Saturday, 14 January 2012

Chapter 2: On the Verandah, Part 1

On The Verandah
Part 1

Poorees of White Flour (A Breakfast Dish)
From the unfinished MS., circa 1899: Our India Days,
As Told to a Dear Great-Niece by Three Ladies of the British Raj in the Year 186—,
With the Conversations which Took Place Represented to the Best of the Transcriber’s Recollection
Preface: Why This Little Book
    It is more than thirty years since the idea of writing a little book of reminiscences of Anglo-India in the first part of the present century had its birth. We were at Tamasha that summer and the three great-aunts were still with us, and all at that time blessedly well. And since several of their grandchildren had also come to stay and the weather was proving uncertain, it seemed the ideal time to urge them to tell us the stories, many of which we had heard before, but in which we still delighted, of their early life in India, for they were “country born”, as the old India hands say these days, and grew up there with no suggestion of being sent Home to school, as both boys and girls are in these modern times.
    We love to think of this particular summer, for Madeleine Thomas, as she then was, was with us. The thought of her always brings help and inspiration.
    Before we knew it we were planning the book. It was to be a collaborative affair, and since the great-aunts’ old Indian “receets” were a great part of the charm of the stories, we determined that their Hindustanee dishes should be written down, too. Our enthusiasm grew. For days on end we talked of nothing else. We wrote draft after draft, we invaded the kitchen, alas, to try the recipes, driving poor Cook to desperation, we re-drafted, and again we wrote. It seemed the summer would see our little work complete. But alas! other things soon thrust themselves upon us, and our unfinished little book was pigeon-holed for years and years.
    And it is not now what it would have been if finished then.
    The original narrative, as we transcribed it that halcyon summer, did not include the conversations which took place, but many years after when the manuscript was disinterred wiser counsel prevailed, and I have endeavoured to “set the stories in their context” and give the reader, to the best of my recollection, the flavour of the times in which they were told.
    As to the recipes— After some discussion with kind friends and family I have decided to leave them in. They give a little of the true flavour of old India, before the days of the railway, when the old, old Grand Trunk Road, scarcely yet improved by our English endeavours as it is in these later days, was the only alternative to taking ship if one wished to reach Delhi from Calcutta.
"Our Troops on the Old Grand Trunk Road"
Photograph, circa 1880. Courtesy of Miss Thomas
     And it is the flavour in more ways than the merely literal! Here is a story which the great-aunts used to tell, having had it off one of their dear ayahs, which illustrates my point:
    A lady in India once had an ayah, who from morning till night sang the same sad song to the baby. It was a plaintive chant: “Ky a ke waste, Ky a ke waste, pet ke waste, pet ke waste." 
    The lady’s curiosity was aroused. The words were simple enough, but they had no sense: “For why? For why? For why? For stomach! For stomach!”
    She called the ayah to her and sought the interpretation of these words.
    “This is the meaning, oh memsahiba,” said the ayah: “Why do we live? What is the meaning of our existence? To fill our stomachs, to fill our stomachs.”
    The great-aunts would add: “You may smile at this and feel sorry for the poor benighted Hindoo, who has such a low idea of the meaning of life, but must we not all eat? Is not the necessity for food common to all mankind?” And if the children were not present they might add the unchristianly aside: “What more is the meaning of life? You see in this little tale the two strands, the philosophical and the bodily, inextricably interwoven, and that, certainly according to the Indian way of thinking, is indeed the meaning of life.”
    —A.J.T., The Vicarage, Little Shrempton, 189-

