ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Bengal Bridegift


Chapter 29

     The tavern meal was duly served, and Juno was surprised by how delicious it was, although it may have been only compared to what the passengers on the Minerva had been eating for the past several weeks. There was little conversation as the food was consumed, no one else entered the tavern, and Juno had the impression that Jost and Landon were warily watching the door.

     “Are you going to eat that, Juno?” Horry referred to a roast potato, and Juno willingly relinquished it, watching in bemusement as he devoured it, and then began to eye her bread pudding.

     Suddenly reminded, she asked, “Oh—oh, Horry; did you remember to bring any neem leaves?”

     “I’ll be fine,” her brother answered with some impatience. “And remember, we can find chinchona bark, here.”  

     Juno looked up in surprise as a tall, lean sailor with grey eyes suddenly slid onto the bench next to Jost, his coat collar pulled up, and a cap pulled low over his eyes.  As Juno hadn’t seen him enter through the front door, she decided he must have come in through the back; she also concluded that he must be an acquaintance, as no chance stranger would have the audacity to sidle up next to Jost.

     The newcomer ignored the rest of them, and addressed Jost in a low voice. “Who has malaria?”

     “The boy,” the Dutchman replied, continuing to eat with no show of surprise or discomfiture.

     “Who is the other girl, by the door?”

     “My wife,” answered Landon. “I was loath to leave her; she will do as she is told.”

     The grey-eyed man lifted his head to regard Landon with a keen gaze.  “My congratulations.”   

     “She is not to be trusted,” Jost revealed in an even tone.

     “Wonderful,” replied the man. His gaze then flicked for an instant to Juno, and he asked Jost, “Well?”

     “She knows nothing. He must not have said.”

     The man made a soft, incredulous sound. “Not even to the boy?”

     Jost raised his gaze to meet the other’s, and shook his head, and Juno could see that both men were made grave by this news. With some reluctance, Jost added, “And Juno, she was given the planted diamonds by the priest, so now, I have them.”

     Planted diamonds? thought Juno in surprise; whatever did he mean?

     There was a pause, whilst the grey-eyed man stared at Jost. “You astonish me; this entire enterprise must be cursed.”

     Jost shrugged. “The Frenchman, he was killed by the Rajah’s men.  Before he died, he gave them to her to take to the Nabob.”

     The other drew his hand over his face for a moment, thinking. “We shall retrench, then, and turn this to our advantage.”

     “It is the bad luck,” Jost observed.

     “Perhaps not—we shall see,” said the other, studying the table with a frown.  “The players are all in place, after all.”

     Finished with his meal, Jost leaned back, and crossed his arms. “Me, I take Juno to the court.  Me, and no one else.”

     “Certainly,” the grey-eyed man nodded. “And while you are there, make a public show of depositing her diamonds with the court, until title is established—we will bait a new trap.”  

     Jost raised his brows, and nodded in understanding, whilst the other man allowed his gaze to rest on Juno for a speculative moment.  “Perhaps she hasn’t told you anything, because she doesn’t trust you—I hope you haven’t terrified her.”

     “Me, I have married her.”

     This was evidently not what the other wanted to hear, and his sharp gaze flew to Jost’s, who met the scrutiny steadily, and with a touch of defiance. Juno thought perhaps she should interject some comment at this juncture, but as both men were behaving as though neither she nor Horry were present, she held her peace.

     “I see. Again, my congratulations.” 

     Jost bowed his head in ironic acknowledgement.

     The grey-eyed man allowed his gaze to drift to Horry. “And you—have you married, also?”

     “No, sir,” answered Horry with a grin.

     “Good man,” declared the other. “Give me the truth; did your sister wish to marry this reprobate?”

     Horry rallied from his surprise, and responded, “She did; I will put my oath on it.”

     Apparently satisfied, the man turned back to Jost. “Judge Moore will handle the matter, and is already aware of the particulars. I suggest you make haste, and call as little attention as possible—until you are there, of course—and then the more attention, the better. If you run into trouble, others stand ready.”

     “Very good,” agreed Jost.

