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The Crimson Garter

Grazia has resolved to return to Paris, and her brother Vittorio is desperate to follow her across the English Channel. Capt Harry Blackpool has continued to keep close tabs on Grazia as she arrives in Paris, in the most packed chapter to date in our serialization of The Crimson Garter, by Lucire travel editor Stanley Moss, writing pseudo­nymously as Lovejoy

 

 

Continued from previous page

 

Chapter 12

 

Before they embarked, Captain Blackpool visited an old warehouse he owned, on the waterfront near the London docks. From the outside it appeared just another rotting structure, but inside Blackpool had devoted time and resources to making it a comfortable and efficient space from which he could operate his business. Over the years he had relied on trusted tradesmen to construct the place, bringing them in from distant lands, swearing them to secrecy, and then sending them home after their tasks were complete. It was a refuge for him, somewhere he could go and be alone, safe behind impenetrable walls. There he would prepare, or rest, exercise, change costume, or carry out private interrogations in ancient catacombs he had discovered below the foundation. Few people knew of the place, and fewer had ever visited it. To reach his entrance he needed to navigate a labyrinth of alleyways.

He lived on the top floor, where a vast and vaulted apartment had been created, filled with souvenirs and furniture collected during his travels. The two floors below were consumed by his business. There was an area done up as his study, attached to a long hall filled with files, books and artefacts from earlier cases, arranged and meticulously labelled on endless lengths of ceiling-high shelves. There was a complete gymnasium, a vast hall of weaponry, and an entire costume space filled with all manner of uniforms, ethnic garb, hand-made boots with hollow heels and secret compartments, wigs, false beards and moustaches, bins of costume jewellery, drawers of military medals and shelves of strange make-up. There was a chemical laboratory, and brick-lined room filled with munitions. There was a vault filled with treasure and stacks of currencies, Spanish doubloons, gold and silver ingots and chests of pearls. Half of the ground floor consisted of a storage hall, where crates of exotic merchandise were kept, strange mechanical constructions he had acquired, objects never meant to see the light of day, infernal devices he had stolen away from mad geniuses. The other half of the main floor was filled with conveyances of all sizes and kinds, from dog carts to two-man chaises, wagons, rowboats, pushcarts, a small bathyscaph, a hot air balloon crated and ready for dispatch, and a full-sized black stagecoach which he had used in an affair many years earlier when a dark assassin had threatened the Queen. All the conveyances contained secret compartments and clever armaments which Blackpool could use as needed. A wide door opened onto the river, and from it he would sometimes launch his favourite boat, a specially constructed cutter with a hidden canon in the bow. Below ground there were interrogation rooms, a direct passage to the London sewers, an ancient Roman drainage tunnel which led to the Thames, and a hidden well where five hundred feet of line could be extended and still not touch bottom. Two massive wood doors led to a concealed alley behind, and it was these doors which Captain Blackpool opened only infrequently to deposit cargo, or escape in one of his odd vehicles.

It was there he now abandoned his shiny military boots and black cape, effected a quick change of costume, but retained the same complement of weaponry he always carried: kukri knife at the small of his back, the blue steel boot blade secure at his ankle, other devices expertly sewn into his garments. Blackpool checked his appearance one more time: rough wool pantaloons, ancient coat buttoned tightly, false beard secure, his posture slumped, clay pipe stem clamped between his teeth in the manner of an old tar. Then he headed for Grazia’s boat.

 

Harry Blackpool had easily recognized the awesome condition of the weather long before the ship left Dover. Unlike Grazia, he kept a post on deck for the entire crossing, stationed outside her cabin, his eyes fixed on the faraway horizon, ever vigilant, pondering the wisdom of such an assignment. He knew he possessed the power to distract Grazia, to prevent her from leaving London, yet he had not. He understood the risk such a storm presented, and he knew that no amount of Vittorio Rosetti’s money could eradicate it. But in his many years as an agent he had learned to trust his intuition, and he sensed that they would make the French shore before the worst of the weather struck. He knew that he could not interfere with La Fragolina’s flight, for the mystery had not yet solved itself, her involvement with the enigmatic artist, the sum of her impulsive action, her destination, all a part of the great swirling cosmos, propelled by invisible karma. The question remained, and he found it ever-compelling: where would the twisted path ultimately lead?

