Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.
The sixth instalment of Stanley Moss’s Fate and the Pearls, by SMoss, begins here, for your weekend reading pleasure. We recap where the Pearls of Jaipur are, and Ynes and Grazia finally meet in the latest part of our serialization
Only three people in the world knew the location of the Pearls of Jaipur. The first was the Creole governess named Né Né, who lived on the island of Barbados, and who wanted nothing to do with them. She had made her opinion clear many months before, when Ynez showed her the extravagant strands with the huge ruby suspended at the centre. ‘Bad magic,’ she repeated. ‘Bad magic. You had better get rid of those things as soon as you can.’
Ynez, the second person who knew the pearls whereabouts, for she possessed them, had no real attachment to them, just the contrary. For her they represented the immense folly of her late husband, Vittorio Rosetti. He had managed to squander an unholy sum on them, money Ynez now required to reconstruct her holdings following a devastating hurricane which had ravaged the island where she lived. Fool that he was, Vittorio had turned much of his last remaining cash into an object of jewellery which nobody wanted, and which she had no chance of liquidating for anywhere near their worth where she was, on a small island in the middle of the Caribbean. He had placed her—and the pearls—in the unenviable position of necessitating a return to Europe, in order to sell them to people she did not know, who seemed to place a mysterious, almost otherworldly value on them.
It was thanks to Capt Harry Blackpool, the third person on earth who had knowledge of the pearls location, that Ynez eventually arrived in Venice to sell them. A year earlier Blackpool had witnessed the auction in London where Vittorio Rosetti acquired the pearls. This Ynez knew from an account she found among a bundle of her late husband’s ridiculous, embarrassing letters. She had written Capt Blackpool out of desperation, intrigued by his charismatic reputation, and she sought his help in finding a suitable buyer for the cursed item, Blackpool entreated her to bring the pearls to Venezia, and he agreed to shelter her once she was there, until the pearls could be disposed of to her satisfaction. Unbeknownst to Ynez, Blackpool had seen her image in a miniature which the late Vittorio carried and had shown him, a likeness which inspired his curiosity: the countenance of a Creole beauty from a mysterious island halfway across the world attracted him. The Captain had at the same time gained the sanction of the Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur—who desired to repatriate the pearls to his own house at any cost. Decades earlier in India, the Maharajah’s father was coerced to give up the pearls in the first place to a ruthless British Admiral, an extortion payment following apprehension of a celebrated bandit by the young Harry Blackpool—an act of betrayal which the Captain felt needed to be righted. He also knew that the pearls were originally intended for the Princess Radiant, a noblewoman from his own past who now resided in Paris, to whom he felt an obligation that they eventually be restored to her, an overdue act of justice which he hoped to now effect. Thus Harry was prepared to offer an astounding sum, one he was certain to which Ynez would agree. But he also understood the vagaries of fate, and how little control humans had over it. The prospect of the unexpected further intrigued him.
From the moment the boat had pulled alongside her ship in the Venezia lagoon, Ynez intuited that some great adventure was about to unfold. The first clue came when she cast eyes on the man she had arrived to meet, for she was certain it could only be Captain Harry Blackpool, standing in the bow in front of the covered compartment amidships of his small craft, in his wide-brim hat, dark cape flapping in the breeze, unmistakable. He quickly caught her attention set against the backdrop of the Gothic palaces that lined the canal. Harry Blackpool was as tall as she had hoped, with a sharp and handsome profile, piercing grey eyes, a dark beard short-cropped and well shaped. She sensed he was the master of all he surveyed and more, and he projected an athletic physical presence, the posture of jungle cat. Even from a distance she sensed he was a man not to be toyed with, and she found it thrilling to imagine what he was capable of. She knew his reputation and she knew how effectively and expensively he had served Vittorio. He was at once dangerous and mysterious. She was drawn to him and at the same time she feared him. He had discovered the exact moment when her ship dropped anchor among the myriad of vessels which thronged the wide canal, party to information it was impossible for anyone to possess with such precision. No stranger to the ways of the sea she recognized the perfection, beauty and elegance of the craft Captain Blackpool dispatched for her. A trim vessel, in perfect condition, impeccable paint and varnish, its covered cabin a shiny black box detailed with carved fleurettes and discreet flashes of gold gilding, steered by a pilot attired in sombre blue accentuated by shiny brass buttons. When Blackpool offered his hand to steady her as she descended the gangway and stepped across to his boat she felt the force of his strength pass through their gloved hands, and she caught his expression, locking eyes with him as she came aboard. Blackpool had watched her closely, well aware she tried to keep her gaze averted from the trunk where he guessed the pearls were concealed. She had secreted them in a hidden compartment there, and nervously, involuntarily bit her lip as it was lowered to the hold of his boat. Their boat quickly detached and headed up the canal to a destination she knew not where, weaving among the smaller craft and gondolas, sleek barges heavily loaded with exotic freight, amid a jungle of masted ships whose decks teemed with busy crew. She waited for Blackpool to speak. He took his time. Finally he told her he would first get her settled in comfort, and they would then engage their business.
Slate grey sky refracted against the cloudy blue-green of the Grand Canal as the oarsman navigated a right turn up a narrow canal, then glided swiftly to an isolated dock which led to a single doorway whose narrow jetty thrust out into the water. Up a narrow stone staircase they climbed, through an ancient wood doorway, into a shadowy palazzo of immense dimensions, its high ceilings illuminated by candle-lit chandeliers. Huge paintings looked down on terrazzo floors and great Persian carpets, and a vast bank of leaded glass windows revealed a broad balcony fronting the canal. A fire blazed in wide fireplace framed by white marble pillars.
