A Christmas in Calcutta
Cover Art by Ash Collins
Edited by Karen Wilson
Copyright © 2016 by A.M. Sardar v1.0
Suitable for all ages.
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My dearest friend Karen; a Pukka Memsaab
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An Unusual Encounter
Tuesday 18th December 1900. On the train to Calcutta.
I first made the acquaintance of the mercurial good lady, who would assume such prominence in my life as I could scarcely imagine, on board the Calcutta Tiger Express as it stopped at Guntakal junction to take on water and fuel.
I was returning from visiting my parents for Diwali, at our family home in Bangalore, to resume my residency as a ‘native Doctor’ at the main hospital in Calcutta, when the door to my compartment was abruptly slid open by an English lady. She appeared to be in her early thirties, long limbed and of slim build, dressed in a flowing cream long coat with a modest hastily tied bonnet, somewhat skewed I noticed, which partially hid her face and carrying a small parasol. Her face was an angular shape with high cheek bones, full, sensuous lips, a sharp nose with flared broad nostrils, light blue capricious eyes and, escaping from the ill-tied bonnet, locks of flaxen hair.
She glanced rapidly around the mostly empty compartment until she espied me seated in the far corner near the window. Her agitated appearance was somewhat alarming and I hesitated to engage with her, I averted my eyes and returned to perusing my journal.
In a catlike prowl, she quickly crossed the small compartment and asked in a slightly flustered voice, “May I?”
I nodded curtly, unsure as to what precisely she had requested and I had agreed to. It was generally regarded as unwise to engage in discourse with English ladies, as oft times, false allegations of impropriety and other such immodest behaviour had led to well publicised cases against Indian men and the handing down of harsh punishment. As much as the English wished to portray their rule over India at the start of the twentieth century as a benevolent charitable act, with betterment for both parties, it was clear to all that they had the whip hand.
She towered over me, and I shrank slightly back into my seat, the proximity of her presence unsettling in the confined space of the compartment. She slid down the window in one easy movement, turned one last time towards me, held a gloved finger to her lips, said “Shh!”, and vacated the train carriage in one lithesome movement.
As she disappeared from my gaze I was momentarily stunned, her actions were confounding and I struggled to reconcile what I had witnessed to what I presumed to be the normal and regular behaviour of the English. Hesitantly I arose from my seat and carefully looked through the open window, first to the tracks below and then to the other carriages to my left and to my right; imagine my surprise when I could not discern any sign of my recent mysterious visitor.
As if in a dream I gently closed the window and returned to my seat, checking to reassure myself I had not fallen asleep under the somnolent effects of the harsh Indian sun. Confident in my assessment, I was still awake, I returned to my medical journal.
Alas, my learned pleasures were curtailed, once more, by the intrusion of an angry Englishman slamming open the compartment doors in the company of three anxious-looking sepoys. He was dressed in an expensive suit, in sharp contrast to my own unassuming apparel, supporting a large sprouting handle-bar moustache, the fashionable accessory for the modern Victorian man, and wearing an irritable expression.
“You there,” he barked at me, “identify yourself?”
I smiled immodestly and said, “Dr Josh Sriramnagar Watan MBBS, graduate from Calcutta Medical College, at your service,” handing over to him my newly printed business card, a gift from my parents.
He discourteously snatched the card from my hand, read it and then scoffed, “I have no need of your services,” and threw it on the floor.
I seethed with indignation at the insult he had so casually delivered not only to myself but also to my dear parents who had gifted me the card. I breathed in my anger and let it dissipate into my body; one learned from a very young age not to take affront or demonstrate any displeasure at the insults meted out by our rulers.
“Have you seen a Memsaab?” he yapped. “Tall, blonde wearing a long cream coat? She was seen entering one of these carriages.”
I leant forward, carefully picked up the discarded business card from the floor, brushed the dust from it and slowly inspected it for damage before placing it back in my breast pocket.
“I have seen many things, some of them Memsaabs, some of them not so,” I replied coldly.
He surveyed my answer with annoyance and then said loudly, ““Stand up when you talk to an Englishman.”
I rose reluctantly from my seat and faced him in the carriage.
He nodded imperiously at me to continue
“I have,” I said slowly, “not seen a Memsaab.”
He snorted in derision and said viciously, “I do not like you. There is the something sly and suspicious about you. There’s a natural arrogance ill-befitting a wog like you. Mark my words and tread lightly else you shall find yourself in trouble.”
I stared blankly at him, not betraying my inner feelings, and asked solicitously, “May I sit down?”
He nodded at me and I slowly resumed my position. He gave one last look around the carriage and sneered, “I have your name and I’ll be watching,” before leaving.
“Then perhaps you should have kept my card,” I muttered to his retreating figure.
After a few moments I returned to my journal and discarded all thoughts of the encounter when a sharp tapping on the window distracted me. I opened the window and looked up to see my earlier lady visitor, looking down on me from the carriage roof. Before I could utter a word she said, “May I?” and slowly descended down from the roof, hanging onto the outside of the window.
She handed me her parasol, the source of the earlier tapping, “I shall require both hands for this.”
I took the parasol and moved back whilst she pulled herself up and slowly eased into the carriage. She stood proud and erect in front of me, brushed her long coat and reclaimed her parasol.
“Thank you,” she said as I dumbly handed it back, “I could have managed it but this way it’s far easier.”
“You’re welcome” I replied and resumed my seat.
She sat opposite me, opened the coat at the front and crossed her long legs crossed, showing her elegant long leather boots.
“I apologise for the shenanigans, but it was necessary,” she explained airily.
I shrugged as if to say ‘make no mention of it’.
“My names Holmes, Charlotte Holmes. And yours?” she said forthrightly
“Dr Watan, Josh Watan,” I replied and nodded politely.
“Pleased to meet you,” she said, proffering her hand. It was an unusual gesture for an English Memsaab to shake a native Indian by the hand, especially after her pursuer had wanted to shake me by the throat.
I shook it a little too eagerly and replied, “Likewise.”
“A medical man I see, recently returned from visiting your parents. It must be difficult for a single man to live alone in Calcutta,” she said rapidly.
I was astounded by her comments.
“They must be very proud of their only son doing so well,” she continued.
“How?” I struggled to ask, “How do…how do you know this?” I finally asked.
“Oh pish, tis nothing, a mere parlour trick,” she replied, waving a dismissive hand.
“No, no, I must know how you did that. I have never met you, yet you’ve described my circumstances so clearly,” I pleaded.
She smiled, a broad, teeth-flashing smile, and said, “It’s nothing, I assure you.”
“No, I insist, how did you do it?” I persisted.
“Well,” she said finally after a long thoughtful pause, “you are a medical man, how do you diagnose a patient?”
“By observing their symptoms and cataloguing them against my knowledge of possible diseases,” I replied.
“Exactly, by observation,” she said brightly, like explaining a mathematical equation to a dull student, “all I have told you, and more besides, can be clearly read by observing you and your luggage carefully.”
“I still cannot fathom how you knew so much,” I persevered.
“Once I explain it, you will no longer think it so mesmerising. Indeed, I think you will scoff at yourself for being taken in so readily,” said Charlotte easily.
“No, no, I will always be astonished, I assure you. Please, I urge you, tell me how you did it,” I pleaded.
“It is mere observation. You are a medical person travelling towards Calcutta, home to the oldest and grandest medical school in India. Therefore, that is where you are working. If you are travelling to Calcutta, then therefore you have returned from a visit. Whom have you visited? The strong odour from your suitcase suggests you are returning with cooked food. Who would cook treats for a doctor? Why but your mother,” she expanded.
“It could be my wife,” I suggested, with a mischievous grin.
“The top button on your shirt is sewed with a mismatching thread, a proud Doctor’s wife would not be so dilettante, she would have procured the correct coloured thread. You did it yourself, the stitching is exemplary but the cotton is a shade too dark,” she elucidated.
“And the only son?” I enquired, eager to trip her up.
She smiled, “The business card in your top pocket shows a speck of dirt, the same coloured dirt as on this carriage floor. It was discarded by someone and you retrieved it, because it has deep value for you. I know business cards are a luxury. Parents could only lavish such a costly item on their doctor son if they did not have to worry about other siblings; ergo you are an only child.”
The skill with which she unraveled me was astounding, all her observations were clear to any who cared to look but yet her deductions about them were electrifying.
I spontaneously clapped my hands and said, “Bravo! Bravo!”
“It’s nothing. As I said before, a mere parlour trick,” she said with genuine modesty.
“It is no trick but incredible perceptive deducing powers. How do you do it?”
She smiled, brushed away an imaginary mote of dust from her coat, and by implication my compliment, “It’s nothing, I assure you. Just a logical approach to observations and their implications.”
“Ah, I see,” I said blandly.
We fell silent, it was clear she did not want to reveal where or how she had acquired her unique skill and I did not think it prudent to enquire further. I smiled, nodded my head in acknowledgement and returned to my journal.
It then occurred to me that I had not asked her about the peculiar way she had entered and exited the carriage, her acute observations about myself had neatly diverted my enquiry into a conversational cul-de-sac.
I dropped my journal, would I ever finish that wretched article on distended abdomens, and addressed her again, “Ehm, Miss Holmes?” I began, emphasizing her title to ascertain her status.
“Mrs,” she corrected me.
“Ah, my apologies, Mrs Holmes,” I self-corrected, “may I ask after the gentleman who was seeking you so urgently.”
She chuckled at my description, “I assure you, he is not a gentle person.”
“I can testify to that,” I said smiling.
There was a pause, again she was hesitant about revealing too much, but curiosity being the annoying feline that it is, I continued to stare at her and she was finally obliged to answer me, “He’s my brother-in-law. Jonathan de Beque.”
“But your name is different, surely you and he should have the same surname,” I said quickly, “seeing as you are married to his brother?”
A frosty sheen flashed across her eyes and she replied coolly, “I chose to retain my maiden name, Holmes.”
“You’re fortunate, as an English lady to have such a choice, an Indian wife would be obliged to accept her husband’s name.”
“One takes on so much in married life, that to have a reminder of your past existence is a blessed lifeboat,” she replied archly.
The melancholy in her voice was inescapable. Her married life could not have been harmonious I concluded, and then I smiled at my own new-found observational powers. Having found her voice I was reluctant to let her escape without providing a valid explanation for the ‘shenanigans’, as she called them, “May I ask why you were avoiding him?”
The question was too abrupt and direct, I realised that after I had spoken. An angry look flashed momentarily across her face and she said, “I’m travelling against my husband’s wishes.”
“Ah,” I said a little too loudly, as if some great universal truth had been revealed, when in reality no such thing had occurred. Indeed, every revelation by her demanded further explanation but I decided to remain quiet and returned to my journal.
“Ah yes,” I said to myself, “that would explain the need to sequester yourself on the carriage roof and climb out of the window like Hanuman.”
“Hanuman?” she asked rapidly.
I smiled, lowered my journal and said, “The Monkey God.”
She burst out laughing at my teasing, and so infectious was her laughter, I was obliged to join in.
“I did not have you marked as a wit,” she replied, after the laughter subsided.
I nodded at her appreciation and raised an eyebrow in question, prodding her into offering a more detailed explanation.
“I suppose it was rather odd what I did,” she replied in time. “And you were such a good sport not to divulge my whereabouts to Jonathan. I could hear through the vent; he was beastly to you, but then again, that’s Jonathan for you.”
“He was most urgent to find you and you were equally urgent not to be found; why so?”
“I was in confinement and I couldn’t abide it any further. It was supposed to enable me to recuperate but it was having the exact opposite effect. So I decided to leave,” she said quickly, paused for a moment’s reflection and added, “as a medical man you can see how isolation can be debilitating?”
