20 years earlier, Bombay
From the deck of the ship, Harry and the Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur stared out in the direction of the coastline, as a broad armada of vessels drifted towards them. In the lead came an immense, shimmering barge gilded in gold leaf, with an ornate carved bowsprit, and manned by 40 oarsmen. On its deck, under a flapping marigold awning garlanded with pennants, a line of dignitaries huddled, arrayed in colourful costumes, their turbans and scarves trailing behind in the wind. On all sides of the barge multitudes of smaller craft clustered, some with troops seated in orderly rows, others the private barques of nobles, while many little dhows filled with strange fruits and vegetables could be counted; still other rowboats approached, their vendors seated amidships, holding up exotic objects for sale. One tiny scow was filled with cages of screeching birds, and the keeper stood in the bow, an enormous green parrot perched on his shoulder. In the distance a canon boomed from the parapets of a fortification overlooking the harbor, and a great cloud of smoke swirled across the water, its sulphrous smell soon reaching them on deck of the ship.
‘They are coming to greet me,’ the Maharajah said proudly. ‘I told you I would receive a hero’s welcome.’ He waved regally and many people waved back.
Harry said nothing, and studied the shore intently through a pocket telescope, a gift from the Marquis of Blackpool. To the north of the harbour a wide plain stretched beyond the beach, reaching east to a low mountain range miles away, over which a group of low, billowy clouds hung. From his vantage point Harry scanned the ocean front, crowded with women and children, some wading in the surf. But it was the accumulation of people and animals, materiel and tents which seemed to go on forever behind the shoreline, scores of elephants and camels and horses, wagons and thin trails of smoke from uncountable fires which interested him. He suspected that he was seeing an entire army encampment, readying for a major battle, and he wondered what disagreement caused the conflict. Rahjee had said the princely states were always at war among themselves over one thing or another, and the scale of this assembly suggested a conflagration of epic proportions was soon to come.
‘We will leave for Rajasthan immediately,’ the Maharajah continued, interrupting Harry’s train of thought. ‘There is my bodyguard,’ and he pointed to a boatload of Sikhs about to come aside the ship. Each man wore an orange turban and held an enormous sword. ‘They are greater warriors than the Iroquois. Now no harm can come to me.’
‘That army to the north,’ Harry asked, pointing to the shore. ‘Do you have any idea why it is they are fighting?’
The Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur laughed derisively. ‘What an oaf you are, Harry. That is my escort. They will accompany us all the way to Jaipur. An army is a hundred times bigger! Our caravan will stretch for miles, and it will take days to travel there. We will stop and make camp every night along the way, musicians will serenade us, dancers will entertain us and great feasts will be prepared. Men will offer up tribute, poets will praise us. And when we reach home you must visit me at the palace, where I will show you my falcons.’
‘ What kind of a place is this,’ Harry thought, ‘which sends elephants and camels and horses to escort someone like Rahjee?’ He looked out over the thousand bobbing boats, as the golden barge edged its way closer across the shimmering bay. Along the distant stone quay he saw a cutter with red-coated British troops push off, turn in the direction of their ship, the oars came out and rowing began with rhythmic regularity, a swift mechanical procession of strokes in the shimmering bay.
Two decks below them the Marquis of Blackpool sat in conference with the ship’s captain and the local governor, who had been first to row out and visit the craft.
‘You are quite fortunate,’ the Governor was saying, with no attempt to hide the greed in his eyes, ‘to have taken three substantial French prizes on your journey.’ He had already calculated his own share and found himself well pleased with the audacity of the actions, not to mention the rewards they brought him. ‘Any of your men who make it home will find themselves rich beyond expectation. Best of all, you bring us the young maharajah, safe and sound, which guarantees the favour of his father. My compliments, Marquis, on returning the boy to our shores. He was, as you know, the most valuable cargo you carried. I take it he has seen some action first-hand, necessary experience for a future king. His family will be pleased. Not your responsibility anymore. Jaipur’s sent a regiment of Gurkha down to be his personal guard. Sneaky little hill people, if you ask me, not the sort you’d like to meet coming over a glacis.’
