The Bengal Bridegift
“I am very sorry,” offered Aditi, the words stilted, and carefully rehearsed. “I was wrong not to call for help.” The girl was doing her atonement, her hands folded before her as the sea breeze lifted her hair off her forehead.
Deciding that the occasion called for it, Juno bowed her head and replied formally, “I accept your apology, Aditi,” and noted that the girl’s amber eyes moved to watch for Landon’s reaction. The investigator had escorted her to the aft deck, and now stood at a small distance to listen. There was nothing remotely lover-like in his manner, and Juno could only continue amazed at his alleged interest. I’m not sure I believe it, she thought; he seems far too sensible for such a course of action.
To prepare for the sewing lesson, Juno had set up two stools in an area of the aft deck that was sheltered from the wind. Aditi took her seat, and Juno pulled up close to her so as to demonstrate how to thread a needle, which seemed the appropriate place to start. Apparently satisfied that fisticuffs were not about to erupt, Landon bowed, and left.
Aditi lifted her gaze from Juno’s hands, and watched the man’s back as he walked away. “Aditi,” prompted Juno. “Please pay attention.”
But Aditi was preoccupied, and turned to say to Juno in an intense undertone. “He says he will wed me.”
Nonplussed, Juno fell back upon protocol. “My best wishes.”
Incredulous, Aditi indicated her left hand to Juno. “He says I will wear a ring, and everyone will see.”
“He is a very fine man,” Juno equivocated—a very fine man who had lost his senses, it would seem. Although to be fair, Jost was right about the bed sport—it did preoccupy one’s mind.
“Everyone will see,” Aditi repeated in wonder, and held her left hand out before her, the fingers tilted up—clearly imagining it adorned with a wedding band.
Juno watched her, oddly touched. It was evident that such an event had never been considered within the realm of possibility. Hitting upon a strategy, she observed, “As a married lady, you will need to know how to sew.”
Aditi raised her head, thinking this over with narrowed eyes. She then leaned forward, intent. “Show me.”
And so the lesson commenced and Juno took hope. She had already noted that the Indian girl had nimble fingers—which had given her the idea in the first place—and so progress was rapid. There was little conversation other than instruction, but on occasion Aditi would elevate the fingers of her left hand and glance at them, dwelling on the promised ring.
Juno demonstrated the merits of an overcast stitch. “Do you see? It is useful if there is a tear in the fabric.”
“Yes,” agreed Aditi, watching carefully. “Preya would sew up the men’s clothes in this way.” Pausing, she looked toward the distant horizon, a slow smile on her lips. “I cannot wait to tell Preya,” she declared with a note of triumph. “She will not believe it.”
Indulging the girl, Juno asked, “Who is Preya, Aditi? Is she your sister?”
“My brother’s woman,” the girl answered matter-of-factly. “We were taken together.”
“Oh? Taken where?” Juno absently bit off the thread.
“To Algiers.” Aditi took up her needle again. “To the Dey’s prison—the bagnio.”
Juno looked up in shocked dismay. “Never say you were captured by Barbary pirates?”
“I have already said it,” Aditi retorted with an impatient frown. “Sometimes, you are very stupid.” Catching herself, she retreated. “I should not have said that—do not tell him.”
But Juno was more interested in the disclosure than in the insult, and dropped the sewing to her lap. “Heavens, Aditi; what happened—were you ransomed?”
The other girl shrugged, as though it mattered little to her. “No. I was tired of waiting for Jost to come, so the missionary sent me to India.” The memory did not seem a fond one, and she tossed her head. “I had grown tired of him, anyway.”
Having recently had a brush with slavery, Juno decided perhaps there was something to be said about Aditi’s lack of sensibility—she certainly didn’t seem scarred by her experience. She thought of Aditi’s brother, now dead, and Jost’s obligations to him. “What happened to Preya—did Jost rescue her, also?”
But this was another sore point, apparently, and the girl said with some heat, “Jost took her somewhere, but I was not told—as though I was a child—and so I left, to show I was not a child.” It seemed clear this memory stung, and was the main reason Aditi had taken up with the smitten missionary. Stilling her hands, Aditi paused to contemplate Juno with a faint frown between her brows. “I thought Jost took Preya away to be his woman again, but Mr. Landon says no—he wants you, not Preya.”
But Juno was not following this confused recounting, and knit her own brow. “I thought you said Preya was your brother’s woman.”
Aditi smiled in a superior manner at Juno’s ignorance. “First she was for Jost; then they played dice for her, and my brother took her.”
“I see,” said Juno, a bit taken aback. “And yet they were friends—your brother and Jost?”
“Yes—the best friends.” Aditi reverted to the original topic. “Preya will not believe it when I tell her I am wed.”
“It is a wonder,” agreed Juno wholeheartedly. Then, guessing that Jost’s preference for the absent Preya must have raised some bitter feelings in the girl’s breast, she added, “I imagine she will be very jealous of you.”
Aditi bestowed upon Juno her rare, brilliant smile. “Yes.”
Juno bent her head once again over the sample cloth, thinking Aditi a font of very interesting information. For the good, though, at least it appeared that Aditi was resigned to losing Jost to Juno, now that the dazzling prospect of marriage had been raised. “You have done well today, Aditi; I believe we can start cutting material for a new dress tomorrow. Would you like a new dress?”
Aditi nodded, and indicated the dress she wore. “Mr. Landon says this one is very pretty. Will the next one be as pretty?”
Juno tried to imagine the laconic Landon giving Aditi such a compliment, and fell short. “We will copy the same pattern, then, so that it is similar. We’ll cut two, and one will be for me.”
This plan met with the other girl’s approval, and she nodded her agreement. “Yes—Mr. Landon says I must watch you, and behave like you do.”
But Juno had to demur, and replied in all honesty, “You are I are different creatures, Aditi; I believe he only wishes you to learn some manners, not to change completely. After all, he has no interest in marrying me.”
“Yes—he says he likes my fire, but I must not be so hot-headed.”
“Exactly,” Juno hastily agreed, deciding she’d rather not be privy to any intimate conversations between this unlikely pair.
Her wishes were not to be fulfilled, however; imitating Juno, Aditi bit off a thread, and then sighed with resignation. “He says no more men.”
Juno could only concur. “Gentlemen do not like to share—except Jost and your brother, apparently.”
But the corners of Aditi’s beautiful mouth turned downward. “How do I know I will be pleased with him? He will not let me into his bed—not until we are wed.”
Here’s irony, thought Juno—the debauched maiden giving advice to the virtuous concubine. Tentatively, she suggested, “Perhaps you should seek to please him, instead. After all, he will give you a ring, so that everyone can see.”
The girl thought this over. “I can please him—I know many things.”
Thinking she’d best change the subject before she was tempted to ask about particulars, Juno inquired, “Where are you sleeping, Aditi?”
“The brig,” the girl responded calmly. “I am to stay away from you, from Jost, and from the crew.”
“I’m sorry for it,” said Juno diplomatically, thinking this was, in fact, a very good plan.
Tracing her rudimentary stitching with an idle finger, Aditi bent her head. “I do not mind. He comes to talk to me. Usually, the men do not talk to me.”
I hate it, thought Juno, when my preconceptions are questioned—it makes me think I should do a little less judging, and a little more judging not.
Gazing at her left hand once more, Aditi pronounced with some spite, “I will have a ring, but you will not.”
Ah, thought Juno. Back to normal.