ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Bengal Bridegift


Chapter 17

     

     Juno didn’t hesitate, but darted for the double doors that opened onto the balcony, frantically unlatching the latch as the Rajah managed to call for help from his position on the floor behind her. Just as she swung the door open and catapulted through, she was grasped from behind, an arm snaking around her throat. Striking as hard as she could behind her head, she attempted to gouge her attacker’s eyes, and was rewarded with a howl of pain as the servant loosened his hold upon her. Tearing free, she ran out onto the open balcony, but her ankle was grasped from behind, and she fell forward to land on the stone floor, hard.

     Juno twisted over, so as to kick at the man’s face with her free foot, and managed to scuttle backwards on her hands. Her attacker then launched himself atop her, tackling her so that she fell back, frantically beating at his head with both fists, and crying out.  Scratched and bleeding, the man cursed her fluently as he grasped her hands, and wrestled her into submission.

     After being hoisted to her feet, Juno was half-dragged back into the bedchamber, resisting with what remaining strength she had.  The Rajah had staggered to his feet, and was bending over in residual pain, leaning against the bed and watching her recapture with malevolent eyes. He issued a command, and the servant forced her onto the bed with little difficulty, as she was fast running out of stamina. The man then sat at her head to pin down her arms, while the Rajah clambered atop her, spreading her legs apart with his knees and cursing at her as he fumbled with the opening at the front of his dholi.

     Gasping, Juno found she had little strength left, and could not even muster a scream. Twisting her head aside, she closed her eyes tightly, but then heard the manservant make an exclamation of surprise just before she felt the Rajah’s weight suddenly lifted from her.  She looked up in amazement as Jost, his face a mask of rage, pulled her new husband from her, and swung his sword at the servant, severing the man’s head with a single blow.

     The headless corpse collapsed on the silk coverlet in a bright fountain of blood, and Juno watched, agape, as Jost grasped the Rajah’s throat in one hand and threw him bodily against the wall. Clutching at the Dutchman’s hand, the Rajah’s face turned purple as Jost very deliberately took the bloody sword and emasculated him, thrusting the weapon into his groin and carving whilst the Rajah’s screams of agony were strangled by Jost’s grip on his throat.  Juno looked away, unable to watch.  

     She heard the mutilated man drop to the floor as Jost said to her, “Up, Juno. We go, now.”

     Willing herself to move, Juno slid off the bed and stood rather stupidly, glancing at the Rajah, who writhed and bled on the floor, making gurgling sounds through severed vocal cords. Jost removed a coiled grappling rope from his shoulder, and then re-coiled it with deliberate movements. 

     “Someone--someone will come,” Juno warned, when she managed to find her voice.

     “Not soon.” Jost stepped over to the balcony doors to peer out, surveying the immediate area in the fading light.  He then seized her slippers from the floor and secured them in his belt. “On my back, now. Come, come.”

     On stiff legs, she walked to him, and began trembling from head to toe as he crouched to hoist her onto his back. He paused to stroke her arm, clutched around his neck. “Be easy, lieve. Me, I will not drop you.”

     “I—I cannot seem to stop shaking,” she faltered, her teeth chattering uncontrollably. “I—I am so—so sorry.”

     “No,” he replied in a grim tone. “I am the one who is sorry.”

     With Juno clinging to his back, Jost slipped through the doors, then sidled along the wall of the building, leaping up to stand on the balcony railing where it joined to the wall. Bracing himself with one arm, he swung the rope with the grappling hook on its end back and forth, and then threw it toward the roof overhead. Juno was afraid to lean her head back to look, but she could hear a metallic scraping sound as hook clattered, and the rope fell down beside them. Patiently, Jost looped it once again, and heaved it upward for the second time, Juno feeling her weight shift with his effort. This time, the rope did not fall, and he tugged on it, grunting in satisfaction.

     Still violently shivering, Juno voiced her main concern. “I—I don’t think he is—is dead.”

     “He will be, soon,” Jost soothed in a whisper. “You must not speak, lieve.”

     “He—he made me marry him—I had to walk around the brazier—I—I could not stop it, Jost.”

     “Hush, my heart; try to stay silent.”

     She buried her face in the back of his neck and shut her eyes tightly, striving not to gabble as she clung to him, arms and legs, whilst he held on to the rope, and walked up the wall with a remarkably quick series of movements.

     Once at the roof’s edge, he grasped the ornate stucco façade that decorated its border, and then heaved them over the top, unhooking the grappling hook from where it had lodged, and pulling the rope up after them.  Setting Juno down, he then took one of her shoes, stepped quickly over to the far corner of the roof, and threw it as far as he could, so that it cleared the outer wall of the garden.

     He returned to where she sat behind the façade, still trembling uncontrollably, and dropped beside her, gathering her in his arms. “Now we wait for darkness,” he whispered.  With a tender hand, he pulled her head against his shoulder and stroked her hair, trying to soothe her.             

     Embarrassed by her inability to control herself, she took a shuddering breath and replied, “Good—that is good.”

     “Ach, Juno,” he said softly into her ear. “I am so sorry.”

