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.
It was in the vicinity of the Paris Opéra that Harry Blackpool suffered his first dilemma as he followed Grazia, for he knew she had arrived at a crossroads. He supposed that she had a number of options for her destination, the least probable being the Paris Opéra, where she might go to confront her rival, Tatiana Stregova. The next option would be to find her former handmaid Bernadette—somewhat possible—and the third option would be a return to the studio of Madame Monitchka, where she had spent so many happy years and retained a bond of affection. But he also reflected on a fourth possibility, that unbeknownst to anyone else she possessed the location of the enigmatic artist Balthazar and was going straight to his atelier. Harry Blackpool had tracked renegade bandits through the Hindu Kush, had waded neck deep in crocodile-infested malarial swamps, had emerged from days of marching without water through the most unforgiving of deserts, only to be confronted by bloodthirsty savages whom he neatly dispatched in hand-to-hand-combat, armed only with his kukri knife. But he had rarely expended such energy and concentration as was required to simply keep La Fragolina from the dangers of the Parisian streets. He remembered with distaste the unfortunate fate of the rogue in the inn at Calais. Though skilled in the arts of stealth and combat, Blackpool did not favour such tactics, in fact he regretted every human that he had ever been forced to kill, more than he could remember. It was not the way of the Gurkha to kill gratuitously. A number of holy men had explained to him that every death was purchased at a karmic price.
Early that morning Grazia Rosetti blithely strolled into the courtyard of the inn at Calais, and easily boarded her carriage for Paris. This allowed Blackpool some respite, a few moments of stolen napping, for there had been no further intrusion. He had stationed himself atop the carriage, seated among trunks and crates, while La Fragolina rode below with no idea that her protector had accompanied her assiduously to assure her safety. But immediately upon her arrival in Paris she had been subjected to a number of perils of which she remained completely oblivious.
From the moment she descended the carriage near the Place de la Concorde, the dangers of the city surrounded her. No sooner had she innocently set her bag down to take in the sights of the metropolis which she so missed, that a skilled street criminal smoothly walked up behind her, lifted the valise without her knowledge, and headed the opposite direction into the teeming crowds along the trottoir, cutting between a row of vendor stalls, crossed the street, agilely evading horses, carriages, wagons and carts, headed for the other side. The surreptitious removal of her bag did not go unnoticed by Harry Blackpool, hardly fazed by the sea of conveyances and humanity which separated them. He leapt over a stall, tipped over a cart, bounded over a massive barrel, stepped adeptly behind the thief, jerked the startled man into an alleyway, rendered him unconscious with a decisive blow, retrieved La Fragolina’s valise, skipped back onto the cobblestones, side-stepped two sheep, dodged a donkey, gliding on to the opposite curb, where he artfully placed the bag from behind her, directly below La Fragolina’s hand, exactly where she had left it only moments before. In a heartbeat she absently reached down for the bag and began to cross the very same street in the unique and sprightly way which dancers walk, innocent to all that had transpired. Blackpool mopped his brow, heaved a breath of relief, and surveyed the horizon for the next emergency. It was not long in coming.
On a less important street La Fragolina was accosted by a seedy character carrying a questionable necklace, who began to importune her, whining and snivelling in an attempt to induce her to purchase what was clearly a stolen object. No matter how many times or ways she refused, the character defied her, eventually taking hold of her elbow, steering the unwilling Grazia into a dark alleyway. She broke free from him and ran down the shadowy passage. Blackpool crouching low, produced from the folds of his cloak a length of strong wire, which he deftly wrapped around his hands. In an instant he grabbed the man by the collar, looped the wire around his neck, crossed and twisted it lethally, whereupon the man heaved backwards, Blackpool receded behind a disused crate, dragging the corpse with him. La Fragolina, looking back at the empty alley, suddenly realized that the threat had miraculously disappeared, and rushed back to the open street, heart beating rapidly, ignorant of her assailant’s fate. She soon recovered her composure, and set out again in a determined way.