Our India Days, Chapter 1: The Early Stories of Ponsonby Sahib
    Since Antoinette and Matt are so interested, we have agreed to tell you our story, and Antoinette may write it down. And yes, Tessa and little Gil may hear it, too! Of course, dear children, we all recall slightly different episodes—Great-Aunt Tiddy is a deal younger than Great-Aunts Tess and Tonie, though it may not seem so to you! And then, Antoinette’s Grandmamma, your dearest Great-Aunt Josie, is gone, now, alas—who would have thought our pretty, gay, heedless Josie would have been the first to go? But yes, dear ones, since you wish for it, this is the story of our India days.
    In these modern days, or so the young people certainly claim, everything is changed and we are all so much more aware of the risks that attach to the Anglo-Indian life and the unwisdom of trusting any native—why, they cry, we have had the Indian Mutiny! And the heyday of the East India Company is over—and just as well! For you older persons did not make a very good fist of ruling India at all: these days the Indian Civil Service has the task firmly in hand, and with the better sort of Indian being taught English so that they may make efficient clerks, everything is so much more regular and businesslike. Imagine doing business in the Indian languages as in Grandpapa’s and Great-Grandpapa’s day! Absurd! No wonder the natives came to consider themselves as good as the English! But that cannot happen again. There is nothing like the Empire, after all!
    None of us three Lucas girls would claim we know anything about the political side of the thing, and certainly the Mutiny was a most dreadful and shocking occurrence. But it did not seem to us, while we were living it, that the life was such a bad one, fifty years ago and more, even if we did not have all the Indian clerks writing English and—well, whatever our dearest grandchildren claim. Protective clothing more suited to the climate: pith helmets and—spine pads, was it, dearest ones? Whatever you say. Yes, much more suitable; and of course the shipping is so much more efficient these days, no-one would wish to argue with that. Your Great-Grandpapa’s tea must have had to be sent home on the tea clippers? Well, no, dear children, although now of course our fine Indian tea is a—a commonplace, and one cannot imagine English life without it, back when your Great-Grandpapa took over the firm the English were not yet growing tea in India. That did not come along until much later. But yes, for some years the tea has come by tea clipper. Though, really, the big sailing ships that fetched the tea and silks from China were not so very much different. Not as fast—no.
    You wish to know what we did before our Papa started growing the tea? Dear ones, the tea did not really loom so large in our lives as you seem to assume—though of course your Great-Aunt Tonie lived for many years on one of Papa’s tea plantations. But that was much later. Before that, when we were children? But there are so many little details—and yet, it all tends to run together into a golden memory of the halcyon days of childhood that can never come again. But you cannot grasp that, as yet! Cherish these days, they are precious ones.
    Matt thinks we might start with one person who stands out in the memory? Perhaps not Ranjit Singh, dear boy, though he was striking, yes. He was our Papa’s burra khitmagar—that is, major-domo, and such a fixture in the house in Calcutta that, again, one scarce knows where to start.
“The Burra Khitmagar”
Circa 1855. artist unknown.
Courtesy of the Maunsleigh Collection

    Dear old Ranjit Singh! He was a Sikh, of course, and must have been over six feet tall—nearer to seven, in his great turban. Such an impressive figure in his white suit of clothes—no, Indian clothes, dear ones, our Papa would never have dreamed of requiring his servants to wear feringhee dress.—Tonie is quite correct in saying that that means “foreign” and you had best write “English”, Antoinette!—What a tremendous treat it was for us little ones, to be given a ride round the house on Ranjit Singh’s shoulders, high above the world, almost like riding on an elephant!
    Of course we have ridden on an elephant, dear ones! Many, many times—but perhaps that should be for later in the story?
    Perhaps it would be best, after all, to start with Ponsonby sahib—for who, after our dearest Papa and Mamma, was to become more significant in our lives than he? Yes, we did call him that in those days, children—though as you will see, that was not all he was called!
    Our earliest memories of Ponsonby sahib date back to around the year 1815, though some of us are old enough to remember meeting him before that, if we put our minds to it. Mind, our dear Josie would maintain she had never laid eyes on him back then! Perhaps Papa’s older children might recall him from earlier days, but in truth we four scarce knew them: they were grown, launched and married to respectable husbands before Tess, Tonie, Josie and little iddy-bitty Tiddy were out of the schoolroom or, in the case of some, the nursery. But for us younger ones the unannounced arrivals and departures of Ponsonby sahib punctuate, more or less, the memories of our India days in the big white house in Calcutta. We, of course, as children do, took these arrivals and departures for granted, along with the houseful of devoted nurses and bearers who all spoilt us dreadfully, the garden crammed with the flowers that naughty little Josie and Tiddy did not hesitate to despoil, never realising they were the result of hours of tending and watering by faithful mali and his helpers, the illicit visits to the bazaar and the temples with the ayahs, and, contrariwise, the approved Sunday church-going in our best frilled muslins. Yes, and bonnets, of course: Miss Tess and Miss Tonie becomingly decked in real straw with ribbons and silk flowers, while starched white cotton marked the lowly nursery status of Josie baba and Tiddy baba! Not so very different from our little Tessa today, no! Though garments were lighter in those days: you would consider our little muslins very flimsy and inadequate!

