ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Bengal Bridegift


Chapter 36

     As Jost had predicted, Juno found she was to entertain various visitors during her stay in the Fleet Prison.  Peyton came again to exchange her old books for new ones, and stayed for a half hour to converse in a manner that made it clear he felt an obligation to help her through her difficulties. Juno hoped she struck the right balance of polite friendliness, and did not betray her conviction that Peyton was a despicable traitor, who should probably be hung forthwith.

     “I am certain the matter will be resolved to your satisfaction, and that the other woman is mistaken,” he assured her in his understated manner. “I am only sorry that you are embroiled in such an awkward situation.”

     “Indeed.” She noted that Peyton was another who appeared to need some additional sleep. “I suppose it is fortunate that I have no relations in England, to be mortified by the situation.”

     “Save Horry,” he corrected with his grave smile. “Have you had comfort from your brother?”

     Juno decided it was past time to turn the tables. “No—have you seen him? Do you think I should be concerned that he hasn’t been to visit?”

     There was the slightest pause before he assured her, “No, no, my lady—I would read nothing into it; he is a young lad, and loose in London for the first time. I am certain he will turn up shortly.”

     “I hope so,” said Juno with genuine anxiety, and believed that she had carried off the deception.

     Her next visitor was slightly more august. “Sir James Brenthaven, my lady,” announced the turnkey, handing her a calling card. “A member of the Board of Directors for the East India Company.”

     Juno’s heart sank, but then she rallied, thinking she could defend her father and explain that the Minvera was not sunk, but was currently docked in the Blackwall Yard. Eying the turnkey, she ventured, “I suppose I should entertain this one, also?”

     “Certainly, my lady,” the man said without missing a beat, and went to open the entry door.

     Sir James was revealed to be a white-haired gentleman, dressed in a very fine suit of clothes, who bowed elegantly upon making her acquaintance. “Lady Van der Haar,” he intoned in a dry voice. “I hope I do not intrude.”

     Juno smiled. “I am at my leisure, sir.”

     He acknowledged the jest with his own slight smile as he drew up a chair. “May I begin with my condolences upon the unfortunate death of your father.”

     Folding her hands in her lap, Juno matched his grave expression. “Thank you, Sir James,   I shall miss him acutely. Did you know him?”

     He bowed his white head in regret. “I did not have that pleasure, but I am informed that he was a very engaging man.”

     Feeling that she may as well grasp the bull by the horns, she added, “He was also an honest man, also, sir—despite what you may have heard.”

     Her visitor offered delicately, “I understand there are other factors to consider, with respect to his purported actions.”

     Juno decided she probably shouldn’t speak of the secret work for the Crown, and so merely nodded in agreement. “I am certain that when the truth of the matter is revealed, my father’s good name will be restored.”

     Nodding, the gentleman then cleared his throat, and glanced at her from under his brows. “I understand, my lady, that you smuggled a cache of diamonds back from India.”

     Ah, she thought, here’s the meat of the matter. “Yes—in my Papa’s pipe, in fact; they have been turned over to the court, until a determination can be made as to whom they belong.”

     Shifting in his seat, the man chided her gently. “I do not mean to deprecate your actions, my lady, but surely these diamonds should more properly have been delivered to the Company—any assets your father acquired in the course of his trading rightfully belong to the Company.”

     This seemed a bit deceptive, as it seemed to Juno that the diamonds should be handed over to Lloyd’s of London, who had paid out insurance proceeds under false pretenses.  Juno fell back on her status as a wife, and replied, “It was my husband’s suggestion to deposit them with the court, sir, and I followed his direction.”  Now that she thought about it, she did wonder why the diamonds hadn’t been handed straight over to the Lloyd’s insurers; it seemed clear they were part of the ill-gotten insurance proceeds. Yet, as far as she knew, the insurers weren’t making their own claim in court—it was all rather strange.  Juno then remembered that the grey-eyed man had referred to them as “planted diamonds,” and that he had directed Jost to bait another trap. So—perhaps these diamonds were to be put to some unknown use, which would explain why they had not been delivered to the insurance company. Juno, however, decided that she should probably not relate this interesting bit of information to her visitor, and so did not.

     Into the pause in conversation, her visitor scraped his chair even closer to the barred door that separated them. “My lady, I confess I have come to speak with you confidentially, upon confidential matters.”

     “I keep no secrets from my husband, Sir James,” Juno warned in a mild rebuke, worried about whatever was to come.

