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Death in Kashmir
By M. M. Kaye
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1984 M. M. Kaye
All rights reserved.
Afterwards, Sarah could never be quite sure whether it was the moonlight or that soft, furtive sound that had awakened her. The room that except for the dim and comforting flicker of a dying fire had been dark when she fell asleep, was now full of a cold, gleaming light. And suddenly she was awake ... and listening.
It was scarcely more than a breath of sound, coming from somewhere outside the rough pinewood walls that divided that isolated wing of the rambling hotel into separate suites. A faint, irregular rasping, made audible only by the intense, frozen silence of the moonlit night.
A rat, thought Sarah, relaxing with a small sigh of relief. It was absurd that so small a thing should have jerked her out of sleep and into such tense and total wakefulness. Her nerves must be getting out of hand. Or perhaps the height had something to do with it? The hotel stood over eight thousand feet above sea-level, and Mrs Matthews had said — —
Mrs Matthews! Sarah's wandering thoughts checked with a sickening jar as though she had walked into a stone wall in the dark.
How was it that awakening in that cold night she had been able, even for a few minutes, to forget about Mrs Matthews?
Less than a week ago, in the first days of January, Sarah Parrish and some thirty-odd skiing enthusiasts from all parts of India had arrived up in Gulmarg, that cluster of log cabins that lies in a green cup among the mountains of the Pir Panjal, more than three thousand feet above the fabled 'Vale of Kashmir'. They had come to attend what was, for most of them, their last meeting of the Ski Club of India. For this was 1947, and the date for India's independence — the end of the Raj and the departure of the British — had been set for the following year.
Beautiful mountain-locked Kashmir was one of India's many semi-independent princely states which, by treaty, were in effect 'protectorates' of the Government of India, ruled over by hereditary Maharajahs, Nawabs, Rajas or Ranas who were 'advised' by a British Resident. And though access to this particular State was not easy, since it is walled in on every side by high mountains, it has been regarded for centuries as an ideal hot-weather retreat from the burning plains — the Great Moguls, in their day, making the journey on elephants, horses or in palanquins.
The British had followed where the Moguls led, and made it one of their favourite playgrounds. But because the State would not permit them to buy or own land in Kashmir, they had taken to spending their holidays there in houseboats on its lovely lakes, in tents among the pines and deodars, or in rented log cabins in Gulmarg, which is little more than a grassy bowl among the mountains that overlook the main valley. A bowl that some homesick Briton (presumably a Scotsman?) converted into a series of admirable golf-courses, and which during the winter and early spring is blanketed deep in snow.
Every year, during this latter period, the Ski Club of India would hold one or more of its meetings in Gulmarg. And on these occasions the rambling, snow-bound, summer hotel would be opened to accommodate members and their friends. This year had been no exception, and anyone and everyone who could possibly manage to get there had done so. The weather had been perfect and the party a gay one: until, with shocking suddenness, tragedy had struck.
Mrs Matthews — grey haired, sociable, delightful — had been picked up dead from among the snow-covered boulders near the foot of the Blue Run.
She had not been missed until late afternoon on the previous day, as dusk was falling and the skiers converging on the welcoming lights of the hotel — straggling up from the nursery slopes, or down from the snowfields of Khilanmarg that lie high above Gulmarg where the pine forests end. Even then it had been supposed that she was in her room.
She was there now. They had brought her back to it and laid her on the bed, and Sarah wondered, with a little prickling of the scalp, if the comparative warmth of the narrow, pinboard room had been sufficient to thaw the dreadful stiffness from those frozen, contorted limbs.
A terrified coolie, bringing firewood to the hotel, had stumbled upon that sprawling figure in the dusk, and Sarah had seen her carried in: a grotesque jumble of widespread arms and legs that could not be bent or decently straightened.
Sarah had liked Mrs Matthews — everyone liked Mrs Matthews — and the unexpected sight of that rigid corpse had filled her with such shuddering nausea that, unable to face the prospect of food, she had retired early and supperless to bed and had taken a long time to fall asleep. Now all at once she was wide awake; and with little prospect of dropping off again while her room remained bright with moonlight, and that faint rasping sound frayed at her nerves.
Strange that there should be rats up here in winter, with the snow lying deep for so many months and the huts shuttered and deserted. Hadn't she once read somewhere that they could not stand extreme cold? Perhaps Kashmiri rats were different ... Sarah tossed and turned restlessly, and wondered irritably what had possessed her to draw back the curtains? At the time, it had seemed pleasant to lie and look out at the snow and the night sky, but she should have realized that sooner or later the moon would shine into the verandah and reach the window of her room.
Earlier in the evening, because the atmosphere of her small bedroom had seemed close and stuffy after the crisp night air outside, she had half opened her bathroom window and left wide the communicating door between the two rooms. But the logs that had blazed in the fireplace a few hours ago were now only a handful of grey ash, and the room was very cold.
