Fifteen years earlier
Jaipur had changed after five years away, Harry Blackpool realized, as he wandered the once-familiar lanes in search of vanished landmarks. Of course the monolithic temples and palaces remained, but in between them what was once farmland and sprawling fields of mustard green had given way to vast, dusty brick settlements. Villages and markets whose names he knew had disappeared. Now a throng of residents clogged the streets, flowing around beggars and holy men, cows and carts, elephants and camels, sweeping Capt Blackpool into their swirling current, the city vibrant and noisy on all sides, all manner of cloth and brilliant patterns, hammered metal objects, stalls of food, snake charmers and singers, and the usual element of unsavoury types found lurking in doorways at the edge of society. He sought out the old bookseller: gone, moved, nobody was sure where. He found his old silversmith palsied and in reduced circumstances, so he bought an unnecessary amount of goods from the man at inflated prices, gave his blessing and retreated to the streets. A hustler he once knew had transformed into a prominent and respected moneychanger, now clad in expensive silks and surrounded by hangers-on. He learned that the Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur was engaged in several massive public works, so the people loved him and tolerated his notorious extravagance. He heard rumours that the Princess Radiant had gone to Paris and never returned. To his chagrin, continuing alliances with the army meant that the military cantonment had grown into a colossus of troops and tents, with an adjacent vagabond city of camp-followers, great herds of elephants, thousands of fires.
Four years ago, Vashtar the bandit had been swiftly sentenced and executed by firing squad. He had died badly, barely able to stand, mortally wounded, his body riddled with wounds, and he bled to death still tied to a post.
Goberslieves, the buffoon, was long returned to England in triumph, having captured an unfathomable cache of gold in some barbarous action. He had departed India with a huge sum after the Crown had taken its share. He had been replaced by an ambitious young career diplomat named Bradshaw, who tried to play the needs of the locals against the needs of the masters half a world away, a quick-tempered man dreaded by all, building a reputation for obstinacy and inflexibility.
Harry Blackpool chose not to immediately report back to the army. Years of exile had made him even more wary and cautious. First he needed to reactivate whatever confidants he could find who were left in Jaipur, which took some time. At first, he drifted through the underworld unseen, listening to the rumours, sifting through the gossip until he felt he was adequately informed. In the process he was compelled to end the lives of several unwitting thugs, who incorrectly assumed they could relieve him of whatever wealth he carried. Soon, any threats to him had disappeared, rumours surfaced that he was back, and he resumed his stealthy life undisturbed in the shadows. It was well known he had been the closest friend of the Fifth Maharajah, that he had defended the young Princess Radiant, had captured the bandit Vashtar. Gossip circulated that he had fought by the side of Pashtuns during violent wars in the Vale of Kashmir, that he had returned with a treasure of gold and uncut stones. But Harry Blackpool remained nearly invisible, as he waited to pay his respects to the Fifth Maharajah. He first had much to learn from the street. He took his time.
Of course once Capt Blackpool decided to visit the compound, the entire city became party to the news, a thousand eyes watched for him, and on the fateful day men stood to the sides staring as he slowly walked the quarter mile through the rows of tents into the centre of camp. Some applauded him or gave an encouraging word. From time to time an insult could be heard, hurled anonymously from somewhere off to the side, but no man confronted Harry Blackpool to his face. Most stood silently as he made his way.
Word had reached Bradshaw rather late, but he prepared for Harry Blackpool’s arrival. A guard of 50 sepoys stood watch around the tent, arms at ready, impassive. When Blackpool drew near, the tent flaps were thrown back and once within he confronted a man no more than five years older than himself, planted behind a massive wood desk, which had been set on a large carpet of extreme beauty. Harry Blackpool easily identified the village where it had been woven, and he knew the exceptional skill it had taken to make, its unthinkable worth unrecognized. To the side of the desk a pair of mud-caked boots had been deposited on a particularly intricate section, where a bootblack crouched, at work cleaning them. Bradshaw barely acknowledged Harry, and rudely ordered the bootblack out of the tent, then raised his invisible blond eyebrows and took stock of the man who stood before him.
