I had known Augusta Griffiths for what seemed like a long time. Not well mind you. But I knew her, if saying hello occasionally and helping her carry her groceries to her door count. She had lived in the same apartment for 40 years so she was there long before I moved into the building. She was what might be called a classy lady. Her silver locks were always well kept and she dressed to the nines even if it was just to get groceries. It seemed she had the market on self-respect.
What never occurred to me was that she had been young once. Young in the way that we all envy as we age. Young enough to feel immortal, to feel the hunger to experience everything first hand. To overestimate and underestimate all your possibilities at the same time. She had been young in the way that everyday seems like a stepping stone to a limitless tomorrow. Young enough to have lovers, maybe even many lovers and feel no need to commit because the future was far away. Young enough to be picky about each and every thing and not censor anything. Young enough to make mistakes and suffer for them. Young enough to be lucky. Young in the way that I once was. So I was totally shocked the day I found out Augusta Griffiths had been that kind of young once.
The day didn’t start out with any special kind of portent. It just was, not more not less. A grim morning that I started exactly the same way I started most days when I had to go work. I stumbled out of bed and read the paper and drank black coffee until I could stomach facing the world. Especially the world the newspaper incessantly relayed as deadly and dangerous and going to hell. The coffee took the edge off the silent screams of panic and turned everything into a dull grey tediousness that slowly and painfully eroded any sense of hope. I was late that day just like I was late every day. The need to hurry had left me just as my belief in hope had. The dreariness that seemed to engulf the world didn’t need to be rushed into or supported. It was self-sustaining.
I turned my collar up to the wind, wishing I’d worn a winter coat. I was stubborn. I hated winter coming and somehow found solace in minor acts of resistance despite the discomfort they caused. As the street car pulled up I dutifully put on my face mask, a remnant of the pandemic. I wondered when it would no longer be necessary to wear them or if we were doomed to an eerie new normal of never again seeing a casual smile from a stranger.
Even though the street cars were not as crowded as in that dream time before the pandemic it was still hard to get a seat. Spacing was mandatory like so many other adjustments of the new normal. I was lucky that morning and found a seat. The woman in front of me was reading a hard copy of the paper. It was such a rarity to see a hard copy that I could not help but scan the articles as the street car bumped along. Most people just looked at their phones, seeking solace in artificial privacy. I was delighted by a possible distraction from the leaden feeling in my stomach as I rode to work.
She had folded the paper so the back page faced me. I tried to lean forward as surreptitiously as possible. After all, I didn’t want to be accused of invading anyone’s space or just generally being obnoxious in a way that might offend some woke sensibility. The streetcar lurched and I grabbed the bar with my gloved hand. It gave me a chance for a closer look at the back page of the paper. And there it was. A grainy picture of Augusta Griffiths. But it wasn’t a picture of the prim well kept 80 year old woman whose soft silver hair gently framed her face and who never wore anything more enticing than a neat skirt and carefully tucked blouse. Rather, it was a picture of beautiful siren with a shock of black hair in flowing waves. In the picture she wore a sleek Chanel suit which only accentuated the amazing curves beneath them. The kind of celebrity shot people did in the 40s and 50s.
“Archival book thief identified,” the headline over it read. As far as I could see no name was mentioned.
The street car stopped and the woman with the paper got up and left. An unreasoning anger over took me. It was the kind of thing that happened in those frustrating dreams where you are being chased but your shoes are undone and you can’t run.
I got off at the next stop and bought a paper. The article stated that the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage had been working on the case for decades. Apparently this mystery woman was the key figure in an international ring that stole valuable archival documents and replaced them with forgeries. Their most notorious crime was the theft of the letter Christopher Columbus wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella about his trip to the new world. The original had been published in book form in 1496. Only 30 copies existed in the world. The thief had replaced the copy in the Vatican Museum with an incredibly good forgery that had only been discovered four years ago. Although the picture of Augusta could have been a pin up poster from W.W. II there was no doubt it was her. The same lips, the same eyes without the wrinkles a lifetime of cares had added. I had to know the story. Life’s purpose had been miraculously restored courtesy of Augusta Griffiths.
