Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire. He has authored numerous books, including, recently, The Hacker.
Weeks later, in the city of Paris, in a rooftop garret occupied by the artist Balthazar, at a broken-down table set with a frugal meal, a conversation began. The thick smell of turpentine and other substances pervaded the room. Against one wall rested an haphazard array of canvases painted in a variety of themes: cityscapes, river views, romantic character studies, scenes of café life. A waist-high table under a dirty skylight stood overflowing with brushes stacked upright in cans, pots of pigments, and containers of mysterious liquids used by the artist to create his works. In the corner stood bundles of wood slats for stretching, and next to them rolls of canvases of varying dimensions and textures. An immense painting, easily the largest object in the room and covered by a dirty tarpaulin, stood on a sturdy easel facing them.
‘If I am not mistaken, less than a month ago I advanced you five gold Louis for expenses,’ said the dealer Misha Stefan, elevating his wine glass, looking at it critically. He paid careful attention to keep its chipped rim away from him as he drank. ‘And yet you serve me this inferior vin ordinaire, stale bread, and a hard substance you claim to be cheese. Perhaps you are supporting some other expensive habit of which I am unaware?’ Misha Stefan put down the glass, and looked casually around the garret. ‘No new materials purchased since my last visit, the same paint-stained trousers, really Laszlo. But you have been busy. Enough work for a vernissage? Or will you order me out again in a fit of temper as you did the last time I took the trouble to climb that disreputable six flights of stairs?’
‘I had some unexpected expenses,’ the artist said, nearly under his breath.
‘Five gold Louis should have lasted you six months,’ the dealer went on blithely. ‘But who am I to advise you how to use your money, of which you have none, as we both know? Let me see, a man with a sum like that could buy—a horse! No, you do not need a horse, ha-ha.’
‘I do not want a horse,’ Balthazar said sullenly.
‘You have not concocted some impulsive scheme to return to Prague and depose Dragobek, I hope?’
‘Nothing like that. Is this interrogation really necessary?’
‘I suppose not. I once paid an artist seven gold Louis, and he drank it all in a single night. The next morning he was on my doorstep asking for more, which you did not do.’ Stefan took out his coin purse and placed a handful of coppers onto the table. ‘Please have some decent wine to serve the next time an old friend accepts your invitation. People are complaining they have not seen you for weeks, Laszlo. What keeps you away from the cafés? When your summons arrived I thought you might finally be willing to listen to reason.’
‘I do not like your intimation, Misha.’
‘Calmly, calmly, Laszlo. If you would only hear me out without interrupting. I have been working for quite a long time on this, secret letters with lawyers and cabinet ministers, the exchange of documents, the patient back-and-forth that negotiations of this magnitude require.’
The artist sat defiantly across from his friend and crossed his arms, leaning precariously on the back legs of his rickety chair. ‘Did we not settle this the last time we spoke?’
‘I believe we have finally been able to arrange a solution to all your family’s troubles back in Prague. Conditions have changed, they need you as much as you need them.’ Balthazar continued to wait, impassively, as the anger built inside of him. ‘I know how difficult it was for you when Prince Dragobek seized your family lands. I know the immensity of the remaining debt must still seem enormous to you. I know how painful it was to flee Prague. How unexpected that the life of a bohemian artist agreed with you so well, a man with your background and blood.’
Balthazar tried not to betray a hint of his venom. Misha was, after all, his childhood friend. Misha’s family had been bankers to the Kozlowskis for generations. It was Misha who acted as his protector and benefactor in Paris, doling out money, guarding the secret of his identity and his past. To the world he was simply Balthazar, an impoverished painter, a man of few words, about whom little was known. It was as he liked it, an anonymous existence without obligations.
‘Hear me out, Laszlo. I have known you too long, and I see the dark calculation in your eyes. Hold on to your temper, and listen to the latest developments. It will surprise you, and I am sure inspire a renaissance for you. Are you certain you do not have any other wine to offer me?’