Neither the captain or the Marquis laboured under any illusions about the passage. They knew that the young maharajah had stayed closed in the bowpeak for all three encounters, mostly guarded by Harry. They knew that twice raiders had made their way to the hatch and that Harry had killed more than one man to protect his charge. They knew that Harry had, during the passage, become a fine sailor, capable of scurrying up to the crosstrees, where he had, on occasion joined the marines and taken up a rifle to fire on the enemy below during a particularly nasty boarding. They knew Harry had joined the action on deck, and fought back the marauders with a fierceness and intensity that could only draw the admiration of his comrades. They knew that no small amount of damage had been done to the ship from enemy broadsides, and that major repairs were needed. But they held their tongues and let the Governor go on.
‘I have correspondence from His Majesty regarding your request to adopt the boy known only as Harry,’ the Governor went on in a pompous way. He paused long enough to take a swallow of wine. ‘His Majesty is willing to entertain your petition with only a single precondition. The boy may inherit your property, but not your title. He may take the name Blackpool, but enjoys none of rights to the succession granted you. If that is acceptable then I will write to His Majesty directly, and the boy may inherit your wealth. In the event of your demise, and that of the boy, the crown reclaims everything, including lands given you. That is His Majesty’s will.’
‘I also want him rated able seaman,’ the Marquis said, ‘So that he may receive his share of the prize money. He deserves any advantage we can give him.’
‘Hear hear,’ said the captain, knocking the table top. ‘More than once he earned his keep. I have no objection. The boy is a tiger.’
The Governor was not a man disposed to diminishing his own share of a prize, not even by a few farthings, but as a politician he sensed the seriousness of the captain and the Marquis, and elected to hold his counsel. They had brought in more than he could have expected, and protected the future maharajah of his territory—it was worth the price. ‘I believe we can sanction that officially,’ he answered. ‘What’s that racket? Quite a commotion on deck. Aha. It can only mean the Fourth Maharajah is coming aboard. The rest of our business can wait. High time to get up there and see the old fellow, then. No doubt he will want to make some important-sounding speech. Let him. Wouldn’t be a party if he didn’t go on a bit. Opportunity for you to get a look at him, Marquis, since you’re going to be serving him for the next two years. Whatever you do, don’t bring up Vashtar, cagey bugger who’s causing so much trouble up-country. Goberslieves still has sepoys running after him. Catch up with him eventually. Plenty of time to hear about all that. Nasty business, soon enough it’ll be your problem. Ah, thank you, Captain, perhaps just one more glass of this excellent Madeira then, before we go above.’
Gilded chairs from the barge had been hoisted aboard and arranged, with the widest and most opulent reserved for the Fourth Maharajah. He arrived on deck amid much ceremony and noise and promptly took the throne, next to which an attendant already stood, holding a large umbrella overhead. The Fourth Maharajah, a grossly overweight man sporting a dark handlebar moustache, was dressed in yards of fine white silk, with an enormous sapphire pinned to the centre of his turban. He wore a wide belt of tiger skin, an enormous emerald ring, elegant patent leather boots which had been made for him in London, and he carried a jewelled cane with a gold figurine of an elephant on its top. He showed little favour to his son, who seemed not to mind, for they both evidenced a reserved air of entitlement and aloofness appropriate to the occasion. Soon a number of ministers followed, and found their seats without directions, obviously in a predetermined order understood by all. In the heat of the afternoon a long series of speeches and presentations of gifts occurred, with much attention now paid to the young maharajah. At some point, when it was clear that things had gone on long enough, Harry was given a ruby-encrusted peacock pin during what seemed to be abbreviated remarks. Then farewells were made to the booming of more cannon, and finally Harry and the Marquis stood on deck alone, watching the barge float back to shore, as the young maharajah vacantly waved at them from its stern.
