Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire. He has authored numerous books, including, recently, The Hacker.
Several hours before the disgruntled Marsh came to the conclusion that he must abandon pursuit of his wife, Captain Blackpool who had so discretely visited the gallery hall during the auction of the pearls, and had departed just as discretely, took his post next to a small bridge a mile west of the auction house. The bridge was not frequently trafficked, and it stood deserted in the foggy rain. Only the sound of a mournful bell could be heard amid the serene lapping of water on the ancient stone blocks. Occasionally a passing skiff, invisible as it approached, transformed into a faint apparition for a moment as it emerged from the mist, drifted by, and then was swallowed up again as it passed. At times a conversation among boatmen could be heard, but the constant patter of the rain yielded only fragments of their words, which quickly vanished as well.
Vittorio Rosetti waited there for his rendezvous. It was an appointment hastily arranged, and required some patience on his part, for his driver was hard put to locate the bridge, and took an unusually long time in transit. Harry Blackpool had named the meeting point after receiving urgent word from his network of London operatives, specifying a place as anonymous and deserted as he could, for he had no wish to be observed. Vittorio exited his carriage, in no mood to be taken away from the auction and dispatched to so dismal a span vaulting a stretch of putrefying canal in a disreputable section of the West Side. Blackpool waited by the bridge silently, and stared into the drizzly fog until his guest finally approached from the opposite side.
Without a word he motioned Vittorio to a stone staircase at the side of the bridge, which led to a ledge barely eighteen inches wide, under the bridge, fronting the canal. Blackpool navigated the stairs with a catlike agility, stealing under the overhang, where he halted, a ghostly silhouette. Vittorio took the slippery steps gingerly, steadying himself on the slimy wall, feeling the coldness of the stone through the elegant deerskin gloves he wore. He shuddered as a family of river rats scuttled over the toes of his fine leather boots. Then he found his footing on the ledge, side-stepping until he stood facing Harry Blackpool.
‘A dramatic meeting place, Blackpool. Did I not know your reputation I would certainly believe some foul play was at hand. What is the meaning of all this?’ Blackpool offered no reply. He appeared to be looking beyond Vittorio, into the fog, into the unknown. Vittorio coughed lightly and leaned against the wall, acutely aware of his isolation and vulnerability. Did Blackpool have news, or were they awaiting some third party, perhaps Grazia? But Blackpool remained impassive. Something splashed in the water nearby. A nervousness overtook Vittorio. ‘I congratulate you, Captain Blackpool, on your excellent timing. For had you entered the auction house at a less frenzied moment, your presence might well have been noted. What message of such urgency have you? I pray that it be important enough for me to have quit the auction at the very moment when I was rather enjoying myself, buying for my wife an extravagant string of pearls.’
‘Your sister has taken flight.’ Harry Blackpool said in his hoarse voice.
‘Impossible!’ Vittorio cried. ‘What more do you know?’
‘You remember at the outset of our correspondence when you first contacted me,’ Blackpool said, ‘I warned you that events might not take the shape you wanted. People are unpredictable.’
‘Spare me the philosophy, and give me the news.’ Vittorio said.
‘I understand the anxiety for your sister you must have, and I assure you that she is not in any danger at this moment. Signor Rosetti, do you understand the Hindu concept of karma?’
‘My sister has fled in the company of a Hindu?’ Vittorio gasped.
‘I speak as much about you as your sister,’ Blackpool answered softly, ignoring the question. ‘A very wise Gurkha man taught me that all events are interconnected, that sooner or later we pay the price for our actions. It may not prove as easy or direct for you to reconcile with your sister as you would like. She has proceeded with her life as if you were not there, making her own decisions, since you did abandon her.’
Vittorio grew sombre. ‘I am making amends now, am I not? Does not karma understand this?’
‘Karma and understand are two entirely different conceptions,’ Blackpool offered, then stopped short. He appeared to have sensed something, and a stillness came over him that made Vittorio stand perfectly motionless as well, waiting for he knew not what. ‘We are not alone,’ Blackpool observed in a low voice, placing his hand under his cloak, behind his back and grasping the handle of the kukri knife in a comfortable grip. ‘Say nothing, and do not move a muscle.’
With a suspicious dragging sound a bedraggled figure with a monstrous face came forward from the fog on the ledge behind Blackpool. Captain Blackpool did not turn to face the man, who stopped and gave them an evil smile, all the while swinging what appeared to be a truly lethal truncheon. Terrified, Vittorio froze, but Harry Blackpool demonstrated no fear, no tension, no panic.
‘What has we here?’ asked the man, who was known as River Jack, Bloody Jack, and sometimes Jack Bludgeon. ‘Two gents meeting under a bridge that don’t belong to them. Mayhaps they has purses, or watches, or other golden objects they wishes to offer Jack, who promises to treat them with kindness, as is their due, fine gents that they is, so long as they pays to occupy said bridge, which is Jack’s.’
‘Which is Jack’s,’ said a deep voice from behind Vittorio, belonging to a giant named Big Stubbs, who stood nearly seven feet tall, who carried an enormous pike which nearly touched the stone ceiling of the bridge above them, and who was renowned for his blind allegiance to Bloody Jack.
‘Unless of course said gentlemen is engaged in such acts as are sometimes performed between men, which is not as according to nature has made us men, and which certain gentle folk does not like to have mentioned publicly and is willing to pay to have forgotten.’
