Chapter One - Trouble
It must have been the cry of vultures which brought Isabella back to consciousness. Or was it the feeling of hot grit against her cheek, caked and dusty where her mouth had fallen open? From her position on her side, she watched as one smashed the outer shell of a scorpion against a rock to get at the meat inside.
She sat up and looked at the tree nearby. Its shade, which spread so generously last night had now, in the fierce overhead sun, receded to nearly nothing. She crawled over to its trunk nevertheless, dragging her bag and rifle with her, and sat in the tiny remaining patch of shaded brown dirt. Holding her canteen up, she shook it. There was about two days water left in it, if she was careful. Putting the metal to her lips she took a sip, but she hadn’t anticipated the strength of her thirst; how good the cool water felt as it made its way to her stomach, and she was unable to stop. She knew she was shortening her chances of survival, but she couldn’t help herself, and she emptied the canteen in seconds. It dropped from her hand. It was unlikely she’d be using it again.
With her thirst momentarily sated, Isabella looked up at the foothills surrounding her. This uninhabitable land had a strange beauty all of its own, the distant purple mountains giving way to the grey shadows of the hills where nothing, save the hardiest of scrubby bushes, grew. If she tilted her head right back, she could see mountain goats, white specks hopping from one precipice to another.
Occasionally their hooves would loosen a stone and it would fall, dislodging others, in a soundless shimmer into the valley where she sat. Nothing else moved in the heat of the Indian noon, so hot each breath had to be taken with care. Nothing except the vultures that, eyeing her stillness, were hopping towards her for a closer look. Her fingers reached over the gravel for her gun; light and tough, her father had said; the perfect gun for his twelve-year-old girl. Tears sprang to Isabella’s eyes, but she brushed them away and, raising the gun, settled it comfortably into her shoulder. The blast scattered the vultures like rice thrown on the wind. She immediately re-loaded and lifted it again, but she didn’t need to. She rarely missed, and this time had been no exception. She grimaced; vulture for breakfast then.
Isabella waited until her tree was protected from the sun by the shadow of a hill before building her fire. Then she plucked and cooked the legs of the vulture, pretending to herself all the while they were chicken, but she was hungry and had less difficulty eating than she had expected. By the time she’d finished, the shadows had lengthened, and some of the power had gone from the sun. The fire began to smoke and she leaned back into the tree with her bag on her lap and thought of the campfires at home.
The night had always come with a curious swiftness, as if a giant finger and thumb had snuffed out the sun. She loved that time of night, when all the lanterns were lit, but it was not yet fully dark. Around the camp, small fires would spring up, as the men of her father’s cavalry regiment sat outside their barracks, talking of life. As a very small child Isabella would sit, mouse-like, so the soldiers wouldn’t notice her, wreathed in the peaty smell of smoke from their pipes, listening to the rising lilt of Hindi and Pashtu, until the languages became intelligible and she made them her own. Often forgetting she was there, they would speak of shocking things, certainly not meant for small ears, and then they would see her and laugh.
She smiled to herself.
They had never made her feel an outsider, and their children were her playmates. Soon the time came, if you’d have asked her which was her nationality, she’d have been hard pushed to reply. Her parents were British, but it was Abhaya, her father’s housekeeper, who’d raised her; Abhaya to whom she’d sung her first words in Hindi; Abhaya, who’d taken the place of the mother she’d never known.
So where were they all now - those men who’d served loyally with her father for so many years that, with Abhaya, they were her family in everything but name?
Isabella felt the tears start again as she thought of her father.
She’d found him on the porch that night in his rocking chair, staring out at the horizon, a bottle of brass polish in one hand, and the rag, unmoving, in the other. His face hadn’t the sad expression that meant he was thinking of her mother. No. It was something else. There was hardness to his thought; his jaw-line set beneath his moustache.
“Father?” His eyes swiveled towards her, but she could see it was a moment before he brought her into focus. “You were a very long way away.”
“Sorry, pet. I was.”
“Is it the monsoon?”
