Veiled at Midnight
The British empire draws to an end…
but the turmoil has only just begun.
The Partition of India has sent millions to the roads, instigated riots as uncontrolled as wildfire…and caught up in its wake Captain Cam Fraser, his sister Miriam, and the beautiful Indian Dassah. Cam has never been able to put Dassah from his mind, ever since they played together at the mission as children. But a British officer and the aide to the last viceroy cannot marry a poor Indian woman, can he?
For a while, Dassah believes that Cam loves her. But as the impossibility of a future with him becomes clear, what choice does she have but to run? He may hold her heart—but she cannot let him break it again. Miriam rails against the separation of the land of her birth, and as British forces prepare to leave India, she struggles. She finds purpose in teaching, in helping…but is Lieutenant Colonel Jack Sunderland her soul mate or a distraction from what God has called her to do?
August 15, 1946
The last arrow of sunlight shot back from the train’s brass trim, blinding Cam Fraser. As he narrowed his eyes, he recognized a face at the edge of his vision. A train whistle shrieked, steam hissed. A young woman in a green sari mingled within a crowd of Indian passengers. In an instant, his legs felt encased in steel. Out of that teeming mass on the platform she stared back. Her skin the color of milky tea, her hair a thick braid of silk over one shoulder. The fast sinking sun set her awash in a glow of apricot. Then crimson. She’d been looking straight at him. Then in the descending dark she was gone.
His sister, Miriam, gripped him by the elbow. “Hadassah? Cam, you said Dassah.”
“I thought I saw her.” He shook his head, the pain nearly splitting it in two. He squinted to see into the crowd as the rapid Indian dusk fell. Ten long years…
With her hand on his shoulder to steady herself, Miriam strained on her tiptoes to see over the throng. “It’s been simply ages! Cam, are you sure? Where’d you see her?”
At that moment, whistles blew, and conductors ushered passengers aboard the night train bound for New Delhi. Miriam sent a pleading look over her shoulder. “Find her, Cam, before the train leaves.”
He didn’t need any goading from his sister, and while the steward urged Miriam up the steps of their carriage, he dodged passengers along the side of the train. Hundreds scrambled to their seats, more well-to-do Indians to first and second class. At least that injustice had been corrected somewhat since his childhood. The plush elegance of first class was no longer assigned to the British alone. Still, hordes of poor mashed into the cattle-like carriages called fourth. But it wasn’t fourth he’d seen Dassah standing outside of.
For as long as he could remember, scrawny little Dassah had tagged after him when he visited the mission. He and Miriam had played with the muddle of orphans—Hari, Ameera, Zakir, to name a few—enjoying the usual sort of games. Soccer, rugby, marbles. But the last time he’d seen Dassah she’d been anything but scrawny. Nor had she been a little girl.
He reached the area where he thought she’d stood. Sweat soaked the back of his shirt. Blast this muggy monsoon weather. His eyes blurred. And blast this headache. No matter where he looked he couldn’t pinpoint any of the slender young Indian women on or off the train as the girl he sought. Had he conjured up her image—a mirage shimmering on the hot Indian rails? It wouldn’t be the first time.
He wound back through the crowds the way he’d come. As he passed a clutch of railway officials, their talk in Hindi slowed his stride.
“…Muslim League calling for a holiday to mark their Direct Action Day—”
“Shush your foolish fretting.” The Conductor glanced around. “Not until tomorrow.”
“The Hindu Congress is worried.” Another railroad man wiped sweat from his face with the trailing end of his turban. “I have heard rumors someone might disturb the trains, such as the Muslims tried to do to Gandhi’s special train.”
“Disturb? Pah! They tried to derail it, but that was months ago, and Gandhi is not on this train.”
“But many of his friends in the Hindu Congress are.”
The myriad of noise echoing under the station’s massive glass and wrought iron roof absorbed the conversation. Cam’s headache clasped his head in a vice, but the authorities running these trains knew their jobs. Even if there was anything to worry about, they didn’t need him sticking his military nose into things.
As he entered the carriage, Miriam glanced up. “Well?”
“No time. I’ll have to wait until we stop.” The train started to glide forward as he sat on the seat opposite her. He reached for The Times of India, wishing he had an aspirin—or six—and dropped the paper to his lap. He’d tried earlier to read the news, but the grinding wheels in his head wouldn’t allow it.
