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Authors: Barbara Cleverly

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BOOK: The Damascened Blade
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Betty Lindsay too was looking about her. She’d been cooped up with the other military wives within the walls of Peshawar for too long and was enjoying the wide horizons. She took off her heavy solar topee and shook out her thick brown curls, turning her head this way and that. There it was at last! So often imagined, so often described to her by James. Betty stared and stared again at the fort. James’s fort – more or less James’s creation. The centre of his world. ‘No, perhaps not that. I know what’s the centre of his world – me!’ She was heartened by this thought in the midst of a landscape so hostile.

At first the fort was hard to see. Like so many things in this country it had a facility to disappear. A cloud would cross the sun, shadows would chase each other, the cloud would pass on and briefly the mud-coloured fort would reappear in the mud-coloured landscape. Long and low, the fort seemed sprawled across the foothills. She knew – because James had told her – that every possible use had been made of natural features to ensure interlocking fields of fire in the event of attack. Lookout posts and lookout positions ensured that no part of the surrounding landscape was ever in view from fewer than two separate outlooks.

‘It’s all very
,’ she thought to herself. ‘Nothing soft here. This is a world of nailed sandals, bugle calls, iron rations, binoculars and ceaseless watchfulness.’

They wound their way across the plain and Betty became aware of details as they approached the fort. She saw battlements, watchtowers loop-holed for rifle fire, perched like swallows’ nests against the side of the fort, a signal station manned with a heliograph, but amongst the unrelenting military dispositions of stone and dried mud there were the tentative beginnings of shy greenery. Very regimented greenery! Regimented but vulnerable in this harsh world. Recently planted fruit trees seemingly stood to attention where they had been put by a military hand. Vegetables stood likewise. An attempt had been made to establish a vineyard. The whole was efficient and promising ‘but,’ thought Betty with a lurch of the heart, ‘totally without imagination.’ Yes, this was James’s work all right. ‘If ever we live anywhere a civilized life is possible, I won’t let him within a mile of the garden, that’s for sure!’

She turned and said as much to Grace. ‘All the same,’ said Grace, ‘persistence! That’s what’s needed. And that is certainly what James has.’

‘It’s what you’re going to need over this next bit too, Grace,’ said Betty, suddenly concerned and frowning. ‘Look! If you look back the way we’ve come, what do you see? Civilization! Orchards, fields full of green crops, sparkling river, canals, the dome of Ismalia college and a froth of apple and almond blossom! It’s quite heavenly! And then turn quickly and look to the west. Now what do you see? Hell! All shades of brown and not a tree or a blade of grass in sight. And as for that gate to Avernus,’ she pointed at the black vertical fissure that marked the Khyber and shuddered, ‘wild horses wouldn’t drag me up there! I think you’re awfully brave, Grace, going all that way. They say it’s thirty miles from beginning to end. That’s a long ride!’

‘You kindly don’t add, “At your age!” ’ Grace eyed Betty calmly for a moment. ‘I’m not exactly a tourist,’ she said. ‘I know these people and – at last – they know me. I’d go further and say they trust me, and that trust hasn’t been easy to establish. Thirty miles! Yes, it’s a long way but Afghanis say, “Halve the journey – travel with a friend!” and that’s what I shall be doing.’ Her calm was impressive. ‘I’ve done it before,’ she added placidly.

‘I hope you won’t think I’m overstepping the bounds of decorum, Grace –’ Betty smiled, ‘which of course means that I’m about to! – if I ask why
should go to dance attendance on the Amir? We need you in Peshawar!
need you in Peshawar! Surely there must be a supply of competent doctors in Kabul?’

Grace smiled. ‘The Amir Amanullah has very particular requirements in a physician, the most important being that his doctor should not kill him! He doesn’t trust the home-bred ones not to be in the pay of one of his aspirant relatives. Too easy to administer a fatal dose! For this reason he never allows himself to be anaesthetized – not even to have a tooth removed. But he trusts me. He’s visited Peshawar several times to consult me and we get on well. He also appreciates my Western training. His country may still be in the Stone Age in many ways but Amanullah admires many aspects of Western culture. And so does his wife, Sourayah. Sourayah is a great beauty and her husband is very proud of her. She’s even been photographed wearing Paris fashions without her veil – what a scandal! And, more importantly,’ Grace leaned forward, her eyes shining with enthusiasm, ‘the royal pair have a notion to overhaul education in Afghanistan and insist that it be provided for all girls as well as for boys. There has even been talk of enfranchisement for women.’

