Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.
After a glimpse at Harry Blackpool’s childhood, we follow up what happened to Balthazar and la Fragolina since they appeared in The Crimson Garter. We continue the serialization of travel editor Stanley Moss’s Fate and the Pearls, by SMoss, in the second instalment for your summer reading enjoyment
Lord Considine and his regiment left more quickly than they had arrived, at a brisk pace down the long road, into the valley, that led to the gateway which pointed in the direction of London. Back at the manor, the Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur amused himself by unsuccessfully interrogating the Iroquois braves, who ignored him. They had decided to make their camp in the nearby woods and were moving their belongings into the trees. It was understood that they were his bodyguards, and he was to do whatever they said. The Marquis, Axe-Upraised and Harry walked out by the lake, where they came to agreement that it would be safer to hand the maharajah back over to his own people, and let them guarantee his security. Orders left behind by Lord Considine directed the Marquis to proceed to Gujarat and assist the Fourth Maharajah of Jaipur in any military actions necessary to uphold his rule, at least a two-year posting. The Marquis tried to persuade the Chief to accompany them to India, but the Chief would have none of it; he had a tribe back home who needed him, he said, but he gave them both a warm invitation to visit any time. Then, the Marquis of Blackpool and Axe-Upraised spoke together for some time in the Iroquois language, so Harry understood nothing of what passed between them.
‘He is soon to have his wish about seeing India,’ the Marquis told the chief. ‘It is going to be a difficult trip. He is about to gain a tremendous amount of knowledge. His life is about to transform.’
‘You should adopt him, name him your son,’ the chief advised. ‘You will be rewarded for it, he will honour your memory.’
‘I plan to do that, at the appropriate moment. I will write to His Majesty.’
‘Do it now, Joseph Lincoln. You will not regret it.’
That night Harry trusted his instincts and found the renegade Iroquois sent from the tribe of Black Wing. They had made their camp in an isolated valley within the compound’s perimeter, one which Harry knew very well. It was where he thought they would be. He wasted no time in returning to the Manor, where he revealed to the Chief their location, and as a group they soon went after the assassins. The factor of surprise gave them the advantage they needed, and it was all over rather quickly.
‘I consider it a brilliant career move, to quit Paris and journey to Venezia,’ La Fragolina volunteered, seated at her dressing table, staring dreamily at herself in the mirror. ‘I feel in this city I have finally discovered my true family. I love living here in our palazzo. We meet only fascinating people. And in Venezia we are not old news.’
The man to whom she was speaking watched her carefully pin her hair into a chignon, admiring her neck and shoulders, as he often did when she sat with her back to him. She was indeed a beautiful creature, he thought, and he recollected the nights he had watched her dance ballet on the stage of the Paris Opéra, invisible to her in the darkness of the theatre. She was strong and lean, her bearing was regal, she had long walnut hair and deep brown eyes, and an exquisite profile. Back then he had fallen in love with her from afar. Since knowing her intimately, his life had transformed, not all for the better, as he had once fantasized.
‘Only yesterday I visited Dr Bin-Avraham who begged me to tell him once again my personal account of The Crimson Garter. I admit I embellished things,’ she went on, picking up a tiny paintbrush, which she began to use to apply a precise dark line to her eyelid. The doctor was a scruffy little man who had once been seated next to her at a dinner, and by the end of the evening he had wormed out of her every tearful detail of her unhappy childhood. ‘Our public expects us to add colour to their drab lives. They worship us, we are the instrument of their imaginations. We are obliged to entertain them, and it does no harm to gild the lily. He even invited me to his country house to collect herbs, a great honour. There he fashions medicinal wines, which he has promised to let me sample.’
‘I am sure,’ her companion said, ‘That he will allow you the opportunity to purchase some at an attractive price. What with the cost of these consultations, one would expect he gave you the wine, but that is hardly a possibility.’
‘Dr Bin-Avraham is entitled to a fee when he counsels a patient,’ she insisted. ‘So he often tells me. It would be an insult to his profession to deny what he asks. You do not like him because he is so wise.’
‘I do not like him because his potions and herbs never work, you say so yourself after you try them. They taste detestable and he prices them extravagantly.’
