The Bengal Bridegift
“Your father’s pipe; do you wear it still?” Jost and Juno were preparing to disembark at Fort St. George in Madras, and Juno stood beside him at the stern, whilst he and one of the sailors lowered the skiff to the water below. The fort could be seen on the shore, its tall flagpole visible over the stone walls.
“Yes—I keep it with me always.” Diplomatically, she did not add that with Aditi now sharing her cabin, it seemed particularly important to keep the diamonds well-hidden.
His hands on his hips, Jost observed the shoreline for a moment. “Be careful to show it to no one—we will have need of it.”
“Oh; are we going to bribe the judge?” The idea made Juno a bit nervous, as she wasn’t certain how one broached such a subject to an officer of the law.
“I think not,” he said only, and directed the sailor to board the skiff.
Juno had noted that her brother was not in evidence. “Horry does not come with us to shore?”
Jost leapt into the skiff, and held the rope ladder steady for her. “Horry does not come. Landon and Aditi will stay here with him; you and Horry must not be both together.”
“Oh, I suppose that makes sense—although Horry will be wretchedly disappointed.” Juno herself had mixed emotions; although she looked forward to finally getting off the narrow confines of the schooner, she noted that the Dutchman wore his sword and brace of pistols, and that his sharp eyes were almost constantly scanning the shoreline.
Because she was slated to appear in court, Juno wore her best new-purchased frock, and carefully gathered up the skirts in one hand to make the descent. Unfortunately, the new chip bonnet she had purchased at the commissary had been left behind in their hurried flight, and—as she had dire need of a hat in this climate—Jairus had offered his own; a broad-brimmed straw hat that Juno had feminized with a ribbon, threaded across the front, and tied under her chin. The only drawback was that the large brim tended to obscure her vision, so that she was obligated to tilt her head back more often that she would like.
Jost steadied her in the small vessel, which was rocking with the rougher waves outside the breakwater, and then seated her in the stern. After a nod to the sailor--who was himself armed--the other man took up the oars, and they were underway. They began to thread their way through the ships anchored in the bay, Juno firmly holding her broad-brimmed hat on her head against the strong breeze, whilst Jost continued to keep a wary eye on the shoreline. Although she shared his concern about the coming confrontation at the court, she had other concerns as well, and ventured, “I confess that I am a little worried about leaving Horry with Aditi.”
“Me, I talked to Horry,” he assured her, scrutinizing the dock through narrowed eyes as they approached. “As one man speaks to another of such things.”
“Thank you—I wasn’t certain what to say.”
He smiled. “Me, I knew what to say.” But she could see he was preoccupied, and so she did not distract him with any further conversation.
After a few more tense minutes, they arrived at the fort’s dock. Jost made a comment to the sailor in what sounded to Juno like Dutch, and the man responded in the same language as they stayed in place for a moment, carefully reviewing the men who were working on the wooden walkway.
“Perhaps you should have given me a pistol, instead of a kiss,” Juno whispered, trying to make light of the situation.
“Me, I will give you a better nightdress, instead.” Placing his hands on the dock, he vaulted easily onto it, and then stood guard whilst the sailor tied down the skiff. Jost then took Juno’s hands in his, and pulled her up onto the wooden planks, setting her down and helping to replace her hat, which had blown backwards. He then directed her to follow him down the crowded dock, his hand resting on the hilt of a pistol. In this manner, they progressed toward the sloping ramparts that surrounded the fort, with the sailor walking a few yards behind them.
Juno noted that several of the men who were engaged in various tasks on the dock stopped to stare, then tug at their caps as Jost passed. Hoping to appear less nervous than she was, she observed, “More friends of yours, I think.”
“Me, I have many friends,” he replied absently. “Come this way, lieve.”
As they approached the nearest gate, he seemed to relax his vigilance a bit, and she tilted her head back to glance at him from under the brim of her hat. “Was one of your friends Aditi’s brother? What happened to him?”
“He was killed by raiders in Tripoli.”
Juno nodded and returned her gaze to the path in front of her, thinking that there was undoubtedly more to this story. She was fast becoming very perceptive, when it came to the man beside her, and she realized that on those occasions when he gave a short answer, much was left unsaid; she remembered he had done the same, when she’d inquired after his family in Holland. “I am sorry for it—he was a good friend?”
