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Authors: Charles Todd

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A Question of Honor

BOOK: A Question of Honor
9.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

A Question of Honor

Charles Todd


Especially for Bella and for Willow, with our love . . .

Friends can be four-legged too. These are scattered over a lot of geography, and many of them are rescues. The happiness they’ve given everyone who knows them is boundless. So this book is also dedicated to them, our special dogs . . .

Sammie and Hunter and Simba, Biedermann and Cassandra, Zeus, Smoke, Gus, Zeke, Gus Gus, and Angel in Hockessin. Zoey in Stanton. Ranger and Princess in New Castle. Miglo in Scotland. My Lady, Tippy, Jingles, Cocoa, and Buddy in Aiken. And of course Dax in Dallas, Jack and Wilbur in Houston.

You are very dear . . .


Northwest Frontier, India, 1908

he letter came for Lieutenant and Mrs. Standish on an afternoon when the heat was at its height, and we had already retired indoors to rest until the evening.

As he was crossing the parade ground, Sergeant Murphy heard a scream. According to his report to my mother, he ran at once to the Standish bungalow to see what was wrong. He found the Indian servants standing in the sitting room doorway, uncertain what to do. Inside, Mrs. Standish was staring at a sheet of paper in her hand, her face as white as the cotton dress she was wearing. Her other hand clutched the sleeve of her husband’s uniform. He had been just about to leave on patrol when the post arrived.

We were far enough away that we hadn’t heard the cry.

Nodding to me as he came in our door, Sergeant Murphy turned. “Begging your pardon for bursting in like this, Mrs. Crawford, but I think you’re needed at Mrs. Standish’s.” He described what had happened, ending with “She’s in a rare state, and I couldn’t make head nor tails of it. But the letter’s from England. I saw the stamp. The envelope was lying there on the floor at her feet, where she’d dropped it.”

“And you were quite right to come for me. Thank you, Sergeant. I’d say nothing of this to anyone else until we know what’s happened. No need for gossip to spread and cause the family more pain.”

He saluted and left, glad, I think, to be spared escorting my mother to the Standish bungalow. Sergeant Murphy had a long record of courage in the face of the enemy, but he was a bachelor, and domestic crises threw him into full retreat.

Mother took a deep breath, preparing herself for what she must do. “It’s bound to be news of her girls, Bess. One must have taken ill. Stay here, and when your father comes in, would you send him across, please? He’ll be able to make whatever arrangements are necessary.”

“I’d like to go too,” I said tentatively. I’d been friends with the Standish girls before Alice and Rosemary had been sent back to England to be schooled. I’d been lucky, my parents had decided to keep me with them. But quite a few children did go home, to give them a better education and to help them make friends in a country many of them couldn’t remember or, indeed, had never seen. It was also a climate many of them had never experienced and they sometimes came down with winter chills that lingered into summer.

“I know you’re worried too, darling, but just now Mrs. Standish needs to be reassured that the Colonel Sahib and I will do whatever we can to find out what’s happened since that letter was written. To put her mind at ease. Later I’m sure she’ll appreciate having you sit with her for a while.” She picked up the hat I’d worn earlier in the day, and looked around for her fan. It was on the little table by the door, and I handed it to her.

“Thank you, my dear.” She touched my cheek lightly, and then went out into the heat.

I waited several hours for her to come back and tell me what had happened. And the longer she remained with Lieutenant and Mrs. Standish in their bungalow, the more concerned I became. Nor had the Lieutenant left on patrol. I’d heard it ride out and saw Lieutenant Wade in command.

Bad news from England took several weeks to reach us out here. A child could be seriously ill when a letter was written and healthy again by the time her parents read the letter. Or dead . . .

I tried to study, but my mind wasn’t on my books. I went out to oversee the evening meal in my mother’s place, then set about tidying up my room—much to the dismay of our Indian staff, who kept trying to take the feather duster and the books and the tea tray out of my hands. There was a rigid hierarchy amongst the staff, and I knew better than to infringe on their duties. But sitting still was impossible. Waiting for news was unbearable.

Simon Brandon, our Regimental Sergeant-Major, stopped in, and I was glad to see him come striding through the door. Where most of our fairer-skinned troops turned a fiery red, Simon browned easily under the Indian sun, making it easier for him to assume a disguise when he traveled in unfriendly territory. Today he was wearing his uniform, his face and clothes gray with dust. It was often his mission to keep friendly tribes pacified, a seemingly endless task.

