Flood of Fire | Chapter 13 of 29

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Seven

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The walk from the subedar’s tent to his own was one of the longest of Kesri’s life. Despite the lateness of the hour many men were still up, whispering outside their tents. Kesri passed a few sepoys from his own company and not one of them uttered a greeting or even looked him in the face: it was evident that they knew that he had been declared an outcaste. Everyone drew back, so that an empty space seemed to open around Kesri, following him down the path. It was as if he had become a moving source of defilement.

Kesri could feel their eyes burning into his back; he could hear their voices too, sniggering and whispering. He wished that one of them would say something to his face: he would have liked nothing better than to pick a fight – but he knew there was no hope of that. None of them would offer him that satisfaction; they feared him too much to take him on alone.

When his tent came within sight, Kesri saw that a pack of dogs had gathered around it. They were fighting over a heap of bones and offal that someone had emptied there, in his absence. Knowing that he was being watched, he skirted around the dogs without slackening his step – he was determined not to give them the satisfaction of gloating over his downfall.

Stepping inside his tent, he saw that his belongings were lying scattered about on the ground. His servant had disappeared: it seemed that the chootiya had seized the opportunity to run away with some of his utensils.

Kesri lit a candle and began to gather his things together. As he was picking through the pile he came upon a small picture, painted in bright colours on a scrap of yellowing paper. It was a drawing of a little girl, done in bold, flat lines. He recognized it immediately: it was Deeti’s handiwork; the child was her daughter, Kabutri. Deeti had given it to him at their last meeting in Nayanpur, when Kesri was on leave at home.

Kesri sat down on the edge of his charpoy and stared at the picture, with his elbows on his knees.

What had become of Kabutri? And of Deeti?

The tale of her eloping with a lover and boarding a ship for Mareech seemed like nonsense to him, hardly worth a thought. But some of the story’s details were certainly believable: that Hukam Singh had died for instance – his health had been declining for a long time so his death could hardly be counted as a surprise. Nor was it hard to believe that Deeti would try to extricate herself from the clutches of her husband’s family once he was gone.

Clearly something had happened to her, and even though Kesri had no way of knowing what it was, he sensed that it was the cause of his family’s long silence: clearly the matter was too delicate to be disclosed to the paid scribblers who usually wrote their letters for them. To learn the truth he would have to wait till he went home – which would not be for a long time yet.

Kesri fell on his charpoy and lay still, listening to the familiar sounds of the camp: the bells of the watch; the drunken laughter of men returning from the camp-bazar; the horses, whinnying in their enclosure. Somewhere a young sepoy was singing a song about going home to his village.

The paltan had been his home and family for twenty years, yet it was clear to him now that he had never truly belonged to it. He understood that his dream of rising to the rank of subedar had never stood any chance of being realized. The present subedar and his kinsmen would never have allowed it – in their eyes he had always been an interloper and they would have found some pretext for evicting him. And the worst part of it was that none of this was truly new: he had known it all along, in his heart, but had failed to recognize and act on it.

This realization brought on a wave of disgust, directed as much at himself as towards the men he had considered his comrades-in-arms. He remembered that Gulabi had often tried to warn him about his enemies but he had never paid attention. Now she too would have to sever her connections with him: if not, she would lose her place in the camp-bazar – the subedar would make sure of that.

For Gulabi’s sake, as much as for his own, Kesri understood that he would have to leave the battalion. Once a sentence of ostracism had been passed it was impossible for a man to continue in his old paltan. Kesri had seen it happen before so he knew the subedar had it in his power to make it impossible for him to discharge his duties: if he were to turn up at the parade ground tomorrow, his orders would not be obeyed.

There was no doubt of it – he would have to leave. But where was he to go? To transfer to another unit at this point in his career would be very difficult; and to retire now would mean sacrificing the pension that he would be entitled to if he remained in the army another two years. But what was he to do in the interim?

The cruellest part was that this had happened at a time when he was too tired to think clearly. He stretched himself out on his charpoy and dozed off. When he woke next it was to find Pagla-baba sitting beside him.

Arré Kesri, why are you sleeping? Haven’t you heard? Mee-sah’b is leaving for Calcutta tomorrow.

Kesri sat up with a start. What are you saying, Pagla-baba?

Didn’t Mee-sah’b ask you something the other day?

Suddenly Kesri remembered the adjutant’s offer.

Are you saying I should volunteer for the expedition?

Yes, Kesri, what else?

Kesri jumped to his feet and lifted the canvas flap of his tent. It was well past midnight now, but across the parade ground, in the adjutant’s tent, a lamp was still burning.

Go, Kesri – go now.

Kesri caught hold of Pagla-baba’s hand. I’ll go, he said, but listen – tell Gulabi to come to me tonight. I want to see her – one last time.

Theek hai.

A moment later, Pagla-baba slipped away, as softly as he had come. Kesri stepped out of his tent, stiffened his shoulders and began to walk towards the officers’ lines.