Captain Blackpool had crossed the channel enough times to know that a front like this would have blown the ship completely off course. Or, had its full force hit, the tiny craft might never have seen port, instead broken into pieces on a lonely, rocky shore. He wondered what had happened to Vittorio Rosetti, who never appeared at the docks as arranged. Perhaps he had been detained by weather, perhaps he had been lost at sea. Perhaps he would be waiting on the docks at Calais. Only Lord Buddha knew the answer. They made Calais with a minimum of choppiness, and somehow found their way to the Poste d’Or, a legendary and disreputable institution. But Vittorio was not to be seen.

It did not surprise the innkeeper of the Poste d’Or when a dishevelled, weary group of travellers shuffled in at four in the morning. This daily occurrence was as predictable as the rising of the sun, and it indicated both that ships from Dover continued to arrive—thus no blockades had been encountered; and that the dear Lord had provided a fresh array of vagabonds for fleecing by the local merchants and petty criminals. The soggy collection trudged through the tavern and crowded around the roaring fireplace. They seemed more vulnerable than most: drenched to the bone from tonight’s inclement weather, and they had clearly not slept. It promised easy pickings and marvellous opportunities for exploitation.

Captain Blackpool affected an ambling, limping walk from the carriage into the inn, then took a position in the shadows at the side of the fireplace. He easily read the avaricious face of the innkeeper, who assessed the guests for the easiest prospects. Humans were all the same, whether in Calais or Kathmandu.

Grazia never noticed the man with the limp and the white ceramic pipe, who trailed behind her in an unassuming way, for she was too preoccupied with her own thoughts. When she finally reached her tiny room she removed her wet cloak and shoes, wrapped herself in a ratty blanket the inn provided, and reflected with a kind of wonder on the incredible rashness of her actions. She took a position by the window, seating herself in a rickety chair, staring out at the rain, which continued to fall steadily and heavily, thick sheets of the deluge sweeping down the deserted cobblestone street. She turned over and over in her mind the events of her recent past. As the storm broke over Calais, no traveller dared budge.

Grazia marvelled at where she had landed, French soil once again. How easy the transit had been, how little effort it had taken to flee her husband. But uncertainty plagued her, and she dismissed the inklings of fear she felt with the notion that at least adventure would soon present itself. She recognized that in a perverse way she wanted him to pursue her, at the same time knowing in her heart she much preferred to elude him, to take some private revenge for all that he had denied her. In any event, she knew she must remain as anonymous as possible while en route in case he had dispatched some detective or reported her flight to the authorities or was blundering after her himself. The sooner she could get to Paris and Bernadette, the sooner she could arrange her lodging, craft a strategy to reestablish herself. Until she clearly discerned the consequences of her rash action she would need to live quietly, and wait for signs that Robert Marsh had allowed her to go free. She would have liked to stay longer at the fireplace, close to its warmth. But her body was aching and in need of sleep, and she dared not engage anyone else, for fear that her fugitive status might be revealed.

She had taken every pain to remain innocuous, and for once the advice of Dorothea Marsh seemed appropriate: keep the eyes downcast, stay wrapped in dark cloak, hold tightly to her valise, avoid conversation. She had come through the Channel crossing without a clue as to the incredible risk taken, not so much in flight from her husband, but at the mercy of the weather. For now the wind howled angrily outside the inn, and less fortunate travellers, lost somewhere in the water between England and France, crowded together in damp holds, whimpering prayers for their own salvation, which was dubious.

The previous afternoon before her surly coachman had taken her to the docks she had only a vague idea of what was about to transpire. She had then believed she might still have the opportunity to talk to Robert, to make peace with him, and show him reason. Instead, a ship was bound for Calais in only a few hours, and it left her little time to reconcile.

