Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire. He has authored numerous books, including, recently, The Hacker.
From the murky dawn of London that had deposited Sir Robert and Grazia at the doors of the Cringley Arms, Captain Blackpool, late of Her Majesty’s Guards, also alighted from the carriage, unnoticed by them. He had sat innocuously opposite them the entire journey from Glasgow to London. He was an enigmatic figure who travelled invisibly among the high and low of society, acting in matters of extreme sensitivity, a master of disguises, whose name was known, but whose person was not. His black leather boots creaked softly as he stepped onto the cobblestones. His wool cape was soon thick with the morning dew. The cloak concealed a muscular physique and a number of scars, on the body of a man accustomed to violence, strenuous combat and the rigors of combat. Quickly he melted into the fog.
Later, in a richer part of town, Captain Blackpool passed through the wrought iron gate of a fine Georgian mansion and walked along the well-manicured pathway to the ornate front door. He rang a bell and was shown in without ceremony, then installed in a parlour thick with fine carpets and warm with the heat of a well established fire, even at the early hour. A distinguished looking butler who had shown him in bowed slightly. ‘The master will be a few moments, and has instructed me to make you comfortable. May I bring you a cup of tea, sir?’ But Harry Blackpool refused with barely a nod of his head, and remained standing, warming his hands at the fire. He seemed perfectly at ease in the opulent setting. He emptied his mind of all thoughts.
Blackpool’s sixth sense impelled him to turn, just as the double doors at the far end of the parlour opened. Vittorio Rosetti stood in the doorway, immaculately groomed, his hair impeccably combed, even though he still wore a burgundy silk dressing gown and soft leather slippers. Without further ceremony Vittorio said, ‘I am about to take some coffee as is our custom in Barbados. Please join me.’ Blackpool followed Vittorio with a few silent strides into the study, where the men seated themselves opposite each other in leather chairs. Between them stood a low table on which an ornate silver coffee service was placed. ‘I hope you will pardon me, Captain Blackpool,’ Vittorio said, pouring the fragrant brew. ‘But I am extremely anxious for news of my sister, and of course Sir Robert Marsh. Why have you disturbed me so early this morning?’
Blackpool’s limpid grey eyes looked into and beyond Vittorio. His voice had a throaty and agreeable tone, and though one could make out every phrase, his remarks were spoken at the threshold of a whisper, as if every word carried the most confidential import. ‘I trust you have received my reports,’ he replied. Vittorio nodded.
‘I have read every word you sent me, your work is flawless. And have your bills been paid with appropriate dispatch?’ Blackpool nodded. ‘Then, please, what of Grazia?’
Blackpool adjusted himself into the chair, relaxed, but giving the correct impression of a man who could, at a moment’s provocation, leap from the chair in a catlike move, and duel with swords until the death. ‘Señor Lopez, they arrived less than two hours ago at the Cringley Arms. Your sister is well. As you know, I have followed their journey from Glasgow, where I took up a post in the carriage, and abiding by Sir Robert Marsh’s timetable, I succeeded in making every connection with them. It was an arduous schedule and your sister has suffered great fatigue from the road.’
‘Do they suspect that they are being followed?’
‘Assuredly not. Sir Robert Marsh has no interest in either acknowledging or conversing with fellow passengers. Indeed, most of the time he immersed himself in a book.’
‘What of my sister?’ Vittorio pleaded.
‘I feel the haste of the journey has had but a small effect on her,’ Captain Blackpool assured him. ‘She is well enough.’
‘Where is Marsh right now?’
‘He was at the Cringley Arms. I anticipate he is now going on foot to the auction, for there has been no conveyance ordered by him. Your sister remains at the inn. The porter informs me that Sir Robert is expected back at four this afternoon. Sir Robert had also mentioned to the porter that your sister would be going out for a few hours.’
‘Yes, yes, yes. That is all good,’ Vittorio replied. ‘But you are a man, you have eyes. And you have great powers of observation. It is not only the facts which I require, but the details. What have you observed of my sister? You are holding something back. Can you tell me more of her condition?’
‘She is well. As well as can be expected after seven days in a carriage. But it is clear to me that relations between herself and Sir Robert are—let us say—aloof, strained. Sir Robert is a man too preoccupied to show anyone much kindness, and his parsimonious ways are hardly calculated to ease life for a lady of your sister’s ilk.’
‘I knew it,’ Vittorio muttered, looking into his coffee cup. ‘She is terribly unhappy, then, and it is all my doing.’
