Tuesday, 27 July 2010
My mind was racing at the implications of Sir Benjamin’s words – what on earth was he going to reveal? Everything I thought I knew about him, his dashing service in the army fighting the Turks and his work with the Bedouin tribes of Arabia was obviously only a small part of the tale. This could be quite the biggest story of my lifetime and I was there ready to write it with a death sentence hanging over me if I published anything in advance of him saying so. I had been threatened before and had faced much in the way of actual fighting but had never been so callously held up as a potential offering to my maker. The casual indifference with which was spoken was far more chilling than any amount of weapon brandishing bellicosity and the threat had to be taken very seriously. I would have to be cautious for my very life depended upon it.
I weighed up the advantages and disadvantages of my position and determined there and then that if this story was going to be told then it would be told for the right reasons, with clarity, impartiality, objectivity and above all accuracy. It would also be told to the very best of my ability. I was contemplating this thought and the ramifications of this course of action.when Sir Benjamin cleared his throat and addressed me again.
“Mr Royston,” his voice was even, measured and deliberate; as though he was weighing the full import of each word before he spoke it. “Before I begin the story there are a number of background issues I would address with you. These you may or may not wish to include in your final draft and I leave that decision to your discretion. I have no interest in what you write and will not be available for checking any details so what you publish will be the final version. Any and all royalties will go solely to you – I am an extremely wealthy man and have no need of any further financial recompense. I have drafted my will and this is held with the same legal representative as will instruct you when you can publish your efforts. I will not bore you with the details of my estate but suffice it to say that Giltspur Hall will go to the crown; no doubt for some minor royal or nouveau riche tradesman to refurbish.” I could not help noticing the disdain in which this last sentence was spoken. Against my better judgement I asked Sir Benjamin about the Hall. “Sir Benjamin, if you are as wealthy as you maintain then why is the Hall in such a poor state of repair? Surely you would be able to repair and renovate it to its former glory?” I enquired. Sir Benjamin looked at me, his eyes ablaze with indignation. “Mr Royston, the Hall is in the state it is in simply because it is of neither value nor importance to me!” he exclaimed angrily. “I am done with what so-called ‘society’ considers good form; I have forsaken the hypocrisy and fair weather companions that meaningless and frivolous existence brings,” he thundered. The bitterness in his words was self-evident and I had obviously touched upon a sensitive subject. This gave me much food for thought although I was sure that the reasons for this renunciation of society would eventually come out. “Your pardon Sir Benjamin, I did not mean to cause any offence” I said, in a suitably apologetic tone and all the while making a mental note to be a little more circumspect in my comments..
Sir Benjamin breathed deeply and slowly, carefully composing himself as if to quell the agitated passions coursing through his veins. “Forgive me Mr Royston, this is a topic that is painful to me for reasons that are my own although I am sure you will be able to discern them in time.” The fire in his eyes diminished and so, with his equilibrium sufficiently restored, Sir Benjamin continued. “It is no secret that I am an ardent enthusiast of the Bedouin life and so, when fate returned me to the shores of the land of my birth I endeavoured to replicate the mode of life to which I had become accustomed in the Hejaz – the results of which you are sitting in as we speak. It is a facsimile of course, but a good one nonetheless. Every detail is as authentic as possible and I take great comfort from having these things around me as a reminder of more rewarding days.” He paused, his face a calm and blank mask as he recalled a far off memory. “I was a Lord then, with the power of life and death over many and the force to make the very mountains shake……………………” His words trailed off into silence. I held my breath, waiting for him to resume.
“I am sorry again Mr Royston, the enormity of this undertaking has reminded me of many things; good and bad, but I had not considered how such reminiscences would make me feel by the act of remembering them. I shall try to recount my story in the most objective way I am able to and will endeavour to keep such emotional lapses to a minimum.” He seemed almost embarrassed by having to say this and so I did not push the point with him. Clearly some of this tale would be painful for him to recollect so I would need to be mindful of this and exercise the appropriate level of tact when called upon. Oddly enough this gave me a degree of confidence in my task as my experience of interviewing people from all walks of life and under many different circumstances would stand me in good stead.
The silence resumed; expectant and foreboding. The only sound disturbing the moment was the occasional sputter and crackle from the fire. Sir Benjamin suddenly seemed an old man; careworn and weighed down by the ages. He stared at the floor; perfectly still; with the only movement being the gentle rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. He slowly reached across to the small tray at his side and gratefully drank a glass of water; both hands embracing the vessel tightly as though wringing the life from its contents. He gulped the water until it was gone and slowly placed the glass back on the table; the life-giving substance appearing to have restored some of his face’s earlier vigour. Thoughtfully, he stroked his beard in contemplation.