‘To have forgotten,’ Big Stubbs repeated, unsure exactly of what Bloody Jack was talking about.
‘You doesn’t answer me,’ Bloody Jack went on. ‘Then I assumes you agrees to said terms, which means you slowly empties your pockets and hands said contents to Stubbs here, who takes them—gently, Stubbs—and afterwards all goes about their business friendly and at their ease.’
‘At their ease,’ Stubbs piped in. An uncertain silence followed, punctuated by the distant bell’s dull clang.
‘Look into my eyes, Jack Turlow,’ Blackpool said, turning, as naturally as he might have offered the man tea. ‘My time is extremely valuable, and I will not accept any foolish interruptions at this moment. Do you recognize my voice?’
Bloody Jack’s face took on a look of shock, then horror. He opened his mouth but no sound came forth.
‘Shall I be forced to deal with you now in the same way I did when we last met at Marleygate Prison?’
‘Blackpool!’ the man gasped. ‘Is it you?’
‘I warn you, man, I have no patience or goodwill left tonight. You remember our last encounter. Do you value the one good ear you have left? Trust me, I will give you double what I gave you the last time.’
‘I should kill him now?’ Stubbs suggested.
‘No!’ Bloody Jack cried. ‘Give him room, the man is a devil. Be off with you, Big Stubbs.’ And to Blackpool: ‘We was just leaving, sir, as the chill of the river makes a man hungry for victuals and a hot mug of spirits, which I and my colleague was just a-going to fetch when we accidentally came upon you, and not meaning to burden you any more, as we was about to be on our way, dear Captain Blackpool, friendly and agreeable, not wanting to disturb anyone, especially yourself, and nothing discourteous being done, meaning no unnecessary actions was to be taken by anyone,’ and he melted into the fog still speaking. His shuffling steps quickly receded into the distance, and when Vittorio looked around he saw that the giant had disappeared too.
‘A remarkable element you deal with,’ Vittorio said, once he had recovered his composure. ‘Where had we left off before those two unfortunate men surprised us?’
Blackpool calmly picked up the thread of conversation. ‘Your sister has decided that life with Sir Robert Marsh is intolerable. Her deep unhappiness is clear to her, and this trip to London has afforded the opportunity to recover her former path, in which she felt some measure of control and reward.’
‘Follow her then,’ Vittorio told him.
‘That is already taken care of,’ Blackpool replied. ‘But you must understand that things may become more complicated. You must revisit all your plans. ‘
‘I will assume any additional costs,’ Vittorio stammered. ‘You know where she is going.’
‘Paris, by boat this evening, and I plan to be on the same craft.’
‘Then, so will I,’ Vittorio insisted. ‘And if I cannot prepare myself in time I will get my own boat and I will follow you. I implore you, Blackpool, to safeguard her every step of the way. I will make all efforts to intercept her before she crosses the Channel. I must try and find her and reconcile with her as soon as possible, even if I have not had the opportunity to yet settle my score with Marsh.’
‘Signor Rosetti, you have hired me to protect your sister, so this talk simply wastes our time. I will now return to the Cringley Arms, take up with Grazia Rosetti, and accompany her, unseen, on her trip to Dover. Trust that she will arrive safely. You will hear from me.’ And with that, Harry Blackpool stole away into the mist.
Vittorio walked carefully up the stairs at the far side of embankment, across the bridge to where his carriage waited. He used much of the ride back to his mansion going over what he had observed of Robert Marsh during the auction. While Marsh’s appearance had much transformed, many details of his manner endured. He still wore a hard expression at his mouth, and the inability to conceal his contempt for his fellow man. His attire was much the same, as if style nor season had changed: for Marsh it was always the Scottish winter. While recently Vittorio saw his own occasional strand of white hair, Marsh’s mane had transformed in seven years from rich brown to peppery grey, still drawn back in an abominable and short pigtail. What was it the English said, a fish out of water? Yes, that is how Marsh appeared, a foreign being who seemed uncomfortable and out of his element. A man who was so ill at ease that he could never give honest comfort or real compassion to any other person. It made Vittorio question his own ethic, for had he not sacrificed his own sister to this man to extinguish his own shame? Now he had journeyed thousands of miles for his own redemption, and he was determined to admit his own errors face to face to Grazia, and beg her forgiveness.
He knew, from evidence Captain Blackpool reported, that her marriage was failed, and her flight demonstrated her desire to recover the life she enjoyed in years before. He now was able to return to her the means to realize any of her dreams, for he sensed she had lived in an incredible deprivation since his feigned suicide and flight to the New World. He understood the desperation that would force her to relinquish the life that she was leading to regain that which she had previously held. He felt all the more acutely his own complicity in her suffering. He accepted all responsibility for the rashness of her actions. He was still bewildered by the relationship to the painter Balthazar, and the painting entitled The Crimson Garter. Blackpool could furnish no proof of Grazia’s entanglement, and the artist’s name had not surfaced in the months of correspondence and preparations which had preceded Vittorio’s journey to England. But he suspected that when he reached Paris, Captain Blackpool would somehow make sense of that as well.
I will set barriers in the path, Vittorio thought. I will prevent Marsh from reaching his destination, and I will prevent Grazia from escaping my pursuit. I will locate the painting and the artist. I will put events right. I will give back to Grazia all the comforts of which she has been deprived. If she wishes to return to the New World with me she may, and if she wishes to return to Paris and the Opéra, she may. Her every need will be attended to from this day forward and I will make all amends.
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