Here’s the first three chapters from Cawnpore to whet (hopefully) your appetite. If you like what you see, please hit the Kindle or Nook stores and pick up a copy.
The train emerged from the veil of swirling red dust devils that had been stripped from the ground by the dry monsoon winds. Its red-tinged black engine and cattle guard advanced slowly toward the platform. With a blast of noise, steam and smoke, the train blew cinders across the horde of people waiting for it. Passengers huddled together along the roofs of the carriages against the torrent of wind, dirt, and effluvia from the engine. Among these people were cages of animals, personal effects, and other items. These passengers were comprised of latecomers and low-caste travelers who could not afford the rupees to sit inside the furnace-like compartments.
Inside the second of the first-class carriages, an old man watched the station close in anxiously. Beside him, Elaine Fortune watched her husband as the platform passed, slowing, by their window. Even now, twenty years after marrying him, he was an attractive man, though the dark-haired, sleekly handsome fellow had aged over the last few years dramatically. His color was off, though he claimed it was the heat; the raven-colored hair had turned dark gray, and the lines around his eyes and mouth had deepened sharply over the years. The most obvious changes were the ones she had not noticed for the longest time: the stoop that had replaced the martial posture and much muscle had been stripped away from years at a desk. In the last few months, he was losing weight and his energy, which had once seemed boundless, was sapped by a series of small illnesses. His old injuries ached chronically and the old disease – malaria – recurred more often.
By contrast, Elaine was still young looking at forty. Her long dark hair, mildly tinged with auburn, was piled on her head, her green eyes surrounded by laugh lines that were complimented by a wry smile and dimples that gave her a mild, good-humored face. Three children had necessitated a tighter corset, but her figure was largely unchanged. Her voice was flavored by an upper-class upbringing, and she asked quietly, “Are you alright, dearest?”
Brigadier Sir Richard Fortune (ret.) patted her hand reassuringly as the station’s sign came sluggishly into view and stopped. It spelled in large, bold black letters…CAWNPORE. Sympathetically, she shuddered. This was the place where the worst massacre in history had occurred…and Richard had been here.
He opened the carriage door and stepped out slowly, then turned to help her down to the platform. There was a press of passengers, eager for their compartment, and Richard glared at one Indian man, forcing him back. A porter appeared at their side to aid with the bags, a tall fellow in gleaming white uniform and turban, his beard hair braided peculiarly as to disappear into his headdress. “A Sikh,” Richard explained, with just a trace of Irish to his voice, “They don’t believe in cutting their hair. They let it grow as God intended.”
While the porter struggled with their baggage, Richard escorted her into the shade of the platform’s awning. “Much more convenient with the train, this trip. Used to be you had to come up river. Took forever, it seemed…”
The topsiders began to disembark: some simply jumped down, others took the ladders at either end of the car. There was a commotion of baggage changing hands, along with children, livestock, and produce. The porter reappeared with another man in tow. The newcomer was a Sikh as well, and Richard thought he saw a resemblance. “Sahib, this man will help you with the bags to a taxi.”
“Thank you,” Richard pressed the porter’s tip into his hand and with Elaine in tow, followed the new Sikh as he trundled their luggage on a small hand cart through the packed station. The onslaught of different tongues, the faces of the natives, thrilled Elaine. The whole trip had been so exotic! The mass of people and the noise of a dozen languages spoken dissonantly also conspired to bring back to Richard the same excitement as when he first took his commission after leaving Addiscombe in 1847. Memory sent a flood of images, smells, and sounds to assault him. With them came language, knocked loose from somewhere in his mind, and his tongue stumbled around the words as he spoke to the man. “Your cousin, perhaps?”
The man brightened, “You speak Urdu, sahib?”
“It has been a while,” he admitted. “You know of some transportation?”
“Yes, sahib! Please to wait here.” He left them by the front of the station and rushed out to the jumble of carriages and wagons that waited nearby. After a quick discussion with a few of the drivers, their man seemed to come to an acceptable arrangement and the driver brought a four-seat wagon around the press of vehicles to stop in front of them. The porter’s relative resumed his duties with the luggage, dragging the bags to the back of the wagon, while saying in broken English, “I have been making an acceptable payment with the driver. He is married to my cousin.”
“Convenient,” Elaine remarked.
“Very much so, memsahib!”
Richard consulted him on the price, agreed to its fairness, and made certain that the driver understood the bargain. Their Sikh helped them up into the wagon, then jumped into the back with their bags. Paid in advance, the driver put whip to horseflesh and they rolled out into the streets of the city.
Laid out on a wide, flat plain of red earth, Cawnpore had the disheveled, neglected look Richard remembered, even though the buildings and the layout of the city had changed. However, the native part of town was still a mess of buildings, jammed together in a seemingly random fashion, while the European part of town was laid out in neat, orderly rows. Manicured lawns that made a valiant attempt to grow despite the sun and dust. Spilling down the expanse, Cawnpore eventually ended at the brown-red river which moved sluggishly, like blood.
“Is it very much like you remember?” she asked.
Shaking his head, “Yes and no. There was a lot more vegetation in those days; the jungle seems mostly beaten back. These barracks weren’t here, but they’re very close to what we had…” The entrenchment was still there, looking much as it had before the siege. Other barracks crowded around it. Saturday House, were Nana Sahib and Azmullah Khan had run their rebellion, had been almost where the station was now, a stone’s throw from the Grand Trunk Road. That road connected Delhi to Calcutta and had provided strategic importance to Cawnpore as the central garrison to the Company’s efforts in central Bengal. With reminiscence came emotion – the fear, the anger, exhaustion and remorse, pain and joy, love and loss. All hit in a jumble, overwhelming him.
“Richard?” Elaine caught his hand, staring worriedly at him. The Sikh watched the exchange with obvious interest from the tailgate of the wagon. Richard shook his head and smiled reassuringly at her.
“I’m fine. Just tired.”
She asked, “Are you lying to me?”
“Absolutely,” he chuckled. It was an old joke, but it still worked to relieve her anxiety. “Take us through the town,” he instructed the driver.
“Sahib? That is more than we talked of.”
“I’ll double the fare.”
The man couldn’t contain his joy, “Yes, sahib!”
They wound down over a culvert and took a slope into the jumble of Cawnpore proper. “This was where we came through on our way to the Sati Chowra. That’s down on the river front.”
“You have been here before, sahib?” inquired the driver.
“A long time ago,” he confirmed. He could almost hear the sounds of the sepoys taunting him, the moaning of animals straining to move the sick and injured. They continued over the Ganges canal and through the profusion of market stalls and shops. Colors, scents of spice, and the roar of human communication buffeted them and Elaine looked about with bright curiosity and delight. He was glad he had brought her. This was something he had never been able to share with her before; it had been just too painful.
Finally, they wound past the place…Richard couldn’t even speak the name to himself, and he didn’t tell Elaine what it was. There was a church nearby – fitting, he thought – and a monument surrounded by gardens in that place. Time enough for that later. He knew he would have to go there, before they left. The driver took them back across the canal and up the slope to the maidan, where cavalry were riding about the ground, using their lances to pluck horseshoes from the ground. “Look at that,” he said with sudden pride.
“Oh, dear. Is that like the tent-pegging you always talk about?” He nodded in response and she turned his attention to another file of cavalry that was riding by. Indian sowars led by a young European, all dressed smartly in khaki-colored uniforms, their boots, buckles, shoulder scales, tack, and lances polished to a high shine. Richard admired their stride; he had been a good horseman himself until recently, when his mount tossed him jumping a stream while on a weekend hunt.
The roads of the European town had been paved with tarmacadam that stank and oozed oil under the tropical sun, and their wagon left slight impressions behind them. In front of a large colonial edifice they stopped. The Sikh jumped down and assisted them in disembarking, then returned to deliver their baggage to the waiting porter, a barrel-chested, thickly mustachioed Indian in a vaguely military-looking set of livery. Richard paid the driver and Sikh, who then climbed up beside the driver and they set off. The porter followed them into the cool interior of the hotel, pushing their bags on a flatbed pram.
Though it was hardly cold inside, the change of temperature was enough to give Richard a chill. The lobby was neatly columned, with a selection of tropical potted plants that were doing poorly in captivity, wicker furnishings, and faded Persian rugs that covered the faux marble floor tiles intermittently. Matching rugs were used as punkahs, fans that swayed back and forth under the control of a seemingly sleeping youth in the corner of the lobby, whose right arm dipped and rose rhythmically.
A smiling babu approached obsequiously and set them up with a room, throwing in the price of a bath and a punka-wallah for their first evening. Elaine strolled the lobby while Richard signed them in, glancing into the crowded hotel restaurant at the back of the floor, where the civilian and military sahibs and a smattering of memsahibs were taking an early tea. A sign above the entry read WHITES ONLY.