‘Here they are,’ Ynez said, handing over the red box with the gold seal on top, opening its latch and revealing the contents, which Harry had last seen on a black velvet pad at the auction house in London. ‘And now that it has safely arrived let us quickly get to the end of this. I need to go home.’ She had settled into her surprisingly comfortable lodgings, and now they sat across from each other on elegant divans.
Capt Blackpool nodded. The pearls had travelled from India to England, then halfway across the world and back, a restless commodity which wanted to come to rest. ‘Many people would pay a fortune for them, you know. Already other eyes are watching us in search of an opportunity to locate them.’
‘Who could possibly be watching me?’ Ynez asked. ‘Who knows I am here, who I am? And who knew I had these awful things?’
Blackpool lifted the double strand from the box and balanced the huge ruby in the palm of one hand, ‘Anyone who comes into contact with me is suspect,’ he said. ‘I think we need to immediately effect some subterfuge before word gets out. First we want the help of a master craftsman, and then we need to put these somewhere they are not so easily found.’
‘You have a buyer in mind?’
‘With your permission I shall be the client,’ Capt Blackpool said, ‘Will you accept £100,000 for them?’
Ynez blinked her eyes in surprise. ‘Did they not last sell for £30,000?’ she asked. ‘Yours seems a suspiciously generous sum.’
‘They did,’ Harry answered. ‘But I want to be sure that no other buyer tempts you with a better offer. I am aware you can use the money, and my patron is an avatar of generosity.’
‘Capt Blackpool, you need to convince me there are no parties willing to spend at least that much, if not more. Suppose I accept. How soon will I be paid? As you can understand, it’s rather urgent I return to Barbados.’
‘You shall have a draft immediately,’ Capt Blackpool said. ‘From a reputable bank here in Venezia, with correspondents in the New World who will honour it upon your return.’
Ynez eyed him shrewdly. ‘Not good enough, Captain,’ she said. ‘If I agree, I want it in gold. If you are serious you’ll honour my request and let me get back home. That is, if there is nobody else willing to better your generous offer.’
‘Do you understand the risk in carrying that amount of bullion? A sum so large will not remain a secret for long in a place like Venezia, where every whispered conversation in every passagio quickly becomes public knowledge.’
‘It will be your job to guarantee my safety then,’ Ynez said. ‘Do we have an understanding?’
‘One hundred-three beautifully matched South Sea pearls,’ Luigi Schirato said with a satisfied expression, placing the strands back down on a black velvet pad, making a notation in a leather-covered hand-bound book, and picking up a calliper in his short, stubby fingers. His wide-set eyes had grown larger when the Pearls of Jaipur were produced before him, brightening the cavernous workroom, which had meticulous arrays of tools and impeccable tabletops. He was a short, stout man with expressive eyebrows, prone to laughter and wordplay. He wore a clean and perfectly pressed blue artisan’s apron and white linen shirt.
‘One hundred-four,’ Capt Blackpool said.
‘Silly of me, of course,’ Schirato said. ‘Would have been an unusual odd number then, must take measurements and notes. Exceptional ruby, particular colour,’ he muttered to himself. ‘Difficult to achieve but I think we can match it. Just making a note, one hundred-four, of course the Captain is correct.’
‘How long does this …’ Ynez attempted, but Blackpool put his hand over hers and she flashed him an irritated look.
‘One hundred four separate measurements, sketches of the strands and hardware, fabrication of an identical clasp by the goldsmith, just a small variation inside so you can tell which is which, I will add my mark to it, at least a week on Murano duplicating deep red of the stone, mmmm. Then a trip to the nuns on San Erasmo to handle the restringing. Will be a masterpiece, a perfect twin,’ Schirato went on with pleasure. ‘The case, not a problem. I can start on that immediately. If the good Captain will now leave the piece with me and return in six weeks for the finished goods.’
Blackpool said nothing, but they could feel he was dissatisfied with the delivery date. Ynez shifted uncomfortably. ‘I can’t be waiting around Venezia for six weeks …’ she began, and again Blackpool warned her with his eyes, a gesture which did not go unnoticed by the master artisan.
‘It could be done in a month,’ Schirato volunteered uncomfortably. ‘The black pearl is difficult to copy in paste with its many variations in surface and particular opalescence. These are exceptionally fine.’ He looked expectantly at Capt Blackpool, who gave no response. ‘Three weeks,’ he said, ‘but I cannot understand why the Captain is in such a hurry. Fine things take time to make, one cannot rush quality, you know. I have many objects in work for Carnavale.’
Harry Blackpool reached for the strands, intending to place them back in their red velvet case, but Schirato picked them up again quickly, caressing them. ‘Two weeks,’ he said. ‘Two weeks. If I did not have such esteem for the great Captain it would not be possible to offer such a service. I shall do the impossible, make you the finest replica you have ever seen, that only the creator himself could recognize as a copy, and with luck perhaps not.’
‘That man is a charlatan,’ Ynez said, after they left the workshop and were back to the alleyways, weaving around dark corners and crossing small bridges. ‘Are you absolutely certain he can be trusted with the pearls? I am suspicious. If he is so good, he could pilfer half of them and replace them with phony ones and we would never know.’
‘Let me say he is trustworthy enough about returning the real strand to us,’ Harry replied. ‘He understands the consequences if he does not. And I have certain marks and imperfections noted by which I can authenticate the real thing. He would not dare to defy me. I have more than once saved him from danger and ruin. He’s perpetually in my debt. No, the pearls will be returned, and he is the best forger of jewellery I have ever met.’
A faint fog clung to the walls as the chill from the lagoon reached them, daylight fading. They had turned left onto a narrow lane, to their right a canal, in the other direction a long shadowy lane leading into uncertain darkness. Ynez shivered, then noticed that Capt Blackpool had halted. ‘Footsteps,’ he said.
