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The Crimson Garter is available at Amazon.com and at Kobobooks.

 

Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire. He has authored numerous books, including, recently, The Hacker.

 

Click here for a recent interview with Stanley Moss.

The Crimson Garter

Chapter 5

 

Continued from previous page

 

The next morning Vittorio went to the preappointed destination, where he sat with Marsh and signed the note for the loan of money. Marsh would then pay the bank in Rome, to honour Vittorio’s debt. Next, Vittorio presented Marsh with the sealed suicide letter. It was agreed that Marsh would deliver it to Grazia when the time was right.

‘It is essential that you time your departure so that the suicide seems credible,’ Marsh advised. ‘A gunshot wound, a bullet hole in the head would probably be best, but then we need a cadaver. Paris is sure to experience torrential rains sooner or later. The best scenario would be for you to jump off a bridge, wouldn’t you agree?’

‘Of course,’ Vittorio answered. ‘Then the poor body could be washed downstream, and nobody would be the wiser.’

‘Yes, I think that is definitely it,’ Marsh repeated. ‘A despondent leap from a bridge is certainly credible. I shall book passage for you under an assumed name. Which name would you like to use? It must be a name which you can easily remember.’ Here Marsh pulled a folded paper from his pocket. ‘I have taken the liberty of stopping by an agence de voyages today, and have brought for you a schedule of clipper ships leaving from Calais in two weeks’ time. Where would you like to go? I see there is a ship here for Barbados, there is one for St Lucia, and another for Vera Cruz.’

‘I do not know anyone in Barbados,’ Vittorio said. ‘I do not even know where Barbados is. So perhaps that is the best destination for me. And since you have asked, I remember an old servant of ours named Rodolfo López, to whom I was much attached. I would like to take that name as my alias until such time as I can reestablish myself in the New World.’

‘So be it,’ said Sir Robert Marsh. ‘I will take care of everything. I will return tonight with your ticket, and all of the information, Señor López. The suicide letter is written, your debt will be paid, and you have my solemn oath that I will look after Grazia to the best of my ability, with all of your good interests at heart.’

‘You are a true friend,’ said Vittorio.

In the few short days he had remaining in Paris, Vittorio endeavoured to spend as much pleasurable time in the company of his sister as he could, even though it meant parting with the last of his ready money. He took her to fine restaurants, indulged her with cologne and a luxurious shawl which she could place over her elegant shoulders after a strenuous practice. They attended performances of the Opéra, where he admired Mme Monitchka’s former protégée, Tatiana Stregova. Vittorio experienced a private agony when Grazia mentioned what a wonderful time they would have when he next visited at Christmas and how she hoped that he would someday be able to see her perform on that very same stage.

Sadly, Marsh’s prediction of torrential rain occurred sooner than expected, and it compelled Vittorio one afternoon to bid a farewell to his sister with the invented story that he must unexpectedly return to Rome on pressing business. Instead, he booked passage on a carriage, which took him to Calais. Vittorio could not bear to think of how the news of his death would affect his sister, and so he put it out of his mind and prayed for the future that would bring them together again.

A short time later on the docks of Calais, an individual going by the name of Rodolfo López boarded the clipper ship Mariposa, bound for Barbados. Vittorio knew he was escaping the ashes of his former life and with sadness and hope he watched the European shore disappear behind him. During the passage he kept away from the other passengers. He let his beard, moustache and hair grow longer. He shed his more aristocratic attire and bankerly uniform, adopting dark and simple clothing which would not identify him with any station or career. And he thought ahead to the mysterious place where he was bound. In his pocket was a letter of credit from Sir Robert Marsh’s London bank, which would allow Rodolfo López to establish a small account wherever he landed. Marsh had agreed to send remittances as needed. Vittorio hoped he would never exercise that option.

When Vittorio stepped ashore onto the quay at the harbour on Barbados, the brilliant sun and the temperate breezes lifted his heart instantly, for they reminded him of the fragrant shores of Italy. Suddenly he felt as if things could resolve themselves. A wave of optimism overtook him, and with bounding strides he made his way along the waterfront nearly running headfirst into a burly ape of a man standing next to a wagon. The man eyed Vittorio carefully, sized him up, considered the type of people he sought. This bearded fellow in the dark costume seemed to fit the bill. So he addressed Vittorio in a pastiche of languages, a few French words, Italian mixed with Spanish, Pidgin English and a smattering of Portuguese. If work was what he wanted, he said, he might have an idea. Vittorio’s reply indicated he was an educated man. The condition of his clothes further suggested to the stevedore that Vittorio had the authority to successfully oversee labourers on a sugar cane plantation owned by the Delacroix family. It was a short interview, to the point, no questions asked. A shockingly rudimentary salary was named, lodging included, which Vittorio accepted. The stevedore emphasized that insubordination would not be tolerated, either to his superiors or from those working under him. Sundays belonged to Señor López, but he must be back in the fields Monday morning, no exceptions, no excuses.