‘He does not look happy,’ Harry observed. ‘I have watched him for long enough to know his moods, even when he does not. I’m going to miss him. Sometimes he was very good company.’
The Marquis said, ‘He has many caretakers, people waiting on him, not to mention enemies on all sides. Soon there will be intrigues around him, mark my words. That is the way of this court. Now he will need to learn for himself, and we no longer protect him. And you will need to look after yourself, Harry. I have done everything I can for you—if you can survive this place …’ and his voice trailed off. He had not told Harry anything about his rights to inherit property. Harry looked out at the strange shore, on which he had not yet set foot.
‘I thank you for the gift of your name, Joseph. I am not sure why you are doing it, but I will try and do credit to you. You said my share of the prize money is enough to buy a house. And what am I supposed to do with this pin?’ he asked, gesturing at the ornate peacock of gems he had been given, which had been pinned to his jacket. ‘It is bulky, and attracts attention, yet appears to serve no purpose. I think it must be worth a lot, I am grateful for Rahjee’s father’s gift, yet I am somewhat confused as to what it is for. Can it be sent back to England?’
‘He must have written to his father,’ the Marquis of Blackpool suggested. ‘And insisted on some reward. Of course he is officially the hero. No, you must wear it whenever you meet his father. Or they will wonder where his protector’s reward has gone.’
‘The things I did were hardly heroic. I still think about the men I killed—I know it was for my own survival, but I will never forget their faces. Killing is a miserable business, though I imagine I am bound to see more of it.’
The journey north to Rajasthan took over a month. Harry and the Marquis rode at the head of the caravan, which every day snaked behind them for a mile, a vast dust cloud rising above as the procession made its way along the old roads. Every day, through all manner of terrain they forged ahead, scouting the road with Jaipur’s guards, crossing rivers, choosing campsites, navigating mountain passes and rallying villages to provide necessities for the thousand people making the journey.
Early on the Marquis revealed that the boy would now be known as Harry Blackpool, and that a commission in the infantry had been purchased for him. It was to be, the Marquis said, an unusual arrangement, by which Harry would first serve out of uniform, his commission unknown to the ranks. Once the mission was over Harry might then join a regiment. For the moment he would retain the guise of a civilian.
‘We work covertly,’ the Marquis explained. ‘The world is to believe that I am here to survey my interests, accompanied by my ward, yourself. We will journey, map, study and take careful note. Our true mission is a secret one, to locate and capture the bandit Vashtar, who is destabilizing the northwestern frontier, harassing the Punjabis, themselves known as fierce warriors. Adml Goberslieves has made a right mess of it—he insists that the scoundrel cannot be caught, let alone found—and the Fourth Maharajah is at wit’s end. He fears that Vashtar may try and kidnap Rahjee, since the regular troops have been so ineffective. There is some evidence suggesting our old friend Pierrepont has insinuated himself into the situation, not a good development at all. We will need to remain vigilant—we know he relies on informants—so there are spies out there watching us. I reckon it will take us some time to find out the important things. In the meanwhile, Harry, while I am gone you must learn as much of the local languages as you can, and be observed writing in your notebook. I will teach you to use a cipher so that the important notes remain confidential. We will need to communicate at times in coded language. I count on you as my second set of eyes and ears. I want you to adopt the traditional attire so that you may blend in, and soon become like one of the locals. Eventually I may need to send you to join the rebels. Remember that time is your friend, so do not rush to action.’
‘Will we see Rahjee?’ Harry asked. ‘It seems very strange to have him away from my supervision.’
‘For the time being, let the Gurkha watch out for him. They may look impassive and ungraceful, but my opinion is they are the greatest warriors of all. Do not underestimate them. Trust them with your life and you will always see the sun rise. If you can gain their confidence I am sure they can help us, but it will not be easy. They keep to themselves. They have much to teach you. But it will not be a friendship easily won.