A number of thoughts passed through Luigi Schirato’s fertile mind as he methodically measured and sketched the pearls Capt Blackpool had left behind. He had never in his life expected to view them, let alone handle them or duplicate them. But now temptation surfaced in his mind. What harm would it do to make a second set, which the Captain would never need to know about? He could certainly keep it as a memento of the commission, place it discreetly among his own archives, take it out from time to time years from now, long after they had been forgotten, just to admire his own work. So why not make two copies, the second to reserve for one of his best customers? But of course it is a replica, how flattering of you to mistake it for the real thing, of course the original has disappeared.
He looked more closely at his sketches and notes, the tiny flare detected on the face of pearl 59, the cleverness of the maker at stringing the slightly oblong pearl 65 close to the neckline where its aberrant shape would never be noticed. And the ruby, a stone of such astounding presence and hue it would take the hand of the master glassmaker a multitude of tries to equal. He thought about the visit he would make to the Mother Superior at the convent on San Erasmo, the coffee she would serve along with the S-shaped biscuits, and the laughter they would share as they recollected their scandalous youth before she entered the convent, in the years when he was apprentice to Codognato. He would steal away from his master’s house in the dead of night and scale an impossible garden wall to reach her balcony. In the candlelight she would have the cantucci and vin santo waiting for him. How many of those nights had ended with a hint of daylight at the window, an ungraceful donning of clothes, a wild race back to Canareggio, and barely able to stay awake at his workbench the following day. Schirato sighed.
He wondered about the volatile woman who had accompanied Capt Blackpool, and how she figured in the scheme, introduced to him as Signora López, strange accented language, Spanish or French, he could not decide. And clearly some powerful chemistry between Capt Blackpool and the voluptuous woman. There had been rumours of a buyer from the New World. So a mysterious female, perhaps a Creole, suddenly appearing in Venezia in the company of Harry Blackpool and the famed pearls at hand—now that was a story!
‘Curious,’ the man said, stepping out of the shadows, blocking their way. He had a sinister presence, though Ynez could not make out his features in the darkness, simply that he was quite tall and he spoke in French. ‘A visit to the atelier of Luigi Schirato in the company of an exotic beauty, quite unlike the reputation of the solitary and virtuous Capt Blackpool. Aren’t you going to introduce me to your ladyfriend, Harry?’
Capt Blackpool betrayed no anxiousness. ‘I heard you were in Venezia,’ he said. ‘Following me around. Of course you turn up now. You’ve never had the pleasure of offering a woman an extravagant piece of costume jewellery? A gentleman would introduce himself first.’
The man bowed in a courtly way. ‘Alexis Pierrepont, at your service,’ he said to Ynez. ‘An old friend of the Captain, honoured to make your acquaintance. And your name is?’
‘To call you a friend would be a misnomer,’ Blackpool said. ‘More like a nemesis.’
‘A lovely word,’ Alexis Pierrepont said. ‘We have in the past been adversaries, true, but that was all a long time ago. Now we are—let us say—non-threatening colleagues, or friendly competitors. Your servant, Madame …’ The last word delivered in a questioning tone, searching for a name.
‘No need to exchange identities here,’ Harry said. ‘Leave us alone, Alexis, and stay out of my way in Venezia. Signora, you are not obliged to tell this man anything.’
‘I am not in the habit,’ Ynez said, ‘of sharing information with people who surprise me like this in deserted passages. Will you escort me away, Captain?’
‘Spirited,’ Alexis Pierrepont observed. ‘I meant no offence, Madame. I’ll learn who you are soon enough. Harry, I will see you again, you can be sure. There will certainly be things to discuss.’
‘There is no need,’ Blackpool told him, but Pierrepont had turned and walked back into the depths, footsteps echoing behind him. Moments later they were alone again.
Ynez took Capt Blackpool’s arm. ‘That is the second of your friends I have met so far today, and I do not care for either of them. Is he going to be a problem for me?’
‘Not him,’ Blackpool whispered. ‘But his four associates.’
‘Which associates?’ she asked, as four figures stepped into the space which Pierrepont had only just vacated. It was wide enough for two, shoulder to shoulder. Two others hung back. They were all rather large and burly types. They all began to drift towards Harry and Ynez.
‘Stay here,’ Capt Blackpool said. ‘Do not move, and do not say a word, no matter what you see.’ In an instant Capt Blackpool’s right arm thrust forward and the hilt of the Kukri knife appeared in the chest of the man on the left. Completing the motion before the man had fallen, Harry seized the knife back, depositing the dead man at his feet and in a swift turning move which Ynez could not discern cut down the second man. Now two corpses blocked the passage, Capt Blackpool leapt over them and, grasping an overhead beam, threw a two-legged swinging kick which ploughed the third man into the fourth, the third man cried out in pain, doubled over contorted in the passage. Before the fourth could flee Capt Blackpool dropped to the ground, grabbed him by the collar of his cloak and held him in grip backwards around the neck which he could not escape. The man gagged, eyeballs popping as Blackpool applied pressure to a spot on the side of his neck; the man collapsed to the stone floor of the passage, covering his face with his hands. ‘Tell Pierrepont,’ Harry said, ‘that it is a shame to waste so many brave men on such fruitless enterprises.’
Harry stepped back to Ynez, who seemed suddenly short of breath. She half-collapsed into his chest. ‘I don’t know how you did that,’ she said. ‘And I don’t want to know. I want to get back to my little island as soon as possible, do you understand? This world you live in does not interest me in the slightest, and I will thank you to keep me away from any more of these underworld types. I have seen quite enough of them.’