Had the adjutant been anyone other than Captain Mee, the thought of intruding upon him at this hour of the night would not have occurred to Kesri. But his bond with Captain Mee was different from the usual relationship between sepoy and officer: looking at the lamp in the adjutant’s tent he had the distinct feeling that Captain Mee was expecting him.

‘Sir? Mee-sah’b?’

‘Yes? Who is it?’ The flaps at the tent’s entrance parted and Captain Mee’s face appeared between them.

‘Oh it’s you, havildar. Come in.’

Stepping inside, Kesri saw that Captain Mee was in the process of packing. An overfilled trunk stood beside his cot and a heap of papers lay piled on his desk.

‘I’m leaving early tomorrow,’ said Captain Mee curtly, ‘for Calcutta.’

‘I know, sir,’ said Kesri. ‘That is why I have come.’

‘Yes, havildar. Go on.’

‘I also want to go, sir. With you.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes, sir. I want to go as balamteer.’

Captain Mee’s face broke into a wide smile. He stepped up to Kesri with his hand outstretched: ‘That’s the barber, havildar! Knew you’d come up trumps. Don’t know why you’ve changed your mind, but I’m fizzing glad you have!’

Kesri flinched, for he knew that the captain was probably lying in order to spare his feelings. In all likelihood Captain Mee was well aware of the exact reasons for his change of mind. As with any good adjutant, very little happened in the battalion without the captain knowing of it. Scuffles and quarrels; thefts and arguments – nothing evaded his attention. Having himself served as Mee-sahib’s first and most trusted informer, it was no secret to Kesri that the captain had sources in every company and platoon. News of the meeting in the subedar’s tent would have reached him within minutes of its conclusion and he would have grasped immediately what it meant for Kesri. Sentences of ostracism had been passed before in the paltan, not just among the sepoys but also among the officers: when they did it to one of their own they’d say that he had been ‘sent to Coventry’; among them too it amounted to a sentence of expulsion.

Kesri understood that it was not out of ignorance but tact that the captain had made no reference to his plight and was deeply touched: ‘Thank you, Kaptán-sah’b.’

Captain Mee brushed this aside. ‘Well it’s settled then,’ he said. ‘I don’t think the CO will object, but still, I’d better get you to sign the papers right now so that he can see them first thing in the morning.’

Through the rest of the interview Mr Mee’s demeanour remained crisply matter-of-fact. But at the end, when all the paperwork had been completed, his manner changed: he stepped out from behind his field-desk and placed a hand on Kesri’s shoulder.

‘I’m glad you’re coming along, havildar,’ he said in an unusually sombre voice. ‘It’ll make things much easier – we’ve always understood each other well, haven’t we? I doubt there’s another pair of men in the battalion who know each other as well as you and I.’

The directness of Captain Mee’s words took Kesri aback. He would not have expressed himself in this way, but it struck him now that the adjutant was right. It was a fact that after having spent two decades in the paltan, none of his fellow sepoys had uttered a word of sympathy; the only man who had put a friendly hand on his shoulder was not someone of his own caste and colour, but rather an Angrez on whom he had no claim whatever. The thought caused an unaccustomed prickling in Kesri’s eyes and he realized, to his shock, that he was near tears.

Fortunately, the interview was almost at an end.

‘All right then, havildar,’ said Captain Mee. ‘Please report to the officers’ mess after choti-hazri tomorrow.’

Ji aj’ten-sahib. Kesri snapped off a salute and stepped outside.

It was very late now and the campground was empty. Back in his tent Kesri packed a few of his things before lying down. For a while he listened for footsteps thinking that Gulabi might come, although in his heart he knew that she wouldn’t. He could not find it in himself to blame her for staying away; if she were found out the subedar was sure to visit some dire punishment on her: to risk her livelihood, and that of her girls, would be foolhardy.

Even though he understood her situation, the thought that he would never see her again filled him with sadness. No one knew his injuries as well as she did. Her touch was so deft that she could make the sensitive edges of old scars pulsate with feeling; her fingers worked such magic that it was as if old wounds had been miraculously transformed into organs of pleasure. Now it was as if all his scars were weeping for her touch.

He remembered the very first time he had lain with Gulabi, as a raw recruit, and he recalled how a voice in his head had warned that he would pay for his pleasure one day. Now that the day had come, he resolved that he would go back to practising the disciplines of celibacy that he had abandoned on joining the Pacheesi: to return to the wrestler’s state of brahmacharya would be his penance for the years he had wasted as a sepoy.

Kesri thought of his years with the Pacheesi – the battles and skirmishes, and the pride he had taken in the paltan – and a bitter, ashen taste filled his mouth. He remembered that it was Deeti who had conspired to get him into the battalion, and he wondered if it had been written in their shared kismet that she would also be the cause of his leaving it. Yet he felt no rancour towards her. He had only himself to blame, he knew, not just for having cherished a vain hope, but also for sacrificing Deeti to his own ambitions and sending her into the family of Subedar Bhyro Singh, knowing full well what those people were made of.

If Deeti had willed this retribution on him, he would not have blamed her.

