Excerpt from The Sandalwood Princess
There were worse places to live in Calcutta, and better. Here in the crowded quarter, as elsewhere, the streets flooded in the monsoon season and the price of a palanquin soared in consequence. Fever, too, struck here, just as it did in the great palaces of Garden Reach and in the meanest slums.
The place stank, as all Calcutta stank. Indoors, the odor of ghee blended sickeningly with the reek of bug flies. Out of doors, the stench of death overpowered even that of animals and refuse, as the smoke of funeral pyres on the Hooghly riverbank thickened the broiling atmosphere. Incense only added to the miasma. In the near one-hundred-degree heat of midday, the noisome compound curdled and churned like some foul sorcerer’s brew. All the perfumes of Arabia would not sweeten this place and make it fresh again, had it ever been.
All of India was not like Calcutta, Philip knew. Places existed where the breezes blew sweet and pure. He had long since learned, however, to close his senses to what could not be mended or amended. Fifteen years in India had taught him, if not an Oriental patience, then a sufficient Occidental stoicism. The climate, the stench, was beyond his control. Thus he simply accepted them. As to the neighborhood—admittedly, one might have lived more luxuriously, but then, not so anonymously.
His rented stucco cottage suited his current role as a hookah merchant. In this busy quarter, his comings and goings aroused little interest. His command of the language was flawless, as was his grasp of etiquette. The fierce Indian sun had darkened his complexion, and an application of nut oil did the same for his fair hair. Even the blue of his eyes did not betray him. Eurasians were scarcely rare in this place.
Calcutta’s founder, an Englishman named Job Charnock, had married a Brahmin lady. Like Job, the British who came in earlier times mingled freely with the natives. One found their progeny not only throughout the subcontinent, but at Eton and Oxford as well.
Thus Philip Astonley, youngest son of the Viscount Felkoner—blue-blooded and unequivocally British—easily passed in India as a mongrel. This was no great transformation, in Philip’s opinion. In the process of ejecting his youngest son from the family, his lordship had called the eighteen-year-old an ungrateful cur. Philip perceived small difference between Nameless and Anonymous. In any case, if he ceased at present to be anonymous, he would very likely cease to live.
The thought was not an idle one. As he turned the corner into the narrow street, his finely tuned instincts stirred in warning. The street was deserted, as it usually was in the sweltering afternoon, when most of Calcutta slept. Yet he’d caught a movement, a glancing shadow at the opposite end of the street. His steps quickened.
He had the house key in his hand when he reached the door. Before he opened it, Philip glanced about once more. The street lay empty and still. In the next instant, he’d slipped through the door and locked it behind him. The small house, shuttered against the glaring sun, was dark, but not altogether quiet. From the room beyond came a strangled moan. Silence. Then another moan, higher pitched.
Philip drew out his knife and crept noiselessly to the bedroom. A wail of agony tore through the stillness, and he saw a man on the floor beside the bed jerk convulsively. Muttering an oath, Philip hurried forward, and dropped to his knees beside his servant’s knotted body.
His face was hot and soaked with sweat, his pulse frenetic. As soon as Philip touched him, Jessup jerked spasmodically and began to babble. The words, half English and half Hindustani, spilled in a steady, chattering stream, punctuated by strangled cries of anguish. It looked like fever, but it wasn’t.
“Damn you,” Philip growled. “Don’t you die on me, soldier.”
Grasping the servant under the shoulders, Philip hauled him onto the bed. The body twisted and trembled, then knotted up once more in pain. The hysterical litany—of scorpions, cobras, bits of the Book of Common Prayer, fragments of battles, women’s names, oaths—was broken by choked wails of agony.
The poison evidently acted slowly, bringing hallucinations as well as pain. Without knowing exactly what sort of poison, Philip dared give his servant nothing, not even water.
He squeezed Jessup’s hand. “I’ll have to leave you for a minute, old man,” he whispered. “I’m going for help. Just hang on, will you? Just hang on.”
The old woman Philip sought lived across the way. Silently praying she’d be home, he threw open the door.
