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Allauddin...Chapter 3

Captain Mackay shares a drink with the delightful Miss Adeline Blandford.



III.

Will you conquer my heart with your beauty, my soul

going out from afar?


Shall I fall to your hand as a victim of crafty and cautious

shikar?

- Kipling

“Of course we never really have time to get away you know, Colonel Peck and I. He is ever so frightfully busy especially at this time of the year. What with government business in its usual state, all we can do is look forward to the occasional regimental or viceregal dinner but I’m afraid that socially, India has been somewhat of a disappointment to us. Present company excepted my dear. The Colonel has applied for a transfer to the continent; Austria or Germany would be ideal. We must wait and see.”

Miss Adeline Blandford grinned awkwardly as her older companion gripped her hand reassuringly then reached for a tortoiseshell and ivory fan with which she produced several feeble gusts of warm air before putting the implement down.

“Mrs Peck.”

“Please dear girl, call me Esme. Your mother and I have been close friends for years and I promised her I would look after you during your stay in Calcutta. She absolutely inundated me with letters prior to your arrival and I assured her that I would be a second mother to you and that she needn’t worry. So let us please drop these superfluous formalities.”

“Very well… Esme, what can you tell me about Captain Mackay?”

Once again the fan made an appearance, this time fluttering with a good deal more vigour.

“Oh the Captain.”

A pause followed, as the old woman gathered her thoughts, causing Miss Blandford to regret her question and begin to conduct an examination of her four-day-old shoes. Her companion then suddenly lowered the fan and said,

“Well, his father is a career soldier like your own and works for the foreign office I believe. Desk job likely.”

She now lowered her voice, glancing at the corners of the drawing room that, apart from the two of them, was quite empty.

“His mother is French and hails from the ancient line of the dukes of Anjou. Queen Elizabeth almost married one of their number if you remember your history. I suspect that he may have Spanish ancestry also.”

She nodded significantly, leaving Adeline none the wiser.

“Really Esme, I had no idea. But I wonder what you can tell me about Captain Mackay himself.”

“Oh, he’s a perfectly charming young man, sings beautifully, a fine musician too. Very popular with the ladies, he played us Chopin one evening a few weeks ago. London born, he is a graduate of the Merchant Taylor’s School, but not public school I fear. Still I’m told, that establishment has produced some fine men.”

“Is that…. all?”

“Oh goodness, my dear, if you mean does he have a wife, I can see that you are not very observant.”

She raised her left hand upon which glittered several sizable diamonds against wrinkled, spotted skin. Diamonds aside, Adeline reflected that her own hands would look like that one day. She had promised herself that come what may, she was going to grow old with quiet dignity. She now began to feel increasingly foolish as she realised that the old woman was not going to answer her question but her thoughts were diverted as a footman entered and bowed to Mrs Peck.

He carried a silver tray upon which was a note. The old woman picked it up and glanced at it briefly without a word to the servant.

“Oh dear.”

“ Is anything wrong, Esme?”

“Oh no, my child. However I must depart. I’m sorry to have to leave you like this but it seems that my private maid had been taken ill, useless girl that she is. I must see to hiring another before dinner. Please excuse me.”

“Why of course Esme, thank you.”

“What ever for, dear girl?”

Mrs Peck rose from her chair as gracefully as she could then turned,

“Luncheon will be at one thirty sharp.”

“Right ho.”

She exited unhurriedly and Adeline noticed that she had a pronounced stoop causing her, once more to imagine herself in forty years time. She guessed that her companion must be at least sixty years of age, having spent, according to her account, a weary decade of those years in India. The footman turned, about to depart, whereupon Adeline asked,

“Sanji?”

“Yes miss.”

“Would you be so kind as to fetch me a pitcher of lemonade?”

“At once miss.”

As he took a few steps towards the door Adeline again stopped him.

“Oh and Sanji, have you by any chance seen Captain Mackay today?”

His face impassive as always, Sanji reached for his watch, clicked it open and said quietly,

“I believe the Captain has lunch at twelve thirty. He should therefore be here at about one o’clock; in twenty minutes time Miss.”

“Splendid Sanji, thank you.”

He looked back at her with his usual expressionless face. It was a face that she had seen a number of times since her recent arrival in India, a face that she found a little unsettling but which also inspired a deep sympathy in her. She had the momentary impulse to invite the man to sit down as her guest and to talk to him but thought better of it. He was after all on duty and personal questions would probably embarrass him.

“Will that be all Miss?”

“Yes, thank you Sanji.”

She watched him exit and sighed. These people are a mystery, she mused. She had been in Calcutta for a month on a sketching and painting tour but as yet had done little of either. Quickly realising as she had upon her trip to Egypt, that the really interesting thing about this country were its people, she had attempted to learn as much as she could about them. Her efforts however had seldom come to fruition; she had met few Indians, largely due to the prevailing social barriers and cultural norms maintained by natives and foreigners alike. Those Indians she had met were duty bound servants like Sanji or staid, uneducated country girls like the ones that comprised Esme Peck’s household staff.

