The Bengal Bridegift
Juno sat in her cell, leaning against the wall by the gate and waiting for Jost, watching the shadows move on the opposite wall and finding that she was having some difficulty putting two thoughts together. I am so weary of having the ground cut out from beneath me, she thought, and just when I think I have finally found my feet; it is of all things unfair.
The turnkey had taken one look at her face and had bowed out to leave her alone. I wonder how much he knows of all this, she thought, tracing a finger on the iron bars. It would be the final straw if my jailor knows more about my marriage than I do. When the handle of the door to the gallery began to turn she sat up and straightened her skirts, wishing she could straighten everything else out as easily. Watching Jost hold the door to speak to the turnkey for a moment, she decided he looked unusually weary, and her heart turned over for him. He is so dear to me, she thought a bit fiercely. And there is no doubt we are truly married—there is that. I must not wail and gnash my teeth because I have a only a half a loaf when I believed I had a full loaf—it is a very fine half loaf, after all.
Pulling up a chair on the other side of the bars, her husband’s gaze searched her face. Horry must still have the razor, she thought—he has not shaved recently. Striving to keep her tone light, she remarked, “It appears you have one wife too many.”
Her tone did not fool him, and his own manner was grave. “It is not true, lieve.”
“Preya is lying?”
He offered no further explanation, and she thought about this. “Is she in danger, then?”
Tilting his head so that the braid fell forward, he said only, “Preya, she will help to solve the problems—I cannot tell you more.”
Utterly perplexed, Juno said, “I suppose I can understand the desire to delay the decision about the bridegift so that the enemy does not have it, but since the bridegift has not been found, I fail to see how any of this is helpful.”
“It is hardest for you to understand—me, I know this,” he replied with true regret. “You say always what is true and will not do the callous things.”
But you will, she thought with her newfound sadness, thinking of what Preya’s testimony had revealed about the lengths to which he would go. Shying away from thinking about it, instead she focused on his obvious dismay at causing her this particular heartache. “Were you expecting me to behave in a certain way—should I have had a more violent reaction? I didn’t know.”
He reached his hands through the bars, palms up, to hold her hands, and after the barest hesitation, she placed her hands in his. “No, you did well. I am sorry for it, but we wanted you to have the shock so that all could see.”
She made a wry mouth. “Oh, I had the shock—never fear.” Only not for the reason he believed.
His dark eyes were watching her carefully, unsure of her mood. “Do you believe me when I say it is not true? Me, I swear to you on the soul of my mother, Juno—”
“I believe you,” she assured him, and fought the sadness that threatened to overwhelm her. “I wish I knew what had been planned, is all.”
He squeezed her hands gently. “You are not the good liar, lieve.”
“That is one of the first things you ever said to me, do you remember?” She couldn’t control the slight quaver in her voice.
“Me, I do not forget anything,” he assured her, his worried gaze on her face. “All will be well, my Juno—we will take Horry, and sail to Tortola; we will leave this place.”
“Good.” She dropped her gaze again. “England is too cold.” You are such a coward, Juno, she thought; you have every right to know, and you must ask, or it will hang between you for the rest of your lives. Drawing a breath, she said, “There is something else I need to ask you.”
He lifted her hand to kiss it through the bars. “Lieve, there are those things I cannot tell you.”
“I understand—but this is something else.”
Gauging her mood, he bent forward, the dark eyes serious upon hers. “Tell me, my heart.”
“I was thinking it over,” she began, “—and I cannot imagine that you have seen Preya since you were in Algiers.”
“No,” he agreed. “A long time.”
Juno paused so as to keep her emotions in check, and continued. “Yet she knew to come to London and contest your marriage to me—it is no short trip, from Algiers, so that she must have been already on her way here, before we were married. It seems to me that this plan—or whatever it is—made you aware that you were required to marry me, even before you met me.”
“Lieve—” he protested in dismay.
But she overrode him, and added before she lost her nerve, “And I must admit that it makes perfect sense—you are not a man to marry anyone, yet you wanted to marry me immediately, and did not rest until you had done so.”
He shook his head in denial. “No; me, I will explain it to you—”
Very much afraid that she would believe whatever tale he told her, she interrupted him again to plead, “Please, Jost—I love you and I will always love you—but I would like to know the truth—whether it was all a sham—” despite her best efforts, her voice broke and she struggled on, “—and you married me for the express purpose of protecting the bridegift.” She found she could no longer look at him, and retrieved her hands from his, so as to cover her eyes and weep; the pent-up emotions from the last few hours finally bursting forth.
His hands stroked and cradled her head as she buried her face in her hands and sobbed, wishing she could have maintained her poise and aware, all the while, that she would take whatever scraps he would offer her, because life without him did not bear contemplation.
“Lieve,” he whispered. “Do not cry—ah, do not.”
Taking a deep breath, she wiped her cheeks with her hand, having left her handkerchief in the courtroom. Trying to gather up the shreds of her dignity, she concluded, “I do not doubt that you are fond of me, but I would have the truth from you.”