“Do you think it was her?” his sister asked.
He didn’t want to raise Miriam’s hopes. “I don’t know for sure if the girl I saw even got on this train.”
But the image of the woman’s willowy shape in the crowd was stamped behind his eyelids. Those arched brows, those eyes that were world-weary even when she was a child. So like Dassah, how she could speak without saying a word, how she trailed constantly after him and Zakir, only running away to hide when they fought.
Miriam smoothed her skirt over her knees. “You want to see her as much as I do. She’s like family. Like Ameera and Zakir.”
“Cam, surely you don’t mean that because she’s Indian.”
“You know me better than that.” He regretted the slight growl to his tone. Really, Miriam of all people should know better than to insult him with racial bigotry. “I’m saying that Dassah isn’t quite family because she left the mission. Her and Tikah. Not a word after all this time. If they thought of us as family they’d have contacted us. As for Zakir….” He rattled his newspaper open and pretended to read.
“Honestly, Cam, you’ve been like a mongoose bemoaning a stolen banana all day.” She wrenched off her white, wrist-length gloves and fanned herself with them. “You always get that way when we mention Zakir.”
His sigh would have depressed that mongoose she compared him to, but he couldn’t bear to talk about Zakir. Nor had he any intention of telling her how he felt about Dassah. Then to add on what he’d heard on the platform? Certainly not. Though recent intelligence expected this crisis to blow over, the sooner he got Miriam out of Calcutta the better.
She pulled open her handbag and offered him a packet of tablets. “And there’s no need to hide your headache.”
He smiled as he took the medicine, and she sent him a grin much like their mother’s. Miriam was rarely nosey—bless her—and thankfully didn’t ask further about his headache.
Through the window, the darkening Indian countryside sped by under a green sky with a crescent moon rising. The rocking of the train lulled him, and he shut his eyes. But Dassah’s face emerged from his memory. That long black braid over her shoulder. The scent of roses and lilies from the mission’s balcony, the perfume of Dassah herself as he faded to sleep.
A slight hitch in the rhythm of the train gliding along the rails woke Cam. His eyes flew open. As though a change in gear…a step out of cadence. The train met a curved section of track ahead, and he could see the line of lit windows. Not a parallel line. A ripple passed through their carriage, setting the crystal droplets on the lamps to tinkle, the hairs on his arms to stand.
Their car juddered.
A thousand screeches—were they human or metal?—as the train jumped like a frenzied horse. The momentum plucked him from his seat. Flung him across the carriage.
He picked out his sister’s screams from so many others.
For a moment he was suspended in air, weightless, then landed on what had been the wall, and then the ceiling as the train tumbled, turned, and twisted. Lights went out as pain, poker hot, jabbed him in his side, his head.
A lifetime passed. Human cries mingled with tearing metal. Blackness. The roar of his pulse pounded through his temples. Until the bucking of the train stopped. He counted his breaths, his heart about to burst through his chest. Where was he? How….?
How long did it take to sort out where he was? Minutes? Seconds? Was this the wall he was lying on? Yes, the train lay on its side. His head had rammed against the lamp fixture.
“Miriam,” he croaked. “Where are you?”
Gradually, from all directions people began sobbing, screaming, calling out, but nothing from his sister. An acrid filament of smoke entered their carriage and yanked him into new terror.
“Miriam! Where are you?”
“I’m here.” Her answer, thin and muffled, reached him.
“I’m coming. Are you all right?”
“I don’t know.”
He didn’t like the frailty in her voice. This wasn’t his gangbuster sister on her way to start a new teaching position. As he stood he found sure footing on the panelling close to where the window used to be. Most of the main structure of their carriage remained intact, though their bunks had sprung open in the upheaval, and broken furnishings created a minefield of debris.
Pain stabbed his ribs, and when he sought out the reason his hand came away warm and sticky. Same with his forehead when he touched it. He wondered what had become of his cap. As an officer he shouldn’t be out of uniform. It took a moment for the absurdity to sink in. He was wearing his civvies. On leave. The train had derailed.
He was standing though, with bruised ribs probably, and able to get to Miriam. Glass splintered under his shoes as he gingerly worked his way across to where he’d heard her thread of a voice. “Call out to me again, love.”
“I’m here, Cam. Are you all right?”
“Right as rain. I’m coming.”
