The Bengal Bridegift
“It’s nothing like Calcutta, is it?”
“No,” Juno agreed, and pulled her coat closer around her. “Mainly, it’s cold.”
Horry stood with her at the rail, as they watched the port of Southwark come into view through the dense blanket of fog, the lights from the shore barely visible, and glowing in diffuse halos. The fog blunted all sound as the Minerva pulled slowly into the harbor, the bells on the buoys echoing eerily. Juno exhaled, watching with interest as her breath formed a cloud in the cold air—a novel experience. It had been a long journey, and they were both eager to make port, so eager that they had stood thus during the past hour, straining to catch the first sight of England. Horry had no memory of it at all, and Juno could only remember vignettes—the sound of horses’ hooves on cobblestones, or tiptoeing up the stairs with her nurse, whilst her mother lay sick.
Juno shivered, and curled her toes in her half boots. A week ago, when the weather had turned colder, Jost had procured a sailor’s frieze coat for her, and she had worn it nearly without pause, the sleeves rolled up to fit her arms. Jost also told her he’d buy her a pair of boots lined with sheep’s wool, which sounded a bit strange, at the time, but which now seemed very sensible. He also wanted to buy her a fur-lined cloak, along with other items too numerous to mention but which he’d rattled off with great relish, as she lay in his arms one night. She smiled at the memory—having worn a simple uniform most of her life, she could only shake her head and tease him about saving his money.
“Me, I am a rich man,” he had reminded her. “You will have these things—and many more things.”
“I think I would trade it all for a roast chicken.” She was heartily sick of the shipboard fare of hardtack, bacon and molasses, which was all that was left, now.
Reminded, she said to Horry, “I can’t wait to eat a piece of fruit—or anything fresh, for that matter.”
“Meat,” her brother replied succinctly. “I don’t care what kind—even mutton sounds delicious.”
The spires of tall masts began to appear in the ghostly panorama before them, and they were silent for a few moments as the ship glided into the harbor, the lapping of the water on the hull sounding louder than usual in the fog.
“It is enormous.” With wonder, Juno viewed the huge port—larger even than the one at Madras. “How does anyone keep track of it all?”
“It’s the Blackwall Yard,” Horry explained. “Papa said it can handle two hundred fifty Indiaman frigates, all at the same time.”
They watched the dockyard come into view, and Juno confessed, “I have mixed emotions, Horry. I’m glad the journey is over, but I don’t look forward to another brangle over the bridegift. I don’t know how I am supposed to face the Nabob, knowing what I now know.”
But Horry only smiled in anticipation. “I hope I can come to court, this time. I’d give anything to watch Sir Jost knock a few heads together.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Juno replied in a dry tone. “It’s not like Madras, after all, where the judge was corrupt. This is England; I’ve no doubt that the court will award the bridegift to Sir Jost, and Napoleon’s people will be thwarted.”
“Assuming they can find the bridegift in the first place,” Horry reminded her. “Let’s hope someone knows something.”
They watched the activity on deck as the mainsail and foresail were stowed, leaving only the smaller sails aloft to propel the ship forward. The sailors lined the railing, as eager as the Payne siblings to view the port, and the general mood was celebratory, the murmuring voices making plans for shore leave.
“There’s the entrance lock, do you see?” With some excitement, Horry indicated a huge walled enclosure, with multiple ships berthed within. “We have to register, and be inspected.”
“I hope it doesn’t take too long—I can’t wait to walk for more than twenty paces in one direction.” Juno then saw Jost, striding toward them as he spoke to Peyton and another sailor, who accompanied them. After a final word, the two other men nodded, then left toward the bow, whilst Jost continued toward Juno and Horry.
“Good morning,” Juno called to him. He had left their berth in the pre-dawn, before she was awake, because he’d much to arrange before the entry into port.
“Good morning. Come, come; we go this way.” He indicated they were to follow him down the stairs to the main deck.
“Are we going with you to register?” asked Horry, clearly hoping this was the case.
“No, Peyton will register.” He then kept up a rapid pace toward the opposite side of the ship, with Horry and Juno in tow. “Horry, you will follow orders, yes?”
“Yes, sir; of course,” Horry replied, a bit surprised.
“Good. Me, I take Juno to the court. Instead of the court, you will go to a safe place, where you will do what you are told.”
Horry nodded without comment, but Juno found this speech ominous, and could not help but ask, “Why is Horry going to a safe place? And where is it?”
“Me, I do not know where.” Jost came to the port side of the ship, away from the docking activity going forward on the other side. Looking up, he signaled, and Jairus approached them, holding a sailor’s knit cap. “Juno, you must hide your hair.”