“No, for once it is not the monsoon. Though I do dread it sometimes.” Isabella kept silent. Her mother had died during the monsoon, just a few days after she was born, so though her birthday was always celebrated, it was also a time of sadness.
Her father held out his arms to her.
“Come. Sit with me.” Isabella arranged herself carefully on his lap, enjoying the smell of hair tonic and the stables, which would forever remind her of him.
“Oohf, you are getting so big, missy. Let me see your fingernails.” Isabella held out her hands with an inward grimace.
“Did you have a bath?” he said inspecting the semi-circles of black beneath her nails. “Or was it the river?” Isabella couldn’t help but raise her eyebrows. How did he know? The screen door onto the porch slammed.
“Abhaya,” her father switched to fluent Hindi. “This child! I know she’s only a sergeant’s daughter, but she might marry well – a captain or an East India merchant and so keep me comfortably in my old age. How is that ever to happen, if she is so filthy all the time?” John Rockwell was laughing now, as the expression on Isabella’s face changed to outrage.
Abhaya salaamed, her wrinkled face serious, though her eyes were smiling.
“Sahib. I have often thought if I could place Isabella-Bai in a stable next to her horse, then she would do very well. She could have oats, a hosing off and a rubdown every night. In this way she would be cleaner than she is now, and maybe enjoy it more.”
John Rockwell chortled and Isabella scowled, replying under her breath;
“Chance would be a fine thing.”
“Anyway, Sahib, I am here to let the child know her real bath is drawn, and to come whenever she is ready.”
“Which means now?”
Abhaya salaamed again.
“As you wish, Sahib.” She padded away.
Isabella tightened her arms around his neck, but her father reached up to undo them. A tiny chill touched her carefully on the shoulder. She looked back at her father’s face, but he was looking down.
“I ride out tonight, Isabella.”
His words were soft, but she felt her stomach disappear.
“But… but you’re not ready. What about the men?”
It usually took the camp at least a month to prepare itself for battle. Supplies had to be collected, uniforms and weapons polished, and tack mended. Given the distances in India, the cavalry could be gone for months on end. Then Isabella would watch from the top of an acacia tree as her father raised his sabre and the glittering column of the Regiment of King William’s First Horse moved off. Sabres would rattle and excited horses would drum their hooves to unheard music, as the orange sun bathed them in its light. Isabella’s heart would overflow with pride. She would stay in the tree long after everyone else watching had gone, until all she could see was a cloud of yellow dust on the flat horizon which, when she looked straight at it, appeared not to be there.
Her father cleared his throat.
“The men aren’t coming. It’s just Josha Bilram and myself.”
Isabella felt her mouth fall open.
“Why just the two of you? Where are you going?”
“It’s not something we are allowed to talk about. I myself only heard last night and Josha Bilram has been working hard all day so we might be ready. I am so sorry dearest, truly I am. I had hoped to be here for your birthday...but now...”
“Oh, don’t worry about that.”
“No, I know but still...” His voice trailed off.
“Might you be away for less time, if it’s just the two of you?”
“I don’t know, but two travel more quickly than one hundred, so we have that in our favour.”
Isabella looked thoughtful.
“Why are just two of you going? Are you spying?” Her face lit up. This was exciting. “That’s it isn’t it, that’s why the Colonel is sending you? Otherwise he’d send Captain Evesham or Lieutenant Farrar. But they don’t fit in quite as well as you, do they? They’re too fair, and they speak Hindi with an English accent. Lieutenant Farrar can’t even squat,” she finished with disgust.
Her father tucked a monocle into one eye and held her at arm’s length, looking at her intently. She could see herself in its glass, the large smudge on her thin face, and her nut-brown hair in disarray.
Her father pulled on a curl.
“You have your mother’s brains, thank heavens,” he smiled. “But I cannot speak to you of this, so please don’t ask me.”
She nudged him for confirmation.
“I am right, though?”
John Rockwell held her close, looking out over her head to where clouds gathered on the far horizon.