‘Tomorrow you meet Sgt-Major Woodruff, an old India hand, who I have asked to lend you the sum of his wisdom. He knows this place better than anyone else, and has my complete confidence. We fought together in Québec. If ever you and I become separated, Woodsy is the man you must contact. Other than myself, he is the only person you can trust here, remember that, the only other person. Do not be deceived by devious people from the court. And reveal nothing to any of the army officers.’
At the northernmost edge of the camp an enormous and opulent tent had been pitched, furnished by sumptuous rugs, heavy wood furniture and soft cushions, lit by flickering torches, with the scent of sandalwood incense wafting inside. The Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur reclined on a broad couch, turning a jewelled dagger in his hands, round and round, watching the play of light on the many precious stones inset into its hilt. Across from him, his father sat cross-legged at a low table, reading a manuscript as he smoked from an ornate water pipe. ‘Father,’ he announced. ‘I am bored silly. Can we please find something different to do today, anything?’
‘There’s a hunt tomorrow. Vijay says he will find us a tiger.’
‘That’s all we ever do, hunt and wrestle and ride and eat. I’m sick of it. I want to see Harry. He has always amused me.’
‘Harry is busy,’ the Fourth Maharajah replied absently. ‘He and his guardian are preparing to head north on their mission. What about some dancers tonight? Fatima wants very much to please you.’
‘I am sick of dancers, not to mention poets, astrologers and sycophants,’ the Fifth Maharajah whined. ‘I want Harry. I wish to be amused. He will find something to entertain me, something different. I don’t know how he does it, but he can make a walk to the river interesting. He notices things normal people are blind to.’
‘Harry is busy,’ his father repeated. ‘I do not understand what you see in that low-born white man. And I do not like the name he calls you. I forbid you to see him.’
The Fifth Maharajah picked up a small brass vessel and began to beat it rhythmically on the couch’s wooden frame. Bang bang bang, it went. The Fourth Maharajah of Jaipur looked up irritably at his incorrigible offspring. ‘Please stop the noise. I am trying to appreciate these odes, written in the Persian dialect. You should really take a look at them, a lesser-known poet, but quite lyrical, and marvelously illustrated. They would be better considered in a respectful silence.’
Bang bang bang. ‘I want Harry.’ Bang bang bang.
If he had chosen, the Fourth Maharajah of Jaipur could have issued an order that brought 100,000 troops to attention, but he had never been a good disciplinarian, and he could not refuse his son. Heaving a sigh of resignation, he put down the beautiful manuscript, placed the onyx mouthpiece back on the water pipe, and called out the order summoning Harry Blackpool to their tent. Immediately the banging stopped.
Some months later the Fourth Maharajah of Jaipur awoke from a deep sleep. He had been napping that sultry afternoon in his palace, on a wide cushioned platform which rested at the centre of a broad stone terrace which overlooked the city. From behind the billowing curtains which surrounded his bed he thought at first he detected a figure seated to his right. He blinked his eyes, shifted his huge bulk into a sitting position—yes, it was definitely a person, a man dressed in a simple brown sawar kamiz. Such audacity! He had given specific orders that he not be disturbed. Parting the curtains he confronted his uninvited guest.
‘What is the meaning of this?’ he stammered. ‘Who let you in here?’
‘I seek a private audience with Your Majesty.’
The Maharajah looked curiously at the visitor. ‘You are Harry Blackpool, my son’s occasional companion!’ he stammered, then quickly regained his authoritative voice. ‘The Marquis of Blackpool’s ward. How did you get past my guards?’ He looked about nervously for signs of a conspiracy. The terrace was otherwise empty. A hot wind shifted the gauze curtains around him. From somewhere below the ramparts a peacock shrieked.
‘You are in no danger,’ Harry Blackpool assured him with a calm which unnerved the Maharajah. ‘But I need to speak with you.’