I nodded in agreement, I could see now the little tell-tale signs which I had failed to observe before; the peculiar behaviour, the rapid mood changes, restless eyes and the accelerated speech pattern. My roof-climbing travelling companion was suffering from some form of mental condition.
“How long have you suffered from melancholia?” I asked politely.
Once again her eyes flashed in anger and, just as quickly, subsided.
“A little over six months,” she finally admitted.
“I have some experience in this field and, I must say, I don’t agree with the old fashioned confinement treatment prescribed by English doctors. There are fundamental reasons why a person may suffer anxiety and depression. Confining the patient relieves the immediate family’s burden but can exasperate the patient’s condition.”
She smiled at my laboured explanation, “And in your experience what is the proper treatment for such conditions?”
“There is no set method for dealing with these afflictions but there are some very interesting ideas being expounded by an Austrian Neurologist. The mind is a peculiar object, it gives us our self, our consciousness, it can do wonderful things but it is incapable of diagnosing itself. How can the self be aware when the self’s perception is flawed? For example, I’m sure you are suffering from a persecution complex. However, you and I both know this is actually real, a genuine fear of that odious brother-in-law. It’s only working with a professional that you can hope to sort the mental wheat from the chaff, so to speak,” I said.
She thoughtfully considered my speech and then she sprang upon me, “Are your parent’s farmers?”
I smiled at her question, “Am I that obvious?”
“No, but your metaphors are,” she replied with a mysterious smile.
We sat quietly in the carriage listening to the rhythmic clickety clack of the train wheels as they passed over the track sleepers. I didn’t pressurise her into a response but waited patiently for her to continue at her own pace. After some more rhythmic train travel she spoke softly, “So what do you propose?”
“I did not know I was proposing anything,” I said with a smile, a little startled at her leading question.
“You’ve ridiculed the English approach, so what is the Indian approach?” she quickly replied.
Her logic was impeccable; I had been skewered by my own denigration of the classic European approach. I paused to collect my thoughts and then said, “Very well, where are you travelling?”
“I’m going to see my brother Branwell in Calcutta,” she explained.
“Your immediate family? Good, very good. That will be a reassuring touchstone to your pre-married life,” I said with enthusiasm.
She smiled at my approval, “Anything else?”
“What does he do?”
“He’s the regional head of the Thuggee and Dacoity Department,” she elucidated.
“I’m sure we won’t have need of his professional services,” I said with a chuckle, “But, if it’s acceptable to you, I’d like to accompany you to Calcutta.”
“To what end?”
“To continue our discussion and for me to offer my medical services,” I said plainly.
She narrowed her eyes and peered at me intently.
“If,” I quickly added, “that’s acceptable to you?”
She stared into the middle distance as she thought about my proposal.
After a long while she looked at me directly and said, “Yes, that is acceptable.”
* * *
A Bizarre Incident in the Bazaar
In the course of the next few hours, we discussed many things, not as a physician or patient but as companions. It was remarkable how open and candid she became as our journey progressed and, more importantly, how trusting and relaxed in my presence. I, in turn, was amazed at her quick wit and guile; she was extraordinarily well read, both in the humanities and sciences. She could name authors and papers even I was unaware of. There was something of the Renaissance man about her, that peculiar mix of science and art wherein ideas from both disciplines were easily mixed and cross-pollinated.
I learned she had studied under the amazing Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman in Britain to qualify as a physician and a surgeon, but the limitations of medicine frustrated her and she quickly moved on to other areas of interest.
Charlotte had an idiosyncratic mind that could readily conceptualize abstract ideas and an intense desire to solve complex problems, allied with her observational skills and deductive reasoning it made her a formidable intellect.
I must confess that I struggled to maintain my part in the conversation as she rattled off little-known theories and hopped, skipped and jumped from one subject to another. I could clearly see that once a subject engaged her she would pursue it in an almost manic-like frenzy, to the exclusion of all else, and how that single-minded unarguable approach would be intimidating and alienating.
After a particularly violent repudiation of the theory of phrenology, the dubious science of aligning head measurements to personality traits, I held up my hand forcing her to pause in mid-sentence.
“I am parched from listening to you, surely you must be equally, if not more so.”
Her annoyance at my interruption slowly melted into a wry smile. I think this was the first time anyone had listened to her for such a length of time and so she was minded to tolerate my intrusion. She smiled nonchalantly and gave me a small, almost imperceptible nod.
“I saw a chaiwala pass by a little while ago. Let me track the fellow down and get us some beverages,” I said rising stiffly and moving towards the compartment door.
She didn’t say anything and I took her silence as permission to continue.
A long slim corridor ran along the length of the train carriage to the side of the individual compartments. As I passed by the adjoining compartment I noticed an elderly Parsee couple with their family. The head of the family gave me an odd look, no doubt bemused by the various comings and goings into my compartment. I gave a neutral nod and swiftly moved on. I managed to track down the chaiwala two carriages down where he was busy boiling up a milky concoction, on his portable oil heater, for another traveler. I waited patiently until the other person had left before approaching the chaiwala. I asked for two milky chai and then produced some hemp from my inside pocket and asked him to put it into the boiling mixture. He smelt the herbs I offered, recognised their distinctive smell, gave a sly little smile and proceeded to place them into his small bubbling pan.
I returned to the carriage with my two cups of chai and offered one to Charlotte as I resumed my seat. She nodded her gratitude and started to haltingly take little sips of the hot liquid; I too did likewise and thus we continued our journey imbibing the sweet chai.
Presently she had finished her drink and placed the cup on the floor and gently eased back into her seat, her face now a placid tranquil landscape, devoid of its previous agitations and turbulence.
The hemp affected me considerably less than Charlotte, truth be told, I occasionally indulged myself to help me fall asleep after a particularly grueling day in the hospital.
My head was pleasantly heavy and I too eased into my seat, unable to suffer the weight of my head, I leaned back and let the clickety clack of the train lull me into an enjoyable torpidity.
In time I collected my thoughts and managed to focus them on the issue at hand, “Charlotte,” I said languidly, my parched mouth rebelling at my insistence on speaking.
She gave me a lazy, “Hmm.”
“What are you running from?” I asked her.
Softly, like a child stepping into their first bath, she replied, “Family.”
“What are you running to?” I asked, establishing a tempo to my questions.
“Family,” she answered again.
“Are you in danger?” I asked with a hint of concern for her safety.
“Just a little,” she replied sluggishly.
“Am I in danger?”
“Just a little,” she replied again.
“What are you scared of?” I prompted her.
“Secret,” she said listlessly.
“What secret?” I urged her.
There was a long silence as she considered my question until, after some considerable time she responded, “I can't tell you; it’s a secret.”
Once again her logic was exquisitely perfect, I smiled, at least I tried to smile but my face was surrendering itself to a beautiful rigor mortis and I delicately breathed, “Sleep.”
We must have made an incongruous pair to anyone passing by, the native and the Memsaab sleeping off their drug-laced chai.
I was roused from my exquisite sleep by a sharp and sudden jolt to the carriage. I was momentarily confused as to my whereabouts; it took me a few moments to gather my thoughts and realise where I was.
“Charlotte?” I said faintly.
There was no response from my slumbering companion, so I repeated her name and this time it succeeded in pulling her from the arms of Morpheus.
“Hmm?” she muttered as she roused herself and then comprehending her situation she added, “Doctor?”
I smiled and nodded my head.
“My pardon, I seem…,” she said with difficulty as her parched tongue resolutely stuck to her mouth, “I seem to have fallen asleep.”
I smiled at her and her natural quick wittedness clicked into place and she asked, “Did you drug me?”
“A little hemp to soothe your nerves, I fear you have not slept soundly for some time,” I explained.
She smiled sardonically and asked, “Did you partake as well?”
Now it was my turn to smile and I nodded my head.
She found this hugely amusing and started to laugh, a dry scorched laugh, “I think I need a drink.”
“That’s most opportune, we appear to have made an unscheduled stop,” I said.
I managed to locate the conductor, found out why we had stopped and presently I returned to the compartment to inform Charlotte, “It appears we are about to acquire a royal carriage.”
“The Maharani of Ratnam Nagar is travelling to her princely state; they are waiting to join her carriages to our train,” I explained.
“That shouldn’t take too long, we should be moving on shortly,” she observed.
I gave a thin smile, “I am told her carriages are some distance away yet, there will be some delay.”
“How annoying,” she said, visibly peeved at the inconvenience.
“If it’s acceptable to you,” I suggested, “we could visit the local bazaar, partake of some food. Perhaps I can show you some of the local colour.”
The proposal appealed to her and she readily agreed, “I’m famished and parched too.”
“Unfortunately it’s a side effect of the hemp herb we took,” I made clear.
We secured a small horse drawn carriage outside the modest station, climbed aboard and sat down on its cracked leather seats. The driver gave a loud ‘Hupp!’, cracked his thin whip on the rear end of the animal and we proceeded down the track at a leisurely pace.
We passed through a small shaded hollow and then slowly, the nag was old and decrepit like the driver, the buggy climbed the small hillock to the edge of the town. It was late afternoon and a pleasant cool breeze blew from behind. The beast finally drew up on the edge of the town and deposited us outside an old fashioned popular eating establishment, decorated with gaily coloured flags fluttering from the awning and with large Hindi writing on the wall, welcoming the casual traveler.
We procured a clean table near the tandoor pit oven and Charlotte was agreeable for me to order for the both of us. I summoned the cook, placed our order and advised him we’d prefer clean plates and cutlery, which he was to wash before us with soap and shake dry, rather than rinsing them in his tub of greasy water and wiping with his dirty hand towel; as was the normal practice. Suitably chastened by my instructions, and humbled by the presence of a Memsaab at his establishment, he scurried away to fulfil my order.
A young boy brought forward a bucket of water and a bar of soap followed by his companion. They squatted on their haunches in front of us and diligently began to clean the plates and cutlery. Once they had shaken it dry, they arranged it on the table with great care, obviously awed by the presence of the Memsaab.
“Are these elaborate arrangements necessary?” asked Charlotte with a bemused look upon her face as she shaded herself, from the still bright sun, with her parasol.
“Very much so, I fear,” I said in response, “the incidence of local amoebic dysentery is extraordinarily high. For an English person such as yourself, it can be deadly.”
She nodded in acknowledgement and we chatted amicably about the local town Naginpur, famous for its snake charmers, until the food arrived. I ordered one of the boys to hold the parasol whilst Charlotte ate and he readily agreed, eager to be near the Memsaab with the golden hair.
I had ordered a tandoori roast chicken for Charlotte and a lentil curry for myself, being a devout Hindu, I observed a strict vegetarian diet.
Following our meal, which Charlotte seemed to greatly enjoy, I ordered a Chinese green tea; the boiled water would ensure no risk of infection and the drink itself would aid the digestion process. It was whilst we were enjoying the therapeutic benefits of our drinks that a couple of dancing nauch girls turned up with their accompanying musicians. They gyrated vivaciously in front of Charlotte and when I tried to shoo them away they cast me vengeful looks. Charlotte waved at me to leave them alone and they happily danced for her entertainment. The two nauch girls danced in unison, their brightly patterned dresses swirling out as they twisted and turned in time to the tune the musicians were frantically playing. Their anklet bells tinkled and jingled as the girls stamped their feet and they snapped their finger cymbals in time, much to the amusement of their Memsaab.
After the song concluded and the dancers finished their dance with a flourish, with much stamping of feet and clanging of finger cymbals, they turned expectantly to Charlotte.
Charlotte looked back at them, confused as to what they wanted and I smiled inwardly, even with all her brilliance, she was still naïve in the ways of the begging world.
