Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.
In 2014, we serialized travel editor Stanley Moss’s The Crimson Garter. It’s our privilege this summer to bring you its sequel, Fate and the Pearls, by SMoss, continuing the adventures of Capt Harry Blackpool
The Nile River Delta, 1820
The intruder climbed aboard the barge and Captain Harry Blackpool sensed him immediately. He felt the danger present, and he trusted his intuition, for he had spent years developing his mind to recognize such things. The barge wobbled imperceptibly. Blackpool thought: a graceful person, yet a giant, who moved with disciplined silence, sinister all the same, an enemy to be dealt with quickly. So Capt Blackpool, from his vantage point among the crates, waited, invisible, motionless. In the moonlight he could see the intruder’s shadow, but he gave no indication of his own presence. The man was very tall, heavily muscled, and glided with a fluidity and precision which Blackpool could only admire. A shame to send such a talented person on so fatal an errand. The man brandished a half-sword, and he crossed the deck with soundless footfalls. It was not the first attempt someone had made at the barge’s treasures. Capt Blackpool had already defeated attempts on other moonless nights, shrouded in fog, but this was by far the most audacious and skilled affront with the moon overhead, so he considered his options and his adversary. He could kill the man, stun him, imprison him, or simply dump him overboard and leave him to the crocodiles of the Nile, but at what karmic price? He first needed to gain wisdom. The giant moved past Blackpool, his back exposed. Capt Blackpool waited some more.
‘You are discovered,’ he said in Arabic. The man paused. ‘Now you must choose: die, flee, stand and fight, or tell me who sent you.’
The man did not turn. Instead, he said, in calm, flawless Gujarat, ‘If you are Captain Blackpool, I bring an urgent message.’
24 years earlier, Sussex Weald
He was running fast through the forest, as fast as he could, faster than someone his size should have been able to run, but men on horseback were gaining on him and he knew his life depended on escape. Fortunately he had now got himself into some underbrush where they could not ride, concealed himself in a thicket of brambles, his calves bloody and shredded from the thorns he had blindly raced through, blood and grime on his expensive clothes. He breathed heavily, trying to hold perfectly still, sure they could not see him. But what he heard was silence, and he understood they too had halted and dismounted and were listening for him, ready to come after him with swords drawn. Then he heard them talk, not far away, and the sound of hooves and whinnying, and heavy footsteps drifted closer in his direction.
‘I’m telling you, he went down there,’ a hardened voice said. ‘Go in, flush him out, finish him off.’
‘I didn’t sign up to chase kids,’ another man said. ‘What if he’s got a poisoned dagger or something? He’s a fucking Indian, they have weapons like that. He might stab me, the little bugger. In those bushes I’d never see it coming.’
‘Think about what’s going to happen if we don’t bring him back,’ the first voice growled. ‘Did you ever think about that?’
‘Why can’t we just burn him out?’
‘We don’t burn a royal hunting preserve, you fool. We don’t fire our rifles and call attention to ourselves, especially as we is trespassing. We draw our swords and hack our way until the wee shyte shows himself. All of you, get in there—now!’ And a line of men began slashing their blades through the brambles, clearing a slow path.
Not twenty-five feet away from them, the boy they sought felt a sharp tugging on his trouser leg, looked down and saw a dirty urchin of the forest motioning him into a cave at his feet, a deep dugout he had not noticed, which looked to have been excavated under a fallen tree trunk. The urchin put his finger to his lips, helped the overweight boy down through a narrow opening into the cave, and covered the entrance by dragging across a log that blocked out all daylight. They sat next to each other in the darkness, enveloped by the sweet smell of earth. In a very soft voice the urchin said to his guest, ‘They’ll never find us here. But only if you keep quiet.’ The other boy nodded, and they waited in the cavern for what felt like hours, until they were certain the men above had finally gone away.
In truth, they were a well-matched team. The urchin rarely spoke, and the other boy could not stop talking. Once they emerged from their hideout the evening chill met them, punctuated by the occasional twitter of some bird. They began to tromp along a path, the urchin in the lead.
‘What’s that noise? Where are we going? I’m hungry, my legs hurt—do you live in that place? I should very much like a bowl of soup right now, is there perhaps an inn close by? And a hot bath. My father will hear of this. I will write him as soon as I am home. Those men wanted to kill me. Ouch! Watch out with those branches. Aren’t you going to say something? Never mind. As I recall, you barely articulate. How ever will I get a message to the Marquis?’
