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Authors: Becky Lee Weyrich

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She collapsed in his arms, weak and drained. Still holding her close with one arm, he placed the splayed fingers of his other hand over her chest.

“Out, devil!” he commanded, pressing harder. “Out, I say!”

Persia whimpered softly, her eyes closed, her mind spinning. When his mouth came down on hers, she was beyond protesting. He parted her lips with one skillful thrust and sucked at her breath.

Cyrus Blackwell was still presumably drawing out the devil in this fashion when the library door flew open.

“Persia!” Zack’s shocked cry filled the room.

She tried to fight her way out of the missionary’s embrace, but he held her fast.

Zack, his face contorted with rage, grabbed Blackwell by one shoulder and yanked him away from Persia. The man sprang to his feet in the very nick of time to avoid the enraged sea captain’s right cross, but he did nothing to defend himself. Zack rained blows on his head, his chest, his midsection.

“Fight, damn you!” Zack yelled.

“I am a man of peace. I will not!”

The missionary turned his head, offering his adversary the other check. Zack obliged the man, sending him sprawling.

“No! Stop it!” Persia was on her feet, shaky still, but determined not to allow the one-sided contest to go on. “Zack, don’t!” she cried. “Leave him alone!”

She flung herself at Zack, trying to stop the slaughter. But he shoved her away with an angry curse. Suddenly, with his eyes wild and his face a mask of hate, he looked to Persia like the devil incarnate. She shrank away from him, afraid.

“Don’t you dare hit him again!”
she cried.

Hearing her desperate words, Zack let his fists drop. He swung around to stare at Persia.

“What is this?” he demanded. “You’re defending the man?”

“He won’t defend himself. And fighting won’t solve anything,” she replied, going to help Cyrus Blackwell up from the floor.

Zack’s unbelieving eyes followed her every move. “And I suppose the two of you solved everything grappling there on the floor like a sailor and a dockside whore! Persia, what’s gotten into you? I don’t understand any of this.”

“No, and you probably never will,” Blackwell answered for her. “I’m afraid, sir, that you are beyond redemption. God be praised that I reached Persia in time to save her!”

“Persia, what’s he babbling about?” Zack demanded, taking a threatening step toward Blackwell.

She couldn’t meet his fierce gaze. She was too near the brink of hysteria. She longed to suspend time once more and live only for the moment, as she and Zack had for the past months on the ship. But no! That time had not even been real. Because of Zack, she had been living an evil lie. The hour of judgment had come. She knew what she must do.

“I’m staying here, Zack. I know you won’t understand, but I have to. I have a duty. I promised. I belong here.”

“You belong with me, dammit!” He started toward her, but Blackwell blocked his way.

“My wife has said all she has to say to you. Now, you will please leave us. There’s nothing more to discuss.”

Zack turned to her, frantic now and heartsick. “Persia?” he pleaded.

“I’m sorry, Zack, for
everything.”

“Go!” Blackwell ordered.

Zachariah Hazzard went. He stumbled to the door, ran through the ballroom, and roamed the streets of Bombay until dawn, stopping frequently to sample the native intoxicants. He was like the walking dead—empty, wounded, and cast adrift without the woman he loved. She was right. He didn’t understand. He never would.

The moment Zack left them, Persia turned to her husband, seeking a sympathetic shoulder for her tears. She found instead his harsh disapproval and scathing accusation.

“Only a wanton would shed precious tears over the man who led her astray. Be quiet! Dry your eyes! Hannah would never have carried on so. As my wife, you must be a woman of dignity.”

She tried, but her tears refused to stop. The awful scene with Zack had thrown her emotions into turmoil.

“Do you hear me, Persia?”

“I’m s-sorry. I can’t help it.”

The next instant, she was jolted out of her hysterics when Cyrus Blackwell’s hand lashed across her right cheek and then her left. She stumbled backward, horrified. Her crying stopped.

“That’s better. I don’t enjoy striking women, but sometimes it’s for their own good. Now come along. I have a palanquin waiting.”

They did not leave by the main entrance to the Club but exited through a side door. Persia, sure that the imprint of her husband’s hand still blazed on her cheeks, was glad she didn’t have to face the others. Quickly, he helped her into the waiting conveyance, and they sped away down the dark, fragrant street.

“Where are we going?” she demanded.

“Don’t ask questions. I’ll tell you everything you need to know from now on. The rest doesn’t concern you.”