“This is why I was trying to get rid of them,” I said wearily, opening my wallet, “they shall cost a pretty penny or two.”
I held up a one rupee note, which the taller dancer snatched ceremoniously and then gestured with her hand for more.
I sighed, held up another one rupee note which was resolutely ignored, Charlotte harrumphed in frustration, leaned past me, reached into my wallet and pulled out a twenty rupees note. The girl shrieked with glee, snatched the note from Charlotte and then, for good measure, grabbed the single from my grasp and ran away laughing.
“I fear,” I said ruefully looking into my rapidly emptying wallet, “you will be the ruin of me.”
“Here, give me a piece of paper and a pen,” she said waving at me.
I was bemused at this turn of affairs and obediently fished out a piece of paper from my notebook. I passed her the pen from my breast pocket and waited to see what she would do.
She wrote a small note and showed it to me, it said, ‘I owe Dr Josh Watan the sum of 500rps signed Charlotte Holmes dated 18th December 1900’.
I read it with amusement and protested, “This is far too much, I have hardly spent fifty rupees since I met you, although our biggest expenditure was those nauch girls.”
“Don’t be churlish, they were good fun and besides, a little profit for your professional services is entirely warranted,” she explained with an infectious giggle.
“You do realise I shall never present this note or attempt to redeem it in any manner?”
“That is entirely your prerogative,” she replied airily.
“Let us take a stroll through the bazaar, we still have a little time to kill before the Maharani’s carriages arrive,” I suggested to my companion.
Charlotte smiled at my suggestion, nodded in agreement, took the parasol from the boy, gestured for me to reward him (a few annas were sufficient) and then she proceeded elegantly towards the bazaar.
We made an odd couple as we entered the bazaar, a tall willowy English lady and her shorter Indian companion taking the late afternoon airs, they must have presumed I was her servant and I did nothing to dissuade that impression.
We passed by the cloth merchants with their multi-coloured patterned saris and scarves fluttering like banners in the late afternoon breeze. The spice merchants with mounds of rare spices and herbs piled high; towers of red chili powder, peaks of yellow turmeric and pillars of khaki garam masala. The mixed odours of peppercorns, cloves, nutmeg and a multitude of other spices assailed our senses. Next to them were the fruit merchants, haphazard piles of bananas, mangos, coconuts lay next to stacks of pomegranates, papayas, guavas and passion fruits.
Occasionally interspersed with the merchants were odd stalls, the barber shaving an old man with his cutthroat razor, the sweet-seller offering various candy treats, a fortune teller with his parakeet which obligingly picked various cards, an entertainer with his dancing monkey and hand drum and a smiling palmist with a giant board of a hand showing all the lines mapped out and carefully annotated.
Charlotte paused for a moment and looked at the board, she then turned to me and asked, “Are they accurate?”
I was surprised at her interest, it seemed incompatible with her scientific learnings, “Do you believe in such things?”
“Do you believe science has explained everything satisfactorily?” she questioned me.
I smiled, it was not the place to launch into the foibles of listening to a palmist in an Indian bazaar, if she was intrigued, then it would best to indulge her.
“Would you like a reading?” I asked her.
A delicate smile passed across her lips, “If one were to treat it as an amusement rather than a forecast of destiny, then it would be permissible to indulge oneself in a reading.”
The old palmist beamed with cracked teeth at the prospect of reading a Memsaab’s hand. Charlotte approached the palmist, handed me the parasol and squatted down, proffering her right hand. The palmist eagerly reached forward to grab Charlotte’s hand, but I smacked it back with the parasol and said in Hindi, “Read, don’t touch!”
The palmist cursed me under his breath, which Charlotte found intensely amusing, and peered at her palm; after a pause he indicated her to show him her left hand.
The palmist pondered the intricacies of the universe gazing at Charlotte’s hands, trying to unravel her secret character. I couldn’t help noticing her exceptionally short fingernails, it was clear she bit them during stressful periods.
Lost in thought, I failed to hear the palmist’s revelation, Charlotte nudged me and the palmist repeated his utterance.
“He says you have exceptional thinking powers,” I translated.
Charlotte didn’t say anything but waited for the man to continue.
“You think too much for a lady,” I said, translating the palmist’s next prediction.
“Tell the old fraud to concentrate on my life and not his own marital strife,” rebuked Charlotte.
The palmist continued as did I, “The world does not see you as you wish to be seen.”
“Is that different for anyone else too?” said Charlotte as she looked at me pointedly.
I gave a small nod and smile, her pointed remark was aimed at me and I happily acknowledged it.
“You are conflicted,” continued the palmist and I translated it likewise.
“Go on,” urged Charlotte and I nodded to the man to proceed.
“You have known much sorrow,” I mechanically translated.
She doesn’t say anything, her eyes fixed staring ahead.
“You are still suffering, you are grieving,” I continued to translate.
The old fortune teller continued to read her palm.
“You have lost someone recently,” I said translating.
Abruptly Charlotte yanked back her hand, stood up and said, “That’s enough.”
She turned quickly and started to walk away.
I followed her after paying the palmist, that promissory note may have to be redeemed after all I mused, clutching her parasol.
“I beg your pardon. I did not know what the fellow was saying. I was focusing on his words not their meaning, my sincerest apologies,” I said returning her parasol.
She took it from me and said, “It’s of no consequence.”
We continued walking aimlessly for a few moments until all of a sudden she turned to me and asked, “Show me these snake charmers, you spoke of before.”
The ancient snake charmers were located at the northern end of the bazaar under the shade of a Neem tree, known to the English as Indian Lilac; a useful location as the tree was known to be useful in warding off insects. The neem tree leaves were famously bitter and their juice had been offered as a cure to diabetic patients, it was all palpable nonsense and I had frequently come across patients who had made themselves sick drinking the noxious mixture.
Today there was only one snake charmer left under the neem tree, his fellow serpent enticers had retired for the day. The old man was skeletal in shape and profile, with a dark leathery brown hue, a few teeth still rattled in his mouth with which to chew his beloved paan and a large deep red stain showed where he spat out the juices. His face lit up when he saw us approach and he pulled himself upright ready to perform. I threw a few rupees into his cracked bowl and we stepped back ready for him to perform his charming act, although from his appearance he would be incapable of charming anyone or thing, let alone a dangerous snake.
A gaggle of street urchins quickly surrounded the snake charmer as he prepared to perform. He pulled out his flute, spat out a stream of filthy paan sputum and immediately fell into a deep hacking cough which disturbingly rattled his bony ribcage. I knew at once he was suffering from tuberculosis and decided to step back a few paces, gently pulled Charlotte with me. She gave me a curious glance but didn’t resist my guiding hand.
The old man tapped the basket in front of him a few times to awaken the cobra inside, lifted the lid to one side and then started to play rhythmically the nagin tune on his flute.
We all peered inside the basket waiting for the beast within, but nothing emerged.
The children crowded around, an excited murmur rippled around and then subsided as the serpent refused to appear. The snake charmer gave a swift kick to the basket and the children gasped in unison at his audacity.
The lilting repetitive musical tune rang out and worked its magic upon the shy beast within, a forked tongue flicked out, tasting the atmosphere.
A new gasp greeted its appearance as slowly the cobra raised its head out of the basket, a dark jet black head with glistening eyes emerged from within, eyeing the watching rabble, it rose higher and higher unfurling its magnificent hood. I had seen many cobras in my life, one could not avoid them living in India, but this was an impressive specimen. Its splayed hood was nearly twice the size of a man’s outstretched hand, its neck was a sturdy rigid girth as large as a man’s forearm. The sickly-coloured lemon skin underneath glistened and shone with a dangerous lustre, the black scales on its upper side were regularly marked with same yellow coloured V shaped markings; in all it was an awe-inspiring intimidating sight.
The children screeched with glee as the king cobra rose higher and higher, following the snake charmer’s flute.
I turned to Charlotte and explained, “This act is a fallacy, the snake is not charmed by the music for it has no ears. It is the motion of the flute the snake follows.”
She smiled, a little patronizingly I thought, “I know. I have been told often about this, but sometimes nature should be merely enjoyed and not explained.”
I suppressed a mild chuckle at her disapproval of my explanation and turned back to the old snake charmer, just in time to see nature intercede in a most inopportune manner; the old man’s tuberculosis flared up again and he started to cough fiercely. The music stopped, the flute was dropped and the snake was no longer charmed by the old man; it had other more charming prospects, the children standing nearby.
Swifter than Mercury the serpent slid from its wicker basket into the crowd of children. They screamed in terror and scattered in all directions. The shout went up in the bazaar and people started to scatter, knocking over fruit baskets, trampling through lovingly piled vegetables, knocking over the towers of spices and creating mayhem. The old snake charmer quickly picked up the flute and tried to play whilst coughing but alas, it was all too late the snake had escaped into the market.
The customers fled the bazaar and the merchants remained to abuse and harangue the old snake charmer, who obliviously continued to cough with a deathly rattle.
I turned to Charlotte to see her smiling broadly, “Such amusement,” she said loudly.
“I think it best if we leave,” I advised cautiously, “it may return.”
Charlotte purloined a few rupees from me, moved forward to the snake charmer, deposited the crumpled notes in the man’s begging bowl and said, “I cannot speak for the escaped serpent, but I found you immensely charming.”
* * *
The Maharani of Ratnam Nagar
We managed to locate a horse carriage and returned to the railway station, taking care to avoid discussing what the palmist had said about her loss, as we conversed energetically about the snake charmer and his escaped serpent.
The royal carriages had not appeared by the time we arrived back at the station but we were assured by the conductor they were expected imminently. It was at this juncture that I learned Charlotte was travelling without a ticket. The conductor became irate, insisting upon an explanation as to how she had managed to travel so far. It was obvious the fellow was looking for a little gratuity to offset the irregularities, so I fished out a fifty rupee note from my money belt, offered to pay for the ticket and a little in addition for the inconvenience. His manner changed immediately, all yellow teeth and red gums, and he cut a new ticket for Charlotte all the way to Calcutta.
We retired to our compartment and I ordered more tea for us from the chaiwala.
“I hope there will be no more additional herbs this time?” teased Charlotte.
I smiled, a little embarrassed, and assured her, “There is no need for such subterfuge now, you are rested and refreshed.”
She grinned and nodded at my assertion, “It has been a most amusing distraction travelling with you.”
I nodded in appreciation and we both sat back awaiting the arrival of the tea.
The conductor had been accurate in his assessment, for shortly we heard excited shouts from outside. It was the railway men eagerly working to couple the Maharani’s carriages to our train.
I drew down the window and looked down the train. Two exquisitely decorated carriages had been appended to our modest train. Whistles were blown, flags were waved, the engine driver tooted his steam siren and we slowly pulled away; our brief sojourn was concluded and we were on our way to Calcutta.
The familiar clickety clack of the train carriages resumed as we moved leisurely up towards Calcutta. It would take another day for us to reach our destination, sufficient time I thought, for me to fathom my travelling companion.
I shared my medical journals with Charlotte, and although she had abandoned medicine some time ago, she was sufficiently interested in the subject to happily devour them. I observed her carefully and noticed her manner was subtly changing, the previous ticks and irregularities were markedly reduced; it appeared Charlotte was beginning to master herself.
The dining carriage was located towards the back of the train, indeed it was the carriage directly coupled to the Maharani’s carriages, and we booked a light supper with the steward.
The verdant fields flashed past us in the setting sun, the bronze rays shrouding the countryside in ethereal beauty.
Charlotte looked out wistfully and said, “I never thought I would see such a lovely sight again.”
“Was it truly dreadful?” I asked her.
