As Stella headed home that evening, she called Arese and recounted to her how smoothly things had gone.
‘A little too smoothly, if you ask me,’ she concluded. ‘So, what do I do now?’
‘First, you should thank me,’ her friend replied. ‘The next one year promises to be a flourishing one for you.’
Stella thanked her. But she felt flustered and considered this seeming breakthrough with mixed feelings. It was the highest point in her career so far, but it was also the lowest point for she realized that a big confrontation lay ahead.
The evening meal had been laid out, when Edwin stepped into the house. Stella offered him a cold drink and led him to the dining table.
‘How was your picnic?’ he asked. ‘I trust it went well?’
Stella nodded vigorously. ‘Yes it did; very well. There were lots of wonderful people and the food was great. You really missed out, so I made you a special meal to compensate you. Let us eat and I will tell you all about it.’
They ate quietly for a while. ‘I was right, you know,’ she went on, as he dug into dinner. ‘The Minister came across some of my work somewhere and wanted to meet me.’ She paused and looked thoughtful. ‘Edwin, I think it is time that you stepped aside and let me handle my business on my own.’
‘Your business?’ he repeated, confused. ‘What do you mean? I thought we agreed that we would work together until things stabilize.’
‘Well that agreement is just not working out,’ she declared categorically. ‘Things have been dragging for way too long. Where are all the huge deals that you promised me would spring out of this? Quite frankly, I do not see where this partnership of ours is going. I think it is time you faced your work and let me face mine. As long as we keep clinging to what is not working, we would be missing out on other possible opportunities.’
Edwin did not say anything and Stella let out a sigh. ‘Listen. The truth is, I have received a mouth watering offer and I am shifting grounds.’
She unfolded the details of her agreement with Orobosa. Edwin raised his eyebrows as she spoke. He did not look pleased.
‘So the Minister of Culture and Tourism has decided to put you on his committee, adopt your business and make you his spokeswoman? What exactly did you offer this Orobosa fellow to make him agree to do all this?’
Stella looked at him in surprise. ‘Like a bribe?’ she laughed at the ridiculous suggestion. ‘Orobosa is a Minister of the State. He handles millions every day. How much of a bribe could I possibly offer him?’
‘I did not mean money,’ he declared.
Stella frowned. Edwin was actually questioning her integrity. ‘What do you take me for?’ She demanded. ‘I got this deal based on my track record. Orobosa said so himself.’
As she spoke, Stella tried to read Edwin’s expression. Was that hurt, disappointment or betrayal? She was not exactly sure. Hopefully, it was one of understanding. To be able to stand on her own two feet was a dream she had nurtured for so long. The investment made into setting up the fashion house was from her winnings and she had to be allowed to decide how to run it. The sooner Edwin accepted this, the better.
‘Fine,’ he said finally. ‘If this is really what will make you happy.’ He turned his gaze to his half eaten meal. ‘You will have to finish the rest of this dinner on your own. I think I just lost my appetite.’
Orobosa paused at the door and peeped through the window to get another glimpse of the woman inside. In her exquisitely remodeled studio, Stella leaned over a piece of fabric. Her assistant stood next to her, holding the material in place as she cut through it smoothly with a pair of scissors. The Minister surveyed her for a while. Even in her busy disheveled state, Stella was strikingly beautiful. Having observed her to his satisfaction, he opened the door quietly.
‘How do you like your new studio?’ he asked, announcing his presence.
Stella looked up, clearly surprised to see him. ‘What brings you here, sir?’ she asked. ‘Shouldn’t you be attending to more important matters?’
Orobosa laughed. ‘Take a break,’ he said. ‘Let us go out for a while so the cool air can clear your head.’
They took a drive in his car. He took her to the outskirts of town and stopped by a newly constructed building. The structure had a high marble fence, secured all round with barbed wire, to keep street urchins and other unwelcome visitors out.
‘One day, this place will house the greatest treasures of our land,’ Orobosa began. ‘Yeah, treasures. Some of which are hundreds of years old. Do you know much about the history of this town?’
Stella shook her head.
‘And you call yourself an ambassador of culture,’ he teased. He proceeded to educate her further about the fall of the ancient kingdom and the loss of its independent monarchy.
