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Authors: Barbara Cleverly

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BOOK: The Damascened Blade
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‘No. It’s not white as the untrodden snow in England but at least I know what the rules are and so do the villains. George has a compulsion to find out the truth – oh, yes, he likes to know what’s really gone on – but then, instead of letting the law take its due course, he diverts it, runs it down channels he’s dug himself. It goes against everything I believe in! Cover-ups, pretence, turning a blind eye – it’s not my style, James! I admire but I don’t approve.’

‘No, you never were much of a politician, Joe. But you’re safe from his machinations out here at least. Plenty of shooting going on but it’s all above board! But there can’t be anything sinister in this request, can there? Dancing attendance on an American girl? Some would jump at the chance.’

‘I don’t like it. Look, James,’ said Joe desperately, ‘you command this blasted fort – or don’t you? Can’t you just say no? Isn’t there a system of passes to travel west of Peshawar? There is, you know! I remember on mine it said in block capitals that no women were allowed into the war zone. And this is the war zone, dammit! We were shot at a dozen times this afternoon.’

‘Believe me, Joe, I’ve been saying no for weeks! This place is filling up like a five star hotel. The Waldorf Astoria perhaps.’

‘Why? How do you mean?’

James Lindsay rubbed his face morosely. ‘Trouble is,’ he said, ‘the fort is something of a model. Football ground, hockey ditto. Squash court under construction. Tennis courts. Perhaps you’d care for a game of cricket? We can provide! Every conceivable modern convenience, every conceivable military convenience too for that matter. Security the like of which we’ve never seen on the frontier before so what’s the result? Every wandering idiot in the bloody Empire with the slightest influence thinks he (and now
she
, it appears!) is entitled to a jolly weekend in the spearhead of British Imperial expansion! And on whom does the burden fall? On Sucker Lindsay to be sure! Do you realize this? – apart from ourselves and apart from those who actually do all the work, we have on board, or very shortly will have on board, a senior Indian civil servant from the Viceroy’s office on a “fact-finding mission to evaluate the work of Scout forts and their significance in the overall defence of the Indian territories”. Sir Edwin Burroughs, no less! Not the easiest man to have looking over one’s shoulder.’

‘Never heard of him. But, whoever he is, he’ll never see a better run fort, James. No reason for concern there, surely?’

‘Oh, but there is! Sir Edwin’s views on the border forts are well known and very uncomplicated: “Shut the buggers down!” He’s advising the government and anyone who will listen to him that the British should pull out, abandon the Durand Line and retreat back east to the Indus. And there are some days, believe me, Joe, when even I can see the sense of that! But for the duration of his visit I’m expected to put on a show of efficiency to make your eyes water. It’s all a propaganda exercise to reassure HM Gov. that we’re firmly in control. Or otherwise. What the hell am I supposed to
do
with him?’

Joe laughed. ‘Take him out on a gasht and lose him! But, seriously, the chap’s not military – he’ll be cosseted Indian Civil Service from Calcutta or Delhi. All he’ll be concerned about is that you offer him the right kind of marmalade for breakfast.’

‘There’s more, Joe! As if that weren’t enough, even you will have heard of Dr Grace Holbrook? Pioneer of medical missionary zeal? She’s much admired by His Excellency, she’s quids in with Sir George and – unbelievably – quids in with the bloody Amir of Afghanistan! Our friend over the border. Ever since she successfully treated his piles or was it his worms? Anyway she’s en route for Kabul, it’s said to take up a post as the Amir’s personal physician, and spending “a day or two in the fort” to rest and wait for her Afghani escort to take her on to Kabul. I tell you, Joe, this is going to be a shambles! At least it would be enough of a shambles if it weren’t for Lord Rathmore who’s also chosen this moment to drop in on us.’

‘Lord Rathmore? Who’s he, for God’s sake?’

‘Chairman of West India Trading, very eager to see British goods replace Russian goods in the Kabul bazaars and I don’t only mean pretty leather boxes, tins of turtle soup and cakes of Pears soap – I’m speaking of military hardware as well. And, inevitably, there’s a sheepdog to herd this mob, an RAF man, Fred Moore-Simpson (nice chap, I don’t mind
him
staying). He’s coming to consider the problems and advantages of aerial proscription and hoping to site a squadron of light fighter-bombers to patrol the frontier from the air. It’s not a bad idea but I do just wish it could have cropped up at any other time.’