He greeted me with a smile as he always did, for we had been friends as far back as my memories went. He’d seen me through scrapes, taught me to ride and to shoot, and comforted me when my first pony had had to be put down. He’d talked me out of foolishness when I was feeling headstrong, and even commiserated with me over my first heartbreak, a schoolgirl’s infatuation with one of the new Lieutenants just out from England.

“Hallo, Bess. I just came to tell your mother that the Colonel should be back within an hour or at most an hour and a half. I cut his tracks somewhere near the dry streambed.”

“Thank you, Simon. She isn’t here just now, but she’ll be glad to hear it.” My father had been away for nearly a fortnight. I added, “The Standish family has had bad news of some sort, and she’s gone across to offer comfort.”

“Standish, is it? I’ll leave word for the Colonel, in the event he stops at HQ before coming here.”

“Yes, that’s a good idea. All quiet on your rounds?” We always kept an eye to the west. Between here and Afghanistan lived men who would cut a throat as easily as they stole a horse.

“So it would seem. With the tribes, nothing is ever certain.” With a nod he was gone.

Not long afterward I saw my mother walking back toward our house, little puffs of dust marking each step as she crossed the parched parade ground. In the trees behind the single officers’ barracks, crows called, angry over something lurking there. Snake? Mongoose? One could never be sure what had sought shelter wherever there was a tiny bit of shade under a tree or in the shadow cast by a building.

My heart went out to my mother. The Colonel’s lady was often called on to help the wives of the regiment’s officers. It was her duty to see to it that not only were they invited to dine from time to time but also that whatever problems arose were dealt with quickly and quietly, without troubling husbands who already had enough to think about. She also kept an eye on the wives of married private soldiers, for they often found India difficult to cope with.

She was close enough to the house now that I could see her expression under the broad brim of my hat.

Abiding sadness.

Had it been a death then, not an illness? But which of the girls? I felt a lump growing in my throat.

Meeting her at the door, I took her hat—my hat. Cool lemonade was waiting for her under the fans in the parlor. Men sitting cross-legged in the shadows of the veranda took it by turns to pull the fan ropes steadily, day and night. This hot season we hadn’t gone up to the cool pines and hills of Simla—there was too much activity along the frontier with Afghanistan. The tribes there attacked at will, without provocation, real or imagined. My father had not had time to escort us to the hill station, and Simon was busy with new recruits. Promises of “perhaps next week” had been just that, promises.

My mother sipped her lemonade, putting off what she must tell me. “It’s little Alice,” she said finally, as if it was hard for her to form the words. “She has died of typhoid. She’ll be buried in England. In fact,
buried before the post got as far as Suez. That’s doubly hard for Mary Standish to contemplate.”

Dearest Alice, a fair-haired little sprite with dimples when she smiled. I’d brought a doll back from England for her second birthday, one I’d found in London while we were on leave. Sweet-natured little Alice. Six years old last November. I wanted to cry.

“And Rosemary?” I asked quickly. She was eleven. Only four years younger than I, and so we had spent hours playing in our nursery or hers, sharing our dolls, our rocking horses, and our secrets.

“Apparently she’d had a milder case. She’ll be all right. They hadn’t told her about Alice, when the letter was written. They wanted to wait until she was stronger. Mary is determined to go to England on the next P&O steamer. She’s asked her husband to find passage for them, but William’s leave doesn’t come up for another six months. And the way things are out here, he wouldn’t have a ghost of a chance to bring it forward. Richard will have to tell him as much.”

“Not even for compassionate leave?”

Mother shook her head. “Simon won’t have the new recruits up to strength until next month at the very least. Still, Ellen Asbury also came over to sit with Mary. She suggested that Thomas Wade might be willing to escort her. His leave was approved before the latest outbreak of fighting. But that’s Richard’s decision to make. And William’s.”

The air was breathless, even with the fans over our heads and the wet sheets in many of the windows to cool what breeze there was. A small lizard ran up the wall and disappeared into the rafters. Mother finished her lemonade and said, “How do you comfort someone who has lost a child? I never know the answer to that.”

Later, after the Colonel Sahib—my father—returned, it was agreed that Mrs. Standish would leave directly for Bombay. But sadly, without her husband. Thomas Wade was summoned and asked if he would consider escorting Mary Standish back to England.

I happened to be in the room writing a letter when he arrived.

And I saw the shock on the Lieutenant’s face as he learned what had happened. “My God.
” He couldn’t seem to take it in. “She ran out in front of my horse when she was three, begging for a ride. Everyone spoiled her. She had the sunniest disposition—” He broke off, then asked, his voice different now, “Are they quite sure—is it certain that she died of typhoid?”

