The Bengal Bridegift
An hour later, they were seated before the hearth in the kitchen, the chicken roasting on a skewer over the fire. Juno’s role had been confined to plucking the feathers after she was forced to confess that she had no experience in the dressing of poultry.
Her companion had cocked a black brow as he took over the task, deftly gutting and cleaning the bird at the wash basin whilst she watched. “What is it they teach you, here?”
“Sewing.” She glanced up at him, a teasing light in her eye. “And watercolors.”
He had shaken his head in disapproval. “Me, I think it would be better to know the chickens. Or the muskets.”
“I think events have proved you right,” she’d agreed, watching him remove the small pieces of shot with probing fingers. “Although it was unkind of you to make me believe I had no ammunition.”
“Me, I was afraid you would hurt yourself—so I must take it without causing you to be anxious.”
As he had not succeeded in this aim, she had diplomatically made no comment, and was now watching him roast the chicken over the crackling fire. When they had first entered the deserted school, her companion had rested his hand on his hips, silently reviewing the scene Juno had left behind. It was in wild disarray—the intruders had smashed furniture and slashed upholstery so that little was left intact. Dark bloodstains on the settee and parlor floor were the only testament to the death of the visiting priest, and Juno averted her gaze because the terrible memory was still too fresh. The convent school was a small one, meant for the education and refinement of the female offspring of those English traders who served the East India Company out of Calcutta. Juno had in fact graduated the year before, but stayed on as an instructress, because her father had given no other direction and continued to pay for her board, apparently unaware the school had fulfilled its purpose, and that her future should instead be arranged elsewhere. Juno had been unsurprised by this lapse, and hurriedly turned her mind to other matters, not wanting to think about her father, just now.
Recalled to the present, she moved her gaze from the fire to glance at her companion, only to see him quickly look away—so; he had been watching her covertly. She had taken her own covert assessment, and had noted that his face was not unhandsome; he had rather an intriguing bump in the bridge of his nose—as though it had been broken—and the dark eyelashes were almost ridiculously long for a man. His skin was of a mahogany hue very familiar to her; the result of prolonged exposure to the tropical sun. The dressing of the chicken had helped them settle into a polite companionship that was as comfortable as it was strange, and so she was not alarmed by his scrutiny—that he was already aware of her identity seemed evident, and she very much feared she knew why this was. Thus far, however, he had not mentioned the one topic she dreaded. Until now, that was.
“Do you know what they searched for, these men?” The dark eyes met hers.
“I imagine they were looking for valuables,” she replied evenly.
After a brief moment, he looked to the chicken and turned the skewer, chuckling to himself.
“What is it?”
“You do not make a good liar, Juno,” he observed without rancor.
Her color high, she admitted, “No, I suppose not—there’s another useful skill I was never taught.”
He shrugged in mock-regret. “Me, I was never taught the watercolors.”
Aware that her reaction had given her away, she looked to the sizzling chicken and waited with some anxiety for the next question, but it did not come. Instead, he moved to remove the bird from the skewer, protecting his hand from the hot metal with a rag. The crockery in the kitchen had all been broken when it had been thrown down from the shelves, and so they had cleared away the shards on the floor and decided to use the wooden trenchers normally reserved for bread. While Juno perched on the only joint stool that remained intact, her companion settled cross-legged on the floor beside her as they ate their makeshift meal. “It is quite good,” she complimented him. Having had nothing to eat this tumultuous day, she found she was indeed hungry.
“Take care for the shot; there may be some pieces I did not catch.”
He ate and seemed disinclined to converse, but she couldn’t like the silence, especially because his unspoken question hung in the air between them. She had the uneasy conviction that he was awaiting a confession from her, but she was made of sterner stuff, and changed the subject. “Do you hail from Holland, Mr. Van der Haar?”
“Haarlem,” he acknowledged. “Although I have not visited in a long time.”
“No, I imagine not.” Holland had been occupied by the French during Napoleon’s recent war in Europe, which had caused no end of trouble for those whose livelihood depended on the East India Company. War was never good for trade, and the Dutch were traders of the first order. “Is your family safe? Have you had word?”
“I no longer have family there.” He offered nothing further.
Hoping she hadn’t misstepped, she volunteered, “I have only Horry, myself.”
“And your betrothed.” His dark eyes slid in her direction.
“Of course,” she conceded, her color rising. “But he is not family—not as yet.”
“Of course,” he echoed her words, and she shot him a suspicious glance, but his expression seemed sincere. “Me, I will be wed soon.” He took another bite of chicken.
Hiding her surprise, she offered, “My congratulations,” and thought this announcement entirely unexpected; there had been something in his manner toward her that had led her to believe he was unattached—aside from the fact he did not seem to be the marrying kind. His poor sweetheart will be led a merry chase, she decided a bit crossly—she must be a very poor specimen.
To turn the subject from his beleaguered country and his beleaguered sweetheart, she ventured, “I have lived here in Bengal most of my life; I have little recollection of England.” Her mother, never a strong woman, began to decline after giving birth to Horry and when she died, their father had done the most expedient thing and moved his two young children to Fort William because he was a sea captain with the East India Company. Even so, he was rarely at Fort William and small wonder, if the terrible news she had learned about him was true. Again, she put a stop to this particular line of thought, and tried to think of something else.
