Authors: The Last Kashmiri Rose
The Last Kashmiri Rose
The night before her sixth birthday Midge Prentice woke under her mosquito net and breathed the familiar smells of a hot Indian night. There was the smell of wet khas-khas mats hanging across the doors and windows to keep out the heat of early summer, sweet and musty; there was the smell of the jasmine which grew over the bungalow; there was the bass accompaniment inseparable from India of drains and of dung. But tonight there was something else.
Sharp and acrid, it was the smell of smoke. Midge sat up and looked about her. Running across the ceiling of her room there was a flickering reflection of flames. She struggled out of her mosquito net and, barefoot, stood down on the floor. She called for her father and then remembered he was away in Calcutta. She called for her mother but it was Ayah who answered her call.
Come with Ayah, now, Missy Baba, she said urgently. Come swiftly. Be silent!
Ayah gathered her up. Put your arms round me and hold tight. Very tight. Put your feet on mine and well walk together as we used to when you were a baby and then the bad, bad men wont see my Missy Baba. If I hide you under my sari theyll just think that Ayah has another baby on the way.
She swept silky folds over Midges head and they set off to waddle together towards safety. They had often done this before; it had been a game of her infancy. It was called elephant walk backwards and now this clumsy game was to save her life. Midge caught brief glimpses of Ayahs sandalled feet and was aware of others milling protectively about them and then they were in the open air. They were free of the bungalow. Mens voices Indian voices shouted harshly, shots rang out, a womans scream was abruptly cut short and then the roar of the fire as it took hold of the thatch grew deafening.
But then, gravel was crunching under Ayahs feet and she stopped. Sit here, she said. Sit here and keep quiet. Dont move. Be hidden. And she tucked Midge away amongst the rank of tall earthenware pots overflowing with bougainvillea and zinnia.
In the mess, half a mile away, Jonno crossed and uncrossed his legs under the table and with a slightly unsteady hand poured himself a glass of port and passed the decanter. He was thinking he was often thinking of Dolly Prentice, or, more formally, Mrs Major Prentice. He was sure he hadnt imagined that, as he had helped her into her wrap after the gymkhana dance, she had leant back against him, not obviously but perceptibly. Yes, surely perceptibly. And his hands had rested on her shoulders, slightly moist because it had been a hot night, and there had been a warm female scent. What was it she had said when, greatly daring, he had admired? Chypre. Yes, that was it Chypre.
And that wasnt all. They had danced close. Not difficult when doing a two-step and she had said, almost out of the blue, Youre getting to be quite a big boy now. It might have meant anything; it might have meant nothing. But he didnt think so. In memory he held that slender figure in its red chiffon dress as close as he dared.
The young subaltern on Jonnos left was also thinking of Dolly Prentice. He knew shed only been joking but she had said, Just bring your problems to me, young man, and Ill see what I can do. Had she meant it? He thought probably not. But it had been accompanied by a steady and speaking glance and, after his third glass of port, he decided, nevertheless, to take her at her word.
That bloody pony! Fifty pounds! He hadnt got fifty pounds! Why had he fallen for it? He knew only too well why. Hed been goaded into it by Prentice. Take it or leave it. Ponys yours for fifty pounds but be warned he takes a bit of riding! And the clear implication Too much of a handful for you! He thought if he threw himself on Dollys mercy, she might intercede for him get him off his bargain. Perhaps she could persuade her husband not to take advantage of a young and inexperienced officer? He didnt like appearing in the role of innocent naughty boy but still less did he like having to borrow yet again.
Then, by God! The pony! In his secret heart he was aware that he couldnt manage it. The pony was vicious. He had made a mess of Prentices syce. Put him on his back for a week, they said. Oh, what the hell! he thought. Damnation to you, Major Prentice! And he drained his glass.
