Julia and Thomas sang for the assembled family in the parlor before supper. My stepmother Molly accompanied them ploddingly on the piano-forte.
Ho-ro, my nut brown maiden.
Hee-ree, my nut brown maiden.
For she’s the maid for me.
Her eye so mildly beaming
Her look so frank and free
In waking and in dreaming
Is evermore with me.
We broke into applause at the conclusion of the second verse to avoid an interminable punishment. Thomas bowed, and Julia curtsied repeatedly, cradling her gray kitten, Ms. Google, too tightly for comfort in her arms. The poor creature bore this indignity with patience, however. She was evidently good natured for a cat.
“That was just enchanting,” said Vivian, ethereal in yards of turquoise muslin, her hair unbound. “But skip the verses about mild-eyed Mary, please.”
“But why?” cried Julia. “That’s my favorite part of the song. It’s so emotional.”
“You’re liable to move us to tears,” said Christopher.
“Shall we eat our dinners out on the chabutra?” said Vivian. “It’s scalding in here!” Then she turned to me and dexterously avoiding even a moment’s pause in the conversation, said, “We’re all thrilled to have you home again, Maximilian. I only wish that Andrea could be moved downstairs to see you.”
“I wouldn’t want to trouble her,” I stammered.
“I’m sure that she would be very pleased to visit with you if it were possible,” said Molly, joining us. “You know that you’ll always be a welcome guest here at the Highlands, Maxim. One can always add more water to the soup.”
My eyes happened to be on Christopher as she spoke. He squinted. I wondered what sort of face I was making.
“Maxim knows that he will always be more than a guest here, mother,” ventured Peter, his breath reeking of brandy. He loathed polite conversation and very rarely shared his thoughts, so whenever he chose to say anything, he commanded great attention.
“Of course, my dear,” said Molly, adjusting the sleeves of her funereal ebony bombazine. “I misspoke.”
“Have you any interest in Company paintings, Maximilian?” improvised Vivian in a rapid voice. “I’ve been obsessed with them recently. They show such a fascinating mix…a wonderful mélange of styles.”
“Darling,” said Molly, “Maxim must be exhausted. Let him save his voice for later, when he tells your brother about his adventures in the jungle.”
“Oh nonsense, mother!” she answered, taking my arm. “Tell me, what do you think of the Daniells?”
“Thomas Daniell and his nephew, William. They paint the most beautiful landscapes. They’re my second favorite painters.”
“They count collectively, do they?”
“Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I can hardly distinguish between their styles, to be honest! Can you guess who my very favorite artist is?”
“No, no—we were discussing Indian art!”
I chuckled and shrugged and must have seemed like a perfect fool. In fact, I had just downed a great quantity of bhang with Christopher on the sly and I couldn’t have cared less about Indian art. As my father’s eldest son and head of the household, I was eager to discuss several important matters with Peter such as evacuation plans for the family and the great secret I’d discovered on my travels which had inspired my return, to say nothing of my need for money. Since my arrival, though, no one had breathed a word about the mutiny to me. They all seemed more concerned about Andrea’s health than anything else. But they were all denying the plain truth. The family couldn’t remain at the Highlands for much longer or everyone there was likely to be unceremoniously slaughtered should the mutiny spread to the District.
The company moved outside onto the raised chabutra where a long table draped with a peach colored cloth had been set up. A native girl with an aquiline nose and a paunch who’d brought me a change of clothing when I first arrived had been doubling as a punkah wallah inside the house. She was presently transformed into a server. Peter’s khitmatgar was also on hand. He was a scrawny, acne-scarred fellow who looked no older than sixteen. His jacket, I observed, was at least two sizes too large for him about the sleeves. He probably inherited it from someone dead, I thought.
“We’re having pish pash and chupatties for dinner, among other things” said Peter quietly. “Jesminder tried her hand at Ayah Rupee’s old recipe—your favorite, I remember. Ever since Daniel’s death, things have been somber here at the Highlands. It’s refreshing to have an excuse to be happy again, brother.”
These were the first words that Peter had directly addressed to me since I met him on the porch earlier that evening and he’d enigmatically whispered, “Say nothing now. We’ll discuss everything later.” I’d noticed that his breath smelled faintly of spirits even then.
At first, I appreciated the illusion of domesticity so busily manufactured for me that night. Here, with the exception of my deceased father and my aunts in Scotland, was the only family that I’d ever known. My mother, Elizabeth, died in childbirth, and my father married my stepmother, an Irish cabinet-maker’s daughter, when I was only five years old. I never ventured to call her daughter Vivian my sister, though my father and stepmother had originally encouraged me to do so; for whatever reason, these exhortations ended with the birth of Peter.