The palanquin snaked through the streets and back alleys until Persia became quite dizzy. She was tired, too; exhausted emotionally as well as physically. Blackwell sat next to her, silent as a statue. After a time she nodded off. All through the night, she was aware of reeking alleys, squalid slums, and evil-faced men peering in at her. Sometimes when she awoke, Cyrus was beside her and they were moving. At other times, she would be alone and the palanquin still.

The sun was high in the sky by the time they reached the landing and she awakened. She came around slowly, feeling the dull ache of her body and the throbbing of her head before she could move or see. When she opened her eyes and found herself alone, her first thought was that Zack had left already to oversee the unloading of the ice.

But when Cyrus Blackwell pulled a curtain aside and looked in, the full realization hit her. Zack had left all right…
for good!

“Cap’n, the pilot’s on board.” Second Mate Stoner, attuned to his commander’s somber mood, almost whispered the words.

Zack glanced back over the city of Bombay one last time as if he might see Persia there. But that was silly, of course. He’d been ashore already, combing every street. He heaved a heavy sigh. He’d been a prize fool to storm off the night before, leaving her with Blackwell. But Persia was a big girl. And she was as headstrong as they came. She’d see what a mistake she’d made in a few days, and probably come running after him to Calcutta.

He smacked the railing angrily with his hand. But what if she doesn’t? he asked himself. What will you do then?

He didn’t know. He couldn’t think. Maybe this was right for her. He’d certainly caused her enough misery in the past. Still, he felt he could have made her happy, if only…

“Weigh anchor, Mister Stoner!”

Persia had said she intended to do her duty. Well, he had a duty, too! The ice meant for sale in Calcutta would be nothing more than water sloshing in the hold if he didn’t get the ship underway immediately.

But as Bombay faded from view, the
Madagascar’s
captain felt his heart being torn as if all the vultures from Malabar Hill had descended upon him at once. He almost envied the real dead. For without Persia he was the living dead.

“Where are we going?” Persia asked Cyrus as he hurried her into a long boat with a red sail.

“Home,” he replied. “To Elephanta.”

“Oh!” With the daylight, she’d begun to feel very uncertain again. How could she be a wife to a man who was a stranger? The thought was terrifying.

Remembering the night before, she turned away from him so that he couldn’t see the tears forming in her eyes. She felt so helpless and empty suddenly. She must pull herself together. This was the life she had chosen. This was the only way she could atone for her mother’s death and save her own soul. She would make the best of it.

On the horizon, she spotted a ship’s silhouette. The sight stirred a deep yearning in her heart. She watched as it sailed farther and farther away. Suddenly, she knew with a terrible, final certainty that it was the
Madagascar.

“Zack,” she whispered, then added silently,
Zack, I did love you!

A cool hand covered hers, and Blackwell said softly, “Your Captain Hazzard turned out to be an honorable man after all. I am not at all surprised that you should have fallen under his spell, as ruinous as the association proved. But that’s all in the past now. As I was saying about the captain, he sent a message to me that I received this morning. He said he was glad you had made the proper decision so that you would be in good hands when he sailed away. He also wished us happiness.”

Persia gasped softly. It hurt to know that Zack had taken their parting so casually. Granted, the decision had been hers. But she had expected him to grieve for her a little. She certainly hadn’t expected his good wishes this soon. But then maybe this was Boston all over again. Maybe Zachariah Hazzard was not a man to be tied down to a wife. She had freed him. He was happy. She only wished she could be.

Cyrus Blackwell put his arms around her quaking body and patted her gently. “There, there, my dear. Everything will be fine. You’ll see. A new land and a new husband always take a bit of adjusting to. But you’re a strong girl. You’ll manage with God’s help and with mine.”

Persia kept her eyes trained on the ship until it passed out of her sight. When the sea lay empty before her, she felt as if her heart had sailed away with it. There was only a great, aching void within her breast.

How could she have sent him away? Or was it her doing? Perhaps fate had played another of her cruel tricks, taking him from her again… this time forever.

Persia was unaware of the fact that the boat ride out to Elephanta Island took an hour and a half. She was too confused, too distraught, too far removed from the world of reality to be aware of her surroundings at all after she saw the
Madagascar
sail over the horizon. Was even the salvation of her soul worth this much pain?

But even her shattered heart beat with a fierce will to survive. This was not the first time in her life that Persia had drunk the dregs of despair. She had learned, too, that after the bitter came the sweet, if only one dared sip from life’s brimming cup again. Suddenly, she felt a new surge of hope.

“Here we are, my dear.” Blackwell’s voice near her ear made her start.

