The Bengal Bridegift
“Is it the Minerva?” Juno asked Horry in a low tone. They were standing at the East India Company’s dockyard in the Bay of Madras, Jost holding aloft a shielded lantern that cast a narrow beam of light on their surroundings. Their object was an East India Company frigate, known as an East Indiaman, to those in the trade.
“I can’t tell at this distance,” Horry whispered in response. “They all look so much alike, especially in the dark.”
Several frigates were in dry-dock for repairs, the shadowy shapes looming darker than the surrounding darkness, and two additional ships were being stored in the floating docks. One of these was—perhaps—their father’s last ship, the Minerva.
“We will board, then.” That morning, Jost had informed them that their father’s ship was reportedly berthed here, her name painted over so as to conceal the fact she did not sink. Because Horry was the one who was most familiar with the ship, Jost had brought him here, under cover of darkness, to verify its identity.
Juno, to her pleased surprise, was asked to come along, also. “Me, I will keep you close by,” Jost had explained, and she wasn’t certain whether he wished to keep her safe, or to take the opportunity to kiss her—hopefully both. Landon stayed behind to keep an eye on Aditi, who in her current state could not be trusted not to run away again.
“Keep the lantern shielded,” Jost directed Horry, and then bent to slide the wooden board that served as a makeshift gangplank onto the vessel. Juno had been aboard her father’s ships only on rare occasions, as females were not welcome. Horry was, by contrast, a frequent guest, and would occasionally accompany their father on one of his short but profitable spice runs.
Once on the deck, Horry stood for a moment with his hands on his hips, assessing the shadowy vessel. “I think this is her; it is hard to tell, since she’s so stripped-down. Perhaps if I could go below, and see the main deck.”
Jost led them toward the companionway stairs, so that they could descend to the lower deck, and cautioned Horry, “The lantern, it will show for miles on the water; be careful.”
Horry adjusted the shield, and they stood in the main cabin as he circled its perimeter, the tiny beam dancing on the walls. As the ship was in storage, there was little to see; only the bare walls, and those items which were affixed to the floor. “This was where the binnacle stood, I think. If I see the captain’s cabin, I’ll know for certain.”
“Go then, we will wait, and keep watch.”
Juno watched Horry sweep the beam of light systematically back and forth as he slowly walked the length of the main cabin to the stern, leaving them in darkness. With an unhurried movement, Jost took Juno gently by the waist and pulled her against him, wrapping his arms around her and pressing his cheek against hers. “Lieve,” he whispered. “Ik houd u.”
Juno didn’t recognize the words, but she recognized their tenor, and sighed with delight as she melted into his chest, relishing the feel of the muscular arms around her, and the stubble of his beard against her face. They stood thus, for a small space of time, and it seemed—rather surprisingly—that he was content to remain in this chaste embrace during this rare opportunity to be alone and unobserved. She, however, was not so content, and raised herself on tiptoe to tentatively press a kiss against his throat. He made a quiet sound in response and bent his head to find her lips. The kiss deepened, his mouth opening upon hers and Juno instinctively responding in kind as she caressed his broad chest and shoulders. A warm hand came round her ribcage, then slowly stroked downward over the contours of her hips as he pulled her closer in an intimate way. Adrift in mindless pleasure, Juno hadn’t even noticed that Horry had re-entered the deck until Jost reluctantly set her from him.
“It’s her, it’s the Minerva,” Horry whispered in excitement, the beam of light bouncing with his approach “I am certain.”
“Very good,” said Juno, her voice a bit thick, and Jost gently ran a hand down her arm.
“What now?” asked Horry, coming to a halt before them.
“We look to see what we can see.” Jost took the lantern from Horry, and they began a painstaking circuit of the ship’s interior space, scrutinizing the hold, and in particular the captain’s cabin. In was necessarily a slow progress, as the lantern’s small beam cast only limited illumination, and the cargo hold in particular was pitch dark.
“Are we looking for clues?” Juno followed along, privately thinking there was little of interest to observe.
“We look for anything,” explained Jost. “We have no clues.”
After a careful perusal which turned up nothing, they emerged back on deck, Juno grateful to breathe in the sea breezes after the stale, still air in the hold. She speculated on the chances of arranging for another embrace, and reluctantly concluded that the odds did not favor her. Taking hold of herself, she was reminded she needed to set an example for Horry, then almost immediately wished Horry were elsewhere.
They took a cursory perusal around the empty forecastle deck, but nothing of interest was revealed. “She looks so different,” Horry observed in a somber tone uncharacteristic for him. “Like a ghost ship.”
“Then the ghost, we must bring her back to life,” said Jost. “She is sound, and we need a bigger ship.”
Juno stared at him in the dim light. “Surely we cannot just—just commandeer the ship, and sail it to England?”
“Not me,” replied the Dutchman. “Landon, he will seize her for his investigation.”
“Will he? He’s a trump, then,” proclaimed Horry with enthusiasm. “It will be like it used to be—” his eyes slid toward Jost “—Papa would allow me to take the helm, sometimes.”
“Your father, he was a very foolish man,” Jost replied, and Horry chuckled in appreciation. They continued their inspection toward the stern, where the lifeboat was stowed on the quarter deck, the davits which normally supported it turned inward for storage. Juno noted that a small skiff was strapped, bottom-up, in the lifeboat’s interior.