     Her hands clutching his shirt, she stuttered, “No—no—please, Jost; it was not your fault—how could you know? And—and you did kill him. He—he is dead—are you certain?”

     “Yes, he is dead,” he assured her with quiet emphasis, his arms tightening around her. “Me, I am sure.”

     Bending her head, she broke down and sobbed against his chest, twining her fingers in his braid whilst he held her tightly against him, murmuring in unintelligible Dutch. Stop it, she ordered herself—you are making him so upset. With a monumental effort, she wiped her face and tried to control her trembling, with only limited success.

     After holding her gently in his arms for a few minutes, he whispered against her temple, “Juno, lieve—I am sorry for it, but I must lie with you this night.  If there is a child to be born, we will then know that it is my child, and not the other’s.” 

     Her cheek against his shoulder, she took a shuddering breath. “No—no, Jost. He did not—”

     He gently drew her away to look into her eyes. “No? There is blood on your legs, lieve. You can say to me—do not be afraid.”

     “No,” she said again, wiping her eyes. “It is the servant’s blood—I scratched at his eyes, just as you showed me—I--I didn’t let him know ahead of time—it worked wonderfully—I almost got away—” With a deliberate movement, she pressed her lips together, so as to halt the torrent of words.

     He pulled her close again, and she could feel the relief emanating from him. “God zij dank.”

     She started to cry again, thinking of his selfless offer. “I love you—I should have said, when we were aboard the Minerva, but I was too shy. I love you.”

     He made a sound in his throat and pulled her closer against him. “Lieve,” he whispered, his voice thick.

     Still sobbing, she lifted her face and found his mouth with hers, kissing him passionately as she slid her hand between the buttons of his shirt, to caress his chest with her fingers.  He broke off the kiss, and gently pulled her hand from his shirt, lifting it to kiss it. “Not now—we must take you to the ship, where you will be safe.”

     “Now,” she insisted, pulling up at his shirt, her teeth chattering all the while.  “Please, Jost.”

     He began to kiss her throat and neck, even as he voiced his hesitation, his actions contradicting his words.  “You are upset, lieve.

     “Please.” She raised her chin so as to grant him greater access. “Hurry, please.”

     He made no further protest, and wrapped an arm around her so as to gently lay her back on the tiled roof, still warm from the heat of the day.  What followed was a wrestling match as she arched against him, pulling his hips to hers whilst he resisted, trying to gentle her fevered movements. “Juno,” he murmured into her ear, “You must listen, yes?”

     “Hurry,” she breathed.   “They will come.”

     “No.” He held her head by the sides and looked into her eyes. “No one will come—and if we hurry, it will not be as easy for you, lieve.”

     “Jost,” she bit out in frustration, raising her head for emphasis. “Do not argue with me.”

     And he didn’t, instead positioning his heavy body so as to carefully do the deed, which was—truth to tell—a bit painful, but had the immediate benefit of putting a stop to her trembling hysterics.  Once she could anticipate his rhythm, she did her best to countermove, relishing his reaction to her actions.  It seemed evident he was nearly mindless with pleasure, and in turn, her own pleasure was compounded in the knowledge that she had such an effect on him.

      When he had stilled, he lay atop her, spent and silent. “Thank you,” she offered, her fingers tracing his back. “I feel much better.”

     Raising himself on his elbows, he kissed each of her eyelids in turn, then dropped a lingering kiss on her mouth.

     “I should have married you at Fort St. George—even with that despicable judge.”

     “You were not ready. But me, I think you are ready, now.” He casually bent to kiss an exposed breast.

     She smoothed back his hair, which was falling out of the braid and around his dear face. “All I could think about was how frantic you must be. Oh, Jost—it was terrible.”

     “It was terrible,” he agreed. “We will not speak of it, yes?”

     But she needed to speak of it. “How did you come to be here? How did you know?”

     He rolled beside her, and carefully tucked her in the crook of his arm as they gazed up at the sky, where stars were beginning to appear, one by one. “There are many watchers, here, where so many seek an advantage. Me, I had only to ask the right questions, and jingle the coins.”

     “I see.  They drugged me, you know—I don’t know where we are.”

     “We are a few miles from Madras, only.” He kissed her head. “It was the luck that you ran outside, lieve. I saw you, and did not need to search.”

     “Thank God for you.” She kissed his neck, breathing in the scent of him, and feeling the last vestiges of anxiety melt away.

     Loud voices could be heard, raising an alarm from below, and Jost put a cautionary finger to her lips, instructing her to stay silent. It was evident that the bodies had been discovered, and a contingent of men could be heard speaking on the balcony, their voices dismayed and incredulous, as the sound carried up to the roof.  The voices retreated inside, and Jost crawled on his elbows toward the façade, listening, as he gestured to her to stay low and be silent. It was nearly dark now, and Juno put her cheek against the warm tile and lay quietly, feeling the heat seep into her aching body. It will never occur to them that we are still here, on the roof, she thought. And they will find my shoe, and think the garden gate was our escape route. He is clever, this man of mine—I cannot wait to see what life holds next.