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The night before her sixth birthday Midge Prentice woke under her mosquito net and breathed the familiar smells of a hot Indian night. There was the smell of wet khaskhas mats hanging across the doors and windows to keep out the heat of early summer, sweet and musty; there was the smell of the jasmine which grew over the bungalow; there was the bass accompaniment inseparable from India of drains and of dung. But tonight there was something else.
Sharp and acrid, it was the smell of smoke. Midge sat up and looked about her. Running across the ceiling of her room there was a flickering reflection of flames. She struggled out of her mosquito net and, barefoot, stood down on the floor. She called for her father and then remembered he was away in Calcutta.
She called for her mother but it was Ayah who answered her call.
‘Come with Ayah, now, Missy Baba,’ she said urgently. ‘Come swiftly.
Ayah gathered her up. ‘Put your arms round me and hold tight. Very tight. Put your feet on mine and we’ll walk together as we used to when you were a baby and then the bad, bad men won’t see my Missy Baba. If I hide you under my sari they’ll just think that Ayah has another baby on the way.’
She swept silky folds over Midge’s head and they set off to waddle together towards safety. They had often done this before; it had been a game of her infancy. It was called ‘elephant walk backwards’ and now this clumsy game was to save her life. Midge caught brief glimpses of Ayah’s sandalled feet and was aware of others milling protectively about them and then they were in the open air. They were free of the bungalow.
Men’s voices – Indian voices – shouted harshly, shots rang out, a woman’s scream was abruptly cut short and then the roar of the fire as it took hold of the thatch grew deafening.
But then, gravel was crunching under Ayah’s feet and she stopped. ‘Sit here,’ she said. ‘Sit here and keep quiet. Don’t move. Be hidden.’ And she tucked Midge away amongst the rank of tall earthenware pots overflowing with bougainvillea and zinnia.
In the mess, half a mile away, Jonno crossed and uncrossed his legs under the table and with a slightly unsteady hand poured himself a glass of port and passed the decanter. He was thinking
– he was often thinking – of Dolly Prentice, or, more formally,
Mrs Major Prentice. He was sure he hadn’t imagined that, as he had helped her into her wrap after the gymkhana dance, she had leant back against him, not obviously but perceptibly.
Yes, surely perceptibly. And his hands had rested on her shoulders, slightly moist because it had been a hot night,
and there had been a warm female scent. What was it she had said when, greatly daring, he had admired? ‘Chypre.’ Yes, that was it – ‘Chypre.’
And that wasn’t all. They had danced close. Not difficult when doing a two-step and she had said, almost out of the blue, ‘You’re getting to be quite a big boy now.’ It might have meant anything; it might have meant nothing.
But he didn’t think so. In memory he held that slender figure in its red chiffon dress as close as he dared.
The young subaltern on Jonno’s left was also thinking of
Dolly Prentice. He knew she’d only been joking but she had said, ‘Just bring your problems to me, young man, and I’ll see what I can do.’ Had she meant it? He thought probably not.
But it had been accompanied by a steady and speaking glance and, after his third glass of port, he decided, nevertheless, to take her at her word.
That bloody pony! Fifty pounds! He hadn’t got fifty pounds!
Why had he fallen for it? He knew only too well why. He’d been goaded into it by Prentice. ‘Take it or leave it. Pony’s yours for fifty pounds but be warned – he takes a bit of riding!’
And the clear implication – ‘Too much of a handful for you!’
He thought if he threw himself on Dolly’s mercy, she might intercede for him – get him off his bargain. Perhaps she could persuade her husband not to take advantage of a young and inexperienced officer? He didn’t like appearing in the role of innocent naughty boy but still less did he like having to borrow yet again.
Then, by God! The pony! In his secret heart he was aware that he couldn’t manage it. The pony was vicious. He had made a mess of Prentice’s syce. Put him on his back for a week,
they said. ‘Oh, what the hell!’ he thought. ‘Damnation to you,
Major Prentice!’ And he drained his glass.
The regimental doctor sitting opposite watched him guardedly.
He always felt out of place in the elegant company of
Bateman’s Horse. He tried not to, but could not help contrasting the splendour of their grey and silver mess dress with his own Indian Medical Service dark blue. He was not, in fact,
thinking about Dolly Prentice. He was thinking about Prentice.
He remembered (would he ever forget?) the public shame that had followed his first greeting at the hands of
‘Tell me, doctor,’ he had said, ‘– we are all so eager to know
– from what barrow in Petticoat Lane did you buy those boots?’
