Authors: Dilly Court
Tags: #Sagas, #Fiction
Table of Contents
Also by Dilly Court
The Dollmaker’s Daughters
The Best of Sisters
The Cockney Sparrow
A Mother’s Courage
The Constant Heart
A Mother’s Promise
The Cockney Angel
A Mother’s Wish
The Ragged Heiress
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Epub ISBN: 9781409023432
Published by Arrow Books 2010
Copyright © Dilly Court 2010
Dilly Court has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and
Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
This novel is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental
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In fond memory of Ollie, who did more than
most in the short time he had.
Private Oliver Rupert Ellwood,
st Battalion the Parachute Regiment
Cripplegate, London, 1863
The dense, evil-smelling London particular had all but drowned the city in a greenish yellow morass of fog and smoke. Each breath she took was difficult and painful as the woman walked on, clutching the warm bundle of life in her arms. The baby whimpered but did not cry. She hugged the child closer to her breast as a drunken man lurched out of the gloom, almost knocking her down as he barged past. ‘Excuse me, mister. I’m looking for Three Herring Court.’
‘Bah.’ The man staggered crabwise but was enveloped by the pea-souper before he had gone more than a few feet. The woman, a maidservant more used to the heat and dust of India than the cold and damp of an English winter, shivered and wrapped her shawl more closely around the babe in her arms. The clock in the tower of St Giles, Cripplegate, struck six sonorous chimes, making her turn with a start. The carriage belonging to her mistress had dropped her close to this spot a good half an hour ago, and she realised with a groan that she must have been walking in circles ever since. The coachman had made it clear that he considered it beneath him to visit this impoverished part of the city. He had told her in no uncertain terms that Three Herring Court was inaccessible except by foot, and even then it was approached down a flight of steps.
Holding out her hand she sighed with relief as her fingers came in contact with a low stone wall. She paused for a moment, making a vain attempt to get her bearings. She had been heading north, past the debtors’ prison, but the compass points meant nothing to her now and the high prison walls were hidden behind a curtain of fog. She cocked her head on one side, listening for sounds of life, but there were none. She and the baby might as well have been the last living souls on earth for all the company they had on this bleak night. The baby began to whimper in earnest. It was well past the time when at home she would have been fed on bread soaked in warm milk and sweetened with a dusting of sugar.
‘Hush, little one, Mahdu will look after you.’ Hitching the baby over her shoulder, she continued on her way, her slim fingers feeling the cold slimy stones until they came to a pillar and then there was nothing but a void. Walking like a blind woman with her free hand outstretched, she almost fell over a small body slumped on the pavement. A startled cry was wrenched from her lips as she stopped, thinking she had come across a corpse, which was not unusual in this part of London on a bitterly cold winter’s night, but the bundle of rags moved and unfolded its skinny limbs. When the child stood up he reached no higher than her waist.
‘Look out, you,’ he grumbled. ‘You nearly trod on me, you stupid cow.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Mahdu said, breathlessly. ‘I couldn’t see you in this fog. Anyway you should be at home with your family, not lying about on the pavement for anyone to fall over.’
‘Foreign ain’t yer?’ The boy peered up into her face. ‘Is that your nipper?’
‘I’m trying to find Three Herring Court,’ Mahdu said, ignoring his impudent question. ‘There’s a penny for you if you can lead me there.’
The boy eyed her curiously. She wasn’t from round these parts, it was clear. It was too dark to make out her features or the colour of her skin, but her voice was soft and gentle. ‘Let’s see the colour of yer money then, missis.’ He held out his hand, but the woman was obviously wise to the ways of street urchins and she took a penny from her purse, holding it high above his head. He decided against snatching it from her as there was a copper on the beat somewhere in the vicinity and a scream from the old girl would bring him running. ‘All right then, missis. Follow me. I can find me way easy as pie.’
‘What’s your name, boy?’ Mahdu had to quicken her pace in order to keep up with him. She did not particularly care for the little creature, and the smell emanating from his scrawny body made her want to retch, but she was curious as to why a boy of seven or eight might be out alone on such a terrible night.
‘Nosey bugger ain’t yer? Me name’s Bailey and I was just resting me body when you come along and trod on me.’