“The truth is; even I’m not sure where I’m going. You know of our problems along the Afghan border. The Russians would much rather they were in control of India than the British, so there are always uprisings to sort out and rebellions to put down.”
“Why does anyone have to be in control of India? Why can’t India be in control of itself?”
John Rockwell laughed and took off his glasses, rubbing them with the rag in his hand.
“I often think the same thing. It’s such a beautiful country - I rather feel we ruin it.”
“So why are we here?” Isabella persisted.
Her father rubbed his brow.
“India is rich. That’s all there is to it. Don’t let anyone tell you any different, about how the British civilized the Indians. That’s rubbish. It’s all about money and it always has been. India has spices, silks, jewels and gold, which England wants, so we trade, but it’s never a fair trade. We take far more than we give.” He was silent for a minute. “But then,” her father continued in a softer tone, “for me personally, our occupation is a blessing. I would never have met your mother, never have had you, and never had the chance to live in this country, which I love more than my own. I’d be digging ditches in Ireland, and that’s if I were lucky.”
“That sounds awful.”
“Well, we are not well-born. I have no inheritance to leave to you and I must work for my living. India, at least, offers able men a chance to make something of themselves.”
Isabella digested this.
“I will get a job also, Papa, when I am grown.”
Her father laughed.
“Will you not marry?”
Isabella wrinkled her nose.
“What? So I can watch the children, whilst my husband goes out and has all the adventures? No, thank you. I shall be chief groom to His Majesty the Maharajah of Rajasthan.”
He ruffled her hair.
“Fair enough, but then you must learn your lessons well, for it is not a job for an uneducated person. On my return from this trip, I would be very glad to have a decent report from Miss Hobbs, especially in view of the last one.”
Isabella hung her head and muttered, “Yes, Father.”
Her father patted her shoulder.
“Come, cheer up. It’s not forever. Soon your childhood will be gone. Then you’ll be free to make all the decisions you want, and all your mistakes will be your own.”
How right he’d been.
The following day had been the last time she’d seen him, laughing over his shoulder at something Josha Bilram had said, the camp behind him forgotten and his mind already on the task ahead. How she wished she could go with him. To camp under the starry sky and shoot snakes from her saddle for target practice, leaving the schoolroom far behind. What wouldn’t she have given?
Instead, she had returned to the porch and the comfort of Abhaya, who’d enfolded her in a vanilla-scented embrace.
“Ai Baba, I know, I know,” she said as Isabella’s tears had soaked her sari, “but he will return soon, don’t be sad.” So Isabella had composed herself and tried to talk herself out of her feeling of unease, which was surely just because it was the first time he’d ridden out alone. He and Josha Bilram would be fine and, though it would take time, he would come home.
Occasionally, she would wake in the night and swing her legs out of bed to make her way to her father’s room for comfort, as she had when she was little. Then she remembered he was gone. After a few nights of this, she stopped waking at all.
Three weeks later, however, she’d woken with a start, as if someone had called her name. It was the hour before dawn, and the night was close and black, monsoon clouds blocking out the stars. Isabella went to her window and looked out. As if from nowhere a wind blew through from the north, making her jump with its suddenness. It blew through the trees and blew through the stables waking the horses. It blew through the porches, making shutters bang and then, just as suddenly as it had arisen, it left; and all became still once again.
The hairs on Isabella’s neck rose at a sudden crash from the living room, where she found her father’s portrait blown from its hangings, the frame broken, lying on the floor. Tucking it carefully under one arm she padded from room to room securing the shutters. Then she closed the front door, and placed a statue of their family god against it. A tricky wind like that needed watching, it meant sorrow for someone.
Three days later, she’d been in the stables, and seeing the dark shadow of Abhaya’s head over the stable door, she felt a deep dread. Abhaya never came to the stables.
“What is it Mama-gi?” she asked hardly wanting to look at Abhaya’s face. Abhaya took Isbabella’s hands in her own work-worn ones, and sat her on a hay bale. Isabella felt her blood turn to ice.