“She and her sister are with the Middletons. I don’t think you were here then, but Captain Middleton was invalided home in ’04 when he lost his foot to snakebite. He and his wife have taken in a number of Army children sent back to England. They live in the Cotswolds, a house near Shepton Mallet. They treat their charges like their own.”

“That’s all right, then,” Lieutenant Wade answered. “Yes, I’ll be happy to take Mary to England. I’ll see she reaches the Middletons before I leave her. I’d like to meet them myself.”

“Good man.”

“I’d gladly pass up my leave, if Lieutenant Standish could go in my stead,” he offered.

“That’s kind of you, Wade, but Mary Standish wants to leave straightaway, and it could be weeks before permission to rearrange dates of leave can arrive from Delhi.” He took a deep breath. “All right, then, that’s settled. You might look in on her again before your leave is up. She could decide to stay in England with Rosemary or she might wish to come back here, to her husband. I’m sure she’d appreciate knowing she’ll be well looked after, if she does choose to come home.”

“Yes, of course, sir. That goes without saying.”

And so it was agreed. It was something my father took immense pride in, looking after his regiment.

When Lieutenant Wade left, my father went to find my mother. She was sitting on the veranda, enjoying what little change in temperature there was after the sun had set. It was always a blazing ball until the very last moment, as if intent on keeping the earth as hot as possible for as long as possible. It was, in fact, very good at that.

I heard her say, “Mary is taken care of? He agreed?”

“Yes, she’ll be well cared for. And Wade will bring her back, if that’s what she wants to do.”

Mother sighed. “So sad, Richard. I’m very glad we kept Bess with us. It’s been a blessing for us. And she’s as well educated as any young woman sent back to England.”

“My love, I couldn’t agree more. I’m going across to speak to Mary and sit with them for an hour. Alice was such a bright child. I think we’ve all been touched by her death.”

“I remember when Alice was born. During that heavy monsoon rain that threatened to flood the cantonment. So tiny, but so determined to live. Amazing.”

And then my father was gone. I could hear his footsteps as he walked around the veranda to the path leading across the parade ground to the married officers’ quarters.

There was a lovely memorial service for little Alice. Her mother had already left for England with Lieutenant Wade, but everyone else was there, to help Lieutenant Standish through his own grief. He was a good officer, one of my father’s best men. And he’d thrown himself into his duties, to keep from remembering too much. He said to me one day as we set out for a ride, “I owe Lieutenant Wade more than I can repay. Mary couldn’t have gone alone. And Tom seemed to be eager to meet the Middletons. I can’t think why, he has no children of his own.”

In fact, Thomas Wade wasn’t married, which had caused a flutter when he was posted to us. But he hadn’t shown much enthusiasm for finding a wife, although he’d dutifully danced with all the single women when we had a ball and willingly escorted them wherever they wished to go. He’d even brought me back from the Maharani’s, after I’d spent a week with her in Jaipur.

“Perhaps there’s someone in England he’s in love with,” I suggested.

Lieutenant Standish raised an eyebrow. “You think so? I’ll be the first to offer him my best wishes.”

The time went by very quickly. We had several men wounded out toward the Khyber Pass while keeping the unruly tribes in order. They seemed to enjoy warring against each other, and then joining forces to war against the British, when they fancied a new enemy. But we were here to stay, and they knew it. It was just their way of saying, at the cost of many lives, that they held their own opinion on that subject. For a fortnight, Simon and my father were out nearly every day, guarding the passes favored by raiders and keeping what peace there was.

And then blessedly, the heat broke, and we were given a little respite. It was just about this time that Lieutenant Wade came back with the supply train. He looked very tired, having sailed from England through Suez and into Bombay, before taking the railway to Agra and making the next leg of his journey overland. His parents lived in Agra, and the final two weeks of his leave had been spent with them. His father was an official with the railway. I’d met them once, when we were in the city with my father. Mr. Wade had taken me down to the Yards to see the big locomotives, and Mrs. Wade had accompanied my mother to the markets. Nothing seemed to last very long in India, and there was always something we needed. The mender of pots and pans could do only so much, he couldn’t work miracles, and bedclothes, towels, and tablecloths were frequent victims of Indian laundrymen. In Bombay, I’d seen where the wash was done, in stone basins attended by men whose lives were spent keeping the English and the Indian communities in clean linens.

BOOK: A Question of Honor
9.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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