By the end of the same day Vittorio found himself installed in a shabby room off the corner of a long and dilapidated dormitory, the supervisor of the 25 labourers who occupied the house. It was a barracks-style accommodation, which reminded Vittorio of military installations he had visited in his youth, considerably less comfort than that to which he was accustomed, but it would serve.

It did not take long before Vittorio’s skills in language and accounting, not to mention his ability to appeal to both workers and bosses, came to the attention of his foreman. Within weeks Rodolfo López was moved to the accounting offices of the Delacroix firm, and had relocated himself into a tiny room at a posada with garden and orchard, which lay on the outskirts of town. He soon found himself, in the mornings, seated at a desk entering figures into great ledgers. The other half of the day was spent riding among the rows of sugar cane in the fields, tallying bundles of the crop which were bound for molasses factories owned by the Delacroix family at the far end of the island.

By Christmastime Vittorio had progressed to a better position in the counting house, deputized as the administrator of several significant transactions. Still, none of his history was known to his employers. He had by then taken over a suite of rooms at the posada. He now spent his free afternoons in the garden there, seated next to a fountain, where he could study his documents and books without intrusion, to a background of watersound, rustling leaves and birdsong. While he had succeeded in putting aside a pittance in savings, he had never again contacted Sir Robert Marsh. Nor could he bring himself to contact Grazia, who in Paris would eventually become the prima ballerina and a secret bride. Later, Vittorio would learn of her elevation to prima, but still he could not face her.

It was a singular honour that the Père Delacroix invited him, along with a group of promising officers, to the plantation house for the traditional new year’s party. The old man was a well-known presence on the island, in his white linen suits and his broad-brimmed straw hat. He affected a white goatee, and he carried a gold-tipped cane. He liked to visit the farthest reaches of his island holdings on horseback, leisurely meandering across a hilltop on a rise between the harbour and the fields, or en route to the factories. He had a reputation as a man kind to children, fair to his employees, who enjoyed laughter, but who always maintained a formal distance. He was gracious of manner, a devoted father, and knew enough to remain silent about those he disliked. An invitation to his party was to be taken as a regal command, for he was by far the richest man on the island.

There was a great deal of laughing and joking on the way up the long road to the house that night. The men anticipated opulent dishes and fine wines, and an uncommon level of elegance. There was also the matter of bonuses and special recognition for those who had best performed their tasks in the year past. Père Delacroix was known for his generosity, as well as his unpredictability, and the men had some trepidation about who would be singled out, and in what discreet way. In years past it had been gold coins, or prestigious promotions, or even an itinerary of travel that meant six months away from the island. The old man had a policy of circumspection about this aspect of reward, and news of his appreciation often surfaced weeks later. Finally, there was banter about Père Delacroix’s beautiful daughter, Ynez, whose hand was said to be promised to the son of a renowned Creole family in Nouvelle-Orléans. The reality was that Père Delacroix had raised her to take over his fortune, while he recognized that she would need a husband to hide behind as she wielded her power. Perhaps tonight, the wily old man thought, we will find her an acceptable suitor. In their hired coach, the men passed around a bottle of old cognac they had purchased together, so that by the time they arrived at the plantation hilltop a general air of gaiety prevailed.

It was only at the new year that the better part of them had even come close to the house. Maison du Soleil stood on the highest point of the island, overlooking miles of fields and foliage. Its plantings were impeccably manicured, and the jungle had never been allowed to encroach on the tall hedges and lawns. Graceful palms swayed in the moonlight, and the lilting sounds of a string quartet drifted out onto the gravel drive, as the men looked hungrily through the louvered windows into the candle-lit rooms. The occasional pop of a champagne cork, the sounds of crystal glasses and the laughter of intoxicated voices mixed with the soft rustling of the palm fronds shifting in the breeze. Marvellous aromas of wondrous dishes reached them, and the men sighed in pleasant anticipation. Vittorio remembered when life for him was like this every day. It seemed so long ago.

A fine banquet was served, and did not disappoint them. Next came cigars and cognac in the smoking room, along with Père Delacroix . This was a singular honour for them, and the men jockeyed and parried and laughed amiably, all attempting to take the centre-stage and impress their employer. Some adjourned to the billiards room, while others returned to the ballroom for yet another quadrille or minuet. But Vittorio chose to stay in the smoking room off the long dining room, listening to the good-natured braggadocio and plans of his colleagues. As an ornate French clock chimed midnight Père Delacroix invited Vittorio out onto the veranda where, years later, he would be seated with Ynez.

