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.
‘For many years I lived in Paris, anonymously, where I enjoyed the life of a bohemian artist. Life was always good, with much camaraderie, beautiful things to look at, a colourful group of friends, an endlessly marvellous table and the constant pleasures of delicious wines. My desires were modest and my satisfactions were great. I spent hours in the gardens, at the theatres and circuses. Eventually I became enamoured of a ballerina, with whom I fell in love from afar, but I never met her more than one time.’ Here Kozlowski smiled to himself in recollection. ‘I spent every penny I had in bribes which allowed me access to her dressing room that night. And though in the meeting it was clear that there was a strong connection between us—and my feelings for her have only increased since then—it was also clear that she was compelled to leave the Paris Opéra, and then France, for mysterious reasons of which I am uncertain, but haunt me to his day. I have a terrible feeling that she was forced to go to a place where she might have been placed in peril. She herself told me it was tantamount to a living death.
‘At approximately the same time my friend Misha, who was also my art dealer, had managed to create political circumstances here in Prague which were advantageous to my family, and to the restoration of my family’s name and fortune. These entailed my returning to Prague and making the odious marriage to the Countess Kozlowski, a marriage in name only, let me assure you. At first I resisted, but eventually I suppose because I felt hopeless about any possibility of reuniting with the ballerina, I considered my duty to return to Prague and attempt to serve my family. And so here I am.
‘Before I left Paris, though, I made a painting that was never meant for public view. In fact, I painted it from my own imagination, to somehow soothe my own mind and heart. I meant it for my own purposes. She had no knowledge that I painted this likeness, and it was only from having seen her so many times at the ballet that I could even conceptualize it. It recently came to my knowledge that this very painting—which I had forbidden Misha to exhibit—was displayed for all Paris to see, and so the ballerina was greatly embarrassed. I had intended to get back to Paris immediately, but circumstances, beginning with the Countess Kozlowski’s demands, and then with the possibility of an assassination plot on the prince which you now know of, compelled me to stay here to try and prevent any disaster. But I have failed here too, and now I feel that the only thing I can do is travel to Paris at my earliest opportunity and try to make amends to the ballerina, let alone try and recover the life I once had in which I was so unabashedly happy. Perhaps I may even locate her, perhaps there is a chance she will forgive the terrible embarrassment I have brought upon her, and let us hope there is a possibility she and I can find some happiness together.’
‘I believe I know people in Paris,’ Blackpool said, uncertainly. ‘If you will allow me to accompany you, I may see things there which jog my memory. Allow me that privilege and I will be much gratified.’
‘My good fellow, I could not imagine a better travelling companion! It will be my pleasure to invite you along. And hopefully you will be able to remember your purpose by the time we reach the gates of the city. But may I take the liberty of suggesting you will need some new clothes, and so we will go first thing tomorrow, and outfit ourselves for our journey.’
‘I will be most humbly indebted,’ Captain Blackpool said. ‘And whatever I can offer to you in return, you only need ask.’
Seated uncomfortably at a small outdoor table in front of the bar tabac, Sir Robert Marsh scowled bitterly. London had proved most distressing, for no amount of coercion could wrest from any succession of bank officials the origin of the strange deposits, except the reassurance that they were perfectly legitimate, that the monies had been transferred and credited, that no mistake had been made, or did Sir Robert Marsh wish to dispute the ownership of the funds? No he did not, thank you, but why was it proving so damned impossible to reveal the source of the money? The source, my lord, was clear: absolutely reputable houses with impeccable credentials, operating under the most upstanding procedures, all documents signed and sealed according to commonly accepted practice by individuals at responsible institutions known to us. But could the money be traced? Certainly, my lord, but things like this took time, perhaps weeks, the speed of the mails, you understand. Did he wish to institute a search and did my lord realize what he proposed was costly? Oh, hang it all! He would attend to things himself!
