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Authors: Barbara Cleverly

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BOOK: The Damascened Blade
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Joe smiled at her cross face. He thought he might come to like Miss Coblenz after all.

Betty too was impressed. ‘When I get you to myself, James Lindsay,’ she thought, ‘I shall tell you your little entertainment misfired!’ All the same, she had admired the American girl’s reaction. If Lily had had a rifle to hand, she’d have led the charge through the door to deal with the problem. ‘If I were ever stuck on a covered wagon rolling across the prairie (and that’s probably what the Coblenz family were doing a generation or two back!) I’d be jolly pleased to find Lily Coblenz at my elbow,’ she decided.

She leaned forward and addressed the company. ‘Well, I don’t know about anyone else but my nerves could do with a bit of soothing!’ (Not true – James had forewarned his pregnant wife of what was to come and sticking his tongue out had been the signal – but she felt that Lily had been made to feel foolish and this distressed her.) ‘So shall we have the sweet things brought on? We have some candied fruits, some fresh fruit and even ice cream – there’s quite a bit more to come.’

She was interrupted by a steward who came in gingerly carrying a small dish. He approached Betty and spoke diffidently to her. ‘Oh, my!’ Betty exclaimed. ‘Humble apologies from the kitchens. The cook almost forgot the most important dish of the evening. Lily’s golden pheasant! Apparently he’s had a little difficulty with it but he’s done his best and here it is. Not much of it, I’m afraid. Now who would like a helping? Does anyone have room to do justice to this delicacy?’

Betty asked eagerly but without much hope. The amounts of food consumed had been enormous and even that stuffed shirt Burroughs had unbent sufficiently to help himself to several of the dishes as soon as he had ascertained that, in fact, hardly any of them contained curry. Eyes slid away from hers and focused on plates, fingers fluttered in a dismissive way, even Lily shook her head. Pathan good manners came to the rescue and Zeman said cheerfully enough that he would be delighted to taste the pheasant. Gratefully Betty passed the dish and he managed to scrape up quite a convincing helping of pheasant fragments. Lily looked pleased. Betty, to keep her countenance and to flatter Lily, also took a helping, as small as she could decently contrive, and pronounced it delicious. It certainly was. She would commend the cook tomorrow on the inventive way he’d dealt with such unpromising material. The sauce was creamy – yoghurt? – and subtly spiced, the meat distinctly chewy but full of flavour. How wonderful it was to have recovered her appetite! She would actually welcome a dish of ice cream to round off the meal.

With the savoury dishes cleared away and the cloth bright with fresh and candied fruits and glass pitchers of pomegranate juice and a rank of champagne bottles, James announced the next diversion. A group of musicians were to play and sing folk songs. Five Khattaks entered with pipes and drum and stringed instruments. Wearing their native costume they strode lithely into the hall, black shining hair bobbing on their shoulders. They settled themselves on the dais at the end of the hall and began to play and sing in the soft, liquid accent of the southern hill tribes. Lily was enchanted. This, too, was what she’d come for. Eyes shining, she listened to every word, nodding her head gently in rhythm.

They became aware of one short song in particular – nothing more than a couplet – endlessly repeated. Lily’s lips moved with the song. When the singers paused to take a glass of sherbet, she turned to Zeman and announced with some satisfaction, ‘That last song – I’ve learned the words! Listen! I can sing in Pushtu!’

She began in a clear voice and with what sounded to Betty like a very convincing accent to repeat the two lines. Before she was half-way through Grace leaned forward and spoke to her firmly. ‘That’ll do, Lily.’

‘What do you mean?’ Lily wanted to know. ‘I was doing all right, wasn’t I? Why can’t I sing?’

James put his hand over his mouth. The musicians were barely suppressing laughter and Zeman had a problem too. The austere Iskander looked disapprovingly on.

‘Because that song is frightfully rude and no woman should be heard repeating the words, especially when there are Pathan gentlemen present,’ Grace hissed and at this point Zeman rose discreetly to his feet and went to talk to the musicians.

Lily persisted. ‘Well, how tantalizing! Now you just have to tell me! You must – or I’ll start singing it again!’