*

For Zachary, the consequences of his night with Mrs Burnham were even worse than she had predicted: not only did he have to deal with a heavy burden of guilt and remorse, he also had to cope with the bone-chilling fear of her husband’s vengeance. Everywhere he looked, he saw reminders of Mr Burnham’s power. What would the Burra Sahib do if he got a whiff of his wife’s infidelity? The thought sent shivers through Zachary and he cursed himself for having taken such a senseless risk, merely for a single night’s gratification.

Yet, strangely, contrition was not enough to expunge the night from Zachary’s memory. Even as his head was aching with apprehension other parts of his body would stir and tingle as they exhumed, from their own storehouses of memory, recollections of the explosive pleasures that he had experienced. Then his self-reproach would turn to regret and he would curse himself for not having made the night last longer; involuntarily his head would fill with imaginings of what he would do if he could but relive that night, just one more time.

But that was impossible of course. Hadn’t she said, with absolute finality, ‘this is the last and only time’? He often repeated those words to himself, for they offered a kind of comfort when his burden of guilt and fear weighed most heavily on him. But there were times also when the sound of the words would change, even as they echoed through his head, and he would wonder whether they had been said with as much conviction as he had imagined. Sometimes one thought would lead to another and he would begin to dream of receiving another message from the boudoir, heralding another assignation and another sprint across the garden.

But that message, at once dreaded and hoped-for, never came. Week after week went by, and not only was there no note or chitty, he did not even properly set eyes on Mrs Burnham – all he saw of her was a shadow on the purdahs of her buggy, as it rattled down the driveway, ferrying her to some levée, lecture or burra-khana.

Her silence, as it lengthened, grew increasingly frightening. He could imagine that having repented of her adultery, she might now seek to absolve herself of all guilt by making up a story about him; back in Baltimore he had heard tales of great ladies who had seduced their slaves and then accused them of unspeakable things.

And then one night he was seized by a paroxysm of shivers as a thought flashed through his mind. Could it be that she was avoiding him because their night together had resulted in a pregnancy?

This possibility ripped apart the last shreds of his peace of mind. He had been working on the budgerow’s stem-cheeks that day but now he put down his tools and began to brood, trying to think of some way in which he might contrive to meet Mrs Burnham, in private. It occurred to him that he might be able to break into her boudoir by picking the lock on the door that led to the servants’ staircase. But he could not summon the courage to go ahead with it – his fevered mind kept returning to her pistol, conjuring up reasons why she might elect to shoot him.

One day, as he was agonizing over what to do next, Mr Doughty dropped by. It turned out that he had come to invite Zachary to a tiffin the following week.

In his present state of mind Zachary had no inclination to go to a nuncheon at the Doughties’: but so disordered were his emotions that he could not summon the wit to make a convincing excuse. ‘Oh thank you, Mr Doughty,’ he stammered, ‘but I don’t think I have the proper rig …’

Mr Doughty gave a hearty laugh. ‘Well then, my dear young chuckeroo, you can always tog yourself up in a toga again. I’m sure Mrs Burnham would be most diverted – she had a grand old cackle about it the last time. Said you looked like the rummest Rum-johnny she’d ever seen.’

At the mention of Mrs Burnham’s name, Zachary’s mind began to race. He scratched his chin and said, with an off-handed air: ‘Oh? So, Mrs Burnham will be there too?’

‘Yes – and a few other mems, missies and larkins as well. But we’re a little short of launders and chuckeroos which is why Mrs Doughty sent me over to puckrow you.’

‘I’ll be there,’ said Zachary. ‘Thank you, Mr Doughty.’

‘Good. And if you’re looking to tog yourself out on the cheap you couldn’t do better than to visit the auction houses on Sunday. They often sell off the estates of the recently deceased – you’ll get all you need for a copper or two.’

Zachary decided to heed Mr Doughty’s advice, and when Sunday came he reached under his mattress and pulled out his purse. The coins in it were miserably few: counting them out one by one, it seemed to Zachary that all his other travails would have been bearable if only he had not been so damned poor.

His eyes strayed to the gilded sconces that lined the interior of the budgerow and it occurred to him that it would be easy to sell a couple of them in the market: nobody would notice. He rose to his feet and went to take a closer look. Prying them off would be simple enough, just a matter of extracting a few nails.

He fetched an awl and was about to dig into the wood when a sudden qualm made him withdraw his hand. Behind that gilded sconce he could see a tunnel that led to some mysterious unknown – thievery – and he could not bring himself to go in. He put aside the awl and stuffed his meagre few coins into the pocket of his breeches.

A long walk brought Zachary to the centre of Calcutta from where he asked his way to the doors of one of the auction houses on Russell Street. At the cost of almost empyting his pocket, he was able to acquire a suit that had belonged to a recently deceased apothecary by the name of Quinn.

Not till the morning of the Doughties’ tiffin did it occur to him that the suit had a strange smell – of mildew and sweat mingled with the odour of something medicinal – but of course it was too late to do anything about it. He put it on, hoping that no one would notice – in vain, for the khidmatgar who opened the door for him, at the Doughties’ residence, recognized the suit immediately and gave a shriek, as if he’d seen a ghost: Quinn-sahib? Arré dekho – Quinn-sahb ka bhoot aa giya!