‘Your sister did not appear happy at the outset, but as we came closer to London her demeanour transformed. She manifested more interest. Until we visited the outskirts of the city she appeared despondent. Whereupon her eyes became more lively and she took more interest in her surroundings. I think this trip will do her well, and make her better disposed to learn that you have returned.’
‘So, Marsh has by now left for the auction.’ Vittorio said resolutely, looking at a gilded clock whose tiny animated porcelain figures danced about in a glass-enclosed chamber on the mantle. ‘It is my intention to attend the auction anonymously today, where I will consider the purchase of the pearls which came from the Maharajah of Jaipur. I would like you, Blackpool, to stay close to my sister, to guard her, to protect her and report to me any movements of hers. This business with Marsh will soon be concluded. Until it is I want you to personally attend to Grazia’s security and safety and make sure that no harm comes to her.’ Here Vittorio paused, and considered the possibility of smoking so early in the day. He craved one of the fragrant cigarillos which came from Domenica, and which he travelled with, but he remembered the effect of the tobacco leaf upon his heart, and resolutely resisted the temptation. ‘And then there is another matter,’ he said, licking his lips. ‘Do you know anything more about a compromising painting known as The Crimson Garter?’ This was a subject which Blackpool was reluctant to raise with Vittorio, and he was relieved that his employer had brought it up. After spending so much time in the carriage with Grazia and Sir Robert, he found it dubious that someone like Grazia Rosetti would pose for a painting as salacious as The Crimson Garter was reported to be.
‘May we abandon the pretence—that is, if I may call you Signor Rosetti from now on.’ Vittorio nodded his agreement and Captain Blackpool continued. ‘Little is known to me yet of that painting or of the artist. I hesitated to make greater inquiries until we had discussed this. The identity of the painter Balthazar remains a mystery. I have observed your sister, and if I may speak frankly, sir, I find it difficult to believe that she could be implicated in any way with a work such as this. My operatives in Paris are investigating the matter further but I could attend to it personally …’
Vittorio interrupted, ‘I want you to supervise all inquiries in this matter! Once I have settled things with Sir Robert Marsh here in London, then we must pursue the question of this painting in Paris. And now, Captain Blackpool, if you will kindly excuse me I must ready myself for the auction. Return immediately to the Cringley Arms, and make my sister’s safety your only concern.’
Rounding a corner of Crabtree Lane, Robert Marsh observed his agent and bookseller, Felix Camberwell, stamping his feet nervously in the cold, gazing up and down the lane, waiting for Marsh’s approach. As usual, Marsh was precisely on time, to the minute, and Camberwell, being a naturally anxious type, was relieved to see the Scottish lord stomping his way up, dodging passers-by at a speed even quicker than the frenzied pace of the London streets. There was a look of earnestness and certitude in his face, and Camberwell had experienced the effects of Marsh’s determination before, in painstaking negotiations over shillings and pence, which would often figure in the final purchase price of libraries. He did not relish the thought of extended contact, but Marsh had proven to be a regular customer over the years, and despite the small amount of money he spent on individual purchases it had amounted to a respectable sum, and Camberwell wanted to sustain the business. Moments later the figure of Marsh, who stood nearly a foot taller than the bookseller, appeared before him, and Camberwell trembled in the cold, looking up into his impassive face.
‘Good day,’ Marsh began, steam issuing from his mouth in the morning chill, rubbing his hands together. He wore a preposterous pair of thick woollen gloves.. ‘Have you discovered the identity of the man who purchased the books?’
‘Good morning, Sir Robert,’ Camberwell shivered, teeth clicking. ‘Very good to see you, sir.’
‘Were all of the books purchased at once?’ Marsh demanded, as if no pleasantries had been uttered.
‘My lord, it is so cold this morning. May I suggest we step inside this tavern here to talk about matters.’ It startled Marsh that the impertinent Camberwell insisted on going inside when such a powerful issue as the duplicitous purloining was being broached. But he understood that he would get no more from the bookseller until the pitiful man thawed a bit, seated next to some fireplace, and stuffing his face with sausages before the auction.
‘Very well,’ he said. ‘I know of an establishment called the Stag and Arms which is only about a quarter of a mile from here, and much closer to the auction house.’
Teeth still chattering, Camberwell replied, ‘M-my lord, can you not think of a place a bit c-c-closer?’
‘Have you been ill, sir? I find this cold to be quite invigorating, and it seems that London is experiencing an extremely mild winter this year.’ The bookseller blew into his threadbare gloves, stamped his feet briskly, and exhaled a cloud of vapour.
