Authors: Thalassa Ali
To the memory of my English mother,Thalassa Cruso Henckenandmy American father, Hugh O’Neill HenckenACKNOWLEDGMENTSThe great Arthur Edelstein, who died in the summer of 2003, taught me the craft of fiction. Thank you, Art.I would also like to thank my hardworking agent, Jill Kneerim at Kneerim and Williams; my extraordinary editor at Bantam, Kate Miciak; Caitlin Alexander; and peerless Bantam managing editor, Kathleen Baldonado.I would also like to acknowledge the help and kindness of my writing group: Lakshmi Bloom, hostess to the stars; Elatia Harris, who cooked for me through several unexpected crises and worked especially hard on this novel; Cathie Keenan, Kathleen Patton, Pamela Raskin, and Jane Strekalovsky, all of whom were good friends to me and godmothers toA Beggar at the Gate.I had exceptional readers: Gillo Afridi, Deborah Barlow, Diane Franklin, who also worked hard on my website, Kamar Habibi who corrected my Afghan mistakes, Zeba Mirza, Ala Reid, my patient, generous sister, and the inimitable Jonathan Soroff.My website designer was the talented Peter Cepeda, and my assistant was the fabulous Danielle Charbonneau.There are those who have been helpful in many other ways as well: Faqeer Syed Aijazuddin, Asad and Farida Ali Khan, Shelale Abbasi, the British Council of Karachi, Susan Bachrach, Helene Golay, Heidi Fiske, Rifa'at Ghani, Eva and Shikhar Ghosh, Mahnaz Fancy, Samia Faruque, Jaime Jennings, Tariq Jafar, Marjorie Junejo, Judy and Bazl Khan, Tahireh and Zafar Khan, Janet Lowenthal, Kyra and Coco Montagu, Cecily Morse, Zubeida Mustapha, the Pakistan Diplomatic Mission to New York, Susan Paine, Samina Quraeshi, Sam and Juliet Reid, Shakeel and Rehana Saigol, Muneeza Shamsi, the Sind Club, Serita Winthrop, and Pinkie and Haroon Yusuf.I would also like to thank the British Library, whose India Office Collection has been a vital resource to me for many years.Last of all I must thank my dear children, Sophie and Toby.HISTORICAL NOTEn 1840 the Punjab was still proudly independent. Standing between British India and Afghanistan, irrigated by five rivers and boasting a great treasury of gold and jewels, it was the second-richest kingdom in the subcontinent.But for all the Punjab's success, it had lost its powerful unifying leader. The legendary Maharajah Ranjit Singh, who had brought the Punjab under one rule and created a strong disciplined army, died in 1839, leaving the throne to his only legitimate son, the weak, half-witted Kharrak Singh.By July 1840, Kharrak Singh was out of power, imprisoned by his son, Prince Nau Nihal Singh. The atmosphere at the Lahore Citadel, the Maharajah's palace and fort, had turned poisonous as opposing factions struggled to gain control of the country.As these divisions deepened, the British government watched, biding its time. The British, who had recently invaded Afghanistan and installed their own puppet king on the throne of Kabul, were deeply interested in the Punjab, not only for its wealth, but also for its geographical position, for the shortest line of supply between the British territories and Afghanistan lay across the Punjab's well-watered plains.Although most of the British representatives in India, including the Governor-General, believed it important to promote a stable government in the rapidly disintegrating Punjab, there were some who had other ideas.Lady Macnaghten is a real historical figure, as are Maharajah Kharrak Singh, his son Prince Nau Nihal Singh, and Faqeer Azizuddin, the Punjab Foreign Minister.Lady Macnaghten did travel to Afghanistan in 1840 to join her husband. The unfortunate events at Lahore in January 1841 also took place, much as I have described them.Mariana Givens, her aunt and uncle, Russell Clerk the Political Agent, and Saboor and his family are all products of my imagination.PROLOGUEMarch 21, 1840No one knew when the city of Lahore, with its tight, airless lanes and thick, defensive walls, had first arisen beside the Ravi River on the flat plain of the Punjab, but everyone agreed that the city's foundations rested upon the ruins of many older, now forgotten versions of itself, and that the Lahore of the seventeenth century had been the finest and most beautiful of them all.Two hundred years after the Moghul emperors had embellished it with their elegant architecture, the old city still boasted a grand marble palace within its red brick fort, and a glorious red sandstone mosque. Beyond the city walls, tiled gateways, irrigated gardens, airy pavilions, and the delicately carved and inlaid tombs of the royal dead were witnesses to the grandeur of a city that had once been the northern capital of a great empire.In the eastern part of the walled city, near the Delhi Gate, stood another architectural masterpiece of the Moghul era, the mosque of Wazir Khan.Inside the mosque, the morning air was cool, and faintly scented with roses. Sunlight poured in from the courtyard outside, illuminating the dust that hung in clouds, softening the colors of the high-ceilinged prayer chamber. Near a wall densely decorated with Arabic calligraphy, Shaikh Waliullah Khan Karakoyia knelt, shoeless, on a Persian carpet, an illuminated Qur'an open before him on a carved wooden stand, his tall starched headdress lending him a dignity he did not require.There was no part of the Muslim holy book that Shaikh Waliullah, spiritual guide of the Karakoyia brotherhood of mystics, had not already committed to memory, but even so, he never failed to perform the ceremony of removing the book's silk wrappings and setting it open on a carved stand before chanting the familiar Arabic in his quiet singsong.Today he would rehearse the beloved verses from Sura Nur, the chapter entitled “Light.”Allah is the LightOf the heavens and the earth.The parable of His LightIs as if there were a Niche,And within it, a Lamp:The Lamp enclosed in Glass:The glass as it wereA brilliant star:Lit from a blessed Tree,An Olive, neither of the East,Nor of the West,Whose Oil is well-nighLuminous,Though fire scarce touched it:Light upon Light!After sitting for some minutes, his lips moving, his eyes half-closed, the Shaikh returned the book to its wrappings. Tucking it beneath his arm, he rose to his feet and strode barefoot through the vaulted archways of the prayer chamber, then across the mosque's square courtyard, past the ablution tank with its burbling fountain, returning the salutes of other men as he passed them, his forceful expression softened by the passage he had been reciting.At the entrance, he greeted the hunchbacked Keeper of Shoes, then waited while the little man brought the slippers he had kept carefully aside from those of ordinary men. His dreaminess gone, the Shaikh pushed his feet into his shoes and strode down the mosque's long flight of steps and into its small, cobblestone square.His family's ancestral home stood fronting the square, at a right angle to the mosque. As the Shaikh approached its tall, carved doors, three men who had been squatting outside leapt to attention, and the great doors swung open.The main courtyard of the comfortable oldhaveli,with its animal stables along one side, was as warm as the square outside, but it was quieter. The sun caught its frescoed walls, painted with the crescent moons that had given the old house its name, and fell upon the inner courtyard's lone, dusty tree, and onto the platform where, on pleasant afternoons, the Shaikh was accustomed to sit among his followers.He crossed the small courtyard, turned into a doorway and climbed a flight of winding stone stairs to the family quarters of his house. Women and children sat clustered on the floor of a large upstairs room, their heads turning as the Shaikh marched past them along a bright corridor and into the small whitewashed chamber where his twin sister sat waiting for him.He returned her half-smile of greeting. “I was reciting from Sura Nur,” he offered as he lowered himself to the sheet-covered floor. “For some reason,” he added, “that Sura never fails to remind me of my daughter-in-law.”Safiya Sultana shifted her stout body against one of the bolsters that lined the walls of the little room. “ ‘An Olive, neither of the East, Nor of the West,’ ” she repeated in her well-measured Arabic, easily identifying the verse her brother referred to, for she did not often need to be told what he was thinking. “Yes,” she agreed. “I think one could say that about the English girl.”“Inshallah,”the Shaikh said softly, “she and our little Saboor will soon return safely.”“Inshallah, God willing,” his sister agreed, nodding gravely.ON THAT same afternoon, twelve hundred miles southeast of the Shaikh's house, Mariana Givens nudged her mare through a crowd of gaily dressed natives, her eyes on the scene before her.The air around her smelled of frying and spices. Harsh, rhythmic music came from somewhere she could not see. She turned her head to and fro, taking in the scene, promising herself she would remember it forever.This was not the first time Mariana had left the broad avenues of British Calcutta behind her. A dozen times during the previous six months, she had escaped her uncle's large house on Chowringhee Road and ventured alone into the native part of town, for she had discovered that when she lost herself in the real India, her misery and boredom lightened for a time.She had gained this opportunity to see the interesting and macabre Charak Puja only an hour earlier. As she crossed the broad drive in front of Government House on her afternoon ride, several young British officers had ridden past her, talking animatedly among themselves.“—a cross between a Maypole and a whirligig,” one of them had been saying. “A man is attached by ropes to the top of a mast. A group of men then rotate the mast, allowing a rider to spin about in a great circle. But what distinguishes it from a real whirligig is that the rider is suspended by meat hooks that have been forced through his body.”“We must go there at once!” another had cried. “We must not miss a moment of it!”Hoping no one would see her leaving the respectable environs of Government House, Mariana had waited until the young officers were some distance away, then clucked to her mare and set off to follow them, a solitary female figure riding sidesaddle through the native shantytown, where naked babies played in the dust and unrecognizable smells filtered through the air.The temple grounds at Kali Ghat were filled with a swelling, festive crowd. The cries of sweetmeat sellers competed with the clashing of native music. Dancing girls whirled before prosperous-looking onlookers. Ragged creatures with great gashes through their upper arms danced wildly to the same music while running swords or spits through their wounds. Others held withered arms over their matted heads, their fists clenched, filthy, overgrown fingernails protruding from the backs of their hands.The tall, silent poles at the center of the grounds promised even more fearful sights.The drumbeats began to intensify. The crowd cleared a wide circular space, leaving only a dozen half-naked men standing by the two tall masts. Mariana rode forward, craning to see which one of them had hooks through his body, but saw only that several ropes trailed along the ground behind the group, then rose to the top of the pole.All but one of the men strode to the pole. Like bullocks turning a waterwheel, they began to push the arms of a turnstile attached to the pole's base. As they ran faster and faster, in a tight, shouting circle, the ropes tautened and the last man rose slowly into the air and began to fly.He swung in a wide circle, held nearly upright by the spinning of the mast, his lips moving as he threw flowers onto the crowd below. As he flew past her, Mariana saw plainly that four hooks had been forced through the muscles of his chest, and another four through his back. His wounds did not bleed, but remained sickeningly raw and open for all to see.A male English voice laughed loudly somewhere in the crowd. Mariana gazed upward, unable to look away, a hand shading her eyes. Was it agony or joy that made the flying man draw back his lips into that mad smile? Had he takenbhangto lessen his pain? What had driven him to make this extraordinary sacrifice?She searched the crowd for someone to ask, but before she could do so, the man swung toward her, reaching into a cloth bag as he approached. A moment later he sailed over her head, his expression concentrated and ecstatic. A handful of flowers fell around her as he flew away.The first one, a yellow marigold, became entangled in her horse's mane. She reached out, but before she could touch it, a male hand appeared suddenly and swept it to the ground, where it lay, bright as a jewel, in the dust.“You should not be here,” the owner of the hand said firmly.Shocked, Mariana stared down from her saddle. The man who had spoken was clearly Hindu, since his shirt opened on the right side. He stood beside her, clean-shaven and neatly turbaned, his waistcloth flowing to his feet, a white dot marking the space between his eyes.“This isnotyour path,” he continued in a resonant voice, speaking in Urdu, a language Mariana understood, not in the Bengali that rose and fell about them. “This way,” he added, gesturing at the dreadful figure soaring above them, “is for others, but it is not for you.”The crowd had thickened around her, blocking her escape. The Englishman laughed again, his voice a distant guffaw.“Your path lies to the northwest.” The stranger pointed an authoritative brown hand away from the crowd. “You must return there to find your destiny. Until then, do not attend festivities such as these. Do not touch the flowers. Do not look again at the man overhead.”How had he known? Mariana swallowed, searching for a brave, offhand response, but nothing came. When he did not move, she followed his gaze toward a line of distant green hills.“Leave this place,” he commanded. “Go.”The men at the turnstile shouted. Overhead, the wounded man's ropes and pulleys creaked and sang, telling Mariana that he still whirled above the crowd, dropping his flowers, like blessings, on their heads. But she did not look up again. Instead, she clucked to her mare and pushed her way without a backward glance past mendicant scarecrows, dancers, and food stalls until she reached the road leading back to her uncle's comfortable English house on Chowringhee Road.It had not been the Hindu stranger's abrupt appearance beside her or the oddness of his message that had driven her, trembling a little, from the temple grounds. She had seen at once that there was no reason to fear him, that he was no charlatan or trickster. He had been too cleanly dressed, too dignified. He had asked for nothing in return for delivering his message. What had sent her away had been his words.Your path lies to the northwest,he had said, pointing in the direction of the Punjab, the proud, unconquered kingdom that lay beyond the northwestern frontier of British India: the same kingdom that called to Mariana even now, its faint siren song offering elusive, wondrous things and a world entirely alien to her own, where no word of her language was ever uttered, no morsel of her native food ever prepared. In the venerable walled city house she had left behind in Lahore fifteen months ago, there were no balls, no amateur theatricals, no dinner tables with silver candelabra and lively conversation. Instead, Shaikh Waliullah's family ladies and a score of their children occupied themselves day after day in an upstairs room that, in Mariana's memory, had seemed to encompass the entire world.But of her path there had been no sign. How could there be a path, when those ladies scarcely ever left the house?She rode home lost in thought, her face hot and gritty beneath her top hat. She stared at a brightly caparisoned donkey in front of her, trying to distract herself from her memories of Lahore.Whatever path the soothsayer had meant, it could not lead there. After fifteen long months, Mariana had come to believe she would never again visit the Punjab.
June 20, 1840
Three months later, still in Calcutta, Mariana sat beside her aunt six pews behind the Governor-General and his two spinster sisters, watching a short, red-faced man make his perspiring way toward the pulpit steps of St. John's Cathedral.
Around her, the congregation twitched and whispered. A woman nudged her husband. Another woman, in black, who had appeared to be sleeping, sat up and began to fan herself vigorously. Two rows away, a newly arrived girl and her sharp-faced companion turned in their seats to look back at Mariana, smug satisfaction on their faces. Like her, they knew what was coming. Unlike her, they were enjoying themselves.
Beneath her wilting gown, Mariana's stays felt as if they had been ironed onto her torso. Her hair, difficult at the best of times, had escaped her straw bonnet, and now hung in loose brown curls on her neck, causing her skin to prickle in the June heat.
The dean stopped climbing and mopped his face. He leaned over the carved wooden rail of the pulpit, his eyes drifting toward Mariana, who yawned deliberately behind a gloved hand, her body tensing against the hard wooden pew.
“I find it delightful to see how much our numbers have grown in the past year,” he began in his high voice. “It gives mesuchpleasure to see how many eligible young ladies from Home have found suitable matches here in India. As I look out over this congregation,” he added, fastening his eyes upon a square-shouldered officer, his moonfaced wife, and their overdressed, squirming baby, “I am filled with joy at the sight of so many happy little families, and I look forward to many,manymore.”
“I know someone who willneverbe married in this cathedral,” someone behind Mariana said clearly, as the dean looked pointedly in her direction.
It would do no good to let the woman know she had heard. Instead, Mariana picked up her aunt's hymnal and began to leaf through its pages.
It came as no surprise that the dean had aimed his remarks at her, for he had done the same in every one of his sermons for the past six months.
The gossip about Mariana's experiences in the northwest had begun to surface in the verandahs and drawing rooms of the British capital six months earlier, immediately after she had returned, along with the rest of the Governor-General's vast camp, from his lengthy visit to the Maharajah of the Punjab. After Lord Auckland's state tents had been struck for the last time and the officers who had accompanied him had returned to their families and living quarters, the story of Mariana's shocking behavior at Lahore had spread rapidly from bungalow to bungalow, defying Lord Auckland's order of strict secrecy and swiftly eclipsing all previous scandals. For, the gossip ran, while in the Punjab, Mariana Givens had done the worst thing an Englishwoman in India could do: she had entangled herself in a disgraceful, ruinous liaison with a native man.
Confirmed by the energetic, brown-skinned presence of her two-year-old stepson Saboor and embellished with ever more damning detail, the scandal had clung to her like sticky, invisible clothing, uniting all of Calcutta society against her, and turning her overnight into an outcast among her own people.
Worse still, Mariana's ruin had fallen upon her aunt and uncle, neither of whom had been present in Lahore during that tumultuous time.
From the moment of her return, Aunt Claire and Uncle Adrian, the only family Mariana had in India, had been excluded from the cheerful dinners and the spirited balls and fetes that had made Calcutta the gayest city in India, especially the celebrations that had attended the Governor-General's triumphant return from his visit to the north. A few loyal friends still paid surreptitious visits to the Lambs’ comfortable bungalow, but the rest of society had drifted away, fearful of being caught by association in the sticky web of Mariana's disgrace.
“But these people know nothing of what really happened,” Mariana had insisted to her tearful aunt when they had been cut dead for the third time while buying muslin in the bazaar. “Why should we care whattheythink, Aunt Claire?”
But Aunt Claire cared very much what people thought. Moments after Mariana had carried little Saboor through the front door of number 65 Chowringhee Road and begun a halting, uncomfortable recital of her experiences in the Punjab, Aunt Claire had swooned, semi-conscious, onto a sofa, eyes shut and mouth open.
Choking tragically from a whiff of smelling salts, she had waved Mariana away and refused to listen to a word of explanation. “What have I done to be punished so?” she had sobbed later to Uncle Adrian from her pillows, while Mariana eavesdropped in the hallway outside. “Why has she done this unmentionable thing? And why has she brought a native child into my house? Make her take it to the servants’ quarters, Adrian. Oh,whatwill become of us?”
“You should never have brought that baby into the drawing room,” her uncle had told her tightly a while later, as he stood, his back to her, staring out of his study window. “Is it not enough that you have ruined yourself? Must you also parade a native child in front of your aunt?
“Since you insist he has lost his mother, and is of high station among his people,” he added grimly, “the child may remain with you. But you arenotto let him into the front of the house, and you areforbiddento mention Lahore or the Punjab again in your aunt's presence.”
Shocked at this angry reception by her normally mild uncle, Mariana had been unable to reply.
He turned from the window and glared at her. “You knew perfectly well,” he added, “why we accepted Lord Auckland's invitation for you to join his train. You werewellaware that it had nothing to do with translating local languages for his sisters. Given such a signal opportunity, why did you not marry one of his officers while you were in the Punjab?”
“But Itriedto marry one of them,” she put in, “and then it all fell to pieces because he was supposed to have—”
“Instead of doing your duty and marrying an Englishman,” her uncle barked, his bald head flushing with emotion, “you kidnapped the Maharajah's baby hostage, and then, with a recklessness I cannot even begin to conceive, you married its father. How could you have done it? How?”
“It was a mistake,” she replied stiffly. “I did not mean to marry him.”
“You might have thought of the consequences to us,” he went on, his voice rising. “Before you abandoned your own race and entangled yourself with a native family, you might have considered my dear brother-in-law, who so generously sent you out here withverydifferent expectations.”
He sighed. “We must, of course, extract you from this most unfortunate marriage and return the child, but when and how that is to take place, I have no idea. It will do you no good, of course,” he added, waving an impatient hand at Mariana's tears, “but in the meantime you mustbend over backward,and behave like everyone else. Donothingto attract comment.Do you hear me?”
He had been right but it had been far too late for Mariana to bend anywhere. Snubbed and ignored for the next six months, barred from society's pleasures, she had lived quietly with Saboor and her aunt and uncle at Chowringhee Road, reading Persian poetry with her elderly native language teacher and escaping occasionally to the native part of Calcutta, telling herself it was not an unpleasant way to live, for unlike her Aunt Claire, Mariana had never been interested in parties.
The only things she hated about Calcutta were the knowledge that she would one day lose Saboor, and going to church.
“Put on a pretty morning gown and get into the carriage,” Aunt Claire had snapped that morning, after bursting into Mariana's room and finding her still in her dressing gown. “There is no need for you to feed it,” she had added, averting her eyes from the round-eyed child who sat beside Mariana, eating his breakfast. “It can have its breakfast with the servants.”
“I loathe church,” Mariana argued, as she deliberately handed Saboor a piece of buttered toast. “I hate everyone who goes there, and they hate me. St. John's Cathedral must be the mostunchristianplace in all of India.”
“It isnot,”her aunt had replied sharply, “and youshallgo there. If you would only make the slightest show of contrition,” she added wistfully, “I am sure you would be forgiven.”
The dean now raised his voice, interrupting Mariana's thoughts. “And there is still better news,” he announced grandly. “Churches are being constructed all over India. The latest, at Allahabad, is nearly complete.
“What wonders these churches will do!” he added, spreading his arms wide. “We are all breathless with expectation, for it is now certain that the conversion of the natives isverynear at hand.
“We must keep in mind, however,” he intoned as he leaned over the pulpit rail, “that until they have seen the Christian light, the natives must be avoided. There is terrible degradation in the native's present character, and vice in his every word and deed. And we must remember,” he added, dropping his voice and favoring Mariana with a sidelong glance, “that for those who associate intimately with them, there awaits their same vice, their same degradation, their sameperdition.”
Degradation. Perdition.The hymnal Mariana was holding came alive in her hands. As if by itself, it slammed shut, making a noise like a thunderclap that rang satisfactorily throughout the cathedral's stone interior.
The dean jerked upright. A stringy woman turned in her pew and glared at Mariana.
Aunt Claire's finger jabbed into Mariana's side. “What are youdoing?”she whispered, scowling. “Put down that hymnbook and attend to the sermon.”
People stared. The sharp-faced girl nudged her friend.
Now recovered, the dean began to quote the Acts of the Apostles, his florid voice rising and falling. Below his pulpit, Mariana sat erect, giving no outward sign of discomfort as her mind wandered to the message she had received the previous March from the mysterious pointing man.
He had spoken with urgent authority, but Mariana could not fathom what he had meant. What destiny could possibly await her in the direction he had pointed?
She blinked. Could the man's message have had anything to do with the poem her old teacher had given her to translate on the day before he began the long journey home to his native Punjab?
My moon of Canaan, the throne of Egypt is thine,the poem had read.The hour is near. The time has come to bid farewell to the prison.
As she translated those Persian words, hermunshi'sfeverish old face had brightened with some emotion she could not read, but the old teacher had not told her why he had chosen that particular poem for their last day.
There was no question that he knew more than he revealed, for he had long belonged to the Karakoyia brotherhood, and he knew the mysterious Shaikh Waliullah well.
What was the meaning of that verse? Did the prison represent Calcutta for her? If so, where was her promised throne of Egypt? She found her handkerchief and blew into it, trying to imagine herself as beautiful as Joseph, with his coat of many colors.
The dean had stopped speaking at last. As he descended from the pulpit, the wooden stairs set up a great creaking and groaning, accurately voicing Mariana's sentiments. She longed to jump to her feet, pink-faced and shouting, and teach the old hypocrite a lesson in Christian charity.
Half an hour later, as she followed her aunt toward the cathedral's main entrance, she heard a male voice behind her in the crowd. “She wouldn't be bad-looking, you know,” the smug voice said, “if she ever smiled.”
When they reached the driveway, Aunt Claire hoisted herself, panting a little, into her new carriage and fought her parasol open against the Calcutta sun. “What is the matter with you, Mariana?” she demanded, one hand clutching the side of the carriage for balance. “Why did you bang your hymnal shut in the middle of the sermon? You will never redeem yourself with Calcutta society if you behave like a lunatic.”
Mariana snapped open her own parasol. “I could not bear to hear one more syllable about my supposed sins, Aunt Claire.”
“And why should he have mentionedyoursins, Mariana?” Aunt Claire sniffed, settling into her seat. “I am quite certain he did not. In any event, no one can make out what is said in that great, echoing cathedral. I, for one, caught no more than one word in three of that sermon.”
An English family drove past them, wedged into another carriage, the husband stuffed into his frock coat, the children looking wan and ill in the heat. As they passed Mariana and her aunt, all turned their heads away. Mariana winced at the miserable little sound that came from her aunt's corner of the carriage. Aunt Claire might pretend she had not heard the sermon, but there had been no avoiding the Broderick family's collective snub.
The houses along Chowringhee Road stood up squarely, each in its large, walled compound. As she always did, Mariana studied the brass nameplate on each gate. All save two were English.
They had arrived at number 65. The scarlet-turbaneddurwanwaved his bamboo pole. Four men in loincloths appeared and pushed open the wrought-iron gate, and the carriage with its matched horses swung through.
In the echoing entrance hall, Aunt Claire handed her bonnet and parasol to a servant. “I must look in on your uncle,” she said over her shoulder as she puffed her way up the stairs.
Mariana waited, listening anxiously at the foot of the stairs. Worse than the punishing heat of Calcutta, its mosquitoes, its gossip, or even the squalor and starvation of many of the natives, were the illnesses whose sudden descent could wipe out entire families in a matter of hours.
She did not think she could bear her life without Uncle Adrian, who now lay, ill with fever, in an upstairs room. Unlike most of the English, her uncle knew something of the Indian life she craved to understand. An avid student of military strategy since her childhood, she had always cared more for her uncle's stories than for her aunt's silks, laces, and gossip. It had been Uncle Adrian who had introduced Mariana to hermunshi,the old man who had taught her both Persian and Urdu, the court language of India.
Unlike his wife, Uncle Adrian had forgiven Mariana's sins.
A sound came from the dining room, followed by a high-pitched hiccupping giggle. Forgetting her worry, Mariana tore off her bonnet and rushed through the archway in time to see a small figure in white erupt from under the table and race through the pantry door, his clothes flying.
“Come here, Saboor, you nuisance, you pest!” Her hair falling from its pins, she burst into the pantry, and found a curly-haired child dancing with excitement, half-hidden behind a china cupboard.
Half a dozen men sat on the kitchen floor, eating rice heaped on freshly cut banana leaves. They looked up, chewing.
“Saboor, my little cabbage, my little cauliflower!” she cried as she scooped the child into her arms.
He wriggled and bounced as she kissed him, his broad face alight. “An-nah, put me down, put me down,” he shrieked. “I want to run andrun!”
As she followed his galloping three-year-old figure through the doorway, her aunt's voice rang in the hallway. “Mariana, come upstairs. There is something we must tell you.”
Mariana had heard that demanding tone before. She climbed the stairs reluctantly, in no hurry to hear what Aunt Claire had to say, for it almost certainly had to do with Saboor, who now sat on the pantry floor, eating his lunch.
The Battle of Saboor at 65 Chowringhee Road, joined by Mariana and her aunt on Mariana and Saboor's first day in Calcutta, was now in its seventh month, but the child still lived in the house, not in the servants’ quarters, still ate breakfast with her, and she still sang him to sleep in her bedchamber. Confident of victory in the upcoming skirmish, she now squared her shoulders and turned toward her uncle's bedroom. She had, after all, protected her little hostage in the past from more dangerous opponents than one poor, snobbish, unhappy kinswoman.
Out of habit, she leaned cautiously forward before entering the room, trying to divine the course of the conversation she was about to join, but heard only the raucous cawing of crows outside her uncle's bedroom window.
“Come in, Mariana, and shut the door.” Still wearing her creased church gown, Aunt Claire fanned herself in an upright chair beside an open window, while Uncle Adrian smiled from his bed, his usually ruddy face now yellowed and drawn.
“We wanted to tell you of this earlier,” Aunt Claire began in her usual ringing tone as Mariana lowered herself into a seat beside the bed, “but with your uncle's illness there has been no time.”
Mariana nodded. Perhaps this conversation would not concern Saboor after all.
“Your uncle,” Aunt Claire announced, “has been posted to Afghanistan.”
“Afghanistan?” Mariana sat straight. “But I thought he was going home to Sussex.”
“Well, he is not. The British Envoy in Kabul has particularly asked for him.”
“It is quite flattering, really,” Uncle Adrian put in from his pillows. “We shall be leaving in a month or two.”
“But I thought you hated travel, Aunt Claire. I thought—”
“It does not matter what you thought, and in any case, it is all decided. We are at last to be rid of that native child, and you are to be divorced.” Aunt Claire closed her fan with a snap. “On our way to Kabul, we shall stop at Lahore, end your marriage, leave the child with his family, and travel on. It's as simple as that.”
Rid of Saboor? But she was not ready to lose him. Mariana's hand flew to her mouth.
