Chapter 27

“It’s glorious, gentlemen, absolutely glorious! Fruit of the loom. Baked apples in brown sugar! Hah! You tell me!” In his stentorian voice and rounded vowels, it was hard not to believe that he was shouting about something important.

Two days later, Sarah and Deane asked a counterman at the airport Hilton to ring Mr. Pope’s room, and in a moment Pope opened the door. Inside, Deane caught a dreary hotel-room smell and grimaced at the blue carpeting, white, bumpy bedspreads stretched as tight as skin on two double beds, and the closed drapes covering the street-side wall of the room. He thought that he much preferred sleeping in his Porsche than in rooms like this—though, unfortunately, right at the moment he didn’t own a Porsche. Well, they came and they went. He would have another one soon. Deane wore the dragon rug on his shoulder, casually, just as he had at Sarah’s. In addition, he wore his usual silk scarf and tweed beret and at one and the same time looked both fashionable and crumpled, like an English noble fallen on hard times. Inside, he shook hands with old Ulysses Pope and Marley Highland, who towered over him, unpleasantly tall. Pope glowered and Highland smiled, self-assured.

Deane instantly began pacing the room, saying whatever came to his mind: He laughed uproariously. “It’s glorious, gentlemen, absolutely glorious! And you, too, missy. Fruit of the loom, I say. Baked apples in brown sugar! Hah! You tell me!” In his stentorian voice and rounded vowels, it was hard not to believe that he was shouting about something important. Still, it was nerve-wracking for the others to catch no sense of his meaning and to watch him heave about the room, especially so since he had the million-dollar-rug on his shoulder and, like a loose cannon, no one could tell what he might do next. When he suddenly strode toward the door, they closed on him to stop him from disappearing with the rug, but when he wheeled about and started back, they retreated as if he were dangerous.

This may have gone on for some time, but Pope growled, “Damn it, man, stay still. We didn’t come here to watch you parade.”

Avery Deane stopped close to Pope; in fact he stood much too close; was in his face, even. “You came to see a rug?”

“Well, Deane, what did you bring us?” Highland beamed. He seemed ready for a good contest, like a well-prepped boxer dancing and bobbing before a bout. Or like a famous debunker, ready to score another win.

Sarah added her own challenge. “Yes, Avery, it’s time to put up.” Deane noticed that she called him by his first name. One of his first names.

“Or shut up? Hah, hah! Fat chance. But everybody watch-up now. Here’s what you came for.” With that, he made the same moves he had practiced so recently on Sarah: He pulled the rug off his shoulder and flung it into the air, keeping one end of it in his hands and letting it open toward the gawkers: Pope, Highland and Sarah. He held it vertically it for a moment, letting its bottom end just touch the floor, and then he allowed the whole rug to settle atop the ugly blue carpeting. Ugly carpeting, smelly hotel room, hostile Pope, gorgeous, treacherous Sarah, combative Highland, hypnotic dragon carpet. Its charge was not due to bright colors or anything lurid, but to its simplicity, its obvious antiquity and its time-softened colors. They all stared at the rug in undisguised wonderment. Here in one room, Deane noted, were Ulysses Pope, possessor of the world’s most revered collection of Oriental rugs; Sarah Atwood, curator of a major museum’s rug and carpet department and Marley Highland, a scientist and rug-lover and famous debunker. They were staring open-mouthed at a rug that had sprung, as it were, from his loins.

No one said a word. No one moved. Finally, Highland sat down on the floor, cross-legged, next to the rug and ran his hand over its surface. Then, in the age-old manner of rug experts, he flipped a corner and looked at its back. He looked at the rug front and back, back and front, focusing on ever-smaller details of its construction and materials, until finally, after carefully examining its knots, its selvage, the number of wefts between each row of knots and much else, he held the rug up to his nose and sniffed it. Then he flattened it out again on the blue carpeting and stood back and gazed at it a long while.

Deane’s breathing grew troubled. Sarah’s hands began to tremble and Pope’s glare deepened to a glower. His foot began to beat on the blue carpeting.

