Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.
What of Sir Robert Marsh, whom we met in The Crimson Garter? We continue the serialization of travel editor Stanley Moss’s Fate and the Pearls, by SMoss, in the third instalment for your summer reading
Fanny, Lady Belvedere sat quietly and stitched at her embroidery, a pattern showing a finch perched upon a holly branch. She was a thin, frail little woman, with extreme features, a pointy nose, fox-like eyes, and a look on her face like a cornered vixen. Her attire leaned to the tastefully colourful, and always in fashion, for she could afford whatever she liked. She bought only the latest styles from Paris, though she detested the Continent. She had attended private schools in Switzerland, where she had been bullied horribly, and vowed never to cross the Channel again unless absolutely necessary.
It was deathly quiet in the salon, with only the occasional squeak of a chair, or the furtive puff-puff when Sir Robert Marsh stoked his pipe. A pallor of smoke hung above their heads, and Fanny found the smell of his tobacco reassuring. She was happy with the friendship they had established, one where she could spend long, contented hours in his company without a word passing between them. He seemed to favour the arrangement as well. He had grown more comfortable with her as the months had gone by, as her visits became more frequent.
She had her Cousin Daisy to thank for the introduction to him. Daisy, the boring wife of a rural cleric who preferred to stay at home, was also a distant cousin of his. She often accompanied Fanny on her junkets around Scotland, though Daisy did not travel particularly well. She was perpetually hungry, tired, and always late. She talked to everyone, and had the uncanny ability to draw out people’s sad stories at great length, clucking appropriately, urging them on. She was a perfect companion for Fanny, who kept to the sidelines, but secretly gave all the orders, unchallenged.
Daisy was the first to report the death of Sir Robert’s mother, an event which occurred at exactly the same moment his own wife ran off with some Bohemian artist in Paris, a double helping of calamity. Daisy did not hesitate to mention that poor Cousin Robert was greatly aggrieved by it all, and taking it very hard. Perhaps she and Fanny might make a stopover at his manor along the way, during their next journey south to Edinburgh. A visit from them might enliven his spirits, but she warned that his was a dismal place, vast, gloomy, in poor repair, and he was a miserable case if ever there was one.
‘Did not Dorothea Marsh inherit the Bell millions?’ Fanny asked. Daisy stopped her babbling and regarded Fanny seriously. ‘I believe she did,’ she said. ‘Then it would follow that Sir Robert had a considerable fortune of his own?’ ‘Just so,’ Daisy agreed, ‘and you would not need to worry about him trying to get his hands on yours.’ ‘A detail of great comfort to me,’ replied Fanny. ‘I do not want to know a man whom I may be compelled to support. It might have happened with Desmond, but fortunately he excused himself.’
Desmond Belvedere, the father of her two children, was an occasional sodomite who eventually sought solace in the church, both to spend time away from Fanny and to cavort in the company of men. Two years earlier he had begged her for a divorce, and she held out for a large settlement she did not need, or would ever use. Desmond was now happily domiciled in a Franciscan monastery in the Holy Land, and wrote one letter a year to the children, mostly admonitions of faith. His departure had left Fanny almost free.
There remained the boy, Winthrop, who was finally old enough to be placed in a boarding school—she endured him a few weeks a year. He was turning into an arrogant and sadistic bounder, even at his young age, though she could not help but baby him when he was with her, for which he hated her all the more. They were either at each other’s throats, or resolutely ignored each other, with no middle ground—both eagerly waited for their leave-taking. Both rejoiced in their separation. The girl Bella was a sullen child, whom Fanny suspected would preserve her sour expression for her entire life, and certainly end up an old maid. A girl with such a disposition never was going to land a man or hold onto him. She had entrusted Bella to the care of an Alsatian governess, who unbeknownst to Fanny spoke only French to the child. Bella saw her mother infrequently and considered her something of a nightmare.
On their first visit to Marshmoor, she had found it worse than Daisy described, a cold and drafty place where one needed to stay close to any fire, of which there were few. She was therefore not surprised to discover a spartan menu, drawn drapes, scant daylight, the feeling of a tomb. But she saw in Sir Robert an attractive, rustic, rugged man, with the haunted look of one who had worried and suffered his entire life.