She didn’t answer immediately and I didn’t press the point; if she chose to answer that would be good, if she failed to answer that would be her choice too.
I sipped my tea peacefully, looked out across the fleeing fields and thought if the cobra, that had escaped, had been caught or was the charmer now destitute?
“It was dreadful,” said Charlotte, barely louder than a passing breath of air rustling the leaves of a tree.
“Denied all contact, nothing to read or absorb, just continuous solitude, nothing to do but turn inward. No self can stand so much self-examination, a pitiless interrogation which strips all away. And that look in his eyes, an uncomprehending realisation that his beloved was no more but still the confinement persisted,” she said.
“You’re free now,” I replied reassuringly.
She twitched her right eyebrow, a fraction as if to question my assertion, and then she took a sip of her tea.
Our pleasurable contemplative tea was abruptly interrupted by the wailing of an old woman, a long drawn out wail, a haunting cry of despair that hung in the air before it was conjoined by another and then another. The dreadful dirge came from behind us, from the direction of the Maharani’s carriages; something was greatly amiss in the royal court.
Our steward hurried past us, across the gap between the two carriages, and we saw him as he knocked politely on the royal carriage door on the other side. We saw it open momentarily, a round head appeared, they spoke rapidly for a few moments before the door was closed again and the steward hurried past us. He began to flick through the dinner reservations until he alighted on a particular one, he raised it to the light as if to confirm what he was reading, turned to look down the carriage rows of seated diners, until his eyes locked with mine.
“I think he’s looking for us,” I said to Charlotte.
She gave me a coy smile and replied, “Not us, but you.”
Before I could reject her assertion the steward was looming over me, “Are you Dr Watan?”
I nodded, “Yes,” and then asked, “What seems to be the problem?”
He lowered his face close to mine, Charlotte drew in imperceptibly, and he whispered, “There is a medical emergency in the royal carriage. They are asking for a doctor to attend the patient.”
I looked at him questioningly, did he really mean me? I thought, and waited for him to continue.
“I…,” he said falteringly, “I told them I seated a doctor earlier and would ask him if he would oblige to attend.”
“Of course, I will attend. Let them know, I just need to collect my bag from my compartment,” I said getting up and moving past him towards the carriage.
Charlotte watched me leave and was still gazing in my direction when I returned carrying my Gladstone bag. I paused at the table, leaned into towards Charlotte, and said, “Care to join me? Your assistance would be greatly appreciated.”
She smiled at my suggestion and replied, “My pleasure, but we should pay for our meal first.”
Charlotte was right, in my haste I had forgotten to pay the poor man, and he being distracted by the medical emergency had forgotten to present the bill, let alone tip him.
I pulled out a twenty rupee note, more than enough to pay for our slight repast, and handed it to the steward. He went towards the register but Charlotte stopped him and said, “Don’t bother, it’s not necessary; please keep the change.”
I winced inwardly at her generosity with my money and said slyly, “I may have to add a zero to that IOU I hold.”
Charlotte smiled and said, “Being a gentleman, comes with a cost.”
We made our way down towards the trailing royal carriages where the steward was patiently waiting for us.
We carefully navigated the gap between the carriages, the sleepers beneath us hurtling by at alarming speed, until we stood outside the carriage door next to the steward. He nodded his thanks and carefully knocked on the door.
It opened after a few moments and a large rotund head, with a squat nose, a broad forehead, long lobed ears from which dangled expensive ornate earrings, peaked out. The man, dressed in expensive satin robes, examined us for a moment, his eyes couldn’t hide their surprise when they encountered Charlotte, and asked, “Why is she here?”
“She’s my assistant,” I replied smoothly, I had anticipated there may be some resistance from the royal entourage at Charlotte’s presence.
“No English,” barked the plump over-fed face.
I shrugged in disappointment, gave a comical frown and turned back towards the dining carriage.
“Wait, why are you leaving? I did not say you could not enter, just the…,” he struggled to find the correct term, and after some mental wrestling, settled upon, “…Angrezee.”
“She is my assistant,” I said politely, “I couldn’t possibly carry out my functions without her aid.”
The pulpy face once again examined Charlotte and then turned to me, no doubt wondering how a lowly native doctor could afford a Memsaab as an assistant, having surmised I must have hidden reserves, stepped back and allowed us entry.
“Nicely played,” murmured Charlotte in my ear as we passed through.
The wailing subsided for a moment as we entered but quickly resumed thereafter. The carriage was decorated as ornately inside as outside; magnificent crystal chandeliers adorned the ceiling, flickering with bewitching candle lights, plush velvet covered loungers lined either side of the carriage, a beautiful Persian carpet with ornate filigree patterns around a proud dancing peacock ran down the centre and all the walls were festooned with plush silk drapes.
The entourage, mostly women with a sprinkling of effete men, was gathered around a lounger near the centre where presumably the patient lay. I gently, and firmly, pushed aside the weeping crowd to gaze upon the prone patient. Truth be told, I had secretly hoped it was someone important, perhaps even the Maharani, not that I bore her any ill-will, but I was disappointed to find it was a lowly middle-aged maidservant.
She wasn’t moving as I approached her. Quickly, I took out my stethoscope, pulled aside her headscarf to expose her chest (to a gasp from the onlookers) and listened carefully.
It was impossible to hear anything above the heavy sound of the continuous obligatory moaning. I turned in frustration to address the throng in Hindi, “Please be quiet, I can’t hear anything,” and they momentarily fell silent.
Even without the background noise I still couldn’t hear anything. I sighed, removed my stethoscope and held the woman’s wrist seeking her pulse; in this too I was equally unsuccessful.
“How is the patient?” asked the rotund man from behind me as a powerful odour of heavy musk abused my senses.
I stood up, straightened my coat, and said, “She is no longer a patient.”
The man looked at me in confused state, looked down at the woman and then back at me, “What is she then? She doesn’t appear to have recovered too well.”
A thin smile escaped my pursed lips and I replied in Hindi, “Nor will she, she is no longer a patient but rather a corpse.”
At this the wailing of the mourning congregation resumed, even more fervently and loudly, with added beating of chests and pulling of hair.
“Silence!” commanded the rotund man and the wailing ceased; although a few sobs from the effete men could still be heard.
“A little warning to prepare us would have been appreciated,” he said acidly and I accepted the rebuke in good humour and then he continued “How did she die?”
“Are you a relative?” I asked.
He eyed me as if I had insulted him and his whole lineage for a thousand generations, “Hardly, I am the Grand Wazir of Ratnam Nagar and she is the dishwasher. I have to inform the Maharani as to what has occurred.”
Once again I accepted his rebuke with good nature and said, “Dr Josh Watan, at your service, and this is my companion Mrs Charlotte Holmes,” nodding towards my colleague.
“I thought you said she was your assistant; ah no matter, the dishwasher is dead. I am Satyendra, the …,” he began.
But Charlotte interrupted him and said, “The Grand Wazir of Ratnam Nagar, yes, you just informed us.”
The Wazir was suitably shocked at Charlotte’s interjection but before he could formulate a response she continued, “Do you mind? I’d like to examine the ‘recent patient’ too.”
Satyendra smirked, “There is no need to be delicate now, your colleague has already informed us she has died.”
Whilst Charlotte bent down to examine the corpse, for that is what she was, the Wazir pulled me aside and whispered urgently, “Do you know how she died?”
“We’ll know more once we’ve conducted a thorough examination,” I explained.
“Not with this audience you won’t,” retorted the Wazir quickly.
I looked around the gathered servants and realised the impact of our examination would be greatly disturbing. “What do you suggest?” I asked.
The Wazir thought for a moment and then replied, “I shall empty this carriage to let you continue in peace.”
I nodded my appreciation and thanked him.
“Do you require any ‘further’ assistance?” he asked pointedly.
“A servant will suffice,” I replied.
“Very well, continue with your work,” he commanded and then he turned to the other servants to order them to leave.
I returned to see how Charlotte was proceeding with her examination, a momentary glance was all I required to know she had been well trained. She expertly moved around the body, minutely examining the face, the teeth and gums, behind the ears, around the neck and then proceeding to the hands, scrutinising them minutely, sniffing the fingernails, studying the palms and wrists and checking the morbidity of the limbs.
I waited patiently until she had finished her examination whilst behind me the servants were ushered out, most to the dining carriage from whence we’d come, and a few to the Maharani’s carriage beyond us.
Charlotte stood up, adjusted her dress and carefully approached me, “I believe it’s asphyxia.”
I smiled at her conclusion, it was in line with what I’d found but I wanted to test her, “Why do you say that?”
“There’s small amount of bleeding around the nose and the mouth, there’s congestion of the head and face, in addition there’s numerous petechial hemorrhages on the face and beneath the conjunctivae,” she said rapidly, “Obviously a post mortem surgical examination would absolutely confirm it.”
“Obviously,” I said in response, “anything else?”
“I can’t find any marks around the mouth or neck, there are no fibres or any smothering material in the nose and there are no indications she fought her assailant,” she continued.
“What indications were you expecting?” I queried her.
“Why skin or blood beneath the fingernails of course,” she replied quickly.
“And what could have caused the asphyxia?”
She smiled, “Are you testing me?”
“I merely wanted to ascertain how deep your deductive skills were?” I replied.
“Asphyxia can be caused by mechanical, chemical or environmental factors,” she said, succinctly listing the possible causes.
“As I said before there are no marking or signs of fighting off an assailant which rules out mechanical asphyxiation. The other occupants of the carriage are all hale and hearty, so that rules out environmental factors. Therefore, the only remaining cause is chemical, namely poison, which she either ingested knowingly, in which case it is a suicide, or she ingested in ignorance, in which case it is…,” and for the first time in her discourse she hesitated.
I casually placed my forefinger on my lips, she immediately understood the gesture and gave me a small smile and nodded in agreement.
I turned to examine the carriage and saw we were alone save for one of the effete man servants, he stood politely by the door awaiting my instructions.
I summoned him over and told him to fetch the Grand Wazir, he swiftly passed by us and went to the end carriage.
“What are you going to tell him?” asked Charlotte from behind me.
I turned to face her, her analysis had brought forth difficult decisions, the enormity of what we had uncovered weighed heavily upon me.
“I am at a loss as to how to proceed,” I confessed to her.
“Consider our current status, I am a minor native doctor and you are an absconding wife being pursued by English soldiers, we must pass on by and not draw attention to ourselves by becoming embroiled in this royal intrigue,” I said with impeccable reasoning.
“You do realise there is a killer on board these royal carriages?” she pointed out unhelpfully.
“Perhaps the death of the dishwasher will assuage their murderous rage?” I countered.
“Since when has the death of a dishwasher by poison been the principle motive in any murder mystery?”
“I am not familiar with these murder mysteries you speak of and I do not see why they should govern the course of our current actions?” I replied.
“Well?” said the Grand Wazir from behind us, for a large man he moved effortlessly quietly.
“Yes, we were just discussing the case,” I replied hastily, his sudden appearance had unnerved me even though I had asked for him to be fetched.
“Discussing the case, were you? And what conclusions have you reached? Her Highness the Maharani is most perturbed to learn of this incident,” said Satyendra ponderously.
“I’ll happily share them with you and the Maharani in private but first, a few questions,” I responded.
Charlotte understood my intention, approached Satyendra and asked, “Did the deceased woman eat alone or with the rest of the servants?”
“She ate the same as the other servants,” he replied.
“And were any of them ill too?” she continued.
“No, no one; they were all fine. We all eat the same food; the Maharani insists upon it.”
“Who prepared the food?”
“Our own cook did, we always travel with one. He brought our supplies with us, we did use the kitchen facilities of the dining car but everything else was done by us,” said Satyendra.