                                                    The First Story of Ponsonby Sahib 
“Ponsonby Sahib as a Young Man, in Uniform”
Miniature, circa 1810.
Courtesy of the Maunsleigh Collection

    It was, then, a day in 1815 when the thin man on the bony horse rode slowly up to the gates of the Lucas mansion under a clear blue sky. The day was not hot, by Indian standards; nevertheless the streets of Calcutta were almost deserted, and the gatekeeper was observedly asleep in the little thatched shelter which Mr Lucas had caused to be erected by his palatial wrought-iron gates and which the third Mrs Lucas had caused to be painted white to match the mansion. The thin man smiled, just a little. Undoubtedly the thick lawns had been heavily watered that very morning, as every morning, except when the monsoons came; but although the grass was lush and green, it was observedly dry as a bone. A butterfly’s wings flashed for a moment over the amber flowers of a giant ginger plant; then all was still. The hum of the crowded city made the slightest of background noises; the Lucas grounds were silent apart from a faint buzzing of insects.
    The man on the bony horse did not disturb the dozing gatekeeper: instead, as was his habit, he inserted his riding crop through the wrought iron and under the latch of the tall double gates. The gates opened; he pushed them apart just enough to admit himself and his horse, and closed them again. Then he rode slowly up the weedless gravelled drive.
    The front of the mansion, with its heavy pillared porte cochère symmetrically flanked by giant rows of white columns above an intricate tessellated marble flooring, presented an almost respectable appearance, except that the punkah-wallah seated in the lee of one of the huge white pillars had fallen asleep on his little string cot. Again the thin man smiled, just a little. He did not disturb the man, nor knock at the immense carved wooden door, though he did glance at this door with considerable amusement: it would not have been out of place guarding an inner chamber in a maharajah’s palace. Instead, he dismounted, and led the horse slowly off to the right, where the wide gravelled drive disappeared round the corner of the house amongst a profusion of flowering bushes and broad-leaved palms.
    Once past this corner, the house, which appeared so symmetrical from the front, revealed itself to be an oblong block backed by an intricate tangle of wings, attachments and lean-tos. The thin man, who was used to it, walked slowly down the path and ducked under a trellised archway hung with a heavy swag of crimson flowering vine. Then, still leading the horse, he entered what might have been said to have been some sort of courtyard. To his left, the heavy Classical bulk of the mansion loomed. To the right, below a high stone wall a long, narrow pool, something in the Moorish style, was featured, with a small fountain tinkling at its centre, and tubs of more flowering vines, bright-blossomed shrubs and shiny-leafed citrus bushes ringing it; and directly before him was a long shaded verandah, very much in the Indian fashion, running the entire length of a long back wing. The gravel path was continued; he led the horse slowly along it.
    The verandah was composed of two levels: above, a darkly latticed balcony sheltered what perhaps had been the women’s quarters of the original house, before its new European owner added the imposing frontage some time towards the end of the previous century. Below, white columns echoed the Moorish tone of the enclosed garden.
“The Lucas Children with Servants on the Verandah at Ma Maison, 1814, by G.P.”
Watercolour, 1814. (Title from annotation on reverse: G.P. is possibly Gilbert Ponsonby).
From the Widdop family papers 