“Think, child,” her aunt was saying. “That baby is small now, but in no time at all he'll be a full-grown nativeman.What on earth will you do with him then? This brings us, of course, to my next point. In his same dispatch from Kabul, the Envoy has revealed something unexpected aboutyou.”
“Sir William Macnaghten mentionedmein a government dispatch?”
“He did,” Aunt Claire replied, in the grand tone she reserved for government matters. “Several days ago, immediately after your uncle's new appointment to Afghanistan, he was summoned to Government House, but to his surprise it wasnotto discuss either Afghanistan or the Honorable East India Company. Instead, Lord Auckland's two sisters told him privately—and instrictestconfidence—that there was something you havenotrevealed to us about that horrid native ‘marriage’ of yours.”
There was something odd about her aunt and uncle's faces. Suspicion dawned in Mariana. “What have I not revealed, Aunt Claire?”
“That you are still, shall I say, chaste. That you are married in name only.”
“What?”Mariana, who had never spoken aloud about such matters, looked hastily away from her uncle. “And the Governor-General and his sisters know this?”
“Of course they do,” Aunt Claire rejoined impatiently. “Sir William has just finished telling them.”
“But how does he—”
“As you no doubt remember,” Uncle Adrian put in gently, “every Government of India officer who was present at Lahore that evening was forced to attend your ‘wedding,’ including Lord Auckland. The next morning, Sir William Macnaghten kindly offered to fetch you from Shaikh Waliullah's house and take you back to the English camp, but when he arrived in the walled city, he found that you had vanished upon some silly native errand.”
“It wasnotsilly,” Mariana protested, stung. “The Maharajah's armed men came for Saboor, and they had to let him down from a window in the rain, and—”
“Never mind about the child,” snapped Aunt Claire.
“When Sir William inquired as to your whereabouts,” Uncle Adrian went on, his eyes averted from Mariana's, “the Shaikh indicated that events of the previous night had not unfolded as expected. Sir William then asked one or two questions of his own, and divined the truth of the matter.
“He wrote in his dispatch that he had put the whole story from his mind, but thought of it after he requested my appointment to Kabul.”
Aunt Claire glared at Mariana. “Why did you not tell us this yourself?”
Mariana found her handkerchief and mopped her face. Saboor'sgrandfatherknew what had happened that night? Who had toldhim.?Did they all tell each othereverything?
“I do not understand,” she said stiffly, “how Sir William could evenmentionsuch a delicate—”
“Don't be a goose, Mariana,” interrupted Aunt Claire. “You had no reason to hide this information. We cannot think how you managed it, but we have all agreed that saving yourself on your marriage night was the first sensible thing you have done since you came to India.”
“If it is true,” added Uncle Adrian, “then it may be possible to salvage some small part of your reputation. While you behaved foolishly, even provocatively, toward the natives, you may not have been entirely unchaste.”
“Not entirely unchaste?”Mariana sprang, hot-faced, from her chair.“If it is true?”
“Sit down at once. There is more.” Aunt Claire leaned back in her chair. “The Eden ladies have told your uncle that they want to apologize.” She peered at Mariana over her fan. “Toyou.
“They said that on the way to the Punjab, you had wanted to marry a certain Lieutenant Fitzgerald of the Horse Artillery, and that they had forced you to sever that friendship. They said that all this occurred just over eighteen months ago. They implied that you took the loss badly, and that the disappointment you felt may have affected your judgment and led to your later entanglement with Saboor's father.”
Affected her judgmentindeed.Mariana glowered at her aunt as she subsided into her seat.
“The ladies said that they forced the parting after hearing that Fitzgerald had jilted a young lady here in Calcutta. They now understand that the story was false, and that Fitzgerald had, in fact, behaved very well.” Aunt Claire paused dramatically. “Why did you tell us none of this?”
Mariana averted her face. It caused her too much pain even to think of Fitzgerald. What was the use of talking about him?
Fitzgerald's smile had been crooked and knowing. His uniform coat had smelled deliciously musty. At first, the Governor-General's sisters had put no obstacle in the way of her infatuation. Nodding like two bonneted birds, the two spinsters had watched her blossom, watched her follow her young horse-gunner with her eyes until the lies that had traveled all the way from Calcutta reached the Punjab. Then, abruptly, they had changed their minds. With no thought of Mariana's feelings or of Fitzgerald's, they had issued instructions that the two were to be separated.
The loss of him had been agony.
Four weeks later, Lord Auckland's much-desired treaty of alliance with the Punjab had been signed and celebrated with Mariana's unexpected native wedding. The next day, Harry Fitzgerald and all the other officers she might have married had marched off with their great army to Afghanistan and victory, leaving her behind them in disgrace.
“The Eden ladies wish to make amends,” Aunt Claire announced. “Now that this new information has emerged, they believe they can help you. They have quite generously offered to let it drop in certain circles that your behavior in Lahore was not as shocking as people suppose. They are willing to suggest that you have been wronged.”
“That is, of course, the great benefit of my appointment to Kabul,” Uncle Adrian added seriously. “It may be that we, and particularly you, my dear, will be able to make a fresh start there. I understand that Kabul has every chance of becoming a delightful station for our officers, with its superior climate and its wonderful fruit.” He nodded with satisfaction. “Fortunately for all of us, among Muslim natives an unconsummated marriage is easily dissolved.”
Aunt Claire cleared her throat. “Of course, this brings up the question of your future. Once we are in Kabul, it may be possible to arrange someone for you. A widower, perhaps.”
A doddering old man with children older than herself? Mariana opened her mouth to speak, then closed it.
“But then,” her aunt went on eagerly, “one never knows what might occur. After all, Kabul is full of unattached men, including Lieutenant Fitzgerald.”
“No one will marry me, Aunt Claire, and Fitzgerald hates me after what happened.”
“But my dear girl, your news must be well-known there already. You know how gossip travels. For all we know, the lieutenant may be waiting breathlessly for your arrival. After all, he has had his own experience with unfair gossip and scandal. But if he does not marry you, someone else may. You should have children of your own.” She sighed wistfully. “You haveno ideahow happy that will make you.
“But of course,” she added, “if nothing takes place in Kabul, we shall take you home to England when we leave here permanently.”
Uncle Adrian nodded. “Your aunt is right, Mariana. Whatever happens will be better than this. You shall, thank God, be free of your native connections before the end of the cold weather.”
And free of Saboor. Mariana stared numbly at her uncle.
BACK IN her room, she wiped her hands on her skirt and raked back her hair. She had more on her mind than her uncle's mortifying news and surprising plans, more than the tiny flame of hope her aunt had caused her to feel for her own future, for outside her window, beyond the shutters, past the champa tree with its yellow showers of bloom, past the compound wall, a man waited to see her: a courier who had come twelve hundred miles to deliver a letter into her hands.
He had arrived at night, and had made such a noise banging the gate with a stick, that thedurwan,woken from sleep, had taken him to task for disturbing the English sahibs. But this courier was not a man to be stopped. He had insisted that he had orders to deliver something immediately to the lady who kept a native child with herself inside the house.
In the end, Mariana's own manservant, Dittoo, had been summoned to resolve the issue. Recognizing the courier's clothing and speech as Punjabi, and understanding that he must have come all the way from the house of Shaikh Waliullah, Dittoo had gone to fetch an unusedcharpai,and instructed the man to wait on it until the morning. Instead, the courier had announced his hunger, forcing a nervous Dittoo to take the risk of stealing bread, butter, and a mango from the pantry.
When he had eaten, the courier had once again demanded to see Mariana, who, like her aunt and uncle, had slept through the drama at the gate. Unprepared, she had started up at the sight of Dittoo outside her bedroom door at four o'clock in the morning, a lamp in his hand, rumpled and close to tears.
“There is a courier outside,” her manservant had whispered hoarsely. “He has brought a letter from Lahore. He says he will give it into your hands only.”
She had sat up and reached for her dressing gown. “You are sure?” she had asked, knowing as she spoke that he was.
The lamp had jerked in Dittoo's hand, sending moving shadows onto the wall. “He is very ugly, Bibi,” he said, his face bunching. “He is an albino. I told him I could not bring such a strange-looking man into the house in the middle of the night. I said he must wait until the morning, but he is insisting, and his voice is becoming loud.
“I begged him to give me the letter,” he had added, “but he said he would kill me first.” He had drawn his hunched form as straight as he was able. “He says he has not traveled all this distance to give the letter to a servant.”
Mariana had crept down the stairs after Dittoo and followed him to the side verandah, where she quickly took in the shadowy form of a burly man in a thick, Punjabi-style turban. The man's beard was as pale as corn silk. She had blinked in surprise at the sight of his scabbed and blistered feet on the tiled verandah floor. Although they clearly belonged to him, they were as white as her own.
She had returned the man's greeting, but said no more. She had not even asked his name. Instead, she had taken the sealed letter from his outstretched hand and turned away toward the stairs. Reaching her room, she had slid the letter into the bottom of one of her tin storage boxes and crawled onto her bed.
For two days she had avoided reading it. For two days the albino had sat on the string bed outside the gate, waiting to collect her reply before starting on his long journey home.
Mariana stared through the window at the champa tree. She had no need to read the letter. The fact of its arrival told her all she needed to know: that more than one person had plans to take her and Saboor to Lahore. The albino's letter, she was certain, contained the information that Saboor's father, her native husband, would soon be on his way to collect them both and return them to the walled city house where he lived with his mysteriously powerful father and the rest of the Waliullah family.
When it is safe, I will come for you,Hassan had promised on her last evening in the Punjab, before the Governor-General's camp crossed the Sutlej River into British territory. A moment later, he had gone.
In the weeks that followed, she had expected him to come, but he had not. As the distance grew between them, she had put his promise from her mind. She tried to picture him, but found she could remember only a blurred, bearded face and a long embroidered coat.
For eighteen months she had heard nothing from him.
She could not remember when she stopped imagining that she would ever see Lahore again, but during the difficult months after her return to Calcutta, she had begun to imagine a different ending to the story. She dreamed of some chance happening that would allow her to take little Saboor back with her to England when her aunt and uncle left India for good. She imagined Sunday lunch at her father's country vicarage, and Saboor sitting in a high chair at the table, eating roast mutton beside her little nephew Freddie. She pictured the neighbors patting him on the head, nodding approvingly as he grew up, exotic and lovable, the pride of Weddington village.
Now she must face the loss of the babe she had kept safe for so long and loved so passionately, who woke her each day crying, “An-nah, morning has come!” as he clambered onto her bed.
She must also face her husband, and perhaps his family as well. They would be upset at the news of the divorce. After all, it must be an enormous honor to have an Englishwoman in the family. But it could not be helped, and when it was over, Hassan would keep Saboor, and she would be left with a broken heart.
The only person who might ease her pain was Harry Fitzgerald, who had once admired her for speaking several native languages, who had not seemed to mind when her clothes were buttoned wrong, who had offered her hot, hasty kisses in the shadow of her tent when no one was looking. But after starting for Afghanistan with his heavy, wheeled guns, her handsome lieutenant had sent her only one bitter letter, from a camp near the Bolan Pass.
Who will dare to be your friend now?he had written.
Since then he had traveled hundreds of miles through deep mountain passes and over barren, waterless land. He had fought battles: real ones, not the imaginary scenes they had conjured up together over breakfast in the dining tent at Lord Auckland's camp. He must have felt terror. He must have seen horrible things.
He might have changed. Perhaps he drank too much now, after all his bloody campaigning. Worse, perhaps he had proved a coward in battle. Even if he were still the same, could he ever love her again?
Your path lies to the northwest.The Hindu from the Charak Puja rose again in Mariana's imagination, pointing into the distance.
Afghanistan, of course, was far to the northwest, but so was the Punjab. Tangled among thoughts of her fair-haired lieutenant were other memories, vivid, jolting ones of a room strewn with roses, of herself in red wedding silks, her skin oiled and perfumed, lying terrified on a bed while her husband bent over her, his breathing filling the room. She tried to put the memory away and recapture the feeling of Fitzgerald's lips on hers, but instead she saw Hassan's bearded face change, saw him pull away from her.
She had not saved herself on her marriage night. Seeing her terror and exhaustion, Saboor's father had spared her himself.
Sleep,Hassan had told her, before padding back to his own bed.Go to sleep.
June 23, 1840
The walled city of Lahore had always smelled of roses. Discernible even in the cool winters, the scent turned impenetrable in the still, baking heat of the Punjabi summer, filling the tiny, stifling shops that lined the city's narrow alleyways, rushing out of its many mosques and temples. Sometimes sweet and mysterious, often corrupted and rotten, the perfume reached into every quarter of the city, permeating everything: the food, the water, even the offal swept into heaps in the city's neglected corners.
The only part of the city where the scent did not reach was the red brick fort that took up the northwestern quarter of the city's walled area. There, in a guarded tower room inside the marble palace that occupied the northwest corner of the Moghul Citadel, Maharajah Kharrak Singh of the Punjab had begun raving again. Bent double on the golden throne that had belonged to his legendary father, he rocked from side to side, watched by his few remaining loyal courtiers, his hands clutching his midsection, his feet drumming on the floor.
“Iwantthe magical child, the grandson of Shaikh Waliullah. Iwanthim,” the little maharajah repeated, his ugly face creased with pain. “And I want to leave this place,” he added, peering about his ill-ventilated apartments. “This is no living quarter for a king. I must live in the best part of the palace.”
“You will, Mahraj, you will,” crooned a black-bearded gentleman from his place on the marble tiles beside the throne. “But the child Saboor is not here. He left Lahore more than a year ago, before your father died.”
Kharrak Singh's bejeweled courtiers stood along the walls, their bright silks adding life to the stifling room. They nodded in agreement. Smiling encouragingly, the bearded gentleman held out his hand. “Come, Mahraj,” he coaxed, “you must rest.”
“My father would still be alive if that child had not been stolen from him. Everyone knows it was the Shaikh's baby grandson who protected my father with his magic.
“No one tells me the truth,” Kharrak Singh added, glaring at the man. “Not even you, Faqeer Sahib. You know I am being poisoned, and you know that the poisoner is my own son, the usurper of my power. If my father were still alive,” he gasped, his damp face gray, “he would help me.”
“We have not lied to you, Mahraj—”
“And what of your assistant, the child's father?” Kharrak Singh stabbed a quivering finger at a tall man who stood unobtrusively against a wall. “What ofhim,with his English wife? He should send me his healing child. I am dying in front of him, and he does nothing.”
“But Hassan Ali Khan does not have the child either, Mahraj,” the Faqeer assured him. “The boy is in Calcutta. And how is Prince Nau Nihal poisoning you? The food tasters have yet to show signs of illness.” Beneath his neatly tied turban, the Faqeer's forehead glistened with perspiration. “Every precaution has been taken to protect you.”
Spittle crawled from the corner of Kharrak Singh's mouth. He looked up, his eyes unfocused, at his assembled nobles. “You want me dead, all of you,” he cried. “Hah—I know what you want, but you willnever have it.”
Nervous silence fell over the small, crowded apartments. “Is he cursing us?” whispered a young man whose emerald necklaces covered him from his neck to his waist.
“You want to believe that your future is safe,” Kharrak Singh croaked, “that you will keep your riches, but I can tell you this—the Kingdom of the Punjab, built by my father, isfinished.”
Eyes fixed on their suffering king, his courtiers scarcely breathed.
The Faqeer spoke at last. “No, Mahraj,” he offered, hunching his shoulders, his voice a conciliatory singsong. “Surely you do not mean to say these terrible things. Surely you do not mean to curse our beautiful Punjab?”
The Maharajah pushed the Faqeer's hand away. “It is finished,” he insisted. “You will see. Ranjit Singh's heirs will kill each other, as my son Nau Nihal is killing me.”
As his shocked guests began to withdraw, the little man on the throne threw his head back, his tightly wrapped beard exposing a knobby throat. “Opium,” he howled, “I want my opium!”
That same day, in the eastern part of the city, near the mosque of Wazir Khan, a small shrouded figure had crouched anonymously for hours outside the tall, double doors of Shaikh Waliullah's house.
The figure sat silently, huddled among the garbage left by a careless sweeper, a chador the color of dust exposing only her pointed childlike face and a small, damaged hand that clutched the cotton sheet together under her chin.
Moving only her eyes, the girl watched three ragged men cross the cobbled square and approach the carved doors of the haveli, moving slowly, for one of the men appeared to be in considerable pain. She listened silently as the boldest of the three pounded heavily on the doors.
“How is it?” he asked, glancing with concern at his suffering companion as the doors’ heavy bolts slid noisily aside.
The friend did not reply. Instead, he shook his head, his breathing shallow and noisy.
With a great creaking sound the doors swung open. A pair of guards stood back to let the three men pass inside. “What have we here?” asked one, his voice echoing in the vaulted brick entrance-way as he peered at the injured man. “Is it snakebite, or a scorpion sting?”
“Whichever it is,” put in the second guard, jerking his chin toward the interior of the haveli, “you should take him to Shaikh Waliullah at once, but you will not find the Shaikh in his courtyard in this heat. On days like this he sits indoors among his companions. After you cross the inner courtyard, you will see a doorway facing you. Call out, and someone will show you the way.”
While the guards studied the injured man, the silent hunched figure rose to her feet and stole past them and into the entranceway, and then, without pausing, entered the first courtyard.
The girl had felt weak for days. Throughout the morning as she squatted near a festering pile of mango skins and rotting vegetables, her illness had clutched nauseatingly at her middle, threatening to overcome her. Now, as she crept past Shaikh Waliullah's horse and elephant stables and pushed open the gate leading to his quiet family courtyard, faintness gathered in the corners of her brain.
She had taken a great risk in coming this far. Long before the predawn call to prayer had awakened her farrier husband and his harsh-faced mother, Akhtar Jahan had raised herself in cautious stages from the floor where she and her husband slept. Once on her feet, avoiding her mother-in-law, who snored on the hovel's only string bed, she had groped along the wall until she found the older woman's chador hanging from its nail, then felt her way out of the crumbling quarter that had been her prison for three long years.
Following her instincts, she had stumbled along the lightless alleyway outside the door, powered only by a chance remark she had overheard the week before from a passerby outside: that in a house near Wazir Khan's Mosque there lived a woman who knew how to cast spells.
What spells they were did not matter to Akhtar as she braced herself, a hand to her head, against the inner courtyard wall. What mattered instead was the hope she had felt at hearing those careless words, spoken by a stranger whose face she had not even glimpsed.
Spells.The word suggested mysterious happenings and sudden, miraculous cures. It suggested something darker, too: wicked spells, wasting away, even death. From the moment she heard it, Akhtar had known that this magician lady possessed what she urgently needed: a remedy for the agony she had endured since her marriage—brutalized by her husband, reviled by her mother-in-law, worked to exhaustion, trapped in their tiny, airless quarter with no means of escape.
The mosque was not far from her own, miserable home. As the fiery sun rose, and people appeared in the stifling lanes and alleys, she had tried to ask the women among them where the lady she sought might live, but had been too ashamed to explain herself properly. Misunderstood, terrified her husband would find her before she reached her goal, she had wandered fruitlessly until a sad-eyed hunchback who guarded visitors’ shoes outside the mosque had asked who or what she sought.
“Ah,” he had said when she tried to explain, “you seek Begum Safiya Sultana, the sister of the great Shaikh Waliullah. She is no magician, my dear child, but her name is well-known. She will help you.” He had pointed across the square to a wide brick haveli. “Wait outside the Shaikh's house,” he had told her. “In time, they will let you in.”
No magician.Unwilling to believe him, Akhtar had crouched down near the carved doorway, telling herself that the hunchback could not know the truth, for he was not a normal man.
She did not know how long she had waited in the heat without food or drink, but for all her discomfort, and as ill as she felt now, her fright was gone, for the doors of this grand house had closed safely and decisively behind her, shutting out her husband, her mother-in-law, and everything else that might harm her.
For now, however, she could walk no farther. She sank to the courtyard floor beneath a carved balcony, rested her forehead on her upraised knees, and closed her eyes.
Moments later, the injured man and his two friends passed hurriedly through the gate. Nearly invisible in her dust-colored cloak, Akhtar lifted her head in time to see the three men rush by, the injured man now sobbing aloud as his two friends half-dragged him through the courtyard, past closed doors and shuttered windows, past the courtyard's lone, dusty tree, until they halted beside an open doorway.
The heap of discarded shoes outside the entrance told Akhtar that a number of men were inside. The leader of the trio called out a greeting. After an interval, he left his friends and vanished through the doorway, then reappeared, followed by two men, one of them an elderly gentleman with a very wrinkled face and a tall starched headdress.
The girl held her breath. This old man must be Shaikh Waliullah himself, for he radiated power. Even in her illness, she recognized the force of his presence, which seemed to reach all the way across the courtyard to the patch of shade where she huddled.
The injured man's friends lowered him to the ground, where he rocked, keening, from side to side, one ankle clutched in both his hands. The old man glanced briefly at the wound. “Yes, it is a scorpion sting,” he announced in a light, pleasant voice, then turned to his companion and held out a hand, asking for something. “A stick, Javed,” he ordered. “Yes, that one will do.”
The stick in hand, the old man bent over, his headdress tipping dangerously forward, and made several marks in the dust of the courtyard floor. Then, apparently satisfied with what he had written, he threw down the stick and searched through the pile of discarded shoes, poking at them with one foot, while the injured man's wails rose behind him.
At last, the old man picked up a leather slipper. His back to the victim, he began to strike the marks he had made in the dust, gesturing impatiently for silence when the victim's friend tried to speak. The loud cracking of the shoe against the ground attracted other men from inside. They stood in the doorway, craning to see. Shadowy figures of women appeared in an upstairs window behind filigreed shutters.
Within moments it was over. The old man straightened and dropped the slipper among the other shoes. “Well?” he inquired in his light voice, dusting his hands together and turning his attention once again to the victim.
The injured man had ceased keening. “It was here,” he said in a wondering tone, rubbing a hand over his anklebone, “but now it's gone.”
Akhtar pushed herself to her feet, trying to see more. What strange event had she witnessed? This house must be filled with sorcerers and magicians.
The old man nodded several times. “Well, that's that,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “You should drink something.” He nodded toward the guarded entrance. “You'll find water and sherbet over there. And now, Javed,” he added, turning to his companion, as the three men backed away, saluting deferentially, “let us return to our conversation. It is not every day that I meet someone who is acquainted with Ghalib. My sister finds his poetry quite exceptional. She will be very pleased to hear that he is to visit Lahore. …”
His voice faded as he stepped over the threshold and disappeared from view.
Akhtar stared after the two men. She wished she could follow the old magician into his sitting room and pour out all her troubles, but how could she speak in front of all the other men whose shoes lay heaped beside the door? No, she must go to his sister instead, for perhaps she was the lady who knew how to cast spells.
Supporting herself with one hand, Akhtar groped her way toward a promising-looking canvas screen that stretched along the wall ahead of her, supported by thick bamboo poles. Such screens, she knew, were designed to shield ladies from the eyes of men. Women must have gathered somewhere behind that screen, perhaps even the lady she sought.
She crept around its edge. After negotiating a wide fold in the canvas, she found a doorway, then a brick staircase leading downward into darkness, as if to a subterranean room. Women's shoes lay beside this door.
Akhtar scuffed off her own shabby sandals and crept down the staircase.
The courtyard had been bright and fiery hot. As she stepped downward into the cool darkness, dizziness bloomed in her head and her knees buckled. Shocked, tangled hopelessly in her dirt-colored chador, she plunged downward, twisting an ankle, banging her knees and elbows as she fell, cracking her head, until she landed at last in a pained heap on the brick floor at the bottom of the stairs.
Dizzy and stunned, she heard female voices raised in surprise. Bare feet approached, then stopped beside her. A deep, authoritative voice penetrated the fog in her brain. “Tell Khadija to bring a sheet,” it commanded. “This girl is hurt, whoever she is.”
Was it a eunuch who spoke? Or a woman? “Please,” Akhtar managed to say, without opening her eyes, “I don't want anything. I only want to meet the lady who casts spells.”
“Don't move her yet,” the voice continued, as hands laid hold of her. “I want to see her in the light.”
Too weak to resist, Akhtar let someone remove her chador and push back the dirty sleeves of herkameez.Too ill for shame, her eyes squeezed shut, she did not care what they saw.
Above her, someone gasped. “As if this ill-treatment were not enough,” the voice announced, “her liver has been affected. Look at the color of her skin.”
Someone shooed children away. Akhtar forced her eyes open. Women stared down at her, their mouths open. Some of them were young. One was fair, with a high-bridged nose. One or two, including a white-haired serving woman who clucked loudly with dismay, looked very old.
The powerful-sounding voice, Akhtar discovered, belonged to a stout, elderly woman with iron-gray hair, who studied Akhtar with an experienced eye, nodding to herself much as the old man in the courtyard had nodded over his scorpion-sting victim. But unlike the old man, this woman gave off no magical power, only the authority of one accustomed to being obeyed.
Disappointed, Akhtar searched among the crowd for the sorceress she had come to find.
“Let her lie there.” The gray-haired woman gestured toward a dark corner of the cool corridor where Akhtar now lay. Through a wide doorway that let in the light from the top of the stairs, Akhtar could see more ladies of various sizes and ages. Amazed at the kindness of the hands that lifted her, she allowed herself to be led to a sheet-covered mat that someone had spread on the floor. “Drink this,” the stout lady told her gruffly. “It will help your nausea.”
Akhtar tried to raise her head. “But I want to find—”
“Not now, child. Whatever is troubling you, it will, Inshallah, be resolved. But first you must recover your strength.”
Akhtar Bibi drank, and as she did, the pure, lovely taste of roses filled her mouth, driving away the rottenness and filth she had breathed in the street. Later, while she slept, she dreamed that she lay in a cool garden, breathing in beautiful scents, while women's voices murmured pleasantly in the distance.
A deep voice penetrated her dream, speaking rhythmically in a singsong tone, drawing some vowels out, shortening others, reciting poetry in a language Akhtar did not understand. A different voice offered an Urdu translation whose words echoed in her half-sleeping imagination:With treasure, whose treasurer is the faithful spirit,We have come as beggars to the King's door.
Akhtar slept, imagining a pair of ragged beggars crouching by a tall ornate door, their hands extended for alms, while beside them, a heap of gold and jewels gleamed and shone.
SEVERAL HOURS later, a heavyset man fidgeted impatiently as he watched a dust-covered laborer enter the Shaikh's sitting room and approach his padded platform. Yusuf Bhatti, a fighter and a man of action, hated to sit still. It was only by ill luck that he had arrived at the haveli looking for his childhood friend Hassan Ali Khan in time to be waved inside to sit among the Shaikh's followers.
The laborer wiped dirty hands nervously on his long, unclean shirt. “I have never beaten my wife, Shaikh Sahib,” he declared loudly. “Never, I swear it.”
Behind the platform, water rippled down a carved marble cascade and poured into a trough in the floor, filling the air with a cool, restful sound.
The Shaikh seemed to grow taller as he sat. “And you never burn her with brands from the fire?” he asked. “Do not tell lies, Abdul Ghaffar. Your wife's screams have disturbed your neighbors for months. Two of them came to us only yesterday. This morning, unable to bear your ill treatment any longer, your wife ran away from your house.”
The laborer took a step backward. Yusuf stopped fidgeting. This might be interesting.
“She lies in our family quarters at this very moment,” the Shaikh added, “covered with the evidence of your beatings and your burnings.”
“She would not obey me, Huzoor. She—”
“Obeyyou?”the Shaikh rasped. “Her duty is to serve and obeyGod.Your duty is the same. Do you think I beat my wife when she was alive? Do you think these men beattheirwives?” He gestured toward his assembled followers, who watched silently, strings of prayer beads motionless in their hands.
“Her family has land. I need it. They would not—”
“Then it wasgreedthat led you to torture the wife whom you are enjoined to protect.”
The man dropped his eyes from the Shaikh's fierce gaze. “A mistake, Huzoor. Forgive me.”
“It is not the Shaikh who should forgive you,” a pockmarked follower offered from the crowd, “it is your wife.”
The Shaikh nodded. “Nasir Sahib is correct. Now then, shall we send for her so you may apologize?”
“No, Huzoor,” the laborer replied. “She has brought disgrace upon my family by running away. I will starve before I apologize to her.”
“Then she is lost to you.” The Shaikh turned away from the man, flicking his fingers in dismissal. “Go then, Abdul Ghaffar. And do not attempt to marry a second time. If you try, you will be stopped.”
Yusuf nodded his approval as Abdul Ghaffar backed from the doorway. The man was clearly a violent fool. Yusuf thought of his own plain, hardworking wife, who had already given him four sons. When he shouted irritably at her, she ignored him.