Along the route between the Place de la Madeleine and the Opéra, Grazia found herself surrounded by a group of gypsy children, who began to tug from all directions at her skirt, speaking to her in a way she could not understand. Captain Blackpool was able to disperse them by uttering a particularly blood-curdling curse in the gypsy language, which he spoke fluently. The children stopped tormenting Grazia, some looking back as they fled, trying to see who had spoken to them so adroitly in their own language, with such eloquence and command of the idiom. But it was no use, for Captain Blackpool had again faded into the landscape.
The crowd of gypsy children momentarily disoriented Grazia. As soon as the gypsy children scattered, Grazia was able to focus on her surroundings. She realized that she stood exactly at the intersection nearest to the apartment off the rue de la Madeleine occupied by Bernadette. She located the little street, then walked through an arched doorway into a courtyard. The enclosure was thick with a fœtid and damp smell, and the runoff from the water trough in the centre was squalid. Harry Blackpool positioned himself on the other side of the doorway and observed La Fragolina as she gingerly stepped across the courtyard, navigating piles of filth. On the far side, she went to another arched doorway where he could see the way to a narrow escalier leading to the upper floors. La Fragolina found a handkerchief in her sleeve, and she held it delicately to her nose until she reached the uppermost landing. There the sight of a door painted bright green, upon which a simple card reading ‘B. Charbonneau’ attached by a single nail, positively thrilled her, for she had found the first real destination she sought.
The bright green door suddenly opened, revealing the equally astonished face of Bernadette.
‘Madame!’ the young woman cried. ‘Why are you not in Scotland? What has brought you to Paris?’ But such questions went unanswered as the women embraced in a moment of emotion. ‘Are you here with your husband?’ Bernadette asked. ‘Of course! You have come for the ball!’
‘I am here because …’
‘So much activity in Paris this week!’
‘… here without my husband …’
‘You cannot know the hours I spend with a needle in hand!’
‘… here because I have …’
‘I barely get enough sleep …’
‘… because I have no place else I can go.’
Bernadette registered concern and confusion. ‘You must come in at once, Madame.’ She led La Fragolina inside, where simplicity and neatness provided a welcome refuge from the disorder which lay immediately without. Bernadette hastily offered her a chair, and tried to make her comfortable. ‘But I must leave, Madame, or I shall be penalized for arriving late. You cannot imagine the amount of preparations for the ball. The Baron is paying us handsomely, but the hours are extreme, and I must go immediately or I shall lose my job.’
‘I will not detain you,’ La Fragolina said. ‘As I have at present no other options, I must beg you to allow me to stay here for a few hours until I collect myself. Bernadette, have you any important news to report?’
‘Madame, there was such a scandal about The Crimson Garter! Everyone knows about it!’
‘I cannot believe that Balthazar has made such a detail public!’ La Fragolina cried. ‘How could he commit such an indiscretion? Are men truly such beasts?’ She held back tears, anger building inside her. ‘Could he not keep this confidence a secret?’
‘There are no secrets in Paris,’ Bernadette whispered. ‘And only Balthazar can supply you with an explanation. I believe you have been wronged. The artist has disappeared, and Misha Stefan alone may know his whereabouts.’
‘You must go to Misha Stefan for me,’ La Fragolina said. ‘Tell him I wish to be in contact with Balthazar. If you would attend to that detail I will be infinitely grateful.’
‘Balthazar has not been seen for months, Madame,’ Bernadette repeated mournfully. ‘Rumours abound, but he has not resurfaced. Everyone believes he will attend the ball. I will do as you ask. But Madame, I must be leaving! It will be such a ball, and the Baron has named the theme to be The Gypsy’s Daughter, and we all must be in costume, and we sew every day until our fingers ache. An army of seamstresses, carpenters everywhere, it is madness for just one night’s entertainment, such extravagance and expense, but what activity. Madame, I will try to visit M. Stefan after my work, then return to you, I swear. Please make yourself comfortable.’
