Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.
We bring you the exciting conclusion of Stanley Moss’s Fate and the Pearls, by SMoss, where every strand comes together in Venezia—but what are the fates of each of the characters? Remember, you can purchase your copy of Fate and the Pearls at Amazon.com by clicking here
A secluded bay near Trieste
‘And then, before His Excellency the Captain can usher him off easy as kiss my hand, and we is finally once and for all free of him,’ said Cheapers, a Cockney prone to opinionating, ‘His Lordship the artiste stops at the taffrail for one last polite conversation. The man cannot leave. “Are you absolutely sure this is possible?” asks he. “Of course I am,” says Capt Blackpool. “Because I don’t want to offend His Highness the Maharajah,” he says, enemies in high places, you know. “Perfectly all right,” the Captain assures him, “off you go now.” But Mister artiste won’t hear of it, no he won’t. He’s been most hospitable, he says, most generous, but “Harry, are you absolutely certain I shall return to Venice safely, that Jaipur won’t be sending executioners to murder me during the night?” “I assure you,” the Captain says, “His Highness is most grateful for the time you have spent and the portraits you have completed. He will not send anyone to strangle you while you sleep.” Mister artiste looks worried. “Strangled?” says he, touching his neckcloth. “He does things like that?” Capt Blackpool tries to steer him toward the gangway, but our guest won’t have any of it. “Six portraits I painted,” he says, “large ones.” Where he found the canvas and pigments I can’t fathom. Draped in tiger skin in full battle regalia, one on horseback, one on his throne. And portraits of his begums. “That’s fine,” Capt Blackpool says, “off we go now,” but Mister artiste won’t budge. Reduced to painting native-moats or some such word, he moans, whatever that means, but he never did no pretty pictures of castles surrounded by water far as I could see. “Is the Captain absolutely sure his trunks will be safe?” The Captain is more than sure. Perhaps Venice isn’t the best idea, Mister artiste thinks. Perhaps he should situate on a desert island and hide out, at least until the Maharajah sails off, just to be sure. “The Maharajah will be occupied with other things,” Capt Blackpool says. “And stealing away at two o’clock in the morning,” the artiste asks. “Won’t he be offended by such a sudden exit?” “Let me take care of that,” Blackpool says, “just get off the bleedin’ barky.” “Now, Harry,” the artiste says, “calm yourself, I need to make certain all the details are right.” And here he mentions some damsel named Fragile-Lena, he wants the Captain to promise again she has headed off somewhere else and he doesn’t have to see her. “Yes, yes,” Blackpool says, she is long gone to the south seas, won’t be back for at least two years. How does he know? “Because I myself put her on the boat,” Captain B. says, “now step lively, off we go, else we’ll miss the tide.” But the great artiste still won’t move. “The south seas,” says he. “Then my desert island is a poor idea. Instead I should like to go to Sweden.” “Sweden, fine,” Blackpool says, “now get off the boat.” “In a minute,” Harry, the artiste says. “Before I go I should like to visit my ate-tell-yer,” whatever that is. To this Capt Blackpool agrees, and finally the esteemed guest puts his foot on the first step, forgetting to clap his hand on the guide rope, but our dear Captain B. grabs him by the back of the collar, reminds him one for the ship and wait for the roll, and off he goes, down to the jolly boat and out of our lives forever. And good riddance to him, say I.’
Capt Blackpool paced uncomfortably, back and forth, back and forth, before the great windows which faced the canal which ran beneath Balthazar’s atelier. From behind a partition the artist rummaged through closets and trunks, bumping heavy objects around, intermittently grunting, then giving off with exclamations, ‘There it is, damn me, my good muffler, I knew it was here! Now where did I place my woollen stockings, the nights are deathly cold in Sweden, I will take every warm thing I own. Harry!’
‘Yes, Laszlo,’ Blackpool said wearily for the hundredth time.
‘Will I need two pairs of slippers?’
‘You can find anything you want in Uppsala,’ Blackpool told him, though the artist had long ceased listening for any replies.
‘Now, shall I bring a small paint kit? Which notebook? A new one or this one half-full? My ermine hat? The fur-lined mittens? Sweden, ouff, such awful food, herring a dozen ghastly ways, smoked and salted fishes they have buried and unburied, reindeer steaks, aquavit, all an abomination,’ Balthazar muttered to himself. ‘And frigid women.’
‘There’s always St Petersburg,’ Blackpool offered. ‘Just across the water. Intrigue at court, promiscuity and lots of French champagne.’
The mention of champagne apparently caught the artist’s attention. ‘So true,’ he said with interest. ‘And cases of excellent Hermitage. I shall definitely add Russia to my itinerary. You are absolutely certain la Fragolina has gone to the subcontinent? Of course you are. And my painting, Harry. Any news of The Crimson Garter? Dear me, what trouble that caused. I hope I never see it again. And that,’ he said, walking out from behind the partition, gesturing toward the huge covered canvas on his easel. ‘I should gesso over it immediately, before I go, sketch something new in its place. To think that I wanted to paint another likeness of her, decked out in those infernal pearls. What had got into me? Let me see, I am sure I placed a decent copy of the pearls among my costume jewellery.’ He looked in the direction of the corner of his studio where his props were kept. ‘Perhaps I shall take them along on my journey with me.’
The artist headed for the crate containing all such objects, but Capt Blackpool swiftly stepped in front of the mound of paraphernalia. ‘No time for that,’ he warned. ‘You need to get out of Venezia before anyone knows of your whereabouts. Especially your embittered wife and those people from Scotland who have issued such virulent threats to you. Do you wish for grandiose public humiliation? I guarantee they will give it to you. Leave everything here as it is. I will make sure your effects are secure and waiting for you when you choose to return, once things have calmed down in Venezia.’
‘I will so regret missing Carnavale,’ Balthazar mused. ‘So many costumes to sketch, scenes to remember. Much as I dislike huge public events, the rare opportunity to mingle anonymously in masque, to act the voyeur, quite appealing. Almost worth taking the risk to stay on a bit longer.’
‘Do not take my advice lightly, Laszlo. Be off with you now, today, at this very moment. Return after a year. Carnavale happens every twelvemonth. I have arranged your passage to Innsbruck. From there you will journey to Riga, and the Crown Prince of Uppsala awaits you across the Baltic in Sweden. Please, put down that astrolabe!’
Too many hours spent in the dispatch of Laszlo, Count Kozlowski of Praha, also known as the artist Balthazar. Resistance during the interminable carriage ride north to the foothills of the Low Alps. Then transfer of the artist to an ornate and luxurious furnished wagon pulled by two stout Percherons. The coachman presented, Adolfo—a capital fellow, obviously drunk—the stove lit, the lantern happily aglow, the artist sprawled on a wide cushion, reclining under a soft felt coverlet. ‘I may survive such a voyage, dear Harry, under these most generous conditions.’ A case of Montepulciano d’Abbruzzo packed away along with a dozen bottles of grappa, a larder stocked full of sausages and olives and cheese, pots of mostardas and fat loaves of bread. The artist placated, the journey into the Alpine passes finally commenced. The wagon disappearing into the distance. Somewhat relieved, Capt Blackpool looked south to Venezia yet again for the next round of unpredictable escapades.
‘An insufferable, wretched little man has called at the door every day since you have been gone,’ Ynez said to Capt Blackpool as soon as he had arrived back to the palazzo. He had discovered her in one of the sitting rooms with the replica of the Pearls of Jaipur opened on the table in front of her. She appeared to be anxious, uncomfortable, on the threshold of annoyed. ‘He will not tell me what his business is—and his strange and convoluted Italian must be local dialect—it took me two days to understand what his name is. Signor Garda, he kept saying. He is very insistent.’
‘The next time he arrives, if I am not here, install him in the kitchen, feed him, and keep him there. He is one of my informers, and he must have important news for us.’
‘He is most impolite,’ Ynez replied, picking up the false strand, holding it to her neck, regarding herself in a tall mirror on the opposite wall. ‘I find him untrustworthy. These pearls are too gaudy, are they not? Why would anyone wear such cumbersome things, precious as they are? Were he in my employ I would fire him. You go away for days at a time and leave me here to languish in your palace, only to deal with a character like that. I have nobody else to talk to, and the market ceases to interest me. Are you ready yet with my gold? May I please return to Barbados? You know, Captain, you could accompany me home. Perhaps my little island would intrigue you enough to stay a while.’ In her mind Ynez crafted a picture of herself and Harry Blackpool, mounted on beautiful horses, surveying the sugar cane fields. He would, she thought, make an excellent second husband. But a man addicted to intrigue, a man not easily domesticated. What kind of a stepfather would he be to her children?
‘Your passage is almost set, most details decided. A considerable sum in gold, the correct vessel, a trustworthy crew and my highest concern, your security. I have a Gurkha in London who could act as your bodyguard. I’m debating whether to send for him.’ Though he is needed for other tasks, thought Harry Blackpool. ‘Once Carnavale passes you shall take your leave, concealed by all the people departing. You will attract less attention leaving town then.’
‘Your Signor Garda is on the doorstep every morning at 9 a.m. like clockwork,’ she said. ‘Sometimes he knocks after dark. I expect he lurks in some alcove nearby, and he has no doubt observed your return.’
As if summoned by her words, a knocking was heard at the door and the miserable figure of Guido Garda soon appeared before them.
‘A gent named Mischa Stefan is asking around for you, dear Capitane,’ he announced, wringing his little hands nervously.