There was not an ounce of fear in the man’s eyes, Bradshaw realized, an odd tranquil bearing, where men usually trembled in his presence, or averted their gaze, or stood stock still at attention. If this pagan had indeed lived among the tribal savages, then he was accustomed to a rough and unforgiving way of life. The man did not slouch, nor did he seem at all tense, just the contrary: he seemed at ease, comfortable, with the cool grace of a tiger. He was dressed rather simply in the local style, but his dark garments were new, unembellished, and in good repair. He wore the Rajasthani turban and a well-trimmed beard. He was tall, well built, had the mature features of a white man, a good profile, thin lips, greyish eyes set above finely sculpted cheekbones, and his skin was burnt nutmeg dark, probably from years under the brutal sun. Yet Bradshaw had the definite sensation it was he who was being sized up, and not Harry Blackpool. He had read the file, and heard the reports from his inferior network, but he was not prepared to believe the stories which had been related. It was all too preposterous, master of arms, linguist, expert at hand-to-hand, friend to the royals, rumoured to be impossibly rich yet low-born, raised up from the gutter through the benevolence of a mysterious Marquis who had disappeared into the interior, never to return.
‘I am the new Director,’ Bradshaw declared, ‘and your arrival is long overdue. My sources tell me you have been in Jaipur for weeks now, but you have never come to pay your respects. I will need to ask you some questions, sir, before we go any farther.’
Harry Blackpool neither agreed nor challenged the Director. ‘Another well-fed man,’ he thought, ‘in his white suit and stiff neck cloth. He is drinking wine when he should be drinking water. He could not walk a mile in this heat, and from what I have heard he keeps a hareem of begums, though he tires of them quickly and they of him. He is quick with his temper, not beneath taking a riding crop to those he thinks have offended him. He believes his religion to be superior to that of the pandits. He has disrespected many yogis. He insists on food prepared in the style of his homeland. He has made no effort to learn any other language.’
The Director mopped his forehead with a white linen kerchief. ‘Well, sir?’ he said. ‘Are you ready to answer my questions? Do you still speak English?’
Blackpool looked imperceptibly in the direction of a padded chair, which was set at an angle to the desk. He engaged in a brief staring match with Bradshaw, then swept his glance around the tent.
‘Oh, sit down, for God’s sakes,’ Bradshaw said. ‘Take that chair there,’ and nodded in the general direction in an irritated way. He grabbed for a paper at his left and regarded it with a frown. ‘Let us get down to business. What do you know of an Abdulhamid Izfahar?’
Blackpool said, ‘Never heard of him.’
‘Or of a man who goes only by the single name of Hamoun, 25 years of age, a disfigured left arm, but deadly with a dagger in the right hand?’
‘Who are these people?’ Blackpool asked, though he knew the answers.
‘Or an unidentified Bengali last seen alive two weeks ago in an arrack house—this one with a reputation for fraternizing with an especially undesirable element hostile to the House of Jaipur, you know him?’
‘The Director appears to have all the answers,’ Harry Blackpool said. ‘Why don’t you tell me what you know.’
‘Impertinence! All those men were considered dangerous. Menaces. At one point or another we had them all in irons.’
‘The Director refers to them in the past tense,’ Harry said.
‘Of course I do! They’re all dead, do you hear me, found dead in deserted alleys, camel yards, the last one behind some ruins.’
‘I will pray for their souls,’ Harry Blackpool volunteered.
‘You will do no such thing,’ Bradshaw thundered. ‘Do not underestimate me. I am perfectly aware who did away with them—you, Captain Blackpool. You were the last person they were seen with, you are the only one with the skill to dispatch them.’
‘Perhaps the Director should concern himself more with the issues of the living.’
Bradshaw’s mouth opened, stayed open. He gasped involuntarily, grabbed for his crystal stemmed wine glass and gulped a large swallow. Wiped his lips with his linen kerchief, glared at Harry.
‘You know nothing of these cold-blooded murders? You deny any knowledge, any involvement?’
‘I came to pay my respects,’ Harry said. ‘Not to speak of the dead. Have you any news for me?’
‘News? I have news for you?’
‘Would you care to share anything about my protector, the Marquis of Blackpool, or the villain Pierrepont?’
But a strange sensation overcame Director Bradshaw, as if some invisible hold had taken over him, as if his mind was not his own. Harry Blackpool had not budged from the chair, had barely moved, yet Bradshaw found himself answering: no, he had no news of the Marquis, and no, the villainous Pierrepont had disappeared years ago.
‘I expect I am supposed to welcome you warmly, young hero,’ said Bradshaw, with evident consternation. ‘It appears you have powerful friends in London, prepared to shield you. I am directed to offer you any assistance required, and to ship you back as soon as possible. People of high rank wish to avail themselves of your skills. You are to remain apart from the ordinaries of the regiment until we can get you home. I am directed to learn what you know about the fate of the Marquis of Blackpool.’