There was something touching about his awkwardness, as if he had never learned that it was permitted to enjoy some simple pleasures. Fanny had her own streak of fatalism, but she had learnt that good meals could cheer her up, and she did not object to the occasional acquisition of a bauble to lighten her own heart. She watched him closely that first visit, listened to the soporific descriptions of the portraits he showed her and admired the philosophical tomes he coveted, and by a question cleverly posed she casually discovered where was located the room in which he slept. That very night, she waited until Daisy was snoring loudly, and by the light of single candle tiptoed her way into Sir Robert’s chambers, where she dropped her sleep robes to the floor and slipped into his bed. He took it rather well, and allowed her to run her tiny hands over his hirsute body, which served to excite her more. Finally, when she was certain of his passion she put her mouth close to his ear. ‘Hurt me,’ she whispered. It shocked him, she told him very specifically what she wanted, he did what she asked, and after it was over she clung to him for the whole night. He lay awake, both pleased and horrified by what he had done, flattered that she would give herself so, and by daybreak he knew he wanted it to continue. After dinner the next evening, when they were alone on the staircase she took him aside.
‘Shall I come to you again tonight?’
Sir Robert Marsh turned his face away, silent.
‘I will take that as a yes,’ Fanny told him.
Her visits to Marshmoor soon grew more frequent, and over time they developed a secret understanding between them. He had never met a woman who was content to sit with him in his study by day, while he pored over his antique volumes. She had never met a man who left her alone stitching, and patiently listened to her opinions on the rare moments when she spoke them. By night they explored the shadowy depths of their desire until they were exhausted, then they slept the sleep of the dead in each other’s arms.
Early on she tried to learn if Robert had any interest in her children, but he evidenced none. He had as little patience for their company as she did, and after a point she ceased to mention them, let alone bring them along. He sometimes politely enquired after them, but she knew better than to go on at length. Once he asked her if she would consider a third and she replied coldly, ‘I shall never bear another child. I had—let us say—a difficult delivery with Bella. When the doctor informed me I was from then on unable to conceive, he dispensed to me news of a condition that pleased me no end.’
The household staff eventually accepted her and her visits, as much as they ever would, for Robert’s late mother, Lady Dorothea Marsh, had ruled absolutely for 50-odd years, and old habits died hard. Fanny took her time to indoctrinate Sir Robert, patiently, until he adjusted to the idea of seeking a more comfortable existence, one which allowed plentiful meals, more generous fires and modest extravagances. He was even now occasionally seen to experiment with a facial expression intended to resemble a smile, wherein he squinted his eyes and widened his mouth by drawing his lips sideways. At first it frightened his staff, but eventually they learned it was meant to indicate that he liked something, after which they took it as a good sign whenever it appeared.
‘How is my little finch?’ Sir Robert volunteered, barely looking up from his book, having not spoken for nearly two hours. He had, for some time, been shaping the question in his mind. It was their pet name for that place which resided between her legs, and Fanny attempted a modest countenance.
‘She needs more handwork,’ Fanny answered, secretly pleased he had used the term. ‘And another visit to the holly branch.’ Sir Robert grunted knowingly, reassured of her wild writhings in the night to follow. Fanny returned to her needlepoint, and he went back to his puffing. Another half-hour passed, the clock on the mantle gave off with a tiny ding. Fanny paused in her sewing. ‘Lady Grace,’ Fanny began. ‘Was she as talented with a needle and thread?’ Sir Robert visibly flinched and stared at her. ‘You barely mention her, and she has been gone a year now. You and I are, ahem, intimate friends, so perhaps we have fewer secrets between us. Lady Grace remains one of them. I know she was beautiful, even Cedric has said so, and only a fool could not see she wounded you deeply. Will tell me anything about her?’
Sir Robert Marsh clenched and unclenched his fist unconsciously, and considered her question. She was correct, Grace had dealt him a blow, and Fanny had become his closest friend. ‘She was not handy with a needle,’ he said under his breath.