Joe had listened to this catalogue with a certain amount of amusement as he saw James’s anguished face. ‘I think you’re going to have to go over that cast list again for me! How many was that? Five including the Coblenz girl? And two of us – one more and we could have a dinner party! Or two tables of bridge! That’s it then, is it?’ he asked. ‘Anyone else you’ve forgotten to tell me about?’

‘Yes,’ said James, his expression changing to one of happiness, ‘there
is
one more. Betty!’

‘Betty? She’s not coming up here, is she? Surely it’s against all the rules to have your wife on the station?’

‘Well, since everybody else seems only too happy to break the rules I don’t see why
I
shouldn’t! And she’s on her way. I shall be very happy to see her.’

‘Me too,’ said Joe who remembered Betty Lindsay very well. ‘I shall be delighted to see her . . . always provided she hasn’t got that wretched little dog with her! Did she bring it out to India? What was it called? Minto?’

James sighed. ‘Minto yes. Can’t promise you, Joe. I mean, after all, what would she do with him if she didn’t bring him with her? Can’t leave the little thug with anybody else. Bites like a baboon. Come on, Joe! Ten lengths – I’ll race you!’

They both smiled, happy with their shared memories. When they had found themselves going home on leave on the same boat after their first campaign together Joe had asked James where he was bound. A stiffness had descended on the lively features and he had confided that he was going to spend his precious fortnight with the only family he had in England – two elderly uncles in Camber-well. It had been easy for Joe to say, ‘Don’t do that. Come and finish this game of chess at home with me. At least not
my
home but my sister’s. She and her husband live in Surrey, place called Upfold House. There’s not a lot to do – tea on the lawn, bridge, going to church. Pretty boring really, and I’m beginning to be sorry I asked you, but you’d be very welcome.’

‘Heaven!’ James had said. ‘It sounds like heaven!’

And he had found his heaven, though not at Upfold House. Joe discovered that James’s constant visits to Upfold Rectory were prompted not by religious fervour but by a more particular interest (amounting perhaps to fervour) in the rector’s pretty daughter, Elizabeth. All James’s subsequent leaves, with or without Joe, were spent at Upfold and when the war ended he married Betty and took her back to India to resume his career. It had been decided that his military experience was exactly what was needed on the North-West Frontier, and Major and Mrs Lindsay were sent north to Peshawar.

To Joe’s irritation James Lindsay won their race by a wide margin. ‘I almost met myself coming back,’ James said with satisfaction. As they emerged from the tank and wrapped themselves in towels, a Scout havildar came efficiently to attention at James’s elbow with a written message in his hand. He spoke rapidly in Pushtu and James listened with close attention, interpolating a question or two from time to time. Finally he turned to Joe. ‘Message,’ he said, ‘by helio. From one of our pickets. A cavalry force, thirty strong they say, is coming in down the Khyber road. This must be Grace Holbrook’s Afghani escort. Typically twenty-four hours before I was expecting them! I think I’ll send some chaps to meet them. I like to retain the initiative. But, on second thoughts, perhaps I’ll go and meet them myself. Why don’t you come with me? Just give me time to get dressed and hand over to Eddy Fraser and we’ll go!’

He shouted down into the courtyard and at once horses were led out and mounted Scouts were forming up.

Twenty minutes later, Joe and James rode out through the main gate of the fort at the head of a small escorting group. ‘We won’t hurry,’ said James. ‘We’ll just amble out to greet them, looking at the view and chatting of this and that as we go. Don’t want to assume the character of an official delegation. This is just a private arrangement between Grace Holbrook and the Amir and we’re doing what we can to help them. No more than that.’

Squinting into the sun dipping behind the forbidding khaki bleakness of the Khyber, Joe took out a pair of binoculars and focused on the riders coming on towards them. They presented an alluring blend of banditry and military precision. They advanced under a haze of fluttering battle standards. They seemed to be a regular army force down to the waist but irregular frontier raiders below that. Chestnut silk turbans, loose khaki tunics, patch pockets, cross belts and aiguelettes with, below them, baggy trousers and tall boots. Many were armed with spears which, taken in conjunction with the fluttering flags, managed to give an air of a medieval force. All, Joe noticed, were equipped with bolt-action rifles as good as anything carried by the Scouts. Their air of efficiency and menace was not lost on Joe. This was no carnival army.