“Mr Royston, I am dying and when a man sees then end of his life approaching he needs to know that there was some point to it and that all of his perceived wrongs have been addressed, perhaps even put right. I have a number of such issues that I wish to lay to rest, not from vindictiveness, malice or revenge – merely of setting the record straight for posterity. I was raised to be honest, loyal to my monarch and country, hardworking and respectful. I was all of these things Mr Royston, and more but each and every one of these values was compromised by both circumstances and the weakness of those with authority without responsibility. I wish to absolve myself of those corrupted values and restore them to their rightful place, decent, untarnished and an example to all. You Mr Royston, will be the instrument of my absolution for it is you that will wipe clean the pages of infamy.”
There was an air of finality in the words of Sir Benjamin; this was to be his final bow to humanity as a whole and it would be with his nose firmly thumbed at certain quarters. He had absolutely nothing to lose; he was both dying and disappearing (presumably to die) and so any reaction to his story would have little or no impact on the course of the remainder of his life. The morality of his action I could not comment on but the immortality of his intent would be a different matter. I was more than happy to oblige Sir Benjamin in this respect but I would need to ensure a degree of creative integrity during the undertaking. I pondered my choice of words carefully and challenged him accordingly.
“Very well Sir Benjamin, I have listened to your comments thus far and am more than happy to be guided by you as to the nature and content of the story you will tell. I have a number of working practises however that I would ask you to observe – mainly that I will have to ask you questions from time to time and it is essential that you allow me to do so. I will try not to interrupt your story unless it is absolutely necessary but when I do it will be very much in the nature of journalistic enquiry in order to ensure the readability and accuracy of the story. I am not, nor have I ever been a mere copywriter so I would appreciate being allowed to pursue the writing of this epic in my own way,” I faced him resolutely with this as I was not prepared to compromise my creativity and be used merely as a recording instrument. I wondered if I had gone too far with this outburst but Sir Benjamin merely nodded his assent in silent agreement.
He spoke again, as one for whom the weight of the ages was but a simple matter and the revelations therein but common discourse. “Again Mr Royston, that is a brave answer and of course I will agree to your reasonable request. Of course you must be able to question, to burrow and to dig into the nether reaches of my story for the evil of my tale requires an enquiring witness in order to bring it fully to life and vitality. I cannot refuse this request for were I to do so my tale would lose all relevance and, dare I say it, panache. We should cooperate, you and I; although my ultimate sanction of your life must remain non-negotiable.” He paused, as though deciding which course of his tale he should describe first. I was pleased with this (although keeping such thoughts to myself) as it revealed a little more of the human side of this extraordinary man – the continual turmoil of the soul when faced with a dilemma. At length, he spoke.
“Mr Royston, I would like to begin my story at a particular point in time. A time before my so-called greatness; a time when I was but a mere servant of the vast enterprise that ruled my, and may others like me, life. Indulge me if you will for this tale is of relevance to the entire story and should not be overlooked. I am of course, referring to the events surrounding the Malta Relief Expedition back in 1896. I will begin my story there and it is for you to decide the relevance of this in the overall scheme of things.”
5. Malta, 1896. The Greatest Siege - Part 1.
Saturday, 17 July 2010
The flickering light appeared to be coming from the right hand side of the passage and so when I reached the end wall I naturally turned to face the source of this random illumination. I was greeted with some kind of cloth hanging covering yet another doorway and made of a light gauze-like material. Without pausing, I swept the cloth aside and stepped boldly across the threshold.
The scene that greeted me was absolutely incredible. I was speechless. I suddenly wished that I was a writer of genius with sufficient powers of description in order to be to able to describe the vision that greeted me. I had no clue as to the boundaries of this room but that was of minor consideration as it did not appear to be a room at all. I found myself standing outside of a Bedouin Arab’s tent and judging by the richness of the material used in its manufacture it was clearly the abode of someone of considerable importance. The source of the flickering light that had drawn me towards its signal intent was found in the two wooden torches standing, sentry-like at the entrance to the tent. A small fire burned; the flames flickering and dancing in the darkness trying to prise open the inky blue-blackness. The smell of roasting meat assailed the senses and I could feel myself salivating at the prospect of the meal to come; surely this would be the dinner to which I had been invited, however bizarre the surroundings appeared?
I could make out faint shadows moving within the tent and it looked very much like at least two people were present. I was unsure what to do next so opted to wait until something happened, reasoning that Sir Benjamin would be aware of my presence. I did not have to wait long before a deep and commanding voice issued from within the tented enclosure. “Welcome Mr.Royston, II have been expecting you, do come in.” There was no mistaking the power of command within that imperious sounding voice and so, with a mental swallow, I drew back the tent flap and entered.