Back to the covered boat on the canal, where Blackpool’s oarsman waited. Mist and darkness. The vessel disappearing into the fog—how did he know where he was bound? A seagull swooping by, low on the water. Then the dock again in a narrow canal, across the walkway, the downcast eyes of the amah, through the marble-framed doorway, and up the wide steps to the piano nobile with its frescoed ceiling. Under the candle-lit chandelier which rendered the vast floor an expanse of glowing caramel-coloured chevron parquet, they sat facing each other as tea was silently poured. The amah slipped away without a word. Ynez gazed out the high window at the canal—a gondolier sang some melancholy folk song, which came and went. Blackpool built a fire and said, ‘You have not yet told me whether my offer for the pearls is acceptable.’
‘You have not yet told me the name of the buyer.’
‘Someone reliable,’ the Captain said.
‘Not good enough,’ Ynez replied. ‘I will need to see other interested parties, hear some other offers. But no bank drafts. Remember: payment only in gold.’
Harry Blackpool smiled. She does not understand that everyone she meets in Venezia will spread the word, especially with such a demand. ‘It can be arranged,’ he said. ‘But you will be surprised. My client is beyond excessive in his offer. None will equal what he is prepared to pay you.’
She visited the banker in his elegant wood-panelled office. ‘Signora Lopez will be well advised to accept our most generous offer of 10 per cent above the last known auction price.’ Politely refused. Bows, farewells.
Next, an elderly principessa, who received them in a brutally cold and crumbling apartment, huge paintings on all sides, marble busts on pedestals. Wrapped in a red coverlet, and wearing a frayed cap, she offered them wine and said, ‘Signora will be pleased to accept thirty thousand British pounds in gold I am sure, and including this small portrait of a noble lady by Tiziano, which she will not regret receiving, as a token of our esteem.’ The offer declined, she had no need for antique paintings.
Finally, a bewhiskered merchant of gems, who said, ‘While pearls are less desirable, the unusual provenance and notoriety may make them more saleable. I say may, not definitely. I shall convert their value for you into a pouch of jewels instead of gold, far beyond the current worth of the strands, which Signora can safely transact anywhere.’ Regretfully, Signora could not accept—gems were not so easily valued or transacted.
‘Who is willing to pay me such a huge sum in gold?’ she asked. ‘If I am to sell my pearls to your client, then tell me the identity of the mysterious buyer.’
‘You agree to total secrecy, to never reveal the name?’
‘You answer my question with one of your own, Captain. She who has stood by you when you cut assailants down in cold blood? She who has tolerated a parade of avaricious Venetians to no good end? Now you question my discretion.’
‘The House of Jaipur,’ Harry said. ‘I am deputized to restore the pearls to the House of Jaipur. As I promised, you will be paid in bullion, weighing 1,764 pounds. It is substantially heavier than a pouch of mixed diamonds and emerald and sapphires, Ynez, and painfully heavier than bank drafts. Will you not reconsider?’
‘I told you, gold. But still one more thing, then, Capt Harry Blackpool. I will sell you those infernal pearls under the condition that you protect me and my sovereigns until the moment I am aboard my ship and on my way back home. You will watch over me every minute until I go to the dock, you will never leave me alone, escort me to my stateroom, stay by my side until the last, and wait on the quai until my ship disappears over the horizon. Then our understanding will be complete.’
Now he had definitely lost his chance, Alexis Pierrepont brooded. He had sent four men to abduct the mystery woman Signora Lopez, intending to hold her hostage, and instead Blackpool had exterminated three of them (three!) and removed Pugliese from service—master assassins—bah! Now he would need to seek his revenge later and elsewhere, since the Captain was certainly acting on high alert. Pierrepont knew they had visited a number of rich patrons around the city, proposing the Pearls of Jaipur, this he had confirmed, but strangely they accepted no offers. It did not take an idiot to decipher that Blackpool had engaged the famous Luigi Schirato to make a copy of them. Pierrepont dared not try and steal the real item from the forger, Blackpool would know immediately who had hatched such a plot and he could expect bitter pursuit to the ends of the earth if he attempted such a cavalier strategy. Instead, he would watch the Captain’s every move and wait for his next opportunity. But Pierrepont had other larger schemes to pursue, schemes which involved much higher stakes than a double strand of rare pearls. Territories to conquer, rulers to depose, unthinkable fortunes to be made. He would meet Capt Blackpool again on another battlefield, the next time better prepared.
She marvelled that she could not distinguish the copy from the real object, but Blackpool did, at a glance. He praised the forger for his elegant work, admired the fine patinas, remarked on the nuances of replication. To Luigi Schirato’s surprise he pointed out the flaw on the closure, the difference of weight with the original. ‘I attempted to make them identical!’ And the coldness of real pearls, which paste could not equal. ‘My compliments, Captain. You have missed your calling. I should offer you an apprenticeship!’ The case, copied down to its aged red velvet covering, had even a small water spot identical to the real thing. Again, only a single difference, the backwards fold on the corner of the white satin inside the cover, which Blackpool noted immediately. The money paid, the genuine pearls returned, the copy handed over, and back to the ancient streets with both, a hundred thousand pounds worth of booty concealed in the Captain’s cloak.
‘What is this place?’ Ynez asked, as Blackpool pushed open a heavy door which led into a vaulted room. She had watched him undo the lock with the aid of an odd-shaped metal lever, not a key, which he had produced from the folds of (of course!) his prodigious cloak. The door swung open, he closed it behind him, and secured the lock again from inside in the same manner. ‘An artist works here,’ she said. ‘But it appears to be abandoned.’