It was true that his boots did not come from a fashionable boot-maker. They had come from a saddler in Maidstone and they had looked good enough when he had first tried them on. He was painfully aware that, by comparison with the officers of Bateman’s Horse, the ‘Bengal Greys’, he lacked the skintight precision supplied by Lobb of St James’s, the skintight precision which forbade anything more substantial inside than a cut-down ladies’ silk stocking.
His thoughts turned to Dolly. Dolly with her large eyes and her ready sympathy. How could she bear life with that devil? How could she put up with him close to her? And a vision of Dolly in the arms of Giles Prentice rose, not for the first time, to trouble him. He imagined the heat of an Indian night. He imagined the close confines of a mosquito net. He tried but did not succeed in keeping at bay the vision of
Prentice’s slim brown hands exploring the surface anatomy which his fervid imagination and medical experience conjured up. Too easily.
The senior officer present, Major Harry, looked up and down the table. Over-bright eyes, mottled faces, desultory and slurred speech – there was no doubt about it, when Prentice was away conversation ebbed and the drink flowed to fill the gaps. And Prentice was away. He had gone to Calcutta for an interview for promotion to the senior branch. ‘But why Giles?
Why not me?’ There could only be one of them this time and that one was Prentice. This had been the moment when he might have broken through and God knew when there might be another one.
His career really needed the step. He needed the money.
Very soon there would be children to be sent home to school in England. Already his wife was complaining and he was sick of the endless litany – ‘Nothing to wear . . . only one carriage horse . . . when can we buy our own furniture?’ He had desperately needed this step and now Prentice had it. Pretentious
Dickie Templar likewise surveyed the company. On attachment and waiting to join a Gurkha regiment on the north-west frontier, he was glad that he was not to be gazetted into
Bateman’s Horse. He felt that though they had a glowing past
(they had been golden heroes of the Mutiny) they had for too long rested on their laurels and their promotion prospects were not good. And the officers – they bored him. Further than that, they even repelled him. Sick of their company, he rose from the table and made his way to the ghulskhana where, with difficulty, unbuttoning the flap of his tight mess trousers, he stood for a moment aiming largely by memory in the darkness.
It was a fetid little enclosure and with his spare hand he pushed open the window through which instantly there came a murmur of unfamiliar sound. An unfamiliar sound in a crescendo and – there – what was that? A shot. And another shot. Buttoning himself up, he stood on tiptoe and gazed out of the window. There was a yellow leaping flame beginning to spring from one of the bungalows, about half a mile away, he judged. A fire? Yes, there was a fire and now there was a smell of smoke. A fire in the lines? Probably nothing.
No one else seemed aware of it as he hurried back to the dining-room.
‘There’s a fire!’ he said. And then again, ‘There’s a fire in the lines!’
In line abreast, the five Greys officers cantered on down towards the disturbance. They clattered into the compound and surveyed with dismay the ruin of Prentice’s house. And here they were challenged by a figure in a scarlet mess jacket, his white shirt front blackened. The Braganza Lamb in silver thread on his lapel identified the Queen’s duty officer. Four British soldiers, presumably the Queen’s fire picket, were hauling on the handle of the fire engine and two more were directing a jet of water into the ruin. Others,
faces bound in cloth, made useless attempts to approach.
Riflemen stood by.
‘What the hell’s been going on here?’ said Major Harry.
‘Disaster! Total disaster!’ came the reply. ‘We did our best but we were too late. Bloody fire engine! About as much good as a water pistol! We organised a bucket chain but we were too few and too late.’
‘Too late to save the bungalow?’
‘To hell with the bungalow! Too late to save Dolly and
‘But they’re in Calcutta with Giles! He always takes them with him!’
‘Not this time, he didn’t! It’s Midge’s birthday tomorrow
– Dolly stayed at home with her for her party. Good God! My girls were going!’ He wiped a blackened and bleeding hand across his face. ‘My girls were to be there,’ he said again. ‘No,
there’s no sign of Midge or her mother . . . must be still in there . . . what’s left of the poor devils . . . The minute this lot cools down enough to get men in we’ll look for the bodies.
Jesus! And Prentice away! I say – a disaster!’
‘But who the hell . . .?’
‘Dacoits . . . we think it was dacoits. Doped up, no doubt –
drugged-up courage. In a mood to stop at nothing. It happens.
