Read an Excerpt
Mother, let us imagine we are travelling, and passing through a strange and dangerous country.
The Hero Rabindranath Tagore
Somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas, 1889
"I thought there would be camels," I protested. "I thought there would be pink marble palaces and dusty deserts and strings of camels to ride. Instead there is this." I waved a hand toward the motley collection of bullocks, donkeys, and one rather bored-looking elephant that had carried us from Darjeeling town. I did not look at the river. We were meant to cross it, but one glance had decided me firmly against it.
"I told you it was the Himalayas. It is not my fault the nearest desert is almost a thousand miles away. Do not blame me for your feeble grasp of geography," my elder sister, Portia, said by way of reproof. She gave a theatrical sigh. "For heaven's sake, Julia, don't be difficult. Climb onto the floating buffalo and let's be off. We are meant to cross this river before nightfall." Portia folded her arms across her chest and stared at me repressively I stood my ground. "Portia, a floating buffalo is hardly a proper mode of transport. Now, I grant you, I did not expect Indian transportation to run to plush carriages and steam trains, but you must own this is a bit primitive by any standards," I said, pointing with the tip of my parasol to the water's edge where several rather nasty-looking rafts had been fashioned by means of lashing inflated buffalo hides to odd bits of lumber. The hides looked hideously lifelike, as if the buffalo had merely rolled onto their backs for a bit of slumber, but bloated, and as the wind changed I noticed they gave off a very distinctive and unpleasant smell.
Portia blanched a little at the odour, but stiffened her resolve. "Julia, we are Englishwomen. We are not cowed by a little authentic local flavour."
I felt my temper rising, the result of too much travel and too much time spent in proximity to my family. "I have just spent the better part of a year exploring the most remote corners of the Mediterranean during my honeymoon. It is not the 'local flavour' that concerns me. It is the possibility of death by drowning," I added, nodding toward the ominous little ripples in the grey-green surface of the broad river.
Our brother Plum, who had been watching the exchange with interest, spoke up with uncharacteristic firmness. "We are crossing the river and we shall do it now, even if I have to put the pair of you on my shoulders and walk across it." His temper had risen faster than my own, but I could not entirely blame him. He had been ordered by our father, the Earl March, to accompany his sisters to India, and the experience had proven less than pleasant thus far.
Portia's mouth curved into a smile. "Have you added walking on water to your talents, dearest?" she asked nastily. "I would have thought that beyond the scope of even your prodigious abilities."
Plum rose to the bait and they began to scrap like a pair of feral cats, much to the amusement of our porters who began to wager quietly upon the outcome.
"Enough!" I cried, stopping my ears with my hands. I had listened to their quarrels since they had run me to ground in Egypt, and I was heartily sick of them both. I summoned my courage and strode to the nearest raft, determined to set an example of English rectitude for my siblings. "Come on then," I ordered, a touch smugly. "It's the merest child's play."
I turned to look, pleased to see they had left off their silly bickering.
"Julia" Portia began.
I held up a hand. "No more. Not another word from either of you."
"But" Plum started.
I stared him down. "I am quite serious, Plum. You have been behaving like children, the pair of you, and I have had my fill of it. We are all of us above thirty years of age, and there is no call for us to quarrel like spoiled schoolmates. Now, let us get on with this journey like adults, shall we?"
And with that little speech, the raft sank beneath me and I slipped beneath the chilly waters of the river.
Within minutes the porters had fished me out and restored me to dry land where I was both piqued and relieved to find that my little peccadillo had caused my siblings so much mirth they were clasped in each other's arms, still wiping their eyes.
"I hope you still find it amusing when I die of some dread disease," I hissed at them, tipping the water from my hat. "Holy Mother Ganges might be a sacred river, but she is also a filthy one and I have seen enough dead bodies floating past to know it is no place for the living."
"True," Portia acknowledged, wiping at her eyes. "But this isn't the Ganges, dearest. It's the Hooghly."