‘Not abandoned,’ Harry said. ‘Simply unused at the moment. The owner will return eventually.’ He walked to the windows at the far end, pushed aside tall green curtains, flooding the space with daylight. An ornate settee could be seen, placed on a riser, draped with a Persian carpet. Facing it, a huge easel, empty, stood next to a wide wood table on wheels, on which were positioned brushes, earthen pots, and glass vials of pigments. ‘It belongs to a friend, an artist of some note, who is away on extended holiday.’ Blackpool pulled a sheet off a large rectangular draped object, revealing a canvas in progress. Through the sketching and washes of faint colour Ynez could easily make out the form of a reclining female nude, roughly drafted, balanced on one elbow, and even despite the coarse strokes she could tell the woman wore her very strand of pearls. ‘The pearls were quite well documented before Vittorio brought them to you,’ Blackpool went on. ‘This is meant to be a portrait of your own sister-in-law, Grazia Rosetti. Don’t look so surprised, Senora Lopez. The painter is the man the ballerina ran away with—this is his atelier.’
Ynez looked away from the portrait. ‘So where has he gone?’ she asked. ‘Why is he not with her?’
Capt Blackpool re-covered the painting. He walked to a bin filled with costume jewellery, and began to pick through the objects. Great pendants, fine strands of pearls and glass gems, a crown, gilded plates, ornate rings, huge replica coins, finally coming upon a shabby red velvet box which he opened, revealing a cheap copy of the Pearls of Jaipur. ‘What I was looking for,’ he said. He took the inept copy from the box, pocketed it, and placed the real pearls where the copy had been, closed the clasp and set the box back among the bin of costume jewellery. ‘They will be safe there,’ he said. ‘Nobody will bother to look among cheap replicas. If necessary, we can place the Schirato copy into circulation and distract our enemies until it is time for you to leave. That was my aim all along, throwing the jackals off the trail.’
‘Why is he not with her?’ Ynez repeated. ‘You know she has written to me asking to be placed in contact with you? I had hoped to avoid her here in Venezia, but I suppose I should meet her at least once, now that her beloved brother has departed us. So she understands that whatever money he gave her is the last she can expect. Vittorio transferred over to her everything to which she was entitled. She shall have nothing of mine or my children’s. And I certainly don’t wish to see her on stage as she has offered. To be associated with a performer, well. Perhaps that is why he has left her?’
‘There is fantasy and there is reality,’ Capt Blackpool said. ‘Both deal in illusion. He probably felt he wanted the dream to continue.’
Ynez nodded. ‘And it didn’t, did it? I can only imagine the imbroglios that artists contrive over trivialities. Give me the world of practicality,’ she said. ‘I will need my gold as soon as you can collect it, Captain. And passage on a safe ship back home. Let us make that our highest priority. If I must meet the ballerina I insist that you be there to witness any words we exchange. That ought to conclude my business here.’
‘Don’t count on it,’ Harry said.
Small town that it is, it did not take much time for word to reach Grazia Rosetti through her network of gossips that her sister-in-law had landed in Venezia, and was offering the Pearls of Jaipur around for sale to the highest bidder, under the protection of Capt Harry Blackpool. Of course Grazia had no inkling of how Ynez had come by them, but the ballerina supposed that some share of their proceeds should by rights revert to her. Difficult as it was to reach Capt Blackpool—who could say where the man even resided?—she contrived by every means she knew to contact him, in order to arrange a face-to-face meeting, intending to insinuate herself enough to find out just how much she could wheedle out of her relations. But to no avail, for the Captain would not be found. She had by then received Ynez’s letter describing in the most perfunctory tones Vittorio’s unfortunate demise. It was an excellent opportunity to assume the dark attire of mourning. She immediately went out and acquired a new wardrobe, which brought her much sympathy from the sycophantic Venetians with whom she ordinarily fraternized, who admired her tasteful choice of sombre garments and elaborate black veils. Costume was the idiom of the theatre and all her contemporaries could read the signals of grief which her opulent clothing presented. In keeping with local custom, Grazia ventured out thus festooned to the Piazza San Marco area, whenever weather permitted. This she accomplished frequently, followed by a retinue of servants, admirers and hangers-on. Once there she drifted among the stalls, the gamblers, moneychangers, spice sellers, food sellers and notaries, inquiring of one and the other, driving her usual hard bargain to the chagrin of the merchants who knew her all too well. It was on one of these excursions that she caught sight of an extraordinarily striking woman, clearly an octoroon, attired in the finest silk, attended to by—La Fragolina was aghast—Capt Blackpool himself! It was, for Grazia, a remarkable first sighting of her sister-in-law, for it could be none other, and she dropped the salami for which she had been bargaining back onto the table of the relieved vendor, and worked her way forcefully through the crowd until she stood before Blackpool and Ynez with a strange ingratiating expression on her face, though hidden behind her veil. Capt Blackpool saw her coming and spoke confidentially to Ynez.
‘Your beloved sister-in-law has recognized us,’ he said. ‘There’s no escaping her, she is relentless. Let us be done with her as swiftly as possible.’
‘She is not quite what I expected. More flamboyant, smaller in stature, unable to conceal her intentions,’ Ynez said. ‘I shall be very interested to hear what she wants.’
‘My dear Captain,’ Grazia said, extending her hand, which neither Harry nor Ynez took. ‘Will you not introduce me to your companion?’ She quickly inventoried the woman’s appearance, acutely assessing the value of the outfit, the jewelry work, jealous of Ynez’s natural and exotic beauty, secretly envious of her piercing green eyes.
Harry Blackpool imposed himself between Grazia and Ynez. ‘Let us not be seen speaking together in public …’
‘Nonsense,’ Grazia interrupted. ‘Who cares what we …?’
‘I suggest you heed the Captain’s words,’ Ynez told her sharply. ‘Perhaps you need to employ some discretion.’
‘And you are?’ Grazia said, knowing full well to whom she was speaking.
