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Authors: Ellis Peters
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Copyright © 1972 Ellis Peters
First published in 1972
by Macmillan London Ltd
First published in paperback in 1988
by HEADLINE BOOK PUBLISHING PLC
10 9 8 7 6 5
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
ISBN 0 7472 3122 2
Printed and bound in Great Britain by
Clays Ltd, St Ives plc
HEADLINE BOOK PUBLISHING
A division of Hodder Headline PLC
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London NW1 3BH
The sadhu sat just within the shadow of the trees at the left-hand bend of the road, not fifty yards from the mottled and overgrown wall of the forestry bungalow’s green enclosure. The road from the plains up to the lake coiled through the belt of forest towards the crest of the hills in great, smooth serpentines, a polished steel-blue ribbon shading off to ash-grey at the edges, then to ochre, before it faded into the bleached grass on either side. At each sweeping curve the trees withdrew to leave ample space for the turns, and at every such stage there was some feature apparently carefully positioned to take advantage of the site thus provided. At the turn below, a fruit-stall glowing with oranges and jack-fruit and bananas. At the turn above, the gates of the drive that led to the forestry bungalow. At this left-hand turn between them, half-veiled by the long grass and the overhanging darkness of the branches, a six-foot column of rough stone, so old and worn that its carving had almost eroded away, leaving only the elusive shapes of arms and hands that seemed to appear and disappear as oblique shadows gave them form, and to vanish completely in too direct a light. There had been a face, flattened away now into a featureless oval, and the scratched indications of turbulent hair. From the hips down – there was the negligent thrust of a hip still to be seen in certain lights – he was coated with an accumulation of dust from the roadside, clinging fast to his old and infrequent baptisms of reverential oil. His feet – he stood firmly upon massive and unmistakable feet – still glistened, protected by the long grass, and a sprinkling of coloured dye, red and orange, spattered his insteps. There was even a handful of marigolds, a day old and withered, nestling at the foot of the stele. He might have been any one of the pantheon, except that the blunt, truncated shaft of stone a yard or two away, oiled and garlanded even here in this remote place, was recognisably the lingram of Siva.
There had been more masonry here at some time, perhaps a small shrine, but only the dressed stone platform of its floor remained, affording a small dais in the shade, on which the sadhu sat. He was lean and muscular, long in the torso, and he sat cross-legged, the dusty, pale soles of his feet upturned, the pinkish palms of his long hands cupped in his lap. A length of cotton cloth in the familiar ochreous peach colour was draped over his left shoulder and swathed about his hips, and several strings of carved wooden beads and coloured cords hung round his neck. Tangled, oily curls of hair hung over his temples and shadowed his face, and on the ash-smeared forehead between the snaky tresses were drawn three horizontal lines, a vertical oval seal of red colouring uniting the three in the centre; one of many sect marks worn by the devotees of Siva. He was the colour of bronze, and as motionless as bronze, and the ceaseless faint quivering of the thick leafage that shaded him cast greenish lights over his oiled skin, and made him look like metal rather than flesh. His eyes, lowered beneath ash-bleached lids and thick black brows, gazed somewhere deep into the earth at the edge of the road, and his face never moved. In front of him in the grass his wooden bowl rested, empty.
The Periyar Lake lies about two thousand five hundred feet up in the Western Ghats, and about a hundred and twenty miles from the toe of India, but the road up from Madurai crosses higher ground on the way to it, and the altitude somewhat delays the hawk-like swoop of the night that drops abruptly, with only the briefest of twilights. It was during the curious, hushed pause before the transformation from daylight to dark that the Land-Rover came humming briskly up the serpentines from the plain, rounded the bend beside which Siva and the sadhu kept watch, and turned in at the gates of the forestry bungalow. The sadhu moved never a muscle, and gave no indication of having seen or heard its passing, as deep in meditation as the forest behind him in silence.
A few minutes later two girls came walking up the road from the fruit-stall at the turn below, with their arms full of bananas and small, rough-skinned green oranges, the kind that are still green when they are fully ripe and sweet as honey. One of the pair was Indian, in a plain green and white sari and a white cotton blouse, with her black hair plaited and coiled in a great sheaf on her neck. The other, slim and small-boned and blonde, was English even at first glance, and had sensibly not tried to conceal the fact inside a sari. Nothing could have disguised that fair complexion, or the pale, straight hair that hung limply to her shoulders, framing an oval face. Instead, she had compromised by adopting plain black trousers, worn with a short-sleeved shirt-dress. They were hurrying, because they wanted to get back to the bungalow before the darkness fell completely, for here between the thick swathes of forest the night would be velvet-black, almost palpable.
They drew near to the sadhu, and he was as oblivious of them as of the Land-Rover a few moments ago. The fair girl, who had noticed and remarked on him as they walked down to the fruit-stall, peered curiously into the shadows as they passed, and caught the faint gleam of oil and bronze, motionless under the branches.
