Authors: Barbara Cleverly
‘Why don’t you just shoot him?’ came Lily’s eager voice. ‘Why don’t you let
shoot him? Go on, James! I wish you would!’ And, turning to Zeman, ‘Tell him to let me have a go!’
Zeman laughed. ‘Go on, Lindsay! Let her have a go. See if she can do it. Every woman in my village could do it. Go on, Miss Coblenz – for the honour of the great American Republic! Slay and spare not!’
‘This is not the OK Corral, Miss Coblenz,’ said James, smiling with difficulty, ‘this is almost a war zone. Any rifle shot heard in the vicinity of the fort evokes a military response. As you can probably understand.’
Zeman looked around him with a wide gesture. ‘But all the officers who could be expected to react are here present,’ he said slyly. ‘No harm, surely, in loosing off one round? Himalayan pheasant aren’t built to withstand rifle fire. One shot should do it,’ he added, cocking a conspiratorial eyebrow at Lily.
James nodded to Joe and, deeply reluctant but unable to dodge the challenge, Joe took a rifle from a nearby Scout and handed it to Lily. ‘That’s the safety catch,’ he began. ‘And remember once the bullet has left the rifle it travels for about a mile which is why, on the whole, we don’t gun down marauding wild fowl with express rifles but I suppose it’s safe enough while the condemned has its back to a rock face. Be careful now – that thing has a kick like a mule!’
Flushed and excited, Lily shrugged him aside, brought the rifle up to her shoulder and fired. In a cartwheel of feathers and squawks the pheasant virtually disintegrated. Amidst general applause, a Scout brought the battered body back and proffered it to Lily.
‘Jeez!’ said Lily, surreptitiously rubbing her shoulder. ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’
‘Put a tail feather in your hat,’ suggested Lord Rathmore.
‘Get yourself photographed with your quarry,’ said Grace. ‘That’s what most shikari who come up here do.’
‘I should send it down to the kitchen,’ said Fred Moore-Simpson, laughing. ‘Waste not, want not! Tell them to serve it up for dinner tonight.’
‘Or what’s left of it,’ said Rathmore.
James took a look round, mentally calling the roll. ‘Someone missing,’ he said. And then, ‘Where’s Burroughs?’
‘He had to leave us,’ said Fred. ‘He’ll be flat on his back by now, drinking a little and thinking a lot and yearning for Delhi. Poor old sod.’
* * *
At the end of what had been a long day, a day in which Betty Lindsay had revised her seating plans at least half a dozen times, she surveyed her final arrangements. Not bad, she decided. Not perfect but the best that this incongruous mob could possibly supply. The men of course had done a splendid job and really the Pathan feast laid out in the durbar hall was very glamorous and impressive. Pathans were surprising. A warrior race indeed and, if she was to believe all she was told, treacherous, vengeful and ruthless, yet they could spend happy hours decorating a dinner table and to a standard that would put a Home Counties Women’s Institute to shame. Thick rugs had been spread in the centre of the room and surrounded by tasselled cushions. A white cloth covered the rugs and this was decorated with candles and sprays of blossom and spring flowers. Dishes of Pathan and Persian food were to appear in procession to be set out down the length of the table so that the guests might help themselves. Nervously Betty wondered whether she had remembered to tell everyone to use only their right hand. Yes, she was sure she had.
She stood for a peaceful moment alone to calm herself before the guests arrived in the doorway of the durbar hall enjoying its unusual beauty. James had taken her on her own private reconnaissance tour that morning and she remembered his pleasure when she had gasped with delight on entering. ‘Our pride and joy!’ he had said. ‘When I got here this was just a store room with the accumulated rubbish of two thousand years on the floor! About a foot thick, I’d guess. Dust, cigarette ends, goat shit, dead rats, fallen plaster – you can imagine! I set people to clear it up as a fatigue – a punishment, you know – shovelling muck off the floor, scrubbing it down, then we made the most remarkable discovery. Under the debris there was what you now see. I think it’s a Buddhist stupa . . . second, third century AD? We cleaned it down and whitewashed it and left it to speak for itself.’
Betty looked again at the ancient tiled floor. How would you describe it? Turquoise and gold? No – turquoise and chestnut. Polished, mysterious and serene, the floor reflected the encircling arcade. The last shafts of warm sunshine knifed down from the rim of the dome and seemed to set the floor ashiver. And how sensible, Betty thought, how typical of her husband that he would have left the room free of any Western frippery, content to allow the natural materials and the graceful proportions to make their own statement.
