We fell silent, me thinking of green grass and a sky full of familiar stars, Billington thinking of God-knows what. I stole a glance at him and didn’t envy him his uniform. Even his proximity to the window and the punkah-wallah couldn’t erase the sheen of perspiration from his face.
“You’ll do well to get out of here as soon as you can.” He murmured, without prompting.
“I beg your pardon?”
“If you think it’s hot now, in a few weeks’ time it’ll be unbearable. There’s this hot wind that blows dust into every bloody crevice. It’s miserable. You can’t do anything much between sunrise and late afternoon.”
“So I’ve heard. I’d planned on visiting Simla before heading down to Bombay.”
“That’s a very sensible notion.” He glanced towards the veranda. “As is escaping this room before I suffocate. Are you coming?”
It sounded more like an order than request. I followed Billington onto the veranda where several other gentlemen obviously shared the same idea. They greeted us with nods and carried on with their conversation. Billington leaned against the railing and stared out into the inky, airless dark. “I envy you escaping this place.”
“It’s not like you to be so blunt, sir.” I’d met Billington at one of my cousin’s parties not long after I’d arrived. We’d struck up an easy friendship united by our love of fine horses.
“There’s more than the weather to worry about.” He ran a careless hand through his hair. “There’s rumours of trouble with the sepoys. This isn’t going to be a safe place.”
“I’d heard there could be trouble. So it’s true?”
“It’s more likely to happen than not.” He turned around and stared back into the crowded party. “If I had my way I’d tell every civilian to get out but I’d be accused of scaremongering. If you can change your plans and leave sooner, then do it.”
“Jesus. Have you mentioned this to anyone else?”
“I’ve tried but I’ve been told that everything will be fine.” He looked at me, his eyes dark with a scarcely concealed fury. “I know my men, I’ve tried to do right by them and one or two of them have told me there’ll be trouble. I trust them, I believe them.”
The dark beyond the house was suddenly seething with unseen threats. Just when I’d become comfortable with the strangeness of the place, Billington reminded me that there’s nothing easy or familiar about India. A peacock called out somewhere in the grounds – a haunting counterpoint to the echoes of laughter and music coming from beyond the open doors of the house.
“I consider you a friend.” Billington folded his arms across his chest. “That’s why I’m telling you this. Get out and get to Simla while you can.”
“I’ll do what I can.” I tried to arrange everything in my mind, work out what needed to be done before I could leave. Even travelling in India was a logistical tangle.
“Good.” He offered me a smile. “I always thought you were a man of good sense. What say we find ourselves a decent drink and do our best to avoid the attentions of the ladies.”
“Sounds like an excellent notion.”
He grinned then, a sudden fierce warrior’s grin. I pitied anyone who crossed him and wished God hadn’t made me a man.