“Your Papa, dearest.” Isabella shivered despite the heat of the day. “He was supposed to make a rendezvous…but he didn’t make it. Nor did Josha Bilram.” Abhaya took a deep breath and held her close. “A little later they found your father’s saddlebag. The leather had been torn, as if there’d been a great battle. Its contents were scattered. His horse was found dead nearby.”
“His horse is dead?” These, oddly, were the first words from her mouth. Not able to wrap her mind around the death of her father, all she could think of was his horse. The one he’d hand-reared from a foal, and ridden to victory at the regiment gymkhanas, year after year. Now her father would whistle at the paddock gate and Flash wouldn’t come. “It must have been a very great battle for him to fall from his horse.”
Abhaya nodded her head slowly, never taking her eyes from Isabella’s.
“Yes, it must.”
“Is there no sign of his body?”
“No.” She rubbed Isabella’s hands. “Your hands are cold.”
“I feel cold.”
“Come, let us go.”
As Isabella had left the stables, she wondered at how it were possible to enter a place as one person and, in such a short space of time, leave it as someone else.
That night she had lain staring at the ceiling of her room. The mosquito net made her room look hazy and indistinct. She was dry-eyed and fearful. If she went to sleep she would have to wake again to a reality she didn’t think she could bear. Was she asleep already? Isabella couldn’t tell. She knew Abhaya had plundered her store of healing herbs for something to help with her shock, but it hadn’t worked. All she could see was her father’s body, blasted by the heat, flies at his nose and mouth, like the corpse she’d come across unexpectedly one day, half hidden in the blonde grasses by the road into town.
She shut her eyes, unable to bear it any longer.
Throwing off the sheets, she hurried through the house, lit by the soft lamps Abhaya had left burning in case John Rockwell’s spirit needed to find its way home. Pulling saddlebags from a cupboard, she hastily stuffed some crackers and a canteen of water into them, before unlocking the gun cupboard. She lifted her gun down and held it in her hands, feeling the weight of cold wood and metal, smoothing her fingers over the catch. It felt awkward and unfamiliar, though she’d handled it a hundred times before. Her fingers ran along the top shelf of the cupboard. She found six cartridges rolling around out of their box. They would do. Now she was ready.
The moon shone on the ground as she tiptoed from the porch, a breeze lifting the dark shadows of the trees surrounding the camp. In the corral, the horses stood snoozing, head to tail. Bumblebee whickered when he saw her, eyes bright and ears forward. She rubbed his ears.
“We’re going to find Papa and you must help me.” Bumblebee rubbed against her, as she saddled him, and led him out across the sandy parade ground onto the long lane which connected the camp to the main Rawalpindi Road. All the bungalows were dark, the night watchmen asleep on the porches. Her gaze fell on her own home, warmly lit with moths dancing at the lamps.
What about Abhaya?
Shouldn’t she have left a note? Something loving or at least reassuring? Well, it was too late now. Abhaya would understand. She always did.
Isabella decided she would follow the road north. She had a good idea of where he might be. His cavalry were always fighting in the foothills north of Rawalpindi, which lay next to Afghanistan. She was sure this was to where he’d been sent. There was no thought in her head other than to find her father, or her father’s body, whichever came first. She would beg for food and water along the way, and her father had always told her she had an excellent sense of direction, so she had no need of a map or a compass. All that kit the soldiers took with them, why did they need it?
After all, look at her; she was going to be fine.
The night wind blew against her face, bringing her abruptly back to the present and the vultures’ harsh croak echoed in her ears. Her eyelids felt full of grit as she dragged them open and her mouth, now hours after her last drink was bone dry; her stomach cramped like a vice, unused to the nearly raw meat she’d eaten earlier. The night was closing in and a jackal barked in the hills high above her. Raising herself painfully, she poked the fire. She had one round of ammunition left, which might see her through the night. She didn’t dare think about tomorrow.
Had she really thought she could find her father so ill-prepared?
No water, no ammunition and not the faintest idea of where she was? He would be ashamed of her.