The prospect of getting out of bed in order to draw the curtains and close the bathroom window was not a pleasant one and Sarah shivered at the thought. Yet now, in addition to feeling cold, she was also beginning to feel hungry and regret foregoing her supper, and there was a tin of biscuits on the bathroom shelf. She could fetch a handful and close the window and the bedroom curtains at the same time. Reaching out a reluctant hand for the fur coat that was doing duty as an extra blanket, she huddled it about her shoulders and slid out of bed. Her soft, sheep-skin slippers were ice-cold to her shrinking toes, but they made no sound as she crossed the room and went through the open doorway into the bathroom.
The small, wooden-walled suites in this wing of the hotel were all alike, each consisting of a bed-sitting room, plus a narrow, primitive bathroom, the back door of which opened onto two or three shallow wooden steps that led down to a path used only by those hotel servants whose duty it was to clean the bathrooms or to carry up hot water for the small tin bathtubs.
Sarah did not bother to switch on the light, for the open window allowed the cold glimmer of moonlight on snow to fill the small bathroom with a pale glow that was more than enough to see by. But she had taken no more than two steps when she stopped short, listening to that barely audible sound that she had supposed to be the gnawing of a rat. It was clearer now — and it could not possibly be a rat, because rats did not gnaw metal. Sarah stood quite still, holding her breath and straining to hear. There it was again! So soft a sound that had it not been for her opened door and window she would never have heard it. The stealthy rasp of a file on metal.
This time it was followed by the faint rattle of a window-frame; though there was no breath of wind. And suddenly she realized what it meant. Someone outside was trying, with infinite caution, to file through the fastening of a window. Not her own, for that stood open. Whose, then?
The room to her left was unoccupied, and since the one immediately beyond it belonged to Major McKay of the Indian Medical Service, who held strong views on the value of fresh air and boasted of sleeping with every window wide in all weathers, it could not be either of those. The room on her right was occupied by a Miss Rushton, a girl in her mid-twenties, while in the one beyond it, between Miss Rushton's room and one occupied by a Colonel Gidney, lay the body of Mrs Matthews.
Sarah shivered at the thought of that locked room and its silent occupant, and clenching her teeth to stop them chattering, moved cautiously forward until, standing flat against the wall, she could peer out obliquely from her half-opened window. A wide bar of shadow lay across the slope and the path below, but beyond it the snow sparkled brilliantly in the moonlight, thinning the shadows with reflected light so that she could see quite clearly the rickety wooden steps that led up to Janet Rushton's bathroom door.
There was someone standing just beyond those steps: a shapeless figure whose hands, showing dark against the weather-bleached woodwork, were busy at the level of Miss Rushton's window. There was also a metal object lying on the window-sill — she could see it gleam in the reflected moonlight. A jemmy, perhaps? or some improvised crowbar?
Sarah's immediate reaction was one of pure rage. Mrs Matthews not twelve hours dead, and already some ghoulish coolie from the village, or a dishonest hotel servant, was breaking in to steal the dead woman's belongings! Because of course it must be that, and the would-be thief had merely mistaken the window, since Janet Rushton, the girl in the next room, wore no jewellery and appeared to have brought little more than a change of skiing clothes and slacks with her; which made it highly unlikely that anyone bent on random theft would take the trouble to file through the catch of her window. Particularly when she, Sarah — an obviously more profitable victim! — had obligingly left hers wide open!
She decided to shout and bang upon the window, confident that this would be more than enough to scare any thief away. But even as she opened her mouth to carry out this laudable intention, the figure turned its head and her shout died unuttered: for it had no face ...
For a moment it seemed to Sarah that her heart stopped beating. Then in the next second she realized that she was looking at someone who was wearing a mask: a hood of some drab material that completely covered the wearer's head and neck, and had holes cut in it for eyes. In almost the same instant she realized that the object lying upon the window-sill, so near to those purposeful hands, was a gun. And all at once she was afraid. Afraid as she had never been before in her short twenty-two years of life.
This was no ordinary thief. No pilfering Kashmiri would wear a mask or carry firearms. Besides, of what use were such precautions against a dead woman? Then it must be Miss Rushton's room that was his objective — —
Sarah backed away from the window inch by inch and regained her bedroom. Her breath was coming short as though she had been running, and it seemed to her as though the thudding of her heart must be as audible as drumbeats in the silence. Janet Rushton ... she must warn Janet ... Her cold fingers fumbled with the handle of the verandah door and managed to turn it. I mustn't run, she thought: I must go quietly. I mustn't make a noise ... She forced herself to ease open the door slowly so that it made no sound.
The narrow wooden verandah that ran the length of the wing was bright with moonlight, and outside it a sea of snow glistened like polished silver, blotched by the dark bulk of the main hotel buildings. In front the ground fell steeply away until it reached the more or less level ground of the golf-course and the maidan,* beyond which it swept upward again to meet the inky shadows of the deodar forests and the cold brilliance of the night sky.