‘You have spoken to him?’
‘No, excellency. Though I have followed him, I now recognize him, he makes no effort to conceal himself. I know the pensione where he stays. What does the Captain wish?’
‘Bring him to me at la Schifoseria tonight, 10 p.m. I shall deal with him myself.’
‘The Captain can spare a few coins for a faithful friend?’
Blackpool handed over a meagre purse of small change, and Guido Garda melted into the streets.
‘A charming individual,’ Ynez observed. ‘Obviously well acquainted with you. But you have already promised my pearls to another buyer.’
‘I don’t think this is about your pearls,’ Harry answered. ‘This goes back to an earlier case, the scandalous painting of your sister-in-law the ballerina.’
‘And still you pursue it,’ Ynez said. ‘Have you not seen enough of that corrupt little woman? She conspires with your enemies. If she could, she would seize part of my fortune.’
‘Conspiracy comes in many shapes,’ Harry Blackpool told her. ‘In order to protect us all I must hear him out. But this guy isn’t that threatening, more an irritation. If I can put him out of circulation I will. And you are correct, it is time for you to go home to your little island along with your gold.’
A creature normally of Parisian cafés and candle-lit salons, Mischa Stefan found himself unprepared for the rotten tavern where the dishevelled little man had led him. Was this what his life had become, ugly furniture in dark and musty basements, surrounded by reptilian life forms generously referred to as humans? He knew he was certainly overdressed for the place.
It had been a strange year since the fiasco surrounding The Crimson Garter. For a short while he had been the toast of Paris, flooded with invitations from the élite, approached constantly for commissions by Balthazar, plagued with requests at the opulent costume ball of the Baron Schluysen-von Holstein. What a moment that had been! Then suddenly everything in collapse. The disappearance of the artist had been good for business, but the theft of the painting had been disastrous. This was followed by the later reappearance of la Fragolina and Balthazar and news of their scandalous liaison in Venezia, ripe with the ugly rumours of nefarious dealings in the underworld. The name of the mysterious Capt Blackpool often was heard in the gossip and innuendo. Struck from every guest list, Mischa had shuttered his space and gone off to Sardinia, to the villa of an old friend, where he hid out for months. He drank a lot of Cannonau to drown his sorrows, while he remained the laughing stock of all Europe, reviled in the press, the object of ugly speculation, ridiculed in the gossip sheets, subject of vicious cartoons. Now that the furore had abated he knew it was time to return to Venezia and attempt to restore his reputation. His first course of action was to try and locate Balthazar, but arriving in Venezia he discovered that the artist had mysteriously disappeared yet again and that la Fragolina in despair had boarded a ship to India, where her lover was reputed to have fled.
One day, while wandering among the stalls of San Marco, he encountered the Earl of Pinckney, an unthinkable gadfly who had wasted too much of his time a year earlier at his gallery in Paris. Now the Earl claimed to be in direct contact with Capt Blackpool, alleged to still be in search of the elusive painting which had caused so much scandal and despair. The Earl had subsequently entered into a liaison with Balthazar’s wife, the Countess Kozlowski, and claimed to be in collusion with secretive persons from Scotland, all in pursuit of the elusive artist and hinting access to the fugitive work. If Mischa could insinuate himself into the process, perhaps he could begin to revive his fortunes.
Now he sat in the darkness avoiding eye contact with anyone, facing an earthen cup of a liquid reputed to be red wine, a joke! Cowering, he debated touching some of it to his lips in the interest of simple curiosity, but he did not have the courage, and continued to stare at the inky contents. When he looked up he saw that a man he didn’t recognize had slipped into the seat across from him. Could it be Capt Harry Blackpool?
‘I am the individual you seek,’ he said. Harry had assumed a disguise, a full black beard, a floppy cap of auburn flax, and the doublet and trousers typical of the other inhabitants of the bar. Before he could continue a very large man approached their table.
‘You want to buy me wine,’ he growled. ‘And my friends at that table over there,’ nodding at a group of snarling brigands not far away who listened to every word. The noise level in the tavern dropped appreciably.
‘I advise you to rejoin your friends,’ Harry Blackpool said in a soft voice. ‘Or you will regret. Rejoin your friends and leave us alone.’
‘And who is you?’ the man asked, making a grab for Harry. But he drew his hand back suddenly holding it dumbly in front of himself. The hand was covered in blood, and Capt Blackpool held up the kukri knife he had so quickly and invisibly drawn.
‘Never mind who I am. I told you to rejoin your friends.’ Now the three other men at the adjacent table rose and started in Capt Blackpool’s direction. Rising from the bench where he sat, Harry hurled a stool at the biggest of the three, broke a jug and jabbed it menacingly at the second, who quickly retreated. To the third he threw a wide kick which sent the man onto a nearby table and it crashed to the floor, spreading to the walls those who were seated about it. The very big man with the bloody hand was hopping up and down trying to stop the profuse bleeding. Blackpool waited, kukri knife at the ready, but nobody challenged him.
Collecting themselves, the four stole away into the night, the noise level resumed, and Harry Blackpool returned to his seat facing Mischa.
‘I believe you are who you say you are,’ the art dealer breathed.
‘State your business,’ Harry Blackpool said.
Mischa Stefan squirmed in his seat. He worried that the four evil men might return, but Harry Blackpool appeared not to exhibit any concern over such an eventuality, staring at him with intense eyes, and so he collected himself and said, ‘I respectfully request that I be a party to any further business connected to the painting called The Crimson Garter. It is my right, according to my contract with the artist. Legally I am the guardian of the work, it was stolen from me, I am responsible for its ultimate disposition.’
Capt Blackpool listened patiently.
‘If you in any way can offer to me knowledge of its whereabouts you are legally obliged to tell me. I am empowered by the artist to administrate it. If you withhold information from me you are subject to whatever consequences the law may deign to present. What say you?’
This, thought Blackpool, is the individual who so irresponsibly launched the whole scandal which affected so many lives. Had Mischa not exhibited the portrait in Paris in the first place, against the artist’s orders—for Capt Blackpool had heard from Balthazar first-hand that he had expressly forbade it—the incredible cascade of calamity might never have occurred. Blackpool read Mischa’s mind: his first motive was money, followed only by rescuing his much-besmirched reputation. Blackpool did not speak.
‘What say you? Do you agree to aid me in my quest to make things right, to restore the work to its rightful owner, to eradicate the black cloud which plagued so many innocent people?’ Impulsively, Mischa downed the contents of the earthen cup in one quick swallow, and grimaced. ‘This is better labelled vinegar,’ he sneered. ‘Is this what those ruffians were swilling? No wonder they were of such ill temper. What say you, will you assist me, or shall I note your evasion to the authorities?’
‘Allow me the honour of escorting you to your lodgings,’ Capt Blackpool replied instead. ‘You never know who you will meet in these dark alleyways after a bar fight.’
Days later, the morning before the first great ball of Carnavale, Harry Blackpool discovered Ynez in one of the great drawing rooms of his palace, absorbed in a broadsheet. He could smell the faint scent of fresh printer’s ink as he entered. Lately she had taken to reading the popular giornales as soon as they came out. Arrangements had now been made for her departure, which was to occur this very week, after the thick of processions and balls of the season.
‘What a very odd coincidence,’ she said. ‘If I am not mistaken, last week you stole away into the night to rendezvous with a Signor Mischa Stefan, is that not so?’
‘I am not always at liberty to say where I went, whom I met or what I do.’
‘Of course you are not, beloved. But I do remember his name bandied about by that wretch Garda, who was so persistent during your latest absence. How very strange it is that only a week later the notorious Fra Bizzari from Roma has appeared in Venezia, champion of public morals that he is, conveniently in the first week of Carnavale. According to my news sheet here your Signor Stefan has been hauled up, thrown into chains and imprisoned on a raft of charges. Extortion, indecency, incitement to riot, among others. He is expected to be held for a very long time while evidence is assembled, to be followed by a rather public trial. I am simply remarking that it is one of those instances which can only be labelled an extraordinary coincidence.’
Even over the orchestra’s thundering strains and the ambient murmur of conversation, the woman’s desperate scream pierced the vast ballroom, halting momentarily the intimacies and constant laughter which swirled around the candle-lit setting. Then the normal cacophony returned. Gigantic chandeliers of Murano glass glittered above. Huge murals by Tiepolo occupied the wide walls, harbour scenes the master had populated with likenesses of luminaries known to the assembled masses. So many costumed and bejewelled types packed into the ballroom that the heroic variegated terrazzo of the Palladian floor disappeared beneath their feet.
‘Thief! Thief!’ the distressed woman, who was named Signora Rafaella, called to everyone in her vicinity, yet so many faces were disguised, so many bodies drifted in motion that it was briefly unclear which reveler had cried out, let alone which direction to look or where had vanished the perpetrator. Only when Rafaella careened over in her ornate dress did it become known who had fallen victim, and the expanse of her bare neck suggested the spot where the vanished bauble previously resided. Seconds before she had been admired wearing what many believed to be the actual Pearls of Jaipur. Now a group of predatory Venetians surrounded her. Ladies in besequinned dresses fluttered their fans, and a bevy of gallant gentlemen expressed their horror at the brazen act committed. Of course nobody had seen anything, everyone had an opinion, tongues and fingers wagged, sympathetic voices clucked words of comfort, and Rafaella was helped to a nearby chaise where she repeatedly took everyone in earshot through the calamity moment by moment, at each recounting with increasingly dramatic embellishment. She would be inundated with dinner invitations for weeks afterward.
