Mother, let us imagine we are travelling,
and passing through a strange and dangerous country.
"The Hero" Rabindranath Tagore
Somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas, 1889.
"I thought there would be camels," I protested. "I
thought there would be pink marble palaces and dusty
deserts and strings of camels to ride. Instead there is
this." I waved a hand toward the motley collection of
bullocks, donkeys, and one rather bored-looking elephant
that had carried us from Darjeeling town. I did not look at
the river. We were meant to cross it, but one glance had
decided me firmly against it.
"I told you it was the Himalayas. It is not my fault the
nearest desert is almost a thousand miles away. Do not
blame me for your feeble grasp of geography," my elder
sister, Portia, said by way of reproof. She gave a
theatrical sigh. "For heavenâ€™s sake, Julia, donâ€™t be
difficult. Climb onto the floating buffalo and letâ€™s be
off. We are meant to cross this river before nightfall."
Portia folded her arms across her chest and stared at me
I stood my ground. "Portia, a floating buffalo is hardly
a proper mode of transport. Now, I grant you, I did not
expect Indian transportation to run to plush carriages and
steam trains, but you must own this is a bit primitive by
any standards," I said, pointing with the tip of my parasol
to the waterâ€™s edge where several rather nasty-looking
rafts had been fashioned by means of lashing inflated
buffalo hides to odd bits of lumber. The hides looked
hideously lifelike, as if the buffalo had merely rolled
onto their backs for a bit of slumber, but bloated, and as
the wind changed I noticed they gave off a very distinctive
and unpleasant smell.
Portia blanched a little at the odour, but stiffened her
resolve. "Julia, we are Englishwomen. We are not cowed by a
little authentic local flavour."
I felt my temper rising, the result of too much travel
and too much time spent in proximity to my family. "I have
just spent the better part of a year exploring the most
remote corners of the Mediterranean during my honeymoon. It
is not the â€˜local flavourâ€™ that concerns me. It is the
possibility of death by drowning," I added, nodding toward
the ominous little ripples in the gray-green surface of the
Our brother, Plum, who had been watching the exchange
with interest, spoke up with uncharacteristic firmness. "We
are crossing the river and we shall do it now, even if I
have to put the pair of you on my shoulders and walk across
it." His temper had risen faster than my own, but I could
not entirely blame him. He had been ordered by our father,
the Earl March, to accompany his sisters to India, and the
experience had proven less than pleasant thus far.
Portiaâ€™s mouth curved into a smile. "Have you added
walking on water to your talents, dearest?" she asked
nastily. "I would have thought that beyond the scope of
even your prodigious abilities."
Plum rose to the bait and they began to scrap like a
pair of feral cats, much to the amusement of our porters
who began to wager quietly upon the outcome.
"Enough!" I cried, stopping my ears with my hands. I had
listened to their quarrels since they had run me to ground
in Egypt, and I was heartily sick of them both. I summoned
my courage and strode to the nearest raft, determined to
set an example of English rectitude for my siblings. "Come
on then," I ordered, a touch smugly. "Itâ€™s the merest
I turned to look, pleased to see they had left off their
"Julia--" Portia began.
I held up a hand. "No more. Not another word from either
"But--" Plum started.
I stared him down. "I am quite serious, Plum. You have
been behaving like children, the pair of you, and I have
had my fill of it. We are all of us above thirty years of
age, and there is no call for us to quarrel like spoiled
schoolmates. Now, let us get on with this journey like
adults, shall we?"
And with that little speech, the raft sank beneath me
and I slipped beneath the chilly waters of the river.
Within minutes the porters had fished me out and
restored me to dry land where I was both piqued and
relieved to find that my little peccadillo had caused my
siblings so much mirth they were clasped in each otherâ€™s
arms, still wiping their eyes.
"I hope you still find it amusing when I die of some
dread disease," I hissed at them, tipping the water from my
hat. "Holy Mother Ganges might be a sacred river, but she
is also a filthy one and I have seen enough dead bodies
floating past to know it is no place for the living."
"True," Portia acknowledged, wiping at her eyes. "But this
isnâ€™t the Ganges, dearest. Itâ€™s the Hooghly."
Plum let out a snort. "The Hooghly is in Calcutta. This is
the Rangeet," he corrected. "Apparently Julia is not the
only one with a tenuous hold on geography."