It had snowed for half an hour or so earlier in the night. Snow lay thick upon the verandah rails, and a powdering of blown crystals covered the wooden floorboards with a thin, brittle carpet that crunched crisply under Sarah's slippers. The small sound seemed terrifyingly loud in the frozen quiet of that silent, sleeping world: 'Loud enough to wake the dead' ... the phrase slipped unbidden into her mind, and the picture it conjured up did nothing to lessen her tension.
She reached Janet Rushton's door and turned the handle; only to find that the door was locked. But either Miss Rushton was already awake or she was an exceptionally light sleeper, for Sarah heard a swift rustle from inside the room as though someone had sat up suddenly in bed. She tapped softly, urgently, upon the rough wooden panel of the door, and still there was no reply; but as though disturbed by the sound, an overhanging mass of snow at the edge of the roof detached itself and fell with a sighing flump into the snowdrift below the verandah rails, setting her heart racing again. And in a fresh access of panic she grasped the door handle and rattled it urgently.
There was a swift movement from inside the room, and after a moment a voice breathed: 'Who is it?'
'It's me — Sarah Parrish!' whispered Sarah in ungrammatical frenzy: 'Open the door. Quick! Oh hurry!'
She heard a bolt withdrawn and the click of a key turned in the lock, and the door opened a few inches; a narrow slit of blackness in the moon-flooded verandah. Janet Rushton's voice, curiously taut and breathless, said: 'What is it? What do you want?'
'Hush!' begged Sarah urgently. 'Don't make a noise! There's someone trying to get in through your bathroom window. You've got to get out of there, quickly. He may be in by now! I saw him — it ...'
Janet Rushton still did not speak and Sarah, exasperation suddenly mingling with her panic, thrust with all her strength against the close-held door and stepped over the threshold.
A hand gripped her arm and jerked her forward into darkness, and she heard the door close behind her and the rasp of a bolt shot home. 'Don't move!' whispered a voice beside her — a voice she would never have recognized as belonging to the gay and gregarious Miss Rushton — and the next instant something cold and hard was pressed against the side of her neck. Something that there could be no mistaking. A small, ice-cold ring of metal.
Sarah stood quite still, rigid with shock, while in the darkness a hand went over her body with a swift and frightening efficiency. There was a short gasp, as if of relief; then: 'Now tell me what you want,' said the harsh whisper.
Sarah touched her dry lips with her tongue: 'I've told you. There's someone trying to get in by your bathroom window. For heaven's sake stop playing the fool and let's get out of here!'
The cold rim of metal did not move, but in the moment of silence that followed there came a faint and unidentifiable sound from somewhere outside the building, and suddenly the cold pressure was withdrawn. There was a swift movement in the darkness beside her, and Sarah was alone. She heard a door open and the sound of someone stumbling against a chair in the dark bathroom, and turning, groped her way to the electric light switch and pressed it down.
The harsh yellow light of a single shaded bulb revealed a counterpart of the bare wooden walls and shabby, utilitarian furniture of her own room. It shone down upon the narrow tumbled bed and struck sparks from the edges of a pair of skates that lay upon the floor, lit up the slim lines of the skis that leant against the cupboard, and glinted wickedly along the short polished barrel of the weapon in Janet Rushton's hand ...
Sarah's eyes, narrowed against the sudden light, lifted slowly from the small, ugly weapon to the face of the girl who stood in the bathroom doorway, watching her.
Janet Rushton was an attractive girl of the healthy, outdoor variety, whose chief claim to good looks lay in fresh colouring and abundant curly blond hair, rather than in any regularity of feature. But there was no vestige of prettiness in the face that stared back at Sarah above the gleaming barrel of the little automatic. The blue eyes were hard and unwavering in a face so white and haggard with fear and desperation as to be almost unrecognizable.
She came forward into the room, drawing the door shut behind her with her free hand without turning her gaze from Sarah's, and said softly: 'There was someone there: the window-catch has been filed through and there are marks in the snow. But whoever it was must have heard us and gone. What happened? Who was it?'
'How on earth should I know?' demanded Sarah heatedly. She had been more shaken than she would have thought possible, and her receding panic was rapidly being replaced by wrath: 'I went into my bathroom to get some biscuits, and I heard a noise outside. I'd already heard it, and I thought at first it was a rat; but it was someone trying to open your window, and ...'
'Who was it?' interrupted Miss Rushton in a harsh whisper.
'I've just told you! I haven't any idea!'
'Was it a man or a woman?'
'Why, a —' Sarah checked, brows wrinkled, and after a moment's thought said slowly: 'A man, I suppose. I don't really know.'
'You don't know? But that's absurd! It's almost as bright as day outside.'
Excerpted from Death in Kashmir by M. M. Kaye. Copyright © 1984 M. M. Kaye. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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