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Authors: Becky Lee Weyrich

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

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BOOK: Hot Winds From Bombay
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“That fiery-blooded young nobleman was quite smitten with you, Persia. He wanted you all right—offered me more money than I’ll ever see in a lifetime
and
his best elephant! Don’t look so shocked. Wife-selling, after all, is a perfectly acceptable practice in his region. Aren’t you impressed with my devotion, that I turned down his more than generous offer?”

“Not particularly,” she said under her breath.

“I suppose you’re afraid that I’m going to demand you repay me in a different tender for what I gave up to keep you out of the maharajah’s harem. Well, I am!”

Persia stared at him, aghast. She had known his demands would come, and she fully intended to fulfill her wifely duties. But she had prayed he would give her more time. If she could put him off for only a day or so, she would be granted an extra week’s grace when her monthly flow began. But tonight there was no reasonable argument she could use to stop him.

He reached across the table and grasped her hand, pulling her toward him, as he said in a fierce tone, “You will repay me for rejecting his offer by showing me that you can be the kind of wife I need. You will be faithful to our marriage vows in thought and deed, obedient to me at all times, and you will work hard to make our task of salvation a success, for God’s sake.
And for your own!”

The edge of the table was cutting across her breasts, and her fingers were going numb in his hard grip. She struggled but could not pull away from him.

“Cyrus, you’re hurting me! Please!”

“Pain is nothing,” he said in a strangely intense voice. “Physical pain is merely something of the moment. We can endure that. It is the pain of eternal damnation that cannot be endured. Pray with me, Sister Persia!”

Persia closed her eyes and bowed her head. She had little choice. Cyrus still gripped her hand, making her remain in the same intolerable position. Her breasts ached and her fingers burned as if they were caught in a vise, while on and on his voice rose and fell, pleading with heaven for her forgiveness, her salvation, her very soul.

“And let this woman’s womb be cleansed and made ready for the worthy seed of her husband. For the time of planting is nigh, and the field must be pure and fertile so that a good harvest is assured. Amen!”

At the very instant of his final word to God, Cyrus released Persia’s hand so suddenly that she fell back against her chair. She stared across the table at him, his ominous words about fertile fields and planting time still ringing in her ears. He looked like a man coming out of a trance. His face, although normally pale, was death white. His eyes had a glazed look. His thin lips trembled. And she noticed, too, that his hands were shaking.

“Go to bed now,” he ordered. “You’ll be needing your rest. Tomorrow we have to tour the island so that you can meet my flock and see the task we have ahead of us.”

“Cyrus, are you all right? You look ill.”

“Never mind! Hannah always went to her room after supper. Just leave me now! Do as I say!” He almost shouted the words at her.

Persia rose from the table and fled down the hall. She was both concerned by his erratic behavior and relieved that apparently he didn’t mean to force the “planting” tonight. How could she ever find any peace with this man if she didn’t know from one instant to the next what to expect from him?

It was sheer relief to close the bedroom door behind her. One of the serving girls had been in to tidy up, and the room was immaculate. She had also turned down the bed and laid out one of Hannah’s linen nightgowns.

Persia shed her clothes immediately but tossed the gown over the vanity stool. The thought of wearing such a heavy garment on a night as hot as this made her shudder. There was not a breath of air outside. Even the windchimes were silent. She collapsed onto the down mattress—thankful that it wasn’t an Indian-style bed—and fell asleep immediately.

Persia had no idea what woke her or how long she had slept. She only knew that the room was still pitch black and that her naked skin was covered with gooseflesh. Trying not to make the slightest sound, she lay very still, listening. She thought she heard a rustle on the other side of the room. Or was it just her imagination?

Feeling self-conscious suddenly, as if someone were staring at her through the darkness, she reached down and pulled the sheet up over her. Another hand gripped it and immediately yanked it away. Persia screamed.

“How dare you?” It was Cyrus—his voice low with fury—standing beside her bed.

