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Authors: Anne Perry

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BOOK: A Breach of Promise
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“What were you reading?” he asked, leaning back in the chair.

“A novel about people I could not bring myself to like,” she replied with a laugh. “I am afraid I did not care in the slightest whether they ever found a solution to their problems or not. I think I shall try something factual next, perhaps a description of travels or places I shall almost certainly not visit.”

He was silent for several moments.

She worked at the bed without haste.

“There’s quite a lot about India,” he said at last.

She caught an inflection in his voice of more than a mere remark. He must be appallingly lonely. He saw few people but Perdita, and in her visits neither of them knew what to say and struggled with platitudes, silences and then sudden rushes of words. He was almost relieved when she went, and yet was sharply aware of his isolation and overwhelming sense of despair and helplessness.

His brother, Athol, was what was known as a “muscular Christian”—a man given to unnatural ebullience, overbearingly vigorous views about health and morality, and an optimism which at times was beyond enduring. He refused to acknowledge Gabriel’s pain or attempt the slightest understanding of it. Perhaps it frightened him, because his philosophy had no answer for it. It was something beyond anyone’s control, and Athol’s sense of safety came from his conviction that man was, or could and should become, master of his life.

“You must know India better than most writers,” she said,
forgetting the linen for a moment and looking at Gabriel, trying to read the expression in his eyes.

“Parts of it,” he agreed, watching her equally intently, also seeking to judge her reaction, what he could tell her with some hope she would not be overwhelmed or distressed by events beyond her comprehension. “Are you interested in India?”

She was not particularly, but she was interested in him. She moderated the truth. “I am in current affairs, especially military ones.”

His eyes clouded with doubt. “Military ones, Miss Latterly?” There was a hint of doubt in his voice now, as if he mistrusted her motives, fearing she was accommodating him. He must be very sensitive to condescension. “Have you a brother in the army?”

She smiled that he automatically assumed it would not be a lover. He must see her as too old for such a thing, or not comely enough. It was unthinking. He would not mean to hurt.

“No, Lieutenant, my elder brother is in business, and my younger brother was killed in the Crimea. My interest in military history is my own.”

He knew he had been clumsy, even though he was not sure how. It was there in his cheeks and his eyes.

She realized how little she had told him of herself, and perhaps Athol had been equally unforthcoming. Possibly he considered her only a superior servant, and as long as her references were adequate, everything else was superfluous. One did not make friends of servants, especially temporary ones.

She smiled at him. “I have strong opinions about army medical matters, most of which have got me into trouble since I returned to England.”

“Returned?” he said quickly. “From where?”

“The Crimea. Did Mr. Sheldon not tell you?”

“No.” His interest was sharp now. “You were in the Crimea? That’s excellent! No … he simply said you were the best person to nurse extreme injuries. He did not say why.” He was leaning forward a little in his chair, his face eager. “Then you
must have seen some terrible things, starvation and dysentery, cholera, smallpox … gangrene …”

“Yes,” she agreed, pulling the last cover over the bed and straightening it. “And anger and despair, and incompetence almost beyond belief. And rats … thousands of rats.” The memory of them was something which would never leave her, the sound of their fat bodies dropping off the walls to run among the men as they lay on floors awash with waste no one had had time or equipment to clean. It was that heavy plop and scamper which chilled her flesh even now, four years after and myriad experiences since.

He was silent while she helped him back into bed and smoothed the covers over him.

“No …” he said quickly as she made to remove the pillows. “Please leave them. I’m not ready to go to sleep yet.”

She drew back.

“Miss Latterly!”

“Yes?”

“Tell me a little about the Crimea … if you don’t mind, that is?”

She sat down in the chair and turned to face him.

“I expect much of it you are familiar with,” she began, sending herself in memory back six years to early in the war. “Crowds of men, some new and eager, with no idea of what to expect, jostling together, full of courage and ready to charge the moment the order should be given. Your heart aches for them because you know how different it will all be in only a few weeks. No one else would believe such a short time could change anyone so much….”