The regimental doctor sitting opposite watched him guardedly. He always felt out of place in the elegant company of Batemans Horse. He tried not to, but could not help contrasting the splendour of their grey and silver mess dress with his own Indian Medical Service dark blue. He was not, in fact, thinking about Dolly Prentice. He was thinking about Prentice. He remembered (would he ever forget?) the public shame that had followed his first greeting at the hands of Major Prentice.
Tell me, doctor, he had said, we are all so eager to know from what barrow in Petticoat Lane did you buy those boots?
It was true that his boots did not come from a fashionable boot-maker. They had come from a saddler in Maidstone and they had looked good enough when he had first tried them on. He was painfully aware that, by comparison with the officers of Batemans Horse, the Bengal Greys, he lacked the skintight precision supplied by Lobb of St Jamess, the skintight precision which forbade anything more substantial inside than a cut-down ladies silk stocking.
His thoughts turned to Dolly. Dolly with her large eyes and her ready sympathy. How could she bear life with that devil? How could she put up with him close to her? And a vision of Dolly in the arms of Giles Prentice rose, not for the first time, to trouble him. He imagined the heat of an Indian night. He imagined the close confines of a mosquito net. He tried but did not succeed in keeping at bay the vision of Prentices slim brown hands exploring the surface anatomy which his fervid imagination and medical experience conjured up. Too easily.
The senior officer present, Major Harry, looked up and down the table. Over-bright eyes, mottled faces, desultory and slurred speech there was no doubt about it, when Prentice was away conversation ebbed and the drink flowed to fill the gaps. And Prentice was away. He had gone to Calcutta for an interview for promotion to the senior branch. But why Giles? Why not me? There could only be one of them this time and that one was Prentice. This had been the moment when he might have broken through and God knew when there might be another one.
His career really needed the step. He needed the money. Very soon there would be children to be sent home to school in England. Already his wife was complaining and he was sick of the endless litany Nothing to wear
only one carriage horse
when can we buy our own furniture? He had desperately needed this step and now Prentice had it. Pretentious Prentice!
Dickie Templar likewise surveyed the company. On attachment and waiting to join a Gurkha regiment on the north-west frontier, he was glad that he was not to be gazetted into Batemans Horse. He felt that though they had a glowing past (they had been golden heroes of the Mutiny) they had for too long rested on their laurels and their promotion prospects were not good. And the officers they bored him. Further than that, they even repelled him. Sick of their company, he rose from the table and made his way to the ghulskhana where, with difficulty, unbuttoning the flap of his tight mess trousers, he stood for a moment aiming largely by memory in the darkness.
It was a fetid little enclosure and with his spare hand he pushed open the window through which instantly there came a murmur of unfamiliar sound. An unfamiliar sound in a crescendo and there what was that? A shot. And another shot. Buttoning himself up, he stood on tiptoe and gazed out of the window. There was a yellow leaping flame beginning to spring from one of the bungalows, about half a mile away, he judged. A fire? Yes, there was a fire and now there was a smell of smoke. A fire in the lines? Probably nothing. No one else seemed aware of it as he hurried back to the dining-room.
Theres a fire! he said. And then again, Theres a fire in the lines!
In line abreast, the five Greys officers cantered on down towards the disturbance. They clattered into the compound and surveyed with dismay the ruin of Prentices house. And here they were challenged by a figure in a scarlet mess jacket, his white shirt front blackened. The Braganza Lamb in silver thread on his lapel identified the Queens duty officer. Four British soldiers, presumably the Queens fire picket, were hauling on the handle of the fire engine and two more were directing a jet of water into the ruin. Others, faces bound in cloth, made useless attempts to approach. Riflemen stood by.
What the hells been going on here? said Major Harry.
Disaster! Total disaster! came the reply. We did our best but we were too late. Bloody fire engine! About as much good as a water pistol! We organised a bucket chain but we were too few and too late.
Too late to save the bungalow?
To hell with the bungalow! Too late to save Dolly and Midge Prentice.