I did not even pretend to focus at work, shuffling paper from one side of my desk to the other, busy doing nothing. Since the pandemic I often felt my work as an archivist seemed pointless in light of what was going on in the world. After a couple hours of futility I announced I wasn’t feeling well and was going to work from home. The marvelous thing about living through a pandemic is no one questions you when you say you want to leave because you don’t feel well.
I was barely able to restrain myself from breaking into a gallop to Augusta’s door way. I heard someone shuffle when I knocked on the door. Augusta opened the door. Everything about her radiated calm. Her silver hair was bound up into a neat French twist and she wore pearls at the open collar of a perfectly pressed white linen blouse and a cashmere cardigan as if she were about to go to the opera.
“Ms. Griffiths, I’m so sorry to bother you but I wondered if you could clear up a matter of rather pressing concern.”
With a nod which intoned a slight disapproval more at my attire than the intrusion, she invited me in. “Anthony, that coat is not warm enough for a day like today. You really need to dress more appropriately. Winter is coming you know.”
I entered her small, comfortable apartment self-consciously thinking I must be mistaken about her past life. Sheer tedious boredom must have made me conjure up a mystery like the one I envisioned.
“Are you comfortable with me taking off my mask?” I asked as casually as I could. It was important to observe the etiquette of a post-pandemic world.
“Yes please. I’m certain neither of us is at any risk. Would you like some tea?”
“Oh, yes please.”
As Augusta left the small sitting room to make the tea I took the opportunity to look around her home. In all the years we had lived in the same building I had never been inside her home before. The walls of her sitting room were lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling, packed with thousands of books. There was a small but comfortable couch and easy chair and a glass topped table. Each item was perfectly placed and strangely creating a sense of balance. There were also magnificent paintings in the alcove and hallway visible from the entrance to the sitting room. I tiptoed into the alcove to look at one of the paintings on the wall. It looked exactly like a Matisse I had seen in a catalogue. My gaze drifted down to the signature on the painting. I stumbled back in shock. There it was, a Matisse adorning the wall of a middle class condo in dreary midtown in Toronto. I turned to the other wall adorned with what I was sure was a Modigliani.
“Yes it is.” Augusta announced firmly behind me. “ I see you are admiring my treasures.”
“Forgive me Augusta.” I was doing a poor job of recovering from my shock.
“Easily forgiven. It’s hard not to be shocked by the sheer beauty of the thing.”
"Forgive me again Augusta. I don’t mean to be so blunt but how did you come by such remarkable art.” I was playing for time, trying to get my pulse to slow down.
She motioned me back to the sitting room.
“I’ll tell you the whole sordid story over tea. Its not a big secret. Just a bit boring.”
I heard the kettle whistling. She smiled and went back into the kitchen to get the tea. I settled myself as best I could on couch but found myself jumping up to gently pull astounding titles off the shelf. Could they be authentic? There were so many in pristine condition. I gently pulled down a copy of Dominic Mancini’s De Occupatione Regni Anglie per Riccardum Tercium (translated as the usurpation of Richard III) dated 1483. As far as I knew there was only one copy in the Archives Nationale in Lille, France. I trembled as I opened the worn cover which opened in my hands like autumn leaves. I could smell the essence of history on the brittle parchment. It was the only source actually written during the time of Richard III. I knew this copy had disappeared for centuries until it was discovered in 1934 in the municipal library in Lille. My heart was pounding. Augusta returned with a tray of tea, scones and little pots of cream and jam. I almost dropped the book, an unforgivable disaster of epic proportions.
“They are home made,” she said as laid the tray down on the glass table. “I’m not sure they turned out as well as they should have.” As if the quality of the scones should be the main subject of my attention. I stood there caught red-handed with the book in my hands.
“Ah, I see you are also admiring my books.”
“I… Yes, you have quite a collection.” My courage had begun to falter, putting a damper on my curiosity.