Sir Robert looked up once again at the second floor across the street, at Madame Monitchka’s studio, catching the specters of thin figures floating from one window to the next. Two hours wasted, he reflected, waiting for the last of them to leave. He had already been to the Paris Opéra in search of his wife, but she was not to be found. He had been treated with the usual disdain that Parisians reserve for anyone bereft of insider information or the French language, which described Sir Robert exactly. The stage door man had informed him brutally that no, he could not go inside to search for Grazia Rosetti, and did he not know that La Fragolina had retired from the stage months earlier? Imbecile! Do not be hanging around the stage door, and be gone! Marsh’s sense of disgust and indignation was not improved by the weak beer he had been forced to consume to appease the waiter at the bar tabac, nor by the incredibly powerful coffee he had been compelled to order an hour later after the waiter implied that he was soon to be removed. He looked down occasionally at the ghastly liquid growing cold in the miniscule cup, impatient for the studio to empty of its students, among whom—he was certain—he would see Grace.
He tried to compose himself, thinking of what he would say to her, hoping that she would not resist so that he should not have to contend with a display of emotion as he dragged her to a carriage or phæton, if one could be hailed, to bring her home. He hoped she would not argue with him. He wanted to let her know he in no way appreciated the timing of her visit to Paris or the rashness of her action. He wanted to reveal to her the death of his mother, from which he still felt much pain. He wanted to interrogate her about The Crimson Garter, for he had now received further correspondence from the Earl of Pinckney, and he intended to confront her with her transgressions, and to blame her for Lady Dorothea’s death.
Sir Robert’s ruminations were interrupted by the appearance of a dancer, hurling herself happily out of the doorway, down the steps and into the street. She so resembled Grace that for a moment he was tempted to pursue her, but looking more closely he saw that she was easily ten years too young. Much to the relief of the waiter he stood up, intending to take a post next to the door where he could grasp Grace before she could get away. Other dancers began to pour from the doorway chattering amiably among themselves, exchanging goodbyes and little kisses, while upstairs the studio lights dimmed, faded, went dark, evidence of Monitchka’s daily ritual at the end of her work day. Sir Robert stood still, at once reluctant, for he had not expected such excitement to overtake him as he anticipated his reunion with Grace. It brought him back momentarily, to the years past when he first caught sight of Grazia Rosetti, before Vittorio had fled, long before any of these events had transpired, when he had been first bewitched and captivated by her. Soon the doorstep was deserted, and Marsh steeled himself, revisiting all the indignities he had suffered, and he walked to the door where he nearly knocked over the pianist, burdened with musical scores, who blundered out of the entryway and headed for the bar tabac.
Where was Grace? She had not appeared among the dancers, she had not been at the Opera. She had not left Monitchka’s after class ended. There was only one answer: Grace had hidden herself inside Monitchka’s studio and did not mean to show herself. She was staying with Monitchka, upstairs, talking about some irrelevant thing or another. He took himself up the stairs with a real purpose, hammered at the brass door knocker, sweat forming on his upper lip, winded. Inside, Madame had just poured her glass of wine, and when she heard the pounding on the door she sighed. It would have to be Chlotilde again: slippers, notebook, or a pastel green box with a ribbon she had been carrying before class? Madame was unprepared for the grizzly figure with mutton chops who hovered in the shadows at her door, a big man with a wild expression.
‘Bring her out right now!’ he bellowed in Monitchka’s face. ‘I will not be defied. Where is my wife? Where is Grace?’
Unquestionably a big, crazy man, Monitchka decided. ‘There is no wife here, no Grace here,’ she told him in an irritated way. ‘Wrong apartment.’ And tried to close the door, which Marsh prevented with his boot, stepping into the light. ‘Please let the door go, monsieur.’
‘Produce my wife, or I will find her myself.’
Madame Monitcka had by now been close enough to the madman to easily discern the faint aroma of beer on his person, and she concluded he was drunk. Men could be belligerent when drunk. ‘I beg you to go away,’ she attempted. ‘I am a lonely old teacher who has nothing of value.’
‘Do you not recognize me, woman? I am Sir Robert Marsh, the husband of Grace Marsh, whom you know as Grazia Rossetti.’
Monitchka could now see him clearly. ‘Well, then—so you are—it is very strange that you visit tonight. You will come in, please.’ Determined to protect Grazia as best she could, and in the interest of helping her student, Monitchka now allowed Sir Robert into the studio, congratulating herself that whatever Marsh had to say he could say in private, and just to her, for she thought of herself as the model of discretion. Once he was inside, Marsh made a thorough search of the connected rooms stalking about, opening and closing doors, calling, ‘Grace! Grace! Come out this instant! I have had quite enough!’ It became evident that Monitchka had spoken the truth: there was nobody else in the apartment.