The boat’s bow bumped against the dock and he jumped out to the wet stones, turning to offer her a hand.

It was hot and steamy on the island when they arrived. The silk gown Persia had worn to the ball the night before hung limply on her. The tall missionary helped her lift her tangled skirts from the boat, then led her up a winding path at the bottom of a hill.

As they made their way upward through the lush vegetation, a new strength and fire sprang to life to fill the emptiness within her. Rainbow-colored birds darted overhead, adding their brilliance to the vivid green of the jungle setting. Exotic flowers perfumed the clear air. The whole island seemed alive and vibrant, a true paradise on earth. The thought of living the rest of her life on such a peaceful, beautiful island was like a balm to Persia’s spirit. She longed, suddenly, to plunge ahead to the future, forgetting past pain.

If fate demanded that she live this life, she would live it with a vengeance. A new page had turned. A new chapter had begun. And Persia Whiddington Blackwell would see that it was written in a firm, bold hand.

Yes, she would feed the starving. Of course she would tend the sick. And, if she had it in her, she would save the sinner and convert the savage. The only thing she feared she could never do was learn to love her husband. But with God’s help, she would try!

Part Three
1847
Chapter Twenty-Six

The narrow path wound up and up to the crest of the hill visible against the brassy afternoon sky. Persia thought they would never reach the top. She was tired, hungry, and near fainting with the heat. Her silver silk gown—the part she hadn’t lost to the thorn bushes along the way—was soaked through with perspiration and clung to her like a second skin.

After the long, steep climb, she felt little inclination to survey her surroundings further. But an odd sound all about her, a shrill “churring” noise, made her glance about to find its source. After a time, she saw that the trees were alive with white-faced monkeys, signaling to one another in their peculiar, piercing voices.

“It’s not far now,” Cyrus called back to her.

She took heart and forced upward with renewed energy.

Just as they reached the crest of the hill, Persia heard the sound of bells, seeming to come from everywhere. The silvery tinkling grew loud enough even to drown out the chattering of the monkeys. She looked about, trying to find the source of the airborne music. A bit farther up the path she spied the burnt-out shell of a small cottage. The dried-mud chimney remained and half of one wall. Before the charred ruin, a strange sort of shrine had been erected. It consisted of a white wooden cross hung with silver bell-toned windchimes. An altar with flower offerings upon it stood before the cross.

“Cyrus, what’s that?” she called to her husband.

He paused on the path and looked back at her, his face a mixture of anger and pain. “I’d like it if you would address me as
Brother Cyrus.
It’s what my dear Hannah always called me. She loved the sound of windchimes. She always said the tinkling reminded her of a cool mountain stream rushing over smooth pebbles. She said it made her forget the hot winds from Bombay. That’s where she died, poor woman,” he said, gesturing at the ruined cottage. “Consumed in the flames before anyone could rescue her. If only I’d been here, I might have saved her.” His voice took on an odd tone, and Persia could have sworn she saw a smile touch his lips for an instant as he added, “It must have been a
horrible, painful
death. I’d told her often enough about the hellfires of damnation. She hated the thought of burning.”

Persia’s gaze shifted from her husband back to the cross and chimes. How odd! No one had said anything about a fire. Cunningham had told Zack that Hannah Blackwell died of some strange malady that had wasted her body within weeks of the time it struck her down. She started to ask Cyrus about it, then decided against it. She didn’t want to open old wounds.

Finally, her new home came into view. The “bungalow,” as Brother Cyrus called the house, looked like no more than a crude shack from the outside. The roof was thatched with palm fronds above the dried-mud walls. A rough board veranda ran across the front at ground level. An irregular fence of palm trunks guarded the perimeter of the tiny yard.

“I hope you don’t mind if we forgo the ritual of the groom carrying the bride across the threshold. I’m rather too tired to be lifting hefty loads right now.”

Persia didn’t know whether to laugh or be angry. She was a large woman, and because of her size she’d been called a lot of things in her day, but never a
hefty load.
Still, she was quite happy to walk into the house under her own power. The idea of Cyrus Blackwell carrying her in seemed ludicrous. And the last thing she felt like at the moment was a bride.

Inside the house, the floors, though covered with grass mats, were nothing more than hard-packed earth. But the furniture was quite another matter. Lovely pieces of French and English design were liberally interspersed with crudely made native stuff. Persia guessed that the expensive, elegant pieces must have been gifts. Surely a missionary could ill afford such luxuries.

“I hope you’ll find this a comfortable honeymoon cottage, my dear.”

