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Authors: Becky Lee Weyrich

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BOOK: Hot Winds From Bombay
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Europa’s letter reflected her usual state—complaining about the cold, the children, Seton’s job, and yet another pregnancy. Persia smiled at the thought of being presented with one more nephew. It certainly looked as if her brother-in-law had set about the task of populating the vast reaches of the state of Maine!

The third letter chased the first two from her mind, leaving her numb and frightened. The note was brief—to the point.

Elephanta Island
March 21, 1847

My dutiful wife,

I have been made aware of your impending arrival. Brother Osgood has written, explaining to me that you are not the perfect bride he hoped to send. But we will not study on evil, you and I. Whatever sins are on your soul shall be purged. I will see to it, personally.

I plan to collect you within the week. See that all your affairs are in order promptly.

Your Husband and Savior,
Brother Cyrus

Persia was still staring at the letter in her trembling hands when Zack came into the chamber. He hurried to her, sure that she had received terrible news from home by the pallor of her cheeks and the look of horror on her face.

“Darling, what is it?” he asked.

“Oh, Zack, he knows!”

“Who
knows
what
, Persia?”

“Cyrus Blackwell,” she whispered. “He knows I’m here.”

“Well, of course, you expected that he would, didn’t you? You told me yourself that Reverend Osgood intended to write to him.”

She looked at Zack, and her eyes were wild with fear. “But he knows about
us
!”

“All the better. We’ll make fast work of explaining to him that you plan to seek an annulment and marry me.” He was trying to treat the matter lightly, to reassure her, but it wasn’t working.

“No, I mean he knows that I’m not a virgin. He says he will
purge
the sins from my soul! What does he mean?” She was nearly hysterical now, trembling all over.

“Darling, darling,” Zack soothed. “You mustn’t be frightened. It doesn’t mean anything because I won’t allow you to see him. Let me read that.”

Zack took the note from her and scanned the page quickly. “Damn the man! What kind of pompous, unfeeling creature can he be to write such tripe to his wife?”

“You may come into Mr. Cunningham’s office now,” the agent’s male clerk announced to them.

Zack crushed Blackwell’s note in his fist and crammed it into his pocket. “Come along, Persia. And don’t worry about a thing, I’ll take care of this matter.”

Their meeting with Mr. Cunningham went smoothly. He would arrange for the ice to be unloaded the day after tomorrow—“Sorry, but that’s the very soonest possible,” he said when Zack objected to the delay. On the brighter side, the British governor was giving a fancy ball at the Bombay Club the next evening. The two of them were most cordially invited. “It’s dress, of course,” the man added.

Persia hardly heard a word of the conversation. Cyrus Blackwell’s words kept flashing before her eyes in the painfully precise handwriting that had seemed to taint the very page it was written on.

There were other distractions, too. A bevy of Indian servants hovered about—one stroking an ostrich-feather fan through the hot air, one at the humidor should either of the gentlemen desire a cigar, another at the water pitcher, others holding various wine decanters, and two or three who seemed to have no set task to perform other than being there and at the ready. Persia eyed them curiously. Each man bowed to her, grinning broadly. How could one overfed ice agent require so many servants? she wondered.

It seemed Zack had just asked Cunningham a similar but more politely phrased question. “Oh, labor’s dirt cheap here. And the poor devils have to eat. The British chaps will tell you that it’s beneath them to have only one man to remove their stockings at night. Any decent, self-respecting Englishman will hire two—one for each foot!” Cunningham followed his story with a belly laugh that shook him like a volcano preparing for major eruption.

“What about lodgings, Mr. Cunningham?” Zack asked. “I think Miss Whiddington would be much more comfortable ashore.”

The agent quirked a brow. “Superior suggestion!” He snapped his fingers, and one of the idle servants ran to him, bowing and grinning. “Run over to the India House, boy, and tell them to expect Captain Hazzard and
Mrs. Blackwell
shortly. Two of their best rooms, mind you. And don’t dawdle. No stopping off to chew any bang with your friends along the way!”

Persia tensed. Did everyone in Bombay know about her marriage?

Zack rose. “Well, thank you, Mr. Cunningham. I suppose we’ll see you at the Club tomorrow evening?”

“Oh, the wife and I wouldn’t miss it. Big do! Everyone who’s anyone will be there, even some Indian royalty.’” He smiled at Persia. “But you’ll be the belle of the ball, Mrs. Blackwell, mark my words. Not many young ladies come out here. Those that do… well, they just don’t last. The heat and all, you know. But as a missionary’s wife, you’ll probably stay too busy to notice the heat.” He offered Persia a sympathetic smile even as he offered his hand to Zack. “Looking forward to it, yes, I am! And we’re all happy to have you here, Mrs. Blackwell. You’ll be a great comfort to Brother Cyrus. I know he regretted being out of town when you arrived. He’s gone up-country. But he’ll be back in a few days to give you a proper welcome. He’s a fine man, but he needs a good wife.”

