March 22, 1841
Mariana Givens rode into the capital of Afghanistan on the morning after the Afghan New Year. Riding sidesaddle next to her aunt’s palanquin with its twelve trotting bearers, and followed on foot by a tall groom and a tough, albino mail courier, she played only a modest role in the dignified procession of English people that paraded past the great, frowning citadel, then turned toward the British cantonment.
Sir William Macnaghten, the Political Envoy, and his beaming, newly arrived wife, led the march on an elephant, preceded by a cavalry escort. Mariana’s uncle rode behind them on horseback with his foppish assistant, Lady Macnaghten’s Charles Mott who was also nephew. Mariana and her aunt came next, followed by more cavalry and a long line of trudging servants and coolies and scores of pack animals carrying the camp tents, Lady Macnaghten’s silver, bone china, and Bohemian glass; the household goods of Mariana’s family; and enough champagne and brandy to last the Residence for a year.
Aunt Claire held the curtain of her palanquin aside, and put her head out. “Sir William seemed very pleased to see his wife again after all these months,” she observed in the sonorous tone she reserved for the discussion of senior officials and their families. “And Lady Macnaghten appeared especially happy this morning as we were leaving Bootik, or wherever that was. She looked positively girlish!”
Mariana did not respond. Instead, she glanced behind her, over the heads of Yar Mohammad and Ghulam Ali, past the cavalry and the baggage train, toward the forbidding Hindu Kush Range that divided India from Central Asia. Those mountains, whose stony valleys and dangerous passes they had crossed so laboriously, seemed no farther behind them than they had been when the travelers had set out from camp four hours earlier.
She blinked, hoping it was only the bright, deceiving air that made them seem to follow her, then drew her shawls closer about her, longing for the warm plains of India, where she had left her heart.
Dust storms would rise soon from the flat plain of the Punjab, turning the sun to a red disk and filling the air with fine grit that irritated people’s eyes and crunched between their teeth. The hot weather would bring the dreaded lu, the hot, arid wind that killed children and old people, and dropped farmers dead of heatstroke in their fields. But for all the discomfort of India, if Mariana’s circumstances had allowed it, she would gladly have abandoned her aunt and uncle and the rest of Lady Macnaghten’s traveling party and turned back to Shaikh Waliullah’s house in the walled city of Lahore. There, while the dust blew in through the haveli’s shuttered windows, she would have sung nonsense rhymes to little Saboor, and laid cool compresses on Hassan Ali Khan’s forehead—that is, if he had wished her to do so.
Surely she would find a way to return there, and atone for her mistakes. . . .
Ringed by snow-topped mountain ranges and watered by a winding river that bore its name, the city of Kabul stood six thousand feet above sea level. Bounded on the northwest by the Kabul River, on the south by the Sher Darwaza heights, and on the southeast by the Bala Hissar, its great fortress of kings, the city occupied a roughly triangular area on the western edge of its high, fertile plateau.
When Lady Macnaghten’s traveling party emerged from the mountains and onto the Kabul plain, its members had found themselves in a demi-paradise. The sky above the tree-lined road was a sharp blue, quite different from the bleached sky of India. Bright light fell upon vast mulberry and apricot orchards, still veiled in the wispy red that precedes the green of spring. The skirts of the surrounding hills, some still boasting ancient fortified walls, were beginning to turn green, while here and there, and tulips and hyacinths pushed their way up through the soil. The air was so clear that Mariana easily made out the facial expressions of three men standing on a distant road.
Traveling west from Butkhak, they had crossed the Logar River at Bagrami, then paraded past the frowning Bala Hissar before turning northwest toward the Kohistan Road and the newly built cantonment, symbol of the recent political triumph of the British, and their powerful military presence in Afghanistan.
Men passed on the road, their loose garments flowing about them, carrying loads on their heads or leading strings of camels. Mariana studied them, amazed by how different they were from the Indians she was accustomed to.
Bristling with weapons, their backs upright, these men moved swiftly, with fluid, ground-covering strides, their eyes fixed on the distance, unlike the Indians, who moved about unarmed, their shoulders hunched thoughtfully.
A stocky fellow stepped toward Mariana. Greasy hair hung below his loosely tied turban. The handle of a knife protruded from an opening in the man’s coarse, woolen coat. His face was narrow and harsh. Mariana saw that his eyes were circled with black kohl. He was followed by a youth with a large bundle on his back.
“As salaam-o-alaikum, may peace be upon you,” she offered politely.
He strode past without acknowledging her, but the youth behind him paused. He stared into her face with startlingly beautiful eyes, his heart-shaped face intent. Before she had time to nod, the older man looked over his shoulder. His mouth twisting, he reached for his knife. The boy dropped his gaze and hurried after the man.
There had been something odd about the boy.
“What are you doing, child?” Aunt Claire inquired, putting her head out for a second time between her palanquin curtains. “Surely you were not speaking to the natives!”
The British cantonment and its neighboring residence compound for government staff stood on the Kohistan Road, a mile north of the Bala Hissar, where the new British-approved puppet king had been installed. A walled parallelogram built to accommodate the British army and its twelve thousand camp followers, the cantonment was surrounded prettily by irrigated orchards and overlooked by the nearby Bibi Mahro and Sia Sang hills.