She had flown back to the Cringley Arms despite the grumblings of the driver, and there she assembled her few things, waiting until the last minute to write Robert a note of explanation. She dearly hoped he would return early, but knowing his adherence to schedules she was barely surprised when she found the room cold and empty and much as she had left it earlier. After her sumptuous meal at the Dorset, the broken crockery and the dinginess of the room strengthened her resolve that she must leave him. As she took up her pen she discovered an unexpected peace and determination in her heart.

 

Dear Robert,

I am so very sorry. I cannot continue in this life any longer. I beg you: do not come after me or try and find me, but leave me to my fate. Trust me, it will be better like this. You were never happy with me, and I could never be happy with you. I am grateful for all you have done.

I purchased your mother’s medicine as you instructed and you will find it in the second drawer among your clean handkerchiefs.

Grazia Rosetti         

 

She had signed the letter with her own family name, not Grace Marsh, as he insisted upon calling her. In that small act of independence she seized back more than her patrimony. With great speed she took up her bag, and strode out of the Cringley Arms, startling Simon, who had been dozing on a chair by the door. He unfolded his long limbs and tried to assist her, but she was far too quick for him and managed to rush past, locating her coach without hesitation.

 

While the wind howled and rattled the windows of the dingy hotel in Calais, Grazia reconsidered how she had undone the journey from Paris to Scotland, how she had taken her life back into her own hands, and for that she was truly gratified. She did not know what fate would deliver, but at least she now felt some measure of control, and a glimmer of hope had returned.

It seemed that each channel crossing augured a major change in her life. The first time she accompanied Sir Robert Marsh as his reluctant bride. The second time she had resolved to return to Paris to finish her career, striking the five-year bargain which then seemed like an eternity ago. And the third and most recent was when Robert had collected her at the stage door of the Paris Opéra and she despaired that she would never see Paris again.

With her thoughts focused back on Paris, Grazia again reconsidered her brother and his suicide; there was something wrong with the picture of Vittorio throwing himself off a bridge in desperation. It did not reconcile with her perception of him, eternally optimistic, arrogant, wilful, headstrong. She never truly accepted the idea of his giving up his life when the only trouble was money. He could have relied on friends in Rome or Genève or Bruges. Still, Grazia knew it was time to put her disbelief to rest. Vittorio was gone, and he had not made a good end of it. He had delivered Grazia into the hands of a man not suited to her. She had once been angry, but now it was time to let this anger go. She had endured such feelings of hopelessness and desperation in Scotland that she feared that she might die, yet never once did she consider ending her own life. From this she drew a measure of sympathy for the dimension of what poor Vittorio had felt. Perhaps his pride has been so wounded by the failure of the business that he regarded death as the only option he had to reconcile his defeat. He had been very young and very much alone. Grazia continued to muse, with the rattles and knocking noises and the wind’s aggressive whine as a background.

In the room adjacent to Grazia, Captain Harry Blackpool sat utterly motionless by the door, attentive to the tapestry of sound as well, ears attuned to every fugitive noise. Moments earlier Blackpool sensed an unusual creaking of the floor, which he knew to be human footfalls. It clearly evidenced approach by an unwelcome intruder. In his training with the Gurkha, Blackpool had learned the name of this sound, and although there was a degree of ineptitude and amateurish rhythm to the action he heard, he knew what it represented. Gently sliding the kukri knife from its sheath at the small of his back, Captain Blackpool soundlessly inserted the sinister blade between the door and doorjamb, just enough to observe the stealthy figure of a professional thief, who had on many occasions prowled these very hallways. Every few evenings, whenever it was convenient to him, the thief sneaked methodically from room to room in search of valuables to purloin. The thief was a man without scruples, and he wore his own knife in his belt and carried a sturdy cloth sack in one hand. On many an occasion he resorted to wanton violence to subdue his victims, and sometimes guiltlessly employed murder when obstinate parties offered too much resistance.