‘The tension had been brewing for a while between our people and the white men,’ he explained. ‘But the war reached its climax after a violent clash that left several of the white men dead. In a punitive expedition, the foreigners launched a reprisal attack that lasted several days. Having successfully cut off his supply of arms, they held out until the Oba’s forces began to weaken and he was forced to flee for refuge. The white men practically burned down the entire city. They looted the monarch’s palace and those of his chiefs and carried away a great number of our treasures which they took back to their country as spoils of the war. It was believed that they took every single item but it was not until recently, that we excavated a good number of valuable pieces during a mining operation. Fate has determined that they would be discovered in my time. Back then, no one really appreciated their worth. But I plan to change that.’ He pointed towards the oval shaped building. ‘You see that structure over there? I am building a cultural center which I will call The Bronze museum. That is where I will display these ancient masterpieces. It is my pet project.’
Orobosa smiled at what he believed was the perfect plan. The ancient artifacts were all that remained to show off their history - for now. He was already making calls to the British government to return some of the treasures that were taken away many years ago and were now on display in museums around the world. His plan was to recover them all. In a few years, the Bronze museum would overflow with ancient treasures after he succeeded in bringing home the loot. Put on display, such valuables would speak of the town’s rich heritage and stir the attention of tourists. And of course with the tourists would come foreign investors. He could already see the state’s fortunes taking a new turn.
Stella looked at him in admiration. ‘I’ve always known you are a genius.’
The inebriation welled up inside him at this fawning beauty sitting beside him. ‘Come on,’ he told her, unlocking his seat belt. ‘Let us go inside. I will show you around.’
Stepping into the edifice, one could almost feel the similitude of entering an ancient household belonging to someone of noble blood. The interior had been cleverly designed to replicate a royal traditional home. Cast into each of the two doors that led in and out of the building, was the magnificently sculpted form of a leopard. The walls were built of red clay, with a wide variety of decorations engraved into them. The ceiling was a thatched lining of raffia fronds. There were objects strewn everywhere, as well as a few plaques made from pure bronze and wooden drums of different shapes. Two iron scepters leaned against the wall.
Stella and her self-appointed tour guide watched the workers cleaning and putting the finishing touches on the interior.
‘Don’t mind the mess,’ Orobosa said apologetically. ‘We will soon set everything up properly. The museum is scheduled to open in three months.’
Their eyes scanned the terra cotta and brass sculptures arranged across the floor. Stella paused and walked towards a large container placed in a corner. There were cowrie shells and ceremonial jewelry inside. She recoiled for a brief moment. ‘Do you really think you should tamper with these?’ she asked. ‘Those ornaments seem rather fetish.’
Coming to stand behind her, Orobosa laughed and swept his hand across the room. ‘Don’t be silly. I am the Minister and this is my job.’ He picked up one of the ivory carvings. ‘Don’t you realize that this is the best of times for the Ministry of Culture and Tourism?’
‘Why do you say so?’
‘Because we are holding in our hands, relics of our history,’ he explained. ‘They are masterpieces that have given us great visibility across the world. These sculptures are authentic and command a good price. We are talking about items that are worth a fortune. The recent discovery of these artifacts would go down as a legendary story in our history and tell a vivid story about the overthrow of the town’s monarchy.’
Stella nodded and continued to gaze around. Her eyes caught sight of the chipped edge of a painting buried under layers of sand paper in a corner of the room. Gingerly, she pushed the heaps of paper aside and pulled out the painting. Rubbing it against the back of her hand to loosen the dirt, she admired the beautifully painted portrait that lay underneath a thick mass of dust.
’To a noble woman,’ she read the inscription softly. The bronze cast in which the picture had been framed, was slightly off-color from years of neglect and covered with a green patina. But it looked like with a little bit of polish, the sparkle would return. She called Orobosa’s attention to the masterpiece.
‘What is this?’ she asked.
Laughing at her childlike curiosity, Orobosa fell into step beside her. ‘That is one of the more recent works. It is a portrait of Ifueko. It was sent to her by her husband, Chief Idusefe in his final days.’
Stella turned the painting around and noticed the inscriptions at the back. They were short excerpts of scripture; biblical passages that she was quite familiar with.