He smiled to himself. Sensible woman.
A gray-bearded man spoke up. “Shaikh Sahib,” he said, “people in the bazaar are talking about your daughter-in-law.”
The other men dropped their eyes. Yusuf sat up, scowling. How dare this man mention one of the Shaikh's family women in public, especially Hassan's wife? It was bad enough that the woman was noisy, ill behaved, foreign—
“They say,” the bearded man persisted, “that she will be the downfall of your family.”
The Shaikh smiled. “And how has the bazaar arrived at this conclusion, Malik Sahib? What have your fellow diamond merchants to say?”
“They say things have changed since mad Maharajah Kharrak Singh's son imprisoned him and took power. They say the Prince hates the British, that after he has killed his father with poison, the Prince will punish you and your family because your son has an English wife.”
“Ah, my dear Hassan!” The Shaikh's face lit with pleasure as a tall man with an open face stepped into the room.
“Peace, Father,” replied the newcomer, whose light, pleasant voice matched the Shaikh's. He crossed the room with quick steps and greeted each of his father's followers in turn, embracing some and saluting others politely, his right hand to his forehead, before seating himself beside his friend Yusuf.
“The Prince has favorites of his own,” the bearded diamond merchant went on. “To please them, he may, God forbid, confiscate your lands, even this haveli. This has happened to other families for smaller cause.” He pointed an upturned hand toward the doorway. “You have a large household, Shaikh Sahib. How will you support them all? Without this haveli, where will they live? Who will help you?”
The Shaikh's embroidered headdress had begun to droop in the heat. He poked a finger under it, and scratched his scalp. “And what, Malik Sahib,” he inquired mildly, “do you propose we should do?”
“I suggest that your son distance himself from the British before it is too late. I propose that he divorce his foreign wife.”
The assembled followers drew in a collective breath. Yusuf wiped his hot face with the tail of his turban. He could not help but agree with the man. The faster Hassan escaped from that odd woman, the better. He glanced sideways to gauge Hassan's reaction, but could not guess what his friend was thinking.
“Divorce?”protested a small man with large, watery eyes. “But that is unthinkable!”
“He need not divorce her, then,” the merchant answered, “but he should keep her far away. And he should marry again—some nice Punjabi girl. Dozens of families would be honored to receive a proposal from your side. Why, my own brother has a lovely daughter who would be—”
“Malik Sahib,” interrupted the Shaikh, “you think like a diamond merchant. You should spend more time in this house. And now we will ask my son for his response.”
All eyes turned to Hassan, whose warm smile resembled that of his father, although his face was not wizened and dark, but fair and broad. “Malik Sahib,” he replied, spreading his hands, “in this world, family matters are one thing and politics are another. A man cannot change his wives with each change in the political wind. In any case, the Prince will have greater concerns than my family alliances after he ascends the throne.”
“There,” observed the Shaikh. “You have your answer, Malik Sahib. And now, Hassan, what news of the court?”
“No good news, Lalaji.” Hassan reached for a string of prayer beads from a pile on the sheet-covered floor. “The Maharajah is still imprisoned. He and his son still quarrel. Meanwhile, he continues to decline. His stomach pains increase. I fear the end is approaching.”
“His food is poisoned,” offered someone.
Hassan shook his head as the beads moved through his fingers. “The food tasters have not fallen ill yet, but there is one thing the Maharajah eats constantly that is never tasted.”
The Shaikh nodded. “Opium.”
Hassan sighed. “This hatred will cease after the Maharajah dies, but things will not be easy for the Prince. He will face real dangers in the future. He must keep the Punjab united, while appeasing the other contenders for the throne, especially his uncle Sher Singh. And he must deal with the British.”
The men nodded, the clicking of their prayer beads mingling with the whispering of the fountain.
“Now, Hassan,” offered the Shaikh, changing the subject, “I understand that your Afghan trader will be coming from Kabul soon.”
“Yes,” put in another man, “your poet-trader friend, who brings perfumes—”
“and cats—” added the pockmarked disciple.
“—and saffron,” added a shy-looking man who had not spoken all afternoon.
“—and occasionally some decent horses,” put in the irrepressible Malik Sahib. “I want to be the first to see Zulmai's horses. I missed a good Turkoman the last time he came.”
An hour later the visitors had gone, and the Shaikh and Hassan were finally alone. The Shaikh's embroidered headdress now lay collapsed beside him on the dais. The skullcap the old man wore made his small, lined face appear more forceful than ever.
“I have been meaning to speak to you, my boy, about this marriage business,” he began, leaning forward to lay a hand on his son's knee. “I know you still think of poor little Mumtaz Bano, may Allah Most Gracious rest her soul, and I know well that your new foreign wife is very unlike her and perhaps not to your taste. You should know that if you decide to take a third wife, I will not stand in your way.
“Of course I never advise the keeping of more than one wife at a time,” he added, “but then Mariam is not of our people. You might perhaps make some arrangement by which she remains here, and continues to be a second mother to Saboor.”
“With all the trouble and cruelty at court, who can think of wives and marriages?” Hassan sighed. “All I want is my Saboor. I ache to hold him in my arms.”
“I, too, long to see him,” his father agreed. “It pains me to think my grandson is so far away, with only your English wife to love him.”
“Inshallah, they both will return soon,” murmured Hassan.
His father nodded. “Inshallah.”
June 25, 1840
Take Saboor downstairs, Dittoo,” Mariana called as she sat on her bed, her eyes on a large tin box that stood in a corner of her large, bright room. “Let him watch the dogs having their bath.”
As Saboor's running footsteps faded, she opened the box and reached under her folded shawls. Worn and ragged at the edges, the letter from Shaikh Waliullah's house seemed full of portent, a talisman from another world. Soiled from having been carried across India, it had been folded, then sealed with wax into which had been stamped an imprint in Arabic letters.The Merciful,the imprint read.
Knowing the message it contained, she would have preferred to slide it back into its hiding place unread, but it seemed wrong to not even look at a letter that had been hand-carried for twelve hundred miles.
She turned the stained paper over and broke open the wax.
She did not recognize the elegant right-to-left handwriting, but the firm signature at the bottom of the letter readHassan Ali Khan.Holding her hair off her face, she bent over the paper and began to read, a little rustily, as she had not read Urdu since her oldmunshi'sdeparture for Lahore, a month earlier.
I trust that you and Saboor arrived safely in Calcutta,the missive began,and that your family is well. I am pleased to tell you that all of us at Qamar Haveli are in good condition, and that we send you our salaams.
Qamar Haveli, the House of the Moon, with its upstairs ladies’ quarters, its filigreed balconies, its inner courtyards …
Here in Lahore,the letter continued,the circumstances that caused us to send you and Saboor away have not changed much, but I am happy to say they are good enough to warrant your return. It is believed the Maharajah, who asks constantly for Saboor, will not live more than a month or two. His heir, the Prince, already preoccupied with other matters, is unlikely to concern himself with my son after he ascends the throne.
I would come for you myself if it were possible, but I cannot leave Lahore at this critical time. However, as your people travel constantly throughout India, it should not be difficult for you and your escort to join one of their caravans.
He was not coming. Mariana let the paper fall to her lap.
Escort. Caravans.The words Hassan had used made her sound like an Oriental princess traveling in a cushioned litter, surrounded by a retinue of servants and retainers, instead of herself, crammed into a stifling palanquin with only Uncle Adrian, Aunt Claire, her hunched-over Dittoo, and a triple-jointed sweeperess to keep her company.
But in spite of their exotic imagery, Hassan's words contained no trace of the elusive beauty she had admired in Urdu poetry, and no suggestion that he remembered their sole, sandalwood-scented kiss. From its tone, her rescue of Saboor might have been part of some business transaction, although what she was supposed to have gained from her side of it, she could not imagine.
She could not help feeling a small stab of disappointment. Shunned by everyone else in India, she had always assumed that Hassan, at least, had wanted her, that he would be hurt when she left him.
Perhaps she had only imagined the powerful feeling that had seemed to pour out of him as they sat side by side in her tent the evening Lord Auckland's camp had left the Punjab.
There was a rap at her door. “Let me in, child,” Aunt Claire hallooed from outside, jolting Mariana's thoughts from the past. “We have been invited to dine with Lord Auckland's sisters at Government House tomorrow evening. You must get out your gray silk with the lace edging. I want to see if the lace has yellowed.”
Mariana pushed the letter hastily beneath her pillow and opened the door to find her aunt in the passage, a small leather box in her hand, flushed and happily transformed at the prospect of dinner at the Governor-General's grand residence.
“Your uncle is feeling much better,” she announced as she entered. “I am certain we shall be able to go.” She held out the box. “I have brought my pearl necklace and eardrops for you to wear. Put them somewhere safe. Now, where are your gowns?”
“How kind of you, Aunt Claire.” Unsure whether she wanted this unexpected generosity, Mariana tugged open the tin trunk that stood beside her wardrobe, shook out a gray watered-silk gown, and held it up.
“The neck is still all right,” her aunt said, peering at its lace edging, “but this sleeve is turning. You must conceal it as best you can. I was right to insist on this color. The gray will make your eyes seem less green.” She shook her head. “Your eyes must have come from your father's side.Oureyes have always been a lovely, clear blue.
“I am going to lie down,” she added. “I think the mango fool at lunch was too much in this heat. You should rest also. I want you to look pretty tomorrow evening. Sir William Macnaghten's wife is to be present.”
“Lady Macnaghten?”Mariana stared at her aunt. “You must be joking. She has cut us dead in the bazaar three times this month. Why should Miss Emily invite us to meet such a conceited—”
“I am not joking, and I do not like your manner of speaking. Lady Macnaghten,” Aunt Claire intoned, adopting her Senior Officer voice, “is to be escorted by her nephew, a successful young man to whom you are to be civil. He is to be one of our intelligence officers in Kabul.”
“I amalwayscivil, Aunt Claire,” Mariana protested to her aunt's retreating back. She would be polite to the nephew, a foppish-looking fellow with oddly long feet, whom she had seen only in the distance, but there was no chance at all that he would return her good manners. How like Aunt Claire to believe that Mariana could ingratiate herself to Calcutta society by being polite to people who were uniformly horrid.
The door closed. Before her aunt could reappear, Mariana snatched Hassan's letter from beneath her pillow and slipped it back into its hiding place.
It was no use telling Aunt Claire about it, for she would be horrified at the letter's existence. Aunt Claire always stopped short of learning the whole truth of things. She had never even inquired about the albino letter carrier, although she had seen him a dozen times since his arrival. Unlike Uncle Adrian, she had only the vaguest idea of what had actually happened to Mariana in the Punjab.
Uncle Adrian had waited a week after Mariana's arrival before demanding a complete account of her adventures in the Punjab. He now knew as much of her story as decency would allow. He had also questioned her about Maharajah Ranjit Singh's court and his army: questions that Mariana had been pleased to answer.
“They have a strong, disciplined infantry, Uncle Adrian,” she had told him eagerly, delighted to speak of a subject dear to her heart, “and their artillery is formidable. At Gobindghar, the Maharajah's arsenal, there are seven hundred heavy guns, from nine- to thirty-two-pounders. But I do not think much of their cavalry: the horses are uneven in quality and the uniforms looked shabby, but they have a wonderful corps of racing camels, each carrying one man and one swivel gun. Did you know they all wear chain mail?”
Her uncle had smiled. “And I am sure you have already written this to your father, the Would-be General.”
Yes, she certainly had described the Sikh forces to her gentle, vicar father. Military strategy had long been their private interest, and now it was all shecouldwrite about, since she had no life outside the house, and hesitated to describe her forbidden adventures in the native part of the city.
She glanced up as myna birds screeched outside her window. Dear Papa was getting old. Would she ever again sit in his book-filled study, pink-faced with pleasure, knowing she had his full attention as she argued the fine points of famous battles—Marathon, the defeat of the Athenians at Syracuse, Alexander's triumph at Arbela …
She had, of course, written him and her mother the truth, knowing as she did that she was dashing her mother's dream that she would “marry well” in India, and hurting her father, whose good opinion meant everything to her. But she had told them all of it, without softening the facts.
Their letters in reply had been painful to read, but both had said the one thing Mariana had longed to hear—that they loved her still.
Whatever horrors you may have committed,her mother had written,you are still our daughter.
The time will come, my brave, foolhardy Mariana,her father had written,when you must return that poor baby to his family. After you do it, we will be here in Sussex, waiting for you.
Her married sister had also written. Stiff and censorious at first, Charlotte had later confided that she found the story romantic,although I should prefer it to have happened to someone else!
Mariana leaned out through the window, her elbows on the sill. Perhaps things would be all right. Perhaps she would one day write home to say that she was, by some miracle, to marry Harry Fitzgerald. Perhaps then she would have fair-haired babies who would be hers to keep
Outside, a groom led Uncle Adrian's gentlest horse up the drive to the shade of a tree, then lifted a solemn Saboor onto the horse's back. Mariana sighed. With her teacher and her horse-groom gone from Calcutta, only one person remained who knew her story—her faithful, rumpled Dittoo. Each day was lonelier without her oldmunshi;each afternoon when Uncle Adrian's quiet Bengali groom helped her mount into her sidesaddle, she missed Yar Mohammad, the tall, bony-faced dreamer of dreams who had served her since the day she first stole Saboor eighteen months before.
As she watched child, horse, and man move off down the drive, a very different picture intruded on her thoughts—the interior of her tent and Saboor's elegant father beside her on the Persian carpet, leaning on a bolster, his face turned from hers, the shawl on his chest rising and falling as he breathed.
Dreams were like clouds; amorphous and fleeting, they altered even as one watched them. But her memory of the Punjab, brought back by the arrival of the letter, was sharp-edged and brightly colored, too real and too fixed to be a dream. It was all true. It had all happened. Saboor, riding up the drive, was proof of that. The small, white scars of snakebite on Mariana's wrist were also proof, as was the albino courier who sat on hischarpaioutside the compound wall, waiting for her reply to the letter he had carried so far.
It was time they met.
WHEN THE message came that he was to meet Hassan Ali Khan's foreign wife, the albino had been sitting deep in thought, while small green parakeets flew in and out of the tree above his head.
With his odd appearance and abrasive manner, Ghulam Ali had never made friends easily, but he never complained. Since his childhood, he had made a point of keeping to himself. He had suffered loneliness throughout his life, of course, but loneliness could mean safety to a man who feared the attentions of others.
Most men feared snakes or scorpions. The albino, who had felt its punishment, feared the taunting mob.
Since his earliest years he had suffered at the hands of others. He had been called frightful to look upon, possessed by the devil, a man whose very appearance betrayed the sins of his mother. He had been bloodied, stoned, chased from his house, driven out by people who blamed him for ill luck, for sudden floods, for cholera and smallpox.
In his thirty-two years, he had become hard, cynical, and afraid. He had also become a perceptive observer of others, anticipating their moods, interpreting their looks and gestures. His hands and feet at the ready to fight or run, he was never without the knife he had stolen when he was ten. But the worst moments of his life had taken place on this last journey from Shaikh Waliullah's house, on the road between Bareilly and Shahjahanpur, when a group of travelers had offered him friendship.
The men, numbering about twenty, had been unremarkable in their appearance. None, as far as he had seen, had been armed. All had been cheerful. The only unusual thing about them had been their friendliness.
“We are laborers on our way to dig a canal near Shahjahanpur,” offered one of them, a man whose stomach protruded over his loincloth. “Where are you going?”
Surprised, the courier had stopped walking. “To Calcutta,” he had replied, in his usual gruff tone. “I am taking a letter there.”
“Ah, a courier. But it is a long way to Calcutta. Your letter must be important.”
Unwilling to reveal his affairs to strangers, the albino had grunted and continued on his way, but the men, walking as fast as he, had kept pace.
“So many people carry weapons on the road,” a young, curly-headed man had remarked. “It seems everyone is afraid of attack. I saw a man yesterday with a longchoraknife and two swords. These people worry me. I have nothing but thisrumal.” Smiling, he flicked his long cotton scarf with his fingers, but his smile faded instantly at a warning glance from the first man.
The group had walked on together for some miles, chatting companionably to the courier as they went, commenting on the horsemen and the drivers of the donkey and bullock carts that shared the road, stopping to inspect fruit for sale. Joking and nudging each other as they walked, they had attracted the attention of more travelers along the way.
Some had joined them: a Hindu and his son on their way to buy a bull, a trader from Bareilly with some Surati chintz to sell in Lukhnow, a lone man with a tall walking stick who was to join a wedding party.
Always a cautious observer of others, the albino had let down his guard in that friendly group. Pushing away his usual unease, he had basked in the unfamiliar feeling of inclusion among men who did not comment on his appearance.
It was only when the group, at its ease and now numbering twenty-seven, was finishing dinner in a jungle clearing far from the road, that the courier had guessed the danger he was in. At the third unexplained glance between two of the men, he had suddenly understood that those friendly folk who picked their teeth and laughed with their heads thrown back werethugs,fearsome devils he had heard of since his childhood.
Moving only his eyes, he had counted the men in the clearing. Several members of the party were missing, but the wavy-haired man who had so casually flicked his scarf was there, talking amicably with the wedding guest. The long scarf was missing from his neck, but lying casually beside him on the ground lay a length of wet, tightly twisted cloth.
A chill drove down the albino's spine with such force that he had to fight to remain still. It was true, then. All five newcomers to the group, including himself, had been carrying money or saleable goods. All had been lured off the road to be strangled, then robbed.
The missing men, he now saw, had gone to dig graves for them all: the farmer and his son, the trader, the wedding guest, the albino himself.
The signal would be given at any moment, and then one of them would fling a cloth about his neck and jerk it tight
With no time to warn the others, he had stood up as casually as he was able, and managed to produce a yawn. “I will relieve myself,” he muttered, and started toward the road. “Hurry back,” called out a voice behind him as he strode away from the terrible spot. “We are making tea. It will be ready soon.”
The roads of India are unsafe after nightfall, but nowhere between Bareilly and Shahjahanpur had been as dangerous as that secluded place where the lonely albino had found companionship. Stumbling and panting in the darkness, he had followed the road for several miles before he felt safe enough to sleep, hidden beneath a thorn tree.
After so many weeks his terror had faded, but Ghulam Ali had not forgotten his luck on that night. His chin on his chest as he sat outside the Englishman's gate, he was thanking God for his escape when the foreign woman's bent-over manservant summoned him into the house.
The courier, who had never seen or spoken to a female member of Shaikh Waliullah's family, was reluctant to follow the servant who shambled in front of him toward the kitchen entrance. How, he wondered, had that great family descended to including foreigners among their women—females who showed themselves openly to men, even to servants like himself?
He had seen English people on his journey to Calcutta. They had sat upright on horses or in carriages, with sour expressions on their faces, the men dressed in dusty black, the women clad in shockingly tight, stiff clothes that revealed the curve of their breasts. Instead of the graceful veils worn by Indian women, these females had worn baskets on their heads, covered with drooping ribbons and bobbing flowers. Unlike his own endlessly inquisitive people who noticed everything around them, these foreigners seemed to ignore even fellow travelers on the road.
If they cared nothing for what happened around them, he had wondered, why were they here? How were they so powerful?
He found Hassan Ali Khan's foreign wife sitting on a cane chair in a bright verandah. Unwilling to look up at her, he made a long business of scuffing off his shoes in the corridor outside.
“As-salaam-o-aleikum,peace be upon you.” She addressed him properly in a firm voice, as if she knew exactly what she was saying. “What is your name?”
“It is Ghulam Ali,” he replied, more harshly than he had intended, his head bent, ashamed of his failure to greet her first.
“Ghulam Ali,” she repeated. Her chair creaked. Unable to stop himself, he raised his eyes.
Her hair was uncovered. Her throat, the same color as his own, was exposed to his gaze by the cut of her European clothes. Embarrassed, he looked hastily away.
He had, of course, seen the Englishwoman as she came and went through the gate, alone on a horse or seated in a carriage beside the old woman they called her aunt, but she had always been well covered, and she had never looked him in the face as she did now, her green, catlike gaze full of curiosity, her fingers tense on the arms of her chair.
“How long did it take you to come from Lahore?” she inquired.
“Three months,” he replied, his eyes on the window.
“And what is the condition of the Punjab?”
“The country was in a bad state when I left it, with the Maharajah locked away, and his son poisoning him while he's trying to rule. The people are crying, wishing old Maharajah Ranjit Singh had not died, that his mad son had never come to power, that his grandson were not so cruel. The young Prince has had his father's favorite courtier killed. They dragged him from the Maharajah's bedroom by his hair and cut him to pieces with swords and knives.
“It will not be long before the Maharajah dies of the poison,” he concluded, still looking away from her, feeling her shocked stare.
“Prince Nau Nihal Singh is poisoning hisown father?”
Ghulam Ali shrugged, surprised that a foreign woman cared about such matters. “Rich, powerful people are like that,” he said, “but they say in the bazaar that if Saboor Baba were with him, Maharajah Kharrak Singh would never be locked away, eating poison.”
“And as long as Saboor Baba is withme,”Hassan's wife said tartly, “he will never again be the property ofanymaharajah. But do the people still speak of him after he has been gone for more than a year?”
“Of course they do.” Ghulam Ali could not keep the grandeur from his tone. “Who could forget the child whose very presence was enough to cure Maharajah Ranjit Singh of all his illnesses? They remember the Maharajah himself saying that Saboor Baba carries a light in his heart that brings health and good fortune. They have not forgotten that the old Maharajah died only months after Saboor Baba went away.”
The child must have heard his name, for he came at once, his embroidered slippers pattering on the corridor tile. He brushed past Ghulam Ali, trotted to Hassan Ali Khan's wife, and threw himself onto her lap, his teeth clenched, his small arms trembling with the strength of his embrace.
“An-nah!” he said fiercely.
Ghulam Ali shifted his feet and glanced up. “Am I to take your reply now?”
“Not now,” she said sharply.
Their conversation was clearly over. Ghulam Ali motioned with his head, indicating that he wished to leave her. When the Englishwoman nodded, he backed from the room and pushed his feet into his shoes.
She was a stranger in odd clothing, whose tone of voice he could barely interpret, but Ghulam Ali, the reader of others, would have sworn that although she was not his real mother, Hassan Ali's wife would not have hesitated to die for the curly-headed child in her lap.
MARIANA FELT the heat close around her as Saboor slid from her knees and followed Ghulam Ali down the passage. Outside, in the garden, a tired-looking man watered the front lawn from a full goatskin slung across his back.
How different the walled city and Citadel had seemed when described by Ghulam Ali. The albino's Lahore sounded crudely violent and dangerous, not at all like the place she had visited two years earlier, and that her old tutor had evoked with his poetry and his hints of escape and redemption.
Even if Lahore were unchanged, it would still seem vastly different to her on this journey. Neither a fugitive with a stolen baby nor an unwilling bride fighting for her life, she would be a normal Englishwoman traveling respectably with her uncle and aunt.
And that, she said to herself as she started for the stairs, would surely make all the difference.
June 26, 1840
Before we go to dinner,” Aunt Claire announced the following afternoon as she sat on the verandah drinking a glass of sherry, “there are things you should know, Mariana.”
“We have had more news concerning our journey up the country,” Uncle Adrian put in. “We now have a plan for our journey to Afghanistan.”
He cleared his throat noisily. Mariana, who knew that sound, studied him warily over the rim of her glass. “There is a reason why Lady Macnaghten has been invited to dine with us at Government House,” he began. “She is soon to depart Calcutta in order to join her husband in Kabul. Lord Auckland's sisters have suggested we join her and travel with her party.”
Beautiful, priggish Lady Macnaghten, of all people! Mariana shook her head vigorously. “She will never agree. She hates us.”
“Oh, I don't know.” Aunt Claire signaled to a servant to collect the glasses. “Perhaps she is not as—”
“As the Envoy's wife,” Uncle Adrian continued, as if neither of them had spoken, “she is entitled to a large baggage train and an army escort, which we are not. And we shall be useful to her. Lady Macnaghten had expected to travel alone except for her nephew, which would of course be daring, even unsuitable. It will be to her advantage to have additional European women in her party.
“Her plan is to send her baggage ahead by land, and then journey as far as Allahabad by steamer. At Allahabad she will rejoin her baggage and march the rest of the way to Afghanistan under armed escort. As the journey is immensely long, she expects to stop several times on the way. One of her resting places will be Lahore, where, due to her husband's seniority, she has already been invited by the Sikh government to set up her camp in the Shalimar Garden.”
Mariana sat up. “Shalimar! How lovely. But why talk about it, Uncle Adrian, when we know she will refuse?”
“Shecannotrefuse.” Uncle Adrian smiled. “Lady Macnaghten will never cross the Governor-General's sisters while her husband is angling for the Governorship of Bombay.
“There will be other advantages to traveling in her party,” he added. “The steamer will save us months of travel. The British Resident at Ludhiana is expected to escort her to Lahore, where she will spend several weeks. He will make all her arrangements there, and he can do the same for us. The Eden sisters have already asked him to supervise the dissolution of your native marriage.
“A few days in Lahore will be sufficient to free you from all your connections there. After we have rested, our party will be joined by a second detachment of troops, who will escort us through the Khyber Pass and on to Kabul.”
Mariana sighed. “I know we must do it, but—”
“We must.” Her uncle reached out and patted her on the knee. “Miss Emily will broach the subject to Lady Macnaghten this evening. Whatever she may pretend, Lady Macnaghten is well aware that your connection with the Shaikh's family is quite innocent.
“I only hope,” he added, “that awful nephew of hers stays out of our way.”
“TURN ROUND, Mariana. I must look at you before we leave,” Aunt Claire said breathlessly that evening, after pushing her way into Mariana's room half an hour before the carriage was to be ready.
She watched through narrowed eyes as Mariana turned a full circle in the middle of her room, already too hot in her gray watered silk. “Yes, you look all right,” she said, nodding. “Thank goodness my pearl ropes aren't any longer.”
Her own gold satin, less fortunately, matched the yellow of her face. Like Uncle Adrian, Aunt Claire had suffered her share of fevers.
“You must remember to reduce your smile, Mariana,” she cautioned as she leaned over to inspect her own teeth in the looking glass. “A great, beaming smile is pleasant athome,to be sure, but when one is out insociety,one should make an effort to be fashionable.” She gave a satisfied nod. “I am pleased to see that your shoulders do not look assquareas usual. In fact, your only real difficulty this evening is your hair, although I see you have managed to tidy it up more than usual. Please prevent it from falling out of its pins while we're having dinner.”
Her yellow face and obvious discomfort from the heat notwith standing, Aunt Claire looked radiant. Being invited to Government House meant everything to her. Perhaps, under Miss Emily's sharp, blue eyes, Lady Macnaghten would be civil to foolish, uncomprehending Aunt Claire
Two hours later, the huge, tasseled velvet fan in the Government House dining room swung creakily back and forth on its pulleys, sending an intermittent breeze over Mariana, and causing the candles in front of her to gutter every time it passed over them.
Only at Government House were things done this well. For all Aunt Claire's scolding of thepunkah-wallahwho worked the fan by pulling on a rope, the table candles at Uncle Adrian's house were invariably blown out the very instant the diners sat down.
As Lord Auckland was away from Calcutta, this was to be a small, “family” dinner: just Miss Emily and Miss Fanny Eden, a pair of their favorite bachelor generals, Lady Macnaghten and her nephew, Mariana, and Mariana's aunt and uncle. Mariana had been seated with the other assembled diners near one end of a table for twenty, while behind each dining chair a turbaned serving man stood at attention, and behind him, two assistants. Including the head serving man and the cook's assistants, who rushed in and out of the kitchen carrying the dishes, there were thirty-one servants attending to eight people.
“I cannot think how I shall manage,” Lady Macnaghten was saying in a fluting voice from her seat beside the older of the generals, as she puffed out the fashionable sleeves of her cream satin gown. “My husband tells me that the officers in Kabul are expecting balls as soon as I arrive, but as there still are very few ladies, I cannot think how I am to arrange the dancing.”
She seemed to have survived the shock of finding herself at dinner with the most notorious family in Calcutta, although the strategy of pretending that the notorious family was not there had begun to wear thin.
“Perhaps the gentlemen will take turns dancing,” Miss Emily offered from the head of the table, while her sister nodded from her seat beside the second general. “I understand there are someverycharming officers in Kabul.”
Mariana, who was thinking hopefully of Fitzgerald, arranged her face to show no feeling as Lady Macnaghten's eyes flicked past her behind the silver candelabra for the fourth time in ten minutes.