Charlotte pondered the response for a moment and then resumed her questioning, “Where did you eat?”
“Here in this carriage, at the dining table,” he replied indicating the large heavy mahogany table situated at the end of the carriage.
We both looked over the dining able and saw most of the dishes had been cleared away.
“The Maharani ate here too?”
“No,” confessed the Wazir, “she hasn’t eaten yet.”
“This has been an arduous journey and her appetite is not what it should be,” he explained.
“Thank you,” said Charlotte and then she stepped back to confer with me.
“What do you think?” I asked her.
“It wasn’t in the food or else others would have expired as well,” she reasoned.
“I concur, but where does that leave us?”
Charlotte thought for a moment, her eyes narrowed as her mind raced through possibilities, and they shone with an alluring brightness as she reached her conclusion, “The poison was administered with a utensil, either smeared onto a plate, inside a cup or the end of a fork.”
I smiled and said, “I agree it was a utensil but not a fork?”
She gave me an irritable look and snapped, “Why not a fork?”
I suppressed a rising chuckle, “Because they all eat with their hands.”
She laughed in good humour at her obvious mistake and said, “I stand corrected.”
“Search the carriage, see if you can locate the source of this poisoning and I shall inform the old Maharani what we have learned,” I said quietly to Charlotte.
She nodded in agreement and turned back to the corpse to begin her search for the instrument of death.
“I am ready to inform her Highness of our findings,” I said to the Wazir.
The Grand Wazir nodded and indicated for me to follow him to the back of the carriage. We crossed the gap between the carriages, the rushing wind momentarily shocking me as I realised with a start it was dark now. Night had fallen during my time in the carriage.
The Wazir knocked on the door and it was presently opened by a large obese eunuch. It was common practice among Indian nobility for their womenfolk to be guarded by such a castrated man; their sexual desires so forcibly curtailed ensured nothing untoward occurred in the private chambers.
The Maharani’s carriage was opulently decorated, fine drapes and expensive silks adorned the entire carriage, rose petals were liberally strewn on the floor, bowls of scented water with burning oil lamps were placed all over and at the far end of the carriage was a single large divan cascading in elaborate round cushions and covers.
I searched in vain but the ancient Maharani was nowhere to be located, I turned to the Wazir and asked, “Where is she?”
He gave me a wry grin and said, “She’s in the garden.”
I gave him a quizzical look which he chose to ignore, proceeded down the length of the carriage and out through the back. I hurried to catch him up and I was stunned to find the back of the carriage, about a third, had been converted into a small open garden.
Pots of baby palm trees were arranged along both sides of the open space, further pots with exotic flowers were precisely arranged in the open space, casually guiding the eye to a giant copper pool of gurgling water upon which floated lotus blossom and water lilies, and hidden behind an extensive frond, was the reclining figure of the Maharani. Her left hand, decorated with henna bridal swirls, hung idly in the pool, her fingers playing gently in the gurgling waters. Behind the Maharani was a striking birdcage in which a pair of Kashmiri flycatchers were merrily chirping away.
The Wazir coughed mildly and said, “Your Highness, the doctor has come to make his report.”
I did not approach, for already I felt we were intruding in a private contemplative moment, but waited to be summoned.
“Approach doctor,” said the Maharani in a soft lilting voice.
Her voice perplexed me enormously, I had anticipated an elderly frail women of advanced years with, if truth be told, a crackly voice which was better suited to the moors stirring a cauldron and intoning, “Double, double toil and trouble, Fire burn, and cauldron bubble,” and not this delicate sensitive creature.
I urgently moved forward, eager to gain a glimpse of the Maharani, and was awestruck and dumbfounded by what I saw.
A vision of such loveliness I had never espied before, her beautiful lithe figure was leaning back in the chair with her feet resting on a stool, she was dressed in a simple plain red sari which clung tightly to the curves on her body, clearly delineating each rise of her pomegranate-sized breasts, the curve of her slender waist, the sweep of her curvaceous hips and the length of her firm thighs. Her skin was an enticing hue of whiteness only marginally discoloured by an olive toned brown, her oval shaped face tilted backwards as her jet black hair cascaded like storm clouds over the Himalayas down to her waist. I couldn’t see her eyes in the dim light but her fleshy lips were visible, an understated red lipstick made them arouse forbidden carnal desires.
I was mesmerised by what I saw, she couldn’t have been barely twenty but her sensuous beauty was overwhelming; she was undoubtedly, as my house boy was fond of saying about attractive women, sex in a sari and I was overcome with a powerful yearning for her.
I swallowed hard to regain my former composure and addressed her, “My pardon, I believed the Maharani of Ratnam Nagar was an elderly woman of advanced years.”
She giggled like a young school girl at my obvious compliment and said effortlessly, “I wear my years lightly.”
“Remarkably so,” I replied, enjoying her playful attitude.
“Please be seated,” she offered, indicating a small chair immediately to her left, “you may leave us Satyendra, I shall summon you if I require you.”
The Wazir eyed her suspiciously, nodded curtly and, before departing whispered in my ear, “The eunuch’s eyes work just fine.”
After he had left us we remained silent enjoying the simple pleasures of a garden on a railway carriage, the birds continued to trill and the waters still gurgled pleasantly, it was a remarkably relaxing experience.
I looked out past the plants to the end of the carriage. It was an odd juxtaposition to be sitting in a fine garden watching the land rush by.
“What did he say to you?” the Maharani said eventually, breaking my contemplation of our peculiar surroundings.
“He warned me I was being observed,” I replied.
“He is such a cautious soul, but he means well,” she continued.
“You did not answer my question, I thought the Maharani was much older,” I pointed out.
She smiled, a beguiling secret smile, “You are correct the old Maharani is indeed much advanced in years. Unfortunately, after the death of Maharaja Prithviraj she was demoted to be the Mother of the new Maharaja, I believe they call her Mataji.”
“That would explain the lavish decorations, you are the new Maharajas new wife,” I said thoughtfully.
“Maharaja Shamus and I were married by proxy a month ago, I travel now to join him at his palace in Ratnam Nagar,” she revealed.
“By proxy? Did the Maharaja not participate in his own marriage?” I said, failing to hide my amazement.
“My husband is a keen hunter and the auspicious date for our marriage coincided with start of the tiger season.”
“You have met him I presume?”
“It is not necessary. I received a golden brooch with his picture inside it, that was sufficient for my parents to accept the marriage proposal,” she replied calmly.
“How peculiar,” I said unthinkingly, and then instantly regretted my remark.
“I suppose it is peculiar when you mention it, but Maharajas have been masters of their own destiny for so long it is no longer possible for them to discern what is peculiar and what is merely character,” she said dolefully.
We both fell silent after her pronouncement, in truth I was shocked at this behaviour, to abandon your own wedding in favour of a tiger hunt was disgraceful; it was not only insulting to the new bride but presaged a troubled marriage.
“Do not concern yourself with these matters,” she said softly, a trace of sorrow noticeable in her voice, “tell me of dear Nilofer.”
I was momentarily confused, “My pardon, I’m not acquainted with such a person.”
“Oh but you are,” she insisted with a playful smile, “that’s the name of the woman who was taken sick.”
“My apologies, I was not informed of her name, merely her occupation,” I explained.
“Tis of no concern, I have known her for a long time, she is from our estate and I have often played with her, she is a kind soul, a little slow-witted but then who ever wanted a clever dishwasher?” she replied.
I smiled at her recollection but then a somber shadow fell upon me as I broke the bad news to her, “I’m sorry to inform your Highness but the lady has passed away.”
I heard a small gasp but I didn’t look directly at her, I wanted to allow her a private moment to grieve for her servant.
Finally, she spoke, “How did she die?”
“We’re determining it now, but it would appear it was not by natural causes,” I said laboriously.
“We?” she said quickly.
“A travelling companion who is assisting me,” I replied.
She smiled at this, “I recall now, Satyendra said an odd couple were seeing to Nilofer.”
I too smiled at her description of Charlotte and myself as an ‘odd couple’.
“How did poor Nilofer die?” asked the Maharani.
“We believe she was poisoned,” I said gently.
The word registered with her very quickly and she sprang back to me, “Deliberately?”
“We believe so.”
“But why? It’s ludicrous, she had no enemies, she just washed dishes,” insisted the Maharani.
“That’s all we know so far,” I replied.
It was clear, the unspoken word we were both avoiding, it had to be uttered and the consequences dealt with.
“Murder?” asked the Maharani.
“Yes, I’m afraid so.”
She quickly sat up and faced me full on, “Resume your investigations immediately and inform me at once if you learn anything of import.”
“Of course,” I nodded, as I rose to take my leave of her.
* * *
The Case Unravels
I left the Maharani and traced my way back to the first carriage where Satyendra was waiting for me.
“How is she?” he asked me quickly, grasping my arm in agitation.
“You didn’t tell me she was a new bride on her way to her husband,” I said coldly.
“Her status and her travel plans are of no consequence with regards to this murder,” asserted the Wazir.
“Are you completely convinced in that regard?” I responded.
He didn’t answer me readily, and I didn’t wait for him to formulate a response, but I carried on, “Let’s see what Charlotte has learned.”
“How is the old bird?” asked Charlotte when I approached her.
“Not so old, and concerned for her servant,” I said with a mild rebuke.
“Oh, I see. Well I have found something,” she said ignoring my chastisement.
She carefully took out a handkerchief from her bag and opened it to reveal a two-inch-long wooden pick held in an intricate silver holder, “I found this behind the lounger,” related Charlotte.
“What is it?” I asked confused.
The Wazir sighed in annoyance at my ignorance and said, “It’s a toothpick, haven’t you seen one before? I thought you were civilised.”
“Of course I have seen a toothpick pick before, just never one with such a complicated handle,” I said with mild agitation.
Satyendra ignored my prickly response and addressed Charlotte, “So, what does this mean?”
“We believe the maid servant was poisoned and this would be an ideal method by which to achieve it. I’ve re-examined the body and have detected a small swelling by the upper left molar. Obviously the toothpick was coated with a poison which the unfortunate woman unwittingly administered herself,” said Charlotte thoughtfully.
“Oh, this is bad, very bad,” said Satyendra as the colour slowly drained from his face.
“How so?” I asked.
“That,” said Satyendra, nodding towards the handkerchief held by Charlotte, “is the Maharani’s personal toothpick holder; I am deeply shocked.”
“I am equally shocked,” added Charlotte, “the Maharani has her own personal toothpick holder?”
“This is no time for levity,” snapped the Wazir.
“I think this is the most opportune time for levity, for what is death but a cosmic farce?” replied Charlotte with genuine passion.
The Wazir looked askance at Charlotte and then at me, as if to say ‘I’m glad she’s your companion not mine’.
I ignored his reproach and addressed the matter at hand, “Then it is clear, the real target was the Maharani and not Nilofer.”
“Who on earth is she?” asked Charlotte in confusion.
“That was the name of the poor dishwasher woman,” I explained.
Satyendra ignored our distraction and returned to the matter in hand, “Firstly we must confirm this is the instrument of death. How do you, my enlightened investigators, propose to do that?”
I pondered the Wazir’s question but before I could reply, Charlotte was off and running, “There should be sufficient poison remaining on the toothpick to test it. If you can procure a small animal, we can prick it and observe the results.”
“Really Madam,” said the Wazir agitated, “are you suggesting I go rat hunting to validate your hypothesis?”
I controlled my amusement at his reaction and said, “There is no need to procure any such animals, we already have them on board; the Maharani’s Kashmiri flycatchers.”
The Wazir was torn between proceeding with the experiment and the Maharani’s fondness for the birds, “They are her prized possessions, she will not agree for us to harm them.”