The interior of the tent was spacious and opulently finished; numerous large cushions were scattered around the perimeter and various drapes and hangings adorned the ‘walls’. Two small intricately carved wooden tables were placed opposite each other with an ornate rug between them. A small fire was set to one side and some wooden screens were placed strategically, no doubt to afford a degree of privacy when required. The main feature of the room was the raised wooden dais; complete with a large reclining couch, not unlike those that the Ancient Romans were depicted as using during their periodic bacchanalian excesses. A number of brass lanterns provided illumination for the interior and the effect of their guttering light was pleasing on the eye and I found that the effect of the whole ensemble was most relaxing and tasteful – not at all gaudy and vulgar. Clearly Sir Benjamin was a man of some artistic taste which in my experience was not usually the preserve of the fire eating man of action. As was my custom I would reserve judgement as to the character of the man until I had had the opportunity to get to know him better. Curiosity however, compelled me to inspect the furnishings with a closer eye as I was intrigued by their origin as clearly they were not of the standard fare one would ordinarily expect to find in the sleepy environs of Canterbury. My cursory examination revealed little, my knowledge of furniture and such was limited although I was fairly certain that the large rug in the centre of the tent was Turkish in origin. I knelt down for a closer inspection when suddenly the disembodied voice spoke from close by. “So Mr.Royston, how do like our little place in the Kentish countryside?” the voice enquired in a quizzical fashion. I spun around and leaped to my feet. “Well; but it is very far from the Hejaz” I responded, trying not to allow any obvious curiosity colouring my answer. “That is a good answer Mr Royston” the voice continued. “You may have added a reference to there being Turks nearer to us than that, God willing, but then I fear my friend Colonel Lawrence always was a little on the theatrical side.” From behind one of the wooden screens a tall figure emerged, attired from head to foot in full Bedouin Arab costume, regal in their bearing; resplendent as to the quality of their garments. This was no person of menial background. “Mr Royston, I am Sir Benjamin Giltspur and I welcome you to my home, please be seated.”
I seated myself on one of the cushions facing the dais and immediately a servant, a young, fresh faced and doe eyed youth (again in full Arab costume), appeared from behind another of the screens and placed a small side table at my left hand, upon which was a brass serving tray containing a selection of titbits together with a small teapot, the steaming fragrance emanating from within being the pungent aroma of fresh mint. Sir Benjamin imperiously clapped his hands twice and the young serving boy bowed solemnly and withdrew. Sir Benjamin tilted his head to face me and breathed deeply, his eyes closed. This gave me the opportunity to study this curious and doubtlessly enigmatic individual. He was tall and lean although this was difficult to discern from under the voluminous robes in which he was attired. His hands seemed well used, tanned and creased with the lines of age and of strenuous endeavour. His face was long and drawn with both high cheekbones and shrunken jowls. A small, perfectly groomed goatee beard seemed to elongate his head and although the hair that I could see was luxuriously black, there was no doubt that Sir Benjamin was in his most senior of years. His skin was like sun dried leather in both colour and, in all probability, to the touch. I knew from my own research into the career of Sir Benjamin that he was probably around the age of seventy or so but on this evidence I could not be sure; in truth he could have easily been a hundred such was the effect his appearance had on me. At length, he opened his eyes suddenly, as if startled by a sudden realisation and he looked me straight in the eye.
I have seen and met many people over the course of my career, in many places and under the most of difficult of circumstances. Low born, high born, self styled ‘chosen ones’, royalty and all manner of humanity in between but I had never experienced anything like that first meeting with Sir Benjamin. More specifically, I have never met anyone with such power in their eyes. They were icy blue and of such clarity and radiance I felt myself being almost hypnotised by their luminosity. “Mr Royston, I am very pleased to have met you at long last” he spoke and in doing so the binding power of his sight faded a little, enough for me to mentally blink and come to my senses.
He settled into his cushion and poured himself a tea. He wore the expression of someone fully focused on the task in had; his eyes seemingly boring into the teapot and his lips slightly parted; as if in anticipation of the taste to come. He placed the full cup at his side and composed himself, straightening his robes as he did so. I surmised that Sir Benjamin was indeed a fastidious man and that his appearance and his deportment was a serious preoccupation. I was pleased by this as in my experience dealings with urbane and well-mannered people are usually a pleasurable undertaking. I found myself unconsciously mimicking his actions as I settled into the lush and deep embrace of my own cushion.
“Mr Royston, I have much to tell you and little time in which to tell it. My reasons for this will be revealed to you in due course; as well as the rationale as to why you of all the representatives of your chosen profession (I detected the faintest of sneers at this remark – clearly Sir Benjamin was not enamoured with the popular press) has been singularly honoured with this opportunity. I will describe all of this to you after we have dined and so would appreciate your observation of my house rule in that business is never discussed at dinner.” I nodded my head in agreement with this condition and Sir Benjamin smiled by way of acknowledgement and clapped his hands again.
