Authors: Barbara Cleverly
It was too much for Jock. He cast a calculating eye on the progress of the well-drilled movements around him then began to inch away and disappeared into the shadows. Fuelled with rage and hatred he set off into the hills, remembering the terrain which he had surveyed earlier in the day, marking down occasional remembered landmarks, using the jagged country, exploiting skills acquired from a boyhood in the Trossachs. He advanced as fast as caution would let him towards the deadly defile at the bottom of which Harry lay agonizing, his screams now loud beyond bearing, even his sobs audible.
No one shot at him from the crags above. Could it be that they had all climbed down to watch the entertainment? Crouching behind a boulder he checked his pistol and felt the handle of the skian dhu that he wore, up till then as a gesture of bravado, in his sock, preparing for his assault. Red battle rage, the rage of his Pictish ancestors was burning in him, and his hands which in the race under fire to the Tit had been shaking and uncontrolled were now steady and purposeful. A creeping shadow amongst the shadows of the ravine, he inched his way forward until he had a view of the scene under a cliff overhang.
Two tall turbaned figures bent with relish over the body lying between them on the ground. Knives flashed in their hands and Harry groaned. Laughing, one of them strolled to a thorn bush and broke off a twig. Jock’s stomach churned. He knew what they were doing. And he’d dismissed it as an old soldier’s story told to frighten the new recruits. The death of a thousand cuts. With special Pathan refinements. Into each cut they were grinding grass and thorns. His sharp eyes swept the area with calculation. Only two men. Why only two? Why had these two been left behind the general retreat? Were they volunteers? Specialists? The night shift left in charge with orders to prolong the death until daylight when they could all muster and enjoy it?
He waited until they were absorbed in their handling and insertion of the thorns with the accompanying screams from their victim, timing his rush for the moment of greatest distraction. They didn’t hear his soft footfall. The skian dhu caught one of them from behind in the heart ribs and the second looked up aghast to hear words he did not understand spat at him by a red-haired, white-faced devil. ‘E’en do and spare not!’ the Highlander hissed and he plunged his dagger into the tribesman’s neck. His severed throat spouting, the second fell across the body of his comrade.
‘Harry! Harry! They’re done for! It’s me, Jock.’
He peered hopelessly down at the naked, shattered body. He was too late. But no. The eyes fluttered open and, he was certain, recognized him. Harry tried to speak but gurgled and choked as a rush of blood, black in the failing light, poured down his chin. They’d torn out his tongue and there was only one way he could get his message through to the horrified young face bending over him. He nodded and tried to smile with his eyes and then, unmistakable to Jock, came the message. The eyes slid down to Jock’s gun and remained fixed there.
‘Right. Right. I understand. Leave it to me. And, look here – if I get back, I’ll say all the right things to those who need to hear them. No need to distress anyone.’ He glanced at the broken, tortured body and added, ‘I can imagine what you’d want me to say.’
The pain-glazed eyes looked up again at Jock’s face and blinked in relief. Tearing a crucifix on a leather thong from around his neck, Jock thrust it into Harry’s palm and closed his hand over it. ‘Rest in peace, my friend,’ said Jock and he put his Browning pistol to Harry’s head.
There was one more thing his intense rage pushed him to do before he left the scene. Pulling up the baggy dirty shirt of the second man he’d killed he took his knife and, in a few swift strokes, he slashed letters into the dead flesh.
With infinite care and guile, Jock began to track his way back along the defile. He had gone perhaps fifty yards when his stretched senses sounded a warning. A glint of dying sunlight on metal high up above his head made him throw himself sideways. As he did the crash of an exploding musket echoed down the canyon and shot showered past him. A jezail? Was that an old-fashioned jezail? Who the hell would be firing such a thing? The Afridi were all equipped – God knows how – with bolt-action rifles to match the Scouts’ own. He’d been told that in these mountain passes thousands of British men, women and children fleeing from Afghanistan had been pinned down and massacred by just such guns. But that had been seventy years ago.
The silence and the darkness bore down on him and, the last of his courage ebbing fast, the terror of the hunted was taking its place. He ran, weaving and galloping like a hare, the sting of several ricochet wounds in his arms and shoulders urging him on.
At the Tit all was ready for the ordered retreat back to Fort Hamilton.