Betty began to understand Grace’s reasons for taking on the dangerous employment. ‘So, you’ll get alongside Sourayah and encourage her to go in the right direction? But isn’t that a bit dangerous, Grace? They’re all firmly Muslim – you won’t exactly be doing this with the goodwill of most of the country, I’ll bet,’ said Betty shrewdly. ‘The Mullahs, surely, won’t be very happy with these schemes? You could run into some fearsome opposition.’

Betty looked again at the hills rising in jagged ranks, tier upon tier of rugged desolation until they reached the towering peaks of the snow-lined Hindu Kush, and she could no longer fight back a sense of foreboding. On an impulse, she reached forward and seized Grace’s hands. ‘Change your mind, Grace! It’s not too late! Don’t go up into that wilderness!’

Chapter Five

Glad to have a moment or two together, Betty and James Lindsay sat together on the roof of the fort.

‘So glad you’re here, Bets!’ said James sentimentally, reaching out to hold her hand, having first made sure that no disapproving eye would observe this erotic proceeding.

‘Well, at least I’ll mastermind your dinner party,’ said Betty comfortably, ‘and I’ll do place names if you like. Who would you like next to you, for a start?’

‘It’s not a question of who I’d like, it’s who I should have and I suppose I should have that stupid old fool Burroughs on one side and Rathmore on the other. Put Zeman Khan next to little Miss what’s ’er name . . .’

‘Coblenz,’ Betty supplied.

‘Yes, that’s right. Put Zeman next to Lily Coblenz and put Grace on his other side to keep an eye on him.’

‘And where do you want me?’

‘Oh, you can handle the dashing Group Captain and Zeman’s mate. I wish this party was over! I’m quite hopeful that no one will kill anyone else but it’ll be touch and go! That Lily is trouble on two legs if ever I saw it! I can’t imagine how they ever allowed her to come up here! But there we are!’

They stepped out of the shade into the searing sunshine and looked down on the busy life of the fort.

‘I must say, I could do with a swim!’ said Betty.

‘Don’t even think of it! And don’t let that blasted Lily think of it either!’

And they went their separate ways, Betty to oversee the preparations for the evening – though oversee was hardly the word since it seemed unlikely that the Pathan cooks would take much notice of her – and James to conduct a tour of the fort. He had wondered very much whether Zeman and Iskander should be part of this. After all, potentially they were his enemies. He decided in the end that such was the excellence of his defensive arrangements, it could do no harm to show the tribesmen, through Zeman, what they were up against.

Accordingly the tourist party formed up on the parade ground. Lord Rathmore, continuing to resent finding himself one of a party, was acutely aware that his status was not being adequately recognized. Zeman was eloquent with a friendly babble of question and comment but Iskander hardly spoke. Though seemingly indifferent, he nevertheless had eyes everywhere and, while he did not exactly have a notebook open on his knee, he wasn’t missing much and in particular he was noticing the high state of readiness of the Scouts’ garrison. ‘Good!’ thought James. Fred Moore-Simpson was cheerful and tactless, his very English voice perpetually rising above the muttered responses of the other men. No problem there, thoroughly dependable and entertaining chap, James thought.

No, if there were going to be difficulties they would start with Lily Coblenz. She chattered and exclaimed, eyeing the men with unblushing appreciation, asking Zeman, to whom she seemed to have attached herself, indiscreet questions touching on the status of women in the tribal areas, perpetually pressing for a chance to leave the safety of the fort to try the alleged dangers of tribal territory. Her introduction to the two Afghan guests had been a warning. Strangely, it had been Iskander who had initially claimed her total attention. She hadn’t been able to take her eyes off him and James could quite see why. The chap was a particularly handsome specimen. Iskander, outwardly at least, had not welcomed the attention and after an initial startled gaze, almost certainly his first close sight of an American woman, he had, in the polite Pathan way, avoided looking at her, not difficult when a good twelve inches higher than the object of one’s scorn. James cringed as he remembered the first exchange between them. Looking boldly up at the tall Pathan she had said, ‘Tell me, how did you come by those green eyes, Mr Khan?’ And James remembered Iskander’s level response, ‘The same way you came by
green eyes, Miss Coblenz.’

It had been Zeman who came smoothly to the rescue. ‘I always say he found them under a gooseberry bush!’ he said and all were relieved to join in the laughter.

