DARK ROAD TO DARJEELING
The First Chapter
Mother, let us imagine we are travelling,
and passing through a strange and dangerous country.
“The Hero” Rabindranath Tagore
Somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas, 1889.
“I thought there would be camels,” I protested. “I thought there would be pink marble palaces and dusty deserts and strings of camels to ride. Instead there is this.” I waved a hand toward the motley collection of bullocks, donkeys, and one rather bored-looking elephant that had carried us from Darjeeling town. I did not look at the river. We were meant to cross it, but one glance had decided me firmly against it.
“I told you it was the Himalayas. It is not my fault the nearest desert is almost a thousand miles away. Do not blame me for your feeble grasp of geography,” my elder sister, Portia, said by way of reproof. She gave a theatrical sigh. “For heaven’s sake, Julia, don’t be difficult. Climb onto the floating buffalo and let’s be off. We are meant to cross this river before nightfall.” Portia folded her arms across her chest and stared at me repressively.
I stood my ground. “Portia, a floating buffalo is hardly a proper mode of transport. Now, I grant you, I did not expect Indian transportation to run to plush carriages and steam trains, but you must own this is a bit primitive by any standards,” I said, pointing with the tip of my parasol to the water’s edge where several rather nasty-looking rafts had been fashioned by means of lashing inflated buffalo hides to odd bits of lumber. The hides looked hideously lifelike, as if the buffalo had merely rolled onto their backs for a bit of slumber, but bloated, and as the wind changed I noticed they gave off a very distinctive and unpleasant smell.
Portia blanched a little at the odour, but stiffened her resolve. “Julia, we are Englishwomen. We are not cowed by a little authentic local flavour.”
I felt my temper rising, the result of too much travel and too much time spent in proximity to my family. “I have just spent the better part of a year exploring the most remote corners of the Mediterranean during my honeymoon. It is not the ‘local flavour’ that concerns me. It is the possibility of death by drowning,” I added, nodding toward the ominous little ripples in the gray-green surface of the broad river.
Our brother, Plum, who had been watching the exchange with interest, spoke up with uncharacteristic firmness. “We are crossing the river and we shall do it now, even if I have to put the pair of you on my shoulders and walk across it.” His temper had risen faster than my own, but I could not entirely blame him. He had been ordered by our father, the Earl March, to accompany his sisters to India, and the experience had proven less than pleasant thus far.
Portia’s mouth curved into a smile. “Have you added walking on water to your talents, dearest?” she asked nastily. “I would have thought that beyond the scope of even your prodigious abilities.”
Plum rose to the bait and they began to scrap like a pair of feral cats, much to the amusement of our porters who began to wager quietly upon the outcome.
“Enough!” I cried, stopping my ears with my hands. I had listened to their quarrels since they had run me to ground in Egypt, and I was heartily sick of them both. I summoned my courage and strode to the nearest raft, determined to set an example of English rectitude for my siblings. “Come on then,” I ordered, a touch smugly. “It’s the merest child’s play.”
I turned to look, pleased to see they had left off their silly bickering.
“Julia—” Portia began.
I held up a hand. “No more. Not another word from either of you.”
“But—” Plum started.
I stared him down. “I am quite serious, Plum. You have been behaving like children, the pair of you, and I have had my fill of it. We are all of us above thirty years of age, and there is no call for us to quarrel like spoiled schoolmates. Now, let us get on with this journey like adults, shall we?”
And with that little speech, the raft sank beneath me and I slipped beneath the chilly waters of the river.
Within minutes the porters had fished me out and restored me to dry land where I was both piqued and relieved to find that my little peccadillo had caused my siblings so much mirth they were clasped in each other’s arms, still wiping their eyes.
“I hope you still find it amusing when I die of some dread disease,” I hissed at them, tipping the water from my hat. “Holy Mother Ganges might be a sacred river, but she is also a filthy one and I have seen enough dead bodies floating past to know it is no place for the living.”
“True,” Portia acknowledged, wiping at her eyes. “But this isn’t the Ganges, dearest. It’s the Hooghly.”
