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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 17

 

Continued from previous page

 

‘I still cannot believe you took on four of them on the ground, Harry. I never thought a single man armed only with a knife could do so much damage. How ever did you shred their clothes and still not draw blood?’

‘I was emboldened by the knowledge that your sword protected my back.’

‘And those other ten brigands who ran off into the woods,’ Kozlowski went on. ‘I only wish I could understand what they were screaming at each other.’

‘You exaggerate, Laszlo. I counted no more than eight.’

‘Now it seems I must thank you for my life,’ Count Kozlowski said. ‘Had it not been for your swift strokes, that ruffian who came up next to my horse would have cut me down in an instant.’

‘Nonsense, a novice could have dispatched him. He was the oldest and fattest and slowest of the lot. Did you see his expression when you whacked him on the backside? He will hear about that around the fire tonight.’ And the two men laughed heartily, as they rounded the bend and entered the courtyard of the inn. A disturbed woman and a gesticulating giant met them there, jabbering confusedly in the Alsatian dialect. Their words were meaningless to Harry Blackpool, but Kozlowski seemed to make sense.

‘Something is going on inside,’ he said. ‘It has to do with combat or weapons, but I am not getting it all. I think they may mean a duel is about to occur. Shall we join the fray?’

‘I go first,’ Blackpool said, and he walked purposefully into the tavern, nostrils flared, eyes scanning the layout of the room, his hand stealing to the small of his back where the kukri knife resided. Inside, the gypsy king had been wrestling with the perplexing issue of whom to second in the forthcoming duel. When he caught sight of the new arrivals a great smile flashed across his face.

‘Blackpool!’ he said happily. ‘Where have you been?’

Vittorio, glancing in the same direction, spoke to Harry Blackpool in a perturbed voice. ‘You,’ he said, ‘are late.’

Count Kozlowski realized that La Fragolina stood in the midst of these men, dressed in what he took to be a charming and rustic outfit. The room receded, the men receded, and her soft form in the dim light came forward, a reality suddenly substituted for the vision which he had carried with him these many months. He had scarcely thought he would ever see her again. It vaguely registered in his mind that Harry Blackpool was acquainted with two of the men there, and that he himself recognized the stern-faced man from the carriage whom he had seen in the alleyway outside the Paris Opera on the night of La Fragolina’s farewell. Some strange interposition of fate had clearly brought them all together, and some unknown business was soon to transpire.

‘You are just in time for the duel,’ Viktor said. ‘Do you want to second the husband or the brother? With your permission I will second the brother.’

Captain Blackpool had taken note of every detail in the room and he had observed Marsh’s eyes moving and understood the Scot’s thoughts all too well. He leaped at the hearth, intending to separate Sir Robert and Vittorio. But Marsh grabbed for Vittorio’s pistol on the table top, Captain Blackpool lunged for the Scotsman’s shoulders and the pistol went off with a loud report, sending its lethal ball whizzing to the side of Grazia’s face, so close she could feel the air moving as it passed by her cheek. The ball came to rest in the picture frame over the mantle, splintering the wood with a crack, and Blackpool pulled the weapon from Marsh’s hands, pushing him to the floor.

Captain Blackpool said, ‘There will be no duels today. You, Viktor, step aside.’

‘But I have produced the ballerina as you asked me!’ Viktor protested.

Grazia looked at him sharply. ‘You know this man, Viktor? You, who I innocently followed when you invited me here?’

Marsh lifted himself from the ground, dusting off his breeches sullenly. ‘I begin to see a pattern,’ he said, unable to conceal his bitterness. ‘This is the man you asked about earlier, isn’t it, Rosetti?’

Kozlowski, who had hung back at the doorway, now strode to the middle of the dimly lit tavern. He looked back and forth at them all with a kind of wonder. ‘You seem to know every person in this room, Harry.’

‘Balthazar!’ La Fragolina said with a gasp, as she recognized Laszlo Kozlowski, who lingered near Captain Blackpool. She had immediately sensed something powerful and familiar about both the voice and eyes and she was again drawn to him.

Their eyes met, and she knew he shared her infatuation still. She had seen the artist only once previously, dressed in a poor painter’s costume. Now he wore clothes of a nobleman. But attention in the room quickly returned to Blackpool, who exercised an unspoken power over their minds and they believed he held within him the answers to everyone’s questions.

‘You all seem to know this gentleman, except for me,’ Grazia said suspiciously. ‘Although I confess there is something familiar about him. Will someone please introduce him? Balthazar? Vittorio? Who are you, sir?’