‘Joe’s supposed to be in charge of this girl, blast him!’ thought James resentfully. ‘I think he might have taken the trouble to explain that downcast eyes would not have been out of place. And that’s the very least. If I had my way I’d put her in an all-enveloping, ankle-length burkha for the duration!’ And he could have done without the hissing intake of appreciative breath when elements of Zeman’s Afghani escort stalked by. ‘Ah, well,’ he thought with resignation, ‘a few more hours, that’s all we have to get through.’

James gathered his group around him and cleared his throat loudly to call them to order. ‘Well, if the brass hats expect me to behave like a ruddy Cook’s Tours guide, I’ll give them their money’s worth!’ he had warned Joe and he began.

‘Gor Khatri!’ he announced. ‘That’s where you are but how many of you know what the name means? No one? I’ll tell you. It means “The Warrior’s Grave”. Now we don’t know what warrior or precisely where his grave is located but one day perhaps we will. I hope so. This has always been a strong place. You will have appreciated its geographical and strategic advantages: within an easy ride of Peshawar, covering the trade routes of the Khyber and the Bazar Valley, close to the river yet not dependent on it – we have three deep wells all safely within the confines of the walls. And as you see we are by no means the first to exploit the situation. Its origins are lost in antiquity; we know it was used by the Kushan kings of Gandhara over two thousand years ago and I like to imagine Alexander the Great passing through and feeling safe here. Marco Polo visited the fort in 1275 or thereabouts.’ James smiled. ‘It’s reported that he found this a place where “The people have a peculiar language, they worship idols and have an evil disposition.” ’

‘But of course, nowadays we no longer worship idols,’ Zeman said helpfully to Lily. She tried to stifle her laughter.

James continued, ‘The Moghul Emperor Babur established a fortified caravanserai on this spot in the fifteen hundreds and Mountstuart Elphinstone found shelter here in the last century.’

‘Say, James, weren’t there ever any
here? I mean, we surely can’t be the first to visit, can we?’ Lily interrupted.

‘As a matter of fact, there are evidences of a Hindu shrine which could well be the work of the daughter of Shah Jehan . . .’ James went on.

‘He’s making this up!’ thought Joe. ‘Surely?’

‘. . . and who knows? Perhaps I should expand my standard speech to mention that Lily Coblenz, the Calamity Jane of the twentieth century, left her mark.’

Lily very much appreciated this and was the first to burst out laughing. The company trailed after James in good humour as he led them around the fortifications.

‘This,’ said James, ‘is one of the oldest parts of the fort. That tower is a hundred years old, maybe two hundred years old. You can’t tell because the style didn’t change for longer than that. And that alarm bell is about as old. We don’t use it but there it is. When we first moved here it was there to summon help – to turn out the guard. I suppose if this was a ship you’d say to signal “All hands on deck”. Even we have something a little more sophisticated now in the form of a siren if we need it but I’ve left the bell there. It’s part of the history of the place.’ And the inspection continued.

Apart from a close examination of the thickness, height and strength of the crenellated and loop-holed walls, the Afghans’ attention was caught by the sports facilities. Some of these (stage managed by James, Joe guessed) were being actively demonstrated by teams of Scouts who were obviously enjoying playing to an audience. ‘This,’ said James unnecessarily, ‘is our cricket pitch. And that our hockey field. The Scouts play cricket but the Afghanis don’t. We’re hoping we can change that. All play hockey, of course, and basketball.’

Grace Holbrook, it seemed, was holding the whole party together. She was just as at home with the Afghani escort from Kabul as with the Pathan Scouts themselves; just as at home with the imperial establishment as with Lily Coblenz. Interested and competent, she was clearly enjoying her tour of the fort, asking sensible questions about the water supply and the irrigation system, admiring the dairy herd and making suggestions for the planting of a second orchard.

The inspection wound on its way until James was able to say, ‘And this we’re really proud of! This is our poultry yard. We’ve found that Leghorns seem to do best. This is Achmed, our head poultryman.’ Joe turned to introduce to the party an appreciative Pathan and spoke to him at length in Pushtu, listening and translating his reply. ‘We have problems,’ he said. ‘Wild pheasants raiding our poultry yard! For example – look at that thing!’ He drew attention to a gaudy pheasant casually seated on a nearby roof. ‘As soon as our backs are turned he’ll come down like a wolf on the fold!’

BOOK: The Damascened Blade
12.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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