Have you ever regretted not making anyone spooky?
Bryony Asquith has been the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles over the course of her long and illustrious career. Her appearance was almost always described as distinguished and unique, and the dramatic white streak in her otherwise raven hair was always mentioned.
The more curious among the reporters often asked how she got the white streak. Then she just smiled and briefly reported that in her twenties there was a phase in which she had overworked herself terribly. "That was because I hadn't slept for days. My poor maid, she was completely beside herself."
Bryony Asquith was actually in his late twenties when it happened. She had actually worked too much. And her maid was actually quite beside herself. But as with any lie, one crucial factor was kept secret: In this case, it was a man.
His name was Quentin Leonidas Marsden. She had known him all her life, but before he appeared in London in the spring of 1893 she had never given him a thought. Within a few weeks of seeing them again, she proposed marriage to him. After another month they were husband and wife.
From the beginning it was said that they didn't go together at all. He was the most handsome, beloved, and gifted of the five handsome, popular, and gifted sons of the seventh Earl of Wyden. He was twenty-four when they married and had already given numerous lectures to the London Mathematics Society, performed a play at St. James's Theater, and embarked on an expedition to Greenland.
He was funny, coveted everywhere and was admired by everyone. She, on the other hand, spoke very little, was nowhere coveted and was only admired by a very limited circle of people. In principle, society disapproved of her profession - and the fact that she even had one. The daughter of a gentleman trained as a doctor and then went to work every day - every day, like any other maid - was that really necessary?
There were other unusual couples who, despite prophecies of doom, stayed together. But their marriage went miserably wrong. At least as far as she was concerned; she was the one who had felt miserable. He gave another lecture to the Society for Mathematics, published a widely acclaimed account of his adventures in Greenland and was showered with laurels more than ever.
The situation had worsened by their first wedding anniversary. She bolted the door to her bedroom and he, well, in her opinion, he wasn’t exactly celibate. They no longer had dinner together. They didn't even talk to each other anymore if they happened to meet.
It could have gone on like this for decades - if he hadn't made a certain remark, and not to her.
It was a summer evening, about four months after she first denied him his marital rights. She returned home earlier than usual, before midnight, because she had been awake for seventy hours now - a small dysentery epidemic and a series of strange rashes had tied her to the microscope when she was not treating the sick.
She paid the cab driver and then paused for a moment in front of her house, craning her head and holding out her hand to feel the raindrops. The night air smelled charged. Thunder was already rumbling in the distance. In the distance you could see weather lights - renegade angels igniting with Lucifer.
When she bowed her head, Leo was standing in front of her and regarded her coolly.
It literally took her breath away: she couldn't breathe and felt like she was suffocating. It aroused all the lust that was in her - and she had a lot of it, hidden in the dark corners of her heart.
If they had been alone, they would have nodded and passed each other without another word. But Leo had a friend with him, a talkative fellow named Wessex, who liked to try his gallantry on Bryony, even though gallantry had about as much effect on her as vaccination on a cement block.
They would have had astonishing luck in the game, Wessex reported, while Leo smoothed his gloves over and over again, one finger at a time, like a distraught valet. With a sore heart and leaden soul, she stared at his hands.
"... how clever you put it. How exactly did you put it again, Marsden?" Asked Wessex.
"I said a good player comes to the table with a plan," said Leo impatiently, "while a bad player sits down at the table with a desperate prayer and blind hope."
It was as if she had been dropped from a great height. Suddenly she understood her behavior all too well. She had played. And her marriage was the game she was betting everything on. Because if he loved her, it would make her as beautiful, desirable, and admirable as he was. And by doing so she would wrong all those who had never loved her.
"Exactly!" Exclaimed Wessex. "That's it!"
"We should give Mrs. Marsden some rest now, Wessex," said Leo. "She must be exhausted after her long day of work in the noble service of people."