“God damn it Highland, speak up!” Pope thundered. “Earn your god damned money!”

Marley finally looked away from the rug. “Uh….” He started.

“But before you say anything,” Pope interrupted, “it’s a goddamned good rug. Anyone can see that. It looks real to me. You’re always knocking things down. Think about it.”

Highland studied Pope a moment longer and then turned his attention back to the rug. “It’s just that his left eye is strange, isn’t it? The dragon’s left eye? I mean, the rest of the rug seems right. It’s old. It’s as old as dirt. The dyes are good. Its construction is right. But why didn’t Ferrier mention that its left eye is half closed? Look at that.”

They all peered at the dragon’s eyes. Its left eye did seem…different. Sarah Atwood looked up and took in young Marley Highland’s look of puzzlement and then glanced at old Ulysses Pope’s fierce scowl and then finally at Avery Deane. For the first time today, his wrinkled face was smiling.

“Of course I haven’t yet tested it with the spectrometer.” Marley added. “That’s the next step.”

Sarah spoke up. “But Mr. Deane stipulated that you’ll have to decide right now whether you want it and then pay for it if you do.”

Deane needed to move around. Soon he was pacing through the hotel room as wildly as before, nearly running, but then he stopped and faced Pope and Highland. He stared first at Highland and demanded, “But what do you think, man? You’re the expert on fakes. Is it real or not?” Then he glared at Pope. “Ulysses Pope, I want to know what you think. You’re the world’s preeminent rug collector. Do you like it or don’t you? Is it worth a million dollars or not? Or shall I keep it and enjoy it on my wall?”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Pope growled, “calm yourself! Of course I like it. It’s marvelous.” It sounded as if he meant it. “But first Highland is going to have to give me word that it’s the real thing, and, if he does, I’m still going to require that you promise in writing to disclose nothing at all about the rug, like where you got it, who you sold it to or for how much.”

“But you like it?”

“If I buy it, it will be the best rug in my collection.”

With that, Deane did calm down. In fact suddenly he looked serene, and he turned to Highland and asked, conversationally, “Is it real?”

“The rug is wonderful,” he answered. “But is it Chinese? All the technical things are right: its foundation material, its knot, it’s selvage, spin, ply, colors. But anybody could have done that at any time, including you. And if it is Chinese, is it the Ferrier rug? The design is right. It’s what Ferrier described except for that eye. The dragon has the correct number of toes, for instance. But, again, anyone could have designed it at any time, including you.

“The real question,” Highland went on, “is whether it’s old enough, because if it is, it almost doesn’t matter whether it is the rug Ferrier reported on. Right? Because it could be. And because it’s splendid.”

“Well, is it old enough?” Deane pressed.

“It looks like it is. It smells like it is. By the way, I’d say it was exposed to dampness at some time in its existence. There is the slightest suggestion of mildew in the way it smells.

“There are only two ways we might be able to tell whether it is old enough. The first is to analyze its dyes. If any of them prove to be synthetics, then we’re certain that it is no more than about 135 years old, which is when the first of the synthetic were invented. If all the dyes are natural, then the rug may be genuinely old—but not necessarily so. The other method is to subject the rug’s materials to a number of tests in the lab. There’s a problem with that, though. We could probably get no closer than about 150 years to the rug’s actual age. Anyway, you asked me if the rug is old enough to be the Ferrier Dragon Rug, and I have to say my guess is yes. Frankly, it’s one thing to make a new rug look a hundred years old—again, something you could do—but quite another matter to make it look nearly 400 years old. With all respect, Mr. Deane, I don’t believe that even you can do that.”

Avery Deane had lost interest. Pope liked the rug and Highland believed it was real. Good. His mind strayed. He daydreamed about stretching out on the fully-reclined seat of a Porsche 928, parked under an oak tree and gazing through a moon-roof at the stars. He wondered whether Sarah might like that as well. He thought about where he might like to go next. Stay here in the States for a while longer? Back to London? Or maybe even go home? As he signed Pope’s pledge not to reveal anything about the rug, he thought briefly about the cash that had suddenly appeared in a large briefcase on one of the double beds. But as Pope counted it out for him in hundred-dollar bills, Deane’s mind turned back to other things. “Buy a white one this time. See if I can find one with a moon roof. A moon roof! That’s it! Gaze at the stars all night!”

