He awoke to a pounding head and a throat that was as dry and dusty as the parade ground in front of him. With a groan, the Honorable Brian Aldringham raised his head from the pillar that had been his pillow--and a damned uncomfortable one at that. Cautiously he opened one eye, bracing himself for the shock of the brilliant, relentless glare of the hot Indian sun, only to find his gaze returned by a fairy. His fogged mind reeled. But surely it was a fairy, for the appearance of a small being whose halo of blond curls shimmered in the sunlight could not be attributed to natural causes.
"Are you very, very sick?" the being inquired.
Not a fairy, he decided. The accent was unmistakably English. Accustomed as he was to encountering fellow countrymen in all corners of the globe the Honorable Brian was not so blinded by loyalty to his native land as to believe it extended its considerable influence to the supernatural realms. Besides, as he opened the other eye he could see that this particular being, attired in a white lawn dress with a blue sash and lacy pantaloons, was carrying a pad and pencils, accouterments that were far too mundane for any ethereal creatures.
"Are you sick?" This time there was the slightest undertone of impatience.
"Not at all," he responded courteously.
"No, I suppose not," the being replied. "But you do look foxed," it remarked candidly.
He sat up with a start, for it occurred to him to wonder how such a young female--he had at last identified his interlocutor as a girl of eight or nine and placed her in the general order of things--could know of such a condition. Why, most of the correctly behaved wives and daughters of his brother officers would not admit to knowledge of such a state, much less discuss it. "I was a trifle disguised, but now I am quite recovered."
"That's good." She sounded relieved. "Because otherwise I would have had to call my ayah and I've only just escaped.''
The corners of his eyes crinkled in amusement. "And where were you escaping to, my little sprite?"
She frowned. "I am not a sprite. I am Georgie. And I shan't tell you."
He chuckled. "Georgie who?"
A mutinous expression descended on her childish features and she shook her head.
He was even more amused. "Why won't you tell me?"
"Because you're a grown-up and you'll tell and then I shall be made to go inside and do my needlework all over again. Besides, Papa always says that when one is caught in a compromising situation, the less information one gives, the better." Georgie's frown became thunderous.
Brian burst out laughing. It was a novel experience for him, despair of his parents and the rest of the authorities in his life--tutors, headmasters, commanding officers--to be relegated to the ranks of responsible adults who squelched adventurous spirits. "And what makes you think I'm a grown-up?" he wondered.
She had been on the verge of departure, but this question brought her up short. "Well of course you are. You're tall and you're wearing a uniform, though I must say it's awfully dusty," she began scornfully, annoyed at being detained for such a stupid question.
He quirked a teasing eyebrow at her, relieved to find that it was only the most superficial of physical characteristics that led her to such an unflattering opinion of him.
A look of doubt crept into the large green eyes regarding him. "Well, aren't you?" she demanded.
"I don't think so," he responded seriously. "You're not a grown-up, after all, but besides being small, what makes you different from grown-ups?"
"Well..." She tilted her head to one side, scraping circles in the dust with one tiny slipper as she considered this problem. "I don't like to do excessively boring things like . . . like sewing," she answered triumphantly.
He grinned. "Neither do I. In fact, I expect I should enjoy doing exactly what you were on your way to do."
"Climbing trees and writing stories?" she asked incredulously. A look of dismay came over her face as she realized what she had done and she clapped a hand over her mouth.
He laughed, his dark eyes alight with amusement. "Never fear, sprite. I shan't ruin your fun. Actually, I should like to join you. At one time I was reckoned the best tree climber in school.'' Which, he thought to himself, was the only useful thing he had learned from formal education. Since his educational career had been notably erratic, owing to frequent dismissals for one infraction or another, ranging from the introduction of several lively rabbits into a boring Latin recitation to being caught with his tutor's wife at Magdalen in a most compromising situation, this lack of respect for his schooling was not entirely fair. "May I come with you?" he reiterated, strolling over to the well to splash some water over his aching head and smarting eyes. Tepid though it was, the water restored him and he straightened up feeling much more the thing.
Georgie still remained doubtful. He seemed to be a right one, but appearances could be deceiving and he did look suspiciously like an adult. She stood some minutes deep in thought.
"I could carry your writing things and then you would find it a good deal easier to climb. With me to lift you up, you could probably climb much higher than otherwise." Brian did not know quite why he was so anxious for her to allow him to join her, but somehow the idea of escaping his regimented world, where one was forced to defer to pompous fools, to the dappled sunlit realm high above the dusty ground seemed infinitely appealing.
This last offer seemed to convince her. "Oh, famous! Come along, then, but we must be careful not to be seen." Glancing cautiously in all directions Georgie led him away from the parade ground to the back of the barracks by the river, a trickle of water so small it hardly deserved the name.
Following it and moving carefully so as not to attract the attention of the women beating laundry on the rocks, she eventually brought him to an enormous banyan tree whose giant roots made thousands of hiding places and offered easy access to the lower branches.
Handing her writing supplies to him, she clambered up, leaping nimbly from one perch to another. Watching her blond hair as it caught an occasional shaft of filtered sunlight, Brian thought how truly she did resemble some woodland sprite seeking refuge in the ancient tree.
She beckoned to him impatiently. "Come see."
Grasping the paper and pencils, he followed suit and soon was at the level where she stood pointing to something a little beyond his line of vision.
"What is it?" he asked, pulling himself up to her branch with a mighty heave.
"Look, the village. Doesn't it look pretty from here?" she asked.
And indeed, as it shimmered in the heat, thin plumes of smoke rising from cooking fires, the sun glinting on a brass pot here and there while children played in the dust, it did look like an enchanted village.