The meal was gargantuan, Middle Eastern and thoroughly delicious. A whole lamb had been roasted and was enthroned upon a huge bed of aromatic and spiced rice, mixed with almonds, sultanas and apricots; sticky with butter and fragrant with cardamom, nutmeg and onion. This was carried into the centre of the tent on an enormous brass tray needing two men to carry it. The meal was served to be eaten with the hands and so pitchers of rose water were placed nearby to wash the hands; together with hot towels, steeped in jasmine. The meat was succulent and tender enough to pull apart with one’s fingers and with the crackled skin used to scoop up the rice it was a truly a handsome feast. Sir Benjamin was a model host and his conversation was appropriate, tactful and idle. It was standard dinner party fare – innocuous, innocent and non controversial. All the while it seemed as though he was holding back from the main business until such a time as it was appropriate. Of course I was happy to go along with this in the hope that a small clue as to what would be forthcoming would be revealed but to no avail. Sir Benjamin was obviously far too astute to give anything away until it suited him to do so. At length the meal was finished and with the familiar clap of the hands a servant was summoned.
I was momentarily taken aback when the servant appeared and was none other than Arab that had first welcomed me into Giltspur Hall! The tall figure had leaned over Sir Benjamin and appeared to whispering in his ear. I could not follow any of the conversation except that Sir Benjamin nodded his agreement to a couple of points and then both of the figures began to laugh uproariously! This was too much and I could feel myself becoming angry at this unexpected lapse of manners (conveniently forgetting my own drink fuelled insult to the servant before me whom obviously had a position of some authority in Sir Benjamin’s household). Sir Benjamin must have noticed my discomfiture as he suddenly waved his hand and the tall Arab bowed to me and stood at the side of my host. “Forgive me Mr Royston, Prince Zayed and I was enjoying a small joke at your expense which seemed like a good idea at the time but alas may have offended you for which I am truly sorry. Prince Zayed, or should I call him Ali (I blushed furiously at this reminder of my earlier ill mannered outburst), accompanied me upon my return from Arabia and has been my travelling companion ever since. It is convenient for him to be seen as my servant as it avoids, shall we say, some uncomfortable questions as to his origin. His son you met earlier and his daughter is also with us and they all are as close to me as a family as I will ever have.” I felt ashamed and so stood up and faced the Prince. ”Prince Zayed, please accept my most sincere and humble apologies for any offence I may have caused you by my ignorant behaviour earlier.” I offered my hand to him and was genuinely sorry for my drink fuelled excess of the afternoon. He took my hand and bowed. “Mr Royston, there is no apology required although I will accept it within the spirit with which it is offered and will say no more about it.” Sir Benjamin was obviously pleased about his turn of events and I felt hat for whatever reason I had done the right thing. The Prince bowed to take his leave but Sir Benjamin would not countenance this “Stay Zayed, your presence is most welcome and I will have need of your memory for some of the tale I about to recount – as well you know.” Reluctantly, the Prince took his place at the feet of Sir Benjamin, his scimitar resting nonchalantly against his leg but within easy reach.
We made ourselves comfortable and Sir Benjamin called for more drinks (including a bottle of whisky and a soda siphon for myself) and cigars and after we had partaken of these he then summoned the son of Prince Zayed in order to fetch my writing things. Moments later I had a pile of notepads and pencils, a freshly charged large whisky and a lantern to write by. I felt replete and was eager to start whatever it was that Sir Benjamin had in mind.
The boy was dismissed and the tent was left to the three of us. Sir Benjamin breathed deeply and began. “Mr Royston, I have summoned you here with a single task in mind. This task is to write the story of my life from the time I will begin at until the time I will tell you to end. I will tell you about my role in the war against the Turks and everything that transpired during the same. I will name names and I will leave no reputation untouched for there is much that the popular press needs to be mindful of. I fear that much controversy will ensue from the evil of my tale but through it all the one over-riding theme is the triumph of the human spirit; of how a man can make a difference even when those forces he holds most dear appear to be conspiring against him. I have seen and done things Mr Royston that would shock most of the society that has built me up into some latter day avenging angel. This is, you will learn, hugely ironic when you consider the circumstances around which the path to my 'greatness' was started. The very society that now holds me up as the consummate ideal of manly and martial virtue had once came very close to destroying me altogether! (I could see that much was troubling Sir Benjamin and it was with an effort he managed to calm himself sufficiently to continue). Mr Royston you may write what you want and how you want but bear in mind that the only evidence you will have will be my own word - perhaps with that of Prince Zayed. There are no papers, no photographs nor any relics to my certain knowledge and so you must judge the accuracy of what I am about to relate. There is but one single condition that I require you to uphold and that is that not a single word of this tale is to be published in any form whatsoever until you receive my explicit instruction to do so. There is a letter currently lodged with my legal representative that will be sent to you in due course when instructions are received from me. This letter contains but a single word and when you receive this you may then publish whatever you have written in whatever format you see fit. Should you decide to publish in advance of this instruction then the penalty is quite simple. Mr Royston, you will die.”
