The Bengal Bridegift
The landing party returned to the schooner to find Landon and Horry trying to teach Aditi how to play cards in the cramped half-galley. Horry looked up with extreme relief upon their entrance. “Thank God you’re back—can I come out of hiding? Aditi can’t keep her suits straight.”
Juno noted that Aditi’s gaze flew to Jost, and thinking to forestall the girl so as to allow Jost a chance to confer with Landon, she offered, “I’ll be happy to help Aditi with her hand. What are we playing?”
“You’re not much better,” her brother ruthlessly pronounced.
“Boy’s got a good head for it,” remarked Landon with laconic approval as he closed his own hand of cards with a snap.
“I played with Papa’s crew, when they were in port,” Horry tossed his cards on the table, then rubbed his face. “Sometimes, we’d play for licorice drops.”
Jost reached over to put a hand under Horry’s chin, lifting his face. “The sickness, it comes?”
Horry pulled his head away with an impatient gesture, and Juno’s heart sank; Horry had seemed so much better that she’d forgotten his health was always an issue. With a knit brow, she strove to remember the treatment administered at the Fort William infirmary—usually she was not with him when the attacks came. “Perhaps we can find an apothecary on shore—I think St. John’s wort is helpful.”
Unhappy with the attention, Horry said in irritation, “The ague may not come—sometimes it doesn’t. And I am dying to go above decks.”
“What is it? What is this sickness?” asked Aditi, looking from Horry to Jost with some alarm.
“Horry has malaria,” Juno explained. “The attacks are unpredictable.”
Aditi shrugged and promptly lost interest. “He needs the neem leaves, then.” She turned to gaze up at Jost from under her lashes. “We should swim tonight, yes?”
But Jost bent over the girl, speaking intently in her own language. Reveling in his undivided attention, Aditi made a long explanation with a pantomime which seemed to include a mashing gesture.
“Does she speak of the chinchona bark?” asked Juno, watching them. “I think there is very little chinchona bark to be had in India.” Indeed, it was the main reason they sailed to England.
“No,” said Jost. “The neem is another tree, and is in many places.” He retrieved his pistols. “Aditi will come with me to find what is needed.”
Nothing loath, Aditi scrambled to her feet as Jost handed the court document to Landon, who pocketed it without comment. “Stay below, the two of you,” Jost instructed Horry and Juno, and then he was gone, a delighted Aditi close at his heels.
Into the sudden silence Landon suggested, “Might as well deal another hand—it may be a while.”
With an annoyed sigh of resignation, Horry gathered up the cards and began to deal. “What happened at the fort, Juno?”
Hesitating, Juno was trying to decide whether to give Horry an edited version of events in front of Landon, when Landon solved her dilemma by remarking, “Stirred up the hornets, I imagine.”
As Jost had given Landon the document, Juno decided there was no harm in admitting, “I had been reported married and deceased, but the record is now corrected; although Sir Jost had to be—persuasive, I suppose is the best description.”
“Good God, Juno,” exclaimed Horry, staring at her in outrage. “To think that the Nabob would pull such a trick—”
Fearing he would bring on the ague, she soothed, “He is no match for Sir Jost.”
But Horry seethed in impotent rage. “The dastard. If I were just a few years older. . .”
Landon reached to grasp his arm. “Steady there, Master Payne. We are on to him, and all is in train.”
Subsiding, Horry looked to his cards, but their interest in the game was now desultory at best. Juno thought it an opportune moment to put her theory to the test, and remarked to Landon, “You no longer seem to believe Papa a villain; it is quite a change from when first we met.”
Landon looked at her for a long moment from beneath his grizzled brows, then admitted, “No, your father was not a villain. I was bringing pressure to bear.”
“You did an excellent job,” said Juno in a wry tone. “If I had the first clue about the bridegift, I would have gladly handed it over.”
“Ridiculous,” Horry expostulated, and Juno could see he was out of sorts, due to the impending fever. “If there truly was a bridegift, we would know of it by now. At the very least, Papa would have told Juno. ”
Juno ventured, “Sir Jost seems certain there is a bridegift, Horry.”
“Oh, there’s a bridegift,” said Landon as he studied the cards in his hand. “Make no mistake.”
Juno glanced up as she made a discard. “How can you be so certain, Mr. Landon?”
The man shot a look at them from under his brows. “Because your father said there was,” he replied. “Your turn, Master Payne.”
But the Payne siblings were staring at him, and Horry ventured, “Papa told you of the bridegift?”
“Not me,” the man disclaimed in his laconic manner. “But he told others.” He glanced up. “Can’t say more, I’m afraid.”
They played cards for the better part of an hour, whilst Juno lost an imaginary fortune and Horry’s forehead began to display the telltale sheen of perspiration. The game concluded when Juno suggested that Horry should rest, and for once, her brother did not argue.
“Stay below,” cautioned Landon.
“You can lie down on my berth,” offered Juno. “I’ll keep you company, if you like.”
The retreated to the fore cabin, and Horry stretched out on Juno’s berth as she covered him with her blanket, then sat across from him, crouched over under the low ceiling. “Is it horrid?”
“Not yet,” he replied stoically. “I think this won’t be a bad one.”
Juno leaned forward and said in a low voice, “I wanted to ask your opinion about a theory I have formed.”
“Theorize away.” He offered a wan smile, and pulled the blanket up closer around his shoulders.
“I believe that Sir Jost and Mr. Landon are—employed—by the Crown in some manner.”
Horry thought it over. “Because of the war? Do you think they are trying to stop Napoleon from seizing the money?”
“Yes,” she nodded, relieved he hadn’t laughed at her out of hand. “I think they may be—may be spies of some sort.”
