ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Bengal Bridegift


Chapter 25

    

     Juno’s immediate impulse was to hear the truth from Jost, come what may. She felt she could speak to him with complete honesty on any topic, and in the end, she simply couldn’t believe it of him. Of course, if she confronted him, he may guess it was Peyton who had told her, but that could not be helped and indeed, it seemed rather ominous; if Peyton had made up the tale out of whole cloth, he must know he would face Jost’s formidable displeasure. Instead, it spoke to the tale’s being true. 

     She gazed out over the ocean, unseeing. On the other hand, here was yet another man who had asked for her hand--could Peyton be after her bridegift? She didn’t believe so—one of the reasons the story rang true was Peyton’s stolid manner. If it was true—if Jost was lawfully wed to another—she had committed an even more grievous sin than the one she had willingly committed. With growing horror, she realized she could not have anything to do with him henceforth—what would she tell Horry?  And if she escaped the burden of bearing an illegitimate child, she would nonetheless be ruined. It was hard even to contemplate so complete a disaster, and the fact that she had brought the disaster upon herself, only made it all the worse.

     I must speak with him, she realized, and as soon as possible. I should not be surprised if he attempts to convince me that the story is false, but it is past time that I began thinking without the distraction of lust.

     No, she corrected herself immediately; not lust, but love. If I know nothing else, I know I love him and he loves me.  Taking a steadying breath, she focused on this. I shall hear what he has to say and assess what is to be done—and I definitely need to put a stop to our trysts, until I can verify his status.  I can’t imagine Peyton would have gathered his courage to speak of it, unless he sincerely believed it was true.

     Walking to the rope ladder, she positioned herself in plain sight, willing Jost to return and hoping that the sight of her waiting would encourage him to curtail the fishing trip. The Juno rocked a bit as Horry stood to cast his line, and Juno felt a sudden pang, watching Horry on their father’s skiff and thinking of the catastrophes that had been visited upon them, one after another in a seemingly endless series. Let us have an end to it, she pleaded, trying not to give in to despair—I am truly, truly not this brave.

     Watching them, she realized that Horry had yet again broken his line, and Jost was laughing at him. They returned to the ship, Horry made to row the skiff, as a penance. As they came to, Jost looked up to give Juno his flashing grin. “Your brother, he is a schaapskop.”  He stretched out a hand to tie the skiff to the rope ladder.

     “He is indeed,” she agreed, looking down at him, and although she tried to keep her voice level, he gave her a sharp look, and began climbing up the ropes, his movements graceful and quick.

     “What is it?” he asked softly, watching her as he ascended. “Tell me.”

     I forgot that my face is like glass, she thought. “There is no emergency,” she assured him as he came to eye level, and then hoisted himself on deck. “I need to speak with you, is all.”

     “Horry,” said Jost, who did not take his eyes off Juno. “Your sister, she wishes to fish.”

     “She does?” asked the skeptical Horry, who was starting his ascent.  “But the line is broken.”

      Jost turned around to give him a look, and her brother responded by scrambling up the ladder without further demur. 

“Come, Juno.” Jost held out a hand out to assist her down the ladder.

     “Oh,” said Juno with some doubt, as she looked down the length of the knotted ropes.  “I don’t know, Jost—perhaps we could speak in your cabin.”

     “Me, I will go first,” he assured her. “But come you must.”

     And so she went down the rope ladder, her back against his chest and stepping when he directed her to because when it came down to it, she would always do as he asked, even when it went against her better judgment, and even when she was more afraid than she had ever been in her life.

     He seated her in the stern of the skiff, and took up the oars, facing her. “Now then,” he said as he began to pull on the oars, “—you will tell me what Peytonsaid.”

     “I am worried you are already married,” she blurted out, unable to think of a way to spare Peyton, nor of a more diplomatic way to divulge her fears.

     He met her eyes, considering, and she felt another wave of misery—there was no be no angry refutation as she had half-hoped;  he was a serial bigamist, and she was only the latest bride to catch his fancy. Like Bluebeard, she thought, but then remembered that Bluebeard had murdered his wives, and so, technically, was not a bigamist. 

     Don’t cry, she instructed herself. Not here, where everyone can see.  The Dutchman continued rowing until the small vessel was stopped at a distance from the ship. Out of earshot, she realized; he wants to be certain we are not overheard—perhaps he wishes to ensure no one will refute what he says to me.

     “I wish you had mentioned it,” she ventured in a small voice, and tried without success to control a quaver.

     He made no immediate response, but picked up the fishing rod, and made as if to prepare the line. “It is broken,” she reminded him.

     “Watch—you will see.”  He bit off the line, just above the hook and sinker, and tied it with a deft movement directly to the twine on the creel, without using the pole. He then dropped the hook into the water beside the boat, and handed her the creel.  “If the fish bites, do not drop the creel.”

     Juno found she had to steady her shaking hands against the gunwale whilst Jost moved beside her, his broad shoulder touching hers as he spoke in an even tone. “Me, I say to the Dey in Algiers that I am married to Preya. I have the English title; they will put Preya and Bala in a safe place, so that I will be made to pay a fine ransom.”

     “Yes—if you said such a thing, it would keep them alive.” She perceived a glimmer of hope. “I see.”

     “It was not true,” he said with heavy emphasis. “Me, I have never married anyone. Me, I have never wanted to marry anyone until you.”  He paused, then added, “If it becomes known I am not married to Preya, she will suffer for it.  But it is more important that you know the truth.”