The undiscovered culprit—known to society as Rinaldi the Bandit—masqued in the classic costume of the Physician, had deftly executed the theft, pocketing the strand of pearls with such agility and subtlety that the only person who observed his sly manœuvre was another cutpurse, Filippo dell’Osso, who resolved to steal them away from his competitor at his earliest opportunity. Rinaldi’s expert eye, first to identify the strand, led him to believe them the real Pearls of Jaipur. A career criminal with particular expertise in precious stones, he had spent the early hours of the ball happily pilfering smaller gems, some extremely attractive rings, an emerald brooch and two superb timepieces, while trolling for bigger game. When he first caught sight of the strand he realized that it could only be the actual object which all of Venezia sought. Unfortunately, he was mistaken, for in reality he had come upon the illicit second copy, made secretly by Luigi Schirato at the same time as the replica commissioned by Capt Blackpool and created for Ynez—yet sold surreptitiously, unknown to the Captain, to a prosperous merchant who gifted it to his wife, the Rafaella now reclining on the chaise and suddenly more popular than ever before in her life. Rinaldi knew enough to remain anonymous among the crowd, so as not to be caught sneaking away. He held back at a healthy enough distance to enjoy the multiple and escalating recountings of his successful work.
What he did not hear was his victim’s gasp of relief, ‘Of course they were not the real Pearls, but a replica set created by Schirato, which my incredible husband procured for me in an exclusive sale! Still, what a brazen act by a despicable rogue!’
About a half hour later, during a mass pilgrimage to the sorbetto table, in a lull between musical offerings, a throng of parched dancers herded toward the refreshments, jostling each other at close quarters. Filippo dell’Osso, sensing his moment, inserted himself into the melee and went to work. He resisted the temptation to snatch a fine silk kerchief from the exposed pocket of a gentleman. He saw a diamond neckpin to which he was attracted, but did not take it. He sighted an ornate bejewelled ring on the hand of an intoxicated man, suppressed his compulsion to remove it, and focused on Rinaldi’s back, locating the subtle wrinkle of the hidden pocket in the cape where the false pearl strand had been secreted. The moment arrived, dell’Osso made his move, and suddenly the replica pearls were his. But unknown to him, a lady thief named Zaramella, working the same crowd, now put her attention to dell’Osso’s haul, and began to follow him at a discreet distance, intending to eventually make the strand her own. So masterful was Schirato’s work that she too was deceived, ignorant of the fact that these were merely facsimile pearls.
Ten other inferior replicas had also been crafted by Musacchio di Padova, and these bedecked other costumed women at the ball. A discerning eye might have identified the inaccurate red hue of the false glass ruby, the disproportions and the dissimilar surfaces of the counterfeit pearls which Musacchio had added. But taken from a distance, the Padovan forgeries added another layer of magnificent distraction in competition with the two finest copies.
It was into this mass of confusion that Harry Blackpool, disguised as a masqued monk, and Ynez, masqued as well, in a gold brocaded, high-waisted skirt and bustier with low bodice, wearing the finest Schirato copy, made their entry into the ballroom under the jealous gaze of a thousand attentive eyes.
‘Now I shall commence my business,’ the Captain announced to Ynez. ‘May I present Commendatore Magni,’ a uniformed soldier of high rank with a pencil thin moustache, who stepped forward, jet black hair impeccably combed, everything sharp about him including the snappy salute and the barely perceptible kiss to the back of her hand. The soldier began to jabber automatically, puffing up his chest, pointing out to her unidentifiable sights and personages around the room. ‘I am sure the Commendatore will keep the gadflies at bay,’ Blackpool went on. ‘And you of course remember our plan of attack for tonight.’
‘Every word of it,’ Ynez assured him. ‘You can rely on me to do my part. I shall very much enjoy playing my role in this opera buffo.’ And she smiled brilliantly at the officer and allowed him to take her arm, wading into the inquisitive minions, who parted way for them, ogling, ever-curious. Who was that elegant Creole woman wearing the Pearls of Jaipur, escorted by one of Venezia’s most celebrated and eligible soldiers?
It took Harry Blackpool very little time to locate Fanny, Lady Belvedere and the Countess Kozlowski seated together and presiding from a corner table, in the company of wives from some of the oldest families of the Veneto. The expressions on their faces told Capt Blackpool everything he needed to know, no mind-reading necessary. A clutch of vipers in the thick of comparing their titles and wealth had assembled, with Gertrud at the bottom of the hereditary food chain, new money always resented, especially when it surpassed that of old money. Titles held by birth always trumped titles recently purchased. He could see the daggers exchanged, hurled from behind artificial smiles and small talk, knowing nods and gestures concealed behind fans. A silent war waged with bijoux, baubles, accented by powerful husbands, influential clerics and ancient alliances. A succession of callers at the table, supplicants, sycophants, berobed priests, lofty Monseigneurs, puffed-up bishops all passed by, making their graceful handshakes, whispering into ears, executing telling bows. Harry Blackpool admired the innocence of humans, caught up in their charades, convinced that theirs was the most important business of existence, rarely giving a thought to the unimaginable invention of the cosmos which had given birth to them all. For a very long while he watched the drama unfold at the table, until Fanny detached herself with some vague excuse, the gesture indicating to Harry that she was off in search of fresh air.
Gertrud, suddenly marooned with the local ladies and their servants, found herself isolated as the Venetians began to converse among themselves in their colourful regional dialect. She adopted a blank expression and feigned that she understood their words, faking the occasional smile, lying in wait for the particular moments when she could laugh along with the group, whose exchanges were completely incomprehensible to her. Though she hoped to participate, she discovered her reactions always a sentence too late, and finally she froze up, impatient for Fanny’s return. She did not know that half the ladies at the table could have conversed to her in fluent English, or that her earlier mutterings with Fanny had been often overheard and understood.
On her way to the balcony, whose tall doors had been thrown open, blocked by billowing purple velvet curtains, Fanny was startled to see the Creole woman whom she had met in the company of Capt Blackpool, surrounded by a clutch of ardent partygoers. The woman wore around her neck what could only be the Pearls of Jaipur, their enigmatic presence accentuated by the huge ruby which nestled at the intersection of her cleavage. Such vulgarity, Fanny thought. I shall speak to her after I am revived and give her a piece of my mind. So, Blackpool had the strand in his possession all along!
Fanny pushed through the curtains to the balcony, inhaled the bracing night air and stood at the balustrade watching the procession of gondolas proceeding below along the Grand Canal, lanterns in the thousand bows glistening.
At first she thought she was alone, but quickly a voice intruded. Captain Blackpool at her shoulder.
‘Lady Belvedere,’ said he. ‘What an unexpected surprise.’
‘Hollow pleasantries,’ she sniffed. ‘You had the pearls all along, so do not treat me like a fool.’
‘I would never attempt such a thing,’ Harry said. ‘You are far too clever.’
‘Please, Captain, spare me. I am not an infant. You control the pearls, and you drape them around the neck of your—what shall I call her?—your protégée, is that correct? You advertise tonight in public that you have them, a slap in the face to us, not to mention a signal that our generous offer was a sham. I say we all are being played for a fool by you. Your scheme is to amplify demand for them, then sell to the highest bidder.’
‘Conjecture, magnificent conjecture,’ Blackpool said.
‘And what has become of that irritating ballerina?’ Fanny went on. ‘First she insinuates herself into our conversation, then she disappears without a word. You have, perhaps, engineered her abduction?’
‘I thought you might illuminate me on her whereabouts, what with all the spies and connections you claim.’
Fanny rolled her eyes. ‘If you know where she is, kindly say so. If you don’t, then perhaps we should institute a search for her. I can see it now in the broadsheets: Distinguished Ballerina Vanishes—Notorious Capt Blackpool Implicated. Is that what I can expect, dear Captain? Such extreme attention drawn to all of us? Is that what you would like? Does that somehow serve your aims? And where has her companion the artist gone off to? You have no hand in that?’
Before Harry could reply, though, Ynez stepped through the curtains and onto the balcony next to him.
‘So here you are,’ she said coldly. ‘Hiding away with the opinionated Scottish woman. Evading me. First you dress me in these horrible pearls, then you leave me to the local jackals. Here,’ she said, unclasping them, thrusting them at Harry Blackpool. ‘I hate them, I refuse to wear them, take them away. Let someone else deal with all the attention.’ Harry Blackpool took the pearls in hand.
‘A decision you may live to regret,’ he said.
‘I am not your mannequin, your concubine or your slave,’ Ynez said with venom. ‘Contrary to what you may believe. I have jewels of my own …’ she took from her pocket a fine strand of dazzling emeralds, which she held around her neck. ‘Help me with the clasp.’ Blackpool hid the pearls away and wordlessly did as she asked as Fanny looked on in horror. ‘You will find me somewhere in there, when you are done with your Scottish friend. Where I come from we have a more refined idea of hospitality.’ Ynez haughtily threw open the curtain, briefly exposing the golden light in the ballroom. Awaiting her, the dashing Commendatore Magni could be seen close at hand. He offered his arm. As the curtain swept shut she could be seen elegantly striding away in his company.
‘I ask you again,’ Fanny said. ‘What is your connection to that woman? You did not tell me when we met at the Café Flore. She made us all very uncomfortable. The ballerina led us to believe she was her sister-in-law. I am glad to know she has a voice—and a temper—though it is a bit of a stretch to refer to me as your friend. The implication of a deeper relationship offends me greatly.’
