Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.
We bring you the fifth instalment of Stanley Moss’s Fate and the Pearls, by SMoss, and catch up on Capt Harry Blackpool’s story, bringing the action into the present
‘If you are Capt Blackpool, I bring an urgent message,’ the giant repeated. He relaxed his shoulders, and began to speak the message he had obviously committed to memory. ‘If Captain-sahib will allow me to bring salutations from a long-time friend whose name you will already know, and to carry his most insistent summons to assist him, this unnamed friend promises to offer every comfort he can provide. He believes he has made errors and wishes the help of Captain-sahib to extract him from a complicated situation, which it isn’t in his power to rectify. He asks the pardon of Captain-sahib for intruding, but seeks the benefit of your unique abilities to come to his side as you have always in the past. He sends his great apologies that he is unable to appeal to you personally, but circumstances which Captain-sahib will understand don’t allow it. He asks for the sake of old times and your enduring friendship that you stop whatever you are doing at this very instant to concentrate on his most pressing needs. He reminds you, with the greatest respect, that rewards will follow.’
‘This unnamed friend,’ Harry Blackpool answered in perfect Gujarat. ‘Do you know where he is at present?’
‘I last saw him off the coast of Malta, aboard a ship, what, two, three weeks ago,’ the messenger said. ‘May I turn around? Thank you. Malta, on a ship bound for Venezia, where he asks Captain-sahib to meet him. He has confidence he will easily be found.’ The man had a kind face, a sincere expression, despite his imposing presence. Blackpool decided he liked the messenger.
‘But Venezia,’ Harry thought with some discomfort. ‘Where the ballerina was last reported. How bad was Rahjee’s trouble this time?’, he wondered. He arranged two folding chairs so the men could sit, then produced a small portable stove, lit it and set a kettle to boil. The giant settled uncomfortably in the chair, which appeared miniature once he occupied it.
‘Will you take a cup of tea?’ Blackpool knew better than to offer the man a taste of whisky.
‘Thank you, yes, Captain-sahib. A beautiful view of the shore you have. One doesn’t see the crocodiles? Perhaps they are there—it is just how the moonlight catches the water.’
‘Our unnamed friend,’ Harry said. ‘Is he held prisoner?’
‘Oh, no! Perhaps the opposite, Captain-sahib!’
A ransom, Harry Blackpool thought. Someone has managed to kidnap him and wants money. They won’t harm him, he’s too valuable alive. ‘How much are they asking?’
‘I don’t understand. Who? Asking what?’ The tiny teacup disappeared into the man’s immense hand, and he sipped at it delicately.
Clever, Harry thought. No ransom demand yet. No sum named. Malta. Must be pirates. ‘How many ships are involved?’
‘Ah, the Captain-sahib is clever! Three ships, big ones!’
‘All heavily armed?’
‘Of course, Captain-sahib! You would expect any less?’
‘How many men? How many cannon?’
The giant blew on his tea thoughtfully. He studied the distant shore. ‘This is very fine chai. As many teeth as a crocodile has, that is how many men on each ship. The guns I didn’t count.’
Two hundred men, Harry Blackpool calculated. Pirates in the Adriatic, that meant trouble. ‘He is guarded constantly.’
‘Yes, very well-protected,’ the giant smiled, wobbling his head. ‘He will not be so easily surprised.’
‘Your escape was difficult.’
‘Escape, effendi? I was sent to replace Captain-sahib on the barge. I am to protect the cargo and you are to go to your friend immediately. You must not hesitate.’
What could it concern this time? In the past, the purchase of armaments, years before the wife of a cabinet minister, another time a sensitive diplomatic matter after Rahjee cornered the entire Bulgarian wheat market on the urgings of some unscrupulous advisers. Once Capt Blackpool prevented a civil war the hapless Maharajah had fomented. ‘He never lets me have much time to myself,’ Blackpool thought. ‘I ought to ignore him. I need first to see with my own eyes, hear with my own ears, and then I will decide.’ He remembered their fates were intertwined. The high lama had told him that once you saved another human’s life you were responsible for them forever. Blackpool dreamed of a land he could call home, a place to come to rest, where he could see empty space on all sides. He longed for distance from the chaos, from unrelenting noise and smoke, and he yearned for silence and fresh air. He remembered Gozo fondly, a windblown and ancient isle. ‘I will know it when I find it,’ he thought.
