ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Bengal Bridegift


Chapter 20

     The chaplain from Fort St. George peered over his spectacles at the proposed bride with little enthusiasm. To compensate for her ordinary frock, Juno had carefully arranged her hair and threaded ribbons through it, but the result seemed to have little influence on the chaplain’s cheerless disposition as he eyed her with misgiving.  A scold, surmised Juno, and he probably found his congregation wanting in every respect—she had known others of his ilk, and it always astounded her that such men claimed to have heard the call to serve.

     The Minerva was ready to set sail on the evening tide, and since Juno would not be allowed to leave the ship, the clergyman had been persuaded to perform his office on board, rather than at the church within the fort. Because the man appeared to be a stickler for the proprieties, Juno surmised that filthy lucre—and plenty of it—had crossed his palm in order to persuade him to make such a visit. She was also vaguely aware that a special license was necessary to marry on such short notice, but the arrangements had been made, nonetheless. She hoped Jost hadn’t spent a fortune arranging for this wedding, but on the other hand, a fortune would be presumably saved because once she was safely married, she need no longer fear abduction by anyone with an eye to the bridegift.

     “Popish?” the sharp question interrupted her train of thought.

     Juno had just informed him of her former address at the convent school in Calcutta. “I am Roman Catholic, yes,” she responded. She could feel Jost bristle at the man’s attitude, and hoped this particular Anglican Catholic was not going to antagonize her husband-to-be; she had seen first-hand the result of such tactics, and she didn’t want to ruin her only remaining dress with even more bloodshed.

     The chaplain turned from Juno after conveying the unspoken conclusion that any further discussion with her would be unavailing. Addressing Jost, he poised his quill and asked, “Last residence address?”

     “Cutler Street, London.” 

     The chaplain raised his brows, impressed. “Company man, eh?”

     “Assuredly.” 

     Juno could hear the thread of steel in Jost’s voice, and knew he was unhappy with the man’s condescending attitude. To calm him, she gently placed her fingers on his arm and he responded by covering her hand with his. We need only to marry, she thought; we can discuss how much we disliked the officiate later, at our leisure.

     The chaplain’s pen scratched across the parchment. “Bachelor?”

     There was a pause. Juno leaned toward Jost and explained, “It means a man who has never married.”

     “Yes,” said Jost. “Bachelor.”

     The chaplain turned to Juno. “Spinster?”

     Knitting her brow, Juno had to consider the question fairly. “More correctly, I suppose I am a widow.”

     The man glanced at her with raised brows, and poised his pen. “Husband’s name and date of death?”

     There was a pause whilst Juno realized she’d made a tactical error, and tried to retrench as quickly as she was able. “In all honesty, sir, I am not certain there was a wedding ceremony to begin with; I believe I misspoke, and the comment should be disregarded.”

     Frowning, the chaplain sat back in his chair and contemplated her with the air of a man whose worst suspicions have been confirmed. “Please explain.”

     As this task was beyond her powers, she looked to Jost, who said in a firm tone, “Me, I can swear to you that she is not married.”

     “So—you were living with this other man without benefit of clergy?” He sounded unsurprised.

     “Of course not,” Juno retorted hotly. “I was abducted, and he was killed.”

     After considering this bald statement with his brows raised in incredulity, the clergyman returned to safer waters. “Were you at any point married to this man, Miss Payne? If so, I must see his death certificate; I cannot sanction a bigamous relationship.”

     Conceding defeat, Juno admitted, “I—I am not certain whether the marriage was legal.”   She could sense Jost winding up to make an argument, but she turned to him and said, “We must postpone, I think.”

     Without comment, Jost stood and opened the door for the departing chaplain, who did not hesitate to leave with all speed, probably in the hope that no one would demand a refund. After shutting the door, the Dutchman walked over to Juno and took her into his embrace, running his hands down her back and resting his chin on her shoulder. “Verdomme.

     “My fault,” Juno admitted, returning his embrace with a sigh. “I was caught unawares, and spoke without thinking.”

     “Next time,” he suggested with a tilt of his head, “It would be best not to mention.”

     “When is the next time?” she teased, tugging on the braid hanging down his back. “I had so looked forward to your goodnight wishes.”

