Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire. He has authored numerous books, including, recently, The Hacker.
‘I will not be joining your party at the Baron Grabowski’s tonight,’ he began. ‘Nor should you expect me at the equestrian parade the day after. I doubt I will ever complete any of these portraits.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I am weary of this charade, and you may keep my title and you may keep your money, for I have had enough of your worthless existence. I will be going soon.’
‘To Paris, I suppose,’ Gertrud sneered. ‘To compete with the great Balthazar? I think not! You have neither the cleverness nor the guile. When some of my circle had the nerve to insist you were Balthazar, I set them right. I told them you had not half the talent. You will be back to eating breadcrumbs and living in some garret in no time.’
‘What will you tell your friends after I leave?’ Kozlowski asked.
‘That you are on some foolish escapade,’ she snapped. ‘After which you are sure to come begging to me.’
‘Ah,’ Kozlowski replied. ‘Then you will take me back after I am unable to better the great Balthazar, is that correct?’
‘I shall think about it,’ Gertrud said magnanimously. ‘If you agree to complete the commissions.’ A smug expression came over her face.
‘I will not,’ he told her. ‘You do not see that this sham of a marriage must end.’
‘You are a fool!’ she cried. ‘It is business and only business! If you wanted love, then find yourself a chambermaid.’
‘I am clearly not the type of groom you had in mind when you entered into the marriage with me,’ the Count told her. ‘I will make my arrangements to leave Prague. Do not trouble yourself with where I am going or what I will do once I get there. It is no longer your business.’ Having spoken these words he took up his coat, put his black beret on his head and left the atelier without looking back.
‘You are a fool!’ Gertrud screamed after him. ‘A failure! An embarrassment!’ But Count Kozlowski was by then out of earshot, and her words were lost in the echoes of the staircase.
A profusion of invective and insults poured forth from Gertrud’s mouth. She scrambled back into her clothes and riding boots, her hair in disarray. The brilliant reflection of a palette knife blade caught her eye and she grabbed it impulsively, then began to methodically move from canvas to canvas, slashing, struggling to rip the canvases, overturning tables until exhausted. The only work which remained unscathed was the tiny portrait of the Moorish tradesman, which in Gertrud’s frenzy fell to the floor and remained hidden face down, obscured by a fallen canvas. Suddenly Gertrud remembered her dog waiting patiently downstairs in the chair of Signor Adolfo. Quickly she composed herself, adjusted her clothing, and calmly left the studio.
From the moment that Count Kozlowski exited the imposing edifice of the Hotel Czerny light rain had begun to fall on the streets of Prague. He heaved a great sigh as if a monstrous weight had been removed from his shoulders. In spite of the damp and the darkness of the afternoon he found a particular delight in the freshness of the air and his step took on a lightness which he had not felt for a very long time.
Even though it was apparent that a storm was approaching, Kozlowski discovered in himself an elevated mood which fed his soul. Everything that he saw reminded him of Paris. Hovering in the distance over the rooftops the shimmering opalescent dome of St Vladimir made him recollect the Paris skyline. Signs on storefronts seemed to be written in the French language. For a moment he even imagined the wafting fragrance of a boulangerie. Into his mind flooded pictures of his existence in Paris, long and leisurely strolls, rain soaked pavement. He crossed a bridge over the Vltava, thought of the Seine and its winding path across Paris, and the café on the Rue Chat Qui Peche near Notre Dame, where he and his fellow artists would argue everything from love to politics. And what of La Fragolina’s portrait? His heart was so liberated that not even the possibility Misha might have shown the painting against his wishes could diminish his soaring anticipation at the prospect of returning to Paris and resuming the life of the painter Balathazar. Such an odd and thrilling turn of events. Would he even be able to resolve the complications? He had tried unsuccessfully to squelch any hopes of seeing La Fragolina again. Certainly Paris was closer to where she might be than Prague. And even the promise of regaining the painting of her strengthened his resolve to return. He intended to book transport immediately for his journey back, and he would only pack a few belongings. He would begin anew.
As he passed the cathedral on Karlstejn Square he thought he saw a shadow flit behind one of the columns, and he suspected that someone was following him. He turned the corner onto the broad Avenue Havalek, and as he feigned interest in a shop window he noted that the same grey-capped figure with the scruffy beard stopped a few doors away, also hesitating to browse at the window of an unlikely jewellery shop. Kozlowski visited a boutique that sold foreign newspapers, and purchased copies of Figaro, Treadwell’s Continental Gazetteer and Cahiers de la République. As he exited the store he noted the grey cap once again, lurking in a doorway. It was not unknown for petty criminals to follow possible victims, and then give up if no advantage could be found. So with the papers under his arm he meandered down the street to a well-known artist café, where he discovered that the man in the grey cap had closed the distance to only a few paces behind him on the street. If this is a pickpocket, he thought to himself, he is the most inept I have ever encountered, for I have observed him behind me for some time now. With the renewed sense of adventure that had invigorated his spirit he turned to confront the wayward shadow.
