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The Houseboat

As Dalgleish strode across the salon, his boots sank into the deep plush weave of the Kashmiri carpet. ‘I guess if you are the exporter of the finest rugs in India, naturally you would save one of the best for yourself,’ he thought.

The carpet in Monsieur Henri Dauvergne’s grand houseboat was the colour of Ceylonese sapphires. In the centre, a design of Persian letters woven in crimson wool spelt the word for happiness. But this houseboat on Srinagar’s Dal Lake had not been a happy place for Dauvergne.

Dalgleish sat on the sofa and looked to the parquetry wall opposite. There was a photo of Dauvergne, and his late wife, Camille; between them, was a child, their daughter, Emilie. Another unframed photo lay on the desktop; it was of a young woman, fresh from her Parisian convent. ‘This must be the last photo taken of Emilie,’ thought Dalgleish.

Sunlight bounced off the lake through the window and onto the shiny brass ornaments sitting on the mantle above the fireplace. Dalgleish was looking at a small bamboo chair when Dauvergne entered. He was a tall man, with grey hair curling like the downy wool taken from mountain goats and woven into company’s carpets. Dauvergne’s face was ashen with a long moustache twisting toward his cheeks and the skin around both eyes appeared puffed up, like two aubergines.

‘My dear friend,’ Dauvergne said as he grasped Dalgleish’s hand, pulling him forward, kissing both cheeks.

‘I’m so sorry for your loss,’ Dalgleish responded, ‘and sad not to have been in Kashmir for you.’

Tears come into the eyes of the Frenchman, ‘One month, Dalgleish that is all my dear Emilie had in Srinagar, one month and then the fever took her.’

‘Such a deep shock for you,’ said Dalgleish. ‘I know for years you had looked to the day Emilie would leave school and return to India.’

‘Yes,’ replied Dauvergne. ‘In this country, when death comes, it comes unexpectedly and with such speed. Emilie seemed well the day before.’

The bearer arrived, on his tray sat two glasses of absinthe, each covered with a silver slotted spoon with sugar cubes on top. A breeze coming across the lake caught the houseboat, and it gently rolled. As the emerald liquor wobbled in the crystal glasses, it glimmered. Dauvergne picked up a silver jug and poured cold water over the sugar cubes; the liquid immediately turned opalescent.

‘Please,’ said Dauvergne pointing to the drinks. ‘I bought this back from Paris.’

They sat, Dalgleish on the sofa and Dauvergne on the small bamboo chair. He looked uncomfortable. The Frenchman’s body was too large for the little chair, and he sat with his long torso leaning forward as if trying to balance.

‘Everything reminds me of Emilie. See this chair; it was her mother’s, then it became hers. Now, when I sit in it, I imagine I can smell the lavender of Emilie’s Eau de Parfum.’

Dauvergne sighed and looked out the window across Dal Lake.

‘You know, the Maharajah and several members of his court came to the graveyard, but naturally, they didn’t enter,’ said Dauvergne. ‘He caught my eye and nodded from his palanquin outside. I was extremely touched.’

Suddenly the little chair became too uncomfortable for Dauvergne; he rose quickly and stood in the centre of the salon over the Persian word for happiness.

‘Come, Dalgleish, let us take déjeuner, and you can distract me with all the news from Chinese Turkistan.’

To be continued….