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Authors: Becky Lee Weyrich

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General, #FICTION/Romance/Historical

Hot Winds From Bombay (27 page)

BOOK: Hot Winds From Bombay
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Chapter Twenty-Four

Persia awoke the next morning, alone in bed and feeling dazed. Though she’d fallen asleep blissfully happy, the strong spices she’d eaten for dinner, the heat, the strangeness of the place, and most of all, her nagging fear that Cyrus Blackwell might appear to claim her at any moment had all combined to work against her. Her sleep had been troubled by hideous dreams. The nightmares had left her nervous and drained.

Today was the day Zack had promised to take her to see the Towers of Silence. She should have been excited, but instead she almost dreaded going.

Zack noticed the moment he saw her at breakfast that morning that something was wrong. Her clear blue eyes looked clouded, and there was a definite pallor to her cheeks. He questioned her, but she was vague and evasive, saying only that her thick New England blood was having difficulty thinning to accommodate the sticky heat of India.

He let it pass but kept a watchful eye on her. Maybe the climate was the problem. But he had a feeling something was very wrong. He sensed a typhoon brewing, and it wasn’t coming from over the sea.

As their palanquin bearers sped them toward Malabar Hill, Zack tried to draw Persia out of her mood by making conversation. But he received only monosyllabic replies. Finally he gave up and lapsed into silence himself. Only the frown on his face bespoke the growing concern he felt. During the night—sometime after he’d left her—Persia had gone through a total change of personality. The woman sitting beside him now might be some stranger rather than his lover. What could have come over her? He had no idea.

As they neared the summit of the hill, the coolies slowed. Carefully, they set down their burden and lifted the curtains for their passengers to climb out. Zack paid them, and they trotted off to find another fare.

Uncertain about this “sightseeing tour,” especially with Persia in such a sullen frame of mind, Zack glanced about. But he saw nothing to offend the senses. Their surroundings were delightful. This place where the Parsees left their dead seemed no more than a carefully tended garden with flowering shrubs perfuming the air.

“The path leads this way, Persia.” He took her arm and guided her forward. She moved along slowly, silently.

Soon they came upon a small, neat building. Zack halted their progress for a moment and peered in. “The Sacred Fire,” he said. “According to a fellow I talked with at the hotel, the flame came all the way from Persia. Refugees who fled the Moslem persecutions to settle here in the seventh century brought their holy fire with them. The Parsees still worship it.”

Persia, who bore the name of the Parsees’ ancient homeland, made no comment. They moved on, deeper into the lush garden. Zack was aware that her flesh felt cold beneath his hand. She looked paler than ever, and her eyes seemed glazed.

“Persia, are you sure you’re all right? We don’t have to go on. We can leave now. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”

“I
have
to see it!” Her tone was so desperate that it sent a chill through him.

“Very well, darling. Whatever you say.”

She was having trouble breathing. Her chest felt tight and her whole body ached. But still she felt drawn to the place, as if her destiny lay here in this silent garden of the dead.

Suddenly, Zack halted on the path, and she felt his hand grip her arm. She looked up. Just ahead, on the crest of the hill, she could see the Towers of Silence—five circular structures with tall white walls that gleamed like smooth porcelain in the morning sun. Their only adornment was the row of dark statuettelike birds crowning the rounded parapets. Persia cringed inside even as she stared, unable to shift her gaze away.

“Filthy vultures,” Zack muttered, turning from the sight of the ugly birds. “Seen enough?”

“No!” she cried. “Let’s go closer.”

Persia was as repulsed by the scavengers awaiting their grim feast as Zack was. Still, the very aura of the place drew her on. As they moved closer, she felt the baldly grotesque birds staring at her with their keen red eyes. She stared back, unable to look away.

“Persia, no!” Zack commanded. “This is close enough.”

Just then they saw the funeral party wending its way up the hill. The white-robed Parsees moved silently, the shrouded body conveyed by venerable priests. Solemnly, slowly, they bore their burden along the flower-bordered pathway up to the waiting Towers of Silence and the sharp-eyed vultures perched there to receive the offering. The Parsees made no display of burial. All prayers had been said, all other rituals observed. The silent mourners acompanied the remains of their loved one to the hilltop, then turned and started back down.