    Between these columns were slung the heavy wooden blinds, each slat composed of a long, thin branch, that were endemic to the country. Since today was not so very hot, only a few of these blinds were rolled right down: most of them were only about one-third lowered. The rolled two-thirds made a mighty swagging above the verandah, causing the thin man to reflect, as he often did at the sight of these harmless and accustomed domestic aids, that at need the weight of the rolled branches would make a formidable weapon to drop on an unsuspecting adversary’s head. But that, this being India, one probably would never manage it: the riggings could certainly be designed to drop the blinds whenever one fancied, but, alas, the fellows deputed to tend the ropes would undoubtedly manage to tangle them!
    On the verandah floor an Indian servant woman in a crumpled white cotton saree had nodded off beside a long swing in which two angelic-faced European girls were asleep amidst a tangle of silken cushions and trailing shawls and wrappers. One might have been ten years of age: her light brown curls were a little tumbled and the neat calico apron sheltering her little white muslin dress had a few paint stains upon it. The brush and watercolours were discarded on the verandah floor. The thin man tied his horse to a verandah post, removed the saddlebags, and glanced at the childish painting of pink and yellow flowers in a vase, and the vase itself nearby on a little cane table, and again smiled that very slight smile. The vase held two marigolds. The painting showed two yellow sunbursts and one pink smudge. The other sleeping child was younger, perhaps seven or eight years of age: a positive cherub with a great mass of tangled golden ringlets, and a crumpled white muslin dress adorned with knots of crushed blue ribbon. One grubby little hand clutched a pink flower.
    —No, dear children, you have it wrong: the date was 1815, remember! That’s right, Matt: the year of Waterloo. These were your Great-Aunt Tonie and your Great-Aunt Josie. Yes, Josie had glorious golden curls, so very like your cousin Margaret’s! Matt, dearest, this is not a story about Waterloo. The precise date? Dearest boy, it was a very long time ago… Let us say, well before the rains. That is how we dated things in India, and let us leave it at that! Do you wish to hear more, or shall we ring for tea? Very well, then.

The First Story of Ponsonby Sahib continued.
    The thin man mounted the verandah steps, his face expressionless, tiptoed past the sleepers, and went on down the verandah to where some muslin curtains hung limply at a set of open French doors.
    “Hullo, Johnny Jullerbees!” squeaked a high little voice. “Have you brought some?”
    “Yes,” he said, holding the curtains aside and looking into the dim room behind them. “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
    At this a very small, skinny child emerged, panting, from under the large table which occupied the centre of the room—now, in the dimness, revealing itself to be a library. It was not altogether positive what sex or race this child was: it was clad in a ragged shirt over a minute version of a ragged dhotee, and its head was bound in a ragged white turban, but the thin man said unemotionally: “Hullo, Tiddy.”
    “Hullo, Major!” squeaked the child, beaming.
    “Where are Charlie and Romesh?” he asked mildly, opening one of the saddlebags.
    “They’ll be squashed in there,” said the child disapprovingly. “Romesh is in the palace, he’s on guard. Charlie couldn’t come today, his mother said he had to go to her chota khana.”
    “Poor him,” he said, bending to look under the heavy library table. “Romesh, the guard is relieved!” he said loudly.
    At this a small Indian boy, dressed like the child Tiddy, but wearing a wide belt from which depended a large wooden sword, crawled out from under the table, grinning eagerly.
    “You can have Charlie’s share,” said Tiddy generously to the donor as the oozing paper of syrupy spirals of jullerbees was produced.
    “Thanks,” replied the Major simply, squatting on the carpet, boots and all. The two children, apparently noticing nothing odd in this action, also squatted, and the jullerbees were attacked with the appropriate reverent silence. Apart from the appropriate gasps for air, sighs of appreciation, and so forth.