Grace eyed her with malicious amusement. ‘You have to believe me, Lily.’ She paused for a moment in thought and then said deliberately, ‘Oh, very well. You did ask. But do wait until you’re back in Chicago before you repeat it.’ She moved around the table and slipped into Zeman’s vacated place, moving his sherbet glass aside the better to lean over to Lily’s ear. Speaking softly, her voice was only just audible. ‘It’s a very old song called “
Zakhme Dhil
” which means “The Wounded Heart”. The singer is saying,

‘Over the river lives a boy with a bottom like a peach, But, alas, I cannot swim!’

Lily looked at her with incomprehension. At last she said, ‘But the singer’s a man.’

‘You’re very quick,’ said Grace. ‘And that, of course, is the whole point!’

Lily sank further into confusion. Betty Lindsay began to fear her party was about to implode but was too fascinated by the exchange to reach for the polite distraction etiquette demanded of a hostess.

‘I don’t get it,’ Lily said finally.

‘Then perhaps they don’t
have
it in Chicago,’ said Grace. ‘I see I must explain. Amongst the Pathan, as with many warrior races – Spartans, Zulus, British Public Schoolboys for example . . .’ Her voice sank until it was inaudible to Betty but, much amused, she could guess the progress of the information being imparted by the deepening flush of crimson on Lily’s face and the widening of her eyes.

The lesson over, Grace returned to her place and selected a candied peach, looking very pleased with herself. Lily gulped and began surreptitiously to examine the musicians under lowered eyelashes. When Zeman returned and took his seat next to her again, Lily’s back became even more rigid and she turned in earnest conversation to Joe. Joe seemed to be having great difficulty in keeping his face in control but responded warmly in an effort to cover Lily’s embarrassment.

After an interval the musicians began again, their songs, possibly at the suggestion of Zeman, taking on a plaintive and romantic mood. Cups of green tea were handed out and Betty watched, intrigued, as Iskander took a small silver box from his pocket and proceeded to sprinkle some of the contents on to his tea. Lily also was fascinated.

‘What is that stuff, Iskander?’ she wanted to know.

‘Flakes of white cardamom, Miss Coblenz.’

‘An excellent carminative,’ said Grace. ‘Frightfully good for the digestion. You should all try it.’

Lily held out her cup for a sprinkling of the spice from Iskander’s hand and sniffed the fragrant brew, her eyes over the rim smiling her appreciation. Zeman watched her in some disquiet. He held out his cup and invited Iskander in florid language to favour him with the wherewithal to calm a stomach so full of good things after such a generous and delicious meal.

‘Oh, Lord!’ thought Betty. ‘What comes next? Burps? Do Pathans do burps?’

Her thoughts were interrupted by, of all people, Edgar Burroughs. Almost silent until now, he had been steadily eating his way, Betty had noticed, through a good number of the dishes. At last he had a useful contribution to make to the general chatter. ‘If it’s stomach settling you’re after, you fellows,’ he said, addressing, rather uncomfortably, the two Pathans, ‘you couldn’t do better than these. Swear by them!’ He produced a packet of bismuth tablets and passed them to Zeman. Politely concealing his surprise, Zeman took a pill and swallowed it with expressions of gratitude. Everyone else politely refused and handed them back to Burroughs who now felt free to avail himself of his favourite relief without the subterfuge of palming one into his mouth under the pretence of coughing.

Zeman, apparently determined to play the exotic and compelling mysterious man of the East, had reclaimed Lily’s attention and was introducing her to Pushtu poetry. Lily listened, drawn in despite herself by the seductive sounds. The translations when they came had by all appearances nothing in them to give offence.

‘I think that’s just beautiful!’ she exclaimed. ‘Now tell me, who wrote that?’

Zeman smiled a secret smile and said, ‘I think that is a Persian poet whom we sometimes refer to as Nisami. And he also wrote . . .’ There followed a rush, a surge of soft Persian and then he murmured, hypnotic dark eyes on Lily,

‘The silver fingers of the Moon
Explore the dark depths
Of the sleeping pool
And I wait to see your shadow fall
On the garden’s midnight wall.’