‘Perhaps to a man of your vigour and constitution this weather is mild,’ he ventured. ‘But to those of the south the cold is extreme. Can we not step here into the White Swan, and they will serve us expeditiously. I do understand the urgency of your concerns in this matter. Just a bit of warmth, though, to make the blood flow?’
Grudgingly, Marsh acceded to the man’s request and they repaired inside. Marsh immediately observed a number of extravagances in the White Swan, which he himself might have ordinarily limited. First and foremost was the fire, which lit the room in a cheery way adding to the hustle-bustle of the place. The clientèle seemed to be overly well fed, and they were a genteel lot, all talking in polite voices so that a low level of noise was present but not in an offensive way. It appeared that business was being done at other tables, that the bookseller was acknowledged by cordial and gracious nods in his direction. This further made Marsh uncomfortable, as he did not wish to be recognized by the community when he was on such a covert and important mission. He was further unnerved by the constant procession of hot and savoury dishes which passed him by, and he watched opulent breakfasts served as orotund businessmen happily consumed the most delectable of foods. Marsh’s meagre order of a bowl of porridge and a cup of tea did not surprise the bookseller, who knew that he himself would be responsible for the bill at the end of the interaction. But that did not stop him from indulging himself in a rasher of kippers and eggs, hot buttered rolls and jam and a large pot of tea with cream and heaping spoonfuls of sugar, the sight of which caused Marsh to wince.
Camberwell was wise enough to know that he would be better served to make Sir Robert anxious. Despite Marsh’s continuing questions, he waited until nearly the end of the meal to give what answers about the auction which he knew. By the time they were ready to leave Sir Robert Marsh had become quite agitated.
‘Do you mean to tell me, Camberwell, that you have made no progress in ascertaining the identity of the buyer of the Wickham library?’
Camberwell had a clue, but he did not intend to so readily give anything over to Sir Robert Marsh. Instead he said, ‘I have had no luck other than to hear from the solicitor who is handling the Wickham estate that the sale had been concluded and that the books have been withdrawn from the market and are no longer in possession of the library’s estate. As I wrote to you, the only thing that I understand from the solicitor is that the mysterious buyer is in London and will be bidding on the pearls at this morning’s auction.’ Marsh felt a twitch in his left cheekbone and he reached for his pocket watch.
‘Good God, man,’ he blurted, ‘We must be on our way. If we are going to walk, we have got to be going immediately.’ Then, true to form, Marsh did not call for a cheque, looked away from the table and Camberwell settled the bill. The men set off on foot across town to the auction house.
As soon as the walk began Robert Marsh assumed a brisk pace. His stride was much longer than the bookseller’s and Camberwell had to scurry behind him to keep up with his taller and more agile client. ‘We are coming up upon Cheshire’s Field,’ Marsh shouted, as they came upon an especially windblown stretch. ‘This is a short cut I know and all we need do is traverse this field diagonally, and it will cut a good amount of time off our walk.’
‘But Sir Robert, this is an exposed and muddy field and the wind will be harsh!’
‘Nonsense, man, we need only step up our pace and the freshness of the climate will be good for you.’ So Camberwell was forced again to rush behind his determined customer, struggling to keep up on the muddy terrain. And Marsh thought to himself that the reason for Camberwell’s trouble was that he had consumed so much breakfast. He maintained a good six paces lead at all times, thinking to himself how fresh and wonderful the climate was, and how as soon as he got to the auction house he would immediately locate the anonymous buyer and march up to him and say in as haughty a voice as he could muster, ‘So, sir, it would appear that you understand the deep significance of The Cogitations on Identity by Torvald Herdeg, and how it bears upon the writings of Lucretuis the Elder.’ He imagined that it would render the anonymous buyer flustered and flabbergasted that a man of his stature possessed such knowledge. He would then sidle up to the man and tell him, ‘Sir, if only I had access to that volume we could put our excellent minds together and shape an historically important philosophical document by which we would be remembered for generations to follow.’ And if perhaps the man appeared to be acquiescent or agreeable or interested, then Sir Robert would reveal to him his true purpose, the compilation of an anthology of philosophical treatises from Plato until the present day. Then his mission to London would almost certainly be complete. He rehearsed the conversation in his mind a number of times and the thought of so wonderful an encounter gave him such a feeling of satisfaction that he allowed a smug grin to fall across his face for the rest of the walk. His mind so possessed, Robert Marsh kept up a manic pace, and the men reached the auction house at exactly the correct hour.
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