Plum let out a snort. “The Hooghly is in Calcutta. This is the Rangeet,” he corrected. “Apparently Julia is not the only one with a tenuous hold on geography.”
Before they could fly at one another again, I gave a decided sneeze and a rather chaotic interlude followed during which the porters hastily built up a fire to ward off a chill and unpacked my trunks to provide me with dry clothing. I gave another hearty sneeze and said a fervent prayer that I had not contracted some virulent plague from my dousing in the river, whichever it might be.
But even as I feared for my health, I lamented the loss of my hat. It was a delicious confection of violet tulle spotted with silk butterflies—entirely impractical even in the early spring sunshine of the foothills of the Himalayas, but wholly beautiful. “It was a present from Brisbane,” I said mournfully as I turned the sodden bits over in my hands.
“I thought we were forbidden from speaking his name,” Portia said, handing me a cup of tea. The porters brewed up quantities of rank, black tea in tremendous cans every time we stopped. After three days of the stuff, I had almost grown to like it.
I took a sip, pulling a face at my sister. “Of course not. It is the merest disagreement. As soon as he joins us from Calcutta, the entire matter will be resolved,” I said, with a great deal more conviction than I felt.
The truth was my honeymoon had ended rather abruptly when my brother and sister arrived upon the doorstep of Shepheard’s Hotel the first week of February. The end of the archaeological season was drawing near, and Brisbane and I had thoroughly enjoyed several dinners with the various expeditions as they passed through Cairo to and from the excavations at Luxor. Brisbane had been to Egypt before, and our most recent foray into detection had left me with a fascination for the place. It had been the last stop on our extended tour of the Mediterranean and therefore had been touched with a sort of melancholy sweetness. We would be returning to England shortly, and I knew we would never again share the sort of intimacy our wedding trip had provided. Brisbane’s practise as a private enquiry agent and my extensive and demanding family would see to that.
But even as we were passing those last bittersweet days in Egypt, I was aware of a new restlessness in my husband, and—if I were honest—in myself. Eight months of travel with only each other, my maid Morag, and occasional appearances from his valet, Monk, had left us craving diversion. We were neither of us willing to speak of it, but it hovered in the air between us. I saw his hands tighten upon the newspaper throughout the autumn as the killer known as Jack the Ripper terrorised the East End, coming perilously close to my beloved Aunt Hermia’s refuge for reformed prostitutes. I suspected Brisbane would have liked to have turned his hand to the case, but he never said, and I did not ask. Instead we moved on to Turkey to explore the ruins of Troy, and eventually the Whitechapel murders ceased. Brisbane seemed content to make a study of the local fauna whilst I made feeble attempts at watercolours, but more than once I found him deftly unpicking a lock with the slender rods he still carried upon his person at all times. I knew he was keeping his hand in, and I knew also from the occasional murmurs in his sleep that he was not entirely happy with married life.
I did not personally displease him, he made that perfectly apparent through regular and enthusiastic demonstrations of his affections. Rather too enthusiastic, as the proprietor of a hotel in Cyprus had commented huffily. But Brisbane was a man of action, forced to live upon his wits from a tender age, and domesticity was a difficult coat for him to wear.
Truth be told, the fit of it chafed me a bit as well. I was not the sort of wife to darn shirts or bake pies, and, indeed, he had made it quite clear that was not the sort of wife he wanted. But we had been partners in detection in three cases, and without the fillip of danger I found myself growing fretful. As delightful as it had been to have my husband to myself for the better part of a year, and as glorious as it had been to travel extensively, I longed for adventure, for challenge, for the sort of exploits we had enjoyed so thoroughly together in the past.
And just when I had made up my mind to address the issue, my sister and brother had arrived, throwing Shepheard’s into upheaval and demanding we accompany them to India.
To his credit, Brisbane did not even seem surprised to see them when they appeared in the dining room and settled themselves at our table without ceremony. I sighed and turned away from the view. A full moon hung over old Cairo, silvering the minarets that pierced the skyline and casting a gentle glow over the city. It was impossibly romantic—or it had been until Portia and Plum arrived.
“I see you are working on the fish course. No chance of soup then?” Portia asked, helping herself to a bread roll.