The nephew, a sour-faced young man in expensive-looking clothes, waved a languid hand. “Isee no difficulty in finding ladies to join in the dancing,” he drawled. “Kabul is full of native women. I understand some of them are quite pretty. I am sure they can be taught to dance at a moment's notice.”
“Well, really, Charles,” Lady Macnaghten said brightly, “I scarcely thinkthatwill be necessary. ”
“We understand, Lady Macnaghten,” put in Miss Emily firmly, “that you expect to travel to Kabul quite soon.”
“Oh, yes.” Lady Macnaghten gave a tinkling laugh. “My husband says he cannot live without me a moment longer.” She was blushing.
Miss Emily's eyebrows rose.
“And how soon will that be?” asked the portlier of the two generals hastily.
“I expect to leave next month, although one can never tell how long it will take to make the arrangements. I have been waiting nearly a year for a dozen new bonnets and a pair of chandeliers, and Icannotleave without them, but I am told they are on theVigilant,which is expected at any time.”
Aunt Claire looked eagerly from Miss Emily and Miss Fanny to Lady Macnaghten and back, as if unaware of any awkwardness.
Why, Mariana wondered, as she accepted a servant's offer of fricassee of duck, had Lady Macnaghten made that indelicate remark, and how had she contrivednotto turn yellow like poor Aunt Claire? How had she maintained all that thick, glossy black hair, now so elegantly folded and pinned above the perfect neckline of her satin gown? Even the Eden sisters, with their fine gowns and their hair done up by English ladies’ maids, were not so well turned out.
“I,” put in Uncle Adrian, “will be leaving for Kabul within the next month or two.”
“Ah,” Lady Macnaghten breathed, her response sounding more like a sigh than an answer.
“Since we are to travel at nearly the same time,” he continued, “perhaps we should combine our forces.”
Lady Macnaghten's knife slid from her fingers and landed on her plate with a clatter. “Oh, but that would be impossible,” she cried. “Impossible, am I not correct, Miss Emily? It would be mostimproperfor me to travel with—”
“My wife and I,” persisted Uncle Adrian, ignoring the interruption, “will be traveling with her niece.”
“Herniece?” Lady Macnaghten's mouth fell open. Dropping both her good manners and her elaborate pretense that Mariana was not present, she pointed her fork across the table. “Do you meanthatgirl?”
“Yes, I believe he does,” Miss Emily put in smoothly. She fixed her blue gaze on Lady Macnaghten. “And as Mr. Lamb and his wife will have their own staff and arrangements for the journey,” she said, “there will be no impediment to their joining you, will there?
“No,” Miss Emily said, beaming with satisfaction as she answered her own question. “There will be no impediment atall.”
July 13, 1840
Abba! I will see my Abba!” Saboor chanted as he bounced on Mariana's bed. “Abba,” he repeated, smiling into her face as if his prescience were perfectly normal.
No one had told him, not even Dittoo.
Saboor's capacity to read other people's thoughts did not appear often, and when it did it came at odd times, as if clairvoyance were not an inherent talent of his, but a gift bestowed upon him according to some incomprehensible plan.
He had not, for example, guessed that her old language teacher, whom he adored, was leaving them, but he had fretted for days before her uncle's latest bout of fever.
When she had asked her oldmunshiabout Saboor's curious ability, he had smiled.
“These things,” he had replied vaguely, “are not for us to know, Bibi. But we should remember that Saboor is the grandson of Shaikh Waliullah.”
Not for us to know.Mariana caught the bouncing child and pulled him onto her lap. “Yes, darling,” she murmured, forcing a smile, “you will soon see your Abba.”
THE NEXT day, one hand holding a large black umbrella over her head to fend off the rain, Mariana sat upright on Uncle Adrian's oldest, fattest horse, watching Lady Macnaghten's baggage train being prepared for the long overland march from Bengal to Afghanistan.
She had risen early, before her aunt and uncle were awake. After waving away Dittoo's offer of coffee and a slice of bread, she had commandeered a horse no one would miss and set off to the muddy open ground where the caravan had assembled.
Her own modest goods had been delivered the previous afternoon to one of the yawning storerooms fronting the rain-soaked ground, but it had not been worry about Saboor's comfort or anxiety about her boxes of foodstuffs, her trunks, or the elderly settee donated by Miss Emily that had driven Mariana from her bed so early in the morning. It had been curiosity about the journey ahead of her.
How many elephants would the baggage train require? Would those elephants travel all the way to Afghanistan? How large was their armed escort to be? How many coolies would they have? How many servants, blacksmiths, carpenters? Were the tents of Lady Macnaghten and her party to be separated from the rest of the camp by a high canvas wall, as the tents of the Governor-General Lord Auckland's party had been two years earlier? If so, where would Mariana's tent be, inside the private compound, or outside?
It would be outside, she concluded as she rode through the rain. The news of her uneventful wedding night, although it had come from Sir William Macnaghten himself, had so far shown no sign of improving his wife's opinion of Mariana and her family.
Mariana shifted her umbrella as she passed a heap of folded canvas tents. Before her, rows of half-loaded donkey and bullock carts and scores of kneeling camels waited, surrounded by the bundles and boxes that spilled from the surrounding storerooms and lay heaped in muddy piles. At one side, a trio of soporific elephants knelt under a dripping tree.
While the mahouts sprawled lazily on their elephants’ necks, scores of half-naked coolies stacked canvas-wrapped furniture and crates into carts, and tied boxes and baskets onto the backs of bored-looking camels. The ground rang with the familiar sounds of a traveling camp—the staccato shouting of natives, the groaning of camels, the harsh braying of donkeys.
As well as tents and furnishings for Lady Macnaghten and her party, the caravan was to carry everything she would require for her house in Kabul, save for her best china and wineglasses, a pair of Bohemian crystal chandeliers, and two dozen cases of brandy. These precious items were to go by steamer with the English party, up the Ganges to Allahabad, a means of travel that would spare them all three months of hard, cross-country travel. Because Lady Macnaghten's things were not to be used by anyone but herself, other furnishings had been added to the camp's baggage for the other travelers and for the dining tent, which required a table and chairs for twelve as well as china, linen, and candlesticks. Less elegant but still necessary were the kitchen tents with all their equipment, and the camp food, including stores for the English palate: coffee, crates of wine, sugar, and hundreds of jars of pickles and chutneys and preserved fruit.
Lady Macnaghten's horses were traveling with the camp, as were many of her one hundred and forty servants, their wives, and their children. They, the workmen, the gang of coolies, and the drivers of the animal wagons made up a population of some nine hundred souls, all to be managed by four young and harried-looking English officers, borrowed from the army for the purpose, who now rushed to and fro among the piles of baggage, calling out orders.
Separate from the baggage train, a company of eighty native sepoys with four of its own officers waited at a distance with its own pack animals, tents, fodder, and supplies.
Of course, all of this paled before the enormous traveling camp that Lord Auckland had taken to the Punjab, for his baggage train with its three complete bazaars, its large army, and its countless pack animals had been fully ten miles long.
Last of all, Lady Macnaghten would be no substitute for Lord Auckland's two sisters, whatevertheirfailings might have been.
A skinny boy in a muddy loincloth led a string of camels past Mariana. She yawned, glad that she had sent Dittoo to Uncle Adrian's storerooms to find the carpet, the bolsters, and the little carved table she had acquired in the Punjab. Whatever unpleasantness this journey might bring, her tent, at least, would have a comfortable native floor arrangement.
Besides Dittoo and her palanquin bearers, Mariana would have a sweeperess to brush her tent floor and empty her chamber pot, and, unexpectedly, the albino courier.
“Let him come with us, Mariana,” her uncle had suggested. “He seems a resourceful man, and he speaks Punjabi, which may prove useful when we get closer to the northwest.”
She tweaked her damp veil from her face. Within hours all these carts, pack animals, and walking men would set off, taking the old northeast route from Calcutta to the River Ganges. At the river, they would turn west, and follow the Gangetic Plain until they reached the city of Allahabad, at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers, both sacred to Hindus. There they would stop and await the English party's arrival by steamer.
Joined by Lady Macnaghten and her companions, they would then turn their faces to the northwest, and set off on the long, final leg of their fifteen-hundred-mile journey to Kabul.
It was nearly seven o'clock. Mariana was hungry for her breakfast, but there was one thing she wanted to do before leaving the ground: she must examine the elephants.
She clucked to her horse, disappointed to find that only three of the great animals were to accompany Lady Macnaghten's camp. Should the camp find itself forced to ford a swollen river, the elephants would have no difficulty in ferrying the English party across, but they would also be expected to extricate any baggage wagons that became caught in the mud. Having only three animals to do all that work would mean wasted time. Mariana sniffed. If she were in charge of this expedition, there would be more than three elephants in Lady Macnaghten's baggage train.
As she stopped a safe distance away from the first elephant and opened her mouth to awaken its sleeping mahout, an English voice rose behind her.
“There he is, just as I told you,” Lady Macnaghten announced in a high, irritated tone.
She sat stiffly on a bay gelding, impeccable in a gray riding habit, pointing to a beautiful black horse that stood tethered with a dozen others. Despite the dampness and the heat, her hands were encased in butter-yellow gloves.
She turned to her nephew, who slouched in his saddle beside her. “What a fool you are, Charles,” she said sharply, her voice carrying easily across the space between herself and Mariana. “That one is Ali Baba, of course it is!
“I particularly told you,” she added, “that Ali Baba isnotto travel with the baggage train. I said that he is to come on the steamer withme.Idowish you would listen when I give you instructions.”
Not wishing to eavesdrop, Mariana searched for a way to escape, but saw none. What she did see was a camel being loaded with wooden crates that clearly held some of Lady Macnaghten's china or glass. As baggage camels were famous for their tempers, the coolies at Lord Auckland's camp had been forbidden to load them with breakables. This camel groaned aloud, its neck stretched out as if it were being tortured, while several men, unmoved, went on roping the crates to its back.
Mariana hesitated, then, unable to bear the coming destruction, she clucked to her old horse and rode up to Lady Macnaghten.
Whatever Charles Mott had been saying, it had not satisfied his aunt. “Itisyour fault,” she snapped as Mariana approached. “Go and tell them to bring Ali Baba to the house. And tell Sonu to come as well, and he is to bring Ali Baba's tack. I cannot have my horse using an ordinary bridle.”
“Good morning, Lady Macnaghten,” Mariana offered, smiling as warmly as she could manage.
Lady Macnaghten did not smile in return. Instead, she gave a chill little nod in Mariana's direction without taking her eyes from her nephew, who had ridden off toward the horses.
“I see that some of your china is being put on a camel,” Mariana added, now unable to extricate herself. “That was not allowed at Lord Auckland's camp.”
Her face averted, Lady Macnaghten continued to watch Charles Mott's progress as intently as if he were saving the world instead of delivering a message to a servant.
For all the attention Mariana got, she might have been one of the coolies.
Fighting fury, she clucked again to her old horse. Let the camel break everything.
As she started off, one of the British officers strode up, red-faced and perspiring. “This is all my fault, Lady Macnaghten,” he barked apologetically, nodding politely to Mariana. “I had thought Ali Baba was to come with us. I had understood he is rather a fractious animal, and that—”
“But he is notfractious,Major Alford, not at all.” Lady Macnaghten gave a tinkling laugh. “Like me, Ali Baba has delicate nerves. That is why I understand him so well. I would not dream of sending him with thebaggage.” She gave a coy shrug of her shoulders. “He's an English thoroughbred, after all, not a cheap cob like the horse MissGivensis riding.”
The major made a blaring sound, as if to exempt himself from that unkindness. Mott, who had returned, cast Mariana a look, not of commiseration, but of bitter triumph.
“Come along, Charles,” Lady Macnaghten ordered. “You have provoked me enough already. Do not also make me late for my breakfast. And do please sit properly on your horse. I hate to be seen with someone who rides as badly as you.”
She spurred her gelding and trotted with surprising clumsiness toward the main road. As she did so, the baggage camel gave one last bellow of pretended agony and lurched to its feet, sending the coolies sprawling into the mud and several of Lady Macnaghten's wooden crates hurtling to the ground, where they landed in a series of lovely, splintering crashes.
October 10, 1840
How many times, Mariana,” her uncle admonished her three months later, as they stood watching the bank of the Ganges slide past them after lunch in the dining salon, “do I have to tell you to leave Lady Macnaghtenalone?I cannot bear that insufferable female any more than you can, but you mustnotprovoke her like that.”
“I could not help it, Uncle. If she hadn't said it was a log, in that superior tone of hers, I wouldn't have—”
“Oh yes you would. You have been waiting all this time to point out a half-burned corpse in the river. And you did not have to do it while she was drinking her sherry. It was only by luck that your aunt did not hear you. Why can you not be more forbearing,” he added, “when her husband has done you such an enormous service? Sir William wasnotrequired to reveal the truth of your marriage night to Lord Auckland.” He ran a hand through his fringe of hair. “And where was the need for you to be so short with her nephew over the soup last evening? He was only asking for the salt.”
“It was the way he asked for it.” Mariana tugged her shawl about her. “I donotlike Charles Mott.”
“You should remember that Lady Macnaghten dotes on that young man, for all that she treats him badly. If I were you,” he cautioned, “I should be civil to him, and stay out of her way.” “I shall do my best,” Mariana replied darkly.
IN EARLY October the heaviest of the rains were past, and the water level of the Ganges had begun to drop, but the river still ran swiftly. Murky and brown from its load of up-country silt, it poured across the breadth of India, until it reached the great delta where it emptied into the Bay of Bengal, its remaining silt discoloring the waters for more than four hundred miles.
Sixty-eight miles north of Calcutta, the river altered its course from time to time, as it always had, to accommodate the occasional collapse of its banks. Hundreds of white storks stood on the broad expanses of sand that formed the river's shores, while flocks of small birds wheeled and dipped above them. Crocodiles by the dozens swam low in the water there and basked on the riverbanks, while porpoises danced out in the river and jackals howled behind the villages.
Only the tall, isolated hills above Sikri-Gali and the birds and the crocodiles saw the steam paddleboat clatter past on its way to Allahabad, its two tall funnels sending a billow of black smoke into the dusty sky. Two square, barge-like flats creaked behind it, attached to the steamer by thick chains. The first flat accommodated a load of salt and rice, fifty servants, a dozen horses, and a massive pile of crates. The second, fitted out with six passenger cabins and a spacious dining room, carried Lady Macnaghten, her nephew Charles Mott, Mariana, her aunt and uncle, a young couple on their way to Kanpur, and an Italian painter bound for Delhi.
After the departure of the baggage train, Lady Macnaghten's preparations for her journey upriver to Allahabad had consumed nearly three more months. The Bohemian glass chandeliers and the two dozen cases of brandy had not arrived until the end of September, causing Lady Macnaghten to put off her departure twice.
“It's fortunate I'm not a fashion plate, now that we are allowed only three trunks each,” Mariana had put in crossly as they prepared at last to depart.
“If Lady Macnaghten fears there will be insufficient room for her things, she has the right to curtail our baggage,” Aunt Claire replied stiffly. “After all, Sir William is a very important official.
And, Mariana, fond of clothes or not, you have plenty of nice things, although you make very poor use of them. Why must you wear great brown boots with that sprigged cotton gown?”
Mariana yawned. This afternoon they would pass by the Colgani Rocks: something to describe in a letter to her father. She was, after all, traveling on one of the world's great rivers, whose near-magical waters were said to remain clean, healthy, and healing despite the dead bodies covered with busy, carrion-eating birds that floated on its surface.
She smiled to herself at the memory of the corpse that had so gratifyingly appeared before lunch. Remembering the horror on Lady Macnaghten's face, she stepped out onto the deck and found her uncle at the railing.
Ahead of them on the groaning flat reserved for the baggage, Lady Macnaghten's beautiful Ali Baba tossed his glossy head while Saboor stood watching him at a distance, his hand in Dittoo's. In front, hauling them both, the steamboat pulled close to the river's shore, abreast of a loaded barge that was moving slowly upriver, dragged by a team of exhausted-looking coolies with a towline harnessed to their chests.
“There are the rocks.” Uncle Adrian shielded his eyes and pointed to four tall islands in the middle of the river. “How strangely they are formed, rock on rock, covered with all those trees!”
Her eyes on Saboor, Mariana sighed. “Uncle Adrian,” she murmured, “I know we have spoken of this before, but I fear I shall die of sadness after we leave Saboor at—”
With a high-pitched cry, Saboor jerked his hand from Dittoo's and began to climb hurriedly over coiled ropes and chains, his little face contorted with anxiety. Before Dittoo could follow him he darted across the baggage flat to Ali Baba's side and jumped up and down, too close to the horse's nervous hooves, sobbing as he danced, his small hands flapping as if he suddenly needed to fly.
“Ali,” he wept, “Ali Baba!”
Uncle Adrian stared. “What is wrong with the child? Mariana, youmustdo something about these sudden—” he began, but she was gone before he could finish, running full tilt toward the shifting gangway between the passenger and baggage flats, as warning cries came from the shore.
On the bank, the coolies had stopped hauling the barge. Instead they pointed, shouting, to the river. Terrified that the high-strung Ali Baba would hurt Saboor, Mariana had lifted her skirts and hurled herself at the groaning gangway before she understood what the little boy had somehow foreseen—that the towline of the barge had snapped, and that the barge, low in the water, heavy with a load of stones, was now loose on the river. Caught in the current, it bore down with increasing speed upon the steamer, while its suddenly freed coolies watched helplessly from the shore.
The steamer captain appeared, red-faced, on the deck, bellowing orders. A moment later, clanking with effort, the steamer turned and pulled toward the middle of the river in time to save itself, but too late for the baggage flat behind it. Turning, the steamer had towed the flat straight into the path of the barge.
Most of the dozen horses had been tethered on the side of the flat that now faced away from the oncoming barge. Between them and danger, the orderly pile of Lady Macnaghten's baggage, her good china, her chandeliers, and her brandy, had been well secured to the deck of the flat with a web of chains. Only one thing was in real peril: her beautiful, fractious Ali Baba who had been separated from the others because of his temper. The horse now stood alone, save for the frantic child, in the path of the oncoming barge.
Sensing the danger, he began to stamp and toss his head while a score of servants, each one clinging to chains and ropes for safety, shouted at the child to stop his anguished dance, and at the clumsily approaching Dittoo, to hurry, hurry.
Mariana reached Saboor before Dittoo did, snatched him up and pushed him, struggling, into her servant's arms. As Dittoo staggered backward toward the shifting gangway, she raced back to Ali Baba's side.
“Come back, Mariana, don't stay there!” her uncle cried out from the passenger flat.
Working rapidly, his groom had already begun to unknot the ropes that held the horse captive.
“Leave him tied, Sonu!” Mariana shouted over the noise of the steam engine and the yells of the other servants. “He'll be safer if you—”
Her voice was drowned out by a shattering crash, as the barge struck the flat at its center, lifting it momentarily out of the water. Flung backward onto the deck, Mariana scrambled to get away from the horse, who now had only one long halter rope to control him. Half loose, Ali Baba backed, plunging, toward the edge of the flat, as the barge, after one or two more halfhearted bumps, began to slide away down the river.
“Don't let him—” she began, but before the words were out of her mouth, the stallion had lost his footing. One of his hind legs, then the other, went over the side. Halfway into the water, dragged along by his unbroken halter rope, he screamed, his neck stretched to its full length as he fought to regain the flat, his forelegs catching in a tangle of ropes on the deck.
At Ali Baba's head, Sonu struggled fruitlessly to haul him back by his mane. As Mariana got hurriedly to her feet, she saw someone with a shock of white hair race toward her, a long-bladed knife in his hand.
“Yes, Ghulam Ali!” she shouted. “Cut the ropes!”
The albino pushed past her, and with swift motions severed first the entangling ropes on the deck, then the strangling halter. The groom ducked, still holding on to the horse, as the severed ropes snapped into the air. Ali Baba gave one last gurgle of fright, then slid backward over the side, his forelegs scrabbling on the deck until the last.
“Let go of him, Sonu!” Mariana shouted, but the groom did not hear her. Still clinging to the horse's mane, he, too, dropped into the current.
Side by side, while Saboor wailed behind them from Dittoo's arms, Mariana and Ghulam Ali watched horse and man swirl away together in the brown water.
People began to gather. The servants now crowded the edge of the flat, chattering and staring after the lost horse and groom. The passengers emerged from their cabins. From the roof of one of the cabins, Charles Mott picked his teeth and gazed down upon the scene.
“Whatisgoing on?” Lady Macnaghten appeared at the railing of the passenger flat, blinking a little in the sunlight, her hair a tiny bit out of place. “What were those thundering crashes? Why has Miss Givens been screaming like a banshee?”
“I fear there has been an accident, Lady Macnaghten,” Uncle Adrian announced. “A barge has come loose and struck the baggage—”
“Ali Baba!” she gasped, staring at his empty stall. “Where is my husband's horse?”
“I am sorry to say that he has gone over the side.”
“Over theside? Into the river?”For a moment she stood still, a hand pressed to her mouth, then she pointed accusingly at Mariana. “This isyourdoing isn't it?” she cried. “I should have known it was you. I distinctly heard your voice telling someone to cut the rope.You have drowned Ali Baba!”
Still breathing hard, Mariana smoothed the front of her crumpled, tar-stained gown. “The horse would have been killed if the rope had not been cut,” she replied evenly. “Ghulam Ali's quick action may have saved his life.” She raised her chin. “Horsesdoswim.”
“But he wasSir William'shorse!” Lady Macnaghten's own chin wobbled visibly. “You should have askedme,but instead you simply cut his halter rope and pushed him into the river!”
“I did not—” began Mariana.
“It makes no difference now,” Lady Macnaghten cut in mournfully, “whether Ali Baba lives or dies. All that matters is that he is gone, and I shall have to tell my husband. I had,” she added, pulling a lace handkerchief from her sleeve, “expected to ride him every day, after we reached Allahabad.”
Her handkerchief to her face, she turned abruptly away and hurried to her cabin, her fashionable shoes clicking against the planking of the deck.
Mariana took Saboor, still sobbing, into her arms and looked upward. Mott still watched from the roof, a sour smile on his face.
“OF COURSE she did the right thing,” insisted Dittoo that evening, as he and Ghulam Ali sat together on the riverbank where the servants had cooked and eaten their evening meals. “Who but a fool would think otherwise?” He raised his hands as he spoke, extending his fingers to emphasize his words.
Over the albino's shoulder, the anchored steamer rocked quietly on the starlit river, its flats creaking behind it. Around him, the grass fires of the other servants, of uniformed footmen, grooms, and grasscutters, were strung like bright jewels along the river's bank.
Ghulam Ali was no fool, whatever Dittoo might imagine. “Your memsahib should not have rushed onto the baggage flat,” he pointed out wisely. “I was already coming with my knife, to cut the horse free. I myself would have caught hold of the child and kept him safe. She should have waited on the passenger flat with the rest of the foreigners and let me do the work.”
“But my memsahib is no ordinary foreigner,” Dittoo protested. “She is very brave. She rescued Saboor Baba twice from Maharajah Ranjit Singh.” He glanced over his shoulder, then motioned the albino to lean closer. “She did it with magic,” he whispered. “I saw it with my own eyes.”
Ghulam Ali drew back.
“Didn't they tell you this at Qamar Haveli?” Dittoo went on. “Did they not say that Memsahib used sorcery to steal Saboor Baba at the Golden Temple?” He nodded gravely. “She made him disappear into the air in front of the Maharajah's palanquin of colored glass. Everyone saw it happen. I was there when Baba arrived by magic in her tent. Later,” he concluded grandly, “she had only to look once upon Maharajah Ranjit Singh himself, and he offered to marry her!”
When Dittoo nodded his assent, Ghulam Ali shifted his body closer to the fire, his eyes on the passenger flat with its darkened windows. He had heard nothing of sorcery from others at Qamar Haveli, but that was not unusual. He never heard the gossip that flew from mouth to mouth in the haveli's kitchen courtyard.
But a sorceress? This was extraordinary news. It was surprising enough that Hassan Ali's foreign wife had made Saboor Baba disappear into the air, but it was truly astounding that she had, with one glance, persuaded the great Maharajah Ranjit Singh topropose marriage.
She must indeed be a great enchantress, this foreign woman, for Kharrak Singh's father, unlike his son, had not been mad. Far from it. The creator of the Kingdom of the Punjab with its armies and its riches must have seen for himself that this female was much too old for marriage, and very plain. Beautiful women, after all, had large, liquid eyes, soft faces, and plump bodies. This one had none of those good features, nor was she attractively shy and placid. Already cursed with a high-boned face, square shoulders, and tumbling hair, and much too old to attract a man, she also indulged in unseemly behavior. This afternoon, for example, she had rushed headlong to where she was not needed, and then had fallen backward, her skirts flying, revealing an indecent expanse of white leg to anyone who might be looking. If he, Ghulam Ali, had not already been running, knife in hand, toward the terrified horse, he would have turned back and run in the opposite direction.
“She has a good heart,” Dittoo added firmly. “It was her heart that led her to rescue Saboor Baba two years ago, and to interfere just now with the saving of the horse.”
Ghulam Ali yawned. These people were incomprehensible. First, no lady of Shaikh Waliullah's household would think of having a male servant, and yet here was Dittoo, clearly the established personal servant of Hassan Ali Khan's English wife. Did Shaikh Waliullah and his son know that this man brought coffee to her room each morning, that he counted her sheets and towels for washing, that he served her meals, that he defended her with a loyalty reserved for a master, not a mistress?
Ghulam Ali himself did not care. Dittoo might be seedy-looking and a Hindu, who would never eat with a Muslim like himself, but at least he treated Ghulam Ali like a normal person. It felt good to have companionship with someone who bore him no ill will, who could be trusted, even if it was only for this journey. After he returned to Qamar Haveli, Ghulam Ali would once again be alone, with only his gruff manner to prop up his pride.
“Ajit, oh, Ajit!” The call came from downriver. The men around the fires stared into the half-darkness as the voice came nearer, following an invisible path along the riverbank, accompanied by the clopping of a horse's hooves.
Fifty servants scrambled to their feet. A moment later, Ali Baba's tired groom appeared from the darkness, leading a beautiful, chastened Arab horse.
“At first I was certain I would drown,” Sonu offered as he tied Ali Baba to a large stone, “but in the end, the water pushed us both toward the bank. We have walked for hours. Is any food left?”
“So the Burri Memsahib will have her horse back,” said someone a little later, as the weary Sonu stuffed cold bread into his mouth.
“She will,” someone else agreed, “but it will do nothing to improve her temper.”
THAT EVENING, after the servants and the horse had been poled back to the baggage flat by two laborers from the steamer, Ghulam Ali lay awake, rolled in his blanket beside a pile of bagged salt. For all Dittoo's praise of his memsahib, and for all his revelations about her unusual abilities, Ghulam Ali still had reservations about the woman.
She was foreign, and therefore suspect. Her evening dresses bared the skin of her shoulders and chest so scandalously that Ghulam Ali made it a point never to look at her or any female member of the British party after sunset.
She seemed to have no sense of propriety. He had seen no shame on her face after she had fallen onto the deck of the baggage flat. She seemed not to care how she looked, appearing on the deck of the passenger flat with her hair loose and her boots untied.
But she had courage. He had seen it in her face the first time they had met. Her actions of the afternoon had shocked but not surprised him. Furthermore, she never ignored the natives. In fact, she looked at them all, including him, with a curious intensity, as if they had something she wanted. She spoke properly to them, unlike most of the other foreigners, who could scarcely make themselves understood.
Whatever, he wondered, would become of this odd female and her hunched-over manservant when they arrived with Saboor Baba at Qamar Haveli?
October 14, 1840
Akhtar Jahan squatted in the kitchen courtyard of Qamar Haveli, a brass bucket filled with the ladies’ washing at her side. Four months of rose water and proper food had improved her condition, but she was still very thin. Her white Turkish trousers, a gift from Safiya Sultana, still bunched thickly on their waist cord and a plain shirt drooped from her narrow shoulders, but Akhtar worked hard, wringing out each delicately embroidered garment energetically before adding it to the growing pile on the sheet she had spread in the sun. Safiya Sultana had offered her a home at Qamar Haveli and her daily food in exchange for simple work, and Akhtar was deeply grateful. Only one need marred her happiness—her longing to discover the identity of the woman who cast spells.
She had begun her search immediately after her precipitous arrival at the haveli. Lying on her makeshift bed in the dark hallway, bruised, aching, and nauseated from jaundice, she had tried to divine the truth by listening to the conversations coming from the inside room where the ladies sat, but with no success. The women had spoken of many things: of poetry, of the Qur'an, of various embroidery stitches, of the best ways to cook the buds of thekachnartree, but they had never once mentioned magic.
