events he had been trying to set up for the days to come. On balance, the situation could offer richer pickings than he had Âinitially imagined, he concluded. He placed a sugar cube in a teaspoon, balanced it on top of the glass of absinthe, and poured a small amount of water over it, watching the sugar dissolve into the greenish liquid. Grinning to himself, he raised the glass to his lips. This time, the sweet, pungent taste of the alcohol did not conjure memories of second lieutenant legionnaire Boris Dolgoruki-ÂBragation and the native shacks of Morocco. His thoughts were with the shiny pearl necklace glistening beneath the ballroom chandeliers in Mecha Inzunza de Troeyeâs cleavage. And with the line of her bare neck, rising from her shoulders. He felt an urge to whistle a tango,and would have done so had he not suddenly remembered where he was. When he rose to his feet, the taste of absinthe in his mouth was sweet like a promise of women and adventure.
Spadaro, the receptionist, has lied. The room is indeed small, furnished with a chest of drawers and an antique wardrobe with a full-length mirror, the bathroom is cramped, and the single bed is modest. But it is not true that the room has no view. Through its only window, Max can see the part of Sorrento that overlooks the Marina Grande, as well as the copse of trees in the park and the villas clustered on the rocky slopes of the Punta del Capo. And when he opens the shutters and leans out, the light dazzling his eyes, he can also see part of the bay, with the island of Ischia a blur in the distance.
Fresh out of the shower, naked beneath a bathrobe bearing the embroidered monogram of the hotel, Dr. Hugentoblerâs chauffeur observes himself in the wardrobe mirror. His critical eye, trained by the habits of his profession in the study of human beings (for his success or failure always depended on this), lingers on the motionless figure of an old man, contemplating his own wet, gray hair, his furrowed face and tired eyes. He is still in good shape, he concludes, providing one looks with a kind eye upon the ravages men his age usually showâthe irreparable damage, diminishment, and decay. And so, in search of consolation, he prods the bathrobe: thereâs no doubt he is heavier, thicker set than he was some years earlier, but his waistline is still acceptable. He holds himself erect and his eyes remain lively and intelligent, proof of an elegance that the decadence, dark years, and ultimate loss of hope have never completely eradicated. As if to verify this, like an actor rehearsing a tricky part of his role, Max suddenly smiles at the old man in the mirror, who responds with a seemingly spontaneous gesture that lights up his face: friendly, persuasive, polished to perfection so asto inspire confidence. He stays that way a moment more, motionless, allowing his smile to slowly slip away. Then, taking a comb from the top of the chest of drawers, he smoothes his hair down in the old style, straight back, parting dead straight, on the left side close to the middle. Appraising the result with a critical eye, he concludes that his gestures are still elegant. At least they can be. They reveal an alleged good breeding (and in the old days that was a simple step away from alleged good birth), which years of practice have refined until anything that might betray their fraudulent origin has been eliminated. In short, the remains of a stimulating past, which in days gone by allowed him to venture with a hunterâs ease into uncertain, often hostile territory. Not only to survive, but to prosper. Almost. Until quite recently.
Slipping out of his bathrobe, Max whistles âTorna a Sorrentoâ as he starts to dress with the meticulous care of the old days, when he devoted minute attention to the angle of a hat, the knot of a tie, the five different ways of folding a white handkerchief in the top pocket of a jacket. It would make him feel confident in his