‘Friendly enemies, would you say? Or hostile allies?’ he murmured to James. ‘Are you sure we’re not still at war with these gentlemen?’

‘The third – but I suspect not the last – Afghan war was over three years ago and we signed a peace treaty with the Amir only last year.’ James paused for a moment and added, ‘But I’ll remind you of an old Pathan proverb shall I? “When the peace treaty’s signed – that’s when the war starts.” And I’ll tell you something else – they’re not coming into the fort! Plenty of them have got scores to settle with the Scouts and plenty of Scouts would welcome above all things an opportunity to have a go at them. They can camp on the football ground for tonight. We can board them but I’m damned if I’ll lodge them as well. Far too volatile! Hell’s bells! Shouldn’t have let this happen! But then what could I do? Could you get me a job in London, do you think, Joe? This is all getting a bit delicate for me!’

They threaded their way through the irrigated, crop-green land beyond the walls which served both as a clear field of fire, vegetable garden and orchard for the fort and ambled on. The two troops closed until they were a hundred yards apart. The leading Afghan raised a hand and his men came to a halt. Escorted by one man riding at his side and a little behind, the leader came on at walking pace, mounted on a tall grey Khabuli stallion. To Joe he seemed a very impressive figure. Young and handsome with dark eyes and a heavy black moustache, he turned a direct and enquiring gaze on them. Over one hip was slung a Mauser pistol and over the other a jewel-encrusted Persian dagger.

James surveyed the newcomer through narrowed eyes.

‘Who’s this, James?’ Joe whispered, curious and intrigued.

‘Zeman Khan!’ said James. ‘Very prominent local citizen. Nephew – or is it cousin? – of the Amir. About twenty sons and brothers between him and the throne but that’s not a formidable barrier in Afghanistan.’

‘What – you mean . . ?’

‘Oh, yes. The Afghan royal succession makes the last act of
Richard the Third
look like the Teddy Bears’ Picnic! The present Amir owes his position to the fact that someone shot the top off the head of the previous one, his father, while he was asleep. Some say Amanullah knows more about that than he lets on and others say it was a nephew who killed him. We only care in so far as the present incumbent is not unfavourable to the British and discourages any Russian incursion from the north. Not sure where Zeman Khan stands though.’

He halted the escort and rode forward with Joe. ‘Having said all that, I’ll add that I wouldn’t trust him one inch. He’ll be staying with us tonight – guest of honour, you might say – and he won’t have his eyes shut! He’ll be looking; he’ll be evaluating. He’ll see what we’re up to. He’ll note the number of men we have, the quantity and quality of our armament. He’ll count the pea-shooters and the catapults. Nothing I can do about it. I’ll just have to make it plain that we know what he’s up to and we’re so confident we don’t need to worry too much about a spy in the camp. I’d stick him down with the rest of his bandits on the football ground if I could but that would be a hideous social gaffe.’

He cupped his hands round his mouth and shouted in Pushtu and the oncoming horseman did likewise. Judging by the ribald laughter from both sides which greeted this exchange, it had been one of practised and amiable insult.

‘God!’ thought Joe. ‘I wish I could do that!’

With outstretched hands the men advanced to each other. James spoke again in Pushtu then in English. ‘Let me present Zeman Khan and this is my friend Joe Sandilands.’

The black eyes looked him up and down, resting briefly on Joe’s scarred forehead and the row of medal ribbons on his jacket. They took in the unfamiliar police uniform, showing slight surprise that Joe was unarmed. Zeman Khan smiled and extended a hand. ‘How do you do, Sandilands? I’m so pleased to make your acquaintance. I had heard that you were in Simla but never expected that I should have the pleasure of meeting you here. May I welcome you to this backward and flea-bitten annexe to the mighty British Empire?’

The voice was low and smooth, the accent pure British Public School. Joe mastered his astonishment and replied, ‘I am flattered that the distinguished Zeman Khan, so close to his Highness the Amir, would condescend to know the name of so humble an individual as myself.’

They looked at each other for a moment and then began to laugh. ‘Of course,’ said Zeman, ‘we should be speaking in Persian which is the language of elegant diplomacy but I will settle for the more comprehensible though less elegant language adopted from the conqueror.’

‘Conqueror?’ said James. ‘Rubbish! You’re wasting your time, Zeman! You won’t fool Joe!’

BOOK: The Damascened Blade
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