The noise brought Mr Doughty to the door and he too uttered a cry of surprise: ‘Good God, Reid! Those aren’t old Quinn’s togs you’re wearing, are you? He had only one suit, you know, and his shop was around the corner so we saw him in it every day. Mrs Doughty and every other memsahib in the city bought their laudanum from him.’

Zachary spluttered in protest: ‘Well, it was you, Mr Doughty, who said to go to the auctions. How was I to know?’

‘Oh well, never mind. You can hardly take it off now. Come into the bettuck-connuh and put your bottom to anchor.’

Zachary had taken only a few steps into the receiving room when he caught sight of Mrs Burnham. She was on the far side of the room, seated on a settee, wearing an airy gown of pink tulle, with trimmings the colour of rich, red wine; her face, with its tumbling halo of curls, was framed by the rim of a heart-shaped bonnet. The feather on the bonnet’s crown was swaying gently under the punkah that was swinging overhead, stirring the sultry air.

Although Zachary was well within Mrs Burnham’s field of vision she seemed to be oblivious to his presence: she was chatting to two severe-looking memsahibs with her usual air of languid indifference.

Almost at once Zachary’s eyes dropped to her midriff. Seven weeks had passed since that night and it was conceivable that if it had led to the outcome that he most feared – a pregnancy – some sign of it would already be visible. He saw nothing to confirm his fears – but he could not wrench his gaze away. And then his eyes played a cruel trick on him: they stripped away the frothing pink fabric of her dress to reveal what lay beneath. He beheld once again the slope of her belly, curving steeply down towards a forest of soft, downy curls. He remembered the ease with which he had slipped through that silken canopy and how the warmth of his welcome had led him to plunge deeper and deeper until he reached what seemed to be an unattainable extremity; he remembered how joyfully he had been received in that haven and how this had created the illusion that he had been accepted into an empire where he had never thought he would belong; and as that fantasy faded, and his nose caught, once again, the musty smell of his threadbare suit, he wondered how it was possible that the most secret parts of himself could have been given so warm a welcome by someone who would not grant the least gesture of recognition to his clothed body.

The injustice of it kindled a spark of defiance in him, propelling him to move towards the settee. It was only natural, he told himself, that he should make his salaams to her – it was no secret, after all, that he was an employee of her husband’s, almost a retainer: and had she not danced with him in public, at the ball?

Mrs Burnham was still gossiping airily with her companions and showed no signs of having noticed his presence. As he approached the settee, he caught the fluting sound of her voice: ‘Oh I assure you, my dear Augusta, the trouble in China is due solely to Commissioner Lin – he’s a monster, Mr Burnham says, an absolute dragon …!’

She seemed to be intent on her story and took not the slightest notice of Zachary until he was directly in front of her, bowing. Then she gave a little start and glanced up. ‘‘Pon my civvy! Oh it’s you … Mr … Mr …? Never mind …’

She inclined her head slightly, to give Zachary a perfunctory nod: the gesture was not so much a greeting as a sign of dismissal. Then, turning her shoulder on him, she resumed her conversation.

The snub stunned Zachary: he turned on his heels quickly, to hide his flaming cheeks, and shambled off in the other direction. As he was making his retreat he heard her say, in a piercing whisper: ‘I’m sorry I didn’t introduce him, Augusta dear, but I can’t for the life of me remember his name. Anyway it doesn’t signify – he’s a nobody, just one of Mr Burnham’s mysteries.’

‘A mystery, is he? From the smell of him, I’d have taken him for a druggerman.’

‘Whatever made the Doughties think of asking him?’

‘Really, I must have a word with them – they’ll be inviting the malis and moochies next.’

It was all that Zachary could do not to clap his hands over his ears: if a whip had landed on his back it could not have had a harsher sting.

To remain in that room another minute was more than he could bear. Giving Mr Doughty the slip he headed straight for the door. But as he was picking up his hat he threw a glance over his shoulder – and at exactly that moment Mrs Burnham’s eyes happened to look in his direction. Their eyes met for only an instant but it was enough for her gaze to lodge in his head like an anchor-fluke.

*

For several weeks after Shireen’s visit to Bassein there was no word from Zadig Bey: knowing that he was due to leave for Colombo soon, she began to wonder whether she would see him again before his departure.

As the days went by this question assumed an urgency that confused Shireen: it seemed shameful to her that her mind should dwell so much on this subject. She tried to persuade herself that it was only because of his connection with Bahram that Zadig figured so often in her thoughts; sometimes she told herself that his entry into her life was a sign; that Bahram himself had sent his friend to her, to open a window at the darkest hour of her life, to let a breath of air into the hushed gloom of her existence.

Had she been able to think of a way to contact Zadig directly, Shireen might have done so. But her only means of reaching him was through Vico, and she fought shy of raising the subject with him.

A month went by and when there was still no word from Zadig, Shireen assumed that he had already left. So her surprise was all the greater when Vico came by to say that Zadig Bey had asked to meet with her, to take his leave.