‘And still I buy them,’ she said.
‘I buy them, let us be clear,’ the man said.
‘Oh, Balthazar, you do not understand that I hunger for knowledge, and that I need my teachers or I shall shrivel and die. I learn from him. He is my friend, my father, my brother.’ She examined the make-up she had applied, seemed to approve, then rose, and regarded herself in the full-length mirror. ‘Do I look fat?’ she asked. ‘I have turned into a pig.’
‘You said you embellished the story of The Crimson Garter. How so?’
‘I am fat,’ she persisted. ‘Tell me the truth: have I gained weight?’
‘Grazia, you are a willow, a reed. It would take several of you before …’
‘Several? Before what? You mean I do look fat?’
‘How much did Dr Bin-Avraham know about The Crimson Garter?’
‘Nearly everything!’ she laughed. ‘First he asked me to sign another of the penny etchings, a not-so-horrible one, so of course I did. He knew you had painted the obscene canvas in secret, and he knew the scandal it created when it was exhibited. He knew that we later had some imbroglio connected to it with Capt Blackpool, outside Strasbourg. I told the doctor how I myself ordered the notorious Blackpool out of the room, and that I thought him a miserable man.’
‘You have no idea of the lengths he went to assure your protection, Grazia.’
‘Rubbish, of course I do. I sat opposite Harry Blackpool in a coach for hours, days even. He may have been in disguise, but never once did I perceive the slightest threat. He mainly slept. That is how he earns his money, sleeping on the job. The idea that he followed me from London to Paris is also a joke. I would have seen him. The notion that he protected me at the masked ball is quite a fantasy. And that foolishness at the inn outside Strasbourg. Was he able to prevent my useless husband from brandishing a pistol? No, he was not. Only after a shot was fired in my direction did he do anything. I am proud of my conduct that afternoon. I had been deceived by everyone, Capt Blackpool, my husband, my own brother, even that preposterous king of the gypsies, Viktor. You were the only honest one of the lot. I chose to run away with you. I have often told you I would live under a bridge and eat crumbs with you. I needed to be rid of the rest of them. And I gladly told them so.’
‘You really should make up with your brother,’ Balthazar said kindly. ‘He is all the family you have, and he was quite remorseful. He handed over to you a magnificent sum of money.’
‘That money was rightfully mine in the first place,’ she answered. ‘You make it sound like he was doing me a great favour.’
‘I hope you did not go into such detail with Dr Bin-Avraham.’
‘What do you take me for? I saw it immediately when he tried to get me to reveal where I was for the time I went missing.’ At that she laughed haughtily. In reality, la Fragolina had been marooned in Scotland for the lost months, a prisoner in her own dreadful house. She finally escaped by running away during a trip to London. By then Captain Blackpool was shadowing her, hired by her brother. Her husband was a hard Scottish man, and she continued to keep the marriage and his identity secret from her public, still fearful of his wrath. ‘I told him I danced incognito with a traveling troupe of gypsies for the entire time. I told him I picked you out in the audience the first night you came to the Paris Opéra to
watch me. And that I secretly attended the Baron Schluysen-von Holstein’s masked ball, searching for you. Dr Bin-Avraham was visibly moved by the account, and insisted on my signing a second replica of The Crimson Garter he had. Then he asked me if I knew what had happened to the actual painting. Of course, I have not a clue, nobody does. I never saw the painting once, I told him, only far too many inferior etchings, and by the time we got back to Paris the real thing had long disappeared. Its exhibition helped make our reputations, a brilliant stroke on your part, dear Balthazar. I still wonder if you do not actually know where it is, and keep the location a secret to protect me.’
‘I remind you it was exhibited without my permission, and disappeared soon after. I didn’t have a hand in it.’
‘That hardly matters. What acclaim it brought us! Remember, when I returned to Paris we were deluged with so many invitations? Had there not been such a furore raised over the annoying purchase of the Pearls of Jaipur we would have stayed uppermost in everyone’s mind, another season at least. But one cannot expect endless adulation—people are fickle, the public easily forgets. It is why they are now so terribly obsessed with the pearls.’ She sighed dramatically. ‘Poor dears.’