He found her waiting on his doorstep.
He was not altogether surprised. The aged Sharda was the local midwife and doctor. She could probably smell illness and death.
“My servant, mother—” he began.
“I know,” she said. “You have great trouble, Dilip sahib.”
Sahib? Though Philip bowed his head respectfully as she entered, his eyes narrowed with suspicion.
“Jasu—” he began again.
She gestured him to be silent. “I know,” she said.
In the room beyond, Jessup screamed, then subsided again into demented babbling. The latter was worse than the screams. Philip gritted his teeth. It was all he could do to keep from dragging the old woman to the sickbed. She had her own ways, however.
He felt her gaze upon him.
“I will go to him,” she said. “Have patience.”
She studied the small space which served as kitchen, living room, and dining room. A plate of pastries sat upon the table. She took one, broke it in half, stared at the fruit center, then sniffed it.
“Figs, you see,” she said, pointing to the dark paste. To add another sort of seed is not difficult, and the flour, I think, was tainted. He has terrible visions?”
“Yes,” Philip said tightly, “and pain. Yet I hesitated to give him anything.”
“Opium we can give him for the pain,” she said. “The other must run its course, I fear.”
Her examination confirmed the preliminary diagnosis. Accordingly, she measured out a dose of the laudanum Philip handed her. After what seemed an eternity, Jessup began to quiet somewhat. He still babbled, but more like a drunken man, and the spasms and strangled cries ceased. Perhaps he would sleep, Sharda told Philip. At any rate, the servant would not die, though he may wish it. His recovery would be very long and very painful.
“A fiendish mixture it is, to bring both madness and maddening pain,” Sharda said as they left the sickroom, “and no relief of death. But it was not meant to kill him.” She patted his arm in a sad, kindly way. “Only to cause great suffering, so that you would heed the warning.”
He had known, hadn’t he? He’d felt it as he’d entered the street, and seen it in the vanishing shadow.
While the old woman was examining Jessup, Philip had put on water to boil. Now he courteously offered tea, and made himself wait until she was ready to enlighten him.
She sipped and nodded her approval. Then she looked at him.
“A little while before, a man brought me a message,” she said. “I must tell the blue-eyed merchant he is known, as is his intention. And so, he will die if he does not depart Calcutta before another day passes.”
Not only known, but his mission known as well. Gad, the woman was incredible. “And this, I take it,” Philip said calmly, nodding towards the sickroom, “is what I might expect?”
“You know of whom we speak. Your death will come slowly, only after many times Jasu’s sufferings. Go away, as you are told, and live.”
Philip Astonley was not a reckless man. He never underestimated his adversaries. If the Rani Simhi said she’d kill him, she’d do it, and, naturally, in the ghastliest way her evil imagination could devise. He’d known she’d penetrate his disguise sooner or later. He had not, however, dreamt this would occur quite so soon. What had it been? Less than forty-eight hours. Still, he should have been prepared. It was his fault Jessup lay in the room beyond, mad with pain and hallucination.
He met Sharda’s anxious gaze. “I will heed the warning,” he said.
Minutes after, her grandson Hari set off with a message to Fort William. Two hours later, Hari returned with the Honorable Randall Groves. A trio of servants and a pair of palanquins followed them.
Every window and door in the street promptly filled with curious onlookers. This was perfectly satisfactory. The rani would speedily receive word the merchant was departing.
Philip was already packed when Groves entered, looking exceedingly put out. He grew even more put out when Philip led him into his own room and quietly explained what was expected of him.
“Confound it,” Randall snapped. “This is your specialty, ain’t it? How the devil do you expect me—”
“However you can,” Philip said. “Bribe, lie—I don’t care. The Evelina is scheduled to sail tomorrow, and Jessup and I have to be on board.” He thrust a packet of papers into Randall’s hands. “Don’t use them unless you have to. I’d rather not bring his lordship into this, and he’d rather I didn’t as well, for obvious reasons.”