“We are leaving now? Before we dock?” asked Juno in some confusion as she donned the hat.
“Yes, lieve; we go now.”
Jost took her elbow, and they approached a rope ladder that had been lowered down the port side, away from the dockyard. Looking over the side, Juno could see the skiff already in the water, rocking in the waves below. Dismayed, she was girding her loins to make the climb down the swinging rope ladder when Landon suddenly appeared beside them at the rail.
Jost’s mouth became a grim line, and he did not look up at Landon. “Enough; we go.”
It was clear that Landon wanted to reopen a subject of disagreement, and that Jost was less than pleased by the attempt. His gaze intent, Landon indicated Juno with a tilt of his head. “I am not as recognizable, and you will draw the wrong kind of attention. She would be safer if I take her.”
“Me, I will not leave her again,” Jost replied in a tone that brooked no argument, and Juno could feel Horry flinch beside her.
Landon tried to reason with him. “You cannot bull your way in; not here.”
“We will see.” Jost indicated that Jairus was to descend the ladder.
“Then I will come, also.”
Jost paused to think about it “Yes; come,” he decided.
Landon added, “And Mrs. Landon goes with Horry.”
“No,” said Jost immediately, and lifted Juno over the gunwale so that she stood on the top rung of the ropes, positioned within Jairus’ waiting arms.
Landon continued stubbornly, “I have her ready; she will do as she is told.”
But Jost stood firm. “No.”
There was a tense moment as Landon’s jaw worked. “I believe---I believe she is increasing.”
Juno looked up at him in surprise—this was quick work, although it was hard to imagine Aditi as a mother. Landon would be hard-pressed to have her rehabilitation complete in a mere nine months.
At this revelation, Jost turned to look upon the other man. “He will not thank us.”
“I cannot be easy,” Landon admitted. “I will accept all consequences.”
Relenting, Jost nodded. “Fetch her, then; make haste.”
The Indian girl must have been waiting in the wings, because she appeared almost immediately, her hair bound up and her slim figure wrapped tightly in her own sailor’s coat. Juno met her eyes and saw that she was frightened, and so she smiled reassuringly, which in turn helped to settle her own nerves as she descended the ropes to the rocking skiff. With all aboard, they cast off, Aditi uncharacteristically silent, and Juno hanging on as the small vessel bucked against the waves until they entered the calmer water within the river banks. Juno noted the men were all armed and alert, and thinking over Landon’s concern for his wife and child, she asked Jost in a low voice, “Do we fear Rochon?”
Landon shot her a look from under his bushy brows, and Jost rebuked her in a mild tone, “You must not speak of these things, Juno.”
“Oh; oh, I beg your pardon.” She castigated herself for idiocy—he would never tell her anything, if she nervously gabbled what he’d told her in confidence. I must be a better wife, and not a liability, she thought with remorse—he deserves better.
“Wot’s toward, Cap’n?” asked Jairus, who was handling the oars.
“Me, I will buy Juno a chicken.” Jost’s easy reply was nevertheless belied by his alert posture. “Head toward the pier—there—and we will see what there is to see.” He directed Jairus as they approached the riverbank, and the men tied the skiff to a large pier that was lined with ramshackle taverns.
“Keep your head down,” Jost instructed Juno in a low voice, and the group walked across the boardwalk, and ducked into a small tavern, nearly deserted at this time in the mid-morning.
Once inside, Jost kept one hand on Juno’s arm and the other on his pistol hilt as he paused to survey the room. “Go.”
Jairus disappeared outside, apparently to keep watch. Jost then steered Juno to the rear of the establishment, indicating she should sit with Horry at a crude table in the back corner. Landon paused to give some low-voiced instructions to Aditi, then seated her near the door before he came over to join them. After sliding in on the wooden bench between her brother and Jost, Juno dared to raise her eyes and take a glance around, trying to quell her nervousness. The place was dilapidated, and bore a sign above the bar that proclaimed “The Nob’s Fancy,” but the conceit did indeed seem a bit fanciful as the tavern could have never aspired to serve the quality. The tavern keeper polished the bar with his dishtowel, and appeared supremely uninterested in them—which was rather odd, considering they were the only patrons in the place.
“Do we eat?” asked a hopeful Horry, who seemed impervious to the grim mood of his companions.
“We do.” Jost called to the tavern keeper, and they ordered a meal while Juno sat, bemused and trying to decide why they had come—disguised, heavily armed and in such haste—to eat a roast chicken in a low tavern on the dock.