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The Crimson Garter

Madame Monitchka has provided Grazia Rosetti with a costume in which she could attend the Baron Schluysen-von Holstein ball incognito, an event at which Misha Stefan and the Earl of Pinckney are also present. Here is chapter 13 of The Crimson Garter, by Lucire travel editor Stanley Moss, writing pseudo­nymously as Lovejoy

 

 

Continued from previous page

 

Chapter 13

 

Paris had long been abuzz with rumours about the Baron Schluysen-von Holstein’s ball. It was the only talk in the restaurants, bars and salons, as if all other aspects of life had suddenly ceased. Every seamstress, couturier and costume maker found themselves crowded with orders, and lamps burned throughout the night in the ateliers for weeks preceding the event. The only topic on the streets was the ball, and wild rumours proliferated about Balthazar’s attendance. Every carriage seemed to be engaged, as droves of travellers from distant ports arrived into the city. All the hotels and inns were filled to overflowing.

The afternoon of the ball an endless procession of cabrioles and post chaises snaked along country roads to the north of Paris, to the great highway which led to the ornate entry of the Palais Schluysen-von Holstein. Twenty-two uniformed servants attended the gates, the richest gypsies anyone had ever seen. They wore bandannas of brocaded cloth and fine embroidered damask blousons, cordovan leather boots, and each dangled from his ear lobe an enormous gold hoop in the gypsy style. Beyond the stone gates to the side of the carriageway an ornate Persian runner stretched across the lawn’s expanse to the doors of the palace. The congestion of vehicles was such that many a costumed reveller grumbled over the necessity to walk the length of the runner in order to gain entrance. There was often confusion, and altercations among grooms, who fought for precedence and proximity to the front door.

Inside the gates the gravel road was garlanded with lanterns that twinkled in the dusk bewitchingly. Along the way at tasteful intervals spectacularly decorated wagons had been artfully placed, evidence of the Baron’s stagecraft, the fruits of his discriminating eye. In a slow procession lasting several hours a multitude of carriages delivered their passengers. The palace doors, towering affairs of carved oak emblazoned with magnificent gilded metal ornamentation, shimmered in the romantic lantern light. At both sides of the marble portal massive octoroon doormen waited, even more finely costumed in the gypsy style than those at the front gates. They bowed deferentially, motioning the guests in with the utmost grace. Beyond stood a magnificent staircase, where at every third stair on either side were placed attendants in shiny satin gypsy attire. Occasionally the Baron Schluysen-von Holstein personally received a dignitary at the landing above, an incredible honour—for much sought after was his company. A privileged few enjoyed a beverage with the Baron in a private sitting room. But for those less fortunate it mattered not because in each astounding room there circulated such a sea of opulently bedecked society that all were consumed for hours with lavishness and splendour.

The audacity and panache of the Baron and his immense knowledge of the ballet called The Gypsy’s Daughter was expressed in every detail. Each successive chamber had been decorated to correspond with a scene from the ballet. In each room a different ambience permeated, so that one had the feeling that one was actually living the ballet as one progressed through the cavernous spaces.

In the first grand hall the guests discovered a replica of the town square, with all the attendant sights and sounds of a Bavarian village. Here in the libretto the gypsies came to sell their wares and tell fortunes, and the Prince, in disguise, fell in love with the daughter of the gypsy king, when he saw her dance. The next hall had been transformed into the gypsy camp, and a great orchestra had been assembled to accompany the most fantastical of dances. The room was surrounded by more ornate gypsy wagons, there were strolling minstrels, and curio sellers distributed trinkets to the assembled guests. The orchestra played in a distinctly gitane flavour, with melancholy flourishes and much sentiment. The very atmosphere heightened the wildness of the dancing, and in this chamber many of the invited shed their inhibitions and danced unabashedly.

The next several rooms, representing the castle of the Prince, contained mazes and mazes of tables, laden with the most exquisite delicacies, from roasted swans to suckling pigs, even life-sized whimsical pastry sculptures. One then passed through a portal into the grand vaulted ballroom, where more traditional dancing occurred.

