ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Bengal Bridegift


Chapter 33

     The court hearing was underway, and Juno’s advocate leaned forward to ask, “And what, my lady, was the outcome of the hearing?” He turned to the judge in a rather theatrical manner, to emphasize that this response was particularly important.

     “The judge at Fort St. George nullified both the marriage license, and the death certificate.” Before the hearing, the advocate had come to confer with Juno in her cell, and after listening to a detailed description of exactly what had happened in the Madras court, he had suggested—in a carefully neutral tone—that she testify only in broad generalities, and omit any reference to swordplay unless directly questioned on that subject.  Juno thought this a good plan, all things considered.

      “Move to accept the evidence,” said her advocate, presenting the documents to the judge with the air of someone who has the case sewn up.

     “Any objection?” asked Judge Moore, seated atop the bench, and wearing his full judge’s regalia.

     The Nabob’s advocate stood. “None, my lord.”

     Juno carefully kept her lowered gaze on the wooden rail of the witness box whilst the clerk marked the documents.  When she had been escorted into the court under heavy guard, she had immediately seen the Nabob, sitting at the Petitioner’s table, and watching her entry with a sympathetic expression.  Thinking of the man’s involvement in her father’s murder—not to mention his treasonous plans—she had to look away, and firmly turn her mind to something else.  In the first row of the spectator’s seats sat Jost, Jairus, and Peyton—Horry being nowhere in evidence. Toward the back of the court area were perhaps a dozen citizens, many of them elderly, whom Juno was given to understand were court-watchers who spent their spare time observing whatever proceedings were going forward. Juno glanced up quickly to meet Jost’s eyes, and her husband gave her a slow wink of encouragement.

      “And what did you believe was the purpose of the filing of these false documents?”

     The Nabob’s advocate stood. “Objection, my lord. Calls for speculation.”

     “I will allow it,” said the judge. He then leaned to Juno. “You may answer.”

     Juno swallowed. “I believe the purpose was to lay hands on my bridegift.”  She corrected herself, “My supposed bridegift.”

     Her advocate turned to face the assembled spectators when he asked the next question. “But if, under Indian custom, your bridegroom would receive your bridegift upon your marriage, what would be the purpose of the false death certificate?”

     Juno’s gaze rested upon Jost’s and she said as steadily as she was able, “I believe my death was planned so that I could not contest any falsely-claimed marriage.”

     There was an audible gasp among the court-watchers in the back, and then a murmuring of voices.

     “Order,” commanded the judge, tapping his gavel. “Quiet in the court.”

     The advocate turned back to her, tilting his head in studied concern. “That is a grave accusation to make, my lady.”

     “I cannot think of any other reason,” Juno admitted in a small voice. “It is horrifying, indeed.”

     “I rest my direct examination, my lord,” said the advocate, and he gave Juno a glance which seemed to convey she had done well.

     The Nabob’s advocate now stood to conduct his cross-examination, and Juno mentally steeled herself.  His questions, however, took an unexpected tack.

     “I understand you attended a religious school in Calcutta, my lady.”

     “I did,” Juno readily admitted. She added nothing further, having been cautioned by her advocate to answer each question as briefly as possible.

     The advocate turned to glance at the spectators. “A Roman Catholic convent school, I believe.”

     “Yes,” said Juno, wondering if he was hoping to prejudice the judge against her.

     “You have been taught the basic tenets of the Christian religion, then, and you have sworn to tell the truth upon the Bible; isn’t that correct, Lady Van der Haar?”

     “Yes, sir,” said Juno, at sea.

     “Do you indeed know where your bridegift has been secreted?”

     Juno was almost relieved, now that she realized what was afoot. Leaning forward, she replied with all the sincerity she could muster, “I honestly believe there is no bridegift, sir. My father never spoke of it, and I have no idea where such a gift could be.”  Hopefully, her face was like glass, because it was nothing more than the unvarnished truth.  She leaned back, and could feel the intense regard of every person assembled in the court, even Jost.  There, she thought;  I hope that settles it.

     The Nabob’s advocate paced back and forth for a moment, gathering his thoughts.  “When did you last see Mr. Finch, before today?”

     With an effort, Juno refrained from glancing toward him at the Petitioner’s table. “It was nearly four months ago, at the school in Bengal.”

     “Did the two of you discuss marriage?”

     Juno could not like his characterization, and corrected him, “Mr. Finch did suggest a marriage between us.”

     The Nabob’s advocate nodded thoughtfully. “Did Mr. Finch attempt to browbeat you, or threaten you in any way?”

     “He did not,” said Juno fairly.

     “And what was your response to his offer?”

     “I told him I would consider it,” admitted Juno, and again, a murmuring of voices could be heard from the back of the court.

     “But instead—” and here the man paused so as to draw attention to the question “—you married another within a short span of time?”

     Juno was almost stung into marshaling a heated defense of her actions, then remembered her advocate’s caution. “Yes,” she replied, and added nothing more.

     “Order,” said the judge, tapping his gavel again to quell the quiet crescendo of voices from the back.

