Calcutta, August 1902
As soon as Mercier exited the Raj Bhavan and stepped out from under the shade of the portico, the sun assaulted him. He tugged at his stiff high collar. It wouldn’t last, leaded clouds loomed on the horizon.
Monsoon season was almost over, the violent showers now few and far inbetween, giving way to the more tolerable days of Sharad Ritu, the fourth season of the Hindu calendar with the autumnal equinox as its midpoint.
Mercier walked towards the river Hoogly, intent on enjoying the city before having to shut himself indoors because of the heat.
Early morning was the busiest moment of the day. Even before sunrise, natives and foreigners alike took advantage of the cooler temperature to conduct their business. The clocks had barely struck nine when Mercier left the government house, having approved a transit between Calcutta and the French territory of Pondichéry.
He navigated between sweetmeat sellers, water carriers and liveried chaprassis, and beasts too, as numerous as humans, oxen pulling carts, gharry horses wearing blue beads and sacred bulls eating marigolds. Dust rose under their hoofs. And the smell of them reminded him of the stables on his estate, in a much quieter part of the world. How incongruous to find something so familiar halfway around the globe, and that such a foul smell should make him smile.
He reached the shore and stared absentmindedly into the flow, brown waters, a shade like café au lait, stirring memories of lazy Sunday mornings with his wife.
Mercier shook his head free of these melancholy thoughts, and instead settled his attention on the large steps descending into the river. No, not the colour of café au lait but of chai masala. Locals and pilgrims bathed there, washing clothes and cattle. The thrum of women’s gossip and fakir’s prayers reached his ears. A couple knotted their robes together and dipped side by side as a little boy priest showered them with petals.
In every city he’d lived in there had been such a river. The social and commercial center of the city, bustling with activity and yet nothing appeased him like walking along the banks. The Seine, the Thames, the Danube, the Vistula, the Rhine… And once again his mind wandered with the river, joining the Ganges and flowing to the Bay of Bengal and into the Indian Ocean; the same route he’d arrived in this country.
His steps took him towards the port where the wind impregnated the great white sails of the P&O ships.
He did not miss France per se, but his freedom. Always an independent spirit despite his military career, he went from one European capital to the next, to spy or fight, taking unpaid leave when things didn’t go his way. India had promised such liberty. But after four years, the close-knit community felt claustrophobic. The occasional mission kept him on his toes, but he’d imagined a work far less administrative.
He’d missed another Exposition Universelle and the summer olympics in Paris. He’d thought about leaving India before. But this country always had a new marvel in store to convince him to stay a while longer. Whenever melancholy had swept over him before, he’d discover a new sport, new food, new landscape to remind him there was much left to discover and enjoy. What would it be this time?
Anyway, he had an important assignment to complete before he could take his leave.
Mercier stared into the waters again. There were no steps here, but a steep wall, four feet above sea level, that dived into the river. Waves broke against the stone and a refreshing salty mist sprayed his face.
“Oliver Douglas Wigram, come back here!”
Mercier perked up at the name; Lord Wigram was part of his assignment, someone to report on, but he had yet to secure an invitation to his home.
“Oliver! It’s dangerous!”
A woman, Lady Wigram he assumed, ran and shouted, holding up her yellow skirts. A little boy, no more than four years old, ran past Mercier, giggling as he glanced over his shoulder at his pursuer.
Out of nowhere, a donkey headbutted the boy, sending him into the port’s deep waters. Mercier froze, agape. Oliver resurfaced, gesticulating wildly to keep himself afloat. Mercier started removing his jacket. He barely had one arm out that the woman dived straight into the river, her hat flying off behind her.
The strong current dragged Oliver away. Lady Wigram swam steadily to him. Mercier ran along the edge, trying to catch up, preparing to jump. Water swallowed the boy, and she dived under. His heart stopped as they disappeared, but she emerged with the child in her arms.