‘About what? What can an urchin have to say to a king? Someone will pay for this violation of my privacy. Who let you into my private quarters?’
‘I came on my own,’ Harry admitted. ‘Nobody else knows.’ ‘How did you get in?’
‘If I tell you, will you grant the audience?’
The Maharajah regarded him coolly. This 16-year-old had become quite a nuisance of late. He would hear him out, then call his guards. He summoned as much kindness as he could feign and motioned to a nearby table, where rested a pyramid of pomegranates and a beautiful Venetian pitcher on a shiny silver tray. ‘Sit there,’ he commanded. ‘You shall have your audience. First, pour me some of that nibu pani. I have a terrible thirst after my nap.’
Harry filled a delicate glass with the lime water and handed it to the Maharajah, who sipped it thoughtfully. The boy sat silently, allowing the Maharajah to glare at him as he drained the rest of the drink in one long draught, turning over in his mind the enigma named Harry Blackpool. Though he had encountered the boy only rarely and mostly at a distance, it was clear that Harry had grown a good six inches during his year in India. He was developing the handsome features of a man, and had the first hints of a beard. His eyes were a strange brown-grey colour, and he wore an expression both aloof and calm, as if at perfect balance with the universe, as if he felt no fear. His hands, which rested lazily on the arms of the ornate chair, were well shaped, with long, graceful fingers. There was not an ounce of uncertainty about him, even at his young age. It occurred to the Maharajah that the entire conversation—if you could call it that—had thus far been conducted in flawless Gujarat. With his attire and command of the language Harry could have easily walked out of any local bazaar. The Maharajah remembered hearing that one of his nieces, a rebellious young princess named Radiant, was consorting with Harry, which she vehemently denied. She had been forbidden to see him by her guardians, but one never knew about the younger generation. If he had seduced her it was a conquest in which no eligible young man in Rajasthan had succeeded. It was also said that Harry Blackpool was developing into quite an expert with arms, and that he had been recently involved in a private wager between a British regiment and the Gurkhas assigned to protect his son: on a dare the Gurkhas had been able to successfully remove the laces from the British major’s boots while he slept, sneaking past lines of guards and traps, under the cover of darkness, without being heard or seen. Blackpool had aided the Gurkhas, but what he did had never been revealed, for neither side admitted any details. It was known, however, that the paymaster’s office had remitted a substantial sum of gold north to the Nepali territory, to the Gurkha chieftain. It would be useful to learn how this overconfident upstart had got himself up to the private terrace, which sat atop a sheer stone parapet over 200 ft high. ‘And now your questions,’ the Maharajah finally said.
‘I want you to talk to your son,’ Harry began, to the Maharajah’s great surprise. ‘He summons me whenever he likes and interrupts my studies. People think I am some kind of favourite to the court, which isn’t true, so they watch me all the time. Sgt-Major Woodruff can’t refuse when fifty armed Gurkhas show up to escort me to the palace. And Rahjee usually turns out to be bored, or takes me out falconing, or wants to show off some new sword or concubine. You have to instruct him to stop—I can’t.’
‘This is why you came to me?’
‘There’s also the peacock pin.’
‘You object to the pin?’
‘Your Majesty, it is very beautiful, and I understand it was a reward, but I can’t be expected to wear it whenever I visit the court, and I certainly can’t wear it into battle. I have no truly safe place to keep it, so I ask your permission to send it back to England where it won’t tempt anyone.’
‘You refuse to display a gift from the House of Jaipur?’
‘Never, Majesty. But if neither you nor I speak of it again I will be very happy. If I am to meet the Marquis soon in Kashmir as planned, I do not want to be carrying it …’
‘Fine, fine—that is why you disturbed my nap?’
‘I also came to inquire about my master. I have heard nothing from him for over a month now. You sent him north before me. You have spies. Surely there is some word.’
