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Authors: Barbara Cleverly

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BOOK: The Damascened Blade
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Arriving at the fort, Grace watched in amusement blended with not a little satisfaction as a striking but grim-faced man rode determinedly down the column and hauled Miss Coblenz out of the troop. She threw back her motoring veil the better to watch the scene unfold. Good! Whoever this was, he seemed to be giving her a jolly good and well-deserved wigging. The American girl had delayed the whole column forming up outside Government House back in Peshawar for fifteen minutes while she objected, argued and cajoled. At last she had got what she wanted which, perversely, appeared to be to ride twelve miles in the heat at the back of the column breathing exhaust fumes and dust and surrounded by twenty clattering and sweating Lancers.

‘Did you see that, Betty?’ Grace exclaimed excitedly. ‘It looks as though she’s met her match at last! I wonder who that authoritative young man is? What a face! I think he’s going to shake her!’

‘Oh, no!’ Betty smiled. ‘That’s Joe! Joe Sandilands. He’s the policeman I was telling you about. He may have the face of a killer – which is what I suppose he once was – but he’d never lay hands on a woman. There, you see, short and sharp and now she knows who’s in charge!’

They watched as Joe reinserted Lily into the centre of the troop and began to trot back up the column. When he drew level with their car he stopped. He bowed to Grace, selected a white rose from his epaulette and handed it to her. ‘Dr Holbrook, welcome to Gor Khatri.’ Handing a red rose to Betty, his face alight with affection, ‘Lovely Betty! How good to see you again!’ And he rode on ahead of them to the gates.

Grace inhaled the strong fragrance of her rose with pleasure, intrigued by their new escort. She could admire a man who was capable of military firmness one moment and melting charm the next. A considerable man, was her fleeting first impression, a manly man, if that wasn’t too old-fashioned an expression. His grey eyes were intelligent and humorous and his face must at some point in the past have been handsome. She wondered how the wreckage had occurred. Her professional eye diagnosed bad surgery on the battlefield.

Pity he hadn’t fallen into her hands – she would have made a better job of it. Grace had acquired a reputation for restorative surgery over the years. The tribesmen were all too apt to slice each other up in their conflicts and would unhesitatingly come into Peshawar, often clutching the lopped-off ear or fingers, and ask her to make all good again. She had stifled her anger and disgust the first time a man of the Mahsud tribe had brought his wife to her. The husband had sliced off his wife’s nose in a jealous rage and later regretted it. What could the good doctor do about it? Grace was proud of the technique she had evolved of cutting a Y-shaped flap of skin from the forehead and training it down to graft over the damaged area. She had lost count of the number of women she had treated. Behind their veils the women of the hills were as tough as their men, athletic and strong and well able to defend a fort or village if necessary, but some fell victim to gynaecological problems, cholera, typhus, stray bullets and mutilation at the hands of their husbands. And, since no male doctor would have been allowed to treat or even look at a woman, Grace was the only resort.

With the aid of her husband, also a doctor, she had established a clinic in Peshawar and to the astonished concern of the authorities had continued to run it, treating British citizens and Pathans alike even after the death, at native hands, of her husband. The tribesmen were more astonished than her compatriots. She was frequently asked by patients how she could bring herself to do this work, caring for the very people who were responsible for his death. Surely, they wondered, she must want to invoke the right of badal, to be avenged for her husband? Surely there was some young man of her family who would pick up and run with the tale? And she herself was well placed to take revenge, they would say, with a meaningful and nervous glance at her sharp instruments. She always reassured them that her only interest was in putting people together again. She usually managed to bring her God into the conversation too, explaining the theory of Christian forgiveness. They had come to trust her and she was a well-known and welcome guest in the tribal territories.

Frederick Moore-Simpson had acquired a pretty extensive knowledge of the frontier. He could ask sensible questions and he could give sensible answers. He knew his way round this Debatable Land. But this was the first time he had stood down on its earth. His knowledge had been acquired from a height of five thousand feet but the more he had looked and the more he had listened, the more he had become converted to the Forward Policy. To his calculating and pragmatic RAF mind it seemed that war on the ground must go in favour always of the native Pathan. Others had found this. The Moghul emperors had found it, as had the Sikh invaders and now the British, poised and ready to repeat the same mistakes.