‘I did not invite you up here to discuss the corruption of the Dragobeks,’ Balthazar told him. ‘That is all in the past. Justice will catch up with them eventually. Try a taste of this cognac: you gave it to me the last time you visited.’
‘Ah, much better,’ Misha Stefan said, smacking his lips. ‘You know the von Thyssen family managed to stay on the right side of the royal prince, yes? They have held on to their lands and fortune, in fact they have been allowed to prosper to a surprising degree. They are in a position to pay all your debts, and restore your lands which were transferred to them so many years ago. The von Thyssens do not lack money, but they lack a title, which you possess. They are prepared to pay to reinstate it. The negotiations are nearly complete. You are offended, I can see it in your face.’
‘Offended!’ Balthazar cried. ‘I am insulted! You are asking me to marry Gertrud von Thyssen, a woman who prefers the company of horses and dogs to the company of people. Or do I mistake the direction of your repugnant talk? The last of the cognac, then?’
Misha cleared his throat delicately. ‘Delicious. One of the conditions from our side is that you be free to reside wherever you wish. You know of course what that means.’
‘It means I am relieved of the responsibility for producing an heir.’
‘That is exactly what it means,’ Misha replied. ‘You agree to make certain appearances when they are politically warranted, to bestow upon her your title, so that she becomes Gertrud von Thyssen, Countess Kozlowski. If you can do this simple thing, your fortune is restored, your lands are returned, your title is reinstated. It sounds like a brilliant trade to me, and one which will free you from your bohemian life, living in such’—he looked at the table top—‘reduced circumstances, and using an assumed name.’
‘I like being Balthazar,’ Laszlo Kozlowski said sadly. ‘In many ways, these are the happiest days I have ever spent, free of obligation, living anonymously, and occasionally starving, a most extraordinary position to be in. I have learned that there are many fine people on the underside of society.’
‘Lofty words, but what of the offer? If it is not money you wanted, Laszlo, why did you invite me here?’
‘I’ll consider what you are asking, of course. But what I have to show you is more important.’ Balthazar stood and walked to the easel. In one swift move he pulled the tarp from the canvas.
Misha Stefan gasped. ‘It’s … it’s magnificent,’ he stammered. ‘The likeness is so real. Is it truly …?’
‘La Fragolina,’ Balthazar told him.
‘But how …?’
The portrait projected a life of its own, as if a third person had entered the room, and taken hold of the conversation. La Fragolina, reclining on an elegant couch, her skin alabaster white, her piercing Byzantine eyes looking out from the canvas as if they could follow you wherever you stood. Around her neck a black velvet ribbon, and on her left thigh a single crimson garter, nothing more. Both men regarded the painting a long time. Balthazar spoke first.
‘Well, what do you think?’
‘It is superb, perfect,’ Misha said. ‘I myself will install the exhibition. Of all your paintings, this is the finest I have seen, proof that the time is right for you to make your first vernissage. But how did you get her to pose for you in such a—familiar—way?’
‘I did not, alas,’ Balthazar replied. ‘I studied her night after night at the opera. I made innumerable sketches. I know her body by how it moves, I understand her spirit. And though I tasted the sweetness of her lips, the rest is pure imagination.’
Misha could not tell if Count Kozlowski was merely fantasizing about the ballerina’s kiss. One never knew with Laszlo. He let the remark pass and said, ‘It is very lifelike. It is sure to take Paris by storm. Yes, there may even be speculation that you are the reason she has retired, a delicious possibility. You should consider staying away from the exposition of your painting, and by that you may in fact fan the flames of scandal. It will make you all the more notorious. Nobody in Paris knows your true identity. Later we may wish to reveal that the painter Balthazar is in actuality Laszlo, Count Kozlowski of Prague. But for the moment, not a word. Secrecy is our friend for the time being. There is much to be done!’
Balthazar looked about uneasily. ‘There is one complication,’ he said. ‘I am hopelessly in love with La Fragolina, and I want to do everything in my power to make her mine.’