Deane had left with the briefcase that contained a million dollars. Sarah, Pope, and Highland still stood gazing at the dragon rug. Sarah stayed behind to collect her ten percent commission and also because she hated to think she may not again ever see the rug. Even worse, she might never again possess it as, to some degree, she had for two or three days. During that time, anything had been possible. She might have put it in a suitcase and taken it to Rio. She might have shared a million dollars and her life with Avery Deane. There had been the outside chance that she could manage to possess both the rug and a million dollars cash—though that would surely have meant having to hide forever from the rich and no-doubt vengeful Ulysses Pope.

Well, the rug was out of her control now—unless Pope donated it to the Museum. “He might,” she thought. “What can I do to make sure he does?” That’s what she thought about as she stood before the rug, Pope beside her. Soon they all broke off looking at the rug, and the wealthy old industrialist wrote her a check for $100,000. Before she left she threw her arms around him and kissed his cheek. Highland, surprised, looked away. Pope’s face turned ruddy and he held her a moment and gazed into her face. Finally he growled and let her go.

“I know one thing,” Sarah said to herself as she made her way out of the hotel. “If I ever get my hands on a million-dollar rug again, I’m never going to let go of it.” And as she settled into the back seat of a taxi, she asked herself, “Is it real? Was that the Ferrier Dragon Rug?” By the time the cab was on the freeway and heading for San Francisco, she had reached a conclusion. “It is now.”

Still in the hotel room, Pope and Highland were silent for some time after Sarah left. Highland needed to know why Pope had practically forced him to authenticate the rug. After all, Pope knew full well that the only way the rug could be decisively certified was to test it in the lab, and yet Pope had agreed to the absurd condition that payment for the rug could not wait a week for testing. Why?

Pope broke the silence. “There’s no point in testing the rug for its age, is there?” It didn’t sound to Highland like a question. “In the lab, I mean. Carbon dating and all that.”

“Do you want me to?” Highland asked.

“Of course not.”

He had to think about that. Why didn’t Pope want him to determine the rug’s age? Well, that wasn’t so hard to figure out. Pope had just paid a million dollars for it. What if it turned out to be a fake?

“What can you do,” Pope asked, “to make testing impossible if some hotshot debunker like you used to be decides to carbon date it? Is there anything you can do to screw up the results of future testing?”

“No. There is no way to make testing ineffective or misleading.”

“But, of course, if you tested it yourself and found that it was old enough, then no one else would have to test it.”

“But you said you don’t want me to.”

“You don’t have to. All you have to do is say you did. After that, why would anyone else bother to test it?”

Pope was asking him to fake the results of scientific testing. He was asking him to bless the rug with his respected professional name. He began to consider the reasons why he should do it. After all, the rug might be the Ferrier Dragon Rug. He really did not believe that Deane or anybody else could make a new rug look that old. He also believed that it would be quite nice to be known as the ultimate authority to whom Pope had turned to authenticate the rug. But he was still puzzled about one thing.

“But why?” he asked the old rug collector.

“Because I want to own the Ferrier Dragon Rug.”

That made sense to Highland. Who wouldn’t want to own it. “Well, Ulysses, let’s talk about my professional fees, and if we can work that out, you will own the Ferrier Dragon Rug.”

Alone, with two hours to kill before returning to the airport and then back home with the rug scrunched into his carry-on luggage, Pope gloated. “I bought the Ferrier Dragon Rug,” he thought, “for the measley price of a vacation home in the country: $1,100,000.” He chuckled. He, alone, was not confused. Deane, Sarah and Highland may not quite get it, and maybe no one ever would. But he did: “That man, Deane,” he thought, “is a genius. I just got an original Deane for barely over a million dollars. And it’s the best work he’s ever done.”

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When a Dragon Winks

  • A novel by Emmett Eiland

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