Harry Blackpool knew better than to refuse the elephant and the regiment of soldiers sent by the Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur to escort him to the citadel where the Amer Palace stood. In fact, he was grateful for the time alone in the swaying, shady howdah, on the comfort of a soft mattress with a crystal flagon of nibu pani within his reach during the oppressive heat of the day. The ice must come from the Himalayas, he thought, an extravagance kept deep in underground chambers for Rahjee’s refreshment. The procession made its lumbering way through the city, then up the winding track which had been cut out of the hill and led to the ornate gates below the palace. Years earlier, he remembered, he had scaled a sheer wall to confront Rahjee’s father. While he was confident he could still perform the same feat, this time Harry Blackpool preferred the brief isolation, the escort and time to reflect before he met with his childhood friend.
‘A month in Jaipur and you do not call on me,’ the Fifth Maharajah said. ‘We who have known each other for so long, been through so much, Harry, I am disappointed in you, well, not disappointed let us say —do not look so dismayed, but so many things to tell you. And you must report all your adventures, every bloodthirsty detail. How many men did you kill in the time you were gone? Would you like Fatima to dance for you?’ The Fifth Maharajah turned to his servants, waving his arm. ‘Privacy!’ he yelled, sending them scurrying away. ‘And bring us food!’
The terrace atop the palace where Harry had met his father years earlier looked the same, billowing curtains surrounding the stone pavilion where the young Maharajah reclined on a couch, his immense figure double the size since Harry had last seen him. He wore an ornate turban of green silk interlaced with gold thread, and voluminous folds of brilliant white cloth covered his orotund body. He had grown a moustache, yet he still projected a boyish countenance, eyes shimmering, delighted smile. His hands were full of bejewelled rings. Wafting hints of incense drifted across the terrace, sandalwood.
‘I heard you met Director Bradshaw,’ the Maharajah said. ‘What a bounder. What’d he ask you? What did you tell him? Did he ask about me? Never mind, I know everything that was said, Harry, not too difficult to learn. What about the Marquis? You find him? What are you staring at?’
‘You have grown fatter,’ Harry Blackpool said. ‘I don’t think being a ruler agrees with you.’
‘It is more or less the same as before, if you must know. Just a lot of paperwork and people asking favours every day. Gifts to accept and to give, dinners to attend. You know they executed Vashtar? He turned out to be a pretty decent bloke, was sorry to see him go, he liked to recite poetry, you knew that, didn’t you? Of course you did, brought him in from up country, didn’t you? Father thought he was a scoundrel, but I liked him, visited him many times in his cell, good conversation, always ready with a joke, shame he had to face the firing squad, sent him quite an opulent last meal, least I could do, would you like to see a portrait of him I commissioned? No? A good likeness, you can have it if you want, my gift to you. I will have it sent to you, but where are you staying, Harry, some hovel? Why don’t you move here to the palace, I shall prepare a suite for you, why live down there …’ nodding in the direction of the sprawling city below the sheer walls, ‘among the working class. You would be much more comfortable here with me. I must take you hunting. Let me call for my tailor to make you some suitable new clothes.’
A meal appeared, perhaps fifty dishes of succulent delights, curries and roasts in savoury sauces, rice preparations, dal offered a multitude of ways, trays of nutmeats and bowls of scented yoghurts, which the Maharajah dove into. He had remembered Harry Blackpool’s favourites, which were set before them with great ceremony, elegance and care.
‘As usual, you take your time eating, Harry. Have more! You do not like the biryani? I will execute the chef! Another lhassi? Why are you so timid, Harry? I prepare a welcome for you and you barely say a word, barely touch your food. Tell me now, did you find the Marquis? Dangerous man, but he loved you: he gave you his name. When we heard you were in Tibet I thought you might find him there—the last place he was sighted. Stop being so circumspect, Harry, you can confide in me. I suppose you would like news of Radiant, unless you know already. I shall tell you then. We quarrelled, it is true. But I did not banish her as is popularly thought, she chose to leave. It was over those infernal pearls my father had surrendered to Goberslieves, yes, yes, they were promised to her. If ever they come to light again I want them, Harry. You must obtain them for me and I shall restore them to her, I promise this to you with all my heart.’
The Fifth Maharajah of Jaipur leaned back on his elbow and gazed upward dreamily, still reclined on his ornate ivory couch. He ordered the tables cleared away, half-closed his eyelids, and immediately fell into an innocent doze. This left Blackpool seated across from him waiting for more dialogue, which was not forthcoming. As the servants silently collected the dishes —of which there were perhaps a hundred to clear, all gold —Harry found himself grateful for the few moments left to himself. He had seen this behaviour before, and he understood Rahjee’s limits. Such naps could last five minutes or an hour, and he was expected to wait them out. Silently he left his chair and walked to the parapet, where he gazed over the city’s expanse of dusty roofs which stretched west into the Rajasthani plain. The heat of the day had gone, and a warm, willowy wind danced across the terrace.
