Northern India, 1922
Putli's mother, her hands on her hips, straightened painfully, glad after two hours to break the rhythmic coordination of arm and shoulder, glad to stand back and count the mounting bundles of tall cut grass that had fallen to the steady swish of her sickle. The weight of the coming baby was beginning to unbalance her and slow her down. There was no doubt of that, but an early start while the oat grass was still wet had paid off and she was pleased. She called out a practiced musical cry answered by her daughter working a few yards behind her on the steep slope that led up to the forest beyond the village. Glad to share this pause, mother and daughter smiled with wordless tenderness.
Her mother looked with satisfaction at the eight-year-old girl. Yesterday had been the most important day of her daughter's life. She had been fêted and spoiled by the whole village and fed to bursting with puris and rich milk and sweetmeats. It had been her wedding day. Putli's mother had been proud to see the pretty girl, her eldest child, dressed for the first time in the costume of a married woman. No longer the infant in simple cotton dress, she was now wearing the tight blue bodice, the short skirt and the chaddar of the women of her tribe.
Putli's mother remembered the two small brown right hands clasping each other as the bride and groom made their marriage vows and she had been happy to see that the boy chosen from a neighbouring village was as strong and handsome as her daughter. The bridegroom's mother, a distant cousin, had earned her approval too, and this was very important for Putli's mother. In a few years Putli would leave her family home and go to join her young husband as his wife and become a part of his family. This was the way of it with girl children. Putli's mother acknowledged and accepted it but she would be sad. Oh, she had two good sons who had come after Putli and of these she was rightly proud, but it was her oldest child who was secretly her joy. She had a loving husband who had allowed her without question to rear Putli, although not all mothers of first-born girl children were so lucky. And her care had been rewarded by the constant good humour and energy of the child. She would miss her sleepy smile as she rose uncomplaining in the early morning to help with the meal and polish the cooking pots; she would miss her chatter as they brought back the cows or harvested the wheat. The light of her life would too soon be shining at another woman's hearth.
Putli opened her mouth to shout something to her mother but her mother never heard the words. In deep and stealthy silence a gold and black shape detached itself from the grass behind Putli and leapt at her. An iron-clad paw scythed through the air and severed the slender neck with one blow. The dark head, still entangled in its chaddar, fell to the ground and the tiger, seizing the body in its jaws, turned to make off through the long grass towards the trees above. With a despairing howl, Putli's mother swung about. Rage, disgust and hatred gave strength to her slim arm and she hurled her sickle in a glittering arc at the savage face. By the grace of the jungle spirits, the spinning blade hit the tiger in the eye and, half blind, his shattering roar changed to an almost human cry of pain and affront. Releasing his prey, the beast shook the sickle from his great head, turned and in a second was again a shadow amongst the grasses. The crumpled body of Putli lay at her mother's feet.
Simla, May 1922
Ambling down the Mall, Joe Sandilands steered his sweating hireling through the thickening crowds to return it to the stables at the Chummery, enjoying, as always, the early morning sounds of the waking town. Simla, the summer capital of British India, rose early and went about its business at a brisk pace. Uniformed men were striding between the military establishments along the Mall, red-coated chaprassis, message boxes on hips, were speeding from Post Office to government buildings, their energy fuelling the flow of information spreading out from this unremarkable street and pulsing around the world. Joe shook his head half in admiration, half in disbelief. The eccentric little town perched in the Himalayan foothills half-way between the scorching plains of India and the frozen summits of the Tibetan mountains looked like nothing so much as a displaced Godalming. And yet, between March and November, the mighty British Empire was governed from here and that meant half the world, Joe supposed, conjuring up a memory of the pink-coloured lands he'd studied on his globe as a child.
Already the first nursemaids pushing baby carriages down the street were greeting each other, their fluting voices a treble accompaniment to the distant pounding of marching feet. As he wove through the purposeful crowds, Joe felt a stab of puritanical guilt to be at leisure when this small world was at work.
Not all of this small world though! He took comfort in the thought that his own temporary lack of occupation was as nothing to the endemic sloth he would find at the house he was about to visit. Eight o'clock. The four inhabitants of the Chummery would most certainly be still in bed sleeping off whatever had been the indulgence of the previous night, or, at best, tremulously astir. With any luck he would be able to sneak off back to the Residence without announcing himself. But then he remembered that there was in his pocket a telegram. He had been charged by Sir George Jardine, his host, the acting Governor of Bengal, to deliver this to Edgar Troop. Edgar, the leader of the louche côterie that inhabited the once grand house on Mount Pleasant, earned his position in the group by being the oldest, the most enterprising and the most unscrupulous. Unaccountably, he seemed to have Sir George's confidence. He did not have Joe's confidence, and though they had stood shoulder to shoulder in dangerous circumstances in the wilderness with that instinctive understanding and trust that two military men fighting towards the same objective experience, Joe found Captain Troop enigmatic, his style of living repellent. When he asked himself why he continued to spend more than a polite five minutes with the man, he had to admit that Edgar's cheerful cynicism and his appetite for life were ultimately seductive.
"You'll be returning your horse to the Chummery? Well now, when you get there I'd like you to deliver this to Edgar in person," Sir George had said. "Don't entrust it to anyone else in that hopeless establishment! Why? I don't often call at the Chummery but the last time I did so there were two telegrams on the mantelpiece. One was a year old and the other—goddammit!—was nearly two years old. Both unopened and one was from me! This could be important and I don't want it to go astray."
