She vanished into the mansion, through a kind of portico erected on two Tuscan columns of shiny, green-striated black marble, and the Count regretted the poor state of his knowledge of the now scattered Creole aristocracy, an ignorance that meant he didnt know, couldnt even imagine, whod originally owned that marmoreal edifice, and whether the present occupants were descendants or mere beneficiaries of a post-revolutionary stampede to safety. That reception room, with its damp patches, missing plaster and cracked walls, looked no better than the outside of the house, but retained an air of solemn elegance and vibrant memories of the huge wealth that had once slept between those now bereft walls. Flanked by dangerously crumbling cornices and faded coloured friezes, the high ceilings must have been the work of master craftsmen, as were the two large windows that preserved remarkably intact romantic stained-glass scenes of chivalry, no doubt designed in Europe and destined to attenuate and colour the strong light from a tropical summer. In eclectic rather than famous styles, and shabby rather than broken, the still sturdy furniture also exuded an odour of decrepitude, while the black-and-white marble tiled floors, patterned like an out-sized chessboard, gleamed cheerfully and looked freshly cleaned. On one side of the reception room, two very high doors mounted with square bevelled mirrors, set in dark wood marquetry, reflected the desolation between flowery quicksilver blotches. It was then that the Count grasped what was behind the oddness hed experienced on entering the room: there wasnt a single adornment or painting, a single visual prop to break the grim void on walls, tables, shelves or ceilings. He assumed that the noble bone china dinner services, repoussé silver, chandeliers, cut-glass and canvases with dark or elaborate still lives that once brought harmony to that scene, had been sent packing in advance of the books, to address food shortages a fate that the library, already flagged as a very valuable asset, might similarly meet, if he were in luck.
The moment mentioned by the woman turned into a wait of several minutes which the Count spent smoking, knocking the ash out of the window, through which he saw the first drops of an evening shower. When his hostess returned, an older, more ancient looking man followed in her wake, in urgent need of a shave and, like his companion, of three square meals a day.
My brother, she announced.
Dionisio Ferrero, responded the man in a voice that was younger than his body, as he held out a calloused hand with grimy fingernails.
Mario Conde. I . . .
My sister has already explained, he said in the curt tone of a man used to giving orders, rounding off his remarks with an order rather than a request: Come this way.
Dionisio Ferrero walked towards the doors with bevelled mirrors and the Count noted that his own appearance, framed in the reflection between the dark stains, was no better than the skeletal Ferreros. The exhaustion in his face after successive rum-sodden, sleepless nights, and his squalid skinniness gave the impression that his clothes had outgrown his body. Dionisio pushed the doors with unexpected vigour and Conde lost sight of himself and his physiological musings at the same time as he felt a violent searing pain in his chest, because there before his eyes stood a splendid array of glass-doored, wooden bookcases, where hundreds, thousands of dark volumes rested and ascended to the lofty ceiling, the gold letters of their identities still glinting, neither subdued by the islands insidious damp nor exhausted by the passage of time. Paralysed by that vision, conscious of his breaths halting rhythms, Conde wondered whether hed have the strength, then ventured three cautious steps forward. When he crossed the threshold, he realized, in state of total shock, that the quantity of shelves packed with volumes extended down every side of the room, covering the roughly thirty-six square yards of wall. It was at that precise moment of more than justifiable emotion and awe, that the tumultuous symptoms of his hunch hit him a feeling quite distinct from any surprise prompted by books or business, with the power to suggest that something extraordinary was lurking there clamouring for his presence.
Excerpted from Havana Fever by Leonardo Padura Copyright © 2009 by Leonardo Padura. Excerpted by permission of Bitter Lemon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
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