“Philip, the ship’s loaded to the limit, and Blayton don’t even want the passengers he’s got. The Bullerhams, Cavencourt’s sister, Monty Larchmere, and all their servants. You expect me to throw a couple of ‘em overboard?”
“If you must. I’d talk to Monty first. He’s a greedy devil. For a hefty bribe, he’ll probably agree to wait through the monsoon season for another ship.” While he spoke, Philip was winding a turban about his head.
Randall stared at the turban a moment. Then a horrified understanding widened his eyes. “Good grief,” he said. “That’s why you sent for me. You’re still meaning to do it, ain’t you? For God’s sake, Philip, the curst woman knows who you are!”
“Exactly. As I so carefully explained, she means to kill me if I’m not gone by tomorrow, so I’d better work fast, hadn’t I?”
Philip slipped his knife into its sheath and fastened it to the sash he wore under his long muslin kurta. With the loose shirt he wore muslin trousers. For the evening’s endeavor, these would be less encumbering than the dhoti’s complicated draping. His toilette complete, Philip returned his attention to the now grim Randall.
“Don’t mope, Randy,” he said. “I don’t plan to get killed. The lady wants me gone, and I will oblige her. But I’m damned if I m leaving without it. I’ve never failed yet, and a man must consider his reputation.”
“You’re mad,” said Randall.
The blue eyes flashed. “Have a glance in the other room, my lad,” Philip said in a low voice. “Have a look at what the witch’s done to Jessup. I can’t pay her back as I’d like, because the curst female’s too precious to our superiors. But I’ll repay her as I can, that I swear.”
The Rani Simhi resided in a vast mansion on the banks of the Hooghly at Garden Reach. Though the English had built these Palladian palaces exclusively for themselves, the Indian princess was an exceptional case. The Governor-General, Lord Moira, had personally overseen the previous resident’s eviction, in order to provide the enigmatic Indian woman a domicile befitting both her status and her usefulness to His Majesty’s government.
This night, she celebrated her fifty-fifth birthday. The palace was packed with guests both British and Indian. She appeared briefly, to receive the company’s good wishes, then, according to her custom, retired to her private rooms. Though in so many ways unlike other native women, she chose to imitate them in leaving the responsibilities of hosting to her sons.
Since the party was held in her honor, she might have lingered if she chose. This night, however, she had one visitor whose company she wished to enjoy privately. So she explained to Amanda Cavencourt when the latter voiced regret about keeping the princess from her guests.
“You leave tomorrow for England,” said the rani. “We may never meet again. Besides, they are all idiots, and tiresome.” She made a slight gesture with her hand, and a large, jewel-encrusted hookah was brought forward.
“Your brother, for instance,” she went on, as she examined the mouthpiece. “Generally not a stupid man, but he has married foolishly an ignorant woman. If she were not so ignorant, she would love you. Instead, she hates you, and drives you away. I detest her.”
“Two women cannot rule one house,” Amanda said calmly. “My presence is a constant irritant. Or perhaps embarrassment is more like it. My ways aren’t hers and never will be, so there’s always friction. You understand,” she added.
The rani studied the silken-clad woman who sat cross-legged opposite her. “I understand she would fly into a rage, could she see you now. I am told she considers the sari indecent.”
Amanda grinned as she took up her mouthpiece. “She’d certainly drop into five fits if she saw me smoking this.” She gave a defiant shrug, and drew on the hookah with practiced ease.
She knew her erratic attention to deportment merely aggravated her sister-in-law’s dislike. In time, Eustacia might have nagged her wayward relation into more acceptable behavior. Unfortunately, no lessons, no reminders, however regular, could change Amanda’s appearance.
Her light complexion resembled too closely the mellow ivory lightness of the natives of the northern Ganges. Glossy dark brown hair, rippling in duck waves, framed the oval of her face. Thick black lashes fringed large eyes of a peculiarly light, changeable brown. The bones of her countenance strongly defined, the nose straight and well-modeled, the mouth wide and overfull, Amanda’s face was far too exotic for European beauty. More mortifying to Lady Cavencourt, both Europeans and natives regularly mistook Amanda for an Indian.