4. In which Mr Royston accepts his fate and Sir Benjamin begins his tale.
Friday, 9 July 2010
2. In which Mr Thomas Royston arrives at the home of Sir Benjamin Gilstpur and experiences a foretaste of the task he is to undertake
After having settled my account I climbed into my car and set off although the pangs of doubt about my mission were beginning to gnaw at me. I crave the reader’s indulgence if I have appeared to be a confident and self serving individual; this is my natural reaction when faced with a new and challenging problem. The bravado in the face of adversity has served me in good stead over the years (indeed, it has probably saved my life on more than one occasion) but sadly it has now become something of a poisoned chalice. I am forced by my chosen career to adopt this worldly and brazen persona but it now sits uneasily on my shoulders. My experiences over the years have taken their toll – not so much in terms of physical injuries (although these are real enough), mainly on the emotional and spiritual level – and to be frank I am worn out with endless travelling and sheer, mind-numbing terror associated with writing in a theatre of war. I have known real fear and am past the stage of being frightened by my fear – if I am afraid now then I will happily acknowledge that fact rather than attempt to disguise it. As a result of this acknowledgement of the human condition I am able to function reasonably well in these circumstances, simply through habit – I have already mentioned my ability to travel lightly, honed through years of practise – but it no longer brings me any joy and seems to be more difficult to maintain as the years pass by. The cost in terms of my need to justify the horrors I have suffered; the endless drinking bouts and the excessive indulgence in every imaginable vice; as if to placate the demons of observed humanity within, have left me the withered husk of a man. I have experienced too much hardship and the depths of human misery in others to be a willing traveller, least of to report on such matters, many of which are best left undisturbed and buried from human view. Frankly, travelling now takes too much out of me and so this challenge, safe within the borders of my own country, seems to be the perfect tonic – the after dinner liqueur at the end of a bacchanalian feast, so to speak; such has been my life thus far.
I suddenly found myself at the end of the drive that led up to Giltspur Hall. I felt the return of that old familiar feeling of nerves and unease as I surveyed the forbidding black iron gates and the driveway within. I had rushed into this commission full of verve and righteousness – I was to be the catalyst of a thousand variations on the theme of the written word. The adulation, the rewards, the sheer unadulterated excess of the successful popular author all seemed achievable and so I deceived myself that this was to be my destiny. Suddenly though, the sheer enormity of what I was about to undertake hit me like a hammer. The cold spectre of self doubt began to voraciously gnaw at my previously unassailable sense of conviction. I was used to this feeling (it had been a constant partner to all my efforts over the last ten years or so and so was very much a known quantity) but that did little to make me feel any better. I was here and so would have to make the best of it because after all, it should be a fairly straightforward undertaking, writing this man’s memoirs, and so what harm could possibly befall me? Buoyed up with the tonic to my wavering spirit this thought gave me, I opened the gate and drove up to the imposing grey bulk of the Hall.
As I mentioned earlier, Giltspur Hall is a great Gothic-looking pile of a building which has been sadly allowed to fall into decay over the couple of decades. The main building is virtually empty although a few members of staff (such as they are) still inhabit some of the mouldering chambers. Sir Benjamin lives in a suite of rooms forming an annex butted on, almost as an afterthought, to the end of the main building, furthest from the gravel drive leading to the main entrance. I was unsure of what entrance to approach so opted by default to use the main door. Leaving my belongings in the car I stepped up to the front door and rang the bell. Moments later a jangling of keys was heard and the sound of large and heavy bolts being drawn back. A momentary silence followed and then the great door swung slowly open.
The entrance was very poorly lit and I had great difficulty seeing into the murky interior but this was of little import as my attention was completely absorbed by the striking figure standing before me.
