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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 14

 

Continued from previous page

 

By now Grazia accepted that the letter was gone. She had backtracked her steps enough times to give in completely, she was not about to publicly confront Tatiana, who seemed to have vanished, and she determined her only course was to find Misha Stefan and engage his assistance. The man had to have a carriage, so she would start with the footmen at the front of the palace. She turned frantically, nearly knocking over a rather large gypsy man, who took it in an uncharacteristically jovial way. He elevated his puffy cheeks in what was to be interpreted as a smile, and held her out at arm’s length.

‘You are a real gypsy,’ Grazia told him.

‘And you are the mysterious daughter who danced with us, yes? Did I employ you? You are that same daughter, are you not?’

Grazia told him she was sorry, but that she could not get into a long conversation at the moment. She said she urgently sought out a man named Count Kozlowski, who she thought to be from Prague, and did he have any idea how that gentleman could be found?

‘He sounds like a Magyar,’ the gypsy told her. ‘I am Viktor, King of the Romany. A man in my position is always on the lookout for opportunities. And I think I shall offer you a job. My troupe next travels to Belgrade via Strasbourg, Bremen, beautiful Prague, and unknown points beyond. I offer our protection to Prague at the very least, where you could make inquiries about your friend. In that way I would gain a dancer and you would gain peace of mind while you journey to your destination.’ And he laughed uproariously. ‘Of course the life we lead can be a hard one. But the pleasures of camaraderie, nights around the campfire, strains of violins in the moonlight, outweigh all the objections. You will sleep under the open sky, have plenty to eat, with more comforts than many could offer you elsewhere. Your fellow dancers will be like your family. You may never want to leave. And the expressions to be seen on the faces of the people who watch you dance. You know what I am talking about.’

‘If I decide to accept,’ Grazia said, ‘How soon will you leave?’

‘In the morning,’ Viktor replied. ‘But I warn you: the pay is low, so do not be enchanted so easily. Some days you will dance until you cannot stand, and the next day you will dance again. If you want to make money, join the circus.’

‘At the very least,’ La Fragolina told him, ‘I will dance my way to Prague.’

This seemed to agree with Viktor. ‘Be at the Porte Saint Antoine at daybreak,’ he added. ‘The earlier we start, the sooner we breathe some fresh air.’

 

The Earl of Pinckney had remained in the gazebo, reading the letter numerous times, stomping his feet, occasionally collapsing in mirth to the point of tears. ‘Dear me, dear me,’ he would say, use his kerchief, read the letter through, giggle compulsively, and again say, ‘Dear me.’

From time to time he would read a fragment of the letter aloud, ‘My dearest Fragolina,’ and then another giggle, ‘I swear to you—my devotion—undying love,’ a wipe to his nose, more uncontrollable laughter, ‘think of you constantly,’ a delighted rolling of his eyes, ‘Tenderly kiss you …’ and clutching the letter to his breast, ‘Prague. He has gone to Prague!’ And then, ‘A talisman of our love!’

Pinckney was startled out of his reverie by the last of the fireworks, which boomed and popped, as great clouds of pungent smoke drifted past, covering the gazebo like a fog while brilliant pulses of coloured light alternated overhead. Pinckney set the letter down on the bench at his side, and leaned over the railing, swooning at the hypnotic display above him. So much good fortune had arrived!

From his position directly below the Earl of Pinckney, hidden in bushes which surrounded the gazebo, the monk reached up between the spaces of the balustrade and gingerly took the letter from the marble bench above him. He carefully replaced a folded piece of paper approximately the same dimension as that which he had removed. Captain Blackpool waited. The Earl of Pinckney remained transfixed at the aerial display and noticed nothing. He mindlessly slipped the paper—which later proved to be a programme for the evening—into his pocket, and set off for the ballroom to celebrate his good fortune. Captain Blackpool was not far behind.

As soon as he rejoined the ball the Earl of Pinckney was surrounded by inquiries, since word had spread that Balthazar had reappeared. He grabbed for champagne from a passing tray, reconsidered, took a second glass, and bolted them down, one after the other, in an exultant mood. He walked into the food halls, and swept past tables laden with ornately displayed platters, took up a glazed drumstick, clutched at a great hunk of bread on which he intermittently gnawed, tossing the occasional dumpling and pickled vegetable into his mouth with apparent satisfaction as he went, followed by a retinue of stragglers, all still convinced he was Balthazar.

At the end of the food halls a pavilion had been erected just before the exit, where clusters of individuals crowded around fortune tellers. These charlatans Baron Schluysen-von Holstein had carefully placed for the further amusement of his guests. How clever, thought Pinckney, he has arranged it so we must walk past the fortune tellers before we can leave! The Earl of Pinckney sauntered among palm readers, gypsies who threw handfuls of sacred stones, tea readers, mind readers, and crystal ball readers arrayed at regular intervals, each surrounded by eager onlookers. Finally, he plopped himself down in a gilded chair in front of a reader of tarot, who was engaged in dealing from an oversize deck. Someone put a fresh glass of champagne in Pinckney’s hand, and he made short work of it.