“Yes. I’ve been collecting a long time. Some I acquired myself and some were from the collection of my first lover and then, of course, my husband. He was brilliant.”
I was completely taken aback by her refreshing candor. There was no artifice in her.
I swallowed hard. It was now or never.
“Are they originals?”
“Yes of course. But if they were forgeries they would be very good forgeries. I doubt even an expert would be able to tell the difference. I’m quite accomplished you see.”
Unable to contain myself I blurted out, “Augusta, I saw an article in the paper about a theft of the Christopher Columbus paper. It had a picture of a woman who they think was the thief. It was an old picture, but I thought it might be you.”
“Ah yes! That picture. I was quite the dish.”
She smoothed her skirt as she sat on the settee.
“May I pour for you?”
“Yes, yes please.”
She placed one on a delicate porcelain plate with blue flowers painted to look like they wrapped around the side. I suddenly realized I had seen a tea set like this at the Gardiner Museum in the eighteenth century section. I placed a dollop of cream on the scone and took a bite. A sweet flaky buttery taste as light as air hit my palate.
“These are excellent scones.” I was grasping for polite conversation, not knowing how to get into the meat of what I wanted to know despite my outburst.
“I made them from my own recipe. I never know how they are going to turn out. You know I love the way the pandemic has given me time to get back to the lost skill of baking. Nothing tastes as good as home made.”
I felt hypnotized by this woman whom had I had barely spoken to in all the years I had lived in this building. This was a gift of the pandemic. I was emboldened. I felt frustrated by the lost time when I could have seized the opportunity to have known her better.
“Augusta, I hope this is not too forward of me but would you mind telling me about the story behind the article in the paper?” Buoyed by the scone I was brimming with hope.
When she smiled the wrinkles framed the sparkle in her eyes.
“I would be delighted. I always loved art of all sorts. It is life’s great buffet. I love to be immersed in it. Looking at it, breathing it in. Painting , sculpture, ballet, opera, music of all sorts, and literature, especially literature, are sustenance to me. I know I might be a bit of a snob but I regard people who don’t understand the value of art as truly inhuman. They are really not much better than amoebas. Art is the essence of human civilization. Don’t you agree Anthony?”
I nodded, my mouth full of my second delicious scone. The scones were seriously addictive and their scintillating flavor made it seriously hard to concentrate.
“When I was 17 I was recruited by Canadian intelligence during the war. They needed pretty, maybe even beautiful, young women to go over seas and coordinate with some of the underground networks. I was up for an adventure, I qualified and I went. I helped to make fake ID papers for escaping refugees. By the end of the war I had acquired some very unique skills. And because I loved art I began to see a need to use them. The art world hung by a balance. There were rapacious monsters willing to destroy it and I don’t mean just the Nazis. American GIs were just as likely to stomp all over a masterpiece. Such pathetic lack of refinement. That kind of behavior is sadly pervasive. I joined the side of the angels. I wanted to preserve that treasure for all humanity.”
“I understand, but that doesn’t explain the thefts.” I swallowed and wondered how rude it would be if I ate one more scone.
“Well of course then there was the money. But surely I deserved some kind of recompense for all my efforts!”
I ignored her self-justification. Emboldened I pushed further. “How did that start?”
She laughed, a sweet soft sound. “How do all life’s adventures start, by falling in love! I met a man that filled me with passion, something so priceless. Funny how you see things so narrowly when you are in love. There was only one perspective, the one where we married and lived happily ever after with a house full of children. He wasn’t that kind of man. That was part of his allure. He was a very successful art thief. Children and marriage could not be part of his life. He was clear I was to have a different future, one that did not include him. I was devastated. But I was about to experience a paradigm shift, one that could lead me to something wonderful. I realized I needed a future where I did not need to rely on anyone. He gave me that gift. Before he left he gave his list of connections and fences for fine art and historical manuscripts. I began to use my skills to forge documents and the access I had been given to archives to exchange the real documents for my little masterpieces.”
By now I was in a state of shock. She could see my reaction.