Joe didn't want to do this. He knew that if he was intercepted it would be nearly impossible to avoid a second breakfast leading to a drink or two, a morning of inconsequential gossip shading off into tiffin and imperceptibly into an afternoon moving lethargically round the snooker table. He wondered whether, if he rode round the back, he could hand his horse over, leave the telegram with a servant and make a discreet withdrawal, and this he resolved to try. To no avail. He had hardly turned into the compound before a window banged open and a cheerful voice summoned.
"Must have smelled the coffee, Sandilands!" Hospitably, the beaming face of Jackie Carlisle appeared at the window. "Come on board and tell us the latest news! You who have the ear of the great and good must have something interesting to tell us in this otherwise uneventful town."
Joe knew that he was caught and Jackie continued, "Heard someone say the other day, 'Where Sandilands goes, trouble follows.' Come on, Joe, live up to your reputation—enliven our dull lives."
Reluctantly, Joe handed his horse to a syce who had hurried forward on hearing the hooves on the gravel. In the Chummery, Joe had discovered, the grooms knew their business, but the house servants, of whom there seemed to be a number varying from day to day and from two to ten, seemed to take their pace from their employers. He let himself into the house and made for the breakfast room. Here at least there was order. The table was laid for four with piles of bread and fruit and a large steaming bowl of porridge. A large pot of coffee too—good coffee. That you could count on. Three of the inmates were already gathered around the table and dressed in their usual crumpled white linen suits. Jackie Carlisle entered clad in a silk dressing gown and made his way to the sideboard. Joe watched in awe as Jackie poured himself out a drink and threw it down in one gulp. His eyes bulged and his purple face took on a darker shade. He crowed, he stuttered as he fought for breath.
"Christ!" said Joe, impressed. "What was that, Jackie?" and he waited while Jackie spluttered on.
"Oh, for God's sake—someone loosen his stays," muttered Edgar.
"Only thing that gets me going these days," Jackie managed at last. "Want some?"
"I'd need to know what it was," said Joe guardedly.
Edgar intervened. "Don't touch the bloody stuff !" he said.
"It's wormwood. Absinthe."
"Absinthe?" said Joe, surprised. "I thought it was illegal?"
"Yes," said Jackie, wiping his mouth and looking round vaguely, "I believe it is."
"So it should be," said Bertie Hearne-Robinson. "It'll kill him sooner or later."
Edgar picked up the glass and sniffed it. "This is nothing," he said. "When I was in the Russian army, most of my fellow officers imbibed it nasally."
"Edgar, is that linguistically possible?" Joe asked.
"Possibly not. But certainly physically possible! Witnessed it many times. They'd pour out a little cupful and snuff it up. Jackie may be in a bad way but he's not quite as bad as that. Not yet."
"It's boredom," said Johnny Bristow. "Poor old sod! Who can blame him? Nothing much happens. I know how he feels. When Joe's been up here a bit longer, goodness knows into what he'll be driven by boredom."
"Or into whom," leered Bertie. "Couldn't help noticing that Margery Phelps was showing more than common interest at the Gaiety last night . . . and Colonel Phelps is in Burma, I understand. Like me to fix it up for you, Joe?"
"Oh, come on!" said Johnny. "The Commander can do better than the garrison hack! Handsome young chap like him, chestful of medals, friends in high places, all the charm in the world, he can have his pick! Let's think . . . Now, little Maudie Smithson's still unbacked, I believe. She's quite a strider! What about it, Joe?"
The conversation diverted into an informed comparison of the attractions of the available ladies of Simla and much speculation as to the attractions of the unavailable.
"This is nothing but talk!" said Edgar. "Not one of you has anything going if the truth be told. Young chaps like you ought to be making things happen. When I was your age—" Bertie hurried to cut him off. "When you were our age, you were Emperor of all the Russias! Don't tell us!"
This was beginning to turn into a mild Chummery quarrel and Joe didn't want to listen. Mercifully, he remembered his telegram. "Oh, by the way, Edgar—telegram for you. Or rather a telegram for Sir George for passage on to you. It's probably nothing but he said I had to put it into your hand. Hold out your hand!"
He passed a buff form across. Not much privacy here. All crowded round to read over Edgar's shoulder. As he watched he wondered very much how the leaky ship that was the Chummery stayed afloat. He knew that Jackie Carlisle was paid a substantial allowance by his wife's family to stay in India. He knew that Johnny Bristow carelessly but seemingly successfully bought and sold horses, had horses for hire and carriages for that matter. Bertie Hearne-Robinson was widely believed to have contacts over the border and not to be above a little gentlemanly smuggling in concert with a number of gentlemanly Pathans and all under the cover of the house lettings and sales agency he ran from an office in the Mall.
Then there was Edgar. What about Edgar? An accomplished shikari, he managed shooting trips for passing visitors. He arranged contacts and some of the contacts he was fabled to arrange were of a rather dubious nature. It was widely known that Edgar enjoyed shares in a prosperous and select brothel in the lower town. Perhaps it was no wonder that the respectable did not care to be seen to be associated with the Chummery, but at the same time perhaps it was clear why the adventurous sought their company, admired their style and, on annual return to Simla, found their way there. Want a game of polo? Johnny would fix it. Want to dispose of a few stones? Bertie was your man. Want to raise a small holiday loan? Jackie might be able to help. Easy terms, only needing a promissory note. It was clear to Joe that demand would always create supply and when you had a town full of men—full of women too—on pleasure bent, the procurer, the middle man, would always prosper. That was what kept the Chummery going!
"Could we," he enquired mildly, "have a look at this fabled telegram? And could we—I beg your pardon, gentlemen—have a little privacy to do so?"
All were at once contrite. "Yes, old boy, of course. Good gracious! No problem at all!"
They rose in turn from the cluttered breakfast table and left Joe and Edgar alone.