Through Vico it was arranged that they would again meet at the Catholic church at Mazagon. When the day came Shireen set off early and arrived several minutes before the appointed hour. To her surprise Zadig was already there, sitting in the same place where they’d sat before.

He rose as she approached and bowed formally: ‘Good morning,

Bibiji.’

‘Good morning, Zadig Bey.’

She seated herself beside him, on the pew, and slipped off her veil. ‘So you are leaving Bombay are you, Zadig Bey?’

‘Yes, Bibiji,’ he said, a little awkwardly. ‘Christmas is coming so I must go to Colombo to be with my children and grandchildren. But before leaving I wanted to give you some news.’

‘Yes, Zadig Bey – what is it?’

‘I have been told in confidence,’ said Zadig Bey, ‘that the decision to send an expeditionary force to China has been taken in London, by Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary. It is from India that the expedition will be launched: half the troops will be sepoys, and much of the money and support will also come from here. Apparently the preparations are already under way, in Calcutta, in secret. The planning started some months ago, but only when everything is ready will it be announced to the public.’

‘How do you know this?’ said Shireen.

‘Bibiji, I’m sure you know that William Jardine, the big China trader, is the principal partner of Seth Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, the Parsi merchant?’

‘Yes, of course I am aware of that.’

‘Well, William Jardine has been helping Lord Palmerston with the planning of the expedition. I have just learnt that he has written to Seth Jamsetjee, asking for the support of the merchants of Bombay. He has made it clear that one of the expedition’s principal goals is to extract compensation for the opium that was confiscated by Commissioner Lin – those who provide help will naturally be paid first.’

‘Oh?’ said Shireen. ‘So you think compensation will be paid after all?’

‘I am sure of it,’ said Zadig. ‘And as Bahram’s friend, I must tell you, Bibiji, that it is very important that your interests do not go unrepresented in the months ahead. Since you cannot send anyone to China you must go yourself. That is what Bahram-bhai would have wanted, I am sure of it.’

Shireen sighed. ‘Zadig Bey, you must understand that for a woman and a widow it is very difficult to make such a journey.’

‘Bibiji! European women travel in ships all the time. You are educated, you speak English, you are the daughter of Seth Rustamjee Mistrie who built some of the finest ships to sail the ocean. Why should it be difficult for you to go?’

‘And if I did go to China, where would I stay?’

‘I have friends in Macau. I will write to them to find a place for you to rent.’

Shireen shook her head. ‘But there are many other practical problems, Zadig Bey. How will I finance such a journey? How will I buy a passage? All I have is some jewellery that I’d hidden away – Bahram left nothing but debts, you know.’

Zadig wagged a finger to signal his disagreement. ‘That is not true, Bibiji – Bahram-bhai was very generous to his friends and he left behind many things. With me for instance.’

‘What do you mean? What has he left with you?’

‘Over the years he gave me many presents and did me many favours. In the flow of life, these things too are like loans. Since you are his widow, it is only right that I should discharge those debts by paying for your passage.’

A startled blush rose to Shireen’s cheeks. ‘Zadig Bey, that was not what I meant. I couldn’t possibly accept money from you.’

‘Why not?’ said Zadig insistently. ‘It would be merely a repayment of my debts to Bahram-bhai. Not even that – it would be an investment, rather. When you reclaim Bahram-bhai’s dues, you can pay me back. With ten per cent interest if you like.’

Shireen shook her head. ‘That’s all very well, Zadig Bey – but what will I tell my family? They will want to know where the money came from.’

‘Tell them the truth. Tell them you had some jewellery hidden away and you’ve decided to sell it. That’s all they need to know.’

Shireen began to fidget with the hem of her sari. ‘Zadig Bey – you don’t understand. Money is only one small part of the problem. I also have to consider my family’s name and reputation. There will be a huge scandal if people hear that I’m thinking of going to China – a widow, travelling alone! The Parsi Panchayat may even expel me from the community. And I have to think of my daughters too. They’ll worry about my safety.’

Zadig scratched his chin pensively. ‘Bibiji – I too have been thinking about these matters and a solution has occurred to me. As you know, Vico’s cousin Rosa has spent some time in Macau. While she was there she worked in the Misericordía, which is a Catholic charity that runs hospitals and orphanages. The sisters have asked her to return and she is keen to do so but cannot afford the fare. She will gladly travel with you if her passage can be arranged and paid for. I have spoken to her about this. Your family cannot object to your going if you have a companion with you, can they?’

Instead of calming Shireen, this cast her into despair. ‘A passage for Rosa!’ She struck her forehead with her hand. ‘But Zadig Bey, how could I possibly make all these arrangements? It’s too difficult – I can’t do it on my own.’

Zadig Bey brushed the back of her hand with his fingertips, very lightly. ‘Please, Bibiji, do not upset yourself. Try to think of it calmly. Vico will help with the arrangements, and so will I. As it happens I myself am due to travel to China next year. I will arrange matters so that I can sail on the same ship as you and Rosa. Whichever ship you take from Bombay, it is sure to stop in Colombo. I will join you there – Vico will let me know so that I can book my passage accordingly.’

