Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire. He has authored numerous books, including, recently, The Hacker.
‘How tormented you suddenly look,’ he said. ‘I believe you are in peril. I believe that is what you are hiding, and why you decided to leave the stage. And so I, Balthazar, will place myself at your service.’
How sincere, charming and serious the man had become, she thought. Were conditions different she might have given him half a chance. ‘Such a chivalrous offer, Sir Balthazar. A bold offer, too, for someone who has no idea of the danger he may face. In another life I could consider taking you up on it. My answer is no,’ she said unwillingly, unconvincingly. ‘And it is past time for you to say your chivalrous farewell.’
She stood up too suddenly, and swept her hand gracefully toward the door as she spoke. But the exhaustion she felt, the dehydration, the thick and humid air of the tiny room, and the pungent aromas of strawberries and flowers all caused her to swoon and faint, and the poor painter caught her in one alert move as she fell forward. He found himself standing in the centre of the dressing room with the unconscious ballerina draped backwards across his strong arm.
She was smaller and lighter of build than he had imagined, and immediately his painterly eye considered her noble countenance close up. She had an elegant profile, her hair was chestnut brown, her hands were soft and slender and long and delicate, and her skin seemed alabaster white. He had studied ancient Byzantine mosaics, and he compared her sleeping face to those mysterious visages from centuries past, finely articulated, of a vanished world, and he yearned to craft her likeness in a portrait. As he held her effortlessly he sensed the reality of the commanding figure who danced on the stage, executing fluid leaps and turns in precise time with the music. She wordlessly communicated a range of emotions with a language of refined gestures, of rich expression. She connected with her audience by bridging a distance greater than most understood. But at what cost? She was utterly exhausted, he realized, and gave everything to her performance, yet how did she even find the energy to make her gracious bows after it was over? He admired her all the more for the extraordinary skill and determination he saw that her work required, night after night. He had intended to show her his notebook of sketches made in the dimness of the theatre, feeble attempts to capture the spirit of her dances. Instead, he returned the notebook to his pocket as he held her, at a loss for what precisely to do with her next. He held her, stared at her, memorized her features.
Tenderly he placed her in her chair, knelt next to her, took her hands in his, and as his face drew close to hers a lightning flash of recollection came to him, a memory from his distant youth, of a fairy tale in which a prince revived a princess with a kiss. He felt powerless to control the urge, gently leaning forward to brush her lips with his, and as he did her eyes fluttered open and she gasped. Her hands came round his neck and she surrendered into an embrace and a kiss so pleasurable and intoxicating that it consumed them, they could not break free. The world then changed for both of them, and they instantly knew it. But what to do? The artist drew away far enough to look at her, to stroke the side of her face. She saw the tiny flecks of paint under his fingernails, marvelling at his graceful hands.
‘Kiss me again,’ he whispered. Before she could arc her head back a frantic knocking on the dressing room door interrupted them.
‘Grace! Grace!’ a gruff voice called from without, an angry man’s voice, tinged with accent from the north of England. Balthazar noted that her expression changed to that of a wild animal cornered. She broke free from his arms.
‘Quickly!’ she hissed. ‘Behind the settee, get down and say nothing! Make not a sound!’ In as normal a tone as she could muster she invited the intruder in. From behind the settee, down at the floor level, hidden behind boxes of decomposing strawberries, the artist heard the door open, followed by the sound of heavy boots stomping. The door shut.
‘I hope you are ready now, Grace,’ the man said impatiently. ‘For I have a carriage waiting by the door, and it is time to honour your promise.’
‘A few minutes more, Robert,’ she said. ‘I was delayed by my admirers.’
‘I only hope this is the last time I will be subordinated to the theatre,’ he said curtly. ‘It is high time you assumed your duties as lady of Marshmoor. The coachman is waiting, I pay him by the hour. Have the courtesy of not keeping us.’
