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The Crimson Garter

Count Kozlowski has decided to depart from Praha to return to Paris, to resume his life as Balthazar. Kozlowski is warned not to be near Karlstejn Square on the coming Wednesday and is given a letter by Dmitri, the former stable-boy. Meanwhile, the Marshes, Vittorio Rosetti and Capt Blackpool are in London, and the auction commences in chapter nine of The Crimson Garter, by travel editor Stanley Moss, writing pseudo­nymously as Lovejoy

 

 

Continued from previous page

 

Chapter 9

 

A massive painting dominated the wall of the main gallery at Aubrey-Osborne & Son, Auctioneers of London, and it had occupied that space for as long as anyone could remember. The portrait hung behind a podium and the podium faced beautifully ordered rows of plush-covered seats in the gallery, and an aisle covered by a magnificent Persian runner ran down the middle of the seats providing access and a note of theatre for the procession of buyers when they arrived at the august establishment. The portrait in question depicted the Duke of Lancaster, seated astride a rearing bay mare, surrounded by an apocalyptic battle scene.

From the other side of the same wall, Sydney Aubrey-Osborne squinted through a peephole, which was the pupil of the eye of the Duke of Lancaster. This was a routine that Aubrey-Osborne had repeated more times than he could count. As a child he sat in the same office while his father whispered to him confidentially from above, Father on his stepladder, identifying the different personages congregating in the auction gallery, standing before the very opening that Sydney now used. In fact, there were eventually two peepholes in the portrait, for his father had fashioned a second when he deemed Sydney was old enough to learn the business. The second sat in the centre of the codpiece of the Duke of Lancaster, and it was from the lower vantage point that the young Sydney first observed the accumulation, under his father’s tutelage. Sydney’s father had long left the business and passed away, but for the years that followed, Sydney continued to employ the peepholes to assess the clientèle in the gallery before every auction began. Thus, from the privacy of his office he could identify who was present, and often he had a fair chance of guessing which objects would sell, and for how much. But something was troubling Sydney that day, and though he surveyed the crowd his mind was elsewhere.

It was hardly the procession of buyers Sydney Aubrey-Osborne today considered. Instead, it was the houseboy Ali, who lived in his home, and whose conduct of late was rather puzzling. Sydney Aubrey-Osborne could not decipher what was going on under his own roof. Lately the boy had seemed preoccupied. When he served tea he seemed to wear an expression of near-contempt on his face. In the evening after Aubrey-Osborne dressed himself in a purple silken robe with a figure of a crane embroidered beautifully onto the back, and reclined on the couch which had come from Cathay and the boy filled the opium pipe and Sydney drew into his lungs the thick sweet smoke and began to dream, he would look at the boy and the boy would do his bidding. This was not the first boy Aubrey-Osborne had ever employed, and it would not be the last, but there was something perceptible which had shifted, not the least of which was Ali’s sudden coldness. Last night, as he had roused himself from his somnolent state he looked everywhere for Ali, but discovered the houseboy gone, and no sign of him until this morning. Sydney Aubrey-Osborne, rose on the late side, hours after his breakfast should have been served. To his dismay, he found Ali in a filthy state, unconscious and draped across an ornate ottoman. The boy reeked of sweat and other smells, and Sydney roused him and insisted that he bathe immediately. Later he burned the clothes the boy had been wearing.

Sydney Aubrey-Osborne brought his attention back to the auction house gallery which contained at that moment one lone figure. He supposed that this must be the Scottish landholder interested in buying the Wickham Library, but who had already been disappointed because of a prior sale. The man had arrived early, and remained seated in the third row towards the centre, a few seats in from the aisle. Sydney watched for several minutes as the man occupied himself by repeatedly pulling out his pocket watch, consulting it, and then squirming uncomfortably in his seat. He was a handsome man, in a rugged sort of way, obviously of some refinement. He needed to visit the barber more often, Sydney thought, which would help immeasurably, not to mention if he could remove the perpetual dark expression from his face. He knew that the very same Scottish gentleman had balked at the penny price of the auction catalogue when it was offered to him at the door. With each slightest noise he would turn his head around and crane his neck, to see if anyone else had entered. Finally, three gentlemen, attired in the extravagant continental fashion, arrived together at the same time. Sydney Aubrey-Osborne watched the men disperse, two taking distant corners of the gallery, the third taking a seat midway down the centre aisle.