‘You!’ The blood rushed to Shireen’s face with such force that it was as if her cheeks had been scalded. ‘But Zadig Bey … what would people say if they found out that we were travelling together? You know how people gossip.’

‘There’s no reason why they should find out,’ said Zadig. ‘And if they do, we can tell them that it was just coincidence that we were on the same ship.’ He paused to stroke his chin. ‘For myself, I confess it would be a pleasure to make this journey with you—’

Cutting himself short, he coughed into his fist. When he resumed it was as if he were correcting himself for having been too forward: ‘What I meant is that it would be a pleasure to be of service to you on the journey. I would particularly like to arrange a meeting between you and Freddie, in Singapore.’

Shireen clapped her hands to her cheeks. ‘Please stop, Zadig Bey, please stop!’ she cried. ‘I can’t make a decision like this at the snap of a finger.’ She rose to her feet, pulling the veil over her head. ‘I need more time.’

Zadig rose too. ‘Bibiji,’ he said quietly, as she was lowering her veil, ‘please do not worry about the details. The difficulties are all in your head. Once you make up your mind everything else will fall in place.’

These words made so deep an impression on her that she realized that she trusted Zadig completely, perhaps even more than Bahram. But she still could not bring herself to take the leap.

‘Let me think about it, Zadig Bey. When I am ready, I will let you know, through Vico. But for now, let us say goodbye.’

November 18, 1839

Honam

The disaster at Humen has galvanized Commissioner Lin and his circle of officials – but no one would know it from the look of the city. In Canton and beyond, everyday life continues unchanged – and this, says Compton, is exactly what the authorities want: that people go about their business as usual. The battle has been underplayed even in official dispatches: Beijing has been informed that it was a minor clash, in which the British also suffered significant casualties. Compton says that it is in order to avoid panic that the battle is being treated as a minor event – but I wonder if it isn’t also meant to save face and avert the Emperor’s wrath?

Underneath the surface though, the battle has opened many eyes. Compton for one, has been deeply shaken by what we saw that day at Humen. Since then an aspect of him that is usually concealed by his habitually cheerful demeanour has come to the fore: a tendency to fret and worry. He makes no apology for this propensity of his: when teased about it, he quotes a line from Mencius, something to the effect of: ‘It is by worrying about adversity that people survive; complacency brings catastrophe.’

Nowadays Compton’s fretfulness bubbles over quite often. In the past his attitude towards translation was fairly matter-of-fact. But now it is as if language itself has become a battleground, with words serving as weapons. He sometimes explodes with indignation while reading British translations of official Chinese documents: Look, Ah Neel, look! Look how they have changed the meaning of what was said!

He disputes everything, even the way the English use the word ‘China’. There is no similar term in Chinese he says; the English have borrowed it from Sanskrit and Pali. The Chinese use a different expression, which is mistakenly represented in English as ‘Middle Kingd He says that it is better translated as ‘the Central States’ – I suppose it is the equivalent of our Indian Madhyadesha.

What makes Compton angriest is when the Chinese character yi is translated as ‘barbarian’. He says that this character has always been used to refer to people who are not from the Central States: what it means, in other words, is ‘foreigner’. Apparently this was not disputed until recently – Americans and Englishmen were quite content to translate yi as ‘foreigner’. But of late some of their translators have begun to insist that yi means ‘barbarian’. It has repeatedly been pointed out to them that the word has been applied to many revered and famous people in China – even to the present ruling dynasty – but the English translators contend that they know better. Some of these translators are notorious opium-smugglers: they are clearly twisting the Chinese language in order to make trouble. Since Captain Elliot and his superiors know no Chinese, they accept whatever the translators tell them. They have come to believe that the word yi is indeed intended as an insult. Now they have turned this into a major grievance.

This drives Compton to despair: How can they pretend to know, Ah Neel? How can they claim to know that the picture they see when they say ‘barbarian’, is the same that we see when we say ‘yi’?

Thinking about this I realized that I too would protest if Sanskrit or Bangla words like yavana or joban were translated as ‘barbarian’. I think Compton is right when he says that the reason the English use this word is because it is they who think of us as ‘barbarians’. They want war, so they are looking for excuses and even a word will do.

Mat dou gaa – it’s all a pack of lies!

But the Humen battle has had some good consequences even for Compton. For instance Commissioner Lin has begun to pay even greater attention to matters like translation and intelligence. As a consequence Zhong Lou-si’s position has been greatly strengthened in official circles. This is a matter of much pride for Compton; he feels that his mentor has at last been given his due.

According to Compton, the principal subject of Zhong Lou-si’s studies – overseas matters – has generally been regarded as unimportant and even disreputable in official circles. And the fact that he does not hesitate to seek out sailors, shipowners, merchants, emigrants and the like is considered unseemly by many of his peers: those are classes of men that officialdom has traditionally regarded as untrustworthy.

