“Lord, this is a scandalous first impression,” I said.
The woman cocked her head to the side and stared at me. I began to wonder if her knowledge of the English language was in fact poor and she was only able to deliver certain stock snide words and phrases in it.
“I assume that you are these children’s ayah?” I exclaimed loudly and with what she must have interpreted as humiliating slowness.
“That’s what Andrea and Molly call me,” she answered fluently, setting Robert down. The child stared at me in mute terror for a moment and then scrambled indoors.
“Are all of you on a first name basis, then?”
“Get off your high horse, Maxim,” said Christopher. “Things aren’t so formal around here anymore. The little boy alone has said enough this afternoon to give a vicar apoplexy.”
“Stay out of this.”
There was an awkward pause. The woman remedied it.
“I apologize—I should have said their royal highnesses Andrea and Molly.”
“Your English is impeccable, Yulan,” I told her quietly and close to her face, so that the children wouldn’t hear me, “and since I know it not to be your native tongue, I imagine that you must have a lively intellect. But you’ve given me the immediate opinion that you are unprofessional, madam.”
Christopher cackled at this, but the woman only stared at me again in an odd sort of way. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. Her eyes seemed to be soulless, and she was breathing hard. At length, she smiled.
“Please call me Orchid. To be honest, only the little girl and her mother have the talent to pronounce my proper name correctly, so it’s better that you didn’t even try. Butchering the Chinese language is beneath you.”
“As teaching duties are evidently beneath you?”
“Thomas,” she said in a bored voice, “Recite your history lesson. Or are you too dense?”
“I am not!”
“Then prove it and tell your Uncle Maxim the story of the Black Hole of Calcutta.”
“The stranger thinks we have to be sent to Scotland,” whispered Julia urgently. “So do it right.” I realized that the children were completely oblivious to the danger of the mutiny. The worst horror that either of their little minds could conjure up was probably being separated from their mother, the gut-wrenching fate of all well-bred Anglo-Indian children. I couldn’t quite bring myself to sympathize with them, though, because both of my parents were dead when I left India for the first time, and I knew that worse fates existed than grammar school in Aberdeen.
“Watch me, Uncle Maxim,” Thomas sighed. He proceeded to rapidly recite, “Once upon a time there was an evil Indian prince named Sir Roger Dowlett. In seventeen-hundred-and-fifty-six the Brits were in an awful fix. Sir Roger captured Calcutta. He put 146 of her majesty’s royal…sorry…loyal subjects into a jail cell 18 feet long by 14 feet wide. Only 23 people survived the night. 123 people were crushed to death inside the cell. So, in seventeen-hundred-and-fifty-seven, Sir Roger Dowlett was sent to heaven. We beat him and his Frenchy helpers at the Battle of Plassey a hundred years ago this June, and that’s how we won India.”
“Perfect,” said Orchid. “Now run off and play.”
“Oh boy!” said Christopher excitedly in anticipation of a debate. “You’ve got the story all wrong there, Thomas.”
“I know why,” said Julia. “The prince’s name wasn’t Sir Roger Dowlett at all. It was Siraj Ud Daula. Sir Roger Dowlett was just a nickname.”
“Excellent,” said Orchid. “Now everyone has contributed to today’s history lesson. See? Was it so wrong of me to indulge the children with recess, Mr. Maxwell? It’s remarkable how erudite the baba logue are.”
As far as I was concerned, the woman’s surliness was an insult to the sacredness of her position. I knew intuitively that her fluency didn’t help matters. I guessed that she fancied herself a persecuted intellectual. But I thought she had no call to describe a child as dense to his face, particularly one so high-spirited as Thomas. I could understand why he disliked her. I suppose she was attempting to make an impression of some kind on me. But in my mind, I thought of Rupee, my grandmother, a buriah ayah of the old order, the compassionate true head of the household whatever the men of the family might think or have thought of her, shrewd, patient, and nurturing. This woman was no match for her.
I sat down beside a row of rose hedges, motioning for Julia and Thomas to join me. Julia of course remained in place, but Thomas edged forward.
“Siraj Ud Daula, or Sir Roger Dowlett as you called him, was the last Nawab of Bengal,” I explained authoritatively. “Now, why did he attack the East India Company’s forces?”
“Because they were Brits?”
“No. It was because they defied his orders and began stockpiling weapons in Fort William in Calcutta. Fine bubble there, incidentally.”
“Why did they stockpile weapons?” he asked guiltily. (I’d just caught him blowing bubbles of saliva in boredom.)
“They were afraid of the French, who were causing trouble, as they always do in world history. Anyway, after Siraj…after he captured Fort William, some angry Europeans assaulted the native soldiers assigned to guard them. It was only then that Siraj’s officers threw all 146 prisoners into the Black Hole as punishment. When the guards told the prisoners to get inside, everyone thought it was all a joke, at first. But then their laugher transformed into terrified screams and pleas.”
I hoped that my effective use of hyperbole was proving entertaining to my audience.
“So, Siraj’s officers did it,” yawned Thomas, “and not Siraj himself?”
“Siraj was asleep—that was his excuse. Anyway, the soldiers might not have meant for the prisoners to die…when they began to die. But everyone was too afraid to wake up the prince and ask permission to unlock the doors. And so the native guards stood by as 123 people were smothered and trampled to death.”