The burglar worked his way down the hall, Harry Blackpool waited. He discarded all thoughts of body from his mind, as he had been instructed, and he recited an ancient prayer a holy man had taught him years earlier in the Urdu language, one which asked for good karma for those who might be his victims. The thief had no thoughts of infinite compassion like these: he was simply disappointed by the meagre pickings found in the rooms visited, some mediocre silk, a broken watch, lockets of dubious value. As he was about to try the door of the room which he knew to contain the drab young woman in grey—for the innkeeper was a reliable source, and had warned him the woman’s tattered bag would be barely worth his time—he felt a powerful forearm close around his windpipe, his left wrist gripped by an iron hand from behind him, he dropped his cloth bag, and as he reached his free hand for the vice-like arm which crushed him around the neck, he felt a dizziness as his breathing was constrained, and he drifted into unconsciousness as Captain Harry Blackpool twisted his head to an extreme angle, breaking the man’s neck expertly and with barely an audible snap. The burglar slumped noiselessly into Blackpool’s arms, and Blackpool silently lifted what was once the man into an empty hotel room and stuffed the body artfully into a closet. He quietly chanted a prayer for the soul of his victim, and moments later returned to his post on the chair by the room door, listening intently for any other odd movement near Grazia’s chambers.

 

Grazia continued in her ruminations about Paris. Closest to her heart was the hope of seeing Balthazar, but she told herself firmly that he should not be the object of her flight. In fact, what she wanted most of all was to return to the Paris Opéra and resume her career on the stage, and to that end she would eventually need to get to Madame Monitchka. The night of Baron Schluysen-von Holstein’s ball was imminent and it was her intention to attend it and see if she could locate the elusive painter. She did not know what compelled her to think of him, except that he had delivered to her an extraordinary sensation, such as she had never felt before, and the memory of him secretly sustained her. She knew her heart had taken wing, she felt a lightness and warmth she never imagined. These were, she admitted, weak reasons to expect to see Balthazar again. She did not doubt his sincerity—or she would not have given him the crimson garter as a talisman, but she knew that it was best for her not to hold too much hope in that direction, and so she resolved that her foray to the ball was meant to reengage her in Parisian life, to again immerse herself in the teeming artistic community. To that end she would first seek out Bernadette, then Monitchka. Bernadette would surely possess any information about the whereabouts and doings of Balthazar. She was now connected to the house of the Baron Schluysen-von Holstein, who it was said had already commissioned a painting of his daughter from the artist. Paris being the largest small town in the world, Grazia knew that in only one place could she acquire the information she sought. The masked ball would furnish all she needed to reestablish herself. Shortly before dawn the encroaching front began to show signs of its fury. Finally Grazia slept.

 

A man too well-dressed for the docks strode possessively up the gangway onto the deck of the sailing ship Admirable and demanded to see Captain Wright instantly. The ship was an impressive schooner, fast and fleet, known for its swift and skilful crossings of the Channel. Wright, though recognized among his fellow sailors as the canniest of them, was the victim of incessant wordplay on his name both to his face and not. This was despite his reputation as the greatest Channel pilot, the ablest seaman on the Thames. Vittorio encountered some difficulty in first identifying the captain, for there was a great commotion about him. The entire crew could be seen lashing down the sails and making fast in preparation for the imminent storm. As a sailor heaved past carrying a large coil of rope, Vittorio grabbed the man and insisted ‘I am looking for Captain Wright.’ The sailor gestured with his thumb, pointing at the bridge, where a tall figure with long, greying blond hair, a burly chest and bright blue eyes kept track of every man aboard his ship, making certain that all the tasks were just so.

‘You are Captain Wright?’ Vittorio insisted once he had climbed to the bridge. This was the sacred territory reserved for the Captain, and on which no ordinary sailor could intrude without first asking permission. The captain gave no reply; he assumed this lubber had barely an idea of the difference between a boom and a mast, let alone the inviolable protocols of a ship. He ignored the man, who seemed far too assured of his right to be standing on the bridge, let alone so close to the captain. Finally, when he was satisfied that the seamen above him had correctly done their tasks he turned to Vittorio without betraying any opinion at all.