“I don’t understand. What’s wrong, Brother Cyrus?”

Even in her confusion and fear, she was coherent enough to feel relief that he hadn’t lit a lamp. In the dark he couldn’t see that she was naked. She was sure that had he known, it would have been occasion for another of his long-winded prayers for her deliverance from sin.

“You know very well what’s wrong! When Indira cleaned the room earlier, she found this.”

Persia felt more than saw the shadow of his arm pass above her. A moment later, something soft and fuzzy fell against her breasts. Again she screamed, remembering the crawly creatures that had made her bedroom at the India House their own. She scrambled about the bed, trying to knock it way, but it clung tenaciously to her damp flesh. She was sobbing, clawing at her breasts, yelling for Cyrus to get it off her.

There was a phosphorescent flash, then the glow of the coconut-oil lamp bathed the room in soft yellow light. Persia, hunched against the cool bars of the headboard, stared down at her breasts and the dark ball clinging there. With trembling fingers, she flicked the thing away.

Cyrus had been staring at her, his eyes wide and reflecting the light. But the moment the thing fell, he immediately bent to retrieve it from the floor. When he brought it close to her face again, Persia, still thinking it was some sort of insect, shrank back, crying, “No! Keep it away from me!”

“You’re asking me to put it back in the trash where you deposited it?” he hissed at her. “Indira told me what you wanted her to do. She also told me she refused. So,
you
did it! You may be my wife now, but Hannah was my wife first! I forbid you to destroy any memory of her, no mater how small it may seem to you!”

Suddenly, Persia knew what Cyrus was cradling sc gently and lovingly in his palm. It was neither scorpion nor centipede, but a ball of his dead wife’s black hair. By the light of the lamp, she could see tears streaking his cheeks.

“I’m sorry, Cyrus.” She could hear her own voice quivering. “I didn’t know.”

He turned his gaze on her. His eyes were wild and accusing. “Do not lie to me, woman! You knew what you were doing. You came here to destroy her memory… to destroy
me!”

“No, Cyrus! I had to use her brush. There was no other. It hadn’t been cleaned since—”

Suddenly he was upon her, pinning her shoulders to the mattress, glaring down into her face. He lashed out as he had done the night before, slapping her hard across the mouth. “Liar!” he screamed at her. “Cheat! Wanton! Slut!”

She tried to block out his voice. The chimes! She could hear the chimes now. She strained to concentrate on that sound alone, but it was no use.

Soon the intensity of his sudden attack began to diminish. With every foul name he called her, his hysteria subsided a fraction. His slaps turned to caresses. He leaned closer. By the time he whispered the epithet “whore,” his mouth was nearly touching hers. She could taste the bitterness of the word on his breath. She could also smell the strong spirits he had been drinking.

His hot, trembling hands gripped her breasts while his tongue savaged her mouth. For a time, she tried to fight him. But it was no use. She knew in a sudden flash of painful clarity that this was her punishment. She must accept Cyrus Blackwell as her husband. She must endure his cruel lust along with his pious prayers. She lay very still beneath him, forcing herself to concentrate on the sound of the windchimes.

For he was her husband, and the time of planting had come.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Persia awoke the next morning as if from a bad dream. For a time, she couldn’t think where she was. But her aching body reminded her quickly enough of what had transpired during the night. She was now Cyrus Blackwell’s wife by deed as well as by word.

She lay on the hot, sticky sheets feeling drained and used. Still, she could be thankful for small favors. After his initial attack, Cyrus had not been brutal with her. There was certainly no gentleness in the man, no tender love as she had known from Zack. But the all-out rape she had expected had not come, thank God!

Brother Cyrus had taken her as she imagined any man starved for a woman would have—forcefully, thoroughly, quickly, concerned only with his own needs. It could have been far worse, she told herself.

Afterward, he had left her immediately, taking with him his dead wife’s hair, which she had so carelessly discarded. The thought made her shudder.

