Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Victoria's War : Shadows

This is an extract from Chapter One. The shouts of ‘Hindu pani’ and ‘Musslalman pani’ from the water vendors catering for both religious persuasions made her wonder what Christians were to buy, and everywhere the tea sellers were shouting, trying to drown out the rest. Aziz fetched what he thought his ‘family’ needed and she was not allowed more than a glimpse of the platform. The novelty had begun to pall, and the rattling of the train gradually lulled her into a fitful sleep stretched out comfortably on one of the leather covered daybeds. She was jerked awake by the sound of screeching brakes as the train shuddered to a halt. There was the sound of shouting outside. Then her father was in front of her, standing shoulder to shoulder with his factotum, guarding her, whilst she was still struggling to sit upright. The door of the carriage crashed open and a fair-haired, English army officer filled the space. Her father was so outraged she almost laughed. He ordered the young soldier to remove himself at once, using his most perfect, formal English, every inch the wealthy Rajput gentleman. The young man remained, politely waiting for Papa to run out of invectives. When finally the soldier had space to speak, he half-bowed, totally ignoring her. She was hidden behind her protectors, but eager to discover exactly why they were now stationary at a deserted halt. ‘I apologise for my intrusion, Rajah-Sahib. Captain Henry Hindley-Jones at your service. The line ahead has been blocked and we’re anticipating an attack by Dakoits at any moment.’ Victoria shivered. She had heard about the bandits who held up trains and sometimes killed the travellers. Her father spoke rapidly in Hindi to Aziz telling him to get the rifles, then bowed to the officer. ‘Please excuse my outburst, Captain Hindley-Jones. My man and I will be out to join you immediately.’ The captain clicked his heels. ‘Thank you Rajah-Sahib. Your help would be appreciated. My men are well-trained, but we’re going to need every gun we can get when they attack.’ She heard Aziz returning with the guns. He handed one to her father who tucked it expertly under his arm. ‘We shall remain inside our entrance. I have no wish to leave my daughter unprotected. We both know how to use these.’ He didn’t suggest she join them outside, even though she could shoot as well as Aziz. ‘Excellent! I suggest you secure the shutters.’ The captain finally acknowledged her presence. ‘You’ll be quite safe, my lady.’ If the circumstances had been different she would have smiled at her elevation to the English aristocracy. Reluctantly her father stepped aside and she moved forward to offer her hand. Captain Hindley-Jones clasped it. His grip was firm; his hand calloused like a field worker. A discreet cough from her father was enough to remind Victoria of her position. Although this man was English, and an officer, she was the only child of a wealthy and respected Brahmin and must consider herself his superior. She nodded, removing her hand. ‘Please excuse me, Rajah-Sahib, but I must return to my duties.’ He clicked his heels again and backed out of the carriage. No one seemed to be frightened – the initial shouting had stopped. The only sound was of orders being issued by an Indian sergeant and the heavy bangs of doors and shutters being closed up and down the train. Her father, with no sense of urgency, pointed to the bathroom. ‘Victoria, I suggest you take refuge in there. Aziz can place cushions and blankets on the floor. It will be quite safe. Lock the door and don’t come out until I give you leave.’ ‘Shall I take a drink and some fruit as well?’ ‘If you want, but be quick, the attack could start at any moment.’ Without waiting to check that she obeyed his orders, he vanished outside to assist Aziz in fastening the shutters. With the same lack of haste her parent had displayed, she sauntered over to the fruit bowl and began to make her selection. There was the sound of raised voices outside as other travellers demanded to know what was going on. The clatter of boots racing past the compartment indicated the captain was marshalling his men ready to repel the bandits. She wondered how his troop of mounted men had happened to be in this remote place at exactly the right time. Divine intervention perhaps? Smiling, she gathered up some fruit, a drink and a couple of books and prepared to retreat to the relative safety of the rest room. At least this ambush was a break in the tedium of the journey. Then the air was rent by the ugly sound of gunfire and a bullet tore through an unshuttered window, shattering the glass and spraying her with shards. For a moment she remained immobile – frozen with horror – then her father threw himself into the compartment and bundled her into the bathroom. ‘Are you hurt, child? Here let me see your face.’ He prised her fingers from her cheek. There was blood running down her face, but no pain. ‘Nothing to worry about – superficial – wash it and put on a plaster.’ The door swung shut and she was alone listening to the nightmare unfolding outside. Like an automaton she found a cloth and cleaned her face, but the blood kept coming. What should she do? She’d never had such a bad wound before and her head was beginning to swim. Was she going to bleed to death whilst the battle raged outside? How could Papa not have realised she needed medical attention? She scrabbled about for a towel and pressed it hard to her cheek. Then when she turned to search for the medical box she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror. This ashen-faced, blood-stained girl couldn’t be her. She needed help. Panic stricken, she forgot her instructions and fell out of the bathroom. The rapid, staccato of gunfire, the screams of women and children, the urgent shouts from the men, drowned out her feeble cries for help. She stood, holding the towel to her face, oblivious to the bullets thudding into the unprotected side of the compartment. A second missile slammed into the carriage wall covering her with splinters. She screamed, her voice echoing around the carriage. This time she was heard. The English captain burst, for the second time that afternoon, through the door. ‘For God’s sake, get down. Now.’ Bewildered she looked at the carpet but didn’t move. Two arms encircled her and flung her to the floor. A third storm of bullets smashed through the broken window and several embedded themselves in a leather document case. She watched, squashed breathless by the weight of the soldier, as the bag leaped from the table as if possessed by a demon and flew across the room to thud heavily into the wall. Her fall had dislodged the hand holding the towel and the sticky wetness was seeping out of the gash. Her hands were stinging from the splinters. She wanted this horror to stop. Wanted things to return to normal. Wanted to be back home. Tears dripped into the gory mess on her face. She never cried – it wasn’t done, but somehow, however hard she tried to suppress them, her sobs escaped. ‘Bloody hell! Don’t cry, miss. It’ll be all right. I’ll keep you safe. Your father has already killed two of the bastards…sorry, beggars. We’ll have them on the run soon.’ He rolled away, and held her, shivering and crying, against his chest. He raised his hand to smooth her hair and it came away red. ‘Christ! You’re hurt – I didn’t realise. Sit up, sweetheart, let me have a look.’ She allowed him to push her up until she was supported by a table leg. For some reason she was no longer afraid. Her tears stopped and she faced her rescuer with absolute trust. His long, capable fingers examined the wound. ‘You’ve lost a lot of blood and you’re going to need stitches in this, but it’s not nearly as bad as it looks.’ He grinned, his teeth white. ‘Can you reach that towel over there? We need to put it on your cut again.’ She nodded and bent her head in order to reach the cloth. To her consternation she toppled forward and a strange whirling blackness engulfed her. She came to, stretched out, as she had been at the start of the drama, on the daybed. But this time she was surrounded by a circle of anxious men. Her father, his face twisted with anxiety, knelt at her side. ‘Tory, my dear girl, I am so sorry. I should never have left you. Thank God Captain Hindley-Jones was here to assist you. ‘ At the mention of her rescuer’s name her eyes searched the faces, but he wasn’t there. Had he been curtly dismissed as an interloper as soon as her father had returned? So who were these men? Her face stung unpleasantly and she raised her fingers to investigate. ‘No, please not to disturb the dressing, missie. I have placed several neat and helpful stitches in your injury.’ The man who had spoken was obviously a doctor. He was dressed in white jacket, loose trousers and wore a white hat on his oiled-back hair, but his medical bag, on the floor beside him, looked reassuringly English. ‘Where’s the captain who saved me? I wish to thank him personally, Papa.’ ‘He has gone about his duties, child. There are prisoners to stow in the guard’s carriage and order to restore outside. I’m certain he will be back to check that you’re fully recovered as soon as he’s free to do so.’ With that she had to be content. Aziz, who had been one of the men watching, moved back presumably satisfied that his master’s most precious daughter was in no danger. She noticed that another man, obviously the doctor’s assistant, was holding a basin, his brown face inscrutable, his white turban immaculate. Did she still require first aid? ‘The doctor has to remove the splinters from your hands, my dear. Do you feel up to it?’ She nodded and instantly regretted it. ‘Yes. I’m a little dizzy, but quite well enough to have my hands attended to.’ Although her eyes were averted she felt the doctor expertly removing the slivers. She gazed at Aziz, who was tidying the compartment, as though bullet damage and broken glass were part of his normal duties. His calmness did much to restore her calm. ‘There, missie, all done now. You will have no scars on your hands.’ ‘Thank you, doctor. I’m grateful for your assistance.’ The man salaamed and, talking rapidly in Hindi to his assistant, he vanished. He hadn’t said that her face would be unmarked and she prayed this was an oversight. The noise of men’s boots and raised voices continued outside for a while longer. Her father was no longer in the carriage, she was sure he was nearby but didn’t feel ready to get up and investigate. The shouting and stamping eventually stopped and the train was secure again and about to leave. Why hadn’t her rescuer come back to enquire about her injuries? Then she heard the voice she had been waiting for, Captain Hindley-Jones was returning to see her. She wished she had the energy to check her appearance before he came in; she must look grotesque with stiff white dressings on both hands and her right cheek. She tensed as footsteps approached the carriage. She recognised her father’s voice, but could not distinguish what he was saying. She had no time to ponder as Aziz glided to the door and opened it smoothly. The Englishman was ushered in ahead of her father and her face coloured. Giving the captain precedence was a sure sign he was in favour. Raising her head she stared, seeing him clearly for the first time. His eyes were so blue, like the sky first thing in the morning. Her tongue was too big for her mouth; her words of greeting remained locked behind her teeth. He came over, his back parade-ground stiff, his manner formal. ‘Miss Bahani, I’m pleased to see you sitting up and looking so much better. I’m sorry I had to leave so abruptly, but duty called.’ His voice was deep, and far too loud for the small space of the carriage. ‘I must thank you for saving my life, Captain. And I must apologise for losing control, I know that if I had listened to my father I would have been in no danger.’ Captain Hindley-Jones smiled and her skin prickled under the intensity of his gaze. ‘I’m delighted to have been on hand when you needed me.’ She believed he would have said more but her father intervened. ‘Captain, my daughter is tired and needs time to recuperate. I shall, of course, contact your commanding officer in Bombay to convey my thanks.’ The captain had no choice; he was dismissed. He bowed to her father and turned, treating her to another of his flashing smiles. Then he was gone, leaving her with more than Dakoits to think about. Twenty minutes later the train was rattling on its way to Delhi. It was almost dark and she hoped they would be stopping soon for supper. Papa had told her, when she’d asked if there was likely to be any further trouble, that the captain and some of his men, were accompanying the prisoners to make sure they remained safe from the remainder of the band. These men had evaded capture and galloped off into the desert. Her mouth curved as she thought about the man who had rescued her so bravely; would his presence on the train mean she might have another opportunity to talk to him? She couldn’t get him out of her mind. ‘Papa, how did the captain and his troop come to be in the very place the Dakoits planned to attack us?’ He smiled. ‘It’s his job to patrol this part of the railway line; look out for ambushes and chase away the bandits. Captain Hindley-Jones explained to me that he had been following this particular group. He had spotted their trail a day or so ago. An excellent young man. A credit to the Indian Army.’ He frowned. ‘However, I don’t approve of the British being in positions of authority in our army. We have many first-rate young men of our own.’ ‘But you approve of this Englishman?’ ‘You must not worry, my dear. I’m not so ill mannered as to reveal my political opinions to this particular officer. He’s an exception to my rule. I owe him everything.’ She would have to leave it there. Further discussion on the merits of the captain might reveal her interest in him. Could this be the opportunity her mother and she had envisaged? A chance encounter on the train with a suitable man? She had an hour to make her decision. From the moment she had first seen him and their hands had touched, she had been drawn to him. He had saved her life – this made him a hero. He was English, a strong point in his favour. She closed her eyes, allowing her mind to recapture his image. He was far taller than Papa, which made him over six feet and his hair was the colour of ripe corn. She sighed – he had the most fascinating blue eyes she had ever seen. Her hands throbbed and her face ached but she ignored them, her head was whirling with the possibilities thrown in her way. However, it was against all her natural instincts to take the first step and she was certain he would not do so; he would lose his position if she complained. She had been raised with the expectation that her marriage would be arranged by her parents, now she was contemplating initiating a liaison with a complete stranger. She would be violating every rule, every tradition, she had grown up with. It was the duty of a daughter and a wife to respect and obey the man of the household, what she was going to do was so bad her stomach roiled and her appetite vanished. Whatever the difficulties, she was going to make contact with the man that kismet had thrown in her path. (.com) (.uk)

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