Shoulders slumping, a sullen Marsh returned to Monitchka, who was seated at her table calmly drinking her wine. A second glass, empty, stood on the table in front of her. With an elegance that only a lifetime of ballet could give, Madame Monitchka uncorked the wine and filled the glass. Making the slowest and most generous gesture with her hand she said, ‘You will first take a drink with me. Then Monitchka will listen.’
Marsh grabbed for the glass, swallowed the contents, slammed the glass back on the table, and dropped into the chair that faced her. Silently, which was a rare moment for the old woman, she refilled Marsh’s glass and waited.
‘Where is Grace?’
‘Your wife is not here,’ Monitcha repeated. ‘Men—such passionate creatures. You have turned my house upside down, but La Fragolina is not here.’ Marsh winced at the mention of her professional name. ‘As soon as your drink is gone, you will leave.’
‘I searched for her at the Opéra, now I have looked for her here. Where else could she be?’
‘Monitchka does not get involved in the personal lives of students. They have the right to their own lives, even if I do not agree with them at times.’
‘I confide in you,’ Marsh said, leaning inward and speaking with as much sincerity as he could muster. ‘My wife is not in her right mind. I am afraid for her. She left me suddenly in London, perhaps in a fit of madness. I suspect she went to a masked ball, there is this business with the painting, and I implore you to help me find her.’
‘It is true she acted strangely. It is true she said curious things. Perhaps she was in a fit of brain fever. Poor dear!’ Madame Monitchka gasped. ‘I see what you mean. It is very possible her sensitive mind has overcome her. I had doubts when she told me …’ Here Monitchka halted, aware that this tidbit might be best withheld.
‘Told you what?’
‘I told her not to do it. I begged her, I told her it was a big mistake. She should return to the Opera, depose Stregova, dance on the stage again. But she does not listen to Monitchka. Instead she left. I thought by sending her to the ball—she even wore Montichka’s costume, my very own—she could recover everything. Ah, it is always so with students, devoted to you one day, then they no longer seek your advice, but Monitchka will survive! It is her own fault. I tried to warn her she should not go. Now I see Grazia was out of her mind. The husband is right!’ And she sighed dramatically.
‘What is your meaning, Madame?’ Marsh demanded. ‘This is gibberish! Where has she gone?’
‘With gypsies!’ Monitchka said in an exaggerated way, giving a dismissive wave of her hand.
‘Did you say gypsies?’
‘You cannot talk sense to her. I tried to tell her La Fragolina belonged in Paris, not with a band of gypsies. How low she has sunk as performer, dancing every night under the stars, dancing for her supper when all of Paris waits for her.’
Marsh grappled with all he had just heard. ‘She has fled with which gypsies? Where have they gone?’
‘She has left with a band of gypsies, the same gypsies who performed at ball of Baron Schluysen-von Holstein,’ Montichka told him, exasperated, as if speaking to a simpleton. ‘She thinks they will take her to Prague, such delusion! I do not know why, something to do with a Magyar Count, Monithchka does not recall, I pleaded with her, I told her not to go!’
Marsh made the uncharacteristic gesture of taking Montichka’s forearm in his powerful grip, pinning her wrist to the table. She looked at him curiously. ‘To be certain I understand you: my wife has left with a band of gypsies who are on their way to Prague, is that correct?’
‘Of course it is correct. What has Monitchka just said?’ She looked at her wrist, which he had released. ‘You should control your temper. It is very ungentlemanly. No wonder your wife left.’
‘What about the painting?’ Marsh insisted. ‘The painter Balthazar? You know something about that?’
‘Is passion,’ Madame Monitchka said, in a matter-of-fact way. ‘You go now and find your wife, for you have made Monitchka worried, too. I would not have approved of such a liaison, but a ballerina has a mind of her own. This never changes, different ballerina, same problem.’
Marsh opened the door and turned back. ‘Do not tell anyone of our conversation. Do not tell anyone that I have been here.’ And he slammed the door behind him.
Monitchka sat alone with her wine glass. ‘Is passion,’ she repeated to the deserted room. ‘Always passion.’