‘I see a long journey, accompanied by a man in a black cloak,’ the gypsy woman could be heard to say.

‘Preposterous!’ Pinckney breathed, steadying himself on the arms of the chair. The card reader gave a shake to the large gold hoops in her ears and went on. ‘But to tell a fortune I must have an object belonging to you so that I may concentrate.’ She turned her eyes in the direction of an extravagantly coloured Fragolina, who wore rings of remarkable size. ‘A golden object works best to bring the visions forth,’ she suggested, staring at the woman’s fingers. Soon a diamond ring was handed over, and the gypsy closed her hand around the ring so that it could not be seen, squinted her eyes, swayed, moaned, and appeared lost in a trance. ‘I see … I see … I see two men in your life!’

The audience nodded approvingly and the woman cried, ‘Yes! Yes!’

‘One has deep affection for you, while the other you must not trust, for he has betrayed you.’

‘I knew it,’ the woman gasped. ‘It is Hubert, the cad!’ and she stood up suddenly. ‘I shall seek him out immediately and confront him!’ The audience roared with laughter, for Hubert was a well known philanderer. The fortune teller adroitly slipped the ring into her sash and turned her attention to a man seated next to Pinckney.

‘You are about to embark upon an adventure where fame and fortune will follow you. But first, hand me some object: your cravat pin?’

‘Would my kerchief be enough?’ he asked.

The gypsy woman assessed the value of the hand embroidered lace, nodded, and snatched it away. ‘Beware those who profess to be your friends but really are not. Spurn anyone who offers you a tomato fruit. You are a man of many talents. If you see an auburn cat it will be the sign by which you know you have come to a dangerous place. Remove yourself immediately.’

‘Utterly unbelievable,’ the Earl of Pinckney coughed. ‘Give me the kerchief.’ And he grabbed it out of her hand to the tittering of the crowd. The gypsy woman allowed this liberty, for it presented her an opportunity to hide away the ring while attention was focused elsewhere. ‘You, sir, have a great destiny upon you,’ Pinckney said, regarding the man drunkenly. ‘But it is not a cat you must beware of. It is a dark-haired gypsy woman. I, too, can see the future.’ He returned the kerchief to its owner with an exaggerated bow.

‘Then tell us what will happen fifty years from now, Balthazar!’ someone shouted.

‘In the future I predict we shall all be able to communicate by voice without having to be near each other.’ Incredible laughter erupted from the growing group. Word had passed that Balthazar was expounding, and more people crowded about to get a look at him, and hear whatever he had to say.

‘How will we manage to do that?’ the same man asked. ‘Will we write letters in the clouds?’

‘I did not say that, sir. It will all be concealed in your watch, or some such tiny device. Hand me another glass of that excellent champagne, thank you, madam.’ Pinckney downed the contents of the crystal flute, as the assembling group shouted their encouragement. He adjusted his mask, which had fallen askew. ‘Shall I tell you what will happen one hundred years from now?’ Uproarious urging was his answer.

‘Will things be any better?’ A woman wanted to know. Pinckney considered her question only an instant.

‘A century from now, madam, women will be the equal of men, they shall freely own property and even have the option of bearing children or not.’ Raucous applause greeted this prediction, but some men smirked, while many of the ladies hid behind their fans.

‘This is blasphemy!’ an elderly gentleman shrieked, rising and storming out through the throng, swinging his ivory-tipped cane to clear a path.

‘Shall I tell you what will happen in a hundred and fifty years?’ The Earl of Pinckney slurred, nearly falling out of the chair. ‘We shall walk upon the moon!’

‘Why would we want to do that?’ asked a provocateur hidden in the back. ‘Is there not enough cheese where we live?’

‘There will be no need to post a letter by carriage or packet,’ Pinckney went on dreamily. ‘Instead we will scribe instantaneously on our watch devices and you will read it the moment I write it, even if you are on the highest peak or sailing on a distant ocean or drifting across a vast desert in a gigantic hot air balloon. The balloon will be the size of a chateau, and carry hundreds of passengers in unthinkable luxury.’

‘Hear hear!’ the man at the back shouted. ‘More wine for the gold-turbaned Balthazar!’

The Earl of Pinckney recognized something in the tone of voice and the snickering which accompanied it, and he did not like it. He felt he had been made a fool of, so he refused the wine. Stumbling, he pushed his way through the fortune tellers, into the briskness of the night, and summoned his carriage. He required some assistance in getting inside the coach, and once there he curled up on the floor, mumbling, and his driver covered him with a heavy blanket. A bevy of costumed people saw off the carriage from the palace steps, and Pinckney’s loud snores could be heard as the conveyance rolled away in the direction of the city.

‘Goodnight, Balthazar!’ they laughed, as the carriage passed through the gates.