“I would!” he said instantly, leaning forward to twist around towards her, losing his balance for a moment as instinctively he tried to put out the hand that was not there.

She ignored it and allowed him to right himself.

“Did you know that the whole siege of Cawnpore lasted only from June fifth to July seventeenth?” he asked. He was studying her to see what it meant to her. Had she read anything of the accounts of that unspeakable event? Did she have any
idea what it meant? Most people had not. He had tried to speak of it to his brother, but Athol had nothing with which to compare it. Gabriel might as well have been speaking of creatures and events on another world. Such emotions were not describable; one had to live them. The thought of telling Perdita never entered his mind. She would be confused and distressed by the little she might grasp. His passion and grief would frighten her, perhaps revolt her. And yet bearing the knowledge alone was almost more than he could endure.

“I could not have timed it,” she confessed. “But I know that events which destroy the flower of a generation and leave wounds which never heal can happen in a day or two.”

He was uncertain. Hope flickered in his eyes that he might not be alone in his memories and his understanding.

“I saw the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava,” she said very quietly. She found she still could not control her voice when she spoke of it. Even the words choked in her throat and brought a prickle of tears to her eyes and an ache to her chest. The sweet, cloying smell of blood always brought it back to her, the drowning pain would never leave her, the bodies of so many mutilated and dying men, many of them barely into their twenties. Behind her closed eyelids she could see them bent in fantastic attitudes, trying to staunch their own wounds with scarlet hands.

Gabriel shook his head silently, and in that moment she knew he had seen things just as terrible. They brimmed behind his eyes, a haunting of the dreams, needing to be shared, not openly, but enough to break the terrible aloneness of being among those who were unaware, who could speak of it as history, as from the pages of a newspaper or a book, to whom the pain was only words.

She asked him the inevitable question. The Mutiny had ravaged all India from Calcutta and Delhi to the mountain passes into Afghanistan where the altitude thinned the air and peaks towered into the sky, the snow unmelted in millennia.

“Were you at Cawnpore?”

He nodded.

“In the relief column?”

“No … I …” He looked at her very steadily. “There were over nine hundred of us, counting women and children and civilians. I was one of the four people who survived.” He looked at her, his eyes filled with tears.

What could one possibly say to that?

“I have never faced such savagery.” She spoke very quietly, a simple, bare truth. “All the death I have seen has been either on the battlefield, incredibly stupid, senseless and pointless, men outmatched by numbers and by guns, ordered to charge impossible targets, but still soldiers even though their lives were squandered. Or people dying of starvation, cold and disease. Far more died of disease than of gunfire, you know.” She shook her head a little. “Yes, of course you know. But I have never seen hatred like that, barbarism that would massacre every living soul. The siege of Sebastopol was at least … military.”

He clung to her understanding, his eyes fixed on hers unwaveringly.

“It began on the fifth of June,” he said. “The Mutiny had already been sweeping across the country since the end of February. There had been disturbances because of the cartridges in Meerut and Lucknow. You know all about the cartridges?” He was watching her face. “They were greased with animal fat. If it was pork it was unclean to the Muslim soldiers, and if it was beef it was blasphemous to the Hindus, to whom the cow is a sacred animal. On May seventh open mutiny broke out in Lucknow; on May sixteenth the sappers and miners mutinied in Meerut. By the twentieth it had spread to Murdan and Allygurh. The day after that we began our intrenchment at Cawnpore.”

She nodded.

“On the twenty-fourth Gwalior Horse mutinied at Hattrass,” he went on. “By the twenty-eighth it had spread to Nuseer-bad. On the thirty-first it was Shahjehanpoor. June third, Alzimghur, Seetapoor, Mooradabad and Neemuch. The day after, Benares and Jhansi. On the fifth it was us.” He took a
deep breath, but his voice did not alter. “I learned after that on the sixth it was Allahabad, Hansi and Bhurtpore. The following week, Jullunur, Fyzabad, Badulla Derai, Sultanpore, Futtehpore, Pershadeepore … and on and on. I could name every garrison in India. There was no one to help us.”

