Book excerpt

The Temple Dancer

A Novel of India

Novels of India

John Speed

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One

Portuguese Cantonment
Goa, India

Satisfied that her face looked perfect, Lucinda Teresa Emilia Dasana dipped a pheasant's tail feather into a crystal vial and touched a milky drop of belladonna to the corner of each eye. "Aya," she said, dabbing at a tear before it stained her powdered cheek, "I can't find my arsênico."

Across the room, her maid folded Lucinda's dressing gown. "It's all gone, my bebê. I meant to tell you."

Lucinda, blinking as the belladonna blurred her eyes, bit her bottom lip in frustration. Then she smiled patiently at her maid, not knowing that one of her front teeth was speckled with vermilion. "Aya, the box was right here. Where have you hidden it?"

The maid, Helene, as if unaware that Lucinda could not see, shook her head and kept on folding. "You should not be using that terrible paste, little one. It is very bad for you. Better that it's gone."

"I'm not your little one anymore. I'm a woman. A lady. And you are my maid now, no longer my nurse. So bring me my arsênico," Lucinda said.

Helene, whose name before she became a Christian had been Ambalika, muttered something in Hindi. "I am not a bitch in heat," Lucinda whispered angrily. "And I have said, we will speak only Portuguese. Now bring it."

Helene looked suddenly very old. Lucinda, her eyes blurred by belladonna, did not see this change, but she heard Helene's weary sigh. Lucinda's heart ached, but she remembered herself, and her new station in the world, and said nothing. Helene, meanwhile, reached beneath the feather mattress and brought out a tiny silver box. "Don't use too much, please," Helene said in Portuguese.

"I'll use what I want," Lucinda answered, and took such a large pinch of the red paste that Helene gasped. Having gotten the effect she wanted, however, Lucinda only touched a little to her tongue. "There."

"You shouldn't take this poison. If your mother were here! That red stuff only will make you sick and you are so beautiful without it."

"You only say that because you love me. I need it---I must not be seen with dark skin."

"What's wrong with dark skin?"

Lucinda lowered her eyes, regretting her words, for of course Helene was dark as shadow. "I'm sorry, dear one," Lucinda said in Hindi, and though she could not see it, Helene smiled. "You know my cousin has just come from Macao. I haven't seen him in years," she went on in Portuguese. "I must look my best. It's fashionable to be pale. All the Lisbon ladies use arsênico these days."

Helene snorted. "So they are pale, yes. But they are not pretty, not like my bebê. Why all this fuss over a cousin? What would your mother say, our lady rest her soul? You are pledged! If your father were alive . . ."

But Lucinda had stopped paying attention. Through the window that looked to the sea, a salt breeze carried the sounds of Goa: the cries of street merchants in Hindi and Portuguese, the blare of gongs and drums from a nearby Shiva temple, and on top of all, the golden cathedral bell of Santa Catarina, tolling the hour.

The breeze whispered through Lucinda's upswept hair. She swirled a stiff silk shawl over her shoulders. "How do I look?"

Too young, thought Helene. Too young to wear a corset laced so tight, or a bodice cut so low. Oh, what will people think? The pupils of Lucinda's eyes, now huge from belladonna, glistened: dark, inviting, like hidden pools lit by moonlight. "I suppose you look all right," Helene said at last.

But Lucinda had not waited. Already she had found the door, already reached the stairs to her uncle's office. Until her father's death the year before, the halls had glowed, bathed in lamplight. But the arrival of Uncle Carlos changed all that. He hated waste; he would stamp through the halls, snuffing out candles with his fingertips. "Thrift!" he'd shout to anyone in earshot. "Economy!" But in the dimness, Lucinda's deliciously dilated eyes could see perfectly. Still she edged forward with one hand pressed against the wood-paneled walls, for the arsênico was making her feel light-headed.

Carlos Dasana glared across his table, awash with papers, and wagged a heavy finger at his nephew. "Don't you realize the trouble you are in?"

Geraldo Silveira shifted in the hard wooden seat---perhaps to adjust his coat, perhaps to hide the amusement in his eyes. His long fingers played with the lace cuffs of his shirt. "I apolgize, Tio Carlos . . ."

"Don't insult me with your apologies! You killed a man, Aldo! You can't apologize for murder! Dueling in the streets! They hang men for this!" Carlos pounded on the heavy wooden table so hard that a pile of papers bounced into the air. "And the husband you killed was your own cousin!"

"I only found that out after, Tio. I apolog . . ."

"For the love of God, hold your tongue! If it had not been for me, Aldo, you'd be locked in the stocks, getting your feet roasted. And then to Lisbon and the gallows, that's what. You owe me a debt!"