The tall figure standing in the doorway looked exactly like a figure from the Arabian Nights. Tall, slim and wearing full Bedouin Arab dress, complete with an enormous jewel encrusted scimitar, this striking apparition was completely unexpected and I was momentarily taken aback with surprise. “Mr. Royston, if you would be kind enough to follow me, my master is expecting you,” the mysterious Arab addressed me in a rich, deep voice. Before I had a chance to reply this enigmatic figure had turned away and headed back within the gloomy interior. Leaving my bags on the front step I entered the hall and followed him. I was about to mention about my bags when without a pause (and seemingly having read my mind) the ethereal figure in front of me informed me that these has already been taken to my quarters. Quite how this was done was beyond me as I saw no other staff in evidence. Despite the fact it was still daylight the interior of the hall was dull and dreary with the cobwebs and dust of the ages adorning every surface. I knew that Sir Benjamin lived in separate chambers and that the rest of the hall was largely uninhabited but such obvious neglect was a shame and I felt sure the building must have looked suitably grandiose in its heyday. I would ask Sir Benjamin about this very point as and when a suitable opportunity arose.
My Arab guide led me through a labyrinthine maze of corridors and rooms, all of which exhibited the same level of dreariness until at last we reached a door at the end of a long corridor and (as far as I could determine) located on the top floor of the building. Bowing from the waist as he did so, the door was ceremoniously opened for me.
The contrast between the room into which I was shown and the drab and dowdy aspect of all I had seen so far could not have been greater. The room into which I was shown was sumptuously furnished in a Middle Eastern style – complete with richly brocaded drapes in gold and green adorning the walls and a scattering of large cushions. An ornate, deep red Turkish style rug covered the floor and a couple of low occasional tables completed the furnishings. A wooden screen sectioned off another part of the room, behind which was a large and equally opulent bed. The windows were hidden behind blinds and light was provided by a number of small brass lanterns fitted to the walls. The faint small of incense wafted around the room. “My master hopes that this modest apartment will be sufficiently comfortable for your stay and should you require anything then please pull the cord here (he pointed to a rather elaborate bell cord at the side of the largest of the cushions) to summon a member of staff,” he said in an even voice. “My master is currently attending to a minor domestic matter and is thus delayed and so will see you at dinner which we take at six. I will call for you at a quarter to the hour and in the meantime you may wish to refresh yourself after your wearying journey; bathing facilities are in the room directly across the hall, as is your dress for dinner.” After a momentary pause this regal personage bowed low and withdrew from the room, leaving me alone with my thoughts and impressions.
I quickly unpacked my belongings and decided to reserve all my judgements and questions until after I had spoken to Sir Benjamin. I had a couple of hours to pass until dinner so I decided to have a long and leisurely soak in the bath in order to compose myself for the meeting ahead. Following the instructions from my Arab guide (servant did not seem to be an appropriate title; such was his noble bearing) I headed across the hall into the bathroom and was utterly dumbfounded by the vision that greeted me when I opened the door. I expected to see the usual style of bath tub and perhaps a hand basin but was instead greeted by a huge sunken white marble pool, complete with gold fittings, four pillars in an ancient Greek style and a bubbling fountain providing the water. The overpowering scent of eucalyptus permeated the room and the steam had caused rivulets of condensation to run down the walls. A gentle tinkling sound, as if from a harp, sounded above the gentle trickle of the water and the effect of the whole was one of luxurious and relaxing tranquillity. I would enjoy making full use of this facility in no uncertain terms!
My ablutions were long and indulgent and so when I emerged, dripping and wrinkled from the luxurious marble bath I felt positively rejuvenated. A selection of robes had been made available for me and, being familiar with certain aspects of traditional Middle Eastern attire, I was able to dress myself speedily and with little difficulty.
After having dressed and prepared myself (for what I was unsure) I withdrew to my chamber and poured myself a large whisky and soda in order to compose myself in the short time before my guide arrived to escort me to Sir Benjamin. The cushion I chose to recline upon was deep, soft and luxurious and so I was able to relax and order my thoughts and questions prior to the meeting. I felt eager, keen and challenged by the task ahead; all the self deprecating previous doubts and fears banished from my mind in a trice; the soothing and exotic bath and a second whisky and soda had seen to that. I had no plan nor order of questions to put to Sir Benjamin; I would listen and hear the tale he would tell and I would prompt and comment at the appropriate juncture. This would not even be work - more like a strenuous session at a gymnasium with the dumb bells and rowing machine. I realised that this would be the exercise my weary and battered spirit would need; the culmination of all my efforts thus far - the grand finale and apogee of all that had gone before. I was ready to face the demons of Sir Benjamin and would hopefully lay some of my own to rest.
At 5:45 there was a knock at the door. Still seated on my cushion I inhaled deeply and paused momentarily. "Come in" I said, with little ceremony and remaining resolutely seated; my third whisky and soda in hand. The door swung open and the mysterious Arab was standing waiting for me. His face was impassive and in a display of whisky fuelled bravado I challenged him. "All right then Ali, lets go and see what milord wants!" I said (although I immediately regretted this as I was not as drunk as I thought I was). "Please follow me Mr.Royston" he said; bowing as he do so although with a certain amount of ill-disguised disdain, presumably as a result of my earlier clumsy attempt to goad him. Suitably ashamed I stood up and followed him.
