The Bengal Bridegift
Juno stood with Jost on the steps of Westminster Hall, as he dismissed the other men who had accompanied them from the ship, the Hall being the venerable building that housed the Royal Courts of Justice.
“Good luck,” offered Landon, with a meaningful glance at Jost. He then bowed to Juno. “My lady.”
I don’t know if I will ever become accustomed to being “my lady,” thought Juno, as she bowed her head in return. “Shall we see you tonight in Cutler Street, Mr. Landon?”
“We shall see,” was all the other man offered, and he then strode away.
Trying to quash her nervousness, Juno turned to accompany Jost up the broad steps, and then once inside, tried not to gape up at the high, hammer beam ceiling—she’d never been inside a room so large. The Hall’s interior was one massive space, with judge’s benches set up along the walls, and a variety of advocates and other supplicants standing in groups and speaking in hushed voices, making for a solemn and softly echoing atmosphere.
Jost inquired after Judge Moore, and Juno felt a strong sense of déjà vu as yet again, she was escorted to settle her marital status before a judge, whilst the man at her side served as an object of open curiosity. The self-important clerk instructed them to await their turn on a bench along the wall, but he made it clear that Juno was expected, and that she wouldn’t be kept waiting for very long. Seated beside Jost on the bench, Juno tucked her hand into his elbow, nervously contemplating the interview to come.
“All will be well, lieve.” Jost squeezed her hand between his arm and his side. “You will see.”
“I do not doubt it—although it is a shame the guards are not friends, this time.”
“The friends, they are here,” Jost corrected her, taking a glance around. “I do not know which ones, only.”
“Oh.” With some surprise, Juno observed the bailiffs who were stationed along the hall, none of whom seemed remotely interested in them—although on second thought, any bailiff worth his salt certainly should be interested, upon sighting Jost, so this was perhaps a good sign. “Are they the grey-eyed gentleman’s friends?”
Jost nodded. “That one, he has many friends.”
She lifted her face to him, and quirked her mouth. “But you do not number among them, I think.”
He tilted his head, as his eyes continued to scrutinize those around them. “Me and him, we do not wish to take the orders from the other.”
This seemed to accurately describe the situation, and Juno nodded with understanding. “No—and I don’t think he likes women, very much.”
“He has no time to like the women. And he has the many problems because of a woman—a woman who gave her husband’s secrets to the enemy.”
“A traitoress?” Juno could scarcely credit such a thing, and frowned in disbelief. “Unfathomable.”
“She has no fathoms, she is dead, now.” Jost’s gaze continued to survey their surroundings. “But not before she gave to Rochon the names of those who worked in secret, against him.”
Startled, Juno lifted her face to his. “Papa’s name?”
Placing a comforting hand over hers, he neither confirmed nor denied this leap of logic, but instead repeated, “The woman, she is dead, now.”
But Juno found that the conversation had only added to her general level of anxiety, and so she asked with some alarm, “Is Rochon here, in London?”
“No, lieve; Rochon, he is in France—he would not dare come here.”
Her brow knit, Juno thought this over. “Then why was the grey-eyed gentleman so worried that you would take your vengeance without his say-so? Who in England would be the object of your vengeance?”
Jost sat for a moment, gazing into the distance as the muted sounds in the ancient Hall echoed off the ceiling. “Me, I cannot tell you. Not yet, yes?”
She subsided into silence for a moment, wishing there were no secrets between them. “What am I to say to the judge?”
“You tell him whatever he wishes to know, lieve.”
This seemed rather rash, all things considered, and Juno eyed him doubtfully. “Even though my face is like glass?”
With a smile, the Dutchman nodded. “Yes, lieve.”
Remembering what the grey-eyed gentleman said, she ventured, “And there is another trap to be set? Because the one with the priest and the diamonds didn’t work?”
But he shook the hand he held in his with gentle admonition. “You must not ask, lieve. Me, I will tell you one day, but not this day.”
She subsided, knowing it would do no good to pursue the topic. “I would love to go out walking. Do you think this will take a very long time?”
She gazed at him in surprise. “Truly? I should think we need only show the judge the documents from Fort St. George.”
“The court, it moves very slow here; we must wait—a long time, maybe.”
As this did not at all sound like her husband, Juno scrutinized him with deep suspicion. “I was under the very strong impression that we were in a raging hurry.”
His guileless eyes met hers. “Ach, Juno,” he chided her gently. “You must learn the patience.”
Before she could make a tart response, the clerk approached and indicated they were to follow him. They rose, and were escorted to a heavy mahogany table, where the elderly judge rose to greet them. Juno noted that a sleeve was pinned to his chest; the man must have lost an arm, somewhere along his life’s journey.