She was a good swimmer but her layers of clothes and corset would weigh her down. They didn’t need a third person in there but something to pull them out. He grabbed a thick rope, unwinding it from around a post, and threw it at them. It fell too far.
With one arm around the crying boy, the woman had trouble keeping her head out of the water. Mercier threw the rope a second time. It landed right beside them, and she grabbed it immediately. With the help of other men who’d witnessed the incident, Mercier pulled them out of the river.
An old sepoy caught Oliver, and Mercier hoisted Lady Wigram by her underarms. He laid her on the ground and knelt beside her. Brown curls stuck to her face, and he wiped them off as she coughed water. Her breath was short and laboured, her eyes wide and panicked. She clawed at her dress, and he realized what she needed. Running his fingers over her torso, he located, under the fabric, the front hooks of her corset. With some fiddling, he managed to free her. As soon as she could breathe properly, she looked around, searching for the boy.
“He’s here, my lady, he’s alive.”
She crawled to the boy. Oliver safe in her arms, she sagged with relief against Mercier’s chest. He couldn’t help but close his arms around them.
“Shhh. You’re fine, you’re safe,” he whispered to soothe the lady’s tears.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, pulling away and wiping her nose on her sleeve.
“There is nothing to be sorry about. Can you stand up?” he asked after a moment.
She nodded, and he helped her up to her feet. The old sepoy offered to get them a carriage. They sat on a bench near the road to wait for it.
“Oh, my Lord! Thank you for saving us. Thank you,” she said. “Oh, where’s me head at, I didn’t even ask your name.”
“Colonel Jean-François Mercier. It’s a pleasure to meet you Lady Wigram.” He kissed the back of her hand.
“Oh. I’m not lady Wigram.”
“I heard you say the boy’s name, I assumed…”
“I’m just the governess.”
“A pleasure all the same. And your name?”
“Betty Salinger, sir.”
“A governess? You do not look like one.” He looked pointedly at her colourful promenade dress.
She sniffled as she fingered a muddied lace trim. “It’s me— my day off,” she explained
She looked at her ward, but didn’t express discontentment at his presence on her day off. She attempted to clean his face with her soaked handkerchief, and Mercier offered his own. It didn’t do any good, the child still looked a right mess, soaked to the bones with a runny nose and one shoe lost.
“Her ladyship will kill me dead.”
At that, Oliver’s lip wobbled and his eyes welled up again.
“Oh, no, no, sweetheart, don’t worry, I didn’t mean like that.”
“Because you saved her son?”
“I let him run off.”
“Children will do that. The donkey pushed him.”
Betty nodded, but worry lines still bracketed her mouth. The poor woman was dishevelled, her chignon slid halfway down her hair, and her corset still gaped under her dress.
“Perhaps if your clothes were clean and dry, the accident might not appear so severe.” He pulled a dead leaf out of her hair.
“Is it that bad?”
“We could stop by my house so you might fix your appearance and the boy’s, and dry your clothes.”
Her wide, uncertain eyes settled on him, mouth slightly agape. “Is that proper, sir?”
“Oh, of course, my apologies… My sister will be there.”
She relaxed. “Yeah, if you would be so kind, it might make matters better.”
The carriage stopped in front of a large white stucco house with a classical portico. Above the entrance, hung a French flag, the heat had caused the blue and red dyes to bleed on the white middle.
Taking in the size of the building, Betty’s eyes widened and shifted between Mercier and the house.
“It is not all for me. It doubles as the French consulate,” Mercier said. “The west side is offices and guest rooms.”
“There are people in there?” She crossed her arms to cover herself.
“Come this way, I will make sure no one sees you.”
He guided her around the house to a side entrance.
Oliver was getting impatient, clinging to Betty and demanding to go home, but he stopped whining as soon as he saw Mercier’s two pointer dogs. His giggles and the dogs’ soft barks attracted Gabrielle to the room. Back from calling on a friend, she removed her gloves and feathered hat.
“Have you gone fishing, brother?” she teased as she eyed their soaked guests.