‘Sir, if you intend to relieve me of my purse I am afraid you will find it less than satisfying. I carry a knife and I will not hesitate to use it. You will meet with a struggle, and if you succeed you will find the reward to be woefully small.’ Kozlowski’s pursuer stopped and frowned in a puzzled way. Kozlowski wondered what this fellow really wanted. If he planned to attack he was better advised to use the alley nearby. Instead, he had stopped dead in his tracks, produced no weapon, no aggressive stance.
‘Are you not Laszlo, Count Kozlowski?’ the man stammered.
Kozlowski nodded curtly.
‘Then I beg your indulgence to let me speak with you, confidentially, sir.’
Perhaps, Kozlowski thought, here is some new crop of robber who wishes to lure me into an elaborate scheme with a tragic account of his pathetic condition before cutting my purse, then my throat. Let us see where this leads, the Count decided. He would invite the man for a glass of beer. If nothing else, his larcenous contrivance would provide some moments of entertainment, and the brush with the underworld might serve as a delightful antidote to Gertrud’s poisonous presumptions.
‘I am on my way into the café just at this corner,’ he offered in a lighthearted way. ‘Join me at a table under the awning for a while, tell me your troubles, and let us see if we cannot solve them together.’
‘Surely your grace does not wish to be observed with the likes of me. I pray you, let us sit inside where we can speak more privately. If you will go first and find a private table I will follow a short time after, so that we neither arrive nor depart together. It will be safer, in case sinister forces are watching.’
Once seated inside Count Kozlowski ordered beverages, and moments later the grey-capped man slipped into the seat across from him. In spite of the dim light, Kozlowski observed his pursuer’s demented eyes were rimmed with dark purple shadows and his face was gaunt. In all likelihood this was a young man, his arms sinewy and his gait strong, yet his face bore the evidence of experiences well beyond a man of his years.
‘Sir,’ the Count ventured, ‘This place is known for its sausages and potato salad. Share a platter with me?’ Kozlowski was barely hungry, but he could see that the man was sorely in need of a good meal. He would certainly be more relaxed and forthcoming if well fed. The man accepted the offer, drained his tankard thirstily, Kozlowski wordlessly pushed his own full tankard across the table, and the man guzzled it down too. Steaming plates of food arrived, and the man dove into them. Meantime, scant words had been spoken between them, and the man removed neither his cap nor his jacket. Kozlowski watched him with painterly interest, thinking that he might make a fine subject for an allegorical work, possibly Lazarus risen from the dead. He wondered how he could ask the man to pose for him in his studio. And yet the fellow continued to puzzle him since clearly he knew Kozlowski’s name. He waited patiently, curious to know what the man wanted, why he had pursued him, and how his identity was known. The man ate with great determination and rapidity, cleaning the platter of every last morsel with the last piece of bread, until nothing to eat remained on the table. He drew his sleeve across his lips, clasped his hands, leaned forward and regarded Kozlowski with earnest concentration.
‘I know the truth about Balthazar.’
Kozlowski felt the lightheartedness suddenly drain from him. He was seized with a suspicion and a kind of seething anger, for it had been months since anyone had mentioned the name Balthazar to him, and now within the last hour his wife and this strange man both had uttered the enigmatic pseudonym.
‘What precisely do you mean by that?’ the Count asked.
‘I have carried this knowledge with me for a long time,’ the strange man answered. ‘And I know the disgrace connected to this name, but all can be righted. What concerns me most tonight is your safety.’
‘I did not realize I was in that much danger,’ the Count replied. ‘Perhaps a few anxious aristocrats who have put their money on the table for portraits, but nothing more potentially threatening, unless you know something of the situation in Paris.’
‘I do not know what you are talking about,’ the man said. ‘There are sinister forces at play here in Prague, and ancient wrongs that must be righted. There are workers who are oppressed and children starving, families without bread, and persons in great positions of power whose authority must be challenged. The weak need their champions, just as a stable boy deserves justice equal to one who is high born.’
‘I hope you do not refer to a popular song about a lady and her groom,’ Kozlowski ventured.
