From The Empress Emerald

Bombay, 1912

Leo kept a pet python and fed it on frogs. It was not a wholly benevolent arrangement; the python was expected to guard Leo’s treasure. The treasure was in a biscuit tin. On the lid of the tin there was a lady in a poke bonnet and a young man in plus-fours riding a penny-farthing bicycle. The decoration meant nothing to Leo; he was only interested in the tin’s contents. The tin and the python lived in the hollow bole of an upside-down banyan tree in the orphanage grounds.

One illicit evening, while eating sweet pastries in the bazaar, Leo heard an old man spinning yarns for his supper. He talked of the fabulous wealth of the independent princes. They had palaces three miles long and electricity and telephones (he called them speaking machines) and white concubines. They were so rich they kept their treasures under nests of cobras. They had so many rubies and diamonds, the old man said, they only knew they had been robbed when a thief dropped down dead before their very eyes. This, thought Leo, was a splendid idea, and the python had been in the banyan maze for years.

The following Sunday afternoon, he and Skinny Eddie Sartay walked out of the orphanage servants’ entrance, down to the dead-end of Lime Grove, then cut off down a rough track leading into the tall grass of India. They passed a group of houses, where chattering children played around women bent over cooking pots, and went on until they came to a track bordering a rice paddy. They were on a frog hunt. They were of course expressly forbidden to leave the orphanage unsupervised, and under no account was any boy ever allowed out on the Sabbath, but Leo had to go frog hunting. Sunday afternoon was best – watchful masters snoozed, so he only had to give his bored dormitory companions the slip, which was usually quite easy. He played the role of the dorm fat boy to perfection. The butt of jokes and jibes, Leo was quite content to demonstrate how little intelligence he possessed. It was a relatively painless means of liberation. He kept Skinny Eddie as his best friend because boys who were loners aroused suspicion. Loners were scrutinised. Leo had also, reluctantly, come to accept that lone frog hunting was unwise. Not all snakes were as benign as his python. If he were to be bitten, his companion could run for help. Or, better still, his companion would be bitten instead.

“What d’you want frogs for, Leo?” Skinny Eddie asked, skipping along beside his big friend.

“To put in Matron’s bed.”


They ambled on down the track to where a dike would keep them out of sight. It meant walking one leg up, one leg down, along the slippery embankment, tricky but fun. Hiding in flat scenery had its challenges. For some time they crouched and grabbed, splashed and squelched, until Leo’s dirty linen bag was bulging with juicy frogs. Then they climbed up onto the top of the muddy bank and shared one of the Latin master’s evil cheroots. Skinny Eddie was sick almost immediately so Leo finished it off while poking his bag now and again to make sure the fodder was still alive and kicking.

“Hey,” said Skinny Eddie, pointing, “Look.”

Two memsahibs were strolling down the track, twirling frilly parasols. They were very pink in the face and giggling like schoolgirls. Leo pulled Skinny Eddie down into the warm mud and the women passed them by. Then Leo was up out of the mud and mincing at a safe distance behind the mems – an imaginary parasol in one hand, his precious bag of frogs tucked onto his hip like a baby.

“Now then, young Sartay,” Leo declared, “Recite me your nine times table and you shall have jelly for tea.”

“One nine is nine, two nines are nineteen, three nines are . . .”

Leo slapped his free hand over his chum’s mouth, “Get down!”

One of the women had dropped her parasol and bent down to tie a bootlace. Across the tall grass on the other side of the paddy there was a dark ripple, a breeze of movement on a windless afternoon. The boys froze, watching a ridge of dark spots shimmer closer and faster in the direction of the women. Suddenly the boot-tying lady sat down on the track, laughing. And then she wasn’t laughing, because she too had seen the grass move.

“Aaaaaagghhh,” screamed Leo at the top his voice, charging towards the women.

“Aaaagghh! Yeaaaayy!” He was running full tilt, waving his arms in the air. The leopard burst out of the grass and leapt straight over the track, down onto the other side and into the paddy. Leo stopped. Nobody moved. The air stood still. Then the lady on the ground slowly raised a hand. Leo looked down at her, “I think it’s gone,” he said.

The other woman started to cry. “It’s all right lady, don’t be afraid.”

The tableau stayed in place, staring in silence at a retreating ripple of bright spots.

“Hey!” came a voice from behind them, “You dropped your frogs.”

The two boys were invited back to Lady Hermione’s colonial bungalow in Acacia Avenue for tea. They had jelly and cakes, and tea with fresh milk in porcelain cups, on the veranda. They were introduced to Lady Hermione’s children, two snivelling boys in white-drill safari suits. Then came Lady Hermione’s Scottie dog called Hamish, who took too much interest in Leo’s bag of frogs and had to be shooed into the garden by the house-boy. And then, just as they were about to take their leave, Sir Lionel Pinecoffin arrived.