Joe considered the once handsome square face opposite as Edgar studied the telegram. He seemed to be spending a disproportionate amount of time on such a short missive and had clearly read the text three times before Joe asked impatiently,
"What's it all about, Edgar?"
"Ranipur," said Edgar. "They want me to go there. Happens sometimes."
The name was familiar to Joe. Ranipur. Familiar, but amongst so much unrelated information about India he couldn't place it.
"It's a princely state," said Edgar, and he lifted a framed map from the wall and set it on the table between them. "It's about three hundred miles away. Here's Simla. And down here there's Delhi. Now follow the railway line from Simla down to Kalka and Umballa. That's the way you came up last month. It's not shown but there's a branch line, a private line, connecting with the main one at Umballa. Here," he said, pointing with a splayed finger. "There's a narrow gauge railway like the one up to Simla. It was put in by the maharaja of Ranipur to improve access to his state.
"His state's big. Oh, not when compared with some of the states of Royal India like . . . Hyderabad, for instance, but big enough. About the size of Norfolk, I'd say. It's prosperous too. The maharaja is said to be the tenth richest man in the world. When you look at some of the competition that's quite a proud boast. He doesn't exactly get himself weighed in diamonds but he's not down to his last hundred million. In his youth he was quite a tough! He needed to be to keep his feet on the steps of the throne of Ranipur, slippery with the blood of half a dozen immediate predecessors. I never quite understood the ins and outs but I tell you—his early years in Ranipur would make The Duchess of Malfi sound like one of Gilbert and Sullivan's jolliest!"
"Tell me some more," said Joe, reading the telegram Edgar handed to him. "Tell me about this peremptory prince." He read aloud, " 'Kindly make Troop available Tuesday 15th to Tuesday 22nd. State time of arrival Ranipur.' " He waggled his eyebrows in mock astonishment. " 'Make Troop available'!
What's he take you for? Sir George's errand boy?"
"h, he's a good man, Udai Singh. We've done a lot of business together. We trust each other. Hard to believe. You wouldn't imagine that the respected ruler of goodness knows how many millions, the confidant of the British Raj, model innovator and blah, blah . . . you can't imagine why such an individual would associate on intimate terms with a rascal like me but so it is."
"Oh, I don't know," said Joe slyly. "I expect there are goods and services you can supply."
Edgar laughed, leaned back and lit a cigar. "When I first moved here I was contacted by a tourist, a tourist who wanted to shoot a tiger. Would I arrange it? Well, the long and short of it was I did arrange it. This ass, Brigadier Montagu Wickham-Skeith, duly bagged his tiger but I made a mistake. Didn't know the country so well in those days and I'd strayed into the Principality of Ranipur. The Brigadier and I were caught by the border guards and thrown into the deepest dungeon below the castle moat as it were. More than a possibility, thought I, that we'd be trampled to death by elephants! A custom that had only just died away. At least, I think it's died away . . . Anyway, I knew that the ruler still had powers of life and death over his own subjects and certainly over suspected poachers.
"But, by the mercy of Providence, the prince had a big shooting party arranged—the Viceroy, ambassadors, visiting royalty, God knows who! Now there's one thing I'm good at—well, many things I'm good at—but pre-eminently I'm good at organizing a shoot, and the wild duck of Ranipur are famous the world over. The Brigadier and I were led out, still in manacles, I guessed with the idea of getting us identified by one of the British grandees present, and we can't have been looking very sharp. Hadn't had anything to eat for twenty-four hours.
"We were led, blinking in the sunlight, over to a couple of chaps standing about with guns. An Englishman and his Indian aide. The Englishman was a very impressive fellow but unfortunately a fellow I'd never set eyes on before, so—no use to me. He was tall and slim with a neat waist, equally neat moustache and that commanding, supercilious air you British are so good at affecting. He turned around and gave us the benefit of it. Someone with that amount of confidence I calculated could be none other than the newly appointed British Resident, Claude Vyvyan. Know him, Joe?"
Joe shook his head.
"Well, he certainly didn't know me. His icy blue eye passed over me with the same interest he'd have paid to a pile of camel dung but he did brighten up a bit when he saw the Brigadier. 'Monty! What the hell?' The Brig danced about with relief. They knew each other well and release and explanations swiftly followed. And, of course, wouldn't you know, Edgar Troop was found much to blame! My hunting expertise was decidedly being called into question and to break the rhythm of all the 'But how on earth was it possible to do such a stupid thing? . . .
Monty, old boy, in future, always refer to me for advice,' I decided to assert myself. I looked up at the sky with what I thought to be a disparaging, dismissive and cunning air and made a remark.
"Now, in Ranipur the climax of a duck shoot was to drive what they call the Long Pond and I can tell you—the wild duck come off it as thick as bloody sparrows! It really is the most impressive thing when they start to move. I said, addressing the remark to no one in particular, 'Why on earth do you suppose they take the Long Pond from east to west and stand the guns along the south side when they could take it from north to south and everybody would get a second shot, a third or a fourth?'
"Now the Indian aide in European clothes who'd been standing at Vyvyan's side and listening, answered me. To my astonishment in perfect and unaccented English he said, 'Say that again, will you? It sounded like an interesting idea—if a bit obvious, perhaps.' Well, I began to realize that this must be a person of some importance so I said, 'Get me a drink and I'll gladly repeat it.' As you've probably guessed, this insignificant figure was the maharaja of Ranipur. Without much discussion he adopted my revised plan for driving the Long Pond. It worked beautifully, just as I'd said it would, and Udai was very impressed. From that moment on—though obviously we've had our tiffs from time to time—I could do no wrong. When I'm in Ranipur he puts a guest house at my disposal and although Ranipur is what you might call his principal residence, there are others. The moment he wants to get away from the formalities of court he moves away into a more secluded part of his state and I've accompanied him many times." Joe looked back at the telegram once more and frowned.