A flat grey plain lay in front of her, sharp with stones, which cut through the soles of her boots Whatever lay beyond was impossible for her to see as the horizon merged with a shimmer into a blue nothingness. Still, she had better not stay here. Putting one foot in front of the other, she continued her journey; grateful at least Bumblebee wasn’t here with her, and that in freeing him a week earlier, she’d saved his life.
All through that dark night she walked with no moon to guide her. Sometimes she felt she might be asleep and dreaming, her footfalls occasionally echoing off the stone. Whenever her thirst became too much to bear, she forced herself to think of her loveliest memories; riding with her father, baking with Abhaya, swimming in the creek behind the camp, Abhaya calling her in for supper…
When the sun rose, it surprised her.
Isabella stopped and watched it first touch the mighty mountaintops of the Hindu Kush turning them from grey to purple, then to scarlet. She watched as it chased the blue shadows from the scrubby hillsides and she watched as it crept across the plain, driving the darkness away before, finally, arriving in a burning yellow stream at her feet. The sudden light showed nothing, except the same grey
plain stretched before and behind her. She’d travelled all night long and nothing had changed; for all she knew, she could have been walking around in circles.
Utterly defeated, she sank to her knees. There were no trees or even scrubby bushes for her to curl up beneath. There was nothing but rock and stony heat and hard blue sky. It was all over. Not only had she failed her father and the regiment, she’d failed Abhaya, and she’d failed herself.
Wrapping her hands around her legs, she laid her burning head on her knees. She was crying, but produced no tears. As her consciousness faded, she imagined she could see her father and Josha Bilram, their scarlet and gold uniforms a brilliant splash against the grey. She smiled in greeting, and one of them raised his arm. Then all went dark.
Did clocks tick in heaven? Isabella thought not. She opened her eyes, and a brown room swam into view. The walls were beige and the furniture, though plain, was of heavy mahogany. The room smelt of camphor, and wooden shutters blocked the light from outside.
She was at the British High Commission in Rawalpindi and, judging by her toes moving beneath the grey wool blanket, she was alive. She swung her legs from the bed and found, though her soles were bruised, she could stand. She peered at herself in the mirror, and saw her sun-darkened skin had blistered and peeled on her nose and forehead. Her dark hair was a matted tangle. How Abhaya would ring her hands in horror at the sight of it.
Isabella smiled, remembering the pleasure Abhaya took from brushing it. Poor Abhaya – what must she have put her through?
Leaning into the mirror she licked a finger and removed some dirt from her cheek. That she was lucky to be alive was an understatement. She sat back down on the bed. What had happened to her? The door opening made her jump. A ginger-haired soldier put his head around the door.
“Ah good, you’re up. I’ll send someone to help you change. Colonel Hearthogg wants to see you.”
An hour later, clean and fed, Isabella knocked on the Colonel’s door. This wasn’t going to be pretty, but it was best to get it over with. Then she could start the three-day journey home to Abhaya, who she was missing terribly. How Isabella wished Abhaya were here now, so she could tell her how sorry she was for running away in such a manner.
“Come in,” slurred a voice. The Colonel’s office was thick with dark furniture. Shelves bulged with books, that Isabella would have laid money on he’d never read. On one wall were maps of the known world, the British Empire marked out in pink, and his mahogany desk was strewn with paper scrolls, magnifying glasses and the racing pages of the newspaper. There was also an overwhelming smell of brandy.
“Ah, yes. You’re the Rockwell girl are you not?”
“Isabella. Isabella Rockwell,” she replied.
“Yes. Yes of course, Isabella.” He swept a chair clear of papers and then settled his bulk in the chair on the opposite side of the desk. In front of her sat the man who would dictate her fate: her father’s commanding officer, who was responsible not only for the men under his command, but for their families too. If ‘responsibility’ were what you’d call it. Isabella and her father had a quiet agreement to not discuss the Colonel, whom they both disliked intensely. The Colonel’s rheumy eyes flicked over her, his expression cold.