Vivian was so incandescent that I knew from the moment we met that I wanted to marry her. My affection for my stepsister was fortified by the long years we spent together as Anglo-Indian expatriates in Scotland. I’ve mentioned already that we were sent to my father’s ancestral home near Inverness to receive a proper education under the supervision of his sisters. I was seven at the time, and Vivian was ten. I recalled the heartbreak of saying goodbye to Peter, who was only four and remained in India with his mother. He was always Molly’s pet and was never sent to Europe, a great rarity in those days. India was all he ever knew.
We reached the table and all joined hands, Vivian on my left and Christopher on my right.
“Maximilian should do the honors,” said Vivian, squeezing my palm. “Make it the Selkirk Grace, in honor of your father.”
“Some hae meat and canna eat,” I intoned awkwardly, thinking of nothing but the moisture of my hand in Vivian’s tight grip. “And some wad eat that want it…” My pulse quickened and its rhythm throbbed in my temples. “But we hae meat and we can eat…so sae…so sae…”
“So sae the Lord be thank-ed,” concluded Christopher, releasing my hand and making an exaggerated show of wiping off his own. “Sorry Maxim, but it felt like I was shaking hands with the Little Mermaid there for a minute.”
We began to eat, and for some time there was no sound but the unpleasant scratching of metal on glass. The promised pish-pash and chupatties were on the menu, along with Julienne soup, yellow rice, a curry made with some sort of meat, and bottled peas—always bottled peas. Half of us were seated before decorated porcelain, and the rest ate from plain white ceramic plates. My plate happened to have been ceramic, but so was Peter’s, so I wasn’t jealous. Our wine glasses too were mismatched. My awareness of the gauche assembly of tableware cast a pathetic air over the entire meal, an ambiance only enhanced by the fact that half of our seats lacked antimacassars. Ayah Rupee ran a tighter ship once upon a time.
To make matters worse, the wine was too dry. Just as I was secretly considering the prospect of stealing some sips from Thomas’s lassi, Vivian revived the conversation. I considered that while her mother’s serene demeanor could almost be mistaken for coldness, her daughter’s character was forged of altogether different stuff, traces of her dead father’s nature, perhaps. She was the belle of every burra khana and the most popular woman in the District, forever the volatile center of attention.
“Shaykh Muhammad Amir of Karraya is my favorite Indian artist,” she said quickly and loudly, ignoring the fifteen minute interval separating this revelation from our previous conversation.
“I would never have guessed,” I said. “You were right.”
“In fact, I quite prefer him to Michelangelo.”
“Land sakes,” said Christopher. “That’s sacrilege. Now I’ll take everything you say about art with an ocean’s worth of salt, Vivian.”
“I’m sorry to shock you, Christopher. Michelangelo was a fine sculptor and painter so long as he was capturing the male figure. But he had no range. His women all look like muscular men! And his themes were completely monotonous, never touching on everyday life.”
“Then why is he universally considered a genius?”
“Ever since the invention of the aquatint, there’s existed this gauche trend of celebrating geniuses like the old Italian masters and fainting over Michelangelo. But it’s only a commercial strategy to sell prints—a way to highlight individual dead artists in a marketplace oversaturated with them. What’s genius, anyway? An excuse to be temperamental, and to take full credit for lazy work! Give me elegance and truth over genius any day.”
“Well, if you ask me, nothing is more inane than the genre scenes that you idealize so much. There isn’t anything profound or uplifting about them.”
“You’re so wrong. There’s great beauty to everyday life if you know how to see it. But some haven’t the sensitivity.”
“This is all nonsense,” slurred Peter, providing yet another rare contribution to the conversation, “The idea that you would even compare Sheik What’s His Name and Michelangelo is ludicrous. Michelangelo was a white man.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, brother. Race has nothing at all to do with matters of art.”
Molly arched her right eyebrow. I knew by the way Christopher was grinding his teeth that he’d thought of some witticism and was aching to reveal it, but he held his tongue. In his defense, he usually did his best to behave as politely as possible to everyone in my family, whose formality likely stood in stark contrast to the liveliness of his American household. The only exception was when political debates were on the docket. Then he would not only invariably venture strong opinions, whatever his audience, but even serve as a provocateur.
“Amir deserves every bit of praise that I can heap on him,” continued Vivian determinedly. “He captures the smallest details of everyday life in his paintings with amazing precision, just as Jane Austen did in her novels. I just adore his sketches of residences, carriages, hunting parties…all sorts of elegant scenes in the countryside. There’s so much truth to his style…”
“He certainly sounds talented,” I offered stupidly.
“Well, I suppose I have to admit that he’s something of a rarity. Art schools these days force native artists overwhelmingly toward portraiture, and everyone is taught the same tedious, formal style. It’s a shame, really. There was a certain beauty to that old, courtly Mogul look. Primitive but expressive.”