Prentice had been routing them out of village after village and they came for him. Didn’t know he was away, I suppose
. . . Or perhaps they knew only too well! They’ve chased all the servants off or they’ve fled. No sign of them anyway.
Come crawling back in the morning I dare say and then we’ll find out more.’
Dickie Templar had heard enough. He turned aside and blundered into the darkness to hide his distress. He stopped dead. He had heard a faint cry.
From a stack of tall flowerpots there emerged a ghostlike figure: Midge Prentice, white face a mask of terror, her bunched nightie gripped convulsively in a small hot hand.
Dickie fell on his knees and gathered her in his arms, sobbing,
kissing her face and holding her to him, murmuring childish endearments. ‘You got out!’ he said at last. ‘You got out!’ And then, ‘Where’s Mummy?’
For reply, the child pointed dumbly to the smouldering ruin of the house.
Commander Joseph Sandilands of the Metropolitan Police was delighted to be going home. Delighted that his six months’ secondment from the Met to the Bengal Police should, at last, be at an end.
He’d had enough India. He’d had enough heat. He’d had enough smells.
Though no stranger to the midden that was the East End of London he’d not, by a long way, been able to accept the poverty that surrounded him. And he still resented the social formalities of Calcutta. As a London policeman, his social status had been, at the least, equivocal in the precedent-conscious atmosphere of the capital of Bengal. He had counted the days until he could pack, say his farewells and go, but even that pleasure was denied him; inevitably, the bearer who had been assigned to him had done his packing for him. But, by whatever means, it was at last done and tomorrow he’d be gone.
For the last time – he sincerely hoped it was the last time –
he made his way into the office that had been allocated to him. For the last time he cursed the electric fan that didn’t work. For the last time he was embarrassed by the patient presence of the punkha-wallah manipulating the sweeping fan that disturbed but did not disperse the heavy air. There was,
however, a neat envelope lying on his desk. Stamped across the flap were the words: ‘The Office of the Governor’.
With anxious hand he tore open the envelope and read:
I hope you can make it convenient to call in and see
me this morning. Something has cropped up which we
should discuss. I have sent a rickshaw.
And an indecipherable signature followed with the words
‘Sir George Jardine, Acting Governor of Bengal’.
Joe didn’t like the sound of this. Could he pretend he’d never received it and just leave? No, they’d catch him in the act and what could be more embarrassing than being brought back from the docks under police escort? Better not chance it! He looked angrily out of the window and there were,
indeed, two liveried rickshaw men waiting to deliver him to the Governor. He’d met George Jardine on one or two formal occasions during his secondment and formed a good impression of the distinguished old pro-consul who had come out of retirement to bridge the gap between two incumbents.
The appointment seemed to be a formal one and he paused in the vestibule to check his appearance. ‘God! You look tired, Sandilands,’ he muttered at his reflection.
He still half expected to see the eager youth who had set off for the war with the Scots Fusiliers but, though the hair was still black and plentiful, after four years in France and four years with the police his expression was watchful now and cynical. An old wound on his forehead – badly stitched – had pulled up the corner of one eyebrow so that, even in repose, his face looked perpetually enquiring. Six months of Indian sun appeared to have bleached his grey eyes as it had darkened his skin. But at least in India everything he possessed was polished without any word from him. He adjusted his black Sam Browne belt shining like glass, his silver rank badges and his medal ribbons,
the blue of the police medal almost edged out by the red and blue DSO and his three war medals. He’d do.
The rickshaw set off without a word, the rickshaw men trotting steadily ahead through the heavy press of traffic. Seeing the Governor’s livery, people made way for him. ‘Another six months,’ he thought, ‘and I believe I could get used to this.
It’s certainly time I was home!’
‘Morning, Sandilands,’ said the Governor, as though greeting an old friend. ‘Not too early for a peg, I hope? Whisky-soda?’
‘Yes,’ thought Joe, ‘far too early but what can one do?’
He watched as Jardine poured out two generous glasses.
‘I have your chit, sir,’ he said, hoping he didn’t sound as resentful as he felt.
‘Yes, well . . .’ the Governor began. ‘Funny business. I’ve wired your chaps in London, and hope you don’t mind my having done so, over your head, as you might say. But – your lecture the other night – I was very impressed . . . Everybody was. Opened our eyes to a lot of things! Don’t want to cut down our chaps here – they do a wonderful job – but they’re up to their ears and it has come to me that maybe we need a little bit extra. May be nothing in it, of course. Once the women start gossiping you never know quite where it’s going to end and . . .’