She frowned, remembering the other odd thing he had done. He had never called her by her name. After he had run out of filthy epithets, he had murmured over and over again, “Hannah, my darling Hannah!”

Persia turned her face into her pillow. She felt ill suddenly. How could she ever face him this morning?

But face him she did. And she was more confounded than embarrassed. Cyrus Blackwell was all smiles and polite gestures. He made no mention of the night before at all. It was as if nothing had ever happened. Could it be that he didn’t even remember coming to her room?

“Ah, there you are, my dear,” he called with a sprightly wave as she came out of the bedroom. “I’ve had Indira pack us a picnic basket to take along. We’ve no time to dawdle this morning. Everyone’s anxious to meet you. Come along now. You have your parasol? The sun’s beating down already.”

Persia hurried toward him, trying not to meet his eyes. Hesitantly, she took the arm he offered. He led her to the veranda. There an armed Indian named Jammu waited to escort them. Persia caught her breath, recognizing him as the same white-robed man she had seen in her first hour in Bombay. Cyrus explained to her that the man with the menacing-looking gun was there to protect them against the island’s many snakes and wild animals. But Persia realized that the silent Jammu at times also served as her husband’s spy.

“Ah, I feel so refreshed this morning! I trust you had a good night’s sleep, too, Sister Persia.” Cyrus continued to be utterly charming as they set off down the road. “You’ll need all your strength today.”

It was his Only reference all day long to the night before. She really did begin to wonder if she had dreamed the whole thing or if Cyrus, perhaps, was a lusty somnambulist. But no! She
knew
what had happened last night, and the bruises on her face confirmed it.

They hiked for miles, visiting tiny huts and being greeted by appreciative smiles. They delivered food, tended sick babies, and saw to it that one old woman was comfortable. There was nothing else they could do for her. She would die soon, worn out by living over a hundred years.

Cyrus laughed when one of the villagers presented him with a baby goat. He told Persia she could have it as a pet if she liked. From time to time, he patted her hand and asked if she was too tired to go on. She was tired, but she felt exhilarated, too. Cyrus Blackwell was, indeed, a different man this morning. He was a true man of God, the benefactor of the island’s population, her own loving and solicitous husband. Perhaps last night had been a fluke, a reaction to having a new wife in Hannah’s place. He had been drinking, too. That could account for his bizarre behavior.

As the sun was sinking, they started home. Persia’s head was filled with the sights she had seen and the people she had met. She was beyond conversation, lost in thought, but Cyrus was still going strong.

“Have you heard about the sacred caves of Elephanta?” he asked.

“I don’t believe so.”

“Well, they are truly something to see! They were carved out in ancient times by some long-vanished Hindu sect. The Great Cave is the most spectacular. The
Trimurti
is there.”

“The what?” Persia asked, her interest piqued in spite of her weariness.

“It’s a huge carving—nineteen feet high—displaying the three faces of Siva; as Rudra the Destroyer, Brahma the Creator, and Vishnu the Preserver. Gigantic fluted columns support the overhanging cliff, and the cave itself runs back underground for over one hundred feet into the hill, with twenty-six columns supporting the roof, each twelve to twenty feet high and intricately carved. A magnificent sight!”

“Oh, I’d love to see it. When can you take me?”

Cyrus’s face darkened, reminding her that he was not always such a pleasant companion. “I didn’t mean you could go there. It’s a very dangerous place. I only thought you’d be interested in hearing about it. Promise me you won’t do anything so foolish as to try to find the cave alone, Persia. I forbid it!”

“Oh, very well. I promise. But I wish you hadn’t told me about it, if I can’t see it.”

As they wandered up the path to the bungalow, her thoughts continued to dwell on the fantastic images his description had put in her mind. Suddenly, as she neared their compound and heard Hannah’s bell chimes tinkling in the breeze, fear gripped her. It was almost dark. Supper would be ready when they arrived. After that, he would expect her to go to bed. And then what?