This did earn her a skeptical look. “Landon—perhaps; I’d believe it. But Sir Jost? He doesn’t seem a likely spy.”
Juno spoke with low intensity. “I know it seems implausible, but you should have seen it today, Horry. Everyone—even the judge—seemed to know him; as though he was powerful in some unexplained way. And the soldiers we’ve met seem to be willing to follow his direction, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. And recall what Landon said tonight—that all is in train, and Papa was not a villain. There is an undercurrent—it is hard to explain, but Jost turns the subject when I question too closely.”
Her brother drew his brows together, and contemplated the ceiling. “Are you worried? Do you think they can be trusted?”
“Yes, I do,” she assured him. “But I wanted to ask you if you thought Papa was involved in this, himself—if he ever said anything.”
Horry thought about it for a moment or two. “He never mentioned Landon, but I think he saw Sir Jost fairly often.” He paused. “He never said anything to me about spying—he just went on his trade routes. But on second thought, it does seem an odd kind of friendship.”
Encouraged, Juno emphasized her point. “Yes, it does—do you see? I wonder if Papa was involved in some way with this—whatever this is. Pretending to be aiding the Nabob in the insurance fraud scheme, but in actuality, trying to catch him.”
“Mr. Landon does seem allied with Sir Jost in some way—even though he shouldn’t be,” Horry noted. “You may be right.”
“There is a Rajah involved, too, although it is not clear exactly how,” Juno disclosed with a small frown. “Sir Jost hinted that he is also part of the scheme.”
They were silent a few moments, considering this, and Horry suddenly shuddered from head to foot.
Juno eyed her suffering brother with sympathy, and tried to keep his mind from it. “Sir Jost told me that he has a plantation in Tortola—a gift from the British king.”
Horry’s teeth chattered. “Does he? Well, that certainly supports your theory.”
“Yes—I thought I’d tell you, just so you are aware that it’s a possibility.” She paused, wishing she didn’t feel so helpless. “Are you thirsty? Shall I fetch some lemon water—or hot tea?”
But before he could respond, they heard the skiff bump up against the hull, and Juno rose to tuck the blanket around him. “I’ll see what the foragers have found, then I’ll return.”
“I’ll be here,” Horry chattered, and Juno gently squeezed his shoulder in sympathy as she left.
Upon entering the half-galley, Juno could see at a glance that Jost and Aditi had been quarreling. Jost’s mouth was pressed into a grim line, and clearly Aditi had been weeping; now she nearly smoldered with rage and misery. Juno had a good guess as to what had transpired, and chafed at the awkwardness of having everyone at such close quarters—she almost felt sorry for Aditi, who had nowhere to retreat to have a good cry.
“Now, you will show us how to make the cure,” directed Jost as he dropped a small packet of tree leaves on the galley table.
Aditi stole a resentful glance at Juno and muttered, “Where is Horry? I think that he is not so very sick.”
With an effort, Juno bit back an exasperated retort only to find that succor came from an unexpected source, as Landon crossed over to take up the packet. “You should get some sleep,” he advised Jost. Then he addressed Aditi, and pulled a small pot from the shelf. “Come here, missy—no more of your foolishness.”
It turned the trick; Aditi was only too happy to demonstrate how cooperative she could be with another man, and practically simpered at Landon, whilst Jost retreated to his hammock in the aft cabin. Juno watched with interest as the girl explained to Landon how the leaves needed to be ground, mashed with vinegar, and then simmered in a small quantity of water.
“How did you learn of this, Aditi?” Juno infused her voice with as much sincere admiration as she could muster, it having occurred to her that she should cultivate Aditi’s friendship so as to stave off a potential attack in the dead of night.
The girl shrugged. “Where I am from, everyone knows of this.”
“Where are you from?”
The girl glanced at her sidelong. “I am from many places; the last place was the bagnio in Algiers—I lived with a missionary there.”
“A missionary?” asked Juno, very much shocked.
Aditi gave her a superior smile. “A missionary is yet a man.”
Juno quickly changed the subject. “How much of this should Horry drink?”
“All of it—while it is yet hot, otherwise it separates.” The girl poked at the simmering brew with a fork. She said to Landon, “You watch and stir—I will go see if Jost is no longer angry, and then I will come back.”
“No, you won’t, missy,” said Landon in a firm tone. “Even if I have to hold a pistol to you.”
Surprised, Aditi glanced at him in alarm, and then settled in to sulk, occasionally stirring the infusion.
To break the tension, Juno asked, “I wonder how anyone discovered such a cure—how it came about.”
Landon offered, “Probably a folk remedy for centuries—a shame more do not know of it.”
Juno could only agree. “If only they could find a cure for yellow jack—there was an outbreak in Calcutta last year, and thousands died; we had to go to the fort, and no one was allowed to come or go for days.” With a great deal of heat, she warmed to her theme, “There was never such a place for horrific diseases—honestly; it is a wonder anyone survives.”
“Perhaps you will die,” Aditi suggested.
“There is always that possibility,” Juno agreed, and noted that Landon stifled a smile.
Aditi prodded the simmering mash one last time with the fork and then announced, “It is done. Let it cool—but not too long.”
Cradling the hot pot in a rag, Juno carefully carried it to Horry, while the other two stood in the passageway and watched from behind her, Aditi craning to see over Landon’s shoulder. Roused and made to sit up, Horry tentatively drank, then made a face. “Good God, that’s bitter.” He lay back again, shivering and miserable.
“How often must he take it?” Juno whispered to Aditi, watching Horry with some concern.
“Only the once,” Aditi explained as though speaking to a simpleton. “It now stops.”
This seemed too good to be true, and Juno breathed, “Thanks be to God.”
“Thanks be to me,” Aditi corrected her.