‘You have done remarkable service to our family and firm,’ Père Delacroix began. ‘The last negotiation which you handled so ably was extremely sophisticated and you brought it to such a successful conclusion that I owe you a tremendous vote of thanks. As such, I wonder if you would be willing to handle a matter of extreme delicacy for me, involving the remittance of funds to Egypt.’ A touch of amusement came over the old man’s face. ‘You do not have a command of the Arabic language, do you?’

‘I am not fluent,’ Vittorio admitted. ‘But I would consider it a great honour to work on this contract for you, monsieur. I also wish to propose … I have been wondering … would it not be a more advantageous position for you to control the shipment of your molasses beyond the shores of Barbados? After all, those who buy the molasses from you mark it up five times and reap the rewards in the distant ports. If you owned the clipper ships, you could control the end price.’

‘I have thought about this many times,’ said Père Delacroix, surprised at Vittorio’s audacity. ‘But I know nothing of ships and their dispatch to foreign shores. I only know the sugar cane fields and the molasses factories. Do you understand anything of the purchase of vessels, and international transit?’

‘It has been my family’s business for years,’ answered Vittorio.

‘But I have never heard of a shipping family whose name is López.’

‘For reasons of my own which I cannot now state, but which I assure you are purely honourable, I have taken the name Rodolfo López to protect my family.’

Père Delacroix considered this remark only momentarily, for he himself possessed a similar history. Years earlier he, too, had arrived intent on forgetting his past. And he had risen from nothing to a position of immense wealth and respect. He could see the earnestness in Vittorio’s manner, and he determined to give the younger man a chance. ‘So far you have proven your merit. This is the New World, where a person can rename themselves and begin a new existence. What would you say if I were to deputize you, Señor López, to purchase a ship for the Delacroix firm? Where would you go to do such a thing?’

‘Why, I would go to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in the Americas. And build the fastest, sleekest ship that money could buy.’

‘How much would this ship cost?’ asked Père Delacroix.

‘From what I understand of your fortune, sir, you could easily afford two.’

‘Young man, that is overambitious. Let us begin with one only.’ A look of youthful enthusiasm came over the old man’s face. ‘Can you report to my office tomorrow morning to begin discussing such a scheme? And afterwards, I invite you to lunch with me here at the plantation. Then we will discuss this clipper ship of yours from Cape Cod.’

 

And now Vittorio Rosetti sat on the veranda looking across at his beautiful wife. ‘Do you know,’ he said to her, ‘That you are even more beautiful today than on that first evening when I laid eyes on you, at that party on this very veranda to which your father invited me so many years ago?’

‘And I looked at the young, handsome European,’ Ynez said. ‘I thought to myself that if Papa has taken him into his confidence he must be an extraordinary man. And I was not mistaken.’ She knew that flattery would appeal to Vittorio’s ego.

‘An extraordinary but sleepless man,’ Vittorio interjected. ‘Because after laying eyes on you for the first time it was weeks before I could get a full night’s sleep.’

‘Everything you brought to us gave Papa much joy. Lucky for me that I fell in love with a man whom Papa so highly regarded. And that is the reason we received his generous blessing when we announced our intention to wed. I only wish that he could have been here for the birth of his granddaughter. I know he is watching over us.’

Vittorio stared out at the lights of the harbour.

‘You are absolutely sure about the reliability of this Captain Blackpool?’ Ynez asked.

‘It was Lord Considine at the Admiralty who provided the introduction,’ Vittorio said. ‘A man of impeccable credentials, who assures me that the mysterious Captain has never failed them. Blackpool was able to follow Grazia and Robert Marsh from Paris to Scotland without their knowledge. He has somehow remained in a small hamlet nearby, undetected, keeping my sister under close surveillance. His information has enabled me to engineer a means to lure Robert Marsh south, where we can settle our scores.’

‘Where did such a man as Captain Blackpool come from?’

‘It is too long a story,’ Vittorio replied, looking away. He remembered the handwritten copy of the classified dossier which Lord Considine had supplied concerning Harry Blackpool. It was both tantalizing and frightening. Blackpool had been a soldier for many years in India, and there had lived through a number of bloody conflicts. More remarkably, he had been trained by the warrior caste of Gurkha in the arts of stealth, gaining from their nurture a strenuous and particular code of honour, virtue and bravery. He always wore, at the small of his back, a leather sheath where resided the ornate curved-blade kukri knife unique to Gurkha, and which had been given to him by a legendary and respectful chieftain. The knife’s precise edge had tasted the blood of many enemies. This was not the only weapon Captain Blackpool was known to typically conceal. In his boot next to his left ankle he wore another small dagger, and he carried upon his person various obscure and exotic devices which could be employed in either benign or sinister fashion, in unexpected ways.

