Mahindar stood beside Elliot, one hand on his arm. Behind Mahindar were his mother and wife; beyond them, Priti, still chewing her bread while she looked on with round eyes.
And then the clatter of feet in the passage, and Juliana’s worried voice. “Is everything all right? I heard shouting. Elliot?”
Damn, damn, and damn. Why the devil had Hamish tried to creep up on him like that?
“Sahib, you really must give me the knife.”
Elliot growled. He shoved Hamish away from him and tossed the knife to an empty table, then stormed out the kitchen’s back door into the gathering dusk of the Scottish evening.
Juliana remained in place for one moment, then she started for the open door. “Elliot…”
Mahindar stepped in her way. “It is best to let him go, memsahib. One never knows what he might do when he is like this.”
“But what is the matter? Hamish, what did you do?”
“Nothin’!” Hamish adjusted the collar of his shirt, his eyes still huge. “I didn’t do nothin’, promise ye, m’lady. I came in same as always. Then I saw Himself, and I thought, Mr. McBride, he’s a rich man and a gentleman, and I work for him now. So maybe I should walk a bit quieter than I usually do. Mr. McGregor says I’m like a drum brigade. I was tryin’ t’ be dec’rous.”
“He does not like anyone walking softly behind him,” Mahindar said. “Better you be a drum brigade.”
“Why doesn’t he?” Juliana asked. “Mahindar, what is the matter? Please, tell me.”
Mahindar looked sad. “The sahib is very ill. He is much, much better now, but when we found him after he escaped his jail, he was a raving madman. We cared for him for a long time before he was able to speak to us and tell us what happened. The poor man went through a great ordeal. He is very strong, and very brave.”
Juliana looked past Mahindar to the overgrown path outside the open back door, night at last falling. “Will he be all right?”
“Yes, indeed. The best thing for him is to walk about by himself. He will come back, as you British say, right as rain.”
“You’ll make certain?” Juliana asked.
“Yes, memsahib. I will do that. Now, my wife will take you up and put you to bed. Nandita, when she is terrified, is useless, but I will make her and Priti go to sleep. Things will be well in the morning.”
Juliana was not certain they would be, but she consented to walk back upstairs with Channan, who made her way robustly through the dark and dirty house. Mahindar’s mother—Komal—came behind, saying nothing but looking about her with the same interest as she had all day.
They found Nandita still in the middle of the bed, hugging herself. After a few words from Komal, Nandita scrambled off the bed and scuttled from the room. Juliana heard Mahindar calling Nandita from downstairs, and Nandita’s running footsteps, heading toward him.
Channan went at once to Juliana’s valise and began unpacking with competence. She must be used to being a lady’s maid, Juliana decided, because she knew which garments to hang in the heavy armoire and which to fold away into the drawers of the high chest.
Komal walked around the room looking things over. She pushed back the silk covering on her head, showing that her hair was gray mixed with black. Channan’s hair was jet-black, and her face was plump and unlined.
Channan finished putting away Juliana’s clothes and came to unbutton her dress. Komal ignored them to approach the bed. She put her palms on the mattress, smoothing it, then she said something to Channan and laughed.
Channan laughed as well, while Juliana stood between them, bewildered. “She says you have much luck,” Channan said. “A husband so rich and handsome. The sahib is a good catch.”
Juliana blushed, which made both women laugh again. Komal brushed her hands over the mattress and talked at some length. Channan nodded and answered, then turned back to Juliana.
“She says she’ll give you a charm. So you have many sons.”
Juliana thought about Elliot wandering about the McGregor grounds in the dark, and wondered if she would have the opportunity to have sons at all. Channan must have understood her expression, because she said, “Do not worry. The sahib will be well. My husband takes care of him.”
Elliot still had not returned when Channan tucked Juliana up in bed in a clean night rail, with a wrapped brick to warm the sheets. Channan and Komal made quite a lot of noise quieting each other, then they finally slipped out of the room, leaving Juliana alone.
On her wedding night.
The sky darkened, the open windows cooling the summer air. The house grew quiet, the walls thick enough that sound didn’t carry from the floors below. Outside, the silence was broken by frogs croaking frantically for mates and wind sighing in the trees. The quiet here, when Juliana was used to the noise of the city, was deafening.
The moon rose, its silver disk broken by the trees, and shone on the bed where Juliana lay waiting. And still, Elliot did not come.
Well past midnight, Elliot heard a branch break in the woods behind him. This was followed by a loud rustling and the voice of Mahindar. “Do not worry, sahib. It is me.”
Elliot stood atop a rock that overlooked the rushing river below. Moonlight glittered on the water’s surface and also on the spires of his new house, a false castle built on the site of an ancient one.
Mahindar slipped and slid on the path, flailing for balance. Elliot put out a hand and pulled the man up onto solid rock beside him.