AB Book 1 – Chapter PRE2

Amelia had gone missing and Rebecca Ecclestone was a very worried mother.  Her daughter did go out on her own occasionally but had not gone outside the compound before and darkness was falling rapidly. Mrs Ecclestone dispatched the servants to the four corners of the compass with strict instructions to find her. The servants knew their way around the town and the ways of the locals. She was sure that Amelia would be found and when she was she would get the sharp edge of her mothers tongue. At 11 years old,  Amelia was maturing rapidly and was learning how to navigate her way through the complexities of Indian society, the British, Eurasians, high caste Indians and the masses, all behaving in different ways. Then there was men and women, military, civil servants and merchants. It was a mystery to a newcomer but growing up with her British parents in a military compound she was absorbing the legion upon legion of unspoken rules by osmosis.

Rebecca stompted and harrupt around.  They were due at a musical event that evening and not only was Amelia missing so was her husband and he had promised to be home on time for once. These musical evenings were organised by the wife of the Colonel of the Regiment and officers and wives (and daughters) were expected to be there.  Rebecca Ecclestone was a typical military wife. Steady under fire and steadfast in support of the family. The siege at [Lucknow] had been dramatic but fortunately had not lasted long and although she had shit her nickers with fear, she had stood firm and alongside the other women had been thoroughly praised by the relieved Colonel when the siege was lifted.

But this formidable member of the Raj was wracked with emotion, oscillating between fear for her daughter, fear of the wrath of the Colonel’s wife if they were late to the concert and anger at Amelia’s irresponsible behaviour.  So when a sheepish Amelia finally turned up in the safe hands of their senior steward Rosan (who of course had had a good idea all along where she was likely to be) she took the full brunt of her mother’s fear and anger.

“Where have you been Amelia? I’ve been worried sick about you. Your dress is ruined and it was only fresh on this morning. Don’t stand there saying nothing. Tell me the truth.”

With her bottom lip trembling and a tear coming into her eye she replied “Sorry mummy I haven’t been in any trouble. We went to the market then to the railway yard to look at the new buildings and see Uncle Henry.”

Rebecca was too experience as a mother to be side tracked by the mention of her husband’s distant cousin, Henry Attfield. Her eyes narrowed. “Who is the ‘we’?” she demanded suspecting the worst.

“Stuart” whispered Amelia unable to hold back the tears any longer which began to drop down her cheeks.

“Speak up girl. Was it that Stuart Hawthorn?” the girl nodded feeling very miserable and sorry for herself. “How may times have I told you not to have anything to do with that boy?  His upbringing is being sadly neglected and not only will he get himself into trouble, he will get you into trouble as well. Just wait ’til your father gets home. He will hear about this.”

Amelia was just steeling herself for the next onslaught from her irate mother when there was the sound of marching footsteps on the veranda and her father appeared at the door. Her mother turned to face him. He looked resplendent and immaculate in the scarlet tunic and black trousers with their matching red strip of a Captain in the 1st Berkshire Regiment of Foot. Before her mother was able to utter a word, Amelia had rushed past her, thrown her arms round her father turned her face up towards him and said “Oh daddy I love you.” The soldier immediately melted. He was besotted with his daughter and she knew how to twist him around her little finger. Normally in the Indian Raj girls as young as 6 were sent off to England to be educated but she was so loved that neither parent could bare to part with her.  When she was born, he had been bitterly disappointed that he was not a boy, but he fell in love the first time she had smiled at him and the die was cast. Sadly, she was their only surviving child. Rebecca and he had had only two more children, but both, a boy and another girl had  succumbed to illness early in life and although there was no obvious medical reason that they had ever been able to ascertain Rebecca had been unable to have more.

Her mother realised that with James in the house she had no chance of disciplining Amelia and she turned her wrath on to her husband. “You are late,” she accused him “Didn’t you remember that we are expected at the Colonel’s tonight for his musical evening?” James pulled a face. He had had a hard day and was ready for a well earned rest, but there was no way he could get out of it. When the Colonel (or his wife) sent out an ‘invitation’ it was as an order to all the officers of the 1st Berks. At least there would be plenty to eat and drink and all those dancing girls to look at.

“Yes my love. I’m sorry I’m late. A problem came up at the last minute and I was late getting away.” When she looked at him suspiciously he went on “We are going to be late. I had better get cleaned up and changed, and you my girl” addressing Amelia “I heard you being chastised by your mother and you should not be so naughty.” He had more sense than to demand she behaved in future, because she would only break her word. “You have ruined that pretty dress. You had better get cleaned up a changed if you are to come along with us.” The thought of going to a musical evening instead of being sent to bed in disgrace cheered her up amazingly, but she was careful not to look too triumphant in front of her mother. She had been wrong she knew, and it didn’t do to crow about getting away with it.

An hour and a half later, the three of them, all spruced up, left their bungalow and walked across the parade ground of the compound to a large garden, from which already came the sound of sitars and singing. They joined the other officers and their ladies. James approached is closest friend in the regiment, Bernard Hawthorne. “Good evening, old man. Alone again?”

“I’m afraid that Cynthia is unwell, so she is not able to come. I do have Stuart with me. He was here a minute ago.” Sadly, James knew why Cynthia was ill, she was in fact an alcoholic, who had succumbed to the demon drink out of sheer boredom when her man was away fighting. Unless a woman maintained a active life when their husbands were away at war, and to be honest, activities were very limited, she fell into drink or had an affair. Cynthia’s condition was totally as a result of boredom, but, as she saw it, her heart had been broken, by a particularly unfeeling member of the Indian Civil Service, in Simla, like her for the summer, but who had cut her completely on their return to Lahore. Having overheard the exchange between her father and Captain Hawthorne, Amelia looked round eagerly for Stuart. She was dying to tell him what had happened when she had got home and how he had got on when he was as late as well. She guessed that he would not have been scolded as much as she had been. It had not taken her long to work out that there was on standard for the boys and a quite different one for the girls, and she chaffed against the double standard. She was beginning to realise that it was not just imposed on boys and girls, grown up women were even more segregated from the menfolk. Many of the men were soldiers, a career women were not allowed to follow, but even worse, they were not expected to work at all and although there was the very occasional exception, which scandalised society, they could not be part of the Indian Civil Service or work on the railways or telegraph or run a tea plantation. Their only roles were to service their menfolk when required, run the servants and look regal and pretty. The superior status of the British over the Indians had to be maintained, and be seen to be maintained at all times and in this the women played a most essential role. Amelia eventually tracked down Stuart who was chatting to his friends. He was 1 year older than Amelia and she worshiped him. She had decided that she was going to marry him when they were old enough, although of course he had no inkling of this and he just about tolerated her. He quite regularly felt embarrassed about having a girl in his gang, but she was smart and loyal and he was flattered by the way she looked up to him. Whatever scrapes they got into,she was always prepared to ‘muck in’ and take her share of the blame if there was any going about. One of the boys has found a snake in the bushes and was tormenting it with a stick. It made Amelia upset, but she did not say anything for fear of being accused of being ‘just a soppy girl’. Fortunately for the snake, the formal proceedings were about to begin and they were called to their parents’ side to watch the performances.