Once again, he led me through a succession of dank and musty corridors and I would have been hopelessly lost had my guide not demonstrated endless patience in ensuring that I kept up with him. Eventually, after numerous twists and turns we arrived at an enormous set of double doors; sinister and foreboding in dark wood, a large bronze handle and lock in the centre. The impassively faced Arab smiled at me, his face broken into a diabolical grin with teeth as white as snow. Without any obvious effort the two huge doors swung open and faint smell of flaming torches, palm leaves and roasting meat wafted out from the stygian gloom of the interior.
"Welcome Mr. Royston" a deep voice resonated from within. "Please come in and join me, for there is much for us to discuss". Bowing to the inevitable and with the feeling that I had little choice in the matter in any event, I swallowed and stepped across the threshold; there to meet my destiny.
3. In which Sir Benjamin outlines the background to his experiences and extends a note of warning.
Tuesday, 29 June 2010
At this point I should perhaps introduce myself in order to ensure that the events I am about to describe can be placed in their proper historical context. I offer no apologies for the somewhat lengthy description of myself but this will be the only time that such an indulgence will figure in the following narrative. My involvement in the story I am about to recount is in fact completely nonexistent as for most of the war with Turkey I was in hospital recovering from the combined effects of malaria, a broken leg and a gunshot wound – all of which kept me ‘hors de combat’ for the best part of eighteen months. Such an ignominious predicament meant that I was unable to cover any of the tumultuous events in the Middle East and so to have the opportunity to meet one of the leading figures during those dramatic days was simply too good to turn down.
My name is Thomas Peregrine Royston and I make my living as a freelance writer. I have travelled extensively during my thirty years or so as a ‘travelling reporter’ during which time I have been shot twice (hence the permanent limp and the use of a stick), suffer from recurring malaria and have acquired the digestive constitution that would shame a well fed mountain goat. I have trekked across the African Veldt, travelled by camel across more deserts than I can recall, hiked across much of south Eastern Europe and South America and spent a number of years travelling around in South East Asia . I have never married (although have come close on a number of occasions) and consider that such an event is unlikely given my chosen career and the demands made upon my time as a result. My work has been published in many countries and I am an honorary member of a number of literary societies as well as some of the more ‘risqué’ gentlemen’s clubs. As a result of my many years of travel and socialising with many strata of society I consider myself to be, to use the rather vulgar description, something of a bon vivant; a gourmet, wit and raconteur. This could also be described as a selfish and indulgent affectation but given the attendant rigours of my chosen career (I refer of course to the incessant travel and accompanying entertaining) I feel that such indulgences are modest recompense for my labours. I maintain a suite of rooms at the Savoy (paid for in perpetuity by a mysterious benefactor as a result of my coverage of the Cretan revolt in 1897 where, incidentally I was shot for my efforts) and I am also an account holder with Barings. I would not say I was wealthy in the aristocratic sense but I have sufficient funds for my immediate needs and to cover my eventual retirement in a modest fashion. My investments are modest although I own a small suite of rooms in Knightsbridge that are currently rented to an officer of the Household Cavalry (the heir to a Dukedom I should point out, so his financial standing is beyond reproach – so my broker assures me in any event) and this provides me with a regular income. I do not gamble although enjoy the races and cards when the opportunity presents itself – usually at one of my clubs. I read extensively – mainly the classics – although I have never bothered to learn a foreign language. I have recently learned to drive an automobile and own a Watts steam touring car capable of a very respectable ninety miles an hour. I have considered learning to fly a fixed wing machine but have not as yet found the time to do so.
These are the practicalities of my life and as such are easily measurable. Since I am of an age at which I no longer need to justify my thoughts and actions (I am just entering my fifty-fifth year) I should add to the list of my ‘actualities’ with a description of myself at a personable level and so this I will do. My politics are probably conservative but with socialist leanings. I have long since lost any fervent inclinations towards any particular political system; having seen most sorts across the globe cheerfully destroying that which does not sit in accord with the mainstream. Similarly with religion – I respect all of them; rather I respect an individual’s right to worship whatever deity or deities takes his or hers particular fancy. I have no strong inclination towards any religious persuasion. I enjoy good food and wine and spend as much time as I am able to (sadly not as much as I would like) either at the theatre or the opera. I hunt (not as much as I used to since the accident), fish and shoot all in their season and am a creditable fencer – I represented England in this capacity a number of years ago and although I am little out of practise could still cut a dash with a foil. The lack of physical exercise I have experienced over recent years has not been too disadvantageous in respect of my wellbeing – the travelling has seen to that – but I should perhaps adopt a more abstemious lifestyle in order to avoid any problems in later life.
