Northern India, 1922
Putli's mother, her hands on her hips, straightened painfully, glad after two hours to break the rhythmic coordination of arm and shoulder, glad to stand back and count the mounting bundles of tall cut grass that had fallen to the steady swish of her sickle. The weight of the coming baby was beginning to unbalance her and slow her down. There was no doubt of that, but an early start while the oat grass was still wet had paid off and she was pleased. She called out a practised musical cry answered by her daughter working a few yards behind her on the steep slope that led up to the forest beyond the village. Glad to share this pause, mother and daughter smiled with wordless tenderness.
Her mother looked with satisfaction at the eight-year-old girl. Yesterday had been the most important day of her daughter's life. She had been feted and spoiled by the whole village and fed to bursting with puris and rich milk and sweetmeats. It had been her wedding day. Putli's mother had been proud to see the pretty girl, her eldest child, dressed for the first time in the costume of a married woman. No longer the infant in simple cotton dress, she was now wearing the tight blue bodice, the short skirt and the chaddar of the women of her tribe.
Putli's mother remembered the two small brown right hands clasping each other as the bride and groom made their marriage vows and she had been happy to see that the boy chosen from a neighbouring village was as strong and handsome as her daughter. The bridegroom's mother, a distant cousin, had earned her approval too, and this was very important for Putli's mother. In a few years Putli would leave her family home and go to join her young husband as his wife and become a part of his family. This was the way of it with girl children. Putli's mother acknowledged and accepted it but she would be sad. Oh, she had two good sons who had come after Putli and of these she was rightly proud, but it was her oldest child who was secretly her joy. She had a loving husband who had allowed her without question to rear Putli, although not all mothers of first-born girl children were so lucky. And her care had been rewarded by the constant good humour and energy of the child. She would miss her sleepy smile as she rose uncomplaining in the early morning to help with the meal and polish the cooking pots; she would miss her chatter as they brought back the cows or harvested the wheat. The light of her life would too soon be shining at another woman's hearth.
Putli opened her mouth to shout something to her mother but her mother never heard the words. In deep and stealthy silence a gold and black shape detached itself from the grass behind Putli and leapt at her. An iron-clad paw scythed through the air and severed the slender neck with one blow. The dark head, still entangled in its chaddar, fell to the ground and the tiger, seizing the body in its jaws, turned to make off through the long grass towards the trees above. With a despairing howl, Putli's mother swung about. Rage, disgust and hatred gave strength to her slim arm and she hurled her sickle in a glittering arc at the savage face. By the grace of the jungle spirits, the spinning blade hit the tiger in the eye and, half blind, his shattering roar changed to an almost human cry of pain and affront. Releasing his prey, the beast shook the sickle from his great head, turned and in a second was again a shadow amongst the grasses. The crumpled body of Putli lay at her mother's feet.
Simla, May 1922
Ambling down the Mall, Joe Sandilands steered his sweating hireling through the thickening crowds to return it to the stables at the Chummery, enjoying, as always, the early morning sounds of the waking town. Simla, the summer capital of British India, rose early and went about its business at a brisk pace. Uniformed men were striding between the military establishments along the Mall, red-coated chaprassis, message boxes on hips, were speeding from Post Office to government buildings, their energy fuelling the flow of information spreading out from this unremarkable street and pulsing around the world. Joe shook his head half in admiration, half in disbelief. The eccentric little town perched in the Himalayan foothills half-way between the scorching plains of India and the frozen summits of the Tibetan mountains looked like nothing so much as a displaced Godalming. And yet, between March and November, the mighty British Empire was governed from here and that meant half the world, Joe supposed, conjuring up a memory of the pink-coloured lands he'd studied on his globe as a child.
Already the first nursemaids pushing baby carriages down the street were greeting each other, their fluting voices a treble accompaniment to the distant pounding of marching feet. As he wove through the purposeful crowds, Joe felt a stab of puritanical guilt to be at leisure when this small world was at work.