 

The monk no longer interested himself in the Earl of Pinckney. Now that he possessed the letter he intended to assure Grazia’s protection, and ascertain her next moves. Before he left the ball he had one last order of business, and it took him into the pavilion of fortune tellers, where he insinuated himself next to the only real gypsy king in the palace, standing by the man’s side unnoticed. The gypsy king, occupied by surveying his legion of seers, gave off with a jump when he noticed Captain Blackpool at his elbow.

‘How do you do this?’ he asked the monk. ‘Sneaking around with never a sound, always appearing at the right moment. And usually at the very time I need to speak with you. There is much to tell, and business to be done.’ He thrust aside a purple velvet curtain and dragged Blackpool behind it, out of the view of intruding eyes. He tried to hug Blackpool, but one shrug from the monk told him to keep his distance. ‘Dear Captain!’ he almost shouted. ‘At last! I have news for you.’

‘I am listening.’

‘Viktor, King of the Romany has offered protection to your drab ballerina. Do you know where we are going?’

‘I can easily guess.’

‘Guess, then! I love a game!’

‘Prague.’

‘How do you know these things, Harry Blackpool? You are a magician, you have the true heart of a gypsy. The ballerina seeks the mysterious Count Kozlowski of Prague. So you surely understand that for us to take her there, for the protection of the ballerina we must strike a bargain.’

Blackpool’s steel grey eyes betrayed no emotion. ‘There is no bargain to be struck,’ he said.

‘For the protection, the journey, her food, her costumes, feed for the horses?’

‘The same horses you stole in Krsyznska?’

‘Horses in Krsyznska,’ Viktor muttered. ‘That was an innocent mistake. What if she injures one of my dancers, what if she runs away or gets lost? What if someone else is looking for her and abducts her and I must go dashing around the countryside and rescue her?’

‘If any of those things happen, which I highly doubt, then you can be assured I will compensate you. But in the meantime, Viktor, remember it is you who owes me, and not the other way around. How long will it take you to get to Prague?’

‘Brilliant question!’ the gypsy king bellowed. ‘It depends. If the crowds are good, if the weather is bad, if the company is tired, if the wagons break down. One never knows. Ask me when I get there.’

‘Very well,’ Captain Blackpool agreed. He felt that time would benefit everyone involved. If Rosetti had perished, if the painting was not to be had, if Count Kozlowski could lead him to Balthazar, so be it. The high lama had told him more than once, many years ago: you cannot push the river. ‘I will be in touch with you. In the meantime, I hold you personally accountable for her. Do not disappoint me. I do not appreciate unwelcome surprises, and you have a history of delivering them.’

Viktor looked up and around. ‘I act for the good of my people,’ he protested to nobody in particular, but by the time he had turned his glance back the monk was no longer there to be seen.

 

Letter from Humphrey, Earl of Pinckney
To Amanda Pennington-Smythe
Mailed from Paris

 

My dear Amanda,

I write to you in great haste, but there is a small matter of business which it pains me to broach concerning the seven ball gowns which you had deputized me to collect from Madame Levesque on the Rue de Rivoli. When I visited her estimable shop she informed me of an outstanding balance for them, and that failing my advancing it she was loath to release the garments. She insists she will be happy to deliver as soon as you settle your account. Had it been a trifling amount, dear Amanda, I would have gladly resolved the situation. But so large a sum would have compromised you greatly had I emptied my purse on your behalf. Imagine the talk in Paris and London. I was forced to demure, and fear that, while it left your reputation intact, your bill remains unpaid, and malheuerusement les jolies robes restent chez Madame.

Regarding your request for the three additional cases of claret, does this suggest that your beloved sister has had a relapse of her unfortunate illness? I have taken the liberty of forwarding to you three bottles of Doctor Duvier’s Hydrogalvanic Tincture. While it may not be as palatable as the claret, you will certainly find it more efficacious.

I dare not recount to you the contents of a conversation I had with my friend Signor Porcini di Torta. I encountered him last night at the Baron Schluysen-von Holstein’s ball. He explained that, since he is a modest man, he was compelled to have you and your entourage removed from his dressing room by stage hands, in a manner somewhat unceremonious. My dear Amanda, perhaps you are not aware of a protocol in the theatre. One does not barge into a tenor’s dressing room simply because one is enraptured by his singing, let alone unannounced and in the company of twelve lolly-gagging friends, some apparently on the far side of inebriated. Promise you will never do this again, nor mention my name in connection with such unthinking and impolite action.

Tomorrow the most pressing business compels me to depart at sunrise for Prague. You may have heard some account of a scandalous painting known as The Crimson Garter. The business of which I cannot speak is remotely connected to it, but I will reveal no more. My mission which brought me to Paris in the first place has not yet been concluded, and so I leave you, dear Amanda, with great regret. I hope that your sister recovers soon.

I remain your humble and obedient servant,

Humphrey          

 

Click here for Chapter 15

 

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

 

 

 

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