‘You are a true friend,’ La Fragolina said. ‘You must understand that I am here on my own initiative, and secretly. You alone possess this information, my life may be in danger, and if anyone else in Paris learns you harbour me, your life may be threatened, too. If you feel this is too great a risk, tell me now. For I would never subject you unknowingly to such intrigue.’
Bernadette appeared mystified and frightened, but it was clear that her loyalty and devotion to Grazia had never left her. While she remained bewildered at this mysterious statement, she was accustomed to guarding the gate, and she still felt terrible guilt for allowing Balthazar access in the first place for the price of one gold Louis. Bernadette decided that she would resist the temptation to reveal such a delicious fact as Grazia’s enigmatic return to anyone, as Grazia had asked. ‘Madame,’ she said. ‘I really must not miss the carriage to the Baron’s residence, for it leaves in minutes. No one will know that you are here. Now, rest! You look as if you have been awake all night! I shall return later and bring you refreshment. You will be able to tell me then all that has transpired.’ Giving La Fragolina an affectionate kiss on each cheek, she rushed down the stairs.
Below in the courtyard, Captain Harry Blackpool wondered when Grazia would emerge from the dingy building. Instead, a young woman in a hurry, without even seeing him, crossed the courtyard and exited the passageway into the open square. Obviously the servant girl, Charbonneau, he thought, on a mission. Blackpool elected to stay at his post, wondering when his charge would next present herself. It was the first time that Blackpool had been able to catch his breath, and he remembered the need to contact his Paris operatives to learn the status of their investigations on behalf of Vittorio Rosetti. Normally he might have searched the building methodically, but for the moment he chose to maintain his vigil, and to collect himself and his thoughts for the next part of this peculiar adventure.
Upstairs, in Bernadette’s tiny apartment, La Fragolina pondered her own dilemmas. It would do her no good to sit isolated for the entire day. If indeed there was a masked ball about to occur in the theme of The Gypsy’s Daughter, and if indeed Balthazar had been invited, and if indeed all of Paris would be there, she would surely need to attend in disguise to sort out the strange situation in which she suddenly found herself. But clearly Bernadette could offer her little more than refuge. She would need money, a costume, transport to the ball. Though Bernadette’s heart was pure and her intentions were good her means were minimal, and La Fragolina would now need to bear upon others with better resources than Bernadette.
For the better part of a half hour La Fragolina sat at the simple table collecting her thoughts, ruminating on what her next steps should be. She knew of only one other person in Paris she could trust, and that was Monitchka. She could see no good in waiting any longer in Bernadette’s garret, and while she had derived some benefit from her respite, she knew action was needed immediately. Luckily there was a pen and ink, and some sheets of paper on Bernadette’s tiny writing desk. La Fragolina composed a note, telling Bernadette that she intended to seek out her old ballet teacher, that she would attempt to find lodging there, and that any news Bernadette had for her should be sent in care of Madame Monitchka. Thus determined, she gathered up her possessions, took her valise in hand, and descended the narrow stairs.
Captain Harry Blackpool, who had taken a comfortable position in the shadows on the other side of the archway, was startled to see La Fragolina emerge from the building so soon and cross the courtyard, a serious expression on her face, in an almost comic and military march, as she rejoined the throng of pedestrians along the Parisian boulevard. It was clear that she had rested, found some new reserves of energy, and had a definite destination in mind. He resolved, somewhat ruefully, to continue his pursuit. Unconsciously he reached to the small of his back and felt the comfortable handle of his kukri knife.
The boulevard was a maelstrom of humanity moving in all directions, and La Fragolina’s bonneted head bobbed along as she joined the current. Having followed her now for so long, her gait was unmistakable to Captain Blackpool. He kept pace with her brisk step, lingering back a comfortable distance in order to best survey the field ahead. It took little time for him to ascertain that La Fragolina was being followed yet again, this time by a young and scraggly adolescent street urchin. Every time La Fragolina halted or slowed her gait the urchin nearly careened into her. Harry Blackpool had seen this kind of endeavour too many times, and he understood the course of action he needed to take. The urchin’s fumbling inspired no confidence, and he felt he must remove the threat expeditiously so that she could reach her next destination unimpeded.