‘Who was she?’ Fanny persisted. ‘A woman of foreign birth, this much I know, who left you during a trip to London. It is said she fled in the company of a bohemian artist, and under bizarre circumstances. Come now, Robert, I am no stranger to scandal. Everyone is aware of my husband Desmond’s proclivities, and I too have been victim of innuendo. I have heard the gossip muttered about me, but I am not ashamed at my conduct. I have survived the worst of it, and so shall you. You must not bear such a burden forever. Who was this woman, and what did she do to you that left you so damaged? If she has gone off with someone else, you are better off. It has enabled us to become friends. You are aware I have wealth of my own, thus I have no desire to attach myself to yours. Did Lady Grace steal from you?’
‘She took nothing,’ Sir Robert Marsh said. ‘She had nothing, brought nothing, left nothing of consequence behind.’
‘She has left her memory,’ Fanny countered. ‘And it is heavy on you. Perhaps it is time to unburden yourself. Trust me to honor your privacy. Tell me what happened.’
‘Not a word of this can leave the room, do you promise me?’
Fanny put away her sewing and folded her hands. ‘Of course I promise.’
‘She was a person of the theatre,’ he said.
‘The theatre?’ Fanny looked up with a start, her intelligent little eyes focused on him. An actress, she thought, how fascinating he would take up with a trollop from the stage. She had heard of worse in her life. She had experienced it.
‘I would not want this to be known. You gave your promise.’
‘I did. The theatre, you were saying.’
‘There is much more. Her real name was Grazia Rosetti. Aha, I see some recognition, but you cannot remember why: she was known to the world as la Fragolina.’ Of course Fanny knew of the Parisian ballerina who had posed for a scandalous painting called The Crimson Garter, a notorious affaire that at one time was the talk of society. Signora Rosetti had mysteriously, abruptly retired, then disappeared at exactly the moment the painting came to view. Months later she resurfaced in Paris in the company of the artist Kozlowski, who was known to the world as Balthazar. More recently she had danced on the stage at la Fenice in Venice. ‘I married her in secret, both out of infatuation and to rescue her from tragic circumstances. Later I allowed her to continue at the Paris Opéra; our agreement was a simple one: that she would keep my name out of her public life, and return to Marshmoor permanently, after five years on the stage. Obviously she had other designs.’
‘Performers are charming,’ Fanny said. ‘But unreliable. I take it you learned about the painting, and not from her.’
‘Far too late, dear Fanny, and worse yet I heard it from my own mother, who later died from shame. I did everything in my power to suppress it, but copies became so numerous, you understand. I knew she would try and return to the stage, and so I pursued her, first to London, then to Paris. It was my duty as a husband. A confederate finally summoned me to Strasbourg, where I confronted her and her lover—it turned out she was being protected all along by Capt Harry Blackpool.’
‘The Capt Blackpool? The one who captured the bandit Vashtar? You have met him? How did he come to be involved with your wife?’
‘He was hired by her brother. At this point my account becomes complicated, but hear me out. You have asked, and now you will know. I have never told another living soul any of this, and I hope you will not think less of me for what I am about to impart. You have become precious to me, Fanny, and I do not want to lose your regard.’
‘You need not worry, Robert. Pray continue.’
‘It was her brother Vittorio Rosetti who enticed me to marry her in the first place. Their family had suffered financial ruin, and he begged me to put her under my protection. I loaned him money, he went off to the New World, I married his sister. I never heard from him again, but somehow in his exile he was able to regain his fortune. At the time Grace fled me, he had snuck back to London, incognito, bent on returning her share. He was wealthy enough to afford Harry Blackpool, whom he hired to report on Grace’s whereabouts. But she confounded us all, first by posing for that damned painting, then by running off with Balthazar as she did. It is something I will never forgive, never.’
‘And well you should not,’ Fanny said. ‘You should speak to the Bishop, and divorce her. And you should try and banish her memory. My gentle Robert, you have suffered enough. What happened at the inn?’
‘A violent scene,’ Sir Robert Marsh said. ‘Grace, her brother, her lover, some weird gypsy man, and Capt Blackpool all conspired to assault me in that room, shots were fired and then she had the temerity to banish me from her life. You have never seen such confusion or heard such accusations hurled about. I offered Grace one last chance to come back to me, but she refused! She refused all this.’ Sir Robert looked out the window at the grey expanse outside and gestured listlessly towards the grounds which went off into the distance. ‘With luck I will never see her again. Good riddance to her. I had no expectation of that meeting, none at all, for I had been summoned on another errand altogether.’