A cabal of journalists whom Sydney seriously detested, insinuated themselves into the back of the room, where they remained standing, leaning against the velvet draped curtains which covered the wall. To his great annoyance this disreputable lot had made much in their libellous journals over today’s auction. Their cavalier reports had incited unnecessary public attention, and compelled Sydney Aubrey-Osborne to engage additional security from Captain Dawson at Scotland Yard, who agreed, after much coercion and the promise of favourable terms on the purchase of two brocaded French settees, to furnish a half-dozen able plainclothesmen dispersed in the gallery, not to mention uniformed constables outside the auction house doors as additional precaution. The irresponsible policies of the journalists had certainly incited undue interest by the nefarious elements in the London underworld, and the auctioneer meant to make it as difficult on them as possible if any felonious activity was in the offing.

Of the three continental gentlemen, Sydney made a mental note. He supposed he had seen their faces before, but could not be sure yet if they were colluding to bid up the price of a particular lot, or purchase some coveted object. He would watch them closely throughout the bidding. Shortly thereafter a tall and distinguished gentleman entered, whom Aubrey-Osborne knew to be the agent of an anonymous client from the New World. The man demonstrated a disinterested air as he made his way to the left hand corner at the back and settled in comfortably. Sydney recollected in the past he had bid for other lots on behalf of the mysterious foreigner. He had well earned his reputation as a cool bidder, with a deserved smugness, owing to access to vast resources not his own.

At the entrance of Beatrice Tipton-Snaff and her simple niece the auctioneer grimaced. He knew her to be cheap of taste and purse. With her enormous nose, he thought sardonically, she skilfully ferreted out the occasional bargains that she unerringly located, much like a truffling pig. As often as she bought she sold, and she was clever enough to make some money at this game. It probably offered a supplement to her substantial but disreputable income. For Beatrice Tipton-Snaff was reputed to operate the most notorious brothel on the West Side, patronized by a moneyed element, purveying a constant stream of young and talented flesh for the edification of her hungry clientele. She had, of recent, chaperoned her niece—the first true blood relation she had ever introduced under that common nomenclature—around town for the past season. But, despite having presented the young woman to court, it was well known that her niece had received no eligible offers to date. This might have been attributable to a rumour that the younger woman was being groomed for succession, or that she had a mercenary air about her, and it was assumed she sought a fortune. Beatrice Tipton-Snaff strutted importantly to the front row, where she plopped down in the aisle seat, and indicated the next chair to her niece, who nearly tripped over her aunt’s silver-and-ivory-topped cane. Sydney Aubrey-Osborne knew that the instant he stepped into the gallery she would look for an opportunity to engage him in conversation. He dreaded the pain of her raucous cackle. He shuddered at the thought of how she would often catch his eye and wink at him during the proceedings, attempting to uphold a pointless and repulsive flirtation while he tried to concentrate on his work.

As he engaged in these ruminations the gallery further filled. Sydney Aubrey-Osborne’s mind wandered back to the boy Ali. It occurred to him suddenly that as he undressed the boy he had noticed a faint aroma of -yes, it could only be fish. At the time he gave it slight thought, so eager was he to burn the offending garments. But now he considered the meaning of this evidence. Ali had been known to receive various tradespeople at the back entrance to the mansion. He was often engaged in conversation with the fishmonger’s boy, a strapping lad with dark hair, pouting lips and sultry eyes. It occurred to him that once, when looking down from his chamber window, he had even encountered the two in conversation, his attention having been drawn by the harsh sound of a Cockney voice. The two lads bent their heads close together and then the coarse chortle of fishmonger’s boy reached Sydney’s window. No part of Ali’s soft-spoken response could be heard. It seemed at the time that they were engaged in a kind of harmless joking.

Sydney Aubrey-Osborne scanned the gallery anxiously. Ah, finally! An innocuous-looking patron had taken his usual position, his confederate, Lord Sohensogh. The man presented an appearance which could not be criticized. His ordinary veneer disguised a peculiar fetish, since few knew Lord Sohensogh’s secret passion for collecting chamber pots, the more unusual and titillating the better. In fact, Aubrey-Osborne had often gone out of his way to assist Lord Sohensogh in finding some rare and bizarre objets d’art. In exchange, they worked by a series of eye and hand signals to elevate the bidding on certain select items, if the auctioneer so indicated. Sydney had long cultivated Lord Sohensogh in this role and often made use of him at appropriate moments in the past. Today’s major business involved pearls, and Sydney knew that the agent for the foreign gentleman was expressly interested in those particular pearls. There were other potential buyers, but as far as he knew none with the resources of the foreign gentleman. There was also the factor of Captain Harry Blackpool, rumoured to be involved with the foreign buyer. Sydney’s plan was simply to obtain the highest price possible. In exchange for today’s services he had arranged for Lord Sohensogh to acquire an especially salacious chamber pot with ornate relief on the outside. It depicted in the Hindu fashion various sexual acts being performed by men, women and animals. There was no accounting for taste.