The city of Jaipur no longer fascinated Harry Blackpool. He was well acquainted enough with all the human beings in his universe, he could read their minds, he understood the geography of this particular place, but his return could not be deemed one which included a warm welcome. The military had extended to him wide berth, rendering him a kind of white dalit. Men either feared him, or challenged him to duels—all of which he rebuffed. Women desired him, but he recognized the hazards of intimate liaisons, and so he upheld a solitary life. His superiors envied and resented him. It was new experiences and open space which Capt Blackpool now craved, things no longer to be found in India.
A succession of familiar-sounding gulps and little snorts alerted him that the Maharajah was awakening from his catnap, so Harry went back to the couch which faced his friend. He sat down.
‘Ah, you’re still there,’ the Maharajah said. ‘Did I sleep, Harry? I did, where were we when I dropped off? Yes, Radiant. Alright, I admit it, she was furious with me after, she would not speak to me, even in public and she hasn’t communicated since. She told me in no uncertain terms that I was obliged to recover the Pearls for her. My father had given them to Goberslieves, but it came to light that he had surrendered another artefact to Alexis Pierrepont.’
Harry Blackpool’s mind shifted from indulgent friend to high-functioning investigator, and now he began to listen all the more intently.
‘When Radiant learned of the meeting …’
‘Which meeting was this?’ Harry Blackpool asked.
‘The meeting between my father, Goberslieves and Pierrepont,’ the Maharajah said. ‘Nobody told you about that meeting?’
‘Your father gave the pearls to Goberslieves and some object to Pierrepont to placate them.’
‘They had put down quite a rebellion, hadn’t they? Their armies controlled some formidable territories. He could have been at war for years if he didn’t. He was prepared to transfer a treasure over to them, he had plenty more gold hidden away, more than they could ever have imagined. You can be sure the treasure he gave them was composed of heavy objects he didn’t want to move around.’
‘You used the word artefact,’ Harry said.
‘A lion,’ the Maharajah said under his breath.
‘A lion. Any lion in particular?’
‘A small lion.’
‘Rahjee,’ Harry began, but the Maharajah stretched his reach to a lacquered box on a side table, extracted a fat binder and thrust it in Harry’s direction.
‘You can read the private minutes to the meeting,’ he said, looking away. ‘Then maybe you’ll understand. Please, Harry, take it in your hands for goodness’ sake. It won’t bite. You have no idea what it cost me to obtain this report which came directly from the scrivener Pettigrew, whose initials certify it. He had been in the employ of Goberslieves, who had everything written down, fool that he was. I had it read to me once, didn’t tell me much, so I put it away.’
Harry Blackpool examined the sheaf of pages held together by a red ribbon, encased in red leather four years earlier. Clearly the report had since resided on a shelf for all that time, never dusted.
‘I asked for it to be brought up from the archives,’ the Maharajah offered. ‘It is my own copy, stored in my secret document room. I knew you would want to see it. I’ll just doze a bit longer while you look it over.’ He closed his eyes, placed his head on a round satin pillow and, giving off with a loud snore, instantly returned to sleep.
‘You had no idea it was a gross capitulation?’ Blackpool asked once the Maharajah had reawakened.
‘How would I know such a thing?’ the Maharajah answered, blinking his eyes erratically. ‘Father was the ruler, I was but eighteen years old, he did not involve me in the secretive details of the court. It was only after I was named Fifth Maharajah that his strange conduct came to light. By then, what could I do? I could not have predicted the speed at which my succession occurred. How could I know he was going to be eaten by a tiger? Imagine watching such a thing! None of us could get off with a good shot, without risking hitting father. I saw it all from my own elephant, with my own eyes. Father stalking the beast, such a beautiful tiger it was, Harry. I had the skin made into my ceremonial robe, and the head hangs in my private chambers. Do you want to see it?’
‘So, three years after his passing you learn of a secret meeting called by your father, between himself, Goberslieves and Alexis Pierrepont. A scrivener named Pettigrew offers you a copy of minutes he took recounting their words, you pay him a small fortune, off he goes …’
‘He disappeared,’ the Maharajah offered. ‘On a ship. To Macau. Hasn’t been heard from since. Consumptive, coughing blood into his kerchief, addicted to opium, a drunk besides. I gave him enough money to never come back. A pittance, but he had no idea. He had never seen so many coins in his life. I’m sure he’s dead by now. He won’t trouble us again. I made sure he would be permanently discouraged from bothering us any further, if you get my meaning.’