Interspersed throughout, tableaux vivants depicted various scenes from the ballet. In the town square a dancer performed the daughter’s first solo, while an appropriately clad actor looked on, obviously enchanted. In the gypsy camp a group of players roamed about dramatizing the gypsy king among his faithful followers. Within the castle a tableau of thespians acted out the scene in which the Prince conspired with his chancellor. In the next room, where the Baron had commanded a forest of actual trees to be installed indoors, one observed the passion of the gypsy daughter with her gypsy lover. The last room, which led to the wide terrace facing extravagant gardens and fountains, represented the moonlit forest, where the romantic pas de deux between the gypsy’s daughter and her rescuer, the gypsy boy, took place.

Outside, beyond the terrace doors, open fires blazed, upon which simmered immense goulash pots. Servants in gypsy garb stood by the pots, dipping into the bubbling vats with ladles, serving heaping mounds of spicy stew in wooden bowls to the assembled hordes. The cooking pots gave off with such an alluring aroma that most guests foreswore the swans and suckling pigs, pushing forward for helping after helping of the bohemian meal, dunking large chunks of peasant bread into the goulash, eating greedily. The Baron had never anticipated such barbarity among his guests. It was as if the gypsy spirit had possessed some of the noblest lords and ladies of Parisian society, for with unthinkable abandon they huddled around the pots, and in the glow of the fires they took on a wild and prehistoric appearance, an otherworldly quality.

Nearly every woman at the ball wore a gown representing La Fragolina, most in variations of the Gypsy’s Daughter costume, and a few from other roles she had portrayed at the Paris Opéra. There were far more Gypsy’s Daughters than Persephones or Papillions. In the anteroom, fourteen Fragolinas milled about, glaring at each other viciously. In another chamber, twenty-eight Fragolinas wore half-masks and the telltale dark ribbons around the throat, an astounding tribute to Grazia Rosetti. Not a single costume tribute to Tatiana Stregova could be found.

 

‘I cannot believe you are correct, Heloise,’ said a certain gypsy king, who had obviously been costumed by a skilled and therefore extravagantly paid tailor. ‘Are you absolutely certain that is Misha Stefan?’

‘You should not doubt me, Edouard. I spent an hour with him in his gallery, where he attended to me most solicitously. I could not mistake him for any other. Do as I say, go over and speak to him.’

‘And I am telling you a man of Misha Stefan’s character would not attend a masked ball out of costume. This fellow holds a mask by his side, and appears to be possessed by demons from all directions. Look at him: the man has no poise, no social graces. He continues to consult his watch, he looks about him nervously. And now see, here are people arriving to greet him, and he is clearly uneasy at their approach.’

‘Why would Misha Stefan want to obscure his person with a costume when he can accomplish so much business by appearing as himself? Perhaps he is meeting someone, Balthazar even, perhaps he is late. Edouard, it is unthinkable that I approach him alone. Take the lead, walk up to him, introduce yourself, and then present me. He will remember.’

‘He is not the type of man I would have taken to be Misha Stefan,’ the gypsy king muttered in an annoyed way. ‘And if this is the individual you wish me to consult I believe he will not be receptive to my introduction.’

‘Look!’ said Heloise, a fantastic but hopelessly overweight Fragolina in eight shades of frilly pink silk, poking the gypsy king in the ribs with her sharp elbow. ‘That is Madame la Comtesse Pflüger. Remember we met her at the Baron’s hunting lodge last season? Let us get over to them immediately. This is exactly the opportunity we need to accomplish what I desire.’ The gypsy king pursed his lips uncomfortably as if he had eaten a lemon whole, reluctantly offered his arm to his wife, who assumed a confident pose, and off they strode in Misha’s direction.

