Death on a Pale Horse: Sherlock Holmes on Her Majesty's Secret Serviceby Donald Thomas
"Donald Thomas is the all-time best at Sherlockian pastiche."—Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
"Donald Thomas is the all-time best at Sherlockian pastiche."—Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
Verdict Thomas’s (The Execution of Sherlock Holmes; Sherlock Holmes and the King’s Evil; Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly) latest Holmes adventure is a thinking man’s thriller, which should come as no surprise to fans of the series, and will bring much delight to Sherlockians, fans of cerebral thrillers and historical fiction, military history enthusiasts, and amateur cryptographers.Liv Hanson, Chicago
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Death on a Pale Horse
Sherlock Holmes On Her Majesty's Secret Service
By Donald Thomas
Pegasus Books LLCCopyright © 2013 Donald Thomas
All rights reserved.
The Documents in the Case
From: Permanent Secretary for Cabinet Affairs
To: Provost Marshal General
Date and Source: Cabinet Office, 20 August 1894
Subject: The Narrative of Colonel Rawdon Moran, a paper dated February 1879
By dispensation of Her Majesty's Privy Council, I enclose for your confidential information a copy of a report compiled for his criminal paymasters by Colonel Rawdon Moran.
Your records will confirm that this officer was never brought before any recognised civilian or military court. Yet he remains the one agent identified in a criminal conspiracy which to this day endeavours to undermine the British position in Southern Africa. The wealth of newly discovered gold fields and diamond mines in the Transvaal was to be his particular prize. An illegal arms traffic via the Congo Free State was to be the means to that end.
In his departure from the British Army, Colonel Moran had suffered a terrible injury at the hands of fellow officers. Who shall say that it was not deserved? He swore at the time that he would be revenged upon them and their comrades many times over. And who shall say that he was not?
The attached manuscript describes certain remarkable events in Zululand, South-East Africa, on 22 January 1879. It is a curious document, for he adopts a literary style. As a young man, Moran was a hunter of big game whose bag of Bengal tigers has never been exceeded. He was the author of his own tales of adventure. Such titles as Heavy Game of the Western Himalayas enjoyed a steady sale on his return to London. Yet he must have feared the consequences, if this account of treachery at Isandhlwana ever fell into the wrong hands. Therefore he writes his account as a detached observer or story-teller, rather than as one who was present and participating at the scene. In truth, Colonel Moran alone was the Hunter, the observer and the mysterious horseman of his own narration.
This report, made to his criminal associates, was found among the effects of one of them. Professor James Moriarty, a mathematical scholar and a suspect in several crimes, died in an unusual accident at the Reichenbach Falls some months ago. But for that accident, Moran's account would be known only to those who presumably employed his services.
My disclosure of this document to yourself was sanctioned yesterday at a meeting of the Privy Council. As I am sure your lordship will be aware, only the Sovereign and one other member need be present for a meeting of the Council and for its decisions to be valid under the constitution. Her Majesty is insistent that the fewer people who know of this matter at present, the better.
Accordingly, Lord Rosebery, as Prime Minister, and I waited upon the Queen at Osborne House, Isle of Wight, yesterday evening.
Colonel Moran's case may now be regarded as closed. However, in the interest of military intelligence, Council deemed it advisable that you should have sight of this narrative before it is filed for indefinite retention among the confidential State Papers. I hardly need add that you have not been authorised to communicate the contents of this document to any other person.
My courier, Sergeant Albert Gibbons of the Royal Marines Despatch Corps, will attend you while you read it, and will convey the paper to me again when you have done so.
I have the honour to remain, sir, your obedient servant,
William Mycroft Holmes, PC, KBE
CRIMINAL RECORDS Moran 1879/3
DOCUMENT NOT TO BE REMOVED FROM THE FILE
The Narrative of Colonel Rawdon Moran
A brown minullus hawk rode high and alone above the silence of the arid plain. Its wings drooped in an easy curve against a green flush of African dawn. Below it, the broad lowland marked by a dry river donga lay in shadow, while the early sky gathered reflected light. In the growing day, not a breath of dust stirred the wild grass and mimosa thorn. The bird shifted a little, an alignment of patient grace, as the dismounted horseman watched and listened.
The scene was everything that this hunter had expected. That morning, for the first time, a distant accompaniment to the wakening day rose from a ravine of the eastern hills. The sound drifted across the tall parched grass where the rider lay concealed. Its continuous humming was subdued but undulating, like a swarm of countless bees. Carried higher in the warmer air, it began to take on a human resonance, the prayer of warriors intoned before battle.
At that moment a yellow disc of sun began to break on the high ridges of the eastern plateau and the Malagata range. Seeking warmth, the brown hawk broke away and soared into the clearing sky. It had seen what the hunter in the grass could not. He lay and watched a little longer while new light from the eastern ridge splintered the shadows across a massive rock-face in the west, working down the slope.
