Authors: Barbara Cleverly
‘The situation in those parts is always dangerous,’ he thought. ‘I don’t want this! Dammit! I think I’m getting too old.’ He addressed himself to the task in hand which was to finish and enjoy an expensive cigar. This ritual complete, he set in train the complicated process by which he might put a telephone call through to Joe on the ground and set himself down to wait.
Startled, agitated and finally convinced by Grace’s outrageous solution to their problem, his cup of tea, now cold, still clutched in his hand, Joe turned to listen to the Scouts officer who came to find him. ‘Hurry, Joe, if you can to the communications room – we’ve got Sir George on the telephone!’
Through the usual swishing and gargling sounds inseparable from the Indian telephone system, Joe heard the voice of Sir George.
‘Good afternoon, Commander! I count myself fortunate to be able to engage a few moments of your valuable time. God knows where you’ve been! It’s taken them long enough to find you. By the time they’d searched the football field, the polo ground, the bazaar and apparently Lily Coblenz’s bedroom, the best part of half an hour had passed. My time is valuable. But now perhaps you’ll tell me if I’ve got this right? The Afghanis have snatched my old friend Dermot Rathmore. Correct so far?’
‘Yes,’ said Joe, determined not to be caught on the back foot by Sir George. ‘In a nutshell, that is one of our problems.’
‘And fast becoming one of
problems,’ continued Sir George. ‘And at the same time, Miss Coblenz has allowed herself to drift into the hands of a particularly inscrutable and shadowy young man of Afridi blood and her present whereabouts is precisely unknown. Correct? And as though that were not enough, we also have the Amir of Afghanistan who is sitting in Kabul moaning, I’m told, and awaiting medical treatment which it is beginning to look as though he will not be receiving in the foreseeable future since the doctor he has ordered up is detained for who knows how much longer at the fort with you. So, Joe, I’m asking you this question – what are you going to do about it?’
Sir George seemed, for the first time since Joe had known him, to lose confidence momentarily. He heard the hollow flourish of his own last question and hurried to answer it himself. ‘In fact I know what your answer would be – “Nothing.” Nor could I blame you. There are always people ready to exploit an awkward situation and the death of Zeman is a damned awkward situation, I can tell you. The American Embassy don’t know that Miss Lily has, as the Australians would say, “gone walkabout” nor does her father but when they find out there will be a mild – not such a mild – diplomatic explosion to say nothing of an outburst of paternal rage. His Excellency is not too pleased and is indeed sabre-rattling to an alarming degree about the sequestration of Rathmore. Now in my book the more often Rathmore disappears into the trackless Himalayas and the longer he stays there the happier I shall be but not everybody sees it that way. I am told to mobilize all the force I can, and that includes the Peshawar garrison, and set off into the altogether unexplored interior and – cost what it may – bring these birds back to hand. I pause for your reply.’
‘I think,’ said Joe, ‘before you hear my reply you should hear James’s. He’s here with me now and has heard your comments.’
‘Ah! You’ve got Jock Lindsay at your elbow, have you? I’d have expected that berserking old moss-trooper to be out there skirmishing already! Put him on!’
‘Lindsay!’ Sir George’s merry voice came cheerfully over the air. ‘Sorry you should have got landed with this. Should have explained that wherever Sandilands goes trouble follows! I’m sorry all this should be going on in your back garden. Now, I’m here to ask you – will you be prepared to climb on to a horse, gather up a division of lusty Scouts and gallop across the intervening countryside firing from the hip, shooting down the opposition and bring these two safely back again? Rather your style I think, Jock? Would you be prepared to do that?’
‘No,’ said James Lindsay. ‘I need hardly tell you, sir, that this one calls for velvet glove not mailed fist. It’s our opinion that a mass assault on the enemy position would result in unacceptable carnage and the first of the casualties would in all likelihood be the two hostages. We would ask you to do all that you can to persuade the military to keep their sabres firmly sheathed until we’ve had time to put our own plan into operation.’
‘Ah! You have a
‘We have made some progress regarding the location of our quarry, sir. We believe them to have sought refuge with the Afridi Malik, Ramazad Khan – yes, the father of Zeman, sir – in his fort at Mahdan Khotal.’
Joe thought he heard a groan and a splutter at the other end but James persevered. ‘It’s one thing,’ he said, ‘to have located our wandering charges but it’s going to be quite another to extricate them from the situation they’ve got themselves into.’