While their bags went by service elevator, the couple climbed the cramped set of stairs to the next story and found their room. The room was large, with a sitting room, as well as the bedchamber. Latticework shutters were open and the windows looked out on the city, not more than a mile away. The sound of a muezzin drifted across the town, calling the Muslim to prayer. Once their luggage was brought in, the staff returned with a folding rubber bath for Elaine and heated water. The only running water to be had was in the hotel’s bath downstairs, but she hated communal bathing.
While his wife set about mixing hot and lukewarm water in the tub, Richard doffed his coat and tie, dropping them on the settee and moving to sit in the window to gaze over the city. He was lost for a time in thought before Elaine called on him to help her undress.
She had her skirts, jacket, and blouse off, but he was required to unhook the corset. She exhaled gratefully as it came off, and then finished peeling off her chemise and pantaloons. Lowering herself carefully into the bath, which clung to her body annoyingly, she set about washing while once again he retired to the window.
“You were here, weren’t you? During the mutiny?”
He nodded. “I’d been in the service of the Company ten years then. Just moved into the political office, as a matter of fact, working for Major Vibart.” I was going to save India from herself, he thought. Stupid. “Things were different then…it took months to get to India, then almost the same amount of time just to get here. This was the end of the world, or close enough; nothing English about the place then. Though that was changing by the ’50s.”
She prompted, “But this place was special. There was a reason you wanted to come here, wasn’t there?”
…noise and smoke . . . the stench of rotting flesh and the privies. Old man Wheeler issuing orders, apparently oblivious to the blood and brains scattered across the room from his son, who lay headless only feet away. Bits of his son all over the old man’s uniform . . .
“The me you know…he was born here. Not in the physical sense, of course,” he smiled at her.
“That was in Calcutta, actually.”
“I know. You’ve said,” she responded.
…the rustle of silk sheets and the smell of patchouli. The feel of her fingers, soft and cool, sliding across his chest. “I love you…” Always sounded pretty in Hindoostani. Crouching by the roadside, watching his troops ride past, while he pressed her behind him protectively…
Elaine watched the emotions play across his face. She had never guessed the depth of the attachment to India until he had suggested this trip last summer. He had only rarely spoken of India and his time there, except to say he’d made quite a bit of money from the collapse of the Honourable East India Company, that he had been born and raised until age ten in India, when his family returned to England. His father had hinted to her about what had happened; that he’d been in the Mutiny, had come back an emotional and physical wreck, that he’d lost the innocence and hope he’d come out here with.
After twenty years…to suddenly know how shallow was her understanding of this man – her husband! He looked tired and old, all of his sixty years. He looked wary and pensive. He had come here to…what? To say goodbye to it all? To take up the memories one last time, dust them off and put them in their place before…
Quietly, determinedly, she said, “Tell me about it…”
So he did.
Winter’s cool breezes off of the Himalayas made the temperature almost bearable. Dark clouds were advancing from the northwest, bringing the promise of a temporary respite of rain. The steamer wheezed its way tiredly up the most sacred of rivers, the Ganges. At the rail of the boat, just aft of the side-mounted paddlewheel where the lukewarm waters of the river were tossed into a refreshing mist, stood a tall, athletic man. Captain Richard Fortune, late of the 4th Inniskilling Dragoons, watched the sweep of jungle-lined riverbanks with unmistakable enthusiasm. After two years in the cold and pestilence of the Crimean War, he was elated to be back in India.
He scanned the women who were washing clothes in the river, reflexively seeking out the silhouettes of crocodiles in the water or on the embankment. The women were dressed colorfully, and he watched with amusement as some quickly covered their heads under the gaze of the European – as if to protect themselves from the pollution of his attention; most in this region were Muslim, with strict rules of conduct for the women. He could feel a ripple of delight run through him. I’m home! he thought.
Forward, he could see some of the other passengers gathering for the first look at their destination. Turning his face up to the falling spray, he donned his canvas ’wide-awake’ hat and headed to the bow himself, self-consciously tugging at his new uniform. After the thick wool clothing, the encumbrances and expensive tailoring of the regular army, he found the lighter white shell jacket and white trousers were much more comfortable.
Joining the others, he could see the jungle was cut by the river was red and sluggish, with the usual detritus: the occasional corpse of animal, trash and other flotsam. Elegant Moghul-styled buildings seemed to grow straight out of the water. A line of boats were strung together across the river, with planking running over them to form a makeshift bridge. This was Cawnpore, the center of the British presence in Bengal. A popular ditty ran through his head: For dancing and dressing, sky and caressing…no Indian station can vie with Cawnpore…
“It’s very exotic, isn’t it?” inquired one of the passengers, a young blond woman dressed in light-colored traveling clothes. She grinned up at him with bright gray eyes that reminded him of the predatory women who had visited their army’s camps in the Balkans. He could feel himself being sized up, from the gold embroidered stars on his epaulettes to the dark, handsome face under the wide brimmed hat.
She was joined by another, older woman with a similar look to her features. They had the accent of the Midlands, probably middle class, “Anne, who are you speaking with?” She took the girl – her daughter, he assumed – by the shoulders and gave him an appraising look.
He bowed automatically, “Captain Richard Fortune, late of Lord Raglan’s staff.” He nodded toward the jumble of temples they were closing on. “Cawnpore’s to be my post.”
“And are you a Queen’s officer, then?” the mother asked hopefully. As he suspected, the pair were here as part of the ’fishing fleet’ the seasonal wave of unmarried girls who were dragged out to India in the hopes of hooking an officer.
“I was with the 4th Dragoons, madam. Unfortunately, I found the expense of the mess more than my ability to maintain, so I sold my commission on returning from Russia and rejoined the Company army. The good part was that my commission as lieutenant was equable to that of captain in the Company service.”
“I see…” Richard could feel the woman was scaling back her interest, as he had hoped. To be hooked during the fishing season would have been an awful blow to his reputation. Anne’s interest, however, seemed unabated; she was obviously captivated with him. The mother continued, “I am Mrs. Herbert Dillon and this is my daughter Anne.”
“So you were one of those unfortunate fellows in the charge of the Light Brigade?”
“No, ma’am. I was heavy cavalry and engaged mostly in running messages between commands.”
“And why was that? Such a fine officer as yourself?” asked Anne.
“I’m afraid that my origins in the Indian army were something of a strike against me with those in the regular army.” Despite having been in combat, unlike his comrades. Some thought the animosity between the services a matter of jealousy on the part of the regular army, but he liked to think of it as a matter of class – the officer corps of the Queen’s army was for the wealthy and landed of England, whereas the officer corps of the Company army was conceivably open to all, though in reality it was the venue of the middle-class.
“So you’ve been to India before?”
“I was born here; in Calcutta, actually. My father was a factor for the Company and now is working with the Board of Directors in London. I schooled at Addiscombe and served in the
Punjab, previous to the Crimea.”
The steamer pulled alongside the boatman’s temple, the pilot navigating her in haltingly toward a wide expanse of stone steps that came out of the water and led to the quay above. Indian men were moving to catch the mooring lines the steamer’s crew was preparing to throw ashore. Deftly, the ropes were tossed, caught, and the steamer pulled snug to the steps. The purser came through, entreating them to secure their baggage and for those stopping at Cawnpore, to step ashore.
Richard excused himself from the ladies and dodged past the crewmen opening the gunwale and sliding a gangplank to the steps. Curious natives and opportunists watched the boat with interest, taking stock of those coming ashore. He noticed one or two uniforms in the group, the light blue and sliver of the cavalry. He had one of the stewards assist him in dragging his two trunks out onto the deck.
Immediately, some of the natives started clambering for his attention, each willing to move his luggage for him for – they assured him – an infinitesimal amount. One of the uniforms separated himself from the crowd of onlookers and presented a salute. “Havildar Ashkai Singh, sahib. Can I to help you with your things?”
“Thank you, havildar, yes,” Richard indicated the trunks. “Just these here and a ride to the collector’s office. Can you arrange that?”
“By Jove, yes, sir!” The big Sikh was away in an instant, returning a few minutes later with two scrawny-looking Hindu men. The little men were bent and looked fragile, but each handily lifted his trunks, each quite heavy, and shuffled off to the quay. He followed them and was joined topside by the havildar. Singh was a fine specimen by almost any standard. He was tall, slightly more so than Richard, and powerfully built under his tunic. His thick black hair and beard were braided under his turban, and curiously light brown, almost gold eyes, peered at him casually. He had the carriage and soft demeanor of a very dangerous man; Richard placed him for a hill tribesman, maybe a Kharkari or Baluchi.
“Singh, is it?” All Sikhs were named Singh, so far as he knew.