Plum let out a snort. "The Hooghly is in Calcutta. This is the Rangeet," he corrected. "Apparently Julia is not the only one with a tenuous hold on geography."
Before they could fly at one another again, I gave a decided sneeze and a rather chaotic interlude followed during which the porters hastily built up a fire to ward off a chill and unpacked my trunks to provide me with dry clothing. I gave another hearty sneeze and said a fervent prayer that I had not contracted some virulent plague from my dousing in the river, whichever it might be.
But even as I feared for my health, I lamented the loss of my hat. It was a delicious confection of violet tulle spotted with silk butterfliesentirely impractical even in the early spring sunshine of the foothills of the Himalayas, but wholly beautiful. "It was a present from Brisbane," I said mournfully as I turned the sodden bits over in my hands.
"I thought we were forbidden from speaking his name," Portia said, handing me a cup of tea. The porters brewed up quantities of rank, black tea in tremendous cans every time we stopped. After three days of the stuff, I had almost grown to like it.
I took a sip, pulling a face at my sister. "Of course not. It is the merest disagreement. As soon as he joins us from Calcutta, the entire matter will be resolved," I said, with a great deal more conviction than I felt.
The truth was my honeymoon had ended rather abruptly when my brother and sister arrived upon the doorstep of Shep-heard's Hotel the first week of February. The end of the archaeological season was drawing near, and Brisbane and I had thoroughly enjoyed several dinners with the various expeditions as they passed through Cairo to and from the excavations at Luxor. Brisbane had been to Egypt before, and our most recent foray into detection had left me with a fascination for the place. It had been the last stop on our extended tour of the Mediterranean and therefore had been touched with a sort of melancholy sweetness. We would be returning to England shortly and I knew we would never again share the sort of intimacy our wedding trip had provided. Brisbane's practice as a private enquiry agent and my extensive and demanding family would see to that.
But even as we were passing those last bittersweet days in Egypt, I was aware of a new restlessness in my husband, and if I were honestin myself. Eight months of travel with only each other, my maid, Morag, and occasional appearances from his valet, Monk, had left us craving diversion. We were neither of us willing to speak of it, but it hovered in the air between us. I saw his hands tighten upon the newspaper throughout the autumn as the killer known as Jack the Ripper terrorised the East End, coming perilously close to my beloved Aunt Hermia's refuge for reformed prostitutes. I suspected Brisbane would have liked to have turned his hand to the case, but he never said, and I did not ask. Instead we moved on to Turkey to explore the ruins of Troy, and eventually the Whitechapel murders ceased. Brisbane seemed content to make a study of the local fauna whilst I made feeble attempts at watercolours, but more than once I found him deftly unpicking a lock with the slender rods he still carried upon his person at all times. I knew he was keeping his hand in, and I knew also from the occasional murmurs in his sleep that he was not entirely happy with married life.
I did not personally displease him, he made that perfectly apparent through regular and enthusiastic demonstrations of his affections. Rather too enthusiastic, as the proprietor of a hotel in Cyprus had commented huffily. But Brisbane was a man of action, forced to live upon his wits from a tender age, and domesticity was a difficult coat for him to wear.
Truth be told, the fit of it chafed me a bit as well. I was not the sort of wife to darn shirts or bake pies, and, indeed, he had made it quite clear that was not the sort of wife he wanted. But we had been partners in detection in three cases, and without the fillip of danger I found myself growing fretful. As delightful as it had been to have my husband to myself for the better part of a year, and as glorious as it had been to travel extensively, I longed for adventure, for challenge, for the sort of exploits we had enjoyed so thoroughly together in the past.
And just when I had made up my mind to address the issue, my sister and brother had arrived, throwing Shepheard's into upheaval and demanding we accompany them to India.