“Lionel, come and meet a hero. This is . . . I’m sorry,” the beautiful lady looked down at the boy, “you haven’t told me your full name.”

“Kazan, ma’am. Leo Kazan. But everyone just calls me Leo, even the masters at school, ma’am.”

“Leo’s different,” piped the knowing voice of Skinny Eddie Sartay.

Lady Hermione looked across at her husband to share her amusement, but all his attention was focused on the boy. “Well,” she said, “a meeting of lions! Leo, this is my husband, Sir Lionel Pinecoffin. He is the District Political Officer, if you know what that is?”

“Lavinia,” the tall Englishman turned to his sister-in-law, “what is this all about? My wife is positively babbling.”

“This young man,” answered Lavinia, “is a hero. He saved Hermione from a leopard!”

“Good Lord. What happened?”

The story was retold and elaborated; the leopard brushing past them as Leo waved his arms in the air to deflect its murderous dive.

“Goodness gracious! I shall have to reward you. One cannot let one’s wife’s life be saved without compensation. What can I do for you, Leo Kazan?”

Leo cocked his head to one side, noting a silver cigarette box on a low table, “Actually, sir, nothing, thank you. That is, I would rather you didn’t do – or say – anything.”

“Out of bounds, were you?”

“Mmm.” And there was a thin, silver dagger-shaped thing on top of an envelope on a pretty silver tray. Leo looked up at the District Political Officer, a person of authority, and gave a sheepish grin. “I like your house, sir.”

“And I like your cake,” said Skinny Eddie, helping himself to another slice of Victoria sponge.

It was now time to leave. Despite Leo’s protestations, Lady Hermione insisted the garden-boy accompany them back to the orphanage. However, once out of the bungalow’s ample grounds and on the tree-lined street, Leo easily negotiated a deal that left them free to return unescorted. It cost him the last of the Latin master’s cheroots.

Leo and Skinny Eddie sneaked back in through the servants’ entrance. Eddie went straight up to the dorm and Leo went to feed the few remaining live frogs to his python. He pushed his way under the upside-down banyan roots and branches and untied the linen sack into the hollow. There was space in his round tin, he thought, for the silver box, but he wasn’t sure the funny dagger knife would fit. He would have to find an oblong container. There was time, though; he’d have to leave the new treasures in the bungalow for at least a few days to avoid linking his visit to their disappearance.

The following Wednesday was Sports Day, the last outdoor event before the monsoon. The tension that had built up during the humidity of May over-spilled into over-excitement. There was a general disruption in school routine – masters were relaxed; boys and servants were all over the place; Matron was in a constant panic trying to be everywhere at once. Leo was delighted to find exactly the tin he needed on a table in the dining hall. It was a long rectangle: the lid was covered in red tartan and had a man with bulging cheeks blowing into a contraption made of a sack-like bag and pipes. It was a sign. He helped himself to a finger of sugar-coated shortbread, stuffed his pockets with two more, and tipped the rest into an empty dish. Then he put the lid on the tin and placed it on top of a used plate. Dissembling the helpful schoolboy, he made a pile of dirty plates and headed in the direction of the kitchen quarters. Nobody stopped him. Nobody asked him what he was doing.

On the evening of Sports Day, the orphanage entertained local benefactors. There was whisky and bonhomie. Pupils were sent up to their dorms a little later than normal. The runners, jumpers and throwers all fell asleep as soon as their heads touched their pillows. Leo, who had been in charge of tying finishing lines and measuring long jumps, was not in the least bit sleepy. He waited for the snivels, snores and mutters to form a steady rhythm, waited until a cloud obliterated the almost full moon, then slipped out of bed and pulled on his darkest clothes. As he crept down the back stairs, he double-checked his toffee supply. Still there and getting stickier. By the time he reached his destination, it would be just the right consistency. Then he was out over the servants’ gate with an agility that would have surprised many. It was quite a long walk to Acacia Avenue, and once there he had a little difficulty identifying where they had actually drunk tea from paper-thin cups. All the houses seemed the same in the dark.

And then he knew he was in the right place. The two women were sitting on the veranda steps sipping from tall glasses; Sir Lionel was leaning back in a low chair behind them, his hands cupped round what looked to Leo like a begging bowl. Keeping close to the bushes but not making a sound, Leo crept close enough to hear their conversation: something to do with a Cicely and a wedding. Where was the dog?

He was lucky: he almost always was. He was lucky now because he was able to get round into the garden undetected, and the back door was unlocked.

Which room first? Would the house-boy be waiting for the family to finish their drinks? Did the ayah sleep in the house? Would the two boys be awake?