     Their visitor rose from the table. “I would ask that you temper your actions, but I don’t think it would serve.”

     Jost tilted his head toward Juno, and she translated, “He thinks you won’t mind his cautions, so there is no point in asking.”

     “Assuredly not,” agreed Jost. 

     Watching them, the grey eyes held a gleam of amusement. “There are rooms for you in Cutler Street.” He turned to Horry. “You will come with me.”

     “Yes, sir,” said Horry, who seemed to have come to the same conclusion as Juno—that this was not a man to be trifled with.  

     “And Mrs. Landon,” interjected Landon firmly.

     “And Mrs. Landon,” the other sighed in acknowledgment. “God in heaven, you are an unpredictable group.”  Thinking on this, he leaned in toward Jost, and gave one last instruction in a grave tone.  “I know you would seek your vengeance, but I ask you to consider my interests as well as your own—there is information I would very much like to have.”

     Jost nodded, but Juno noted he gave no assurances. The other man straightened, and lifted a biscuit from Juno’s plate to put in his pocket. “Come,” he said, and Horry rose to slip through the back door, whilst Landon directed a startled Aditi to join them.

     “We shouldn’t tarry,” said Landon into the sudden silence.

     “Juno, she can finish her chicken.”

     But--given the recent conversation--Juno had lost her appetite, and offered in a small voice, “I am finished, Jost; truly.”

     After watching her for a moment, her husband laid a hand against her cheek, and drew his own face close to hers. “We are larger than life, yes?”

     Gazing into his eyes with as much assurance as she could muster, she nodded.

     “And Horry, he is as safe as a house.”

     Hiding a smile, she agreed, “Safe as a house.”

     Jost brushed his thumb over her lips. “If any man dares to speak to you, I will slit his throat.”

     “Thank you,” she said gravely. “I would appreciate it.”

     “We go, yes?”

     “We do. Do you know where the court is?”

     “Assuredly.” He rose to his feet. “Me, I have broken from the prison, here.”

     “Ah,” said Juno, unsurprised.

     They emerged upon the dock as the weak sunshine was beginning to penetrate the fog, and Juno noted that she still felt the movement of the ship, even though they were now on land.  She wrapped her sailor’s coat tighter around her as their steps echoed on the timber underfoot, the wary men in a tight circle around her, as the group proceeded toward the busy frontage street. Having gone through a similar experience at Fort St. George, she didn’t attempt to distract Jost, as he carefully scrutinized everyone in the area, a hand on his pistol.

     “Wot’s happ’ned to Horry?” asked Jairus in an undertone. “Has he gone back t’ the ship?”

      “He is with Mrs. Landon; they went to a different location,” Landon explained.

     Nothing more was said, and although Juno was eager to gaze about her at the bustling street scene, she kept her head lowered and the sailor’s knit hat pulled down low over her brow.  Landon hailed a hackney, and as they settled inside the vehicle, Juno took the opportunity to take a glimpse out the window.  The view revealed a scene very similar to the market place in Calcutta, only noisier and even more chaotic, with wagons transporting goods, and vendors shouting out their wares from stalls along the street.  “Oh--it is so busy,” she noted in wonder.  “Where is Cutler Street? Is it nearby?”

     “First things first, lieve,” said Jost. “You will go to the court, to tell the judge your story.” 

     Something in his tone made her eye him sidelong; she had the impression there was more here that remained unsaid, but she did not want to quiz him in front of the others.  “I hope your sword will not be needed as a witness, this time.”

     He teased, “Ach, Juno; it would be the highest amusement.”

      Juno held out a forlorn hope that he would indeed temper his actions. “Remember, it’s not like India, Jost. Promise me you won’t wind up in prison.”

     For some reason, he seemed to find this remark amusing.  “My promise, lieve.” 

     Eying him again, she refrained from further comment, and hoped he knew what he was about—subtlety was not his strong suit, and it seemed evident that there was a plot afoot.  With some trepidation, she turned to the window again, to take in the sights of London, whilst the men around her kept a close watch on their surroundings.