The men in the room hastily took us to the small bath house in the wing where the hostages were being held and for the first time in almost 3 months we were able to wash our filthy bodies and soak in really hot water. Then we shaved and our matted hair was mostly hacked off. There was no saving it. My head looked like a convict’s buzz cut. Washing off the filth and muck only revealed how hideous we were. I stared into the mirror and I could not recognize the tall, cadaverous creature before me. The young man offered me one of his precious supply of exactly three shirts, underwear, and trousers. That was quite a sacrifice. My clothes were nought but black rags.
“I am George Lawrence by the way.”
“I am John Nicholson” I replied as I eased my unrecognizable body into heavenly soft and clean clothes.
“I am so very sorry for everything” George said softly.
“Why? You did not do this to us. The Afghans did. And I will hate them as long as I live” replied. “Irish?”
“Like yourself. Ulster? No Retreat! Never Surrender!”
“I was not one for the annual Orange Parades myself” I replied. “Or the wearing of the Green. I thought it was all asinine.” I realized after the fact, as I always did, that I had just said something idiotically true but George Lawrence only grinned.
“Pugnacious. You may leave Ulster behind but Ulster will never leave you.”
Everyone huddled together to share information, news on the rescue column, the Russian agents, Khan’s plots, if anyone would pay ransoms for us, or if we would be killed if Khan could not use us as human shields. I asked Palmer how he knew Dost Muhammad of Kabul had pressed his thumb print to a Russian Treaty.
“I guessed. And it appears alas to be true! But if only one of us could escape back to our lines then Auckland in Calcutta could send a priority code to London to send agents to Petersburg to find it and steal it. The Russians were offering to deal with us. They claimed they recalled their ‘rogue agents’ and just wanted to carve up Ottoman Empire and seize Constantinople to finally and at last secure their warm water port. In return they swore they had no covetous designs on India. But now we know Dost Muhammad of Kabul was double dealing with everyone for gold. The Khyber Pass is the historic invasion point for every vandal who has sacked Delhi time and again. ‘John Company’ has been pressured to guarantee Delhi’s safety but how can Delhi be guaranteed if the Khyber Pass is open for any thug or vandal or looter to gayly march through?”
“How many times as Delhi been looted by invaders?” I asked.
“Three times just since ‘John Company’ has come to India!” Palmer replied. I thought De Lacy Evens and Cordon Sanitaire were being hysteric but now….”
“Auckland tried diplomacy and bribes and even trade embassies” Lady Sales said. “The Shah Shuja gambit was a gamble but frankly Dost Muhammad just plain refused to deal honestly and if a man cheats at cards then how can one ever trust him? If Dost Muhammad had just dealt us a straight hand we would have paid him fair and square to harass any Russian Exploratory Expedition. After all we both wanted the same thing: no Russians in Afghanistan. We would have given him money to pay his warlords and supplies and everything. Dost just had to cheat one too many times.”
“So in fact Auckland’s dubious Afghanistan gambit was actually on target?” I asked incredulous. Everyone by now assumed Auckland was an ass and this whole mess of a fiasco, for which he should be fired by London, was entirely his fault.
“Auckland sustained a near fatal heart attack and his replacement is arriving to salvage the situation — from what I hear” Lady Sales replied. “But my information came just before I was betrayed here to Khan. So it is stale intel.”
“Spy Master” George mouthed behind Lady Sales who apparently had eyes behind her majestic head. She jabbed George with her folded fan. “But of course Akbar Khan does not realize who he is really holding hostage” George finished softly as he ducked another rap by her fan which Lady Sales welded like a weapon. I could see it plain in a way no Muslim could. Muslims despise women and therefore cannot conceive that any woman could be smart or powerful or more masterful than they were. Lady Sales was married to a military officer but her steely poise, intelligent baby blue eyes, and crisp manner in the face of a dangerous situation told the wise she was more than just a memsahib. Only foolish military men ignored intelligence and ‘John Company’ trained every ‘griffin’ on arrival to keep his eyes and ears open. Uncle Hogg had already pulled strings to sign me up not only for the Frontier but to apply to be either a Political Officer or else and Intelligence officer. That was where the promotions were, the pay, and of course the danger.
British Intelligence covered India like an invisible carpet of pearls. Oddly, the native Indians loathed spying and showed little flair for the great game as some called intelligence work. But ‘John Company’ rose to it’s present dominion over the crazy quilt that was India by bribery, cunning, persistence in the face of overwhelming adversity, and intelligence work. The natives wondered how ‘John Company’ could always be just one step ahead but when a company owned a Babbage Computing Engine of Knowledge over two stories tall and over 2000 pounds powered by steampower and fed the latest intell 24/7 for 365 days a year one really ought not be surprised. Frankly that was why I was so damn furious with the collapse of the whole Afghanistan debacle. Considering the resources, ‘John Company’ should have seen it coming.
“It could still be a Maskirovka Gambit” I said.
“Not chess again!” Crawford growled.
“Clever and so well thought out dear boy” Lady Sales purred. “A Maskirovka Gambit is a chess trick that one player plays out to lure his opponent into preparing for an offensive attack that is bogus which allows the real offensive attack to come out of left field to checkmate the king. We assumed Russia was playing us with threats to attack India to lure us into over defending India to allow them to take down the Ottoman Empire. But now….” Lady Sales, a masterful woman in her late forties, patted one hand with her fan as she smiled a sly smile.
“You look like Buddha with that sly smile of his, as if enjoying a good joke at the absurdity of life” I said. “How many of our soldiers have died for this gambit real or imaginary?”
“Up to and perhaps exceeding 16000 souls” Lady Sales replied. “Not counting us residue survivors. You could say this is our version of Rome’s Lost 9th Legion.”
“Russophobia or a savage Afghan who just had to screw everybody too many times?” I snarled. “His son Akbar Khan acts as if we are solely to blame for this mess and he cut out a human heart!”
“And ate it” Lady Sales purred………………