While Persia was surveying her new surroundings, Cyrus moved to her side. He now stood very near, smiling down at her with a look she found most disquieting. Surely he wouldn’t demand a husband’s rights this very night. She needed time to get used to the whole idea of being married… to get used to
him\
Most of all, she needed time to put Zack from her mind and her heart, if that were possible.

“Brother Cyrus—”

“You’ll want to bathe and change, I’m sure. Then you’ll feel better. Your bedroom is the first down the hall. The water closet is attached. I’ll send one of the women to see to your needs. After you’ve rested for a bit, we’ll have supper.”

“Thank you.” She meant it with all her heart. Never before had she been in such need of soap and water, privacy, and a place to lie down for a time.

She was on her way down the hall—nearly to the bedroom door—when it suddenly struck her that she had nothing to change into after her bath. Certainly she couldn’t put on her silk gown again. It was filthy and in tatters. She turned. “Brother Cyrus, my trunks. They’re still at the India House in Bombay.”

He looked unconcerned. “You won’t need them. Everything has been provided for you.”

Persia nodded her thanks and entered the room. Again she heard the tinkling sound of unseen windchimes. The grass matting over the window was drawn down. The bedroom was dark and stuffy. She could make out only shapes in the dimness—a brass bed, a vanity and mirror, an armoire, and a washstand. She went to the window and pulled up the mat far enough to let in just enough light to see, but as little heat as possible. Reflected sparkles danced about the room from the sun’s rays glancing off the silver chimes that hung just outside the window. She knew in that moment that this room had been meant for Hannah Blackwell.

Brother Cyrus had spoken the truth. Everything had been provided, right down to a silver brush on the vanity that still contained strands of its previous owner’s black hair. Persia frowned. She went to the armoire and opened the doors. The chest was filled with simple cotton dresses in white, black, and gray. They were clean. The odor of strong soap and starch permeated the air. But they were not new by the look of their faded seams and worn cuffs and collars. Like the brush, they were hand-me-downs.

She answered a knock at the door to find a lovely young Indian woman waiting with an enormous clay water jug balanced on her head.

“Brother Cyrus send me to serve you. I am Indira.”

“Come in,” Persia said, then reached for the jug. “Let me help you with that.”

“No, no!” protested the girl. “Sister Hannah, she always allow me to do for her. Now, I am yours, Sister Persia. I will serve you.”

Indira’s words struck home. This girl was not the only thing Persia had inherited from Hannah Blackwell. The silver brush, the clothes, the bed, even the husband. Her flesh crawled at the thought. She determined to have Cyrus send to Bombay for her own things.

During the time that Indira was in the room helping Persia with her toilette, the pattern became ever clearer. No matter what she suggested, Indira would respond, “But no, Sister Persia. Sister Hannah likes this soap… this powder… this gown…” Always in the present, as if Hannah Blackwell were still among the living.

When Persia objected to having a dirty brush used on her hair and insisted that Indira wash it thoroughly first, the girl almost dissolved into tears. “No, no! Brother Cyrus would be very angry with me. This is Sister Hannah’s brush!”

“I realize that,” Persia answered, near fury by now from the frustration of trying to deal with the stubborn girl. “I also know that Sister Hannah died of what may have been a contagious illness.”

Indira’s black eyes grew wide. “No, it was the fire! God burned her for her sins!”

“Who told you such rubbish?” Persia demanded. “God doesn’t go around punishing people by burning them up when they’ve done wrong. Besides, I thought Sister Hannah was a good woman. You seem to have cared a great deal for her, Indira.”

The pretty Indian nodded vigorously, but the look of fear remained frozen on her face. “She is always good to me. I love her. But he said—”

Her words stopped abruptly when Cyrus called from outside the door, “Indira, when you are through, I’d like a word with you.”

She looked doubly frightened as she scurried from the room.

Persia took the silver brush and, without the slightest hesitation, removed Hannah’s hair and dropped the soft ball into the waste basket. Then she washed the boar bristles thoroughly with strong soap. Satisfied that she would inherit nothing deadly from her predecessor, she proceeded to brush her hair with long, even strokes.

Supper, an hour and a half later, proved a lavish affair. Indira, aided by three other women, spread an Indian feast before Reverend and Mrs. Blackwell—seafood curry, fruits, jams, and rich breads sprinkled with sesame and poppy seeds. To Persia’s complete astonishment, they ate off English bone china with coin-silver forks while they sipped their iced tea from frosted crystal goblets. She had expected no better than wooden troughs, tin cups, and bone spoons. The tea, seasoned with jasmine and cooled with some of the very ice the
Madagascar
had brought from New England, completed the meal. When Indira brought in a silver bowl of ruby-red Baldwin apples—apples from Persia’s own backyard- she nearly lost her grip. Her eyes filled with tears of homesickeness. Cyrus put one on her plate. She forced herself to smile.