‘He’s still there. Do you suppose he stays there all night, too?’
‘I doubt it. It will be cold in the small hours, up here. They come and go as they please, there are almost no rules.’
Priya had the detached tone and ambivalent attitude of the Indian towards self-styled holy men. The basic equipment needed for the profession is simple and inexpensive; only one item, the holiness, need cost a man very much, and though some undoubtedly insist on and achieve it, many more, perhaps the majority, manage to make do without it. There is no immediate way of distinguishing the one kind from the other.
Patti hesitated, looking back over her shoulder. ‘Is the bowl there for money?’
‘For any sort of alms, ’ said Priya, ‘but preferably money.’
‘A chance to acquire merit, ’ said Patti, a little sadly, a little cynically, making fun of herself but still looking over her shoulder. Suddenly she stopped. ‘Wait for me a minute, will you? Here, hold these! ’ She dumped her load of fruit into Priya’s arms and turned impetuously to dart back towards the shrine, groping as she went in the depths of the big shoulder-bag she carried. The jingle of small coins came back to Priya’s ears, and the darkness lurched a little lower, sagging towards them from the tree-tops.
Patti stepped delicately into the dry, bleached grass, and the rustle of her footsteps should have reached the sadhu’s ears even in a trance, but he gave no sign. She stooped towards his wooden bowl, and he did not raise his eyes or rear his head. She stared intently, but all she could distinguish now was the faintly luminous shadow of a man encased in deeper shadow, as motionless and impervious as the Siva beside him.
!’ she said, touching her hands momentarily together over her offering; and she laid it in his bowl, and drew back. She thought the head moved a little, in distant acknowledgement, but that was all. She turned away with a sense of disappointment, and ran to rejoin Priya and relieve her of her load.
‘Not exactly effusive, are they? Still – just for luck! Who knows! He may remember me in his prayers at the right moment.’
They walked on together quickly, and the next curve of the road carried them away out of the sadhu’s sight, and cut off the fresh, intrusive voices that rippled the silence.
He still had not moved or uttered a sound.
The night came down like curtains of black silk, filling the trough of the roadway between the trees with fold on fold of darkness.
There were two cars already parked in front of the long, low, ochre-yellow bungalow when the Land-Rover wheeled into line beside the porch; and at sight of the first of them, the ancient, sky-blue Ford with the grazed door and the retouched wing, they all three uttered a hoot of recognition, at once derisive and appreciative.
‘Here we go again!’ said Larry Preisinger, switching off the engine. ‘Didn’t I say we would be running into the whole circus again before we reached the Cape? It’s always the same. I drove this thing round Gujarat State, and the same folks I saw at the first halt haunted me all the way. Might skip an overnight stop here and there, but give ’em a few days and they’d show up again. An Indian couple from South Africa with three kids, visiting the home country, a middle-aged pair from New Zealand doing the world by easy stages and two young Czechs draped with about four cameras each. Now we’ve got the French for a change.’
‘We might do worse, ’ said Dominic Felse thoughtfully.
‘Yeah, we might, at that!’ On the whole, in a wary fashion, they had approved of the Bessancourts. He looked doubtfully at the second car, a big black saloon, battered but imposing, but it told him nothing about its incumbents. A tourist car, probably, hired out for the weekend with driver, from Madurai. ‘Looks like we’ll be camping tonight. With two car-loads they
be full up inside. ’ Not that he minded; they were well equipped, with light sleeping bags, and a mosquito net that rolled up into the roof when not in use. Three can manage without too much discomfort in a Land-Rover, given a little ingenuity, and he had provided the ingenuity before he ever set out on this marathon drive round India, picking up co-drivers for sections of the route wherever he could, for company and to share the expenses. Dominic, acquired in Madras and on leave from some farming job, was one of the luckiest breaks he’d had so far, around his own age, a congenial enough companion, a good driver, and prepared to stick with him as far as Cape Comorin, and probably all the way back to Madras, too.
Lakshman unfolded his slender length from among the baggage, and slid out of the Land-Rover. ‘I will go and talk to the
. ’ He paused to look back and inquire, in his gentle, dutiful voice that balanced always so delicately between the intonations of friend and servant: ‘If there are no beds, you would like at least food? It would be a change from my cooking.’
‘It might be a change for the worse, but sure, let’s risk it.’