The attitude of most Anglo-Indians such as Colonel and Mrs Peck to the natives was patronising and indifferent at best, leaving Adeline with the distinct impression that here as in Egypt and doubtless in other parts of the empire, familiarity had bred little more than contempt.

 

“But surely if people got to know and understand each others ways a little better”, she pleaded to herself, “if they took the time to talk and to listen. But then they’ve had how many decades in which to do so now…?”

She frowned as she felt a wave of melancholy sweep over her, bringing with it the resolution that whatever faults she observed in the people of this country they were faults shared by all people everywhere and she would do her utmost to see only the good, the grace and the beauty which this land had in abundance. Emboldened by this righteous resolve, she took a beep breath then heard a quiet slap as something beside her armchair hit the floor.

Without looking she reached down and picked up a black leather portfolio. Her face fell as she regarded its smart shiny surface. It had been a gift from her parents; given to her as she boarded the P&O steamer at Southampton bound for an adventure on the sub-continent. She sniffed the rich, sour smell of the leather and thought of her father’s beaming smile framed comically as always by his mutton chops, those gloriously red growths, now long out of fashion that he alone of all her male relatives stubbornly cultivated. Her mother, by far the sterner, more practical and serious of her parents, had cried. She had only seen her mother cry once before, when she received the news that her only brother, dear Uncle Horace had been killed fighting in the Transvaal.

Untying the cords at both ends, she opened the portfolio and looked despairingly at her drawings and watercolours. “ Surely they’re not that bad”, she pleaded silently and then a note of annoyance entered her mind as she remembered how Mrs. Peck, dear, darling Esme, had insisted with brimming enthusiasm on seeing her work earlier that morning and then proceeded to spend all of one or two minutes at best filing through it without comment. Adeline had been far too embarrassed to ask the old lady what she thought. She was used to people offering her a few polite white lies or telling her that she had ‘potential’ but from her new found friend Mrs Peck came nothing but a sphinx-like silence.

She was reminded of La Rochfoucauld’s maxim. ‘Flattery is a false coin, which only derives its currency from our vanity.’

 

True”, she thought, “I am a vain and foolish girl, seeking praise that my work does not merit. Still, I must be patient and practice, but had not the old Frenchman also said, ‘ Those who bestow too much application on trifling things become generally incapable of great ones’.”

 

Just then, as if to break her out of her downward spiral of dejection, Sanji entered solemnly carrying a pitcher of lemonade. He had put thinly sliced lemons into the liquid knowing that this would please her and had even secured some ice from where she knew not.

”Oh thank you Sanji. What a splendid fellow you are! It looks absolutely delicious and ever so refreshing. I say, where ever did you get ice from?”

“There was a little left Miss Blandford. Will you be requiring anything further? ”

“No Sanji, thank you.”

With that, his face set like a bronze statue, Sanji departed. Adeline now noticed that there were two glasses on the tray.

“Dear Sanji, I might just have to bring you home with me.”

The thought made her giggle mischievously as she imagined her mother’s mortification at seeing her disembark at Southampton with an Indian in tow.

Oh dear mummy, please say hello to Sanji, he’s my fian….”

Three men then entered the room; Lieutenant Perkins, a shy young man whom Adeline had met only once, Lieutenant Oxley, a dour bore, and following close behind, Captain Charles Mackay, leafing through a book and lost in thought. As the three had seemingly come from different directions, the two lieutenants greeted Mackay formally, said hello to her then, to Adeline’s relief, they settled into a far corner of the room and proceeded to discuss international politics, a subject with which she was blissfully unacquainted. She heard a few remarks about Kaiser Wilhelm then cleared her throat loudly. Mackay’s degree of preoccupation was such that he noticed her only then. Looking up, he smiled,

“Ah, Miss Blandford, what a pleasant surprise.”

“Why Captain Mackay, the pleasure is all mine. Oh do please sit down. I’ve just had this lemonade brought in. Would you care for a glass? Sanji, that is, the footman was able to procure some ice, fancy that.”

“Yes please, but allow me.”

As Mackay seated himself in the armchair recently occupied by Esme Peck, Adeline indiscreetly stared at his hands. He wore a gold ring set with an oval red stone on the smallest finger of his right hand and as he poured the lemonade with his left hand, she stared at this also. Finding no evidence of matrimonial jewellery, she relaxed with an audible exhalation as she accepted a glass of lemonade. The coolness of the glass penetrated her fingers pleasantly and for several seconds she sat looking at Mackay’s face. He was slim, no older than her, and only slightly taller by a few fractions of an inch, with lightly freckled skin and pale red hair. He had a large straight nose and strangely dark eyes with full red lips. She guessed these two latter characteristics were possibly derived from his continental ancestry. She glanced again at his bony hands with their long fingers and decided that she was pleased with his appearance.

He downed his glass of lemonade in a few gulps then apologised,

“Goodness me, I’m thirsty. I went for a walk this morning through the town, to visit one of the local musicians and I’m rather parched.”

“One of the local musicians you say.”

“Yes, a very interesting and rather odd Muslim chap by the name of Allauddin Khan. Plays the sarod, quite a master too I’m told. I need to secure his services for a reception Lord Minto is giving soon.”

