ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Bengal Bridegift


Chapter 1

     Juno aimed the blunderbuss at the gentleman’s chest and warned, with all the confidence she could muster, “You must leave, now; I should not like to shoot you.” She wedged the heavy weapon between her hip and her rib cage because she didn’t think she could lift it to her shoulder, and hoped she gave the appearance of someone so familiar with such a weapon that she would handle it rather casually. 

     Unalarmed, the gentleman’s dark eyes rested upon her, and then upon the weapon trained on him. “You cannot shoot.  The frizzen, it is fixed.”

     She looked at the lock plate of the gun in confusion—although she had no notion of which he spoke—and while her attention was thus diverted, he took the weapon from her with a swift movement.

     Horrified, she waited for whatever was to come, but he merely inspected the metal mechanisms on the stock and removed a small piece of cork that was wedged between. He then handed the weapon back to her. 

     Having the unhappy conviction that she had lost all advantage, she faced him wordlessly for a moment and then managed, “I will not hesitate to shoot, you know.” She did not bother to lift the gun again, fearing that her hands would not obey direction.

    Her companion made an apologetic gesture toward the weapon. “Not this day—the gun, it has no shot.” 

     Acutely aware of the foolish picture she presented, Juno regarded the ancient weapon in exasperation. “No? I was assured it was primed and loaded.”

     He reached for the blunderbuss again and, fearing a trick, she gasped and did not relinquish it, stepping back. 

     “Me, I will show you,” he explained in a patient tone, his hand outstretched.  The depths of the dark eyes were guileless and indeed, held a gleam of amusement that was at odds with his fearsome appearance. He was tall and seemed immensely broad-shouldered to her; thick and muscular as he held out his hand, palm up. “Come, come.”

     Because it seemed rude to refuse him, she allowed him to take it from her. Shaking the barrel slightly he met her eyes and declared, “Empty.” His spoke with a heavy accent—Dutch, she imagined, which only verified his identity; not that there was any mistaking.  With an air of polite deference, he handed it back to her, the movement causing his long braid, glossy and black as a raven’s wing, to fall forward over his shoulder.  

     Juno wanted to throw the stupid gun into the underbrush, but instead she rested the butt of the weapon on the ground and tried to conceal her extreme annoyance—it was heavy, and she had struggled to carry the wretched, useless thing all this way, thinking it would protect her.  Faintly, the voices of shouting men could be heard in the distance and she raised her head in alarm, only to remember that her worst fear stood before her.

     Her companion cocked his head, also listening. “Come, come; I will take you back.  You would not make it to the fort.” 

     Juno had already come to the same conclusion, but she felt she should at least make an effort to avoid such an escort. With what she hoped was a confident air, she bowed her head in a gesture of dismissal.  “I thank you, but it is not necessary—I know the way.”

     Reaching to lift the blunderbuss, he ignored her. “Do you wish to bring this?”

     Juno decided to abandon any protest—in truth, she’d rather not re-trace her steps alone and it seemed she had little choice, anyway.  “It is not mine, so I suppose I must bring it back. Useless thing—I feel like an idiot.”

     “No, no,” he assured her in an earnest tone. “Me, I was very frightened.”

     To her amazement, Juno found she very much wanted to laugh, but managed to refrain. “Yes,” she agreed in a grave tone. “I could see that you were.”   

     With the blunderbuss negligently suspended in one hand, the gentleman began to walk in the direction of the convent school with Juno at his heels—she noted with some unease that he seemed to know the way. Looking back at her over his shoulder, he urged, “Come, come; make haste.  The sun, it will set.”

     Reminded that she was alone with a strange man in a hostile area, and darkness was fast approaching, she announced in a firm tone, “I am betrothed,” just so he was aware there would be retribution if he tried anything untoward.

     He glanced back over his shoulder again.  “He is careless, this man.” 

     Finding she had no real desire to defend her suitor, Juno admitted, “He is on his way to England, actually.”  

     “And yet you are very much in Bengal.”

     Juno stepped around the decaying carcass of a chukar, and debated how much to reveal. “I was supposed to leave for England two days past—on an East Indiaman frigate—but instead the fighting broke out; the Mughals.” She paused and noted she could no longer hear the shouting in the distance—hopefully the raiders had gone upriver, after having found the fort impenetrable.