I resisted the urge to stab her hand with my fork. I looked to Brisbane, imperturbable and impeccable in his evening clothes of starkest black, and quickly looked away. Even after almost a year of marriage, a feeling of shyness sometimes took me by surprise when I looked at him unawares—a feyness, the Scots would call it, a sense that we had both of us tempted the fates with too much happiness together.
Brisbane summoned the waiter and ordered the full set menu for Portia and for Plum who had thrown himself into a chair and adopted a scowl. I glanced about the dining room, not at all surprised to find our party had become the subject not just of surreptitious glances but of outright curiosity. We Marches tended to have that effect when we appeared en masse. No doubt some of the guests recognised us—Marches have never been shy of publicity and our eccentricities were well-catalogued by both the press and society-watchers—but I suspected the rest were merely intrigued by my siblings’ sartorial elegance. Portia, a beautiful woman with excellent carriage, always dressed cap-a-pie in a single hue, and had elected to arrive wearing a striking shade of orange, while Plum, whose ensemble is never complete without some touch of purest whimsy, was sporting a waistcoat embroidered with poppies and a cap of violet velvet. My own scarlet evening gown, which had seemed so daring and elegant a moment before, now felt positively demure.
“Why are you here?” I asked the pair of them bluntly. Brisbane had settled back in his chair with the same expression of studied amusement he often wore when confronted with my family. He and Portia enjoyed an excellent relationship built upon genuine, if cautious, affection, but none of my brothers had especially warmed to my husband. Plum in particular could be quite nasty when provoked.
Portia put aside the menu she had been studying and fixed me with a serious look. “We are bound for India, and I want you to come with us, both of you,” she added, hastily collecting Brisbane with her glance.
“India! What on earth—” I broke off. “It’s Jane, isn’t it?” Portia’s former lover had abandoned her the previous spring after several years of comfortably settled domesticity. It had been a blow to Portia, not least because Jane had chosen to marry, explaining that she longed for children of her own and a more conventional life than the one they had led together in London. She had gone to India with her new husband, and we had heard nothing from her since. I had worried for Portia for months afterward. She had grown thinner, her lustrous complexion dimmed. Now she seemed almost brittle, her mannerisms darting and quick as a hummingbird’s.
“It is Jane,” she acknowledged. “I’ve had a letter. She is a widow.”
I took a sip of wine, surprised to find it tasted sour upon my tongue. “Poor Jane! She must be grieved to have lost her husband so quickly after their marriage.”
Portia said nothing for a moment, but bit at her lip. “She is in some sort of trouble,” Brisbane said quietly.
Portia threw him a startled glance. “Not really, unless you consider impending motherhood to be trouble. She is expecting a child, and rather soon, as it happens. She has not had an easy time of it. She is lonely and she has asked me to come.”
Brisbane’s black eyes sharpened. “Is that all?”
The waiter interrupted, bringing soup for Portia and Plum and refilling wine glasses. We waited until he had bustled off to resume our discussion.
“There might be a bit of difficulty with his family,” Portia replied, her jaw set. I knew that look well. It was the one she always wore when she tilted at windmills. Portia had a very old-fashioned and determined sense of justice. If she were a man, one would have called it chivalry.
“If the estate is entailed in the conventional manner, her expectations would upset the inheritance,” Brisbane guessed. “If she produces a girl, the estate would go to her husband’s nearest male relation, but if she bears a son, the child would inherit and until he is old enough to take control, Jane is queen of the castle.”
“That is it precisely,” Portia averred. Her face took on a mulish cast. “Bloody nonsense. A girl could manage that tea plantation as well as any boy. One only has to look at how well Julia and I have managed the estates we inherited from our husbands to see it.”
I bristled. I did not like to be reminded of my first husband. His death had left me with quite a generous financial settlement and had been the cause of my meeting Brisbane, but the marriage had not been altogether happy. His was a ghost I preferred not to raise.
“How is it that she does not already know the disposition of the estate?” Brisbane asked. “Oughtn’t there to have been a reading of the will when her husband died?”