“I comprehend well enough,” the older woman answered, “but I object. We will speak no more of her. She is tiresome. I have a story for you, much more interesting than your foolish new sister.”
Nothing could be so pleasurable as this, Amanda thought. How she would miss the sultry Calcutta evenings spent with the fascinating princess... the languorous clouds of smoke and incense that filled the room with shifting spirit-shadows ... the rani’s clear voice, smooth as a running river, coiling through the twists and turns of ancient legends. Amanda forced back the tears filling her eyes.
The rani smoked silently for a moment. Then she raised a finger. All the servants scurried from the room, save the large Padji, who stood as still as a statue by the door. When the rest were gone, she began:
“Tonight, I tell you of the goddess Anumati, she from whom the childless women of my native kingdom besought sons and daughters. When she answered their prayers, the women would bring her gifts, as rich as their means permitted. But whether rich or poor, the new mother must always bring as well a carved figure.”
From the cushion beside her, the rani picked up a small wooden statue. Amanda had seen it before. Normally it stood upon a shelf, along with other statues and talismans in the rani’s vast collection. It was about ten inches tall, a beautifully carved sandalwood figure of a smiling woman whose belly was swollen with child.
“Many lifetimes ago,” the rani continued, “such figures filled Anumati’s temple, and precious stones adorned her magnificent statue. In her forehead was set a large ruby, and in her right hand an immense pearl in the shape of a tear. These were the gifts of a prince and princess of ancient times. The ruby, from the prince, symbolized the blood of new life: the son Anumati had given the previously childless couple. The pearl, his wife’s gift, represented the tears of happiness she’d shed at her son’s birth. This stone, more rare than even the ruby, was called the Tear of Joy.”
By the doorway, Padji shifted slightly, and threw his mistress a glance. Her eyes upon the statue, the rani went on.
“Many lifetimes later, marauders came and ransacked the rich temple. The chief of them must have the greatest jewels, of course. With difficulty, he removed the ruby. The pearl, however, was more deeply set. To get at it, he must break the hand from the statue. He beat upon it with an altar stone, and at last the arm began to crack. At that same moment came a great rumbling. The temple walls shuddered and the ground beneath trembled. His terrified companions fled, some dropping their loot in their haste. He remained, still struggling for the pearl. Just as he broke the hand away, the temple roof collapsed.”
“Anumati was very angry,” Amanda murmured. “I don’t blame her.”
“Her revenge was greater than that. Mere hours after the temple’s collapse, several of the marauders returned. The new leader, as greedy as his predecessor, determined to have the two great stones. They dug through the rubble— a tremendous task—and at last, by the next day, found the chief’s crushed body. The ruby lay in his hand. The pearl was gone.”
She looked at Amanda. “What do you make of that?”
“The logical explanation is that the pearl was crushed to powder,” Amanda said thoughtfully. “Yet Anumati’s worshippers would probably conclude she took away her treasure because, instead of Life and Love, death and destruction filled her temple.”
The princess nodded. “It was said that Anumati had abandoned the defiled place and taken all joy with her. The temple grounds were considered accursed. My people followed the advice of their priests, and did not attempt to restore either the temple or their ravaged town. Instead, they built new houses a safe distance away.”
Gently she stroked the figure’s forehead. After a moment she said, “Now I come to my own lifetime.”
From the doorway came a long, drawn-out sigh. The princess affected not to hear it.
“I was many years a younger woman than you when a Punjab prince conquered my father’s kingdom,” she said. “When this conqueror investigated his new domain, he made two discoveries. One was myself. To strengthen his political position, he took me as his wife. He also discovered the temple ruins. His greed being far greater than his fear of curses, he ordered the temple excavated. Thus he unearthed all the treasure the robbers had left behind in their terror. Also, he found the skull of the chieftain, and within it”—she paused briefly—“the Tear of Joy.”
Amanda stifled a gasp. “In the skull?” she asked incredulously. “How did it get there?”