Persia stood perfectly still, holding her breath. Her heart was pounding, but her blood ran cold. When the last of the mourners was gone from sight, two priests removed the white shroud. The black sentries about the walls stirred to life.

Now the priests would carry the naked corpse the final way—to the waiting grate at the top of the nearest tower, above the open pit that would receive the cleaned bones and return them to dust in time.

Suddenly, the air throbbed with the sound of great wings. The sun was blacked out as the vultures circled overhead—anxious, hungry, ready to do their duty by disposing of the dead.

Persia felt the pounding of the black wings in her chest. And it seemed that razorlike talons were tearing into
her
flesh, stripping it from
her
bones. She covered her face with her arms and screamed. Just before she fainted, she felt as though she were experiencing her own death.

When Persia awoke sometime later, she almost cried out with joy. In her mind, she had died! And in that moment before all went black—when only numbness had filled her whole consciousness—she had felt everything she held dear slipping away from her.

“Zack?” She reached out in the gloom for him.

The warmth of his hand closed around hers, and she felt him kiss her fingertips. “I’m here, darling. Right here.”

“What on earth happened to me?”

The room was dark. She couldn’t see the deep frown etched across his brow. He was terribly worried about her. She was usually so healthy and strong.

The British doctor he had called in had said simply, “Well, Captain Hazzard, these odd upsets can be expected out here. You newcomers—
griffins,
as we call you—always have a bad time of it. And ladies especially seem susceptible to the strange maladies of the Orient. Often they are as much of the mind as of the body. Or possibly it’s just Mrs. Blackwell’s time of the month.”

“No, it’s not,” Zack answered so quickly and authoritatively that the Englishman arched a brow in shocked surprise.

“Perhaps the heat… the spicy food, then. Or she might have been bitten by one of these damnable pests the natives hold so sacred. Do you know they refuse even to kill the body lice that infest them! They say it might be some ancestor or such, reincarnated. Did you ever hear such bloody rot in your life?”

“She looked pale and acted strangely this morning,” Zack said.

“Hm-m. Sounds almost as if she might have been drugged. The stuff’s handy enough. The opium ships out of China make regular stops at some of the islands hereabouts. Seems you’ve been rather close to her right along. Has she taken anything?”

“Of course not!” Zack snapped.

“Personally, Captain, I think the heat simply got to her. Londoners and New Englanders in particular are susceptible to it. Broils the brain, so to speak. Give her this quinine in water several times a day. I can’t promise it will solve all her problems, but then it can’t hurt, can it? And open those windows on the west side of the room. But cover them with grass mats and get some servants up here to keep them wet. That should cool her off considerably.”

Zack had accepted the brown jar of powder from the doctor, had paid him, and seen him out. It was shortly afterward that Persia came out of her deep faint.

Persia sat up and smiled at him. She looked perfectly normal—as if she’d just awakened from a good night’s sleep.

“What time is it, darling?” she asked. “It’s so dark in here.”

“Only a little past noon. The shutters were closed when I brought you in. I haven’t had time to open them. The doctor’s been here. He says you’ll be fine, but he left this medicine for you. You’d better take some right now.”

Zack crossed the room to bring the water jug. Persia watched him pour water into the glass and then sift white powder into it.

“No, I don’t want any of that.”

“Persia?” He turned to her, frowning once more. “It’s only quinine. And you must take it. Doctor’s orders.”

She seemed to relax, but there was still a nervous edge in her voice. “Oh, very well! I suppose there’s no way around it.”

When she had drained the glass, Zack put the cork back in to stopper the jar and set it on her night table. “There. It will be handy when you need it.”

“I don’t
need
it,” she protested. “I feel fine now. When are the serving women coming up to help me get ready for the party?”

Zack stood up and glared down at her. “You are
not
going to any party tonight! And that’s final!”

“Oh, Zack darling, we have to go! Besides”—she offered him a coy smile—”I want to. I’ve been looking forward to dancing with you for so long.”

He was dead set against it, but Persia’s smile and a few well-placed strokes and kisses convinced him to see things her way. She was herself again, no doubt about that—his loving, bewitching Persia.

