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Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.

 

 

Fate and the Pearls

How did the legend of Harry Blackpool become cemented? We continue the serialization of travel editor Stanley Moss’s Fate and the Pearls, by SMoss, in the fourth instalment for your summer reading

 

 

Continued from last week

 

27

 

The rumour which had circulated about Harry Blackpool’s affair with the rebellious princess was only half-true, for in reality he had been involved with another women at the same time. She was the wildly promiscuous daughter of the territorial governor, a woman five years his senior, who had already ruined marriages at the garrison and had her eyes on the destruction of several more. Her name was Lillian Perrey, and though Harry was not the first of her conquests he would be her last, through no fault of his own. She had singled Harry out early in his sojourn, suspecting his great virility, and had quickly shown him the extent of her charms in a series of liaisons at an abandoned temple outside town. Harry’s prowess did not disappoint her, for he approached lovemaking with a healthy and uninhibited energy appropriate to his youth. At first she bewildered Harry with her amorous attentions, though he was shrewd enough to hold no illusions over the futility of their attachment. Eventually he came to appreciate her light-hearted banter and carefree attitude, and had he remained in Jaipur he would have continued to rendezvous with her for the pure carnal delight it delivered.

He loved to watch her remove her garments item by item, almost as much as she enjoyed removing them. She would don ankle and wrist bracelets and colourful silks and perform lewd dances for him in the centre of the stone floor, as her laughter mixed with his encouraging applause, echoing in the cavernous cenotaph. They found much inspiration in the elaborate carvings which surrounded them. Later they would bathe together in a nearby pool. He did not long for her greatly after he left. Once Harry had gone north to Kashmir her karma caught up with her, she contracted fever and quickly died. While there was great grieving for Lillian among the ranks, none of the wives missed her. Years later, when Harry returned to Jaipur and learned of her passing, he visited her grave, said a prayer and left a bunch of lilies on her stone in affectionate memory.

His involvement with The Princess Radiant was more complex. Years would pass before they became lovers. At the beginning, she was often present when Harry was summoned to the palace by the Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur. There Harry Blackpool first took note of her mysterious beauty, in the vast salons among the gaggle of cousins with whom Rahjee surrounded himself, since he hated to be alone. Harry understood that she was different, for she did not engage in the same coquettish behaviour as the other girls, who fluttered their eyelids and drew veils in front of their faces. She refused to sit in the concealed galleries behind gauze screens, giggling with the women and older girls. Instead, from her place among the youngest courtiers she returned Harry’s stare equally, her chestnut brown eyes a dark territory which provoked his curiosity and held his attention. But conscious of her high caste he kept his distance until she approached him.

Her English was Oxford-perfect, for she had been tutored from an early age by British scholars lured to India with promises of easy wealth. In addition to the classical studies of her own culture she had acquired the wisdom of Europe, a place she had never visited. She imagined the foreign civilisation in its entirety, but always remained a creature of her own environment. She found Harry’s command of everyday Gujarat highly amusing, and at first she refused to speak English with him. Instead she corrected him relentlessly, secretly delighting in his rough soldier’s idiom. Eventually he learned the linguistic formalities, which enabled them to exchange more intimate confidences.

She was always supervised. The Princess Radiant could never be truly alone, for her welfare had been entrusted to a severe, rail-thin, hook-nosed amah named Rao, whose grim demeanour and constant silence belied a character contrary to her forbidding appearance. At heart Rao was a natural storyteller who delighted in lore. She had neither husband nor children of her own. Her entire life revolved around Radiant, whom she kept entertained with an endless repertoire of folk tales and songs. For every occasion she had a homily or saying, but only for the princess’ ears; in public she remained mute, suspicious, circumspect. She was, in private, Radiant’s great counsellor and confidante. Behind closed doors she nattered constantly, fussing over her charge and attending to her every whim. Her loyalty was total, and her good sense often prevailed when she felt the young princess needed her advice. Rao was also party to all the camp gossip and knew everyone’s secrets. When Harry Blackpool first came on the scene, Rao watched him carefully, until she realized his extraordinary qualities. She saw how he treated the Maharajah, and how cautious he was at court. She took note of his linguistic gifts. She had even spoken to him on occasion in the market, but so discreetly that only he was aware of her remark. It had taken the form of a brief interaction in front of a melon-seller’s stall. Harry, lost in concentration over which fruit to choose, heard a gruff comment uttered, almost an aside. ‘The man is a robber,’ the voice hissed. ‘Offer him half of what he asks. Pay any more and he will cheat you every time. And he will tell his friends.’ When he looked for the source of the admonition she was already steps away and her distinct silhouette fading into the thick crowd by the time Harry recognized who she was.