Blackpool nodded deferentially. ‘I see you cannot be so easily deceived,’ he said.
‘I should hope not.’
‘According to my latest report, the ballerina can be found somewhere between here and Gibraltar, on a ship destined for India. She ought to be in Mumbai in about six months.’
‘Now we are getting somewhere,’ Fanny said. ‘Let us return our discussion to the subject of pearls, as I have seen with my own eyes that they are now in your possession. Are you ready to entertain our generous offer for them? You refuse? Would a premium of ten per cent change your mind? It would not. Twenty, then? You shake your head. My final offer. Then keep them, Captain. There is something positively grotesque about them in any case.’ And she stormed away intent on reporting everything she had learned to Gertrud.
Filippo dell’Osso continued to marvel at his good fortune. He had managed to elude every threat and now believed he possessed the Pearls of Jaipur. His only objective was to successfully exit the palazzo with them, but his luck was about to change, thanks to the lady bandit Ornella Zaramella, who had never let him out of her sight. They had a history: a brief love affair followed by disappointment, distance and regret. But later, moving in common circles, they were destined to occasionally meet, especially at moments like these where opportunities of mutual interest occurred. Instead of duplicity she now chose direct approach. She found him in a vaulted vestibule where many revellers still circulated, gold and black and brocades, shiny marble tabletops, cream walls. She removed her masque and stood in his path.
‘Tesoro,’ he said, catching sight of her. ‘How beautiful you are tonight.’
‘Ever the charmer, Filippo. Do you still nurse a broken heart for me?’
‘I shall always cherish the passionate moments we shared.’
‘Don’t embarrass yourself. Tonight it’s all business. Earlier I saw you obtain a particularly desirable treasure in the ballroom. As usual your hand was sure. But a difficult item to resell, if you get my meaning. I propose a mutually beneficial collaboration, since our old nemesis Capt Harry Blackpool is present tonight. There is word on the street he is interested in them.’
‘Humphrey,’ said Gertrud. ‘Fanny has cleverly engaged Harry Blackpool and learned that the ballerina conveniently left Venezia and will trouble us no longer.’
‘Ah, excellent, my dear. That miserable woman was only disaster.’
‘Further, the Captain won’t discuss anything of the painting. All the more interesting, she has witnessed him receiving the Pearls of Jaipur from his mulatto companion. And he has refused our offer for them!’ She looked across the ballroom at one of the women whose table she had shared, and simultaneously they both turned their eyes away.
‘Curious,’ said the Earl of Pinckney. ‘You suspect a conspiracy?’
‘I suspect no such thing,’ Gertrud answered. ‘Simply sinister designs, as is always the case with that man. He has a buyer, his old friend the Maharajah of Jaipur, you can be sure. Those pearls will never be ours.’
‘I shall attempt to influence him, then,’ the Earl said. ‘Perhaps he can be drawn into conversation surreptitiously. You said he was costumed in the guise of a monk?’
‘I did,’ Gertrud said. ‘See if you can learn where the artist has gone. Look to that corner there, the monk. That is Blackpool, scanning the room. Aha! He has caught sight of us! If you speak to him, remember he can read minds. Not only does he know what you are thinking, he can place thoughts into your head.’
‘Nonsense,’ the Earl said. ‘Go and find Fanny, and I shall recapture you later with news.’ And he strode across the room in Capt Blackpool’s direction.
Musacchio of Padova glowed. How very clever to have crafted a dozen replicas of the pearls, and now to view them in every corner of the ball, the faces of his clients illuminated by candlelight, the ornate strands a shimmering part of the festive decor. He nodded his noble profile at many familiar faces, and accepted many an accolade for the beauty of his work. And now even more flattery, for the room was abuzz with the news that a replica strand had been stolen off the neck of one of his customers. What greater tribute to his artistry! Unknown to the victim, Musacchio himself had commissioned the theft, by a lesser scoundrel named Marco Fazzini, who had snatched the item from the neck of a tipsy lady. Oddly, Fazzini, replica pearls in hand, could now be found on the altana where he had been escorted, face to face with Capt Harry Blackpool. Clouds drifted across the moon, and lanterns glowed from adjacent rooftops, spread across the tiny islands. Occasional skyrockets lifted sputtering into the misty air, giving off with explosions, leaving behind sparky trails. Off to their left the lofty domes of San Marco loomed.
‘I should like to examine that copy of yours,’ Blackpool said. ‘Give it over now.’
‘Esteemed Captain, it is my greatest pleasure.’ Fazzini said, handing him one of the Musacchio strands. ‘Thank you for summoning me. The Captain honours me with his friendship. The Captain is a prince among men. The Captain’s generosity is known by all. I am humbled to be of service to the Captain, the sunlight whose brilliance blesses us all.’ On he went, nearly two minutes of effusion and flattery, his words filling the wooden platform. Harry Blackpool barely listened, but allowed the man to babble on, thinking over his course of action. Finally Blackpool deputized Fazzini to locate Gertrud van Thyssen and deliver her to a forgotten dock behind the palazzo after a quarter of an hour. Then he excused himself, descended a narrow staircase and disappeared into the crowd once again.
The Earl of Pinckney never reached the monk he sought in the ballroom. Instead, suspecting foul play, he abandoned his idea of a search and rejoined his two companions. In the throng a strange character accosted them and insisted in crudely accented English that they go with him to a mysterious destination on the invitation of Capt Blackpool.
‘This requires protection,’ Pinckney told the Countess Kozlowski. For once, Gertrud did not resist. ‘I won’t have us following some disreputable maniac on the pretence of a confidential meeting. Here: I have my revolver primed and ready, should anything untoward occur. Fanny should follow discreetly and observe everything from a distance. Let us see what these devils have in mind.’
Minutes later, having obtained Fanny’s complicity, they followed the escort down a hidden passageway to a deserted dock on a lesser canal located behind the palazzo. Fanny held back, peering around corners as they made their circuitous way. Fazzini evaporated, his work done. A dark cloaked figure waited next to a striped pole at the dock’s end.
‘The monk again! It has got to be him,’ whispered Gertrud, her voice atremble. ‘The mysterious monk whose identity we know.’ Pinckney nodded in agreement, grasping the pistol in his pocket, and careful not to set it off accidentally. The dock shifted lazily in the current. Gertrud grasped the Earl’s elbow as they approached the edge.
‘Let us take a short cruise,’ Blackpool suggested, motioning them to step into the covered cabin of a waiting gondola that had hovered offshore in the darkness and now moored at the pole. Inside, a small brazier had been lit rendering the enclosure comfortably warm. They sat facing each other on cushioned benches, Blackpool gave a curt instruction, the gondola set off in its swaying way, and they regarded each other in the coppery light.
From the shore Fanny watched helplessly as the gondola drifted up the canal in the direction of Academia. In a panic she looked about her, imagining bandits lurking in every shadowy alcove. She decided to return to the ball, and fled, looking backwards every few steps, convinced her life was in danger, which it was certainly not.
Inside the gondola cabin Harry spoke up. ‘It’s come to my attention these are still of interest to your little cabal,’ he began, producing a Musacchio set of false pearls, just obtained from Marco Fazzini. ‘They can be yours for a privileged price.’ He handed them over to the Earl of Pinckney.
‘Lady Belvedere has just informed us of your circumstances,’ the Earl said, examining them cautiously. In the dim light of the cabin he could not get a clear view of the strand, but it looked real enough to him. He decided to play for time. ‘Before I enter into any discussion, you have yet to disclose what you know of the fugitive artist Balthazar, who has not been seen for some while. Your name always comes up when his is mentioned. Pray illuminate us.’
‘You have no idea?’ Blackpool asked. ‘What with the clever Lady Belvedere’s vast network of informants? Then I shall tell you: he has gone to the northern latitudes to remain in hiding. He is under the protection of powerful people. He is safe, but will not be seen for quite some time.’
‘How utterly convenient,’ Gertrud said. ‘The ballerina and her paramour removed from circulation. The art dealer languishing in a cell in the Arsenale, awaiting Fra Bizzari’s inquisitors. And suddenly you wish to trade with us? Something is rotten here. Humphrey, return the pearls to the Captain immediately. Take us back to the ball. Get me off this infernal craft. I can no longer tolerate the odour of this putrid lagoon.’
‘Do not be too hasty, my dear,’ the Earl of Pinckney said. ‘I think the Captain has a compelling offer in mind for us. But how can I be certain that this is the object we seek? A set of expert eyes is warranted.’
‘You find them,’ Blackpool said. ‘If indeed they meet with your satisfaction, I shall locate you and then collect for the goods.’
‘This is all too complicated,’ Gertrud protested. ‘I am not convinced the Captain can be trusted. Can the boatman kindly stop this floating chamber from rocking so?’
‘Calm yourself, Gertrud. Capt Blackpool would hardly seek to compromise us.’
‘Of course he would,’ Gertrud replied, as if Harry was not sitting in front of her. ‘All he seems to do is thwart us. I smell a rat.’ She attempted to stand up, but the Earl of Pinckney grabbed her forearm and forced her to remain seated. The gondola wobbled.
‘Captain,’ the Earl said. ‘With your permission I shall hold these pearls overnight. If you will meet me at the cafe near Ca d’Oro tomorrow at two in the afternoon I will give you our answer. Gertrud are you getting seasick? Let us return to terra firma immediately.’