Now it came time for them to cross the River Seine, Madame Monitchka’s lay on the Left Bank. La Fragolina easily found the Pont St André, and stopped midway across the bridge to observe the river traffic, and to admire the skyline. To her left, the ominous towers of Notre Dame were bathed in afternoon light, an eerie glowing orange, and from this distance the carvings looked to her like spun sugar decorations on a wedding cake. In an emphatic manner she returned to her objective, and walked the rest of the way to the block where Monitchka’s studio stood, outside the Bar Tabac across the street, awaiting the end of the afternoon class, which was soon to adjourn. Monitchka’s schedule had not changed in years, and all Parisian ballerinas knew it by heart. Grazia extended her hand to open the door to the establishment, the exact moment when the urchin decided to make his move, for he had doggedly pursued her up to the entrance.
Blackpool was there in an instant, yanking the boy away from Grazia’s back, and hustling him into a doorway, where he held the boy nose first off the ground, grinding his forehead into the rough wood door. In a swift manœuvre he turned the boy around and wedged him into the space, taking his measure eye-to-eye. Petrified, the youth stared open-mouthed at the impassive face of Harry Blackpool.
‘Has no one told you a life of crime pays only a temporary reward?’ Blackpool asked. ‘And has no one instructed you in the art of pursuit? With the correct amount of study and practice it can be used for a good cause.’ He slowly let the boy down, but kept him firmly in his unshakeable grasp. ‘Tell me your name.’
‘Why should I do that?’ the youth answered defiantly. ‘I have never seen you on the streets. All I need to do is yell. My friends will soon come and overpower you.’
While Captain Blackpool found this arrogant pose laughable he did not betray his emotions. He had detected the signs of real spirit, and his intuition pointed him in another direction. ‘Tell me your name,’ he repeated. ‘I believe I can be of help to you.’ The boy attempted to wriggle free from Captain Blackpool’s hold, but to no avail. ‘You appear to have had a fair morning picking pockets,’ he went on. ‘For in the inner pocket of your jacket you conceal a purse, several coins and a pendant.’ The boy regarded Blackpool with horror. ‘In your other pocket a scrap of bread and piece of cheese wrapped in an oil cloth. In your breast pocket you carry a matchbox.’
‘You are a magician,’ the boy ventured.
‘There is much I can teach you,’ Blackpool answered. For a moment Blackpool’s mind filled with a memory of Sergeant-Major Woodruff, who had recruited him for His Majesty’s Guard so many years ago, thick red moustache, the rough Scottish burr. Keep your musket clean, Young Harry, and never turn away from the eye of your attacker. Good old Woody, felled by an anonymous hand in the Vale of Kashmir, and his dying words, ‘Take no revenge, Young Harry, no revenge.’
The boy looked at Blackpool suspiciously. ‘What did you mean when you said you could help me?’
‘The first politeness I require is that you tell me your name,’ said Harry Blackpool.
‘I am called Guy,’ the urchin offered reluctantly. ‘Please let go of my arm.’
‘Guy, and no other name?’
‘None other than Guy, and that is all I have ever been called.’
‘Do you know a man called Jean Lafitte, also known as l’Oiseau? I need to get a message to l’Oiseau,’ said Harry Blackpool. ‘I believe you can do it.’
‘It is a possibility,’ Guy admitted. ‘But first you must release my arm. It aches terribly, sir.’
‘Here is what you must say,’ Captain Blackpool told him. ‘Say that Henri du Lac Noir has arrived in Paris and wishes to meet him immediately at our usual place, midnight tonight. You shall have a silver coin once you complete this errand. Meet me in the middle of the Pont St André after you deliver the message to l’Oiseau. I will have another errand for you, and for it you receive a second silver coin. Return to this spot as soon as you can. Do you understand me? Can you remember all of this?’