“It’s not necessary that the creature should expire, we just need to ascertain the effects of the possible poison,” elucidated Charlotte.
“Continue,” urged the Wazir.
“There are only two poisons which cause such rapid death by asphyxia in such minute quantities,” said Charlotte.
I smiled at her analysis; she was indeed a resourceful investigator.
“Those are,” she continued, “snake venom or aconite. If it is snake venom, then Dr Watan can administer the antidote immediately thus saving the creature.”
“And if it’s aconite?” pointed out the Wazir unhelpfully.
“Well then,” sniffed Charlotte, “the Maharani will have something else to mourn over.”
“Charlotte is correct, it is most likely snake venom,” I said in support of my companion, “you are also ignoring our location. The act was committed just as we left Naginpur, a town famous for milking snakes and supplying venom to the whole Empire.”
“Yes, I see what you mean,” said the Wazir enthusiastically, “it would have been simple to acquire the venom at the station from a go-between.”
“Precisely,” I exclaimed.
“Secondly,” said the Wazir, deftly continuing with his itemized agenda, “how do we identify the killer?”
Before I could respond, Charlotte jumped in, “We should be able to draw up a list of all the servants who left the carriage during your stop.”
“Your killer will be on that list,” I added.
“And with some intense questioning we should be able to identify the killer,” Charlotte summarised.
“Good, very good,” said a pleased Satyendra, “let us proceed to clear this mess up.”
Charlotte and I both nodded in agreement, it was good to see someone take charge.
“Have you finished with the body of the dead woman?” he asked.
I nodded, and Charlotte agreed, “Yes, we’ve finished.”
“Good,” said the Wazir, “I shall have it removed to the guard’s van, the poor woman doesn’t need to decorate the carriage any further.”
“And we shall identify the poison,” I said.
“Let us hope,” said the Wazir wearily, “it is snake venom; the poor child couldn’t bear any further trauma.”
I nodded to him and then gestured to Charlotte to follow me towards the rear of the carriage. We exited the first royal carriage, crossed adroitly over the gap and knocked on the door. Once again it was opened by the eunuch who stared at us mutely, I feared for a moment he was mute and we would be unable to enter.
“You wish to see the Maharani?” he asked in Hindi in his high falsetto voice.
“Yes, if she is receiving visitors. I am Dr Watan and this is my colleague Charlotte Holmes,” I replied in the same language, albeit not quite in the same register.
The eunuch smiled at me and replied, “I am Younus. Please enter.”
We followed him down the length of the carriage towards the rear at which point Charlotte grabbed my sleeve and whispered conspiratorially, “Really? Younus the Eunuch, how enchanting,” she said with a suppressed giggle.
The Maharani was still reclining in her secret garden chair viewing the fleeing landscape, her hand still dangling in the pool of water beside her.
Younus announced us in Hindi and we both approached the recumbent royalty.
“Your Highness, I have a visitor for you and some further information,” I said politely.
Upon seeing Charlotte standing beside me the Maharani jumped up excitedly, “A Memsaab? You did not say you were travelling with a Memsaab, what a wonderful surprise?” she said quickly.
“It is an honour to meet you, your Highness,” said Charlotte smoothly, it was obvious she had moved in some very elite social circles.
“No, no, no!” rebuked the Maharani, “no such formalities between us, please call me Hansi.”
She quickly approached Charlotte and grabbed both of her hands and almost skipped, like two children dancing at Diwali.
“And you are Charlotte? Yes?” she questioned.
“I am your High…,” she corrected herself and said, “Yes, I am Hansi.”
“Where are you going?”
“To visit my brother in Calcutta.”
“Are you married? You must be married?” prodded the excitable woman.
“Please, if I may interrupt,” I said firmly, “I have some further information for you.”
Reluctantly the Maharani unclasped Charlotte’s hands and resumed her previous position on the recliner but this time, instead of lying back, she sat bolt upright, eager for us to continue.
I nodded to Charlotte to continue, having observed the keen affection the Maharani exhibited towards her, I was sure Charlotte was the most suitable person to make the request.
“We have through rigorous investigation concluded that the poor dishwasher…” began Charlotte.
“Nilofer,” interrupted the Maharani.
“Yes, my apologies, poor Nilofer was poisoned by accident. The real target was yourself.”
The young woman gasped at the revelation, that anyone would consider her better dead than alive; a vile thought which I found equally abhorrent.
Charlotte paused a moment for the Maharani to collect herself and then continued, “It was a fast acting poison which caused asphyxiation immediately and, furthermore, we believe it was snake venom smeared on this toothpick.”
With a theatrical flourish Charlotte produced the toothpick secured in the silver handle and held it up to the light.
“How dreadful,” said Hansi, “and poor Nilo took the poison herself.”
I nodded grimly, it was an awful business, such underhand skullduggery, but at least we were making progress.
“If your Highness would oblige, we’d like to confirm the poison is actually snake venom, it would greatly assist our investigation,” I said.
The poor girl misunderstood my intentions and quickly clasped her hands to her bosom saying, “Not on me surely?”
“No, no, no,” I said quickly, “Heaven forbid, no; on one of the flycatchers. I have an antidote if it is snake venom.”
I tapped my Gladstone medical bag to reassure the Maharani.
She thought for a moment and then asked the inevitable question, “And what if it isn’t snake venom?”
“Unfortunately the flycatcher will die,” I said evenly.
“Oh,” she replied, “that’s a pity, they appear so devoted.”
“Appearances can be deceptive,” said Charlotte.
The Maharani gave a knowing smile to Charlotte and stepped back from the bird cage towards the rear of the open carriage, until she was leaning on the guard rail at the stern.
I approached the bird cage, carefully opened it partially to prevent the creatures taking flight, reached in and, after a few fruitless moments, managed to grab one of the small excitable creatures within.
“How do you want to do this?” I asked Charlotte.
“I think we need another pair of hands,” she suggested.
“Are sure?” I asked and when she nodded affirmatively, I looked at the Maharani.
“No, not her,” said Charlotte quickly, “Younus the Eunuch will suffice for our needs.”
“Really?” I asked again but Charlotte was insistent, nodding vigorously in his direction.
I spoke to the eunuch in Hindi and summoned him over to us, but he seemed hesitant in joining us and it was only the Maharani’s sharp order which propelled him towards us.
I instructed him to carefully hold the flycatcher upwards in his hand so the creature’s small belly was exposed. Next I loaded my syringe with the antidote, the body mass of the flycatcher was so small it would not require a large amount, a small amount would be sufficient.
“I’m ready,” I said to Charlotte.
She drew near to the small feathered chest beating in the palm of Younus, holding the deadly toothpick tightly in her hand she approached the restricted creature but, for some unfathomable reason, his hand began to shake.
“Hold it still,” urged Charlotte, “we don’t want an accident.”
I repeated the instruction to Younus and the shaking subsided a little.
“Ready?” asked Charlotte again.
“Yes, I’m still ready from the last time,” I replied heatedly.
“Here we go,” added Charlotte unnecessarily and then, in a flash, stabbed the toothpick deep into Younus’ hand. At once he screeched a high pitch strangulated scream, released the bird which took flight immediately, stumbled back in panic, fell over the foot stool and landed heavily on the floor.
“What have you done Charlotte? He’s going to die!” I shouted in near panic.
“Save him,” urged the Maharani form behind us.
“Bachao, bachao,” shouted the hysterical eunuch.
I quickly approached the poor man, or should I say child for in all appearances and actions he resembled a child more than a man, with my syringe in my hand. As I was about to administer it Charlotte reached over my shoulder and snatched it from my grasp.
“What’s the matter with you?” I said shocked, “Have you gone mad? He’s going to die.”
“No, I am quite sane, ask him who poisoned the dishwasher?” she urged me, a fierce maniacal urgency in her voice.
Time was of the essence now, I had to quickly placate Charlotte, secure the syringe and inject the eunuch before the onset of the snake venom.
The poor child was trembling with terror before me and I asked him in Hindi, “Did you kill Nilofer?”
He looked at me, then at his hand with the tell-tale spot of blood where Charlotte had pricked him and back at me, his face contorting with horror and dread until, like the last gasp of a drowning man, he cried in Hindi, “I did it! I poisoned her!”
I was left open mouthed by his admission but the relief from his admission was over-ridden by his impending death.
“Charlotte,” I said urgently, “give me the antidote!?”
But Charlotte was not in a giving mood, “Ask him why?”
“What?” I said distracted by her insistent questions.
“Ask him why?” she repeated.
I spun around and yelled at the eunuch in Hindi, “Why? Why?”
He frantically sucked at the wound, desperately trying to extract the poison therein, and ignored my question.
“He’s not answering,” I said to Charlotte, “give me the antidote!”
“Ask him again,” she said coldly.
“Look man,” I said in Hindi, “the Memsaab means to kill you, tell me why you did it?”
He replied and I turned to Charlotte, “He says she promised to make him whole again, to be a man.”
“That’s impossible,” she said, a little deflated.
“The antidote, Charlotte, now,” I insisted but still she persisted in refusing me.
“Ask him who she is?” she said.
“There’s no more time,” I screamed, “he’s going to die!”
Stunned by my outburst she threw the syringe at me and stepped back, as I frantically searched for the man’s vein in his forearm she said, “He’s not going to die, but he will if you inject him with that.”
Her words didn’t register with me as I strained to hold the man’s shaking arm, his dark blue vein flashed before me and I started to guide the needle into it when Charlotte bent down in front of me, her face close to mine.
“Look,” she said, holding the deadly toothpick between us and then carelessly licking it, “I switched it earlier. He’s not poisoned at all.”
She removed the syringe from my hand, set it aside and threw the toothpick at the eunuch cowering on the floor.
Once the reality of the situation had sunk in I released his arm and got up off the floor.
He looked at me mystified, confused by my actions and still not comprehending what had occurred, I decided to put him out of his misery and said in Hindi, “She switched the poisoned toothpick for an ordinary one.”
Whilst the poor man collected his thoughts I confronted Charlotte, “Poor show Charlotte, very poor show.”
“He confessed,” she replied tartly.
“Bravo! Bravo!” shouted the Maharani, clapping Charlotte wildly.
“Don’t encourage her reckless behaviour,” I admonished the Maharani and then I returned to Charlotte. “You could have told me your plan.”
“I didn’t have one until I saw him eyeing the toothpick. His whole demeanour changed, I was certain it was him,” she explained, “besides, if he was innocent, he’d still be fine.”
I took my handkerchief from my coat pocket and wiped my brow, the stress of the encounter had left me exhausted.
The Maharani looked past us at her bodyguard on the floor and said in Hindi, “The Maharaja will cut your throat for this.”
“I’ll get the Wazir and have him removed,” I said to Maharani when suddenly, with that now familiar high pitched scream, Younus the Eunuch charged down the garden path, knocked me over and pushed the Maharani off the end of the carriage.
I cried out in alarm but the brute ignored me and started pulling at the end rail. It was then I noticed it was the Maharani desperately hanging on and he was trying to break her grip. I jumped on the fellow’s back but I struggled to gain a purchase on his corpulent mass.
It was Charlotte who broke the impasse; she nudged me to one side, drew a short sword hidden in her parasol and thrust it in the buttock of the eunuch.
Once again he screamed his high pitch howl and turned to face Charlotte but she was ready for him and a single thrust cut deep into his bicep.
There were shouts now from the first carriage, all the shouting and fighting had eventually attracted the attention of the occupants.
Younus was cornered and he knew it, a Memsaab with a blade in front of him and our rescuers behind him, so he took the only action he could; he threw a palm tree at Charlotte and clambered onto the roof of the railway carriage.