“Sir!” The trooper fell in step with Richard, standing to the right in the subordinate position.
They followed the slight men to a wagon that was attached to an emaciated Brahmin cow. The bags went into the back, then the men fell back to be paid by Richard. The Englishman then set about negotiating his price with the wagon driver, in Urdu. This brought a look of surprise and respect from Singh. Richard was skilled in the tongue and liked it rather more than English, if truth be told. With the fare stipulated, Richard climbed aboard. Singh swung himself up readily behind.
“I will show you to sahib Hillersdon.”
“Of course. You’re a horse trooper, correct?”
Singh nodded brusquely, “2nd Bengal Irregular Cavalry, Company B.”
“You are from?”
“Amritsar, sir.” Amritsar was the holiest of cities to the Sikhs, the site of the Golden Temple.
Richard remembered his first sight of it, set against the river, gleaming in sunset. He remarked, “Lovely place.”
“You have been, sir?”
Richard nodded. “I fought in the second war against the Sikhs. Very respectable opponents.”
“Thank you, sahib. Very pleased we were to be killing you burra sahibs.”
“More than serving with us?” Richard teased.
“Oh, no, sahib! I am happy in the service of the Sirkar. I am true to my salt.”
“I’d not expect less of a Sikh,” he replied. Richard found himself liking the fellow.
“You were at Chillianwallah, sahib?”
“Oh, yes, sir. Many killed that evening.”
“Indeed. Got my lieutenancy because of that battle. Glad you didn’t kill me.”
“I am agreeing with you,” Singh said with ease.
The wagon bounced up the road to the one of the main arteries, turning west toward the city. To their left was the maze of the Artillery Bazaar; to the right were quaint bungalows of some of the officers. They turned south and came upon the station, which sprawled ten square miles in neat linear streets and impressive yards, up the hill from the city within a mile from the river. Their entry into the European portion of town was immediate and pronounced. Suddenly, they were on a paved road known as ’the Course’. It was lined with shade trees, and neatly manicured, flowered lawns fought well against the Indian climate. A pair of water carts were wetting down the Course, damping down the dust and heat. Europeans, in singles and couples, strolled the wide boulevard, enjoying the reasonable weather. Finally, the wagon came to a stop in front of the collector’s house. He had the driver wait while he jumped down from the wagon and strode up to the door of the house. The Hillersdon’s kansamah, or butler, answered the door immediately.
“Captain Fortune to see Mr. Hillersdon,” he said authoritatively.
“Sahib Hillersdon is expecting the sahib?”
Richard replied, “Yes, I’m his new assistant.” He dug out a calling card from the damp recesses of his uniform and added his orders to it, handing them across to the kansamah.
“Please,” the man opened the door and waved him in. While the butler disappeared inside the bungalow, Richard seated himself in the foyer on a rattan chair. The decor of the place was quintessentially Anglo-Indian: elements of both England and India mixed in a number of knickknacks, Persian-styled rugs, and swaying punkahs-their operator no doubt sitting outside or in some secluded corner of the house, nearly asleep. Richard doffed his hat casually.
A few moments later, the magistrate and collector of the city, Mr. Charles Hillersdon, emerged from a side room. He was a slight man and balding, with a ready smile. Hand extended, the collector grasped Richard’s palm and shook it vehemently. “So, you’re Fortune, eh? I’ve managed to hear a little something about you, old son.”
“Good, I hope?”
“Oh, Lord, yes. You were decorated for the Sikh War, yes?” When Richard nodded, he continued, “Served in the Crimea – awful mess, I understand – and now you’ve joined the ranks of the politicals here at home.”
Hillersdon beamed, “Splendid! I think you’ll find that we are not entirely appreciated by the soldiers of the garrison. However, we are the people that make the Company, and India, work. Without us, there would be no law, administration, and taxes to feed, clothe, and arm the army, yes?”
“I understand,” Richard grinned. The fellow seemed light-hearted and likeable enough. “I will admit a certain bias toward the political service, but that’s mostly the grousing of soldiers who wish they had a similar posting or responsibility.”
“You’re tactful, Mr. Fortune…we need tactful men. I understand that you were sent along by the boys in Simla.” By that, Hillersdon was suggesting Richard’s connection to the Company’s intelligence service.
“Yes, sir. I performed similar functions with the staff of Lord Raglan in the Crimea, though I fear our efforts were not viewed favorably.” It was a dramatic understatement. The Indian officers had been resented by the regular army officers, and viewed as less refined and less disciplined. As for the intelligence department, a crew of spies no ‘civilized’ nation could truly stomach (nor do without), was viewed with suspicion, distaste, and occasionally outright hostility. After all…a gentleman did not read another man’s mail, or dig into his secrets. It was unsporting.
A petite, pretty woman emerged from the dining room, drawn by the sound of an unfamiliar voice. “Charles?” she inquired, curiously.
“Captain Fortune. One of my new protégés,” he indicated Richard with a wave of his arm.
“Captain, my wife Lydia.”
“Honored, Mrs. Hillersdon.”
She nodded, mannered, to his greeting. Softly, she asked, “You are new to Cawnpore?”
“Yes, ma’am. Though I’m no griff; born and raised in India.”
“It’s a good place for a man to grow up,” she said pleasantly, “The atmosphere is conducive, I should think, to the sort of antics young boys get up to.”
“It was that. Usually, people decry us Addiscombe-wallahs not getting a proper upbringing in England.”
“Nonsense…many a good man was raised in India,” she smiled, with no trace of sarcasm. Richard found himself liking her instantly. There was a soft, kind feel to her. He figured Lydia to be only in her upper teens, at best.
Richard and Hillersdon exchanged a glance: unsaid appreciation from Richard, equally tacit thanks and agreement from the collector. “Surely you’ll be joining us for dinner, Captain?”
“Delighted. Though I need to pop ’round to the mess and find myself a place to stay.”
“I would go down to Duncan’s. He’s the superintendent of this section of the Grand Trunk Road; has a hotel just down the way.” He walked Richard to the door, “Around eight, say?”
“Eight it is. Other guests?”
“Of course,” he grinned. The collector was the informal head of society in any station. “Nothing formal, mind you.”
“I look forward to it.” Richard shook his hand and bowed to Lydia. “Ma’am.”
The kansamah saw him outside, where Ashkai was exchanging some words with the driver. The big Sikh put out a hand and dragged Richard by the hand into the wagon. Richard directed the driver to go to the officer’s mess first, then wait to take him to Duncan’s Hotel.
Europeans wandered aimlessly in the late afternoon, the smattering of Indian servants rushed to and fro. One group passed them by on the Course, a couple of the local grandees, riding horses through the crowd with hangers-on riding or walking nearby. The center of the attention seemed to be a heavy-set man – an ugly and dark fellow missing his front teeth.
Richard indicated the man with a twitch of his head and Singh replied, “That is Bala Rao. He is brother to the Raja of Bithur.”
Richard had already gotten some briefing on the situation in Cawnpore with respect to the ‘Gentleman of Bithur’, which was all the government in Calcutta was willing to give him by way of a title. He had been adopted by the last of the Maharata rajas, but the Company’s policy of lapse, so diligently pursued by Governor-General Canning, did not recognize any heir, save that natural-born. Though this was only proper by British terms, it ran contrary to Indian custom and was a sticking point with many of the rulers whose territories had been usurped recently through it. The Gentleman at Bithur, Nana Sahib, had been thus deprived of his adopted father’s pension and assets that had been under the control of Calcutta. Over the last few years he had been lobbying – both in Calcutta and back in London – for restoration of his inheritance.
“What do you think of him?”
“I do not, sahib,” Singh shrugged, “He is not popular around here. Not like Nana Sahib.”
“What’s the view concerning him?”
“He helps the people, runs a rich court to feed many of the people and servants of his father. He also has many friends among the English, sahib. He has many of them to his palace in Bithur for dinners and the weekend.”
“Is that so?” Richard asked absently. Nana Sahib was one of the reasons that the intelligence service had assigned him to Hillersdon. Without real instruction or guidance, he had been sent to Cawnpore – more to assess the situation than anything else. The recent annexation of Oudh, just across the Ganges from Cawnpore, had caused some rumblings of discontent from the local landholders and Calcutta wanted the situation examined, though informally.
They arrived at the cantonment. It was east of the city, at the top of a slight rise and over a culvert on a great maidan that stretched out to the Grand Trunk Road, and beyond that was the primordial jungle of Bengal, in retreat from the Europeans’ encroachment. Two large residencies were bordered to the south by a line of barracks under construction. The parade fields were to the south, as well. Beyond that lay the square, inelegant edifice of Savada House, or ‘Saturday House’, where the local mission had set up a house for orphans.