A wild wind screamed across the archipelago of Malta. A skilled oarsman braved the currents and set him down on a tiny beach on the north shore of Gozo. There a grizzled man he remembered from years earlier awaited him, and Capt Blackpool rode a donkey up a narrow trail to a promontory. Soon a walled compound of stone houses came into view, a place he had visited many times before, and where he was well known.
‘You look older,’ the widow Schiavone said, sizing him up as they sat together in the dining hall of the main house. Lanterns flickered, giving the room an animated appearance. ‘Older, but calmer—one hears rumours about you, but we know enough not to believe them. I expect you want news of your Indian friend. He was here a month ago and took on provisions, fresh water, salted meat, enough for a long voyage. He was headed for Venezia, he said he was going to Carnavale. I did not believe him. He acted very strangely, like he was hiding something. He has not changed since you were boys. As always, he paid in gold.’
‘You overcharged him …’
‘Of course I did. He was in a terrible hurry. Some of his sailors came ashore. Apparently they were close to Alexandria when he got it into his mind to reverse course and sail back north. They were quite unhappy about it, as they had not been home for some time. There was talk of mutiny. But he managed to buy them off with handfuls of jewels, and once the ships were ready they set off for Venice in a hurry.’
‘You have no idea what the logic was for his change of plan?’
‘His crew believed it was for some secret rendezvous. Over the years we have seen him do many impulsive things.’ The widow Schiavone adjusted the black lace she wore over her head. ‘I don’t suppose we can persuade you to stay around for a while? There’s a pirate who has been raiding villages—you could help us deal with him.’
Blackpool did not reply, and his mind drifted back to the time when his friendship with the widow had formed. Years ago the Marquis of Blackpool had stopped at the island to resupply en route to India. It was over a basket of wild strawberries, he recalled, which Rahjee had taken from the kitchen without permission. It fell to Harry to return the empty basket while the Maharajah hid near the ruins of an ancient temple, plagued with a stomach ache. Of course Harry was accused of the crime. The widow’s intervention saved him—he never betrayed his friend, and the widow could easily see the truth.
Rahjee’s hiding place came as no surprise to Harry. Where else would he secret himself? Near a great hilltop mound where a race of giants left behind a palace built from impossibly large stones. It had not occurred to Rahjee that anyone would miss the berries, nor that Harry would be blamed for it. Now he cowered in shame, unsure of what to do.
‘I will pay them for the loss,’ the Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur moaned, clutching at his belly. ‘Have them name their price—I just want to go back to my bed.’
‘The price is honesty,’ Harry said. ‘Not money. The next time you are tempted, consider the outcome.’
‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about, Harry. Can I not go back? It’s dark, and I am cold.’
‘Follow me,’ Harry said. ‘I will lead the way.’
Years passed, on every subsequent visit to the island she teased him about the strawberry incident. How ironic, Capt Blackpool thought, that I am headed to Venezia, where la Fragolina was last seen. The ballerina was attractive but unreliable, and always placed her own agenda before anyone else’s, much like Rahjee. He felt no loyalty to Grazia Rosetti, not like he felt for the Indian prince to whom he was bound since childhood, or to the Princess Radiant, whose memory he cherished.
‘He did say one strange thing,’ the widow volunteered. ‘He mentioned he had taken an interest in art. His accent has always been difficult for me to understand. If I am not mistaken he said he wanted to take up painting. Yes, those were his words, take up painting.’
Highly improbable, Harry thought, another ruse, yet there had to be some connection. It came to him in an instant, that Rahjee’s obsession with the scandalous portrait of la Fragolina prevailed. He had somehow contrived to buy it. Most probably, in the process of conniving with characters from the underworld, a catastrophe had ensued. It fell to Capt Blackpool to extricate him from whatever mess, yet again. At least this rescue held the promise of decent food and wine, pageantry and mysterious women. Venezia had its own allure, and Carnavale would heighten the experience to all the senses. A wave of happiness swept over Harry Blackpool.