‘What if I run away and do not come back? What if I call my friends and we overwhelm you?’
‘That could occur in a world of infinite possibilities,’ Blackpool said. ‘I do not discount the possibility. But then neither of us would profit, and that would be a shame.’ He pulled the kukri knife from its hidden sheath, showing the boy the blade, which was honed to a razor sharpness. Its edge glistened, even in the shadows of the doorway. The boy could not help but be awed by its sinister possibilities. ‘Fate could as easily deliver you the taste of this. The choice is yours.’
‘If you release me, sir, I will run like the wind and complete your errand,’ Guy promised, and Harry Blackpool now believed him.
La Fragolina kept her eyes on the second floor of Madame Monitchka’s studio. As the sky of Paris darkened, the candles within were lit and a rosy halo clung to the window frames. Eventually the familiar chords from the pianist signalled the reverence and Grazia knew the final class of the day had ended. The dancers with their hair pulled back and their skirts held by sashes at the waist would gather their belongings, and Madame would go through the ritual of extinguishing the candles one by one around the spacious room. The first out of Madame’s door was the accompanist, arms laden with sheets of music, hat askew, overcoat barely buttoned, dashing across the street to his next engagement. Soon several girls in overcoats and scarves, sacks over their shoulders, carrying their slippers, left the building. In the fading twilight, they all looked like dolls, moving with turned out feet, with their light and bobbing walks. Some disappeared into the dark, while one particularly beautiful blond figure was met by a carriage. She was a tall and willowy girl, lankier than the others, and Grazia did not know her. She was but fifteen years old, and at the studio they called her the White Grasshopper. Grazia’s heart lurched at the sight, for she sensed that soon this young girl would be her rival.
She returned her attention to a memory of Madame upstairs, ever frugal, beginning her circuit, first to the left of the pale grey studio door, moving around the walls methodically until she returned to the right side of the door, where she extinguished the final candle. In her mind’s eye, Grazia could see Madame shut the studio tight, and enter her salon, her worn teaching slippers still on her feet.
With some trepidation Grazia went through the portals and began to climb the stairs to the fourth floor, where she knocked at the beautiful oak door with the brass plate bearing Madame Monitchka’s name. Inside, Madame heard the knock on the door, certain that one of her students had forgotten something, they always did, and so she walked briskly back to the door in her shawl. Madame’s face was tight and gaunt, and her physique had not changed since she was a girl. The arms remained long and thin and bony, and she stood with perfect posture, head and neck always held in a noble pose. It was no doubt Béatrice knocking, she thought, who always managed to leave some article of clothing or shoes. Madame thought: I am forever picking up after her. She heaved a quick sigh of exasperation. Tonight Béatrice would have to run into the studio and find her own things, for it had been a long day and Madame was well into her evening ritual, having poured herself a glass of wine, the first sustenance she had consumed in hours.
Another doorway, another door flung open, another surprised ritual! Madame Monitchka, prepared to scold poor Béatrice, froze, dumbstruck when she saw Grazia Rosetti instead. Tears, embraces, more tears, unbelieving looks, and the flurry of entreaties, let me offer you a beverage, and then the inevitable matters of reckoning.
‘Grazia,’ Monitchka whsipered. ‘I knew you would come back.’ She opened her arms to her student, and Grazia accepted yet another embrace, inhaling the iris perfume for which Monitchka was well known. Still overcome with emotion, they held each other and wept. Finally, Monitchka took Grazia’s hand, led her to the kitchen, where a single candle illuminated a modest table. They took seats across from each other. The ballet mistress had a long, critical look at Grazia, saying nothing, and Grazia, accustomed to such scrutiny, submitted to it. She would always be intimidated by her teacher.