"And this enables him to order you to come and go at a whim, does it?"
"Bit sharp, isn't it? But that won't have been sent by Udai. That's Claude's style. He usually sends the telegrams. Claude. The British Resident I was telling you about."
"Resident?" Joe queried. "A political appointment?"
"Yes. This is usual with the princely states. The rulers have all signed treaties with the British Government. They support the crown and in return we leave them largely alone to get on with ruling as they see fit. But, just in case, we send a trusted civil servant or military bloke of some standing to reside in the state and see that the ruler stays on the straight and narrow. He's a sort of permanently-in-place ambassador."
"And does this system work?" Joe asked doubtfully. "Surely autocrats like the maharajas resent someone peering over their shoulders all the time?"
"Yes, it works. Mostly. These fellers manage to steer a clever course. Some of them have done a great deal of good, making just the sort of social improvements a chap like you would approve of. More than one ruler's been persuaded to haul himself and his state into the twentieth century and build roads, hospitals, schools. Some are only too pleased to pass the running of the state over to a pair of capable hands." He paused.
"Of course there are some rulers who are incorrigibly medieval in their behaviour."
"And how does a Resident deal with medieval behaviour?" asked Joe, intrigued.
"Decisively," said Edgar with relish. "Ever heard of the maharaja of Patiala?"
"Heard of him? I've seen him!" said Joe. "In Calcutta last December. He was in the parade to welcome the Prince of Wales when he opened the Victoria Monument. You wouldn't forget seeing him!" Joe remembered the impression the maharaja had made on the crowds. He'd swaggered about in scarlet tunic, white leggings, black thigh-length leather boots, the whole topped off with a daffodil yellow turban fastened with an emerald cluster. Well over six feet and built like a bear, he wore his luxuriant black moustaches tucked up into his turban.
"An impressive figure," Joe added.
Edgar grinned. "Couldn't agree more but did you know that this friend of the Prince of Wales, this loyal advocate of the Pax Britannica, this member of every polo club from Hurlingham to Isfahan has been in hot water for what I can only call medieval bad behaviour?"
"I didn't know," said Joe. "What did he do? Drink from his finger bowl?"
"It was discovered," said Edgar gleefully, "that the chap had been deflowering virgins. Oh, not just the odd one but on a gargantuan scale. One a day for no one knows how many years! And all that on top of having hundreds of concubines in his harem!"
"How tiring!" said Joe. "Come on, Edgar—you don't believe all these stories, do you?"
"His people certainly do! They're actually proud of their ruler's prowess!" Edgar smirked and went on in a confiding tone, "There's a yearly ceremony in Patiala. People travel for miles to see it. Went myself one year and saw it with my own eyes so I know this is no story! The maharaja parades through the streets of his city naked but for a waist-length vest encrusted with a thousand and one diamonds, acknowledging the cheers of his subjects with what I can best describe as a priapic salute!"
"Good Lord! Seems a bit excessive!"
"Not one to go off at half cock, Patiala!" Edgar laughed.
"But too strong for most tastes and someone—the Resident, it's assumed—had a quiet word with him and told him not to do it again."
"A quiet word, Edgar? Would that be enough to bring about the required change in behaviour?"
"Depends on the word," said Edgar. "If, amongst all the finger-wagging, wrist-slapping and minatory phrases a slight emphasis were put on 'deposition,' " he grinned, "it would do the trick. Or perhaps—horror of horrors!—HM Gov. threatened to reduce his gun salute from nineteen to eleven. Now that would have a decidedly deflationary effect! But, whatever the persuasion used, the Resident achieved his end, which was to placate the memsahibs who've infiltrated the state as they have all over India bringing their dire baggage of morality, religion and social justice."
Joe knew Edgar was likely to get the bit between his teeth when the conversation moved to the modern woman. For him, the India of the East India Company was the ideal: a glamorous, masculine world of traders, fighters, opportunists, men who, discarding Western influences, took Indian women as wives and mistresses, spoke their languages and exploited their country. The world of John Company, according to Edgar, had come to a regrettable end when sea travel improved and droves of Englishwomen found themselves able to make the journey out to the East and fish for husbands in India. He hurried to divert Edgar from the anticipated diatribe.
"I take it the Ranipur Resident has an easier life? What sort of man is Vyvyan? You speak of him with modified rapture?"
"Oh, Claude is very good. Brilliant even. Gets on well with the prince, knows when to look the other way, works tirelessly for good relations between Ranipur and the Empire. Model situation, you could say. And far from being a strained relationship as you might expect, Claude has become his friend and confidant. It's a tricky balancing act being ruler. Lonely too. Most of Udai's relations are only waiting to step into his empty shoes, most of his subjects are standing round trying how best to make money out of him. Claude helps him keep balance and authority."
"And what role does Edgar Troop play in all this? Which of your many talents do you lay out for the ruler?"
Edgar looked pleased. "In my way, I suppose I'm a sort of safety valve. Udai enjoys his drink, shooting, polo, expensive trips to Europe, female company, occasionally getting married. In fact the perfect life of the Rajput gentleman that he is.
I couldn't sympathize with him more! I wouldn't like you to know all the things I've done for him in my time. I wouldn't like to mention some of the things he's done for me. But that's what's given rise to this telegram. It probably means he's bored and wants me to spice things up a bit for him."
"What sort of a place has he got in Ranipur?"