The room fell silent again. Evidently no one had anything else to add to the conversation about Company paintings. I reflected that even after Vivian announced that she was going to marry Daniel, I’d never stooped to treating her with anything less than the greatest warmth. But it was an enervating charade, and I’d long since succumbed to an obsession with attempting to make her feel guilty for choosing him over me. I thought that my only hope was to shame her into loving me again, so that her pity for me would overpower any lingering loyalty to her illusion of Daniel. I knew she had loved me in more uncomplicated days in Scotland when we’d shared enough kisses to lose count of them all. But after our return to India, the only time she ever touched her lips to mine again—once, softly and briefly—was on her wedding day, when I burst into tears at the sight of her in her mother’s ivory gown.
We’d all finished eating by now and the atmosphere had become positively eerie. Insects roared in the background. We all plastered lying smiles onto our faces. Only the children seemed to take their elders’ calmness at face value. They argued playfully among themselves throughout the meal.
“Shall we have a party for your birthday tomorrow, father?” asked Thomas as the plates were being cleared away by the maid and the khitmatgar.
“Of course we shall,” said Julia. “After all, it’s the Queen’s birthday as well.”
Peter, Christopher, and I stole grave glances at each other. Molly kept her eyes on her plate.
Orchid presently appeared in the doorway with Rob hiding behind her. Once again, I hadn’t heard her approach, and once again she startled me. I noticed that Molly didn’t even lift her eyes to meet her. Vivian nodded graciously at her, though. Peter’s face turned even brighter than his hair, which was auburn as my own.
She was wearing a Regency-style, close-fitting gown that flattered her form splendidly. Though the dress would have been some forty years out of fashion in London, necessity has always compelled families in the District to be open-minded on the subject of popular attire. Given what was likely a limited wardrobe, I considered that she’d made a wise selection. And the rouge that she was wearing had a similarly impressive transformative effect. I wondered why she’d gone through the trouble of adorning herself so meticulously that night.
The children would have scrambled directly off to their rooms, but she caught them and whispered something to them in a huddle. Julia objected at first, but I saw Orchid stroke her hair and coax her into acquiescence. Orchid then whispered to Thomas for a second time and then disappeared into the parlor along with Rob. The long-suffering Ms. Google took the opportunity to scurry out of the room.
We presently all focused our attention on Thomas and soon heard the sound of a violin coming from within. The boy stepped forward with what seemed like genuine reluctance and sang:
O where and o where is my Highland laddie gone?
O where and o where is my Highland laddie gone?
He’s gone to fight the French for King George upon the throne,
And it’s oh in my heart that I wish him safe at home.
Oh where and o where did your Highland laddie dwell?
O where and o where did your Highland laddie dwell?
He dwelt in merry Scotland at the sign of the blue bell
And it’s oh in my heart that I love my laddie well.
Suppose and suppose that your Highland lad should die.
Suppose and suppose that your Highland lad should die.
The bagpipes should play o’er him, and I’d sit me down to cry.
And it’s oh in my heart that I wish he may not die.
Though I was initially planning to tease my nephew for singing a woman’s song, I restrained myself, for his voice was almost as pure and melodious as Christopher’s. I realized that the child had been something of a little gentleman to have deliberately lowered the quality of his song to match Julia’s faint attempts at music earlier in the night. His true voice was as tremulous and delicate as a nightingale’s. It would be a sin, I thought, when Nature re-christened him a baritone.
I wondered how it was that Orchid played the violin so well. Unless the untalented Molly had instructed her, which I most gravely doubted, I guessed that she must have been self-taught. I later discovered that I was in fact correct in this assumption. She’d even arranged the abridged version of The Bluebells of Scotland that Thomas sang for us without the use of a published broadside.
We applauded Thomas heartily. He didn’t bow this time, but blushed and retreated behind his grandmother’s chair. Orchid, Julia, and Robert emerged from the parlor and we all clapped again. Julia embraced her cousin. It was to her credit that she behaved with nothing but friendliness toward him in the aftermath of his song, though the thought of her being upstaged had, I’d seen, originally broken her heart for a moment or two. Still, whatever this redeeming characteristic, the child had yet to speak to me, though I caught her staring mutely at me with a searching expression on her face more than once during the meal.
The children were now sent to bed and the women excused themselves from the table to tend to Andrea. Orchid did not reappear. Molly made me promise to detail my experiences to her in the morning. I convinced myself that her interests were sincere and that Vivian was similarly honest in her more verbose professions of sorrow for taking her leave from me so early in the night. At length, Christopher, my brother, and I entered the house to share a hookah and candid conversation in the library. It was the moment for which I’d been waiting.