‘What was it?’
‘I had located The Crimson Garter, and meant to purchase it that very night. I did not mean to be publicly humiliated by that awful object. A midnight rendezvous had been arranged. Not even Harry Blackpool could find it, I tell you.’
‘You knew where the painting was?’
‘It had cost me a tremendous amount of money and trouble, but yes. I reached the thieves who purloined it, settled on a price, and was ready to buy it. I was especially anxious to be done with the whole matter of Grace and her betrayal, to silence once and for all the wagging tongues and sneering voices. My anger was unthinkable and Grace’s immoral conduct disgusted me. That night I rode out to the outskirts of town, at the edge of the forest. There I met two ludicrous masked figures at a dark crossroads, and gave over to them a chest of gold, a staggering amount, but worth every piece, you can be sure for what I was about to obtain. They brought out a wagon with the crate in it, and handed it over to me, quite nervous fellows, obviously as suspicious as I was, eager to be done with the business, and the transaction went fast. I have no idea who the sinister men were, but they furnished the object, strapped the gold onto a horse and rode away at breakneck speed, hooting and shouting like banshees. Later that same night I arranged for transport. Nobody knew what was inside the crate.’
‘Robert, you managed to buy The Crimson Garter? The same painting which disappeared, and whose whereabouts you have been able to keep secret to this day?’
Marsh nodded solemnly.
‘I cannot believe this. You succeeded where all others failed. I so admire you! But what did you do with it? You must have burned it, I can only imagine, burned it from your shame.’ He stood up abruptly, put his book on the table, and offered her his hand.
‘Come with me,’ he said. Together they walked silently to the east wing of Marshmoor, a disused half of the house, whose chambers were never visited. He took her up an old staircase, along a hall to a locked room, where he opened the door and escorted her in, closed the door, locked it from inside, and lit a candelabrum, illuminating the dingy space. Before them stood what appeared to be a large crate, over which a tarpaulin had been thrown. ‘Stand back, Fanny,’ he said, and he swept aside the covering revealing the painting. Fanny gasped. She saw the image of la Fragolina, reclining on an elegant couch, her skin alabaster white, her piercing Byzantine eyes looking out from the canvas as if they could follow you wherever you stood. Around her neck a black velvet ribbon, and on her left thigh a single crimson garter, nothing more. At one side of the garish frame the wood was shattered, as if someone had fired a pistol ball into it.
‘What audacity!’ Fanny managed to say, her breath rising. ‘Look at her expression, how bold and challenging. She is shameless! It excites me, but I cannot say why. It makes my passion rise. It casts a spell over me I cannot control.’ She grabbed at Sir Robert, and anxiously began to undo the buttons on his shirt. ‘Take me, here, now,’ she told him, and soon they fell to the floor together in front of the painting, helpless and entwined prisoners of their own ardent desire.
It was with a feeling not unlike that of a caged animal that Sir Robert Marsh walked through the stone gateway to the cemetery, in the company of Fanny Belvedere, ostensibly to visit the grave of his dear departed mother. In reality he knew that Fanny had conspired to lure Bishop Duncan there for reasons other than those of a devotional nature. She was, he thought, a clever woman, and far cleverer than most people suspected. He had found her to be calculating and wilful, and she reminded him of his own mother on occasions such as this one.
‘I should like very much to make this as brief as possible,’ Sir Robert said under his breath. Fanny, walking ahead in her determined way, appeared not to hear him, drew her shawl around her shoulders and stepped gingerly over a puddle, careful that the hem of her dress did not drag through the frigid water. The day was clear and bright, with a sharp bite to the air, and birds twittered somewhere outside the rough stone walls. At the end of the row they could see the ornate tomb which Lady Dorothea had commissioned for herself, a Rococo affair in grey and white marble, festooned with pillars and flourishes, a miniature temple which towered over all of the adjacent monuments. Fanny held a large bouquet of roses, which she intended to place in the vases which were inset at both sides of the massive iron door to the tomb. From behind them they heard the sound of the Bishop’s carriage as it drew up to the gates, and a minute later he walked to the tomb, where he waited respectfully while Fanny finished placing the roses.
