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.