The rani shrugged. “Who knows? There it lay, undamaged after nearly a century. My husband gave it to me, before all the town. He was a pig, but politic. Before them, he gave it to me. In private, he took it back—for safekeeping, he said. He permitted me to keep a few baubles, and this figure, the only one which had not been destroyed in the temple’s collapse. I was not pleased,” she added with a faint smile.
There came a loud sniff from the doorway.
“What ails you, Padji?” the princess asked.
“Then be silent.” She turned back to Amanda. “Once and only once in my life have I loved,” the rani said. “I speak not of ordinary love, which I have possessed in abundance. I speak of a great, all-consuming love, such as most persons merely read of or see performed in drama, but never experience in their lives. In your legends, it is the love of Tristan and Isolde. In mine, it is that of Krishna and Radha.”
After a moment’s consideration, Amanda said softly, “You mean sinful love, I think.” She blushed as she spoke, not for any missish reason, but because to speak of sin to the rani was... oh, absurd, really. Her morality was not defined by the Church of England or English society.
“Yes,” the Indian woman answered calmly. “Sinful love.” She lazily drew upon the water pipe.
While she awaited the rest of the story, Amanda gazed about her, trying to memorize her surroundings, for it would be the last time, perhaps. Thick with smoke and incense, these chambers would have frightened the lady-like Eustacia, and most gently bred British ladies. They would have perceived the place as a den of iniquity. Certainly it fit their image of the Rani Simhi as a dangerous woman whose history comprised one long career of sin.
Perhaps it was sin, Amanda reflected. Nonetheless, the princess’s world was fascinating, and Amanda had been happier here than anywhere else she could remember. Whether legend or history, the universe her Indian friend revealed was a dream world, as captivating as a fairy tale. It was also as safe as one, for Amanda could never enter its pages.
A light breeze wafted from the garden, carrying the scent of flowers and the fresh fragrance of the carved vetiver entryway. Something else, Amanda thought, drawing an appreciative breath. Agarwood?
“My husband became one of the most powerful princes in India,” the rani continued. “Thus the British soon arrived, to persuade him to accept their protection rather than that of the French. Among them was one, tall and fair. In his hair gleamed the golden light of the sun, and in his eyes the glistening sea. I saw him and love consumed me. This passion caused me to risk death, the punishment for adulteresses. Richard Whitestone became my lover, and in time, I ran away with him.”
Padji cried out, “Oh, mistress, would that I’d cut out the dog’s heart!’’
“Hold your tongue,” said his mistress. “My friend does not wish to hear your ignorant babbling.” She turned back to Amanda. “He is like a child sometimes. He thinks everything may be resolved by cutting out hearts. One cannot explain to him. He is not a woman.”
Amanda’s gaze slid from servant to mistress. She understood. “Your lover betrayed you.”
The princess shrugged. “Men are easily confused. One night I awoke, and found my lover gone.”
“He took everything,” Padji growled. “The jewels-”
“He took from a thief,” his mistress corrected. “Merely to abandon my husband was insufficient payment for his selfish cruelty. I stole from his treasures, took what he held truly precious, gold and jewels. Yet this was not entirely revenge. My lover and I must live on something, and he was not a wealthy young man.”
“Still, he took everything? Abandoned you and left you destitute? Whether you’d stolen the treasures or not, that was a despicable thing to do,” Amanda said indignantly.
“There is more to be unfolded,” the rani answered, “as it was unfolded to me. I later learned my husband had persuaded the Englishman to seduce and take me away.”
Amanda’s mouth fell open.
“My husband had grown to fear my influence. He was eager to be rid of me, but dared not kill me, for fear of an uprising. If I committed adultery, however, my own people would pursue me and put me to death, while he stood by, innocent, the injured spouse.”
“As I told you, he was politic. Still, he also betrayed his English ally. He’d promised Richard Whitestone a considerable reward, which he failed to deliver. Thus my lover took his payment from me.”
“That hardly excuses him,” Amanda said, rubbing her forehead. “I know you believe each matter also contains its opposite, but all I see in this is villainy.”