‘A devoted son,’ he said, looking at Sir Robert, who stood uneasily, not quite sure how Fanny intended to change the subject. ‘Always a sign of a generous mother. I was much gratified to receive your note, Lady Belvedere. An honour to pray together at the tomb of such a beneficent patron. Allow me to say a few words in her memory.’
The Bishop spoke more than a few words, and gave a lengthy homily about charity and holiness, citing scripture and summoning deep emotion. By the end of it he had placed Lady Dorothea at the right side of the deity, with most of the apostles kneeling at her feet, waiting for her to instruct them in the heavenly landscape so that all of humanity could achieve a life like she had lived. Marsh endured it in silence, while Fanny clasped her gloved hands, nodding at appropriate moments. When it was finally over, the three walked a respectful distance away.
‘People do not visit the graveyards enough, to honour the dead,’ the Bishop attempted. ‘I mean, people should visit these places more often.’ Sir Robert, at a loss for how to respond, held his tongue and looked searchingly in Fanny’s direction.
‘There is much good to be gained from a visit here,’ Fanny said.
‘So there is,’ the Bishop agreed. ‘Were it not …’
‘… in better repair,’ Fanny cut in, finishing his sentence. ‘More might be tempted to find their way to this inspirational ground.’
‘The walls …’ the Bishop began.
‘… could use some rebuilding,’ Fanny offered, returning his hopeful expression.
‘And the paths,’ the Bishop said.
‘Could benefit from fresh gravel,’ Fanny said. ‘I think Sir Robert can be persuaded to carry on his mother’s good works by furnishing those items.’
A smile appeared on the Bishop’s face. ‘A most welcome offer!’
‘And along that side there,’ Fanny stated with an upturn of her chin. ‘Perhaps a windbreak—a row of saplings planted would eventually make this an all the more agreeable place.’
‘So it would,’ the Bishop said, looking even happier.
‘I believe we can find the means to make that beautiful vision a reality.’
‘Lady Belvedere, such generosity …’
‘It is not mine, Bishop Duncan, but Sir Robert who would make the offering.’
‘Most generous!’ the Bishop enthused. ‘Might we also find the possibility to restore the stone gateway, perhaps some repairs to the metalwork as well?’
‘How is Mrs Duncan?’ Fanny asked, ignoring the question, which did not escape the attention of the Bishop. He stopped, looked appraisingly at Fanny.
‘In good health,’ he answered warily. He wondered where the conversation was being led. Fanny did not disappoint.
‘A good marriage is a blessing,’ Fanny countered. ‘Would that they were all as happy as yours. But some of us are saddled with difficult circumstances. I myself was forced to endure the pain of a divorce …’
‘Sometimes the only choice,’ the Bishop muttered.
‘But it came with the cooperation of my former husband, who granted me the freedom to become an unmarried woman again so that I could act independently once more to do my charitable works, you do understand.’
‘Precisely,’ said the Bishop.
‘You are blessed with a faithful wife,’ Fanny went on. ‘I am an unmarried woman, but Sir Robert is saddled with an unsatisfactory union. It makes one wonder what he could do to improve his own situation. Robert?’
‘Yes,’ Sir Robert Marsh said. ‘Yes, what could I do?’
‘I am not aware of the conditions,’ the Bishop attempted. ‘Is Lady Grace Marsh due to return to Scotland? If so, perhaps you could—as a couple—seek counsel from the church. Often by dedicated study an estrangement can be reversed, especially if one has the support of devout friends such as Lady Belvedere.’
Fanny snorted. ‘Let us speak freely, my dear Bishop. Grace Marsh will not return to Marshmoor. The marriage is a sham and a failure.’
‘I often dined at Marshmoor in her company. She gave no indication of her disillusion. There is no possibility she will return from her, ah, shall we say extended stay abroad? I mean, I assume she has gone abroad.’
‘None,’ Sir Robert cut in. ‘And I will not have her back. Ever.’
‘And why is that, my son? You know that to forgive is divine.’