Mercier introduced his younger sister and explained the situation.
Gabrielle promptly put an arm around Betty’s shoulders. “Good heavens, what a fright you must have had. Come with me, we will find you something dry to wear. Jean-François, please have the cook prepare something.”
He watched the three of them walk up the stairs with an odd pinch to his heart. He could trust his sister to take good care of them. No doubt Gabrielle’s congeniality would soothe Betty’s nerves better than he could. But it felt wrong to let them out of his sight. Of course, he couldn’t follow, Betty was about to undress. Not that he was averse to witness that.
Clucking his tongue at his own silliness, Mercier headed for his rooms. He changed out of his clothes, damp from holding Betty, trading the layers of jacket, waistcoat and cravat for a loose linen shirt.
He unlocked his roll top secretary and sifted through files for the one on Lord Wigram.
Douglas Wigram had been doing business in India for over a decade but only moved permanently to the country eighteen months ago. Although his business partners worked mainly in Bombay, he now lived in Calcutta, on the eastern side of the country. He had made enemies in Bombay, amongst which trade partners from the French territories of Mahé and Pondichéry. Rodier, the Governor General of French colonies, had put him on the list of potential enemies who believed India should be united under the British crown.
By taking Oliver back home, Mercier might meet Lady or Lord Wigram and perhaps secure an invitation for some upcoming gathering at their house. From then on, it would be easier to assess if Wigram was a threat.
After stopping by the kitchens, Mercier joined the women on the white marble verandah. In the corner, a punkah wallah with a string attached to his toe stirred a large cloth fan suspended from the ceiling on a wooden frame.
Betty was sat on a reclined Planter’s chair, and, standing behind her, Gabrielle braided their guest’s long brown hair. Both wore loose muslin wrappers, strictly speaking these garments were dressing gowns, but had been widely adopted as day wear in India, perfect for the heat if not quite appropriate to entertain company. Gabrielle tied the end of the braid with a ribbon and laid it over Betty’s shoulder. Water from its tip seeped into the white fabric and a wet ring grew above her breast. She noticed and swept the braid behind her, but Mercier’s gaze lingered on the sheer spot, then on her delicate sun-kissed collar bones. She clutched the fabric on her chest self-consciously, and he averted his eyes immediately.
He cleared his throat and turned to the bar caddy, chiding himself for ogling her. The poor woman was stuck between borderline indecency in the company of strangers and the wrath of Lady Wigram. Yet the light tan of her skin told him it was not her first time out of the house wearing little.
“Brandy?” He offered Betty a glass which she accepted but didn’t bring to her lips.
“None for me?” Gabrielle complained as she sat down on a large cushion.
“Only for those who have rescued someone today,” he replied, drinking from his own glass. “How are you feeling miss Salinger?”
“Better, thanks,” she answered, eyes downcast.
“In this sun, your clothes will be dry in no time,” Gabrielle assured her.
Mercier turned his attention to the garden below. The chirping of blue-breasted quails and Himalayan flamebacks made him search for their colourful plumage amongst the garden shrubs.
“What kind is that?” Gabrielle asked pointing at a small bird with iridescent feathers perched on a palm tree.
“A sunbird, I believe, green-tailed.”
“My brother loves birds and all wild animals,” Gabrielle said. “Do you love nature and animals, miss Salinger?”
“Oh yes!” She covered her mouth, tampering down her own enthusiasm straight away.
“The wildlife of India is marvellous, don’t you think?” Gabrielle insisted.
“The flowers are beautiful, I shall never tire of walking in the Wigrams’ garden.”
“How nice. You love the flora and my brother loves the fauna.”
It’s only out of respect that Mercier didn’t roll his eyes at his sister’s matchmaking attempt. Gabrielle was all but married to Armand, and, before leaving her brother, she endeavoured to find him a companion.
“Do you hunt, Colonel?” Betty asked.
“I have been on a few expeditions.”
“Have you ever killed a tiger? I hear they are terribly dangerous and bloodthirsty.”