“Always the hero, just like Dad, though you’ll never admit it.” She giggled, but it petered out too soon.
“Big brother will always come to the rescue. Shout out now.”
He took more steps. It was hard to see in the dark. His knee connected with something hard and sharp, and he felt his way around what must be an upended seat. “How are you, Miriam?”
“Nothing’s changed, my darling sibling, since the last time you asked five seconds ago.”
“Been that long, has it?” Keep her talking, keep her talking, that was the ticket. “Am I getting closer? Warm? Cool? Right off the map?” While shoving aside their strewn luggage, he spiked his tone with the same jolly nonsense as when they were kids playing at the mission. “Miriam?”
A hand grasped him around the ankle. “Stop shouting, and for goodness sake don’t step on me.”
He dropped to see what pinned her down. Some broken fixture trapped her, he surmised in the total blackness, and thrust the jumble off her. Once freed, he quickly ran his hands over her arms and legs. No broken bones, uninjured, and he sent a swift thanks to the Almighty, something he rarely did these days.
“That’s enough, Cam, I’m fine. Really, I am.”
“Bruised. Cuts and scrapes…all minor. Shaken.” Her teeth chattered. “Yes…shaken…and you?”
He helped her to stand, and together they hobbled to below the door that now opened above them. It hurt like the blazes as he hauled himself upward through the opening, pushing the door up and out so that he emerged like a jack in the box. The pain in his side shot a haze past his vision, but he managed to reach below and lift her out.
They stood together surrounded by what appeared to be a battlefield. For a moment he was back in Burma in the war, with bedlam all around him. People, like refugees, lay about, some crouched. Others staggered by in the light of flickering flames from a series of small fires, started by flying coals from the engine. Behind them, the carriages from first and second class lay on their sides. English people stumbled from the wreckage. Nearby, one man in a white linen suit and cricket club tie had lost several layers of skin on his leg. Around him was scattered the usual paraphernalia his fellow British packed for the train: thermoses, picnic baskets, bedrolls, air inflated pillows.
Not far from him, a woman in a pink frock and straw hat festooned with silk roses cradled her arm, broken in a nasty-looking fracture. One of her shoes was missing. Many of the English had begun to assist one another, so too were the Indians from First and Second.
But closer to the front behind the engine, carriages lay smashed across the rails, nothing more than a pile of splintered wood and tangled steel. Twisted rails stuck out all over, while cars and coal tender straggled about the ballast stones. Indian passengers crept out from the broken matchbox of a train, in shock, blackened with smoke and grease. He heard and understood various dialects from people speaking all at once—Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, and several others. Many sobbed, hunched over their wounds, while one Indian woman, seemingly uninjured, stood like a statue. Her sari fluttered in the scorching night breeze as she gazed about her at nothing.
Calls for help came from within, and a handful of Indian soldiers picked their way into the wreckage. The engine was still spouting steam. That boiler could blow.
“Stay here,” he said to Miriam, “safely away from the train.”
“I’m coming with you.”
“No you’re not.”
She reached for him. “Cam, I felt blood all over your shirt.”
He raised a hand to his head, pushed back his hair sticky with blood, and took a swift glance at his side. The gouge was nasty, would need stitches most likely, but it wouldn’t kill him. “I’ll be back soon. Help will arrive from that town over there!” he shouted back at her as he ran to join the soldiers who were sifting through debris at the front of the train. “Do what you can for the injured here.”
Railroad men raked out red hot coals from the engine’s firebox, but cinders belched from the locomotive lying on its side. It wheezed as if it were a huge black-and-gold striped animal brought down by a hunter’s bullet. Cam shook off his fanciful thinking to climb inside the wreckage. Stewards and traveling soldiers were already at work putting out a series of small fires.
Inside fourth, Indian women tore the hems off their saris, and the men tore their scarves and shirts to staunch the bleeding of their fellow passengers. Cam threaded his way through, at times crawling, while able-bodied men carried the wounded outside to the embankment. An Englishman of military bearing attempted to free a woman from a broken baggage rack as Cam reached them. This man also wore civvies, but from his tie clip Cam recognized him as a British officer from a Punjab Regiment. A glance of understanding passed between them as they counted to three. Together they lifted the rack that pinned the unconscious woman and thrust it aside.
“Can you carry her outside?” the officer asked. “I can manage in here alone for a few minutes. It’s that engine that worries me.”