‘I’m not stupid, Lindsay,’ said Sir George testily. ‘And of all the places within many hundreds of miles that I would rather they didn’t end up – Mahdan Khotal! – and of all the people I would rather they didn’t end up with – Ramazad Khan! If I was writing his end-of-term report I would say, “Ramazad Khan is incapable of distinguishing truth from falsehood.” He is archetypally a tricky bastard, two-faced, an eye to the main chance, in fact an eye to nothing else, so don’t make the mistake of believing anything he says and don’t be deceived by the seeming sincerity. But realize that Mahdan Khotal isn’t a mud brick pill-box perched on a hillside. It’s more in the nature of a medieval castle, or I might say, a strong medieval fortified palace covering a considerable acreage. Not the sort of place you stroll into having rung the doorbell! Now – as to the extrication of the wanderers, what precisely do you have in mind?’
‘We are advised,’ said James carefully, ‘by Grace Holbrook.’
‘Ah!’ said Sir George. ‘Wondered when you’d get round to consulting her. What had Grace to say?’
‘Well, we agreed there are three possible lines of approach: first, if we are to follow the advice of Moore-Simpson – send in an aerial barrampta which Fred insists on calling “trench strafing”, and when the air strike has softened up the opposition in the fort, by which I mean has destroyed their defences, we follow it up with a land attack by, shall we say, a force of five hundred Scouts with Mounted Infantry attachment.’
‘Doesn’t appeal to
very strongly,’ said Sir George.
‘Doesn’t appeal to me very strongly either. We could also turn to Edgar Burroughs and see what he’s got to say.’
‘Don’t bother,’ said Sir George. ‘I know what he’d say! “About turn! At the double! March!” Am I right?’
‘Substantially, yes,’ said James. ‘But as so often there is a third way.’
‘Glad to hear it,’ said Sir George. ‘”Third Way Jardine” they call me.’
‘Well, the fact is that the only person who can walk into Mahdan Khotal safely is Grace herself, as she has pointed out. They know her. They trust her. She looks innocent because she
innocent. I’m not sending her in there alone but any other European would last all of two seconds if he were seen to approach Mahdan Khotal. No one as far as I know has ever been there.’
‘I’ve never been there,’ said Sir George. ‘Seen it from a distance. Strong place! Couldn’t beat the door down with less than a division but in case you were thinking otherwise, Jock, I’ll just tell you firmly that
not going in there either! As far as the Afridi are concerned, and unless I misremember, you have what Joe Sandilands would call “quite a lot of previous” and, incidentally, what does Joe say about all this?’
‘You’d better speak to him.’
Joe came on the line and spoke rapidly. ‘Can’t let Grace go in there all by herself . . . can’t send in any uniformed British support . . . must send
with her . . . not really a problem . . . will go myself and before you say anything else – I shan’t be going in police uniform, I’ll be going in Scouts’ uniform with perhaps a couple of Scouts in support. Just as long as I look reasonably convincing from a distance I should be in a position, with Grace’s support of course, to open up a dialogue with Ramazad Khan. Dialogue . . . dealing . . . these are the only tools we can use in this situation; feats of arms are quite out of the question. But let’s not forget that Iskander knows me. I think if we can only sit down and talk about this sensibly we will make progress.’
‘Mm, yes,’ said Sir George, ‘Iskander. Mustn’t forget
. And I’ll tell you something and you must bear this in mind. It could just give you an edge.’ He paused for a moment for emphasis. ‘You will find that Iskander is far from popular with Ramazad Khan. We hold a balance – Ramazad holds a balance. He doesn’t want anybody to upset it. It’s my guess that he doesn’t want Rathmore in his fort, still less does he want Lily! What are they to him? Hostages? Guests? No, they’re damn nuisances! And yet Iskander has thrown down a glove and he’s not going to let him down by repudiating the tough stance Iskander has adopted. Oh, yes, there are angles to this you may be able to exploit. In a funny sort of way you may find that you and Ramazad are saying the same thing. But with a blood-stained question mark hanging over the ultimate fate of Zeman you may find him a little reluctant to admit it. Never forget that Zeman was his only remaining son, apple of his eye. And never underestimate the importance of a son to a Pathan father.’
He sighed and then added, ‘It looks bad, Joe, I can’t deny it.’