Back in the ballroom Ornella Zaramella had gained possession of the second Schirato set from Filippo dell’Osso. Now she lay in wait for the three people identified by Capt Blackpool, whom she eventually found lingering in a drawing room near the vestibule. She had her instructions. They huddled together engaged in intense discussion, but such that she could not easily interrupt them. For several minutes she stared at them, finally catching Fanny’s eye.
‘That woman in the blue satin has been staring at me,’ Fanny told Gertrud and Pinckney, nodding in Ornella’s direction. ‘For the past five minutes.’ All three regarded Ornella curiously.
‘I do believe she is trying to communicate with us,’ the Earl observed.
‘It is impolite to stare,’ Gertrud said. ‘I say we ignore her.’
Ornella smiled, waved her fan at them. Bowed elegantly. Beckoned the Earl in her direction. Waited to see if he took the bait.
‘She appears to want to speak to me,’ the Earl said.
‘Do not respond,’ Fanny warned him. ‘She looks suspicious to me. Her cheeks are over-rouged and her eyes are thickly lined in black.’
‘I shall go over and talk to her.’
‘I warn you, this does not bode well,’ Gertrud said.
‘I have my pistol,’ Pinckney said.
‘Please promise me you will not discharge a firearm inside these walls,’ Fanny pleaded.
‘She is rather attractive,’ the Earl observed. ‘Perhaps she wants to be more than friends.’
‘I think not,’ Gertrud sniffed. ‘Why do you entertain such an idea? She may aim to steal the pearls from us.’
‘And how did she come upon that knowledge? That we have them?’
‘Fanny dear, have you not yet figured out that Venezia is a den of intrigue, at the centre of which sits the inestimable Blackpool, and where the Pearls of Jaipur are tonight’s most coveted prize?’
‘Of course I have.’
‘Then if an exotic Venetian beauty summons me with the sweep of her fan am I to ignore it? Word gets around. She knows something. I propose to find out what.’
‘Humphrey, please,’ Gertrud said. ‘Let the woman be. The Captain has entrusted his pearls to us, we have no need of other enticements.’
‘She is rather persistent,’ Pinckney said. ‘Look, she motions again with her fan.’
‘Then we all should go over to her,’ Fanny said. ‘She will try nothing untoward if we all attend her at the same time.’ Eventually the three approached Ornella together.
Covering her face with her fan, so that only her eyes were visible above it, Ornella said, ‘A mutual friend tells me a certain piece of jewellery is of interest to you.’
‘I knew it,’ Fanny smirked. ‘But you are too late. We know the whereabouts of the pearls, don’t we, Humphrey?’
‘Indeed we do.’
‘Odd, even impossible,’ Ornella said. ‘Our mutual friend is said to be in possession of them, no?’
‘See here,’ Gertrud said. ‘What are you up to? Explain yourself, signora …’ and she paused, searching for a name to say. ‘For all you know, we may be in possession of them.’
‘Doubtful,’ Ornella said. ‘If that is the case, let me see them.’
‘A-ha!’ Pinckney laughed. ‘A counter-offer, methinks! Out with it, then. Shall I show you the goods?’
‘If you would be so kind,’ Ornella said.
‘Humphrey, don’t,’ Gertrud warned.
‘Nonsense,’ the Earl said. ‘Nobody is looking, nobody suspects. Stand close to me so we aren’t observed.’ And he produced the pearls from his pocket. Ornella eyed them suspiciously.
‘Surprising,’ she said, ‘Especially since I know our mutual friend offers you the real object and yours is but an inferior copy.’
‘I think not,’ the Earl said. ‘Ours comes directly from the source. You intend to defraud us. Off with you, then.’
Ornella produced the second set, created by Schirato, a far better copy than theirs. ‘Look here then,’ she said. ‘See what you are about to refuse.’ Nobody reached for them, so she secreted them away again.
‘And refuse we will,’ Fanny said. ‘You are a vulgar and common person, in whom I can place no trust. Yours is clearly designed to cheat us. Go back to your hovel and do not bother us again.’
‘Madame will kindly go to hell,’ Ornella said. ‘Damn you, damn your eyes and damn your foolish friends.’ And she walked away, slowly, regally.
‘Imagine the nerve of that woman,’ Gertrud huffed. ‘We are not so easily conned.’
The Earl of Pinckney looked quizzically at the strand in his hands. ‘I am having my doubts,’ he said. ‘Hers were a more convincing set, these suddenly have the air of patent falsity.’
But Ornella had melted into the crowd of Venetians again, and having re-entered the grand ballroom, she clandestinely passed the strand back to the monk, who nodded to her subtly, then himself stole away. Capt Blackpool now possessed both of the excellent Schirato sets. The first and best he placed into an elegant red velvet bag held closed by a gold braided drawstring. The second he kept in his breast pocket.
The evening had grown late, in fact according to the clock it was already the next day, and still the music and dancing continued. Fireworks burst overhead. Pierrots mingled with Physicians, Romeos met Juliets, Moors encountered Pashas, and Joan of Arc danced with Lancelot. At the stroke of one a strange murmur rose from the crowd and everyone in the ballroom turned at the same time to face the entrance. A throng of satin-clad courtiers wearing ornate salwar kamiz marched onto the floor, twenty scimitar-bearing turbaned Sikhs came next, all preceding the grand entrance of the Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur. He had carefully chosen his outfit, vermillion silk, accented by brilliant green details, his shoulders draped in a magnificent tiger skin, at his waist a large curved dagger embellished by huge stones which caught the light from every direction. Unknown to anyone except Harry Blackpool, many of the courtiers who accompanied him were fierce Gurkhas, costumed and deputized to protect him from any harm. Many were known to Capt Blackpool, with whom he exchanged greetings by the most nuanced shifting of his eyes.
Blackpool waited. Multitudes descended on the Maharajah, then visits by local dignitaries. Some were received, others turned away. The crowd followed his every move. He watched the Maharajah’s irritation grow, the familiar signs of impatience, the perfunctory wave of his plump hand, a spoken annoyed instruction, the delivery of a sherbet in a fine green glass, the snapping fingers, another sherbet appeared, then a third, all under the nervous surveying of the crowd. Finally the monk was noted, eye contact between Harry and his childhood friend, word quickly passed, the ring of security opened, and Blackpool ushered to the Maharajah’s side, and thence discreetly hustled into a private sitting room with windows overlooking the Grand Canal.
The Maharajah plopped down on a broad settee, loosened his collar, and patted the open space next to him. ‘Sit here, Harry,’ he instructed, lowering his voice so as not to be overheard. Blackpool complied. ‘Now we can speak privately, there is so much to ask you. What have you been up to? I must thank you for getting rid of that artist, goodness how he overstayed his welcome. The whole ship smelled like turpentine and noxious spirits. I had them all heaved overboard once he had stolen away in the middle of the night. And he did not even say farewell or thank you, the most inelegant and ungallant leave-taking imaginable. I nearly had a mutiny on my hands because of him. The hareem was in constant uproar. Things are so much better now that he is gone. Why do you affect such a bland costume? Never mind, I was clever enough to spot you in the crowd, those unmistakable eyes, did you not think I would find you? What of the ballerina? She fascinates me. Nothing of the missing portrait? I think I shall take an interest in the theatre now. Art collecting is so tiresome. Is La Fenice for sale? No, then perhaps the Paris Opéra. No? The opera house in Wien? I thought not, a dismal and dank place, I would not want to own anything there. London is impossible, did you know that? A veritable profusion of theatres, all stinking and ugly. Besides, my captains tell me the lanes into the Thames are all blockaded, huge bribes to be paid to cross them, what a bore. I shall not call in London this trip. Though I know you have a place there. Don’t deny it, Harry.’
‘Rahjee, why are you even here? Aren’t you needed at home? Shouldn’t you be headed back to India? You have been away such a long time.’
‘I am suddenly hungry,’ the Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur said. ‘Food! Something edible, please, and not noodles smothered in black ink and slimy fish! What are those dumplings there? Hand me that platter, Harry.’
‘There is someone I want you to meet.’
‘Not another of your artistic friends, I hope,’ the Maharajah said. ‘Look: there is another small object I seek before I return home, and you must help me. Do not think I am unaware. I have asked you before, and I ask you again. Bring me the Pearls of Jaipur. You shall be rewarded handsomely, as always.’
‘Patience,’ Blackpool said. ‘Let us summon Commendatore Magni and his companion for a short audience.’
‘That military man? I have shaken his hand already tonight. A lesser figure, undistinguished. Impeccably barbered, escorting a magnificent woman. Fine, call for him. We shall receive him. I suspect you have something in store for me.’
Two floors below, in a deserted servant’s passage off the kitchens, Marco Fazzini examined the items he had removed from the crowd over the course of the night. As his final act he had stolen yet another of the Musacchio copies, but he frowned at them, since he could easily tell they were worthless. A young serving woman, rather attractive, entered the passage from a side door, attempted to squeeze by him in the narrow space and he stopped her, placing his arm across the way. She was a poor girl working in the kitchens, a classic creature from the south, olive-skinned, full-figured, dark-haired and black-eyed. ‘You are a picture of beauty,’ he said. ‘Has anyone ever told you that?’
‘No, signor,’ she said modestly, looking down. Fazzini opened the knot of her neck cloth, then the two top buttons of her blouse. The woman did not protest or resist, but blushed, breathless at the affront. He draped the Musacchio set around her neck, closed the clasp behind her neck, and kissed her on her mouth, gently stroked her generous breast.
