ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Bengal Bridegift


Chapter 24

     “What are you two laughing about?” Juno approached Jost and Horry, who were seated on the forecastle deck, splicing together a broken fishing line and chuckling, their heads close together. 

     Horry, his eyes alight, looked to Jost to give the explanation, which he did with his usual forthrightness. “We think, how long before Landon needs to eat?”

     Juno blushed and laughed along with them. After a month at sea, it was determined that Aditi’s wedding would go forward, and so the previous day Jost had performed the ceremony as Captain.

     Rather than radiant, the girl had looked anxious, as though she expected at any moment to be told it was all a cruel joke. In the end, the ring was firmly on her finger, and the couple withdrew to the first mate’s cabin, not to emerge again for twenty hours running. It appeared that Aditi did indeed know some things—or perhaps it was Landon who did. Juno was fast learning some things herself, what with her own betrothed visiting nearly every night. She had decided to assuage her conscience by referring to Jost as her betrothed, so as to grant a fig leaf to her transgressions—which were many, and unrepented.  If there was a priest aboard, she thought with some ruefulness, she would be so oftenin confession that her knees would ache.  It was beyond all bearing that Aditi was wed before she was, and could explore such matters at leisure, whilst Juno had to be content with a mere hour of managing it quietly in the dark--and with a guilty conscience, besides.  Although—and here she drifted into a blissful reverie—last night it had been a magical hour, indeed. The memory made her feel a bit warm, and she glanced at Jost, only to find his amused gaze upon her.

     “What are you thinking, lieve?”

     “I am thinking about how I would like some fresh fish for dinner,” she replied in a tart tone, giving him a look. He shouldn’t tease her in front of Horry.

     With a sigh, Jost held up the broken fishing line. “Your brother, he breaks the line, again and again.” He tilted his head toward Horry. “Fetch Landon, and tell him to stop whatever he is doing—he must fish for Juno.”

     “Pray do no such thing,” Juno protested, laughing.

     “I could check to see if he is still alive,” Horry noted with a grin.

     Jost observed, “If he is dead, he died a happy man, and me, I will not mourn him.”  He then flashed his smile at Horry. “You will see, when it is your turn.”

     Juno quickly turned the subject. “How long do you think we will be becalmed?” The wind had died for two days running, and Jost and the crew were chafing at the enforced idleness.  To pass the time, the crew was engaged in a contest to catch the most fish, with a day of leisure as the prize.

     Jost glanced up at the cirrus clouds overhead and opined, “Not long, I think.” He turned to Horry. “We can take the skiff out, if you wish.”

     “Can we, sir?”

     Horry seemed to think this an excellent idea, whilst Juno could not hide her alarm. “Out on the open water? Do you think it wise?”

     “We will spear a whale, maybe.” Jost glanced out over the smooth sea, as though he fully expected to view such a creature. “Then Juno, she would eat for weeks.”

     Juno defended herself from his teasing, “You can hardly blame me for having some anxiety, for heaven’s sake—it is not as though we have avoided all dangers, lately.”

     “Nothing can happen in the middle of the ocean, Juno.” Horry pointed out. “And the water is like glass—there is no danger whatsoever.”

     Reminding herself that she mustn’t cosset her brother, Juno conceded, “I am cautious by nature, I’m afraid.”

     Turning to Horry, Jost shook his head. “Do not believe her, Horry.  Some time I will tell you how I met your sister--when I think of it, my heart, it stops.”

     While appreciating the accolade, Juno disclaimed, “It’s not brave when you have no choice.”

     “That’s exactly what makes it brave, Juno,” her brother explained as though speaking to a simpleton. But he was not interested in extolling Juno’s virtues, and wanted to get on with the fishing expedition. “Shall I have them lower the skiff?”

     “Knock on Landon’s door, first.” Jost began to roll up the line on the creel. 

     Surprised, Horry asked, “Truly?”

     “Truly—it is time he was on deck. Tell him I said this.”

     Horry nodded and left without further protest, apparently having been given the same impression as Juno, namely that Jost wanted Landon to be present, if he was to leave the ship. It must be some sort of chain of command protocol, thought Juno—it is not as though Jost cannot trust the crew.

     Jost interrupted her thoughts, and leaned toward her with some amusement. “Juno—your face, it is like glass; you must not think of the bed sport or your brother, he will guess.”

     “Oh,” said Juno, blushing furiously. “Is it that obvious?”

     “To me, yes.”  He reached to take her hand in his, to soften the rebuke. “You are the same when you play the cards.”

     “How mortifying—do you suppose Horry has guessed?”

     “He knows I will marry you,” Jost equivocated. “He is nearly a man, and understands such things.”

     Juno buried her face in her bent knees, wholly embarrassed. “Oh Jost—I do not set a very good example.”

     “Me, I think you set a very good example.” Jost gently ran a finger along her arm. “It fills my head, it is such a good example.”

     Juno raised her eyes to his, unable to resist a smile at this fine compliment. “But you, my friend, were not raised in a convent school.”

     “Me, I do not know the watercolors,” he conceded, “—but I do know some things, yes?”

     “I thought we are not to speak of it—because my face is like glass,” she teased.

     He rose to his feet, and gave her a hand to haul her up. “We will speak of it later, yes?”

     “After you have caught me my whale,” she countered, brushing off her skirts. “Then we shall see.”

     His hands on his hips, he shook his head. “Ach, Juno. Now you are the callous one.”

     Amused that he remembered the word, she assured him, “I can be as callous as the occasion calls for—perhaps I will throw dice with some female, to take you off my hands.”  