The few European travellers who had seen the summit of this pale rock, rearing like a carved head from the neck of its col, had compared it to a silhouette of the Sphinx. But the warriors of Cetewayo knew nothing of sphinxes. It had been named for them by men whose trade was the slaughter of herds. Cow-Belly. Isandhlwana.
The sun had now risen clear of the eastern hills. Its cool light travelled quickly down the western slope of the col until the wide plain came into full view. At the foot of Isandhlwana, protected at the rear by the great rock itself, stretched the silent camp of an invading army. Lines of neat white bell-tents ran as trimly as the streets of a new-built town. Behind them, where the rocky ground sloped up to the col, row upon row of ox-drawn supply-wagons held food and drink for two thousand men. They also carried enough ammunition to kill every man and woman between the Buffalo River and the Cape.
To the left of this camp, four Royal Artillery bombardiers in dark tunics and caps kept watch over a battery of seven-pounder field-guns. Half a mile before them, in the open terrain of grass and thorn, the approach from the northern plateau was guarded by mounted vedettes of the Natal Volunteers in their black tunics, and by red-coated pickets of Her Majesty's 24th Regiment of Foot, from the valleys of Wales.
The camp began to stir as the first white smoke rose from its field kitchens. Through his lenses, the hunter in the grass watched the first bearded infantrymen of the Volunteers forming a queue with their mess-tins for pressed beef, hardtack, and tea. As the sun's warmth began to penetrate the cold air of the plain, a long mounted column was forming up by the main body of the tents. Sound carries far at such an hour and in such stillness. The shifting and snorting of horses, the clink of bridles, drifted through the clear air towards the eastern slopes.
The call rang out, repeated down the length of the column. In perfect order, this mounted patrol moved out across the brown pasture, withered by sun and wind, towards the Malagata foothills.
At the scarlet column's head rode several men whose white helmets bore the gilt insignia of the British General Staff. The dismounted horseman in the grass recognised them all. Foremost was Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford of the Grenadier Guards, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army at the Cape. He sat tall and slim in the saddle, with the high-bridged nose of a born aristocrat. Chelmsford had led his troops in the Queen's wars from the Crimea and Abyssinia to Bengal and the Punjab. Leaving the rest of his regiments in the safety of the camp, he now rode out at the head of his patrol to scout for an elusive enemy.
Among his subalterns and aides-de-camp, he was immediately followed by a tall languid dandy with a sneering drawl. The patient hunter also recognised this creature. He was one who spent his London furloughs as a gambler in Chelsea's Cremorne pleasure gardens and as whoremaster in the Regent Street night-houses. His features profiled the spoilt beauty of a bankrupt Apollo.
In the small hours of darkness, the hunter had come and gone from his enemy's camp, passing the sentries as easily as a shadow crossing the moon. Now lying hidden from their view at sunrise, he lacked the means to check his own appearance. He imagined it would suggest his last hours in the dying-room of a fever hospital. Despite the new warmth of morning, the sharp rat-like bite of the cold night had gnawed his bones. Sometimes he shivered until his teeth rattled like a zany's. There were spasms in which the hands that held the field-glasses shook too hard to hold them steady and his eyes watered with the chill. In the last hour before dawn, it had seemed that day would never come.
Chelmsford's reconnaissance raised a slow wake of dust in its progress to the farther hills. The camp had now lost its commander and most of its mounted troops for the rest of the day. Its position would be held until dusk by the general's subordinate, Colonel Henry Pulleine, and his 24th Regiment of Foot.
The climbing sun burnt off the remaining drifts of morning mist. From its eastern ravine, the hunter heard that strange bee-like humming ebb and die, as if at the approach of the cavalry patrol.
With talons folded in its warm plumage, the observer's quiet companion swooped and soared again. It hovered low above an isolated hill that stood in the centre of the plain between the eastern ridge and the camp at the foot of Isandhlwana. This splendid bird showed no fear of the man. A body lying prone in the tall grass of the slope could do it no harm.
Avoiding the sun's reflection on the lenses of his field-glasses, the observer raised himself to inspect more fully the camp across the plain. He felt the dry flesh shrink on his face and the skin burn red on the points of his cheek-bones, under a ragged beard. The water-bottle beside him had been dry since the previous dusk, but he opened it from time to time and sucked at the cooler air of its interior, a substitute for water itself.
Then, stiff and ungainly, he stood up. It mattered nothing if they saw him now. With dawn and daylight, the time for suspicion was past. Twenty yards away, the dappled mare arched her neck and got slowly to her feet from the flattened grass. Everything was in place for the event that must follow, though the drama was not yet of his making. The period of his allotted patrol as a Natal Volunteer was not quite over, but he could move freely until the time came for his withdrawal through the camp itself. He had an hour in hand as he led the mare in an eastern semicircle to the near side of the ravine. There was silence now on all sides. By night, the perimeter guards were alert for a footfall or the brushing of grass. In the safety of daylight, no one below would pay him the least attention.
He worked his way carefully along the plateau until he could see the approach to the isolated Conical Kopje from east as well as west. Then, as he drew closer to the ravine, he heard again that strange, unaccountable buzzing. The mobilisation of a nation of bees. But still there was no movement to be seen on the plain below, nor on the ridges about him.