Tigers, panthers and leopards roamed free in the forests he crossed, and often he saw the great silhouettes of wild elephants lumbering among the trees. As he worked his way north and east into the foothills of the Himalayas packs of monkeys pursued him, screaming and chattering, waiting for the moment to steal some object he carried, often things of which they had no use, or whose function they could never understand. Here the canopy grew dense above him and on all sides the voices of the animals whose domain he invaded were constant, birdsong, clickings and stutterings, bellows and roars, chutter-chuk-chuk. Sunlight broke through the leaves making patterns of fluid golden shapes on the ground, and many a night he slept soundly on a fragrant bower of soft conifer boughs. There was abundant game and water and Harry Blackpool chose to journey slowly, taking the time to himself. He had been among strangers for far too long, and he took comfort in solitude. He had a vague idea that the Marquis of Blackpool would have continued in this direction in search of the headwaters of the Ganges, and perhaps the holy men who lived in the gorges that led up the valleys where snow melted into icy torrents and ran down through the plains, down to the sea.
He stayed clear of the hill stations and settlements as he tried to decide what to do next, for he felt no compulsion to return to military camps or the regimented way of life. Blackpool remembered the wars he had already fought, the women he had already loved, his children already lost to him. He had an intuition that there was more to be learned, some indefinable wisdom yet to be gained about human nature and the odd, inexplicable behaviours he had observed, of all people no matter their tribe or station. He had seen in men’s eyes hope, fear, desire and despair, and while he did not suffer—since he lived in the moment so very well—he could read the emotions of others, unerringly, and he knew it was some kind of gift the cosmos had given him of which he felt obliged to make the most.
Frequently his thoughts returned to the Princess Radiant and he wondered what had become of her. He had left her thousands of miles away, so long ago it all seemed like a dream. His whole life might be a dream. But he resolved to follow the path until he learned the fate of both Radiant and the Marquis, and he had no doubt about his own ability to find out. Eventually make his way back to England. How long it would take he did not know, nor could he imagine what he would need to do before that could occur. He knew only that he felt no urgency, that if he exercised patience all would be revealed in its own time. For the moment his voyage through the idyllic canyons would continue until he reached the Ganges. At that point he would turn upriver in the direction of the headwaters, where the swamis sat in meditation. There, at the very least, his wanderings would temporarily cease, he would sit at their feet, and try to acquire their wisdom.
Four men stood at the end of the street, calmly, shoulder-to-shoulder, nearly touching the walls on both sides, past midnight, the dark streets of Mdina. Blackpool could see them silhouetted, backlit by the glow from a small lantern placed behind them and off to the right. He reached under his cloak and wrapped his fingers around the handle of the kukri knife. It felt comfortable and natural in his grip. With his free hand Harry unfastened the closure on the cloak, as the men began to walk towards him at an easy pace. They had brought along an array of armament, a truncheon, a long knife, a sword, a bulky pistol. As they moved closer he sized them up, identified the most dangerous of the lot, swept the cape over his arm and threw the knife expertly and killed the man carrying the pistol. Stepped in, disarmed and brought down the truncheon bearer, used it to break the forearm of the man with the knife and put him to sleep, then killed the swordsman with his bare hands, the shadows dancing across the stone walls. He chanted a prayer of forgiveness as he collected his kukri knife from the corpse, and fastened the cloak around his shoulders.
‘Who are you?’ moaned the man who had carried the truncheon, from the corner where he had crumpled to the ground, unable to move.
Capt Blackpool stepped over the dozing shape whose arm he had broken. ‘I am not here,’ he answered softly. ‘This never happened. It’s all a dream.’ And left the men where they fell.
‘I thought so,’ said the banker who was a Count. ‘This visit is about money, was bound to be, as your old friend passed by recently and left an enormous sum in my care. So, how much of it do you want?’
‘All of it,’ Harry replied. He looked around the room, admiring the opulence of the place. Inlaid marble floors, fine oriental carpets everywhere, gold-gilt columns and ornate carvings and curios in onyx and ivory, every surface crowded or embellished. Mdina, the old capital on a hilltop, lived in its own time, halls of mirrors, golden candle light, elegant Barocco palaces.
‘A million pounds sterling?’ the banker gasped. He was an aristocrat from an ancient family and had an inherited fortune of his own, which he had only improved upon over the years. ‘Do you and His Royal Highness the Maharajah intend to destabilize some unsuspecting nation, or perhaps purchase a tropical archipelago? May I respectfully suggest, dear Harry, that you only take a draft for half a million and leave the rest in my care. You may need it at some later date.’