She shot him a sharp look. He looked up from his gloves. Even in this dim light it exuded nothing but magical attraction and shine. She was still completely under his spell and probably wouldn't break away from it either.
When he came to London, the entire world of women fell in love with him. He should have been decent enough to laugh at Bryony and explain to her that a junior doctor had no right to propose to Apollo, however great her inheritance might be. He shouldn't have given her that crooked smile and said: "Come on, I'm all ears."
"Good night, Mr. Wessex," she said. "Good night, Mr. Marsden."
Two hours later, when the storm rattled the shutters, she was shivering in bed - she had spent a long time in the bathtub, until the water was as cold as the night.
Leo, she thought, like every night. Leo. Leo. Leo.
She started up. Only now did she realize that this invocation of his name was her desperate prayer, her blind hope, congealed into a single word. When did mere desire become obsession? When did it become their opium, their morphine?
There were many things she could endure - the world was full of scorned women who walked through life with their heads held high. But she couldn't bear these wretched needs in herself. She didn't want to be like those wretched wrecks she encountered at work, devouring her personal poison, lovingly nurturing her addiction, even though she robbed them of the last shreds of dignity.
He was her poison. Because of him, she had given up all reason, all judgment. If she had to do without him, she could neither eat nor sleep. Even now she longingly remembered the few moments of all-encompassing happiness she had been able to experience with him, as if they still had meaning, as if they still shone flawlessly amid the ruins of their marriage.
But how could she break free from him? They were married - the wedding had only been a year ago, a splendid event she had spared no expense, because the whole world should have learned that she was the one he had preferred over everyone else.
Thunder rumbled outside, as loud as artillery pieces. Everything in the house was calm and quiet. There wasn't the slightest creak from the stairs or from the room next door - she didn't hear any noises from him now.
The darkness literally choked her.
She shook her head. If she didn't think about it, working to the point of exhaustion every day, she could pretend their marriage wasn't a total disaster.
Yet that was exactly what it was. A complete catastrophe, cold as Greenland and about as fertile.
With the next lightning bolt, the solution suddenly came to her. It was actually very easy. She had enough resources to hire the best lawyers to fabricate some sort of belated invalidation clause for the wedding. That and a little lie - this marriage was never consummated - would be enough to invalidate the marriage.
Then she could get away from him, from the terrible consequences of the biggest and only game of chance in her life. Then she could forget that she had been struck in the heart, that she had experienced nothing but festering disappointment with him, which was as unpleasant as a malaria swamp on the Indian subcontinent. Then she could breathe freely again.
No, she couldn't. She could never leave him. When he smiled at her, she went crazy. The few times she'd allowed him to kiss her, everything had tasted like milk and honey for hours afterward.
If she asked for the marriage to be annulled and got it, he would marry someone else, and then that other person would be his wife and give him the children Bryony could not have.
She didn't want him to forget her. She would take anything just to hold him.
She couldn't stand this desperate, sniffling creature she had turned into.
She loved him.
She hated both him and herself.
Shivering, she wrapped her arms around herself, rocked back and forth and looked into the shadows that just wouldn't dissolve.
The next morning she was still in bed with her arms around her knees when her maid came in. Molly walked around the room, opened the curtains and shutters, let in the day.
She poured Bryony tea, went to the bed, and dropped the tray. Shards clinked.
"Oh, Madame. Your hair! Your hair!"
Bryony looked up in silence. Molly hurried across the room and returned with a hand mirror. "Look, Madame. Look."
Bryony thought she looked almost passable for someone who hadn't slept properly in over three days. Then she saw the strand in her hair, two inches wide and snow white.
The mirror fell from her hand.
"I'll get silver nitrate and make some dye," said Molly. "Nobody will notice anything."
"No, not silver nitrate," replied Bryony mechanically. "That is harmful."
"Then iron sulfate. I could mix a bit of henna with ammonia, but I don't know if ..."
"Yes you do," explained Bryony.