‘I reckon you are the gent who has been circulating the docks for the past few hours looking for a craft to take him to Calais, am I correct?’

‘You are Captain Wright?’ Vittorio went on arrogantly, having not received the reply he sought, and determined to establish whether he had indeed located the man in charge.

‘I am Wright, and I am willing to bet the contents of my sea trunk that you have found nobody to take you on such a foolhardy errand.’

‘What is the meaning of this conspiracy,’ Vittorio demanded,’ That no person on any ship at these docks, no captain, no sailor, no agent will agree for any price to take me across the Channel?’

‘No conspiracy I know of, save the weather,’ Wright answered. ‘It conspires against all of us equally. I never met a sane man willing to accept money to guarantee his own death. Though I suppose it might prove interesting for a man to know the exact moment of his own passing. This would certainly be one way to assure it.’ Vittorio grew impatient with the sudden philosophical musing, made a motion with his hand as if to sweep away an irritating fly.

‘Where is the weather you speak of? It looks peaceful enough to me.’

‘Let me explain this to you in the simplest terms I can,’ the captain said slowly. ‘Beyond the horizon sits a front, and you can see it by the colour of deep purple at the top of the clouds there. I also know from the behaviour of a barometric device that in a matter of hours the Channel will be churning, and all who are travelling upon it are sure to perish.’

The captain’s matter-of-fact tone startled Vittorio. ‘But I must be in Calais tomorrow,’ he sighed with a palpable desperation. ‘You are my last option.’

Captain Wright noted the man’s transformation. At first he had appeared to be some selfish and wealthy lord, on an absurd mission, perhaps smuggling gems, or involved in a dark deed, espionage. Captain Wright had seen many such cases in his chequered career, and accommodated them when opportunity cried out, always for a price. But the man’s demeanour suggested a matter more of the heart than of the purse. It cast the interaction in a sympathetic light, and caused the captain to offer his refusal in the form of an apology. ‘I truly regret I cannot assist you, sir,’ he said. ‘For you would never reach your destination, and what good would that do either of us, or the person who is waiting for you on the other side?’

‘How long will this storm last?’

‘A day,’ the captain speculated. ‘More. Surely it is not so urgent a matter that you would trade death for delay.’

‘If the cost of passage is not the issue, were I the owner of the vessel could your mind be changed?’

‘If that was the case, and I were your captain, I would refuse to sail. In fact, I would never put myself or my men at a risk so obvious as this, sir.’

‘I find it impossible that no craft on the Thames, including this one, is for sale,’ Vittorio muttered. ‘Is that what I am to assume?’

‘Under the conditions you state, only a madman would sail his craft. Only a fool would enter into a bargain like that.’

‘Then you must make me a counter-offer,’ Vittorio said resolutely.

‘Let us adjourn to my cabin, where I will open a bottle of fine madeira, which I have been saving for just such a day. I propose we sit and drink it, and perhaps by the end of our conversation we will arrive at acceptable terms.’ As this was the only counter-offer Vittorio had received since arriving at the docks hours before, the thought of a glass of good madeira in a warm cabin seemed immensely appealing. He accepted the invitation and proceeded below deck to what turned out to be an extremely well appointed cabin. Vittiorio was further astounded when the captain served up the madeira in fine crystal glasses, and he realized that the man who had first appeared rough and unsophisticated actually appreciated fine objects. Before him sat a sailor who had travelled the world, and understood the rudiments of comfort.

The wine did its work on Vittorio, calming him. He learned that Captain Wright had sailed the channel for over forty years, seen every kind of weather, and every kind of passenger and his knowledge was extensive about the conditions of currents, shoals, reefs, tides, and the depths and suitability of harbours. He learned that the captain had a small farmhouse on the coast, located on the top of a broad promontory, where he could observe the comings and goings of ships and hoped to live out the rest of his days in relative comfort. He intended to retire in the company of his wife, surrounded by children and grandchildren.

