The Crimson Garter is available at Amazon.com and at Kobobooks.
Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire. He has authored numerous books, including, recently, The Hacker.
‘Andrez,’ the Prince began. ‘You have worked for this house for decades, and the stables have been your responsibility, and you have watched over our sons as they grew and learned to ride. Your loyalty is not in question. But can you think back to the time when Viscount Kozlowski had gone to put on his riding attire. Did any other person visit the horse’s stall?’
‘Only the Young Prince and I had access to the stables, and the young Prince and I personally checked each horse’s saddle before the steed were led to the starting line.’
‘I do not understand,’ said the Crown Prince. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean that either the Young Prince or I visited each horse, and checked their saddles and livery to make sure that all were in correct adjustment.’
‘Did you yourself visit the horse Balthazar?’
‘No, Your Grace, the Young Prince himself wished to visit Balthazar, but I know that he had no reason at all to do such a thing, for he loves that horse and he loves his kinsman Kozlowski.’ Here a thoughtful murmur swept through the room as the assembled spectators considered what the groom had just said.
‘Silence!’ the Prince commanded. ‘Did anyone else have jurisdiction over the saddles besides yourself?’
‘Only the stable hand Dmitri. But he too is a fine boy, of good character, and has not a malicious bone in his body.’
‘Was the boy supervised at all times?’ the Prince persisted.
‘No he was not. But I have never known him to shirk his tasks.’
‘That was not my question,’ the Prince said. ‘I will now call the boy. You are excused.’ This took some time because the boy Dmitri had to be summoned from the stable, then cleaned up before he could enter the elegant chamber. Finally he arrived, and in a bewildered state, was escorted to the chair, obviously the finest chair in which he had ever been seated in his life. He seemed further mystified about the swearing-in ceremony, so the elderly groom helped him through it.
‘Boy, we have summoned you to us on a very serious matter. Do you know why you are here?’
In a nearly inaudible voice the boy answered, ‘Yes, my Prince.’
‘Speak up,’ said the Prince.
‘If it pleases Your Grace,’ Andrez spoke up from the side. ‘The boy has no experience with this type of conversation. If he needs my assistance, it may accelerate the process.’
‘Very well,’ agreed the Prince. The boy Dmitri looked at the groom Andrez, who nodded at him in affirmation, and the boy looked at the Prince with a fearful expression on his face.
‘Now, boy,’ the Prince asked, ‘At any time did you see a person come into the room where the saddles and livery were kept before the horses were made ready for the steeplechase?’
‘Only Andrez, and him,’ the boy answered, nodding at the Young Prince. ‘And him,’ nodding at young Kozlowski.
‘And no other person came into the room when you were there?’
‘No one who I saw.’
‘What do you mean “who you saw?”’ the Prince asked suddenly.
‘I saw no one enter the room,’ answered the boy. ‘And when I was napping …’ Here another great murmur rose up from the assembled group, followed by much whispering.
‘You were napping,’ said the Prince, with a predatory look in his eye.
‘Only for a few minutes, Your Grace. I had been up since daybreak preparing everything for the race, and I know I drifted off because …’
‘That will do,’ said the Prince. ‘That will quite do. You are excused. I now call my son.’
Young Dragobek, appearing quite affected by the proceedings, made his way to the ornate chair. He swore his oath of truth and faced his father, trembling.
‘My dear son,’ the Prince began. ‘After you checked the adjustment of the saddle on the horse Balthazar, did you see any other person visit the stall?’
‘No, father,’ the young man answered.
‘Do you have any knowledge of a person tampering with Kozlowski’s saddle before it was placed on the horse?’
The young Prince held his eyes downward. ‘No, I do not, father,’ he said.
‘Then I must ask you a direct question, my son. And I will expect a truthful answer, no matter how painful it may be to you. Were you the person who placed the burr under the horse’s saddle?’
‘Father, I could not be that person,’ said the young Prince in a barely audible voice. He never once looked at Andrez or Laszlo Kozlowski.
‘Then you are excused,’ the Prince said. ‘I now recall the Viscount Kozlowski.’
When young Laszlo Kozlowski seated himself the second time the Crown Prince regarded him sternly. ‘The loyalty of your family to this house is unquestioned and you have been an exemplary servant to us. If this accident is the result of some unknown feud or personal matter it has brought dishonour to us. So I ask you directly, and I expect you to speak in a most truthful manner: is there anyone you can think of, a rival, an enemy, an enemy of your father or of your house who could have done this unthinkable thing?’
Viscount Kozlowski looked up at the Crown Prince in an adamant way and said, ‘Absolutely not, Your Grace.’
‘Then did you, intentionally or through negligence cause this to happen?’
‘Your Grace, I am as careful for my horse’s life as I am for my own. And if indeed I did this out of negligence I am unaware and terribly ashamed. But I do not think I could commit such oversight. Not to Balthazar.’
Numerous other witnesses were called, but the Prince could not ascertain foul play. He made a great show of considering all the testimony, knit his brows, spoke at length about honor and duty, and finally, to everyone’s relief, began his summation.
‘I find that during the time the stable boy Dmitri was napping, an unnamed person with sinister intent went into the tack room and tampered with the saddle. This was unbeknownst to Viscount Kozlowski and Andrez, who later saddled the horse, after which the terrible accident occurred. I further order that the boy Dmitri be relieved of his duties and be sentenced to ten lashes, and be banished from this palace and the employ of this family. The matter is now closed.’
Days later the Young Prince Dragobek received a private note from Laszlo Kozlowski, asking him to meet in the very middle of the field where the race had taken place. He was to meet at midnight, and to be sure that no one else observed their coming.