For all these reasons Zhong Lou-si’s work was long overlooked. Compton says that he was able to continue with it only because he succeeded in gaining the ear of a former governor of Guangdong Province who was interested in learning about foreign traders and their countries. He gave Zhong Lou-si a job in a prestigious new academy of learning in Guangzhou and it was there that Compton entered his orbit.

Compton is not from the kind of family that generally produces scholars and officials: he is the son of a ship-chandler and has grown up on the Pearl River, in close proximity to foreign sailors and businessmen: it was they who had taught him English; it was from them too that he learnt about the world overseas; they also gave him his English name.

But Compton isn’t the only one who has learnt about the world in this way: along the banks of the Pearl River there must be hundreds of thousands of people who make their living from trade and are in close contact with foreigners. Millions of them also have relatives who have settled overseas; they too are privy to reports about what is going on in other countries. But knowledge such as theirs rarely filters through to the scholars and bureaucrats who are at the helm of this country’s affairs. Nor are ordinary Chinese at all eager to be noticed by officialdom: what business is it of theirs, what the mandarins make of the world? Compton says that for centuries people in Guangdong have taken comfort in the thought that saang gou wohng dal yuhn – ‘the mountains are high and the Emperor is far away’. What is the sense of stirring a pot that is sure to scorch you if it spills over?

I suppose this is much how things were in Bengal and Hindustan at the time of the European conquests, and even before. The great scholars and functionaries took little interest in the world beyond until suddenly one day it rose up and devoured them.

Zachary’s only consolation for the snub that he had been dealt at the Doughties’ tiffin was his memory of the glance that Mrs Burnham had directed at him as he was leaving – if not for that fleeting look, he would have begun to believe that the tendernesses of his night in the boudoir were indeed imaginary; that he really was a ‘nobody, just a mystery’.

It was that memory too that made him suddenly alert when a khidmatgar came to the budgerow a few days later, bearing a tray of pale yellow sweets.

But what were they for?

A few questions were enough to establish that they had been sent to mark an important festival, in honour of which the mansion’s staff had been given a special holiday, by the Burra Beebee herself.

The tray could not be refused of course, so Zachary accepted it and took it inside. Placing it on the dining table he stared at the sweets, which were covered in a layer of silver foil.

What did the gift mean? Was there a message encoded in it? The khidmatgar had not said explicitly that Mrs Burnham had sent it – but Zachary knew that nothing happened in that house without her being aware of it.

He went to his bed, lay down, and closed his eyes so that they would not stray towards the boudoir – on no account, none at all, could he allow his thoughts to wander in that direction. To relive the torments of the last few weeks was unthinkable; he knew he would not be able to endure it.

He lay on his back and tried to shut his ears to the sounds of the mansion’s staff as they poured out of the compound.

Soon the grounds would be all but deserted …

The thought had no sooner occurred to him than he tried to erase it from his mind. When this proved impossible he decided that it would be best to leave the budgerow and go into town. Pocketing his last few coins, he walked all the way to Kidderpore where he stopped at a sailors’ doasta-den, near the docks, and spent an anna on a dish of karibat and a glass of thin grog. Trying to draw out the hours, he struck up conversations with strangers, buying them watery drinks until his pockets were empty. He would have stayed till dawn, but, as luck would have it, the grog-shop shut its doors early, because of the festival, and he found himself back at the budgerow shortly before midnight.

The mansion was in darkness now and the staff seemed to have disappeared except for a couple of chowkidars, who were drowsing by the gate. Zachary was about to walk up the budgerow’s gangplank when his eye was caught by a glimmer of light, somewhere in the distance. He looked again but saw nothing this time. It struck him that an intruder might have stolen into the Burnham compound and it seemed imperative that he go to investigate. Before he knew it his feet were taking him towards the house; he promised himself that he was only going to take a quick look, to make sure that all was well.

The route that he had staked out was still fresh in his memory; with practised stealth he slipped through the shadows and crept up to the tree that faced the boudoir: a thin trickle of light was spilling out from the edges of the curtained window.

He saw no sign of an intruder but it struck him now that having come this far he might as well make sure that the servants’ door, at the side of the house, was properly secured.

Tiptoeing over the gravel border he put a hand on the knob: the door swung open at the first touch. There was a candle inside, placed exactly where it had been the last time. He latched the door and picked up the candle.

It was too late to stop now. Stealing softly up the stairs, he paused to breathe the perfumed air of the powder room before stepping towards the luxuriant, golden glow that was spilling out of the boudoir.

She was standing on the far side of the bed, dressed in a simple white nightgown; her hair was untied, falling over her shoulders in chestnut curls; her arms were clasped across her breasts.

They stared at each other, and then, under her breath, she said: ‘Mr Reid … good evening.’

‘Good evening, Mrs Burnham,’ he said, and added quickly, ‘I just wanted to make sure that everything was all right.’

‘That was very thoughtful of you.’

She stepped around the bed and came towards him. ‘Your shirt’s torn, Mr Reid.’