As he ambled to the east along the plateau, with the lazy progress of a Volunteer, his stony path ended presently at the sharp edge of the ravine, dropping five hundred feet to the level of the foothills. He walked the horse to the lip of this chasm. The sound of the hive grew louder until he stood behind chest-high scrub, where the ground sloped rapidly down. He looked through a gap in the branches into this narrow gorge and saw what he had known he was going to see.
A less-experienced observer might have thought that the sun and shade had played a trick upon his eyes. Where stretches of withered grass should have clothed the limestone slopes on either side of this declivity, the entire face of the ravine for a mile or more was dark and smooth, hung here and there with oval shields of animal hide. At several points, the sun caught polished metal. The humming that had echoed in the warmer air grew louder and more insistent. It was the warning of an army disturbed, of its warriors waking to the dawn of battle.
A stranger might have stood in admiration, for the carpet that covered the sides of the ravine was living and human. The massed battalions of a great Zulu battle force, perhaps ten thousand strong, lay or crouched in the concealment of this rift in the hills. Such was the flower of Cetewayo's tribes, young men who had yet to earn the prize of a woman by dipping their spears in the blood of an enemy.
He stepped back cautiously for better concealment. Here and there the first ranks were rising slowly, stiff from rest but impatient for combat. Isandhlwana was to be the arena of the young men's initiation. The washing of the spears. All their lives had been lived for this day.
Despite his own preparations and the care of his planning, a sudden fear at the sight of such numbers stung him like the shock of an icy plunge. But the lore of nature had taught him that there is no enduring courage without fear and its conquest. As he mounted the dappled horse, a last low-pitched humming was lost in the rustling of grass. The mighty army crouched together and quietly murmured its battle-cry.
Putting spurs to the grey mare, its rider came jauntily down the slope like a returning scout, recrossed the plain, and passed through the outer picket-line into the 24th Foot's quiet camp. No one barred his way. It was enough that he wore the dark serge patrol-jacket and cord breeches of the Volunteers, a wide-awake hat, broad-brimmed with a silk band. No Volunteer would choose to ride the veldt by darkness. Where else could a man in such clothes come from but a night patrol? The picket captain had checked the horsemen of a patrol out from the camp before dusk. Many a rider now passed through the forward line of the 24th Regiment of Foot with less notice taken of him than if he had been a stray dog from a deserted kraal.
For a moment more, the plain was silent. The first chant from the tribes had been too deep in the ravine to carry this far. The returning horseman dismounted, walked his horse past the headquarters tents, and tethered the mare to its rail. So far as the smartly uniformed imperial riflemen were concerned, he might not exist. Yet the plan he had proposed to his confederates was now unfolding as effortlessly as a flag in the wind.
He let his loitering footsteps carry him past the tent of Colonel Henry Pulleine of the 24th Foot. Pulleine was the only man with the rank to be camp-commander in Lord Chelmsford's absence. His Natal Volunteers supplementing the regular infantry consisted of mercenaries, freebooters, and bounty-hunters. They were apt to be known for indiscipline and brutality. Their commanders despised a gentleman like Pulleine as instinctively as he deplored them. With a facetious irony, they called themselves "Pulleine's Lambs."
The flap of the colonel's tent was open by this hour of the morning, revealing his stocky, moustached figure as he turned from a long mirror. He had been standing before it while his batman adjusted the scarlet tunic with its gold-fringed epaulettes. The servant executed a running backward bow and retrieved Henry Pulleine's white pith helmet from its place on a chest of drawers. A sword hilt glittered like new silver as the colonel buckled on his white belt. Equipped for duty, he turned to the opening of the canvas.
Before walking forward, he had picked up several company reports laid on a trestle table by his adjutant. Now he put them down again. A blond giant in the regular scarlet and blue of the 24th Foot, his peaked cap clasped under his arm, had pushed before him.
"Sar' Major Tindal, sir. Permission to report loss of mess equipment, sir!"
"Loss?" Pulleine glanced at him, not understanding. He turned back and looked down at the company commanders' reports on his desk again but appeared to find no explanation there.
The anonymous horseman kept his inconspicuous distance from the conversation. He made a convincing play of piercing a further hole in his belt with an awl from his knapsack, maintaining a frown of concentration. It surprised him that they had noticed their loss already. Not a syllable of the words between the two men escaped him. Pulleine shook his head.
Excerpted from Death on a Pale Horse by Donald Thomas. Copyright © 2013 Donald Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Donald Thomashas published forty books, including poetry, fiction, biography, and true crime. A stage-play based on his workThe Return of Sherlock Holmes, was recently produced in Wales. His biography of Robert Browning was short-listed for the Whitbread Award and he received The Gregory Award from T. S. Eliot personally for his poetry collectionPoints of Contact.The Execution of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes and the King's Evil and Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly are all available from Pegasus Books. He lives in Bath.
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