“The Juno,” breathed Horry in wonder. “Why—there she is.”
“What?” asked Juno.
But Horry was already standing next to the lifeboat, allowing the light to shine upon the skiff that rested inside. His voice was gruff, and it was clear he was moved by a strong emotion. “Papa’s skiff—the Juno. It’s the one we would take fishing.” He indicated the nameplate on the stern. “He carved it himself.”
Juno reached in to place a hand on the wooden plate bearing her name, tracing the furrows with her fingertips. She began to cry, the loss as agonizing as the day she had heard the terrible news from Landon. As she sobbed, Jost moved to hold her against his chest and put an arm around Horry, who was struggling to control his own tears. The three of them stood in a tight circle, heads bent, while Juno wept, and a man was mourned.
Juno subsided into sniffles, wiping her cheeks with a palm while Horry ran his hand in a comforting gesture over her head. Into the silence Jost said, “Me, I boarded his ship and held him with my sword, back when I would seize cargo for the Dutch West India Company. He said, ‘Your talents are wasted, come with me,’ and he took me to his cabin to drink rum.”
“That sounds very like him,” Horry noted, his voice thick.
Jost continued, “The both of us, we got very drunk, and then I came with him and left my old life.” He paused. “There will never be another like him.”
“He was larger than life,” Juno agreed with a watery smile.
Jost tilted his head. “Yes? What does this mean?”
“It means that you are right—there will never be another like him.”
Jost took her hand and raised it to kiss the palm, even though Horry stood beside them. “Me, I never saw him angry with anyone.”
“No,” Horry agreed. “Everyone was a potential friend.”
Juno remembered, “He used to flirt with Sister Marie, much to her amusement.”
“When he had too much of the drink, he thought he could sing,” Jost revealed. “But he could not sing.”
Horry gave a bark of laughter. “He used to sing at the top of his lungs, just to embarrass me.”
Juno smiled. “And now you have his skiff, Horry—it is like providence.” She saw Jost lean in, and forestalled him, “It means as though it was meant to be.”
“Assuredly. Now—how many sailors will we need, Horry?”
Juno watched them as they moved amidships to discuss the preparations needed to launch. There was no question Jost knew down to the last barrel of salted cod what was needed for the journey, but Juno surmised he was training Horry for his future role. They had said goodbye to the past, and were moving toward the future; Juno felt immeasurably better, and she paused to gaze out over the stern, toward the shadowy ships on the scaffolds in the dockyard. Horry was right—the scene was ghostly; she should catch up to the men, being as she was not a brave soul.
A smaller shadow moved among the larger ones, and she gasped in surprise. There was a man watching her, she had the quick impression that he was a native, but she did not see his face, only his quick movement of retreat back into the shadows.
“Jost,” she called in an urgent, low voice as she hurried toward them. “Come quickly.”
Motioning to Horry to stay back, the Dutchman drew a pistol and deftly pulled her behind him, next to the mizzen mast as he scanned the area. “Tell me.”
“There was a man, watching from the shadows.”
“Describe,” he commanded, and she did, as best she could.
“Do you want me to stay with Juno while you look?” asked Horry.
Jost was peering into the darkness with narrowed eyes. “No—we will wait.”
And they did, Juno straining to listen but she heard nothing except the occasional call of a loon, echoing on the water. One would think the dockyard was secure; it was enclosed by a stout wooden palisade, and the entrance gate was guarded by a rough-looking individual, who was apparently another friend of Jost, as he’d made no protest when they entered. Another watchman patrolled the docks—it seemed unlikely that an intruder had been allowed in, but there was no doubt in Juno’s mind that he was real, and had been watching her as she looked out over the dockyard.
After a few long minutes of silence, Jost indicated they would leave. They made a slow progress back to the gate, Jost instructing Juno to stay behind him, with her hand holding the back of his coat. Occasionally, he would have them pause so that he could listen. When they finally arrived at the gate, he stepped aside to confer with the guard in a low tone, and Juno could tell by the other man’s gestures that he had seen nothing untoward. Nevertheless, she could see that Jost was wary, as he shepherded them back to the skiff to return to the schooner. They arrived without further mishap, however, and Juno began to wonder if she had mistaken a harmless dockworker for something more sinister.
Once on board, Jost asked Juno to recite what she had seen to Landon, who listened without comment, then cast Jost a long look. “We can assume the ship has been searched—perhaps they think we know something they don’t.”
“Perhaps,” Jost agreed, his black brows drawn together. “You and me, we go to see the ship fitted tomorrow; we will speak to those who know.”
Landon nodded, then as Juno excused herself to go below, the older man warned her, “Aditi’s in a state—I told her some home truths.”
With some trepidation, Juno entered her cabin, but it appeared Aditi was already asleep--or was pretending to be asleep. Juno changed into her plain and unacceptable nightdress, wondering exactly what Landon had said to Aditi. It was an uncomfortable situation, what with Jost unable to conceal his partiality, and Aditi an unhappy witness. As for Juno, she could still feel his warm hands on her body, and chafed at the lack of opportunity to seek more of the same. I am no better than I should be, she thought with no real contrition, and hoped they could find the occasional private corner on the Minerva; otherwise it was going to be a long and frustrating journey to England.