Not all of this small world though! He took comfort in the thought that his own temporary lack of occupation was as nothing to the endemic sloth he would find at the house he was about to visit. Eight o'clock. The four inhabitants of the Chummery would most certainly be still in bed sleeping off whatever had been the indulgence of the previous night, or, at best, tremulously astir. With any luck he would be able to sneak off back to the Residence without announcing himself. But then he remembered that there was in his pocket a telegram. He had been charged by Sir George Jardine, his host, the acting Governor of Bengal, to deliver this to Edgar Troop. Edgar, the leader of the louche coterie that inhabited the once grand house on Mount Pleasant, earned his position in the group by being the oldest, the most enterprising and the most unscrupulous. Unaccountably, he seemed to have Sir George's confidence. He did not have Joe's confidence, and though they had stood shoulder to shoulder in dangerous circumstances in the wilderness with that instinctive understanding and trust that two military men fighting towards the same objective experience, Joe found Captain Troop enigmatic, his style of living repellent. When he asked himself why he continued to spend more than a polite five minutes with the man, he had to admit that Edgar's cheerful cynicism and his appetite for life were ultimately seductive.
"You'll be returning your horse to the Chummery? Well now, when you get there I'd like you to deliver this to Edgar in person," Sir George had said. "Don't entrust it to anyone else in that hopeless establishment! Why? I don't often call at the Chummery but the last time I did so there were two telegrams on the mantelpiece. One was a year old and the other--goddammit!--was nearly two years old. Both unopened and one was from me! This could be important and I don't want it to go astray."
Joe didn't want to do this. He knew that if he was intercepted it would be nearly impossible to avoid a second breakfast leading to a drink or two, a morning of inconsequential gossip shading off into tiffin and imperceptibly into an afternoon moving lethargically round the snooker table. He wondered whether, if he rode round the back, he could hand his horse over, leave the telegram with a servant and make a discreet withdrawal, and this he resolved to try. To no avail. He had hardly turned into the compound before a window banged open and a cheerful voice summoned.
"Must have smelled the coffee, Sandilands!" Hospitably, the beaming face of Jackie Carlisle appeared at the window. "Come on board and tell us the latest news! You who have the ear of the great and good must have something interesting to tell us in this otherwise uneventful town."
Joe knew that he was caught and Jackie continued, "Heard someone say the other day, 'Where Sandilands goes, trouble follows.' Come on, Joe, live up to your reputation--enliven our dull lives."
Reluctantly, Joe handed his horse to a syce who had hurried forward on hearing the hooves on the gravel. In the Chummery, Joe had discovered, the grooms knew their business, but the house servants, of whom there seemed to be a number varying from day to day and from two to ten, seemed to take their pace from their employers. He let himself into the house and made for the breakfast room. Here at least there was order. The table was laid for four with piles of bread and fruit and a large steaming bowl of porridge. A large pot of coffee too--good coffee. That you could count on. Three of the inmates were already gathered around the table and dressed in their usual crumpled white linen suits. Jackie Carlisle entered clad in a silk dressing gown and made his way to the sideboard. Joe watched in awe as Jackie poured himself out a drink and threw it down in one gulp. His eyes bulged and his purple face took on a darker shade. He crowed, he stuttered as he fought for breath.
"Christ!" said Joe, impressed. "What was that, Jackie?" and he waited while Jackie spluttered on.
"Oh, for God's sake--someone loosen his stays," muttered Edgar.
"Only thing that gets me going these days," Jackie managed at last. "Want some?"
"I'd need to know what it was," said Joe guardedly.
Edgar intervened. "Don't touch the bloody stuff!" he said. "It's wormwood. Absinthe."
"Absinthe?" said Joe, surprised. "I thought it was illegal?"
"Yes," said Jackie, wiping his mouth and looking round vaguely, "I believe it is."
"So it should be," said Bertie Hearne-Robinson. "It'll kill him sooner or later."
Edgar picked up the glass and sniffed it. "This is nothing," he said. "When I was in the Russian army, most of my fellow officers imbibed it nasally."
"Edgar, is that linguistically possible?" Joe asked.
"Possibly not. But certainly physically
possible! Witnessed it many times. They'd pour out a little cupful and snuff it up. Jackie may be in a bad way but he's not quite as bad as that. Not yet."
"It's boredom," said Johnny Bristow. "Poor old sod! Who can blame him? Nothing much happens. I know how he feels. When Joe's been up here a bit longer, goodness knows into what he'll be driven by boredom."
"Or into whom," leered Bertie. "Couldn't help noticing that Margery Phelps was showing more than common interest at the Gaiety last night . . . and Colonel Phelps is in Burma, I understand. Like me to fix it up for you, Joe?"
