An Indian summer

The Residency, Rajgarh, 1880

It isn’t a firing squad. It is just tea at the Residency, Miss Matilda Harrison told herself sternly as she wiped her brow with her muslin handkerchief. 

All she had to do was state her case. Lord Haskins, the British Resident, was a reasonable man. If she wanted to leave, the Haskinses could hardly hold her prisoner. Of course, she had no idea what she would do for a living if they allowed her to leave, but she was sure she could find some sort of gainful employment back home in Sussex. She had been governess to an Indian princess for the past two years, and that had to count for something.

She had no plans, but she wanted to be back home, enjoying an English summer, and not this vicious heatwave that was called an Indian summer. 

Tilly had once asked Lady Haskins if she could dress like the other women in the zenana, in a light long skirt and tunic with a dupatta draped over her bosom, for it would make the weather more tolerable. She still remembered Lady Haskin’s frigid reminder that they were representatives of the Crown, and that on no account were they to shame Her Majesty the Queen, by turning native, especially in matters of dress. Tilly had sighed and tried not to be envious of the women around her, while she sweated in her heavy gowns.

Her mind made up, Tilly sipped her tea slowly, waiting for Lady Haskins to finish with the small talk.

“How has the princess taken it? Is she happy, Miss Harrison?”

Tilly stared at her incredulously. They were forcing the princess to marry a man almost as old as her father. A man who already had two wives. 

“Expecting her to be happy is a bit unrealistic, surely? I’d say she is resigned to her fate,” she replied.

Lady Haskins shrugged.

“Oh, well. I’m sure she’ll be happy enough after she’s married. Now, it is time to talk about your new duties, my dear.”

Tilly looked around the room uneasily, for she would have liked to speak to Lady Haskins privately, but the Thursday Tea committee was in full attendance – Lady Haskins, Lord Haskins and the bane of her life, Inspector Adam Jarvis, head of the Imperial Forces for Rajgarh.

His lips tightened as he met her gaze, and Tilly wondered if the surly Inspector could read minds. She looked away instantly, not wanting to give him the slightest advantage.

With a deep breath, she smiled at Lady Haskins.

“About that, I was wondering… ma’am, do you suppose it would be possible for me to return to England?”

Lady Haskins froze, cup in hand as she shot her husband an uneasy glance before turning to Tilly. She forced a reassuring smile and set her cup down with a shaky hand.

“Why on earth do you want to return to England, Matilda? Aren’t you happy here?”

Now there was a loaded question. Tilly decided to answer it honestly.

“To be honest, Lady Haskins, I am not. I’m very grateful for the opportunity, of course, but I don’t believe I’m cut out for the sort of position that you have in mind. Besides, there aren’t any other children left in the palace. There’s no job for a governess here.”

Not that she had been of much use to Princess Padmaja, either. She was appointed to her post on Lady Haskins’ suggestion when Padmaja was old enough to attend balls and parties – far too old to require a governess. The family flaunted her as a status symbol, for she was related to Lady Haskins, however distantly. None of the other princesses in these parts had an English governess, let alone one as well-connected as Miss Harrison. Hence, no one in the palace questioned why Lady Haskins had foisted a governess on them when they didn’t need one.

Tilly’s real job was to be Lord Haskins’ eyes and ears in that part of the palace which was completely and utterly forbidden to men – the zenana. 

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