Harry Blackpool considered the document he had just read. The secret meeting had taken place in the darkness of the early morning hours, held in an ancient cave in the countryside miles outside the city. Goberslieves had cleverly leveraged the Fourth Maharajah’s emotions, preying on his vanity, sharing the victory as if it had been won by the House of Jaipur. He claimed to have incurred extraordinary expense on his own and petitioned for reward and reimbursal, to which the Maharajah quickly acceded, including the Pearls of Jaipur as part of the recompense. Goberslieves further promised silence, saying that he would soon leave India, now that the campaigns were over, that he longed to go home to England. That he would invent some credible tale of how the Pearls had been acquired.
All the more remarkable, Alexis Pierrepont, who originally opposed Goberslieves on the battlefield, had been invited by the Maharajah to the same meeting, this in the interest of extracting a promise to cease all hostilities and abandon his own independent resistance. Pierrepont eloquently indicated that he recognized the good sense of collaboration rather than discord. That he hoped all hard feelings would be put aside. In compensation he asked for an equivalent gesture from the Maharajah, in exchange for which he too would call off his troops and leave India immediately. Again the Maharajah agreed.
‘The scrivener mentions an object of lesser value, neither gold nor emerald nor sapphire,’ Harry said. ‘Is this the mysterious artefact?’
The fifth Maharajah looked away. ‘It is,’ he said.
‘The inconsequential lion?’ Harry asked.
‘Really, Harry, you make such a fuss.’
‘I sense evasion from you,’ Blackpool said. ‘Of what material, then? Your father surely could not have surrendered the Jade Lion to Alexis Pierrepont?’ The Jade Lion had come to the House of Radiant centuries earlier from Cathay, a legendary work of craftsmanship shaped by an unknown master’s hand, of a deep emerald colour yet with an otherworldly interior iridescence, variegated with swirls of ochre and vermilion which the artist had located perfectly in the area of the lion’s mane. It was an idealized proportional replication of the regal beast’s form, which when viewed from different angles exhibited a range of characteristics, powerful when seen from one side, enigmatic when seen from the other, cunning when regarded head-on. Two exceptional blue-hued diamonds had been inset into the lion’s eyes.
‘It was his to give,’ the Maharajah stammered. ‘He was Guardian of the House of Jaipur and all its nobles. Pierrepont could make no effective use of it.’
‘It is the greatest emblem of the power of the Princess Radiant,’ Harry said. ‘You knew this. And your father entrusted it to an angrez? A symbol of supreme importance to all her followers …’
‘To him it was simply a piece of carved stone,’ the Maharajah attempted. ‘It fits in the palm of a hand. She was not using it, it could have been ransomed back, Father did it to make peace.’
‘Do you think Pierrepont recognized its value, that whoever held it then ruled her house absolutely?’
‘I cannot tell you what he thought. What does it say in the memorandum? I forget. He agrees to return it under certain conditions? Mysterious terms?’
‘Vague terms,’ Harry Blackpool said. ‘Terms that only he could set. Does the Princess Radiant know about this wanton betrayal?’
‘Do not characterize it so, please. Somehow she found out,’ the Maharajah muttered. ‘She raged at me, she slandered my father, she denounced our noble house, first because he had given away her pearls, and then because he had handed over her jade lion. Both were promised to her, true. But stupid objects! Both could be replaced. Both could be copied. Worthless objects, remnants of an earlier age. The world was changing. People no longer believed in them. It was the cost of peace.’
‘Now tell me in your own words the circumstances of her leave-taking.’
‘Rather rapid, I’d say,’ the Maharajah admitted. ‘She was always headstrong, her parents had put away a lot of gold with a bank in Paris. She didn’t threaten, mind you, did not seek my permission, she announced it, announced to me that if I did not restore those meaningless ceremonial objects to her I would never see her face again.’
‘Paris,’ Harry Blackpool said. ‘She has been there ever since?’
‘She defended you, you know. She said that as soon as you returned you would champion her, you would restore the pearls and the lion. She insulted me, called me worthless, spineless, other things more vehement, Harry. She was certain you would be back, but how could we be sure? You disappeared for five years. And that business about your trunk.’
‘What about my trunk?’ Harry asked.
‘Don’t play me for the fool, Harry. Before he left your Marquis prepared a trunk for you, you knew this, and then you had it guarded by your Gurkha friends—we couldn’t touch it. You rode off into the hinterlands and left the trunk behind. One day it was there, one day it was gone. The Princess said something belonging to her was inside it, entrusted to the Marquis, something of strategic importance that I would not like to fall into the wrong hands. I took it as a threat. I told her I would accept no misbehaviour on her part. But she was adamant. What was she talking about? Nothing to say, Harry?’