They arrived at the officer’s mess, and Richard dismounted. Singh and the driver waited while he strode up into the mess. Several of the officers were in the midst of their afternoon lounge, trying to beat back the heat with iced tea or mixers. Unlike the mess at the 4th, the officers here showed interest in his entrance.
“Gentlemen,” he addressed them. “Could I inquire as to the location of Major Vibart?”
One of the officers, an older, balding man with massive muttonchops and weak chin, had been reading a paper near to him asked, “You are assigned, sir?” Richard introduced himself and the man continued, “Political, eh? Damn thankless job, if you ask me. I’m sure their lordships in the Crimea were sure to make it as much, too. You were in the war, correct?”
The man hauled himself out of his chair and squared off with Richard. He was tiny in comparison to Fortune, but the little man sized him up critically before shaking his hand. “Major
Edward Vibart, 2nd Native Cavalry.”
“One of your men was gracious enough to assist me with my bags. Havildar Singh?”
Vibart let out a bark of a laugh. “Hah! Which one? We’ve got lots of Singhs here.” He waved off any response, saying, “I suspect you and I shall be seeing some of each other. Normally, I handle matters of intelligence for the general. Need a place to stay, I presume?”
“Yes. And I have a dinner engagement with Mr. Hillersdon at eight, so I must be quick about it. He suggested a hotel nearby”
“Well…it’s better than barracks. Sure you can find a person to put you up, should you not find something suitable. I’m sure Hillersdon will get you settled right enough.” Taking Richard by the shoulder, Vibart lead him into the room. “Fancy a drink?”
“Rum and a bit of lime?” he asked hopefully.
“Very nautical of you,” Vibart chuckled, enjoying his own wit. “That’s alright. We can do right by you. Billy…?” This last address was to the Indian mess sergeant, who promptly saw to the creation of Richard’s refreshment. “Let me introduce you around…”
The next few minutes were filled with shaking hands and making pleasantries with the other officers. They seemed a firm lot to him, confident, capable, and sure. Once the round of introductions was complete, he begged his leave and returned to Singh and the driver, who took them around to Duncan’s hotel. It was only a few streets away from the mess, by way of the riding school and the 1st Native Infantry lines.
“Here we must part company, for now,” Richard told Singh.
The havildar saluted crisply. “A pleasure to be helping you, sahib.” He strode off with the confident, lanky walk of a hill man. Richard settled with Mr. Duncan on a room and a bath and had his bags taken up. One of the Indian servants appeared moments later with a folding bathtub made of black rubber, while Richard was pacing his room, staring out of the latticework windows toward the native part of town. Another of the hotel staff had a bucket of hot and a bucket of cold water and he waited while the tub was set up, a silk blanket placed in it so as to protect him from the grip of the rubber, then they retreated quickly. Richard mixed up the bath to his liking out of the two buckets.
Even after a bath and shave, the humidity made him feel sticky and unclean. He lounged most of the torpid afternoon on his bed under the mosquito netting, then dressed in uniform for dinner and set off on foot for the collector’s house. Clouds rumbled overhead, but no precipitation fell to relieve the place of heat. He arrived to find the other guests already arrived, but no one seemed put out at his tardiness.
Lydia Hillersdon was chatting amiably with a few other ladies inside, visible through the window of the verandah on which the men were smoking. Richard joined them: Collector Hillersdon, Major Vibart, a puffy-looking older man with a shock of unruly white hair and a face reddened by shaving…General Sir Hugh Wheeler. Hillersdon indicated Fortune as he mounted the stairs. “And there he is…”
The general rounded on Richard, giving him a critical once over. “Captain Fortune. You were with me at Chillianwallah, weren’t you?”
“Yes, sir. An honor.”
Wheeler smiled, “I should expect so. The losses were high enough to see promotion for nearly every officer on the field.” Richard didn’t respond, but remembered with a shock the sight of the battle – fought at night and in a thick mist of gun smoke: Ensign Jacobi stopping by a fallen companion to check him for life, then whipping out a dispatch column of the local paper and pencil to scratch of the man’s name. That’s one more chance for my lieutenancy, Dicky!, he’d cried. He was dead on the field hours later. Richard sometimes wondered if his lieutenancy, won at that battle, had been old Jacobi’s.
“And what have you been doing with yourself these past years?” the old man inquired.
“The Crimea, sir. 4th Dragoons.”
“Lucky bugger,” chuckled the general. “I would like to have had a crack at the Russians. Be nice to do something.”
“Mess too expensive? Or did they run you out for a dirty Indian?” asked Vibart.
“A bit of both, sir,” Richard admitted.
“Their loss, my gain,” said Hillersdon. “Do you know languages, Captain?”
“I’m fairly fluent in Hindi and Urdu, I have a bit of Punjabi and Arabic.”
Hillersdon nodded appreciatively. “Extra pay, then.”
“I think you’ll find the political game somewhat flat after the roar of the cannon,” wagered Wheeler.
“Perhaps not,” commented Vibart, “Plenty going on recently to keep a man busy.”
“Not in Cawnpore.” Wheeler looked unhappy for a moment, then cheered quickly. “I suppose we should introduce the handsome scoundrel around. Mark my words Vibart, he’ll be picking up the ladies within a fortnight.”
Suffering the good-natured ribbing, Richard followed the others into the house, where the ladies broke off their conversation to welcome the new arrival. Introductions were conducted by Wheeler, who introduced his wife Lady Francis, Mrs. Vibart, and of course, Lydia Hillersdon. The general’s wife was a handsome woman and attractive, despite her age. Mrs. Vibart was a quiet, sharp-looking woman, perhaps the only kind that could stomach her husband. And the young Mrs. Hillersdon was the epitome of grace and good-humor. It turned out that he was not the last guest, after all. He was followed minutes later by the arrival of an Indian man – tall, handsome, and intelligent-looking. He was well-dressed, in a gaudy Oriental manner, with a pearl white set of pajamas and overcoat of linen, cuffed with gold and red embroidery. His mustache and beard were close-cropped and neat, giving him a cultured, but rakish appearance.
Richard knew him. And as he was introduced to the Indian, Azmullah Khan, he could see the spark of recognition in his mahogany brown eyes. “Captain Fortune! So good to see you well.”
“Khan sahib,” he responded.
“You know each other?” asked Hillersdon, obviously delighted.
“Yes, I met the captain sahib in the Crimea, while I was touring the battlefields on my return from London.” He returned his attention to Richard, “And have you heard anything from Mr. Russell?”
William Russell had been one of the correspondents from the London Times, who had haunted the staff and the ranks during the war, reporting all of the ugliness of the conflict. He had been an intimate of Khan, who had been the toast of London society that season due to his charm, perspicacity, and his fine features that, swathed in a European cut of clothing, had almost negated his Oriental birth. Russell had delighted in showing off his ’Anglified’ Indian friend. Richard had dined with the men one evening before the disaster at Balaclava. He also remembered that Russell had offered the man his tent to sleep in, and that Khan had liberally helped himself to the newsman’s brandy and cigars, then left the scene to return to Istanbul, having his fill of the depravities of war.
With Khan was a fine beauty – an Indian girl with pale skin and large liquid dark eyes lined with kohl. Her lips were painted red and accentuated the roll of her cheekbones. Bangles adorned her wrists and ankles, a delicate necklace of gold and jewels wrapped her throat and was matched by a headpiece that was braided into her hair, leaving an sapphire ornament over her forehead that passed as a third eye. Under an expensive pale blue and gold embroidered silk sari, Richard could she was amply supplied in breast and hip. He wondered idly what her stomach looked like; imagined the skin soft and luminous. Khan followed his gaze and made the introductions, “This is Shobha. She is a member of the court at Bithur.”
She lowered her eyes respectfully and bowed slightly. Hillersdon bade everyone to the dinner table and the group moved into the dining room. As they moved along, Richard cast a glance at the woman, and found himself looking into deep gray-green eyes. Shobha met his gaze surreptitiously, but steadily. He felt his heart race suddenly as she gave him a ghost of a smile and averted her gaze to the table.
Dinner conversation was polite, almost strained. Azmullah Khan was erudite and well spoken – benefits of his upbringing in the local orphanage. Shobha graciously avoided the dishes that would break her caste, but commented on the delightful scents from even the meat dishes she could not eat. She was sat between Khan and Hillersdon and spoke only when addressed, but when engaged holding forth in a smooth, low voice. Only Lady Francis spoke directly to her, the other memsahibs seeming to view her with some disdain, perhaps because it was so obvious that the gentlemen enjoyed her company. She was a distraction, a phantom of eroticism that ate with delicate, sensual movements, regarded her companions with almond-eyed detachment.