Finally the gallery filled to capacity, with few additional seats to be had save the least desirable places in the back rows. Sir Robert Marsh found himself sandwiched between two prepossessing characters. On his left roosted a woman so large that her shoulder kept contacting his, no matter how much he squirmed, crossed his legs, hunched or tried to make himself smaller. She persisted in fanning herself with an embroidered handkerchief. With every motion a strong and overpowering floral scent wafted his direction. Sir Robert could not identify it, but it elicited from him the occasional sniffle, then a violent coughing spasm. In her lap she held a small Pekinese, beribboned and bedecked in such an extravagant manner that hardly any fur showed at all. Marsh unsuccessfully avoided staring at the overly large eyes and pink tongue of the tiny canine, fearful that at any moment the animal might try to escape from the woman’s grasp and leap into his lap.

On his right side an elderly gentleman presided, twitching wearing a wig styled in a fashion long elapsed, the powder from the wig having settled liberally on the man’s shoulders. He emitted an intermittent grunt, followed by a wheeze. At first the man presented no other offence, but eventually he reached to his side, and produced a great ear trumpet, heretofore hidden from Marsh. With the appearance of the auctioneer, he put the trumpet to his ear and, in a palsied manner inserted it into Sir Robert’s field of vision, wobbling the object constantly, leaning forward as he did so. Thus Sir Robert remained, wedged between the two oblivious characters.

Sydney Aubrey-Osborne took the podium, avoiding the disturbing leer of Beatrice Tipton-Snaff. He opened the auction without further ceremony. He had selected a few mediocre and obscure Flemish pictures with which to begin, and the early bidding went so smoothly that he allowed his mind to wander back again to the question of Ali. As he considered the situation he came to the realization that on several occasions immediately after seeing Ali and the fishmonger’s boy together on the back stairs he had experienced a long and especially deep sleep, and now he wondered if the boy had not added some kind of sleeping potion to his food, to facilitate stealing away for a licentious rendezvous. And giving it further thought he recollected that on several occasions he had asked Ali where he had been in the late afternoon and Ali had mentioned calling on purveyors so as to speed deliveries. Yes, that was it, Sydney thought, Ali had fashioned a dalliance with the fishmonger’s boy.

He pounded the gavel, and shouted ‘Sold!’ as another Flemish miniature went. In that instant Sydney Aubrey-Osborne resolved to be rid of Ali, for he realized that his sullen manner and petulant looks had persisted too long, and he had been too enamoured to take note. If he waited longer to discharge Ali things could get much worse, so he would today give the boy notice. He sighed and wondered if the charming young Irish tenor who had performed at one of Sohensogh’s soirées could be induced to accept his patronage.

Sydney Aubrey-Osborne surveyed the room as the last minor item was produced. Soon the pearls were to appear. It was then that he noticed the back door quietly open and a slim tall gentleman with dark hair and olive skin entered. An unusual detail about the gentleman instantly marked him as someone not of these parts. The hat which he wore, though dark and discrete, had a soft crown. He removed it almost instantly, but not before Aubrey Osborne noted its distinction, and he saw it had concealed a startling handsomeness. The perfection of his beard and moustache indicated a gentleman of exquisite grooming. Aubrey-Osborne’s heartbeat quickened, since he deduced that this must be none other than Rodolfo Lopez, the mysterious buyer from the New World, the man of vast resources, and somehow attached to Captain Harry Blackpool. And Aubrey-Osborne wondered why the pearls could be so important as to bring the gentleman from so far away. The Scottish Laird who had been looking around at every bid, aggravating Aubrey-Osborne with his constant movement, turned and caught the figure of the foreign man for a brief moment before he seated himself. This did not seem to impress the Scot, who, Sydney recalled, had been the rival bidder in the purchase of the Wickham Library. With rapid deduction Sydney Aubrey-Osborne knew that the Scottish gentleman had no idea here was the foreign gentleman who had wrested the Wickham Library from his grasp.

First came a pause, and then from the gallery a slight stirring arose, as if a pile of leaves had been brushed by a gust of wind, for all assembled realized that the moment had arrived when the pearls were to be auctioned. Sydney Aubrey-Osborne’s assistant emerged from an office, displaying the treasure on a black velvet pad. The crowd audibly gasped. Sydney adjusted his monocle and spoke directly to them.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he began confidently, ‘I now present to you the pearls of the fourth Maharajah of Jaipur, from the estate of the late Lady Goberslieves. The history of this magnificent triple-strand choker has been much misreported of late’—here Aubrey-Osborne glared at the journalists cowering in the back of the gallery, who attempted to look elsewhere, appearing suddenly fascinated with the uppermost corners of the vaulted room—‘and before the bidding begins I will now shed light upon other factual details unbeknownst to you.