     “There has been the fighting for two days?”  

     “Three days, now.”  There seemed little harm in telling him; apparently he was a new arrival. 

     They walked a few more steps. “You are a little foolish, I think.”

    But the criticism was too much for Juno’s bruised sensibilities, and she defended herself with some heat, as she followed his lead along the pathway.  “You have no idea, and cannot lay blame.” With an angry gesture, she brushed aside an overhanging mangrove branch.   “And I must get to Horry—if he is not already dead of the stupid, miserable fever.” Hearing the thread of hysteria in her voice, she firmly pressed her lips together to calm herself—no need to let him know she was at her wit’s end, although it was probably evident. 

     At her outburst, her companion halted and faced her, his manner sympathetic.  “Your brother, he has the typhoid?” 

     “No,” she corrected, struggling to regain her composure, “Malaria.”  Keeping her gaze downcast, she noted with some alarm that her strange companion was aware that Horry was her brother.

     The braid fell forward again as he tilted his head toward her. “You will see him in the morning, yes? You must not go now—it is too dangerous.” 

     He waited, seeking her agreement, and she nodded to show she understood. The twilight was fading and the Bengal night, with all its dangers, came quickly.  They resumed their journey, he cautioning her to stay away from the undergrowth for fear of venomous snakes—as though she had not lived here nearly all her life, and knew very well what was venomous and what was and not.  

     Still stinging from his comment about her foolishness, Juno was unable to resist further defending herself as they trudged along. “I left the school because I was afraid the Mughals would return; I would just as soon take my chances trying to reach the fort than to stay there, and I wanted to see if Horry was sickening still.”  

     “You are alone?”

     Castigating herself for a fool, she then decided there was little point in prevaricating about it; it was obvious that she was unprotected. Besides, his manner did not seem at all threatening—quite the contrary, in fact, and she was cautiously heartened.  “Yes. I was to be escorted to England by a visiting priest, but unfortunately he was attacked by the Mughals.”

     This caught his attention, and he slowed to walk beside her on the graveled path, his gaze thoughtful upon her.  Juno was not short, but she came up only to his shoulder.  Glancing up to him, she saw he wore a gold earring, and there were colored beads woven into his braid. She quickly looked away again.

     He tilted his head, the wide brim of his black felt hat shielding his face from her. “Tell me of this, if you please.”

     She obliged him—in a way it was a huge relief to speak of it. “The girls and the staff left for Fort William, once there was word of fighting—it happens, from time to time.” She glanced up at him and he nodded in awareness of this unfortunate fact. “Jacob was to escort the priest and me directly to the docks, but then the school was attacked.  It was unprecedented, you see; the Mughals have always been careful not to harass the school for fear of the consequences, so we were caught quite unprepared.”  Glancing at him sidelong, she tried to gauge his reaction to this disclosure, but he gave no clue as to his thoughts.

     She paused, remembering the shouts and crashing as she hid, terrified, under the pantry table, then crawled on her hands and knees to slip out the back door, expecting to feel a rough hand seize her at any moment. “I hid in the chicken coop—under the roost—until they were gone.

     “Ah,” he nodded.  “The chickens, they did not object?”

     “I cleared them out,” she assured him, “—and left the door open so none would think it worthwhile to enter.”

     This subterfuge apparently met with his approval and he nodded again. They walked a few more yards until he halted and held his hand up, cautioning her to stay silent.  They listened as faint sounds—shouting and gunfire—could be heard in the distance, up the river.  “The priest and this Jacob, where are they now?”

     “The priest was beaten and stabbed—left for dead, but he was still alive when I found him. He died shortly afterward.” She tried to keep her voice steady but was not entirely successful. 

     He touched her elbow, gently, in sympathy. “And this Jacob? Where is he?”

     She drew a steadying breath.  “Jacob wished to flee, but I could not just abandon the poor priest—” she looked up at him, seeking confirmation.

     “Assuredly not,” he agreed. 

     “—and so Jacob left me this wretched weapon, and said he would go to get help.” Remembering it, she could not disguise her scorn.

     “But you do not think so,” he concluded. 

     “No. I think he fled.”

     “If I meet this Jacob,” he offered diffidently, “I will slit his throat for you.”

     It was exactly the right touch to settle her emotions. “I thank you,” she said gravely. “I would appreciate it.”