Before they could fly at one another again, I gave a
decided sneeze and a rather chaotic interlude followed
during which the porters hastily built up a fire to ward
off a chill and unpacked my trunks to provide me with dry
clothing. I gave another hearty sneeze and said a fervent
prayer that I had not contracted some virulent plague from
my dousing in the river, whichever it might be.
But even as I feared for my health, I lamented the loss of
my hat. It was a delicious confection of violet tulle
spotted with silk butterflies--entirely impractical even in
the early spring sunshine of the foothills of the
Himalayas, but wholly beautiful. "It was a present from
Brisbane," I said mournfully as I turned the sodden bits
over in my hands.
"I thought we were forbidden from speaking his name,"
Portia said, handing me a cup of tea. The porters brewed up
quantities of rank, black tea in tremendous cans every time
we stopped. After three days of the stuff, I had almost
grown to like it.
I took a sip, pulling a face at my sister. "Of course
not. It is the merest disagreement. As soon as he joins us
from Calcutta, the entire matter will be resolved," I said,
with a great deal more conviction than I felt.
The truth was my honeymoon had ended rather abruptly
when my brother and sister arrived upon the doorstep of
Shepheardâ€™s Hotel the first week of February. The end of
the archaeological season was drawing near, and Brisbane
and I had thoroughly enjoyed several dinners with the
various expeditions as they passed through Cairo to and
from the excavations at Luxor. Brisbane had been to Egypt
before, and our most recent foray into detection had left
me with a fascination for the place. It had been the last
stop on our extended tour of the Mediterranean and
therefore had been touched with a sort of melancholy
sweetness. We would be returning to England shortly, and I
knew we would never again share the sort of intimacy our
wedding trip had provided. Brisbaneâ€™s practise as a private
enquiry agent and my extensive and demanding family would
see to that.
But even as we were passing those last bittersweet days
in Egypt, I was aware of a new restlessness in my husband,
andâ€”if I were honestâ€”in myself. Eight months of travel with
only each other, my maid Morag, and occasional appearances
from his valet, Monk, had left us craving diversion. We
were neither of us willing to speak of it, but it hovered
in the air between us. I saw his hands tighten upon the
newspaper throughout the autumn as the killer known as Jack
the Ripper terrorised the East End, coming perilously close
to my beloved Aunt Hermiaâ€™s refuge for reformed
prostitutes. I suspected Brisbane would have liked to have
turned his hand to the case, but he never said, and I did
not ask. Instead we moved on to Turkey to explore the ruins
of Troy, and eventually the Whitechapel murders ceased.
Brisbane seemed content to make a study of the local fauna
whilst I made feeble attempts at watercolours, but more
than once I found him deftly unpicking a lock with the
slender rods he still carried upon his person at all times.
I knew he was keeping his hand in, and I knew also from the
occasional murmurs in his sleep that he was not entirely
happy with married life.
I did not personally displease him, he made that
perfectly apparent through regular and enthusiastic
demonstrations of his affections. Rather too enthusiastic,
as the proprietor of a hotel in Cyprus had commented
huffily. But Brisbane was a man of action, forced to live
upon his wits from a tender age, and domesticity was a
difficult coat for him to wear.
Truth be told, the fit of it chafed me a bit as well. I
was not the sort of wife to darn shirts or bake pies, and,
indeed, he had made it quite clear that was not the sort of
wife he wanted. But we had been partners in detection in
three cases, and without the fillip of danger I found
myself growing fretful. As delightful as it had been to
have my husband to myself for the better part of a year,
and as glorious as it had been to travel extensively, I
longed for adventure, for challenge, for the sort of
exploits we had enjoyed so thoroughly together in the past.
And just when I had made up my mind to address the
issue, my sister and brother had arrived, throwing
Shepheardâ€™s into upheaval and demanding we accompany them
To his credit, Brisbane did not even seem surprised to
see them when they appeared in the dining room and settled
themselves at our table without ceremony. I sighed and
turned away from the view. A full moon hung over old Cairo,
silvering the minarets that pierced the skyline and casting
a gentle glow over the city. It was impossibly romanticâ€”or
it had been until Portia and Plum arrived.
"I see you are working on the fish course. No chance of
soup then?" Portia asked, helping herself to a bread roll.