Portia shrugged. “The estate is relatively new, only established by her husband’s grandfather. As the estate passed directly from the grandfather to Jane’s husband, no one thought to look into the particulars. Now that her husband has died, matters are a little murky at present, at least in Jane’s mind. The relevant paperwork is somewhere in Darjeeling or Calcutta and Jane doesn’t like to ask directly. She thinks it might seem grasping, and she seems to think the matter will sort itself out when she has the child.”
I turned to Portia. “I thought her husband was some sort of wastrel who went to India to make his fortune, but you say he has inherited it. Is the family a good one?”
Angry colour touched Portia’s cheeks. “It seems she wanted to spare me any further hurt when she wrote to tell me of her marriage. She neglected to mention that the fellow was Freddie Cavendish.”
I gasped and Brisbane arched a thick black brow interrogatively in my direction. “Freddie Cavendish?”
distant—cousin on our mother’s side. The Cavendishes settled in India ages ago. I believe Mother corresponded with them for some time, and when Freddie came to England to school, he made a point of calling upon Father.”
Plum glanced up from his wine. “Father smelled him for a bounder the moment he crossed the threshold. Once Freddie realised he would get nothing from him, he did not come again. It was something of a scandal when he finished school and refused to return to his family in India. Made a name for himself at the gaming tables,” he added with a touch of malice. Brisbane had been known to take a turn at the tables when his funds were low, usually to the misfortune of his fellow gamblers. My husband was uncommonly lucky at cards.
I hurried to divert any brewing quarrel. “How ever did Jane meet him? He would have left school at least a decade ago.”
“Fifteen years,” Portia corrected. “I used to invite him to dinner from time to time. He could be quite diverting if he was in the proper mood. But I lost touch with him some years back. I presumed he had returned to India until I met him in the street one day. I remember I was giving a supper that evening and I needed to make the numbers, so I invited him. I thought a nice, cosy chat would be just the thing, but a thousand details went wrong that evening, and I had to ask Jane to entertain him for me. They met again a few months later when she went to stay in Portsmouth with her sister. Freddie was a friend to her brother-in-law and they were often together. Within a fortnight they were married and bound for India.”
I cudgeled up whatever details I could recall. “I seem to remember him as quite a handsome boy, with a forelock of dark red hair that always spilled over his brow and loads of charm.”
“As a man grown he was just the same. He could have charmed the garters off the queen’s knees,” Portia added bitterly. “He ended up terribly in debt and when his grandfather fell ill in India, he thought he would go back and take up residence at the tea plantation and make a go of things.”
We fell silent then, and I glanced at Plum. “And how did you come to attach yourself to this expedition?” I asked lightly.
“Attach myself?” His handsome face settled into sulkiness. “Surely you do not imagine I did this willingly? It was Father, of course. He could not let Portia travel out to India alone, so he recalled me from Ireland and ordered me to pack up my sola topee and here I am,” he finished bitterly. He waved the waiter over to refill his wineglass and I made a mental note to keep a keen eye upon his drinking. As I had often observed, a bored Plum was a dangerous Plum, but a drunken one would be even worse.
I returned my attention to my sister. “If Father wanted you to have an escort so badly, why didn’t he come himself? He is always rabbiting on about wanting to travel to exotic places.”
Portia pulled a face. “He would have but he was too busy quarrelling with his hermit.”
I blinked at her and Brisbane snorted, covering it quickly with a cough. “His what?”
“His hermit. He has engaged a hermit. He thought it might be an interesting addition to the garden.”
“Has he gone stark staring mad? Who ever heard of a hermit in Sussex?” I demanded, although I was not entirely surprised. Father loved nothing better than tinkering with his country estate, although his devotion to the place was such that he refused to modernise the Abbey with anything approaching suitable plumbing or electricity.
Portia sipped placidly at her soup. “Oh, no. The hermit isn’t in Sussex. Father has put him in the garden of March House.”
“In London? In the back garden of a townhouse?” I pounced on Plum. “Did no one try to talk him out of it? He’ll be a laughingstock!”
Plum waved an airy hand. “As if that were something new for this family,” he said lightly.
I ignored my husband who was having a difficult time controlling his mirth and turned again to my sister. “Where does the hermit live?”