While in Her Majesty’s service in the East Indies, Harry Blackpool had developed a reputation for accomplishing the most difficult missions with the utmost cunning and efficacy. His skills at espionage became known in all circles, both in India and back at the home front. Upon his return to England he found himself immediately in great demand. Members of the nobility were prepared to pay astronomical prices for his services. He had in this way come into contact with numerous royal skeletons, but Blackpool was utterly dependable. He maintained a shadowy profile, navigating and cultivating a universe of contacts in the underworld, which enabled him to move in all circles, barely observed. It was said the man could not be deceived, that he had eyes on the back of his head, that he could read men’s minds, and weird rumours of his remarkable sexual powers circulated.

‘It is too long a story,’ Vittorio repeated. ‘Suffice it to say my confidence is total. I’m both fascinated and appalled to meet him.’

‘You have waited a many years to contact your sister,’ Ynez replied. ‘I feel Blackpool is the right man to help you, and it is the right time. Nené thinks so too.’

‘If Nené approves, I have no qualms. And I know your hand is as strong and steady as mine when it comes to the running of the House of Delacroix.’

‘You need not worry, Vittorio. All is in order.’

‘I received word today that everything is in place in London as well. The draft Marsh gave me to start my life in the New World has been repaid to his bank. I am sincerely glad I never again needed to contact him for money. As far as he knows I am lost forever. The loans to the bank in Rome have also been totalled, and the interest I agreed to pay Marsh computed. All I need do is sign the drafts and his accounts will be credited as well. I have tallied all the payments for Grazia’s well-being, and the bank in Paris is prepared to return those, as soon as I give the order. At that time I will also transfer the Suez bonds to Grazia’s name.’ Here Ynez looked at him in a bemused way.

‘Those bonds were an excellent investment after all,’ she said. ‘And now that they regained their value and increased so much, your sister will be a wealthy woman.’

‘All that remains,’ Vittorio said, ‘is the surrender of the note I signed. Then Marsh’s terrible slate will be wiped clean.’

‘But whatever his reaction, it hardly matters. We could buy his Marshmoor if we chose, and all the land that surrounds it. We own half this island, and a fleet of clipper ships, and our inventories, and much more. Even your magnificent Suez bonds could only purchase a fraction of our holdings. These arrogant Europeans think of themselves as wealthy. They have no idea of the magnitude of our fortune. Now what is the situation with the auction of the Wickham Library?’

‘Ah,’ Vittorio began. ‘I don’t know how he has done it, but Blackpool has intercepted all the correspondence. This library contains five philosophical tomes of which only a connoisseur would understand the value. Sir Robert Marsh covets these volumes. He is hoping that few are aware of their existence, and that he will be able to seize them for a low price. The letters tell us that he expects it to be an easy process. I have instructed my agent to outbid him at every turn, and I feel certain, due to Marsh’s stingy nature, that it will not take much to acquire it. That should be enough to pique his interest. I have also reminded my agent to conceal my identity, but to reveal to Marsh that I shall be attending the auction of the estate of the late Lady Goberslieves, and that I have interest in the strand of matching pearls once owned by the Maharajah of Jaipur. I doubt Marsh will recognize me, but it will give me great satisfaction to remain invisible, so he cannot puzzle out who I am. My agent will accompany me, and bid anonymously at the auction, so that my identity remains a secret until the moment of my choosing. When all the business is done I will then seek out my sister and attempt to make peace with her.’

‘From everything you have told me I feel certain she will experience only jubilation at your return,’ Ynez assured him, though secretly she had her doubts. She understood loyalty, she understood betrayal, and she knew Vittorio well. He had never reconciled the dishonesty of his actions with his sister. He had never in all these years surrendered his alias as Rodolfo López. He had covered his guilt with excuses, ruses and intricate schemes. What little she knew of Grazia led her to believe it would not be as easy as Vittorio planned. His sister had always been wilful, temperamental and self-centred. Ynez realized he needed to attempt it himself, without her intervention, so she was prepared to let him go, but she knew it would not happen as easily as he had so meticulously arranged. It could not.

The following day Vittorio boarded his fastest clipper, bound for Europe, determined to undo the deception and disgrace from the past. From the terrace Ynez watched the ship head for the horizon, and once it had disappeared she walked slowly back into her home. How many times had Vittorio sailed away, how many times had he returned? Will I ever see him again? She wondered.

 

Click here for Chapter 6

 

If you wish to read ahead, The Crimson Garter is available at Amazon.com and at Kobobooks.

 

 

 

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