The Young Prince puzzled over what to do, and finally decided to keep the rendezvous at the appointed spot. They stood in the moonlight facing each other defiantly. Kozlowski observed the resentful posture of young Dragobek, his legs slightly spread, his chin adamantly upraised.
‘Why did you put that burr under the saddle of Balthazar?’ Kozlowski asked. ‘You knew what would happen.’
‘I will not dignify that accusation with a reply.’
‘An innocent boy has paid dearly for your action. My horse has suffered. I was nearly killed. Is this the way a monarch behaves?’
‘Do not insult me, Laszlo, by persisting with your accusations. I remember my friends and I do not forget a slight.’
‘Did you really need to win that much?’ Kozlowski asked. ‘For if it involved harming the horse I would have gladly reined him in and allowed you to win if it was so important.’
‘You dare to imply that I would not have won the race fairly?’
‘It is true you rode the better horse,’ Kozlowski admitted. ‘I would have been happy had you won the race fairly.’
‘Now you have injured our friendship and our trust and I will never forgive this,’ the young Prince said, turning away.
As the Prince stormed off Kozlowski said, in a voice loud enough that it could be heard, ‘I can live with the truth. Can you?’ But the question met with silence.
Months later Laszlo Kozlowski decided to go to Paris in the company of his friend Misha Stefan. He remained in Paris for ten years, and in those years his parents died, then the elderly Prince died and the young Prince succeeded him, and a letter was circulated which falsely claimed that Kozlowski supported an enemy of the Prince. Under the pretext of treachery the Prince seized Kozlowski’s land and fortune, and the Count was ruined. It was only through the good graces of his friend Misha Stefan and the small income from his paintings in Paris that he was able to survive.
Eventually, his friend Misha initiated a correspondence with the family of Gertrud von Thyssen, who were enormously wealthy, but had no title. It was widely known that the ancient title of the Kozlowskis was deeply coveted and would legitimize the family. Eventually the bargain for the marriage was struck. And the Count Kozlowski returned to Prague, married Gertrud, and now awaited the arrival of Prince Dragobek at their pavilion.
The Prince evidenced an odd, artificial manner as he entered the tent. Stiff, formal, self-conscious. Count Kozlowski could immediately discern the changes a decade had wrought on his rival. The death of the old Prince and the transfer of responsibilities, what clearly had been ten years of rich meals, the ennui that accompanied the repetition of rituals and formalities had all taken their toll. The Prince knew far too well entrances and exits like these. The years, Kozlowski reflected, had not been kind. He looked like a man twice his true age, a bit unkempt despite his finery, and moving in a distracted way. He gallantly kissed the hand of the bride and wished her well. And then strode up to Kozlowski, kissed him first on the right cheek, then on the left, then on the right cheek again, an action which was carefully noted by the assembled guests, who understood that a great reconciliation had just occurred. Spontaneous polite applause erupted in the pavilion, as the two ancient families appeared to settle their differences.
Kozlowski wondered whether anyone else had detected the faint odour of schnapps on the Prince’s breath, and he supposed that none other than himself was so aware that the Prince’s nose had grown swollen and blotched by spidery red veins. Kozlowski felt an unusual sympathy for him as well, since he wore so many rings on his fingers, so many medals, and the gilded sword, all which clanked about was he walked in his stiff-legged way. But in his heart Laszlo Kozlowski knew that it had been the young Prince’s treachery which had altered the outcome of the race and tortured the poor animal. And in his heart burned the desire for revenge, which he would not speak. He knew he would wait, for Kozlowski had patience that he would recognize the correct moment in which to exact the retribution he felt was his. The Prince and his retinue beat a hasty retreat, Kozlowski settled into his chair, and attempted to collect himself after the odd rapprochement with the Prince. Next, their guests departed, so seated in the chairs in the deserted tent, he and Gertrud shared a bizarre and awkward moment. He dreaded the course their conversation would take. Gertrud did not disappoint him.
‘I have been speaking to Baron Byczkowski,’ she began. ‘And he is quite interested in the likenesses of horses you have been drawing. As he is an old friend of my family, I told him you would be an excellent candidate to create a portrait of him and his beloved stallion, which could then be displayed in his library.’
‘Byczkowski?’ stammered Count Kozlowski. ‘Have I no say in whose portrait I choose to paint?’
‘Allow me to make this judgement,’ Gertrud answered. ‘Byczkowski can be very useful to us, both socially and in business. I offered it to him as a favour, and under no circumstances should you attempt to collect a fee from him.’
‘What have you specified about this painting for the Baron Byczkowski?’ he asked her.
‘Whatever do you mean?’
‘Have you specified the pose, the colours, its dimensions, how soon it should be completed?’
‘Oh, do not bother me with these details, Laszlo. Simply arrange it with him and take care of it. You will not regret it. It can only advance your career. You want to be a successful court painter, do you not?’ Perhaps her disdainful tone compelled the dog to jump off her lap, scamper to the Count’s side, attach his jaws around the Count’s trousers cuff and begin to tug with an irritating little growl. Automatically the Count gave off with a sharp kick. The dog rolled off with a whimper, then leapt back to its mistress’ lap, where it whined pathetically.
‘Wuschi! My pet! My darling poppet, my little one! My little boy! Is my poppet hurt? Oh, you horrible man, how could you?’
‘I shall return to my hotel,’ the Count said coldly, and excused himself. The Countess Kozlowski glared at her husband, seething. She vowed he would pay for his brutal treatment of her poor, innocent pet, but only in time. Now she owned his title. Money would buy his acquiescence. She would get her way, as she always did.
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