Then nothing! Persia Blackwell’s husband left her uneasy sleep uninterrupted for the next four nights. But on the fifth he appeared again in the darkest hours before dawn—half-drunk, foul of tongue, and quick of punishing hand. He took what he came for, then left her to her unhappy tears and thoughts of nights with Zack. More and more often, she began reaching back into the past, wishing she could recapture what she and Zack had once shared. It was clear she would never find love with her husband.

Cyrus’s unwanted visits formed no pattern. Sometimes he would come two nights in a row or twice in one night. At other times he would stay away as long as a week. Consequently, Persia was always on edge, never sure what might happen or when. She slept fitfully when she slept at all. Dark circles appeared under her eyes. Her appetite left her. She began to lose weight. It became all too clear that Elephanta Island was in no way paradise; that the road to salvation was not going to be an easy one.

To combat her fears, Persia forced herself to form her own daily routine. She spent her mornings and afternoons in the village, caring for a tiny sick child named Sindhu. The girl told Persia that she had been named after the river near which she’d been born. But her family were very poor. Sindhu had heard her parents talking one night when they thought she was sleeping. They needed more food for her brothers. They had two choices: drown Sindhu in the yellow water of the river or sell her into slavery. Sindhu had not waited to hear their decision. She’d run away. When Brother Cyrus had found her wandering the streets of Bombay, she had been near starvation. She was recovering now, but slowly. Persia grew to love the bright-eyed child. Their hours together were happy, carefree times.

But Persia’s nights were far different. The moment she awoke to find Cyrus beside the bed, she would block out everything but the sound of Hannah’s bell chimes. In this manner she learned to withstand the uncertainty and the unpleasantness of her husband’s midnight visits. But her very salvation turned on her. Before long, the sound she had used to soothe her fears began to work against her. Any time the windchimes rang, a deep, soul-chilling fear would grip her, even if it were the middle of the day. She grew to hate and fear the sound of bells.

She managed to do a little exploring on her own, usually on days when Cyrus was away from the island. She discovered that his “happy natives” were a strange tribe indeed. In out-of-the-way places, she happened upon pagan altars etched with the hood of the cobra and odd hieroglyphics. She might have been fooled into thinking these were relics from ancient times, had some of the altars not held the bloody, partially charred remains of recent sacrifices.

Then there were the ships. From the highest point on the island, she could see a natural harbor at the north end of Elephanta. The first time she spied a tall mast at anchor there, her heart pounded with excitement. She was sure it was the
Madagascar
and that Zack had come back to take her away.

She worked up the courage to ask Cyrus about the ship that evening. He gave her a cold look and said, “Do not meddle in what does not concern you, Sister Persia! Tend to your prayers and your ministering to the sick. You saw no ship. And you will not go to the hill again!”

Of course she went again, and of course she saw more ships. One day she took Cyrus’s spyglass along. Through its powerful lens, she could see that, under the watchful eye of armed guards, men of the island were unloading great barrels. Persia could think of nothing so valuable that it would have to be guarded here on this isolated island. Pearls, perhaps? She had heard of Oriental pearl pirates from her father.

Suddenly she took down the spyglass and blinked rapidly. No! It couldn’t be! But, alas, she knew it was all too possible. Her father had told her, too, about the opium trade with China. The strong drug was now an illegal import in India. But too many natives had become dependent upon it. Opium was a highly profitable black market commodity.

She scoffed at her wild imaginings. If illegal traffic in drugs was being carried on right here on Elephanta Island, surely Cyrus would find out about it and put an immediate stop to it. Then a colder hand clutched her heart. What if he already knew? If that were the case, she was in very real danger now. She hurried down from the hill. Cyrus must not find out she had gone back there against his orders.