First a bedroom: two boys sleeping under cathedrals of netting. Another door. A dressing table: a trinket box, a brooch, a long hat-pin with a star at the end. A low growl: Hamish.

“Sshh . . .”

The dog growled again, yellow teeth suspended in darkness.

“Shut up you stupid dog,” whispered the thief in street Marathi. He bent down and offered the squat demon his hand to smell. The growl ceased, the teeth disappeared and the tail stump wagged. “Good boy.” Leo extracted a lump of toffee from his pocket and popped it into his mouth, all the time stroking the smelly creature’s stiff fur. Then he removed the softened toffee and stuck it firmly onto a canine tooth. The dog licked. ‘Mmm’, it seemed to say, lick, lick. Leo considered using more toffee on the other tooth. He took another lump from his pocket, popped it in his mouth – and left it there. Why waste good toffee? He’d be out in two wags of the dratted dog’s tail.

He checked the dressing table – nothing out of its place except the starred hat-pin, now pinned to his shirt – made for the door, shutting it sharp on a black nose. Then out through the back door, round once more to the front of the bungalow and under the shelf of the veranda. They were still dribbling on about Cicely. He squirmed into a comfortable position and finished his toffee.

Leo didn’t have long to wait. Cane chairs were shuffled, English voices said, “Goodnight.” He pulled himself into a crouching position, ready, steady, “Sweet dreams,” go. He was at the bottom of the steps. Between the English leaving and the house-boy arriving, Leo had grabbed the silver box, but the silver tray and the dagger thing were no longer visible. Never mind, another time. Then he was off up the path, over the gate and into the road. Hamish started yapping. A bigger dog barked. A voice shouted, “Who’s there?” Then a long awkward run, hand closed like a clamp over a pocket, and then he was climbing the stairs to the dorm out of breath.

He flopped down on his bed.

“That you Leo?” asked Skinny Eddie.




“It’s 'cuz you’re greedy.”

“I know.”

There was silence. Leo pushed his loot firmly under his lumpy pillow, all except the sharp hatpin. He tried to sleep, but he was too excited. Outside, the moon pushed through a cloud and glinted just once on the star in his hand.

Would she like the pretty things in his tin? He felt her bend over his bed and tuck the sheet up under his chin; he felt her soft face against his and heard her say, “Good night, my darling”, the way she said it every night.

“Come and fetch me, Mummy. You said you would,” he whispered.

Leo gulped back his tears and the moon went out.

“Leo, I have here a request from Lady Hermione Pinecoffin. She wants you to go her home this afternoon.” Reverend Johns looked at the twelve-year old standing to attention in front of his desk. “I have to admit, I was not aware that you were socialising in such circles. Do you know the way to Lady Hermione’s home?”

“I think so, sir.”

I think so . . . So you have been before?”

“Yes, sir.”


“Only once, sir.”

“When, once?”

“With Sartay, sir.”


“With Sartay, on a Sunday, sir.”

“Leo I am not conducting a quiz, nor is this meant to be an interrogation . . .” The boy’s shoulders relaxed. “I am simply trying to ascertain how an orphanage boy has got into – how shall I put it? Oh damn it! What on earth have you been up to now, boy?”

“I expect it’s because I might have saved the lady’s life, sir. I didn’t mean to. That is I didn’t mean to be in a place where she was in danger of being attacked by a man-eating leopard and having to save her. It just happened, sir. Ask Sartay.”

“Lady Hermione hasn’t included Sartay in her invitation, so we can leave him out of this interview.”

Leo couldn’t help grinning. If this wasn’t about the shiny box and the star pin then there would be more cake, just for him.

“Well, I shall accompany you. I cannot allow my charges to go running off to the civil lines on Sunday afternoons without ensuring they are in appropriate company for the Sabbath.” Reginald Johns watched his pupil’s face and there was just the faintest tweak of a smile, a dimple appeared and disappeared. He had to bite his lower lip and fuss about in a drawer until he was sure he could maintain his serious demeanour. “In the mean time young man, I should like you to write a composition entitled ‘How I Saved a Lady from a Man-eating Leopard’. Dismissed.”

Leo came back to attention. He didn’t actually click his heels because the mission school was not a military academy, but he did march straight-backed to the huge black teak door. “Thank you, sir. Goodbye, sir.”

“Half past four at the main entrance, clean uniform and the composition.”

“Yes, sir.”

The door closed. Reverend Johns leaned back in his chair and chuckled. He wrote a note and sent for a runner. Then he sobered. An unfortunate set of coincidences, if indeed they were coincidences. But surely not even the scheming Sir Lionel Pinecoffin would – could – arrange a leopard attack.