‘Robert, I cannot just steal away. There are a few more details I need to attend to.’
‘Remember our bargain,’ he replied. ‘Perhaps the quicker you leave the easier it will be for you. I should think it would be of some comfort to return to a Christian name, rather than be constantly equated with some nauseating fruit. I will be waiting outside. Make haste. It is time for you to go.’ He exited, closing the door noisily behind him.
‘Balthazar! Take my hand, stand up. I am so sorry. Don’t speak, don’t ask me to explain, it is all so confused. Do you see I am a prisoner of terrible fate?’
They kissed again, more desperately, embracing with more feeling than before. ‘Will I see you again?’ he asked her.
‘It is doubtful. I fear not.’
‘I will remember you,’ he told her. ‘I will not forget.’
‘Impossible,’ she said to herself. ‘Impossible.’ And released him.
‘Then give me a talisman,’ he said. ‘Something by which I can remember you. I won’t ask anything more, but if you have any feelings for me, give me a sign.’
Impulsively, she lifted the hem of her tulle skirt over her knee, revealing a glimpse of long, well-formed legs, clad in white silk stockings. A single crimson garter resided at mid-thigh on her left leg, and she slipped it down over her knee, past a graceful ankle, in one smooth motion. ‘Let this be a memento of our meeting,’ she said, handing it over, regarding him steadily. ‘I regret …’ and her voice trailed off.
The artist took the garter and pressed it to his lips. He debated confronting the man outside in the waiting carriage, but he did not know enough about the truth of her situation. The man could be prone to violence, there was no telling what dark hostilities might be unleashed, it was none of his business and could only lead her to greater pain than she already suffered. ‘Is there not a hint of a chance?’
‘None,’ she said. ‘Go now. Hurry.’ She turned to the mirror and faced herself, unable to hide her indecision, unwilling to let the tragic interaction continue.
Balthazar slipped the garter into his pocket and bowed in as courtly a way as he could, her eyes following him in the mirror. He backed out of the room reluctantly and quietly shut the door. Outside in the passageway Bernadette confronted him silently, and he placed his finger to his lips. ‘She will need some time to herself,’ he told the girl. ‘A few minutes alone, then you must assist her.’
In the alley behind the theatre, a crowd of admirers had waited in vain, and finally dispersed, disappointed. Veiled in the shadow of his dark carriage parked nearby, Sir Robert Marsh brooded impatiently. He was a tall man of strong features, clothed in dark Harris tweed, and he hunched in the corner, tugging at his grey muttonchops, scowling. He had waited five years for this moment. What were a few more minutes? He thought ahead to the overnight journey to Calais, the boat across the Channel, and the succession of conveyances required to reach the ancestral halls of Marshmoor. Grace did not travel well, and she would need constant attention all the way. He sincerely hoped she did not burden him with too many of her frivolous demands on the trip, inane requests that would hinder their making timely connections.
After the reverence, while the ovation continued, Captain Blackpool positioned himself in a darkened alcove by the stage door behind the theatre. He could see both the waiting carriage and the doorway. He made himself invisible, and he too settled in to wait.
The stage door opened, bathing the alley in golden light. Sir Robert shifted expectantly in his carriage, but he did not see his wife. Instead, a tall figure clad in a dark coat slipped out the door, for a moment hesitating next to the carriage window. The men looked at each other in a perfunctory way as men do, and Balthazar knew this must be the man from Marshmoor, who spoke so forcefully to La Fragolina in the dressing room. He knew that they had never met before. In that instant Balthazar’s painterly eye engraved the image of Sir Robert in his mind permanently and indelibly, but he knew for the ballerina’s sake he could not betray his recognition. Captain Blackpool, from the shadows, wondered who the man was, but detected no threat. His intuition told him ambivalence was present, so he focused his own attention back to the stage door. The artist turned away, walking into the shadows of the alley, past the hidden Captain Blackpool, toward the crowded boulevard, and soon he was lost in the mass of humanity promenading through the night. As he walked, he puzzled over the figure in the carriage.