When Molly left the room, Bryony picked up the mirror. She looked strange, strange and strangely vulnerable - the misery she had so carefully hidden had suddenly become visible to the world through the transparent, shimmering strand of white hair. And she couldn't blame anyone else for it. She had done this to herself, with her relentless neediness, her delusions, her willingness to risk everything for a fabulous fulfillment that her feverish imagination made her believe.
Resolutely, she put the mirror down, wrapped her arms around her knees, and began rocking back and forth again. She had a few minutes before Molly came back with the dye, before she had to arrange a meeting with him to discuss the dissolution of their marriage calmly and objectively.
But before that she would allow herself one last indulgence.
Leo, she thought. Leo. Leo. Leo. It shouldn't have ended like this.
It shouldn't have ended like this.
Northwestern border area of British India
In the bright afternoon sun, the white streak stood out like a barren furrow from her jet black hair. It began on the right side of the forehead, pulled up over the back of the head, and twisted through the knot at the nape of the neck in a striking and eerie arabesque.
It provoked a strange reaction in him. No pity; he would feel as little pity for her as he would for the lonely Himalayan wolf. No affection either, she had put an end to that with her numbness and cold heart. Maybe it was more of a kind of echo, a reminder of the hopes from more innocent days.
Dressed in a white blouse and a dark blue skirt, she sat between two fishing rods set ten feet apart, a bucket of water beside her, a branch in hand with which she drew idle patterns in the rapidly gushing water.
On the other side of the river stretched the golden, shining narrow alluvial plain - it carried the winter wheat that was ready for harvest. Behind it the land rose; Small, angular houses made of wood and stone piled up on the slope like weathered building blocks. Beyond the village, a grove of apricot and walnut trees nestled against the ever steeper hills, and then the backbone of the mountains themselves emerged, stern rocks on which only isolated bushes or one or the other Himalayan cedar grew.
"Bryony," he said. He had a headache, but he needed to talk to her.
She froze. The branch was carried away by the current, caught on a rock, turned once, and then drifted on. Still looking at the river, she wrapped her arms around her knees. "Mr. Marsden, how unexpected. What are you doing in this part of the world?"
"Your father is sick. Your sister wired Leh several times, and when you didn't answer, she asked me to look for you."
"What's wrong with my father?"
"I don't know exactly. Callista just said that the doctors don't have much hope and that he would like to see you."
She got up and finally turned to him.
At first glance, her expression looked extremely calm and friendly. Then, however, he noticed how bleak the expression in her green eyes was like that of a nun who was about to lose her faith. As soon as she spoke, the impression of submissive melancholy vanished, for she had the most dismissive voice he had ever heard - not unfriendly or loud, but completely self-sufficient and little interested in anything that had nothing to do with illness.
But for the moment she was silent. She reminded him of a stone angel who watched over the dead with gentle, constant compassion.
"You think Callista?" She asked, whereupon the resemblance evaporated.
"Only if you were dying in the fall of 1895."
"I beg your pardon?"
"That's what she said. She said you were in the American wasteland, dying and wanted to see me one last time."
"Oh," he said. "Is that a habit of hers?"
"Are you engaged?"
"No." Though it should be. He knew a number of beautiful, loving young women, each of whom would make a suitable wife.
"Callista says so. And that you would be happy to ditch the poor girl if I only asked you to." She didn't look at him when she said this, but had fixed her gaze on the floor. "I'm sorry that she got you involved in her lies. And I'm really very grateful to you for taking this long journey ..."
"But would you prefer if I turned back and left on the spot?"
Remain silent. "No, of course not. You need to rest and stock up on supplies."
"What if I didn't have to rest and replenish supplies?"
She was silent and turned away from him. Then she bent down, picked up a fishing rod, and pulled something ashore, which struggled to fight.
For weeks he had wandered through the most inhospitable parts of the world, slept on the cold, hard ground, ate only a few handfuls of wild berries or whatever came to his mind so that he didn't have to burden himself with a bevy of coolies that all hauling the items commonly considered essential to a sahib when traveling - and that was her answer.