  —Jullerbees? It is very hard to describe something you have eaten for most of your life and never thought about, dear ones! Well—syrupy spirals. If only our dear Nandinee Ayah were still with us, she would cook some up for you this very day! Nothing like an English cake, Gil, no. Very sweet—indeed, very, very sweet! You children would be astounded at the amount of sugar we were allowed to eat as little ones! Sugarcane, too—and sugarcane juice, of all things the most indescribably delicious! Er—one chews the sugarcane, Matt, it is just like a piece of, well, raw cane or—or bamboo, dear boy. No, one does not swallow the cane itself, for it is far too fibrous: just the juice. Between us, Tessa, darling, one does have to spit it out, yes, but pray do not tell your Mamma we said so! And in India one also buys the juice fresh from a street vendor: it’s such fun to see him force the canes through his mangle!
    The jullerbees, Matt: yes, of course. They are spirals soaked in a heavy sugar syrup. Quite a plain dough, mixed to a paste—and what a sight to see it was, Nandinee Ayah vigorously mixing up the dough in a big copper bowl with a great armful of narrow bangles jangling and glittering! Odd, indeed, to English eyes, Antoinette, dearest, for she had nigh on four inches of them on each wrist! The sugar syrup, Tessa? Well, one then dribbles the dough through an implement with a little hole in it—Nandinee had a piece of coconut shell she kept expressly for the purpose—making long spirals which are dropped immediately into a great pot of hot oil—and woe betide any child who comes too near to Ayah’s pan of oil! Indeed, it would burn you, darling! But it has to be hot to cook the jullerbees, you see. And when they are cooked, out they come on a big flat brass scoop, and then into the great bowl of sugar syrup! And if the baba-log are impatient, they may eat them immediately, while they are still warm from the oil, but customarily one eats them cold, when they have had time to soak in the syrup for a little. –Just write “log”, Antoinette, dear. Why, the baba-log are the baby people! Surely that is self-evident? –Yes, Gil baba, Indian words are funny indeed, and you shall have a cakey to your tea! And our little Tessa, of course, of course!
    Very well, Antoinette, dearest, Tonie will write the receet out for you if you wish.

Jullerbees, Best-Beloved Sweetmeats of India.
Make a batter of one pound of flour and water. Make it just about as thick as you would for pancakes. To colour yellow, add one teaspoonful of powdered tumerick, if available. Cover the vessel tight & let stand for three days. Then stir in about one half of a cup of thick sour milk [yoghurt]. (Or if one does not wish to bother with the batter standing around for three days, they can be made up at once by adding two-thirds of a teaspoonful of Bicarbonate of soda & one-third of Cream of tartar to the mixture and beating it well. The milk must not be too sour in that case.) Pour a little of the batter into a vessel with a hole in the bottom & let the batter run through a little at a time into a pan of hot oil. While the batter is running out through the hole keep the hand moving in a circle to form spirals. Fry until crisp & light brown. In the meantime have a dish of syrup ready. Make this syrup from one pound of brown sugar & water. Keep it in a warm place and as the jullerbees fry place each one for a few minutes in the syrup. Remove & pile them on oiled paper until needed.

The First Story of Ponsonby Sahib continued.
    In the library the jullerbees were vanishing fast, as jullerbees always do, and the first session of finger-licking being under way, the Major ventured: “So, is it a palace, today?”
    “Yes: the Red Palace of Dehrapore,” said Tiddy with satisfaction.
    Romesh echoing this phrase in his own language, the Major considerately switched to that tongue, in order to ask: “What are you doing, attacking or defending it?”
    “Defending it, of course,” said Tiddy.
    “I’m the captain of the palace guard,” explained Romesh.
    The Major gave the sideways wobble of the head that in the great subcontinent is used to signify understanding and affirmation—Yes, children, like this! Odd, is it not?—and Tiddy added helpfully: “Charlie was going to attack it. He’ll have to do it tomorrow, now.”
    He moved his head again. “I see. And who are you today, Tiddy?”
    “I’m the rajah’s chief spy, of course.”
    An acute observer might have seen the Major blench, at this. And at the same instant a laughing voice said in English from the inner doorway: “Serves you right, Ponsonby!”
    At which Gilbert Ponsonby got up, grinning, acknowledging: “It certainly does. Loose lips lose lives, is about the first thing I teach my fellows. How are you, Henry?”
    “In the pink, thanks,” replied Mr Lucas. Eyes twinkling, he put his hands together Indian-fashion and bowed. “Namaste.”
    The Major looked at his own sticky hands, and laughed. “Namaste!”
    “Come and tell me all your news,” said Mr Lucas, coming to put a hand on his shoulder.
    “Have you been up in the mofussil?” demanded Tiddy.
    “No, I’ve just been round and about,” replied Ponsonby smoothly.
    “You can see him later, Tiddy,” said Mr Lucas reassuringly, leading him out.
    “Don’t forget!” cried Tiddy loudly as they vanished.
    “I shan’t!” cried Ponsonby.
    As they went along the passage the voice of Miss Tiddy, aged five years, might quite clearly have been heard informing Master Romesh: “He has been up in the mofussil: that was a fib. You can always tell when Johnny Jullerbees is telling fibs.”
    “My God, I hope not!” said Ponsonby with a laugh as they went into Mr Lucas’s study.
“Angèle, Calcutta, 1815”
Miniature, 1815, artist unknown. (Thought to be Tiddy Lucas as a child)
Courtesy of the Maunsleigh Collection