     “There is no female on the ship except Aditi,” he pointed out reasonably. “And she is tired.”

     Later, Juno smiled as she remembered the conversation, leaning on the rail and watching Jost and Horry fishing in the skiff. The air was still and heavy, and members of the crew were arrayed along the rail, fishing to while away the time. Landon had made his reappearance, self-contained and expressionless so that none would imagine he had an exhausted new bride stowed below in his berth.  Horry had made some comment with the result that Landon gave him an affectionate cuff, but otherwise matters appeared back to normal—or as normal as they could be, considering the dire events that awaited in London.

     Juno leaned to look toward the bow, watching the water lap against the hull and reviewing what she had pieced together from Jost’s comments, and from her own observations.  The Nabob was a few days ahead of them, hoping to find and claim the bridegift in London, but the forces aligned with Jost and Landon were in close pursuit, and matters would presumably come to a head once they arrived. Jost told her they would apply to the Court of Chancery immediately upon their arrival, so as to unravel the scheme that had pronounced her married and then dead—the treasonous scheme, which her father had infiltrated.  Her father had been exposed as a double agent, and then murdered, but not before securing the fortune in diamonds, and depositing it somewhere, disguised as a bridegift.  With any luck, they’d arrive in London before the Nabob found the diamonds—Jost felt it was unbelievable that her father would have hidden them somewhere that would make them vulnerable to the enemy, and he seemed to have known her father very well.

     Juno squinted up at the sails, which were still slack, and then glanced down to see that Peyton now stood beside her, bowing his head and holding his leather hat in his hand. “A good day, Miss Payne.”

     “Not a good day for sailors, Mr. Peyton,” she replied with a smile.

     “I don’t believe it will last long, though.  In this area it usually doesn’t—another day at most.”

     I hope I shall not be called upon to speak at length about the weather, thought Juno when the man did not move away, but instead hovered to finger his hat in a self-conscious manner. Conversation with Peyton was never very easy, and she would much rather watch Jost cast a line. Instead, her companion broached a different subject, and one more amenable to her. “I knew your father, miss—a finer man never lived.”

     Touched by the sincere accolade, she regretted her impatience. “Thank you. I shall miss him very much.”

     He met her eye with a determined air. “You should take these things that have been said against him with a grain of salt, if I may say.”

     Wondering how much he knew, she nodded. “Yes—the accusations make little sense, to those who knew him.”

     Dropping his gaze for a moment, the man seemed to marshal his resolve, choosing his words carefully. “On account of your father—and how he is no longer with us, miss—I feel I must give you some information that you will not thank me for.”

     This disclosure seemed very unlike him, and she exclaimed in surprise, “Why, what is it, Mr. Peyton?”

     He gathered himself, and met her eyes. “It’s about the Captain, miss.”

     I am not going to want to hear this, thought Juno, her heart sinking as she gauged the seriousness of the expression in his eyes; I am a coward, and I don’t want to know.

     “I believe he is a married man.”

     The tenor of his voice betrayed the man’s deep unhappiness at being the bearer of such unwanted news, and it gave her pause, because her immediate reaction was to not believe it for a moment. “Why do you say this, Mr. Peyton?”

     The man shifted his weight, and seemed to gain confidence, now that the subject had been broached. “I cannot give you the particulars, miss, as the business is not something that can be spoken of. But I will tell you—upon my oath—that I heard it from his own lips. He has a wife he left behind in Algiers, and a small daughter, besides. I have not heard that his wife has died, or that the marriage has been dissolved—indeed, he mentioned her in passing, just a few weeks ago.”

     Juno stared at him, reluctantly remembering how Jost did not like to speak of his family, and had avoided any inquiries on the subject. Or perhaps Peyton referred to the woman Preya, and her child Bala, who had died.  But that made little sense; it seemed unlikely that Jost would marry such a woman, when there was no need.  And he had certainly intended to marry Juno the day they sailed—he hadn’t planned on the recalcitrant chaplain, or Juno’s mistake in speaking of her wedding with the Rajah. Unbidden, the memory of Jost’s hesitation when the chaplain asked if he was a bachelor came to mind; Juno had assumed he hadn’t understood the word, but perhaps he had, after all. Would he involve her in a bigamous relationship? With some horror, she realized it was entirely possible—Jost was a law unto himself.

     As if reading her thoughts, Peyton offered awkwardly, “If it’s any comfort, miss, I believe his affections are deep and sincere. It is only—” he paused, trying to find the right words, “—he is not one to care for the conventions.”

     This was undisputable, and Juno wished she didn’t feel as though her chest was suddenly frozen. I should not believe the worst of him so easily, she rallied herself; he deserves the benefit of the doubt—if only this news weren’t so plausible. Trying to right her reeling emotions, she bent her head to stare at the still, unmoving water while taking a deep breath and forcing herself to be calm. But there were more shocks to come.

     His cheeks reddening, Peyton added, “If I may ask, miss; is a husband needful?”

     Raising her head, she considered him blankly for a moment, and then realized he was delicately trying to ask if she was already with child. Jost was right—there were no secrets on board a ship.

     Blushing hotly, she shook her head, even though she truly wasn’t certain. There had been an occasional lapse in the precautions taken—last night numbering among them. Oh God, she thought in acute dismay; what have I done?

     Her companion began to finger his hat again. “You are a good, fine girl, miss, and if you have need of someone—under the circumstances—I would be honored to assist your father’s daughter.”

     There could be no mistaking his sincerity.   “I thank you,” she said through stiff lips. “I shall have to think about what you have told me.”

     “Of course, of course; I’m that sorry, miss, and I will say no more.” He then bowed and walked away.