Early morning, a clearing, in the vicinity of Strasbourg, La Fragolina awoke in a warm gypsy wagon, so she roused herself and went outside to welcome the day. Embers in the campfires still glowed, and the only sounds came from twittering birds off in the surrounding woods, and the occasional whinny from the rope corral where the horses were penned. She had gloried in this outdoor life. She took a walk around the camp and saw the children still asleep in their bedrolls under the wagon wheels. Out at the edge of wagons someone had begun to feed the horses, and the camp slowly came to life. She walked to a nearby stream down a slope and splashed bracing cold water on her face, then stretched her body, remarking at how amazingly loose she had remained in spite of the difficulties of the journey. She found liberation in the company of the gypsies, who had happily taken her into their circle. She had heard their songs, their broad humour, and seen firsthand their passionate ways. It reminded her of the community she knew in theatre and brought back memories of her life many years past in Italy. And it stood in stark contrast to the life she led at Marshmoor. Only a scant few weeks earlier she had wandered dark halls amid the chill and the iciness of her husband and mother-in-law. Now she had found the very things the gypsy king promised: the freedom of the open road, dancing to appreciative audiences, sleeping under the stars, and the sense she belonged to a tightly-knit family.
Viktor, king of the gypsies, had risen early as well. He had seen her walk to the stream, and followed her at a polite distance, finding his own spot of clearing, where he lay flat on his stomach, immersed his entire head under the rushing water, then leaped up, shaking the droplets from his face and hair, exhilarated. ‘Good morning, gypsy daughter!’ he called in his jovial manner. ‘This sun will bring out the customers today. An early thaw. I see you have your shawl about you, that’s good, for you must not fall ill. Come walk along the stream with me for a while. You have truly made yourself one of us, in fact, if you wish to remain with us you know you will be more than welcome. All the signs are good. I am thinking we will remain here a few days longer and take advantage of the good weather and appreciative people. Then we can move on.’
This comment concerned La Fragolina. She had hoped to make a more hasty passage to Prague. She was beginning to understand that the gypsy life was somewhat less predictable than life in the theatre. The gypsies went wherever the wind blew them. They were as likely to uproot themselves as to stay longer, subject to the weather or the crowds or the whim of the local authorities. While her spirits had soared with this wandering life, for it made her feel all the ties with her former existence were falling away, she still had questions about the painter Balthazar, and her unfinished business with the Paris Opera. She wondered if Sir Robert had pursued her, what had happened to him, and she felt the incompleteness with that as well. But her first objective was to make it to Prague as soon as she could and find Count Kozlowski, who could lead her to the artist. After that, who could say? It might be the artist’s arms, it might be the Opera, the gypsy troupe again, or some unknown fate.
‘I have some business at a small auberge not far from here, around noon.’ Viktor said, interrupting her musings. ‘I would like for you to accompany me. They are famous for a local beer, not to mention pot au feu, and perhaps you are growing tired of our cooking.’
‘I had hoped to rehearse one of my dances today …’
‘Nonsense! You cannot stay in the camp all the time. Careful, there, watch out for that rock, I would not want you to break your ankle. Besides, you do not need to work on the dances any more, you are perfectly proficient. If I may confide in you, in truth I have a bit of business to accomplish at l’auberge, and I need your young and agile mind along to observe and listen. It is also helpful to appear with a lovely woman at one’s side. It gives one an advantage.’
‘You are most kind, Viktor. But I would prefer to remain at the camp, out of the public eye.’
‘You are getting far too attached to us!’ he bellowed. ‘What if we were to stop at a bakery and pick up some pastries for the children? What do you say to that? Come, I need your help for this. You must not leave me to wander by myself. You never know what kind of trouble I might get into—look out for that slippery mud underfoot—give me your hand, allow me to lift you up.’
He put her down tenderly, and stopped. ‘Just a moment. Look there.’ And the gypsy king bent down, crouching among some leaves at the base of a tree, and picked a tiny, delicate, periwinkle-coloured flower, which nestled against the trunk, concealed so subtly that she would never have noticed. ‘I have not seen one of these yet this spring. May I put this in your hair?’ Grazia allowed him to do so. ‘Truly, you have brought great pleasure to my life. Will you not reconsider, and come to dine with an old man, just this once? It is a little errand I know you will not regret.’
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