“I saw some last year. I was invited to a hunt with a few generals and lords at the domain of the Maharaja of Surguja. They are magnificent creatures, but I did not kill any.”
When their party had arrived in the forest, servants had already baited and drugged the tigers. There was no danger, and certainly no honour, to killing them. So as not to insult his esteemed colleagues, he’d held his tongue and pretended to miss his mark.
“His lordship made a carpet out of the first one he caught,” Betty said. “I always walk around it.”
He smiled at her, and she averted her eyes.
“How is the boy doing?” he asked.
They looked at Oliver, chasing after the dogs.
“Brave lad, he had quite the adventure… oh, what’s the point of fixing me dress, he’ll tell her ladyship everything anyway.”
“He seems quite taken with the dogs, perhaps it’s all he shall remember,” Gabrielle said.
“Let’s hope so.”
Truth be told, Mercier worried more about the dogs than the boy, he was now pulling at their tails and ears.
“Achille. Céleste,” he called.
The dogs joined him, Oliver on their heels. Mercier showed him how to pet and play with them.
“You don’t have to do that,” Betty said, “I should take care of him.”
“It’s your day off, is it not?”
She didn’t voice another objection, instead leaning back and taking a sip of brandy.
“He was lucky you know how to swim. It’s quite rare amongst young women,” Mercier commented. When she offered no explanation, he asked, “where did you learn?
“Me father, sir.”
“Did you live near the water?”
He wondered if her reluctance to speak stemmed from shock or shyness. To put her at ease, he told her of a river, near his family’s estate in Boutillon where he used to swim. No more than two-feet deep, but still his mother had forbid him to go. “So of course, I went there every occasion I had.”
“And I followed,” Gabrielle added. “Even after you left, I kept going.”
“Not by yourself, I expect.”
“I always managed to find some company…”
He smiled indulgently at his sister. She used to tease the village boys mercilessly. They did anything she asked as long as they believed they had a chance with her, which, in actuality, they never had. One of them received the scold of a lifetime for bringing her tobacco.
He rolled a cigarette and handed it to his sister. She never smoked in public, etiquette forbade it, but he wanted to check Betty’s reaction. A sort of moral test, to assess if he could use her to spy on Lord Wigram. Betty frowned at Gabrielle exhaling smoke, but he thought it was more from curiosity than judgement. Interesting.
A servant brought a platter of jalebi, deep fried curls of batter dipped in sugar syrup and saffron. Oliver dashed to the plate, grabbing one jalebi in each hand.
“Slow down, sweetheart, don’t spoil your lunch.”
But the adults were as eager as the kid. They emptied the platter in no time, the crystallized exterior crunched under their teeth, and they hummed with delight, sucking their greasy fingertips. Colour returned to Betty’s face, cheeks flushed, her lips tinted gold with saffron, and glistening from the sweet oil. He caught her eyes as her tongue darted to the corners of her mouth. For the first time, she didn’t look away.
“Me granddaddy did, live by the water I mean, near the Eccup reservoir in Leeds,” she said.
“And that is where you learned to swim?” Gabrielle asked.
“Yeah... We went there in the summers,” she added, gaining a little confidence. “Daddy was in the Navy. He knew water can be dangerous, but he didn’t want us to be afraid of it.”
“You certainly were not afraid of it today,” Mercier said.
“Wish I’d stayed longer in the water, it was quite refreshing,” she admitted, hiding a laugh behind her hand.
That made him smile. Perhaps it could be arranged, he’d heard of some rivers one could swim in just outside the city. He refilled their glasses of brandy, offering one to his sister this time.
“How long have you two been in India?” Betty enquired.
“I arrived fours years ago, and Gabrielle joined me a year later. You know what they say, women come to India for two reasons: because they are married to empire builders or because they want to be.”
“I will hear no such thing, Jean-François! It may be unladylike, but I came here because I wanted to see India.”
“And you prefer piano players to empire builders,” he replied, referring to Armand.