‘It has been correctly noted that the strands were delivered to the first Maharani of Jaipur over five score years ago, to be specific: one hundred-four matched South Sea island pearls of incredible perfection. The ten carat pigeon’s blood ruby which you see suspended from the lowest strand’—here the auctioneer made a graceful sweep of his fragile hand in the direction of the object—‘mined in Southern Africa, and whose history is in itself a long and convoluted one involving death, deception, intrigue and magnificent acts of bravery, was added to the choker by the third Maharajah of Jaipur as a romantic gesture of appreciation to his favourite wife when she presented him with a male heir. The pearls were later demanded as a ransom after this very same son was kidnapped by thugees of the bandit Vashtar, and only returned to the Maharani’s family after Vashtar and his renegades were massacred by soldiers of the house of Jaipur in a secret raid by moonlight.’

At this, the crowd could not contain their excited reaction and whispers and surprised exclamations filled the room, for this bloody detail had not been reported in the periodicals. The newsmen, who had heretofore been marking time while making an effort to appear disinterested, began to scribble furiously in their notebooks at the revelation of this sensational fact. ‘We all know of the heroic deeds of Admiral Goberslieves, and it was for such gallant acts that the pearls were surrendered to him in gratitude for putting down a violent insurrection which threatened the Maharajah’s stronghold on power. Inasmuch as Lady Goberslieves left no heir, she specified in her will that the pearls be auctioned, and that half the proceeds be donated to the Orphan Asylum at Leicester. All are aware of her patronage and dedication to worthy and just causes. We humbly present to you this magnificent object and ask you to honour it with your favour. I open now the bidding at £5,000.’

The paddle of the Beatrice Tipton-Snaff instantly levitated, accompanied by her whiny outburst, ‘Five-thousand five!’ and she winked at him lasciviously.

‘Increments of one hundred pounds or more, ladies and gentlemen!’ Sydney cautioned.

He acknowledged with as cursory a bow of the head as could be given, and scanned the seats to the rear rows, where one of the three continental gentlemen, who had thus far remained aloof and obscure, bid in a slightly accented voice, ‘Ten thousand pounds.’ Dutch! Sydney Aubrey-Osborne now had an indication, for his ear was well attuned to the aspirated s, and the accent could be none other than that of the Low Countries.

The auctioneer’s agile brain went quickly to work, for had he not intercepted a rumour concerning a Rotterdam cartel, alleged to have formed as a shell for the fifth Maharajah of Jaipur? What tantalizing and delicious irony, Sydney thought, if the son has dispatched his agents to reacquire the father’s pearls as part of this season’s uncontrolled buying spree. Only the shrewd traders of Rotterdam stood to profit, for their stratospheric commissions were well-known, and few save the house of Jaipur could afford them. If only he could force the bidding higher, it guaranteed the day’s success. But the audience had also sensed something dramatic, for the bidding had surged ahead, leaping such an incredible denomination at such an early turn that it was apparent weaker buyers were meant to be eliminated early. A low rumble of discussion swept through the room at this unexpected development, and attention quickly returned to the podium.

‘Ten thousand pounds, thank you very much!’ Sydney Aubrey-Osborne answered. ‘Do I hear ten-thousand-five?’

Without any instruction or provocation Lord Sohensogh raised his paddle, a bewildering and daring gambit. After such an energetic beginning there was little need of his help today. He must want, Sydney Aubrey-Osborne reasoned, to be associated with bidding on such a prestigious lot. So let him! ‘Ten thousand-five!’ he exclaimed. ‘Ten-thousand-five for the extraordinary pearls of the Maharajah of Jaipiur! Do I hear eleven thousand?’

Here the second continental gentleman raised his paddle from the other corner of the room. ‘Eleven thousand!’ Sydney Aubrey-Osborne breathed. ‘A magnificent bid for a magnificent item! Do we hear twelve?’

With every bid the Scottish gentleman’s head whipped from left to right to left again, turning as if he were at a tennis match. At this moment, the agent for the gentleman from the New World raised his paddle and said, ‘Fifteen thousand.’

Again a spontaneous chatter arose from the crowd. Immediately, one of the three Dutch gentlemen raised his paddle from the back and said ‘Sixteen!’

‘Sixteen, ladies and gentlemen! Remember the orphans at Leicester! Surely your hearts will open for the needy children! Sixteen, do I hear seventeen?’

Sir Robert Marsh, who had followed this by craning his neck again right and left, became so excited that he raised his paddle unconsciously. Sydney Aubrey-Osborne, barely concealing his delight, swooped down on the bid. ‘The gentleman from Scotland for seventeen thousand pounds!’ Marsh, in sudden recognition of what had just transpired, sat on his paddle, then slumped in his seat and grew deathly pale.

 

Continued on next page

 

 

 

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