 

In the entry hall overlooking the stairs which led to the grand ballroom, Misha Stefan occupied a spot next to an immense pillar decorated with a garland of ivy. He engaged in a futile attempt to look inconspicuous, but his sober black outfit stood out like a raven in a thicket of parrots, in stark contrast to the garish array of plumage which churned around him. Unlike the guests who spent their every moment circulating, delighted in comparing their finery or exploring the vast palace, listening to the strains of music, Misha Stefan stood still, lost in his own preoccupations, much concerned. Overcome with nervousness, he held his watch in hand, close to his waistcoat, and shifted his weight from foot to foot in an impatient dance, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone. His greatest hope was to finally be rid of the letter entrusted to him by Laszlo Kozlowski, and to place it in the hands of La Fragolina once and for all. As the hour of rendezvous approached he was seized with incredible trepidation that she might refuse the letter, or confront him with the scandal over the painting, an eventuality which he sincerely hoped she would not raise in a public place like the Baron’s palace. It was not beyond the realm of imagination that her objective might be to heap some equivalent humiliation on him, and he dreaded the prospect of that, despite the fact that he knew in some secret way he deserved it and more, and that he owed her immense retribution. It did not help matters that he had gone against Kozlowski’s wishes, that Kozlowski had not contacted him for some time, that there had been no mention of a return to Paris in any of the Count’s last letters, and he shuddered at the thought of the wrath he might encounter from the other direction if indeed Laszlo Kozlowski made a surprise visit. Count Kozlowski had the capacity for rage, a damned secretive streak, a keen sense of justice, and the resolve to seek it when appropriate.

The letter had been in his possession long enough now, Misha thought, and he dearly wished to be free of it, but he had promised to deliver it only into the hands of La Fragolina, and that in itself presented a problem. There were too many Fragolinas about, and he would need to be absolutely certain that the letter reached the correct one. Another breach of Kozlowski’s trust and he could look forward to a duel, a possibility he did not relish with a marksman of Kozlowski’s reputation. Complicating the process, rumours circulated that Balthazar would attend the ball in costume: it sounded exactly like the kind of game Laszlo Kozlowski would play: lurk near Misha in a disguise, observe his every move, and if Misha failed in his honourable errand then take some rash action to bring justice and resolution to a situation long gone out of control. Misha Stefan felt a lightness and shortness of breath, and a sense that the room was overly warm and stuffy, but he dared not leave his post for fresh air or a beverage. The errand must be completed, after which he would make a speedy exit, and spend the next month in seclusion at an isolated villa on Sardinia, far from the Parisian madness.

With each passing moment Misha Stefan grew more and more nervous, the chimera of Kozlowski’s surprise visit looming over him. All of these thoughts were complicated by the fact that he could not gain any peace from the number of guests approaching him, all wanting to speak about Balthazar, or The Crimson Garter, or attempting to commission canvases of themselves rendered by Balthazar in the manner of the notorious painting. He recovered himself momentarily and discovered that Madame La Comtesse Pflüger had got somewhere midway into an obscene monologue, importuning him to deliver an invitation to Balthazar, insisting that the artist’s disappearance was a clever ploy, and demanding confidential knowledge about which costume concealed his identity. But Misha was unable to focus on such a request.

He went over in his mind the exchange of letters of the recent past, beginning with the visit from Bernadette Charbonneau, former handmaid to La Fragolina at the Paris Opéra. In an astounding development she reported that the ballerina had secretly returned to seek out Balthazar and planned to attend the ball. Misha had admitted only that he had a letter, but that it must be placed in the hands of La Fragolina, and none else. He proposed a system of authentication, an exchange of code words, after which the letter would be delivered. Now he scanned the crowd, waiting for the signal, but his head felt thick with confusion, for which Fragolina was the real Fragolina?