Persia decided to set the agent straight. “Mr. Cunningham, I won’t be—” She broke off when Zack put a warning hand on her arm.

When they reached the door, he said, “Persia, wait for me outside. I have one more thing I meant to ask Cunningham. I’ll only be a minute.”

The door closed behind her and Zack turned back to the red-faced agent. “What can you tell me about Cyrus Blackwell?”

“As I said to Mrs. Blackwell, her husband is a fine man—a pillar of the community. He’s built a commune over on Elephanta Island. Takes in orphans and gives them food and shelter. They’d starve without his aid. A number of familes live over there now. There’s a regular village. Cyrus is a bit of an odd duck, but the man’s not had an easy life. And his wife’s death last year was tragic, truly tragic.” He shook his head sadly.

“What’s Elephanta like?”

“Oh, a lovely place—lush and green, and teeming with fascinating caves that were used as temples in ancient times.”

“What about Blackwell’s wife? How did she die?”

“Nobody really knows, Captain Hazzard. She was a good woman. A Christian woman. Tended the sick, took food to the hungry, saw to Cyrus’s every need. She was a hard worker, full of energy. Then she just took ill all of a sudden. Maybe she caught some exotic disease from one of the children. All I know is, one day Hannah Blackwell was in the pink of health and a few weeks later she had simply withered away. Brother Cyrus thought it might have been poison from a snakebite. But who knows?” He leaned across the desk and whispered, “I’ve even heard from some superstitious souls that it was a death wish put on her because she was interfering with someone’s business. But, of course, I don’t believe in that sort of nonsense.”

“What kind of
business
are you talking about?” Zack asked.

Cunningham rolled his eyes. “You must understand, Captain, that all this is strictly off the record. But the opium traffic in the city has picked up in the last couple of years. And people have been reporting children missing—not just an isolated case here and there.
Dozens
in the past year. All little girls. The white slave market is practically headquartered here in Bombay. Of course, we don’t advertise the fact.”

“My God! I don’t suppose you would! Drug trafficking and white slavery!” Then he added under his breath, “This is no place for Persia.”

“See here, if you’re concerned about Mrs. Blackwell, you needn’t be. Cyrus’s first wife was British. They never get on very well in this climate. But Mrs. Blackwell is American, and a strong young woman, from the looks of her. She’ll do just fine in India.”

Zack started to tell the man that he wasn’t worried because Persia wouldn’t be staying. But he thought better of it. Until he had her safely away from Bombay, he felt it wise to keep their plans to himself. He had an uneasy feeling about this whole situation.

He hurried out of the agent’s office, vowing to keep Persia within sight for the duration of their stay here.

Chapter Twenty-Three

By the time Persia and Zack finally reached their rooms at the India House early that evening, she was exhausted. Still, the
Madagascar’s
supercargo had every right to be proud of her weariness. She had earned it, haggling politely over the price of ice with the Parsee merchants for several hours until they finally saw things her way. She would make more than the usual profit on the ice
and
the Baldwin apples, but the Indians were not being cheated in the least.

“Your father will be proud of you,” Zack had told her as they headed toward the hotel afterward. The thought pleased Persia immensely.

Now she stood on the little balcony of her room that overlooked a jungle garden below. A hot breeze stirred the great fan palms, and bright lime-colored parakeets darted among the widespread limbs of a massive banyan tree. Two wild peacocks strutted their fans, one trying to outshine the other. She watched other hotel guests, dressed for the dinner hour, strolling the shell-paved paths among the flowering shrubs and towering palms. It was a lovely, relaxing sight.

The sun was just sinking into the Arabian Sea, turning the bowl of the sky into a great fiery opal that reflected its glowing colors in the water below and touching everything within her line of vision with its intoxicating flame. She could understand why the Parsees, followers of Zoroaster, worshiped a god of fire. Who would not be convinced, at a moment like this, that all power lived in the sun?

She turned back to her sparsely furnished room. It was large and airy, with a high ceiling and wide windows, covered with slat-vented doors. Her trunks from the ship had been delivered before her arrival. And some phantom hand had unpacked the contents, hanging her gowns to shed their wrinkles and assigning her other belongings to the vanity top, bureau, and drawers. Already, the room smelled like home with her own lilac-scented powder and rose water and lemon bath salts adding their individual perfumes to the spicy aromas indigenous to the Indian air.

She smiled when she saw that even her little green velvet rocker had been brought from the
Madagascar.
No doubt at Zack’s orders. He was doing everything in his power to make her feel comfortable and at home in this foreign place. That was more than kind of him. She had a feeling that the native bed was going to feel anything but homey. It was very low—nothing more than a thin mattress laid on a wooden platform that stood on four legs.