Blackpool waited. He watched the Maharajah, who had become visibly agitated. He remembered unknown things concealed below a secret panel in the trunk, things he had no time to examine. The trunk now resided to the best of his knowledge in London. His mind wandered back to the Marquis of Blackpool.
‘And then all the intelligence on her from Paris arrived,’ the Maharajah went on, interrupting his thoughts. ‘I paid a fortune for that, too. Stories of champagne and candle-lit salons, of huge bills from dressmakers, expensive carriages and horses, of Radiant at the centre of some patriotic circle, surrounded by Western intellectuals, fraternizing with Americans. Americans! She was trying to recapture the lion by herself. I had no idea she had been so offended. She had been under my protection here, I am now and forever her guardian. I wrote her privately, asked her forgiveness, offered my help to recover it, but did she answer? She did not. At last report she remains in Paris. My advisors believe she may be plotting an insurrection from afar, I do not know. Some think she wishes to challenge my power, that from afar she is raising an army of rebellion against me at her own expense. You always could reason with her. Go to her now, Harry. Calm her, help her to recover her objects if you can, tell me if indeed she threatens Jaipur. I order you to help me. It is absolutely vital that she be placated and that I keep my ancestral throne.’
The Gurkha named Narayan, who owed his life to Harry Blackpool, was a dangerous little man and would figure in the Captain’s later adventures. The trunk he protected had departed India secretly, labelled as crockery, lodged innocuously in the dark hold of a ship bound for England. The voyage took seventeen months, crossing the Arabian Sea, wintering in Mauritius after which the vessel rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The Gurkha remained steadfast, and he slept each night next to the trunk. Attempts were made to pilfer from it, but the Gurkha dealt out enough injuries that interest in the trunk eventually faded. New crew were warned away from the mean little man, who was said to have defeated five attackers and taken lethal revenge on a sixth conspirator who vanished from the ship one night and was never seen again. The ship called at a number of ports the rest of the way home and survived two engagements at sea. When it finally docked in London, a greatly unnerved agent from Blackpool’s bank guided the wily, fiercely loyal Gurkha and his untouchable trunk to a forgotten warehouse overlooking the Thames in a neighbourhood where polite people did not go. At that time Harry Blackpool was somewhere in the wilds of Afghanistan, soldiering in a forgotten war.
The Gurkha soon set up a spartan lodging in the warehouse and faithfully awaited Blackpool’s return. There he and the trunk slumbered for more than five years, undisturbed, a dark and forgotten existence in the shadows while Capt Blackpool fought his way across Central Asia and back.
Streams of frozen air cascaded over the mountain tops like lace, white mist spilling into the lower valleys all covered with snow. Into the distance a succession of sharp-edged ranges declined across the panorama of his view, astride the clouds.
‘I kept hearing about this man,’ the Marquis of Blackpool began, putting down his teacup. ‘Everywhere I went. I’d ask how to find him and they would all nod towards the mountains. Up there, they’d tell me. I tried to find people who had at least met him. Nobody. Nobody had seen the guy, shaken his hand, heard his voice. All they knew was a reputation, that he understood extraordinary things. So I began to observe the directions of the nods given, narrowing my course until I came upon the entrance to a hidden valley which led into the highest peaks. There everyone nodded up in the same direction, so up it was, up I went. I spent a lot of time climbing, that I can tell you.’
Outside the icy cliffs caught Harry’s attention, and he remembered what it had taken to get there, innumerable hours battling frigid windblown passes, to follow the path of the Marquis into the infinite mountains. But it was warm and distracting in the stone gallery where he now sat.
‘And I’m not surprised, but rather glad you tracked me up here. Nobody else has. I am quite content, quite comfortable to stay. Too many enemies left down there.’
‘This wise man has a name?’
‘He is called Mouse,’ the Marquis said.
How did he get a name like that, Harry thought, but did not say it. Instead he pulled at the cuff of his hooded robe and considered how Joseph Lincoln’s appearance had changed. The Marquis still possessed a strong physique, while his hair had turned snowy white and he now kept a short full beard. He wore a monk’s robe and a detached air. The tension of the career soldier had departed him.
‘When I first posed the obvious question to him Mouse howled, as he always did when asked. He said, I do not remember, but it’s not much of a name to live up to, is it? He was always very funny.’
‘When can I meet him?’ Harry asked.
