Fever Quest: A Clean Historical Mystery set in England and India (The Isabella Rockwell Trilogy Book 2)

 

Fever Quest

Book II of the Isabella
Rockwell Trilogy

HANNAH PARRY

Copyright © 2014 Hannah Parry

All rights reserved.

ISBN-13: 978-0-9573321-4-0

Also available in trade paperback

(ISBN-13: 978-0-9573321-3-3)

Editing: Sue Tyley

Cover design: Jane Dixon-Smith

Layout: Lighthouse24

Strategy: Mark Parry

 

 

Port of Mombasa, East Africa, 1835

Isabella braced herself against the corset tightening
around her ribcage, worried that if she breathed in too far, she might never be
able to breathe back out.

“Aiee,” puffed the tiny maid behind her. “How small this
is. Did they think you were a child?”

Isabella stared at herself glumly in the mirror. Not only
did the dress not fit, the colour and style did not suit her. The lime-green
silk made her brown hair look faded and her tanned skin look yellow.

“I look as though I’ve had malaria.”

The maid peered over Isabella’s shoulder at her
reflection.

“It is not the right dress for you, I think.”

“It’s all right, Gita, you can tell the truth. I look
awful. Even my teeth” – she pulled back her lips in a grimace – “look yellow.”
Gita laughed. “You know what the worst of it is?” Isabella continued. “Even
though it’s so small everywhere else, there’s still one place it’s too big.”
Isabella looked down at her chest where the material gaped.

Gita snorted. “Don’t worry about that, baba. That will
come in time.”

“But I’m sixteen. Some of the girls on the boat who are
younger than me … well, they already have the figures of women.”

Gita came around to stand in front of her and pulled the
mirror closer.

“Look, you ridiculous child. You are tall and thin. Maybe
your mother was like this too, or your father? It does not matter.”

Isabella wrinkled her nose. It was all very well for Gita
to say this, but she wasn’t the one who had to endure the jibes of the other
girls on the boat. Girls who talked of nothing but fashion and romance, but who
made it seem like a secret club to which she wasn’t invited.

Gita had given up with the dress and started to unhook
her.

“You will eat with some guests tonight, I think.”

Isabella frowned.

“So I can tell the story of the heroic rescue once again?”

Gita blew out her cheeks.

“Hai mai. You should enjoy it. Some people will never
inspire half the admiration that you have. You would do well to remember it.”

Isabella scowled, but Gita was unrepentant.

“Now.” Gita held out a wine-red silk shift. “Try this.”

Isabella stepped into it. Immediately her appearance
improved as the colour warmed her skin and made her brown eyes look almost
black.

“Thank you, Mama-ji. This is so much better.”

Gita nodded just as the sound of a gong came from the deck
below.

“I had better go. Have fun, dearest.”

Isabella salaamed with her hands to her forehead. “Thank
you again.”

The cabin door closed with a click and Isabella walked
away from her unfamiliar reflection. Gita was right about how she looked. She’d
been away from India for a year and in that time had grown a great deal without
realising it. Now she could see what she would look like as an adult – more
like her father than her mother, with her narrow fox face and her stubborn
chin.

Outside her cabin window she could see the terracotta
roofs and drifting pennants of the port of Mombasa become silhouettes as the
flaming sun sank behind them. She looked across the city to the horizon. High
wisps of white cloud glowed pink. The sunset would bring little relief; it was
July and this was Africa. Hot beyond imagining.

Her leather satchel lay half open beneath her bed.
She knelt and took out a piece of white vellum paper and unfolded it. It was
worn and well-creased and though she knew what it said by heart, she couldn’t
help looking at it again.

My dearest Miss Rockwell,

I hope this letter reaches you safely and that your
voyage is progressing without incident. I had hoped to see you off, but urgent
business takes me elsewhere.

In the time I have known you, I have come to
believe you possess the qualities of courage and honour that I would expect to
find in the best of my soldiers. It was of no surprise to me to find that your
father was Sergeant John Rockwell, the man recommended to me as the best
soldier of King William’s First Horse. The man we sent to find Christopher
Jolyon.