With a nod, Cam stooped to gain hold of the woman under her shoulders and knees, and lifted. His vision blurred as he carried her outside where a makeshift triage had already sprung up. Some of the passengers appeared to be doctors and nurses. He’d seen enough war and human misery, enough for a lifetime, and perhaps it would be worse if the sight of suffering didn’t kick him in the gut like it did now. If he’d become used to this, then something truly would have died within him.
In the distance, ambulance bells clanged, adding to the other wretched sounds around them. From the nearest town came civil and railroad police, fire officials. He returned to the wreckage and for a long time helped to lift the wounded from it. At last, hours later, the locomotive was under control, all fear of an explosion causing a secondary disaster subsided, but Cam’s muscles cried out. The pain in his side had worsened so that it was hard to breathe. Had he done more than bruise a rib? But his thirst was worse, enough to drive a man mad.
A local man came by with a bucket of water and a ladle, offering a drink to Cam. The water went down his throat like nectar, and it would do until he got a proper drink—or better still, a bottle. He turned to survey the derailment.
Among the crowd of injured, her green sari stood out.
Her long braid of dark hair caressed one shoulder as she sat cross-legged on the ground, a child in her lap, her arm around another. There she was. Flesh and blood. A mirage did not bleed.
Those amber eyes of Dassah’s in the scarce light of flickering fires were wide with shock. As she adjusted the sari crossing her chest, the veil eased back from her forehead so that he could see the extent of a gash above one brow. Cam drew close and dropped to his knees before her. With a gulp she cradled the toddler she held that much closer, and the little one whimpered in her sleep. The other child—a boy, he could see that now—sidled closer to her.
“Are they all right?” His voice sounded alien to his own ears. “Are you?”
She shivered as if she were freezing in the hot night air and lowered her gaze. Anger, searing red as coals, coursed through him. Dassah had always been reserved, even as a baby. So had Zakir, for that matter. Surely their childhood friendship deserved more than this show of Indian subservience? But then he’d thought that of Zakir as well.
Around them, the throng of people merged into one unintelligible, buzzing mass. For once, the rest of the world could take care of itself. He lifted the boy and sat beside Dassah, holding the too-quiet child. In the face of the trauma around him, all he could think was, were these children hers? A black cloud crossed his vision. If so, Dassah must be married, and the thought of a husband snuffed out a hope he hadn’t known existed.
Why that should matter made no sense, when he was practically engaged
Since Cam left Miriam hours ago, the wreckage had gained a circus-like atmosphere. Soldiers, police, railroad gangers, all worked to clear the track. Not long ago a giant crane on a train bed arrived and was lifting cars upright. A few cinders blew, red-hot fireflies against the night sky, and Miriam brushed them away. If she knew her brother, he was working himself to exhaustion. Well as soon as she caught up to him, she’d order him to sit down and let her look at his injuries, or she’d box his ears.
Sure enough, there he was on the other side of the tracks, his face black with soot, his trousers and shirt filthy, sitting in a group of Indian passengers. And he was holding a child.
She added new vigor to her stride, but stopped. A woman in a green sari sat beside Cam…Dassah. Their childhood chum hunched on the grassy embankment in the dark, clutching a little girl about two. Cam had been right. It was Dassah he’d seen boarding in Calcutta. Dassah with that regal tilt to her head, and those almond-shaped eyes that could melt the hardest soul.
Miriam ran full tilt toward them. Cam never let on, but the Indian girl’s friendship meant as much to him as his boyhood chums like Zakir. Probably because Dassah had been born in the mission the first year he and Mum had come out to India. She’d always been Cam’s little Indian sister.
“Dassah, darling, it’s you. It’s really you.” Miriam swooped to squeeze the young woman in a hug. For the strangest half moment, she felt the Indian woman pull away, but she must have imagined it, because seconds later Dassah’s eyes brimmed, and both of them were laughing and speaking at once.
“Thank God you’re safe, Dassah.”
“Are you well, Miri? Oh yes I recall, you preferred to be called Miriam from the time you turned sixteen.”
“Where’ve you been all this time? Are these children yours? Look at that darling little girl fast asleep. Cam saw you, Dassah, at the station. Knew you straightaway. Are you all right?” She glanced at her brother. He had that stoic look about him he used to have as a kid, when he wasn’t happy and was putting on a brave face anyway.