I resisted the urge to stab her hand with my fork. I
looked to Brisbane, imperturbable and impeccable in his
evening clothes of starkest black, and quickly looked away.
Even after almost a year of marriage, a feeling of shyness
sometimes took me by surprise when I looked at him unawaresâ€”
a feyness, the Scots would call it, a sense that we had
both of us tempted the fates with too much happiness
Brisbane summoned the waiter and ordered the full set
menu for Portia and for Plum who had thrown himself into a
chair and adopted a scowl. I glanced about the dining room,
not at all surprised to find our party had become the
subject not just of surreptitious glances but of outright
curiosity. We Marches tended to have that effect when we
appeared en masse. No doubt some of the guests recognised
usâ€”Marches have never been shy of publicity and our
eccentricities were well-catalogued by both the press and
society-watchersâ€”but I suspected the rest were merely
intrigued by my siblingsâ€™ sartorial elegance. Portia, a
beautiful woman with excellent carriage, always dressed cap-
a-pie in a single hue, and had elected to arrive wearing a
striking shade of orange, while Plum, whose ensemble is
never complete without some touch of purest whimsy, was
sporting a waistcoat embroidered with poppies and a cap of
violet velvet. My own scarlet evening gown, which had
seemed so daring and elegant a moment before, now felt
"Why are you here?" I asked the pair of them bluntly.
Brisbane had settled back in his chair with the same
expression of studied amusement he often wore when
confronted with my family. He and Portia enjoyed an
excellent relationship built upon genuine, if cautious,
affection, but none of my brothers had especially warmed to
my husband. Plum in particular could be quite nasty when
Portia put aside the menu she had been studying and
fixed me with a serious look. "We are bound for India, and
I want you to come with us, both of you," she added,
hastily collecting Brisbane with her glance.
"India! What on earth--" I broke off. "Itâ€™s Jane, isnâ€™t
it?" Portiaâ€™s former lover had abandoned her the previous
spring after several years of comfortably settled
domesticity. It had been a blow to Portia, not least
because Jane had chosen to marry, explaining that she
longed for children of her own and a more conventional life
than the one they had led together in London. She had gone
to India with her new husband, and we had heard nothing
from her since. I had worried for Portia for months
afterward. She had grown thinner, her lustrous complexion
dimmed. Now she seemed almost brittle, her mannerisms
darting and quick as a hummingbirdâ€™s.
"It is Jane," she acknowledged. "Iâ€™ve had a letter. She
is a widow."
I took a sip of wine, surprised to find it tasted sour
upon my tongue. "Poor Jane! She must be grieved to have
lost her husband so quickly after their marriage."
Portia said nothing for a moment, but bit at her
lip. "She is in some sort of trouble," Brisbane said
Portia threw him a startled glance. "Not really, unless
you consider impending motherhood to be trouble. She is
expecting a child, and rather soon, as it happens. She has
not had an easy time of it. She is lonely and she has asked
me to come."
Brisbaneâ€™s black eyes sharpened. "Is that all?"
The waiter interrupted, bringing soup for Portia and
Plum and refilling wine glasses. We waited until he had
bustled off to resume our discussion.
"There might be a bit of difficulty with his family,"
Portia replied, her jaw set. I knew that look well. It was
the one she always wore when she tilted at windmills.
Portia had a very old-fashioned and determined sense of
justice. If she were a man, one would have called it
"If the estate is entailed in the conventional manner,
her expectations would upset the inheritance," Brisbane
guessed. "If she produces a girl, the estate would go to
her husbandâ€™s nearest male relation, but if she bears a
son, the child would inherit and until he is old enough to
take control, Jane is queen of the castle."
"That is it precisely," Portia averred. Her face took on
a mulish cast. "Bloody nonsense. A girl could manage that
tea plantation as well as any boy. One only has to look at
how well Julia and I have managed the estates we inherited
from our husbands to see it."
I bristled. I did not like to be reminded of my first
husband. His death had left me with quite a generous
financial settlement and had been the cause of my meeting
Brisbane, but the marriage had not been altogether happy.
His was a ghost I preferred not to raise.
"How is it that she does not already know the
disposition of the estate?" Brisbane asked. "Oughtnâ€™t there
to have been a reading of the will when her husband died?"