It was on a dull Tuesday morning that I received the invitation to Giltspur Hall; I say dull merely because I had dreadful hangover and the prospect of undertaking any routine task requiring either thought or effort was temporarily beyond my capabilities. My housekeeper had left me a tray of assorted breakfast items but I was in little mood to eat - all I wanted was coffee and plenty of it. The post had already arrived and was waiting dutifully on the silver plate reserved for that purpose. I always make a point of avoiding opening the mail until at least my third cup of coffee but this morning was different as a rather grandiose envelope hallmarked with golden embossed crest appeared far more interesting than the usual routine fare of bills, invitations and circulars that I usually received. Without pausing to use the paper knife (I had the butter knife in my hand; preparatory to readying a slice of toast) I opened the the envelope and quickly read the text on the enclosed card.
"Sir Benjamin Giltspur requests the pleasure of Mr. Thomas Royston at Giltspur Hall in order to discuss matters of mutual benefit. It is expected that this business should take a number of days to complete and so Mr.Royston is invited to stay at the Hall as Sir Benjamin's guest and at his expense for the duration of the visit".
The invitation went on: "Sir Benjamin would ask that Mr.Royston exercises his discretion concerning this invitation and that communication of any kind in connection with the said visit (and the contents therein) should not be made to any friends, relatives or business associates until permitted to do so. In the assumption that such terms are agreeable to Mr. Royston then Sir Benjamin will look forward to his company from 3 p.m.on August 13th, 1923."
There was no other message included in the envelope and so naturally my curiosity was aroused as to the unexpected nature of this opportunity. I had decided to accept the invitation almost before I had read the card and as far as Sir Benjamin's conditions were concerned this was perfectly acceptable. I was convinced that at last he wanted to have his memoirs drafted and had selected myself for the task. I was delighted at the prospect and naturally would be discretion personified as I had no intention of allowing any other writer to steal a march on me with the tale, if indeed my suspicions in this regard were correct.
I allowed myself to relax back in my chair and let out a long and satisfied sigh, all vestiges of the hangover swept from my mind, as I contemplated the significance of this turn of events over another cup of coffee. Naturally I was aware that any written material on Sir Benjamin was not only rare but also avidly read and so from a financial perspective anything produced from this meeting would incur a respectable financial benefit - especially if in book form. This must surely be the reason why Sir Benjamin had contacted me - he wanted to set down his life and adventures for posterity with my myself as the author. This warming thought provided me with a sudden and life-affirming recognition of my current place in the universe. I would be the one to deliver this best selling account and as a result my place in the history of such writings would be assured. This was my moment; the moment when I could stand tall amongst my peers; the moment that my entire career had thus far been heading; the moment that would represent the pinnacle of my life's achievements thus far. The grand finale to everything that had gone before.
I would be the winged messenger - Mercury - delivering a tale of wonder and delight to a willing and enthralled audience. I assumed this as my destiny.
I stared out of my window as the final surge of my overactive imagination trickled back into my unconsciousness to be replaced with the pressing practicalities of my undertaking. I quickly packed my portmanteau with the essentials needed for a stay of a week or so; together with a prodigious supply of writing material. When this was done I shaved and dressed and left a note for my housekeeper together with five pounds for any miscellaneous expenses incurred during my absence. I was eager and ready to leave so summoned a member of the hotel staff to carry my effects to the lobby and to bring the car around to the foyer.
My routine at the start of an assignment is invariably the same in respect of my practical preparations - I prefer to pack quickly and have through experience mastered the art of travelling light - in order that I might spend more time considering the task in hand. I had a few minutes to wait before the car arrived and so I used the opportunity to compose my thoughts and contemplate the task in hand.I had gotten no further than considering the form the resultant book or books would take when a young and smartly dressed employee of the hotel cleared his throat by way of attracting my attention. 'Mr Royston, your car is waiting out the front' he said as he picked up my travelling bag. I was lost in my thoughts about the forthcoming meeting so merely nodded and followed him across the reception and into the street. In a matter of moments, the car was loaded, the hotel porter tipped, the engine started and I was on my way to my appointment with destiny (in no uncertain terms this was exactly how I viewed this commission) in the heart of the Kentish countryside. I smiled inwardly at the apparent irony of this realisation as I had worked in many more dangerous parts of the world over the years and had routinely considered that each written undertaking would be of similar importance. At least I would be able to write without fear of being kidnapped, shot at or of suffering any one of a number of dubious fates; the Kentish landscape not being renowned for its bands of marauding banditry!
2. In which Mr Thomas Royston arrives at the home of Sir Benjamin Gilstpur and experiences a foretaste of the task he is to undertake