Dassah clutched the children that much closer and tucked an object dangling on a string under her sari. That expressive dusky brow of hers wrinkled, but her soft smile was the only answer she gave.
“Are you all right?” Cam repeated in low tones in English.
Dassah dipped her head and spoke in that measured way Miriam remembered, an almost musical pulse to her perfect British inflection. “I am completely well. Praise be to God the children are not hurt either, except for cuts and bruises that will soon mend.”
It was better to give Dassah time, and goodness knew with the chaos around them, they could do with a laugh. With her hands on her hips, Miriam turned her attention to the little boy, smiled, and asked him in Hindi, “And what is your name, my good man?”
“Ramesh.” He grinned, showing off the charming space where his two front teeth should have been. Like most Indian children, he seemed fascinated with her hair. It never failed—every Sunday school class she ever taught, the little ones were putty in her hands because of her blond mane. While this brought attention from unwanted male admirers, she was grateful for it when entertaining children as they giggled and touched her tresses.
“Well, Ramesh, what did you think of the train going off its rails?”
The tiny boy lost some of that pasty look. “Were you on the train? Did you hear that enormous screeching?” He chattered on like a piston engine.
Miriam made all the appropriate oohs and aahs, and saw Dassah’s eyes light with laughter as the little boy came alive. She too gradually lost that death-warmed-over look, thank goodness, but still…their old friend hung back. Some of the joy of seeing Dassah froze like a new bloom in an unexpected frost. Why was Dassah acting…not standoffish exactly, but as if she and Cam were strangers? Like so many other Indian people who saw them only as members of the British Raj, the so-called ruling elite. That thought brought a sour taste to Miriam’s mouth.
Cam must have felt the same from the way he raked his hair off his brow. “Are you sure you are all right, Dassah?” he asked, switching to English again. “Perhaps you should see the doctor.”
“I am well,” the Indian woman insisted, keeping her gaze fastened on the ground.
Miriam planted her hands on her hips. What on earth was going on here? Something charged the air between her brother and their friend. Not for the first time did she wonder why Dassah had left the mission in the first place, all those years ago. If she’d told anyone of her reasons for going, it should have been Cam. Those two had been thick as thieves as children—more of a threesome, really, if you counted Zakir.
An Englishman in gray slacks, his shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbows, strolled toward their little group. “You’re needed, Captain Fraser. The police have requested our help with the investigation.”
Cam got to his feet. “Certainly, sir, right away.”
With a glance, Miriam catalogued the man as an officer, even though he wasn’t in uniform. Most likely on leave same as Cam.
Her brother took a few steps away from the embankment. “Miriam, can you get one of the doctors to take a look at these three? I’m concerned over this gash on Dassah’s forehead. I can leave them in your hands, I trust.”
Dassah’s stiff little smile faltered. “You do not have to worry about me. There are plenty of…my people about to assist me if necessary.”
Cam went rigid. “Of course,” he said. “I didn’t…I didn’t mean to offend.”
Dassah appealed with open palms, as if she were the one who’d insulted him. She dipped her head, her fingers restlessly plucking at the little girl’s tunic as the child slept.
Miriam forced a laugh. “Oh my word, you two! Let’s try to remember that when we were playing as children at the mission we were often put down for our naps in the same cot. Goodness gracious, I think at one time Tikah had us all together in the tin washtub for a good scrubbing after we’d been playing in the bagh.”
Cam addressed Dassah as if Miriam hadn’t spoken. “I would do the same for my sister. I’d insist she see a doctor with a gash like that. Now if you’ll excuse me. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Please don’t go anywhere. We have a lot to catch up on…as old friends.” Cam started to walk away but wavered on his feet and touched a hand to his brow.
Before Miriam had a chance to reach her brother, Dassah set the sleeping child down on the grass and bolted to her feet. To Miriam’s shock, Dassah—who’d always been frightfully modest—strode toward Cam, her hand outstretched as if she wanted to lift the tail end of Cam’s shirt. Instead, Dassah with eyes like wide pools turned to her. “Miriam, I believe your brother is injured.”
In the light of the torches, Miriam whipped up Cam’s shirttail. A wound at his side gaped. A sharp breath came from Dassah while Miriam issued a gasp of her own. In the dark she’d not noticed how large the rust red patch on Cam’s shirt had become.