The judge bowed respectfully. “How do you do, Miss Payne; please have a seat—it appears that reports of your death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Juno smiled at the remark, but explained, “It is more properly Lady Van der Haar, sir, as this gentleman is my husband, Sir Jost Van der Haar.”
The judge regarded Jost thoughtfully. “I see. Would you mind if I speak to your wife privately, Sir Jost?”
Juno felt a jolt of annoyance that everyone’s first assumption was that she was under the malign influence of her better half, and so she interjected firmly, “I have no secrets from my husband, my lord.”
“But I am afraid I do.” He smiled apologetically, and with his good hand, made a gesture toward the waiting area bench.
Juno braced herself, preparing for the re-appearance of Jost’s sword, but to her surprise, her normally-volatile husband seemed disinclined to lay waste to the place. Instead--much to the alarm of the watching bailiff--he reached into his waistcoat to remove first, her father’s pipe, and then the Fort St. George documents, which he handed to Juno. With a final glance at the judge, he cautioned, “You will be good to my Juno, yes?”
“Without fail.” The judge bowed his head again, and the Dutchman retreated back to the waiting bench.
As they were seated across from one another at the table, the judge regarded Juno with a benign gaze. “Would you like tea, my lady? I can call for it.”
“No, thank you, sir—I have recently breakfasted.” A bit nervously, she unfolded the documents, and pushed them toward him, wanting to get to the heart of the matter without delay. “These documents are from the court at Fort St. George, Madras. They show that I never married Mr. Finch, and that I never died—although I suppose that much is obvious.”
The other regarded her with a kindly expression and then glanced over the papers. “Thank you, my dear. How can I know you are whom you claim to be?”
Juno stared at him, nonplussed. “Oh. I have no idea.”
“Do you have relatives in England?” he asked gently.
“My mother had relatives in Suffolk, but I have never met them.” She clasped and unclasped her hands. “I left England as a little girl to live in Bengal when my mother died—my brother and I. My brother can tell you that I am Juno Payne—or I was, before I married.”
He nodded slowly, thinking this over. “Are there any independent witnesses in Bengal who could vouch for your identity—persons who are not relatives?”
Relieved, Juno nodded. “Oh yes—clouds of witnesses. I lived at a convent school forfifteen years outside of Fort William, and I was known to nearly everyone stationed at the fort.” Juno didn’t mention the obvious, that it would take months to sail the aforementioned witnesses from Calcutta to London—surely the judge wouldn’t go to such lengths, so as to await the testimony of witnesses from across the world.
Her companion regarded her thoughtfully, his mild gaze resting on her face. “Tell me, my lady—what do you understand is afoot here?”
Her brow knit, Juno took a moment to gather her thoughts, aware that—surely—she shouldn’t be too honest; although Jost had said to tell the judge everything that she knew. With this in mind, she took a steadying breath. “I believe, sir, that my father was murdered, although it was made to look as though he died of the cholera. I think there are those—Mr. Finch—who wish to make it appear that my father was defrauding the Lloyd’s insurers, by pretending his ships had sunk when they had not.” She met his gaze with her own level one. “He would never do such a thing—he’d never be so dishonest.”
“You are an admirable daughter,” the judge noted with approval. “Pray continue.”
Thinking that she may as well tell him the whole, Juno added, “I think my father was instead working to uncover a scheme whereby the money from the insurers was transformed into diamonds, and then smuggled to Napoleon—apparently he is planning another conquest.”
“Yes, that is what I have heard also.” The gentleman tapped a forefinger thoughtfully on the table. “And England’s Treasury is in financial trouble, because the wealthy men who fund Lloyd’s of London are spending their money paying out insurance claims, instead of buying English war bonds.”
Juno frowned, thinking this through. “Oh—why, that is outrageous; it means Mr. Finch is using English money to fund Napoleon’s war against England.”
The judge nodded. “In theory, that is correct. But why would he do such a thing—do you know?”
“I can’t imagine,” confessed Juno, “but my husband believes he was secretly trading with the French, and he now must do as they ask—even if it is treason.”
“Yes; if true, it would be treason.” The judge rendered his gentle smile. “It is difficult for someone like you or I to understand such a thing, isn’t it?”
“Yes—it is incomprehensible.”
“Incomprehensible, indeed.” With his good hand, the judge adjusted the inkstand on the table so that it was more squarely aligned. “Tell me about your husband, my lady—how did you make his acquaintance?”
Oh, dear, thought Juno.