She followed him in silence and to her relief, the baby had stopped crying and had fallen asleep on her shoulder. She would miss the little girl more than she was prepared to admit even to herself. From the moment of her birth, the infant had clasped Mahdu’s heart in her tiny hands. Each stage in the baby’s development had seemed like a miracle from her first smile to the time when she murmured her first word. It might have been mama, but it could easily have been an attempt to say Mahdu. Now they were to be parted, possibly forever. Mahdu’s throat constricted as she faced the fact that she had been trying to ignore ever since they left India. Born out of wedlock with the added stigma of mixed race parentage, there had never been a future for baby Cassandra Phillips. Mahdu knew that she would always feel guilty for aiding and abetting her young mistress in her love affair with the handsome Anglo-Indian officer in her father’s regiment. Colonel Phillips would have sent his daughter home on the first ship bound for England had he discovered their liaison earlier, but by the end of that summer which the white women spent in Simla in order to escape the heat in Delhi, it was already too late. Mahdu paused to catch her breath. ‘Stop a minute, boy. I can’t go as fast as you. I need to rest for a moment.’
‘It’ll cost yer then,’ Bailey muttered. ‘Another farthing or I’m on me way.’
Mahdu leaned against the damp brick wall of the debtors’ prison. ‘All right, just give me a minute or two.’ She closed her eyes and tears trickled unbidden down her lined cheeks as she thought of her homeland, and the months spent in the hills where the pine-scented air was touched with a chill from the snow-capped Himalayas, and the sun shone down on the baked red earth scattered with the blossoms of bougainvillea and golden marigolds. She could hear her mistress’s musical, soft-toned voice calling to her on the day after their arrival in Simla.
‘Mahdu, come quickly, I need my white muslin gown and my satin slippers for the ball at the Residency. Have you unpacked my things, yet? Oh, Mahdu, I can’t wait until this evening. I think I will die of excitement.’ Belinda lifted her arms and twirled around on her toes. The thin silk of her peignoir floated around her slender figure like the petals of a lotus blossom and her long, corn-gold hair swung around her head and shoulders to form a shimmering halo as it caught the light.
Mahdu had been in the dressing room that led off Belinda’s bedchamber in the bungalow high on the hill above the town. She had been shaking the creases out of the muslin ball gown, knowing instinctively which one her young mistress would choose for tonight’s entertainment at the Residency. They had arrived last evening on the train from Delhi after a long and hot journey, but Belinda had never once complained. She had been in a fever of anticipation and they both shared the secret knowledge that it was all down to the handsome Captain George Lawson, who had been assigned to escort the ladies to Simla. Colonel Phillips had taken the young officer under his wing, oblivious to the raised eyebrows from those who considered that an officer of mixed blood had no place in the British army. Colonel Phillips was a fair man with few prejudices, preferring to judge an officer by his deeds and actions in battle than to look down on him for something over which he had no control. The Colonel had valued George’s father both as a friend and a fellow officer, and although he had counselled Major Edward Lawson against marrying the beautiful high-born Indian lady, he had understood how a man could be entranced by her wit and beauty. Despite his misgivings he had been best man at their wedding, but less than a year later the young bride had died giving birth to her son. Edward Lawson, broken-hearted, had never recovered from his loss and was killed in battle several years later, leaving George to be educated at Harrow and then Sandhurst. Colonel Phillips had been pleased to have the young officer in his battalion even though there were some who voiced their disapproval of such an appointment. Mahdu feared that history was about to repeat itself, but she had raised the motherless Belinda since she was six years old and could deny her nothing.
‘I have your gown here, baba. I will hang it outside on the veranda where it will be caressed by the breeze and the creases will have dropped out by this evening.’
Belinda did a pirouette of sheer joy and she hugged Mahdu, ignoring her protests. ‘I love you, Mahdu. What would I do without you, larla?’
Mahdu smiled despite her worries for the girl she thought of more as a daughter than a mistress. The term of endearment had slipped so easily from Belinda’s lips and it was sincerely meant. Mahdu returned the embrace but drew away quickly in case any of the other servants should happen to pass the window and see them. There was an unwritten code of conduct, and no matter how close the relationship between mistress and servant, Mahdu was only too well aware that there was a line that must never be crossed. ‘You would manage, baba. One day soon you will marry and have no need of your ayah.’