    —And that is how we remember Ponsonby sahib from those very early days. Tell more, Matt? But was it not clear? Indian words? Did we? Something like “nasty”, Tessa? Oh! Namaste! Great-Aunt Tiddy will show you how it is done! There: one bows, you see—it does look like one is praying, yes, Matt. “Namaste” is just a greeting, as in English you might say “Good-day.” Mussels? But there were no mussels in the story, dear, for in India it is not safe to eat shellfish, the weather is so very hot, it is as if no month had an R in it! Ponsonby sahib was up in the—? Oh! That is mofussil: it means up the country: India is very, very big—yes, much bigger than England, Gil baba: Antoinette will show you on the big globe in the schoolroom later. So you see, Johnny Jullerbees had been on a very long journey. And of course there were no trains back then. Certainly it was before Mr Stephenson’s Rocket, Matt, and you had best spend some time these holidays with your schoolbooks, for poor Miss Hart was supposed to have taught you about that quite some months back! Let us just say that Ponsonby sahib had been on a very long journey, perhaps on horseback, but quite possibly with a camel train.
“Our Kafilah on the Plains”
Photograph, circa 1890, courtesy of Miss Thomas

    Lots of camels, Gil, darling, laden with bags and bundles, all walking one behind the other, with a lurching motion which one has to admit is not a very pleasant sensation, at least to those over twelve years of age! And one can ride or walk beside them. Progress is not very fast, no, but then, life in India never seems urgent…
    Tea? Why of course, darlings, let us ring for tea! No, well, there is a great deal more to the story, Matt, and if you wish to hear more of Ponsonby sahib, and the sorts of things he customarily did when he was in the mofussil, perhaps we could have a little more after tea. Since it still seems to be raining: how dismal the English summers can be, to be sure…

The Second Story of Ponsonby Sahib
    It must have been some time in the year 1820 when Ponsonby sahib paid another of his unannounced visits to the Lucas mansion. Lights glowed softly in the house, the muslin curtains at the downstairs windows moved in the pleasant evening breeze and from inside the house the sound of a piano and a woman’s voice singing could be heard. Ponsonby and his captive had not approached the mansion in the usual way; now they came silently across the dark lawn, and slipped through the bushes.
    “See?” hissed his captive crossly. “I said no-one would miss me!”
    Grimly Ponsonby replied: “Chup!” That is, “Be silent!” and they went round the corner of the house and ducked under the swagged arch, Ponsonby gripping his captive’s small, skinny arm unpleasantly hard.
    “Is it a burra khana?” he muttered as they approached the side verandah.
    “Not really,” admitted the captive sourly: “just dinner. The memsahib said Tonie might come down for it and play the new piece, and then she could accompany Tess, since it was only to be Major and Mrs Hatton, Mr and Mrs Carruthers, and Dr Little. Martha Carruthers was not allowed to come: she had a tantrum.”
    “Girls like her do. Tonie told her she would have her hair up, you see.”
    He moved his head affirmatively. “I see. And has she?”
    “I don’t know. Probably not, she’s only fifteen.”
    “Ah: rubbing salt in the wound,” he said unemotionally, mounting the verandah steps. Tonight the verandah was empty except for its usual scattering of furniture. He moved quickly down to the library, still gripping the captive grimly, and there rang the bell.
    A servant swiftly presented himself, evinced horror and dismay at the sight presented to him, and hurried off to get his master, ekdum—straight away.
    “This,” said Ponsonby grimly, as Mr Lucas came in, looking very mild, “turned up at my sadar this evening claiming to have information for me.”
    Mr Lucas shot one glance at the small, dirty, ragged half-caste boy gripped fiercely in Ponsonby’s grasp and shouted: “Tiddy! What the Devil have you been up to?”
    Tiddy scowled defiantly. “Spying for Ponsonby sahib. –Why not? Romesh’s brother does it, and he’s only fifteen, and I’m much smarter than him!”
    At this our poor Papa was driven to shout crossly that she knew why not: she was a girl!
    “I think you’d better hear it all, Henry,” said Ponsonby.
    “Er—yes. Well, she can get off to bed.”
    “No! I’ve got information!” cried Tiddy.
    “Then don’t shout,” replied Ponsonby sahib calmly. “She claims to have been hanging round Quantock’s house, with Romesh and—er—his brother.”
    “Yes, and they didn’t understand a word, see, because it was all in French!” said Tiddy on a triumphant note.
    “Tiddy, I have one word for you,” said our Papa with a sigh. “Waterloo.”
    “I know!” she retorted angrily. “That doesn’t mean the French all love us, or have the interest of the Company at heart.”
    “Er—look, have a cigarillo,” said Mr Lucas to his friend with a smothered sigh, “and we’ll get to the bottom of it. It may all be a fantasy, y’know.”
    Ponsonby accepted a cigar and they adjourned to the verandah, where the two men lit up and sat down after a cautious checking of the shadows. Tiddy came and squatted at their feet but was ordered peremptorily by her father to get up and sit on a chair like a Christian.

