ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Bengal Bridegift


Chapter 34

     “Order,” cautioned the judge, tapping repeatedly with his gavel, while the gallery broke out in excited exclamations. “Will you come forward and be sworn, madam?”

     Juno sat in shock, processing several factors at once; on the one hand, the surprise witness could only mean trouble, as it was clear the Nabob had some scheme in mind. On the other hand, Juno had to face the possibility that it was true—that Preya was the rightful Lady Van Der Haar.  No, she thought immediately—Jost assured me he had never married Preya; that he had only said it so to protect her.  It was the height of irony that his gesture had worked so well that the woman was now before them, safe and sound, and working with the Nabob to bring about Juno’s disgrace.  Unless it was true—Jost was indeed a bigamist—and in that case, the woman could hardly be faulted, and Juno’s own future stood in smoldering ruins. 

     Preya walked toward the witness box as the Nabob exited, and Juno, along with everyone else, watched her progress with intense interest. She had imagined that Preya would be an older version of Aditi, attractive and sensual, and so was rather surprised that the woman did not have these qualities at all. Instead, she was almost painfully slender, and looked every inch her age, her skin tone rather sallow. Juno was reminded that she’d recently lost her child and her lover, and despite everything, felt a rush of sympathy. With quiet dignity, Preya passed by the counsel table on her way to the witness box, and turned her head at the last moment to look—not at Jost, but directly at Juno.  Their eyes met, and Juno felt a strange sense of recognition; the woman’s calm gaze reminded Juno of something--or someone. In any event, her demeanor was not hostile, or triumphant; but strangely serene—given the circumstances—and Juno, along with everyone else, was transfixed.

     “Do you speak English, madam?” asked the judge as Preya was seated.

     She nodded and said in a quiet voice. “Yes—some.”

     “Do you understand you must tell the truth?” Apparently, he had concluded that flourishing a Bible would not be helpful.

     She nodded again. “Yes.”

     The judge indicated Jost with a gesture. “Do you believe you are married to this man?”

     Preya turned to look at Jost. “Yes.” Her gaze then rested briefly on Juno, once again.

     Neda, thought Juno in surprise; she reminds me of Neda. A little girl of perhaps seven, Neda had been rescued by Sister Marie from slave traders.  Juno had not witnessed the incident, but had been told that the diminutive nun had confronted the slaver as he beat his helpless charge.  Sister had paid the man for the girl, and Neda had come to live at the convent for a short time before she died of consumption. The little girl never spoke, but followed Sister everywhere, her devoted gaze never wavering from the nun’s face.   I don’t understand, thought Juno in confusion; why would Preya look upon me with such profound gratitude?

     “Did you live together as husband and wife?”

     “Yes,” Preya nodded. “We had a daughter—Bala—but she is now dead.”

     The murmuring in the gallery rose up once again, but the judge did not bother to attempt to regain order, instead giving a mighty sigh as he indicated Jost with a tilt of his head. “Swear him in, and let us get to the bottom of this.”

     Jost was asked to stand in place before the bench, and was sworn in.  “Are you married to this woman?” The judge indicated Preya, who remained in the witness box.

     “Which woman?” Jost’s demeanor was one of guileless confusion, which evoked suppressed laughter from the back of the court.

     But the judge was not in a joking mood. “None of your insolence, if you please; answer the question.”

     Jost indicated Juno, seated in front of him. “I am married to this woman.”

     “Objection,” cried the Nabob’s advocate as he leapt to his feet. “This man is a convicted felon, and therefore his testimony must be discounted.”

     But Juno’s advocate also stood to protest, “I believe, your honor, that all past convictions have been expunged by command of the king.”

     Impatiently, the judge motioned for both to be seated. “No more interruptions, counsel.”  Leaning forward to continue his questioning, the judge asked, “Did you participate in a wedding ceremony with this witness at any time?”

     Crossing his arms, Jost gave the appearance of thinking very seriously about this, but in the end, shook his head. “Me, I do not think so.”

     The judge’s annoyance was betrayed only by the tapping of his fingers on the bench as the gallery tittered. “But you are not certain? How can this be, sir?”

     Jost shrugged, and spread his hands in an apologetic manner.  “Back then, there was much of the drink, much of the time.”  Again, suppressed laughter could be heard, a bit louder this time. 

     Having apparently decided this line of questioning was not going to be fruitful, the judge again turned to Preya.   “Do you have your marriage lines, madam?”

     “No,” Preya said calmly. “I have lost them.”

     The Nabob started, and glanced at his advocate, and Juno had the impression this was a surprise; apparently they had hoped to present the court with conclusive proof of the marriage. Noting their reaction, Preya looked over to them, seated at the Petitioner’s table. “I must tell the truth.”

     Frowning, the judge thought over the situation and then asked, “Are there witnesses who could testify to your marriage, madam?”

     “Oh, yes,” Preya agreed, nodding. “Many witnesses.  They are in Algiers.”

     Dismayed, the judicial officer asked, “But is there anyone here in England, madam--someone closer to hand?”

     The witness shook her head with regret. “No one in England.”

     The Nabob’s advocate stood. “My lord, I am not certain this is true; allow us to investigate—”

     “No,” interrupted Preya firmly. “There is no one in England who was at my wedding.”

     So, thought Juno with extreme interest—this particular item of false testimony was not going according to plan, it would seem.

     The judge once again rested his sympathetic gaze on Juno, then cleared his throat and addressed the assembled spectators. “As Sir Jost Van der Haar and Lady Van der Haar—this one—” here he indicated Juno with a nod of his head, “—have each testified they are legally wed, the claimant—” here he indicated Preya, “—has the burden of proof to come forward with credible evidence sufficient to overcome that presumption. The claimant believes such evidence exists, although it will take some time to marshal. The claimant shall bear the burden of proving that the marriage between Sir Jost and the claimant was valid, and that it preceded his marriage to the current Lady Van der Haar. Therefore, I’m afraid the court must hold in abeyance the determination as to whether Sir Jost is entitled to the bridegift until a later date.”

     The Nabob sat back heavily in his chair as the judge addressed the bailiff. “Lady Van der Haar continues at risk, as long as her marital status remains unclear. Therefore, she must remain in protective custody.”  Addressing Preya, he asked that she leave her direction with the clerk in the event the court needed to contact her.  The proceedings were then adjourned with a tap of the gavel, and Juno was once again escorted by armed guards through the Hall to go back to Fleet Prison, which was apparently to serve as her home for the bleakly foreseeable future. 

     Distracted by the enormity of the situation, Juno’s gaze rested briefly on the spectators who watched for her reaction to these scandalous revelations.   Startled, she recognized a familiar pair of grey eyes, peering at her from beneath the brows of one of the elderly pensioners. I am unsurprised, she thought as she walked past without showing a trace of recognition.  Because nothing is what it seems, or more properly, no one is who they seem, including my erstwhile husband.  Sighing, she thought over the significance of what she’d heard, and came to the unwelcome conclusion that one way or another, she had been thoroughly duped by Jost; it only remained to determine which of her theories was the correct one.