“Father built him a pretty little hermitage. He could not be expected to live wild,” she added reasonably.
“It isn’t very well wild if it is in the middle of Mayfair, now is it?” I countered, my voice rising. I took a sip of my wine and counted to twenty. “So Father has built this hermitage in the back garden of March House. And installed a hermit. With whom he doesn’t get on.”
“Correct,” Plum said. He reached for my plate and when I offered no resistance, helped himself to the remains of my fish.
“How does one even find a hermit these days? I thought they all became extinct after Capability Brown.”
“He advertised,” Plum said through a mouthful of trout grenobloise. “In the newspaper. Received quite a few responses, actually. Seems many men fancy the life of a hermit—and a few women. But Father settled on this fellow from the Hebrides, Auld Lachy. He thought having a Hebridean hermit would add a bit of glamour to the place.”
“There are no words,” Brisbane murmured.
“They started to quarrel about the hermitage,” Portia elaborated. “Auld Lachy thinks there should be a proper water closet instead of a chamber pot. And he doesn’t fancy a peat fire or a straw bed. He wants good coal and a featherbed.”
“He is a hermit. He is supposed to live on weeds and things he finds in the ground,” I pointed out.
“Well, that is a matter for debate. In fact, he and Father have entered into negotiations, but things were at such a delicate stage, he simply could not leave. And the rest of our brothers are otherwise engaged. Only dearest Plum was sitting idly by,” Portia said with a crocodile’s smile at our brother.
“Sitting idly by?” He shoved the fish aside. “I was painting, as you well know. Masterpieces,” he insisted. “The best work of my career.”
“Then why did you agree to come?” I asked.
“Why did I ever agree to do anything?” he asked bitterly.
“Ah, the purse strings,” I said quietly. It was Father’s favourite method of manipulation. The mathematics of the situation were simple. A wealthy father plus a pack of children with expensive tastes and little money of their own equalled a man who more often than not got his way. It was a curious fact in our family that the five daughters had all achieved some measure of financial independence while the five sons relied almost entirely upon Father for their livelihoods in some fashion or other. They were dilettantes, most of them. Plum dabbled in art, fancying himself a great painter, when in fact, he had only mediocre skill with a brush. But his sketches were very often extraordinary, and he was a gifted sculptor although he seldom finished a sculpture on the grounds that he did not much care for clay as it soiled his clothes.
“If I might recall us to the matter at hand,” Brisbane put in smoothly, “I should like to know more about Jane’s situation. If it were simply a matter of bringing her back to England, you could very well do that between the two of you. You require something more.”
Portia toyed with her soup. “I thought it might be possible for you to do a bit of detective work whilst we are there. I should like to know the disposition of the estate. If Jane is going to require assistance, legal or otherwise, I should like to know it before the moment is at hand. Forewarned is forearmed,” she finished, not quite meeting his eyes.
Brisbane signalled the waiter for more wine and we paused while the game course was carried in with the usual ceremony. Brisbane took a moment to make certain his duck was cooked to his liking before he responded.
“A solicitor could be of better use to you than I,” he pointed out.
“Than we,” I corrected.
Again he raised a brow in my direction, but before we could rise to battle over the question of my involvement in his work, Portia cut in sharply.
“Yes, of course. But I thought it would make such a lovely end to your honeymoon. Jane’s letters are quite rapturous on the beauties of the Peacocks.”
“The Peacocks?” My ears twitched at the sound of it. Already I was being lured by the exoticism of the place, and I suspected my husband was already halfway to India in his imagination.
“The Peacocks is the name of the estate, a tea garden on the border of Sikkim, outside of Darjeeling, right up in the foothills of the Himalayas.”
“The rooftop of the world,” I said quietly. Brisbane flicked his fathomless black gaze to me and I knew we were both thinking the same thing. “Of course we will go, Portia,” I assured her.
Her shoulders sagged a little in relief, and I noticed the lines of care and age beginning to etch themselves upon her face. “We will make arrangements to leave as soon as possible,” I said briskly. “We will go to India and settle the question of the estate, and we will bring Jane home where she belongs.”
But of course, nothing that touches my family is ever so simple.
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.