‘Where’s that new chap? Jock, is it? Anyone seen him? Someone tell him this is no time to sneak off for a pee! Wouldn’t like to hear he’d got his cock shot off! He’s what! When? Bloody hell! Why didn’t someone . . .?’
‘Sir! Sir! Look! Over there – three o’clock – that’s Jock. He’s coming in now! Running for it!’
Lily Coblenz was in a foul mood. She’d been in a foul mood for about a month. She could hardly remember the excitement with which she had embarked on her so long anticipated Indian vacation. She could only contrast her high expectations with the drab realities. Here she was where she had longed to be. India. Simla and the swirling glamour of a Viceregal Spring Ball. But really – she might as well have never left Chicago! Apart from the accents (and to her occasionally they still sounded cute enough) she could have been at any grand party at home on Lake-shore Drive. The men were the same, the clothes were the same; the same brilliantined hair, the same little moustaches. Even the food was scarcely different and the drink not different at all. But at least that was something to be grateful for! She took another appreciative sip of the perfectly chilled 1915 Krug and looked petulantly round the room.
Where were the turbaned men and veiled women, the exotic, unrecognizable instruments sketching an arabesque of sound unseen behind fretted shutters? She listened with resentment to the careful discourse of a refined string band playing another foxtrot and looked with disfavour at the white ties and white waistcoats, the long white gloves and pearl necklaces. ‘It’ll all be different when you get to Simla,’ people had said. ‘That’s where the action is!’ But where had that long, uncomfortable journey landed her? A change of address but a change of very little else. She had expected domes and minarets, mystery and romance, but Viceregal Lodge – built in the 1880s – was no more than some bygone architect’s careful and ponderous essay in the Elizabethan manner and there was plenty of that to be seen back home.
Edward Dalrymple-Webster surreptitiously extracted his watch from his waistcoat pocket. Ten o’clock. At least two more hours to go. Two more hours making conversation to this sulky girl. Two more hours desperately trying to elicit a response. ‘Get alongside, old boy!’ Nick Carstairs had said. ‘See what you can do! Tell you what – lure her out into the garden – I’ll switch off the lights and switch on the nightingale, what! And the rest is up to you.’
‘Beautiful girl,’ someone else had said. ‘Pots and pots of tin! Greatest heiress in the world bar three, they say.’
Well, rich, certainly. There was no denying that – but beautiful? Fair hair just a shade too far on the brown side to count as blonde, he would have thought. Thick and silky but cut fashionably short. And her eyes: large and lustrous but where one looked for an innocent shade of Anglo-Saxon blue one encountered an indeterminate green which could one moment rival the English Channel on a bad day and the next skewer a chap like a shard of green glass. Clever eyes that could express anything, apparently, with the exception of proper modesty.
He had done his best. He ran a finger round the inside of his collar which was damply collapsing. He had a spare collar, in fact he had two, but he wasn’t quite sure if he could be bothered to change. Desperately he tried again. What other topics were there? Polo? The weather? The heat? The clothes? The quaint natives? The scenery? Polo? He had exhausted, he felt, all available topics.
‘Where next?’ he asked with a bright smile and a show of passionate interest. Dash it – who cared where this blasted girl went next so long as it was nothing to do with him! No reply. He tried again. ‘Where next?’
She turned a cold eye on him. ‘I beg your pardon?’ she said.
How he wished she wouldn’t say ‘I beg your pardon?’ to everything he offered.
‘Where? he said. ‘Where are you going next?’
She looked at him balefully. ‘My plans haven’t changed in the last ten minutes and as I told you ten minutes ago – Peshawar.’
He caught the eye of Nick Carstairs who passed by at that moment. ‘Miss Coblenz,’ he said, ‘is off to Peshawar!’ and to his relief and gratitude, Nick Carstairs sat down beside them.
‘Off to Peshawar, eh?’ he said vacuously. ‘Can’t think why. Terrible place! Only been there once in my life . . . never want to go again. Nasty dangerous place too if you ask me! Why don’t you stay here? Season’s only just started. Lots going on – race meeting at Annandale tomorrow, ragtime gymkhana the next day, jolly good little operetta the chaps have put together at the Gaiety. Stay here, Miss Coblenz, this is where the action is.’
‘Action’ – that word again! She took another sip of champagne and glowered.