You just couldn't expect anything else from her.
"Even if you lie three times, you can speak the truth once," he said. "Your father is sixty-three. Is it so unlikely that a man his age would be sickly?"
With a deft twist of her wrist, she took the fish off the hook and tossed it into the bucket. "It's been a six-week trip to England, given the slim chance Callista was telling the truth."
"But if she was telling the truth, you will always regret not driving."
"I'm not sure about this."
The calm demeanor with which she encountered almost all of creation had once fascinated him.He had thought it was complicated and extraordinary. But no, she was just cold and numb.
"The trip doesn't have to be six weeks," he said. "You can get it over with in four weeks."
She looked at him; her expression was unyielding. "No thanks."
From Gilgit, where he had gone about his business peaceably, it was three hundred and seventy miles to Leh, and as many back to Gilgit, and then two hundred and twenty miles to Chitral. Usually he had covered three stages in one day, sometimes four. He'd lost a whopping fifteen pounds. And he hadn't been so tired since Greenland.
To the cuckoo with her.
"All right." He bowed slightly. "Then I wish you a good day, my dear."
"Wait," she said - and hesitated.
He half turned to her.
When she fell in love with him, he had been a wonderful young man, handsome as a dark-haired Adonis and playful as a young Dionysseus. By the end of their marriage, he had already lost some of the deceptively angelic charm of his appearance. His profile had become more angular and expressive and now reminded of the desolate mountain ranges behind which the valleys of the Kalasha hid themselves.
"Are you leaving now?" She asked. She didn't know what answer she wanted to hear - but it would have been rude not to offer him at least a cup of tea.
"No. I promised to have tea with your friends, Mr. and Mrs. Braeburn."
"Have you already met her?"
"It was you who brought me to you," he replied. His tone was sober, but a touch impatient.
Suddenly she was worried. "And what did you tell them about us?"
Surely he hadn't told the Braeburns about their short, unhappy marriage.
"I didn't tell them anything. I showed them a photograph of you and asked if I might find you here."
She blinked. Did he have a photograph of her? "What kind of photograph?"
He put his hand in his pocket, pulled out a square envelope, and held it out to her. His expression was so exhausted that it didn't tell her anything. For a moment she hesitated, then wiped her hands clean with a handkerchief, went to him and took the envelope.
She opened the tucked-in flap and pulled out the photograph. Her eyes started to burn. It was a wedding picture. Your wedding picture.
"Where did you get that?"
The day after she asked for her marriage to be annulled, he had moved out of her home in Belgravia, London, leaving his print of the wedding picture on his bedside table. She burned it along with her trigger.
"Charlie gave it to me when I came through Delhi." Charles Marsden was Leo's second eldest brother. He had once been the British representative in Gilgit, another base station on India's north-western border, and is currently the personal adjutant of Lord Elgin, the Governor General and Viceroy of India. "He probably didn't understand what I was trying to say when I left it on my departure. He had it sent to me later by post."
"What did the Braeburns say when you showed them the picture?"
"That I would find you fishing upstream at the mill."
"Did they ... did they recognize you?"
"I think so," he replied coolly.
It couldn't all be true. The man who had once been her husband was not actually standing in front of her, smelling of horses, full of street dust, and his voice hoarse with tiredness. He didn't want her to come with him. And he hadn't exposed her as a hypocrite in front of the kind, decent Braeburns.
"And what do you want to tell them now when you have tea with them?"
He smiled. It wasn't a very pleasant smile. "That depends entirely on you. If we leave right after tea, I would make up a wonderful story about a forced separation, about heartbreaking longing and a joyful reunion here in this inaccessible place. Otherwise, I'll tell them we're divorced. "
"We're not divorced."
"Stop the splitting hairs. In principle it was a divorce, even if it wasn't called that."
"They won't believe you."