When the information came to Rao about Harry Blackpool’s liaisons with Lillian Perrey it did not trouble her. She understood that it was a passing fascination for him, and that Lillian would tire of him as she had with so many officers before. Rao knew that as long as Harry kept sexual relations with another, Radiant’s virtue would be safe. And she knew that Harry’s devotion to the princess would only grow. ‘He is like the tiger,’ she thought. ‘Fearless and faithful. Once he comes to my Radiant his heart will be hers forever.’

Other members of court who surrounded the princess were more suspicious, and eventually the frequent conversations with Harry were reported to her father. Inevitably they were forbidden to see each other. The task fell to Rao to aid in any secret rendezvous plans, which she did willingly. She suggested a walled orchard she knew, and left it to Harry Blackpool to find his own way into the place, which he easily accomplished via a forgotten tunnel. The orchard became their private kingdom, a place to which they escaped from their respective worlds. In Radiant, Harry found an admirer and an equal, a compatriot free of posturing, and an intellectual companion. In Harry she discovered a gentle and sentimental friend, someone to spend quiet hours with, with no need to do more than watch the flight of birds, or pass the afternoon reading side-by-side in a clearing under a mango tree. The faithful Rao stood guard at the gate. The months passed. Theirs was a temporary paradise, the memory of which would sustain them for the many years that they were to be separated.

How often they met depended as well on the presence of visiting princes, sent to Jaipur as marriage candidates for the Princess Radiant. Not even her father dared defy Rao on the question of potential grooms. ‘Those princes are all rogues. None is fit for my Radiant’s hand,’ was all Rao ever said. And the matter was closed.

 

 

28

 

‘But his blood is not noble,’ the princess repeated sullenly. ‘They would kill us both before they would allow us to marry. What shall I do?’

‘Be with him,’ Rao replied. ‘The world is changing. If it is your destiny he will be yours. You know he would die for you.’

‘I would die for him.’

‘Then your destiny is sealed,’ Rao said. ‘You could do a lot worse. All the arranged marriages they proposed to you were never to be. Harry Blackpool is yours, even if you do not marry him.’

‘I am fortunate to have an amah as wise as you,’ Radiant told her. ‘Who kept those horrible men from me.’

‘I promised your mother, as she lay dying, that I would protect you. That is my destiny, and so I have. There may come a time when you and Harry can live together. But not now, not for a long time, so do not suffer the dream of it. You must wait, and simply be with him as long as you can while he is here. I have heard things, though. I have heard he will soon go north. So enjoy the time you have together, for it will not last. This much I know.’

 

 

29

 

Following the orders of the Fourth Maharajah of Jaipur, Harry and Sgt Major Woodruff departed on horseback for Kashmir. There remained little time for Harry and the Princess Radiant to meet. The only hour available to them was two hours before daybreak, in their orchard. It was a strange meeting, hurried, illuminated by moonlight, and the speed at which events had overtaken them meant an anxious contact at best. Harry told her about the exchange with her uncle at the palace, and his orders to report to the Admiral. He did not know what length of time he would be gone, but he promised to return to her, no matter how long it took. Radiant swore she would wait for him.

‘I will write to you,’ she attempted. But Harry stopped her.

‘What you have to say should not be committed to letters,’ he told her. ‘I would not want them to be intercepted. Send me your thoughts instead, and I will hear them. That is the best we can do.’

‘Princess!’ Rao whispered. ‘We must return to the palace! Say your goodbye!’ The amah turned her eyes away as Harry Blackpool took the princess tenderly in his arms, and kissed her gently on both cheeks.

‘Never forget her,’ the amah said from the alcove.

‘I will never forget you,’ Harry Blackpool promised, stepping into the darkness, out of their sight and into the shadows of the portico. Though they could not see him, he turned back so they could hear his voice one last time. ‘Never.’

