The Bengal Bridegift
Juno sat on the stern of the schooner, her chin resting on her knees, drowsy in the morning sun. Last night’s adventure had deprived her of sleep, but it was impossible to stay abed in the morning due to the brilliant sunlight that shone through the cabin’s porthole. Instead, she had taken a sliced mango from the good-natured Jairus, and had then come up to sit in the sun and eat her breakfast. How extraordinary that they had found Papa’s ship—it was symmetrical, she decided. That was the word to describe it; it was symmetrical that they would sail to England on Papa’s ship, with the enemy unaware that they were to avenge him, once they got there. Circumstances had seemed so bleak such a short time ago, and now all dire events were behind them; indeed, her future—and Horry’s—were looking very bright indeed.
The sun was bright, and she decided she should fetch Jairus’ straw hat from down below. In a moment—she didn’t have the energy, just yet. Jost and Landon had left to arrange for the fitting-out of the Minerva, leaving Horry and Jairus armed, and with strict instructions to keep a weather eye out for any sign of trouble—although it seemed clear they felt they’d discover the identity of the night watcher once they were at the dockyard. Horry was hugely disappointed to be left behind—it was his father’s ship, he’d insisted, and argued that he had every right to accompany them.
“You will follow orders, and stay with your sister,” Jost had commanded in a tone that brooked no argument. “I must take Landon to seize the ship, and Juno must be guarded.” Horry had subsided with poor grace, a mulish cast to his mouth.
Juno realized she had dozed off when her head fell off her knees, waking her up. Thinking that she may as well lay down below, Juno opened her eyes to see Aditi seated at a small distance on the deck, regarding her with simmering hostility. As Juno met her gaze, the other girl said with some spite, “He will tire of you. You do not know how to please him.”
Aware that she hadn’t had any trouble in that respect, thus far, Juno turned a mild reply. “Have done, Aditi; I will not discuss such a topic with you.”
With an abrupt gesture, Aditi turned her head and looked to the shoreline, sulking. Juno decided that she should not leave just yet, or Aditi would believe she been routed, so instead she sidled over to the stern and dangled her legs over the edge, thinking it would be nice to swim in the cool water and perhaps—one fine day—she would swim with Jost in some private place where they would be unobserved. Leaning her cheek on her folded arms, she imagined such an idyll for a very pleasurable few moments.
Suddenly, her legs were grasped and yanked, hard, from down below the hull. She gasped, and instinctively turned to her stomach, scrambling to cling to a nearby stay, and drawing a breath to scream. No sound emerged, however, because a hand came over her mouth, jerking back on her head, and pulling her backwards toward the water. Her fingers began to lose their grip on the stay, and frantic, she managed to wrap her other arm around a line that was secured to a cleat on the deck, hanging on even though the rope burned into her arm. A grunt of frustration could be heard from behind her, and her assailant hoisted himself atop her to claw at the rope over her shoulder, knocking the breath out of her body in the process.
Struggling and in a panic, Juno looked up to Aditi, who had sprung up and now backed away in amazement. The girl’s eyes met Juno’s, and Aditi watched, unmoving, as the rope was forcibly unwound from Juno’s arm and she was dragged over the edge, down into a waiting teppa—one of the small, log catamarans used by fishermen along the coast. Another man helped the first one wrestle her under the canvas tent cover, pressing a wet cloth to her nose and mouth as Juno kicked and twisted. Unable to draw an adequate breath, she panted in a panic as the world gradually went dark.
Juno didn’t know how much time had passed when she awoke again; she had experienced a variety of disturbing dreams, and so when she opened her eyes it was with a certain amount of relief. Struggling to gather her scattered wits, she became aware that she was lying on a soft bed in a quiet place, and her blinking gaze beheld a sumptuous silk canopy overhead, colored a deep, columbine blue. When she closed her eyes for a moment, she discovered that she had to work to open them again, as though there was a disconnect between her will, and the response. Her head ached, her arm hurt where the rope had burned it, and her mouth was dry, but other than that, she seemed to be uninjured. Blinking in an attempt to focus, she turned her head on the silken pillow to observe a woman, dressed in a luxurious sari, seated beside her bed and watching her. She was slim and very beautiful, with a ghungat veil covering her long, unbound hair.
“You are awake,” the woman said in careful English. “It is good.”
“Where am I?” Juno croaked, through dry lips.
The woman turned to convey a silent message to a hovering maidservant, who brought water, and assisted Juno to sit up and drink. Juno drank thirstily, then fought a wave of nausea and had to lay back again, her fingertips pressed against her temples whilst the room spun.
“These are your rooms,” the woman said with her soft, cultured voice. “Do you like them?”
Juno wondered for a moment if this was another dream, and wished her head didn’t hurt so that she could assess the situation. She thought she could hear a fountain gurgling outside somewhere, and decided she must have been rescued by a wealthy Good Samaritan. Gingerly, taking care not to jar her poor abused head, she propped herself up on an elbow only to realize she was dressed in her own luxurious sari, in the same color as the bed canopy. The diaphanous trousers she wore were embroidered with silver flowers and the blouse, which exposed her midriff, was a silk brocade, shot with silver thread and trimmed with pearls. Matching silk slippers, also trimmed with pearls, completed the outfit.
Blinking, she studied her raiment in bemusement and tried to pull her wooly thoughts together. Judging from the light, it was late afternoon. Jost, she thought suddenly—Jost and Horry must be frantic. “I must go,” she announced to the woman. “To whom should I speak?”
“This is your home,” the woman explained kindly, making a gesture toward the well-appointed suite. “These are your rooms.”