Persia was glad she had persuaded Zack that they should attend the ball at the Club. The Maharajah Khande Rao of Gwalior, in whose honor the ball was being given, had heard of the Americans in the city and had arranged a special treat for them. At the appointed hour that she and Zack were to leave for the ball, their surprise arrived in front of the India House. They would be conveyed through the streets of Bombay, seated in a gilt
howdah
on the back of an elephant.

She stood on the portico of the hotel, gazing up at the gray mountain of a beast before her. The animal was splendidly turned out. He had been dusted with gold and painted with vermilion, his huge head looking like some fantastic tapestry similar to the real one that draped his sides. Hammered silver bells jangled about his neck. His great ivory tusks were plugged with gold. Tassels, trinkets, and large glass jewels dangled from the ancient pachyderm. At least, Persia
assumed
the jewels were only glass, but since this prized beast belonged to a maharajah, she couldn’t really be sure.

At any rate, the animal’s mahout was just as elegantly costumed as were the pair of “footmen” who walked on either side of the elephant, swatting flies away with their yak-tail whisks.

A crowd gathered in the street, no doubt curious to see how the lady would manage her wide skirts of silver silk as she climbed up into the
howdah.
Persia was wondering the same thing. She saw that one of the attendants had a ladder, but it wouldn’t reach nearly to the summit of the elephant’s broad back.

The mahout shouted an order to his charge. Slowly, as if some command from the gods had brought a mountain peak crashing down, the beast knelt, his forelegs outstretched and his hind legs folded under him. One of the men put the ladder in place, and Zack began to climb. When he was in the thronelike seat, he leaned out to assist Persia.

“Careful, darling,” he said, “that last step is a big one.”

“Believe me, my love, I will be
very
careful!”

When Persia sank down beside Zack, she breathed a sigh of relief and waved to the crowd below, who were cheering her accomplishment. But in the next instant, she gasped in terror and gripped his arm.

“Oh, no!” she cried. The mountain was moving beneath them.

“Don’t worry, darling. Just hold on tight to me.” Zack was smiling broadly, enjoying every minute.

When the elephant rose to his full height, Persia imagined that she could see the whole city in a single glance. It was like being on the widow’s walk back home or high in the crow’s nest of a ship. The ride, too, reminded her of nothing so much as being on the deck of the
Madagascar
in a storm-tossed sea. Until this moment, she had never given much thought to the peculiar gait of an elephant. But now she realized that the animal beneath her was raising both right feet at the same time and then both left to make his uneven progress through the streets. The result was a swaying motion so violent that she thought she might be catapulted through the air at any moment.

“This will certainly be something to write home to your father and sister about, Persia.”

She clutched Zack’s arm tighter as she stared down from the dizzying height. “If I survive it!”

And if she had thought the rise of their beast of burden had been a trial, it was child’s play compared to his settling back to earth. As the great animal collapsed to its knees, Persia was thrown forward, only to be slammed back into her seat as his rear end carved in under them. Once more, she felt dazed and near fainting. But this time it had nothing to do with attacking vultures or visions of death.

“Oh, Zack!” she cried, laughing, as they climbed down from the
howdah.
“We’re alive!”

“Certainly we are, darling! That was a fine ride!” He leaned down quickly to kiss her blushing cheek. “Perhaps tomorrow you’d like to hire a pair of these gray fellows to take us out into the country?”

She laughed again but firmly shook her head.

“The Club,” as everyone called it, was more like a palace. Persia and Zack were ushered inside by scarlet-uniformed Indian guards, through a hall of veined green marble, into a golden antechamber, and finally into the great ballroom. Persia stared about her, almost unable to believe her eyes. It was like standing at sunset inside a frozen waterfall. The walls were of mirrored, apricottinted glass. A dozen or more crystal chandeliers reflected the light, and their thousands of faceted prisms sparkled with dancing rainbows. Crystal columns stood at intervals about the room. The floor was pale, gold- veined pink marble, polished to a mirror finish and overlaid at one end of the massive hall with a thick Oriental carpet.

BOOK: Hot Winds From Bombay
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