Larry had been travelling with Lakshman Ray for nearly six weeks now, and had given up trying to get on to closer terms with him. Lakshman, whether he knew his place or not, certainly knew his employer’s place, and firmly kept him there. With the greatest of deference, amiability and consideration, but implacably. He had done this sort of courier-interpreter job before, with other lone tourists, and had encountered, or so Larry judged, patrons with very different views on this relationship from those Larry himself held. Give him time, and he’d make any necessary adjustments himself; no sense in trying to rush him. Lakshman was the youngest of the three of them, barely twenty and still a student, until want of funds had driven him out to earn money for further study by such journeys as this. He had to get everything right, and he was taking no risks. Perhaps he didn’t even want to slide unsuspectingly into a friendship for which he hadn’t bargained. A cool young person, shy, soft-voiced, self-possessed and efficient, he spoke both Tamil and Malayalam in addition to his own Hindi, so he was equally effective in the north or the south. Sometimes, Larry suspected, Lakshman had difficulty in remembering to keep Dominic at the same distance as Larry himself; Dominic wasn’t paying his wages.
The bungalow, seen by the glow from its own windows and the Land-Rover’s side-lights, was a pleasant, solid building of brick and plaster, with a deep, arcaded porch, and looked big enough to house quite a number of travellers, if the usual tourist bedroom-cum-livingroom in India had not been about as big as a barn, and with its own bathroom or shower attached. Three such suites, say, plus the kitchen quarters, and there would be no room left. No matter, the Land-Rover was good enough.
Lakshman came back gesturing mildly from a distance, and shaking his head; and behind his back the
stuck out a bearded head in a loose cotton turban from the kitchen door to take a look at his latest guests.
‘The place is quite full, but he will feed us. And there is a
.’ The security of the bungalow’s grounds and the protection of its watchman were not to be despised.
‘Good, then how about borrowing a shower, before the proper tenants get to that stage?’
‘It can be arranged. ’ He was looking from them to the anonymous black car, and his smile was less demure than usual. ‘Do you know who is also here?’
His look and his tone said that they were hardly likely to thank him for the information, though it might enliven their stay in its own fashion. It was not often that Lakshman looked mischievous, and even now he had his features well in hand.
‘Sure we know, ’ said Larry obtusely, his mind on his shower, ‘
madame la patronne
Prompt on the close of his sentence, as if responding to a clue, a high, clacking voice screeched: ‘Sushil Dastur!
!’ from an open window, in a rising shriek that could have been heard a mile into the forest; and light, obsequious footsteps slapped hurriedly along the hallway inside the open door to answer the summons.
!’ groaned Larry. ‘Not the Manis! So
the chauffeur-driven party, is it? We might have known! What did I tell you? Start touring anywhere you like, and within a hundred miles radius you keep seeing the same faces.’
‘And hearing the same voices, ’ Dominic remarked ruefully. ‘Poor little Sushil, he certainly hears plenty of that one. I wonder he stands it. And Bengali women
usually squawk – they have soft, pleasant voices.’
‘Not this one!’ It was scolding volubly now in Bengali, somewhere within the house, punctuated by placating monosyllables from a man’s voice, anxious, inured and resigned. ‘Maybe he doesn’t even listen, really, just makes the right sounds and shuts up his mind. Otherwise he’d go up the wall. And his boss is worse, if anything, even if he doesn’t split the eardrums quite like his missus. Jobs must be hard to come by, or Sushil would have quit long ago.’
‘I get the impression he is a relative, ’ Lakshman said with sympathy. ‘Of the lady, perhaps – a poor cousin. And you are quite right, for a clerk with no paper qualifications it is not at all easy to find a good post. And perhaps he is more comfortable with this one than we suppose. It is security of a kind.’
They had run into the Manis twice since leaving Madras, once briefly at Kancheepuram, plodding doggedly round that fantastic city’s many temples, and once at an overnight stop at Tiruchirapalli, where Mr Mani had constituted himself chairman of the evening gathering of guests at the travellers’ bungalow, and unfolded his and his wife’s life story in impressive detail. They were from Calcutta, where they had several textile shops, and they had come south to Madras for the first time to visit their married daughter, whose husband ran a highly successful travel agency. Thus they had the best possible help and advice in planning an extended tour of the south of India. Ganesh had made all the arrangements, Ganesh had ensured that they should not miss one famous sight while they were here. They had certainly missed none in Tiruchi. They had been observed in the early morning, before the stone steps were too hot for comfort, toiling dauntlessly all up the exposed face of the rock, Mrs Mani with her elaborate sari kilted in both hands, and Sushil Dastur scurrying behind with her handbag, her husband’s camera and the scarf she had dispensed with after the first morning chill passed; and again later taking pictures of the budding lotus in the temple tank below. And in the afternoon they had taken a taxi out to Srirangam, and toiled relentlessly round every inch of that tremendous temple, with very little in their faces to indicate what they thought of its stunning sculptures, or indeed whether they thought at all.
