The Bengal Bridegift
“And who wished to file this death certificate?” Jost asked the court clerk in a soft tone. “You will tell me, yes?”
But the clerk, in the manner of all good bureaucrats, decided to pass this unprecedented tangle to a higher authority. “I’m afraid you must take this matter up with the judge, sir; I will calendar you for his first available—”
Jost took Juno’s elbow and steered her toward the courtroom door. “No need; we will see him now.”
“But—but you mustn’t interrupt—” The clerk cast a look of appeal toward the British soldier who was stationed at the door, but the man made no response, and indeed, reached to open the door for them. As they passed before the guard, Juno heard Jost say in an undertone, “Your help may be needed, yes?”
“Right, then,” the man replied with a wooden expression, and he entered the courtroom behind them, to close the door from the inside.
Juno--who was not at all used to barging into courtrooms, unannounced--tried to appear composed as a hush suddenly fell over the room. The judge sat on his bench, robed in black and sporting the traditional white horsehair wig in defiance of the heat and humidity. Two barristers stood before him, and an assortment of other gentlemen sat in the small gallery area, but everyone ceased whatever they were doing to turn and stare at the newcomers. Self-consciously, Juno walked down the aisle to take a seat, whilst Jost followed her, his boots sounding heavily in the silence. It was a novel experience; Juno was an attractive girl, and well-used to male scrutiny, but of all the men in the room, not a one was watching her; instead, all eyes were focused on her companion.
No one moved for a long moment, then the judge spoke into the silence. “Gentlemen, please allow me to assist this young lady.”
The barristers bowed their acquiescence, and backed away, but not too far—it seemed no one had any intention of missing whatever was to come.
“You may approach,” the judge invited Juno in ponderous, rolling tones. He was heavy-set, and florid of face; multiple chins appearing as he bent his head to watch her from his elevated position.
Trying without much success to conceal her nervousness, Juno duly approached the bench. “I—I must set the record straight, your honor. I believe that a marriage license and a death certificate have been filed in error.”
The judge contemplated her for a long moment, and Juno was a bit surprised that he asked no questions—indeed, did not even inquire as to her name. Instead, his gaze abruptly turned to Jost, sitting negligently in the gallery with his boots crossed before him. “What concern is this of yours?”
There was a long pause whilst the two men regarded each other, the tension in the room palpable. “Me, I take an interest.” There was a hint of steel underlying Jost’s tone.
The rest of the room was silent, watching. Sensing undercurrents that she did not understand, Juno stood quietly before the judge and prudently held her tongue, wishing that her hat’s brim wasn’t such an obstruction--she would have liked to keep track of Jost, in the event that a brawl broke out.
The judge turned his gaze to Juno, and his tone was skeptical. “Can you prove you are who you say, young lady? Have you any witnesses? I have it on unimpeachable authority that the late Mrs. Finch was drowned while returning to England—an unfortunate mishap. How can I be certain you are not an imposter, making a fraudulent claim?”
“I’ve not drowned,” Juno insisted, and thought of the despicable faux-priest—apparently slated to murder her—whom she had comforted, and then buried at the risk of her life.
“Me, I am the witness,” announced Jost, rising to his feet, with a clank of pistols and sword.
His face betraying an unbecoming flush of color, the judge looked upon him with a wary eye. “You can swear to her identity?”
“Assuredly. I have known her from the time she was a child.”
With an effort, Juno maintained her countenance, and hoped she wouldn’t be called upon to bear false witness—Sister Marie would be aghast.
“Not good enough; two witnesses are necessary,” proclaimed the judge. Juno made a small sound of vexation, as it seemed evident that the honorable judge was making up obstacles at will.
Jost casually drew his sword with a sliding, metallic sound that echoed in the quiet courtroom, and the barristers immediately drew back a few more paces. The Dutchman then approached the bench, deftly tossing the sword from hand to hand. “Here is another witness.”
With some alarm, the judge glanced up at the soldier at the door, who hadn’t moved.
Jost came to stand beside Juno, the tip of his sword indicating the witness box. “We will proceed, yes?”
Mottled of face, the judge conceded with poor grace, “Swear her in, then.”
After Juno’s testimony was taken, the clerk officially struck the marriage license and the death certificate, and then they all waited whilst the clerk made out a copy of the orders for Jost.
“I will be in my chambers,” announced the judge, rising to his feet.
But apparently Jost was not yet done, and lifted his head. “This girl’s father; who do I ask about his death?”
For the first time, Juno had the impression the judge was shaken, and he blustered, “You are chasing your tail, sir—the investigation has been closed. Cholera, I believe.”
Watching him thoughtfully, Jost nodded. “I will speak to the coroner, then.”
“Suit yourself.” The judge then retreated to his chambers, as the other men in the room began to murmur to each other about these untoward events.
Taking her elbow, Jost steered Juno out of the courtroom. As they passed the wooden-faced guard, Jost said in a low tone, “Many thanks; The Bell, tonight.”
As they walked down the corridor, Juno declared hotly, “Oh—oh, Jost; he was horrid—”
“Wait until we leave this place, lieve,” he cautioned mildly, and kept his hand on her arm as they descended the stairway to exit the building. Juno noted that their sailor from the schooner stood outside, and upon their appearance, once again fell in, to follow them at a distance.