‘That would mean that you then hold three and half million of my money. No, I won’t do that. Give me a tenth in gold coin, the rest in drafts.’
Not my biggest customer, the Count thought. Certainly the most entertaining, gallivanting around the world always at the centre of some intrigue. A man it was good to know, but at the same time to keep at a distance. ‘Very well, gold and drafts, as you ask. You may have heard that a pirate chap has been raiding along the western side of the island, all too successfully? He’s sending gangs of brigands out at night, most inconvenient. We could make a very attractive offer, if you have the time to help us.’ His voice drifted off, hoping Harry would take interest in the suggestion.
‘I think I just aided you in that,’ Captain Blackpool confessed. ‘A few streets away. A clutch of hooligans, most definitely pirates. So your kind proposal comes a bit late.’
‘Goodness, Harry,’ the Count stammered. ‘You haven’t been killing people in the streets of Mdina again, have you?’
In the spring he reached the banks of the Ganges, where he traded his last possessions to an unscrupulous seller of cloth, all for a length of saffron cotton which he wrapped around himself in the manner of a sadhu. Then he stood and watched for a long while as the boats ferried pilgrims across the expanse of moving water to the ghat on the far shore, where passengers disembarked along a rickety wood platform, then worked their way down wide steps to the water’s edge to bathe in the sacred river. Nobody bothered him, nobody spoke to him, people pushed by as if he was not there, to their eyes he was virtually indistinguishable from so many others, a sinewy man wrapped in saffron, carrying only a wood staff and a covered metal pail. Before him the river churned to the south, a muddy grey green mass which gave off splinters of refracted light in its timeless flow.
Thick trees led down to the settlement at the water’s distant edge. Off to the sides he could make out the occasional hint of iridescent white, what he knew to be marble façades of the many opulent ashrams which stood in the forests that blanketed the hilly gorge. Around him the atmosphere of a bazaar prevailed. Vendors sold amulets and statuettes, strings of marigolds, tracts, and lengths of overpriced cloth which they claimed was blessed by famous saints. Lazy cows wandered through the teeming throng, blinking their enormous eyes, aimlessly swishing their tails. The food sellers had buyers three deep, lined up for bananas, mangoes and pomegranates to offer to the sages at the temples. Along the walls a succession of beggars showed their atrophied limbs, their picturesque stumps, or cast their milk-white blind eyes upward to the sun in constant supplication. He could hear around him each of the five languages he now understood, and more that he did not, strange intonations he associated with unknown places far away, words to which he could attach no meaning. A sadhu never starved, he knew—charity would always prevail.
A day later he walked the lanes of the settlement across the river, visiting shrines, waiting for the moment of recognition when he found his own guru. It never came. He visited all the temples in town, one by one, rich edifices filled with intricate statuary, and large assembly rooms where the faithful could sit at the feet of their masters. He didn’t care for any of the gurus he saw, largely an over-nourished lot whom he found remote or aloof, and especially compassionate for those perceived to be well-to-do. He waited for the resonant words, but they never came in the cold spaces with poetic names. And so he wandered to the hillsides outside town, where other swamis lived in caves.
First he cleaned the inside of his own cave, removing what centuries had left there, boulders, bones, odd remains. Then he furnished it with a simple pallet and blanket, and dug a shallow pit for his cooking fire. Later he built a wall of stones which he carried one by one from the river bed below. Then he planted a small garden.
Many swamis never left the caves. Each was his own brand of ascetic, no two were alike. This one did not speak, the other laughed all the time. This one was didactic, another was enigmatic. Finally he settled on Swami Gopal Buri, a wizened bald-headed old mystic, whose first words were exclaimed, ‘He is everywhere!’ pointing his index finger upwards, fixing an intense gaze on his listener. He interrogated Harry gradually, drawing out the tale of his origins and wanderings, satisfied with Blackpool’s readiness to learn. Then he began to teach lessons of detachment and spirit, yogic poses, how to boil lentils, meditation.
During the monsoons the rain knocked down the stone wall Harry had worked so hard to construct. ‘Now you must build another,’ Gopal Buri said. ‘Then you can start on one for me. I will pray for your long life.’