Capt Blackpool took Ynez’s elbow, turned her away and said to Grazia, ‘Meet us in an hour in Castello. A drinking establishment called la Schifoseria, on an alley without a name. Make sure you are not followed. Then introductions will be made.’
‘But I do not know where …’
‘Ask anyone,’ Blackpool said. ‘And come alone.’
Grazia was late, very late, though Harry Blackpool maintained his composure as they waited. ‘She will arrive eventually,’ he told Ynez. ‘She cannot bear to be left in mystery.’
‘She is an abominable presence,’ Ynez remarked. ‘Could you not detect her avaricious agenda? That woman is only looking to gain advantage. She smells money. And she will stop at nothing until she gets what she wants. Did you see what she was wearing?’
She was unable to complete her remarks, for Grazia had then barged into the enoteca, which more than lived up to its name. The ballerina had somehow managed to change her outfit in the intervening time, and now wore a less extravagant version of her earlier ensemble. She waited by the doorway as the noise level in the place lowered appreciably, thirty pairs of desperate eyes surveying her, all aware of Capt Blackpool’s presence and none willing to accost her. Had he not been present she would have stood barely a chance. Her eyes adjusted to the shadowy interior, Grazia made out Harry and Ynez at a table along the back wall, and she stormed over to them eagerly.
‘Well?’ she said. ‘You have got me to this hideous place, so now first do me the honour of introducing …’
‘I am the widow of your late brother,’ Ynez admitted before she could finish. ‘Mme Delacroix, for your purposes. Now sit down with us and show me what manners you have. I received your letter, but I am afraid there is nothing more I can do for you. Rodolfo, whom you know as Vittorio, is quite dead. He gave you everything that was yours. We have suffered a devastating hurricane at home and I am consumed with rebuilding my island.’
‘You misjudge me, dear sister,’ la Fragolina began, plopping down on the bench facing them. ‘You may call me Grazia, for that is my given name. I am hopeful that we will eventually come to be best of relations. I have a sincere wish to meet your children, for they are my only heirs, you see. I ask nothing but your blessing. Today I seek the help of Capt Blackpool to locate my dear disappeared Balthazar.’ Looking now at Harry she raised her veil and peered dramatically into his enigmatic eyes. ‘Will you help me to find him, help me to bring him home? As I wrote you, I have nearly died from worry all these months. Surely with your contacts you can … if it is a matter of money, I will pay whatever you require.’
‘What if he does not want to be found?’ Harry asked.
‘Nonsense,’ Grazia sniffed. ‘He is devoted to me, he cannot live without me. And now this has come today.’ She produced a letter from her black lace bag, waving the folded paper in front of them dramatically. ‘It was sent from Scotland. An appeal which I do not understand, begging my indulgence in some mysterious matter concerning the missing portrait by my beloved Balthazar. It comes from the Earl of Pinckney, whom I last saw in Paris—a terrible rogue; the Countess Kozlowski who is former wife to Balthazar—having purchased her own title for money; and some odd character, the writer, identifying herself as Lady Belvedere—whose part in this I do not fathom, except that she purports to have some association with my estranged husband Sir Robert Marsh. They claim to know the painting’s whereabouts, and ask me to contact you, dear Captain, to protect it in transit, for they threaten to soon exhibit it here in Venezia. Am I to be victim to this gang of scoundrels? Can I even believe their wild claims?’
‘What has this to do with me?’ Ynez asked. ‘I know nothing of such a painting, though with your reputation...’
Capt Blackpool turned the eventuality over in his mind. It was a complication which he had not anticipated, a bizarre coalition of jackals bent on some mischief.
‘To do?’ la Fragolina asked. ‘My dear sister, you are well advised to be cautious of this man. He has no qualms about skulking around town, spying on people, enlisting the services of outlaws and gypsies to achieve his ends. If you are in some way implicated in his schemes over the Pearls of Jaipur I advise you—do not look so surprised—to proceed with extreme delicacy. The man appears and disappears like a ghost whenever he pleases. He is bereft of scruples. I personally witnessed his opportunistic antics a year ago in France, but he could not deceive me, no he could not. I am not stupid. And be wary of his reputed friendship with the Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur, whose interests he is known to place at the forefront. Mysterious loyalties, I tell you. Always to his benefit.’
Harry watched her with amused detachment. She would need to be removed from the equation, and quickly. Count Kozlowski, the most tolerant and generous of souls, had elected to escape her, preferring incarceration on one of Jaipur’s ships anchored off the coast. To have Grazia running around Venezia hurling accusations, spreading rumours. It would cause undue attention directed on him, on Ynez, and on the enormous number of gold ducats she intended to carry back to the New World, which Harry was now assembling for transport. Grazia’s interference would drive up the cost of silence, and bring out his enemies. And adversaries would be more difficult to detect with Carnavale only weeks away, the streets teeming with rowdy people in masque and costume, the worst conditions imaginable for any good surveillance.
‘Do you wish to read the letter?’ she asked. ‘It is rather emphatic.’ Capt Blackpool took the paper from her, read it quickly and nodded.
‘I advise you to get out of Venezia as soon as possible,’ Harry Blackpool said. ‘Obviously you are the one in danger, and others more sinister and powerful intend to make your life worse than difficult.’
‘And miss Carnavale?’ Grazia said. ‘I think not.’
For the women seated side-by-side at the banquette table in the crowded chamber to the right of the ornate entrance of Café Florian, an uncomfortable three-quarters of an hour passed far too slowly. Fanny and Gertrud arrived early. Their Anglo-Saxon sense of promptness had dictated precise adherence to the appointed time. But the ballerina Grazia Rosetti, typically volatile and exhibitionist, compelled them to wait for the better part of an hour. Fanny insisted that they not order until she appeared, to the consternation of the waiter, who quickly understood it heralded an hour of inexpensive hot beverages at one of his precious tables, and not a full meal with aperitivo and wine as he and his manager had hoped.