Mariana’s old interest in military matters quickened as the cantonment’s long ramparts became visible through the trees. She studied its fortifications, remembering the books she and her father had read together, imagining the questions he would ask in his next letter.
A large bazaar had been built outside one of the fort’s heavy corner towers. Through several openings in its mud brick outer wall, Mariana glimpsed narrow, busy streets filled with small shops displaying colorful wares. Peopled by the artisans and shopkeepers who had accompanied the British army, the bazaar looked like any Indian town; indeed, it was larger than many towns, for it housed several thousand souls. As the procession passed by it, the air that had been perfumed with the scent of poplar balsam took on the added tang of wood smoke, sewage, and spices.
After the procession had halted, and the Macnaghtens and Charles Mott had been ushered ceremoniously away to their grand house in the Residence compound, Mariana frowned.
“I had thought the walls would be higher, Uncle Adrian,” she said thoughtfully. “After all, we are invaders here. And I wonder why the surrounding ditch is so narrow. It seems to me—”
“You and the Would-Be-General must wait for that information,” her uncle replied. “Once we are settled, you will have plenty of time to pepper everyone with your military questions. As for me, I shall barely have the time to fulfill my own duties. I understand that only a few of our people here are able to speak Farsi, and hardly anyone knows a word of Pushto.”
“Poor Uncle Adrian.” Mariana dropped her voice. “I don’t suppose Charles Mott is any use, either.”
Her uncle spread his hands. “Charles Mott holds Lady Macnaghten’s elbow, that is all.”
The polyglot population of Afghanistan had two principal languages. Of these, Farsi, or Persian, would always do as a court language, but Pushto was spoken by all the tribesmen who lived near the border with India—the same area the British army had passed through on its triumphant march to Kabul.
“How will you be able to communicate with people and gather information?” she asked.
Her uncle shrugged. “We can use Farsi,” he replied, as they followed a young officer to their assigned bungalow in the Residence compound. “But if we cannot understand the subtleties of a man’s own language, we will never know what he is thinking.”
“I understand,” Mariana’s aunt Claire declared two mornings later, as she, her husband, and Mariana sat on mismatched chairs in their dining room, “that Kabul is becoming quite a gay station. It is no wonder that our officers are now sending for their wives and children. They are playing cricket and putting on theatricals. They are even arranging picnics to lovely places within reach of the city.”
She sighed happily as an elderly manservant poured her a cup of coffee. “I shall be delighted to stretch my legs, now that we are away from that stifling Indian heat.”
“There is to be a race meeting tomorrow,” Uncle Adrian put in. “I understand that Afghan horsemen will participate.”
“A race meeting?” Aunt Claire sniffed. “I have no intention of attending a third-class horse race with a lot of Afghans. Besides,” she waved toward a heap of bundles on the drawing room floor, “we haven’t even had the carpets unrolled, and that hunched-over servant of Mariana’s pretends not to understand a word I say. How will I have the pictures hung if you’re gone all afternoon?”
Uncle Adrian signaled for more toast. “Shah Shuja, our new Amir,” he said, “is expected to be present with his court. All our senior officers will be in attendance on the king, but there will be a separate tent for the other officers and all the ladies. Both Lady Sale and Lady Macnaghten are expected.”
His wife sat straight in her chair. “Why did you not say so?” she cried. “Of course I shall be delighted to—”
“Now, Mariana,” he went on, “you must be very careful at the race meeting. Do not speak to the Afghans, or meet their eyes. In Central Asia it is considered extremely bad manners for a woman to look openly at a strange man.”
“Adrian, I am shocked!” The edging on Aunt Claire’s lace cap quivered with indignation. “Surely an innocent Englishwoman may look at whomever she pleases!”
“Furthermore,” he persisted, “the good opinion of our own officers is vital to your future, Mariana. You must do your utmost to behave correctly. Your reputation has suffered considerably in the past two years. And you must on no account reveal that you are technically married to an Indian native.”
Mariana laid down her fork. “Uncle Adrian, there is no need to remind me—”
“You are the only eligible Englishwoman in Afghanistan, and since young Lieutenant Fitzgerald may be coming tomorrow—”
“Fitzgerald?” Aunt Claire’s pudgy face turned radiant. “If there is the slightest chance Lieutenant Fitzgerald will be at the horse race tomorrow,” she announced, “then I would not miss it for all the world.”
“I am looking forward to my first public appearance,” Lady Macnaghten confided as she and Mariana perched together on a sofa in the Residence’s sitting room. “I shall wear my blue watered-silk, and a few feathers. As my husband is to be seated in the royal enclosure with the Shah,” she added with a little sigh, “I shall have to manage without him.”
Mariana smiled politely. What time was it? How long would she have to listen to Lady Macnaghten talk about herself?
