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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 13

 

Continued from previous page

 

An unseen force had observed this conduct, though, and through a series of subtle signals, from his voyeuristic two-way mirror above the ballroom, overlooking the dance floor, the Baron Schluysen-von Holstein communicated to his concert mæstro that the gypsies should stop their playing. This event occurred within moments, the tarantella faded and the gypsy orchestra and dancers were hustled away, replaced magically by the chamber orchestra which struck up the introduction to a subdued but well known musical work. An air of composure came over Pinckney, who immediately took Grazia into the appropriate position, executed a perfect bow, and they commenced a stately minuet.

‘Of the twenty-seven Fragolinas I have—to wit—danced with this evening, your costume is by far the most authentic I have seen. Modest, but authentic, do let me compliment you on it.’ He bowed again, turned her slowly round, offered his hands in the correct attitude, and began a short promenade with her. It surprised Grazia no end when she first found herself accosted by the Earl of Pinckney in the midst of the dance, and she recollected how miserable he had made Robert, first on the Channel crossing, later at Marshmoor. But her real fear was that he had recognized her, and so she kept her face averted, and her eyes downcast, and tried to disguise her accent as she thanked him.

‘However, my dear, I must counsel you that you need more experience in the mimicry of foreign accents, for yours is definitely not a gypsy one. Believe me when I say I have spoken to many other Fragolinas tonight, and I am afraid yours sounds patently false, while a noble effort with good effect. But I am certain this is our first opportunity to converse. And even though I do not wish to reveal my identity—for I am travelling incognito’—here Pinckney nodded beyond her, making a vague bow to an acquaintance—‘my respects, ma chère—if tonight you can bring me any information about the painter Balthazar or the painting known as The Crimson Garter …’

‘The painting!’ Grazia blurted out.

The Earl of Pinckney sent her out to arm’s length, accepted her curtsey, brought her back in to him and continued in a blithe way. ‘The painting. The painting that all Paris has seen and talked about!’

Though she moved easily through the steps of the minuet, Grazia’s mind raced with the possibilities of what she had just heard. If there was such a painting in existence, and if such an incredible gadfly as this could offer such a remark, then surely it was public knowledge. She intended to get to the bottom of it, and she resolved to extract as much information from him as possible. Armed with whatever she then found out, she would utilize the moment at three minutes past midnight, when she had agreed to meet Misha Stefan, to demand an explanation. Once he repeated the correct exchange of code words, then passed her the letter, she would find out the truth about the curious painting the Earl had mentioned. And she would demand to know the location of the elusive artist Balthazar. Whatever the letter contained would now interest her even more. She sensed an air of scandal, and she knew somehow she was connected to it, and within herself she felt a growing rage that her identity was being used against her knowledge to titillate the public, and she meant to defend herself against it. At the edge of the dance floor a crowd of dilettantes clustered, watching the Earl’s duet with the drab little woman in the faded costume. There was a great deal of derision for her, while some vociferously defended the cleverness shown by his choice of such a grey mouse for a partner. Many tried, unsuccessfully, to gain his attention.

‘Have you seen the painting?’ La Fragolina asked sweetly, heading away in the opposite direction, walking her small circle and returning to Pinckney’s side.

‘Of course I have! Perhaps twenty times in Paris on my last voyage, before I left for the wilds of northern England, where I am helping a particular friend with a most compelling conundrum.’

‘Twenty times,’ she exclaimed. ‘You must tell me about it.’

‘A description of such a painting might offend sensitive ears,’ the Earl of Pinckney coughed. ‘But I can tell you that it is not often one sees such a fetching and alluring undraped human figure, in a position of such repose.’ Grazia eyed him suspiciously. ‘Were I the artist I should not have put the Persian carpet underneath her, finding the pattern of fabric on the divan a more suitable background for such rich expanses of bare human flesh. I consider myself a connoisseur of the classical form, and I believe the artist has accurately rendered it in a most flattering light. Even the way the stroke of The Crimson Garter on her thigh repeats the colour of the strawberries in the Delft bowl at her elbow was a dash of brilliance, so symbolic and redolent with meaning, The Crimson Garter, the supple thigh …’

‘How many people do you think saw this painting?’ she ventured, making a small turn with him, both their hands upraised, politely touching fingertips.

‘The painting itself was only exclusively viewed by a privileged few like me,’ he went on amiably. ‘But once the lines became too long outside the gallery and people were led by in groups, one no had longer an opportunity to study it in silence and privacy. The multitudes of foreign visitors who came to Paris expressly to see The Crimson Garter were the worst. That was when Misha Stefan shut down the gallery and closed his doors. But of course everyone has seen the etchings.’