     They walked in silence the remainder of the journey, and the convent school came into sight just as the darkness settled in. I have no idea what is to happen now, Juno thought, and I am almost past caring.

     “This priest,” asked her strange companion. “He was a Frenchman, yes?”

     Juno looked at him in surprise. “Yes, he was. From Normandy.”

     “And he is now dead—you are certain?”

     “Yes. I buried him as best I could in the garden; I didn’t want the tigers to get to him.” Juno firmly quashed the picture that threatened to rise in her mind—of gleaming white fangs and outstretched claws coming toward her at a terrifying pace, whilst she could feel her heartbeat in her throat.

     “Me, I will bury him.” He nodded in approval. “You did well, I think.”

     Pleased by the compliment, she nevertheless demurred modestly, “Truly—I had little choice.”

     He faced her and held out a hand. “Me, I am Jost Van der Haar.”

     “I am pleased to meet you, Mr. Van der Haar,” she replied in form. “I am Miss Juno Payne.” She took his proffered hand and winced. “Blisters,” she explained, turning her hand over to show him. “From the shovel.”

     “You did not wear your gloves?” He indicated her work gloves, folded at the belt of her school uniform. 

     There was a pause. “Oh; oh—no,” she stammered, and hoped he didn’t notice her rising color. “I had mislaid them at the time.”

     He nodded, studying her thoughtfully. “You will stay here, if you please; I will have a look-about.”

     She waited, watching with some trepidation, but it didn’t appear that he expected to discover any hidden dangers as he approached the building in a casual fashion, without a weapon drawn—she had noted that he carried a brace of pistols and a sword. As he circled around toward the back, she stood beneath the spreading branches of the breadfruit tree, watching her unusual escort and remembering the dying priest’s warning to her. In his delirium, he would lapse into unintelligible French but occasionally he would recall himself and clutch at her hand, nearly frantic in his urgency. “Tell no one of the diamonds.”

     “I will not,” she agreed, and hoped it was not a grave sin to lie to a priest.

     “There is a Barbary pirate—a Dutchman—he is a devil!  He—he will try to take them. You must not allow it—it is his people who did this.” Wild-eyed, his fingers dug uncomfortably into her arm. 

     “You must lie quiet, Father,” she soothed, thinking this concern a product of his delirium. “I promise I will repulse all pirates.”

     “You must not allow him to seize them—take them to the Nabob, I implore you—it is of the utmost importance.”

     After lapsing in and out of consciousness for a space of time, the poor man had finally died.  Juno had rolled him on to the parlor rug so as to drag him to the garden burial site, thinking it a shame he spent his last hour on earth worried about pirates, of all things. Therefore, her extreme dismay at being confronted by the very picture of a Barbary pirate was unfeigned and sincere.  Although to be fair, thus far he did not seem bloodthirsty in the least—and certainly did not appear to be bent on wresting the diamonds. In any event, there was no point in trying to escape; he would track her easily, and the dangers presented by the Bengal night were even more fearsome than a pirate who may or may not have an eye on her virtue.

     Her companion returned, and indicated with a gesture that it was safe to proceed inside. “You are hungry?”

     “No,” she lied, worried about spending the evening alone with him.  “Perhaps you should sleep in the rectory.”

     “Me, I am hungry,” he pronounced, ignoring her suggestion. “What can you feed me?”

     She hesitated, trying to decide how firm she should be and whether it would do any good to be firm, as she was clearly outmanned. 

     Watching her, he explained patiently, “If I wanted to kill you, Juno, you would be dead.  And I will not take you to bed—unless this is what you desire?” He raised his black brows at her as if this would be more of an inconvenience than anything else.

     The perfunctory offer quelled her concerns. “No,” she replied with a small smile, and then added, “No, thank you.”

     “Then we are comfortable, yes?” He indicated she was to proceed.

     When Juno crossed the yard toward the steps, she startled some small creature so that there was a rustling in the undergrowth to the left. She quickened her pace, but her companion responded by raising the blunderbuss to his shoulder and firing with a report that sounded like a thunderclap.  Agape, she watched him walk over to retrieve a dead chicken riddled with buckshot, which he held up by its claws.  “Dinner,” he pronounced with satisfaction, and walked ahead of her into the school.