There was a further silence at the other end and for a moment Joe thought the line had been cut. After a while the clickings and mutters resolved themselves and the raucous interference on the line Joe was able to identify as Sir George clearing his throat. ‘. . . and look here, my boy, if you’re going to disguise yourself as a Scout be sure to have a photograph taken. I shall want to put one on top of my piano. When are you thinking of leaving?’
‘At dawn,’ said Joe.
Lily gasped, turned and fled mindlessly down the corridor with a half-formed notion of reaching the door and calling to Iskander for help. In four long strides Halima had caught her and, hands on both her shoulders, had spun her round and seized her firmly by the upper arms.
‘Lily! Lily! What’s the matter?’ Her voice was gentle and amused.
With dire memories of a dozen seething romances each centred round the fate of innocent European girls lured into harems, Lily’s voice was shrill and apprehensive. ‘No one’s putting
in a harem! How dare you! Let go! Iskander can sort this out. If that bearded old barbarian – oh, my God, I’m sorry – he’s your husband, isn’t he?’
Halima looked puzzled. ‘Ramazad Khan? Yes, he is my husband. And you are his guest. As his guest you stay here.’
‘If he thinks he can shut me up with all the rest of his women, well, he can just think again! Any finger he lays on me gets broken! They can kill Rathmore if they like – I don’t care! Tell Iskander the deal’s off! I have rights! I’m an American citizen! You’re not to forget that!’
Halima laughed, saying patiently and slowly, seeking her words, ‘I have said this is harem, Lily. I explain. The word “harem” in our language means “sacred”. Women are sacred and in this place they live in safety. For you there is no safer place even among your own people. Here live all Ramazad’s female relations – his mother, his aunts, his sisters, cousins, nieces. And, of course, his wife. Me.’
‘Wife? Just the one?’
‘Of course! Now will you not come and have a bath and some food? I think you are very tired after your journey.’
To some degree reassured by the concern in the girl’s voice and allured by the idea of a bath, Lily decided to trust her and followed her up a staircase and into a long, airy room whose arcaded windows looked out on to the blossom-laden trees of an orchard. Lily stopped in the doorway and blinked. After the bleak strength of the exterior of the building the opulence of the interior was unexpected. The walls were hung with tapestries, the floor thickly carpeted and strewn with silken, tasselled cushions. The room was furnished with tables and chests of dark wood, intricately carved.
The six women who had been sitting by the window chatting and laughing turned, large-eyed, to look at her. Halima explained in Pushtu who Lily was and what she was doing in the fort. ‘I tell them that you are American princess,’ said Halima firmly, ‘and that you are honoured guest of Iskander and my husband.’ One by one the women, who ranged in age from very old to about sixteen, came forward, friendly and curious, to greet her and, though Lily was sure she would never remember them, Halima gave her each woman’s name and position in the family. The formalities at an end, Halima clapped her hands and two maidservants came hurrying into the room.
‘I will tell them to prepare your bath and then bring you back here to us where we will have food,’ said Halima.
With much cheerful giggling and chattering, the girls led Lily to an apartment at the end of the first floor corridor, part of which she was delighted to see was a bathroom. Nothing like a home-style bathroom but to travel-weary Lily it looked perfect. A large sunken, shallow stone tub lay ready for her. The maids went off and returned some minutes later with brass cans of hot water, mixed this with cold from stone jars standing by and poured a sweet-scented liquid into it from a tiny phial. A scatter of rose petals over the surface and all was ready.
Lily peeled off her dusty clothes to the fascinated comments of the girls who, she guessed, had never seen a Western girl or Western clothes before. They did not seem impressed. Lily tried to explain by mime that she wanted her things washed and returned to her. It took a tug of war to hang on to her boots but there was no way that the escape she had always in the forefront of her mind could be effected in the pair of backless gold-embroidered slippers she was being offered. In a puzzling world she thought her pioneering ancestors would applaud her forethought. At least she would allow herself to be put into one of the fancy costumes on offer until her own clothes were returned, she thought and looked in astonishment at the piles of colourful silks the girls had fetched. They seemed keen for her to choose a bright pink outfit shot through with gold thread but, with a vision of herself escaping through the hills looking like a stick of candy-floss, she turned it down, insisting on a green three-quarter length tunic over a pair of baggy trousers in the same fabric caught up at the ankle, and accepted, though she did not put it on, a gauzy yellow face-covering veil.