‘A memory of the Carnavale,’ he told her, and stole away into the darkness at the end of the passage. The girl stood motionless, leaned against the wall, touched the strand in disbelief, not sure whether it was a dream.
‘Enchanted, truly, madam,’ the Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur said, kissing Ynez’s gloved hand, then staring at her intently. ‘We have not met before?’ He nursed fantasies of adding her to his hareem, but he suspected a deeper connection with Harry and until he understood her status more completely he chose to mind his manners. One set of toes he did not intend to trample belonged to Harry Blackpool. They had sent away Commendatore Magni and cleared the room of courtiers and supplicants. Only Blackpool, Ynez and the Maharajah remained. In the background faint streams of music could be heard, still echoing from the ballroom floor. ‘I am,’ the Maharajah went on, ‘accustomed to granting favours, for I am the guardian of an ancient throne and its multitude of followers. How may I be of service to you?’
Ynez lowered her eyes before she spoke. ‘Excellency,’ she said. ‘Your generosity is legendary. Capt Blackpool assures me of your great benevolence, and his long-standing affection for you. I wonder if you would consider a small proposal on my part.’
‘Proposal?’ said the Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur, hoping she was diplomatically asking to marry him. ‘Madame, I am your servant.’
‘Captain,’ said Ynez. ‘If you please.’ Blackpool produced the red velvet bag which contained the finest set of Schirato’s copied pearls. The Maharajah looked curiously at it, and then a grin spread across his wide face. ‘I ask that you not open it in our presence, but hold it until the appropriate moment and determine whether there is any interest on your part in this small offering.’ Blackpool put the bag in the Maharajah’s hands.
‘Harry,’ the Maharajah said warmly. ‘You have recovered one of the objects which I seek. My very dearest friend!’ And he started to unclasp the bag. Blackpool stopped him.
‘Madame prefers that the object not be examined yet, Rahjee.’
The Maharajah hesitated. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘How very impolite, how very vulgar of me. Madame will pardon my haste, which is simply a demonstration of my gratitude and interest. Let us keep our friendship pure, outside the realm of the material. I shall consider the object at a later time.’
Ynez nodded. ‘With your permission, Highness, we will let Capt Blackpool act as intermediary. You and I should remain above such unpleasant dealings.’
‘Exactly,’ the Maharajah said, barely containing his excitement. ‘Does art interest you, Madame?’
His Highness talked at length about his collections, his passion for creative objects, and he seemed charmed by Ynez. He offered them food and drink, declined, invited them to visit his modest armada, demurred, insisted that Mme Delacroix plan a trip to India where he would host her in the style which he knew she would deign to approve. Had she ever rode upon an elephant? Hunted a tiger? Walked through an ancient city? Seen mountains that rose above the clouds? He would personally show her the Mother Ganges, the ghats of Benares, the Aravali hills. She would be serenaded under the stars of Rajasthan by the sweetest voices she had ever heard. He promised her heavenly tea, jasmine blossoms and sandalwood, silks and the oil of lotus. To all his offers Ynez gave him thanks, but she told him she had her own small responsibilities on her own little island kingdom, thousands of miles away. Finally she asked Capt Blackpool to escort her home. She was quite weary from the long night’s festivities. She begged the Maharajah’s pardon, but she said she could not go on.
The Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur smiled benevolently. He too was overcome by the wealth of pageantry he had experienced. He urged Capt Blackpool to make certain she reached home safely. He called for his courtiers and guards and made a formal exit, sweeping out of the ball in a blaze of colours, for now the flow of guests streamed outward into the venerable lanes of la Serenissima, the gondolas filled with their passengers, and the canals grew thick with floating craft spiriting their occupants home.
It had been a spectacularly exciting night for Signora Rafaella, a night which began with a robbery, and then a whirl of interactions with so many new friends. She and her husband would have social engagements, certainly, until the next Carnavale a year away. The ball was ending, time for her to go home. Her husband had excused himself for a few short moments to say his farewells. Rafaella was shocked to be approached by a man in a monk’s costume and his Creole companion. She had noticed them before, and the furore they had caused.
‘My dear,’ the mysterious woman said, handing Rafaella the second Schirato set of false pearls she had originally worn. ‘These were given to me by mistake. I believe they are yours.’
But before Rafaella could reply, the monk and his companion were swept away by the crowd, never to be seen again.
About an hour before dawn Harry Blackpool and Ynez opened the heavy door to Balthazar’s studio and climbed the stairs to the vaulted space. They carried a small lantern which threw enough light to see the ghostly outlines of furniture and objects. Ynez dropped herself wearily onto a couch, slipped off her shoes and sighed.
‘I am impressed by the enthusiasm of these Venetians,’ she said. ‘Truly. While I dream of my bed, they conspire to meet for breakfast. What are you doing rooting around there?’
Harry Blackpool could be seen coolly picking through a bin of costume jewellery, props and other objects which sat nearby. ‘Aha,’ he said. ‘Here it is.’ And held up a red case which contained a double matched strand of black pearls, from which a huge ruby was suspended. ‘Now, my dear, we can send you home.’
He loved his time in Göteborg, an unlikely emotion from one so habituated to perpetual criticism. He relished the long nights, the cold stone buildings, the dark rooms and the fireplaces, the muttered conversations with bearded academics, and the thousands of old books. Some customs he did not understand, the bawdy songs and drinking until oblivion. But that was the way of his hosts, and his natural reticence did not appear so alien to them. It had been a time of philosophical discourse, of debate and study, of examining works he had only heard mentioned, of considering tracts for purchase. Had he not the obligations of Marshmoor and the pending return of Lady Belvedere he would have stayed longer, picking through ancient libraries in frozen chambers overfilled with forgotten tomes. His mind drifted back to the wintry passage home, the bitter cold of the ship’s cabin, the icy white-capped seas, and the succession of coaches northbound from Dundee. Though he would not admit it, he missed the torrid nights with Fanny’s hungry body clinging to his in the darkness and the tangled folds of the bedclothes animated by flickering lantern light.
Now he had returned to Marshmoor’s cavernous halls, surrounded by fields of frosty heather, and he had opened the huge manor house, lit the fires, and sat at his desk picking through the letters which arrived during his prolonged absence. There were enquiries from his banks and solicitors, offers from his book dealers, a hundred applications from his tenants for loans or rent deferrals or challenges to property titles. All these he put aside, opening first the long letter from Fanny, written in her miniscule and spindly hand, sent from Venezia, where she had gone in the company of the Earl of Pinckney and Gertrud von Thyssen.
It was a complicated and convoluted report which tracked their efforts in vain to solicit a venue where they could exhibit the scandalous painting he owned and exact their revenge. The Venetians proved obstinate and uncooperative and their city uncomfortable, fetid and extravagantly expensive. Moreover, the artist Balthazar had eluded them yet again, disappeared from public view. His companion, Sir Robert’s ex-wife, the ballerina known as la Fragolina, had surfaced briefly, and attempted to insinuate herself into their activities. Then she too had slipped through their fingers, was now reputed to be on board a ship en route to Mumbai. Fanny suspected the sinister hand of Capt Harry Blackpool in the conspiracy.
The fugitive art dealer Mischa Stefan, who had first shown The Crimson Garter in Paris, had briefly returned to the scene, only to be arrested by a crusading cleric named Fra Bizzari: it was expected Stefan would be transported to Roma in chains, brought up on morals charges and perhaps even sentenced to be burned at the stake! Marsh could only hope for such a fate for the scoundrel who had caused such misery and calamity for so many innocent souls.
Fanny had caught sight of the Pearls of Jaipur at a great masqued ball during Carnavale. To her surprise Capt Blackpool had contrived them to be worn by a mysterious Creole beauty somehow connected by marriage to the ballerina. Their offers for the pearls he had rejected, even after she increased the amount significantly. Fanny suspected the buyer to be Blackpool’s old friend the Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur.
Pinckney and Gertrud, disappointed, chose to head back to Prague to their horses and hounds. She had no expectation of ever seeing them again. Fanny herself would now return to Scotland at her earliest. ‘Your little finch,’ she wrote, ‘dearly missed her holly branch,’ and she hoped Sir Robert would ‘delight at the return of its familiar nest.’
Marsh put down the letter and frowned. He detected the frustration in Fanny’s account, for none of their intrigues had come to anything. His instinct had always been to shy away from high society and its arcane machinations. He had gone along with their scheme, mostly to placate her. His trip to Göteborg had been such an unexpected success; their expedition to Venezia had resulted only in failure. He had warned them but they had not listened. His judgement had been sound, theirs faulty. He felt a sudden compulsion to visit the painting, to reassure himself that it was truly the unsettling and distasteful object he remembered, which he had so adroitly removed from the public eye. A part of him speculated it was the right moment to burn the cursed thing, to reduce it to ashes once and for all. But another voice inside him said it needed to be preserved, that it might have some utility in the future, weird leverage in the event of a sinister act, a chip to be traded for silence at a later date.