“I’m going after him,” shouted Charlotte as she clambered up the rungs of the carriage and onto the roof.
“For Heaven’s sake be careful,” I shouted.
“You forget, I enjoy the view from the top,” she replied before she disappeared from sight.
I then remembered the intended victim of all this murderous activity, the poor Maharani still clinging for her life onto the back rail guard.
I hurried to the back and grasped her hand just as a handful of servants burst through the door. “Quickly, help me,” I shouted at them.
We quickly managed to retrieve the off-board Maharani and return her safely to the carriage deck, now strewn with broken plants and overturned pots.
“Thank you,” said the Maharani as she fell onto her recliner, exhausted from the goings on.
I nodded curtly and turned towards the rungs Charlotte had just climbed. I swiftly ascended them to peer over the roofs of the carriages. I had forgotten how long our train actually was, carriages curved away from me into the dark and at the end I could faintly discern the small puff of the steam engine. As my eyes adjusted to the dark I saw the small pale coat of Charlotte as she steadied herself from the rocking motion of the train and, with blade in hand, gave chase after the fleeing villain. I looked beyond her and, slowly from the gloom, I could distinguish the lumbering figure of Younus the Eunuch trying to run across the carriage roofs.
I began to clamber onto the roof myself when I heard a loud high pitched scream, Younus was in trouble again I thought. I looked down the carriages just in time to see Charlotte dive under a large metallic signal arm. I looked beyond her but there was no sign of Younus, it was obvious something untoward had occurred. Rather than proceeding onto the roof, I waited on the rungs for Charlotte to return so I could determine what had happened to the scoundrel.
After a short pause I saw Charlotte striding back down the carriage roofs to where I was.
“What happened?” I shouted to her as she stood above me on the roof.
“Is Hansi alright?” she asked.
“Yes, yes, she’s fine. They’ve taken her inside,” I replied irritably, “but what about Younus?”
“He fell off the train when the signal arm hit him,” she explained as she nimbly skipped down the ladder rungs.
“Did he survive?” I asked as I helped her down to the floor.
“I doubt it; he fell into that ravine on the left. He bounced a few times before he disappeared out of sight, couldn’t have done his constitution any good,” she said.
“Extraordinary!” I exclaimed in relief.
Charlotte looked at me bemused, carefully wiped her blade and returned it to its secret scabbard inside her parasol handle.
“Extraordinary!” I exclaimed again.
She smiled, a little self-consciously, “What exactly are you calling extraordinary?” she asked.
“Everything! You! The trap! The confession! The blade! The chase! All of it. Extraordinary!” I said repeating my praise.
She grinned broadly, a deep relaxed grin I had not seen before upon her face, and turned away to hide her embarrassment. After a few moments she composed herself and asked, “How is the Maharani?”
“She’s fine,” I replied jovially, “they took her inside.”
We turned to enter her carriage but were blocked by the large figure of the Wazir coming to greet us, “Extraordinary!” he exclaimed and we both burst into loud laughter.
“What did I say that was so amusing?” he asked, distracted by our response.
“It’s nothing, merely the relief of surviving the encounter,” I explained.
He placed his broad arms around our shoulders and said in good humour, “I charge you with identifying the correct poison and lo and behold, not only do you identify the killer, but you punish him too. As I said, extraordinary!”
Both Charlotte and I suppressed our mirth and extracted ourselves from his embrace.
“How is the Maharani?” I asked.
“Fine, and anxious to meet you both,” he replied.
“Good, I think a little sedative to rest her would be beneficial,” I said.
“How did you know it was him?” he asked Charlotte.
“His demeanour gave him away,” she replied.
“Well, if it wasn’t his demeanour, this would have denounced him,” he replied holding up a neatly written note.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Not by any chance the list of the servants who alighted at Naginpur?” said Charlotte.
The Wazir laughed, “Oh, she is a quick wit, very quick. Younus was the first one on my list. Things are working out splendidly, we even managed to find an empty coffin for poor Nilofer.”
“Please excuse us,” said Charlotte as she led me away.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“That signal for the train to slow and stop, there’s a reason why,” she said, a fearful tone in her voice.
“What is it?” I asked.
“There’s British Cavalry on the tracks ahead, I could see their lamps and banners from the roof,” she replied.
“British Cavalry? Are they after you? Is it your brother in law?” I said in shock.
She looked at me directly and said, with ominous foreboding, “Jonathan would never be so bold; that’s Charles, my husband.”
* * *
The Arrival of Charles de Beque
All the circumstances which had contrived to favour us in the past few moments deserted us. We were no longer the saviours of the Maharani from a dastardly assassination plot but were, very shortly, to become prisoners of the British Empire.
I turned to Charlotte and voiced an irritation, “Your husband seems to be inordinately fond of you to risk publicly exposing his marital problems to a train full of Indians?”
She gave me a stern look but refused to say anything further, something I found equally odd.
I turned away, disappointed that she did not trust me sufficiently to reveal the true motives behind her flight or her husband’s persistent pursuit of her.
I walked back into the Maharani’s carriage to find her seated on her opulent lounger. I approached her and asked, “How are you feeling your Highness?”
She gave me a warm smile and said, “I am well, thank you; although a little shaken by the whole experience.”
“I confess it was unnerving when he turned on you,” I replied.
“Where is the Memsaab? I wanted to thank her for resourcefulness,” said the Maharani.
“She’s is coming presently, but first please let me examine you. I need to ensure you are well,” I said politely.
She smiled and gave a little chuckle, “Yes, we wouldn’t want the Maharaja receiving damaged goods.”
I let her remark slide and examined her slender arms and wrists. There were a few severe bruises and contusions from where Younus had tried to break her hold on the guard rail, but otherwise she was remarkably unscathed.
“Will I pass muster in his eyes?” she asked playfully.
I returned her gaze, and for once, since our meeting, I plainly spoke my mind, “I cannot speak for the Maharaja, for I am sure he has seen countless beauties, but for me, you will always, always, pass muster.”
She was stunned into silence by my bold declaration, our playful flirting had been transformed into something else. I released her arms and they dropped to her side. I produced a salve from my medical bag as well as a sedative powder and laid them next to her.
“Take the sedative powder now, it will help you relax, and have your personal maid regularly apply the salve to your bruising; they should heal very quickly,” I instructed her and then rose to leave.
She began to speak but stopped, paused for a moment in reflection, and then said with sincere gratitude, “Thank you.”
I packed my medical bag and exited her carriage in search of the Wazir, I had to inform him of what was about to occur.
The second royal carriage had been returned to its previous splendour and composure, the body of the dead dishwasher had been removed and the large dining table had been laid out with a midnight buffet. The servants were excitedly milling around the food and chatting noisily about the events that had just occurred, with much maligning of Younus’s reputation.
The Wazir was carrying a large plate with a selection of snacks and quickly approached me when I emerged, “Ah, Dr Watan, how is our Highness?”
“She’s fine, a little bruising for which I have given her some ointment and also a sedative to help her sleep; it has been a tiring experience for all.”
He nodded in agreement, “Yes, bad business, best to put it behind us and move on.”
I gave a thin smile and in return he gave me a half-peculiar look, unable to understand my dour mood. He brushed it aside as of no consequence and said, “Come, have something to eat. There’s plenty for everyone, we must celebrate this outcome.”
I held up my hand to politely refuse his offer, “I’m sorry but we don’t have time for that. Did you not notice the train is slowing down?”
“Is it?” he asked in bewilderment, “in all honesty I cannot say I have noticed it. I have been otherwise preoccupied.”
I side-stepped his rebuke and persisted in a low tone, “There is British Cavalry ahead on the tracks; they mean to search this train.”
He understood the gravity of my warning and moved closer to me, “What are they hoping to find?”
I didn’t answer but nodded towards the Maharani’s carriage, “Her saviour.”
“How delicately you remind us of our debt,” he said with a grave countenance.
“Can the debt be settled now?”
He stood up straight, handed off his plate to a nearby servant and said, “Upon my honour and on the honour of the Kingdom of Ratnam Nagar all debts will be honoured in full, no matter how dire the consequences.”
“Thank you,” I replied humbly, I was touched by the sincerity of his proclamation, if a little underwhelmed by the pomposity.
Just then the door to the Maharani’s carriage opened and Charlotte stepped out. The scene of feasting and gaiety confused her momentarily but she quickly regained her composure and joined us.
“A little party?” she asked sardonically.
“Alas not for you,” said the Wazir, “Dr Watan has informed us we will shortly be hosting some unwelcome guests.”
Charlotte looked at me, probably gauging how much I had revealed to the Wazir, and then back at him, “Guests, I am eager to avoid.”
“I cannot hide you in these royal carriages for it will compromise the Maharani, but we will not reveal your presence here,” replied Satyendra.
“That’s perfectly fine, I already have a plan in mind,” said Charlotte, “Thank you.”
Charlotte grabbed my coat sleeve and we swiftly left the royal carriage and its partying occupants. As we travelled through the dining carriage back towards our own compartment, she quickly outlined her plan.
The train had slowed down considerably by now and the other travelers had begun to notice, speculating on the unscheduled stop and its meaning. I knew its meaning only too well and quickened my pace.
“Where’s the guard’s van?” asked Charlotte as we passed by our compartment.
“Next one along,” I said quickly, just as the old Parsee couple, in the adjoining compartment, peered at us intently.
Luckily the guard’s van was empty. The guard was no doubt arranging the unscheduled stop caused by the British Cavalry on the tracks. Just as she was about to enter the van she paused momentarily, clasped my hand and said, “Promise me you will remain constant and will not be swayed by his arguments?”
“He will undermine my character and sow doubts in your mind, I beg of you, do not let them seed for it will be a bitter harvest,” she implored.
“I promise,” I repeated and kissed her hand to seal our compact.
I returned to my compartment and resumed my seat by the window. I didn’t bother with the pretence of reading my journal but sat quietly waiting to see what would occur.
I didn’t have to wait too long. Presently I heard the clatter of horse’s hooves and then I saw them emerge from the gloom, the British Cavalry and Infantry excitedly shouting orders.
I saw the foot soldiers carrying lanterns as they ran alongside the carriages, demanding everyone to come out, meanwhile the horses clattered up and down the track creating an awful din.
I waited patiently in my seat until there was a loud knock on the door by my leg and an infantryman shouted, “Get out, out! Jaldi! Jaldi!”
I made a little show of being confused, as if I had been sleeping, but the infantryman wasn’t swayed by my pretence as he mounted the running board, rudely yanked open the door, shoved the lantern into the compartment and screamed, “Get out now, wog!”
I nodded I understood and gingerly made my way out of the compartment onto the side of the railway tracks. I hadn’t realised how late it was, the cold winter air chilled me abruptly and I began to shiver. I scanned down the carriages to my right and noticed my fellow travelers, in various stages of disrobement and disarray, shivering just like myself. The women complained loudly, the babies cried, the infantrymen shouted, the Cavalry officers bellowed and the horses whinnied frightfully, chomping at their bits and stamping the ground; all in all, it was a horrendous scene.
We were made to line up in a row outside our compartments and made to produce our documents to verify who we were. In the distance I could see an officer examining each paper carefully and peering closely at the owner.
I turned to my left and realised no one had emerged from the royal carriages. Two infantrymen were standing on the running boards of the carriage and shouting at the occupants inside, I couldn’t hear the replies but presumed it was the Wazir.
This state of affairs continued for some time until I saw a familiar officer approaching me with a steward in tow, I realised with a start it was Jonathan, Charlotte’s brother-in-law, and the steward was the one who had served us.