"Think Buckingham Palace and multiply by ten. Perhaps a thousand rooms. Ancient. Beautiful. Parts very dilapidated, parts immaculate. Parts inhabited by storks and bats, snakes too probably. The Old Palace is kept for formal occasions and it's home to many of his relations and all the women of the household. Udai has the sense to live elsewhere—in the New Palace. Every modern convenience! And he's built himself several guest bungalows. He usually sets one of these aside for me."
Servants were beginning to hover round the disordered breakfast table.
"I think we'd better take the hint," said Edgar and, giving orders as he did so, led Joe out on to a cluttered terrace. He waved a hand vaguely at the overgrown shrubbery in the courtyard. "Must do something about this," he said absently.
"Trouble is, things either grow to four times their expected size or die off and, as you see, we've got a fair sample of both here. Sit down. Ready for a beer now?"
It was the Chummery routine to move straight from coffee to a foaming glass of chilled ale and a servant was standing by with a tray already loaded. Edgar gulped down half his glass, wiped his moustache and looked at Joe with speculation. He leaned forward.
"Look, Joe, I can see you're getting fed up with Simla. Damned hard work being on enforced vacation. Why don't you get Sir George to sign an exeat for you and come to Ranipur with me?"
Joe very much enjoyed Indian first-class rail travel. He liked the comfortable buttoned black leather upholstery, he appreciated the block of ice sharing a tin bath with a dozen bottles of India Pale Ale, strong and hoppy, and he watched as one by one their labels floated off. He listened with half his mind to Edgar's anecdotal conversation and was glad enough to have escaped from Simla.
It was late afternoon before they arrived at the junction with the private rail link with Ranipur. "Say goodbye to comfort," said Edgar. "From now on we're on the narrow gauge, colloquially known as the Heatstroke Express. I keep talking to Udai about it but he never travels by train himself and he doesn't know how the rest of the world suffers. You would think that some of the nobs who use the little railway would have told him." He rose to his feet, began to button himself up and committed his cigar to a deep ashtray. Joe joined him to look out of the window.
"Behold the powerful state of Ranipur!"
"Powerful? Would you say powerful?" Joe asked.
"Well, it's all relative, isn't it? Some would say prosperous, successful, untroubled."
"But having a bloodstained past?"
"Yes, indeed, and possibly a bloodstained future as well."
Joe gave him a sharp look. "You sound a bit ominous.
Ancestral voices, do I hear, prophesying war?"
An unaccustomed look of uncertainty passed briefly over Edgar's florid features and he paused a moment before replying.
"Nothing as definite as that, but I'll answer your question properly when I find out why, I mean really why, I've been summoned by Udai. Devious old twister that he is!"
They stepped down into the extreme of an Indian summer's day.
"Heatstroke Express!" said Joe. "I see what you mean!" And a little train whistling and steaming sweatily stood by on another line to receive them.
"Only an hour," said Edgar. "We'll probably survive. People mostly do."
But they didn't have to make the experiment. As they walked across the station forecourt they turned to look at a large white car approaching them at speed and trailing a cloud of dust.
"Ha!" said Edgar with satisfaction. "A great honour! They've sent the Rolls! I wonder if it's for you or me?"
"Can't be for me," said Joe. "He didn't know I was coming. Did he?"
"My dear chap," said Edgar, "you haven't begun to understand Udai if you imagine he doesn't know who's come, who's gone, who to expect, who not to expect and what you've got packed in your luggage!"
For a startled moment, Joe had a vision of the dark metal of the snub-nosed gun nestling amongst his dress shirts and hoped he'd remembered to lock his trunk. Joe's eyes followed it anxiously as it was moved with Indian efficiency along with other luggage from the main line on to the waiting narrow gauge train. For a moment he regretted not keeping the gun tucked away in his belt in spite of the discomfort. He turned his attention back to the open-topped Rolls-Royce Phantom and looked and looked again at the two people in the front seats.
The passenger seat was occupied by an Indian wearing a smartly tailored but dusty chauffeur's uniform. Hatless and dishevelled, he was holding on to a leather strap, bracing himself as the car came to an abrupt halt at their feet. The driver, a slim figure in khaki trousers and white shirt, applied the handbrake and jumped out to greet them. She took off the borrowed chauffeur's cap, releasing a shining fall of fair hair, and knocked the cap against her knee to shake off the thick layer of dust.
"Edgar. How nice to see you again." Her tone was formal rather than warm and her attention moved rather more quickly than was polite from Edgar to himself.
"And this is your English policeman? Cops finally got wise to you, did they, and put you in custody?" She stared at Joe with undisguised appreciation, her expression now warm and playful. "Well, lucky old you! . . . My! If I weren't already spoken for I'd put my cap right back on and set it at you, mister!"
"Hello, Madeleine," said Edgar stiffly. "May I present my friend and colleague, Commander Joseph Sandilands? Joe is in India on secondment from Scotland Yard. Joe, this is Madeleine Mercer—as was—now the first wife of Udai's second son, Prithvi. What the hell are you up to, Madeleine? Still trying to astonish, unnerve and upset? Udai won't like this display, you know!" He waved a hand theatrically at the onlookers beginning to gather round the Rolls. "Quite a decent crowd you've drummed up . . . thinking of going round with the hat?"
The sarcastic edge to his voice made Joe uneasy and he waited for Madeleine to reply in kind, but she ignored the gibe, smiled sweetly and put out a hot, sticky hand to shake Joe's. "Hello, Joe, and welcome to Ranipur. I'm Maddy. Oh, and I'm not the first wife—I'm the only wife."
Clearly there was little respect or liking between these two, and Joe thought he could understand this. Loyal as he was to the ruler, Edgar would share his disappointment with the heir to the throne's odd choice of bride. And Joe suspected that Edgar had an innate mistrust of any woman who did not conform to his idea of her role in society, Indian or British.