"And they will believe you when you played the grieving widow to them until just now?"
She took a deep breath and turned her head. "That can't be changed. You died for me too."
Every now and then it happened that during the most mundane activities - for example when she tied her shoe or read a medical article - she was overwhelmed by an almost physically noticeable memory practically out of nowhere.
The flower that he had stuck in his buttonhole the night he kissed it for the first time - a stephanotis, brilliant white and as tiny and lovely as a snowflake.
The raindrops on warm wool when she put her hand on his arm - he had stepped with her on the sidewalk to accompany her to the carriage - and the wonderful silence that came when he smiled at the open blow of the carriage said, "Well, why not? To be married to you wouldn't be torture."
The almost rainbow-colored sunlight that broke on the chain of his enameled pocket watch that she had given him on his engagement. He held her up in the air and stared at it as she asked him to help her annul their marriage.
Most of these flashing memories, however, were nothing but phantom pain, nervous misfire of limbs that had long since been amputated.
You died for me too.
He moved as if she had pushed him back. As if he was flinching. But his answer sounded perfectly calm. "All right, divorced then."
"Dangerous Passions" starts in the Rumbur Valley, on the north-western border of British India (O.k., actually it starts in England, but this is the preface). The Rumbur Valley is one of the three Kalash Valleys. The name comes from the unique Kalasha tribe that live in these valleys.
The Kalasha tribe believe in a pagan pantheon of gods and see themselves as descendants of the warriors of Alexander the Greek - it is not uncommon to find light hair and blue / green eyes among the Kalashas. The Kalasha Valleys accidentally fell on the British side of the Durand Line and the Kalash people were left with their old beliefs, first under British occupation, later under the Pakistani constitution. The Kafir tribe in Afghanistan, on the other hand, was forcibly converted to Islam by Amir of Kabul between 1890 and 1900.
The costume of the Kalasha women is relatively striking: a black robe, colorfully embroidered, multi-row pearl necklaces and hairstyles that are decorated with jewelry from cowrie shells.
Image by Dave Watts
Image by Dave Watts
A typical Kalashian village: the square houses look as if they were stacked on top of each other on the slope.
Image by Yodod
Leo and Bryony leave the Rumbur Valley and follow the course of the Rumbur River. You arrive in the Chitral Valley. Chitral is a strategic base for the British, who at the time fear the Russians could invade at any time to take their crown jewel, India.
The landscape of the Chitral valley is dominated in the north by the Tirich Mir, the highest mountain range of the Hindu Kush. Leo and Bryony, however, would only see the Tirich Mir when they look back, since they are not moving north, but south, towards the plains.
Image by Dave Watts
To get to the Chitral Valley, Leo and Bryony defy the Lowari Pass at an altitude of 3,120 meters. The steep mountain slope can only be overcome by walking on several extremely narrow mountain paths.
Image by Rchughtai
The above picture actually only shows that Descentwhich is not in the least as steep and dramatic as that Ascent. Here is an aerial view of the ascent towards the Lowari Pass. Note the zigzag routes.
After the two have left the Lowari Pass behind, they are getting closer and closer to the Swat Valley.
The Swat Valley is also called the Switzerland of Pakistan - do yourself a favor and check out these spectacular pictures here. But back in the summer of 1987, the Swat Valley was especially spectacularly dangerous. Inspired by the call of a certain Mad Fakir, the population has soared into a swift, violent rebellion that has firmly brought the local British garrison under their control. The focal point of the conflict was in the center of the British offices in Malakand and the Chakdara outpost. Below is an old photo of the British camp at Malakand.
To see the fort at Chakdara, which is one of the main scenes in "Dangerous Passions" please click here.
Route Map (or whatever I could find out on Google Earth):
Your journey begins in the Kalasha Valley of Balanguru. From Nowshera they continue by train. The yellow line is the border with Afghanistan. The red line is the border between NWFP and FANA.
Please note: All links lead to English websites.
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