Читать онлайн "The Serpent's Shadow" автора Лэки Мерседес - RuLit - Страница 4

 
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Fashion be hanged.

The corset joined the rest of her undergarments on the bed. Donning a far more comfortable flannel wrapper dress of a chocolate brown over her uncorseted petticoat, she went back out into the hall, then descended the stair at her end of the upstairs hall, passing the kitchen on her way to the conservatory. Gopal was in the throes of creativity in there, and she paused a moment to sniff the heavenly, familiar aromas appreciatively. Gopal had reacted to the presence of the modern iron stove set into the arch of the fireplace with tears of joy—though many of his countrymen preferred to cook over a tiny charcoal fire, Gopal was an artist and appreciated good tools. With so many thousands of British soldiers and civilians going out to Colonial Service and returning with a hunger for the foods they had grown accustomed to, it was a simple matter for Gopal to procure virtually any spice or foodstuff he required for them all to eat the way they had at home.

Home. Odd how the other Eurasians she had met would speak of Britain as Home—a “home” they had never seen—with as much longing as the expatriates. Home for Maya was and always would be India, the place where she had been born and where she had spent most of her life. How could you long for a place you had never even seen?

She stepped through the French doors into the warmth of her conservatory—which had required the lion’s share of her inheritance to build—and was almost Home.

A little judicious use of magic had caused the flowering vines planted around the walls of the conservatory to grow at an accelerated pace, hiding the brickwork and the view of the houses on all sides. Passion flowers flung their great starburst blooms against the green of the vines. In bloom at all times and seasons, they filled the air with perfume, as did the jasmine, both day-and night-blooming. A fountain and generous pool added warm humidity and the music of falling water, the hot-water pipes around the perimeter a tropical heat. Here were the flowers she loved, and here, too, were her pets—

Not pets. Friends.

They rushed to greet her as soon as she set food on the gravel of her path—first the pair of mongooses, Sia and Singhe, romping toward her with their peculiar humpbacked gait. Rhadi, the ring-necked parrot, dove for her right shoulder, long tail trailing out behind him like a streamer, while the saker falcon Mala dropped down onto her left. Neither so much as scratched her skin, so soft footed were they, and though Mala was death incarnate to the sparrows, starlings, and pigeons, he would sooner starve than touch a feather of Rhadi’s head. The peacock Rajah strode toward her with more dignity, his tail spread for her admiration. And last of all, Charan, her little monkey, sprang into her arms as soon as she held them out for him. Only the owl, named Nisha, whose round eyes seemed to stare straight into one’s heart, did not stir from her slumber in the hollow of a dead oak tree that showed what a fine garden had once stood here. Maya had left it there for the benefit of her birds, who all found it a fine place to perch, and the vines twined around it just as happily as they climbed the brick of the walls, giving it a kind of new life.

“And have you been good?” she asked them all, as the mongooses romped around her ankles and the monkey put his arms around her neck, chattering softly into her ear. The falcon gave her a swift touch of his beak by way of a caress, and took off again to land in the tree.

The peacock shivered his tail feathers, and Rhadi said in his clear little voice, “Good! Good!” and laughed, following Mala up into the tree.

She laughed with him, and carried Charan to her favorite seat in the garden, a closely woven rattan chair with a huge back that mimicked a peacock’s tail. From here she could see only the green of her plants, the fountain and pool; she could forget for a while the cold world outside.

In a moment, Gopal brought mint tea, and placed the tray with two glasses on the rattan table beside her. Gupta arrived without a sound, as was his wont, materializing beside her and taking a second, smaller chair on the other side of the table, also facing the pool and fountain. He poured for both of them, and they each took a moment to savor the hot sweetness in companionable silence.

“We will prosper, mem sahib,” Gupta said with satisfaction, putting his glass back down empty. “We will prosper. There is great progress today.” He smiled. “I went, as you instructed, to the theater last night. I left your card with the man who attends to the stage door, and also with the stage manager, and the ballet master. I made mention that you were of liberal mind, and not one of those inclined to attempt reform on those who were merely making a living for themselves. It was he who asked for several more cards, on seeing it and hearing my words, and made me to believe that he would be giving them to some of the young ladies.”

“Aha!” Maya responded. The cards she had given to Gupta, unlike her “official” business cards, had not been printed up, but had been calligraphed elegantly and by her own hand, because what they implied was risky, even scandalous.

Doctor Maya Witherspoon, Lady Physician. Female complaints. Absolute discretion, and her address. On the next lot, she would add, Licensed to practice at St. Mary’s, Paddington, and Royal Free Hospital.

What the cards implied was that she would treat the women who came to her for treatment of their “female complaints”—including inconvenient or unwedded pregnancy—without a lecture or a word slipped outside the office. And that she would give instructions and supplies to prevent inconvenient pregnancy, regardless of marital status.

“Ah, but I was wise and cunning, mem sahib,” Gupta continued, his face wreathed in smiles. “I followed well-dressed gentlemen as they left the theater last night, and marked the houses they went to. This morning I looked the houses over, and chose the finest. There, too, did I leave your card, and pleased were the dwellers in those places to see it, though one did sigh that it was too bad you were a lady and they could not pay for your services with an exchange of trade.”

“Gupta!” she exclaimed, and giggled, although her cheeks did heat up. “That was very well done! How clever of you!” She had not been able to work out a way to get her cards into the hands of the mistresses of the wealthy men of London. Now Gupta had managed that, and once one or two of the “Great Horizontals” came to her, they would see that the rest of their set knew her name.

“Yes,” Gupta replied, not at all modest. “I know, mem sahib. I think you will have callers tomorrow, if not today.” He cast his eye around the garden, which was growing darker as evening approached. “Will you have your tea here, mem sahib? I could light the lamps.”

“Please,” she said, as Charan nestled down into a corner of the chair. “And if friends call, bring them here instead of the parlor.”

“And callers of another sort?” Gupta raised his eyebrows to signal what he meant.

“Use your own judgment,” she told him. “You are a wise man, Gupta; I think you will know best whether to summon me to the office or bring the caller here.”

Gopal soon brought her tea, a hybrid mix of the High Teas of India and of Britain. She shared the feast with her menagerie, other than Mala and Nisha, who ate only what they hunted, or the starlings and pigeons Gopal’s eldest boy brought down with his catapult. Charan adored the clotted cream, as did Sia and Singhe; the latter swarmed up her skirt into her lap to lick their paws and faces clean as Rajah picked at the last tea-cake.

     

 

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