Betty moved aside as a procession of white-clad Pathans arrived carrying in the dinner dishes. Fragrant piles of fluffy rice spiced with saffron and spiked with almonds would surely appeal to everyone. The platters were accompanied by deep dishes of curried lamb, plates of roast chicken, mounds of mint-flavoured meatballs, heaps of flat Peshawar bread and, in pride of place, a roasted, clove-studded fat-tailed sheep. Her party looked good and promising. As the rest of the guests appeared and conversation built up Betty began to enjoy herself. Even her morning sickness had left her though, cautiously, she decided it would be sensible not to accept a glass of champagne from the steward who was handing out Bollinger and took a glass of iced fruit juice instead.
She looked around the table. How plain the British men looked in their white mess jackets, their white shirts, black ties and black trousers when seen alongside the two Pathans. Zeman and Iskander had obviously determined to make an impression, Betty thought gratefully. Already well over six feet, both men had increased their height by the addition of a tall, bright blue turban. They wore baggy blue trousers, white shirts and gold-embroidered waistcoats, red for Zeman and blue for Iskander. Both wore flat gold-embroidered slippers. They settled, cross-legged – obviously at ease – into their appointed places and each took a glass of sherbet.
As the light faded, pottery lamps were carried in and placed between each pair of guests. Flickering in the soft wind that blew through the open doors they reflected and deepened the colours in the tiled floor.
Betty decided that she had done her hostess’s duty by setting herself between the two most unpromising social partners. On her right, Burroughs, white with anguish, hating everything that had happened or that he had seen during that day and his hatred compounded by the horror of his being required to sit cross-legged on the floor in evening dress contemplating a very long menu of food, none of which he could possibly digest.
Betty turned from him to Lord Rathmore on her left. Lord Rathmore was sulking. He had looked forward to this dinner party and had counted on sitting next to Lily Coblenz. He thought she had what he would have called a roving eye and might repay a little flattering attention. American girls, he had noticed, were impressed by a title. ‘Just might be something doing there,’ he thought. But now, to his annoyance, he found himself between Iskander Khan and Betty. ‘What a waste,’ he thought angrily. As his eye surveyed the dinner table he glanced up and caught his own reflection in a wall mirror. Automatically he smoothed his moustache which an Indian barber had given an almost Teutonic twist. ‘Not bad,’ he thought. ‘Don’t look a day over forty.’ He flashed a conspiratorial smile at his reflection. A few weeks in the Himalayan sunshine had given his normally pink cheeks a ruddy depth. ‘An improvement,’ he decided as by chance his eye met Lily’s for a second.
‘Could do with a bit more height – like that conceited oaf, Sandilands. Perhaps look my best sitting down. Might impress on a horse perhaps? This little Lily Coblenz: not just a pretty face. Wielding quite a lot of influence, they say. Could be the makings of a commercial alliance there. “Coblenz-Rathmore Inc?” Must put that idea – among others, of course – into her head!’
‘Ha! Ha!’ thought Betty, reading his mind. ‘He can’t be bothered to make conversation with his hostess – other fish to fry. I’ve got a jolly good mind to take him boringly one by one through the twenty-five runs James made in Peshawar last month. That’d show him!’
She considered that Lily, seated between two seriously attractive men, had drawn the jackpot. Joe, on Lily’s left, slightly battered, alluringly bemedalled, had, Betty decided, the sweetest smile she had ever seen. And, on Lily’s right, the seductive Zeman. ‘Two strong men stand face to face though they come from the ends of the earth,’ Betty quoted vaguely from a Kipling poem. At least they were not face to face with Lily between them but near enough.
Betty had relaxed somewhat on welcoming the two women to the table. Both had taken up her suggestion that they should wear a long frock. She herself was setting the tone in a modestly cut Liberty lawn summer dress, not exactly evening wear but voluminous enough to sit in comfort at least. Lily was looking as demure as she could manage (which was not very), beautiful and animated, but entirely proper and unprovocative in a green chiffon dress and simple pearl necklace. She sat on her cushion, her heels tucked up tidily beneath her, her back straight, as though she dined like this every day of her life.