While she was examining the fanlike contraption over the bed that she had heard called a
punkah,
there was a knock at her door. She opened it to find half a dozen servants, who swarmed into her room like bright, chattering birds. One woman went to the water closet and poured tepid water into the copper tub. Another hurried Persia over to the vanity chair and began extracting the pins from her hair. Two others squabbled like a pair of pea hens over which gown the mistress would wear to dinner. One small girl with big black eyes took up her place at the braided cord attached to the
punkah
and began lazily stirring the hot air.

“Please,” Persia begged. “I didn’t send for any servants.”

The largest of the women, whose costume as well as her demeanor identified her as the one in charge, said, “The sahib send us to ready you for dinner. We do—
quick!”

When Persia had been thoroughly bathed, toweled, brushed, perfumed, and patted, the women stood back smiling and nodding.

“Is fine, beautiful lady,” announced the head woman.

“Thank you all,” Persia answered, smiling at them. She started to reach for her purse to give them each a silver coin as a tip, then remembered Zack’s earlier warning: “It is as bad in India to overtip as it is to undertip. I’ve been told that if you pay these people more than they think their services have been worth, you lose respect in their eyes.” Sure that Zack had paid them well already, she overrode her first generous impulse with cool logic.

A moment later Zack knocked, ready to take her down to dinner. The servants scurried out, giggling.

He came to her and, without a word, kissed her softly, slowly—savoring the deep wine of her mouth as if he were sipping some fine vintage champagne. When he stepped away, she was breathless and slightly faint. He could see a blush creeping up her breasts, out of the deep ruff of antique lace that adorned the top of her saffron-colored silk gown.

“My word, you are a dazzler tonight! Maybe I’ll hire twice as many Indian maids to tend your needs from now on. But no. It’s impossible that you could be twice as lovely as you are this minute.”

“Zack, you’re embarrassing me.” But the pleasure in her voice belied the complaint in her words.

Dinner was a quiet affair. Most of the other diners had finished before Persia and Zack made their way down to the hotel’s dining room, and the massive hall was as silent as a tomb. They chose a table by a window that overlooked the great banyan tree in the gardan.

While the two of them sipped iced pomegranate juice and ate the spicy Indian
pulao
—a rice and seafood dish garnished with green ginger, bananas, mangoes, and cinnamon—they made plans, for now and for the future.

“When this trip is over,” Zack told her, “I think we should be married immediately. I’ve bought some land in Maine. We’ll build our dream house and settle right in. The sea is fine, but not for a man with a wife like you, darling. I could never leave you again. I’ll buy my own fleet of ice ships and hire on some other poor bastards to captain them while I sit home with my boots propped up to the fire and you beside me. I want a
big
house!” He grasped her hand and brought it to his lips. “And I mean to fill it—from widow’s walk to root cellar—with the patter of little feet. Starting
immediately!”

“Zack!”
Persia protested, glancing about to see if anyone had heard. When she saw they were virtually alone, she smiled at him and pursed her lips to kiss the air between them. “Sounds wonderful, darling!”

“Now that we have the next fifty or sixty years settled, what about tomorrow, love? Since you’ve finished your business, what would you like to do?” he asked.

Persia thought for a minute. There were so many sights to see, so many things they could do. “Zack, you’re going to think I’m crazy or morbid, or both.”

“Out with it! I’m game for anything you’re up to.”

“Could we go to the Towers of Silence?” Before he could object, she rushed on, trying to justify her choice. “Malabar Hill is such a landmark of Bombay, and I’ve heard that the garden of the Parsees is magnificent. I know you probably hate the thought of visiting a cemetery, but I’d
really
like to see it.” She finished on a pleading note.

He pushed back from the table and gave her a frown. “A cemetery is one thing, but my God, Persia! Still…” He smiled and took her hand. “I did say
anything,
didn’t I?”

Persia had heard about this unique burying ground from her father. The Parsees believed in one all-encompassing God, embodied in the sun. They worshiped the Supreme Being, never as an idol, but in the elements of fire, water, earth, and air. Therefore, all conventional forms of burial were forbidden to their creed. Cremation of their dead would have defiled the holy fire as well as the air. Likewise, interment or burial at sea would have been a desecration. The only alternative was the one practiced on Malabar Hill near the Sacred Flame at the Towers of Silence.

“Jeejeebhoy told me there’s to be a funeral tomorrow,” Persia added cautiously.

“Wonderful!”
Zack answered, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

After dinner, Zack insisted upon going into Persia’s dark room with her. She made no objection to his coming in. She had hoped he would.

“You can’t be too careful,” he said. “The place is alive with snakes, poisonous spiders, all manner of vermin.”