Portia shrugged. "The estate is relatively new, only
established by her husbandâ€™s grandfather. As the estate
passed directly from the grandfather to Janeâ€™s husband, no
one thought to look into the particulars. Now that her
husband has died, matters are a little murky at present, at
least in Janeâ€™s mind. The relevant paperwork is somewhere
in Darjeeling or Calcutta and Jane doesnâ€™t like to ask
directly. She thinks it might seem grasping, and she seems
to think the matter will sort itself out when she has the
I turned to Portia. "I thought her husband was some sort of
wastrel who went to India to make his fortune, but you say
he has inherited it. Is the family a good one?"
Angry colour touched Portiaâ€™s cheeks. "It seems she
wanted to spare me any further hurt when she wrote to tell
me of her marriage. She neglected to mention that the
fellow was Freddie Cavendish."
I gasped and Brisbane arched a thick black brow
interrogatively in my direction. "Freddie Cavendish?"
"A distantâ€”very distant--cousin on our motherâ€™s side.
The Cavendishes settled in India ages ago. I believe Mother
corresponded with them for some time, and when Freddie came
to England to school, he made a point of calling upon
Plum glanced up from his wine. "Father smelled him for a
bounder the moment he crossed the threshold. Once Freddie
realised he would get nothing from him, he did not come
again. It was something of a scandal when he finished
school and refused to return to his family in India. Made a
name for himself at the gaming tables," he added with a
touch of malice. Brisbane had been known to take a turn at
the tables when his funds were low, usually to the
misfortune of his fellow gamblers. My husband was
uncommonly lucky at cards.
I hurried to divert any brewing quarrel. "How ever did Jane
meet him? He would have left school at least a decade ago."
"Fifteen years," Portia corrected. "I used to invite him
to dinner from time to time. He could be quite diverting if
he was in the proper mood. But I lost touch with him some
years back. I presumed he had returned to India until I met
him in the street one day. I remember I was giving a supper
that evening and I needed to make the numbers, so I invited
him. I thought a nice, cosy chat would be just the thing,
but a thousand details went wrong that evening, and I had
to ask Jane to entertain him for me. They met again a few
months later when she went to stay in Portsmouth with her
sister. Freddie was a friend to her brother-in-law and they
were often together. Within a fortnight they were married
and bound for India."
I cudgeled up whatever details I could recall. "I seem
to remember him as quite a handsome boy, with a forelock of
dark red hair that always spilled over his brow and loads
"As a man grown he was just the same. He could have
charmed the garters off the queenâ€™s knees," Portia added
bitterly. "He ended up terribly in debt and when his
grandfather fell ill in India, he thought he would go back
and take up residence at the tea plantation and make a go
We fell silent then, and I glanced at Plum. "And how did
you come to attach yourself to this expedition?" I asked
"Attach myself?" His handsome face settled into
sulkiness. "Surely you do not imagine I did this willingly?
It was Father, of course. He could not let Portia travel
out to India alone, so he recalled me from Ireland and
ordered me to pack up my sola topee and here I am," he
finished bitterly. He waved the waiter over to refill his
wineglass and I made a mental note to keep a keen eye upon
his drinking. As I had often observed, a bored Plum was a
dangerous Plum, but a drunken one would be even worse.
I returned my attention to my sister. "If Father wanted
you to have an escort so badly, why didnâ€™t he come himself?
He is always rabbiting on about wanting to travel to exotic
Portia pulled a face. "He would have but he was too busy
quarrelling with his hermit."
I blinked at her and Brisbane snorted, covering it
quickly with a cough. "His what?"
"His hermit. He has engaged a hermit. He thought it
might be an interesting addition to the garden."
"Has he gone stark staring mad? Who ever heard of a
hermit in Sussex?" I demanded, although I was not entirely
surprised. Father loved nothing better than tinkering with
his country estate, although his devotion to the place was
such that he refused to modernise the Abbey with anything
approaching suitable plumbing or electricity.
Portia sipped placidly at her soup. "Oh, no. The hermit
isnâ€™t in Sussex. Father has put him in the garden of March
"In London? In the back garden of a townhouse?" I
pounced on Plum. "Did no one try to talk him out of it?
Heâ€™ll be a laughingstock!"
Plum waved an airy hand. "As if that were something new
for this family," he said lightly.
I ignored my husband who was having a difficult time
controlling his mirth and turned again to my sister. "Where
does the hermit live?"