Removing himself from his study and wrapping himself in his tweed shawl, Marsh began the long walk to the east wing of the manor, where The Crimson Garter resided. Along the way he encountered Cedric, the elderly butler, who regarded him quizzically. Where was the master headed? To visit the other side of the house, to open one of the private rooms upstairs. Would that be the room on the second floor, the third door down? It would. During his absence Cedric had only one occasion to wander the hall—very strange that the door appeared ajar at his last time past. He did not remember it as such. Ajar? Just so, Cedric said. It had seemed rather strange: to his recollection Sir Robert had left the door locked, but now he was certain the door stood open. Sir Robert Marsh quickened his step leaving Cedric behind, crossed the reception rooms, the entry hall, flew through the long dining salon, took the broad staircase two steps at a time and rushed along the hall to the door, which indeed stood open. Where the great crate had last been seen there was only empty space. The candelabra he had left on the floor remained in the corner of the room. But the painting was definitely gone, no longer there, disappeared, no trace of it. Cedric caught up with him and hesitated in the doorway, breathing heavily.
‘Who’s been in here?’ Marsh stammered.
‘Nobody but myself,’ Cedric said. ‘Far as I know.’
‘Nobody? That is impossible. Nobody else has been in the house?’
‘We did have a wonderful Irish gentleman working with the groundsmen for a few weeks, just after you left,’ Cedric ventured. ‘His name was Henry, always cheerful, rather popular with the girls. He seemed harmless enough.’
‘He had access to the room?’ Marsh said. ‘He was supervised?’
Cedric looked dumb. ‘Supervised, Sir Robert? Do you mean watched every minute?’
‘I mean, had he the run of the house, even when you were absent?’
‘I don’t know, sir. I expect there were times when he was alone on the property, usually could be found down in the kitchen seated at the table. Liked a hot meal. Mostly he worked cutting peat. He slept in one of the extra rooms off the stables.’
‘An Irish man?’
Cedric nodded. ‘Left rather suddenly. The girls miss him.’
‘Was there anyone else?’
‘The Bishop did stop by once or twice. He likes to drink an ale and have a slice of cook’s pie.’
‘How recently did you notice the room unlocked?’
‘Well, sir, as I say, I never go up there, truly. I only noticed last week when we received notice of your return and I walked all the halls to inspect. It was then I saw the open door. But it didn’t look like anything had been tampered with. I assumed I was mistaken and you had left it thus. My memory not what it used to be.’
Robert Marsh clasped and unclasped his right fist nervously. Someone had stolen his property. More than likely the Irish man, of that he had little doubt. Which could only mean the thief was another damned thing besides. A tool of the infernal Capt Harry Blackpool.
Abruptly the celebrations ceased, the lanes grew empty, the citizens of Venezia retreated to their homes behind closed doors and garden walls. The occasional cast-off stray bottle left behind on the pavement splintered with rays from the morning sun. Remnants of confetti, a discarded masque or scrap of ribbon shifted in the breeze along the cobblestones, the province of stealthy cats who silently prowled the shadows.
It would soon be more than one year that she had been away from home. Back on the island of Barbados the fields would be rich with rows of brilliant green cane ready for cutting. She would find her children grown taller, life would have gone on in spite of her absence. Everything which had transpired in the interim seemed like a waking dream. The memory of her late husband had long escaped her. She held no anger toward him, nor resentment for his incredible acts of folly. Once she was home her new life would begin without his interference.
She marvelled at what she had already seen. Rogues, thieves, princes, ancient passages, bloodshed, elegant palaces, grand festivities, the depths of the underworld and the heights of society. Nobody at home would believe her if she told them any of that, or recounted the nights spent in Blackpool’s arms, or the confidences they had whispered to each other. She had but one more long journey to make across the wide sea. If she survived it, she would use her cache of gold to start over. Perhaps he would come to her, most probably not.
He had outfitted the cabin, and it was far more spacious than she could have hoped. Here would be her lodging for the coming months. Miraculously all her possessions had been removed from the palazzo to the ship. He had furnished it with a multitude of comforts, fine Persian carpets on the floor and walls, a soft eiderdown on the bunk, a dressing table which turned into a writing desk, a built-in teak wardrobe lined in cedar with latching drawers, a gimballed table which folded down and where she could take her meals, crystal and china in its own padded box, even a compartmentalized trunk of provisions and spices, preserved foods in pots. Each trunk had its own secret compartment so that her treasure was dispersed among many objects. He showed her the hidden panels in the cabin, behind which more of her gold had been concealed here and there.
He handed her a small pocket telescope whose lenses had been ground by a master optician in Bruges, whose intricate brass fittings had been hand-hammered by expert artisans in Düsseldorf, whose blue leather cover had been stitched for her in Firenze. Unknown to her it was of a quality fit for a king. But she admired it just the same and promised to cherish it.
Next he handed her a sheathed kukri knife, much like the one he carried at the small of his back. ‘I do not favour firearms,’ he told her, ‘though I am something of an expert in them. May the spirit of this blade protect you, and may you never have need to use it. And there is one more thing.’
‘One more thing?’
Harry Blackpool opened the door of the cabin, where a stocky dark-skinned man in a proper black suit stood waiting in the passage. ‘This is Narayan, a Gurkha who has just arrived from London,’ he said. ‘He will travel with you to the New World, and he will see that no harm comes to you along the way.’
She reached out her hand, and the little man took it, smiling at her in the most genial manner. ‘I am very pleased to make your acquaintance,’ she said.
‘His loyalty to me is total,’ Blackpool said. ‘He owes me his life from many years ago. He is more dangerous than he looks. Others will regard him as your manservant, but he is more than that. He is your bodyguard, so follow his lead and he will never fail you. The cabin next to yours is his. He will return to me after he has delivered you home safely.’ Blackpool addressed the man in a strange guttural language, and the man nodded in understanding.
‘Does he speak?’
‘He listens mostly,’ Harry Blackpool said. ‘He speaks hill dialect, some Hindi, some Urdu, some Gujarat, a little English. He will understand everything you say to him.’
‘Tell him he honours me with his service,’ she said, and Blackpool obliged in the mysterious tongue. Narayan bowed and excused himself. At that very moment the ship’s bell sounded. They melted into each other one more time and exchanged a kiss, a long embrace.
‘The tide is up,’ Harry said. ‘You know what that means. I need to go.’
‘I know I have been impatient and critical with you,’ Ynez said. ‘But you are still a mystery to me. You have treated me so well, helped me to sell my pearls, sheltered me in your home, kept me from danger, and now created this beautiful cabin. Arranged everything for my return passage. I have seen you in so many different lights, you have defended me, taken me into your confidence, and now you release me like this. To this day I cannot fathom what is important to you. At least tell me that before you go.’
Capt Blackpool looked deeply into her green eyes, and admired once again her intensity and beauty. Tenderly he ran his fingertips along her exquisite jawline. ‘The moment,’ he said. ‘The most important thing is the moment.’
The wind was generous and they drifted easily across the lagoon under a mild breeze towards open sea. The mainsails gently filled as the ship tacked in the direction of the wide Adriatic. Ynez stood at the rail scanning the shoreline thick with hulls and masts, from which she had only just cast off. First she sighted the columns and great open square of San Marco, moved her view right past the Bridge of Sighs, across the lesser canals, ending to the east at the rooftops of the Arsenale.
From beyond the rooftops a glowing red arc appeared, the top of an orb, rising slowly upwards, growing in size, becoming fuller as it rose. At first she thought it was the rising sun, but it could not be, for the sun was at her back, yet the rounded vibrant shape grew fuller and fuller until it passed the middle of the arc, became an iridescent red disk illuminated by direct sunlight. But when it rose high enough to clear the roofline she saw that it was an enormous hot air balloon of red silk, stitched with gold details, travelling skywards, leaving the horizon above the Arsenale. As the balloon’s gondola came into view she reached for her telescope and brought the cupola into focus, identified the form of a man at the rail. He was attired in black, held a telescope in his hands and appeared to be looking directly at her from his platform in the mist, steadily rising.
Impulsively Ynez grabbed for a white kerchief tucked into her sleeve, brought it above her head and waved it back and forth. Suddenly a flock of gulls filled the field of her telescope, and for a moment she lost sight of the balloon. Then, the view cleared, the balloon climbed into the haze and she was certain she saw the man raise his hand to her in salute. In seconds the balloon was invisible to her, sailing somewhere higher among the clouds, yet for a few more moments more she waved, and waved again, waved in farewell.
Darkness. Darkness and never light, save for a small window which sat so far above his head he could never dream of climbing to it. The cell was constantly cold, and his fine clothing had long deteriorated into shreds. Now he huddled the interminable nights in a stony corner under a burlap blanket on a straw-covered floor. What magnificent irony, he thought. Only a year ago he had refused invitations to the finest tables of Paris, he had been offered obscene amounts of money for Laszlo’s painting, he had turned away hordes of the curious from his gallery door, he had slept on linen sheets. Astounding women had thrown themselves at him. If only Kozlowski had heeded his advice, acknowledged the portrait, endured the marriage to Gertrud von Thyssen, accepted the lucrative commissions. It would all have turned out well for everyone. Notoriety, fame, prestige, riches. Instead it had devolved into calamity, ruin and the destruction of reputations. Mischa Stefan had swiftly gone from a position of popularity and influence to one of exile and disgrace. His hope had been to return to Venezia, retrieve his business interests, recover what he had lost. It was not to be so. For some inexplicable reason he had attracted the attention of a crusading cleric from Roma, who appeared determined to obliterate whatever was left of his life, and turn him into a public laughing stock. One of the lawyers he located had the temerity to suggest he might be executed for the fabricated charges!