She smiled. Why was he making excuses? They both knew why he was there. She wanted it as much as he did.

He lit one of the coconut-oil lamps, and Persia stared up at the ceiling. The
punkah
was moving back and forth in slow, steady rhythm. Her gaze slid down the silken cord to where it now disappeared through the wooden slats of the door onto the balcony. Peering out, she spied the tiny black-eyed girl who had been there earlier. She had the cord tied around her ankle and was drowsing as her foot kept up its patient work.

“Zack, come look at this. The poor dear! Give her a few rupees and send her off to bed.”

He tried. But the little servant would have no part of his deal. Her job as
punkah wallah
was a sacred duty as far as she was concerned. She would not disturb them. They would not know that she was there behind the door. But she
must
stay! Otherwise, she would be in disgrace.

Finally, they gave up arguing with the doe-eyed girl. Besides, the night was still and scorching hot. The faint breeze from the fan would be welcome.

Zack took great care unbuttoning Persia’s gown in back. When, finally, it slipped from her shoulders, he took her lightly clad breasts in his hands, nuzzled the nape of her neck, and sighed. “Ah, my love, why do we waste time doing other things? Why don’t we just spend the rest of our lives in bed together?”

“Sh-h-h!” Persia cautioned. She felt nervous knowing that the child was just outside the door. “We mustn’t wake her.”

Zack laughed softly. “You don’t need to worry. The Indians understand love… and
sex.
I hear they have temples in the north carved with all the different positions and possibilities. Some of them even worship the erect male phallus. Not a bad place to live, eh?”

Persia tried to sound outraged, but Zack—his hard body pressed close to her back—was doing things to her breasts with his fingers that drove all thoughts of propriety from her mind.

“They even have a book here,” he whispered into her ear, “that shows all the positions and gives explicit instructions on the art of lovemaking. It’s called the
Kamasutra.
Maybe I should buy us a copy. It’s not written in English, of course, but the illustrations should be sufficient to guide us along the proper pathways.” His hand sought its own pathways, making her quiver and ache.

“Zack!” She was trying hard to sound disapproving, but the very thought of such a book made her temperature rise. And after all, they should learn everything they could about different cultures, she reasoned.

But this was no time to reason or do anything else that required mental concentration. All her energies were needed for physical, sensual enjoyment. Zack was easing her gown down over her hips, leaving her the scantest amount of covering. But her modesty was no longer a problem. He knew her intimately—had kissed every inch of her flesh. One well-placed touch could send her spiraling off into space. Still, as familiar as they were with each other’s bodies, it got better every time.

“Stand right there,” Zack ordered. “Just as you are.”

He had stripped Persia down to nothing more than her camisole and stockings. He guided her closer to one of the lamps, stepping into the glow of another one himself.

“You may watch, if you like,” he said, grinning boyishly.

Persia did watch, her eyes caressing him boldly and without the least shred of modesty.

With great care, he stripped off his coat, his shirt, his boots, and finally his linen britches. The lamplight flickered over his full erection, casting a shadow on the wall that was as large as any pagan idol she could imagine. She felt a flutter inside. What was he doing now?

He whipped a flask out of his britches and held it up for her to see. “The Indians use coconut oil for ail occasions—to light their lamps, to cook their meals, and to lubricate their bodies,” he said matter-of-factly. “Shall I do it, or do you want to?”

Persia didn’t answer. She only stared.

He shrugged at her hesitation and began applying the oil to his shoulders and chest. “They say it keeps drafts off the body. Though Lord knows, who would feel a draft in this inferno?”

Persia stared, wide-eyed, as his hand worked the oil into his flesh—down over his belly, onto his thighs. Then, without even thinking—only burning for him—she moved forward and took the flask.

“Let me,” she said in a husky voice.

With trembling, burning palms, she oiled the part of him that throbbed at her touch. Slowly, sensually, she worked the sweet-smelling oil into his flesh. He moaned when her fingertips caressed him, swaying against her while she massaged him gently.

“Oh, God, Persia, this is too much!”

Quickly, he stripped her of her undergarments. For silent moments, they stood before each other, gazing at the wonders they were about to partake of. Then Zack poured more of the oil into his palms and smoothed it down over her breasts and belly. His fingers, as if sliding on the slick oil, slithered down and down until they covered her, then entered her. With a moan of need, Persia leaned into him.

He tilted his head down and licked her ear. “Want to know a secret?” he asked. Then, without waiting for her to answer, he said, “I already have a copy of the book!”

Leading her by the hand, he went to the little velvet rocker. He sat down and motioned for her to come to him.

Persia hesitated, shocked by what he seemed to expect of her. But when he drew her down to his lap, and she felt his oil-smoothed penetration, she cast all hesitation to the wind. The motion of the rocker and their joined bodies was like nothing she had ever before experienced.

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