‘Ifueko was a beauty to behold, just like you,’ Orobosa continued, interrupting her thoughts. ‘The chief took her for himself because of the graceful sway of her hips at the festival but she turned out to be a woman of far greater substance. We remember her today for her artisan skills as a cloth maker. Many years ago, she set up a guild of cloth weavers, right inside this town. They used pedal looms to make all kinds of lovely fabric.’
‘Really?’ Stella was fascinated. ‘Then from now on, she will be my role model.’
As she tried to admire the work of art, Orobosa turned and looked into her eyes. He held her gaze for a few seconds. Stella looked so beautiful and he was certain he had fallen in love with her. The day she disrupted his entourage to ask for his help, she had showered him with so much adulation that he felt the need to come back for more. He did not care that it was mere sycophancy; fueled by the position he held and not his person. It did not even matter that Stella was already married. His own wife barely looked at him in that special adoring way anymore. Things had since soured between them and he needed a new flame. If only Stella was his.
‘You know, I am considering putting you in charge of this place, once it is opened,’ he said.
The generous consideration took his guest by surprise. ‘Why me?’ she asked.
‘Because I like you,’ was the reply.
She smiled shyly. The thought of being put in charge of the Bronze museum appealed to her, despite her reservations about some of the artifacts there. It would be a sure booster for her stagnated career.
Orobosa pointed at the item in her hand. ‘Do you like the painting?’
‘It is beautiful,’ Stella replied. ‘I have not seen anything so delicately crafted before.’
‘Then it is yours.’
‘Mine?’ She asked, her eyes widening at the overly generous gift. ‘I thought it was for the museum?’
‘Well, I am in charge here, so technically it belongs to me and I can do what I want with it.’ He reached out and took her hand, squeezing it softly. ‘And I want you to have it.’
Feeling uncomfortable with this sudden display of affection, she was not sure how to react. She did not want to appear edgy especially with the unexpected gift which he had just bestowed on her. So, her hand remained awkwardly in his.
‘Thank you,’ was all she could say.
Pushing away her empty plate, the young woman stared into Edede’s widened eyes. ‘Right there,’ she said regretfully. ‘Right there was when it all started to go wrong.’
Edede looked past her. Something else in Stella’s story had caught her attention and she appeared excited all of a sudden. ‘The portrait,’ she said. ‘It was a remarkable piece of art, wasn’t it?’
‘Yes, it was,’ her guest replied. ‘And the resemblance between you and the beautiful young girl who stares through those local pastel colors is still so striking.’
The old woman let out a long laugh. ‘An outward resemblance, yes.’ She replied. ‘But I assure you, the inner me is greatly changed.’
She fell silent and turned to observe Stella curiously. She could now understand why this young lady had come to see her. They had a lot in common. The beauty pageant had its roots in an old annual festival. It was a festival she had always looked forward to as a young girl. But she never imagined that her innocent, yet intriguing dance display at the event would catch the attention of a great chief and turn her world around. She had not meant for it to happen that way but it did all the same. Now, she wondered at how things had evolved over the decades. Back then, there was no cash reward for being the most eye catching lady at the festival; her prize was Chief Idusefe himself and a place as his wife. Back then also, you did not choose to compete for the prize; it was just thrust on you.
‘The portrait was a gift, sent to me by my husband during his final days in exile.’ Edede explained with a pensive look on her face. ’It is the most unusual gift I have ever received; painted by one of the finest craftsmen of our days. Above the drawing, he had inscribed the words; ’To a most noble woman.’ At the back of the painting was an excerpt from the book of Proverbs.’
Stella nodded. She was all too familiar with the painting.
‘At the time, I could not read the words, so I did not grasp the message’ the old woman continued. ‘But the painting was a masterpiece and I cherished it so much.’
Edede paused and coughed. It was strange; she thought to herself, that the Minister would give the portrait as a gift to his new love interest. It was supposed to be the property of the State, not a means of amorous exchange. ‘Rest your tongue for a while,’ she told her young guest. ‘And let me take you back to the history of that portrait; a little over eighty years ago when the monarch ruled.’ She opened her mouth wide to reveal her toothless gums. ‘I hope I can remember it all though. It was such a long time ago...’