The spell-caster could be one of the family ladies or she could be among the women who served them. Since those who practiced magic belonged to no single class or religion, she could be anyone, from the Shaikh's sister herself to the ghostly sweeperess who crawled from room to room each morning followed by her stringy-haired daughter, cleaning the floors with her brooms and rags.
Three days after her arrival, too desperate to wait longer, Akhtar had risen unsteadily to her feet and approached a gnarled servant called Firoz Bibi.
“Is there a woman in this house who practices enchantment?” she had asked the old woman, glancing over her shoulder, afraid to be overheard.
Firoz's eyes had widened. “No,” she had declared firmly as she poured out drinking water for the ladies. “There is no jadoo practitioner in this house. If anyone were found practicing magic here, they would be sent away at once.”
“But I heard a man talking about it,” Akhtar insisted. “He said there is a lady at Qamar Haveli who knows how to cast spells.”
“People in the bazaars and on the streets know nothing.” The old woman shook her head as she arranged the tumblers on a tray. “This world is full of ignorance, child. The lady Safiya Sultana is well-known for her wisdom and her healing arts, but she is not known for magic.”
Healing arts—that phrase could mean many things. From that moment, Akhtar watched the Shaikh's sister closely during the days, sidling along the wall to stand close to the lady's customary seat in the underground room. At night, anxious to miss no word of the ladies’ conversation, she remained as long as she dared on the sheltered rooftop where the family slept.
Observing Safiya Sultana, Akhtar had found her no idle person who spent her days taking opium, having her legs kneaded, and sleeping her life away as great ladies were reputed to do. At the first hint of dawn, as the first chanted note of the muezzin's call to prayer echoed through the darkness, Akhtar would jump from her string bed on the servants’ part of the roof and run to the family quarters to find that Safiya had already performed her own ritual ablutions and was now supervising those of the children. Once satisfied with everyone's cleanliness, Safiya stationed herself in front of her household women to lead them in the predawn prayer. Akhtar stood behind the rows of children and ladies, following the movements of Safiya's stout body as she stood, bent, then bowed her forehead to her prayer mat, her posture denoting surrender before God. Only after each Muslim household lady, servant, and child had completed that simple observance did Safiya retire to her own room to perform her own spiritual exercises, whatever they might be.
Akhtar would have given much to know whether those exercises involved magic.
Every grain of rice, every inch of ginger, pod of cardamom, clove of garlic, every nut, sweetmeat, and piece of fruit served at Qamar Haveli was measured out daily by Safiya Sultana. Each morning, watched carefully by two of the family's unmarried girls, Safiya ordered sufficient food for everyone in the house, and for twelve extra people, in the event guests arrived. If the food was not eaten, Safiya herself determined to which needy family the remainder would be sent.
She also oversaw the education of the family girls, not only in the household arts, but also in the Qur'an and its meanings, and in the works of the Persian and Urdu poets.
In that busy household, there were clothes to be made and embroidered, carpets to be beaten, and weddings to be planned, for the Shaikh's family was large, and many of its members counted upon Safiya Sultana to know the best prices for shawls, silks, and jewels.
There were also the sick and the injured to be treated. Only the day before, as the ladies were finishing their afternoon meal, a breathless male voice outside the curtained doorway had announced that the man who tended the new female buffalo had cut his arm open on a piece of jagged metal.
Safiya Sultana had swallowed her last chunk of melon and risen, puffing, to her feet. “Akhtar,” she had ordered, “bring one of our torndupattasand come with me. Firoz, you know where I keep the driedneemleaves. Take two handfuls to the kitchen for boiling. And Rahima,” she told one of the younger women, “bring my chador.”
Moments later Safiya Sultana tramped down the stairs, a plain sheet of white cotton covering her clothes and shielding her face.
Akhtar had not had time to cover herself with her own dirty chador, forgotten on a shelf in a faraway part of the house. Instead, she wrapped her thick cotton veil over her head and face as best she could, afraid of revealing too much of herself to the stable hands.
“Never mind all that,” Safiya ordered, reading Akhtar's thoughts as she pushed open the gate leading out of the family courtyard. “Your clothes are modest enough for the work we are going to do.”
The scene at the stables had been disconcertingly bloody. The buffalo driver gaped with shock, cradling his dripping arm while a dozen men clustered around him, bloody straw at their feet, offering advice and staring in fascination at the open wound, through which muscle and bone were visible.
“Stand back,” one of them had told the others as Safiya Sultana and her nervous acolyte approached the stable. “Begum Sahib has come.”
While the men watched from a careful distance, Akhtar had learned that Safiya Sultana treated open wounds by packing them with boiledneemleaves before wrapping them in cotton rags torn from old clothes. But Akhtar had learned nothing of magic. Safiya Sultana had been brusquer than ever once the wounded man had been taken away and the sweeper sent to clean the blood from the stable floor.
“You will learn far more from watching me than you will by asking endless questions,” she had rumbled. “I cannot take the time to teach you when our men keep leaving their work half-finished. Look at those doors to the elephant stables. They are half rotted away, and no one has told me.”
Across the courtyard from where Akhtar worked, thedhobiand his wife appeared, their arms full of sheets and floor cloths for washing. Akhtar stood up, her bundle of wet clothes in her arms, remembering how important she had felt, steadying the cooking pot while Safiya poured tepidneemwater into the injured man's wound as he hissed with pain, then holding his arm out straight so that Safiya could tie on the strips of bandage. She raised her chin, recalling Safiya's gruff compliment.
You have a nice, gentle touch,she had told Akhtar.
As Akhtar spread the clothes out to dry on the upstairs verandah, a fragile-looking woman appeared at the head of the kitchen stairs and stood uncertainly, one hand on the wall, as if waiting to be addressed.
“Salaam aleikum,peace be upon you,” Akhtar offered.
“And upon you,” the woman murmured. She lowered her head so that her veil obscured her face. “Is the lady Safiya Sultana available?”
Putting down her wet clothes, Akhtar straightened. This woman's manner suggested a need, but was it for something as ordinary as money or clothing? If Akhtar had not been so ill when she came looking for magic to save her, she would have behaved exactly as this woman did. Here, perhaps, was someone else who required magic. Her heart pounding, she ran for the ladies’ sitting room.
“Send her in.” Safiya Sultana beckoned from her place on the floor.
While the assembled ladies whispered, the frail woman sat down cross-legged in front of the Shaikh's sister, her head bowed. “I have been married for two years,” she murmured, her chin on her chest, “but still I am not with child.”
“And your husband has brought you here?”
When the woman nodded, Safiya Sultana reached out to lay a hand on the woman's knee, then closed her eyes.
Was she reciting a spell? Akhtar crept along the wall, trying to see if Safiya's lips were moving.
After several minutes of silence, Safiya sighed and opened her eyes. “Come back in three days,” she ordered. “I will give you something to keep under your pillow at night.”
The woman, who had not moved, now reached out quickly, seizing Safiya's fingers and holding them to her lips.
“Do not offer me gratitude,” Safiya rumbled, reclaiming her hand. “Inshallah, God Himself will help you.”
That night, instead of leading theishaprayers herself, Safiya deputed that duty to a gap-toothed old lady, then retired to her room and closed the door.
Later Akhtar Jahan lay sleepless on her new string bed in the women's servants’ quarters, wondering what Safiya Sultana had done behind that door. What would the barren woman receive when she returned? Whatever it was, would it work?
The next morning, engrossed in those questions, she nearly missed Safiya Sultana's words as she spoke instructively to the assembled girls and ladies of the family.
“That is because every beggar has a secret,” Safiya was saying as she sat on the white-sheeted floor, one elbow resting on a thick bolster. “Each beggar, no matter how ill or ragged he may be, always gives something beautiful in return for the charity he receives.”
Beggar.As Akhtar remembered her dream of the two ragged men with their pile of gold, Safiya Sultana frowned and motioned for her to seat herself.
Among the women, several little boys sat watching Safiya's face and her eloquently moving hands, their mouths open in concentration. “But,” one of them asked, his small face puckering, “what does abeggarhave to give?”
“Perhaps he offers thanks, or a blessing,” offered a young woman.
“Exactly.” Safiya nodded. “And some beggars do not thank or bless, but even those have their gift to offer.”
“What gift is that, Bhaji?” piped a little girl.
Safiya Sultana smiled, her eyes crinkling. “Aliya my darling, you must think for yourself what that is. Once you have decided, you must come and tell me.”
Beggars who do not thank or bless.The words cut Akhtar to the heart. Hadn't she herself been a beggar when she tumbled down the stairs ill and friendless, possessing only her torn clothes and her mother-in-law's stolen chador? Although her husband had been a farrier, not a whining beggar of the streets, she, who had run away, could not claim his honor as her own. Until this moment, she had not thought even to bless those who had lifted her up and fed her and kept her safe.
What gift had she, the beggar, to give? Unlike the men in Safiya's poem, she, empty-handed, had brought no treasure to the king's door.
November 5, 1840
Careful, be careful,” whispered the Prime Minister as court servants lifted the dying Maharajah Kharrak Singh from his bed in the Lahore Citadel. Half a dozen white-bearded priests stood by chanting prayers as the servants lowered their king to the floor of the crowded room, so that he might die in the lap of Mother Earth.
The Maharajah shivered, whimpering beneath the shawls they had laid over him on the tiles. His long hair unfurled dankly about his head. A priest knelt by him, reciting. As other priests joined in, incense clouded the air, causing the watching nobles to blink and rub their eyes.
“Ram, Ram, Ram,” chanted the priests. “Say it, Mahraj,” urged the kneeling priest.
The Maharajah attempted to speak, but abandoned the effort. His eyes rolled upward. Someone came forward, felt for his pulse, then shook his head.
A high-pitched sound came from one of the nobles. The chanting grew louder. A man wearing several emerald necklaces stepped forward. He set a gold lamp, already lit, beside the shrunken, gray-faced body. An aristocratically dressed youth followed, unbuckling his sword belt as he did so. Dry-eyed, Prince Nau Nihal Singh untied the precious Kashmir shawl he wore around his waist and, with a single swift gesture, spread it over his dead father.
Later, in the anteroom, the Prince stood before his father's body, now propped on a wooden stool for its last bath. While servants worked to hold the shirtless corpse upright, the son dipped a brass vessel into a pail of water from the river Ganges and poured it over the dead man's head, reciting as he poured.
Later, after his father's stiffening body had been dressed in saffron-scented clothes and jewels, Prince Nau Nihal Singh strode from the antechamber and past the attending nobles. Alone, he climbed a winding staircase to the sunlit courtyard beyond, while behind him the eunuchs began to wail.
The scent of jasmine and frangipani hung in the air of the queens’ garden. The Prince made his way to a fountain in the garden's center and sat on its marble edge. There he stayed, so lost in thought that he scarcely looked up when approaching footsteps heralded the arrival of the Foreign Minister.
“May I offer my condolences, Prince?” asked the minister.
The young man nodded an invitation to the black-bearded man, who sat down beside him and pulled his coarse-looking robe together over his knees. “I am sorry to be bringing this up so soon, Mahraj,” he said, “but there is much to be done. I fear that if you do not act quickly, you may find it difficult to control the other contenders for the throne, especially your uncle Sher Singh.”
The Prince's nineteen-year-old face hardened. “Most of my family members are as weak as my father was. As for my uncle Sher Singh, he is popular with the army, but no more than I am. I have no fear of him, Faqeer Sahib.”
“And the Prime Minister, with his riches and his private army?”
“I will keep Dhian Singh close to me. His guns and men will be at my command.”
“Ah.” The Foreign Minister nodded. He got to his feet, embroidered silk peeping from beneath the coarse beggar's robe he had affected for years. “Your grandfather,” he said smoothly, “was a great man. He was a brilliant soldier and horseman, and an inspired leader. He loved a good joke, and he passionately loved the Punjab. I pray that you will be able to wield his sword.”
The young man met the Faqeer's eyes with his own level gaze. “They will be taking my father's body outside now,” he said coldly, then rose to his feet.
THE ELEPHANTS and the horses had been given away in charity, as had hundreds of thousands of rupees and gold mohurs. The dead Maharajah's body had been placed on a gold and silver bier and covered with more shawls. The moment had come for the funeral cortege to pass through the city and on to the garden outside its walls, where the square sandalwood and aloes-wood pyre stood waiting.
The Foreign Minister and his assistant walked at the end of the train. Having witnessed the legendary Maharajah Ranjit Singh's last procession only two years earlier, Hassan Ali Khan and Faqeer Azizuddin had no need to see the forced passage of his dead son's golden, shawl-draped bier through the crowded streets, or to hear the praying of male onlookers. They did not need to hear the wailing of the women thronging the latticework balconies above them, or see the people surge toward the four doomed queens who walked barefoot behind their husband's bier, throwing their jewelry into the crowd.
“Sati Ma,Mother Sati, pray for me, pray for my sins!” cried the crowd as it pushed forward, heedless of the guards, to clutch at the clothes of the stony-faced queens.
“Have those poor women been drugged?” Hassan asked the Faqeer, as the two men followed at a distance.
“I do not know,” the Faqeer answered, “but I was told that the four who are to be burned laughed and danced at the Citadel before the procession left. All the rest fainted when the bier was carried out. That should tell us something about those women's condition.”
He grimaced and tipped his chin toward the front of the procession. “But I had not realized that seven serving women were to burn, too.”
After an hour of prayers and ceremony, the crowd sighed gustily as the four queens climbed onto the pyre in the order of their seniority, followed unsteadily by the seven chosen serving maids, each one helped by two other women. Slowly, as if half-asleep, the women lay down, the Maharajah's wives at his head, the servants at his feet.
“The senior queen is not among thesatis,” murmured Hassan.
Men climbed onto the pyre and covered the corpse and all the living women with oil-soaked reed mats. Others poured vessels of clarified butter over the logs. The chanting grew louder. The Prime Minister took a flaming torch from a priest and handed it to Prince Nau Nihal, who nodded and began to circle the pyre, his lips moving.
As the fire took hold at all four corners, the Faqeer gripped Hassan by the elbow. “Come,” he ordered. “We can respect this rite of theirs, but we need not watch it.”
The crowd sighed again. Flames shot into the air as the two men, the only Muslim officials at this Sikh funeral, edged their way toward the city gate.
The pyre was still burning two hours later, when Hassan and the Faqeer rode back to join the procession returning the dead Maharajah's son to the Citadel.
Hassan gestured through the crowd toward the hook-nosed Prime Minister who rode beside the ample, heavily bearded figure of the Prince's uncle Sher Singh. “Should we ride with them?”
“It does not matter. I believe our posts at court are safe. We should let others push their way to the front.” The Faqeer sighed. “I only pray that Nau Nihal Singh will display the qualities so absent in his poor father.”
The afternoon sun threw shadows across the flat ground. An old stone archway stood along the high wall of the great Badshahi Mosque, marking the path to the Citadel Gate. Watched by high-circling vultures and ragged villagers, the procession of nobles and courtiers rode toward the archway, while in the distance a black water buffalo lowered its head to charge a passerby. Preoccupied with the buffalo and its fleeing victim, Hassan and the Faqeer did not turn to look until a heavy rumbling sound came from the direction of the archway, followed by thudding and shouts. The arch, together with the young Prince and his party, had all disappeared inside a billowing cloud of dust.
Men threw themselves from their mounts and ran toward the scene. A horse squealed somewhere, in terror or pain. The dust-covered figure of a man staggered out of the dust cloud, clutching his shoulder.
“The arch has fallen!” someone cried.
“The Prince!” shouted someone else. “Where is he?”
“Help us! Help!”
Hassan and the Faqeer kicked their horses and galloped toward the scene.
Behind them, a pair of pigeons circled the pyre twice, and then, as if at a signal, dropped into the flames.
THE MAN outside the curtain raised his voice to be heard over the boom of cannon fire. “They are saluting the ascension of Prince Sher Singh to the throne,” he shouted.
“Sher Singh?”Rani Chand Kaur, wife of one dead king and mother of another, started forward from her place on the floor of the royal ladies’ chamber. “Which one of you fools has snatched the throne from my family and handed it to the son of a clothes dyer?”
“It was not one man, Maharani-Ji. The decision was made by the full court. Who else but your brother-in-law can be Maharajah now that your son is no more?”
“Who else?”Chand Kaur had already screamed herself hoarse. Her face with its bloody, vertical scratches, was as wild as her hair. “Did any of you ask whether my daughter-in-law was with child?”
She pointed to a frightened-looking girl who crouched silently in a corner of the incense-filled chamber. “When my grandson is born,” the Queen rasped,“he,not an upstart son of shame, will sit on the throne of the Punjab. Pah! You are fools, sons of owls, all of you.”
The cannon fire had ceased. “We did not know this, Maharani-Ji,” said the male voice.
But Rani Chand Kaur had lost interest in the conversation. Seizing the neck of her long shirt with both hands she tore it wide open.
“They have killed my son!” she shrieked.“My son!
“When I find the man who took my injured son to the Hazuri Bagh instead of to this palace,” she added, breathing hard, the tattoo on her chin changing shape with every word she spoke, “when I find out who locked all the garden and the Citadel gates so that I could not go to him when he was dying, I will put his eyes out withmy own hands.”
January 2, 1841
Mariana watched from her horse as the first of Lady Macnaghten's elephants stepped gingerly onto the bridge of boats leading out of British-held India and into the independent state of the Punjab.
Built across the Sutlej River two years earlier for Lord Auckland's state visit to Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the span still held, although it had clearly suffered since that time. Broken timbers now threatened its stability, causing the elephant to tread cautiously on the shifting surface, its mahout watchful on its neck.
As the second elephant joined the first, a chill went down Mariana's spine. If on this journey there were a point of no return, this bridge of boats was it. She glanced behind her, looking for someone who understood, but saw only Charles Mott stopping to blow his nose. It was no use anyhow. No one understood her feelings, not even Uncle Adrian. He had said only yesterday that her divorce would lift a “terrible burden” from her shoulders.
How could she look forward to her divorce when she was about to lose Saboor?
Needing to think, she guided her mare away from the bridge. The Punjab, now only yards away, could no longer exist only in her imagination, but what had it become since the death of old Maharajah Ranjit Singh? Lahore must be quite different without the flamboyant, one-eyed Maharajah, who had taken the stability of his self-made kingdom with him when he died, leaving only lesser men to quarrel over his treasures and his power….
Other things must also have changed in the old city. Shaikh Waliullah still lived, for Mariana would surely have heard otherwise, but was his stout, sensible sister still alive? Mariana could hardly bear to think of arriving too late to see Safiya Sultana again, a woman who had captured her imagination more than anyone else except the Shaikh himself.
Safiya was a poet, Mariana's elderly teacher had told her, and a philosopher, too, one whose fame had spread far beyond the walls of Lahore. Mariana had even learned Safiya's best-known poem, composed after the loss of both her daughters to smallpox:The thief descended swiftly, and as swiftly fled.Plundered of his load, my hamstrung camel groans outside my tent.Where is his worked leather saddle? Where are my treasures—My rubies, my saffron, my pure white raisins?All are lost. What then is the destination of this ruined caravan?
Would she meet Safiya Sultana, or even enter the upstairs ladies’ quarters of the Shaikh's aristocratic old house? Her only mission, after all, was to obtain the Shaikh's consent for her divorce. That transaction would properly occur in the men's part of the house. In fact it was quite possible that she would be excluded from even those negotiations.
When it was over, as plundered of Saboor as Safiya Sultana had been of her children, she, too, would be lost.
She tried to imagine Harry Fitzgerald, now aware of her purity and filled with newfound respect for her, sitting down to write an apology for his earlier remarks, hinting that he would like to beg her forgiveness in person, but it did no good.
Hoofbeats approached. “Come along, Mariana,” her uncle urged, interrupting her thoughts. “You'll be late to breakfast if you dawdle here.”
Ahead of them, Lady Macnaghten rode toward the bridge, accompanied by the newest member of her party, the British Political Agent and liaison officer to the Sikh court, who had arrived hours earlier to escort her into the Punjab.
Russell Clerk, a thin person whose great, hooked nose and chin-less, jutting head gave him the look of a vulture, had arrived that morning with much fanfare and many assistants. Mariana watched without interest as he leaned from his saddle to say something to Lady Macnaghten. He was said to know a great deal about the workings of the Sikh court, but at this moment she cared little for the political intricacies of the Punjab.
An hour later, after leaving her horse with a waiting groom, she stepped distractedly into the camp dining tent, then stopped short at the sight of Russell Clerk at the table, hunched over a plate of eggs and lamb kidneys. It was not Clerk's appearance or even the size of his breakfast that caused Mariana's sudden halt, but where he was sitting, for he now occupied Charles Mott's place beside Lady Macnaghten, while Mott, newly ejected from Paradise, slouched sullenly in the previously empty seat beside Mariana's chair.
She sat down reluctantly and returned Mott's dismissive nod with an equally dismissive one of her own, which he did not see because he had already looked away. Across the table, Aunt Claire flapped a hand encouragingly between the silver coffeepots.
“Now that we are on land,” she had confided weeks ago, “you may converse with Mr. Mott out of earshot of the rest of us, whilst still maintaining propriety. Youmustmake yourself agreeable to him, Mariana. He is to be an intelligence officer in the government at Kabul. I have several times observed him glancing covertly at you when he believed no one was looking. I am certain he thinks more highly of you than you realize.”
“I do not like him, Aunt Claire,” Mariana had replied flatly. “He is too pale and damp-looking, and he has—”
“You are not to say again, Mariana, that Mr. Mott hasbeady eyes.”
* * *
THE ENGLISH party's overland journey had begun nine weeks earlier, in the last days of October. During the ten days that followed the steamer's arrival at Allahabad in mid-October, Lady Macnaghten and her nephew had been feted by the British society of that station, spending evening after evening at dinner parties, theatricals, and balls, while Mariana, Saboor, her uncle, and a very disappointed Aunt Claire had waited in a rented house, ignored by everyone. Only after Lady Macnaghten had grown tired of the festivities had they all joined the baggage train, which had arrived by land from Calcutta some weeks earlier.
Spread out over a large, empty ground, the train had looked exactly as it had before it left Calcutta, with the same soporific elephants, superior-looking camels, distracted British officers, hordes of natives, and endless mountains of luggage.
Lady Macnaghten had made a great display of nerves as she watched her more valuable belongings being packed onto the bullock carts, but nothing dire had yet happened to her chandeliers, her porcelain, or her brandy, although the camels had managed to smash more than half her ordinary china before the train reached Allahabad.
The arrangement of the traveling camp had been fixed from the first day. Lady Macnaghten's grand tent and Charles Mott's smaller one were set up together on the right-hand side of a dining tent large enough to seat twelve. Mariana's tent and the one housing her uncle and aunt were on its left. The kitchen tent and the servants’ small tents and cooking fires stood some distance behind the dining tent, as did the long lines of horses and pack animals, and the piles of unloaded baggage, both under heavy guard against thieves. The whole area was then enclosed in a wide circle of pickets, sent from the neat army camp that bordered Mariana's tent.
Over the weeks, the camp had fallen into a routine. At five-thirty each morning, Mariana and Saboor were awakened by the sound of Dittoo bumbling his way into her tent carrying a tray with coffee for Mariana and an egg for Saboor. Half an hour later, having sent Saboor to travel with Dittoo, Mariana got sleepily onto a horse and rode between ten and fifteen cross-country miles at her uncle's side to the next campsite, while Lady Macnaghten rode clumsily ahead of them, accompanied by her nephew and the Vulture.
The only person who refused to travel on horseback was Aunt Claire, who insisted on riding in a palanquin carried by a team of bearers.
Behind all of them crawled the baggage train with its elephants, creaking carts, and walking servants. If all went as well as it had today, at the end of their ride Mariana and the others could expect a hearty breakfast in the dining tent which had been sent on ahead after dinner the previous evening.
The Vulture swallowed a last bite of buttered toast and looked about the dining tent through half-closed eyes. He nodded to the assembled party, but allowed his gaze to slide over Mariana and her family without acknowledging their presence.
He knew her story already, of course. Who did not, in this gossiping country?
Lady Macnaghten smiled prettily over her fan, revealing a perfectly smooth, rounded arm. “And now, Mr. Clerk,” she cooed, “we breathlessly await your news of the Punjab.”
“Yes, indeed,” Uncle Adrian put in quickly. “We have heard nothing but rumors since we learned of the collapse of the archway after Maharajah Kharrak Singh's funeral. Did the young heir die by accident, or by treachery?”
“No one knows,” the Political Agent replied in his high, nasal voice. “Of course one of my couriers came to me as soon as the accident occurred. In fact,” he added importantly, “the man killed a horse in his haste to bring me the news. But evenIdo not know for certain what happened to Prince Nau Nihal Singh. Those most easily blamed had relatives injured or killed in the accident. The stones that fell may have been dislodged by all the cannon fire after Maharajah Kharrak Singh died.” He shrugged, bird-like, inside his black frock coat.
“And will there now be competition for the throne?” asked a baggage officer.
“Oh, yes.” The Vulture leaned back in his seat and made a steeple of his fingers. “The mad Kharrak Singh's famously difficult widow, who somehow escaped dying on his funeral pyre, has suddenly claimed that her dead son's wife is expecting a child. Insisting that the unborn child will be male, the woman has named herself Regent until it comes of age, forcing the Sikh Council, which had already pronounced the young Maharajah's uncle Sher Singh to be the next Maharajah, to rescind its decision. Sher Singh, naturally, is infuriated.”
“And what is he like?” asked another officer.
“I have met Sher Singh twice. He is an entertaining, larger-than-life character: a heavy-drinking Punjabi who might be said to resemble Henry the Eighth. He is popular with the army, which apparently supports his claim to the throne.”
“This seems a dangerous business,” observed Uncle Adrian. “The Sikh army under Sher Singh could be a formidable force.”
“It would. I shouldn't be surprised,” the Vulture added carelessly, “if there were an explosion of violence between Sher Singh and the Regent Queen.”
“But we had planned to stay three weeks in Lahore!” cried Lady Macnaghten. “Surely you do not mean there will be fighting whilst we're there?”
“Oh, I very much doubt it will come to anything yet,” soothed the Vulture. “By the time that happens, Lady Macnaghten, you will already be in Kabul, giving your first ball. And unpleasant though the Queen may be,” he added with a smile, “she has been most charming to us. She has,” he said grandly, “offered us the Koh-i-noor diamond.”
“Which diamond?” Lady Macnaghten leaned forward.
“The diamond known as the Mountain of Light. It weighs twenty-nine carats, and is coveted by everyone who has ever seen it. Princes have fought over it for centuries.” The Vulture leaned back in his seat. “The Koh-i-noor is one of the great treasures of India.
“I am also glad to say,” he went on, “that the Regent Queen has cooperated quite well with us in the matter of the Afghan tribesmen who come down through the Khyber Pass to attack and rob Englishmen traveling to Kabul without sufficient escort. Only a month ago, a Major Effington was robbed of his money, goods, and horse, and left for dead. I have persuaded the Rani to take strong action against this sort of behavior.”
“And all of this is in exchange for what?” inquired Uncle Adrian, taking the words out of Mariana's mouth.
“The Queen has somehow convinced herself that we are going to help her against Sher Singh.”
Uncle Adrian's face had begun to redden. “And how has that occurred?”
The Vulture shrugged. “I have no idea.”
“And what action does the Rani propose to take against the Afghans?”
“Oh, nothing unusual,” the Vulture replied casually. “All Afghans who come into the Punjab are to register with the Sikh government. Those who do not will be subject to public floggings, being shot from cannon, that sort of thing. Some of them are useful to us, of course,” he added, as he stirred his coffee. “They bring intelligence and so on, but most Afghans are no more than savages.”
Charles Mott set down his own cup with a little groan of boredom. Mariana inched her chair away from him. Why did the fool not listen to this important conversation? Who had appointed him an intelligence officer?
“Whatever happens to the Sikhs and the Afghans,” Lady Macnaghten said, laying down her fan with a decisive little gesture, “I certainly hopewedo not meet any savages on our way to Kabul.”
January 3, 1841
The forty courtiers had stood in the delicately mirrored pavilion for nearly an hour, listening to the demands of Kharrak Singh's widow. Water splashed in the sunny courtyard fountains outside as they tried to persuade her to share power with Prince Sher Singh, their eyes on the curtain that blocked off one end of the breezy, shadowed room.