‘Privileged information,’ the Maharajah replied dismissively, with a wave of his hand, as the gigantic emerald on his ring caught the light. ‘I can’t be telling military intelligence to a youngster like you. He went north to survey his lands, we await his letter. As soon as it arrives you will hear.’
‘Both you and I know he is searching for Vashtar the bandit, Majesty.’
‘This audience is over!’ the Maharajah shouted. ‘You do not interrogate me!’ Behind the massive carved wood doors leading to the terrace a commotion of footsteps could be heard, the doors flew open, and an élite guard of British soldiers delegated to protect the Maharajah rushed in, swords drawn. When they saw Harry Blackpool seated calmly across the table from him they stopped short. A young officer named Jermyn stepped tentatively forward. He was reluctant to speak, for had the boy been secreted onto the terrace via some unknown passage it would humiliate the Maharajah to acknowledge it. If the boy had gotten past his guards, then it was the army about to be humiliated.
‘Awaiting your command, Majesty,’ the officer answered uncertainly.
‘You haven’t answered me,’ Harry Blackpool interrupted, not standing, squarely facing the Fourth Maharajah of Jaipur. ‘Would it surprise you to learn that my master has been captured by Vashtar?’
‘Impudence!’ the nobleman cried. ‘How would you come by this knowledge?’
‘And Alexis de Pierrepont is in Kashmir at this very moment, colluding with the bandit,’ Harry went on determinedly. ‘Did you hear that?’
‘The audience is over,’ the Maharajah insisted, looking at Jermyn.
‘And Goberslieves is encamped a hundred miles away and does not even know that such a conspiracy is afoot. Tell me you are not already a party to this rumour which everyone in the souk knows.’
The British soldiers took in the exchange silently.
‘Remove this heap of camel dung from my chambers now!’
‘Send me to find Vashtar,’ Harry Blackpool said firmly. ‘I will bring back the bandit, and you can do with him as you wish. But you are blind to the situation. Goberslieves is a fool, and on that everyone agrees. Send me to Kashmir. I will bring you Vashtar.’
‘You will do exactly as I tell you,’ the Maharajah raged. ‘You and your Sgt-Major Woodruff will immediately ride north and report to Goberslieves. You will deliver dispatches from me, and until such time as the Marquis of Blackpool returns, you will serve Adml Goberslieves. And we will see just how accurate your information really is. A mere boy knows more than a network of spies and informants? I think not.’
‘And the peacock pin?’
The Maharajah looked at Harry Blackpool with a start. ‘Do as you like,’ he snarled. ‘I consider it a discussion of trifles. As for my son, your new posting should keep you at the distance you request. I will make it even simpler. I shall order it. Jermyn, remove Harry Blackpool from the palace. If you catch him here again you may execute him immediately, with my blessing. And make it a slow and painful death.’
‘This way, Harry,’ Jermyn attempted curtly, hoping to temporarily avoid the reprimand he knew was forthcoming. He secretly admired Harry’s courage in speaking up to the nobleman, but could not show it. He could see in the eyes of his troops an equal regard for the boy’s command of the situation, his obvious conviction. He placed his hand on Harry’s elbow and began to direct him to the doorway.
‘A moment,’ the Maharajah said. ‘You have had your interview. Now tell me how you got up here.’
‘I climbed,’ said Harry Blackpool.
‘Climbed? A two hundred-foot sheer stone wall in broad daylight? Nonsense. You had help.’
‘No help,’ Harry said. ‘I did it on my own. There were three other ways, but it was by far the easiest. Please excuse me now, Your Majesty. I am going to find the Marquis of Blackpool.’
The Fourth Maharajah of Jaipur looked derisively at Harry. ‘First you bring Vashtar to me,’ he said bitterly. ‘I doubt you can do it. If you cannot, one of us shall have your head, that much is certain. And Jermyn, after you have seen this devil out of our midst you will return to me and explain how my allegedly impenetrable security was so easily compromised.’
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