Mr Mani’s name was Gopal Krishna, and he was a firm, thickset, compact person of perhaps fifty, smoothly golden-brown of face, with crisp greying hair and large, imperious eyes that fixed the listener like bolts shackling him to his chair. He was so clean-shaven that it was difficult to believe he ever grew any whiskers to shave, and so immaculate, whether in spotless cream silk suit or loose white cotton shirt and trousers, or even, occasionally, a dhoti, that he made everyone else around feel crumpled, angular and grubby. He walked ponderously and impressively; one thought of a small, lightweight but inordinately pompous elephant. His voice was mellifluous but pedantic; it acquired an edge only when it addressed Sushil Dastur.
Sudha Mani was softer, rounder and plumper than her husband, and some years younger, and to do her justice, she was a pretty woman, with her pale gold cheeks and huge, limpid eyes, and curled, crisp rosebud of a mouth. But the eyes stared almost aggressively, and the tightness of the rosebud never moved a degree nearer blooming; and when the petals did part, she squawked like a parrot. She wore beautiful, expensive saris and rather too much jewellery, all of it genuine; but everyone here put capital into gold and silver ornaments. And she wore flowers in the huge knot of black hair coiled on her neck, but the flowers never seemed to survive long.
From her they had heard all about her first grandchild, and her troubles with servants, and the extreme sensitivity of her temperament. And from Gopal Krishna all about the state of the textile business, and his own commercial astuteness and consequent wealth.
Only almost accidentally had they ever discovered more than his name about Sushil Dastur, who fetched and carried, ran errands, took dictation, conferred long-distance with the management of the Calcutta shops and generally did everything that needed doing and many things that didn’t around the Mani menage. His name they couldn’t help discovering within half an hour. ‘Sushil Dastur!’ echoed and re-echoed at ten minute intervals, and in varying tones of command, displeasure, reproach and menace, wherever the Manis pitched camp. Private secretary, clerk, general factotum, travelling servant, he was everything in one undersized, anxious body.
In reality Sushil Dastur was not by any means so fragile as at first he appeared, but he was short, and seemed shorter because he was always hurrying somewhere, head-down, on his master’s business; and the amount of prominent bone that showed in his jutting brow and slightly hooked nose contrasted strongly with the plump smoothness of the Manis, making him look almost emaciated. His brow was usually knotted in a worried frown above his large, apprehensive dark eyes, and his manner was chronically apologetic. Curly dark hair grew low on his forehead. Subservience had so far declassed and denatured him that it seemed appropriate he should always wear nondescript European jackets and trousers of no special cut, in a self-effacing beige colour. On the rare occasions when he appeared in an
he looked a different person.
‘Looks like being old home week, all right,’ Larry remarked glumly. For nothing was more certain than that all these people would be heading for the Periyar Lake in time for the early watering the next morning. There was nowhere else for them to be going in these parts. From the coast as from Madurai, from the west as from the east, the roads merely led here and crossed here; and few people passed by without halting at the lake to go out by boat and watch elephants. Other game, too, with luck, sambur, deer, wild boar, occasionally even leopard and tiger, though these last two rarely appeared; but above all, elephants, which never failed to appear, and in considerable numbers. ‘You know, without wanting to seem intolerant, I’d enjoy my cruise more without the Mani commentary.’
‘We could have a small private boat, if you wish,’ said Lakshman tentatively. ‘But it would cost more, of course.’
‘Could we?’ Larry perceptibly brightened. ‘They have small launches there, too?’ He looked at Dominic. ‘How about it? We’ve stuck to our shoe-string arrangements so far, what about plunging for once?’
‘I’m willing. Why not?’
‘I’ll go and telephone, if you really wish it,’ offered Lakshman. ‘It would be better to make sure.’
‘Yes, do that! Let’s indulge ourselves.’
The advantage, perhaps, of being a shoe-string traveller, is that you can, on occasion, break out of the pattern where it best pleases you, and do something unusually extravagant. The thought of having a boat to themselves, and all the huge complex of bays and inlets of the lake in which to lose the other launches, was curiously pleasing. Even on a popular Sunday they might be able to convince themselves that they were the only game-spotters in the whole sanctuary. Dominic was whistling as he reached into the back of the Land-Rover for his towels and washing tackle.
It was at that moment that the two clear, female voices began to approach through the darkness from the direction of the gate, and there emerged into the light from the windows two girls, one Indian and dark, one English and pallidly fair, carrying nets of green oranges and bunches of rose-coloured bananas in their arms.
Two pairs of eyes, one pair purple-black, one zircon blue, took in the Land-Rover and its attendant figures in a long, bright, intelligent stare.
‘Well, hullo!’ said the fair girl, in the bracing social tone of one privately totting up the odds. ‘You must be the outfit that passed us just down the road, when we were haggling for this lot. Staying over? I thought they were full up.’
‘They are,’ said Dominic. By this time he was well aware that Larry never responded to any overtures, especially from females, until he had had time to adjust, and to review his defences. Some girl must once have done something pretty mean to him, and all others had better step delicately. ‘We sleep out in the moke. But yes, we’re staying.’