‘I am not talking about foolish popular songs. I am talking about families going to sleep hungry, people with not enough wood for their fireplaces, children who wear rags, families who must spend the night under bridges rather than having roofs over their heads.’
At this strange monologue it occurred to Kozlowski that the man might be asking for money, and tiring of the entire exchange, which obviously was headed in the direction of a demented political tirade Kozlowski said, ‘Friend, I am sorry for your trouble, but perhaps a few of these bank notes would help you.’
‘Are you offering this for the cause?’ asked the man in the grey cap, eyeing the currency the Count presented.
‘Which cause is that, and what does the cause know about Balthazar?’
‘The cause knows nothing about Balthazar, but I do,’ the man answered. ‘I have carried this knowledge with me since my boyhood, when the old Prince Dragobeck falsely condemned me for negligence in the case of the race between you and the Young Prince.’
Here the pieces came together in Kozlowski’s mind and he realized that the man with the troubled eyes seated across from him could be none other than the stable boy Dmitri, now grown, and plagued through the years by the injustice done to him. It had nothing to do with the Parisian artist or the painting, nothing to do with Gertrud’s patrons or her affair with the groom, nothing to do with the scandalous popular song. This was an ancient wrong which had festered in a fragile mind and the man Dmitri had obviously embraced some fringe political element, long laying in wait to take his revenge.
Outside the tavern Kozlowski could see that the night had fallen, candles had been lit on the outdoor tables, the street lamps flickered, and a gloomy mood pervaded the scene. He felt a sudden unease in the presence of this deranged person and he wondered what next was to be revealed.
‘Of all those involved, you were my only defender. You alone treated me fairly.’ Dmitri reached out and took Kozlowski’s wrist in a tight grip. ‘You must stay clear of danger. Soon the ruling house will fall in a rain of fire and terror. A revolution is coming where the oppressed rise up, where justice will come for the poor and hungry and disadvantaged. But you must not be caught up in this. Our cause does not oppose you, and in my heart I know you sympathize. I warn you that under no circumstances next Wednesday at noon you be anywhere near Karlstejn Square.’ Kozlowski looked down at his wrist, which ached terribly, and Dmitri released it.
In spite of his alarm, Count Kozlowski tried to search his mind for the importance of the date next Wednesday, and he realized that it was to be a parade day, with a royal procession planned, where Prince Dragobek and his retinue would proceed through the square to the cathedral. It had been Gertrud’s intention to participate, and she had requested he accompany her in her finest carriage, drawn by her finest team.
While the Count scrambled to unravel the puzzle of Dmitri’s words, the man continued in a hoarse murmur, rambling over the oppressed and injustice, after which he gripped Kozlowski’s wrist again. ‘Promise me you will not visit Karlstejn Square next Wednesday. I have a more important errand for you, and I know that in the interest of the cause you will do it.’ He took from his pocket a sheaf of papers which were rolled and sealed with wax, and this he handed over to Kozlowski, who reluctantly accepted it. ‘Deliver this only into the hands of the editor of the Gazetza Praga at exactly noon Wednesday. I would entrust this to no one but you. You must promise me that you will not read what I have handed over, and that it is delivered, sealed and unopened, to the editor. For I do not wish to implicate you in what might happen. It is important that you remain ignorant of the contents of the document.’ Dmitri rose in haste. ‘There are many preparations to be made, and I must go. Remember, under no circumstances should you be at Karlstejn Square at noon on Wednesday. And tell no person you have met me, and do not try and pursue me. Should there be a change of plans I will contact you.’ With that he left the restaurant, looking behind him furtively, and he disappeared into the darkness.
Outside, the storm which had been brewing now delivered its first distant claps of thunder, and the wind began to pick up. Leaves and papers blew down the street, and a wailing, whining crept through the window and door frames. Pedestrians pulled their heavy coats about themselves and hurried for their homes. Kozlowski sat in silence, listening, waiting. He turned over and over in his hands the sealed packet, wondering about their contents and the promise which Dmitri had tried to extract from him. He remembered the nature of his original errand, that he had left his studio in search of passage to Paris. But now he understood that a great tragedy might strike the city the following Wednesday, some terrible action by the anarchist Dmitri and his band, and only he, Kozlowski, had the power to stop it. He knew that he dare not open the manuscript there at the table in a public place, because he might be observed by Dmitri’s cohorts. It was clear he had been observed all along. And so Laszlo Kozlowski sat, torn between reading the manuscript, attempting to locate Dmitri, or going to the Prince with the knowledge of the terrible event which he had just received.
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