In the months since you saved the life of Princess
Alixandrina Victoria Hanover, I have been gathering as much information on your
father’s mission as I have been able. The last sighting of him was in Jhelum, but there his trail went cold. Then only yesterday, intelligence came to me that a
man had been found wandering along the Afghan border near the Bolan Pass. As he
appeared native, he was taken in by a Pashtu tribe, though his injury has meant
he has not been able to tell them who he is. It is my belief he may be your
father.

I hope this information warms your heart and gives
your feet direction.

A toast to your future, and may we meet again.

Ernest Augustus Hanover

There was a gentle tap at her door and she pushed the
satchel back under the bed, but she wasn’t quick enough.

“You’re not looking at it again, Iz? That letter’s going
to fall apart if you’re not careful.” Midge smiled down at her. “Come on. You
took ages. What’ve you been doing?”

“Getting dressed.”

“What? An hour to get dressed? In this heat?”

Isabella laughed. “Just don’t ask. I take it you’re in a
bad mood because you’re hungry?”

Midge frowned. “Yes, I’m starving to death ’ere, so come
on.”

Midge held his hand out and pulled Isabella to her feet.
She wasn’t the only one who’d grown. Midge, having had enough to eat for the
first time in his short life, had shot up by several inches and was now as tall
as she was. His face had filled out and was covered with freckles from the sun.
His hair was no longer thin and dull, but thick and glossy, and where there had
once been no front teeth, there were now four adult teeth, straight and white.
His cold sores and jutting collar bones were a thing of the past.

She looked at him for a long moment, her eyes searching
his face, but there was no fever flush and his eyes were clear, with no shadow
beneath them.

“Did you drink your tea?”

Midge nodded.

“Yes, it was disgusting.”

“It’s medicine, not hot chocolate.”

“But I’m not ill.” Midge’s voice took on a whiny tone.
Isabella glared at him. She took him by the hand and led him to her window. The
slap of water rose up to them from below.

“Look down there,” she said.

The port of Mombasa spread out below them, throwing up a
cacophony of noise and a shroud of red dust. Up and down the ship’s gangplank
men carried huge sacks of oranges and lemons for the onward journey. A group of
crew about to go onshore talked in loud, excited voices, now the long journey
around the Cape of South Africa was behind them. Another, quieter group stood
at the bottom of the gangplank. They wore white robes and were bareheaded –
unusual in the Muslim port of Mombasa.

“Look at them.” Isabella gestured with her hand.

“Who are they?” Midge squinted into the low strong light.

“Just watch.”

As if they’d been waiting for her cue, the men hurried up
the gangplank. A few moments later they re-emerged carrying a long wooden box
covered with a white cloth.

“What are they doing?” asked Midge as the men threaded
their way into the crowd surrounding the boat.

“Taking off a body.”

Isabella’s words had the desired effect and Midge’s eyes
widened in horror.

“No.”

Isabella let out an exasperated huff of air.

“Midge. How many times must I say it? Many of our fellow
passengers have never been to Africa or India before, and most of them will get
ill. Some of them will die. If you drink the tea I’ve made you every day,
you’ve a good chance of staying well.”

“But you’re not drinking it. Why do I have to?”

“I was born out here, it seems to give me some kind of
protection. Abhaya always said her countrymen never got malaria as badly as the
Europeans. She used to make the tea I’m giving you for the soldiers who’d
arrived from England. She swore by it.” Isabella didn’t add that she’d seen
other types of tropical fever take British lives with barely an introduction.
Midge was far enough from home as it was, and she didn’t want to scare him more
than was necessary.

“Sorry, no one has malaria on this boat, that I’m aware
of. That person” – Isabella nodded towards the men who had disappeared into a
side alley – “may have died of something else.”

Midge smiled at her, a broad, artless smile which forgave
her, and she felt a tug at her heart.