Again the stage door opened. Robert Marsh peered through the tiny carriage window, but it was not Grace, only a pair of gentlemen in top hats, escorting two ladies young enough to be dancers, clearly bound for a midnight supper and later revelry. They were not party to Marsh’s impatient expression, a habitual frown which never left his face for very long. A group of boisterous actors emerged next, still giddy and raucous after the evening’s production, and their laughter filled the alleyway as they bantered, comparing their destinations. Finally, a man with a self-important air, a top hat and a walking stick, pushed his way past them. Sir Robert had no idea this was the tenor whom Balthazar had bribed. In a dramatic gesture, the tenor flung his cape around his shoulders and left the alley, dreaming of how he would soon spend his gold Louis. The actors tittered behind him as he left.
Inside the theatre, Bernadette tentatively opened the door of the dressing room. La Fragolina caught the sounds of the theatre winding down, echoes of stagehands striking the set, the creaking of pulleys, the thumping of mysterious objects that create the world of unreality which surround the opera. ‘I cannot bear to pack these things now,’ she sighed, gesturing around the room helplessly. She wrote an address on the back of a program and handed it over. ‘Send everything here, and tell nobody where I have gone. Promise me, Bernadette, that the secret of my fate is safe with you.’
‘And should you need to reach me …’ La Fragolina’s voice trailed off. ‘My costume …’
Bernadette unhooked the tight bodice and helped her out of the garment. La Fragolina then donned a simple gown of grey silk—far too plain for a person of her fame, Bernadette thought—and wrapped a black cloak about her. She adjusted her simple black boots and looked around. Absently she picked up the dancing shoes, placing them on a stack of items to be sent. ‘I will not be needing these,’ she said sadly, causing Bernadette to weep unashamedly. ‘Make good use of the gold Louis, Bernadette. I know you are suffering over receiving it. The man explained to me what he had done, and I am intrigued by him. His name is Balthazar, he did not stay long, he says he is an artist. If you can find out any more about him write to me at once, but discreetly. Now, close up my makeup case. I must be going.’
The theatre was nearly deserted as La Fragolina went along the passageways to the stage door for the last time. She held her head high and her gaze steady ahead of her, walking proudly. She would not allow her concentration to waver, for she saw the event as the final moment of her last grand performance. Still, it was painful to place her hand on the stage door handle, take a breath, exit into the night air, and walk the short stairs to the alley below, where the carriage waited. Marsh wasted no time in leaping out to help her, nodded to the coachman as he followed her, slammed the door and tapped the side with his walking stick to signal they could go. The clip-clop of the horses’ hooves came to life, the carriage pushed forward and she knew the fateful journey had begun. Captain Blackpool signalled to his own carriage and set off after them. His assignment was to follow, but not engage, yet he was anxious to observe Robert Marsh close up.
Several blocks away Balthazar stopped suddenly, turned, and hurried back in the direction of the alley. He did not know what precisely he planned to do, confront the man, pull her from the carriage, spirit her away. But when he arrived, breathless, he found the alley deserted, and he stood motionless, burning with shame and disappointment.
The carriage raced down smoky and distant Parisian streets, past lamplights which flickered on the ballerina’s face. Sir Robert Marsh took note of her fatigue.
‘You are cold. Would you like a blanket? Pardon my reach, but your stocking has fallen. Permit me.’ As his hand approached her leg she instinctively recoiled, a reaction which did not escape him. She had recalled the roughness of his hand, the proximity of his smell, damp like the Scottish heath, and it sickened her. As if he read her thoughts he said, ‘Grace, you will learn to accept my touch.’ She turned away from him to stare out the window, afraid that he might have seen the disgust which registered on her face. For the rest of the journey to Calais neither one spoke, hours of uneasy silence like in a tomb.
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