As they approached the wrought iron gate, Juno asked in a low tone, “May I speak now?”
“As much as you like, lieve.”
“The judge is corrupt—that much seems evident.”
“Yes,” her companion agreed. “There is much at stake.”
“My wretched bridegift.” Juno glanced back at the building, half-expecting a pursuit to be mounted. “Infamous; that someone like that is entrusted to dispense justice.”
“Infamous,” Jost agreed, apparently liking the sound of the word.
But Juno was distracted by a sudden thought, and bent her brim back so as to address him in an earnest tone. “Jost--do you think it is possible that Papa is not really dead, that it was another false death certificate?”
With his other hand, he covered hers, tucked into his arm. “No, lieve; your father, he is dead.”
But Juno had seen a ray of hope and didn’t want to relinquish it. “You cannot be certain—you said yourself you must speak with the coroner.”
“I am certain.” The words were gentle as he lifted her hand to kiss it. “Me, I buried him at sea.”
Surprised, she stopped to face him, her hat falling down to hang at her back. “Oh; oh—I didn’t know.”
“I went to find him. I was too late.”
Something in his tone made her clasp both her hands around his arm, and gaze up at him with all sincerity. “You did your utmost—if I know nothing else about it, I know that.”
“They will pay,” he promised, the expression in his eyes very serious as they looked into hers. “And today, they are made aware that they will pay.”
“Assuredly,” she agreed. “Who are you, exactly?”
He shook off the somber moment, and made a gesture indicating they should continue along the walkway. “Me, I am a sailor.”
“Everyone seems to do whatever you say.” She eyed him sidelong.
“Except you,” he pointed out in a reasonable tone.
He still held her hand in the crook of his elbow, and she debated whether to allow it to stay there. Anyone observing them may leap to a certain conclusion, but she was beginning to believe that it didn’t much matter what anyone else thought—he certainly didn’t care, and truth to tell, there was a certain freedom in not caring. Sister Marie wouldn’t recognize her former charge, but on the other hand, Sister had never met Jost.
“I am wondering,” the Dutchman said thoughtfully, “if we should marry today.”
“Now?” asked Juno, pausing in alarm.
“It would be best,” he explained in a practical tone. “You would be safe—there are few men who would wish to cross me.”
With wildly mixed emotions, Juno dropped her gaze in confusion; he had pressed her to marry him nearly from the first moment they met, and there was always the possibility—hideous to contemplate—that he was making up to her so as to seize the bridegift. She was not the best judge of such things, having been raised in a convent school; she had believed the priest, after all, and the wretched Nabob. To allow for more time to think, she stalled, “I can’t imagine the judge would agree to do the ceremony.”
“He would, and it would be the highest amusement.” With a tender expression, he watched her for a moment. “But you are not ready, yes?”
“Not yet,” she admitted. “More time is needful.”
“So,” he tilted his head with regret. “Always, I must try to be decorous.”
She had to smile, thinking that if this was his version of decorous, then undecorous must be truly alarming. “You needn’t try to be anything, you know—you can be your true self with me; I do not mind.”
He paused to lift a booted foot to the border railing, and bend his head to hers. “Me, I will tell you a secret, lieve. I am my true self with you—I think you are the only one.”
Great heavens, thought Juno, who fought a sudden inclination to cry—I believe I am going to marry this pirate. Making a mighty effort to pull herself together, she asked, “What is happening tonight at The Bell?”
He glanced around. “You must not say, lieve.”
“Oh---I am sorry,” she offered, contrite. If she was going to throw in her lot with his, she’d best work on discretion and duplicity, neither of which were her strong suits.
He relented, and replied in a low tone, “A meeting—I must discover some information.”
She nodded, unwilling to ask too much, and thus make another misstep.
“I would like to know where your father’s ship rests.”
Juno blinked; this was unexpected, as it seemed the least of their concerns. “Hasn’t it been sunk?”
“No,” was all he offered, and she was reminded that the reported sinkings were false; merely a scheme to defraud the insurers.
“Come, come—we go back.” With a gesture, he indicated they would make their way back to the gate. “Those who watch have seen enough.”
Mildly alarmed, Juno fell into step beside him. “We are being watched?”
“Assuredly. Me, I make everyone uneasy, and the birds will begin to beat their wings.”
“I see,” she replied, although the allusion wasn’t at all clear. “The coroner will confess?”
“No; instead, the coroner will be dead,” he said matter-of-factly.
“You are going to kill him?” She was shocked, but reminded herself that she should try not to be, if she were truly contemplating the role of a pirate’s bride.
“I will not need to.” He set her hat on her head once again, and tugged the brim down for emphasis. “Me, I only kill someone when it is necessary.”
“That is to the good,” agreed Juno, abandoning twelve years of religious training without a moment’s hesitation. “As long as it is truly necessary.”
He sighed. “Often, it is necessary.”
Juno belatedly came to the realization that he was teasing her, and said with some severity, “I never know when you are serious.”
“Me, I am infamous,” he agreed.