"Oh, come on!" said Johnny. "The Commander can do better than the garrison hack! Handsome young chap like him, chestful of medals, friends in high places, all the charm in the world, he can have his pick! Let's think . . . Now, little Maudie Smithson's still unbacked, I believe. She's quite a strider! What about it, Joe?"
The conversation diverted into an informed comparison of the attractions of the available ladies of Simla and much speculation as to the attractions of the unavailable.
"This is nothing but talk!" said Edgar. "Not one of you has anything going if the truth be told. Young chaps like you ought to be making things happen. When I was your age--"
Bertie hurried to cut him off. "When you were our age, you were Emperor of all the Russias! Don't tell us!"
This was beginning to turn into a mild Chummery quarrel and Joe didn't want to listen. Mercifully, he remembered his telegram. "Oh, by the way, Edgar--telegram for you. Or rather a telegram for Sir George for passage on to you. It's probably nothing but he said I had to put it into your hand. Hold out your hand!"
He passed a buff form across. Not much privacy here. All crowded round to read over Edgar's shoulder. As he watched he wondered very much how the leaky ship that was the Chummery stayed afloat. He knew that Jackie Carlisle was paid a substantial allowance by his wife's family to stay in India. He knew that Johnny Bristow carelessly but seemingly successfully bought and sold horses, had horses for hire and carriages for that matter. Bertie Hearne-Robinson was widely believed to have contacts over the border and not to be above a little gentlemanly smuggling in concert with a number of gentlemanly Pathans and all under the cover of the house lettings and sales agency he ran from an office in the Mall.
Then there was Edgar. What about Edgar? An accomplished shikari, he managed shooting trips for passing visitors. He arranged contacts and some of the contacts he was fabled to arrange were of a rather dubious nature. It was widely known that Edgar enjoyed shares in a prosperous and select brothel in the lower town. Perhaps it was no wonder that the respectable did not care to be seen to be associated with the Chummery, but at the same time perhaps it was clear why the adventurous sought their company, admired their style and, on annual return to Simla, found their way there. Want a game of polo? Johnny would fix it. Want to dispose of a few stones? Bertie was your man. Want to raise a small holiday loan? Jackie might be able to help. Easy terms, only needing a promissory note.
It was clear to Joe that demand would always create supply and when you had a town full of men--full of women too--on pleasure bent, the procurer, the middle man, would always prosper. That was what kept the Chummery going!
"Could we," he enquired mildly, "have a look at this fabled telegram? And could we--I beg your pardon, gentlemen--have a little privacy to do so?"
All were at once contrite. "Yes, old boy, of course. Good gracious! No problem at all!"
They rose in turn from the cluttered breakfast table and left Joe and Edgar alone.
Joe considered the once handsome square face opposite as Edgar studied the telegram. He seemed to be spending a disproportionate amount of time on such a short missive and had clearly read the text three times before Joe asked impatiently, "What's it all about, Edgar?"
"Ranipur," said Edgar. "They want me to go there. Happens sometimes."
The name was familiar to Joe. Ranipur. Familiar, but amongst so much unrelated information about India he couldn't place it.
"It's a princely state," said Edgar, and he lifted a framed map from the wall and set it on the table between them. "It's about three hundred miles away. Here's Simla. And down here there's Delhi. Now follow the railway line from Simla down to Kalka and Umballa. That's the way you came up last month. It's not shown but there's a branch line, a private line, connecting with the main one at Umballa. Here," he said, pointing with a splayed finger. "There's a narrow gauge railway like the one up to Simla. It was put in by the maharaja of Ranipur to improve access to his state.
"His state's big. Oh, not when compared with some of the states of Royal India like . . . Hyderabad, for instance, but big enough. About the size of Norfolk, I'd say. It's prosperous too. The maharaja is said to be the tenth richest man in the world. When you look at some of the competition that's quite a proud boast. He doesn't exactly get himself weighed in diamonds but he's not down to his last hundred million. In his youth he was quite a tough! He needed to be to keep his feet on the steps of the throne of Ranipur, slippery with the blood of half a dozen immediate predecessors. I never quite understood the ins and outs but I tell you--his early years in Ranipur would make The Duchess of Malfi
sound like one of Gilbert and Sullivan's jolliest!"
Excerpted from The Palace Tiger by Barbara Cleverly. Copyright © 2006 by Barbara Cleverly. Excerpted by permission of Delta, 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.