Belinda touched Mahdu’s cheek with a gentle brush of her fingers. ‘I will always need you with me, larla. When I am married you will come with me, of course, and when I have children you will be their ayah as you have been mine. We will never be parted, I swear it on my mother’s grave.’
Mahdu felt a shiver run down her spine, as she looked into Belinda’s bright eyes. ‘You will not do anything rash? The handsome officer is not for you.’
Belinda felt the blood rush to her cheeks and she snatched up her fan, waving it energetically to and fro in front of her face. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘I’ve seen the way he looks at you, and I think you like him too much for your own good.’
‘We like each other. That’s not a crime. Papa thinks highly of George.’
‘But marriage is another matter entirely.’ Mahdu picked up the ball gown and went out onto the veranda to hang it from one of the cast-iron brackets that supported the sloping tin roof.
Belinda slumped down on a chaise longue placed strategically near the window so that she could rest in the heat of the day and enjoy the view of the pine-forested hills. She adored Mahdu, and she knew that what she said was true, but she had fallen in love with George at first sight and he with her. It seemed like a miracle that two people should connect so deeply on such a short acquaintance, but she knew instinctively that he was her soul mate, her other half; the one man in the world who made her feel complete. They had met at a ball in Delhi just three months ago but it seemed from the start as though she had known him all her life. When Papa had announced that she was to leave for Simla in the company of Mrs Arbuthnot and Miss Minchin and a group of officers’ wives, she had been devastated at the thought of parting from George. But it seemed as though the heavens had smiled on them. It was only five years since the uprising that had seen so much carnage on both sides and the scars were still in evidence. In view of this, Colonel Phillips had decided at the last moment to allow George to command the small party of soldiers who were to provide security for the ladies on their journey.
Belinda sighed and closed her eyes, shutting out the view of the sloping garden filled with roses and the feathery green leaves of cosmos that grew wild amongst the deodar and rhododendron that clambered up the foothills to merge with the dark jagged pine trees. She allowed herself to dream of being held in George’s arms as they danced the night away at the Peterhof, the official residence of the Viceroy.
She was awakened by a soft rustling of the chik, the split cane sunblind that Mahdu must have lowered to keep the room cool before she left to carry out her household duties. Belinda opened her eyes and her heart leapt in her breast as she saw the shadow of a man standing outside on the veranda. She knew instantly that it was George and she rose to her feet, quite forgetting that she was naked beneath her silk peignoir. She glided over the polished wooden floorboards, her feet barely touching the ground, and the sunshine flooded in as she opened the half-glassed door. George crossed the threshold in two strides and took her in his arms, claiming her mouth in a kiss that made her weak with desire. When he drew away to look deep into her eyes she clung to him dazed and deliriously happy. She could still taste him and her body seemed to melt into his, fitting each curve of his finely honed physique as if they had been created to form a single entity. ‘George,’ she whispered, savouring his name with delight. ‘Are you mad? You shouldn’t be here.’
His hazel eyes glowed with flecks of gold like dust motes in the sunshine, and his lips brushed hers with small, tantalising kisses that made her long for more. ‘I think I must be out of my head with love for you, my darling,’ he murmured, resting his cheek against her tumbled hair. ‘I couldn’t wait until this evening at the Peterhof. I wanted to hold you in my arms and have you all to myself, even if it was only for a few moments.’
She uttered a sigh of ecstasy as the scent of him made her dizzy with longing. ‘I wish this moment would never end, George.’
His eyes darkened with desire as his hand slid down her neck, stroking her flesh until she shivered with delight. He had not planned this clandestine meeting and he was here on official business, but when he had seen her through the window he had forgotten everything but his love for her. The small voice in his head advocating restraint and insisting on retreat was ignored as he drank in her beauty like a man dying of thirst. Her peignoir had slipped off one shoulder and he cupped her breast in his hand, uttering a low moan of pleasure. He bent his head to kiss the nipple that had hardened with desire, but he drew away almost instantly, covering her nakedness with a swift movement. Conscience had won over animal instinct and he was bitterly ashamed of his behaviour. ‘I’m sorry, my love. I shouldn’t have done that. It was unforgivable.’