You don't know Blowitz, probably never heard of him even, which is your good luck, although I dare say if you'd met him you'd have thought him harmless enough. I did, to my cost. Not that I bear him a grudge, much, for he was a jolly little teetotum, bursting with good intentions, and you may say it wasn't his fault that they paved my road to Hell -- which lay at the bottom of a salt-mine, and it's only by the grace of God that I ain't there yet, entombed in everlasting rock. Damnable places, and not at all what you might imagine. Not a grain of salt to be seen, for one thing.
Mind you, when I say 'twasn't Blowitz's fault, I'm giving the little blighter the benefit of the doubt, a thing I seldom do. But I liked him, you see, in spite of his being a journalist. Tricky villains, especially if they work for The Times.
He was their correspondent in Paris thirty years ago, and doubtless a government agent -- show me the Times
man who wasn't, from Delane to the printer's devils -- but whether he absolutely knew what he was about, or was merely trying to do old Flashy a couple of good turns, I ain't sure. It was certainly his blasted pictures that led me astray: photographs of two lovely women, laid before my unsuspecting middle-aged eyes, one in '78, t'other in '83, and between 'em they landed me in the strangest pickle of my misspent life. Not the worst, perhaps, but bad enough, and deuced odd. I don't think I understand the infernal business yet, not altogether.
It had its compensations along the way, though, among them the highest decoration France can bestow, the gratitude of two Crowned Heads (one of 'em an out-and-out stunner, much good may it do me), the chance to serve Otto Bismarck a bad turn, and the favours of that delightful little spanker, Mamselle Caprice, to say nothing of the enchanting iceberg Princess Kralta. No . . . I can't think too much ill of little Blowitz at the end of the day.
He was reckoned the smartest newsman of the time, better than Billy Russell even, for while Billy was the complete hand at dramatic description, thin red streaks and all, and the more disastrous the better, Blowitz was a human ferret with his plump little claw on every pulse from Lisbon to the Kremlin; he knew everyone, and everyone knew him -- and trusted him. That was the great thing: kings and chancellors confided in him, empresses and grand duchesses whispered him their secrets, prime ministers and ambassadors sought his advice, and while he was up to every smoky dodge in his hunt for news, he never broke a pledge or betrayed a confidence -- or so everyone said, Blowitz loudest of all. I guess his appearance helped, for he was nothing like the job at all, being a five-foot butterball with a beaming baby face behind a mighty moustache, innocent blue eyes, bald head, and frightful whiskers a foot long, chattering nineteen to the dozen (in several languages), gushing gallantly at the womenfolk, nosing up to the elbows of the men like a deferential gun dog, chuckling at every joke, first with all the gossip (so long as it didn't matter), a prime favourite at every Paris party and reception -- and never missing a word or a look or a gesture, all of it grist to his astounding memory; let him hear a speech or read a paper and he could repeat it, pat, every word, like Macaulay.
Aye, and when the great crises came, and all Europe was agog for news of the latest treaty or rumour of war or collapsing ministry, it was to the Times
' Paris telegrams they looked, for Blowitz was a past master at what the Yankee scribblers call "the scoop." At the famous Congress of Berlin (of which more anon), when the doors were locked for secret session, Bismarck looked under the table, and when D'Israeli asked him what was up, Bismarck said he wanted to be sure Blowitz wasn't there. A great compliment, you may say -- and if you don't, Blowitz did, frequently.
It was through Billy Russell, who you may know was also a Times
man and an old chum from India and the Crimea, that I met this tubby prodigy at the time of the Franco-Prussian farce in '70, and we'd taken to each other straight off. At least, Blowitz had taken to me, as folk often do, God help 'em, and I didn't mind him; he was a comic little card, and amused me with his Froggy bounce (though he was a Bohemian in fact), and tall tales about how he'd scuppered the Commune uprising in Marseilles in '71 by leaping from rooftop to rooftop to telegraph some vital news or other to Paris while the Communards raged helpless below, and saved some fascinating Balkan queen and her beautiful daughter from shame and ruin at the hands of a vengeful monarch, and been kidnapped when he was six and fallen in love with a flashing-eyed gypsy infant with a locket round her neck -- sounded deuced like The Bohemian Girl
to me, but he swore it was gospel, and part of his "Destiny," which was a great bee in his bonnet.
"You ask, what if I had slipped from those Marseilles roofs, and been dashed to pieces on the cruel cobbles, or torn asunder by those ensanguined terrorists?" cries he, swigging champagne and waving a pudgy finger. "What, you say, if that vengeful monarch's agents had entrapped me -- moi,
Blowitz? What if the gypsy kidnappers had taken another road, and so eluded pursuit? Ah, you ask yourself these things, cher
'Arree -- "
"I don't do anything o' the sort, you know."