After dinner, the gentlemen and ladies retired to separate areas – the gentlemen going outside to smoke. Richard noticed that Shobha sat slightly apart from the other women, as if realizing that her presence was solely for the benefit of the men. As he stepped outside, Vibart nudged him in the ribs, leering like a satyr. “What do you think, eh? Of the bint, I mean…”
“Stunning,” was his only response.
“She’s a nautch girl, I think. Out at Nana Sahib’s place. Seen her out there before.”
“A dancer?” Richard nodded. Her movements were languid and fluid; he would love to see her practice her trade. But he understood the implication; many Europeans thought of nautch girls as nothing more than kept prostitutes. Though promiscuity was expected from couriers in an Oriental court, dancing girls were in general, honored servants whose talent and art were appreciated.
His attention turned to the exchange between Hillersdon and Khan. “…how is the honored gentleman faring?”
“As one would expect, sahib. His interests are continually trivialized by the Sirkar, even though he remains the Company’s most loyal servant. My efforts in England, I fear, will have no effect on the disposition of my lord’s pension or belongings.”
Wheeler looked sympathetic, “I have had a word with Calcutta, regarding the situation…”
“But you fear, Sir Hugh,” Khan interrupted, “that your presentation of our case is to fall on deaf ears.”
Hillersdon turned to Richard,” You are aware of the situation here, are you not, Captain?”
“I assume it has to do with lapse.”
“Correct. Nana Sahib is the adopted son of the Maharata king. Unfortunately, the Company does not recognize the right of an adopted son to inherit the titles and compensations of the father,” he explained. “In this case, the title of peshwa, a company pension, and a certain amount of investments, which the old man had left in the control of the government at Calcutta.”
“Unfortunate,” Wheeler sympathized.
“Indeed,” Khan said darkly. “And not just for my lord, but for other rulers around Bengal. In Jhansi, the rani’s adopted son is ignored and his rightful monies held in abeyance. Oudh has been usurped by Calcutta, perhaps for good reason, but the change of government has given rise to great suffering and poverty among the court of the Nabob.
“All of these great people have attempted to negotiate and work through the applicable systems. We hire lawyers to take our case to the governor-general, to the Board of Control in London. I myself have been to see the Board and even her Most Esteemed Majesty, but to no avail. I have counseled patience, but there can only be so much patience in a situation like this. Frustration in these noble people is very high.”
“And what do you expect will be the result of your latest attempts?” asked Vibart suspiciously.
Khan shrugged. “I can only speak for Nana Sahib. His loyalty and love of the Sirkar is proven and strong…”
“Just so,” nodded Hillersdon.
Khan continued, unperturbed, “His position as a leader of the local people however, is quickly depleting his coffers and threatens to make paupers himself and his court. What is it that he can do, but try again?”
The others nodded sympathetically, Vibart puffing absently on his cigar while Hillersdon worked on stoking his pipe. Wheeler spoke up, “Well, be sure to tell him from me that I hope for the best for him. And I’ll continue to do what I can to assist. Though Calcutta so rarely listens to the officers of the general staff.”
“I’m sure I express his delight at your friendship and assistance. Perhaps you would grace us with your attendance at the hunt this weekend, Sir Hugh?”
Wheeler smiled, “Delighted, as always. You tell him that I look forward to it.”
“With your leave, gentlemen,” Khan said with a bow. There were assenting murmurs from the Englishman and Azmullah Khan took his leave, stopping to recover Shobha before retiring to the horses that Hillersdon’s kansamah had retrieved for them.
“What do you make of him?” asked Hillersdon of Richard.
“You know there were rumors he seduced some Englishwomen while he was in London?” asked Vibart.
“Shocking!” responded the Collector. “Really, Major, you don’t seriously think that Khan was running about the English countryside corrupting the female population, do you?”
Vibart shrugged, “Just making conversation.”
Richard said, “I think that he’s Nana’s loyal retainer. And I think we’ll find our policy of lapse will have us in a bit of hot water with the natives if we don’t find a way to temper our application of it.”
“Surely you don’t want us to make special cases of these native rulers?” asked Vibart. “If our governing of this country has done anything, it’s brought fairness and equality to the native population.”
“At what cost?” asked Wheeler. “After all, hasn’t the Company always prided itself on leaving the native customs in place where appropriate? Lapse runs directly in the face of local custom concerning inheritance.”
Hillersdon interjected, “Unfortunately, English law is very clear on the point…”
Richard cut in, “Respectfully, sir…this isn’t England. And there are a whole lot more of them, than there are of us. This is just a cause for institutionalized greed.”
“Exactly,” agreed the general. “Been trying to explain to the governor-general the situation out here; the new breed of officer that we’re seeing more of…interested only in a stiff drink and riches that don’t exist for the likes of us. I was rather hoping to be put into a position in which I could exert a bit more of a…conciliatory influence on the Anglo officers. Try to make them see the advantage of getting in good with the locals. As the captain said…there are a lot more of them than us.”
Richard added, “And it’s not like sati or thuggee, barbaric customs whose abolition I think both the Indians and the English can agree has been beneficial for the natives. And one must be careful when picking a pocket that the victim isn’t aware of the theft.”
“That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think, Captain?” asked Wheeler.
“Perhaps, sir. It could be I’m letting my enthusiasm for my duties color my opinions.”
“That’s always a danger,” Wheeler admitted. “But we must remember that times are changing. India is no longer a place where men come to make their fortunes by war and theft. ‘Civilization’ is coming to the subcontinent, whether we want it to or not. And civilization requires rule of law. One law – for both Europeans and Indians.”
“As you say, sir.” Richard concurred, not really meaning it.
“Well, it’s late,” said the general, tossing the stub of his cigar off the verandah. “Think I’ll bid my goodbyes to the ladies. Gentlemen, a pleasure.” The rest of them murmured their agreement, and Wheeler stumped off into the house.
“Remember, Captain,” commented Vibart, “first impressions are quite important.”
Vibart moved to join the others, leaving Hillersdon and Fortune on the porch. “Don’t worry too much about it,” said the collector. “Wheeler agrees with you. Did you know his wife is part Indian?”
“Yes, I did.”
“He’s from an era when the officers came out here and, well, became Indian. Now we’re forcing the Indians to become English. Everyone will have to adapt. I don’t much care for it, but that’s progress for you.” He patted Richard on the shoulder. “I, for one, am glad to have you.”
Early the next morning Fortune found himself at the officer’s barracks. He met with the general’s adjutant, a stout, heavily bearded Scot named Major Lindsey. The major could best be described, Richard thought, as somewhat bland. His assistance in seeing Richard into the unit consisted of sweating under the wafting punkah of his office and sending him to his babu, Lalik Ram. The Indian clerk was surprisingly efficient and Richard found himself now officially part of the cantonment – ostensibly a member of the 2nd Bengal Cavalry, seconded to the Political Department under Mr. Hillersdon.
Once away from the adjutant’s office, he reported to his official commander, Major Vibart. His companion from the former night was quite energetic, a real change from the lethargic, uninterested, incapable form of Lindsey. Practically bursting with energy at the prospect, he sent Richard to the riding master, who could direct him on where to secure a good horse and tack, as well as the other bits of necessary paraphernalia of being a cavalry officer. He learned the unit purchased its horses through a Company-franchised trader, a man named Leek; his lance set could be obtained by one of the local blacksmiths.
He caught a cow-drawn cart that was passing and worked a quick exchange to use the vehicle as transport into the town. The owner walked alongside, swatting the indolent Brahman cow intermittently with a switch. Richard dismounted outside the blacksmith’s shop in the bazaar. The small plaza filled with an explosion of colored cloth and awnings, smells of curry, coriander, and cumin, and the constant roar of a dozen languages being shouted. He nipped into the blacksmith and ordered his lances, then caught a real hansom cab with lacquer badly battered and weathered out to the Leek place on the other side of the maidan.
Leek was a tall, gaunt man with a jaundiced face and sparse blond hair. Richard found him sitting on his verandah, sipping Kingfisher beer and affecting deep boredom, despite the pile of books on the little folding table beside his hanging swing seat. He was dressed in Eastern style, having affected the clothing of a well-to-do Indian.
The stables were a short distance behind the house and well appointed. One end opened directly into a massive corral, and the interior was high and airy to protect the animals from the powerful sun and sweltering heat. Locals worked at grooming the handsome display of horseflesh. If anything, the flies were more active inside and Richard wafted his hat to keep them from his face. Leek seemed not to notice the swarms of insects swirling around them.
He found his charger, a dark chocolate stallion of three years, after an hour’s concerted browsing, while Leek stood quietly behind him, staring out into the corral were some of the animals were being exercised. When Richard showed him his selection, Leek nodded and pursed his lips approvingly. He ordered up one of the grooms to prepare the creature, and Richard took the charger out for a ride.