Fanny stepped between the men and faced the Bishop squarely. ‘She has left him for another man, is that not plain enough? He is betrayed. She has returned to her former life as a performer on the stage. She has gone to Italy. To Italy! She will never come back from her world of depravity and corruption. And it is Sir Robert who suffers every day from the lingering pain. You must help him to be free of any obligations to that despicable woman.’
‘There is no possibility that a divorce could be negotiated?’ Marsh shook his head. The Bishop turned his attention to the stone portal, then looked upwards. ‘The gates of Heaven are always open to the righteous,’ he mused. ‘I have often thought that there was room enough for us all in Heaven. But here on earth, that is another question. For example, I have often thought that things were getting a wee crowded in this cemetery, and that if the walls could be opened just over there to include that adjacent plot of land to the west, we would have space enough for the next generation of worshippers. Some devout parishioner would need to gift us with it—for I know it to be an expensive parcel, but what a blessing to us it would represent.’
‘The walls, the paths, the windbreak, the gate, the metalwork,’ Fanny said. ‘All wondrous things, all possible.’
Sir Robert Marsh coughed, but he could not think of what else to say. He had forgotten precisely which words Fanny had coached him to interject at this point.
‘We might consider an annulment,’ the Bishop ventured carefully. ‘In extreme circumstances one could be granted, but only under extraordinary conditions. There would need to be profound declarations of faith.’
‘I think in his heart Sir Robert sincerely wants to help expand the cemetery grounds for the good of the church,’ Fanny said. ‘Robert?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Certainly, the plot of land to the west, yes.’
‘A miracle!’ the Bishop cried. ‘If only we could agree to add a complete renovation, to include new paths and excavation, so much good would be done!’
‘Yes, I think it would all be a worthwhile gesture in my dear mother’s memory.’
Fanny addressed the Bishop. ‘I believe, then, our business is done.’
‘Let me announce this most generous gift next Sunday,’ the Bishop said, clapping his hands. ‘And I assure you that the Church will look favourably on an annulment of your unfortunate marriage, as the best course for all, so that you are again free to do the righteous thing, unencumbered by the burdens of your unhappy past. Let us now give a prayer of thanks.’ Predictably, his words lasted another quarter of an hour, after which they all made a grateful, hasty exit.
‘Are you aware,’ Fanny asked suddenly, ‘that you have perused that same sheet, folded it, opened it and reread it three times now?’ Once again they were seated in Sir Robert’s musty study, as on most afternoons, rarely speaking. Though Lady Belvedere had a residence of her own, she now spent the better part of her time at Marshmoor.
Robert Marsh realized he was nervously tapping his lip with the folded edge of the letter in question. Quickly he brought it away, then fumbled with it, uncertain as to what to do with the humiliating object. ‘I was not aware,’ he conceded, unfolding the paper yet again, regarding it distantly. He turned his attention to Fanny. ‘It is that damned Crimson Garter, come back to haunt me once more. It will not go away. Now a letter comes from an individual whom I had hoped would permanently disappear, but alas.’
‘From today’s post, with the odd franking, which looked to come from the Magyar?’
‘How very observant you are,’ he said. ‘It was sent from Prague by an incredible gadfly, who once proved effective, while a nuisance just the same. Does the family name Pinckney mean anything to you?’
‘If you refer to Humphrey, Earl of Pinckney, yes. But I cannot see a man like you associated with the likes of him.’
‘Then it will come as a surprise to you that he is the confederate I employed, who successfully recovered that decadent painting which had caused me so much grief.’
‘The Earl of Pinckney? The Crimson Garter? I doubt it, Robert.’ Fanny, Lady Belvedere frowned. She put her needlework into its tidy box and folded her hands, a signal they both
knew meant she was ready to converse. ‘He cannot be the same man who outwitted Capt Harry Blackpool, and dealt with those violent highwaymen in Strasbourg. That would surely be a different Pinckney than the one I know.’ Sir Robert Marsh said nothing. ‘My Pinckney is an insufferable bore who has spent most of his life unsuccessfully attempting to dispose of a rather considerable inheritance. Since he does not suffer from the vice of gambling and is provided with an absurdly high annual income he lives a life of continual indulgence, following society, the horses and hounds, lubricated by an excess of wine and strong drink. My Pinckney passes an inordinate amount of time on the Continent, frequents the theatre and typically favours the company of younger women, the more privileged and susceptible the better.’
