The Fair Marina
I first took Miss Marina, she of the sable tresses and honey complexion, to be a ravishing Spanish beauty; but on the way to the welcoming banquet in Petalumo she reminded me that her patronomic name was Milanova.
“So that would make you Russian,” I remarked.
“Well, Rosslandic, originally. By half. My other half is Pomo and Mexican. My mother’s people come from one of the local tribes.”
“Would the proper term be Mexi-Pomoan Rosslandic? Rosslandish Pomomexic?”
She smiled wanly and murmured, “nechistokrovna,”
“I beg your pardon? Did you say ‘naked crocodile?’”
“It means—how to put it politely? Mongrel.” Her smile faded.
I had been trying all afternoon to get a genuine laugh out of her, without much luck. She had too much reserve by half, or perhaps merely high standards for humor.
For the mayor’s dinner party, she was dressed in threadbare red velvet and black lace, with her hair pulled up in back, piled on top, and fixed with an abalone pin. She was of majestic form and stature, her attitudes were imposing and statuesque, and her gestures and movements distinguished by a noble and stately grace. Her dark eyes flashed as she introduced me to the mayor of Petalumo, a distinguished looking gent whose name I didn’t quite catch.
“Senor Twain, many welcomes to you,” he said, working my arm like a pump handle, taking me in tow, and setting a course for the main banquet table. Miss Miranova followed me and John Sargent followed her. He had attached himself to our party like a limpet.
There was a glittering crowd of finely-dressed ladies and gentlemen in the municipal meeting hall, a vast, barn-like space full of tables and chairs, bunting, conversational jabber, smoke, music, and some very promising aromas of roast meat and garlic.
We sat with the mayor at the head table, with about a dozen Dons and Doñas whom he introduced in flowery Spanish and wilted English. Everyone smiled and bowed agreeably. The gentry of Petalumo are a convivial lot, hungry for occasions to gather and dine and palaver together. Miss Miranova kept me delightfully informed with the name, rank, and station of everyone I met.
The grub was ample and spicy, the musicians loud and enthusiastic, and the oratory predictably long-winded and boring. As my official translator, Miss Milanova sat at my off elbow where she could make a running summary of the Spanish speeches in English. There was a spice of deviltry in the girl’s nature, and it cropped out every now and then when she was translating the speeches of slow old Dons who did not understand English. Without departing from the spirit of a distinguished gentleman’s remarks, she would, with apparent unconsciousness, drop in a little voluntary contribution occasionally, in the way of a word or two that made the gravest speech utterly ridiculous. “The tradition of English literature” became “the transgression of English lingering,” with a sly glance across the table at young John. “We extend our hospitality” became “We extend our hostility.” “A famous writer” became “famished rider.” She was careful not to venture upon such experiments, though, with the remarks of persons able to detect her. I loved her for it, but wished she would direct her sly glances my way.
In time I was asked to make a few remarks in self-defense, and I did so cautiously, with a bouquet of Spanish phrases I had prepared beforehand. In English I told a couple of brief jokes and the fair Marina translated them into Spanish for the crowd. I will wonder to my dying day whether the laughter I drew forth was due to my unadulterated native wit or thanks to the annotations of my translator.
The mayor kindly presented me with a gift from the municipality, a beautiful abalone shell fountain pen in a redwood box. I was quite moved and thanked them effusively.
“I’m sure this is what my writing has required all these years,” I said, holding up the pen and letting the lamplight flash on its abalone inlay. “I have always wanted a writing implement worthy of the language I butcher. I’m sure this pen will improve the quality of my hand, my grammar, and my garments.”
Over brandy and cigars, the mayor drew me a map in my notebook with my new pen, giving me the lay of the land and suggesting how I might visit every little hamlet and pueblo in between my lecturing engagements. If Napoleon had enjoyed the mayor’s services as tour director and booking agent, his winter jaunt through Russia would have been a much more enjoyable and rewarding trip.
It was late after the meal. I offered to hire a gondola to take Miss Marina back to our hotel, but she declined.
“Tonight I am staying with a friend on the other side of town. I will meet you tomorrow evening for your lecture, seven o’clock at the theater.”
“What if I need some translating tomorrow during the day?”
“I’m sure Mr. Sargent here can help out until I return.”
With that she shook our hands in the vigorous Alta Californian manner, turned and strode away alone, soon lost in the misty darkness.
“I’ll take you up on that gondola ride, Mr. Twain,” Sargent said.
“Sorry son. If it’s just you and me, we’ll walk.” And so we did walk, back to our lonely bachelor rooms in the Alta Mira hotel.
© Patrick Fanning, 2012