“I willnevershare this kingdom with the son of a clothes dyer!” The Rani's throaty voice erupted from behind the curtain while the courtiers shifted and sighed. “I am the daughter of military heroes. Everyone knows what Sher Singh's mother did behind Maharajah Ranjit Singh's back. Hah! My husband was mad, but at least he had royal blood—”
“The Punjab should have one ruler, not two,” murmured a pearl-laden man in a gorgeous striped turban. “The Rani should leave the work of ruling to Sher Singh, and wait peacefully for her grandchild to be born. It is up to Fate to determine whether the child is male or female, whether the Rani will win or lose.”
A tall Hindu leaned over, his emerald earrings swinging, his lips to the first man's ear. “Do not speak,” he cautioned in a whisper. “There is treachery here.”
Faqeer Azizuddin, the Foreign Minister, found Hassan Ali Khan leaning against an inlaid pillar, his back to the sun, watching as the most influential men in the kingdom murmured among themselves. Catching Hassan's eye, the Faqeer nodded, his coarse beggar's robe wrapped carefully against the chill breeze that entered through the filigreed windows of the pavilion.
“Andyou,little she-camel,” the Rani went on, now seeming to address someone who had joined her behind the curtain, “remove your face from my sight, you who have killed my son with your ill luck. Black was the day when I married my son to you! Who would want you, but for the child you are carrying?”
As the sound of a girl's sobbing reached them, Hassan brushed a hand over his face. “How will the Punjab survive such base people? How can the kingdom have come to—”
“And you, Dhian Singh,” the harsh female voice continued, “you who will not let me have the Koh-i-noor diamond—you may be Prime Minister now, but you have come up from nothing. You are a self-made upstart—”
The Faqeer shook his head as he and Hassan started down the pavilion steps and into the courtyard. “She has gone too far,” he murmured.
“Surely after this,” Hassan ventured when they were out of earshot, “the Prime Minister will abandon her side and join Sher Singh.”
“My dear, I believe he already has,” replied the Faqeer.
“Then she has no chance,” Hassan whispered as they crossed the courtyard. “Perhaps the Punjab, too, has no chance.”
THE SHAIKH's family courtyard was a pleasant place to sit on winter mornings. Before the sun began its slow descent toward the roof of the upstairs ladies’ quarters, its rays fell kindly upon the courtyard, illuminating the haveli's frescoed walls and its single tree. When Hassan was not at the Citadel with the other courtiers, he and his childhood friend Yusuf Bhatti had the courtyard to themselves. In the hours before the usual crowd of respectful guests began to filter in through the gate to visit the Shaikh, the two men sat together on a string bed beside the tree, the sun on their shoulders, a bubbling hookah on the ground between them.
They made an unlikely pair—Hassan tall and open-faced, whose fastidious style of dress made up for the asymmetry of his broken nose, and Yusuf thick-bodied and rough-looking, his heavy curved sword lying close at hand, the handle of a serviceable knife protruding from the sash about his waist.
Today they were not alone. A while earlier as they sat peaceably passing the mouthpiece of the hookah back and forth, a servant had hurried from the outer courtyard.
“The Afghan traders have come,” the man announced. “They are waiting outside.”
Now, in place of the smoldering hookah, bundles, packets, and caged birds stood before the two men, while opposite them, two traders sat cross-legged on another, newly arrived bed, a pair of decoratedjezailsslung across their backs.
The elder of the two traders was a lean man with heavy eyebrows and startlingly pale eyes. He smiled, revealing an even row of white teeth as Hassan took a teapot from the tray beside him and filled his glass with cardamom-scented tea.
“So, Zulmai,” Hassan said, “now that it is winter in Afghanistan, are you glad to be here in my Lahore, the City of Roses?”
The trader shook his head. “You never tire of asking me that. You have no idea how I miss my country. ”
“Yes indeed,” Hassan agreed. “It is terrible to be parted from that which we love most. Your sadness reminds me of my own anxiety for my son. I think often of that poem—From Canaan, Yusuf shall return, whose faceA little time was hidden: grieve no more—”
“Oh, grieve no more,”Zulmai added, picking up the verse,“In sorrow's dwelling place / The roses yet shall spring from the bare floor—”
“Ah,” Hassan sighed, his eyes half-closed. “You Afghans truly appreciate poetry.”
“Except for him.” Zulmai pointed to his young, fresh-faced assistant, who smiled broadly, his mouth stuffed with fruit. “Habibullah here knows of nothing but guns and horses. But what of you poetry-loving Punjabis? Like us, you recite Hafiz and Rumi at a moment's notice.”
“We do, except for him.” Hassan nodded toward the hunched figure of his old friend Yusuf Bhatti. “Yusuf is at home only in the jungle, shooting pig. It might kill him to learn a line of poetry.”
“Then why do we not leave those two to each other,” offered the trader, “and keep only ourselves as appreciators of poetry and such?”
Yusuf let out a barking laugh. “Hah! You may be a poet, Zulmai, but you could never spend your days sniffing perfume and reciting verses. Look at yourself, with your knives and your twojezailsstrapped to your back. What are your weapons for, if not fighting?”
Zulmai did not reply. Instead, the trader nodded to his assistant, who strode off through the low gate to fetch something more from the kneeling camel that waited by the elephant stables.
“As always, I am happy to see your wares,” Hassan told Zulmai as they watched the boy reach into one of the camel's panniers. “One of my cousins is to have his first good shawl this year, my uncle is desperate for saffron, and I hope you have brought me the amber I asked for.”
The Afghan reached silently into his clothes and withdrew a small, neatly stitched cloth packet and then a short, wicked-looking knife. He unsheathed the knife and sliced through the cloth wrapping, revealing a small cake of ground amber. This he handed to Hassan, who lifted it to his nose.
“Beautiful,” breathed Hassan. “And now, Zulmai, you must not take my appreciation for foolishness. And do not let me forget that Faqeer Sahib wants his saffron.”
The trader opened his hands. “The price,” he said, “we will discuss later. Look at these.”
From another invisible pocket he produced a smaller packet. “Rubies,” he announced as he opened the last of its coverings. There on the white cotton cloth lay six dark red Jagdalak rubies, each the size of his little fingernail.
He repocketed the stones and gestured toward the eastern end of the city. “I have forty good Turkoman ponies at the caravanserai, and a dozen beautiful Arabs. I had wanted to show the best of my Arabs to your young Maharajah, but now that he is dead, I will show them to Raja Dhian Singh or one of the othersirdars.Speaking of the Prime Minister, has he changed sides yet?” Zulmai rested his elbows on his knees, his pale eyes on Hassan's face. “I hear he has left the Rani and offered his allegiance to Prince Sher Singh. That will be bad news for her. After all, everyone knows of Raja Dhian Singh's great riches and heavy guns.”
Hassan shrugged. “No one knows what thesesirdarsare up to.”
“I also hear that the Rani is trying to buy the aid of the British. I understand she has promised them the Koh-i-noor diamond and all of Kashmir for their help, but that the Prime Minister has said—”
“Look!” interrupted Hassan, his face brightening as Zulmai's assistant approached, a bundle of dusty woolen fabric in his arms. “These are wonderful old shawls,” he added, standing as the boy cut open the bundle and spread its contents on the string bed. “They are Moghul. How did you find them, Zulmai?”
The Afghan shrugged. “Not everyone understands the value of his possessions. The British are everywhere,” he persisted. “They are building themselves houses near my Kabul. They intend to stay in Afghanistan.” He smiled. “They think they have conquered us.”
“Those British want to take over the world,” added Yusuf harshly, as Hassan studied the shawls, each finely embroidered in rich, contradictory colors. “They are waiting for us Punjabis to stumble so they can come in here with their armies.”
Hassan bent over thecharpai,a yellow shawl with a swirling design in his hands. “No one likes the British,” he observed, without looking up. “In any case, their Political Agent will be here in five days. After that we will discover his designs for the Punjab.”
Zulmai nodded. “Yes, and your wife and son are traveling in his party, is that not so?”
Hassan stared at Zulmai, the shawl hanging from his hands. “And you, how do you know this?”
Zulmai shrugged. “I only listen to bazaar gossip.”
Later, as Zulmai's loaded camel rose awkwardly to its feet in the manner of its kind and followed Zulmai and Habibullah out of the haveli, Yusuf turned to Hassan.
“Do you trust that man?” he asked.
“Not at all,” replied Hassan as he stared after the two traders. “I have known Zulmai for fifteen years, but I have yet to divine what he is thinking. No, I do not trust him at all.”
January 4, 1841
An-nah, morning has come!” Heavy breathing in her ear and tugging on her quilts told Mariana that Saboor was awake. “Has it, darling?” she murmured as she reached out from the covers, her eyes still shut, to pull him to her, still warm from his own bed.
“Will we ride today, An-nah?” he begged, as he did each morning. “I want to ride with you all the way to the next camp. I want to gallop so-o-o fast!”
Sitting up beside her, he pumped his elbows to indicate speed.
She yawned. “We shall see, my little cabbage.”
Perhaps she would let him ride today, astride her lap in the sidesaddle, shrieking with excitement when she gave in and galloped a short distance for his pleasure, one arm wrapped tightly about his middle.
She sat up and surveyed her tent with satisfaction. Fifteen feet square, it was the same size as the one she had occupied on her previous journey to the Punjab, but it was far more comfortable. In addition to the four-poster bed, the bedside table, and washstand, it boasted Miss Emily's small, elderly settee, which doubled as Saboor's bed, and an arrangement for sitting, native-fashion, on the floor. The floor arrangement pleased Mariana most, for with its thick, knotted carpet, its stuffed bolsters and its two tiny, carved tables, her tent had a definitely un-English look.
“Come in,” she called, as a storm of coughing outside her tent heralded the arrival of Dittoo with her coffee tray.
“We are nearly there,” Dittoo announced as he backed into the tent, the tray in his hands. “Ghulam Ali says we are only two marches from Lahore.”
The evidence had been growing daily of their closeness to Lahore. Sikhs with long, wrapped beards and plain turbans had been evident in every village for a week, along with the usual Hindus and Muslims, but now the villages looked more prosperous, and the flat, dusty fields were full of half-grown wheat.
There had been other changes in the past few days. Charles Mott seemed to have developed a strong attachment to the Vulture, and now hung on the Political Agent's every word. Several times, Mariana had seen him pull up a chair and join pre-dinner conversations between the Vulture and two of the army officers.
She often wondered what the four men talked about.I cannot help thinking,she had confided in a letter to her father,that they are plotting something.
When he was not thus engrossed, Mott watched Mariana. She had caught him several times, gazing at her from a distance. At meals, she felt his covert attention on her, distracting her uncomfortably from her food.
Aunt Claire, who had noticed this, gave him her small, fashionable smile at every opportunity.
Mariana sighed into her coffee cup. She would not miss Charles Mott at all, when this journey came to an end.
At six-fifteen Mariana sent a disappointed Saboor to travel on a donkey cart with Dittoo and emerged into the morning to find three saddled horses near her uncle's tent, attended by several dark-skinned grooms. She watched with pleasure as her slow-moving aunt emerged from her tent stuffed into a riding habit and top hat.
“See, Aunt Claire,” Mariana asked happily, after her aunt had hoisted herself onto one of the mares, aided by a groom, “isn't it lovely to ride so early, while it is so cool and pleasant? I am certain you will enjoy it, and I am sure we shall find interesting villages and ruins on the way.”
“The weather is the least of my concerns, Mariana,” her aunt called from her sidesaddle, her voice carrying over the shouts of coolies and the groans of camels, “and you may be sure that I shall not look at a single native ruin or village on the way. I am going straight from here to the dining tent, where I shall eat my breakfast in peace. What an hour to be on a horse!”
By the time the three riders had set off, followed by the vanguard of the baggage train, Lady Macnaghten was already too far ahead of them to be seen, having ridden away earlier with the Vulture and one of the army officers. One lone European figure rode in front of Mariana and her family, his horse raising a dust cloud that obscured his identity.
“Is that Mr. Mott?” Aunt Claire inquired, shading her eyes with a gloved hand.
“Yes, I believe it is,” replied Uncle Adrian. “Considering his enthusiasm for Russell Clerk, I wonder why he is riding alone.”
Mariana, who did not care, did not reply.
Half an hour later, after failing to persuade her aunt to stop at the two interesting ruins they had passed, Mariana noticed a mud village ahead of them. Large enough to have a wide lane down its center, this village boasted a busy roadside market, a few tethered goats, lolling dogs, and the usual pack of small, naked children. Across from the market, a crowd of brightly dressed women and girls had gathered at a communal well.
“That is unusual, so many men on horseback,” Uncle Adrian remarked, noticing half a dozen fierce-looking riders nudging their way through the crowded market. “I did not think riding horses were particularly used in native villages.”
“Look,” Mariana cried, pointing.
Charles Mott was in the village. He stood uncertainly near a mud wall beside his tethered horse, his eyes on the women at the well.
Ignoring Mott, the women talked among themselves as they filled earthen vessels from the well. As one party of them turned away, their hips swaying gracefully, their brimming vessels perfectly balanced on their heads, another party arrived, chattering, and began to work.
Mott had not seen Mariana and her family. His back to them, he stood by the wall, his eyes on the women as he unbuttoned his riding coat and slung it over his arm, displaying his white shirt and the pair of striped suspenders that held up his trousers.
“What an odd thing to do,” exclaimed Uncle Adrian. “Why has he taken off his coat in front of an entire native village? I call that unnecessarily disrespectful, especially near those women.”
Aunt Claire made a small, astonished sound. “Why on earth should an Englishman be respectful ofnativewomen?”
“Because it is silly not to be,” snapped her husband. “I cannot think what the man is up to.”
As they watched, Mott left the mud wall and moved into the shade of a tree ten feet from the well, his head still turned from Mariana and her family, his pose suggesting inquisitive superiority.
“What is the fool doing now?” demanded Uncle Adrian.
Before Mariana or her aunt could reply, several men on horseback detached themselves from the throng at the bazaar and trotted toward Mott.
Hearing them approach, he turned to them, frowning loftily. He held his ground at first, but the horsemen spurred their mounts and came on faster, shouting in guttural Punjabi and drawing long, curved swords. From the corner of her eye, Mariana saw her uncle's horse lunge forward as Mott abandoned his superior pose and sprinted for his own tethered mount.
He was still yards from his goal when the riders reached him. As Uncle Adrian thundered toward them and Aunt Claire cried out in horror, one of the horsemen leaned from his saddle, sword in hand, and cut at Mott's back.
Mott's trousers, their suspenders sliced through, dropped instantly to his ankles, trapping his running feet. Arms flailing hopelessly, coat flying, he pitched forward, full length, into the dirt.
The native women stared. The horsemen slapped each other mirthfully, hiccupping as Mott stood up, spitting dirt, his pale legs clad only in linen under-drawers. They howled as he struggled to mount his horse while holding his trousers up with one hand.
Aunt Claire had covered her face, but Mariana was unable to take her eyes from the scene. Clucking, Uncle Adrian cantered back to them and herded them off the road, making way for Mott to ride stiffly past, pretending he had not seen them, his ruined suspenders flapping uselessly against his saddle.
Uncle Adrian shook his head. “Akalis,” he said. “That's who they were—renegade Sikhs, known for their brutal jokes. Mott was fortunate. They could have killed him. The young fool should have known better than to ogle their women in that insolent manner.”
“They don't seem to have cut him badly, thank goodness,” offered Aunt Claire as they continued on their way. “I hope someone can give him—oh,dostop making that noise, Mariana. I am certain Mr. Mott has heard you. You really have a shocking sense of humor.”
Four hours later, Aunt Claire glared across the dining table, causing Mariana to duck her head, fighting the broad smile that threatened to engulf her face.
When he entered the tent for lunch, Charles Mott had failed to offer her the smallest nod of greeting. Now, his body turned away as if he were offended by her presence, he fidgeted in his seat beside her and drummed damp-looking fingers on the tablecloth.
At the table's end, Lady Macnaghten interrupted the usual desultory lunchtime conversation with a little cough, laid down her fork and turned to the Vulture. “This must be the hundredth time we've eaten chicken fricassee,” she announced loudly enough for everyone to hear, gesturing with manicured fingers at the food on her plate, “but happily I have something other than dull food to occupy me— something that causes my thoughts to flee far away from allthis.”She gathered her shawls about her shoulders and waved in the general direction of Lahore. “Now that we are in the Punjab,” she went on in her high, fluting tone, “and the winter chill has descended upon the camp, my thoughts have turned to the north, to the ancient passes from Afghanistan and all their stories. What greatness those passes have seen, what wonders!”
What could have persuaded Lady Macnaghten to discuss the northwestern passes, the ancient mountain routes connecting India with Central Asia? As her aunt let out a reverential sigh, Mariana exchanged a quick, wondering look with Uncle Adrian. Beside her, Mott toyed with the silverware and breathed through his nose.
“My husband has told me all about the Khyber Pass,” Lady Macnaghten went on. “He has filled my ears with stories of the conquering horsemen who from time immemorial have entered India by that dangerous defile.”
Flushing a little, she cleared her throat, her eyes sweeping the faces at the table. “For thousands of years, these brave, manly invaders have poured down through the Khyber Pass with but one object in mind:to ravish the fertile Punjab.”
Mariana shifted in her chair. Something was wrong with this lecture.
“Many times,” Lady Macnaghten added brightly, “my husband has described to me the great conquerors of later centuries, Mahmood of Ghazni, Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, all of whom thrust their way through the pass with one object—toseize and hold the defenseless plains below.”
She leaned dramatically forward. “Sir William has often said that had he been present, he would have advised Genghis Khan not to turn back after reaching Multan and Lahore. No indeed,” she finished triumphantly, her cheeks blooming, “my husband would have urged the Khan to press on without hesitation, andpossess a quivering and helpless Delhi.”
Mariana glanced at her uncle again, and found him staring scarlet-faced at the poultry on his plate. Lady Macnaghten had clearly thought no one would notice what she was really talking about, but why had she chosen this moment to bring up her most private conversations with Sir William? And why when they were alone and amorous, did they discuss thepasses,of all things?
“There is, of course, much more,” Lady Macnaghten added, turning to the Vulture who had thrown up his hands in self-defense. “but it must wait for another time.”
This conversation needed rescuing. One of the baggage officers took the initiative and cleared his throat. “Mr. Mott,” he put in loudly, “I saw you arrive at camp this morning after the march. You seemed to have suffered an accident of some sort. Are you all right?”
Beside Mariana, Mott stiffened in his chair. As he mumbled a reply, she squeezed her eyes shut and tried to school her face, but it was no good. A moment later, a hand pressed to her mouth, she rose to her feet, offered a mirthful wave to the assembled party, and rushed headlong from the dining tent.
Ten minutes later she left the shade of the tree where she had collapsed gratefully after her escape. By now, Saboor would have gone to have his food with Dittoo. She would have a peaceful hour to write letters before her afternoon ride.
Absorbed in deciding whether Mott's humiliation or Lady Macnaghten's lack of discretion should come first in her letter to her sister Charlotte, she did not hear the footsteps that came up behind her as she reached her doorway. When she did, it was too late. Before she had time to look over her shoulder the man had gripped her powerfully about the waist and forced her past her doorway and into her tent, the length of his body pushing against hers.
Mott must have been holding his breath, for he let it out in a rush as he dropped his arms. Even in the half-light of the tent Mariana could see the perspiration standing on his face.
“You laughed at me in front of everyone,” he croaked. “Youlaughed.”
“Go away.” She stepped forward, making shooing gestures. “How dare you seize me like that? You have no right to come here!”
“Who areyouto poke fun at me?” His voice had thickened. “Everyone knows whatyouhave done. Everyone despises you. ButIdon't mind. I don't mind atall.”
Before she could stop him he gripped her by the arm and pulled her toward him. “Why do you ignore me?” he demanded. “Why do you pretend I do not exist? I have admired you—”
“Get out,”she shouted, twisting her head to avoid the wet, half-open mouth that now threatened to close on hers. She leaned away from him, toward her four-poster bed.
If she could reach her bedside table, her oil lamp would be weapon enough. But as she threw her weight backward, he let go of her. Crying out, clutching instinctively at his arm for balance, she toppled backward onto her bed.
His own balance lost, he, too, fell, and lay, panting, full length on top of her.
As she struggled beneath his weight, he took hold of her face, squeezing her cheeks as he tried to bring her lips to his. She screamed hopelessly….
“Quiet!” Distracted, he slapped a careless hand over her open mouth, letting one finger slide between her teeth. Heedless that her lip was in the way, that she would hurt herself, she bit down on his finger with all her strength.
For an instant, she thought she had lost, that he felt no pain, but then he jerked backward with a sharp cry. “Youbitme!” he squealed, pulling away from her. “You savage!”
She seized her advantage. “Get out!” she snarled into his face, tasting blood, not knowing whether it was his or hers. She forced herself to her feet and pushed him, temporarily shocked and unresisting, toward the doorway, using her hands, her shoulders, any part of her that would serve. When he hesitated she pulled up her skirts and kicked him hard in the buttocks, sending him sprinting clumsily into the door blind, then out of her tent.
Had someone heard? Had someone come to rescue her? Her thoughts whirling, she held the blind aside and looked outside, to see Charles Mott making his escape and Ghulam Ali standing not ten feet from her tent, a long-bladed knife in his hand. The albino stared, his pink eyes wide, taking in the blood on her face, before she let the blind drop into place.
So it had come to this, all the gossip, the disgrace, the lies. It was too late for aid, and she could expect no sympathy. Ghulam Ali had seen and heard. Every servant in the camp would soon know, and they would certainly talk. Punishing and vindictive, Mott would now tell whatever lies he chose to about her and be believed. He spent so much time with the Vulture and the army officers
Alone against them all, she would have no chance.
Before Mariana had time to move from her doorway, a familiar, ringing voice came from outside. “I am coming in, child,” called Aunt Claire. “I have something to tell you about tonight's dinner.”
“Please, Aunt Claire, I am resting,” Mariana protested shakilyNot Aunt Claire, not now.
“Why are you resting? You never rest at this time.” Her aunt pushed the blind aside. “It is about Mr. Clerk,” she said, holding the blind open, her bonneted head bobbing decisively. “He will be—but what is this? What is wrong with your face? Blood! Oh, my dear child! What has happened to you? How badly are you hurt?”
“Charles Mott did this.” Mariana put trembling fingers to her lip, still feeling his fingers gripping her face. “He followed me here and tried to—”
Aunt Claire started backward.“Mr. Mott?”
“He came inside and seized me,” Mariana whispered. “I fell down there.” Tears leaked onto her cheeks as she pointed to the bed. “I made him leave before he could—but he will talk. He will say bad things about me. He—”
“But Mr. Mott is a gentleman,” Aunt Claire interrupted, her eyes glazing with confusion. “Why should he speak ill of you?”
“Because Ibithim. Because I would not let him do what he wanted.”
“Do what hewanted?”Aunt Claire glanced toward the doorway, as if looking for assistance. “Mariana,” she said, her face a map of conflicting feelings. “I do not understand. I am sorry you are hurt, but I cannot believe that poor Mr. Mott is capable of the behavior you describe. What had you done to provoke him into it?”
“What hadIdone?” Fury replaced Mariana's tears. “I have barely spoken to your ‘poor Mr. Mott’ since we left Calcutta!” She dashed at her wet cheeks with the back of her hand. “Your Mr. Mott is apig.”
“You are not to use that language with me.” Aunt Claire drew herself upright. “Whatever this is about, the fact is that you are to be ready for dinner half an hour early tonight, as we are eating at half past seven.” She twitched her shoulders as if relieving herself of an unwanted burden. “And tell that blond ruffian outside to sit somewhere else. I do not like native men sitting so near your tent.”
With that, she swept off without a backward glance.
THE BLOND ruffian in question had been squatting beneath a thorn tree a short distance from Mariana's tent when she returned from lunch, followed moments later by the Englishman.
Since the overland journey had begun, Ghulam Ali had made a habit of watching the soldiers of the armed guard lounging outside their tents following their afternoon meal. He liked to imagine that, given the opportunity, he could have become a soldier like them, smart in a red woolen jacket with white cross belts, a flintlock rifle near him at all times. Engrossed in the men's gossip about the other soldiers and their discussion of drilling and marksmanship, he had not looked behind him when the Englishwoman's easily recognizable steps turned toward her tent, but when other, rapid footsteps had followed hers, taking the same route to her doorway, he had taken notice.
To Ghulam Ali, those footsteps had sounded strangely uneven, as if the person approaching were in the grip of some strong emotion. Wondering, he had turned his head in time to see an Englishman's back disappear into Memsahib's tent. The man had been bent oddly forward, as if he were carrying something heavy.
Something was definitely amiss.
Ghulam Ali had never imagined Hassan Ali Khan's wife to be a loose woman, for all her clumsiness and odd behavior. Absorbed in caring for her stepson she had never seemed to take the slightest interest in the pallid, black-coated men of the English traveling party.
What then was the reason for this mysterious visit? Frowning with curiosity, Ghulam Ali had risen to his feet, approached her tent and leaned forward to listen.
The lady had spoken first. At the sound of her voice, the hair on Ghulam Ali's arms had stood up. Although her words had been unintelligible, there had been no mistaking the sharp fear in her tone.
A man's voice had responded, arguing. Seconds later, Hassan Ali Khan's wife had given a guttural scream.
Bitterly regretting his curiosity, Ghulam Ali had turned to flee those frightening sounds, but then, cursing his own cowardice, he had stopped.
Someone must aid the lady. Someone must protect her honor, for surely her honor was at stake. Ghulam Ali had glanced over his shoulder looking for help, but had seen only the soldiers squatting by their tents, too far away to have heard. There was no sign of anyone else. He would have to face this horror alone.
Now the man yelped in pain. Shaikh Waliullah's daughter-in-law, it seemed, was fighting back.
Ghulam Ali drew the long Khyber knife he had carried since his childhood, then hesitated. What could he do to save Hassan Ali's wife? How could he decently intervene? Who knew what fearful shame he might encounter if he rushed uninvited into the lady's tent?
As he hovered irresolutely, knife in hand, the door blind billowed outward and the weak-faced nephew of the senior memsahib burst into the sunlight, clutching his left hand.
A moment later the blind reopened to reveal Memsahib, panting and scarlet-faced, blood staining her lip. Her eyes met Ghulam Ali's. She withdrew and the blind thumped dustily shut.
Almost at once her aunt, the fat memsahib, bustled up and pushed her way into the tent, only to reappear soon after and stalk away, her chin held high.
Ghulam Ali squatted beside the tent, his knife across his knees, considering what he had seen and heard. He had guessed from the first that the Englishman was a weakling, but that alone did not explain why the son of a jackal felt entitled to follow Hassan Ali Khan's wife into her tent and to treat her with disrespect, perhaps even violence. And why had her aunt appeared and then gone away without showing sympathy? Surely the fat memsahib was not stupid. But if she were not, why had she taken the attack so lightly? Why had she not emerged from the lady's tent shouting with rage, bent upon punishing the man?
Ghulam Ali stared down at his knife, remembering what Dittoo had told him: that the English people seemed to abhor the young memsahib's marriage to Hassan Ali Khan, and that as a consequence she had been suffering at their hands.
Believing that anyone would be proud to boast a family connection to the Waliullahs, Ghulam Ali had refused to accept Dittoo's claim, but what if it were true? What if, despised by her own people, Hassan's wife had somehow become subject to indecent attack? If so, that would explain what Ghulam Ali, the reader of faces, had seen in the brief, unguarded moment when she had looked out of her tent: not the shame and rage of an innocent woman but the haunted, hollow stare of the outcast.
Dittoo's theory would also explain the aunt's behavior. Outcasts were never believed. Defeated before they spoke, such people learned to keep their agonies to themselves. Hassan's wife, it seemed, was already learning this difficult lesson.
How strange that the woman who had been charged with the guardianship of the Shaikh's grandson should herself be alone and unprotected upon the field of battle.
Ghulam Ali shook his head. By Allah, the woman had courage. How well she had protected herself from a man so much larger than herself!
Shambling steps hurried toward the tent. It was Dittoo, bearing the child Saboor in his arms. The little boy had been weeping. He hiccupped, his fists screwed into his eyes as he rode against Dittoo's chest. At the tent, he rushed into the arms of Hassan Ali's wife who had come outside, the blood still on her face, to comfort him.
Ghulam Ali stood up, the knife still in his hand. “Wait,” he barked in his crude Urdu, before Dittoo could depart, “I have a message for your memsahib.”
“THERE, DARLING,” Mariana soothed. Her arms about Saboor, she stared over his head, remembering Harry Fitzgerald's final letter, its painful words impossible to forget.
I excuse myself after dinner each night to avoid hearing the shameful things our officers are saying about you. Who will dare to be your friend now?