‘May I present Captain Harry Blackpool, Grazia,’ Vittorio interjected. ‘A man whom I hired to protect you, my concern about your safety, you understand. Once I had received an account of you it was important that I knew your whereabouts, so that I could reach you as quickly as possible once I arrived from the New World.’

‘The man from the London coach,’ Marsh snarled.

‘You employed this man to follow me?’ she asked. Sizing up Captain Blackpool with renewed attention she realized he had shadowed her all the way from Scotland. The idea of it offended her, though she found him an attractive man. Under different circumstances, she thought …

‘Not to follow you, to protect you!’

‘You hired a spy so that you could know where I was and what I was doing, as if I were some criminal, as if you held absolute power over me? In all of this, where were you? Hiding behind this devious man like a coward, since you dared not contact me in the first place. Why did you not simply write to me, tell me where you were, explain the circumstance? Why did you need to orchestrate everything? Why did you need to control events?’

Count Kozlowski turned his attention to Captain Blackpool. ‘One has the distinct feeling you have miraculously recovered your memory, Harry,’ he said. ‘For my own part, I have explanations to offer to La Fragolina. In your defence I can affirm that I have only seen you act honourably.’

‘I do not find it honourable to be spied upon,’ Grazia growled, unsuccessfully searching the table top for another object she could throw. ‘My brother must certainly offer explanations. I have no desire to be followed any longer. So, Captain Blackpool, I order you to leave now, and you too, Viktor, for I trusted you, and it is clear that you have been a party to this conspiracy, in spite of the affection I began to feel for you. Please go, both of you.’

‘You blame me for too much, daughter!’ Viktor protested. ‘I only promised to bring you here, but I knew nothing more. You will always have a place with the gypsies, always have a home with us. Remember that.’

‘Step aside, Viktor,’ Blackpool repeated.

‘We will be in Strasbourg another week,’ the gypsy king attempted. ‘You know where the camp is. If things do not go well …’

‘Step aside,’ Blackpool said with finality, and turned to look at Grazia one last time. She thought she detected a note of sadness in him, but his impassive face betrayed no such feeling. ‘All life is pain and suffering, yet we must live this one to gain the wisdom for the next. Do you know what I mean? Think of Shiva, both creator and destroyer. To create something new you must surrender something old, think upon that. Your brother Vittorio truly wished for your safety and your well-being was always foremost in my mind. I think you will find Count Kozlowski a gallant companion and protector. I shall leave you now, but first here is something which belongs to you. It is not I who took it from you at the ball, I simply retrieved it, but I have kept it with me intending all along to place it in your hands.’ He reached into the pocket of his cape and produced the letter written by Balthazar in Paris, given to Misha Stefan, handed to Grazia at the ball, stolen by Tatiana, sold to the Earl of Pinckney, but only meant for La Fragolina, and now he presented it to her in a courtly way. He nodded to Count Kozlowski, bowing slightly. ‘Good luck to you.’ Turning, without another word, he pointed the gypsy king towards the courtyard, then placed Vittorio’s revolver on a ledge by the door.

‘Harry,’ Count Kozlowski attempted, but received no answer. Blackpool turned away. His business was done, even though the painting had vanished, even though he meant to tell the ballerina how much he secretly admired her. Others would flatter her. He had no need to stay any longer. An assignment awaited him in Egypt. Moments later the sound of hoofbeats outside signalled Captain Blackpool’s return to the road. A pained silence followed, broken by Grazia’s voice.

‘I suppose you have something to say to me,’ she asked Kozlowski.

‘First, read my letter, since that is what you hold in your hands. I had no idea what became of it. It is very late in arriving, but please read it now. We have Captain Blackpool to thank for its reappearance.’

‘If this rogue has written you a letter, it is completely inappropriate, you are still my wife, Grace. Hand it over now. I believe I know its contents. I demand to see it!’

Grazia appeared not to hear, for she had already opened the letter and her eyes danced over the page. As Marsh stepped forward to try and take it from her Count Kozlowski blocked his way.

‘The letter is not meant for you,’ he said. ‘It is a private matter, and I won’t allow you to take it. It would be dangerous for you to try again.’

‘I agree,’ Vittorio said dolefully. ‘Enough insult has been done to my sister. You will leave her alone, Marsh, for you have brought her only misery.’

By the time Grazia finished the letter two red spots burned on her cheeks, and her glazed eyes bore the evidence of the confusion over the words just read. ‘How could you allow that painting to be shown in Paris?’ she demanded.