When every corner of this land was overlooked by a defensible mountain crag, and every crag occupied by vigilant and highly trained riflemen, if there was to be any conclusion there had to be, as he put it, ‘a change of bowling’. And the change of bowling could be supplied by the RAF. An adequacy of landing strips and the work once done by sweating infantrymen both British and Indian on the ground could be done by the modern cavalry – a squadron of light bombers. Fred knew a good deal about this. He had served on the Western Front. ‘Aerial proscription’ they called it and Fred was convinced that this was the way ahead. ‘Trench strafing,’ he would say, ‘that’s the stuff!’

He had expended much energy and much eloquence in pressing this point of view on the unreceptive Edwin Burroughs as they drove up together from Peshawar. Fred didn’t like Edwin Burroughs. He didn’t like his patronizing Indian Civil Service approach. He didn’t much like his braying voice, his supercilious expression and his improbably shining silver hair. Least of all did he like his insistence that the way ahead was not to advance but to retreat. In effect, to pull back east of the Indus and leave the tribesmen to sort their problems out themselves, thereby saving the British Government a very great deal of money. Leaving the British Empire open on a thousand-mile-wide front to attack from Russia more like, Fred thought. Couldn’t the man see that?

Fred understood his subject. He had cultivated an RAF manner – casual and informal – but most people swiftly came to the realization that behind this there was an icy determination, by fair means or foul, to press and establish his view. James had at times been surprised at the vehemence into which Fred could so easily slip. So surprised, indeed, that he had applied for and obtained an intelligence report on Fred’s background. Impeccable. Nothing suspicious there. Or was there? Among recent activities on the part of the RAF and in which Fred had been closely involved had been an early experiment in aerial proscription, successful within limits but revealing the surprising fact that the slow-moving bombers available to the RAF at the time were vulnerable targets to Afridi and Wazir snipers on the ground.

‘Just like a covert shoot!’ someone had said. ‘Slow birds!’

Several young flying officers had been forced into crash landings in tribal territory. It was generally believed that a straight and lethal crash was to be preferred to a successful crash-landing. Pilots who in this way fell into Pathan hands in spite of handsome rewards for their return to the British did not last long and did not die easily. James had wondered if Fred’s single-minded pursuit of his aggressive policy was fuelled in any way by hatred or even guilt.

Sir Edwin Burroughs was not in a receptive mood. His piles were killing him. The long journey by train to Peshawar had been bad enough, the accommodation in Peshawar had not been what he was accustomed to but the onward jolting, bumpy journey to the fort had of itself been a source of the sharpest anguish, intolerable at any level but brought beyond bearing by listening to that ignorant damn fool Moore-Simpson pressing the claims of the forward policy which in the mind of Burroughs and many others had long been abandoned by the sensible.

Burroughs had listened but had taken refuge behind the dry cough, the Olympian smile and the parade of saintly patience. He counted the days as best he could until he could be comfortably at home again in Delhi. He didn’t want to spend time listening to Grace Holbrook explaining the views of the Amir. He didn’t want to listen to the domestic preoccupations of the fort commander’s wife (though he understood that James Lindsay was sound enough). He learned that a banquet – a Pathan banquet, if you please! – was being laid on for his benefit that evening. He detested native food. A lively curry always animated his ulcer. He feared that if there was anything at all to drink other than mineral water it would be beer of local manufacture. Aerated drinks did not suit him. He hoped – on the one hand – that he would find himself seated next to this American girl and, on the other hand, that she would be as far away from him as possible. He could do without the stirrings of senile lust which she provoked in him. And, if he were to believe all he heard, the modern American woman was better avoided. They were over-emancipated for many men’s taste, bold and apt to have their own strong opinions. Trouble.