He paused and sipped his drink. ‘Do help yourself. But the fact is that I telegraphed your chief to ask if we could borrow you for a bit longer. Everyone here would be delighted – but the problem isn’t here, it’s in a place called Panikhat about fifty miles south of here. It’s on the railway. Not a bad journey and they’ll put you up in splendour and state, no doubt. Pretty good fellows down there. It’s a civil and military station.’
Joe Sandilands was hardly listening. ‘I could have been sailing down the Hooghly River by now! Why the hell didn’t I go last night?’
The Governor resumed, ‘I don’t suppose this is what you wanted for a moment but if you’ll take this on it couldn’t do your career any harm, I think. As I say, there are some very good fellows down there – Bateman’s Horse. We call them the Bengal
Greys – grey horses – the Indian equivalent of the Scots Greys,
don’t you know . . . But I won’t waste any more time chatting.’
He held up a letter by its corner. ‘It’s all here but there’s somebody I would like you to meet.’ He seemed for a moment reluctant to come to the point, finally concluding, ‘It’s my niece, you see. She’s about the place somewhere . . . Her husband is the Collector of Panikhat and they’re stationed down there. Between you and me and strictly between you and me
– he’s a peaceful sort of chap . . . anything for a quiet life. Not much go about him. Perhaps Nancy’s only taken this up because she was bored. But, I don’t know – they seem happy enough together. Anyway, Nancy’s as bright as a new rupee and ah! Nancy, my dear, there you are! This is Commander
Sandilands. Sandilands, my niece, Nancy Drummond.’
For the first time since this terrible news broke for Joe, he woke to the possibility that there might be compensations in this so unwelcome interruption to his life. Mention of the Collector’s wife had instantly produced a vision of Anglo-Indian respectability at its most oppressive but the figure before him was quite a surprise.
For one thing, she was younger by twenty years than he had been expecting and for another, she was smartly – even fashionably
– dressed. White silk blouse, well-cut jodhpurs, broad-brimmed hat in one hand, fly whisk in the other and an enquiring – if slightly suspicious – face. He tried not to be too obviously appraising her. He was aware that she was fairly obviously appraising him. This could just be rather fun.
‘Now, Nancy,’ said the Governor, ‘sit down and tell Sandilands what you told me. I’ve warned him that there may be nothing whatever in it but you’ve interested me at least and we’ll do our best to interest him.’
Nancy sat down in a chair opposite Joe and looked at him seriously and for a long time before speaking. Now she was closer he saw that the pretty face was pale and strained. She made no attempt at a smile but went straight into her narrative.
Her voice was low and clear, her tone urgent. She’d obviously prepared and prepared again what she was going to say.
‘A week ago a ghastly thing happened on the station. Peggy
Somersham, the wife of William Somersham, Captain in the
Greys, was found dead in her bath with her wrists cut. Of course, everybody said “Suicide” but, really, there was absolutely no reason. They weren’t very long married. Quite a difference in age – that’s often the way in India – people wait to get hitched till their career is established and an officer does not in fact qualify for a marriage allowance until he is thirty. One can’t always tell, of course, but they seemed not only happy, but very happy together. People often said – “Ideal marriage”.
‘I know that funny things happen in India but just the facts by themselves, to my mind at any rate, were suspicious and Bulstrode, the Police Superintendent, didn’t seem able to explain anything to anyone’s satisfaction. We all thought for one moment he was about to take the easy way out and arrest poor Billy Somersham . . .’
‘Now Nancy,’ said the Governor, ‘tell it straight.’
‘Sorry, Uncle! And look here . . .’ She took an envelope from her uncle’s desk, slid out two photographs and handed them to Joe.
His mouth tightened with distaste.
‘Who took these?’
‘Well, actually, I did . . .’
‘My niece served as a nurse on the Western Front for three years,’ said the Governor and sat back, apologetic but happy with this explanation.
‘Mr Sandilands, sadly, a bathful of blood in my experience is nothing. And I have first-hand knowledge of wounds. Even cut wrists . . .’ She paused, disturbed momentarily by her memories. ‘I suppose you think it rather shocking that I
should be able to stand there in front of this appalling scene and take photographs?’
Not wishing to stop the flow of her story Joe merely nodded.
