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