And this was a nonconformist, Joe decided, liking her at once. She was pretty, even beautiful. The first impression of youth and innocence given by the shining blonde hair and widely spaced brown eyes was belied at second glance by the thick straight brows, knowing expression and determined chin. He would have guessed her age as mid-twenties, a year or two younger than himself.
"I've never driven a Rolls," Joe offered in an effort to distract them from pursuing their show of mutual dislike.
"Have a go on the way back if you like," said Madeleine easily.
"Thank you, but I'd hate to wrap it round a peepul tree," said Joe. "Not had much practice with motor cars. I do rather better with horses."
"It wouldn't matter much if you crashed it. My father-in law's got nine more like it back home." Was there disapproval in her flat American drawl? "I'll give you lessons if you like. I'm pretty good, you'll find."
"Madeleine's father was a racing driver," Edgar explained.
"And he passed on his skills—along with his modesty—to his daughter."
The disapproval was unmistakable.
While they talked the chauffeur had taken their hand luggage and stowed it away in the car. He was now standing hopefully by the driver's door.
"Oh, go on then, Gopal! You've had enough excitement for one day, I guess! You can drive us back to the palace," said Madeleine. "Edgar, you sit in front. I'm going to cosy up with your friend and colleague in the back and tell him about Ranipur." She grinned at Joe. "All about Ranipur. The lid off Rajputana! Though I'll have to work hard to counter some of the impressions Edgar's given you, I expect. A woman's-eye view of the principality is never going to be the same as a man's."
They settled down into the leather upholstery and the sleek car moved off at a sedate pace into the interior.
"Just irritating Edgar," Joe guessed as Madeleine fell silent, allowing him to register his own impressions of the countryside uninterrupted by commentary. He looked about him eagerly. Desert scenery gave way to orchards and cultivated fields; strips of corn and millet and other crops Joe didn't recognize filed past. Here and there patches of jangal, which Edgar explained meant uncultivated land, intruded into the tame landscape, small thatched villages sheltered under ancient fig trees, plough oxen plodded their desultory way under the relentless sun. In this dry countryside Joe was pleased to notice sleeping tanks of jade green water and here and there a turning water wheel and evidence of irrigation. And everywhere there were people working, the men standing out against the dun background in white dhotis and richly coloured turbans of saffron and magenta.
Their way was blocked for a moment or two in a village by a flock of girls as bright as birds of paradise in their saris of pink and acid green and yellow. Chattering and laughing and, Joe was quite certain, making rude remarks about the white faces in the white car, they moved off the road, heavy copper pots of milk balanced on their heads, backs straight and swinging along with a lithe grace.
Joe was enthralled. "What beauties!" he remarked.
"Village women," said Madeleine dismissively. She gave Joe a look full of speculation and amusement and added, "If it's female beauty you're interested in you'll find a fine sample at the palace. Well, at least, the ones you're allowed to see . . . the respectable ones are still in purdah."
"I had understood that the ruler wasn't in favour of purdah? It's a Moghul tradition, isn't it? Not Rajput?"
"That's so. The Rajputs adopted it from their conquerors—the Moghuls. It was the fashionable way to live your life. The women got used to it, I guess, and most of them at court would refuse to give it up if you gave them the choice . . . and, to be fair to Udai, I think he has. His first two wives both stay firmly behind the slatted screens of the zenana. They haven't been seen by a man apart from their husband since they were married. And before that—only their brothers. Can you imagine! They spend their whole lives guarded by eunuchs, in the company of other women, most of whom they can't stand, squabbling and intriguing all day long. Their chief topics of conversation are who's been given the most valuable necklace and how many times has the ruler slept with them that month. What a life!" Madeleine shuddered in a showy way. "I have nothing to do with them. As far as I'm concerned, they're dead. Dead to the world!"
"A very short-sighted and ill-informed view, if I may say so," drawled Edgar. "First Her Highness and Second Her Highness are very intelligent women who not only rule the zenana with a rod of iron but manipulate events on the outside as well. First Her Highness, in particular, is very influential. Anyone affecting to be ignorant of that would be foolish indeed."
Madeleine rolled her eyes and sighed.
"And how do you rate the Third Her Highness, as I suppose she's called?" Joe asked hurriedly before Madeleine could snap back a reply.
"The Princess Shubhada?" Madeleine fell silent for a moment, considering her response. "I hardly know her. We're not exactly bosom pals. I'm American and what I do is flying. She's Indian and what she does is hunting. She was educated in England and hobnobs with the aristocracy and the royal family. You should have seen her showing off when the Prince of Wales visited last winter! 'Oh, Eddie darling! Do you remember that soirée at the Buffington-Codswallops in Henley Week? Pogo was so smashed I thought he'd drown when we chucked him in the Thames!' "
Her imitation of upper-class flappers' slang was unnervingly good.
Joe nodded seriously and replied in the same accent. "What a perfectly ghastly stunt! Poor Pogo! Too many pink gins aboard?"
Madeleine laughed and squeezed his arm. "You've got it! But you can imagine that we haven't got much in common. Her natural milieu—as she would put it—is the polo field and mine's the flying field. Hurlingham meets Kitty Hawk? Never!"
Their road led onwards and upwards and they caught occasional glimpses of the little train as it chugged along in their wake.
"What are those hills ahead?" Joe asked.
"Outrunners of the Aravallis," said Edgar, turning and pointing. "And the reason for Udai's wealth. Those unimpressive—and if we're being honest we'd say downright ugly—bleak hills are a gold mine. Well, better than that—they're a precious gems mine. They're full of minerals from onyx up to the finest emeralds. Millions of pounds' worth of gems have found their way into the Ranipur treasure house for generations.