Misha Stefan burst into laughter. ‘So does all of Paris!’ he exclaimed. ‘Good luck! But first you will have to find her.’
Balthazar knew his friend’s words were true, but it did not change the way he felt about La Fragolina. It did not alter his intentions in the slightest.
‘Come along with me to the Café de la Paix,’ Misha was saying, clapping him on the shoulder. ‘Enough of this meagre fare. I invite you to dinner right now. We will start with a bottle of champagne, we can consider these magnificent options of yours, all your possibilities, and together we will craft our schemes.’
Letter from Bernadette Charbonneau
To Grazia Rosetti Marsh, Marshmoor, Scotland
I followed your instructions and sent your trunks along with the contents of your dressing room. I hope by now they safely arrived. It seems so far away.
I could not stay at the opera, Madame, as Stregova has turned the ranks upside-down with her temperamental outbursts. It was impossible, and she singled me out for particular abuse because I served you. I was successful in finding employment as a seamstress for Baron Schluysen-von Holstein, who has a small army of us making costumes for a masked ball. It is not as exciting or pleasant as working for you, but it is comfortable, and many are not as lucky as I am. People remember you well. Is there any possibility you will return? I have told nobody of your whereabouts, though people often ask. A persistent reporter kept bothering me, until I stuck him with my basting needle. He has since left me alone.
You asked me to find out what I could about the painter named Balthazar. Please forgive me for allowing him into your dressing room that night. I am ashamed whenever I think of it. I did learn he lives in a garret at No. 7, rue Racine, in Montmartre. He lives alone, and keeps to himself. There are rumours of an upcoming vernissage under the sponsorship of a dealer named Misha Stefan. The Baron has taken some interest in his work, but I do not know quite what that means. Perhaps he will commission a portrait of his daughter, who soon returns from school in Switzerland.
I am still living at the usual place on the rue Marguerite. Please send me some reassurance that you are well. I will forever be grateful for the kindness you showed me, and I beg you, Madame, to always consider me your most affectionate friend,
‘It is truly astonishing what a good mood a well-prepared canard à l’orange can promote,’ Balthazar said, patting his stomach happily. ‘And a noble Hermitage washes away any sorrow.’
‘You are a rogue,’ Misha Stefan said. ‘You eat as if you had not a meal for days. Perhaps your brain will function better now, since you have devoured everything in sight on the table. Shall I order more bread?’
‘I would not refuse a cognac, if one were to suddenly appear.’
‘Before I foist another thing on you I want to know your opinion on the question of marrying Gertrud von Thyssen. It is the opportunity of a lifetime. Do you plan to throw it away?’
The food and wine had done their work. Balthazar stretched his arms comfortably and considered his friend. ‘In all my life you have never given me bad counsel. I suppose this time you are correct again, that I have been seduced by the bohemian life, that my head is in the clouds. It all seems so simple, everything restored in one swift action. You have worked long and hard on my behalf.’ He cherished the memory of La Fragolina, but he also suspected that her entanglement with the man at the theatre rendered the situation near-hopeless. She was very far away. If she was married, things were all the more complex. His sense of loyalty to his own family spoke loudest of all. ‘I will consent to the betrothal,’ he said with a gesture of resignation. ‘So much will be undone.’
‘Splendid!’ Misha cried, and ordered a bottle of fine cognac. Toasts and good wishes followed. ‘Now let us settle the details of your vernissage,’ he said.
‘Yes, about that,’ Kozlowski said. ‘I have only two requests.’
‘Anything,’ Misha replied happily.
‘First, I wish to compose a private letter to La Fragolina which I will leave with you.’
‘And how am I to get it to her?’ Misha asked. ‘You are in possession of some information which nobody else has?’
‘Hold it until such time as you can give it to her with your own hands.’
‘How am I to do that? She has gone, disappeared.’
‘She will reach you,’ Kozlowski said. ‘I will take care of that somehow.’