“That’s just what I said,” said Thomas. “You’re only making the story longer, Uncle Maxim.”
“You missed the moral of the story.”
“It teaches us what happens when small-minded people use the excuse of following orders to justify their evil actions. Besides, you lacked details. For example, you didn’t even mention Robert Clive, the man who avenged the Black Hole at the Battle of Plassey. When it was all over, Siraj was betrayed by his own troops, and then he was killed.”
“And what happened to Robert Clive?”
“As a matter of fact,” interrupted Christopher, “he stuck a pen-knife into his neck in middle age. Thomas was absolutely right, Maxim! Your version of the story was no different from his. Show the kids that they can question history—that they can change the meaning of the story in retrospect, and make up their own morals. What if I told you, Tom, that Siraj Ud Daula was right to defy the British?”
“Right to defy the British?” screamed Thomas.
“From Siraj Ud Daula’s perspective, yes,” said Christopher.
“Right to suffocate all those people?” cried Julia, willing to join the conversation now that Christopher was in it.
“Christopher,” I said, “you’re ruining the lesson.” I had meant to set a calm example of the Socratic method to Orchid and was instead being upstaged.
“Wasn’t Siraj right to fight for his people’s freedom?”
“I don’t care what he was fighting for,” said Julia decisively to Christopher. “He was wrong to throw all of those people into the Black Hole. Those helpless prisoners were his responsibility, and their murder only made the British seek revenge. He didn’t help anybody, least of all his own people. But history will have its revenge on him. He’ll be remembered for all time as a villain.”
“Some people,” said Christopher, “argue that the Black Hole never really existed.”
“Oh, it existed,” I said. “There’s a plaque commemorating it somewhere in Calcutta.”
“This is an interesting history lesson,” said Thomas.
“You see, Maxim?” said Christopher. “I didn’t ruin anything. I was helping your lesson along, though you were too caught up in yourself to realize it.”
“These children need to be packed off to Scotland,” I repeated, secretly enjoying the visible effect that this threat had on them. It suppose it made me feel powerful in a petty kind of way. Admit it or not, but it can be pleasurable to be malicious to the weak when you can get away with it sometimes.
“If we were lucky, we’d all be sent far away from this place,” said Orchid. “Come along now, children, and go inside. It’s too hot to be out here.” She turned to me. “Your brother is away just now inspecting the vats, Mr. Maxwell. Andrea—I mean Mrs. Maxwell the Younger—is bed-ridden, and your stepmother, Mrs. Maxwell the Elder, is tending to her.”
“You know,” I said, “there’s no shame in being a governess. And certainly none in being a teacher.”
“Well, I’m afraid I’m no pedagogue. You found me out.” She smiled for a moment, and then became serious. “You’ve been unfriendly and formal with me from the start, Mr. Maxwell, and I confess that I’ve also been less than polite. But you needn’t think of me as your enemy. There’s no place for either of us here.”
“Speak for yourself. You certainly have a lot to say for a stranger. This is my home. My family is here.”
She rolled her eyes.
“I thought I had it on good authority,” I offered as a parting shot, “that your people respected family ties, though perhaps I was mistaken.”
Orchid’s mouth tightened.
“I didn’t ask to be an ayah, Mr. Maxwell. You know, I was a person of some importance in my world before it was destroyed. I am of pure Tartar blood. My father was a bannerman in the emperor’s army. Now, the truth is I’m practically a slave in this household. You have no call to put on airs with me to show off for your friend.”
She turned to Christopher,
“I was impressed by your lesson,” she said awkwardly, the first words she had spoken directly to him since our arrival.
I remember that the sense of desperation in her voice was offset by a certain kind of self-assured dignity, a sort of nobility of bearing that I couldn’t help but admire. Anglo-Indian manners were nothing to this woman.
Christopher only wrinkled his brow in response to her compliment. She turned away and walked slowly toward the house. I watched her leave, studying the swaying motion of her body as she moved. I wondered where she kept herself during the day.
“Some pumpkins…” muttered Christopher. “She’s off her rocker on laudanum, you understand. There’s no telling what she’ll say when she’s on the stuff.”
“Of course,” I said. “What else could account for such insolence?”
The truth was, though, that I hadn’t realized this nor even considered the possibility of this.
It was then that I heard the sound of galloping. I turned and saw Vivian riding side-saddle toward me with reckless speed.
“I’m not bald, by the way,” said Christopher, retreating reluctantly toward the house. “I’m balding. And only ever so slightly.”
I was no longer listening.
Vivian leapt from the horse. Her sea-green eyes were accentuated by the emerald ribbons of her riding habit. She was ungloved, but she took my palms in hers, shaming me. My hands were filthy, and they always became embarrassingly clammy whenever I was around her.
“I don’t know what to say,” she whispered tearfully, and embraced me. My lips grazed her cheek, excruciatingly soft. I’d almost forgotten the impossible beauty of her face, snow white in a frame of jet.
The state of my costume was not lost on her. She even shuddered at the sight of it, quickly but visibly. This pleased me immensely. Yet I couldn’t help but notice a silver locket around her neck which I knew contained a maudlin daguerreotype of Daniel, and so I too shuddered.