“What is this?” Dassah scolded. “It is you, Cam, who needs a doctor.” Removing her scarf from her head she handed it to Miriam. “Please use this to wrap his waist.”
Miriam’s voice joined with hers as she wrapped Dassah’s scarf around him. “Oh, Cam, and you didn’t say a word. Sometimes you make my blood boil.”
Cam, instead of being suitably subdued, released a deep chuckle as he looked down at Dassah, who stood at a respectful distance.
The officer who’d been waiting strode closer. “Are you fit for duty, Captain?”
“He is not.” Dassah whirled to lecture the man, her braid flinging out. “Can you not see he is more injured than he is letting on?”
Neither she nor Cam could take their eyes off Dassah. The officer didn’t notice their astonishment over the woman they used to know as extraordinarily serene. He peered closely at Cam. “Good gracious, man, I’m afraid the medics will have to take you.”
Miriam touched Cam on the arm. “I’m going for a stretcher straightaway, and you will see the doctor.”
He reached for her wrist as she was about to dash off, his voice drained. “For goodness sake, Miri, I’m perfectly capable of walking fifty feet.” He pulled himself straighter, his gaze lingering on Dassah.
Still, Miriam was prepared to ignore her brother’s refusal for a stretcher when an Indian man of about forty rushed toward them, making a beeline for Dassah and the children. Dassah broke her gaze with Cam to look at the well-dressed man wearing a Gandhi cap and a tailored suit that wouldn’t have been out of place on Savile Row in London. This rather handsome man had to be Dassah’s husband.
Miriam was about to nudge Cam with a grin when she noticed his face fall. Surely he’d be pleased that Dassah had done so well for herself—an orphan girl married to a wealthy Hindu.
“Come, Ramesh.” The man beckoned to the boy. “We must return to Calcutta immediately. Dassah, quickly, bring Padma, for I have hired a car.”
Without a word, Dassah picked the child up from the grass.
One glance at Cam’s expression and Miriam knew he was not going to see the doctor just yet. Cam reached out and almost touched the Indian woman on the shoulder, but pulled his hand back. Strangely though, Dassah gave a tiny, startled jump. She stopped and looked up into his face. Cam, too, stopped, his hands fisted at his sides, his stance ramrod straight while those almond-shaped eyes of Dassah’s seized on him as if she were memorizing his features. Cam moved slightly toward her, and the Indian woman’s lips parted as if to speak.
Miriam put a hand to her mouth.
Something invisible and bright danced on the air between her brother and Dassah. Something holy and full of a passion she would never understand. But then Dassah glanced down and away without a word, and Cam, though he didn’t move, gave the impression of shrinking back. In a heartbeat, it was done.
The military officer stood off to the side, and the elegantly dressed Indian gentleman checked his wristwatch, while Dassah inched away from Cam. No one seemed to notice. The tiny dancing flames Miriam imagined between her brother and their old Indian friend winked away while night returned. It had not been simply cinders flitting like fireflies. Miriam’s hand dropped from her mouth to hang limp at her side.
But, Cam…and Dassah? It couldn’t be. He was practically engaged to Phoebe.
Cam glanced at the man who was obviously the children’s father by the way little Ramesh wound his arms around his neck. Her brother directed his words to him. “Sir, my sister and I knew your…we knew Dassah as a child. Might we know your name? That we may call on you.”
“You are most kind, sahib. Arvind Malik, President of the Chartered Bank of Bombay at your service. However, please, if you will be excusing me, I must get back to Calcutta.” The man bowed slightly, holding Ramesh close. “My wife was seriously hurt in the derailment, and they took her to hospital in an ambulance.” He inclined his head at Dassah. “Come, there is no time.”
“Your wife?” Cam winged a glance at Dassah, and Miriam could feel his palpable relief.
Dassah rushed past them, carrying the little girl along the stones behind Arvind Malik. Miriam darted after her with the hope of helping, but Dassah had not gone two steps when Cam whisked the little girl from her. At first it looked like Dassah would argue. She knew as well as Miriam that carrying that child wasn’t going to do Cam’s injuries any good, but like Miriam, Dassah closed her mouth and hurried alongside him. It seemed Dassah remembered that Cam had a stubborn streak a mile wide, almost as wide as Dassah’s own, as Miriam recalled. With Arvind leading, they all dashed to an automobile waiting on the road by the tracks.