Carlos drummed his fingers on the dark wood table and considered his nephew. "You're too handsome. You've been spoiled. All mothers spoil their children, but my sister went too far, rest her soul. And your useless father . . ."

"He was a good man, Tio." Geraldo's eyes flashed, but he kept his voice calm. "You can't blame him."

"Did I ask your opinion? I'll blame who I wish! Your father was a rounder and a fool. Like you, too handsome for his own good. Learn from his mistakes, Aldo." The older man stopped glaring at his nephew and tugged his mustache. "But I blame myself as well. I have indulged you too much. I should have . . ."

Carlos Dasana stopped short, rubbed his brow with his heavy fingers, and sighed. "You can't live like you have no future, Aldo! Keep your fonte in your pants. You can't bed every woman you see just because you get a tingle. Not if they're married, for the love of the virgin! Those you keep your hands off! Otherwise people end up dead!"

"With luck, only the husband, Tio."

Carlos Dasana's eyes bulged, and a vein began to pulse across his forehead. Geraldo leaned forward, worried that he might have a fit, when Dasana burst out with roaring laugh. "Only the husband, eh?" He struggled to frown. "Why not take a bayadere, for the love of the Virgin? They're cheap enough and better than any wife, eh?"

Geraldo leaned back and looked straight into the older man's eyes. "Where's the sport, Uncle?" His sharp face slowly opened into a sly grin.

Ah, he's a Dasana, all right, his uncle thought. "Look here, Aldo, I've intervened on your behalf. You've been placed in my custody. Sent to Goa instead of to the gallows."

Geraldo lowered his head. "Tio Carlos, I wish to thank you . . ."

Carlos snorted. "Don't. Before you're done, you might wish for the gallows! To be frank, you couldn't have come to Goa at a worse time." He leaned back in his chair. "After twenty years of combat, the Pepper Wars are over, Aldo, and the blasted Dutch have won."

"You can't be serious. Surely the Portuguse fleet . . ."

The old man sputtered. "The fleet? Have you looked in the harbor? Do you see a fleet anywhere? They're gone! Gone to Brazil! We've handed all Asia to the Dutch, but now, now we do must everything to save precious Brazil! Face facts, Aldo! Lisbon has abandoned us! Goa is lost! The Dutch have strangled us. Only a few dhows will even try to run that blockade."

Carlos Dasana shook his head. "Our countrymen flee like rats. They take what they can carry and run, the cowards. Only a few hundred Portuguese remain in Goa. Even the goddammed priests have gone, most of them."

Dasana hesitated, as if his next thoughts were too painful to voice. Geraldo seemed to sense this. He leaned across the table. "Come, Tio. I am not a child to be toyed with, nor did you bring me here from kindness. What do you need of me?"

Carlos blinked and bit his lip. "You're right. I need someone I can trust. Someone of my blood. The Pepper Wars have wiped us out. The Dasanas are near ruin."

It took a moment before Geraldo could reply. "I don't believe it!"

"My brother, rest his soul, made a mess of things. I don't know if I can repair them. We're out of cash. We have goods, Lord yes! Factors full of goods. But the Dutch have us by the balls. We can't trade, Aldo, and without trade we're dying." Dasana leaned close to his nephew, his voice now a harsh whisper. "How much do you know about the country of Bijapur?"

"Those Muslim devils? Only that they have been our enemies for a hundred years. First those infidels surrendered Goa to us, and then they attacked us! They massacred our colonists, and they slaughtered our women . . ."

Dasana waved his hand. "That's in the past. Forgive and forget."

"Tio Carlos!"

"Enemies are a luxury for the rich, Aldo. We're broke. We'll take all the friends we can buy. Now, listen, Aldo, listen well. We have one chance to change things." Carlos glanced around the room, as though spies might be anywhere. "The sultan of Bijapur died about a year ago. His heir's only nine years old. Bijapur's gone mad. The widow queen, the sultana, has come out of the harem to try to rule. It's unheard of . . . a complete disasater. So now the sultana has agreed to appoint a regent, and there lies all our hope." The older man arranged himself in his chair. "This is why I have brought you here. I have a job for you, Aldo."

Geraldo sat up straight, eyes hooded and watchful. Carlos noted this, and continued: "The Dasanas have one final throw. If our man becomes regent, he'll give us a trade monopoly in Bijapur for eight years."

"Our man? Who is our man?"

"Wali Khan, the grand vizier of Bijapur." Carlos bit his lip. "He should get the regency. He should---but it won't be easy. He's got the sultana to contend with, and she's a handful. And then there's the army---armies are always a problem---but this is even worse because the commander's a Hindu, and Hindus are unpredictable. Worst of all: eunuchs. The Khasjwara is a eunuch. He'll have all his brothers plotting for him. Even so, despite it all, Wali Khan will win. He should win. He must."