But theyre in Calcutta with Giles! He always takes them with him!
Not this time, he didnt! Its Midges birthday tomorrow Dolly stayed at home with her for her party. Good God! My girls were going! He wiped a blackened and bleeding hand across his face. My girls were to be there, he said again. No, theres no sign of Midge or her mother
must be still in there
whats left of the poor devils
The minute this lot cools down enough to get men in well look for the bodies. Jesus! And Prentice away! I say a disaster!
But who the hell
we think it was dacoits. Doped up, no doubt drugged-up courage. In a mood to stop at nothing. It happens. Prentice had been routing them out of village after village and they came for him. Didnt know he was away, I suppose
Or perhaps they knew only too well! Theyve chased all the servants off or theyve fled. No sign of them anyway. Come crawling back in the morning I dare say and then well find out more.
Dickie Templar had heard enough. He turned aside and blundered into the darkness to hide his distress. He stopped dead. He had heard a faint cry.
From a stack of tall flowerpots there emerged a ghostlike figure: Midge Prentice, white face a mask of terror, her bunched nightie gripped convulsively in a small hot hand. Dickie fell on his knees and gathered her in his arms, sobbing, kissing her face and holding her to him, murmuring childish endearments. You got out! he said at last. You got out! And then, Wheres Mummy?
For reply, the child pointed dumbly to the smouldering ruin of the house.
Ť ^ ť
Commander Joseph Sandilands of the Metropolitan Police was delighted to be going home. Delighted that his six months secondment from the Met to the Bengal Police should, at last, be at an end.
Hed had enough India. Hed had enough heat. Hed had enough smells.
Though no stranger to the midden that was the East End of London hed not, by a long way, been able to accept the poverty that surrounded him. And he still resented the social formalities of Calcutta. As a London policeman, his social status had been, at the least, equivocal in the precedent-conscious atmosphere of the capital of Bengal. He had counted the days until he could pack, say his farewells and go, but even that pleasure was denied him; inevitably, the bearer who had been assigned to him had done his packing for him. But, by whatever means, it was at last done and tomorrow hed be gone.
For the last time he sincerely hoped it was the last time he made his way into the office that had been allocated to him. For the last time he cursed the electric fan that didnt work. For the last time he was embarrassed by the patient presence of the punkha-wallah manipulating the sweeping fan that disturbed but did not disperse the heavy air. There was, however, a neat envelope lying on his desk. Stamped across the flap were the words: The Office Of The Governor.
With anxious hand he tore open the envelope and read:
I hope you can make it convenient to call in and see me this morning. Something has cropped up which we should discuss. I have sent a rickshaw.
And an indecipherable signature followed with the words Sir George Jardine, Acting Governor of Bengal.
Joe didnt like the sound of this. Could he pretend hed never received it and just leave? No, theyd catch him in the act and what could be more embarrassing than being brought back from the docks under police escort? Better not chance it! He looked angrily out of the window and there were, indeed, two liveried rickshaw men waiting to deliver him to the Governor. Hed met George Jardine on one or two formal occasions during his secondment and formed a good impression of the distinguished old pro-consul who had come out of retirement to bridge the gap between two incumbents.
The appointment seemed to be a formal one and he paused in the vestibule to check his appearance. God! You look tired, Sandilands, he muttered at his reflection. He still half expected to see the eager youth who had set off for the war with the Scots Fusiliers but, though the hair was still black and plentiful, after four years in France and four years with the police his expression was watchful now and cynical. An old wound on his forehead badly stitched had pulled up the corner of one eyebrow so that, even in repose, his face looked perpetually enquiring. Six months of Indian sun appeared to have bleached his grey eyes as it had darkened his skin. But at least in India everything he possessed was polished without any word from him. He adjusted his black Sam Browne belt shining like glass, his silver rank badges and his medal ribbons, the blue of the police medal almost edged out by the red and blue DSO and his three war medals. Hed do.