Juno decided that perhaps this beautiful woman was a bit simple, and smiled at her in a non-threatening manner. “Is there anyone from the British Consul nearby?”
Showing her white, even teeth, the woman smiled. “You are no longer British.” She made a graceful gesture with a slender hand. “Hassid is your maidservant.”
The maidservant humbly bowed her head.
Juno decided she should simply start over. “I am Miss Juno Payne, of Calcutta. Who are you, if you please?”
“I am Najeera.” The woman steepled her graceful hands and bowed her head. “I speak English.”
“And very well,” Juno complimented her. “Is this your home, Najeera?”
“Yes.” The woman seemed pleased that Juno was now making sense. “With the other wives.”
Juno raised her brows. “Oh, I see. Are there many other wives?”
“Only four are allowed by the law,” the woman answered with her precise diction. “One had to be removed to make way for you—she is now a concubine.”
A faint alarm sounded in Juno’s mind. “Who is your husband, Najeera?”
“The Rajah of Sattara,” the woman pronounced proudly.
Juno stared at her, thinking furiously, or at least as furiously as her wits would currently allow. The surreal scenario was no longer surreal, but instead had taken on a disturbing reality; the Rajah must be aware that a fortune in diamonds was secreted somewhere as her bridegift, and apparently, he wanted to have his cake and eat it too. Unfortunately, she happened to be the cake. “I will marry no one,” she said firmly. “Now, I must speak with this Rajah.”
The woman allowed an expression of faint alarm to furrow her serene brow. “You must not disrespect your husband.”
“I mean no disrespect,” Juno assured her. “But he will not be my husband.”
Looking a bit doubtful, the other replied, “I am to call when you are ready. Shall I call?”
Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, Juno nodded. “If you please.” She stood up, tested her equilibrium, and then decided she would stay seated on the edge of the bed. Straightening her spine, she took a breath and folded her hands on her lap. People are not allowed to abduct brides nowadays, she assured herself. I need only be firm, and demand to be returned.
Najeera opened the carved mahogany double doors and gestured to a servant in the hallway, whilst Juno waited and tried to calm her nerves. After a short space of time, four men entered the room, and which was the Rajah was immediately apparent; he was an older man-- perhaps fifty--with a neatly trimmed grey beard and an arrogant manner that proclaimed the hereditary leader. On his head he wore a braided turban, and he had the traditional dholi wrapped around his rather bowed legs. She noted with some misgiving that he was accompanied by a Hindu priest, carrying a brazier, and two men who appeared to be servants of some sort.
The Rajah spoke to Najeera and his gaze briefly rested on Juno, who was given pause—the expression in his eyes was cold and calculating, not someone given to persuasion. Turning to one of the servants, he gave instruction in his own language, and the man reverently took the brazier from the priest and set it on the floor.
Juno said in a steady voice, “Sir, I must advise you there is no bridegift; you are laboring under a misapprehension.”
The Rajah turned to her in surprise. “You will stay silent,” he commanded in English.
One of the servants came forward to place a garland of flowers around Juno’s neck, and perform the same service for the Rajah. The other servant indicated Juno was to step forward, next to the Rajah, and Najeera smoothed Juno’s ghungat back over her shoulders.
Feeling as though she was still dreaming nightmares, Juno protested, “No,” although there was a slight quaver to her voice. She addressed the Hindu priest, “Sir, I will not marry him—I do not give my consent.”
Behind her, Najeera made a faint sound of distress at Juno’s effrontery, and with a curt gesture, the Rajah ordered the two menservants to fetch his reluctant bride. One on each side, they seized her arms and pulled her upright. Still weak from being drugged, Juno had not the wherewithal to fight, and tried to assure herself that a forced marriage easily could be annulled.
Pinioned between the two men, Juno stood with the Rajah before the burning brazier as the officiate chanted in a language she did not understand, and the Rajah leaned to place a necklace around her neck. She was then compelled by her escort to walk around the brazier seven times with the Rajah, who appeared faintly bored with the proceedings. Apparently her spoken consent was not required, as it was never sought.
At a gesture from the Rajah, the men allowed her to sit on the edge of the bed again, which was just as well because the circling around the brazier had made Juno feel a bit dizzy. She bowed her head for a moment, trying to gather herself, while Najeera moved forward and with the help of the maidservant, respectfully removed her veil and her slippers.
Horrified, Juno realized what was to come—the marriage must be consummated, and as quickly as possible so as to preclude potential challenges. With murmuring voices, the servants assisted the Rajah in removing his outer garments while the priest gathered up his brazier and departed; clearly, there was no aid to be sought from anyone in the room.
Her heart pounding, Juno tried to calm herself. Think, Juno; think. Wait until you are alone with him, and then remember what Jost taught you—don’t panic. She kept her head bowed and tried to appear wan and faint. If she allowed this—this beast—to consummate the marriage, Jost would never forgive himself for leaving her, and she would never forgive herself for not marrying him as he had wanted at Fort St. George. Tamping down an almost overwhelming hysteria, Juno bided her time.
Najeera unwound the sari Juno wore over her clothes and mentioned with just a hint of malice, “Your children will not be heirs, of course.”
Considering this additional horror, Juno fiercely resolved; I am not going to allow this evil man an opportunity to sire a child on me—I am not. Wait, Juno—steady—
Juno held a hand to her head and swayed, quietly marshaling her strength while she watched the others leave the room, steepling their hands and bowing to the Rajah as they closed the doors behind them.
Juno stood as the Rajah approached. “You will obey me,” he directed in a harsh tone, and pulled her to him as he brought his mouth to her shoulder.
With all her strength, Juno drove her knee into his groin, and with an anguished grunt, the Rajah dropped like a stone to the floor.