Dermot Rathmore was reputed to have done well out of the war. ‘Something to do with army contracts’ rumour had said and rumour, for once, was right. Seeing a gap in the market he had contracted widely to supply the American forces in France and, unusually, had beaten an American entrepreneur to the draw. And then there was his peerage. ‘Lord’ Rathmore! ‘What was that about?’ people asked. Blatantly – more blatantly even than most – his peerage had come from subscriptions to party funds but this was not widely known outside England, and the North-West Frontier of India was a lord-loving corner of the Empire. These events left him with a considerable sense of his own importance and an exaggerated sense of his own power to manipulate the situations in which he found himself to his further advantage. In the circumstances he was not pleased to find himself in his present company. He had expected a red carpet instead of which he found himself in something little better than a parish outing. He tuned for a moment back into the conversation of Betty and Grace Holbrook and decided it was worse – a Sunday School outing by charabanc was nearer the mark. And one of the wretched women had even brought her dog along for the ride. He looked with disfavour at the small white Jack Russell terrier lying at his feet, its eyes unwaveringly on his ankles. The commanding officer’s wife appeared to be loosely in control of it.

And here was this missionary female, Grace something. He didn’t associate with missionaries though he was told this one had the ear of the Amir of Afghanistan. She might be useful. If he was truly to establish trade relations between the Indian Empire and the Kingdom of Afghanistan a friend at court might come in handy, even a humble missionary. He wondered if he could offer her a retainer. Always worth a try.

Then there was that damn fool Moore-Simpson. DFC and Bar! Trench strafer! He didn’t think much of him! But he was to be preferred to the officer commanding this fort. James Lindsay! He’d had the effrontery to write him a chit telling him how to behave; warning him that he wasn’t to leave the fort without an escort; that he wasn’t, it seemed, to do
anything
without an escort. He’d even had the nerve to give him a lecture on how to treat the local women! ‘Do not meet their eye. Do not address them directly.’ How childish and absurd! He could count the number of native females he’d seen since his arrival on the fingers of one hand and they had been so shrouded in veils from top to toe it was impossible to tell they were women anyway. He had a strong feeling that the natives in these parts – Pakhtuns or Pathans they called them, he believed – had been allowed to get a damn sight too big for their boots. Perhaps Moore-Simpson wasn’t such a fool after all. People criticized General Dyer but certainly his action at Amritsar had nipped what could have have been a nasty bit of trouble in the bud. No – if they were going to trade in these parts it had to be on the basis of who’s boss and who is not. And if that damn fool Burroughs had his way what could be a promising market could be flooded with cheap Russian goods. Dermot Rathmore was determined that this shouldn’t happen. His confidence stemmed from the encouragement he had had at the very highest level. ‘Why don’t you go and have a look at the situation on the ground, old boy? Nothing like first-hand experience of the possibilities. Don’t worry about security – we’ll lay on a show for you. We’ll expect your report on your return – just remember what we’re interested in, what we’re
all
interested in, is the feasibility of the project. Can we get British goods into Afghanistan and, assuming we can, what sort of goods should they be?’

Rathmore smiled to himself and took a small object from his pocket. His eyes lingered on the jewel-like painting of a saint. An icon, that’s what these things were called. And since those Bolshies got into power in Russia and suddenly wealth and religion were frightfully unpatriotic they were finding their way over the border. He’d picked this one up in the bazaar in Peshawar for tuppence halfpenny. And there were other things too. Precious things, unusual things which would sell well in London or New York. Some of the works of the enterprising Monsieur Fabergé were filtering down to Afghanistan and onwards. His plan would be to get British goods into Afghanistan all right for the propaganda that was in it and to impress His Majesty’s Government, but Dermot Rathmore’s real profit would be in the goods his caravans brought back out again.

He stared ahead of the convoy, beyond the fort. His calculating blue eyes followed the newly tarmacked road that wound its way up into the dark jaws of the Khyber Pass. That would be the route his lorries would take. How far did the road surface extend? Was it safe? He supposed it all depended on the efficiency of this Lindsay in his tinpot little fort with his bugles and his handful of British officers. Dermot had heard that the vast majority of the thousands of enlisted men – Scouts they called them! Scouts! – were tribesmen from these hills, brigands to a man probably. Dermot sighed. He’d come on a wild goose chase. But then he looked again at the icon in the palm of his hand and cheered up.

BOOK: The Damascened Blade
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