His hand still resting casually on the hilt of his pistol, he studied the soldiers posted at the gate. “He was one of the niyama; the—” he thought about the translation “—the agreement between men.”
“A pact?” suggested Juno.
He bent his head to her. “What is this ‘pact’?”
“A solemn promise—very serious,” she explained.
“Yes,” he agreed as he straightened up again. “A pact.” He said the word slowly, trying it out.
Juno decided she may as well ask. “What were its terms, this niyama?”
They were now within the busy fort, and he glanced up at the turrets in an assessing way. “That the others, they would care for the family, if anyone died. There were four men, and I am the last left alive.”
Juno looked up to him in surprise. “Oh—how many must you care for?”
Shrugging, he answered easily, “One, she is a widow, with a child. I give her a bridegift, so that she will wed soon—one of the overseers from my plantation.”
For a moment, Juno wondered if perhaps she hadn’t heard him correctly, and lifted her brim with her hand so as to look at him. “You have overseers? And a plantation?”
“Yes.” He nodded to the soldier who stood guard at the wrought iron gate that surrounded the Government House building, and then slanted her an amused look as he stepped back to allow her to pass before him. “Me, I am a rich man.”
She shook her head, which caused the hat to slide off-kilter. “Someone once told me I was not to be impressed by such things.”
“You must know this, for when we are wed.” He paused, to help straighten her hat. “Maybe it makes you wed faster, yes?”
Bemused, Juno could only smile. “If I marry you, my rich friend, it will not be for your money. And just where are these overseers, if I may ask?”
“Tortola.” He tucked her hand in his arm. “Stay close to me, now.”
With a knit brow, she tried to make sense of this revelation. “But isn’t Tortola held by the British?
He explained patiently, “Your king, he gives me the land when he gives me the title.”
Wordlessly, she stared at him, wondering how on earth this had come about, whilst he observed her confusion with some amusement. He leaned in and added in an undertone, “He is mad, you know—your king.”
“So it would seem,” was her tart reply, and he chuckled in appreciation.
They stood for a moment at the entry, and it occurred to Juno that their progress was unhurried; it seemed that he was taking pains to ensure that they were well-observed, on this excursion to the Government House.
Jost continued, “I must take care of Aditi, now; she is all that is left of the niyama.”
But another thought had occurred to Juno, and she tilted her head to peer up at him. “Did you have such a pact with my father? Is that why you came for me and Horry?”
“No,” he answered as he reached to open the door. “I came, because I thought there was a danger to you. Then, when you tried to shoot me—”
“—and you saw the color of my eyes—”
He bowed his head in acknowledgment, “—and I saw the color of your eyes, I thought it would be good to have someone to take care of, for my own.”
Touched, she bent her brim back to look upon him with a full measure of warmth. “Yes. It would be very good.”
“Ach, Juno,” he chided, gently steering her forward. “You must not look at me in such a way, or I will think of the bed sport. Me, I am trying to be decorous, so you do not shy away.”
“I beg your pardon,” she offered gravely. “I shall try to be less alluring.”
“Me, I do not know what this means,” he admitted as he held the door. “But I can make the guess.”
They entered the cool confines of the stone building, and were directed toward the courtroom on the second floor. Their footsteps echoed on the wood flooring as they approached a clerk who sat in the judge’s chambers, his cubbyhole desk piled high with various briefs, each rolled and bound with a red ribbon. The young man looked from Juno to Jost, and then back to Juno, apparently deciding that she was most likely to speak his language. “Might I be of assistance, miss?”
Juno lifted her brim. “I must speak to the judge, if you please. On a very important matter.”
The young man nodded and lifted a pen to take a note. “He is in trial, at present, but he should be free this afternoon. What does this concern?”
She could feel her color rise. “An illegal marriage, I suppose.”
After glancing at Jost with a hint of censure, the clerk nodded, pen poised, “Your name, please?”
“Miss Juno Payne. But the marriage license—the one that is illegal—apparently states that I am married to a Mr. Finch.”
The clerk’s astonished reaction was immediate, and he stared at her. “Why—why, how extraordinary; I have just two days since issued a death certificate for Mrs. Finch, née Miss Juno Payne.”