Cramped and overly hot it was in the claustrophobic mirrored room. The red velour-covered cushion begged for replacement, an uneven plush surface of lumps and angles on which neither woman could find comfortable placement. Gertrud resisted complaining, but her nervousness was soon apparent. ‘For goodness sake,’ Fanny said finally. ‘Can you not stop bouncing against my shoulder? Every time you wiggle I am wobbled and jostled like a ship rolling at sea.’
‘At least permit me to order something,’ Gertrud growled. ‘A cake, a pot of tea, some chocolate.’
‘And give her the satisfaction of knowing she made us wait? No, we shall act as if it is nothing to us when she finally appears,’ Fanny said. ‘We have been nonchalantly passing the time, and her Italianate tardiness is irrelevant to us,’
La Fragolina suffered no illusions about her own conduct. She knew perfectly well that a dramatic entrance made all the difference, and from behind the lace curtains of a second-story window across the square in a jeweller’s salon she surveyed the entrance to the Florian, easily identifying the women she was about to meet for the first time. Her eyes followed their passage into the foyer, as they turned right at the bar, then took their seats against the wall. Once they seemed suitably uncomfortable—for she knew the vagaries of that particular banquette and had prearranged it with the manager—she motioned to her entourage. This consisted of two fallen noblemen, a dissolute Romanian countess, a nymphomaniacal refugee actress from Covent Garden who hoped for a profitable liaison in Venezia, and a Blackmoor in a red jacket who was owed a month’s wages as a footman and did not intend to let la Fragolina out of his sight until she paid up. They followed her faithfully across the broad square, dispersing once she entered the café, the Blackmoor taking a position just to the right of the entrance, his arms folded, his grimace foreboding, severe.
Grazia fluttered into the café, waved at the disconcerted waiter, descended into the room, where she approached the table. ‘Lady Belvedere,’ she breathed, extending her gloved hand. ‘My dear dear Countess Kozlowski, I do so appreciate your agreeing to meet me!’ Introductions made, hands shaken, false pleasantries exchanged, and Grazia plopped down into a chair facing them, each side unable to conceal their own suspicion. They vainly searched for some kind of common language, but to no avail. Grazia wanted to state her devotion to Balthazar and her desire to learn his whereabouts, but Fanny and Gertrud would have none of it.
‘I shall be blunt, Signora Rosetti,’ Fanny finally said after the ballerina’s protestations. ‘We intend to exhibit Laszlo’s infamous portrait of you here in Venezia, and only meant to give you some advance warning in the interest of protecting your—ahem—reputation. You may want to take steps to avoid any more scandal …’
‘Let me understand,’ la Fragolina said, clearly stunned by the unexpected revelation. ‘You have located the painting? You know its whereabouts? Then have you news of my beloved?’
‘We know more than that,’ Gertrud cut in. ‘We are party to he who possesses the painting, and we even know how it reached its destination. We control its exposure. You and your beloved Balthazar may want to leave town for an extended period, avoid the consequences.’
‘And if we do not?’ la Fragolina asked.
‘Then let fate decide,’ Fanny sniffed. ‘It is you who brought this on yourselves. Do not act the victim. Others have suffered enough because of your illicit conduct.’
‘My conduct?’ la Fragolina asked haughtily. ‘What have I done to deserve such an …’
At that very moment, Humphrey, Earl of Pinckney chose to make his entrance. He had plotted to leave the women time enough to get acquainted. Though he sensed some uncommon tension, he executed an exaggerated bow. ‘Beautiful ladies,’ he gasped. ‘I am overcome with such an opulence of elegance at one table. Pray allow me to join you, and bask in your radiance.’
‘Sit down, Humphrey,’ Gertrud said. ‘You are late. This woman refuses to believe we will exhibit The Crimson Garter, and seems to feel we have knowledge of Laszlo’s hiding place.’ Dutifully, the Earl took a seat next to Grazia unable to resist staring intently at her, temporarily rendered speechless.
‘It is,’ Grazia said, ‘quite the outrageous claim. But you are not aware that Laszlo is at work upon a companion painting which will rival yours in notoriety. Here is some news to thwart your plan: When he returns I shall be memorialized wearing the Pearls of Jaipur, and your little gambit will fail to excite anyone. Then again, a proposal occurs to me which may serve both our purposes.’
The Earl of Pinckney leaned forward. He checked himself, chose not to utter the questions which filled his mind, instead said: ‘Let us order a bottle of champagne immediately. I find I am overcome by a sudden and extreme thirst.’ He waved his hand at the waiter, looked around impatiently.
Gertrud said, ‘It is Laszlo who acquired the Pearls of Jaipur? Our Laszlo?’
Fanny regarded la Fragolina cautiously, but no further discussion could proceed, since the waiter arrived bearing a folded note on a small silver tray. ‘Monsieur du Lac Noir begs your indulgence,’ he muttered. Pinckney grabbed for the note.
‘Who?’ he asked. ‘Who begs our indulgence?’ He opened the letter and frowned. ‘It appears we are summoned to a private room upstairs by a mysterious mutual friend. Most intriguing, one can only hope. Kindly bring along the champagne,’ he commanded. ‘I suspect I know who we shall find there.’
So much to think about every morning, Ynez pondered, staring at the lapis lazzuli ceiling from under the folds of her satin sheets. How did they do that, she thought, make the colour so radiant blue, attach it to the dome overhead with such delicacy and craft, render such brilliant stars? Another day to begin, though what he had in mind she could never know. She had been pursued by cut-throats, had an encounter with a murderer, visited the dens of forgers and rogues, dined at the finest tables the city could offer, praised by its finest citizens, and now someone was attempting extortion on her. How very exciting!