“You don’t need me to tell you how stupid you’ve been.” Isabella shook her head. “Two of my best men risked their lives to bring you back, god knows why. I’d have left you to meet your maker, as that was so clearly what you wanted.” She nodded again and the colonel sighed. “Still, it was their choice. He’s a popular man, your father, no doubt about it. He is deeply mourned.”
A hot tear rolled unchecked down her cheek and her voice was quiet.
“There is no more news then?
“No.” He sloshed some more brandy into his glass. “Well there is news, Isabella, but it’s not about your father.” She looked at him, startled by his harsh tone. A sudden thin shoelace of fear tightened around her chest.
“It’s the Sahiba Abhaya. She’s dead.”
To Isabella his words came from down a faraway tunnel, and she gripped the chair in front of her until her knuckles turned white. He’d made a mistake, surely? He couldn’t mean her Abhaya. The Abhaya who’d raised her; who was waiting for her back at the camp with a warm embrace and words of comfort; the Abhaya who loved her despite everything…?
The colonel watched her over the steeple of his fingers.
“It was cholera; totally unexpected. They evacuated and many were saved…”
“But Abhaya wasn’t?”
The colonel paused.
“Abhaya didn’t evacuate with everyone else.”
Isabella was disbelieving. Everyone knew the minute the cholera arrived, you ran for your life. The only hope of avoiding the deadly disease was putting as much distance as possible between yourself and the outbreak.
“But…but why not?”
In that moment realisation poured over her like a shower of ice. She clutched at her mouth as her stomach disappeared. The colonel opened his mouth to speak, but she was too quick for him.
“She was waiting for me, wasn’t she?” The colonel nodded. Isabella closed her eyes.
So this was to be her punishment.
Nothing she could have ever imagined for herself, could hurt as much as this.
“Would you like to sit down?” She shook her head. “Are you sure, you’ve gone quite white.” Still she clung to the back of the chair, surprised the floor was still beneath her feet. “Very well then, but we must now discuss your future.” She nodded. What was he talking about? His mouth was moving but she was having difficulty understanding what he was saying.
“Sadly your father left no provision should something happen to Abhaya. He would have expected you to have stayed with her, and his war pension be paid to her for your upkeep. Now this is not possible, his pension will come to you, but you can’t have it until you are sixteen. How old are you now?
“I’m nearly thirteen.”
“Very well. In the meantime a household has been found for you in which you will learn a trade, such as parlour maid, or even housekeeper, if you work hard. When you’re sixteen, you will be given your father’s pension and be free to return to India.”
“Return to India? Sorry sir, I don’t think I…”
“No, no me dear. I didn’t quite explain meself well enough. Normally we’d send you to the orphanage at Howrah Junction, but it’s full to bursting. So, our orphans are being sent home to be cared for there, until they are of age.”
“Sent home? But this is my home?”
The colonel snorted.
“No, no, no. England, Isabella. Your new position is in England, in London, to be precise.” He raised his heavy brows and continued. “It’ll do you good to go back to the old country, get some of those corners rubbed off. After all, though it’s hard to tell at times, you are English.”
Isabella sat down hard on the chair she’d avoided for so long. She could hear someone’s breathing coming in harsh gasps. It was a moment before she realised it was her own.
There was a knock at the door and the colonel stood up adjusting his belt and sabre. He lifted a leather satchel and placed it on the desk before her. The smell of sand and long distances rose from it.
“It appeared the Sahiba Abhaya had been keeping it for you, so I had it mended once you’d been found. There’s not much in it. A few papers, a likeness of you and your mother and the Sahiba’s medicine pouch.” Isabella lifted the bag into her lap and clung to it, the last remaining link with the two people she loved.
The colonel clanked over to the door.
“Isabella, just one more thing.” She dragged her unseeing eyes to where he stood. “Don’t think for one moment of running away, otherwise you’ll forfeit your father’s money and I won’t waste any more resources on trying to find you. You’ve already paid a heavy price for one episode of stupidity. Let’s not make it two.”
The door slammed behind him leaving Isabella alone with the maps and the brandy, and the impossible weight of her grief.