‘The etchings,’ Grazia seethed.

‘Why, I only speak of the highest quality of the popular reproductions of the painting which appeared. A number of different views can be found on the stands down by the Seine, available for a few coppers each. I think you will find, though, there has been an incredible demand for the postal cards and they will take more industrious searching.’

So, thought, Grazia, there had been a scandalous painting displayed for all Paris to see, and the token of her love had been splashed across its centre and made sport of by the rumourmongers and profit-takers. This explained the enigmatic remark of Monitchka, and the soul-searching expression she had seen in Bernadette. She had been shamed, and if Balthazar was responsible, he would pay for such a grand humiliation.

‘While many criticized it as a poor likeness, I, who had seen her perform numerous times, understood it to be an accurate and fair depiction of her human form. I have even met her once in a social context. And while I am in possession of confidential information about her disappearance I am not at liberty to divulge it, and for that I beg your humble pardon.’

Such contradictory emotions Grazia felt, as the Englishman’s monologue continued during the minuet. First indignation, then disbelief, then perhaps a touch of flattery that Balthazar had painted such a likeness of her without her knowledge or participation, then sympathy for the artist if he had been exploited by his Parisian friends. And hope returned to Grazia’s heart when she realized the letter she was soon to receive, perhaps written in Balthazar’s own hand, could well offer clarity for the succession of calamities which she heard recited. As the minuet came to a close, Pinckney bowed ridiculously over her hand, and Grazia gave a reverence.

While the reverence went unnoticed by everyone else in the room, Tatiana Stregova recognized it immediately. She had stood haughtily at the edge of the crowd for some time now, obsessed with only one dancer, the shabbily clad woman who had leaped into the gypsy troupe, then had effortlessly moved into the minuet, partnering with the English Lord. Tatiana looked down her long Russian nose with disdain at the muted costume, and told herself how out of shape Grazia Rosetti appeared, and how heavy she had become. Never could anyone display such a show of technique with less bravura, she scoffed to herself. In Russia one had to present a flashy assemblage of choreography with heroic gestures, for how else was the audience to know that you were doing something important? La Fragolina did not espouse such views, and Tatiana mocked her for her modesty, which she took to be false. Just the same, Grazia Rosetti had resurfaced in Paris but apparently not recognized by anyone else except Tatiana, and two men had already offered money for information about the painting and the artist, so surely something was afoot. Now that Tatiana had found her, she determined to stay with her for the entire evening. With La Fragolina back in Paris, her own career was imperilled. It could easily present an opportunity to glean some important facts about Balthazar to sell to the English Lord or even Monsieur du Lacnoir, for whom she did not care, but whose gold coins she would surely not refuse. She further resolved to hold the knowledge of Grazia’s return to herself until it could be used to her advantage.

The end of the minuet provided Grazia with the hope of an excuse to escape the clutches of the Earl of Pinckney. She noted on an ornate timepiece that there remained only a few short minutes before her appointed rendezvous with Misha Stefan. But she need not have worried about losing her erstwhile dance partner.

‘While this has been most diverting,’ Pinckney babbled on, ‘You must now excuse me as I take my leave, for I do not care to miss the fireworks, and I have promised dances to several other Fragolinas, one with a bewitching Slavic lilt to her speech. Then there are the fortune-tellers whom I wish to visit—most entertaining—and until now I have resisted sampling the goulash and Bavarian lagers—such exotic delicacies—and so, my dear,’ he kissed the back of her hand gallantly, looked furtively about him as a clutch of Fragolinas and gypsy kings swarmed in his direction, all convinced he was Balthazar—for news had spread throughout the ballroom like wildfire that the gold turban and the artist were one and the same—and he hurried out to the terrace, his arms bent at the elbows, hands upraised, in an attitude of distraught retreat.

As Grazia headed for the massive column to the left of the entrance, which Misha had indicated in his letter as the rendezvous point, she puzzled over Pinckney’s remark about ‘most particular friend’ and ‘northern England’ and ‘conundrum.’ It occurred to her that Robert might have known all along about the painting, kept it from her, then deputized this pathetic hanger-on to shadow her, and that the Earl could very well be writing a letter at this very moment revealing her whereabouts. But how could her husband have retained such a pillar of indiscretion, and what was he empowered to do on Robert’s behalf besides make vague inquiries and promote innuendo? Had she stumbled upon yet another instance of betrayal? The problem was she had no time at the moment to further ruminate along such lines: she had by then mounted the curved marble staircase, arrived at the landing at the top, looked to the left to the base of the column, where she identified the man in a black suit whom she believed to be Misha Stefan. As promised, he carried a mask in his left hand, held at his side. He appeared to be extremely popular, for as soon as he could dismiss one bevy of people another gaggle stepped forward, and she saw him point towards the terrace doors below, on the far side of the ballroom. Once the gesture had been made the new group instantly set off as a throng in that direction.