The city's up there. It's not at a great height but enough to lower the temperature a few degrees. Now prepare yourself for a surprise when we round the next bend!"
What Joe saw in the distance was the fabulous palace of Ranipur. A cliff of fretted, carved and decorated pink stone seemed to extend for a hundred and fifty yards on either side of a grand central entrance and to rise upwards and backwards in a cascade of balconies and pavilions, of garden, dome and temple and, over all, pencil-slim cypress stood on guard on every hand. At its feet frothed and surged a small town, the houses painted white or pale blue. Joe was enchanted. Without an instruction given, the car drew to a halt and the chauffeur put on the brake.
"A thousand rooms!" declared Edgar. "Udai says he's been in every one of them but I bet he hasn't."
"Who lives here?" Joe asked.
"Well, the state rooms are kept for use only on special occasions. Udai has more sense than to live here himself. You'll see the New Palace in a minute. He's got a large family. Aunts, uncles, sons and daughters, his wives if it comes to that. They all have their apartments. Each apartment has its servants and I could go further and say that each servant has his servant. The last time the Ranipur army went into action, each fighting man was accompanied by two armed retainers. You need a big house if you're going to accommodate that size of entourage, and pension them and feed them. There must be upwards of three thousand people living within the palace walls, each ascareful of his or her dignity as it is possible to be, quarrelling, tale-bearing, eating, stealing I shouldn't wonder, plotting and planning . . . Sounds awful, doesn't it, but really, on the whole,
I think they have a pretty good time. But I don't think it would suit me."
"I don't think it would suit me either," said Joe.
"Damn sure it doesn't suit me!" said Madeleine with feeling.
Edgar ignored her. "Doesn't always suit Udai. I'll show you the state apartments tomorrow. In the meantime, the idea of a bath is beginning to appeal to me." He turned to Madeleine.
"Shall we continue?"
"Sure. But first, prepare yourself for another surprise!" said Madeleine. "You're about to get a welcome, Texas style!" She pointed up to the sky above the flat foothills separating them from the town and palace where a small aeroplane appeared to be lazily circling. Catching sight of them, the pilot turned and made towards them at speed. He swooped low and everyone in the car ducked as the plane sheered the dusty air only feet above their heads. Joe squinted into the sun as it passed over to the west behind them. In the two-seater plane the front passenger seat was empty, the clearly silhouetted figure in the rear position raising an arm in salute.
"Who the hell's that?" Joe shouted, startled.
"Best pilot in India or America or anywhere," said
Madeleine with pride. "That's Captain Stuart Mercer, ex- Escadrille Américaine. My brother."
"Your brother? What's he doing in Ranipur?"
Madeleine's eyes never left the small Curtiss Jenny as it began a series of stunts. "Well, I'll never know for sure whether it was me or Stuart that Prithvi fell for!" she said with a smile. "He met us on an airfield . . . well, it was more of a cow pasture . . .
in the States where we were performing. Came backstage at the end of the performance, you might say. We have—we had—a family business. We're barnstormers. Ever heard of the 'Airdevils'?"
Joe nodded. So that was what she was—a wing dancer in an aerial circus! Had Sir George got it wrong deliberately? He'd heard of many flying circus acts, even seen some of those that made the trip to Europe. Their suicidally daring exploits left him breathless. The young pilots, many of whom had survived service in the war, had been turned adrift in a dull and unrewarding world which had no appreciation of their talent.
What they craved was some way of earning a living using their flying skills and they soon caught on to the entertainment value of those skills. People would pay to see them perform, even pay to go up for a flight themselves. Joe shuddered at the idea. But, inevitably, as the public grew used to the spectacle, they became jaded and pilots had to devise ever more daring stunts to keep their attention. Death drops, flights into the heart of Niagara Falls, leaps from racing car to low-flying plane, even leaps from one plane to another in mid-air, they were all attempted with the aim of making money from their audience. Some of the daredevils got rich but most had trouble raising meal money and some died.
"Planes were going for six hundred dollars when Stuart got back home. No shortage. They were stockpiled all over the States. The military were glad to get rid of them. Spares were no problem either. So he bought a couple and cannibalized one of them to get the plane he wanted and we set up in business. Dad helped with the mechanical side and I soon learned that too—I can fly and maintain an aircraft as well as dance on the wings." Madeleine spoke with pride and a touch of challenge. Joe guessed she had probably run into much male criticism for involving herself in such unladylike pursuits. She would hear none from him; he was fascinated. Madeleine Mercer was a very unusual and attractive girl, he acknowledged, and it was no wonder to him that she should have caught and kept the undivided attention of a maharaja's son. He tore his own attention from the smiling, chattering girl at his side and looked up again at the pilot, who was performing a manoeuvre which Joe had never seen before. "I thought being a policeman was dangerous," said Joe, "but it's nothing compared with this!"
"It's dangerous but it's safer than flying the mail routes," said Madeleine laconically. "And it beats liquor smuggling over the Mexican border, which is what we were doing as a sideline before we left the States."
Joe smiled. "Do I gather you and your brother were one step ahead of the law when you skipped off to India?"
"Something like that . . . Some would say, 'Captain Mercer, dashing young air-ace with twenty kills chalked up on his fuselage, accepted the job of personal flying coach to his brother-in law and accompanied him home to Ranipur. The maharaja's second son, international socialite Prithvi Singh, is said to have in his stable a collection of no fewer than ten aeroplanes, all of which he is able to fly.' " Madeleine was obviously quoting from a society magazine. "See what he's doing now!"