And what of the other dilemma which introduced itself just after his arrival at the ball? Schluysen-von Holstein himself had welcomed Misha to the palace, then invited him to his private salon, where the Baron had suddenly presented to him an incredible fop dressed in a king’s ransom worth of splendid fabric. The man wore a golden scarf detailed with gold threads wrapped around his head, its tails an exaggerated length running halfway down his back, an enormous ruby pin in his cravat, and hanging around his neck an ostentatious gold coin on a chain. His puffed-out pantaloons were a garish shade of shimmering purple, he wore knee-high patent leather riding boots, and a frilled lace shirt dyed a sickening colour of salmon pink. His mask was a speckled green affair, and Misha wondered whether the man had mistaken gypsies for pirates, since the man had added to the costume the odd and improbable detail of a scarlet satin eye patch which peeked out from under the mask. Misha knew the man already: the Earl of Pinckney, an English Lord who had made an earlier visit to the gallery on the Cours de Rohan, occupied too much of Misha’s time, badgered him for information, and when disappointed in his effort, had left in an instant. Now that the Baron reintroduced them, the Earl of Pinckney immediately took Misha aside and named an immense sum of money for The Crimson Garter, promising to match any prior offer which had been made, with an obscenely large bonus, but refusing to divulge the identity of the prospective buyer, and had asked him again most forthrightly for anything new he might tell about the painter Balthazar. It was not clear whom he represented, but it could only be a rival of the Baron. After a demonstration of such arrogance, Misha resolved to withhold everything he knew—which was nothing—and since he could not sell the painting without Kozlowski’s sanction, he rebuffed the Earl of Pinckney, which actually gave him much satisfaction after such an audacious interview.

Now la Comtesse Pflüger was staring at Misha, gasping for breath after her protracted monologue, while his only wish was to be rid of her, since the hour was at hand when La Fragolina was to appear, and he would need to discreetly pass the letter unobserved. Three other individuals insinuated themselves in front of him, all talking at the same time, the identical questions which uncountable others had asked him since he arrived. He looked into the sea of bobbing heads on the dance floor and saw the preposterous gold scarf worn as headgear by the Earl of Pinckney, vaulting up and down to the music. Misha Stefan was seized with inspiration.

‘The gold scarf,’ he whispered theatrically, pointing to the middle of the dance floor. ‘That is the costume worn by the artist Balthazar, who is here tonight and wishes to remain anonymous. He is a man of incredible perspicacity, and if you speak to him he will feign ignorance.’ The four aristocrats facing Misha stared at him, astounded. ‘But I beg you,’ he added conspiratorially, ‘Do not inform him that anyone revealed to you his true identity, for he is much preoccupied at not being recognized.’ All four heads nodded knowingly, and set off as a group to corner the hapless Earl of Pinckney at the end of the dance.

Once the four disappeared into the throng Misha Stefan was confronted by his next calamity. Two large-beaked masks, a gypsy king and a fat Fragolina, headed in his direction with the wilful determination of interrogators. The woman’s abundant figure struck a chord of recognition, the memory of a matron who occupied him at his gallery for a tedious hour, pumping him for information about Balthazar. The orotund man accompanying her, whose arm she held in a proprietary grasp, had the stiff-legged walk of a reluctant conspirator. A blast of the woman’s cologne preceded them, and Misha Stefan could not help but wonder at the price of her blinding pink ensemble, a flagrant waste of good cloth. He steeled himself for the next episode of rebuffing, futilely surveying Fragolinas in procession on all sides.

 

‘What did the English lord say to you after that?’

‘Really, Monsieur du Lacnoir, how very tiresome these questions grow. And why always we meet in dark and drafty corner? Cannot we go inside? Is much more comfortable in warmth of beautiful ballroom, da?’

‘I find the cool night air bracing,’ the man in the monk costume said. ‘And perhaps a shade romantic.’

‘Ha!’ she laughed disdainfully. ‘You have no romantic intentions. You only wish to know what English lord has asked Tatiana.’

‘I give you one more minute of my time,’ the monk said. ‘Then you will be on your own, and no doubt poorer for it.’

‘So cruel, Monsieur du Lacnoir,’ Tatiana Stregova sniffed. ‘But I tell you everything. He offer me money for information about painting of Crimson Garter and painter Balthazar. He say he will pay any amount for painting, is very curious, no?’ She glanced furtively through the doors, shivering in the night air. ‘He works for very powerful man from far away, but man can come to Paris in seven days if information is good.’

