Then As Now

Among Ignatio Quiroga’s meager effects were found disorganized reminiscences and fragments of letters from his wide circle of correspondents over the years. Max examined these feuilletons at the request of Quiroga’s executor, Tadeusz Poniatowski, his erstwhile comrade-in-arms and second son of the Ambassador’s amanuensis in the Austrian Embassy in London in the 1910s. This fragment, written by Count Albert Mensdorff-Pouilly, Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, offered insights into Quiroga’s life-long fascination with Tango.

The invitation, on heavily embossed vellum, resting on a small silver tray, was presented by my secretary Poniatowski. I had just signed my weekly dispatch to Vienna, and was discreetly rehearsing an ocho cortado while gazing out across Regent’s Park.

“Her Majesty Alexandra would be pleased if Your Excellency would honor her with your presence at an informal soirée at St. James’s Palace. Alexandra, R.”

I regained my ambassadorial poise and looked questioningly at Poniatowski.
“Sir, the Queen and her Lady of the Bedchamber Countess Alice are much taken with this insidious Tango. I understand they seek suitable partners to advance their studies.”
I pondered. “Why me?” I asked.
“Sir, we Poles have a reputation for gaiety and a love of dancing, and your recent dabbling with Tango, private classes and so on, has clearly piqued the Queen’s and Countess’s interest.” I pondered no more.
“Please see that my dancing shoes are well-polished.”

“My cultural attaché, Arsenio Quiroga, a talented tanguero who often offers advice on my tango and especially on my walk, which tends towards a slouch after a glass or two of Argentine Malbec, accompanied me to the Court of St. James. Our carriage turned into Marlborough Road, and drew into a covered portico. A uniformed retainer unlatched the door and Quiroga helped me down.
“Sir, imagine yourself a young man in Buenos Aires,” he murmured, “stepping out on a summer evening with your sweetheart. Move with natural grace, intention and love…”
I told him I’d never been to Buenos Aires, was certainly not young, and as for love… Before I could finish, deferential courtiers whisked me away and presently announced my arrival in a chandeliered drawing room with a mirror-like parquet floor. Servants bearing trays of champagne and canapés circulated among bejeweled ladies in daring tango cocktail dresses or harem trouser-skirts in the latest apricot shades. Raising an ivory baton, a pomaded maestro gestured towards an elevated dais where four bandoneonistas, three violinists, two flautists, and a pianist waited expectantly. He smiled genially at the glittering assembly.
“Tonight we celebrate the birthdays of Her Majesty, Queen Alexandra, and Lady Alice. Comencemos por un tango de cumpleaños!”

“The orchestra led off with Angel Villoldo’s “El Choclo”. I downed in rapid succession two glasses of champagne from a passing tray and stepped onto the mirrored parquet. As the Queen waltzed by with the Uruguayan Chargé d’Affaires, I tapped his shoulder; he bowed and withdrew. I took Alexandra’s proffered hand. We embraced tentatively and then surrendered to the mesmeric allure of a tango grapevine. Her bosom was lightly sprinkled with freckles and talc, and I was enveloped in a perfumed tincture of roses as she pivoted before me in an ocho, preoccupied and smiling. Someone tapped my shoulder and took her away. The orchestra seguéd into the next tanda, and the Queen and Countess suddenly found themselves face-to-face. Impatiently, they shrugged off their partners and came together like magnets into each other’s arms. Alexandra and Alice danced with absorbed precision, capturing every nuance of the lilting tango vals, their limbs and bodies in fine and beautiful synchrony, an epitome of what men create in tango dreams.”

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