To his credit, Brisbane did not even seem surprised to see them when they appeared in the dining room and settled themselves at our table without ceremony. I sighed and turned away from the view. A full moon hung over old Cairo, silvering the minarets that pierced the skyline and casting a gentle glow over the city. It was impossibly romanticor it had been until Portia and Plum arrived.
"I see you are working on the fish course. No chance of soup then?" Portia asked, helping herself to a bread roll.
I resisted the urge to stab her hand with my fork. I looked to Brisbane, imperturbable and impeccable in his evening clothes of starkest black, and quickly looked away. Even after almost a year of marriage, a feeling of shyness sometimes took me by surprise when I looked at him unawaresa feyness, the Scots would call it, a sense that we had both of us tempted the fates with too much happiness together.
Brisbane summoned the waiter and ordered the full set menu for Portia and for Plum, who had thrown himself into a chair and adopted a scowl. I glanced about the dining room, not at all surprised to find our party had become the subject not just of surreptitious glances but of outright curiosity. We Marches tended to have that effect when we appeared en masse. No doubt some of the guests recognised usMarches have never been shy of publicity and our eccentricities were well catalogued by both the press and society-watchersbut I suspected the rest were merely intrigued by my siblings' sartorial elegance. Portia, a beautiful woman with excellent carriage, always dressed cap-a-pie in a single hue, and had elected to arrive wearing a striking shade of orange, while Plum, whose ensemble is never complete without some touch of purest whimsy, was sporting a waistcoat embroidered with poppies and a cap of violet velvet. My own scarlet evening gown, which had seemed so daring and elegant a moment before, now felt positively demure.
"Why are you here?" I asked the pair of them bluntly. Brisbane had settled back in his chair with the same expression of studied amusement he often wore when confronted with my family. He and Portia enjoyed an excellent relationship built upon genuine, if cautious, affection, but none of my brothers had especially warmed to my husband. Plum in particular could be quite nasty when provoked.
Portia put aside the menu she had been studying and fixed me with a serious look. "We are bound for India, and I want you to come with us, both of you," she added, hastily collecting Brisbane with her glance.
"India! What on earth" I broke off. "It's Jane, isn't it?" Portia's former lover had abandoned her the previous spring after several years of comfortably settled domesticity. It had been a blow to Portia, not least because Jane had chosen to marry, explaining that she longed for children of her own and a more conventional life than the one they had led together in London. She had gone to India with her new husband, and we had heard nothing from her since. I had worried for Portia for months afterward. She had grown thinner, her lustrous complexion dimmed. Now she seemed almost brittle, her mannerisms darting and quick as a hummingbird's.
"It is Jane," she acknowledged. "I've had a letter. She is a widow."
I took a sip of wine, surprised to find it tasted sour upon my tongue. "Poor Jane! She must be grieved to have lost her husband so quickly after their marriage."
Portia said nothing for a moment, but bit at her lip. "She is in some sort of trouble," Brisbane said quietly.
Portia threw him a startled glance. "Not really, unless you consider impending motherhood to be trouble. She is expecting a child, and rather soon, as it happens. She has not had an easy time of it. She is lonely and she has asked me to come."
Brisbane's black eyes sharpened. "Is that all?"
The waiter interrupted, bringing soup for Portia and Plum and refilling wineglasses. We waited until he had bustled off to resume our discussion.
"There might be a bit of difficulty with his family," Portia replied, her jaw set. I knew that look well. It was the one she always wore when she tilted at windmills. Portia had a very old-fashioned and determined sense of justice. If she were a man, one would have called it chivalry.
"If the estate is entailed in the conventional manner, her expectations would upset the inheritance," Brisbane guessed. "If she produces a girl, the estate would go to her husband's nearest male relation, but if she bears a son, the child would inherit and until he is old enough to take control, Jane is queen of the castle."
"That is it precisely," Portia averred. Her face took on a mulish cast. "Bloody nonsense. A girl could manage that tea plantation as well as any boy. One only has to look at how well Julia and I have managed the estates we inherited from our husbands to see it."