“And now you will return to England.” Her companion interrupted her thoughts, his thoughtful gaze on her face.
“It will be strange, but I do think it will be for the best. There are some matters that are pressing—” she hurried on, not wanting to think about those pressing matters, “—and I would like to take Horry to see a specialist. I understand there is a physician in London who has established a bank for the tree bark that is used in treating malaria.”
Her companion nodded. “The chinchona bark.”
“Yes—that is it,” she exclaimed, pleased that he knew of it. “They say it helps to control the fever, but unfortunately the source trees are rare in India.” She contemplated the fire for a moment. “Horry is not going to die.”
“Assuredly not,” he agreed.
Realizing that she sounded over-fearful, she subsided. They had not had an easy time of it of late, and she had taken to holding the belief—a fanciful one, perhaps—that if she and Horry could only make passage to England they would be safe; safe where there were no tigers or murderous brigands or sudden deaths from miserable diseases. Or at least not in the same numbers as India, one would hope. She only wished—oh, how she wished—that she had someone to support her in this weighty endeavor; she was not very brave, which was probably the main reason she’d even considered the Nabob’s unlooked-for offer of marriage. Almost without conscious volition, she glanced at her exotic companion, but then firmly reminded herself that here was no rescuer, but only another in what seemed like an unending supply of persons who should not be trusted. She concluded, “It would be well worth the trip, if Horry could obtain a supply of the bark.”
“And you are to be wed.” The expression in the dark eyes was openly amused that she tended to overlook this momentous event.
Making a wry mouth in acknowledgment of her lapse, she admitted, “Yes, I suppose I shouldn’t keep forgetting, should I?”
“You do not wish to marry this man?”
She met his eyes, feeling she should disclaim as a matter of form, but then remembered that she did not make a very good liar. “We shall see,” she equivocated. “I have to decide what will be for the best.”
He nodded and looked to the fire. “He is a trader?”
As much as to convince herself as to tell him, she replied, “He’s very important—indeed, he’s a nabob, and made his fortune financing the East India Company.”
Not liking the implication, she defended, “It is not as though it’s a cream-pot marriage; he was my father’s financier, and kindly offered for me when he saw how things were, with no one to help us, and Horry so sick. To observe the proprieties, he engaged the priest to escort us home, and then sailed ahead to hire a house in London. I was at my wit’s end, I assure you, and I am ever so grateful.”
The Dutchman seemed unconvinced, and shrugged a muscular shoulder. “This man, he makes a good bargain, if he will take your bridegift.”
She looked at him in confusion. The reference was to vardakshina, an Indian tradition among the upper classes by which a father would bestow an enormous sum of money upon his daughter’s new husband, the thinly-disguised bribe meant to attract a suitor of the highest caliber. “No; I have no bridegift—the Nabob is acting out of kindness.”
They sat together in silence for a space of time while the firelight flickered. Now that she had eaten, Juno realized she was weary to the bone, but the thought of making her way to the deserted dormitory was not a welcome one. “Do you suppose there a danger they will return—the Mughals?”
But his certain answer also made her uneasy, and she was reminded that the dying priest claimed that it was her companion who had sent the brigands in the first place. Whether it was true or not made little difference, since she could not defend against him and in any event, she sincerely believed he meant no harm. She glanced at him, and found that once again he was watching her, only this time he did not look away, the expression in the dark, liquid eyes unreadable. The moment stretched out as the fire crackled, and Juno could feel her color rise. To cover her confusion, she offered, “There are some eggs in the chicken coop, for the morning.”
“Ah. I must cook the eggs, also?”
“If you would,” she replied with a smile, and the confused feeling passed.
He indicated with a gesture. “It is best if you sleep here on the floor by the fire—I will fetch a pallet and a blanket for you.” He did not indicate where he would sleep, and she did not ask. “In the morning, if it is safe, we will walk to Fort William.”
“Thank you,” she said sincerely. “You have been very kind.”
“Can you sleep without a candle?” With a nod of his head, he gestured toward the exposed windows where the curtains had been torn down. “It would be for the best.”
“I will be quite all right,” she assured him, and hoped this was true.
He stood to bank the fire with a few expert thrusts of the poker. “You will call if you need help, yes? And you have your pistol.”
Surprised, she shook her head and disclaimed, “No—I have no pistol.”
He leaned to indicate her work gloves, folded at her waist and illuminated by the waning firelight. “There is a pistol here, no?” There was indeed a lump that betrayed the presence of an object—hidden in the inner glove so that it wouldn’t be apparent to the casual observer. Apparently, her companion was not a casual observer.
Juno’s mouth went dry, and she said as steadily as she was able, “No—it is my father’s pipe. I keep it with me, for sentiment.”
The dark brows rose in interest. “A Meerschaum pipe—a dragon?”
She stared at him in utter amazement, unable to speak for a moment. “Yes; how—how do you know of it?”
He smiled, his teeth flashing white in the dimness. “Me, I gave it to him.”
Juno could feel the color drain from her face, as her heart sank within her breast.
“Good night, Juno.” Her companion bowed his head, and made his way out of the room.