‘They will be back for you tomorrow,’ the urchin said. ‘If your Marquis doesn’t notice you’ve gone missing.’
‘My word, you have turned positively eloquent. Of course he will notice—but wait a moment—he’s hunting and is not returning for days. Curious, someone must have known that, I will need to discover who. But what of me until then?’
The urchin stopped walking to consider the question, sat down beside the bark-covered path, and appeared to drift into a trance. He thought: this cove needs help. He’s pretty well fed, and his kit is brand new. If I can keep him alive, perhaps his Marquis will give me some food and clothing for my trouble, maybe even a job. He said, without looking up, ‘You can come with me.’
The other boy reeled around, a comic picture, a chubby lad standing defiantly in the middle of the path, his elegant clothes ripped and stained. ‘I with you? I think not. You can come with me. If you help me, then I will reward you for your service. You will follow my command. I will fashion a plan for our survival. I will give the orders. Hey, stop! Where are you going? Wait up, I say, wait up, there!’ And ungainfully pursued the urchin down the muddy trail.
Hours and miles later, huddled around a small fire in a tiny cave, the plump boy spoke up again. ‘Might I have another of those roots you offered me? They actually were quite good, both spicy and bitter. There is no more of the roasted squirrel left? A pity. Where I come from we serve eight small dishes together on a wide metal tray, with freshly-baked breads. Shall I break you off another corner of this honeycomb? No? A mystery where you found it. Do you not wonder who I am? I am a Maharajah of Jaipur, fifth in line for the greatest throne in all of Rajasthan. Have you not heard of my father? You may call me Rajah-ji. Have you a name, urchin?’
The boy from the forest looked him directly in the eye. ‘Harry.’
‘No other name? It is only Harry? Curious. Well, then, Harry it is.’
‘I want to ask you something. Is that real gold thread in the cloth of your shirt?’
‘I suppose it is,’ Jaipur said blankly. ‘Does it make it stronger or better?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I thought it might have meant something,’ Harry said.
Days passed and the soldiers found them again. They had stopped to drink from a rushing stream, when two men in Pierrepont’s colours unexpectedly walked out of the surrounding brush. Harry wasted no time in expertly hurling a flat river rock at the closest man, hitting him square in the forehead, and the man went down fast and didn’t get up. Harry stood his ground, aimed the second rock at the other fellow still standing, missed completely. The man made a lunge, Harry easily dodged him, the man tumbled into the water, and both youths got out of sight fast, before the second soldier could recover. They ran for quite a distance. Several arrows were fired after them, but none hit their mark. That night the boys slept in a tree.
‘You must show me again, Harry, how you light the fire,’ the maharajah said one afternoon. They were still in the forest, living on whatever the urchin could collect, each night calling a different spot home. The maharajah proved worthless for anything more than collecting flowers, or fixing his attention on strange insects. ‘I just cannot get it right. You must teach me some of your other tricks, too. If I had not seen you with my own eyes catch that fish with a spear I would not have believed it could be done, standing knee-deep in the stream like you did.’
Harry raised his hand and the maharajah went silent. Faint in the distance a hunter’s horn sounded. ‘People who want to be heard,’ he said.
‘How do you know …?’ the hand elevated again and the maharajah shut his mouth. He had by now learned to follow Harry’s lead in the wild.
‘A good lot of them. It must finally be your Marquis.’
‘Then we should call out to them! Show them where we are!’
‘Rahjee, don’t be a fool. Stay hidden, keep quiet, let them come to us.’ The two boys sunk down together into the foliage, invisible, and waited.
Lord Considine scribbled his signature on the bottom of a long document, sprinkled sand on it, blew the sand away, added his seal and handed it off to his secretary, who quickly left the office, acutely aware of what was about to transpire. Considine, a portly man with enormous eyebrows set on a hawk- like face, had a reputation for ruthlessness, and no patience for ineptitude. He relished letting his rage build, until it culminated in outrageous indignation. Half-bent over the next document awaiting his flourishing hand, he turned his eyes upward, glaring at the Marquis of Blackpool.
‘You lost the boy, sir, for more than a week, while he subsisted on roots and cooked rodents in the royal hunting preserve? Is that what I am to understand?’