 

 

30

 

By the time word had spread throughout the encampment of the boy’s unannounced visit to the Fourth Maharajah of Jaipur, Harry and Sgt Major Woodruff were well on their way north, headed for Kashmir and the camp of Adml Goberslieves. But as the story was retold by many voices, the account of his accomplishment grew greatly exaggerated. Harry Blackpool had no idea of the extent of the disproportion, nor did he have an idea that he would be gone from Jaipur for nearly five years. By then the stories of his subsequent exploits had become legend throughout the north of India, to the far ends of the empire, and even the home front.

 

 

31

 

First the bullet swished by them, lodged with a thud in the nearby mud, then two seconds later the crack of a rifle echoed down the canyon. Sgt Major Woodruff slumped in his saddle, fell forward off his horse to the ground where he lay perfectly still. ‘Get off your horse, Harry,’ he said from the ground, not moving. ‘Look around nervously. Take the horses into the rocks and drag me there after you do. They’re probably watching us with a telescope right now.’

Harry Blackpool did as he was told. ‘That is a damn fine marksman,’ he observed with undisguised admiration. ‘I saw the light flash off his glass about a mile behind us. He shoots quite accurately from such an incredible distance.’

‘Lucky he didn’t hit me—now I play possum, Harry, and you go for the rifleman. Don’t waste any time, get out of here fast, take both horses, backtrack our steps. As soon as you are out of sight, find the man with the rifle. Whoever they send for me, don’t you worry, I will give to him a rousing Glasgow welcome. Maybe I can even extract some useful information from them, ha ha.’

‘You had better be careful, Woodsy. I need your help to find the Marquis.’ Harry Blackpool picked up the sergeant major’s limp arms and tugged the body into the shelter of the boulders. ‘Make sure you are still here when I get back.’

‘He’ll turn up, no doubt about it, Mr Marquis. That man is trouble. Ouch! Watch out for those damned rocks!’

‘You’re supposed to act dead,’ Harry Blackpool said.

 

 

32

 

Harry found the rifleman days later. He tracked Pierrepont’s men to the spot where he had seen the light flash, doubling back behind the hills which overlooked the wadi where he hoped Sgt Major Woodruff waited for him. Someone had got to the rifleman first, though, and put a well placed shell into the centre of his forehead. Harry knew the shot had been delivered at close range—it was a small ball, a clean entry wound, though the back of the man’s head had been blown away, splattering the rocks behind with blood and brains. Someone the man knew, so that he did not feel threatened, no sign of a struggle, only a swift death. But the wound was too new, and Harry understood that whoever was responsible could not be far away. He looked in all directions and remembered the lessons that Sgt Major Woodruff had taught him. He hid as best he could, listened, checked the wind, looked overhead, tried to identify the scents around him which did not quite fit. Then he waited. No vultures in the sky meant men were near, and Harry Blackpool knew it was only a matter of time. He dared not light a fire, or go out into the open. He was being watched, and his sixth sense told him to expect visitors that night.

Night fell. Midnight passed, and when the moon drifted behind the clouds a group of eleven stepped out from the darkness, into a circle around him, relieved him of his rifle, tied his hands tightly behind his back with horse leather thongs. At the centre of the group stood a tall white man, with straight shoulder-length black hair, a stringy black beard, and wearing a long black cloak. ‘You are an outstanding scout for one so young,’ the leader said in French-accented English. ‘Riding with a British officer, finding your way back to us so cleverly. We almost missed you, but here you are without options, and now it is time to speak your business.’ Harry Blackpool looked blankly at the man, whom he immediately recognized as Alexis Pierrepont. His own advantage was anonymity. Later he could gain the upper hand, but he knew that patience now would serve him best. He believed he had more options than they realized, and the first was to speak no English.

So he replied in his gutter Gujarat, ‘I travelled with the white man, who was taking me to Go-bear-sleeve. He said he would find me a job as a tracker. But you killed him, and now I am without a master.’ Once this had been translated for Pierrepont, the Frenchman went silent, ordered his men to make camp, studied the young man intently. He motioned Harry to sit by the fire. Food was prepared and served, but not a word was uttered. Hours passed. Finally Pierrepont spoke. ‘What else did the white man want?’

‘Vashtar,’ Harry Blackpool told him, and the men around the fire smiled, knowing nods. ‘He said we were going to get Vashtar. He said Go-bear-sleeve would reward us if we brought the bandit in.’

‘Oh, he certainly would,’ Pierrepont retorted. ‘If the bandit could be found. I know where he is, up there …’ and gave a jerk of his chin, indicating beyond the mountaintop behind him. ‘Hiding out. Hard to find. Impossible to get close to.’