Captain Blackpool adjusted the hood of his monk costume, then escorted her into the ballroom. She nodded coquettishly at an admirer she had noticed, gave off with a flirtatious wave, but when she turned back the monk was nowhere to be found, for he had melted anonymously into the crowd once again.

Simultaneous with Blackpool’s exit the orchestra concluded their minuet, received a round of polite applause, retired their instruments, and filed away, the timbre of conversation rising in the room in place of the music. From ornate doorways to the sides of the stage a second orchestra took their place, this one consisting of numerous gypsy violinists and accordion players, attired in rougher, more colourful, far more seasoned garb. In a matter of seconds they had struck up an air, with a particularly emotive soloist at their centre swinging his long hair as he played his violin, commanding the attention of all who surrounded him. Soon the entire room stood enraptured while the orchestra accompanied him, melancholy chords rising in intensity, until they erupted into a wild tarantella. A band of gypsy dancers rushed to the centre of the room and began to perform a series of lively steps, the music suddenly faster and louder and more animated. But as the dancers grew ever more expansive in their movement, the centre of the floor widened. Delighted onlookers moved backwards to give the gypsies room, and a frenzy of colour and gesture filled the space along with the frantic melody.

A delicate female figure stood anxiously at the front of the crowd, observing with the utmost interest. Hers was a faded costume clearly from the theatre, obviously well-made, beautiful in proportion and line, but typical of a production perhaps fifteen years earlier at the Opéra. She had on a black half-mask and a telltale black satin ribbon around her neck, and there was something genuine about the condition of the ballet slippers she wore. Her muscles began to twitch involuntarily to the music, her right foot started to subtly tap the floor, and she felt her whole body pulsating and yearning to join the wild abandon of those so clearly consumed with the emotion of the dance. I am masked, she thought, and I will not be recognized, and it has been so long. And what if this is the only chance I shall ever have again? Blinded by her passion she stepped into the pattern of dancers, joining the gypsy troupe.

At first those around her were startled, but quickly it became evident she was brilliant at the tarantella, and so they made a place for her, and soon she lost herself in the blur of passing figures and the spinning of the room. Her feet flew with a speed and lightness and delicacy which only a true dancer could master, and the troupe embraced her in a circle, dancing with her, passing her from partner to partner, throwing her into the air where her legs and feet twirled, and the crowd began to clap rhythmically. ‘Hooray for the Baron Schluysen-von Holstein!’ someone cried out from the throng, the call was taken up by many others, the orchestra played on, and the dancers flew through the air.

The monk watched this all from the sidelines, ever impassive. He had no illusions of how helpful Tatiana Stregova had been, and returning his attention to the catapulting figures in the centre of the circle he found a measure of real satisfaction when he realized Grazia had joined the gypsies and was performing the steps with a passion surely stifled for years. Beyond the dancers, at the far side of the ballroom, a flash of gold caught his attention, the bobbing turban worn by the Earl of Pinckney, who was being followed energetically by a shuffling gaggle of Fragolinas and their escorts, all engaged in an effort to gain his attention. They moved behind him in a pack, like a swarm of bees, some with handkerchiefs upraised, others making agile waves with their fingers, fluttering fans, wearing the most blatantly ingratiating expressions on their faces, some even calling out loudly enough to be heard over the music, ‘I am a friend of Balthazar’s! I am a close friend of Balthazar’s.’ Pinckney, clearly harried by all this, tried to escape the hounds by elbowing to the centre of the room, where he caught sight of Grazia’s spirited display and inserted himself into the company of dancers, mimicking their steps in a most ungainly way. When he came close to Grazia he stepped around her partner, took her by the waist and threw her into the air. From the sidelines the monk knew better than to panic; something about the way the dancers moved reassured him, and he was gratified when a man adjacent automatically caught La Fragolina, and set her perfectly on the floor, where she completed a joyous turn, again facing the Earl of Pinckney.

 

Continued on next page

 

 

 

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