“So it is, memsahib,” Padji solemnly agreed. “I might have caught and killed him, but my mistress would not permit it. Even then—”
“I was betrayed. What of it?” the princess interrupted. “Women are always betrayed. Yet I prospered. Did not this Englishman show me the Fire of Love, which so few experience? Did he not release me from my husband and carry me to safety? Within months my husband lay dead of fever—and I was spared the sati. Instead of burning on his pyre, I was free, many miles away. Did I not find another husband, worthy and loving, who gave me strong sons and showered me with wealth?”
All while she’d spoken, her voice calm and cool, the rani had continued stroking the statue.
After a moment’s silence, she said, “Though he took all else, Richard Whitestone left me this figure. One night, as I lay weeping for him, Anumati came to me in a dream. In time, she said, I would discover the meaning of this suffering, and its end. The one object my lover had left me was her gift to me, which she would fill with all her blessings. This was her promise, and she kept it.”
She must have observed dissatisfaction in Amanda’s face then, because she laughed. “Ah, my young friend, the matter of love still troubles you.”
“You speak as though you forgive him,” Amanda said, “yet he behaved abominably in every way. He behaved like a—a prostitute. Then he stole all you had.”
“Merely the acts of a desperate man. Yet I have no doubt he loved me. Such passion cannot be feigned. Perhaps that made him most desperate of all, for ours was the love that is madness and rapture at once.”
“If it is a sort of madness,’’ Amanda said reflectively, “then no wonder it is treacherous. As you said, most of us only read about it—yet the stories are always tragic, as yours seems.’’
“What tragedy?” was the cool response. “I found happiness after.”
“But destructive, at least,” Amanda argued, without quite knowing why she needed to argue. “I don’t know about Krishna and Radha, but what about Tristan and Isolde? What about Romeo and Juliet?”
“Ah, yes,” the princess said. “Romeo and Juliet. I have read this work of your great poet many times. A fine scene, that in the garden. She calls to her lover, as I called to mine in my sorrow and loneliness.” In English, then, she quoted as she gazed towards her own garden, “‘O! for a falconer’s voice, / To lure this tassel-gentle back again.’“
The Rani Simhi was still a beautiful woman. As she softly uttered the longing words, her face softened, too, and for an instant, Amanda saw in her profile the young girl who’d known rapturous passion. For that instant, Amanda almost envied her. Almost.
“Would you lure him back?” she whispered.
The princess’s gaze, dark and liquid, came back to her. She smiled.
Padji shifted restlessly.
“We bore Padji beyond his little patience,” his mistress said, her voice brisk again, “and I keep you overlong with my tales. Yet he understands,” she added, throwing her servant a warning look, “that you must know the story, because now the statue belongs to you, my dear friend.” So saying, she held the sandalwood figure out to Amanda.
Stunned, Amanda took it.
“Anumati’s is a woman’s gift, to be passed from mother to daughter. I have no daughters of my blood, but you have become the daughter of my heart. Thus I pass the Laughing Princess to you. May all her blessings enrich your life, as you have so enriched mine, child.”
There was no holding back the tears then, a monsoon flood of them, so that Amanda scarcely saw the heap of gifts Padji began piling before her, barely comprehended the rani’s affectionate words of farewell. Silks, kashmir shawls, perfumes, and incense—a rajah’s treasure. In vain Amanda protested this largess. The princess waved away all objections.
“If you remained with me, my daughter, thus would I adorn you,” she said. “Also, I would find you a fine husband, tall and strong and passionate. Unfortunately, I could find no one worthy in time.”
Amanda gave a watery giggle. Indian women were often wed at puberty. At six and twenty, even by English standards she was at her last prayers.
“That is better,” the rani said. “We part with smiles.” She embraced Amanda, then added, “If I find you a husband, I shall dispatch him to England, never fear.”
In the flurry of gift giving and leave taking, they did not hear the soft rustle in the dark garden beyond or the feather-light footsteps fading into the night.