He looked down and saw that the tip of her finger had vanished into a rent in his shirt. A moment later he felt her nail brushing lightly against his skin – and then, all of a sudden, their bodies collided and they tumbled into the luxurious embrace of the bed’s satin sheets and feathery pillows.

Soon it was as if his night-time imaginings had sprung to life, becoming almost too real to be true: so intense was the pleasure that he almost forgot the fears that had tormented him these last many weeks. But those apprehensions would not be quelled; they broke upon him without warning, so that suddenly he heard her voice in his ear, exclaiming in dismay: ‘Oh but what’s this? Why have you stopped? You have not spent yourself already, have you?’

‘No,’ said Zachary hoarsely. ‘I cannot go on, I must not – it is too dangerous, the risks are too great. After the last time I was haunted by the fear that you were with child.’

She pulled his head down and kissed him. ‘You should not have worried,’ she whispered in his ear. ‘It was perfectly safe.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Because of my monthlies.’

‘Oh thank heaven!’ A great wave of relief swept through him.

‘And providentially, we are safe now too. You may spend when and where you will.’

‘No.’ He grinned and shook his head. ‘Not till you do.’

After that it was a while before either of them had the breath to say another word – and it was only when she snuggled up to him afterwards, to whisper endearments into his ear, that he recalled the pain he had suffered these last many weeks.

‘You say all these fine things as we lie here now, Mrs Burnham,’ he said abruptly. ‘And yet that day, at the Doughties’, you pretended not to know me – he’s just a mystery, you said, a nobody.’

Her head flew off the pillow and she cried out in protest: ‘Oh, you are too cruel, Mr Reid! Will you throw that in my face? You cannot have any conception of how hard it was for me to say what I did. Could you not see that I was terrified that I would betray myself – as I would certainly have done if I had acknowledged you? Augusta Swinhoe, who was sitting beside me, is the most notorious Shoe-goose of this city – nothing escapes her lynx-like eye. It was she who undid poor Amelia Middleton: a stray glance, at the dinner table, between memsahib and khid-matgar, and Augusta knew at once what was afoot. Within a fortnight poor Amelia was disowned by her husband and packed off to England. I’m told she ended her days in a Blackpool bawdy-house.’

A chill crept through Zachary. ‘So that is all we shall ever be then? Beebee and khidmatgar? Memsahib and mystery?’

‘Oh no, my dear,’ she said with a smile. ‘We shall make a sahib of you soon enough. But the price of it is that no one can ever know, or we should both be ruined.’

He turned his head on the pillow, so he could look directly at her. ‘So do you want to be rid of me then?’

Her gaze did not falter. ‘Oh my dear, I think we both know, don’t we, that neither of us is strong enough to be rid of the other? You have turned me into a weak, wayward gudda of a woman, Mr Reid. The one thought that consoles me is that I am at least assisting you in overcoming your affliction.’

‘But then why not cure me forever? Why not run away with me?’

She laughed. ‘Oh Mr Reid! Now it is you who is being the gudda. Surely you can see that it would not suit me at all to be a mystery’s mistress, living in some dank hovel? And if I were on your hands all day long, you too would quickly tire of me. In a week or two you would run off with some larkin of your own age and then what would become of me? I would end up as a buy-’em-dear, trawling for grapeshot on Grope-chute Lane.’

She ran her fingertips over his face. ‘No, my dear – soon enough a day will come when we will have to forsake each other forever. When it does we will meet one last time, for a night of delirious delight, and then we shall say goodbye and go our separate ways.’

‘You promise?’

‘Yes of course.’

Now, once again, they entwined their arms around each other and by the time they unclasped them it was almost dawn.

She climbed out of the bed as he was pulling on his breeches, and after he had slipped on his shirt she took hold of his hand and pressed something into it. He opened his palm to find himself looking at three large gold coins.

‘B’jilliber!’ His fingers flew open, scattering the coins over the damp, crumpled sheets. ‘I can’t take these from you.’

‘Why not?’ She picked the coins off the bed and circled around him. Putting her arms around his waist, she pressed her stomach to his back. ‘If you are to be a sahib you must have some proper clothes, mustn’t you?’

‘Yes, but this isn’t how I should get them.’

‘Like this then?’ She slipped a hand into the pocket of his breeches and let her fingers roam as the coins trickled out, one by one.

‘No – stop!’ He tried to dig her hand out, but she had anchored her fingers in the fork of his legs and would not let go.

‘It’s just a loan,’ she whispered, flicking her tongue over his ear. ‘You’ll pay me back one day, when you’re a rich sahib.’

‘Shall I be a rich sahib?’

‘Yes of course you shall. Between the two of us we will contrive to make it so. You shall be the richest and most mysterious sahib there ever was.’

Her hand was now so busy in his pocket that he forgot about the coins. Turning around he picked her up in his arms and carried her to the bed.

‘No!’ she cried. ‘You must go now. There isn’t time.’

‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘There isn’t.’

But several minutes passed before he left and it was not till he was back on the budgerow that a metallic jingling reminded him that the coins were still in his pocket. Two of the guineas he put aside but the third he took into town the next day and ordered himself some fine new clothes.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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