Harry Blackpool said nothing. Unless he trusts you, he thought.

‘Did your white man mention anyone else?’

Harry Blackpool silently counted to thirty, then said, ‘We were supposed to look for a man called Black Pool, but he was not as important. First they want to capture the bandit.’

Alexis Pierrepont poked at the fire with a forked stick. He took out his sabre and began to stroke the blade with a sharpening stone. He honed the edge until it shone like a fine white band. ‘A month ago we had rumours about a fellow called the Marquis of Blackpool snooping around. He went upcountry to talk to the Pashtuns and that’s the last we heard of him.’

Harry Blackpool remained impassive. ‘What is the reward for Black Pool?’ he asked.

Pierrepont grunted cynically. ‘None that I know of. He is not worth your time. You forget about Black Pool. But you seem like a talented young man. You recognized the name Vashtar, yes? That man is proving a liability to me and my friends. If some smart fellow could get the jump on him, there’s a £5,000 reward on his head, and getting him out of these mountains would earn our gratitude. I can’t send one of my own men down with him. Besides, the British would come after us in a minute.’ In English Pierrepont said to his gang, ‘This fellow succeeds, we are rid of Vashtar, nobody knows him. He fails, and we’re rid of him, no blood on our hands. Tomorrow we show him the bandit’s hiding place.’

Harry Blackpool thought: ‘Yes, first I will capture Vashtar and take him to Goberslieves, and then I will come back and capture you. And you will lead me to the Marquis of Blackpool.’

 

 

33

 

They let Harry go at the snow line, carrying one day’s worth of food, and they saw him ride higher, away from them, into the downy foothills. For hours they watched him climb until he was but a tiny speck against the expanse of whiteness. They left only when he was out of their sight, well into the low clouds which hung below the highest peaks. They had given him a stocky, long-haired pony that dropped dead under him a day later.

Hill people came out from the snow-covered forest. Harry gave them the carcass, which they took away. They seemed grateful for it. They let him stay a few nights, and he set off on foot.

Blackpool killed nine men to capture Vashtar. First he systematically removed five lookouts spaced above the canyon where the bandit hid. Then he dispensed with four bodyguards, at which point Vashtar surrendered. The bandit proved to be a docile and talkative prisoner who pictured himself as a mythological figure, and freely confessed to a spate of misdeeds with righteous justifications. The man could not shut up.

‘This isn’t the way to Go-bear-sleeve,’ he protested, when Harry turned back south. The delivery of Vashtar could wait. Now his highest priority was to retrieve Sgt Major Woodruff. But Harry Blackpool was late. Sgt Major Woodruff had only enough time to breathe his dying words, ‘Take no revenge, young Harry, no revenge. And be sure it is the bad guys you kill.’ Then he was gone, on to his next life.

By the fireside Blackpool found the forked stick Pierrepont had used. He knew it had been left for him as a message. Vashtar talked. He was very sorry about the old officer, nobody deserved to die like that, but such a peaceful expression on his face, yes, the old guy? Obviously a great warrior. My people didn’t do that. It was Pierrepont and his band. Vashtar found food for hundreds when the warlords would not. Vashtar settled quarrels, gave out justice. Vashtar kept his promises. Pierrepont did not. Harry merely listened. He would need to eventually trade Vashtar for the Marquis of Blackpool. He could put up with the commentary.

 

He marched the bandit straight into the lantern-lit camp tent where Admiral Goberslieves and his men crowded around a large map of the territory. After the commotion died down the Admiral began to dictate. ‘Write that Harry Blackpool, ward of the Marquis et cetera et cetera, has arrived three weeks later than expected, claims he was captured by rebels, and reports the death of his superior officer Sgt Major Woodruff. He transfers an unidentified prisoner to us.’

‘You are Harry Blackpool,’ Vashtar hissed.

‘What did he say?’ Goberslieves asked.

‘Nothing, effendi,’ said a guide. ‘Great bandit, keep your voice down.’ They dragged the prisoner away before he could say another word.

‘That man is Vashtar, and I claim the reward for him, £5,000.’ Harry said calmly.

‘Write down that if the prisoner is established to be the one sought, then Harry Blackpool shall receive the reward for delivering him,’ Goberslieves grumbled.

‘Remitted to my bank in London,’ Harry said. ‘And now I must find the Marquis of Blackpool. Have you any fresh information?’