She could not imagine it. The isolation, the consuming terror must have been like a tidal wave, drowning everything.

He needed to know she could bear to hear it.

“How did it begin?” she asked. “Guns?”

“No. No, the whole of the native troops set fire to their lines and marched on the treasury, where they were joined by the troops of Nena Sahib … which is a name I can still hardly say.” His face was tight with misery and the spectacle of horror was dark in his eyes.

She waited, sitting quite still.

“He had thousands of native soldiers,” he went on after a moment. “We were only a couple of hundred, with three hundred women and as many children, and of course the civilian population, ordinary people: merchants and shopkeepers, servants, pensioners. General Sir Hugh Wheeler was in command. He ordered us to retreat to the barracks and military hospital. We couldn’t possibly hold the whole town.” He frowned, as if even now uncertain and puzzled. “Why he didn’t choose the treasury instead I don’t know. That was on high ground and had far more solid walls. In there we might have held out. I think … I think he couldn’t really believe we would have to face them alone. He couldn’t imagine that the sepoys wouldn’t be loyal to us when it came to it.” He stopped again. His hand curled and uncurled on the edge of the sheet. “Of course he was wrong.”

“I know,” she said softly. “Did you have food and ammunition?”

He looked at her steadily.

“Food was modest; ammunition was good. But there was no shelter. After only a few days the walls were so riddled with shot we dug trenches and pulled carts and trunks and furniture
over us to protect ourselves as much as we could. The heat was unbearable for many.”

She tried to imagine India in July. It was hotter than anything she had ever known.

“I don’t know how many died of it,” he said, still watching her closely. He needed to speak of the loss of his friends, the human beings he had seen in the utmost extremity of suffering, and yet a part of him was still aware of what such knowledge might do to her. And he needed to know they were not empty descriptions she could not follow. He needed her companionship in his grief.

“I imagine it was worse than the cold,” she said thoughtfully. “I’ve seen men freeze, and animals too.”

“The smell,” he answered. “It was the smell … and the flies I hated most. I still can’t bear the sound of flies. It makes me sick and I can’t get my breath. I feel as if I am suffocating and my heart is going to burst.”

“You weren’t relieved?” She remembered reading it in the
Illustrated London News.
The account had been terrible, even after censorship for the general public.

“No.” The word fell like a stone. “Every day we kept expecting help would come. We didn’t know the whole country was under the sword. We fell one by one, taking as many of the enemy with us as we could. I’ve never seen greater courage. Every able-bodied person did what they could, men and women alike. Every man stood his watch. The women nursed the sick, carried food and water, tried to protect the children.”

His hand rubbed the edge of the sheet, gripping it so hard the fabric must have hurt his skin. The movement was some kind of release of tension, even though his muscles were locked tight. She had seen it before in men recalling events of nightmare proportions. The room was silent in the spring evening.

“We were good shots,” he resumed. “We kept them at bay. They didn’t charge us and overrun. But there were so many of them, and their guns could reach us easily. They fired at everything that moved. Every day we thought help would come. It was so hot. No escape from it. You could smell the heat, feel it
everywhere. The sweat dried the instant it broke. Skin hurt to touch. It cracked and blistered.” He shrugged very slightly. “I don’t know why I mentioned that. It hardly mattered. We died of heat stroke and dysentery … those who didn’t die of their wounds. What did it matter if groins or armpits were on fire?”

“The one thing too much to bear,” she answered. “For me it was the rats … rats everywhere, dropping off the walls.”

He smiled, a sudden wide grin, beautiful in spite of his disfigured face. It was not any kind of amusement, simply the dazzling, wonderful relief of being not alone.

“But you survived,” she said. She guessed that was part of the private torture inside him. She had known it before in men who had seen companions fall all around them, for no reason other than chance as to where they were standing. A yard this way or that and it would have been someone else. One moment they were alive, full of intelligence and feeling, the next just mangled blood and bone, torn flesh and pain … or nothing at all, the fire and the soul gone. One could not get rid of the guilt of being the one who survived. Part of you wanted to be with them.

BOOK: A Breach of Promise
12.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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