‘What lapse of judgement delivered such a calamity? That the Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur was nearly assassinated while under our protection in one of our own game preserves? You gallop off on a hunt, and men under the employ of Pierrepont abduct the child, then spirit him off to the Weald, with the intent to do murder. And somehow that pampered ball of fat manages to get away and hide from them. Astonishing! I would never have thought he had it in him. All the time dragging along some wretched urchin of the forest.’
‘Who saved his life repeatedly, my Lord.’ ‘Pierrepont’s men came after them more than once, you said. Chased them halfway across the countryside. And still the child eluded them?’
‘May I ask how?’
‘He is an exceptional person,’ the Marquis of Blackpool said.
‘The Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur is an overfed, overindulged Mama’s boy, who could not get himself out of a bathtub without a helping hand. Were his father not a vital ally of ours in the princely states I would never have agreed to shelter him, to educate him, let alone tolerate his insolence.’
‘I was referring to the urchin boy, your lordship. He has promise.’
Lord Considine waved his hand dismissively. ‘What of Pierrepont’s men, did you find them?’
‘Every last one,’ the Marquis answered. ‘They will not trouble us again. I have made an example of them. But others will follow. Alexis de Pierrepont is determined to ruin us, and he is sure to send more. His spies are everywhere and his resources are inexhaustible.’ The Marquis of Blackpool walked to the window and stared out at the courtyard below. ‘I think it would be wise to send the young maharajah home.’
‘Home, sir?’ Lord Considine thundered. ‘Under what pretence? That we could not adequately protect him in our own kingdom? I think not! He is to stay with us until such time as we deem it appropriate to return him. Let me talk to him.’
‘I thought you would ask for that, and so I brought them along.’
‘Then get them in here, sir, by God! Get them in now!’ The Marquis of Blackpool went out into the antechamber, where the two boys, still in the original condition he found them, sat side by side on a wooden bench.
‘You lads listen to what this cove says, and remember what I told you,’ he whispered. He motioned them through a narrow doorway, pointing in the direction of Considine’s massive desk. He nodded for them to stop in the centre of a large, plush Kazakhstan carpet. The Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur rolled his eyes in exasperation, but did as he was told. Harry stood still and observed the man seated at the desk, a man occupied in signing a very important document. ‘Another one of this well fed lot, in his new clothing, hiding behind his papers like a badger dug in. I better not annoy him,’ he thought.
‘You are the boy who sheltered the Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur?’
Harry pointed his eyes downward and admired the intricate floral pattern in the carpet’s edge. It was one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen, and it gave him a private moment of satisfaction.
‘I would just like to say,’ the Fifth Maharajah attempted. ‘Why did you save the life of the maharajah?’
‘Seemed like he needed help,’ Harry answered carefully. ‘He was outnumbered. Weren’t a fair fight. I knew he was a swell, what with his clothes and all. So I reckoned somebody was looking for him. I help that somebody, and then that somebody helps me.’ He gulped, and added, ‘Sir.’
‘When the Marquis of Blackpool rescued the Maharajah …’
‘He did not rescue us, sir. We gave up.’
‘… you first encouraged him to hide, from someone he evidently knew and trusted. You threw stones at them to keep them away. You damaged the crown’s property, you released a number of horses, and injured three good men.’
‘Well, I didn’t know them, and Rahjee ain’t always the best judge of character. Sir.’
‘Who is Rahjee?’
‘That is what he calls me, and I’ve gotten used to it.’ interjected the Fifth Maharajah absently, his attention returning to a nautical painting he was admiring, which hung near the ceiling.
‘I figured I’d take a gander at this Marquis fellow before we got into any more trouble. He seemed reasonable, so me and Rahjee surrendered. We can use a meal and some clean clothes now.’ Lord Considine looked up, horrified, from his paper. ‘Sir.’
‘Of course, afternoon tea will be fine,’ the Maharajah suggested. ‘And some jolly cakes.’
Lord Considine turned his attention to the Marquis of Blackpool, hesitated a moment, looked from one to the other, considered what had just been said. ‘He will need a guard, day and night. Someone who can recognize a threat, and has survival instincts and intuition. Someone not of suspicious loyalties, who can be nurtured. Someone we can shelter and protect. I make myself clear? Absolutely, perfectly clear? And you assure me you can take care of it? We understand each other? Very well, my dear Marquis. Now, get out of here, all of you.’ And back to work he went, without ever again looking up.
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