"What have you done to persuade him, Tio Carlos? How have you brought him to our side?"

"Do you think it was easy? Baksheesh. Bribing. There is no other way. . . . Wali Khan is too powerful to threaten. So it must be a bribe, and a great one. The man has refined tastes. The bribe must inspire him, not insult him." Carlos allowed himself a small smile. "We've managed to procure a certain item for him---something unique. Something he covets. Aye, something he covets more than life. A half a lakh of hun we paid---that's equivalent to forty thousand rials," Geraldo's eyes grew wide.

"Our bribe comes all the way from Orissa, Aldo---that's the length we've gone to get it---and arrives by dhow today if the wind is right. Then off to Bijapur within the week. I want you to go with the caravan. We've hired the best settlement man in Hindustan---a fellow named Da Gama. You may have met him, he's a distant relation." Geraldo shook his head. "Well, Da Gama's the best: he's honest, he's dull, he has no imagination or ambition, but he's deadly and ready for violence."

"He sounds a perfect fit, Tio."

"Dammit, Aldo---I'm relying on you! I need you to keep your eyes open."

Geraldo lowered his head so Carlos could not see his smile. "I shall study him, Tio."

Carlos gave his nephew a withering look, as if doubting that Geraldo had ever studied in his life. He sighed. "I'm going to have to shut down this house. For a while, at least. We'll lose face, of course, but it can't be helped."

"You're returning to Lisbon?"

"Not to Lisbon. To Bijapur. Like it or not, the fates of the Dasanas are intertwined with our old enemies." Carlos looked into his nephew's eyes with unexpected frankness. "I don't know how I'm going to tell Lucinda. She's lost her mother, her father---now to lose her home . . ."

"But isn't Lucinda pledged to be married?"

"That's off!" Carlos barked. "The bastard heard about our business problems and . . ." Carlos's voice broke off suddenly. Geraldo thought he was choking. "I love that sweet girl," Carlos mumbled. He tugged a dark kerchief from his sleeve, wiped his eyes, and gave his nose a shaking blow. "You must not say anything to her, Aldo. Not a word about the bastard dropping the engagement. I'll tell her when the time is right. And nothing about moving to Bijapur, either! She'd rather die than leave Goa." Carlos examined the kerchief and then wiped his eyes. "Keep your mouth shut around her, do you hear? She's fragile. She's become as a daughter to me."

Again Carlos blew his nose, but this time, to Geraldo's relief, he stuffed his kerchief away without a glance. "Well, it's business. It can't be helped. In the meantime, you'll accompany the bribe to Wali Khan. You and the settlement man. That's why I brought you here. Don't fail me. Earn my trust. Succeed and you'll have my gratitude. Fail, and I'll send you to Lisbon and the gallows. Do we understand each other?"

Geraldo nodded.

"Very well. I'll say no more. You're my sister's only son. Who else can I trust? We need that monopoly . . . and the bribe is the key! Our only hope is getting her to Wali Khan. She's worth a fortune, so keep your eyes open! Tell Wali Khan that if he becomes regent, then she's all his."

Geraldo's brow furrowed. "She? Do you mean a ship, Uncle?"

"Not a ship---what gave you that idea? I mean the bribe! She's a bayadere, boy . . . a nautch girl, the finest whore that's ever been!"

The door opened and as a wave crashes on the shore, Lucinda burst in, her white dress an explosion of brightness in Tio Carlos's dark office. A fragrance of jasmine and roses surrounded her as she floated across the carpet on silk-slippered feet. At the door, a sheepish-looking secretary lifted his hands hopelessly and Carlos shook his head and waved the man away. They had as much hope of stopping a cyclone as Lucinda.

"Uncle, dearest!" Lucinda sang, swirling toward the table. The old man rose and placed a respectable kiss on his niece's proffered cheek. "And this must be Geraldo!"

"Yes, I've just come from Macao," said Geraldo, standing.

"This is your cousin, Lucinda Dasana," Carlos said formally. His brow furrowed at seeing them together.

Geraldo swept into a bow. Lucinda returned a long courtesy, but though she lowered her head, her eyes stayed fixed on her cousin's face. Her vision was still blurred by the belladonna, but in the dark room she noted that he was tall, that his shoulders were wide and his hips narrow, that his face was tanned but his eyes sparkled, that his teeth when he smiled were brilliant white.

"I should never have known you," Geraldo said, his gaze roaming over her. "You were six when last we met. I put a toad down your dress, if I remember right." His eyes gleamed when he said this and she blushed.