“For the Maharajah of Jaipur no less.”

“Yes that’s right. Will we have the pleasure of your company Miss Blandford?”

“Indeed yes. Wild horses couldn’t keep me away!”

Adeline nodded eagerly then asked,

“But tell me Captain, what exactly is the sarod?”

“Oh a lute-like instrument, with metal strings – twenty five of them and a metal fingerboard. It has a rich, deep sound. Quite difficult to play apparently, masters like Mr. Khan are greatly prized by the native princes. I’ve not heard him play but he has quite a reputation and has played here before.”

“Hm, Allauddin, does he own a magic lamp with a genii in it, do you think?”

At that Mackay exhaled audibly, half glanced at her, grinned, but did not reply. He noticed instead her sweet smile then in a warm, faintly pleading tone, she added,

“You simply must introduce me to him Charles, will you? I regret that I’ve not really met any of the native people, not anyone particularly interesting that is.”

“Yes indeed Miss Blandford.”

“Oh please call me Adeline. I do so tire of formality, don’t you?”

Mackay smiled, trying to hide the hint of awkwardness that he felt.

“Very well Adeline, but only if you continue to call me Charles.”

“Right ho, Charles. By the way, are you by any chance related to the Scots song writer Charles Mackay?”

“ Father of Marie Corelli.”

“Yes!”

“I believe so, somewhere along the line, but you must forgive me, the family genealogy is not my strong point.”

He caught the book as it fell from his lap.

“What’s that you’re reading?”

“Oh, Hindu mythology.”

Gently but forcefully she said, “How fascinating! But I dare say, in this country one can hardly call it mythology now can one. I mean, who are we to tell people what is myth and what is gospel, to a Brahmin the Old Testament would seem wholly mythical, would you not agree?”

He looked at her now as if he was starting to see a different person. Not having expected such an insightful comment from so young and seemingly frivolous a woman, he chastised himself for having underestimated her when they had first been introduced two weeks ago.

“Yes indeed Adeline,” he replied and there followed an awkward silence.

She sat back and sipped her lemonade slowly while Mackay opened the book, pretending to look through it.

“Does it have an index?” she asked suddenly.

Quickly looking to the back of the book, Mackay found that it did.

“Yes it does.”

“Good, I do so hate reference books that lack an index, don’t you? The omission of one effectively defeats their purpose.”

He was about to reply when she glanced at the mantle clock and said,

“Goodness, is that the time? I’m expected at the Pecks’ for tiffin. Esme, Mrs. Peck, is quite a stickler for punctuality. Please excuse me dear Charles but I must go.”

“But of course Adeline. We mustn’t keep the Colonel and Mrs. Peck waiting.”

She gathered up her portfolio and held it where he could see it, prompting him to say,

“You must show me your drawings sometime Adeline.”

“I’d be delighted to Charles. Please feel free to finish the lemonade for me won’t you.”

“Yes, thank you.”

She headed slowly for the door then paused, turned and smiled back at him.

“Cheerio.”

“Enjoy your lunch.”

The first word that Mackay’s mind formed as he watched her depart was ‘charming.’ Upon first impression, Adeline Blandford was a charming tomboy but he had begun to sense deeper qualities in her too - earnestness and strength of character. He found her candour and frankness refreshing, while dismissing her small indiscretions, her forwardness and feminine impetuosity. Clearly she was also a bright and good-natured girl. He next tried to picture her face in his mind; her large luminous, brown eyes appeared first, she had a delicate, slightly upturned nose and a sharp chin with well defined cheek bones and masses of chestnut brown hair to match a smooth tanned complexion – a souvenir of rumoured travels along the Nile undoubtedly.

Indeed to embark upon such a journey certainly showed her to be adventurous. Now to come here to India solo took some pluck and daring too. He smiled as he imagined that notorious busybody and gossip Esme Peck chaperoning the free spirited Adeline through the den of iniquity that India was to most foreigners. Although it had only been a year since he himself had arrived, he knew that this was how most Anglo-Indians felt about their adopted home. Her face appeared in his mind’s eye again and another word suggested itself to him, a word that complimented all others - beautiful.

Oxley and Perkins rose noisily from their seats in the corner and proceeded to the door. Mackay returned his attention to the book.

“Good afternoon sir,” they said in unison and he nodded in reply.

Once they were gone he became conscious of an odd feeling in the pit of his stomach. Taking a deep breath, he tried in vain to ignore it. Opening the book yet again and consulting the index, he looked up the word goddess. On the appropriate page he read: a maternal village deity in the broadest sense, who performs a tutelary function and whose sanctuary may be nothing more than a rough stone standing possibly for centuries in the corner of a field or in a grove, or by ancient crossroads.

 

The book then alphabetically listed a great succession of major and minor goddesses, their complex attributes and histories. Silently he repeated the words, a rough stone standing in a grove, and the odd feeling began gradually to spread from his stomach, slowly descending.

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than storiesspace.com with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

Copyright © Copyright, Peter Karargiris.

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