Kozlowski opened his hands in a gesture of helplessness. ‘It was never meant to be exhibited without my permission,’ he admitted. ‘I merely painted out of love, to soothe my longing for you, and Misha thought he was helping me by showing it after I had left for Prague. I swore him to secrecy, he went against my wishes, and the damage was done.’

‘And the business in Prague? Has it been concluded?’

‘Oh yes,’ Kozlowski answered. ‘The business in Prague is finally over. I now have the means to offer you protection from anything that threatens you.’

‘I, too!’ said Vittorio, picking up the portfolio from the table. ‘Grazia, you no longer need to depend on any man, for you are a wealthy woman. Here are bank drafts and letters of credit, and all the Suez bonds, which now have great value.’

Grazia stamped her foot irritably. ‘I do not hunger for anyone’s money, and I do not want anyone’s protection. You all seem to think that I am some helpless object you can manipulate, that I cannot make a life of my own without you, and for that you are all terribly, terribly wrong. Henceforth the course I set will be my own, do you understand? My only aim is to return to Paris and dance again. That is my only desire, do you hear me? That has been my passion from the first, and it is unchanged. All of you, please leave me alone. Your interference has brought me nothing but confusion and misery.’

At this Robert Marsh exploded. ‘You seem to have forgotten, Grace, that you remain my wife. If you think I have brought you nothing but misery, fine. I am going upstairs now. I shall prepare to depart. If you change your mind you know where to find me. I hope you will choose to return to your dignity and your role as the lady of Marshmoor. I have heard enough of these theatrical posturings, these letters, paintings, gypsies, false suicides. This life you claim you want to regain looks like a sham to me. You blame all of us for trying to control you—you who bear the responsibility for setting in motion these events, and I possess the vulgar item which has caused this confusion of yours. And it is this!’ He angrily thrust forth from his pocket an object sent to him by the Earl of Pinckney, and flung it to the floor disdainfully. ‘I will be upstairs should you change your mind!’ And he marched out of the room in a righteous huff.

All eyes were trained on the object he had thrown down, nobody moved. It was Kozlowski who finally reached for it, picking it up.

‘I believe this was given to me, and by rights it is still mine.’ It was the crimson garter, which La Fragolina had removed from her thigh the night of her retirement, and placed in Balthazar’s hands. Now the artist slipped it back into his coat pocket. Grazia’s attention had been on Marsh as he left the room, and now she turned back to her brother. He handed her the folio, which she reluctantly received with a contemptuous expression.

‘I repeat, Grazia, you are now a very wealthy woman. You have the means to do whatever you desire. I hope, my dear sister, you will find it in your heart to forgive this most thoughtless brother. I have a home in Barbados, a wife, you have two nephews and a niece who long to know you. It is my deepest wish that you join us at the Maison du Soleil, where you will always be welcome.’

‘For a brother who abandoned me seven years ago, you seem suddenly obsessed with my protection and safety. Thank you for your well intentioned words, but I cannot return with you to Barbados. There is no life for me there, I will more easily find one in Paris. I’ll accept these papers, and while I understand it is your way of returning something to me which you feel was taken away, no drafts or accounts, no bonds or houses on faraway islands can replace the fears I suffered or the emptiness of seven years spent as an orphan and wife to Sir Robert Marsh. Perhaps one day you can see me perform on the stage of the Opéra, as you had intended to do years ago, before you left Paris so suddenly the last time. Then you may understand what has real meaning for me.’

Vittorio looked down at his hands, then stepped toward Grazia and kissed her. ‘I will hope to see you dance again at the Opéra,’ he told her. ‘If that is what will make you happy.’ But Vittorio could not discern what course she chose to take with Balthazar, and Grazia did not know either. She saw in her brother’s searching look a helplessness she had never seen before, and she understood he waited for her to tell him what to do.

‘Go now,’ she said simply, pointing to the door with a dramatic upturn of her chin. ‘And trust that I will be alright.’

With a nod of his head Vittorio acknowledged his sister’s words. Walking in an aimless way he left La Fragolina and Count Kozlowski alone in the silence.

‘I do not wish to begin the next chapter of my life by making a scene in as horrible a place as this,’ Kozlowski said. ‘I suggest we leave this sadness behind, and start anew, somewhere else. Let us be out of here as fast as we can.’ And sweeping his arm around her he began to lead her out of the tavern towards the brilliant doorway which led to the daylight. Kozlowski took one look back at the room with the lurid shipwreck dominating its massive mantle, and as he stepped through the portal he said to her, ‘To have painted something like that, the penalty should be death.’

 

Click here for Chapter 18

 

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

 

 

 

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