Gauging the character of the horse proved easy. He was a runner, and Richard gave him reign to gallop about the maidan, taking the horse over the rough, gully-strewn land near the jungle. It took the terrain surely, without hesitation or incident. Richard returned to Leek’s place and returned the animal to the grooms. Leek listened to his appraisal, then set to bartering the price ruthlessly, all the while affecting a blasé façade as they walked back to the house. With the vouchers for the horse signed, Richard retrieved his mount and rode the horse back to the Company stables, still gauging its temperament.
He lunched with the other officers in the mess. Vibart was there, his energetic but sarcastic personality setting the tone for the behavior of the others. Many were young, and struck Richard as middle-class griffs or Addiscombe-wallahs, like himself. The jokes were hackneyed and mostly rested on the vagaries of the native soldiers and women. Richard smiled compulsorily with the rest, but he found an underlying element of disaffection in their humor.
After lunch, Richard took his leave of the other officers to find the collector and begin his services. Outside the mess, he found a soldier waiting.
“Havildar,” he greeted Ashkai Singh.
The man jumped to his feet and saluted. “Sahib! I have been looking a day for you.”
“Why is that?”
“Having asked, I am to be your batman, sahib.”
Richard stopped to regard the man, “You requested the position?”
“Yes, sahib. Hearing you need a kansamah, I am asking Lieutenant Thomson today. He says I ask you, am I acceptable and to be asking you tell him so.”
Richard sized up the other man. He was a Sikh. From Richard’s experience, they were tremendous fighters, and he had heard they were very pious and loyal. Good traits for a political officer’s batman. “Why do you want to enter my service?”
“I am very much impressed with the captain sahib. I am thinking he is a man to which I can bring great honor.”
“Is that so?” Richard smiled.
“Very much,” Singh replied adamantly.
“I’ll talk to Mr. Thomson immediately. You can report to my hotel tomorrow morning to begin. First priority, we need to find me more agreeable quarters.”
“Yes, sahib!” Singh saluted vigorously and stepped off for the lines. Richard watched him go thoughtfully, then retrieved his horse for the ride back to Duncan’s hotel.
“Was that all?” asked Elaine. She had finished dressing for dinner and now the couple descended the steps to the lobby and the hotel’s dining room.
“Hmm?” Richard responded. “Oh! With Ashkai Singh? Yes, surprisingly enough. He came ’round to the hotel that day to touch my blade and eat salt…” Elaine looked confused, so he explained, “It’s a show of fidelity: the jawan-soldier-touches the blade of the sword of the officer he is beholden to and eats the salt of the Sirkar.”
“Actual salt is eaten?”
He nodded, “Symbolic rubbish, of course; the Sirkar is providing the money by which you buy your salt, food, whatever…at least that’s what I remember it meaning. Anyway, they buy into it. If they didn’t touch the blade, you knew you had trouble. Some officers would wipe onion on the blade so that when they shook the soldier’s hand, they could afterward smell the onion on their own. Also the officer touches the hilt of the soldier’s sword or knife. The point being, you are as loyal to the soldiers as he is to you.
He smiled, “At the time I thought it strange, but that was the kind of man he was. He made up his mind almost solely on first impressions. If he liked you, you were a friend until you proved otherwise. If he marked you a bad apple…well, you never really could convince him otherwise. For some reason, he just took to me.”
Elaine squeezed his arm and smiled, “Now why would anyone do that?”
They were seated quickly. Despite the punkahs’ currents, both were hot and Elaine fanned herself ineffectively. They ordered drinks and worked their way through the appetizer of naan, an unleavened bread. The flavor of the food worked its magic on Richard and he found he was better able to ignore the sweat dripping down his back to the edge of the corset he was wearing. He had never been a vain man; he had picked up the corset to keep his slacking gut from requiring a new set of clothes. At least that was what he told himself.
“How soon before the Mutiny did you arrive?”
“A few months. It was brewing, even then. It was something you couldn’t really put your finger on…just a feeling. We ignored it because things seemed to be the same, really. There was always grousing from the lines, from the officers, from the native potentates. There was no one reason the whole thing kicked off. It was the situation as a whole, I think. It was a bunch of little things that all came together at the same time.”
The weekend came and the garrison sought shelter in the countryside from the press of the city. Richard found himself invited to join the Hillersdons at Bithur, where Nana Sahib frequently entertained both Indian and British friends. The road to Bithur was hilly, dipping low enough in some places that water from the river turned the road to mud. The ruts in these places were deep, as the Bithur road was used for ’getting away’ by the Europeans. Birds let loose a cacophony from the tamarind trees.
Nana and his guests now inhabited the old residency building placed back from the Bithur road by a long tree-lined avenue. The Hillersdon’s dogcart arrived, jouncing roughly in a line of other vehicles filled with others from the cantonment, and escorted by Richard on his horse, whom he had named Bellerophon. He was surprised by the multitude that were accepting the Gentleman of Bithur’s hospitality. It was no surprise that the man was frantic to gain access to his adopted father’s wealth; the cost to keep his court must have been enormous.
Among the guests were General and Lady Wheeler, Mr. Edward Greenway-whose family had their hand in practically every industry in town, and a grand helping of the officers and their wives. Hillersdon attended to their dogcart’s disposition and Richard’s horse, while Richard escorted Lydia into the house.
The main hall was grand. From the walls, a profusion of portraits stared out at the guests as they funneled through to be served a massive, English-styled breakfast. Most of the larger portraits were of the Maharatas’ rajas, but there was also one of Queen Victoria and the crown consort, both looking on in a sort of stunned detachment. There were pictures of great beauties and children, mostly European, he noted. The haphazard decor was completed by mismatched china and silverware. There were some of Nana’s courtiers moving through the crowd, smiling obsequiously and making small talk. Richard spotted the ugly Bala Rao skulking about the periphery of the party, dealing with the guests almost in a cursory manner. Not far away, Chimnaji Appa, the brother to the late peshwa was chatting up a few elegant-looking Indians. According to Hillersdon, there was no love lost between the brother and widows of Baji Rao toward the peshwa’s adopted son, Nana Sahib.
Hillersdon joined them and Richard turned Lydia over to him to seat. He turned to find himself facing Azmullah Khan.
“Captain, what a pleasant surprise!” Khan gushed.
“Azmullah Khan,” he responded, bowing slightly. “And where is our host this morning?”
“The most esteemed regrets he will not be joining us until dinner tonight. But I am anxious to make your acquaintance once again. Perhaps after breakfast? There is to be a display of archery, but that is mostly for the ladies of the station.”
“I would be delighted, sir.”
Khan smiled broadly and stepped past to greet another guest. Richard settled down the table a bit, between Lydia Hillersdon and another lady with a horrifying Midlothian accent who proceeded to tell him her life’s story, in intimate detail. That a person could live for twenty five years, with almost no incidents of note, and still talk for an hour without finishing amazed him. That she could do it unceasingly while stuffing her face with anything that got within the boundaries of her plate was even more shocking. He was finally rescued by Hillersdon, “Excuse me, Mrs. Sommerville, but may I borrow Captain Fortune for a moment?”
When they were out of earshot, Hillersdon grinned, “I see you met Lucy.”
“Oh, yes.” Richard nodded, “Thank you for saving me. I thought I might have to do myself an injury.”
“I’m not certain that would stop her,” Hillersdon said with mock consideration.
They wandered out into the massive gardens where servants were rushing about, setting up targets and the bow stands for the archery contest. Already the guests were filtering out from breakfast, taking up seats in the shade or wandering about admiring the mustard flowers and the peacocks that strolled about, calling loudly.
“So what do you suppose Azmullah Khan wants?” asked Richard.
Hillersdon shrugged, “He’s a sycophant. He’s always all over Nana and his brothers. Probably just looking for yet another person he can call favors on.”
“He does that well enough. Ate and drank most of William Russell’s supplies in the Crimea.”
“The newspaper fellow?”
“Yes, that Russell. We got drunk together the evening after the charge of the light brigade.”
“Shoddy business that,” agreed Hillersdon. “You didn’t ride in that, did you?” Richard saw a sudden interest and respect blossom on his face, just like it did whenever an acquaintance thought they had met someone from the fatal charge.
“Heavy brigade,” Richard responded. “We had a charge that day, too, but no one remembers it. Mostly because we succeeded, I think. Though that was mostly luck.”
“Mmm?” the collector inquired politely.
Richard smiled, “We got charged by some Russian cavalry and old General Brown decided to charge ’em right back. Up hill. Not the sort of thing done, the odds are in the favor of those on the high ground, but we routed them handily enough.”
“Sounds very dashing.”