I prepared to be identified as Charlotte’s travelling companion and to be thoroughly abused by the British. I lowered my head, in a vain attempt to appear less obvious, as the crunch of the long cavalry boots came closer and closer.
I’m not a praying man; the rituals and multitudes of Gods of my faith left me somewhat unsatisfied, but in that instant I gave a heartfelt prayer to Vishnu, begging him to spare me from this ordeal.
The crunch of the boots was upon me now, I held my breath waiting for them to stop in front of me, the sound grew louder, my apprehension intensified as I remained earnestly looking downwards, the black leather flashed before my eyes on the chippings, my breath remained suspended and then they were gone.
I jerked up my head just in time to see the back of Jonathan and the knowing gaze of the steward who was trailing him.
My mind raced to fathom what had just occurred, why hadn’t the steward identified me as the travelling companion of Charlotte?
I stared intently at Jonathan and the steward as they stopped in front of the royal carriage, it was difficult maintaining a casual diffident stance whilst peering at the two on my right.
The steward pointed at the royal carriage and said, in halting English, “I saw the Memsaab go in there.”
Jonathan smiled at the steward and then shouted at the two infantrymen, “Why haven’t you got those wogs out yet?”
“Sir, they claim they are royalty and are not to be treated as natives,” replied one of the infantryman, in a regional accent I was unable to identify.
“Do they now?” sneered Jonathan.
The infantryman nodded in bemusement at his superior.
“Get me the head cunjur,” said Jonathan, using a local slur.
The two infantrymen dived into the carriage, there was loud swearing and shouting, until suddenly the large figure of Satyendra, the Grand Wazir of Ratnam Nagar, looking slightly bedraggled, was standing in the carriage doorway held in place by the two infantrymen.
“Unhand me, I can descend myself,” said the Wazir sternly, and such was his commanding presence that the infantrymen unthinkingly released him.
The Wazir adjusted his robes and carefully stepped down, although the final drop to the chippings was a little ungainly. He stood up, readjusted his robes and calmly faced the arrogant British officer before him, “How can I help you?”
Jonathan smiled, “You’re a smartly dressed wog, but you’re still a wog. I don’t have time for your fancy airs and graces. Tell everyone to get out and stand by the carriages.”
Satyendra eyed the officer carefully and then said, “I will do no such thing, this is the entourage of the Maharani of Ratnam Nagar and they will not be abused in such a tardy manner.”
“The Maharani of Ratnam Nagar, did you say?” said Jonathan, an oily smile smearing his face.
“Yes, the Maharani of Rat…” the Wazir began to reply, but he was cut short by the backhand slap of Jonathan.
I gasped, I could not believe that he had the gall to so blatantly insult a high ranking Indian in full view of other travelers.
“Thoo! That’s what I think of the Maharani,” said Jonathan spitting on the ground.
The Wazir remained immobile, refusing to react to his goading, but instead continued to look straight at the officer.
After a few moments Satyendra said calmly, “What do you want?”
I could see even Jonathan was impressed by the resolute nature of the Wazir, his failure to cower or kowtow to him was beginning to annoy the British officer.
He snorted loudly, spat on the ground and said, “I am looking for a Memsaab, named Charlotte de Beque. She was seen entering your carriages.”
The Wazir studied Jonathan carefully and then replied, “Yes, the Memsaab you mention indeed entered our carriages.”
“Ha! I knew it,” exclaimed Jonathan, “where is she now?”
“I do not know,” replied Satyendra.
“Don’t start lying now!”
“I am not lying now, nor have I been before. She left when she saw the train was slowing down,” said Satyendra in a flat, unemotional voice.
“I don’t believe you, you’re still lying,” snapped Jonathan.
“I am telling the truth, you are welcome to search the carriages,” said Satyendra politely.
Jonathan gestured to the two infantrymen on board and ordered two others to board to assist in the search.
The Wazir ordered, in Hindi, to the servants on board, “Ensure the Maharani is in full purdah at all times.”
I immediately understood the importance of the command, he did not want the British soldiers leering at the Maharani, and hoped in my heart she wasn’t overly disturbed by this turn of events.
Whilst I had been distracted by the events on my left the process on my right had continued and soon it was my turn.
I presented my identification papers to the bored officer, he asked for my details and checked them against the papers, the accompanying soldier held the lantern to my face and the officer gave me a good look, decided I wasn’t of interest and handed back my papers with a curt, “Sorry to trouble you, sir.”
I took an inordinately long time to pack my papers back into my wallet and to adjust my coat. In truth I was lingering, awaiting the outcome of the search in the royal carriages. I slowly turned back to my compartment ready to climb aboard when one of the soldiers conducting the search returned to the open door and shouted, “No one here Sir.”
Jonathan was annoyed at the failure to find Charlotte and shouted, “Don’t just bloody stand there, search the other carriages damn you! Find her, now!”
He then turned back to the immobile figure of the Wazir, “Where did she go?”
“She did not confide in me,” he replied serenely.
I was mesmerised by the conversation; any slip up by Satyendra could point the finger at myself. I half-heartedly grabbed the hand rail pretending to clamber aboard but in truth I was listening intently to the dialogue occurring to my right.
“Was she with anyone?” rang out a sharp clear voice immediately to my left and above.
Startled, I spun around and saw a striking office riding a magnificent thoroughbred. He wore the full stable dress of a British officer; a dark tight, heavily embellished jacket, a red round pillbox cap, matching deep bright red pants with a yellow line running the length of it. He had a lean sculpted face, high cheek bones, a slightly over-projected nose but not enough to be considered Roman, a dimpled chin, full lips and, unusually for an officer, he was clean shaven.
He had a natural authority which he wore lightly, his bearing and attitude marked him out to be an extraordinary man. I realised I was looking at Charles de Beque, husband to my travelling companion Charlotte.
When the Wazir didn’t answer, Charles repeated his question, “I said, was she with someone?”
I shrank back; would the Wazir reveal my involvement, considering his debt to Charlotte paid, or would he continue to protect me?
To his credit the Wazir looked straight ahead and said in a neutral, “I cannot say.”
Jonathan jumped on the ambiguity, “Cannot or will not? You, uppity wog.”
The Wazir surveyed him with immense distaste and answered quietly, but firmly, “I will not say.”
“We have ways to compel you,” said Jonathan menacingly.
Without looking at him the Wazir answered, “I would not expect anything else from the British.”
The reply enraged Jonathan, he ordered two soldiers to hold the Wazir tightly, then he grabbed his right hand and said intensely, “Let’s play a little game.”
My throat became parched with fear as I realised something gross was about to occur.
Jonathan drew his sword and held it to his face, twisting and turning it in the light of the lamps; it shone horribly of cold, of pain, of misery and I was helpless to intercede.
He grabbed the Wazir’s small finger, held it tightly and said, “This little piggy went to market.”
I turned to look at Charles, hoping and praying he would stop this vile abuse, but he remained impassive to the drama unfolding before him.
“Once more wog, who was she with?” said Jonathan as he teasingly brought the hateful steel towards the poor man’s hand.
“I am honour bound,” replied the Wazir cryptically.
“The game is afoot,” cried Jonathan, ranting like a lunatic. “This little piggy went to market. Goodbye piggy!”
“For God’s sake, stop this,” I shouted in panic.
“Silence!” ordered Charles behind me.
“Say goodbye to your piggy,” he howled as the sword swung through the air and sliced through the poor man’s finger, “goodbye piggy!”
The Wazir inhaled sharply but did not cry out, I alas, was not so brave, “Stop this madness now! I was with her, me! No one else. I am the one you want.”
“Not the tongue we were hoping to loosen,” said Charles, “but it’ll suffice.”
I ignored his remark and ran to the Wazir, pushing the soldiers away I said, “Unhand him you vile creatures, unhand him I say.”
The strength of my passionate plea struck them forcefully and they released the Wazir. I quickly took out my handkerchief and staunched the bleeding, the Wazir winced painfully at my procedure.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered under my breath.
“Pity your conscience did not appear a little sooner,” he said with a forced sardonic grin.
“I did not think he would do it,” I confessed.
“This is the British, they are only too ready to do the unthinkable,” he replied.
I turned to one of the soldiers and said, “Fetch my bag from that compartment, I need it to stop the bleeding.”
“We don’t have time for this nonsense,” said Jonathan angrily.
“It will only take a moment to stop his bleeding,” I said calmly and then directing myself at Charles, I continued, “then I will answer all your questions.”
Charles thought for a moment and then nodded curtly.
The bag was fetched, searched (as if Charlotte was hiding in there), and brusquely handed to me. The cut was a clean one, neatly cutting the finger below the first knuckle, and I surmised this was not the first time Jonathan had played his little piggy game. I gently cleaned the wound, dressed it and then fashioned a sling to support his arm.
“Be quick about it,” urged Charles, “this train needs to move soon.”
He was right, there must be another express behind us, we could only tarry for so long before the whole network started to be impacted.
I felt deeply humiliated at what had occurred, through my own arrogance and cowardice I had allowed another to take the punishment that rightly belonged to me.
“I’m nearly done,” I said to Charles and then whispered to the Wazir, “Please forgive me, I should have spoken up sooner.”
He smiled beatifically, “What is a little finger in the great scheme of life?”
I gave the Wazir a tincture of laudanum to ease the pain and advised him to take it sparingly.
“Thank you, but go now and tread lightly. That one has a mean and hungry look and he means to skewer you,” said the Wazir.
The bravery of this man in the face of such abominable behaviour lifted my spirits. I refused to be overwhelmed by these cruel British officers, I would, I decided, maintain my dignity.
The fates that had conspired against me now, through no supplication or sacrifice on my part, contrived to work in my favour; one of the soldiers hunting for Charlotte had found her discarded dress.
“I found this lady’s dress,” shouted the soldier from the doorway of a carriage.
Charles spurred his horse, rode up to the doorway, he took the dress, examined it briefly and then exclaimed, “This is hers. Continue the search.”
He rode back to where I and Jonathan were standing, alighted from his horse, took off his gloves, approached me and asked directly, “You were with her?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“How was she?” he asked.
The question surprised me and I didn’t have a ready answer. I thought for a moment and finally said, “Fatigued.”
Charles considered my answer and was about to enquire further after his wife when his brother rudely interrupted us, “I know this wog. He was putting on airs when I was looking for her at Guntakal junction.”
He grabbed my lapels and said, “You said you hadn’t seen any Memsaab? You lying wog.”
I struggled to maintain my composure but I managed to achieve it, it would be foolish to be confrontational, I had to be supine but resolute enough to achieve my goals, “She appeared after you left.”
It would be more accurate to say reappeared, hardly a lie, more like a typographical error.
“I couldn’t find her anywhere then, where was she?” said Jonathan in a confused tone.
I removed his hands from my lapels, adjusted my coat and replied calmly, “She was on the roof.”
“What?” he asked incredulously.
Charles didn’t wait for my answer but ordered the soldiers, “Search the roof.”
Immediately soldiers began to clamber up onto the roof of the carriages; it was obvious she wasn’t there and presently the men on top started to shout out, “All clear.”
It was at this juncture the conductor made an appearance; he had been invisible during the little piggy game but now, emboldened by a merciless railway timetable, he approached the two senior officers and said, “We must resume our journey, the Calcutta Cheetah Express is only five minutes behind us.”
Whilst Jonathan snarled at the poor man Charles contemplated the problem and finally said, “What’s the next station?”
“Somalkot,” answered the conductor swiftly, if there was one thing he knew off by heart, that was all the station stops to Calcutta.
“Very well. Jonathan take the company and my horse onto Somalkot. I shall travel with the good doctor and have a little discussion about our dear Charlotte,” said Charles.
* * *