‘He’s not currently taking visitors,’ the Marquis went on. ‘Hasn’t for some time now. I don’t think so. Too old. Spends most of his time lost in thought. But hang around as long as you like. Mouse might see you, might not. You and I can catch up. Eventually you need to get back into the world, you know. You have work left to do down there. I’m going stay up here until I die, which may or may not happen soon. Nobody knows. But I think this is a pretty good place to see out my days, however much time I have.’
‘Mouse is a wise man. I want to ask him some questions.’
‘I think he would tell you he has no answers.’
‘What precisely did he tell you?’
‘I don’t remember. Something about nothing.’
‘You guys talk in riddles,’ Harry said. ‘Joseph, you always gave me good answers. Tell me what is so special about Mouse.’
‘I don’t know.’
Wild snow-topped mountains swimming in a sea of clouds, jutting upward like archipelagoes, dense blue shadow and knifeblade shards. Hours spent at the window overlooking the emptiness, the world fallen away. Then the bell.
A spare existence indeed, one of routine: exercise, meditation, meals, sleep, wafting incense smoke, begin again—but also the gift of time to reconsider. On a background of monks chanting they spoke of the wars they had fought and the heroes and rogues they had met, the beautiful women, the hard times, and finally they recollected the earliest days in the forest outside London. Eventually they came up to the present, having exhausted the most frequently-told tales. As in all discussions concerning this fleeting existence, Harry Blackpool began to consider his course, for he chose to concentrate on the moment and never the past.
Six months and six months more, the air brutal and frozen, then bracing and fresh, turning back once again. Out on the endless expanse shades of white upon white, the darkest days a fierce voice in the wind, and blazing white horizons hard for the eye to see.
‘Why don’t you marry Radiant?’ the Marquis asked.
‘I’m still married to someone else.’
‘What are you going to do now, young Captain?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Good answer,’ the Marquis said.
‘You’ve grown fit and calm, you have a good appetite, your senses are clear. You can sit quietly without effort. It’s time for you to leave, Harry. You’d better go before winter sets in, or you’ll be up here another six months, and I don’t think I could tolerate you any longer.’
‘I want to see Mouse.’
‘What does he know that you don’t?’
‘My question exactly.’
The audience he sought never occurred. One day Harry Blackpool simply knew he was ready to leave the monastery and return to the kingdom of humans, the flatlands, the valleys and open seas. It took little effort to collect his belongings, choose his porters, make ready. Farewells soon followed at the great carved doors, tokens of memory exchanged, a moment of true certainty discovered on the stone bridge which led to the downward-facing trail. Harry Blackpool walked the first hundred steps of the long trek southwards, paused, looked back up the meandering path. The monastery stood against a background of wintry peaks, surrounded by rocks, towering over the cloud cover, the doors still cast open, the Marquis waiting for him to fade out of sight. A torch had been lit outside and in its flickering glow he saw the Marquis step aside. Then, joined by a second figure in the illuminated portal, a gnomish individual holding a staff, both men raised their hands in salute, which Harry Blackpool returned, suddenly overtaken by immeasurable joy. He turned and resolutely headed down the hill once again. His last visit with Joseph Lincoln, Marquis of Blackpool.
His wanderings took him back to Jaipur, an arduous course in reverse. Then living in secret and finally his encounters with the Director and the Maharajah. Armed with what he had learned he departed India and embarked upon an indirect path to exotic islands and ports, into the depths of Africa, across the Atlantic to the eastern coast of South America, to the West Indies, the Azores and the Canaries and finally back to the foggy banks of the Thames.
The lapping rowboat from ship to the shore where the silent Gurkha waited, the launch to the dock on a disreputable stretch of abandoned warehouses, and the entry from the river through a massive wooden door, to the cavernous space, his dominion henceforth. Here he would house his vast collections, the fruits of his travels. Sealed crates which continued to arrive already filled half the main floor. Here he would build his library, arrange his treasures, hidden from the prying eyes of society, while silently residing in their midst. This innocuous locale would become his refuge and a place where secrets could be kept.
The trunk, originally built by Pearse & Davis of London, measured 36 in wide by 24 in high by 28 in deep. It was flat black in colour, ribbed by walnut strips, with a hammered iron hasp secured by six rivets which pierced the solid mahogany walls. Brass fittings protected its corners. A domed lid attached by three broad hinges across the back sat atop its rectangular mass. Ironically, it was the same maker who would fabricate Vittorio Rosetti’s trunk twenty years later.