When she returned to the bungalow, visitors were waiting: Mr. Cunningham, the ice agent, and his wife. Cyrus had returned, too. And although he treated her with the utmost kindness in front of their guests, she could see the cold accusation in his eyes.

“Mr. Cunningham and I will leave you ladies to talk now, my dear,” Cyrus said shortly after she arrived. “I want to show him some of the fine crops our people have grown. He’s promised to get us the best possible price at harvesttime.”

Persia felt flustered and uncomfortable in Grace Cunningham’s presence. She had not seen the plump little lady since the night of the ball at the Club in Bombay. Persia was sure that there had been much gossip passed around about her after that, thanks to the maharajah and his unwanted advances and to the fact that she’d arrived with one man and departed with another. But the gray-haired lady put her at ease immediately.

“My dear Mrs. Blackwell, you have absolutely biossomed in the past weeks. Your cheeks are so rosy! Life on Elephanta must agree with you.”

Persia knew the woman was only being tactful. She replied with an equally tactful answer. “Thank you, Mrs. Cunningham. It’s kind of you to say so.”

“Do call me Grace, Persia dear.”

Indira came in then with an elegant silver tea service. Persia poured with the innate refinement of a born hostess and handed one of the china cups to her guest.

“Oh, it is such a pleasure to see this place! I know Reverend Blackwell must be much more comfortable here than in that humble cottage he and Hannah occupied for so many years. It’s nice to see the dear man living so well.”

“Yes,” Persia answered. “He did go through a trying time when Sister Hannah died, I’m sure. The fire and all. It must have been dreadful.”

Mrs. Cunningham adjusted her wire-rimmed spectacles and peered hard at her hostess. “Fire, my dear? What fire?”

“Why, the one in which his first wife died. Didn’t you see the charred remains of the old place when you came up the path?”

“Of course. But Hannah didn’t die in the fire.” Mrs. Cunningham saw Persia’s frown and added, “Did she? I understood that Reverend Blackwell had the place burned down
after,
for fear whatever strange malady took her might spread.”

Persia sipped her tea to hide the confusion she feared the other woman might read on her face. Why would Cyrus tell her his wife had burned to death if she hadn’t? And Indira had told the same tale.

“Grace, did you know Hannah well?”

“Oh, my dear, yes! Why, we were in school together. We were the best of friends even before she married. People used to say that the two ambassadors’ daughters—Hannah and I—were like peas in the proverbial pod. We were inseparable until her husband decided to move her here to this island. I missed her so after that!”

Persia sat stunned. Hannah, an ambassador’s daughter? A well-brought-up and educated young lady? None of this made any sense. Cyrus had told an entirely different story. But why would he lie to her? On the other hand, why would Grace Cunningham?

“What’s wrong, Persia dear? You looked so strange suddenly.”

Persia tried to smile away her guest’s concern. “Oh, nothing! It’s just that I understood Hannah came from…” How could she phrase it delicately? “From
humble beginnings.”

Grace Cunningham laughed. “Humble? My dear, you heard entirely wrong! Why, her parents, Lord Spencer and Lady Elizabeth, were true nobility! They were both mortified when Hannah announced she wanted to marry an American—one as poor as a churchmouse, at that. The life of a missionary’s wife was certainly not what they had planned for their only child. Why, there was even talk of an Austrian prince in her future!” Grace paused and nibbled at a tea cake thoughtfully. “I doubt seriously if they would ever have given their consent for Hannah to marry Cyrus Blackwell. In fact, on the very eve of the accident, they were making plans to send her back to England as quickly as possible.”

“Accident?” Persia said.

Grace shook her head sadly. “It was most tragic, my dear. Hannah’s parents had been to a house party at the old maharajah’s palace in the country—a ball, a tiger shoot, the usual. As they were being escorted home, their little caravan was set upon by bandits. Slaughtered! All of them!”

“And Hannah?” Persia asked, rubbing the gooseflesh that had risen on her arms.

BOOK: Hot Winds From Bombay
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