     Bending his head to kiss her shoulder he said with regret, “Me, I cannot risk waiting another day—we must sail.”

     “Aye, Captain,” she replied lightly.  “I’ll accept a postponement, as long as you promise you won’t change your mind.”

     “Assuredly not.” He gently kissed her mouth.  “The wedding, it is already done for me.”

     Touched by the sentiment, she lifted her face to his with all sincerity. “And for me, too.”

     He kissed her again lingeringly, his hands cradling her face, then laid a palm against her cheek.  “I must give the orders to cast off.”

     “I know—go, then.”  She watched him leave, thinking that there was such a thing as being too ridiculously honest and she needed to work on this failing. if she was to pass muster asa pirate’s wife.  Trying to quash her disappointment, she made her way above decks to look for Horry, who had been awaiting his cue to stand up with her, once the ceremony was underway.  She found him hovering near the mizzenmast, intensely interested in the activity surrounding the unfurling of the mainsail.

     “False alarm,” she announced as she came to stand beside him. “You are free to join the sailors, Horry.”

     With some surprise, her brother searched her face. “What happened? Never say he backed out?”

     “No, nothing like that,” she assured him. “Further documentation was needed, and there wasn’t enough time to fetch it.”  The last thing she wanted was for Horry to discover the details about her harrowing adventure at the Rajah’s palace.

     The sailors behind them shouted in unison, and to his credit, Horry did not turn to watch the mainsail come cascading down, but instead kept his sympathetic gaze on his sister. “So what happens next?”

     “We’ll wait for England—since there is little chance of abduction between here and there. And I didn’t much like the chaplain, in any event—I confess I was afraid Jost would leap across the table, and do him injury.”  

     Horry grinned. “Now, that would have been something like.”

     “No,” Juno disagreed forcefully. “It would not have been.”

     Horry threw back his head and laughed. “You never know with him, do you? Although I knew right from the beginning he fancied you—remember? Lord, he wouldn’t stop talking about you; he said I looked like Papa, and that you had his heart.”

     Juno found her throat had closed so that she could not respond for a moment, and her brother clasped her shoulders with a casual arm, touching his head to hers.  “Let’s sail to England, shall we?”

     “Yes—let’s sail to England. Now, go off with you; I know you are dying to help.”

     Needing no further encouragement, Horry bounded off to assist with the topsail, and Juno stayed on the deck for a moment, watching the flurry of activity as men leapt on board after casting off from the dock. The sails began to fill out, and soon she could sense the movement of the ship as it listed to one side, catching the wind that blew with the changing tide.  It is so very exhilarating, she thought, breathing in the scent of the sea; small wonder Jost and Horry love it so much.

     Sensing a presence beside her, she brought her gaze down to observe Peyton, who nodded at her in greeting and cautioned, “It may be best if you stay behind the mizzen, miss, so as to avoid injury.” He steadied her arm as she stepped over coiled ropes, and then he lingered as they both watched the ship’s progress out of the harbor.  From what little contact she’d had with the man, he seemed quiet and rather thoughtful—a sharp contrast to her father and Jost. Perhaps his job had been to keep them in check; he seemed like someone who would look before he leapt.

     In a rather abrupt manner, he addressed her again. “Am I to wish you happy, miss?”

     Disconcerted, she turned to face him; he must have observed the chaplain’s visit and drawn his own conclusions.  “No,” she disclaimed, blushing, and decided she’d rather not make an explanation.

     His own color high, he nodded but did not leave, and instead appeared to be trying to decide whether to tell her something.  With some surprise, she waited politely, but he only bowed and wished her good day before rather abruptly walking away.  How odd, she thought; I wonder what that was about.  

     Shouted directions were exchanged between the sailors on the foredeck, as the genoas were hoisted, billowing outward as the ship made the open sea.  She looked for Aditi, but the girl was nowhere in sight, and Juno wondered if Landon was keeping her out of sight somewhere. Earlier in the day he’d delivered the fabric yardage, together with the appropriate notions and thread in his usual understated manner.  To Juno’s relief, the patterns were very pretty, and she expressed her appreciation.

     “Nothing to it,” he admitted. “My mother was a seamstress, in her day.”

     Juno silently hoped Landon’s mother, if she still lived, had a strong constitution—she was going to need it.