The powerful Lords of Alijah have ruled the princely state of Gwalior for more than a century. Their military prowess and smart statesmanship is renowned throughout the Indian Subcontinent, and their only allegiance is to their overlord, the Scindia, Maharajah of this wealthy, powerful land the size of France.
But one among them is a traitor: the devious Jaswant Rao Pawar, has spies in every part of the kingdom, and is determined to seize power for himself.
When Jaswant Rao uncovers a secret which, if divulged, could destroy the established order and bring down the Maharajah and his Lords of Alijah the only people to stand between him and his allies are the faithful peers of Gwalior: the Maharajah’s devoted half brother, Bhaiyasahib Scindia, the Italian Sir Michael Filose and his sons, Joseph, an officer in the Maharajah’s special unit and Augustine, an astute lawyer.
In the final days of December 1899, as the clock ticks towards the dawning of a new century, the final confrontation which will decide the fate and future of millions finally arrives.
The morning mail, off the 9.40 down, brought greetings, bills, best wishes and bad news to the small proportion of the population of Gwalior City that was literate. At the waras – the palaces and vast mansions of the Maharajah and his lords, there fetched up too a tide of petitions: requests for favours and reminders of past kindnesses or lapsed obligations.
Each such letter was carefully opened in transit and its contents transmitted verbatim to Jaswant Rao Pawar.
Pawar sat at the desk the present Maharajah’s grandfather has given to his. A reward for some service, long forgotten. The desk was old, and European. It was variously said to have belonged to Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington, the Emperor of Russia and Madame Pompadour. It was kept scrupulously clean, polished twice a day, cared for more reverently than many a saint’s grave or Christian altar. Whenever Jaswant Rao Pawar left the room, one of the hundred or so house servants his father’s wara employed, would slip in and drape a linen sheet over the desk to product its gleaming surface from dust and sunlight. On Pawar’s return, the sheet would disappear before he re-entered the room. He never knew that the desk was so carefully covered; there was a little chance that even he, the man who knew more of Gwalior’s secrets than any other, would ever find out. Although only a younger son of a Lord of Alijah, Sirdar Pawar, his movements was carefully tracked, his needs predicted, his way prepared by a dozen of his father’s servants.
And though unaware of the sometimes hourly ritual of covering and uncovering his desk, Jaswant Rao Pawar, as a matter of course, always cleared its surface and carefully locked all papers away before leaving the room.
He was a careful man.
He re-read the last of the letters addressed to Joseph Filose, then returned it to its envelope with a smile. ‘More best wishes from your Angrez friends, Josephdada,’ he observed to himself and turned his attention to the next letter the compliant postmaster had meekly handed over to his men: a fawning proclamation of loyalty from the recently disgraced ‘Chips’ Chiplunkar addressed to the Maharajah’s brother, with a request for his intercession. Its desperation amused Jaswant Rao. ‘Missing us, Chips?’ he chuckled.
‘Madhav Rao Maharajah wants a symphony orchestra’, said Augustine Filose, innocently.
‘What?’ cried his brother Joseph. ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, you must be joking! Where in the name of all that’s holy am I going to find a symphony orchestra?’
Augustine shrugged, and picked up a newspaper. ‘The Resident has the garrison band from Jhansi for Christmas – pipes and drums and all – so we’ve got to go one better. A matter of honour. Apparently Shitolesahib’s cousin went to a concert in Delhi last winter and he’s convinced the Big Man that an orchestra would be just the thing to herald in the new century.’
‘But, it’s already December the third! Every half-adequate harmonium player south of the Hindu Kush will have been booked months ago. Any symphony orchestra will have been signed up for New Year’s Eve since God knows when. How many musicians are there in a symphony orchestra?’
‘No idea, old son.’
‘Don’t suppose he’d settle for the string quartet they got together at the Residency last month?’ asked Joseph hopefully.
Augustine smiled and shook his head. ‘The Big Man wants a symphony orchestra, so I suggest you start looking.’
‘Why does it always have to be me?’ sighed Joseph. ‘I don’t suppose it occurred to you to attempt to dissuade him?’
‘What?’ cried Augustine in mock horror? ‘Moi? A mere functionaire? A humble lawyer, a lowly Durbar hack? Hardly likely he’d listen to me, is it, old son? But I think I did frost the plan to free nineteen hundred white doves as the chimes of midnight struck. Still, never say die. I got the distinct impression this was one of those “money no object” jobs. So I suggest you stop whingeing and telegraph our chappies in Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta and find out the going rate for getting a symphony orchestra to welch on its contract.’
‘Oh God,’ groaned Joseph, holding his head in hands. ‘Why does it always have to me?”
‘Cos but for you,’ Augustine yawned, ‘it would have been Chips’.