The only real pleasure which Misha Stefan had been able to derive for the entire evening of the ball was referring the pushy Parisians to the Earl of Pinckney. By now he had performed the same act enough times to have it down to a science, though there had been no other satisfactions. The truth was, it had been a succession of objectionable people, making excessive demands on him as he scanned the passing crowds trying to determine which of the Fragolinas was the real Fragolina. He experienced a moment of heightened expectation as a clock chimed midnight, for he knew that in less than three short minutes he would need to come face to face with Grazia Rosetti, exchange the signals with her as he had set forth and complete his errand. The task seemed suddenly more difficult. The appointed hour had arrived, and two more Fragolinas were coming at him from different directions, and he could not tell which was going to be the actual one. While overcome with anxiety, he had seen an extraordinary number of ballerinas throughout the evening and had expected to be able to distinguish the correct one, but now the two he regarded added to his confusion: they were approximately the same correct age and build, and moving at the same speed. The one on the left wore an ornate costume with a long skirt and a shimmering bodice, whereas the other seemed to be wearing an antique costume albeit tastefully selected. Remembering the reputation of La Fragolina and the roles she had portrayed, he bet on the newer costume, believing that the antique costume was worn by some lesser titled noble who could not afford to have one crafted. And so he made eye contact with the gaudier costumed woman, and as she came close enough he said, ‘I hear that it is raining in Rome.’

She looked puzzled. ‘Perhaps, good sir, but we certainly have glorious weather in Paris after such deplorable rain,’ and she gave off with a delighted giggle. ‘How poetically the moon shines tonight.’

Thwarted, Misha turned his attention to the other, less flashy Fragolina. ‘I hear that it is raining in Rome,’ he attempted a second time.

‘Yes, but it is sunny in Naples,’ Grazia answered, giving the correct response.

Misha hurriedly took her by the arm and turned her away from the other Fragolina. ‘It is you,’ he stammered.

‘Give me the letter,’ she demanded.

In a smooth and surreptitious motion Misha Stefan turned away from her, pulled the letter from his vest and handed it over, which she immediately tucked into her pocket. But the ornate Fragolina insinuated herself back between them, intent on pursuing her own agenda, tugging at his arm.

‘Pray tell me more about the horrible weather in Rome!’ she pleaded coquettishly.

The real Fragolina leaned towards Misha’s ear and breathing harshly whispered the words ‘Where is he?’

‘It can also be excessively hot in Rome,’ the ornate Fragolina suggested, taking his hand in hers. Misha withdrew his hand and turned back to Grazia.

‘It is inadvisable to speak here.’

‘Tell me where he is,’ Grazia insisted under her breath.

The ornate Fragolina held on to Misha’s sleeve with real determination. ‘I understand that Venice can be oppressively damp,’ she whined. ‘And that one must dress warmly or one is sure to catch their death of cold.’

Finally, in exasperation, Misha bent over and whispered in Grazia’s ear. ‘He is with Count Kozlowski in Prague, and more than that I cannot say.’ These were the last words he could communicate to Grazia, since yet another group of costumed gypsies descended on him, and so La Fragolina took the opportunity to disappear from his side. While she had not had the opportunity to learn more about the painting at least now she possessed the whereabouts of Balthazar and the letter, and she intended to read it as soon as she could.

But two stealthy figures had joined the intrigue: Tatiana Stregova, who watched from the periphery and clearly observed as Grazia received a mysterious letter from Misha; and Captain Blackpool, who kept a constant surveillance on all the players. Misha Stefan had by now reached the end of his tolerance. His business completed, he felt that he must take his leave as speedily as possible, and disappear. He had had his fill of Parisian society and its opportunists, of the strains it had put on his friendship with Laszlo Kozlowski. He pushed his way past many insistent guests, dodging hands and cards and protestations, past questions and greetings and pathetic waves, out to the lofty entrance of the palace, where he called for his coach, and when it arrived he flung open the door, hurled himself inside, barked at his driver to proceed with all speed, drew the curtains tight and the carriage lurched off into the night, to the looks of disbelief on the faces of those who had pursued him all the way down the ornate stairs to the drive, still asking for introductions to the mysterious artist Balthazar.

 

Click here for Chapter 14

 

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

 

 

 

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