"I'm sure you never did, or I'd remember and hate you. Anyway I'm grown now." Lucinda laughed, turning so the pale light of the office's single window caught her face.

"Remember, she's pledged," Carlos said pointedly, "so don't get any ideas."

"Uncle!" cried Lucinda. "We're cousins."

Geraldo seemed to have thought about the question. "Technically, he's right---we are cousins, but many, many times removed. We might even marry if we wished." His dark eyes peered deep into Lucinda's.

"I said she's pledged," Carlos said firmly. "Remember what I told you!"

"Who is the lucky man?" Geraldo asked. His eyes danced so when he asked that, his question seemed impertinent. Lucinda turned away again, her face burning.

"Marques Oliveira, a former minister to his majesty," Carlos answered for her, a hint of warning in his voice. "A great man."

"I hope he is handsome," Geraldo said. "A woman like you deserves a handsome husband."

"His portrait is handsome," Lucinda stammered. "We haven't actually met."

Carlos didn't like the turn of this talk. "Of course he's handsome! He's rich, isn't he?"

"My very best wishes," Geraldo said. But this time when he bowed he fastened his eyes on her, and this time, through her misty eyes, she looked back. As he swept upward Aldo grasped her hand like a tiny bird in his long fingers and gently brushed it with his lips. "Let us be good friends, cousin, now that we have found each other once again." She felt his mustache tickling her knuckles. "I'm about to go to Bijapur. Would you like to come along?"

Carlos sputtered as he leaned over his desk. "What are you saying, Aldo? I never . . ."

But Lucinda had already heard, and when she turned to Tio Carlos, her face pale with arsênico and her eyes limpid with belladonna, beseeching him, it was more than any uncle could resist, even an uncle as strong-willed as Carlos Dasana. "Please, Uncle, please. You promised I could visit Tio Victorio!"

It was a good idea, Carlos had to admit: sending her to Bijapur now would make it simpler to close down the house. But he disliked any idea he had not thought up himself. So of course Carlos said no at once. Then no again, and then once more, no.

The trip would not be easy, Carlos warned. And Bijapur was not like Goa. Victorio, her uncle who managed the Dasanas' Bijapur factor, was old now and often ill. These objections merely fired Lucinda's resolve. One by one Geraldo countered them, and each time Lucinda would beg again, each time more plaintively than before.

"Very well, little one. You may go. But you'll do what you're told, yes? And follow orders for a change?"

"Oh yes, Tio Carlos," Lucinda answered, tiptoeing to kiss his rough brown cheek.

Then the arsênico, or her corset, or the excitement seemed to overwhelm her, and her pale face grew even paler, and her eyes fluttered, and she fainted into her uncle's arms.

My God, thought Carlos as he caught her, she looks pale as death. By the Blessed Virgin, he thought as her breasts heaved, and her dark curls spilled across his arms. She's a grown woman. You truly are a Dasana, my dear niece, he thought; and the Dasana women are as dangerous as gold.

He glanced at his nephew, and then back at Lucinda who even now was stirring in his arms. What have I agreed to? Carlos thought.

May the Blessed Virgin save us from our relatives.

The shallow-keeled dhow scudded over the gray seas, clinging to the rock-edged shore. The captain's eyes were everywhere: to the dark and threatening sky and the twisting monsoon winds, then on the steersman beside him, pressed hard against the shuddering rudder, to the triangle sail that furled and luffed as his sailors heaved the boom, and again and yet again upon the thirty-gun privateer at the harbor mouth, its tricolor flag bright against the black clouds.

Would she follow? Would she fire? As the dhow swung into the harbor and the waves of the Arabian Sea tried to hammer it against the moss-furred rocks of Arguin, the captain peered at the warship. If she was turning to fire, there was little he could do. The Goans wouldn't help him---they had no ships to fight her.

Copyright © 2006 by John Speed
John Speed began studying Indian history, art, and religion while still in high school. For more than thirty years, his explorations deepened as he became absorbed in tales of the fall of the Mogul Empire and of the rise of the rebel prince Shivaji. During his many visits to India, he has stood on crumbling battlements, crawled through lightless caves, bathed in sacred rivers, wandered through forgotten gardens, prayed at old mosques and ancient temples, joined in night-long kirtans and qwalis, cheered on ecstatic temple dancers, and laid his head at the feet of hundreds of saints both living and dead, Hindus and Muslims. Speed is a freelance political consultant and journalist who cofounded a successful on-line newspaper. He now lives with his dogs in a very small house overlooking Swami’s Beach in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California. The Temple Dancer is his first novel.