Grace was wearing the dress Grace always wore, a nononsense maroon silk with a necklace of jet beads. Thank God for Grace Holbrook! Completely at ease, socially competent, eating everything offered to her, changing effortlessly from Pushtu to Hindi and from Hindi to English and back again, completely aware of the approval of the whole dinner table and, thought Betty loyally, lucky to have James next to her on one side and perfectly able to make conversation with the chattering Fred Moore-Simpson on the other. ‘I’ll be like that when I’m a bit older,’ she decided enviously.
The only incongruous note at the table was Iskander Khan. Betty eyed him critically. Yes, perhaps she had made a mistake with Iskander. It had been wrong to seat him next to the unattractive Rathmore whom she thought unlikely to make the slightest attempt to conceal his intentions which were simply to find a way into Afghanistan and, more or less, buy up everything of any possible value and replace it with shabby trade goods mixed in with a few obsolete rifles. The passionately nationalist Iskander would have little to say to him. Little indeed to say to his neighbour on the other side. As far as Betty understood it, Fred’s general idea was that the proper way to keep peace on the frontier was to advance British interests deep into tribal territory and keep them there through the influence of rapid deployment of a squadron of light bombers. Perhaps she had made a bad mistake in seating him next to a potential target! But then, thought Betty, noticing the two deep in animated and not unfriendly conversation, effectively, strip aside the voice and the clothes and they were really very similar. With their positions reversed, Iskander would passionately welcome the opportunity of dropping bombs on Fred Moore-Simpson. And there they sat, each wrapped in his tribal habits and each perfectly understanding the other. And not dissimilar in appearance, Betty decided, comparing Fred’s elegant figure, neat moustache and sleek fair hair not unfavourably with the exotic Iskander.
Her eye roamed to the head – or was it the foot? – of the table and rested on the lamp-lit red curls and humorous blue eyes of James Lindsay. ‘My husband,’ she thought. ‘The best! Not the handsomest but certainly the best! There he sits. Well, I know who’s the lucky girl at this table! He looks jolly tired though. I’ll be glad when he’s got rid of this crowd and can get back to his dangerous, responsible, hard-working, unresting life! Really! They ask too much of my poor man! Soldier, diplomat and now Mine Host!’ Betty suspected that her protective instincts were wasted on the hardened and competent man she had married. At that moment James looked up. Their eyes met and she winked at him. He put his tongue out at her.
Before she could respond, a volley of shots rang out overhead. A pause and it was followed by another hail of bullets, accompanied by the scream of ricochets and somewhere in the distance the shattering of a pane of glass. For a moment everyone sat rigidly still, eyes wide, ears straining.
‘Is that someone shooting at us?’ Lily said.
‘Yes, probably,’ said James easily. ‘Certainly sounds like it. More champagne, anyone?’
something? Shouldn’t you go out and
For answer James crooked a finger at one of the jemadars who was standing by unmoving. ‘Just go and see what all that was about,’ he said. The jemadar bowed and left.
Lily didn’t need to be told what it was all about. She knew. The fort was being attacked, though nobody seemed to be taking very much notice. She turned to Grace as another volley erupted. ‘Shouldn’t they do something?’ she demanded excitedly. This was, after all, what she’d come for. Shots in the night! But where was the British reaction? ‘I mean, I know you British go about balancing a straight bat on your stiff upper lips but isn’t this going a bit too far?’
‘I expect they know best,’ said Grace placidly, dipping her fingers in a finger bowl as a burst of return fire rang out.
‘Well, there you are, Lily, there’s the armed response,’ said Fred.
‘I think you can leave this to the garrison,’ said Zeman. ‘If it’s anything it’ll just be a party of those hairy brigands the Zakka Khel Afridi raiding down from the hills for guns and women, firing from the hip as they come. They do it all the time! Tribesmen in these parts are disgracefully primitive in their reactions, you’ll find.’
An uneasy thought occurred to Lily. She turned to Zeman. ‘Hey! Zeman! You’re an Afridi, aren’t you? Which side are you on anyway?’ Encountering a gleam of amusement in the eye of Iskander, Lily fell silent for a moment, thoughtful and indignant. At the next lull in the firing she spoke again. ‘Okay, James! I said – okay! You can tell your guys to stand down now. Thanks, I’m sure, for the floor show! Well, gee willikins!’ she drawled sarcastically. ‘I’ll certainly have something to tell the girls back home in Chicago now, won’t I?’