Capt Blackpool had long left the bed. She remembered the previous night’s lovemaking, the most recent of many passionate encounters. The man had remarkable prowess, and she did not feel alone with him, as she did with her late husband. She wondered if she was imagining the fact that Blackpool seemed intent on her pleasure first. Once he saw that she had reached her particular ecstasy, did he then seek his own? He was both tender and tough, and often they slept for hours entwined in each other’s limbs. But each morning he was gone.
Upon awakening, she sometimes wandered the palazzo corridors in search of him, for he could be found in any number of places: the kitchen, sipping at a coffee at a rough wood table or deep in conversation with cook in an esoteric language she would never understand; in the library studying arcane text; in the gymnasium engaged in some yogic exercise she could not name. One morning she found him standing alone on the balcony overlooking the canal, eyes focused east towards the sunrise. She asked him to share his thoughts, but all he said was that he had gone a long time back and half a world away.
She no longer counted the nights she had stayed in Venezia, and she longed for the faces of her children, her island home, the responsibilities left behind, but the ship back had been delayed and delayed, and the Captain had transferred only half the gold he owed her for her pearls. She loved him for the thrilling nights, and she loathed him for keeping her prisoner to her passage and money. And yet, if she returned to Barbados this adventure would be over, and Ynez relished every lunatic moment it had delivered.
Yesterday’s strange encounter at the Florian remained fresh in her mind. They had sailed to San Marco early, and taken lunch in a private room. Once the table had been cleared, they retired to a sitting room, where Blackpool consulted his watch and said, ‘They will be here in less than a minute.’
He was again correct, she thought, as the door burst open and four people made a noisy entrance. She recognized one of them immediately, her dear sister-in-law the ballerina, but the other three were new to her, an overdressed English man, a Slavic bulldog of a woman, and a tiny-but-dangerous-looking Scottish vixen. He had prepared her well for them. ‘We won’t have to say anything, they will tell us all there is to know.’
An awkward seating quadrille occurred, coffee offered, widely declined, champagne offered, the Earl of Pinckney now clearly identified accepting the offer. The waiter chased out, glaring behind him as he closed the doors. Then the Captain shut his eyes, did not move in his chair, hands on his knees, for half a minute. When he opened his eyes again the four visitors all began to speak at the same time. Ynez watched them but remained out of their conversation, as he had instructed. Though she tried to remain unobtrusive, her elegant costume and bearing stood out for its discretion and taste, which did not escape the other women who quickly appraised the staggering cost of her finery.
At first it was unclear who the spokesperson would be. It turned out to be the Countess Kozlowski, who managed to get to the point quickly, and reduced the discussion to near-gutteral sentences shaped in her strange accented English.
Still not saying a word, Ynez quickly gained the gist of their demands. They were in possession of The Crimson Garter and intended to exhibit it, after which it would be returned to a secret location. They were aware of how much humiliation it would cause for the ballerina and her paramour, and would require some compensation to delay its public display. They all expressed great interest in the Pearls of Jaipur and wished to be included in any future auctions the Captain knew of for them. Blackpool told them the Pearls had been taken off the market as far as he could tell. They all begged for information on the artist Balthazar, and the ballerina cried tears of apparent anguish for the life of her beloved. Capt Blackpool said he would look into it. All three women nodded in agreement. What most surprised Ynez was that they all registered such concern for Balthazar—the abandoned Grazia, the angry wife Gertrud, the spurned husband’s lover Fanny, even the Earl. Something was afoot. They intensified their pleadings to impossible levels.
‘I can tell you,’ Blackpool finally said, ‘that he is in good health, and has just left for a long voyage, from which he may never return.’
‘What else do you know?’ La Fragolina cried. ‘Will I ever see my darling Balthazar again?’ And she began to wail.
‘Do I understand you wish to follow him?’
‘To the ends of the earth! I would live under a bridge with him, beg for crumbs with him …
‘I think passage might be arranged,’ Blackpool said, thinking of one of the Maharajah’s ships bound for Australia the long way in the wrong direction, about to leave. They would easily be gone a year. ‘If you will allow me.’
‘Oh yes!’ she gulped through her sobs. ‘I shall depart immediately.’
Next the Czech countess tried to pressure Blackpool to protect the painting so that it would not fall into sinister hands. Blackpool refused, to their surprise. Why? Because he believed he knew its location, and that it was secure. Gertrude and Fanny snorted in unison. The Countess said Blackpool had a role in its notoriety, and was he not interested in preserving his own reputation? Blackpool said his information about the painting was correct and that he did not believe in reputations. They were free to do as they pleased with it, if indeed they controlled the real thing. He warned them many forgeries were in circulation.
The Scottish woman—who seemed the most vicious of the lot—reminded Capt Blackpool it was the artist who had thrust them all into this room today, but took no responsibility for the ruin he had made of all their lives. Should he not be called to task? Capt Blackpool lowered his gaze politely, spoke not a word. Nothing was said of the scholarly Scot who had once married the ballerina.
‘I warn you,’ the Countess said. ‘We are not to be trifled with. You refuse us on the painting, which was authored by Balthazar. You claim ignorance about the Pearls, when she …’ wagging her chin at la Fragolina, ‘assures us her paramour is about to dramatize her once again scantily clad and wearing them. You claim knowledge of Balthazar’s whereabouts, but conveniently reveal nothing more. And who is this woman and why is she here? I have my own network of connections, don’t you see? I can find out as much as you can. But to be summoned here like this, to be manipulated. And dragged in front of her.’ Gertrud pointed a pudgy finger at Ynez. ‘She owes us some explanation. Madam, why are you here? Have you or have you not sold your pearls?’
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