Balthazar had heard enough about her public. He was tired of being recognized with her, and of the endless droves of people they were compelled to meet. When they went out together, which was most nights, he came to expect hands outthrust in his direction, clutching cheap reproductions of his notorious painting, which had been printed in the thousands without his permission. He signed them all. He was a man of aristocratic birth, who had spent years living anonymously as an artist in Paris, what were easily the happiest years of his life, years he now regretted leaving behind. He had once longed to become the lover of la Fragolina, and had hoped to retire to his humble studio, paint her portrait, and let her act the part of his muse. Instead, after she had been won, his life quickly transformed into an ongoing frenzy, filled with continual crisis and stress and a community of vapid or perverse dillitantes. She was at heart a person of the theatre, mercurial, as were her friends—a flighty and dramatic lot, thriving on gossip and backbiting, expert at shaping the cutting remark, or giving the cold shoulder. He had for a time painted lucrative portrait commissions for her ridiculous circle, but he no longer gained any satisfaction from that occupation, and now turned potential clients away without remorse. Laszlo, Count Kozlowski of Prague, known to the world as Balthazar, cared not for the public life he had acquired. Definitely not.
‘It is very early in the day for you to be venturing out,’ he said, glancing casually at the box of biscotti which rested on her dressing table top. She saw him look at it, and grabbed at the box, cradling it in her arm protectively.
‘You forget it is my morning to study with Signor Celdoni,’ she said. ‘His class begins at half past the hour, so I must be going. I will not see you until tonight. You can be reached at your atelier? Bernadette! Where is she hiding? Bernadette, hurry up or we shall be late!’ Soon she had swept out of the room, accompanied by her servant girl, and he watched from above as they fluttered down the passageway. Heads turned as she hurried by, for now she was notorious in Venezia.
Kozlowski looked aimlessly around the elegant room, empty and tranquil without her presence. He marvelled at her ability to attach herself to these teachers, a constellation of infatuations which cost her both time and money and always ended in some degree of disillusion. Weeks earlier he had innocently opened a box of biscotti to take one with his coffee, surprised to find a rather large sum of currency under the waxed paper layer at the bottom. When he asked her about it she raged at him: how dare he open the box without her permission! What, he had replied, was the explanation for the cash he had found there? It was her tuition, she had said.
‘Signor Celdoni is a deeply spiritual presence,’ she scoffed. ‘One should not offer him money openly. He does not require anyone to pay him, and contributions are voluntary. All his students know the technique. We bring him a box of biscotti, under which is concealed the fee for our lessons. In that way the discourse cannot be tainted, and we are free to choose the amount.’
‘A truly holy man,’ Balthazar muttered. ‘With quite a sweet tooth. How do you know what to offer?’
‘One can tell by his intense gaze, or the manner in which he accepts the box,’ she replied. ‘He is skilled at communicating without words.’ And she looked away.
Kozlowski laboured under no illusions about this particular teacher. When she had first started attending his classes he knew it was another of her infatuations, but he could not gauge how long it would last. He had heard of the man nicknamed ‘B’scotto’ Celdoni, who had been openly ridiculed in popular broadsides. He had even attended one of the classes with her to get a first-hand look, and found the satiric illustrations very accurate: an extremely tall, gaunt, shabbily dressed bumpkin, with puffy little eyes, an unattractive tuft of hair growing out of his forehead and a pointed chin beard which he trimmed to perfection; he meandered on at stentorian length about nature and the ether and water being the blood of the earth. It was all too much. Balthazar needed only to witness the procession of well dressed acolytes, lining up after the lecture to reverentially present him their biscuit boxes, to understand what was afoot. Celdoni’s speech about how he had purified the waters in Beograd was a preposterous and unverifiable claim. To Kozlowksi’s mind, the man was a great success at freeloading, providing distraction to many a bored wife, while eating from their husband’s tables. He hoped that he was not regarded as too great a fool for allowing Grazia to frequent Celdoni’s salon. As long as Celdoni kept his taste to biscotti, and not cornetti, all would be well.
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