"Father built him a pretty little hermitage. He could
not be expected to live wild," she added reasonably.
"It isnâ€™t very well wild if it is in the middle of
Mayfair, now is it?" I countered, my voice rising. I took a
sip of my wine and counted to twenty. "So Father has built
this hermitage in the back garden of March House. And
installed a hermit. With whom he doesnâ€™t get on."
"Correct," Plum said. He reached for my plate and when I
offered no resistance, helped himself to the remains of my
"How does one even find a hermit these days? I thought
they all became extinct after Capability Brown."
"He advertised," Plum said through a mouthful of trout
grenobloise. "In the newspaper. Received quite a few
responses, actually. Seems many men fancy the life of a
hermit--and a few women. But Father settled on this fellow
from the Hebrides, Auld Lachy. He thought having a
Hebridean hermit would add a bit of glamour to the place."
"There are no words," Brisbane murmured.
"They started to quarrel about the hermitage," Portia
elaborated. "Auld Lachy thinks there should be a proper
water closet instead of a chamber pot. And he doesnâ€™t fancy
a peat fire or a straw bed. He wants good coal and a
"He is a hermit. He is supposed to live on weeds and
things he finds in the ground," I pointed out.
"Well, that is a matter for debate. In fact, he and
Father have entered into negotiations, but things were at
such a delicate stage, he simply could not leave. And the
rest of our brothers are otherwise engaged. Only dearest
Plum was sitting idly by," Portia said with a crocodileâ€™s
smile at our brother.
"Sitting idly by?" He shoved the fish aside. "I was
painting, as you well know. Masterpieces," he
insisted. "The best work of my career."
"Then why did you agree to come?" I asked.
"Why did I ever agree to do anything?" he asked bitterly.
"Ah, the purse strings," I said quietly. It was Fatherâ€™s
favourite method of manipulation. The mathematics of the
situation were simple. A wealthy father plus a pack of
children with expensive tastes and little money of their
own equalled a man who more often than not got his way. It
was a curious fact in our family that the five daughters
had all achieved some measure of financial independence
while the five sons relied almost entirely upon Father for
their livelihoods in some fashion or other. They were
dilettantes, most of them. Plum dabbled in art, fancying
himself a great painter, when in fact, he had only mediocre
skill with a brush. But his sketches were very often
extraordinary, and he was a gifted sculptor although he
seldom finished a sculpture on the grounds that he did not
much care for clay as it soiled his clothes.
"If I might recall us to the matter at hand," Brisbane
put in smoothly, "I should like to know more about Janeâ€™s
situation. If it were simply a matter of bringing her back
to England, you could very well do that between the two of
you. You require something more."
Portia toyed with her soup. "I thought it might be
possible for you to do a bit of detective work whilst we
are there. I should like to know the disposition of the
estate. If Jane is going to require assistance, legal or
otherwise, I should like to know it before the moment is at
hand. Forewarned is forearmed," she finished, not quite
meeting his eyes.
Brisbane signalled the waiter for more wine and we paused
while the game course was carried in with the usual
ceremony. Brisbane took a moment to make certain his duck
was cooked to his liking before he responded.
"A solicitor could be of better use to you than I," he
"Than we," I corrected.
Again he raised a brow in my direction, but before we
could rise to battle over the question of my involvement in
his work, Portia cut in sharply.
"Yes, of course. But I thought it would make such a
lovely end to your honeymoon. Janeâ€™s letters are quite
rapturous on the beauties of the Peacocks."
"The Peacocks?" My ears twitched at the sound of it.
Already I was being lured by the exoticism of the place,
and I suspected my husband was already halfway to India in
"The Peacocks is the name of the estate, a tea garden on
the border of Sikkim, outside of Darjeeling, right up in
the foothills of the Himalayas."
"The rooftop of the world," I said quietly. Brisbane
flicked his fathomless black gaze to me and I knew we were
both thinking the same thing. "Of course we will go,
Portia," I assured her.
Her shoulders sagged a little in relief, and I noticed
the lines of care and age beginning to etch themselves upon
her face. "We will make arrangements to leave as soon as
possible," I said briskly. "We will go to India and settle
the question of the estate, and we will bring Jane home
where she belongs."
But of course, nothing that touches my family is ever so