Two years and many river stones later he announced his departure and hiked to Nepal, where he lived with the Gurkha once again. It was an existence he understood. The foothills were like heaven in the spring and summer, thick with honey scents and greenery, young women and wildflowers. As the days grew cooler, life took a harsher turn. In those times he sat in cold temples rich with intricate designs in red and gold and thick with the musky perfume of incense, sat in meditation, chanted sutras a thousand times. He trekked to hidden temples high up, set on rocky crags, surrounded by ice and snow and mountains.
Finally the high lama summoned him to his remote palace above the cloud line. ‘Thank you for the gift of wood you brought,’ the lama said. ‘I know it is a long walk up here.’ It did not seem to Harry an invitation to comment, so he simply nodded, and the lama went on. ‘How’s it going?’ he asked Harry. ‘They tell me you are doing a lot of exercise and praying, and I hear you even drank some beer lately.’
‘Wine,’ Harry said. ‘I much prefer it. But I drink a lot of water.’
‘Good, good,’ the lama said. ‘That’s the right idea. Did you need to ask me anything?’
‘No,’ Harry Blackpool answered. ‘I’m still studying right intention.’
‘Good, good,’ the lama said. ‘That’s all there is, ultimately. Do your work there, that’s all.’ His eyes crinkled up and he laughed. ‘I have to go. I need to shake some monks out of their complacency. They’re such unreliable devils! Harry, do you have a few minutes to help me in the library? There’s some old books and scrolls in boxes I need to move, and I won’t let those lazy guys touch them.’
Through the empty alleys Capt Harry Blackpool walked, false dawn, soft pastel light, the city asleep around him. He crossed over small bridges, transiting a labyrinth of passageways, signs of Carnavale soon to occur on all sides. At the great square outside San Marco wood skeletons of stages and grandstands waited, half-constructed. In a week these structures would be draped in rich colours, surrounded by costumes and masks, intrigue and decadence, music and pageantry. The balls, for which the city prepared obsessively each year, would only add to the forthcoming confusion. Though he enjoyed the Carnavale, Capt Blackpool did not like balls. There was too much hidden which went on at them, rivalries and liaisons especially, and the seeds of great unhappiness sown under the disguise of gaiety and frivolity. Such were humans, he thought, no matter what the place, always seeking change, never content with the moment. During Carnavale, beauty went hand in hand with folly, and politeness often hid the basest vulgarity. Behind the elegantly painted screens episodes of true love and magnificent betrayal occurred, scenes of power abused, lives bought and sold, or muttered conversations where fortunes changed hands, dynasties rose and fell, all invisible to the oblivious faces who massed in the streets. He had roamed these passageways so many times that he felt he knew every dark doorway and alcove, every shadowy corner where his enemies could lurk, or where his mysterious reunions could be held in privacy. He loved Venezia for its history and its colours, and the intrigues he found hidden there. He just did not like going to balls at Carnavale.
A scrawny little man, unkempt, clad in near-rags walked towards him in the passage. The man had a small flattened nose, unshaven cheeks, a square jaw, his head covered by an ancient cloth cap, and he twitched, blinking his eyes as he approached. He looked as if he had not eaten for days. When he saw Capt Blackpool he stopped and waited, half bent over, and reached into the folds of his tattered jacket.
‘Letters, Capitane,’ he quickly explained, holding them out. ‘And news for you.’ His name was Guido Garda, and he had loyally served Blackpool for years. He had, with his own eyes, seen Harry take lives, his own miserable existence spared in one such encounter. He knew that he owed his survival to Blackpool. He thrust the packet of wax-sealed papers outward, and Capt Blackpool immediately secreted them away. ‘Where shall I begin?’
‘The Maharajah,’ Capt Blackpool said.
‘Anchored offshore, three ships, about a half day’s sail north of here. They say he is waiting for Carnavale to begin. Nobody allowed to get near his ship. A famous artist named Balthazar disappeared, kidnapped, people think, probably hiding there. He was shacking up with a ballerina named the Strawberry. The same guy responsible for The Crimson Garter, the dirty painting that got stolen, you was asking about it last time I saw you. People says he’s being held hostage.’
Harry nodded and handed Guido Garda some coins. ‘Next time,’ he said, ‘Tell me something I don’t already know.’
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