Nick was burbling on. ‘There’s a topping treasure hunt on Tuesday and the Mysore Lancers have a Musical Ride on Thursday. Oh, no – you won’t find anything like that in Peshawar! They’d hardly let you out of the house over there and there’s nothing to see if they did. You mark my words!’
Charlie Carter, police superintendent, was eyeing her covertly. It had been his job to provide for her protection during her visit to Simla. An onerous task. But now, thank God, she was off to the frontier and would no longer be his responsibility. His opposite number in Peshawar could take over – and good luck to him! If they’d taken his advice (and they didn’t) they would not have allowed a girl worth so very much money to be exposed to the dangers of frontier life. He had indeed said as much but behind that glamorous façade, behind those little girl good looks there was, he had discovered, a will of iron. ‘I want,’ she had said, ‘to see the
India!’ And, for her evidently, the real India was not in Simla.
She had seen elephants, she had seen bejewelled rajas, any of whom were inconveniently eager to make her acquaintance. She had seen the Indian Army in all its glamour and Viceregal and other balls had been laid out for her entertainment but this wasn’t the India she had looked forward to. Where were the shots in the night? The murderous tribesmen sweeping down from the hills? The embattled garrisons of lonely forts? The lean, sunburnt, ruthless men with their devoted, native followers? She had understood that such things were to be found in abundance at Peshawar so to Peshawar she had determined to go.
Such was her determination that it came to the ear of Sir George Jardine. ‘I’m under orders,’ Sir George had said resignedly to Charlie. ‘This comes down from on high and I mean as high as you can go.’ He raised bushy grey eyebrows to introduce a flavour of intrigue. ‘This damn girl is, I’m sorry to tell you, a sight more than a pretty face. Nothing to do with me, of course, but it’s all very cloak and dagger. It all has to do with the motorization of the Indian Army. It seems the Coblenz Corporation has a mass of brand new military transport parked in depots all over the US and completely unused. It seems that the Royal Navy have half a dozen or more brand new destroyers and, with disarmament a lively topic, no conceivable use for them. There’s a high level swap under negotiation and, believe it or not, the happiness of little Miss Coblenz is considered to be of some importance. Father Coblenz has come to Delhi to carry out negotiations personally and his daughter chose to accompany him. Someone told her it was the fashion to leave for the Hills when things started to get hot in the capital and her father agreed to her coming up here to grace Simla with her presence. She’s nominally under the chaperonage of Lady Holland and it falls to us to make her happy. Fine state of affairs when the future of the British Empire is bound up with the holiday plans of a spoilt little halfwit. But times change. When I was a lad “gunboat diplomacy” meant something rather different! But there must be something in it if the Viceroy
the Prime Minister . . .’
Meaningfully, his voice had died away and he had resumed, ‘Someone is going to have to squire this girl into the North-West Frontier Province and, perhaps rather more importantly, safely back again!’
‘For God’s sake, sir,’ Charlie had said in alarm, ‘wherever else you look – don’t look at me!’
‘No! Emphatically – no,’ said Charlie. ‘Whom have you in mind? Oh? What a shame! He would have been perfect but I suppose he’s half-way home by now?’
Sly and plausible, Sir George took a moment or two before replying. ‘Half-way home? Nothing of the sort – as well you know, Charlie! He’s still got a month’s leave – and, I will add, a month’s richly deserved leave. In fact, it could hardly be more convenient when you consider where he has elected to spend the last few weeks.’
‘Well, you may not believe this and it’s extraordinary how often these things fall into place but he is, in fact, currently in Peshawar. And why? Because a wartime friend of his, seconded to the Scouts, is commanding the fort at Gor Khatri!’
Not for the first time Charlie Carter felt a spurt of irritation at the way in which Fate played good cards into the hands of the manipulative Sir George. He had once said as much to his wife. Meg had looked at him pityingly and replied that in her opinion, if Sir George were ever to be so unwise as to play cards with Fate, you could be sure that he’d rigged the deck beforehand.
Dismissively Charlie said, ‘Well, he may be perched up there in Peshawar but there’s no reason to suppose he’d take this job on . . . I mean – poor old sod! – he’s been trying to get home for nearly six months. He won’t let you involve him
! Really, when all is said and done – why should he?’ But even as he spoke he could hear himself saying apologetically, ‘Sorry, Joe! Did my best for you but – you know how it is with Sir G.’