As if she had heard Mariana’s thoughts, Lady Macnaghten leaned toward her, close enough to reveal a few faint lines around her eyes. “Lieutenant Fitzgerald has returned from Kandahar,” she whispered meaningfully. “I have told him that he must on no account miss the race meeting. You must therefore look your very best. I am sending Vijaya to you this afternoon.”
Fitzgerald. The person Mariana most dreaded seeing. If the lieutenant came tomorrow, her appearance would be the very least of her worries. “That is very kind of you, Lady Macnaghten,” she demurred. “But I am sure I shall manage perfectly well.”
“Perfectly well will not be good enough.” Lady Macnaghten waved a manicured hand. “Your hair and skin are dry. You have let yourself go entirely since we left India. When Vijaya is done,” she added confidently, “you will look as pretty as you did then. And after tomorrow, it will be only a matter of time before Fitzgerald proposes.
“And of course,” she added, ignoring Mariana’s stricken face, “I shall not mention this to a soul.”
Mariana got hastily to her feet. “Thank you so much, Lady Macnaghten,” she said firmly, “but I must leave. I fear my aunt is waiting for me.”
Proposes. If Lady Macnaghten, or the British community, learned the truth about her marriage to Hassan, they would stop forcing her on Harry Fitzgerald.
If they knew, they would never speak to her again.
Two hours later, she sat at a makeshift dressing table in her bedroom, a towel about her shoulders while Lady Macnaghten’s silent, sari-clad maid combed henna paste through her hair.
Only Lady Macnaghten, who herself made good use of Indian beauty tricks, had noticed Mariana’s transformation after her visit to Lahore, from clumsy English girl to elegantly cared-for native wife. She alone had seen that transformation fade, then disappear, on the journey from Lahore.
Mariana did not need to look in her hand glass to know how much she had changed since her arrival in India three years earlier.
On that first day, twenty years old, pink-cheeked and clumsy, she had flung herself into Aunt Claire’s arms, certain she would be married to a handsome English officer before a year had passed. Young, and optimistic, she had believed she had nothing to lose.
But she had lost, then lost again, and with each failure she had given up a little more of her innocence about herself.
Her face had thinned a little in that time, and her rosy cheeks had turned to ivory, but her skin already felt smooth from Vijaya’s efforts, and after a tortuous session with a cat’s-cradle of twisted string, her brows now formed graceful arches over her eyes. The henna would tame her curls, and make them shine.
By the time Vijaya left, Mariana would, ironically, look once again like Hassan’s wife.
Of course, myopic Aunt Claire would be unlikely to notice any of these changes. Only yesterday, as she poked fretfully through her jewelry, she had listed the same tired complaints she always made concerning her niece’s looks and deportment.
“I hope you will listen to me this time,” she had warned. “As you are about to make an entirely undeserved new start in British society in Kabul, you must rein in your outspoken manner. Cultivate demureness. And for goodness sake do something about that huge, unfashionable smile of yours.”
Mariana had sighed as her aunt swept from the room. The new start that Aunt Claire referred to was more than undeserved. It was a sham.
Three weeks after she had taken painful leave of the unconscious Hassan, his luminous little son and his fascinating family and joined Lady Macnaghten’s traveling party, Mariana had gathered her courage and swept into her uncle’s tent. Expecting no sympathy from her cholera-ridden uncle or his exhausted wife, she had gone straight to the point.
“I must tell you,” she had blurted out, without any softening preamble, “that I did not divorce Shaikh Waliullah’s son while I was in Lahore. He may have divorced me since then, but I do not believe he has.”
As she spoke, she had reached up and touched the bodice of her gown. Under the fabric, her searching fingers found the gold medallion the wounded Hassan had sent after her, carried by the courier Ghulam Ali.
A wavering note had accompanied his gift. For my wife, it had read.
Giddy with happiness, she had sent Hassan a passionate, gushing letter of thanks. In the five weeks since then, he had not replied.
“He might also,” she had added, her voice dropping, “have died.”
Uncle Adrian’s face had changed color. “You never divorced that man, after all the trouble we went to?” he had croaked from his pillows.
“I tried, Uncle Adrian, I really did. There was fighting in the city and my husband was constantly—”
“Never mind ‘fighting in the city,’ ” Aunt Claire cut in from her folding chair. “For the past weeks you have led us to believe that all was accomplished, that you were free to marry an Englishman once we reached Afghanistan. You have lied to us, Mariana.”
“I merely avoided the truth. Uncle Adrian has been so ill. I did not wish to burden you with more than—”
“I should have insisted.” Aunt Claire’s chins wobbled with outrage. “I should have questioned you as soon as you returned from the city.” Her eyes narrowed. “Mariana, I demand to know the truth. Did you ruin yourself while you were there? Did you allow your native husband to take liberties with you at his father’s house?”
“Please, Claire. Adil is here.” Uncle Adrian signaled to the elderly manservant who hovered, fascinated, near the doorway of the tent.
“I allowed nothing,” Mariana snapped, as soon as the servant had gone. “With Lahore under attack, there simply was no time for a divorce. Besides, my husband was wounded during the battle at the Citadel.”
Excerpted from Companions of Paradise by Thalassa Ali. Copyright © 2007 by Thalassa Ali. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.