“What are you to these children?” Cam asked Dassah.
“I am their ayah.”
Miriam pretended not to notice the growing relief on Cam’s face. So Dassah wasn’t these little ones’ mother, but their nanny. Still, she could have children of her own somewhere else.
By the time they reached the banker’s vehicle, the short conversation between Dassah and Cam had ended. Mr. Malik set his son in the back, gesturing for Dassah to hurry and pushed her into the backseat with Ramesh and Padma. Just as he was about to get into the front he stopped and turned to Cam, his hand tapping a rapid drumbeat on the top of the car. “Yes, please visit, sahib. But as soon as we are able we will be leaving Calcutta and going to Lahore where one of my bank branches is located.”
Cam stood with that soldierly posture she knew so well from her father, his back straight as a board, his hands clasped behind his back. “You are concerned about Calcutta?” Cam asked softly.
The banker dropped his gaze for a moment. “Are you aware there may be trouble come this morning?” He flung out a hand at the derailed train. “Perhaps there will be more of this type of violence.”
Her brother tilted his head. “What makes you think this was not an accident?”
Miriam could hear the underlying steel in his voice. He was in the intelligence service for good reason.
“It was my hope to be away from Calcutta before Direct Action Day. This so-called holiday that Muhammad Ali Jinnah has called will only give idle folk a chance to make trouble.”
“Give me your address, Mr. Malik, and I will see what I can do to personally protect your house.”
The banker sent Cam a thin smile as he handed him a business card. “From your demeanor, sahib, I am assuming you are with the army. While you British remain in India, no doubt your forces will protect the peace for the time being. But if I may speak my mind…?”
Cam lifted his chin.
Arvind Malik clasped his hands in Eastern supplication. “It angers my people that after two centuries of British rule, you should decide to give us our independence with so little time for preparation. Your government wants to hand our country back to us by June of 1948. Only two years to set up a government. Already the power struggle has begun.”
Miriam moved to take hold of Cam’s arm. Two years was far too quick for a transfer of power. There would be trouble. Everyone knew that.
While talking with the banker, not once did Cam glance at Dassah and the children inside the car. Nor was there a word or gesture from Dassah, who seemed to be looking through the front windshield as if her life depended on it.
Well, everyone else might be walking on eggshells, but Miriam wasn’t about to let Dassah go without a proper good-bye. Not this time.
Leaving Cam’s side, she knelt inside the backseat and wrapped her arms around Dassah’s shoulders. “I’ve kept you in my prayers all these years, Dassah darling. I also know that eagle-eyed glint in my brother’s eye. Seems that we, too, may be returning to Calcutta. You can be sure we will be in touch very soon.” She tweaked Ramesh on the nose and plopped a kiss on the little girl’s head, who’d remained oblivious in her slumber.
Miriam must have got through that protective wall Dassah had bricked up, because her friend gripped her wrist. Dassah held Miriam’s hand to her cheek. “It fills my soul to see you again, Miriam.”
The moment was broken when Arvind Malik jumped into the car and ordered the window blinds closed. As the car drove off toward Calcutta, Miriam turned to Cam. “So much for me getting to Lahore to set up my rooms in plenty of time.”
Cam released a humorless grunt. “The decorating of your rooms can wait a day or two.”
“And it is obvious our reunion with Dassah cannot. But for now, Cam, will you please come with me to see a doctor?”
He didn’t answer but started toward the medic’s tent, though his pace slowed. He wasn’t as tough as he thought, because halfway there he stopped, and she slipped under his arm and let him lean on her. Poor lamb, he really was in pain. That other officer was there instantly. Between the two of them they supported Cam and called out for a medic. Good thing they did, as Cam’s eyelids flickered. Turning a frightening shade of white, he slumped just as they reached the stretcher.
Cam was whisked into the temporary triage tent.
Only half listening, she caught the officer’s voice. “You and I haven’t been properly introduced…Lieutenant Colonel Jack Sunderland, Second Battalion, Thirteenth Gurkha Rifles…will stay to make sure your brother is all right.” He continued talking, but she never heard another word.
She couldn’t contain her relief that Cam had slipped into unconsciousness. If he hadn’t, he’d probably have insisted on plastering a mere bandage over the wound and been on the road by now behind that car back to Calcutta.