“Hush!” She poked him with her toes. “And you Betty, why did you come here? Looking for the perfect man?”
“The only interest I have in men, is making a good one out of Oliver.”
“I like her, brother, you should rescue governesses more often.”
Realizing what she’d said, Betty blushed and glared at her glass of brandy. “As good a man as his lordship, I mean… I should go, we will be late for tiffin. Come on sweetheart.”
“I want the doggie,” the child replied, hugging Achille’s neck.
Betty gently pried him away.
“You can come back to see them again,” Mercier said impulsively, earning a surprised look from Gabrielle.
While Betty and Oliver put on their now dry clothes, Mercier had the driver prepare the buggy. He put on a waistcoat and jacket again, and fixed his hair to make a good impression on the Wigrams.
Although Betty and Oliver looked in better shape, their outfits were still the worse for wear. It saddened him to see her smile now turn into a frown.
“Thank you for your help, Colonel, but I’m afraid it will not do much good.”
Mercier’s ancestors had been knights, and he found nothing awakened the chivalry in his blood like the distress in Betty’s doe eyes.
“Let me take you home and talk to Lady Wigram. I will tell her it’s my fault.”
“I appreciate it, sir, but why would you do that for me?”
“Yes, why would you do that?” Gabrielle echoed.
He could not reveal he wished to make the Wigrams’ acquaintance to spy on them. But he didn’t have to take the blame for that. The truth was he couldn’t stomach any criticism coming to Betty when she’d so bravely jumped in the water before he had even gathered his own courage to do so.
As they neared the house, Betty chewed harder on her bottom lip and wrung her hands in her lap. She fussed over the child’s appearance. “Oliver, sweetheart, what did we do this morning?”
“I played with doggies.”
“Yes, exactly, that’s what we did. All morning. We played with the dogs. Do you remember their names?” And she kept on asking about the dogs, to make sure it was all the boy would talk about.
Arrived at the house, Betty had hoped to slip under the radar but Lady Wigram was in the hall. She was a good looking woman, but her pale skin, droopy eyelids and oddly slow demeanour gave the impression she was permanently drowsy.
She took in their clothes and asked: “Good Heavens, what has happened?”
“I fell in the river,” Oliver said before running off to his room.
“My horse pushed him,” Mercier said right away, “it was frightened when the boy came running. Miss Salinger was with him. He fell in a stream, hardly a river, and—”
“You let him run off?” Lady Wigram spoke daintily, but accusation and contempt spiked her words.
“I— I’m sorry… the horse and…”
“She immediately jumped in too, to grab the boy, most courageously.”
Lady Wigram huffed and sent Betty to her room. “You cannot possibly eat lunch in this state.”
Betty’s eyes welled up, and, shoulders bowed, she walked away. As he watched her disappear up the stairs, there was again that odd pinch to Mercier’s heart.
“Really, madam, miss Salinger is not to blame.”
“There is no need for that, Colonel.” She looped her arm through his, guiding him to the front room. “The girl is a lost cause, but my husband knew her father and he’s sentimental, you know how these things go. We make do with her flaws, poor girl.”
Mercier ground his teeth.
When he returned home, Gabrielle was waiting for him at the dining room table. He knew that amused glint in her eyes, and only reluctantly sat down with her.
“You like her,” she said in French with that teasing lilt.
“I need her. I have to learn more about Lord Wigram’s business in Calcutta.”
“So you are using her to be in the Wigrams’ good graces.”
“… What is it?”
“And how does taking the blame achieve that?” she asked. “Wouldn’t it have been better to present yourself as a hero, or to at least side with Lady Wigram on staff’s incompetence?” Although she’d formulated her sentences as questions, he knew she was only mocking him by stating the obvious.
“It worked—” he showed an invitation to a dinner party at the Wigrams’— “it’s all that matters. I can complete my last assignment.”
And with that mission done, he would be able to leave India. The governess was his ticket out… or the marvel that would make him stay another while longer.