    No, no, dear children. Everyone squats in India, except for the English, it is completely usual for a rajah—a prince, that is—as well as for a beggar, but pray to do not ask us to demonstrate it, at our advanced ages! Well, they are not Christians, Matt, no, and why should they be? Er—no, do not tell your Papa that, dear boy. Doubtless whatever he told you must be correct, and we are just three silly old ladies. Several religions, dear boy, and perhaps we could discuss that at another time, if your Papa permits you. Now, where were we? Oh, yes:

The Second Story of Ponsonby Sahib continued
    “Go on, Tiddy,” said Ponsonby on a dry note, as Mr Lucas merely blew smoke.
    It emerged from the somewhat tangled narrative that Tiddy, on the pretext of helping the punkah-wallah—the man who works the big ceiling fan—had got onto Mr Quantock’s verandah and there overheard, not merely this evening but over the course of several evenings, the aforesaid Quantock plotting with an emissary of the Rajah of Dehrapore, a visiting merchant who went by the name of Bogaert and claimed to be Belgian, and a Mr Paterson who worked for John Company, to foment unrest in the Rajah’s territory, entice an English regiment thereto, and there finish them off. In, according to Tiddy, French.
The Rajah of Dehrapore in Procession, circa 1800”
(from a portfolio of mounted Indian miniatures, Maunsleigh Library)
From the estate of Jarvis Wynton, Fifth Earl of Sleyven. Courtesy of the Maunsleigh Collection
    “If this farrago be true,” said Mr Lucas slowly, “then one can see why a Froggy masquerading as a Belgian would be quite happy for it to happen, provided he was a Republican Froggy, I suppose; and the Rajah’s known to be doing all he can to keep us out of his territory. He’d like to give us a hint or two we’re not welcome there, provided it can appear that we marched in asking for it. But I’d like to know what advantage Quantock gets from it. Or Paterson,” he added, very neutrally indeed.
    “Possibly Paterson is merely being paid for his assistance,” said Ponsonby.
    “Yes, or possibly the whole thing’s a fairy story; she knows Paterson, and don’t like him.”
    “He’s a horrid man, but I’m not making it up!” said Tiddy angrily.
    “Mm. Well, did you get any hint of what Quantock’s in it for?” asked Ponsonby seriously. “He’s a rich man, you know: as well-to-do as your Papa, I dare say.”
    “It was something about the—um—restrictions of John Company. He said they had a stranglehold,”  said Tiddy on a dubious note.
    “Er—well, that smacks of verisimilitude, Henry,” he murmured.
    “Aye, but to betray an English regiment?”
    “It has been known,” said Ponsonby, very drily indeed.
    “It has, indeed,” agreed Henry John Lucas.
    “Aye… But the involvement of the French seems… Well, we have not had a whisper.”
    “They were talking French!” said Tiddy crossly. “Romesh and his brother couldn’t understand, and they went to sleep, but I listened!”
    “Her step-mamma has insisted the girls keep up their French, in memory of their mother,” Mr Lucas conceded.
    Ponsonby rubbed his chin. “Oui, je sais. Raconte-moi cette histoire en français,” he suggested to Tiddy. “Du moins, raconte ce qu’a dit ce Bogaert.”
    Obediently Tiddy repeated what she could recall of M. Bogaert’s conversation, but this did not get them any further. Very clearly there had been a considerable amount which had passed right over her head. Sharp though that head was.
    “Did he mention—he or anyone, Tiddy,” said Ponsonby slowly at last, “anything like St Petersburg, or Moscow, or the interests of the Tsar, or the Northwest Frontier?”
    “No!” she said in amaze. “The frontier’s hundreds and hundreds of miles from the Rajah’s territory, Major!”