Joe stirred uncomfortably. Should he intervene? Was Zeman playing his role with a little too much zest? Local colour was one thing but this was oversteering surely? She was just impressionable enough to want to be off with the wraggle-taggle gypsies-o, and he had no intention of shipping a heartbroken Lily Coblenz back to Simla. Better be safe than sorry. He cleared his throat. ‘Shall you be racing at Saratoga this summer, Miss Coblenz?’ he asked brightly.

He was not the only one to feel concern for Lily. Lord Rathmore had been keeping a watchful eye on her. And now the torrent of suggestive and sinuous verse poured into her innocent ear by this silk-clad tailor’s dummy was more than he could stomach. If that police lout who was supposed to be squiring her was not prepared to do anything about the unpleasant situation that was developing,
he
would! He leaned forward and his voice boomed out above the general chatter.

‘Are you aware, I wonder, Miss Coblenz, of our own English poets? Kipling perhaps? Ever heard of him? Excellent chap! Now he really knows how to put it together! Brings a tear to the eye every time! He has something very apt to say about this part of the world, in fact. Would you like to hear it?’

Stunned and annoyed, Lily could only nod dubiously.

‘Here goes then! Now what was it? Ah, yes! Got it!’ He prepared his voice for recitation with a disagreeable rasping noise, put one hand on his hip and the other over his heart and began.

‘With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem,
The troopships bring us one by one,
At vast expense of time and steam,
To slay Afridis where they run.
The “captives of our bow and spear”
Are cheap alas! as we are dear!’

This was exactly what Betty had been afraid of. ‘Men!’ she thought angrily. ‘If you take their guns and knives away, they’ll fight with anything that comes to hand – even, apparently, lines of verse. Better than hurling bread rolls but not much. Rathmore! What a fool! Such a cheap shot! And now Zeman is insulted and will have to take his revenge!’

She decided to forestall this by closing down the dinner party and she began to rise to her feet, catching the eyes of the other two ladies, but too late, Zeman had rounded on Rathmore. She could tell he was deeply angry by the sweetness of his smile and the softness of his tone as he addressed the red-faced lord.

‘I see you know your
Barrack Room Ballads
, Rathmore! But you miss your chance to quote the best verse of that poem. “Arithmetic on the Frontier”, wasn’t it? May I?

‘A scrimmage in a Border Station –
A canter down some dark defile –
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten rupee jezail.
The Crammer’s boast, the Squadron’s pride,
Shot like a rabbit in a ride!’

He clearly relished delivering the last line and asked smoothly, ‘Have you calculated the worth of
your
expensive education, my lord, should some tribal owner of a ten rupee Afridi musket take you for a rabbit?’

The blue of Rathmore’s small blue eyes intensified. All held their breath.

‘Much the same as yours, I would estimate, old boy! Not a vast deal of difference between Rugby and Harrow, I should think. You tell me!’ he replied, looking about him triumphantly for support for his thrust. ‘And now, I can see that Betty is making a move to send us all off upstairs with our mugs of cocoa! Miss Coblenz, let me escort you to your room.’ He put out an arm and, scowling and uncertain, Lily took it. They came over to Betty and thanked her in turn for their evening and left the room, Lily casting a speaking glance over her shoulder at Zeman.

The last they heard from Rathmore was a rumbling laugh and in a stage whisper to Lily, ‘Rugby indeed! All paid for by the British, of course, if my information is correct.’

Chapter Six

Joe walked silently round the guest wing. ‘Past eleven o’clock and all’s well,’ he was tempted for a moment to call out. But only just ‘all well,’ thanks to that bloody fool Rathmore! Blast him! He could have provoked a fourth Afghan war with his jingoistic rubbish. Just the kind of thing to raise the sensitive prickles of Zeman and, indeed, the even more sensitive prickles of Iskander. To insult a guest was against all the rules of Pathan hospitality – against all the rules of Joe’s idea of hospitality too. Luckier than he deserved, than he even realized in fact, that Zeman had taken it so lightly.

BOOK: The Damascened Blade
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