“An-nah,”Saboor sobbed against her breast.
“He would not eat,” Dittoo reported. “He wept instead, saying something had happened to you, that you needed him. I don't know what is wrong. Nothing happened to make him cry.”
He tipped his head toward the albino who stood awkwardly beneath a nearby tree. “And Ghulam Ali is sending you a message. He says he will sit guard outside your tent. What does he mean, Memsahib? Why has he taken out his knife? What is wrong with your face?”
Who will be your friend now?
The child's arms tightened about her. “Nothing is wrong,” Mariana whispered as she buried her crumpling face in his hair. “Nothing.”
What are you doing here?” Yusuf Bhatti shouted that same afternoon, his square face cheering at the sight of Hassan Ali Khan among the showily dressedsirdarscrowding Prince Sher Singh's makeshift court fifty miles northeast of Lahore.
“Look at you, in all your finery.” Yusuf seized Hassan by an embroidered sleeve and tugged him away from the crowd. “I thought you were in Lahore, waiting for your son to arrive. Does Rani Chand Kaur know,” he went on, lowering his voice, “that you have come to Batala to call upon her rival?”
“The Rani knows I have come to suggest a compromise between her and Sher Singh. Other sirdars are doing what they can at the Citadel, but their work is of no use. In all the time I have been here, I have not been able to speak privately with Sher Singh. His blood is too hot for compromise, and the Rani at Lahore is too proud and stubborn to listen to reason.”
Hassan pointed to a graceful, tasseled tent that stood at the center of a large encampment. “I see that the Prime Minister has already arrived. The Rani has offered him the Koh-i-noor if he will return to her, not that she has possession of it.”
“But hasn't she already offered it to the British, along with the heads of any Afghans she can find?”
“She has offered it to everyone. She would offer it to me if she thought I could help her. But what of you, Yusuf? Has your irregular cavalry gone over to the Prince? Are you also in line for the diamond?”
Yusuf leaned over and spat onto the ground.
Silk-clad courtiers continued to ride in through the main gate of the house, weapons clanking at their sides. Black-bearded men stood by the stables, their chain mail and steel helmets gleaming in the sun.
“He is coming. The Prince is coming outside,” the crowd murmured.
A bear of a man wearing a helmet of polished steel had appeared. Flanked by heavily armed guards, he thrust his way through the open gateway. “Do you see these guns?” he bellowed, slapping the nearest cannon with an open palm, sending a crowd of ragged children sprinting to safety. “If need be, these are the guns that will take back the throne!”
“Yes, Mahraj,” shouted someone in the crowd. “We will prevail within the first hour!”
“Once we reach Lahore,” the Prince went on, “more chiefs will come, with many more men. Those who do not come out of loyalty will join us when they see our strength. By the time we march on the city, so many troops will have deserted Rani Chand Kaur that we will not need to fire a single shot!” He smiled broadly. “Ah, I see young Hassan Ali Khan, assistant to the Foreign Minister, is still here. And you too, Sher Bahadur,” he added, turning to another man in the crowd.
Hassan and Yusuf exchanged glances. “It is no use my staying,” murmured Hassan. “I must go to Lahore to meet my son. Are you coming?”
“Did you see how many of the Rani's spies are here?” Yusuf said as they mounted their horses.
“I did. They are everywhere, and those who aren't spying for the Rani are spying for the British.”
Yusuf frowned. “If Sher Singh does attack, I wonder how he will control his men. The troops on both sides have not been paid for months. It would be madness to let them loose inside the walled city.” He sighed. “I am glad my cavalry has not taken sides. I have no stomach for killing Punjabis. We should be fighting our enemies, not our friends and neighbors.”
“I hope it does not come to violence.” Hassan shook his head. “My father will never leave Lahore. What a bad time for Saboor to return—”
Yusuf reached over and dropped a thick hand onto his friend's knee. “Cheer up, man. If there is a battle, it will, Inshallah, be over quickly. In any case, the doors of Qamar Haveli are stout. I doubt your family will suffer. We should be celebrating young Saboor's return. A few days from now, God willing, your whole family will be rejoicing.”
“I wonder,” Hassan said thoughtfully, “what my son looks like after these two years.”
“I SHALL take you in to dinner myself,” announced Uncle Adrian as he joined Mariana outside his tent in the gathering darkness. “Your aunt has developed a sudden headache, and will not be joining us tonight. I have already sent her excuses.”
“If Aunt Claire will not be at dinner,” Mariana said sharply, “I cannot come with you.”
“What?” Her uncle frowned. “Do not be absurd, Mariana. They're all waiting.”
“No.” Mariana shook her head. Without even Aunt Claire's pallid support, how could she face Lady Macnaghten's party, the officers, the Vulture? How could she sit beside Mott at the table? How could Aunt Claire be such a coward?
Her uncle again offered her his arm. “Mariana,” he ordered, “you will come with me. I cannot think what is the matter, but whatever it is, it must wait until after dinner.”
Inside the candlelit tent, Mott stood silently by his chair, his eyes fixed on the silver candelabra in front of him. As Mariana approached the table, she saw Mott's bandaged hand tremble a little on the back of his chair.
What had he told them all? she wondered. Fearing he had been seen entering her tent had he invented some ugly tale about himself and her? Eyes averted from him, she dropped angrily into her chair.
Everyone was present: Lady Macnaghten resplendent in blue satin and ruffles, the Vulture draped in a heavy gold watch chain, Uncle Adrian and the four army officers, all chatting comfortably to one another as they took their places.
It was Mott's new friends the army officers she feared most, but even they seemed absorbed in other conversations. Only Lady Macnaghten stared at Mariana for a moment, then glanced quickly away, a small frown between her eyes.
In the seat to Mariana's right, her uncle leaned forward, his eyes on her face, now visible in the brightly lit tent. “Why, Mariana, my dear,” he said loudly, “you have cut your lip!”
Too paralyzed to answer, she sat silently, while Charles Mott twitched beside her.
The Vulture cleared his throat. “I have news from Lahore,” he announced in his nasal voice. “The thwarted Prince Sher Singh is preparing to advance upon the city.”
“But the Rani is at the Citadel, with her court,” put in a red-faced officer. “Do you think the Prince intends to kill her?”
“I don't know, and to tell the truth, I don't care,” the Vulture replied genially.
Lady Macnaghten put down her sherry glass. “The Prince will not attackus,will he, Mr. Clerk?”
“Oh, no. The Prince wants us on his side.ThatI can prove. We shall be quite safe, even if he attacks the Citadel while we are at Lahore. After all, we shall be encamped three miles from the city.”
He eyed his plate of mulligatawny soup with satisfaction. “In fact, I rather hope he does attack. I wouldn't mind seeing the show.”
Half-listening, Mariana flinched as Mott's bandaged hand stirred on the tablecloth beside his untouched soup plate. After seeing him finish several glasses of wine, she was not surprised to hear his uneven breathing.
“But why should the Prince resort to military force?” asked Uncle Adrian. “That seems unnecessarily dangerous.”
The Vulture flapped a careless hand. “The Rani has refused to meet with him,” he said, “but he has possession of Gobindgarh, the fort containing all the Punjab's heavy artillery—some seven hundred guns. The Rani, who is a fool, didn't think to secure it for herself. If she does not capitulate, I expect Sher Singh will smash his way into the Citadel with those guns, and terrify her into submission. But of course that would be after he had besieged the walled city.”
Besieged the walled city.“But the city has thirteen gates,” Mariana said, too loudly, startling the officer across from her. “Sher Singh can never besiege it successfully. It will take him too long. He will storm the gates instead, with heavy guns. Whatever he does will be disastrous to the population. If he enters by the Delhi Gate, he will endanger Wazir Khan's Mosque and all the houses around it. If he enters from the Bhatti Gate, he will—”
“My dear young lady,” interrupted the Vulture loftily, addressing her for the first time since his arrival, “I am sure we are all impressed by your knowledge of Lahore, but you are forgetting the point.
“The point,” he said, regarding her through half-closed eyelids, “is that the heirs to the throne of the Punjab will murder each other whether we want them to or not, and that such murders can only advance our interests.”
Mott stirred beside her. “Quite right,” he agreed.
At the sound of that self-satisfied voice, Mariana's simmering anger turned to fury. What an arrogant fool he was! She looked down at the utensils on either side of her soup plate. The knives, with their rounded blades, were not dangerous, but the forks had promise
“—will fall into our hands, guns, treasure, and all, without a shot fired, and at no expense to ourselves.” The Vulture drew out his words, to emphasize, Mariana supposed, his own brilliance. “Prince Sher Singh's attack on Lahore may cause trouble for the population, but we should remember that it will betheirtrouble, notours.”
Ignoring her uncle's warning glare, Mariana fixed the Vulture with a level gaze. “How,” she inquired, as other conversations died around her, “can you excuse the slaughter of innocents? How can you justify the plundering of treasures thatdo not belong to you?”
So saying, she plunged her fork, pointed tines first, into the tablecloth an inch from Charles Mott's injured hand.
Squealing with fright, he leapt up, turning over his chair and spilling red wine like blood onto his white doeskin breeches.
All conversation stopped. Lady Macnaghten stared at Mariana, a hand to her breast, her cheeks suddenly as white as her pearls.
Mariana rose to her feet and nodded toward the head of the table. “I hope you will excuse me, Lady Macnaghten, gentlemen,” she said evenly, then swept past Charles Mott and out of the dining tent in a rustle of watered silk.
IT WAS after eleven o'clock when Dittoo scratched on the closed blind. “Memsahib,” he whispered, “your uncle is calling you.”
The air in her tent was cold. Mariana reached, shivering, for a shawl. Uncle Adrian must be furious to have summoned her at this late hour, but she did not care. Wild horses could not make her apologize to the Vulture, Lady Macnaghten,orCharles Mott.
Politeness had no meaning now. Mired, friendless at the bottom of an invisible social ladder, she had but one choice—to fight for herself. She gathered up several shawls, flung them about her shoulders, and marched to her uncle's tent, her chin high, her breath visible in front of her.
When she stalked inside, she found him on his feet, still wearing his evening clothes. He acknowledged her arrival with a sharp, red-faced nod, then pointed to a chair beside the bed where Aunt Claire sat against several pillows, her double chin wobbling beneath the strings of a lace cap.
Braced against his anger, Mariana watched him reach for the bedside lamp. “I want to see your face again,” he rasped.
The lamp shook as he held it up. Aunt Claire's plump fingers opened and closed on the coverlet as Mariana stared, stony-faced, into the light.
He set the lamp down hard on the table, causing his wife to start against her pillows. “I must know how badly Mott has hurt you,” he said tightly.
Dear, silly Aunt Claire had told him. Bathed in sudden relief, Mariana answered, “The cut on my mouth is nothing. He has not hurt me otherwise,” she added firmly, comprehending the real meaning of her uncle's question.
He nodded. “Come, then,” he ordered, gesturing toward the door. “You can tell me the story whilst I see you to your tent. I shall then pay a visit to Mr. Charles Mott.”
* * *
THE NEXT morning, Mariana took a boiled egg and looked cautiously about the dining tent. Everyone was there but Mott. All seemed occupied with their food, even the officers of the armed escort. Ignoring her, they poured milk into their tea and chewed their toast as they had each morning since Allahabad.
Charles Mott had not, it seemed, boasted in advance of his proposed conquest. He had also, apparently, kept his failed attack to himself.
At the table's head, a pale-faced Lady Macnaghten pretended as usual that Mariana was not there.
Aunt Claire picked disconsolately at a kidney. It had taken her hours to abandon her dream of social advancement and tell Uncle Adrian the truth about Mott, but she had done it. Mariana smiled forgivingly in her aunt's direction, and helped herself to a spoonful of sugar. With Uncle Adrian and perhaps even Aunt Claire on her side, she might find the journey bearable after all.
“Mott admitted to his attack on you,” her uncle had confided on the early morning march as they rode together behind Lady Macnaghten and the Vulture, with Aunt Claire's puffing bearers jogging behind them. “Of course,” he added, “he confessed only after I offered to produce that albino courier of yours as a witness. The thought of being exposed by a servant was too much for him, I suppose. He came clean, but in a most unpleasant manner. I do not like to see a man beg for mercy.” He gave a satisfied grunt. “I then threatened him with his aunt, Mr. Clerk,andthe Governor-General if he so much as looks your way again.”
As light as air in her sidesaddle, Mariana had glanced back at Charles Mott, who was riding so far behind them that he had almost included himself in the baggage train.
What a difference it made to have allies….
January 11, 1841
When the seventeenth-century Moghul Emperor Shahjahan visited his northern capital at Lahore, he had his tents set up at Shalimar, his pleasure-garden, whose name signifies Abode of Love.
Shalimar had suffered in the hundred and forty years since the fall of the Moghul Empire. The lovely old garden had been stripped of its marble, and the daintypietra duradecorations had been knifed from the walls of its airy pavilions, but battered as it was, it was still undeniably beautiful. Its three terraced levels were still intact, as were nearly all of its pavilions. Water from Hansli Canal still filled the three great square pools, one to each level. All four hundred carved fountains still stood where Mulla Alaumulk Tuni, the garden's designer, had placed them three hundred years before.
Shalimar was at its best in January. Its formal areas boasted cypresses and blossoming fruit trees—mangoes, cherries, apricots, mulberries, and other varieties, although not the hundreds of trees that had once grown there. But for all the loveliness of its trees, the garden's great feature had always been its roses. Cultivated by the same tribe of gardeners for many generations, the roses were now on full display, dominating the garden with splashes of color, sweetening the breezes that ruffled the water in the pools.
On one side of the middle terrace, shaded by old mango trees, the tents of Mariana and her aunt and uncle overlooked both a lacy little building and Lady Macnaghten's grand quarters in the center of the middle pool, on an island pavilion reached by a marble causeway.
Unlike Charles Mott, whose tent stood across the water, together with those of the armed escort, the Vulture had placed his tent far away from everyone else's, near the entrance gate on the lowest terrace.
“I am pleased that Clerk has arranged for us to stay at Shalimar,” Uncle Adrian told Mariana as they stood surveying the garden, now dotted with their own tents, “although I cannot say I like the man. I find him much too sure of himself. He may be responsible for our political information, but I don't like him setting up his tent so far from everyone else, and conversing secretly with all those natives out of earshot.”
While Mariana and her uncle watched, a turbaned man left an expensive-looking horse near the main gate, then stood briefly outside the Vulture's tent before disappearing inside.
“I hope our government will not allow itself to be dragged into the quarrel between Prince Sher Singh and the Rani,” sighed Uncle Adrian, “and I certainly hope those two do not come to blows, as much as Clerk seems to desire it.”
He frowned, his eyes on the birds swooping between the mango trees. “But none of this is our concern. We shall soon be far away from here. My dear Mariana,” he added, noticing her stricken face, “you must not grieve over that child. You are doing the right thing.”
He glanced again toward the Vulture's tent. “Mr. Clerk has offered to accompany us to the Shaikh's house tomorrow. Although he did not need to make us wait a full week for our meeting with the Shaikh, I shall be glad of his assistance. He is experienced with upper-class natives, and will, I am sure, be most useful in explaining our position.”
Mariana stared over the garden wall. A smoky haze in the western sky hinted at the presence of the busy city of Lahore, and the comfortable old haveli inside its walls where the Shaikh and his family waited for her.
This was to be her last night with Saboor.
* * *
THE FOLLOWING morning, she tugged nervously at her boots. Within an hour she, her uncle, the Vulture, and an armed escort would set off to inform Shaikh Waliullah of the divorce.
The day had not begun well. First, Charles Mott, who had claimed illness and fever for the previous three days due to a severely infected finger, had appeared in the dining room for breakfast. Instead of ignoring her, he had offered her repellent, exaggerated politeness.
“No, thank you,” she had replied icily, avoiding his begging eyes after he complimented her unnecessarily on her blooming health and suggested she borrow his horse-grooms when she went for her daily ride. “I never take servants out with me, and in any case, I shall not be riding today.”
She sighed as she tightened her bootlaces. As if that were not enough, Dittoo had burst into sudden tears half an hour later, while dusting her bedside table.
“What will become ofmeafter you and Saboor Baba return to your husband in the city?” he wailed. “Where willIgo?”
While Saboor ran to offer him comfort, catching at his calloused hands, Mariana had glanced away from Dittoo's damp, tragic face, ashamed at having concealed the truth from both of them for so long, wondering how to tell them.
“Stop crying, Dittoo,” she snapped, unable to say the words aloud. “No one is sending you away. You will serve me as you always have.”
“But how can that be?” He stopped dusting the table and stood, his cheeks wet, Saboor's small hand in his. “How can I serve you after you have gone to live at—”
“Enough, Dittoo,” she added, and pushed past him out of the tent.
It was only later, while a shy young groom walked Saboor up and down under the trees on one of the mares, that she had told Dittoo the truth.
“I am not going to stay with Saboor at Qamar Haveli,” she had revealed, blurting out the words. “I am going to dissolve my marriage, leave Saboor with his family, and then go on to Afghanistan with my uncle and aunt.”
“But you must not do such a terrible thing.” His face had filled with dismay. “If you leave your husband and his family, if you leave Saboor, you will beall alone!”
After his shocked protest, he had left her to watch the groom and the mare with Saboor on her back as they walked carefully along the margin of the central pool, their figures reflected brokenly in the rippling water.
Saboor now waited outside her tent, bathed and ready. Told that he would soon see his father, he had danced with excitement. For all his prescience at other times, he seemed not to have guessed that the price of regaining his home and family was to lose her forever.
She pushed the tiny buttons of her gown rapidly through their loops. It would be best for him to live at Qamar Haveli, of course it would. That venerable house was full of his own people, many of them children who had fussed adoringly over him when he was last there, taking turns carrying him up and down, shrieking with pleasure as they dragged him across the floor, their small hands under his arms.
He would forget her in time“Lavender's blue, diddle diddle,Lavender's green.When I am king, diddle diddle,You shall be queen….”
An hour later Mariana sat up stiffly against the hard pillows in her palanquin, singing one of Saboor's bedtime songs, more to comfort herself than to entertain him.
After only one stanza, she fell silent. It was no use; he was too excited to listen.
“An-nah, open the side! I want to look out!” he cried, clambering over her in the cramped box, his elbow digging into her middle, his animated face inches from hers.
Outside, the bearers panted rhythmically as they ran, the sound of their breathing joined by the clopping of horses’ hooves: Uncle Adrian's, the Vulture's, and those of two officers of the armed guard. They seemed to be covering the three miles to the walled city at an unnatural speed, but it was only Mariana's dread of arrival that made it seem so.
Pushing down her sadness, she fumbled with the side panel and let Saboor put his head out through the opening.
Uncle Adrian believed the Waliullahs would be loath to part with her. “Remember, Mariana,” he had told her as they waited for her palanquin, “that the Shaikh may be very reluctant to give up a European daughter-in-law. As Mr. Clerk and I are experienced with natives and know exactly what to say, I advise you to remain silent. Do not interferein any waywith our negotiations.”
As they approached the walled city, she pulled Saboor inside and closed the panel against the stares of the men on the road, as remembered smells of cooking spices, sewage, and bitter charcoal floated into the palanquin.
“I'm going to see my Abba!” Saboor crowed as they passed under the Delhi Gate and into the crowded alleyways of the city.
While he bounced on Mariana's lap, she listened to the cries of hawkers and the voice of hersirdarbearer ordering passersby out of the way. “Move out, move out!” he called as the palanquin moved slowly along, its sides scraping against the edges of buildings and the bodies of pack animals.
The crowd thinned and the palanquin slowed. Mariana heard the sound of great doors thudding open, and horses’ hooves echoing in an entranceway.
They had arrived.
A short while later she heard a gate creaking open. She did not need to look out to know that they were now in the Shaikh's courtyard. Was the Shaikh waiting for them in the sunlight on his padded platform, surrounded by his usual silent crowd of followers?
No, of course not. The meeting would be held indoors. Knowing she was coming, the Shaikh would have arranged for her to be shielded from the eyes of men.
“Saboor has come,” said a voice. “Yes, he has come,” agreed another.
No one mentioned her.
The palanquin stopped. Saboor had started up before it was safely on the ground. “Hurry, An-nah. I want to get down!”
Mariana looked out. A temporary-looking canvas wall blocked her view of the neat courtyard where, two years earlier, the Shaikh had cured a showily dressed snakebite victim, then interviewed her in the starlight. Above her head, silent filigreed balconies looked down upon the courtyard and the palanquin in its temporary enclosure. Was Safiya Sultana, the Shaikh's poet sister, watching from behind the latticework shutters, while other ladies crowded about her, craning to see?
“A-jao,Saboor,” male voices called enticingly from behind the canvas. “Come to us!”
Before she knew it, Saboor had scrambled over her lap and onto the ground. An instant later, he rounded the canvas screen and was gone.
It was too late to embrace him, too late to say good-bye. Before Mariana had time to cry out, her uncle appeared at her side.
“We must hurry,” he urged. “The Shaikh is inside.” He helped her to her feet, took her firmly by the elbow, and steered her toward the open doorway, tightening his grip when she turned, searching desperately over her shoulder for a last glimpse of Saboor.
Tribal rugs covered the floor of the cool, whitewashed room. Large bolsters in brightly embroidered covers lay along the walls. Three upright chairs stood together. At the room's end, in front of a filigreed window, the Shaikh rose to meet his guests.
He was exactly as Mariana remembered him: a wiry man with a wrinkled, animated face, whose tall, starched headdress rose above jutting ears. His gaze, as before, held a magnetic, suppressed power.
His feet were bare. Belatedly, she remembered that they should have left their shoes outside the door.
“As-salaam-o-aleikum,may peace be upon you.” The Shaikh gestured amicably toward the chairs, then seated himself on his dais, his feet close to his body, his clothes falling into graceful folds. Mariana sat, arranged her skirts, and pushed wandering curls under her bonnet. The Shaikh had not asked which of the two men was Mariana's uncle, but she had no doubt that he already knew.
“Welcome to this house,” he said in polite Urdu. “I trust your journey was not too difficult?”
His words were informal, as if meant for family members. Mariana glanced at her uncle and saw he had noticed the same thing.
“Our journey was quite pleasant,” Uncle Adrian replied gravely in his excellent Urdu, “and little Saboor seems to have enjoyed it. The child has been looking forward to meeting you and the rest of your family again, after all this time.”
The Shaikh inclined his head.
“But we have not come solely to meet you, Shaikh Sahib, although it has given us great pleasure to do so,” Uncle Adrian continued. “Other considerations have brought us to Lahore. We have come to ask for your indulgence in the matter of my niece.”
Why did Saboor not come to her? Mariana half-listened to her uncle, her senses tuned to the sounds in the courtyard.
“We have come to request that the marriage between your son Hassan and my niece Mariana be terminated.”
“Terminated?” Mariana could almost hear the Shaikh's eyebrows rise.
But wherewasSaboor? Surely this was not the end. Surely she would see him again, if only to say good-bye
“We understand,” the Vulture interpolated smoothly, “thatallthe requirements of the marriage have not been met. We therefore ask for the dissolution of thecontract,not the marriageitself,since, technically, thereisno marriage.”
Mariana froze. How mortifying that the Vulture knew her story….
“And, may I know,” the Shaikh inquired, “the reason for this request?”
Uncle Adrian cleared his throat. “My niece is English. Her life and her expectations are those of an Englishwoman. She entered this marriage hastily two years ago, without consulting us, and she now faces the prospect of living as a native lady in a style that is quite foreign to her. I am certain that your family must have had similar feelings. Surely,” he added, “you would prefer your son to marry among his own people?”
This part of his speech accomplished, Uncle Adrian relaxed his grip on the arm of his upright chair.
Qamar Haveli was indeed foreign, Mariana thought, with its strange food, strange languages, no riding and no picnics, but none of that mattered to her now….
A sound came from outside. Silhouetted against the light, a small figure peered into the room. “An-nah?” he called.
She was halfway out of her chair before her uncle's fingers closed firmly on her wrist.
“My niece is not suited to the life of thezenana,” Uncle Adrian continued, pulling her down again. “We believe it is in the interest of your family as well as ours that she leave quietly and without hindrance.”
But the Shaikh had ceased to listen. A hand upraised, he turned to Mariana. “And what,” he inquired, skewering her with his gaze as Saboor pattered away, “does the lady Mariam have to say? Does she, too, wish to dissolve her marriage to my son?”
Mariana blinked, hearing his version of her name. The Shaikh's gaze, deep and knowing, brought back their first encounter two years earlier when, as tired as she was, she had wanted to stay beside him forever in that dark, shadowed courtyard. He had read her thoughts so easily that night
She would never see him again after her divorce, nor would she see his twin sister, the philosopher-poet who had attracted her so strongly two years earlier, and whom she had longed to embrace during her last moments in this house. Never, she realized, had she been so powerfully drawn to anyone as she had been drawn to these two. They had attracted her imagination and her heart as the flame attracts the moth. Yet once she was divorced, Qamar Haveli and everyone in it would be as inaccessible to her as Heaven itself. Her beloved Saboor and his stranger father, the Shaikh and his sister would all disappear from her life, and with them, the elusive something that had called to her, siren-like, throughout her stay in Calcutta.
Your path lies to the northwest,the man had told her at the Charak Puja ten months before.You must return there to find your destiny.
Uncle Adrian nodded encouragingly. The Vulture stared impatiently out through the doorway.
“Speak, Bibi,” commanded the Shaikh.
Go on,” urged Uncle Adrian. “I do not know, Shaikh Sahib,” Mariana whispered, unable to stop herself. “I do not know.”
Uncle Adrian started painfully, as if she had stabbed him in the back. The Vulture snorted in disgust.
What had she done?“I'm sorry, Uncle Adrian,” she murmured, reaching out to touch her uncle. “It's just that I—”
“Little fool!” snapped the Vulture. “You've played right into his hands!”
An invisible man laughed beyond the canvas screen.
“So,” the Shaikh observed as he adjusted the shawl on his shoulders, “Mariam Bibi is uncertain of her opinion.”
“Of course she is uncertain, Shaikh Sahib.” The Vulture smiled thinly. “She is a woman. We all know how capricious—”
“Yes, sheisa woman,” put in the Shaikh. His voice took on an instructive tone. “Among Muslims, a woman must decide for herself regarding her marriage, and, if necessary, her divorce. Since the dissolution of marriage is a very serious matter, if a woman wants to divorce her husband, she must say so herself.”
There was something immovable about the way he sat on his dais, his eyes fixed on his guests. Mariana stiffened beneath the Vulture's furious gaze.
Uncle Adrian stirred uncomfortably. “We had, of course, consulted my niece before we came here. I don't understand how—”
“I should add,” the Shaikh continued, “that our offer of marriage was made after much consideration. Mariam's bride gift has already been arranged. She now owns a house near the Delhi Gate. It has a yellow door. We will show it to you. Her jewelry is with my sister.”
They had given herproperty?Mariana watched Uncle Adrian and the Vulture exchange an astonished glance.
“We have no intention of keeping your gifts,” returned the Vulture rudely. “We must not let him think he can buy the girl,” he murmured in English.
The Shaikh turned to Uncle Adrian. “You suggest that Mariam will suffer among my family ladies. You should know that those ladies love and respect her, and that they have longed for her return since the day she left us.”
“Shaikh Sahib,” Uncle Adrian put in effortfully, “we have no doubt that your family is kindly disposed toward my niece. It is just that we feel she should remain with her own people.”
The Shaikh inclined his head, causing his starched headdress to tip toward them. “Lamb Sahib, you have stated your opinion, as I have stated mine. But the question of divorce is not ours to decide. If Mariam is, in fact, determined to divorce my son, they must decide together what is to be done. It is fortunate that Hassan is in Lahore,” he concluded, waving a hand toward the courtyard. “He arrived only this morning to celebrate the return of his wife and son. He will meet with Mariam in a moment, but first I will tell you a story. It is intended for Mariam, but I believe you gentlemen may find it interesting.”
Out of the Shaikh's sight, Mr. Clerk's foot began to vibrate beneath his chair. Uncle Adrian took out a handkerchief and mopped his face.
“In his shop,” the Shaikh began unhurriedly, “a jeweler sat before two heaps of semiprecious stones, picking stones from one heap and dropping them, one by one, onto the other.
“ ‘What are you doing?’ asked a passing friend.
“ ‘I am sorting through my stones,’ replied the jeweler, ‘to make certain that there is no precious gem in the lot.’
“When the friend passed by again, he saw that the jeweler was now picking the same stones from the second heap and dropping them back onto the first.
“ ‘What are you doing now?’ asked the friend.