"But you do, of a certainty!" cries he. "I see it in your eye, the burning question! You consider, you speculate, you! What, you wonder, would have become of Blowitz? Or of France? Or the Times
, by example?" He inflated, looking solemn. "Or Europe?"
"Search me, old Blowhard," says I rescuing the bottle. "All I ask is whether you got to grips with that fascinating Balkan bint and her beauteous daughter, and if so, did you tackle 'em in tandem or one after t'other?" But he was too flown with his fat-headed philosophy to listen.
"I did not slip, me -- I could not! I foiled the vengeful monarch's ruffians -- it was inevitable! My gypsy abductors took the road determined by Fate!" He was quite rosy with triumph. "Le destin,
my old one -- destiny is immutable. We are like the planets, our courses preordained. Some of us," he admitted, "are comets, vanishing and reappearing, like the geniuses of the past. Thus Moses is reflected in Confucius, Caesar in Napoleon, Attila in Peter the Great, Jeanne d'Arc in . . . in . . ."
"Florence Nightingale. Or does it have to be a Frog? Well, then, Madame du Barry -- "
"Jeanne d'Arc is yet to reappear, perhaps. But you are not serious, my boy. You doubt my reason. Oh, yes, you do! But I tell you, everything moves by a fixed law, and those of us who would master our destinies -- " he tapped a fat finger on my knee " -- we learn to divine the intentions of the Supreme Will which directs us."
"Ye don't say. One jump ahead of the Almighty. Who are you reincarnating, by the way -- Baron Munchausen?"
He sat back chortling, twirling his moustache. "Oh, 'Arree, 'Arree, you are incorrigible!
Well, I shall submit no more to your scepticism m?prisant,
your d?rision Anglaise.
You laugh, when I tell you that in our moment of first meeting, I knew that our fates were bound together. 'Regard this man,' I thought. 'He is part of your destiny.' It is so, we are bound, I, Blowitz, in whom Tacitus lives again, and you . . . ah, but of whom shall I say you are a reflection? Murat, perhaps? Your own Prince Rupert? Some great beau sabreur,
surely?" He twinkled at me. "Or would it please you if I named the Chevalier de Seignalt?"
"Who's he when he's at home?"
"In Italy they called him Casanova. Aha, that marches! You see yourself in the part! Well, well, laugh as you please, we are destined, you and I. You'll see, mon ami.
Oh, you'll see!"
He had me weighed up, no error, and knew that on my infrequent visits to Paris, which is a greasy sort of sink not much better than Port Moresby, the chief reason I sought him out was because he was my passport to society salons and the company of the female gamebirds with whom the city abounds -- and I don't mean your poxed-up opera tarts and can-can girls but the quality traffic of the smart h?tels
and embassy parties, whose languid ennui
conceals more carnal knowledge than you'd find in Babylon. My advice to young chaps is to never mind the Moulin Rouge and Pigalle, but make for some diplomatic m?l?e
on the Rue de Lisbonne, catch the eye of a well-fleshed countess, and ere the night's out you'll have learned something you won't
want to tell your grandchildren.
In spite of looking like a plum duff on legs, Blowitz had an extraordinary gift of attracting the best of 'em like flies to a jampot. No doubt they thought him a harmless buffoon, and he made them laugh, and flattered them something monstrous -- and, to be sure, he had the stalwart Flashy in tow, which was no disadvantage, though I say it myself. I suppose you could say he pimped for me, in a way -- but don't imagine for a moment that I despised him, or failed to detect the hard core inside the jolly little fl?neur.
I always respect a man who's good at his work, and I bore in mind the story (which I heard from more than one good source) that Blowitz had made his start in France by paying court to his employer's wife, and the pair of them had heaved the unfortunate cuckold into Marseilles harbour from a pleasure-boat, left him to drown, and trotted off to the altar. Yes, I could credit that. Another story, undoubtedly true, was that when the Times
, in his early days on the paper, were thinking of sacking him, he invited the manager to dinner -- and there at the table was every Great Power ambassador in Paris. That convinced the Times
, as well it might.
So there you have M. Henri Stefan Oppert-Blowitz, and if I've told you a deal about him and his crackpot notions of our "shared destiny," it's because they were at the root of the whole crazy business, and dam' near cost me my life, as well as preventing a great European war -- which will happen eventually, mark my words, if this squirt of a Kaiser ain't put firmly in his place. If I were Asquith I'd have the little swine took off sudden; plenty of chaps would do it for ten thou' and a snug billet in the Colonies afterwards. But that's common sense, not politics, you see.
Copyright © 2001 by George MacDonald Fraser. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.