     “Preya is still a captive?” Juno knit her brow, remembering the conflicting story she had heard from Aditi.

     Again, he weighed what he would say to her, his gaze on the line where it disappeared into the ocean. “Preya is in danger. If anyone asks you of Preya, you must not say what I have told you about not being wed, yes? You must say you do not know anything.”

     “I don’t make a very good liar,” she reminded him in a small voice.

     “It is a problem,” he agreed in all seriousness. “Me, I hope no one asks you the questions.”

     “Do you still love her—Preya, I mean?” Juno found she was not dismayed by this thought—despite everything, she was certain of him.

     He turned to meet her eyes. “No; Preya and Aditi’s brother—they loved each other. But she is in the niyama, and I have made the promise.” He watched her, and she could see the anxiety in his dark eyes, so expressive. “You believe this, yes?”

     Juno nodded, and the frozen feeling in her breast begin to ease.  “I should have married you in Fort St. George. You should have held your sword to me until I agreed.”

     “Juno, lieve,” he said quietly, the smooth, vast ocean surrounding them. “I belong to you and you belong to me. It is simple.”

     This was inarguable. If she were honest, she would admit she had already been turning over ideas in her mind to stay with him—somehow—despite the disgrace.  She took a breath. “I was so frightened for a moment, Jost, about—well, what would become of me if the tale was true. Please—no more bed sport until we are truly married.”

     “No,” he agreed immediately. “You must not be made unhappy.”

     She gasped, because the creel was suddenly tugged so hard that she nearly dropped it. “A fish,” she exclaimed in astonishment. Turning the creel in her hands, she fumbled with the winding mechanism, but the Dutchman grasped the line and pulled it up, hand over hand, until the wriggling bass was hauled aboard, flopping about on the floorboard.

     “That is a good fish,” he laughed. “Horry, he will not be happy.”

     “Jost.” She looked at him, then wasn’t certain what she wanted to say.

     “Juno—it will all be well. My promise to you.”

     “No more secrets,” she implored. Then, imitating him, “My heart, it stops.”

     “There are more secrets,” he admitted, “—but none that will take you away from me.”

     As he rowed back to the ship, she reflected that the convent school truly didn’t prepare you for the complexities of life—or for unconventional men, for that matter.  They climbed aboard, Jost with a finger hooked through the fish’s gills and brandishing it like a trophy, to the amusement of the crew.  Among the watchers at the rail stood Aditi, and as the sailors hauled the skiff back aboard, Juno approached and greeted the girl, thinking that a bit of gentle teasing may be in order. “Mrs. Landon; you are well?”

     “I must learn the English curtsey,” the girl said without preamble. “You are to teach me.” Thinking for a moment, she added, “Please.”

     “I shall be happy to demonstrate,” Juno offered, thinking it surprising this was deemed a necessary skill. “Only not just now, perhaps.”

     “Before we land, I must know the English curtsey—already I know how to make the English tea.”

     Ah, thought Juno; the light dawns. “You are to meet Mr. Landon’s mother.”

     Aditi nodded, her expression a bit anxious.  “He says it will not matter that I am not English—that she will be very happy.” The girl sounded as though she very much doubted this would be the case.

     Privately thinking that having a foreign daughter-in-law would be the least of the concerns, Juno assured her, “I imagine she thought he would never marry; you will be a very pleasant surprise.”

     “I am not to speak of many things,” the girl added philosophically, watching as the sailors stowed the skiff. “I must not speak the truth.”

     “It is probably the better tack,” Juno admitted. “All things considered.”

     The men then raised a signal flag on the mainmast, pulling on the sheet until the small banner fluttered in the awakening breeze.

     “What does that one mean?” asked Juno, shielding her eyes to consider it.     

     Aditi shrugged impatiently, unhappy to be off-topic. “Mr. Landon—my husband—will teach me to read.  He says when he is away, I must be able to read to the children.”

     It appeared Landon had many and sundry requirements for his new bride, and Juno could only admire his strategy. “I can help,” Juno offered. After all, if she participated in good works it may take her mind off how much she was missing the pleasures of the flesh.

     “I am to have children,” Aditi repeated, making it clear that Juno had not appreciated this aspect of the story to the extent she should have.

     “How wonderful, for both of you,” Juno offered with appropriate fervor. “I imagine it was a terrible loss to you when Bala died.”

     Aditi turned to meet her eyes, startled, and there was a long pause. “I am not to speak of it,” she said self-consciously. “I should not have said about Preya, before.”

     “To Mr. Landon’s mother,” Juno corrected gently. “You may speak of it to me, if you’d like.”

     “To no one,” she insisted, “No one at all,” and in the words Juno could hear the echo of Landon’s instruction. So—it appeared there was indeed some concern about Preya’s safety, and the less said, the better.

     Horry came to congratulate Juno on her catch, and express his shock and amazement that his sister was capable of such a feat.

     “Pure chance,” Juno assured him, laughing. “The poor fish was begging to be caught, and it happened so quickly that even I could not muff it.”

     “Fish for dinner,” pronounced Horry with some satisfaction. “And the breeze has started up again—our luck has turned.”  He nodded toward the sails, which were beginning to luff with life.

     “What does the signal flag mean?” asked Juno.

     Horry squinted at it. “It is a request for provisions from another ship.”

     Surprised, Juno asked, “Are we so desperate for provisions?”

     “Apparently,” said her brother, “—if we’re going to have to rely on you to catch more fish.”