Its padlock, a huge, solid apparatus from Meierlinck of Rotterdam, would be opened by the key which the Gurkha Narayan had worn on a chain which never left his neck. A second key resided in a locked box at Blackpool’s bank, within a sealed envelope bearing the maker’s name. One hundred twenty-eight years later the lock would sell at an antique hardware auction in New York City for a small fortune. Included in the auction lot would be the original key, and the second—still sealed in its maker’s envelope. The auction catalogue noted the lock’s provenance. It read, ‘Reputed to be found among the effects of the notorious Captain Harry Blackpool. From a private collection, offered by an anonymous seller, including an antique silver chain (Nepali?) of exceptional workmanship.’
Now he sat in the warehouse regarding the trunk, which had preceded him by so many years and which he had followed around the world to its destination. The padlock opened immediately with a distinctive tch-chingk sound, Blackpool removed it to a solid wood table set by its side. He slowly opened the lid, releasing a scent into the room, which mingled musty fabric, familiar spices and the hint of oilcloth. The top layer consisted of a bolt of red brocaded silk, embroidered with a repeat dragon motif, meticulously folded to fit the space precisely. This he moved to the table. It protected a muslin sack which contained an ornate solid gold serving tray inscribed, ‘Presented to the Marquis of Blackpool in recognition of extraordinary service rendered to his most grateful friend His Highness the Maharajah of Jaipur.’ Another layer of folded cloth below, covering a finely crafted shallow wood crate which nested perfectly into the trunk, its sides cushioned by rounded silk pillows which were later revealed to conceal a fortune in precious stones packed in cotton wadding. Blackpool carefully opened the crate and discovered a set of twenty matching Chinese porcelain dishes, extremely fine, extremely old. These he placed on the table next to the silken cloth. Another layer of shantung followed, again precisely folded to cover two matching carved wood boxes containing a pair of Ottoman pistols which Blackpool knew to be examples of outstanding workmanship, despite the fact that they were manufactured twenty years earlier. These had been owned by the Marquis. More layers of cloth, and a layer of carved ancient amulets and deities, each elegantly held in their own perfectly-sewn sack, separated by gold-brocaded sashes. All these Harry removed to the tabletop, leaving one final layer of silk, which he placed atop the others. He then surveyed the empty trunk, whose walls were lined in a deep blue velvet. Taking up a measuring stick, Blackpool compared the outer dimension of the trunk height to the inner dimension, discovering a difference of an inch and a half. It took him some time to find the points where the craftsman had so cleverly attached the interior covering, tucked away in the vertical edges where cloth met cloth under gold piping. But after he had discovered the secret, the first layer of velvet came away revealing yet another layer of oilcloth intricately sewn, attached by buttons and clasps to the sides. Once the oilcloth had been removed Captain Blackpool admired the fine waterproofing which the master craftsman had applied layer by layer in hand-rubbed varnishes, the seams sealed by shiny strips of lacquered impermeable cloth. Now he examined the trunk’s floor, where a system of tiny brass screw heads seemed to attach a panel which nested imperceptibly against the walls, so cleverly joined that no airspace could be discerned. Once the screws had been loosened to a definite point, four turns each to the left, a distinctive click released the panel by a spring load, and the trunk’s floor raised up on one side, yielding enough finger space that it could be lifted out gently.
Three compartments had been hollowed from the trunk’s false floor. The left cavity contained an oilcloth-wrapped packet of bank drafts and property deeds worth a spectacular fortune, all given over to the ownership of Harry Blackpool. The centre cavity contained gold of various manufactures, held in a covered black velvet-lined tray, ancient faces legended in mysterious scripts on irregular disks, gold taels from Cathay, Spanish dubloons, French Louis, coins he did not recognize, but all unmistakably gold. These Capt Blackpool put aside; he would deal with them later. But the third cavity, the right, contained three oilcloth packets. The first was a private holograph memoir chronicling the exploits of the Marquis of Blackpool. Harry already knew most of the details there, having spent so much time in Tibet with his patron. The second packet, far more volatile even five years later, contained a list of Alexis Pierrepont’s agents and networks—any names which survived would be of immense value to the Crown, crucial knowledge which would certainly aid Captain Blackpool’s future activities.
But the last packet was far more troubling. Original documents, some in Pierrepont’s own hand, spelled out magnificent treachery, described offers of stratospheric bribes and vast betrayals of the Indian princely states, and finally a letter from Rahjee’s own father agreeing to cede huge swathes of territory and treasure in exchange for military support. In the Maharajah’s own hand he read the details of promises to disenfranchise the Princess Radiant and her house, to give over sacred objects symbolic of her power. These were documents which could never be seen by his childhood friends, and they pained Harry Blackpool’s heart. Now he understood that his lifelong quest was to thwart the evil designs of Pierrepont, and to protect those who in his past had shown him so much shelter and generosity and kindness.
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