“Well don’t you think I could take better care and appreciate these masterworks more than the troglodytes who did not even realize they were replaced by forgeries? Most of human society does not appreciate the critical importance of its own historical artifacts. Those who do have a duty to preserve it. I’m not a thief of culture, I’m its guardian.”
She was indignant.
“Yes of course, of course.” I wanted to reassure her. “But isn’t it a bit of a stretch to sell them and still feel virtuous?”
“I never sold the real ones!” She moved around the room tracing her fingers with incarnate sensuality on the book bindings and picture frames.
My knees felt weak. I began to feel light-headed. I was casually drinking tea and eating scones in a room full of priceless treasures.
“You never know about the future. Its so unpredictable. When my first lover left me I did not think I would ever love anyone again. You convince yourself passion like that is unique. But of course it’s not. I met a wonderful man who appreciated my gifts and wanted to be with me forever. He was quite the collector himself. Our marriage was a wonderful partnership traveling everywhere, collecting art and making art. Very few are that fortunate.”
She was wistful. It was an existential moment. I could feel her blood pumping beneath her prim white blouse and linen skirt. It was very clear that she was something more her than silver hair and wrinkles. It was like wiping away the smudges on a window and seeing something clearly for the first time.
“Ah, all this talk of the past calls for some good wine.” She opened a cabinet in the vestibule that I was sure was a Louis XV and pulled out the most beautiful wine glasses I had ever seen. They chimed gently as she put them on the table.
“A little Rose is good at this time of day.” She left abruptly and returned with a vintage bottle I had seen at the LCBO kept under lock and key, obviously perfectly chilled. She held her arm in studied stillness as she poured the wine and passed me a glass.
I lifted the glass to my lips just for a small sip, the bubbles gently brushing my nose, the bittersweet liquid trickling down my throat. It was irresistible. The tart taste of the wine strangely refreshing me after my indulgence on the scones and cream.
“What will you do with all these,… these items?”
“A good question,” she said calmly. “I could leave them to my children but I expect them to live their lives, not mine. Caring for these things would not be suitable to them.”
“Augusta, the police are closing in. They have your picture. You could go to jail.”
“No. They have a picture of young beautiful woman. No one suspects that someone of my age could have been that woman.”
I had to admit she could be right. That was why hiding in plain sight was always the best cover. Yet her calmness troubled me. I did not understand how she could be so heedless of the danger she was in.
“Anthony, how are things going for you in these difficult times?” she inquired blithely. “You look like your zest for life is a bit low. Are you happy at work? Is everyone in your family healthy?”
Very considerate and polite conversation. As I nodded inanely my throat felt tight as if I was holding back a well of tears. I took a sip of my wine, hoping the crisp taste on my tongue would ward off the deluge I felt was coming. I was consumed by an overwhelming ache, a hunger for live jazz music in a bar, for the sight of a beautiful woman smiling at me, for exhibits at museums, for the moment at the opera when the soprano starts singing. For all the things the pandemic had stolen, shutting us up in our own homes. I felt the weight of the sorrow of the virtual life we had come to live despite our comfortable prisons. No Youtube video or live stream could replace the moment a musician plays the first note before an audience. We were bloated by a steady diet of the virtual while slowly starving for the very thing that makes us human. She had given me a diagnosis that every doctor had missed. I was no longer numb.
I needed to leave. My head had started to hurt. I felt like I had been at someone’s funeral and I had nothing left to say to the grieving relatives.
Augusta graciously showed me to the door. Although I had a million questions I went home and had a stiff Laguvalin, neat and went to bed.
The next morning I searched the internet for another article about Augusta but nothing appeared. By noon, unable to contain myself I ventured to her door. I knocked as loudly as I dared. No one answered. I tried again the next day and for several days after. Finally I went to ask the superintendent if he knew where she was.
“Gone.” was all he said. He wasn’t a verbose man.
I wondered if I should call the police but I knew I wouldn’t. After all I had loved the scones.
Suzette Blom is an emerging writer with former careers in law and academia. This is her sixth published story this year.