It had cost him his last few coins to obtain writing paper, ink and quills from his avaricious jailer. He spent his days in the vague light from the little window, writing appeals to anyone he could remember, pleading his case, calling in old favours. So far to no good end. It was as if he was forgotten, as if he had never existed, and he felt imprisoned in a darkness outside of time, in a kingdom where no friends remained, a victim of corrupted, mistaken accusations.
It was Kozlowski’s fault, he decided. After all he had done for his childhood friend, to be so maligned, abused, marginalized. To have fallen victim to the ballerina, to have destroyed so many opportunities. Mischa looked up at the window, which allowed him a tiny patch of sky during the daylight hours, and sometimes a faint glow on moonlit nights. Now he could see, for a brief instant, what looked like a dot moving across the grey Venetian sky. Was it a dot? It lingered, wavering and hanging, rocking there for a short moment. A hot air balloon, caught in the rectangular frame. It could be nothing else! Then, like a taunt, the tantalizing vision disappeared, empty sky returned, and Mischa doubted whether he had really seen it at all.
When the ship docked in Tenerife she asked to go ashore, but once the harbourmaster’s boat reached them the letter addressed to her, contained in the packet of correspondence he delivered, changed her plan. At first she could not remember where she had seen a similar red envelope with the cream-coloured card inside, and then she remembered her last visit to Laszlo’s studio months ago. She had spied a stack of them on his desk, and now one such letter had arrived for her, here miles beyond Gibraltar’s gate. Hers was an invitation scribed in an opulent hand, to visit another ship, docked across the channel at a nearby island in the archipelago. An extravagantly outfitted barge for her was sent, attended by footmen, with cushioned benches under shady canopies, and very good iced wine served in crystal goblets. Three identical ships were anchored together, all garlanded with colourful banners flowing. They were in beautiful repair, and busy crew filled the decks.
‘Which is his?’ she had asked the pilot.
‘Why, they all are,’ he answered. ‘The one at the right contains the hareem and his stores, I think. The left one houses his sailors and marksmen. You are going to the one at the centre, his residence.’
‘His residence,’ she said. ‘You mean he lives there?’
‘Madame, I am not at liberty to say anything more. You will be aboard in a few short minutes. I am sure all your questions can be answered then.’
She was piped aboard efficiently and escorted by a uniformed Sikh to the main cabin, which occupied what would have been the upper gundeck. Instead, the space had been transformed into a light-filled apartment outrageously furnished with tapestries and gold fittings, everything shaped from elegantly carved wood. The perfume of sandalwood infused the place, and the Maharajah presided from a wide settee. When she entered the suite—for it could not be called a cabin—he leapt up immediately and took her hands in his.
‘Welcome! Welcome!’ he called. ‘I hope you will forgive the suddenness of my invitation. When the information reached me that you had landed at Tenerife I felt it imperative that I act immediately.’
She admired the yards of colourful silk which draped his ample form, the fine stones which were inset into his buckle, his opulent scarab pin, and decorated his turban above his forehead. True, he was corpulent, but she detected a good nature and a warmth to him which did not seem disagreeable. His English was excellent, and his manners impeccable. He eagerly showed her about his collection of objects, ordered his falcons brought in for her approval, and then sat her down to an extraordinary feast of far more dishes than they could finish. The light outside grew dim, and he insisted she stay the night in the guest quarters, for which he apologized profusely, they were modest and humble, but he assured her that her comfort was of his utmost concern, if she wished he would send word to her ship that she would return the following day when the tide was up. She said she was sure her accommodation would be fine, and he appeared pleased at that appraisal. Now for some port!
Lanterns were lit, and the cabin filled with a rosy glow. She drank to his health, to the glory of his ancestors, to good fortune, and to love. Then he produced a bottle of cognac, 50 years old, of exceptional quality, and they drank from that, toasts again, to her ancestors, to new friendships, to the blessings of the new year, to the promise of the future. The hour grew later, and finally he leaned in conspiratorially.
‘May I ask a favour of you, a small indulgence?’
‘Highness!’ la Fragolina exclaimed. I hope you do not suggest …’
The Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur produced an elegant red velvet bag held closed by a gold braided drawstring, which he opened, and deposited the contents into his plump hand. ‘Make no mistake, my nightingale, I ask you only to model these for me. They have just come to me, and if you would be so kind, you will be the first to wear them.’
She recognized them immediately, of course, the Pearls of Jaipur, though neither knew it was the finest copy ever made by Luigi Schirato. She remembered this was the same item of jewellery that Laszlo had wanted to adorn her with in his last portrait. La Fragolina put her hand to her breast where the ruby would hang. ‘I would be honoured,’ she gasped, as the Maharajah helped her into the strand, caressing her neck and shoulders as he did so.
She modelled them for him, showing them to him from a number of angles and poses and the Maharajah regarded her with obvious satisfaction. ‘You wear them so well,’ he said. ‘I would very much like to see more of them and more of you. May I speak freely? My sources tell me you have booked passage all the way to Mumbai, is that not correct, on another ship anchored nearby? I know it is a small cabin you have taken, and that although it is comfortable, the presence of other passengers restricts, let us say, your freedom. It is a smaller vessel and I have heard the galley is, let us say, limited in what it will offer you. Here aboard I have a fine chef, stocks of superior wines, and always the freshest of provisions. I have below a guest apartment which you might like to consider you own, let us say, for I too am bound for India in need of company, and coincidentally Mumbai is my first planned landfall. Would you entertain such an offer, my dear?’
‘As I am about to accept your hospitality for the night, Highness, would you permit me to give you an answer tomorrow morning, over breakfast?’
Her reply appeared to please him, and he gladly consented. Grazia walked the length of the cabin again for him, modelling the strand, and when she returned to his side he said, ‘My dear, I must show you another something very, very extraordinary. Will you accompany me to a small gallery amidships in my humble apartment? It is a new acquisition, just arrived, one I think you would enjoy seeing.’
‘I should be delighted,’ la Fragolina said. Together they walked half the length of the ship, rounded a corner and entered a double-high cabin which occupied the rest of the lower deck. It was dark inside, and she shivered in the evening chill.
‘Allow me to add some light,’ he said, striking a match to a lantern. The cabin filled with illumination revealing a large folding screen, blocking a carved alcove. ‘Now do not be afraid,’ he said. ‘I have gone to great expense to rescue this, and rest assured it will stay with me forever.’
At that he pushed the screen aside, revealing the painting she had never seen, The Crimson Garter, which had been created by Laszlo, Count Kozlowski, the artist known to the world as Balthazar, with whom she had so long ago stolen away from her former life.
‘Is it not remarkable?’ the Maharajah asked, looking searchingly at her stunned expression.
La Fragolina swallowed hard. ‘It is a very fine likeness,’ was all she could say.
‘When word reached me last night that someone had landed in the Bois de Boulogne in the middle of the night in a hot air balloon I had few doubts as to who it could be. Then I learned the same individual had defeated four swordsmen on horseback leaving one of them extremely dead, run a barricade in a stolen coach and disappeared on the road into town. At that point I knew it was you.’ said the Princess Radiant.
‘And you had breakfast ready for me,’ Harry said. ‘Very thoughtful.’
‘You have been busy,’ she said. ‘I assumed you would have an appetite.’
‘Rahjee tells me you have been busy as well, fomenting revolution in Jaipur from afar. Consorting with Americans. Can this be true? I needed to ask you directly.’
‘What fantasies he engages in. Do you know the cost of insurrection? I am well-to-do, but not that rich. No, his throne is not under threat. No, not from me. The threat is that man Pierrepont.’
‘What is the reality?’ Blackpool asked.
‘The reality is that I intend to first regain the emblems of my rank and then think about going home. I am quite established here in Paris, they don’t know much about food, but there’s a rich intellectual life. I like the salons I can attend. It’s quite a crossroads. You can meet people from a lot of different places, keep up on the news, remain au courant, as they say here.’
‘The reality?’ Harry asked.
The Princess Radiant picked up a piece of toast and took a delicate bite. ‘They know nothing about bread here,’ she said. ‘You need to smother it in butter and jam to make it tolerable. I suppose I am here for a while. What about you? I heard you were protecting the plunder from Jaipur’s latest shopping spree.’
‘I was,’ Harry Blackpool said. ‘Then he sent for me, and I got busy.’
‘You did,’ the Princess said, looking down at the red velvet box which sat at her side and contained the Pearls of Jaipur. ‘I think you are magnificent, Capt Blackpool, for bringing me my pearls after so long. You have solved half my dilemma. You are a romantic man, and my first love. I know of no better champion in this world. And you shall have my thanks forever.’
‘My honour,’ Harry said. ‘My privilege.’
‘Will you be staying long? I have waited quite some time for you. You can be very comfortable with me. We can travel together if you like, visit exotic places. I understand that some of the Caribbean islands are quite diverting, Barbados, for example. Apparently there is much beauty to be found there. Do not look so surprised, Harry. I have my spies. You watch out for me, I watch out for you.’
‘Dear Princess,’ Harry Blackpool said, reading her mind. ‘No love can ever replace first love and you are unique in my life. I’m devoted to you. Now, before I promise you anything, tell me: what more can I do for you? There is something else that you want from me, and I am waiting to hear it.’
‘Very well,’ the Princess Radiant said. ‘There is only one thing left that I require of you. You have brought me my pearls. Now I ask you, my dearest Harry, my champion, my greatest friend. Bring me the Jade Lion, and then your work will be done.’
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