"Very pretty, and much nicer from up here than it actually is," he remarked.
"Oh, have you been there? I should so love to go, but I'm not allowed beyond the compound without my ayah, and she won't take me. When I ask her why, she just shakes her head and says, 'Missy must not go there. It is no place for missy.' I don't think that's any sort of an answer, do you? But then, that's the sort of answer grown-ups always give when they don't want to be bothered." Georgie tilted her head and fixed her companion with a speculative stare. "But you could take me there, couldn't you?" There was no mistaking the provocative note in her voice.
He chuckled and shook his head. "So young and already making men dance to your tune. Yes, sprite, I could take you there, but I know that village and, like your ayah, I too have my doubts."
She frowned. "I am not a sprite, and I am not young. Why I'm almost nine years old. Besides, I don't want to act silly like other ladies do."
"I beg your pardon. You are quite in the right of it. I feel very certain that if you continue to be as independent as you are now you will never act like other 'silly ladies,' " he apologized. He was silent for a moment, gazing at the village, which had, oddly enough, been the cause of this entire adventure. Certainly his unfortunate involvement in its affairs had brought about the excesses of the previous night.
For some time he had been aware of the long face and unhappy silence of his usually garrulous batman, Ramaswami, who, after some sympathetic questioning, had admitted to being worried about his younger sister.
"Ranee is very beautiful, but we are very poor. My mother is a widow and we do not have much to give as a dowry for her. She is very gentle and good and takes care of my mother, who is very aged and must walk with a stick. Ranee knew she would never find a husband, but she and my mother were happy until Chandoo Lal offered to marry her without a dowry. He is very rich and will take care of my mother better man I, but he has many wives and I think he is a bad man so I am very sad that my kind and loving sister is to marry him. But that is the way of things. What else can I do?"
Always sympathetic to those who found themselves in opposition to authority, Brian immediately resolved to do something and directly approached the wife of the local resident to see if she could use a maid. Lady Southwold, like her colorful husband, the Earl of Roxmire (or as he was better known to the troops who adored him for his courage and egalitarian spirit, "Mad Jack"), was truly interested in the people of her adopted country and eagerly promoted their welfare. She listened sympathetically and promised to find a place for the girl in her household, though she really had no need of extra servants. Brian had gone away happy that at least there was some unselfishness in a world that too often he had found to be self-interested and self-serving. He was gratified to discover that Mad Jack's beautiful wife was as kind and concerned as her husband, and happy to think that this bluff and hearty peer, who had quit his seat of power and privilege at home to seek action and adventure in India, had a helpmeet worthy of him.
Brian had thought nothing more of the matter until several days later he was peremptorily summoned to the quarters of his commanding officer, Colonel Denby, a man he loathed as fiercely as he admired Mad Jack.
"It has come to my attention, Brandon," the colonel began in his shrill officious voice, "that you are once again meddling in affairs that are none of your concern."
Brian felt anger rising up in him as he always did when forced to deal with his pompous superior, but, telling himself that for once in his life he would not lose his temper, he kept a tight rein on it. "Oh?" he inquired as mildly as he could.
"Chandoo Lal has come to me claiming that you have been instrumental in stealing something that rightfully belongs to him. I will not have it, Brandon. You know that we are here to show these rascally natives how honorable men conduct themselves, not to stoop to their level."
"Sir." It was with an effort that he controlled himself. "We are discussing a human being, not an object! We are talking about an innocent and virtuous young girl being tied to that scoundrel. No one who knew the case could stand by and let another human being be sold into misery like that. Why it's, it's . . ."
"Nevertheless, you have intruded and taken what he considers to be his, and caused us no end of embarrassment." The high-pitched voice now rose to a squeak, and the colonel, an alarming shade of red, stopped to wipe his brow. "You are forever getting yourself into these predicaments, Brandon, and this time I won't stand up for you!"
As if you ever have, you odious pig, Brian muttered to himself.
"Chandoo has graciously offered a solution to the entire affair. He agrees to forget her if you will buy her from him.''
"But I don't want her. I merely wish to offer her, her freedom." Brian was so furious now he could barely keep from shouting.
"Come now, Brandon, be reasonable. A few rupees and the girl is yours and Chandoo is satisfied." A sly smile crossed the colonel's fleshy lips. "You should be delighted. I've seen the girl. She's quite lovely and would be very grateful. She'll make quite an armful. Why, damn me if I ..."
Brian's eyes narrowed and his lips tightened; it took all the remaining shreds of his self-control not to strangle the man, but he spoke with dangerous calm. "As you may recall, I am a soldier, not a merchant."
The leering expression disappeared from Denby's face, to be replaced by a choleric flush as the full import of the furious rejoinder sank in. "You may be a soldier, Brandon, but it won't be in this army!" he shouted.
"Good!" Brian had flung out of the room so blinded by rage that he hardly knew where he was going except that he had to escape from the petty, self-serving people who were so dedicated to preserving their own comfort that they insulated themselves from awkward situations by adopting a rigid code of conduct which enabled them to proceed blindly without having to think or feel.
Not having any immediate plans beyond quitting the regiment and pursuing a more congenial form of existence, he, along with some other choice spirits in his company, had sought oblivion in quantities of port, followed by even larger quantities of brandy. They had broken up the raucous party a little before sunrise, when, too exhausted to seek out his bed, Brian had collapsed on the veranda and given himself up to the numbing effects of the alcohol.
Now here he was, sitting in a tree, still groggy from the previous evening's dissipation, admiring the very place that had been the cause of his aching body and uncertain future, discussing women with an eight-year-old.