Joe hardly dared look. The plane was flying over their heads, upside down, the pilot waving a cheery hand. No—two hands.
"Oh, my God!" breathed Joe.
"Now that is dangerous!" Madeleine said with pride. "These Jennys—you can't trust 'em! The engine cuts out sometimes when they're upside down and then you've got trouble! They were never intended to be stunt planes, but Stuart's a fabulous mechanic as well as pilot and he's worked on his planes until they do what he wants when he wants it. Now look at this!"
The plane was spiralling upwards, gaining height. As he climbed, the pilot threw out a shower of shiny tinsel that fell, sparkling against the sun, drifting lazily down over the plain. "This is the Eastern bit of the welcome," said Madeleine. Edgar caught a piece of tinsel and looked at it closely.
"Gold?" he said.
"Of course," said Madeleine.
"Um . . . how high is he proposing to climb?" asked Joe nervously as the pilot continued his upwards spiral, releasing more tinsel as he went.
"Oh, he's barely started," said Madeleine comfortably.
"Stuart tried for the altitude record a couple of years ago. Just kept on going until he ran out of gas then free-wheeled back down. He made over twenty-five thousand feet but he was still a hundred feet off the record. He'll do it one day."
They watched in silence, mouths open, increasingly tense. "Okay, Stu, that's good enough . . . We've got the picture," Joe heard Madeleine mutter.
As though hearing her, the pilot stopped his ascent, leveled out and began an abrupt dive.
"What's he doing now?" said Edgar uneasily.
"He's going into a loop," said Madeleine. "Never seen a loop before?"
The plane's nose pulled up and the frail fuselage fought its way upwards, the engine screaming a protest.
It was her gasp that alerted him. At the moment of maximum effort, half-way into the loop, the plane had suddenly stopped rising. Its nose dropped and the plane flattened out.
At the same moment, the engine appeared to stop.
"Now why the hell would he do that?" she said to herself.
"That's not in the script!"
To Joe's horror the plane began to drop out of the sky. This was no lazy, calculated, gliding descent.
"He's going to crash!" he blurted out and wished he'd kept silent.
Madeleine's face was anxious but she replied confidently enough. "Not this plane. Not this pilot. This'll be some new stunt he's been working on for our benefit. He's supposed to scare us! That's what he does! Oh, come on, Stu! Pull out now!"
"But the engine's cut out," said Edgar. "How can he pull out? Idiot's leaving it too late!"
Madeleine rounded on him. "Well, you sure know a lot about planes! These crates can have the whole engine drop off and you can still land them. Done it myself!"
But Joe noticed that she was climbing out of the car and beginning to run towards her brother's plane. In a few strides he had caught up with her and grasped her by the shoulders. "It won't help to have us cluttering up his landing space!" he shouted. "Come on, Maddy, let's get back!" But they stayed, frozen together, unable to run in any direction as, inexorably, the plane continued its uncontrolled descent. Joe thought he saw the pilot struggling with the controls a second or two before it crashed on to its belly in the dust about fifty yards ahead of them.
The fuselage fell apart, the wings crumpled in on themselves, the tail section broke off and dropped away, trailing steel cables. The machine Joe had admired dancing like a dragonfly only minutes before was a pile of matchwood. Edgar lumbered past them. "God's sake, Joe! Shift your arse, man! He may be alive still! Madeleine—stay back!" They set off to sprint the short distance to the plane, one thought in both their minds. "Fuel tank! Can we get him out before it blows?"
Joe reached the plane first. He went straight for the pilot, who was slumped sideways in the open cockpit, blood pouring from him and down the side of the fuselage. Joe grasped him under the armpits and pulled. He was aware that manhandling of this kind was likely to do further damage to a battered and broken body but every pilot he had ever known had had the same fear of being trapped in a burning plane. Any man would rather be hauled away from a wreck at the risk of leaving limbs behind, Joe reasoned, and he gave another desperate tug.
The body moved an inch or two. Good, there were no obstructions in the cockpit. But a splintered wing had come to rest just above the pilot's head and there was no way Joe could complete the manoeuvre. Just as Joe emitted a curse, the wing creaked up into the air and he turned briefly to see Edgar, purple in the face and muscles cracking, heaving the heavy wooden wing out of the way. Joe eased the body out, avoiding loose cables and torn fabric covering, and with Edgar grasping the feet, they scrambled to what they judged to be a safe distance from the wreckage.
"Is he dead?" Edgar asked.
"Hard to know with all this gear on him," muttered Joe.
"Let's get his helmet and goggles off." He looked keenly at the young face, dust-covered, blood streaming from his nose and mouth but apparently lifeless.
They were hurled aside by the arrival of Madeleine, screaming her brother's name. Gasping and distraught, she elbowed them out of the way and began with expert fingers to unbuckle the helmet and goggles.
"Gently! Gently!" Joe warned. "He could have head injuries."
She threw down the leather gear and stared at the body in silence. Rigid with shock, she sank to her knees, gazing down at the dirty face. Gently she stroked his cheek. Joe watched, aghast, as the eyes fluttered open slightly, and he did not imagine that one hand reached out and moved an inch towards Madeleine before flopping back lifeless. Still Madeleine did not move or speak. Joe sensed that, even in these horrific circumstances, there was something off-key about her behaviour. Had she gone into shock? What should he do? He looked at her uncertainly, waiting for a lead.
Finally, Madeleine said one word. "Prithvi." Then she threw back her head and howled in grief and rage.
Excerpted from The Palace Tiger © Copyright 2006 by Barbara Cleverly. Reprinted with permission by Delta, an imprint of Random House. All rights reserved.