Home > Dark Road to Darjeeling (Lady Julia Grey #4)

Dark Road to Darjeeling (Lady Julia Grey #4)
Deanna Raybourn

The First Chapter

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 heaven’s sake, Julia, don’t be difficult. Climb onto the floating buffalo and let’s be off. We are meant to cross this river before nightfall.” Portia folded her arms across her chest and stared at me repressively.

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 water’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 ‘local flavour’ that concerns me. It is the possibility of death by drowning,” I added, nodding toward the ominous little ripples in the grey-green surface of the broad river.

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.

Portia’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. “It’s the merest child’s play.”

I turned to look, pleased to see they had left off their silly bickering.

“Julia—” Portia began.

I held up a hand. “No more. Not another word from either of you.”

“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 other’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 isn’t the Ganges, dearest. It’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.

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