the armchair goes with him?"
"Not only is it included in the price, it is all of a piece. They are built together, an entity, so to speak. It is included. in the price".
My eyes met Kornelia`s. We were thinking the same thought. It would be terrible. Carrying him around like a corpse. And how are we to know that he isn't a carefully mounted corpse beneath that modern plastic-embalmed polyvinyl coating? It gave one the shivers. All the figures in a waxworks are coarse, clumsy botched pieces compared to thís, our spare guest, individualized with biological exactitude and perfectíon, minutely detailed and delicately tinted, to the cobweb-fine wrinkles, the pores of the skin. He does everything but breathe.
The dealer continued to enthuse, still in a whisper.
"It can be trundled in, sir, of course it can, on the original brass castors, 1 should thínk so. Oh, the laughter there is when the guests find out just what he ís; conversation livens up at once. Just think, Sir, Madam, just imagine. But there need not be other guests. Just roll him in, seat him between the two of you. Nod to him now and then, smile at him, twínk at him, offer him caffee, urge him to have another slice of cake. Listen to music together, in the cosy company of three. The illusion of hospitalíty, entirely. A spare guest can make life brighter. Give life meaning. Make it more intimate."
My wife and I exchanged a meaningful glance.
"And the price?"
"I will tell you directly,"
The proprietor disappeared into his glass cubicle to look up the price of the piece in his book while we, in pleasurable anticipation over our purchase, strolled about the shop and looked round, happy and excited. As one does when one has resolved that - cost what it may - the desired object shall be acquired.
We paid no heed, índeed hardly noticed the light carriage, nor when it arrived. It was suddenly there. Kornelia discovered it, pointing with her gloved hand through the medley of the display: look, a carriage. Though it was most peculiar looking, for a carriage.
A glossy-coated black horse pawed the ground pretentiously between the lacquered shafts, the coachman sat in state high up at the back above the ornamented bird-cage-like coach-box; a key-and-crown on the coat-of-arms on the door, escutcheons of gold. We heard the swish of a cloak and the slap of a stick beating age-old dust (the proprietor did not even look up from the book he was perusing). The unknown gentleman got up from his plush velvet armchair and, his amiable expression unchanged, straightened up. He was taller than one would have thought on seeing him seated.
"Good God!" said Kornelia for the second time, but this time next to fainting. I too, shivered as I stared after the tall figure striding towards the door.
At the door he turned back and gave me a last glance side-ways looking me straight in the eye. I could not suffer his gaze, it cut me to the bone.
"Have it wrapped for me."
And he pointed at me with his carved ivory walking stick. With blithe superiority, supreme indifference.
Upon hearing the husky deep baritone, my sympathy changed into unsuppressable repulsion, I'd show this impudent cad!
"Hem! Hem! Hem!"
My words came out disjointed, unintelligible. (Was 1 imagining it? Or did I only wish I were?) The antique dealer was already standing in the door of his glass cage, his spectacles pushed up on his forehead.
"I have it! Here it is! The price..." He was cut short.
"Is of no account."
"At your service." There was no hint of surprise in his throaty, hoarse whisper. The eye-glasses hanging fiom a cord slipped back on his nose; he lowered the book. "Both of them, Your Lordship?"
"Only the fellow".
"Only the one, then".
"It's a good likeness".
"Six hundred and fifty thousand - it's unique".
"On account of its being such a good likeness - such a stupid, fatuous face".
"At your service".
"And have it sent to the town-house." "As you wish, Your Lordship."
A deep bow accompanied by a catarrhal wheeze.