“I only nag because I promised Ruby I’d look after you.”
She put a gentle hand on his shoulder. His head dropped at the mention of
Ruby’s name.

“I know,” he muttered. A pelican landed on the floor of
the deck below with a grunt and flapped his wings at a passing crew, his big,
pink mouth half open. “What do you think they’re all doing now? You know, at
home?” His voice sounded very young all of a sudden.

Isabella came away from the window and sat down on her
bed. He sat next to her.

“Well, I think Zachariah is probably polishing his boots
and cursing.”

“Why is he cursing?”

Isabella stuck her feet out in front of her.

“Because he hates doing his cleaning and in the army you
have to clean things almost all the time. If it’s not your equipment, it’s your
bunk, and I’m not sure housekeeping is Zachariah’s strong point.” Isabella
snuck a sideways glance at Midge, but his head was still lowered. “And Lily, I
should think, is doing her colouring, except that she’s drawing on the walls
instead of on paper in her smart new schoolroom.”

Midge’s head lifted a little.

“And the others?”

“I think they are all having tea. They’ve finished in the
schoolroom and now they’re having bangers and mash.”

Midge looked up. “With gravy?”

Isabella nodded. “With gravy.”

“And Ruby … if she were still alive?” But he choked
on the last word and his eyes filled with tears. Isabella pulled him close.

“I picture Ruby living with Princess Alix who has made her
one of her ladies-in-waiting, so all she does all day is drink hot chocolate
and go riding. The only boring thing Ruby has to do is help Princess Alix
decide what to wear every day.”

Midge rubbed his nose with his sleeve. “She liked clothes,
though, so she’d have enjoyed that.”

“In the evening,” continued Isabella, “I think they listen
to books being read and play with Princess Alix’s puppy and then Ruby goes home
to the children who are housed in the grounds of the palace.” Isabella paused.
“She’s very happy.”

“I hope it’s like that for her in heaven.”

“Me too. For someone as wonderful as Ruby I think it will
be even nicer.” A shaft of sunlight came through the porthole and fell on the
blue carpet in a circle in front of him. “Maybe that’s her letting us know
she’s all right.”

Midge held his hand out and the sunbeams danced around his
fingers.

“Thought you didn’t believe in all that hoodoo stuff.”

Isabella pulled a face and fiddled with the white cotton
counterpane. “I do, sometimes.”

“What, cos of Abhaya?” Isabella nodded. “You seen her
ghost?” She’d got his full attention now.

“No. But I’ve heard her.”

Midge finally smiled. “When?”

“Often. But then, she always had a lot to say. It really
started when I ran away from the Moleseys’ house last December.” Isabella’s
voice became hushed and she felt her throat tighten. It had been a long time
since she’d talked of all this. From the deck below came the sound of violins
tuning up and the setting sun caught the mirror on her dressing table.

“Why did you run away?”

Isabella frowned. “I heard them talking. Lady Molesey and
my escort Mrs Trotter. Saying how there
was
no money for me from my
father’s regiment, how they’d organised for me to come to London and go into
service to hide the fact. Or to hide me. I didn’t really think about it. All I
knew was I wasn’t going to be someone’s maid if there was no money at the end
of it.”

“Have we enough money now?”

Midge’s face tightened; no one else would have noticed,
but Isabella did. Knowing his history, how hard he’d fought to put food in his
mouth, day in and day out.

For Midge, there might never be enough.

“Yes. We’re fine. We’ve got enough from Prince Ernest to
get us to Rawalpindi, where my father’s money is waiting.”

“But it’s a long way, isn’t it? What happens if we get
robbed?”

She hugged him.

“We get robbed.” Seeing Midge’s look of alarm, Isabella
continued with her story. “Do you want to hear about how I found you?” Midge
looked up and nodded. He loved stories about himself. Isabella curled her toes
and pushed her hair back. “Three days I’d been on the streets. That’s when I
heard Abhaya’s voice, or her presence or something. She kept making me move on.
It was so cold I just wanted to go to sleep and not wake up.”

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