He did find it shocking but realised that a conventional denial would not deceive this determined woman. His professional curiosity was eager for details of how she had managed under those difficult circumstances to take photographs of such clarity but he remained silent and looked at her with what he hoped was a suitable blend of sympathy and encouragement.
‘Yes, well, I was pretty much shocked myself. She was my friend, Mr Sandilands, and this was not easily done. But this is the hot season. There was little else I could do to preserve the scene of the death as it was. Bulstrode was giving orders for the body to be taken away and buried at once and he authorised the khitmutgar to arrange for the bathroom to be cleaned up.
I’m afraid I stepped in and insisted that Andrew – that’s my husband, the Collector – called him off. Of course the body had to be buried, after a quick post-mortem done by the station doctor, but we managed to get the servants to leave as much as possible of the bathroom untouched. I don’t want to interfere, of course . . .’ (The Governor smiled ironically.) ‘. . .
but a word with the doctor mightn’t be out of place. His name is Halloran. I don’t know him very well. Irish. A lot of army doctors are. He seems nice enough.’
‘You preserved the scene of crime – if crime it was – Mrs
Drummond, and with the skill, apparently, of a seasoned officer of the Met. But I’m wondering why it should have occurred to you to take these steps . . .?’
‘My uncle had spoken about you and the work you were doing here in Calcutta when I was last here some weeks ago. I
popped into one of your lectures and I was very impressed with what you had to say. I tried to wangle a meeting there and then but you were besieged by a phalanx of earnest young
Bengali Police Force officers and I had to drift away. But then,
when this happened, I rang Uncle at once and he made a few telephone calls, worked his magic and here we are.’
She smiled for the first time since they had met and her face lit up with mischief. ‘And I don’t suppose you’re at all pleased!’
Joe smiled back. He had an idea that there was not much he would be able to conceal from the Collector’s wife.
‘It’s difficult to make out but if you will look at the second photograph . . .’ she said, drawing his attention back to the horror he still held in his hand.
Joe concentrated on the close-up of the dead girl’s wrists and saw at once where she was leading but he let her go on.
‘You see it, don’t you? She couldn’t have done that herself,
don’t you agree?’
Joe nodded and she went on, ‘But that’s not all of it, nor perhaps even the worst of it, Commander. After Peggy’s death the gossip started. I’ve only been on the station for three years and I hadn’t heard the stories . . . in any case, I think people thought it was all over . . . like a nightmare. It stops and you lull yourself into thinking it’s never going to happen again.
And then it does. And it’s worse than before.
‘Everyone who had been there since before the war was eager to tell me the stories.’ She leaned forward in her chair to emphasise her point. ‘Mr Sandilands, every year before the war and going back to 1910, the wife of a Greys officer has been killed. In March.
‘The first to die was Mrs Major Prentice – Dorothy. In a fire.
Tragic, of course, but no one paid all that much attention as it was quite clearly due to an act of dacoity – banditry. The forests and some of the villages too used to be infested with bandits before the war. They are still to be found but it’s nothing like so bad as it was thanks to Prentice and others. The following March in 1911, Joan Carmichael, the wife of Colonel
Carmichael, was fatally bitten by a snake. And there’s nothing strange about that in India, you’re going to say – but in this case there was an oddity . . . The next March, Sheila Forbes fell over a precipice while out riding and in 1913 Alicia Simms-
Warburton was drowned.’
‘And then came the war.’
‘Yes. People were moved around. The series was broken and – goodness knows! – there were enough deaths to worry about in the next few years . . . people forgot. But this fifth death revived memories. It began to be said that marrying an officer in the Greys was a high-risk occupation! Gossip and speculation are meat and drink to officers’ wives and they live in a very restricted circle. They can and do talk each other into a high state of panic about the slightest thing – you can imagine what this is doing to their nerves! One of the wives is talking,
quite seriously I believe, about returning to England. And some of the younger ones are running a sweep-stake on which one of them is to be the next victim! Just a piece of bravado but I think it’s a sign that the tension is becoming unbearable.
Commander, we need you to come to Panikhat and get to the bottom of this. Either we investigate the whole thing, decide there’s no foundation for any of these wild theories and reassure the ladies or . . .’ She paused for a moment and her expression grew grim,‘. . . or we find the . . . the . . . bastard –
sorry, Uncle! – who’s killed my friend and make absolutely sure he’s in no position ever to do it again!’