“You live well, Brother Cyrus,” she commented wryly. “The Missionary Society of Quoddy Cove must have been most generous of late.”

He smiled back. “Brother Osgood felt badly that he hadn’t been able to provide me with a virgin bride. He urged his congregation to do what they could to make up for your lack of purity.”

Persia’s cheeks flamed. It seemed the man delighted in bringing up her less-than-innocent state at every opportunity. Even though he spoke the truth, she would have appreciated a bit more sensitivity from her husband.

“Generous of them,” she said. “Although I hate to speak ill of my old neighbors, they generally keep a rather firm grip on their purse strings. And it hardly seems that the purchase of china, crystal, and silver would go very far toward converting the heathen or feeding the starving natives.”

He laughed aloud at her sarcastic words. “You’re right, of course, my dear. And actually, the Missionary Society’s money bought none of this finery. It belonged to my sister. When Birdie passed away, I had it shipped out here. It has been stored until recently. I thought it would make a nice wedding gift for you. Are you pleased?”

Persia looked down and toyed with her snowy Irish linen napkin. Birdie Blackwell had died years before. Why had he stored his inheritance?

“You mean Sister Hannah never used these things?”

“She
refused
to use them. I built this fine house for her, but she wouldn’t live here. She insisted upon staying in that dismal little hovel where she died. She said it was
home,
and she wouldn’t feel right in a place like this.” He gave a grim laugh. “I can hear her now saying, ‘Let your next wife enjoy your
mansion.
Home is good enough for me!’ Prophetic words, eh? But Hannah was like that. She came from a completely different background from yours and mine. She had no notion of gracious living. She would have been uncomfortable amidst such luxunes.

Persia thought of the silver brush and started to ask if Hannah had been uncomfortable using it. There was something very strange about Hannah Blackwell—her life
and
her death. But Persia decided not to pursue the matter at this moment.

“I would appreciate it, Brother Cyrus, if you would send to Bombay for my things. This gown is a bit too tight, as are all of your first wife’s clothes. And it would be comforting to have familiar belongings about me.”

Blackwell’s eyes caressed the straining gray cotton of Persia’s bodice with an appreciative gaze. “I find that frock quite becoming. It never looked so well on Hannah. But then she was not nearly as well endowed as you, Persia dear.”

She looked down, blushing furiously. What kind of a man was Cyrus Blackwell? One moment he was the stern and pious missionary, ranting against sin and extolling the virtues of salvation. The next he was like any other lusty man, measuring the worth of a woman only by how well she could fill out a bodice. And if his first wife had been an ill-bred prostitute, looked down upon by the very man she married, why, then, was everything she had ever touched held sacred by her husband? Even the charred ruins of the house where she had died had been turned into a shrine to her memory.

“I’m afraid it will be quite impossible to bring your things here, Persia. I had them disposed of,” he answered in a flat tone.

“Disposed of?”
she said, shocked and furious. “You had no right to do that! Those trunks contained everything I own in the world—everything that meant anything to me!”

He nodded toward her, unsmiling. “I know. And now you will begin your new life as you should, with no earthly possessions to shackle you to the past. Besides, I had every right. As my wife, you and everything you own are now mine. At any rate, as a missionary’s wife you won’t be needing
ball gowns!
And, I assure you, your belongings went to a good cause. Your gowns were sold at auction this morning.” He laughed and slapped the table. “You’ll be amused by this, I’m sure. The Maharajah of Gwalior bought the Whole lot for a king’s ransom, which will go to feed the poor of India.”

Persia wasn’t amused. “Why on earth would a man who dresses in cloth of gold and precious jewels want my modest gowns?”

Blackwell chuckled at her bewilderment. “I suppose he bought the gowns because he couldn’t buy you. He’ll dress his concubines in your frills and, with the spiritual aid of his opium pipe, convince himself that he’s taking you when he beds one of them.” He gave her a sly smile. “So if the maharajah appears in your dreams some night, you’ll understand what is happening. I’m sure that when next he thrusts his great golden jewel, he’ll be imagining, happily, that it is penetrating
your
pale and trembling lotus, my dear!”

Persia gasped, shocked by her husband’s outspokenness and at the thought of her gowns being put to such a use.

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