     The Nabob’s advocate nodded thoughtfully as he paced before the witness box. “My lady, the court has issued a subpoena for your brother, Master Horatio Payne; however, we cannot determine his whereabouts so as to serve him, and bring him forth. Do you know where your brother is?”

     “I do not,” admitted Juno. 

     The man paused, thinking. “When was the last time you saw him?”

     Juno’s advocate stood. “I fail to see the relevance, my lord.”

     “Sustained,” said the judge. “This is neither here nor there—have you further examination?”

     “I will rest, my lord.” The man stepped next to the Nabob, and leaned down to have a murmured conversation.

     “The court discharges the witness,” said the judge, and with no small relief, Juno descended from the witness box, and went to sit at the Respondent’s table with her advocate.

     “Next witness,” the court directed.

     “The petitioner would like to testify, my lord.”

     Juno watched as the Nabob stepped heavily into the witness box, his expression grave. Papa’s financier, she thought; and apparently the lever of his disgrace, and death. She must have made an involuntary sound because her advocate laid a hand on her arm, and patted it in reassurance.

     The direct examination commenced. “Mr. Finch; you are a Director with the East India Company?”

     “I am.”

     There was a small pause to allow those observing to be suitably impressed, and then the Nabob’s advocate continued, “Did you file a marriage license with the St. George court?”

     “I did not,” the Nabob proclaimed loudly and with an air of injury. Again, there was a collective gasp in the back of the area. 

     The advocate appeared suitably puzzled by this mystery. “Do you know who did?”

     “I have no idea,” the witness asserted. “I am as much a victim of this fraud as is Lady Van der Haar.”

     “And did you file a death certificate for this young woman?” The man’s air of incredulity left little doubt as to the expected answer.

     “Never,” the Nabob maintained, ponderously shaking his head. “I sincerely wished to marry her—to take care of the poor young woman in her difficulties.”

     Incredulous, Juno listened to the testimony and realized there was little that could be proved; not without laying hands on some witnesses who resided halfway around the world—and not to mention that those selfsame witnesses might very well testify however the Nabob wished them to testify. To ease her frustration, she tried to look on the bright side; surely he was now stymied—he wouldn’t dare attempt any more skullduggery, now that the scrutiny of the law was upon him. 

     The Nabob’s advocate put a hand on the witness box to emphasize the next question.  “Did you have any idea that the young lady’s father had bestowed a bridegift?”

     “None,” the Nabob testified in the same sincere tone. “My motives were altruistic, I assure you.” He paused, and then added in a self-deprecatory tone, “Although the young lady is indeed very attractive; one such as I could not hope to do better.”  He made a self-deprecatory gesture indicating his great girth, and this sally was met with some sympathetic chuckling from the gallery.  On this note, the direct examination concluded, and Juno’s advocate rose to conduct a cross-examination.

     He asked without preamble, “Mr. Finch; if your motives were altruistic could you explain to the court why you filed a Writ of Execution with respect to this young woman’s assets immediately upon reaching London?”

     “Objection,” the Nabob’s advocate cried, leaping to his feet as the whispering in the back reached a crescendo. “Assumes facts not in evidence.”

     Juno’s advocate assumed a posture of confusion. “I withdraw the question, my lord; let us walk through the sequence of events, then. Mr. Finch, did you file a Writ of Execution immediately upon reaching London?”

     But the Nabob had recovered his equilibrium and replied with dignity, “I had heard word of her death, and sought to secure any inheritance for Horatio; their father had recently died, and I felt—as his friend and his financier—that it was my obligation; there was no one else to stand in loco parentis, so to speak.”  

     Juno’s advocate heard this explanation with a grave expression, as though seriously considering what he had heard.  “I see. You could not know when you took such an action that Lady Van der Haar was, in fact alive—and indeed, had married.”

     “No,” the witness testified with emphasis. “I could not know.”

     Juno’s advocate spread his hands. “Then perhaps you will agree to withdraw your petition before this court; as these two events have indeed occurred, it must now be clear you can hope for no part of any bridegift.”

     But the Nabob would not concede, and replied in an apologetic manner, “I’m afraid it is not that simple, sir. Questions remain as to the young lady’s marital status.”

     A dead silence met this remark, and with an inward sigh, Juno waited for the inevitable questions about her wedding ceremony, thanking providence that Jost had the foresight to have so many witnesses—there could be little question that she was well and truly married.

     Juno could see that her advocate was wary, and did not frame a new question. The judge, however, was under no such constraint. “What is meant by such a remark, sir?”

     The Nabob’s advocate signaled to a bailiff who stood in the back of the court, and the man moved to help a reed-thin woman to her feet, and escort her forward. Juno gauged the women to be approximately thirty years of age, and of Middle Eastern descent; she was dressed in a modest walking-dress with her dusky hair arranged in a becoming coiffure under her bonnet.  

     “Preya,” breathed Jost from behind Juno. “Verdomme.”

     “Lady Van der Haar,” the bailiff announced.