The Admiral ha-humpfed but there was no news to report.

‘We must send someone to Kandahar immediately,’ said the guide to his cohort. Harry understood every word they spoke, but said nothing.

‘What did he say?’ Goberslieves asked.

‘He finds the admiral-sahib is very clever.’

‘Aha. You, Harry Blackpool, will remain here at our camp.’

‘I can’t do that, sir.’

‘Tell them Black Pool’s son is coming.’

‘What did he say?’ Goberslieves asked.

‘He is impatient to discuss the map.’

‘You tell him to wait. One more thing, young Blackpool: your missing Marquis has left a trunk in my care for you, and I can’t be responsible for it any longer. You take it away tonight, do something with it, I don’t care what. Been in my tent too long. The man was a fool. Wanted to go up country, find the Pashtuns. Try talking sense to them I say. Off he rides. You’re under my command until he gets back. As I recall you are friendly with the Gurkha, so report to them.’

Among the Gurkha troops Harry found cousins and uncles of his cohorts from Jaipur, who knew of his help to their people. They sheltered him for days. In that time he gave them detailed instructions for shipping the trunk to England, that it be guarded by a man headed for a London posting. He had not the time to unpack it and search the contents, but he had once been shown the secret panels inside. When he returned home he would examine what the Marquis had placed there. Harry Blackpool trusted the Gurkha. They were, he thought, the finest people he had ever met.

One night, while out on a patrol with the Admiral’s troops Harry Blackpool slipped away for good, and rode north into the Hindu Kush, determined to locate the Marquis of Blackpool. Nobody followed him. He wandered barren valleys for months, and finally it seemed like the trail went cold in Kandahar. Then Harry got lucky. He saw a man carrying the sword which belonged to the Marquis. He pursued the man into the badlands, miles from any settlement, retired the man and retrieved the sword, but was eventually captured by Pashtuns. At first he was held prisoner, but he gained their confidence and chose to stay with them through two long winters, learning their language, fighting in their wars and living their way. He had no news of the outside world, though he did learn that Pierrepont (who the Pashtuns called ‘Stone Bridge’) had relentlessly pursued and captured the Marquis of Blackpool. Clever as always, the Marquis had escaped, and disappeared into the low Himalayas, presumed dead. Pierrepont had gone back to Europe.

Months later the trunk reached England, deposited by the Gurkha into a secure warehouse. There it waited, forgotten, for his return. He would not open it for years. The reward for Vashtar was paid to Harry’s bank as he had demanded. But Harry Blackpool had by then disappeared into remote valleys where the occupiers would not ride.

When news of Vashtar’s capture reached Jaipur, the Fourth Maharajah made a personal trip to the camp of Adml Goberslieves, just to attend the execution. He brought with him an exceptional strand of pearls as a token of gratitude for returning peace to the territory. Goberslieves accepted it, but all the ranks knew Harry Blackpool deserved the prize. Harry was long gone. Later, among the mountain people, stories of his exploits began to circulate, then spread down to the cities. Legends of his bravery in the wild north—many of them fabrications—were widely heard, accounts of a fierce white warrior loyal to a powerful Pashtun warlord. A reporter from London collected the folk tales about Blackpool and sent back inflated dispatches based on them. Items about Harry flickered like lightning in the European papers, eventually died. The Princess Radiant followed the accounts, but was wise enough to see through the fabrications. What she did know, what her spies told her, was that Harry had indeed taken up with the Pashtuns, involved in a war between two chieftains. The Marquis of Blackpool had never been sighted again, vanished. That her uncle had surrendered to the English Admiral the pearls which he had promised to her when she wed.

Radiant chose to leave Rajasthan and went to Paris, as far away as she possibly could get. There she set up comfortable lodgings, and soon was seen at only the most refined salons, an enigmatic figure clad in the finest silk saris, and blessed with a dangerous wit. Rumours continued that she had been involved with Harry Blackpool in India, but when asked she always denied the acquaintance. Adml Goberslieves brought the pearls back to the Midlands and gave them to his overweight wife. She wore them once. The Admiral fell off his horse during a fox hunt and died of his injuries. The bereaved widow put the pearls into a vault, where they remained until her death. ‘I never liked them all that much,’ she had once been heard to say. ‘Black pearls are too dark for my eyes, and red is definitely not my colour, don’t you know.’

 

Continued on next page

 

 

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