Resting his forearms on the cross bar of the gate, he gently lifted her face in his hands. “Juno, you must look at me.”
Stifling a sob, she raised her eyes to see that he was completely serious, the dark eyes intent upon hers. “Me, I do what I want, yes?”
But she could not agree, and pointed out in a watery voice, “Not always; there is the niyama.”
He made a sound of impatience as his thumbs brushed over her cheeks. “The promises among the men are each for the other. Me, I do what I want; niemand—no one—has the om kracht—the force—to make me do what I do not want to do—no one.”
Watching him through her tears, she was convinced of his sincerity, because in his agitation he was fast losing command of the language.
“No one brings the power over me,” he emphasized again, her head in his hands. He paused, his jaw working. “No one except you,” he amended. “What you tell me to do I will do—always.”
Raising her hands, she ran them along his thick forearms to soothe him. “Yes, I believe you; I hadn’t thought of it that way—you are the least likely candidate to go along with such a scheme. It is only that I don’t understand—what of Preya, how did she know to come?”
He took a breath to calm himself. “Preya, she was going to be you.”
At sea, Juno ventured, “I’m afraid I do not understand.”
His hands still on her face, Jost leaned close and lowered his voice, even though the turnkey stood on the other side of the door, and they were quite alone. “Your father, he hid the diamonds and said they are Juno’s, but the others—the ones we fight—they know this also. So I go to Bengal to see if you are still alive.”
Nodding, she noted in a wry tone, “Yes; I was still alive because the Rajah got greedy, the voyage was delayed, and I hadn’t been thrown overboard as yet.”
“Yes. If you are alive, then I must take you to London to say there was no marriage with the Nabob. But if you are not alive, Preya goes to London to say she is you, and she is not married, so that it would take much time to prove she is not you.”
“Oh—I see,” Juno said slowly as the light began to break. “She was coming to London regardless, to help slow everything down. And when the grey-eyed man discovered you had married me, the plan was changed; instead she had to pretend to cooperate with the Nabob so as to tell her tale today, but she crossed him up, and made it impossible for the court to decide who gets the bridegift.”
“Assuredly. The court here is very slow; the more slow it is, the more it does not help Napoleon. And we have the time to find the bridegift.”
“But Preya is quite a bit older than I,” Juno pointed out with just a trace of feminine satisfaction. “And she is not English—no one would have believed that she was me in the first place.”
“There are those who would come in to the court to swear that your mother, she was an Indian woman,” Jost explained easily. “Many people.”
“Oh,” said Juno, a bit shocked. “I see.”
The hard planes of his face softened. “No one tells me I must marry you. But I see you in Bengal, with your too-heavy gun, and your worries about Horry, and I think to myself, I must marry her—she is the finest woman.”
Juno bent her head, because fresh tears had come and he wiped them away with his callused fingers. “Yes?” He bent to look up into her face.
“Yes. I’m glad I understand, now.”
“This, this is not good.” He indicated the bars between them.
“Apparently it is necessary, so I cannot complain.” Glancing up at him, she decided to raise her last remaining concern, and so ventured in a small voice, “I thought perhaps you married me because of Papa—because you admired him so.”
The glint of humor returned to those dark eyes, and he weighed what he would say for a moment as his fingers moved gently on her face. “Your father, he says, ‘Jost, you stay away from my daughter.’”
Juno had to chuckle; the imitation was pitch perfect. “Truly?”
“Yes,” he admitted. “Me, I did not want to tell you he said this.”
Lifting her hand to caress the side of his face, she felt the stubble of several days’ beard and thought there was truly no finer sight in all the world. “He would be very pleased with how it all turned out, I think—now that you are decorous.”
“You are the only one who thinks I am decorous,” he admitted. Turning his face to kiss her palm, he added, “I marry you, Juno, because I love you. No other reason.”
“Lieve,” she responded, running her thumb over his mouth.
“You will not cry, anymore?” He wanted her promise.
“I will not.” Which brought her to the next concern, in what appeared to be a never-ending list. “But I was thinking, Jost, if we delay too much, and too much pressure is brought to bear, wouldn’t that make them think that the most expedient thing is to simply kill you, so as to make me a widow?”
He shook his head in disagreement. “If our marriage is good, the bridegift, it is mine. If I die, it goes back to your father, not to you.”
“Oh,” she said, thinking this over. “I forgot—it’s not like an English dowry, it is a gift to the bridegroom. But in this case, Papa is dead.”
“They must prove your father is dead.” Jost shrugged his broad shoulders. “Who can say? Where is he buried? Again, there are the many witnesses who will say he is hiding from the legal troubles, only.”
Staring at him, she noted with admiration, “I see. It appears every contingency has been stymied.”
He tilted his head. “Me, I do not know what this means.”
“It means your people have thought of everything.”
His expression turned grave. “We will see, soon. I will not visit for several days, lieve.”
She digested this piece of unwelcome news, and tried to hide her dismay. “Will you see Horry?”
“No,” he said with regret. “Me, I do not know where Horry is.”
“Right, then,” she replied as steadily as she was able. “I will await your return, safe as a house.”