ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Bengal Bridegift


Chapter 31

     Juno was not certain how honest she should be. “He saved my life,” she compromised. “Mine and my brother’s.”

     The judge nodded. “He is a heroic figure to you.”

     Juno thought she could see where this was headed, and wanted to make it clear, “I assure you that I have not been beguiled, my lord—I love him, and he loves me.”

     “I meant no insult.” He met her eyes, a grave expression in his own. “But there is a very valuable bridegift at issue, and you must admit the two of you are—are an unusual pairing.”

     “It is not easy to explain,” she admitted fairly. “But it is as though we knew right from the first that we belonged to each other.” She paused and tried to put it into words understandable to another. “He is good for me—and in turn, I am good for him; together we are the better for it.”

     The shrewd gaze rested on her for a moment, and then the judge made a gesture toward the documents before him. “I do not see your marriage lines, my lady.”

     “Oh—I’m not certain they have been prepared, as yet. We were married at sea by another captain—a fellow Dutchman, named Captain Spoor. Sir Jost will know the particulars.”

     The other nodded as though this was a perfectly reasonable explanation. “Were there witnesses to the ceremony?”

     Juno had to smile. “The entire crew from both ships. And my brother, Horry.”

     The judge pronounced, “A festive occasion.”

     “And a surprise, also—I had not known it was planned.” She realized as soon as she said the words that they did not convey the impression she wished, and so she corrected, “We had tried to marry before, you see—” suddenly aware she was not helping matters, she concluded, “—but we were forced to leave Madras on short notice.”  Mentally congratulating herself for avoiding mention of the Rajah’s murder, she smiled serenely at him.

     The judge leaned forward, his expression apologetic. “Forgive me, my lady, but I must ask—has the marriage been consummated?”

     “Oh yes—many times,” she told him with some emphasis, and then blushed.

     Nodding, the man leaned back, and gazed into the distance for a few moments. “If he were anyone else, I would not be as concerned; but you must agree that a suspicion is raised.  A notorious pirate marries you—quite unexpectedly—and is entitled to a fortune, as a result.”

     Juno could not like the tack the conversation had taken, and hastened to assure him, “I am aware that his past may not bear close scrutiny, but he is an honest man, now, and means to abide by the tenets of civilization.”

     As though sharing a joke, the other smiled slightly. “I confess I am glad to hear it—I wouldn’t want to meet him in a back mews, in the dark of night.”

     Juno was honest enough to know exactly what he meant, but she assured him, “I have complete trust in my husband.” To prove this point, she produced her father’s pipe. “It is he who suggested that I deliver these to you, to determine what is best to do.” She carefully dislodged the bowl from the stem of the clay pipe, and gently shook the diamonds from it, scattering them onto the mahogany table where they lay, glimmering dimly.

     Juno could hear the clerk and the bailiff stifle a gasp from where they stood, observing the proceedings. The judge touched one with a tentative finger and asked in astonishment, “The bridegift?”

     “No—apparently only a small portion. They were given me by a man who is now dead, hoping I would smuggle them to Napoleon, via Mr. Finch.” She decided not to mention that Jost and the grey-eyed man had referred to them as the “planted diamonds,” since she wasn’t certain what was meant.

     The judge’s expression became very grave as he sank back into his chair, staring at the gems. “You are certain of this, my lady?”

     “Completely. There was no mistaking; the dead man told me himself—before he died, of course.” She paused, and decided there was no time like the present.  “I was hoping they would be given to the Lloyd’s underwriters, so as to clear my father’s name.”

     His chin to his chest, the judge let out a long breath. “Lady Van der Haar, you must understand that I am in a difficult position. On one hand is Mr. Finch—who is a powerful man within the East India Trading Company. He seeks title to your bridegift, and claims it is for the good of England. If I accuse such a man of treason, it will cause quite a stir; trading is based on trust, after all.  On the other hand, there is a counter-group of men who cannot come forward, but nevertheless urge me to resist Mr. Finch’s requests, with very little evidence of direct malfeasance—Mr. Finch can simply deny any knowledge of these diamonds, and then, where are we? This second group also claims they must have the bridegift for the good of England.  However, with your advent upon the scene—and if your marriage can be authenticated--it now appears that the bridegift lawfully belongs to Sir Jost, who—you must admit—may not be the best candidate to hold title.”

     “Yes,” Juno agreed reluctantly, seeing the fairness of this. “It is indeed a quandary.”

He leaned forward, and teased, “If you would renounce your marriage, I could simply declare that the bridegift is yours, and be home in time for tea.”

     “I will not renounce my marriage,” Juno declared firmly. “And I wouldn’t want the bridegift, in any event—there have been abductions and attempts upon my life because of it; it is all very distressing.”

     The other nodded in sympathy. “I can see that it would be.”

     “And I must say that I am not certain the bridegift even exists,” Juno confessed. “My father never mentioned it to me or to my brother, and one would think he would have—if it is such a fortune as they say.”

     “Is that so?” asked the judge with some surprise. “That does seem odd. And it appears no one is certain of its whereabouts?”