    Ponsonby smiled a little. “Mm. Er… Anything about Holland or the Dutch, Tiddy?”
    “No,” she said definitely.
    “Tiddy, think. Anything about the Dutch East Indies?” urged her father.
    “No!” she said crossly. “I am not a simpleton!”
    “No, you’re not that. Er—the Portuguese?” Ponsonby raised his eyebrows at Mr Lucas.
    “Nominally our allies,” murmured the merchant.
    “Mm. Well, there’s more than one power that would like to see us struggling to keep our foothold here, rather than broadening our interests in the East.”
    “Quite.” Mr Lucas pitched the stub of his cigar into a potted plant, and got up. “If this is true, a grateful country may give you a medal,” he said to his youngest daughter in an unpleasant voice. “But I don’t advise you to count on it. If it proves to be a lie, I’ll give you a dashed good beating meself. In the meantime, you can come upstairs and explain yourself to Ayah, and I think I can promise you that she’ll give you a dashed good beating. Say goodnight to Major Ponsonby.” He seized her hand and pulled her to her feet.
    “Goodnight, Ponsonby sahib,” said Tiddy in a small voice.
    He stood up slowly. “Tiddy, this was a very silly thing to do. Running around the town dressed as a boy is extremely dangerous, as I think you know, and skulking around Quantock’s house, if the man is involved in anything shady, could get you killed. I want your promise you won’t try this sort of trick again.”
    “Well?” said Mr Lucas, as his daughter had not uttered.
    “No!” she shouted. “It’s not fair! Boys can do anything! And it is all true! And I am not a liar!” Forthwith bursting into a storm of tears.
    “She is quite a truthful child,” said Mr Lucas, ignoring the tears, “as much as one brought up by a pack of Indian servants can ever be said to be that. Has a sense of fair play, too.”
    “Yes.” Ponsonby eyed him cautiously. “I’m dashed sorry, Henry. Should never have encouraged her by telling her those spy stories.”
    “No, well, who’d have thought she’d be so cursed silly?”
    “I’m not silly!” shouted Tiddy through the tears.
    “Not half,” replied Mr Lucas stolidly, hauling her off.
    Ponsonby lit a fresh cigarillo and gazed up at a velvety Indian sky. Eventually he blew out a long stream of smoke. “Hmm,” he said thoughtfully. When Mr Lucas reappeared on the side verandah of Ma Maison there was no sign of him. The merchant nodded to himself, and went slowly back indoors to his little dinner party.

    You wish to know if her nurse beat her, children? Let us just say that Tiddy baba received a good scolding. Yes, Matt: it was a very dangerous thing to do, but perhaps it does prove that girls may be as adventurous as boys. Though on mature reflection some of us had to concede that they can be as foolhardy! Indeed, Tessa, your Great-Aunt Tiddy was a very naughty girl to dress up as a boy. But the bad men did not catch her, and so it turned out happily in the end! Not breeches, no, darling, but a dhotee. A white cloth wrapped about the hips and legs, almost as we might wrap an infant, but in India even very old men wear the dhotee, usually with a long, loose white shirt. The poorer classes cannot afford coats, Matt, though the better-off wear them when the weather is not too hot, or for formal occasions. No, Tessa, dear, rajahs wear pretty silken breeches. As for how it all turned out, Matt, that was not revealed for some two years after that. Things do not move swiftly in India. But as in England it seems it is already time for your old aunts to rest before dinner, we shall leave it there for the nonce. No, Gil baba, tomorrow is another day!

(Part 2 to come...)
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