‘The cognac has gone to your head,’ Misha Stefan told him. ‘Or perhaps you are going mad.’
‘No matter how long it takes I would like to entrust you with the favour.’
‘I can’t refuse you,’ Misha said. ‘It is an errand of folly, but one cannot easily turn down an old friend.’
‘Second, you must give me your solemn promise not to exhibit the portrait of La Fragolina which you have seen tonight. Show all the others, but not that one.’
‘You have gone mad,’ Misha Stefan said. ‘The world must see that painting, especially now that they cannot have the real thing.’
‘I absolutely forbid it.’
‘Do you have any idea what it would do for your career to show it? Do you understand what kind of commissions you could command?’
‘If I am about to marry Gertrud von Thyssen, then money will cease to be important. No, the painting will never be exhibited to the public. You will crate it and store it for me here in Paris. At a later date I will retrieve it. The matter is closed.’
‘I cannot agree with your decision, Laszlo. But I promise to remember your words. We will take up the question of the portrait at a later date.’ Misha’s businesslike mind continued to work, though. He supposed that the Count’s ardour for La Fragolina would pass. In the coming weeks before he mounted the exhibition he might be able to persuade Kozlowski to change his mind. It was only a painting after all, but one to set tongues wagging. Kozlowski would soon leave for Prague. Like La Fragolina, he would disappear mysteriously. The absence of the artist would only heighten demand for the work. It was an ideal equation for incredible success. Misha already began to count the money.
Dawn stole over the Parisian sky and the street lamps dimmed as the pale light of daybreak washed over the cobblestone boulevards. Balthazar felt the effects of the many cognacs as he mounted the steep staircase to his garret. He stooped to pass through the low doorway, then lowered himself into one of the rickety chairs at the tumbledown table, facing the painting of La Fragolina, which the muted light of dawn softly illuminated, giving to the image an all-the-more-lifelike glow. From his pocket he removed the crimson garter, which he had carried close to his heart since the night the ballerina left Paris. He set it on the table in front of him, lit the stub of a candle, found ink, pen and paper, and began to compose his letter.
My beloved Fragolina,
There is no certainty when or if you may receive this, but I write it just the same. You have never left my thoughts since the night we met. I swear to you my devotion and undying love.
Kozlowski stopped writing and read what he had just written. Where was the wisdom of expressing such passion under conditions that seemed so impossible? His own situation would be so much simpler if he could forget her, return to Prague, complete his business there. But the burning desire for the ballerina took hold of him again, and he started back on the letter.
I beg of you that as soon as you receive this, you immediately send me news of your well-being and whereabouts. I will come to you. Anything you entrust to the man who hands you this letter will reach me safely and discreetly. Believe me when I say I understand your dilemma from the depths of my heart.
A situation regarding family, which cannot at present be explained, compels me to leave Paris immediately and return to Prague. You may hear rumours about me which will sound incredible or difficult to understand. You must trust that all is for the best, and will work out to good result. Only know that you are in my thoughts constantly, and I promise to hold you in my arms through eternity, kiss you again and again, and never let you go.
Laszlo Kozlowski studied what he had written, not quite believing he had summoned those words from inside himself to express such emotions. How complicated it had all become. He had confessed his devotion to a woman he had met only once, agreed to marry another woman he did not love, he had no idea where the woman he adored had gone, and could not tell his true love the reality of his own situation. The poets said love was a grand delusion. If she ever received his message, how could La Fragolina know the letter was genuine? He studied the painting in front of him, a dreamlike vision he himself had created, a fantasy, a vast exercise of the imagination, and he knew she was his only hope. She had inspired him, he hungered to be with her, and he knew what he would need to do.
I return to you the crimson garter, the talisman of our love, so that you may be certain this letter is from me. I give you my promise that all will be revealed, that we will find the way to live together forever in each other’s hearts. Let this letter bear a thousand affectionate kisses and the tenderest caresses imaginable from your loving
Slipping the garter into the envelope, he sealed it with the letter, and began to pack his few belongings.
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