Richard shrugged, “I suppose. I was more worried about keeping all my parts attached.” He watched as Azmullah Khan and his attendant supervised the set-up of the archery range. “How well do you know him? Azmullah Khan.”
“Not all that well, actually. I’m fairly new here myself, you know. Only been here for a few months.” Hillersdon took a seat underneath a brightly colored, huge umbrella and Richard joined him. “He was one of those unfortunates that stumbled into the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel during the famines back in the ’30s and wound up in the Free School. One of the ministers took to the boy or something like that and saw he got educated. I know he was in service as a munshi for a while and got dismissed. One of the officers accused him of corruption, or theft, or some such. I don’t know the particulars but I think that’s how he ended up in Nana Sahib’s court.
“He’s well educated: speaks better English than many of us do, brilliant manners. Oh… don’t play snooker with him unless you’re willing to lose some money. He’s a sharp of the worst kind.”
“Know this from experience?” They both chuckled. Richard caught sight of the courtier. Khan was moving through the crowd, greeting people in turn. His attitude was haughty, though Richard thought he meant to be regal. The ready smile seemed forced to him. “Speaking of… He’s a peacock, that one.”
Hillersdon nodded. “Wouldn’t be surprised if that was what got him dismissed. Well, it looks like Lydia is going to take a try at the bow. I should go give her a few pointers. Don’t think she’s really all that comfortable with the idea.” He patted Richard’s knee and hurried across the lawn toward the line of wives that were lining up to shoot. He nodded politely to Khan as they passed each other.
Richard stood as Azmullah Khan reached him. “You are comfortable, Captain? And how are you settling into Cawnpore?”
“As with any place, I suppose.”
“Still better than Russia, I would think.”
Richard nodded, “You would know as well as I.”
“And the situation here at the station…how would you describe it?” Azmullah inquired.
“Favorably,” Richard watched as the rules and the prize for the winner were explained to the women. For the winner of the first round the prize was a pearl necklace. “Seems a relatively quiet station. I’ve seen worse. Of course, I’ve yet to see the soldiers at work. There are exercises next week. Should prove interesting.”
“What news from Lahore?” Lahore was the center of the state of Oudh, which the Company had just annexed that year. The ruler, the nabob, had been a libertine – interested more in the pursuit of pleasure, and the art of drum beating, than in running the affairs of his state. He had left that to the local landholders, who had been skimming untold profits from the taxes they levied. The last he had heard, after the British had usurped control, the nabob had taken to dressing like a nautch girl and playing his tom-toms, while reciting uninspired poetry.
“I haven’t heard all that much. Just that the new administration is settling in. There’s some squabbles with the old power structure, with the landholders of the nabob. When we displaced the ruler, the government was stagnant, corrupt. The courtiers ran the place, so I’m sure they’re none too fond of losing their patronage and power.”
“Indeed not,” Khan said reflectively. “Many of those same courtiers – as you say, people of patronage – have alighted here to seek the famed protection of His Excellency, Nana Sahib.”
“I didn’t know that,” Richard lied. “And what are they saying?”
“They are, as you say, none too fond.”
“Do you see any signs of trouble as a result of the annexation?”
“Only that there are people unhappy with the British efforts in Oudh. The people do not understand the rules the British place on them. The concept of fair and impartial law, which your enlightened society has graciously brought to us, is rather alien to them.” Khan spread his hands, “But then, people will always be unhappy, will they not? It is one’s lot in life to suffer until called into God’s presence.”
“True.” The first volley of arrows sailed downrange into the targets. Lydia Hillersdon, he noted, shot very low and left. Casually, keeping his eyes on the contestants, Richard inquired, “So you don’t foresee any sort of trouble arising from the situation?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing,” said Khan. The two men locked eyes for a moment.
There was something challenging in the Indian’s stare. Richard shook his head, casually. “That is marvelously good. My master has only the fondest thoughts for the Company and for her most gracious Majesty, the queen. He is their most loyal servant.”
“Calcutta will be glad to hear that.”
Khan cocked his head, “Have you ever met your queen?”
“Me?” Richard looked shocked. “No, of course not.”
“She is not like the person in the pictures. She is much more animated. A creature of great grace and humor. Wonderful smile.” said Khan.
“You’ve met with the queen?”
“While in London, pressing Nana Sahib’s claims.” Khan nodded, “She was most entertaining.”
A spurt of applause and chatter came from the contestants and their audience. One of the ladies had succeeded in dropping an arrow right into the haft of another, splitting it in the bull’s-eye. Azmullah Khan, distracted momentarily by this, smiled brilliantly and clapped lightly before returning his attention to Richard. “An excellent shot. I believe the prize is to be awarded, so I must beg my leave of you. Good afternoon, Captain.”
“Afternoon, Khan.” Richard watched him move off. The casual spar of words with Khan had amused him. The Indian seemed to be fishing. But for what? Perhaps he needed to feel superior.
Dinner was served at just past six that evening; early for many of the Europeans. The table was once again sumptuously laid, with a platoon of servants hustling to the needs of the British guests, or lurking in the background. Richard found the atmosphere, which should have had an exotic, romantic flavor to it, rather muted by the almost disdainful tone of Nana Sahib’s guests. Though he had been raised in India, Richard suddenly felt a momentary pang of dislocation. He was outside of both cultures, but inside them both simultaneously. Brought up in India, the garish decor and bright colors, the dark faces and obsequious manners and formalities of the natives and cyclical, natural rhythm of their culture were more a part of his upbringing than the linear rigors of the English drawing room. His father had Indian friends. He had played, until going to Addiscombe, with Indian children. Though foreign, and outcasts who even the lowliest Hindu or Muslim thought beneath them spiritually, they had co-existed; felt part of the land and the society. India had been otherworldly: far away by risky and long ocean voyage from the regimen of proper English society, India had been a playground and treasure trove for men willing to risk the dangers of disease, heat, sun, boredom, poverty, and endless conflict with local potentates.
He looked around the table. Now the men brought their families with them. Mothers sent their daughters on the four-month passage just to snag a husband, hoping the stories of the wealth that could be won in the Company service would set their girls in style. Railways and telegraphs were joining the country together into a manageable network. What had Khan said? Fair and impartial laws. India was becoming England. He wondered if the natives knew this.
Table conversation was light and meaningless, passed about to aid the passage of time, and it entertained them-Richard included. After the dinner, which had been massive and as English a fare as could be had in Lincolnshire, they retired to a huge hall for dancing and conversation. It was at this point that their host deigned to join them.
Standing with Major Vibart, Richard saw the fidgety officer suddenly stop, throwing his head back to see over the crowd. “And there’s his nibs, right there.”
Richard’s first view of Nana Govind Dhondu Pant, the son of a courtier to the Maharata king Baji Rao, and now that last peshwa’s adopted heir. He was dressed in the characteristic splendor of a peshwa, his white coat immaculate, his cummerbund trimmed with gold and red embroidery, rings adorning thick fingers, while a pearl necklace and pearl dressed gold rings protruded from his turban, made from the same material as the cummerbund. He was light of skin, as would be expected of a high caste Brahmin, and fleshy, with a thick mustache that curled up at the ends below a straight nose. The eyes were bright, but small, the mouth thick and pouting. The total impression was of a once handsome man gone to fat and petulance. He had almost no resemblance to his brother, Bala Rao.
He was smiling and accepting the thanks of General Wheeler for his hospitality, the both of them spouting off the usual inanities of diplomacy, but Richard was no longer paying attention to the banter. Behind Nana, he saw Azmullah Kahn. He was speaking aside to the attendant to whom Richard had noted he often was in the company of. Have to find out who he is, Richard told himself. Also with Nana was Bala Rao, watching the proceedings with a hooded expression; even he wasn’t the center of Richard’s attention. That stood slightly off to Khan’s right and several steps back among Nana Sahib’s retinue.
The girl was even lovelier in her own setting. Shobha was dressed in a deep cerulean blue and green sari trimmed with gold over a gold cloth shirt that bound to her chest tightly. Jewelry ringed her fingers and wrists, and a gold armband snaked up her left bicep. Dark hair with just a tinge of red-brown was captured by a net of gold fiber and pearls, with a small dollop of gold fashioned in tear-drop shape around a pearl hanging from the headpiece to take the place of her third eye. A delicate little stud adorned her nostril with a most delicate gold chain running to the collection of earrings in her right ear. The eyes had been richly rimmed with kohl, and in the brilliant light of the Swiss crystal chandeliers that lit the room, he could she her eyes were not black, as he originally though, but either a deep green or gray.
“…and you’re not even listening, are you, captain?” finished Vibart sternly.
“Sir? I’m sorry. Lost in thought.”
“Mmm…Yes.” Vibart dragged out the last word wryly. “Were I not married, I might think on that myself.”