‘My dear, you have lost weight.’ A wan smile was La Fragolina’s only answer. ‘Your pale cheeks that tell me something is not right. It is why you have returned. I had so many misgivings about you, so many hesitations over the choice you made. You were so adamant when you announced your retirement, and it was all so abrupt. Tell me first: are you here because you have heard about the state of the ballet, and you are back to remedy the terrible shape of it? If so, your admirers will celebrate. Are you here with your husband? Or is it as I feared, that you were unhappy with your life in Scotland? No, no, my dear, do not try to reply, Monitchka understands how your heart works. You are here to deal with the scandal over The Crimson Garter, yes? I’ll speak not another word about it! All of Paris needs to know the truth. How you could have been party to such indignity, of course I am certain you had nothing to do with it—and your rival that insufferable Tatiana Stregova, you know I never cared for her, she has taken every advantage of the situation, and she has attempted to besmirch your name right and left, but of course your true friends …’ here Monitchka paused for a well-deserved breath, ‘… know that you could never have participated in such mischief, but you must tell me for if there is a way we can meet this scandal I will certainly stand by your side, although of course nobody comes to me anymore, I am much forgotten, fewer and fewer students, pinching pennies, dear me, have some more wine, dear.
‘When I played the Gypsy’s Daughter so many years ago the entire audience wept in the theatre, and now the Baron Schluysen-von Holstein is about to hold a ball with that as a theme and it is a disgrace to such a moving and meaningful work! I always received invitations to such events and I … I have not been invited, but everyone in Paris knows that the ballet master of the Opera will be appearing in the role of the Gypsy King, while on his arm he will bring—and I dare to say this, as she was once my own student which well we know—that disgraceful Tatiana Stregova, they do not think I hear these things, but Monitchka hears it all!’
At this the elderly teacher halted her monologue long enough to consider yet another interpretation. A clever look came into her eye. ‘My dear, now I realize why you are here. You have come to Paris to attend the ball and set everything aright. I knew you could not leave the situation the way it was, too much integrity, too much passion, too much love for your art! And now you shall be vindicated, let me give you some more wine, just a drop for me, drink up, drink up, you have a half a glass left! But what of these drab clothes you are wearing? Aha, a disguise, and so clever, as you always were! You have returned incognito, am I not right, but you have hidden your costume elsewhere, or sent it ahead, or Bernadette—yes, certainly, Bernadette is making it ready for you, faithful girl that she is. Oh? You have no costume? No, no, dear, do not get up, finish your wine, I have everything here you could require! You must not worry, I still have my extra room, and you will stay with Monitchka, Monitchka will shelter her Fragolina again, as in the old days when you first came to me! And when it comes time for the ball you will have a costume, for you know I have kept every costume I ever wore, in perfect condition, mind you. We will search through them together, and whichever you select will be yours! How delicious, revenge, justice, intrigue at the ball! And the costume must be from The Gypsy’s Daughter, what am I saying? You shall wear my own most favourite costume, the one made for me by the great Pavardinski, it will be like a dream on you, you will see. At the appropriate moment you will challenge that disreputable fiend Balthazar, you will expose the incredible corruption of this immoral world, all of Paris will support you, you will regain everything you have lost. You do not know how much I have suffered since you left.’
Such an intense flow of description had stunned La Fragolina, and in her fatigue she began to struggle with understanding just what Madame Monitchka was speaking about. She could hardly keep her head up, and after so many sips of wine, so many miles travelled, so many staircases and boulevards she could barely speak. Fortunately her exhaustion did not escape Montichka’s attention. ‘Come with me immediately,’ the old woman said. ‘I shall leave you to sleep, and tomorrow we will begin to prepare for the ball. It will be our secret, and I will arrange anonymously for your carriage, how sweet,’ Montichka muttered. ‘Revenge, intrigue, the mysterious return of La Fragolina. Tonight I will write in my memoirs! And you will tell me everything tomorrow. Here is the room! Hold the candle steady, my dear, and now to the bed! Let me give you my shawl! Lie your head down here, close your eyes, yes, Monitchka will be watching out for you. But how quickly you fall asleep,’ she said to no one in particular. And taking the candle in hand she quietly let herself out of the room, to the regular sound of Grazia’s breathing.
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