‘How then did you come to know so much about him, Fanny? Can it be the same fop I refer to—addicted to flamboyant attire and grandiose remarks—also a surprisingly good hand with a rifle?’
‘Let us say that he is a personage I have been acquainted with in society since childhood, about whom I was warned at an early age. To this day we share the same solicitors in London. It is in their offices that I encounter him far too frequently, which means once a year. He is cleverer than he lets on, Robert. He always bows gallantly and invites me to dine, which I always refuse. I admit that his obsession with the theatre might suggest a connection with your former wife, but the prospect sounds remote. Do we speak of the same Pinckney, Robert dear?’
Marsh gave off with an exaggerated sigh. ‘One and the same, I fear.’
‘Then let me see the letter,’ Fanny said, reaching out her hand urgently. He gave it over to her willingly and she immediately began to read with intense interest. ‘Astounding, the effrontery of the man! He is unchanged, inviting himself and his companion for a visit. Begging your permission to see the “artistic work acquired on your behalf.” The audacity, suggesting he hunt on your land, and install himself and his consort for two weeks! Such cheek! Wait—what is this? More flowery prose about his charming and particular friend—a moment—it is Gertrud von Thyssen no less, do you recognize that name? Let me tell you, Robert, she is definitely older than he is by a good ten years, her family owns most of Prague, and her reputation—well, they do seem suited. She loves horses and the men who ride them, not to mention those who groom them, do not look so shocked, Robert, she is, after all, a recipient of new money. She has aristocratic pretensions, but not the blood to go with it: that is why she bought her title in the first place, everyone knew the story. Officially she is still married to Laszlo Kozlowski, does that name not ring a bell? It all comes together now. Count Kozlowski, popularly called Balthazar is the scoundrel who ran off with your wife, Lady Grace, and openly cavorts with her in Venice, while she prances about a stage in frivolous costume! Now we have an explanation! Do you not suspect a conspiracy afoot?’
Marsh had by then grown quite pale. ‘You keep closer track of all this than I, Fanny, I had no idea.’
‘I make it my business to watch out for your best interests,’ she told him. ‘But I do not bother you with trifles.’ Fanny’s eyes danced down the letter, and she recoiled in horror. Soon, though, a calculating look came over her face. ‘It might offer you an odd and unexpected opportunity, do you not see?’
‘I am afraid I do not follow you,’ Marsh replied uncomfortably.
‘Count Kozlowski lured away your wife at the same time as he abandoned Gertrud von Thyssen. It presents both of you the means to plot some well deserved revenge. I for one would very much like to hear Gertrud’s version of the story. And Count Kozlowski, that rogue and cad, needs to learn the meaning of justice, and let me not start in about Grazia Rosetti. I think we should encourage them to visit. Once they have arrived we can assess the potential for vengeance. I guarantee you I can persuade the Earl of Pinckney to do whatever we want. I will play on his sense of honour and gallantry. Oh, Robert, we could not have asked for a more perfect surprise.’
‘How very differently her mind works,’ Marsh thought. ‘While I am tempted to suppress this calamity Fanny is prone to summoning revenge. She cleverly found the way to force the Bishop to annul my marriage, something I could never have achieved myself. Perhaps she is wiser in matters like these. She has brought me such peace and introduced me to such passion. It is little trouble for me to humour her, and I may well find undiscovered satisfaction in the result of the scheme she proposes.’ He reached for the letter and took it back from her wordlessly.
‘What do you think of my plan?’
‘I am prepared to entertain it,’ he said.
‘Then let us compose a reply, suitably tantalizing, and get it off to them. What a small world it is,’ Fanny mused. ‘The Earl of Pinckney, who could have known?’
‘And now that you mention it, Fanny, I have another idea. Let us begin work on the restoration of the old wing immediately. We will keep the hammers going his every waking hour, until he begs to leave.’
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Selected team Instagram accounts Jack Yan | Summer Rayne Oakes | Sopheak Seng | Elyse Glickman | Lola Cristall | Jody Miller | Sarah Arnold-Hall | Jamie Dorman | Doug Rimington | Tanya Sooksombatisatian | Alex Barrow