“ ‘I was careless in my sorting,’ replied the jeweler, ‘and missed a lovely emerald. I have now gone back to find it.’
“ ‘Ah, you are looking for an emerald,’ said the friend. ‘That explains why you have thrown away a diamond.’ ”
The Shaikh did not look at Mariana, but she felt his attention on her, reading her thoughts, uncovering her secret hopes of Harry Fitzgerald.
“And now,” he said, gesturing toward the doorway, “if you gentlemen will come with me, I will bring you to my visitors’ room for green tea. Mariam Bibi may remain here to wait for my son. It is best, is it not, for husband and wife to make this decision alone?”
“Now see the damage you have caused,” the Vulture hissed as he passed Mariana on his way to the door.
“You little fool!” Uncle Adrian's voice was thick with anger. “You should never have shown the strength of your feelings for Saboor. You have given the Shaikh precisely what he wants, and now you must face his son alone. Whatever you do, you mustnotblunder again, Mariana. Say as little as possible, andstick to your argument.”
Left alone, Mariana looked about the chilly, whitewashed room. Now, at the last moment, she understood what she wanted. She must somehow dissolve her marriage to Hassan without losing Saboor or his tantalizing family.
It should not be difficult to persuade Hassan to divorce her, provided that his pride that she was European did not complicate matters. But surely he would see the benefit of marriage to one of his own women, someone who understood his habits, who would be satisfied to spend her life in the upstairs ladies’ quarters of his house.
But would he allow her to visit Qamar Haveli after their divorce? Shemustfind a way to embrace Saboor again, to sit once more in the presence of the Shaikh, to lean on a bolster on the floor of the ladies’ sitting room and study the calm power that radiated from Safiya Sultana. She sighed. They were all of a piece this fascinating trio: the prescient Saboor, his magnetic grandfather, Safiya herself….
Mariana pictured Safiya in the upstairs room overlooking the courtyard outside, presiding over the score of women of all sizes and ages who sat, shrouded in their soft, loose clothing, waiting for her.
When she had left that upstairs room two years earlier, Mariana had failed to say good-bye. Ordered to kiss the silk-wrapped Qur'an, she had felt it pressed against her lips, and then had started down the stone staircase without a backward glance. The ladies had begun their waiting then. Now, the force of their expectation seemed to reach into the sitting room and wrap itself around Mariana's body, drawing her invisibly toward them.
Surely Safiya would see her passion for Saboor and her desire to understand them all. Surely, after the divorce, Safiya would give her the few days she needed, would allow her the time to say a proper good-bye
Mariana drew her shawls closer and pushed her hands into the sleeves of her gown.Be resolute,her uncle had said over his shoulder as the Shaikh led him away.If you do not escape now, it will be too late.
A sound at the door made her start. A tall man stepped into the room on bare feet and stopped short, studying her, his back to the light, a child bouncing in his arms.
“Peace,” the man offered.
“An-nah, Abba is here!” Saboor struggled to get down, then rushed to Mariana and threw himself against her knees. Her eyes closed, she gathered him to her breast, but in a moment he had galloped away again and wrapped his arms about his father's leg with a child's fierce, rediscovered love.
“My father says you have something to tell me.” Hassan again picked up his son and moved to the dais, his embroidered coat moving gracefully about his ankles. As he drew the child onto his lap his scent reached her, sweet, mysterious, different from the one she remembered.
He had changed. The broad, neatly bearded face she remembered had thinned. Beneath a crocheted skullcap, his eyes seemed wary and tired. He wore a distracted air, as if he had abandoned important work to meet her. His eyes drifted toward the open doorway as if he were waiting for someone.
It would be best to speak plainly. “I have come,” she announced, “to ask for the dissolution of our marriage.”
Hassan stiffened under his elegant clothes. “And?” he asked, frowning over his son's head, his tone as impersonal as the letter he had sent her.
Saboor's animated body had gone still. An instant later he climbed down from his father's lap and ran out through the doorway. She caught her breath, afraid he had understood her words.
“We do not know each other.” Her uncle's urgent voice still rang in her ears. She forced her words out rapidly, schooling herself not to run after Saboor. “Our lives are different. My food, my customs, my language are all unlike yours. I ride ahorse.I go out dressed likethis.”She pointed to her unveiled, bonneted self, her tight bodice, her English stripes, the shoes she should have taken off outside the doorway. “How could I be happy, living here with your family?”
Hassan shrugged. “You should have thought of all that before you accepted our proposal in front of the Maharajah's court two years ago. People are still laughing at the way you thrust yourself on us.”
Thrust yourself on us.So much for the supposed honor of having a white wife. “But your father sent a letter proposing our marriage,” she insisted. “I saw it myself.”
“That was a private matter, not something to be announced in public by the prospective bride.” He sighed. “But you did it, and it cannot be changed now.”
He had rested his elbows on his knees. Gold gleamed on brown, smoothly tapered fingers. She had forgotten the extraordinary beauty of his hands.
She took her eyes from his hands and drew herself up. “I'm sorry if I offended you,” she said, “and I'm sorry to have changed my mind. It's not that I do not like your family. I hope to be able to come back again and visit later on. But for now, please, just agree to divorce me.”
He seemed scarcely to be listening. “And Saboor? What of him? Have you forgotten that you were seen in a dream, that you are his guardian for life?”
“Please.”She closed her eyes. “Do not speak of Saboor.”
“I married you for his sake. It is your duty to protect him, and my duty to be your husband. How can you not understand this after two years?”
There was no deception in his tired, brown gaze.
“But that dream came fromyourside,” she argued, “not from mine. My people do not act upon dreams. How can I be held to a promise I never made?”
“But youdidpromise. You agreed to marry me. It is yourkismet,your destiny to be here in the Punjab, with us.”
Your path lies to the northwest,the soothsayer had told her. Invisible coils seemed to tighten about her. But Kabul was also to the northwest—Harry Fitzgerald was there, with his fine profile, his crooked, knowing smile. He would take her back, wouldn't he? He would give her children, wouldn't he? They would take Saboor's place in her heart, wouldn't they?
“Your clothes don't matter,” Hassan went on, changing the subject. “My aunt Safiya has made you twenty-one changes of clothing. And please,” he added, flatly, frowning at her, “do something about your clothes and attend to your skin. Your hair has fallen out of that thing you're wearing on your head, and I can see that it needs oiling. You were perfectly all right when I married you. I cannot imagine how you could have let yourself go so badly. I hardly recognized you.”
“My appearance has nothing to do with it,” she replied, stung by his words. “I am only trying to—”
“Hassan Sahib-Ji,” called a voice from behind the canvas wall, “Faqeer Azizuddin Sahib is calling for you.”
“I must ask your leave to go.” Without waiting for her reply, Hassan gathered his fine coat around him and rose to his feet.
“But we haven't decided about—”
“You will stay here, of course.” He waved upward, toward the row of filigreed windows overlooking the courtyard. “My aunts have been waiting all morning for you,” he added as he stepped over the sitting-room threshold and into a pair of embroidered slippers with upturned toes.
Unexpectedly, he offered her a half-smile. “We will discuss this nonsense of yours later, when I can find the time.”
As he disappeared around the corner of the canvas barrier, Mariana heard Saboor's excited voice. “Where are we going now, Abba,” he cried, “where are we going?”
As Saboor's voice faded, the call to prayer floated into the sitting room from Wazir Khan's Mosque.“Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!”cried the muezzin from his minaret. “God is great! God is great!”
* * *
“BUT HOW did you fail to make Hassan understand?” demanded Uncle Adrian fifteen minutes later, after he and the Vulture had come to fetch her from the sitting room. “Did you not speak clearly? Have you forgotten your Urdu?”
“I wasquiteclear, Uncle Adrian,” Mariana replied. “Hassandidunderstand, but he scarcely listened to what I was saying. Then someone called to him from outside, and he went away.”
“Did he show any sign of agreeing to the divorce?”
“I do not know, Uncle Adrian. He said I must stay here with his family, and that we can talk more about it when we meet again. He seems very busy at the Citadel.”
The realization struck her all at once: here was the perfect solution to her dilemma! If she stayed at the haveli now, she would have time to learn from the Shaikh and his sister, time to spend with Saboor,beforethe divorce. Then, having gained all she could from the Waliullah family, she would be able to bear it if they refused to let her return.
“May I get my things and come back, Uncle Adrian?” Please, please, let him allow her to stay! Her eyes on his face, she ignored the Vulture, who twitched impatiently at her uncle's side.
“Do not be ridiculous, Mariana.” Her uncle's tone brooked no argument. “You have no idea of the perils you would face, left alone with those people.”
“Wait.” His face brightening, the Vulture held up a bony hand. “The Shaikh's son is assistant to the Foreign Minister, is he not? And he was called away in the middle of an important interview with Miss Givens? Hah!I knew it.There must be news of Sher Singh. He must be coming to seize the city. Why else would Hassan have left in the middle of that conversation?”
Uncle Adrian stared. “But what has—”
“Since the attack may be quite soon,” the Vulture went on, “then Miss Givens's divorce should be accomplished as rapidly as possible. If staying a night or two among the Shaikh's ladies is required for her to gain another interview with her husband, I see no harm in it. And,” he added meaningfully, “any information Miss Givens might come upon whilst she visits the natives of this house would be ofimmeasurablevalue to us. We are, of course, most interested in the fate of the Punjab.”
Of all the unexpected people to have taken her side! Mariana beamed at him.
“Youmay see no harm in her staying here, Mr. Clerk,” her uncle put in sharply, “but her aunt will, I am sure, take a very different view of that idea.”
January 12, 1841
You must be mad,” Aunt Claire cried from her folding chair the next morning. “I willnotallow Mariana to stay forone momentin a native city full of filth and disgusting diseases!” She glared at her husband from beneath her parasol. “If you send her there, Adrian, I shallneverspeak to you again.”
“Yes, my dear,” he soothed, while Mariana fidgeted desperately beside him. “I do not much like the idea myself, but in order to be divorced, Marianamuststay for a day or two with the child's family. We cannot give up now, after coming all this way. She has been there before, you know, and they have never done her any harm. Mr. Clerk is very much in favor of the idea.”
“And what of the attack on the city that everyone is talking about? Mariana could be trapped in the fighting. She might be—”
“Sher Singh has not yet arrived in Lahore.” Uncle Adrian's basket chair creaked under him as he brushed an ant from his sleeve. “Even after he comes, it will be some time before he is ready to storm the Citadel. Mariana must escape her marriage now,beforethe attack, if there is to be one. No one can guess what will happen to Lahore in future. For all we know, a month from now it may be impossible even to enter the city.”
“If I do not go to Qamar Haveli now,” Mariana blurted out, “I shall never,everbe divorced.”
It was unfair to be short with Aunt Claire, but she was too heartbroken and anxious to stop herself. Since she had stepped out of her palanquin at Shalimar, she had thought of nothing but Saboor.
Uncle Adrian's “There, there, my dear, it is for the best,” was all the sympathy she had received. Aunt Claire had not even acknowledged her grief, choosing instead to tell her an interminable story about a lost lace handkerchief.
No one at Shalimar understood her. Dittoo had refused to speak to her since she had told him the truth of her plan. Ghulam Ali had vanished without a word, back to his employment at the Shaikh's house, presumably too disgusted to say good-bye.
“Do not take your temper out on me, Mariana,” returned her aunt. “If you must sit and scowl, then sit on a horse and scowl at the natives.”
“Yes, go on, Mariana,” agreed her uncle. “It is a nice, bright day. A ride will do you good.”
Ten minutes later, Mariana approached her tent cautiously, on the lookout for Dittoo, but found him gone. Saboor's bedding was gone. His small trunk of clothes and the little bullock cart with real wheels, carved for him by Ghulam Ali, were both missing, confiscated, presumably, by Dittoo. Mariana's tent, for all its pleasant furnishings, looked comfortless and bare.
What was Saboor doing now? Did he miss her? Had he gone easily to sleep last night without her songs and nonsense rhymes? Shemustsee him again. Otherwise, the cruel abruptness of this ending would poison the rest of her life.
Fighting tears, she struggled into her riding habit and top hat. When Dittoo still did not appear, she shouted, her voice breaking, for the sweeper to go and call for a horse and groom.
How would she bear it if Aunt Claire forbade her to go to Qamar Haveli? What would happen if Sher Singh attacked the city before she was able to get to the Shaikh's house?
She raised her chin. She must not entertain such thoughts. Surely Aunt Claire would give in under pressure from Uncle Adrian and the Vulture, and allow her to return to the walled city. Surely Sher Singh would not appear with his army before that decision had been taken….
She opened her door blind and nodded to the frail young groom who had brought her mare. One thing was certain. If she were allowed to return to Qamar Haveli, she would stay there more than one or two days. In fact, she would remain in the walled city as long as she possibly could.
As she rode toward the garden's main entrance, she saw the Vulture sitting outside his tent, deep in conversation with two coarsely turbaned men who squatted on the ground by his chair, long-barreledjezailsslung across their backs. A heavily loaded camel knelt nearby. The men looked like tribesmen of some kind, Afghans perhaps. The Vulture glanced up from his visitors and offered her a conspiratorial nod. Ignored by the tribesmen, she replied with a solemn little nod of her own.
Without his support she would never go back to Qamar Haveli. It seemed the least she could do.
If God willed, she would leave for Qamar Haveli the next morning. An hour after that, she would again hold Saboor in her arms
The road west of Shalimar was quiet. A herd of bleating goats, a file of women with baskets on their heads, and a group of mounted soldiers wearing chain mail vests over their ordinary clothes were all the traffic Mariana saw as she followed the old road past a deserted walled garden and several small mud villages. A well creaked in the distance, powered by a pair of oxen. The air smelled of dust and dung fires.
An interesting-looking ruin, a house perhaps, or a tomb, lay a quarter of a mile off, between two large stands of thorn trees. Intrigued, Mariana rode toward it, but before she had reached its outer wall the sound of hoofbeats and shouting arose behind her.
A runaway horse galloped toward her across a stretch of open ground, its rider swaying dangerously on its back. Far behind, two men, presumably the horse's grooms, pelted along on foot, losing ground with every step. Such a large cloud of dust enveloped the runaway animal that it took Mariana a moment to realize that the horse was Ali Baba and his imperiled rider was Lady Macnaghten.
He seemed to be coming straight for Mariana. Intending to get out of the way, she kicked her own mount, but before her horse had time to move, Ali Baba had thundered past, foaming at the mouth, too close for safety. An instant later, he was gone, with Lady Macnaghten flopping blindly on his back, her top hat fallen over her eyes, the reins lost, her arms about his neck.
The grooms were too far behind to be of any use. Mariana kicked her mare again and gave chase.
Her own mount would be no match, even for a tiring Ali Baba. Mariana urged the mare to a gallop, but before she had time to despair of catching the Arab, he changed direction and careened toward a mud village whose entire population seemed to have emerged from inside to watch the show. A hundred yards from its walls Ali Baba halted abruptly and stood still, his head hanging, as if he wanted someone to tell him what to do next.
This last was too much for his tottering passenger. As he came to a stop, Lady Macnaghten toppled slowly to the ground and lay un-moving in a heap of expensive gray worsted.
The villagers and Mariana all arrived simultaneously upon the scene. She glanced behind her, to see Lady Macnaghten's two grooms sloping toward them, in no hurry, it seemed, to learn the outcome of this disaster.
Without being asked, a square, barefooted man took hold of Ali Baba's bridle and led him a little way off, while the others gathered in a silent circle about Lady Macnaghten, their brown faces intent.
Lady Macnaghten stirred, rose painfully to her feet and took in the villagers standing shoulder to shoulder around her.
“My horse!” she cried out in English. “Where is my horse?”
When the people crowded closer without answering, she spun about, her eyes wide beneath dusty, loosening hair.“Which of you has stolen Ali Baba?”
She did not see Mariana dismount and hand the mare's reins to a second bystander. “Make way,” Mariana ordered quietly.
The crowd parted obligingly, revealing Lady Macnaghten dancing with rage and fright in its center.
“I'll have you all hanged,” she shouted, still in English, her face contorted. “Hanged, I say! I'll teach you to steal an Englishwoman's horse!”
At the sight of Mariana, she blinked as if she had seen a mirage.
“The villagers mean you no harm,” Mariana offered, as she bent to rescue Lady Macnaghten's sadly dented top hat. “They are only curious. Ali Baba is here,” she added, taking Lady Macnaghten's arm. “He seems quiet enough now, but I think you should get onto my mare. I shall ride Ali Baba back to Shalimar.”
Lady Macnaghten's grooms arrived and helped her onto Mariana's mare, where she sat shakily, kneading her right arm. Still holding the crushed top hat, Mariana climbed onto the drooping, sweat-covered Ali Baba and clucked encouragingly. Without another word they set off at a walk for the camp.
The road in front of them was quiet. A bullock cart creaked along, piled high with straw. The armed soldiers rode past again, this time going the other way, guarding a quick-moving donkey cart in which two bareheaded prisoners, their arms tied behind their backs, struggled to keep their balance. A man followed them on foot, leading a loaded camel.
Mariana pointed to a stand of trees. “Shall we stop there?” she asked politely, not certain how to treat this new, weakened version of Lady Macnaghten. “We can get off some of the dust.”
“It was a cobra,” Lady Macnaghten offered a little querulously, when they reached the trees. “I had expected to go for only a short ride, but when we passed some thorn trees, it reared up unexpectedly. Ali Baba saw it first. He bolted before I even took in what it was.”
“Hmm.” Mariana could not agree to such an obvious untruth. Lady Macnaghten, stiff, awkward rider that she was, had been quite mad to ride Ali Baba, and he had simply taken advantage of her. But one thing was clear—the woman had nerve: first to have ridden the Arab, and second to have defended him, however wrongly, against the villagers. Courage was the last virtue Mariana had expected to find in Lady Macnaghten.
“Mr. Clerk advised me this morning not to ride such a difficult horse. My husband, too, begged me never to do it.” Lady Macnaghten pushed her hair from her face and sighed tragically. “I only wanted to give him a little exercise.”
Mariana nodded silently. She had done more than that. She had worn him quite out.
“I am afraid of what they will say.” Lady Macnaghten's voice trembled. “I fear they will all laugh at me.”
“Laugh at you? There's no one at camp but us.”
“Mr. Clerk will laugh at me. He's not a nice man, you know.
He'll tell the other officers, and they'll tell more people. You do not know how much I dread being talked about.”
Speechless at the irony of that remark, Mariana could only look away.
“What am I to do?” Lady Macnaghten went on, poking dispiritedly at her ruined habit. “How can I return to camp like this?” She swallowed. “I have been unkind to you,” she whispered. “I thought you had—but you hadn't. My husband told me all about your wedding night. I do not know what to do about Charles, after he did that awful—” She looked away. “He has done it before. That is how I knew.”
Mariana did not reply. Instead she nudged Ali Baba closer, and brushed the dust from Lady Macnaghten's riding clothes. She knocked the dents from the top hat and set it on Lady Macnaghten's head.
“Why,” Lady Macnaghten added, her eyes still averted, “are you being good to me after I have been so cruel?”
She had been cruel, but now she was bruised, frightened, and as disheveled as Mariana had ever been. And she had had the nerve to ride an impossible horse against everyone's advice, and to stand up to native villagers in spite of her fear.
Without answering, Mariana took out her pocket-handkerchief and carefully wiped the dust and the tears of shame from Lady Macnaghten's face.
So,” Yusuf Bhatti asked that same afternoon as he and Hassan returned from Batala for the second time that week, “now that Sher Singh is preparing to attack Lahore, is there a chance that the Rani will soften her position and allow him to rule?”
“No chance at all. She has been buying every general she can find with cash and treasure. Sher Singh is doing the same, of course. Between them, they have entirely corrupted our magnificent army.” Hassan slapped dust from his clothes. “Thesirdarsare choosing sides now, each man desperate to be in the winning camp.” He sighed. “I suppose one cannot blame people for trying to save themselves when their very lives and fortunes are at stake.
“I tell you, Yusuf,” he added as they edged their way past a file of heavily loaded camels, “more than anything, I fear the double-dealing of the British. From what I can tell, their Political Agent is deeply involved in the dispute between the Rani and Sher Singh. He has been making promises and giving encouragement to both sides. Few people see it, Yusuf, but I believe the British are the real enemy of the Punjab.”
“I hate to mention this, but have you considered your wife's position?” Yusuf paused, choosing his words carefully. “Is it possible that the same Political Agent has ordered her to—”
“No,” Hassan snapped. “She is no spy. But then there is—”
He looked away from his friend, his shoulders sagging.
Yusuf sighed. The woman had been in Lahore for only two days, and he could see that she was already giving Hassan trouble. The poor fellow had no luck with females. It should have been enough that his first wife died
Like the Shaikh's talkative follower who had broached the subject on that June afternoon, Yusuf believed Hassan should marry again. Ever since the Englishwoman's departure two years earlier, Yusuf had done his best to hammer sense into his friend. Prevented by delicacy from inquiring into Hassan's private feelings about the woman, he had nonetheless offered his advice, first suggesting, then encouraging, and finally ordering Hassan to take himself another, Punjabi wife.
“Our women are beautiful,” he had insisted. “They are the envy of India. A good Punjabi wife will give you six, seven more sons.”
But Hassan had remained immovable. “Yusuf,” he had said finally, “our family men do not keep two wives.”
Yusuf had dropped the subject after that. There was no sense in arguing with the Waliullahs. Like all mystics, they were an impractical lot who relied upon dreams and visions when they ought to be making sense. It had been exactly like Shaikh Waliullah, God bless him, to force his son to wed a foreign woman because of a horse-groom's dream, and it was just like the son to stubbornly refuse to see the hopelessness of his marriage.
What did Hassan see in that noisy, unmanageable woman, beyond her fondness for his son? Surely he had not come to love her….
As they waited for her return, Yusuf had tried to forget what he had witnessed two years before: that same female writhing on the floor of her tent in the agonies of snakebite, her clothing bunching about her legs. It had covered him with shame then, to have seen the face of his friend's second wife. That he had seen more than her face was too horrible to dwell upon.
To be sure, she had proved herself courageous by rescuing Saboor twice from serious danger, but in Yusuf's view nothing she had done warranted Hassan's chaining himself to her forever. If only there were some way to get him out of that mistaken alliance….
“The British are trying to dissolve my marriage,” Hassan said abruptly.
“What? How do you know?” Yusuf slapped at a fly on his horse's neck, concealing his satisfaction at this news.
“Their Political Agent and her uncle brought my wife to Qamar Haveli yesterday. They tried to make my father agree to a divorce. The reasons they offered were perfect nonsense. When my father asked her straight out whether she wished to divorce me, she could not reply. When I spoke to her myself later on, she became confused.” He smiled bitterly. “I don't think she even remembered what they told her to say.”
“But why would the British interfere with your family matters? Surely they have more serious work to do.”
“Perhaps they wish to sever my wife's connection with Lahore before Sher Singh attacks. If so, then at least they are honorable enough to protect one of their women.”
Yusuf nodded. “When will Sher Singh march on Lahore?”
Hassan shrugged. “Soon, if things continue as they are. By the time this contest is finished, nothing will be left of the kingdom.”
A hollow booming came from the direction of the city. Yusuf raised his head. “Artillery fire! What are those fools doing now?”
As both horses lunged into a gallop, the two men leaned forward, their loose clothing flapping behind them.
A messenger rode out through the Delhi Gate and waved to them. “Come quickly,” he shouted above the bustle of the crowded roadway. There is a greattamashaoutside the Fort. They are blowing men from cannon!”
On the plain below the Citadel's walls, a large body of infantry, some in flowing native dress, others in cast-off European coats and cross belts, had been marshaled to form three sides of a square. Inside the square, a trio of twelve-pound cannon had been set up to face the open side. Trussed and tied over the mouths of the guns were three men, one only a boy, scarcely old enough to have a beard.
“Sons of foulness,” Yusuf cursed loudly as he and Hassan guided their mounts through a thick press of shouting onlookers, all striving for a better view. “Which sons of shame have done this?”
“Lower your voice, Yusuf,” Hassan cautioned. “This is what the Rani does to please the British. She cannot give them the Koh-i-noor diamond, so she executes Afghans to please them.”
The condemned men did not flinch. None of the three faces showed fear, not even the boy's, but their bodies had already betrayed them. Yusuf could see that their hands and feet had gone rigid. The boy'sshalwarwas soaked from his groin to his ankles.
“Look there.” Yusuf gestured. “They have caught your trader and his fat-faced assistant.”
Across the firing ground, guarded by soldiers, a dozen more Afghans squatted in a row, their heads bared, their arms tied behind their backs. Some had narrow, hawk-like faces and some did not, but all had the same emotionless demeanor as the men on the guns. All save two were dressed in coarse, ragged clothing.
Hassan followed his friend's gaze, then wheeled his horse.
“You said you did not trust Zulmai and his friend,” Yusuf argued, as they began to circle the crowd. “Perhaps you were right.”
Hassan stared in surprise. “Those men are human beings, Yusuf.”
He kicked his horse into a gallop, and charged toward the prisoners, with Yusuf beside him. Someone shouted an order. The three cannon fired, almost in unison.
A cloud of black smoke obscured the scene in front of the gun barrels, then drifted toward the two horsemen, filling their eyes as they calmed their startled mounts.
When the smoke lifted, Yusuf grunted in disgust.
The area in front of the cannon had been sprayed with blood. Body parts littered the dirt. Prodded by their officers, a few reluctant soldiers tied their turban ends over their faces and moved to cut down the shredded remains that still hung from the gun barrels.
Yusuf noticed a tall European in dusty black clothes standing at the front of the pushing crowd, observing the carnage with undisguised satisfaction. While Yusuf watched, the man glanced toward the waiting prisoners, caught the Afghan trader's eye, and started abruptly.
“What is this?” Hassan had reined in his horse. He glared down upon the Punjabi officer guarding the trussed prisoners. “What have these men done? Who has ordered these executions?”
From the corner of his eye, Yusuf watched the tall foreigner move closer, then hesitate, listening.
The officer shrugged. “The Rani's orders,” he replied. “These men are unregistered criminals.”
Beside Zulmai, young Habibullah looked up, hope lighting his face. Behind them both, the other prisoners knelt impassively on the ground.
Hassan pointed to the two traders. “These men are no criminals. I know them personally. Let them go at once.”
“They are spies for the Rani's enemies,” offered a soldier, pointing his gun barrel into Habibullah's face for emphasis.
“No, they are spies for the British,” put in another.
“Let them go,” Hassan repeated.
The officer spat. “Pathans are vermin. They rob and beat people for nothing. They kill the English who travel through the passes to Afghanistan.” He gestured vaguely. “Even if these men have not yet committed such crimes, they will. They always do. Why should we wait? We may as well kill them now.”
“Let them go, son of a pig!” Yusuf bellowed. “These men are not even Pathans. Can you not tell a Tajik when you see one?”
“Wait, Yusuf,” Hassan murmured. He dismounted and approached the officer. “Come this way if you will,” he said politely, gesturing away from the soldiers and their prisoners. “We can speak over there.”
As Hassan and the officer moved away, Yusuf looked among the crowd for the black-coated Englishman, but he was gone.
A moment later, Hassan and the officer returned. While Yusuf watched, the officer jerked his head toward Zulmai and Habibullah. “You may leave now,” he grunted, then glowered his own startled men into silence before pointing toward the back of the crowd. “Your camel is over there. As for the rest of you,” he added, jerking his head, “go.”
“But why are you setting them free? You have only killed six of them!” protested someone in the crowd.
“Do not let them go! Kill them, kill them!” shouted the others.
The officer waved his musket menacingly. “Disperse!” he thundered. “Disperse, before we kill you instead.”
“DO NOT cut it,” said Zulmai sharply a little while later, his upper arms still tied behind his back. “That's my turban.”
“So it is.” Yusuf sheathed his knife, then smiled crookedly at the sight of Hassan carefully untying the yards of coarse cotton fabric holding Zulmai's arms together.
Habibullah had already kissed their hands. Zulmai had nodded his thanks, and the twelve other, ragged men had filed past, each one with his right hand pressed over his heart. Zulmai did not smile, but when his arms were free he nodded seriously.
“O heart, when a time of sorrow overtakes thee,”he murmured,“It will vanish if thou hast a kind friend. Friends are commonplace in times of comfort, but in a time of trouble, one friend is enough.”
Hassan smiled. “You flatter me, Zulmai, to be quoting Jami over such a small matter.”
Later, as they rode toward the city, Yusuf glanced at Hassan's unadorned hands and let out his barking laugh. “I hope,” he said, “that you weren't too attached to those gold rings of yours.”