     “No—but one would think my father would not have left it where no one could find it; it all makes little sense.”

     “You are absolutely correct; it does not make sense.” The judge drew his brows together. “How very strange.”    

     Juno asked almost hopefully, “Do you suppose they are all mistaken, and all this fuss is for naught?”

     The judicial officer sighed with real regret. “No. I think everyone involved is in deadly earnest, and it seems unlikely that they are all mistaken—which brings me back to my quandary.”

     But Juno had no quandary, and no qualms. “It is simple, my lord; you must thwart the Nabob, save England, and restore my father’s good name.”

     With an apologetic gesture, the judge spoke to her in a reasonable tone. “My dear, you are a credit to your father and to your husband, but you must understand my position. Apparently there is a great deal of money at stake, and that money has a direct impact on the security of England.” He looked to her, and Juno nodded, as this seemed to be expected. Satisfied, the man continued, “However, you are a bit too trusting and—may I even suggest—naïve.  I must take this factor into consideration.”

     Juno blushed hotly and waited, unable to disagree with him, when he laid it out like this.

     “I shall hold a hearing, as soon as possible, and we will take evidence from all sides, including, I’m afraid, your husband. I need to explore the validity of your marriage, with so much at stake.”

     Dismayed, Juno protested, “But, I assure you—”

     “I understand,” he interrupted in a gentle tone. “But I must be certain. Surely you can see this? My sole aim must be to do justice.”

     This appeared inarguable, and Juno could only concede with a nod.

     He continued with resignation, “I’m afraid you will not thank me for it, but I must put you in protective custody. I have heard from your own lips that you are in danger, and until I have sorted out this matter, I cannot countenance the possibility that I may inadvertently compound that danger.”

     Juno stared in bewilderment. “What does this mean, sir—protective custody? Where would I go?”

     “There are some very comfortable quarters on the Master’s side of the Fleet for just this sort of situation. Every comfort will be afforded to you, but most importantly, you will remain safe.”

     “I don’t understand, my lord,” Juno confessed, “What is ‘the Fleet’?”

     “A prison,” he explained kindly. “You are going to prison.”

     Astonished, Juno stared at him. “Surely I should not have to abide in prison—why, none of this is my fault.”

     “Oh, it would not be for punishment—there are rooms at the Fleet for persons such as yourself; persons who need to be protected, pending further court proceedings. I assure you that you will be kept separate from the other prisoners, and treated with every courtesy.”

     “I cannot think this a good idea,” cautioned Juno, worried that she had been too honest, despite Jost’s urgings. “There must be another avenue.”

     In his gentle manner, the judge nonetheless confirmed, “I’m afraid it will be my order.”

     Juno swallowed. “Please allow me to tell my husband of this—he may need some persuasion.”

     “Better you than me,” the judge agreed.

     But to Juno’s surprise, when Jost was informed of the judge’s order, he did not slay him on the spot, but instead ducked his chin, thinking. “Me, I will visit her when I wish, yes?”

     The other nodded. “You may; I’m afraid you cannot have direct contact, however, as that would defeat the purpose.”

     Jost agreed, after a show of reluctance, and it occurred to his suddenly suspicious wife that this outcome had been his intent all along—she remembered his reaction in the hackney, when she had asked him to avoid prison.  Whilst the men discussed the particulars, she contemplated the stone floor, and tried to puzzle out why this would be; if their marriage was valid—as indeed it was—then she was no longer in danger, because the bridegift belonged to Jost. Unless, of course, Jost was killed, and then she was back in the same situation as when she started. Her brow cleared—that must be it, then; he was making sure that the enemy was not inspired to make her a widow, and thus eligible for abduction again.  She rather wished he had informed her of this plan, but then remembered that her face was like glass, and he probably didn’t want her to queer the pitch by confessing it all to the judge.

     “Did you give him the diamonds?” Jost asked in a negligent tone, as though he spoke of trifles.

     The judge answered for her, “Indeed, I have them, and the court will keep them on deposit until it determines to whom they belong.” He then turned and gave instruction to his clerk, who appeared suitably surprised with the nature of his trust.

     Whilst the others were conferring, Juno took the occasion to whisper to Jost in an urgent undertone, “What is it you are plotting, husband?”

     He didn’t attempt to disclaim, but said only, “All will be well, slayer of tigers; my promise to you.”

     “I’d rather not be held in prison,” she retorted with what she considered admirable restraint. Hopefully, word would not get back to Sister Marie.

     “This one, it is better than most,” Jost assured her with the air of one who knows. “And you will draw the visitors, yes?”

     “What sort of visitors?” she asked with suspicion, but the judge was reclaiming her attention, and gesturing to the bailiffs, who were to escort her to her new quarters.

     The elderly man bade her farewell, and bowed in a courtly manner. “I shall see to it that you are made comfortable, my dear, and that an evidentiary hearing is held between the competing parties as soon as possible.”

     “Thank you, my lord,” said Juno without much conviction.  “I would like to say it has been a pleasure, but that remains to be seen.”

     “Precisely,” he agreed with a small, dry smile.