Eventually they came upon the price for the purchase of the vessel. To Vittorio this seemed such a paltry sum that he looked at the captain and asked, ‘If I double the amount of money, will you sail tonight?’

‘You are the devil himself,’ Captain Wright answered. ‘But no, I will not sail, for that price or any other price—even if you treble your offer. I am not a greedy man. I am a man who likes his life well enough, and the price you will give me for the ship is sufficient. I intend to see my granddaughter married, thankee. As soon as the weather breaks I will be happy to take you across to Calais. For a fifteen per cent bonus I will guarantee you that Admirable will be the first vessel out of the Thames and into the channel. For another fifteen per cent we will be the first who sails into Calais harbour, trust me on that. Here, your glass is empty again! Let me refill it, since you have ample time to drink another, to return to your home, put your affairs in order, draw your bank drafts and be back here at the docks by tomorrow noon. If the weather is then clear, I am eager to show you how well your ship sails. You have my word that as soon as the sky permits we will set forth and you will be the first to arrive at the other side. And now I give you the King.’ And he raised his glass.

Defeated, Vittorio rode back, but he was not soothed by the thick carpets or roaring fires, or the elegant hush of his own mansion. Seated at his desk, the hour nearing midnight, it occurred to him that Grazia and Blackpool were perhaps caught in the storm, and may not have survived. The letter he received from Blackpool, upon his return home, gave details of their departure for Calais at noon, and should Vittorio need to reach him, he was to address any inquiries care of an operative stationed in Paris, or rendezvous with Captain Blackpool after the ball of the Baron Schluysen-von Holstein, when more definitive information would be known. Vittorio had replied he would follow in his own craft. When the clock struck midnight in the elegant mansion Vittorio Rosetti was still occupied with thoughts of his sister, and he slept little in the hours that followed.

 

At the very same moment Sir Robert Marsh could be found in the Liverpool coach careening northward on a dark stretch of highway. Hunched in a corner of the carriage, he was rushing back to Scotland from yet another distant place upon the summons of his mother. He hoped it one more false emergency, for in spite of his mother’s poor health she had lived to what was considered a robust old age. Her spirit was indomitable, and he admired her for that. He wished, not for the first time, that he could be in two places at once, for while his mother’s summons had come at a most inconvenient moment, and while he was obliged to return to her side, he remained plagued by his concerns over Grace and her safety. The carriage tipped from side to side on the rough road, and Robert Marsh went from anger at her rash action—which he attributed to her Mediterranean blood—to fear for her well-being. If only he could rush to her rescue. Had she been abducted against her will, he asked himself, pressured into writing such a letter as she did? There had been no clue of such utter discontent, disillusion on her part, and he wondered in what ways had he indicated any unhappiness with her? Did not the philosophers themselves view existence as tragic, puzzling, harsh, difficult? Or, he speculated half-heartedly, the mysterious artist who had painted Grace’s portrait and was a scoundrel, could have come upon her in London and lured her away yet again to his lair of impropriety. Marsh resolved to conceal Grace’s disappearance from his mother, no matter what the reality. He struggled for a moment against shielding Grace from the wrath of Lady Dorothea, for what if she had willingly abandoned him to return to her bohemian life? Marsh knew that if his mother’s health was indeed imperilled, this particular worry would only add to her strain, and so he resolved to keep from her the fact that Grace had not accompanied him home. He constructed a number of different explanations for why she could not be summoned to his mother’s chambers, that Grace was gravely ill, that Grace was returning to Marshmoor at a more leisurely pace to protect her health, that Grace would be available after she had recovered from the rigors of her own voyage. Intending to uphold one of these fabrications, Sir Robert Marsh boarded a ship at Liverpool, bound for Glasgow.

 

Continued on next page

 

 

 

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