The atmosphere was suddenly charged with anticipation. I saw Prince Zayed’s hand resting casually on his scimitar as he stared intently at me; his thoughts unreadable. Sir Benjamin looked away from me and stroked his beard, seemingly lost in his thoughts. Buoyed up by the splendid meal and several large whisky and sodas I merely nodded my assent to this outrageous condition. In truth I was not sure how I should react to this as I was convinced that he surely did not mean what he said. I decided that a display of sang froid was called for although the familiar icy ball of fear was once again beginning to form in my stomach. “Very Well Sir Benjamin, I agree to your condition and appreciate that my life will be forfeit should I break this term of your engagement.” I spoke flatly, with as little emotion as I could manage and, I hoped, with sufficient sarcasm to convey the air of a man whom was not afraid. Sir Benjamin looked me up and down slowly. “Bravely spoken Mr Royston, bravely spoken indeed.” He paused momentarily. “Very well” he began slowly, “I apologise for this rather extreme condition I am applying to you but you will see that it is of dire necessity. As you have agreed to my terms then from this moment onwards you will remain in this house until our task is complete. This will not be unduly onerous and will ultimately be beneficial to you as I am more than happy to compensate you for your time and efforts on my behalf during this period. I expect the story, or rather my telling it to you, will take around a week or two at the most. Use this time wisely Mr Royston for I am leaving soon and once I have departed you and I shall have no further contact. I am merely waiting for certain arrangements to be completed and then I shall be leaving England for ever. I fully expect that once the story I am about to relate to you is revealed to the world the repercussions will be far reaching. Reputations will be made and broken, governments challenged and the international status quo irrevocably damaged and so a single life, that of your own, is a small price to pay alongside the scale of immeasurable human tragedy. I will have mercifully disappeared when all this comes to pass Mr Royston as I have little desire to see the petty and undignified squabbling that will take place after my revelations. I will also reiterate the threat of your death Mr Royston as this is a very real one and is in force even now because should you decide to leave this house you will die as surely as I sit here before you, there can be no doubt of that.”
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.