Richard felt himself coloring. “Understood, sir.”
“Probably not,” Vibart rumbled. “Part of the furnishings here, you understand. But his nibs there might take it amiss if you were to…stain…anything.”
“Just admiring the aesthetic, sir.”
Vibart glared at him out one eye while sipping his champagne. “Good response. I’ll have to try that the next time the wife catches me eyeing some bint.” He chuckled good-naturedly. “And now the general wants me. Behave yourself, Captain, or at least look like you are, yes?”
“As ordered, sir.” Richard made himself as solemn as possible until the old goat had pushed off to join the general. Then he carefully threaded his way through the floor of people, avoiding the group held in horrified inattention by some story of dog walking by Lucy Sommerfield. He was able to come up from behind the retinue, which had dispersed to entertain and pay deference to their host’s European guests. Shobha was with another woman, careful to avoid direct contact with any but the Indian guests.
“Madam,” he said by way of introduction, casually, as if he had just noticed her.
“Sahib,” she nodded politely. Next to her, the other girl suppressed a smile and glanced away.
“Were you not the companion of Azmullah Khan at the Hillersdon’s dinner a few nights ago?”
“I was…” she admitted, somewhat accusingly. As well you know, she seemed to say. “And you are the gallant Captain Fortune who killed many Russians in battle.” She turned to her companion. “See, Adli, what a gurra sahib looks like?”
“Thank you for the compliment,” he bowed.
In Hindi, Adli whispered to Shobha, “Is he not beautiful? So much like a Pathan.”
Shobha nodded. Richard pretended ignorance of the exchange, but he felt a surge of excitement sweep him up. Shobha said, “My friend says you are as fierce-looking as a bandit.”
“My thanks,” he smiled. “Who is the man with Azmullah Khan?”
Adli answered him in heavily accented English, “That is Mohammed Ali Khan. They are friends. They traveled across the pali kana to England and Turkey together.”
“Thank you. Your English is quite good,” Richard said to Adli. The courtier blushed slightly and gave him a coy look. Shobha saw this and gave him a dismissive look, turning to receive another guest. But there was a moment as he bowed to her and began to move on that he thought he caught her appraising him subtly. Jealousy, perhaps..? The very idea made his blood race. He wondered how many women here tonight would be enraged to know the eligible captain had developed the notion of an affair with a nautch girl? He smiled at the thought.
Leaving the stifling heat and crowd of the hall, Richard escaped to the cooling breezes on the verandah of the house. Peacocks still occasionally crowed and he could hear the sounds of monkeys scrambling in the rafters of the place. Beyond the scalloped archways of the verandah, he could see stars peeking out over the jungle. The night sounds of India permeated his thinking, lulled him into a semiconscious feeling of belonging.
“Home…” he whispered.
“Is it?” asked a silken contralto. He turned to face the girl, her face hidden in shadow, but he recognized the voice, the sari, and heart-arresting shape it concealed. His inner peace was shattered and he could feel the pressure of his blood in his ears.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you approach.”
She tapped her foot on the ground and the small silver bells on her anklet tinkled faintly. “Were you dreaming of home?”
“In a way.”
“And what is your home like?” she asked. Sliding forward gracefully, she joined him at the archway, leaning against the pillar and regarding him with…what?
Richard waved his arm at the garden. “Like this. Well, somewhat like this. I grew up in India.”
“Your father is a kampani wallah?”
“He was a factor and a soldier for the Company, yes. He lives in Ireland now with my mother.”
“Your mother is English?” He nodded in response. “And do you not look to England for retirement?”
“Retirement is unlikely in the service. A company soldier’s life is a dangerous one.”
“But does the danger come from battle or drink?” she asked lightly.
Here’s a tigress in lamb’s wool, he thought. “You think us all dissipated?”
“I know nothing of the English.”
“So you are here to exercise your curiosity?”
She chuckled and turned to rest her shoulder and head against the pillar. Richard admired her profile. The nose was long, in Indian fashion, and her eyes were almond shaped, but he had always remarked how the higher caste Hindus and Moghuls resembled whites. It was one of the reasons that with the proper dying of the skin, an Englishman could pass for an Indian. The eyes, he decided were deep gray.
“And what are you curious about?”
“What is England like?”
“Green. Wet. Cold.”
She smiled, “That is much what Azmullah Khan has said.” She glanced at him. “He said also the people were like ice. Cool and pale.”
“Really. What else did he say about England?”
She rolled her back to the pillar and regarded him searchingly. “Other things… Nothing very descriptive.”
“I understand he was well received in England. He made many friends.”
“Do English have Indian friends?” The smile was challenging.
He laughed, “My father did. I like to think I do. Khan says otherwise?”
“Oh, he would charm them. That is how he is. And with your men away at war, he would be more charming.”
Richard pretended not to catch the innuendo. “You still haven’t answered me. What are you curious about?”
She thought about it for a moment. “Why do you not just take the money from us and allow us our ways of life?”
“You object to our being here?”
Facing him, she showed no fear or caution. “Yes. We do.”
“You think we come to cheat and rob you?”
She nodded sharply.
“Do you think I would cheat and rob you?”
Nodding, but less vigorously. She was uncertain of him, he could see. He had thought he saw the same fascination in her for him that he held for her. Had he read her correctly?
“Then you are right. You don’t know much about the English.” This was the dangerous part. Playing it just wounded enough to make her regretful, just callous enough to make her think she might be right…and want to change him.
“Then tell me. Why?”
“Because we have different ways. And the people who come here see it an opportunity to better themselves. Not necessarily at the expense of the Indians, but they aren’t about to let the natives stand in the way of profit.
“Because we have different ways, and having succeeded in pacifying this land, they feel it is their right to do things their way. But some feel it a duty…to try and improve things. Not just for the English, for the Indians as well.”
He could feel her watching him. “And which are you?”
He answered, “What does Azmullah Khan say?”
“I will have to ask him,” she responded. He could hear the tinkle of her anklet as she began to move away and he shifted to watch her go. The hips were beautifully curved and moved in a slow sway.
“Thank your friend for the compliment. I think I look like a Pathan, too.” She stopped and turned to stare at him. Laughing, he asked, “So which am I?”
Shobha lingered a minute in contemplation, then hurried into the house. Alone, Richard collapsed back against the column behind him. The encounter had left him breathless and spent, but inwardly, he could feel the excitement burning, and the longing for another meeting with her. To himself, he whispered, “So which am I..?”
Thirty-two years later, Richard Fortune wondered at the question still. He was being as discrete as possible with Elaine. Though she was a sensible woman who considered herself quite progressive in many ways, he didn’t think she would take well to the idea of his infatuation with an Indian woman. He had downplayed his interest, but he knew his wife would pick up on the hints.
“This woman…were you involved with her?” Elaine asked, almost as if it were an afterthought.
Richard knew better.
He could still smell the patchouli, and her musky smell if he tried. Feel the thick softness of dark mahogany-colored hair. Trace the patterns of mendhi on her skin in his mind. There was no use obfuscating. “Yes.”
Elaine felt the room lurch. Or was it her? That Richard could have debased himself with a…nigger! The word hit her before she could turn it to the more descriptive colored, to mean Indian, as opposed to black for an African. Before she could say anything, he added, “Remember, those were different days back then. India was different. I was different.”
Or was I? So which am I?
“I knew when I married you that you had been with other women. My mother prepared me for it, actually. Said I should realize that soldiers are men of the world, and that sometimes… often…they have experiences which in a woman would be considered horrid.”
Elaine dabbed at her mouth with her napkin, attempting to right herself emotionally. She felt unbalanced and uncertain. “But a colored woman? Really Richard..”
Despite himself, despite twenty plus years of love for the woman, Richard was suddenly angry with Elaine. “Really, what? Are the Indians any less human than the English? Some might say they were better than my kind. Irish.”
“Don’t be silly, dear, Irish are white.”
He turned his attention to his beer, “I’d explain it to you, but I don’t think it would do any good. We’ll just leave it at that.”
“No,” said he between swallows of the lager.
“You are.” She was surprised. That he might have struck up a relationship with a native was one thing…but had he fallen in love with her? “What happened?”
“The Mutiny happened. People got killed. That’s it.”
“That is most certainly not it!” she whispered angrily. “Were you in love with this woman? Well, were you?”
“Yes.” The word hit Elaine as if he had slapped her. “Let’s finish dinner. I want to go lie down.”
She looked him over. Richard looked all of his years: tired, old, and sad. The anger he had felt was gone, leaving him spent. Elaine was unsure of what to do… She was upset with him, and she was shocked by the notion of his having an affair with a native. And why? You knew he had lovers before you… perhaps after you, as well. He grew up here; he sees these people differently than you. She felt alone. How little she knew him.