     “Of course, of course—indeed, Sir Jost is no stranger to these matters and no doubt would approve of my request wholeheartedly.”

     Sighing inwardly, Juno conceded, “I suppose you wish to speak of the bridegift.”

     “Not precisely a bridegift,” the man corrected her.  “Rather, a subterfuge to expedite the transfer of purloined outlay.”

     Poor Jost would have no idea what he is talking about, thought Juno, and I am barely keeping up. “Yes, I completely understand that the money does not truly belong to me—or Sir Jost, more accurately.  That aspect is not disputed, I assure you. ”

     The man bent his head for a moment, gathering his thoughts. “Economic matters in England are currently in a precarious state.”

     Juno nodded, remembering that the wealthy men who paid out insurance claims for Lloyd’s could not help England’s Treasury, because all their money was going to pay out the false insurance claims from India.

     The gentleman leaned forward, his manner intent. “It is a delicate matter—trade is based on trust, you see, and if word gets out that—” he paused, trying to find the right euphemism “— matters were not aboveboard with respect to the Company, the result could be cataclysmic--commerce worldwide could grind to a halt.”

     “Surely it is more important that the truth be revealed?” asked Juno, slightly shocked.  

     The man tilted his head in an equivocal manner. “Upon first blush, certainly. But you must consider the dire results, if worldwide trade is disrupted; why, Napoleon would have prevailed in bringing down England, even though his scheme would not have been successful.  We are a nation of traders, after all.”

     Knitting her brow, Juno thought this over.  “I should think we are past such considerations—it is Mr. Finch who should have considered the harm he would do England, and to the Company.”

     The gentleman nearly choked, and leaned toward her with some anxiety. “I beg you, my lady; pray make no such accusation—Mr. Finch is a fellow Director.”

     But Juno was having none of it, and retorted with some fire, “Mr. Finch planned to murder me, and he probably arranged for my father’s murder, Sir James; I am past caring about your cordial relationship with him.”

     The man stared at her for a long moment, aghast. “You are convinced of this?”

     “I am,” she averred in a grim tone, but then added fairly, “Although I do not know if it can be proven in the Court of Chancery.  Perhaps, Sir James, you should be more concerned about the damage to your industry that would occur if Mr. Finch was arrested for treason and my father’s murder.”

     “It is indeed a grave situation.” The other leaned back, clearly shocked. After a small pause, he made a conciliatory gesture with his hands. “Do you think we could—at the very least—work together, Lady Van der Haar, to see that the sensational details—whatever they may be—are kept to a minimum? It would be to both our advantages.”

     Juno couldn’t help but smile, and made a gesture indicating her circumstances. “What am I to do, Sir James? I am under the court’s protection, and must testify when compelled—I have no choice but to speak the truth.”

     Nodding in understanding, he continued, “Quite right, of course; well, it was just a thought. You will aid us in our efforts to return the funds to their rightful owners, though?”

     “I will,” she agreed, willing to grant him this. “I have no claim, certainly.”

     There was a delicate pause. “I must point out, my lady, that it is not your claim that concerns me—indeed, technically speaking, you have no claim.”

     Seeing what he meant, Juno assured him, “Sir Jost and I are as one mind on this subject, sir.”

     The gentleman raised his eyes to consider the view from the window for a moment, then said in a neutral tone,  “It is a great deal of money—indeed, a fortune; and—although I am loath to cast aspersions, my lady—your husband’s past livelihood does not bear close scrutiny.”

     Juno could only shake her head and smile.  “Then I suppose our only option is to trust him, you and me; it seems we have little other choice.”

     Although he acknowledged her point with a dry smile, her visitor persisted, “As a new bride, you may have influence.”

     “I do,” she agreed, thinking he didn’t know the half of it. “But I think the greater influence is my husband’s hatred for Napoleon, and those who serve him.”

     “Oh?” The gentleman raised his brows. “Is that so?”

     “I am not at liberty to relate the particulars, but rest assured; Sir Jost wishes for nothing more than to bring the enemy down.”

     Juno could see that this revelation was met with some relief.  “You ease my concerns, then, and I shall say no more. However, I would be more sanguine, my lady, if we knew where the funds were hidden.  Perhaps we could circumvent any further unpleasant revelations in court, if we could simply lay hands on the diamonds.” He made an attempt at a friendly smile, which she could see was foreign to his nature.

     So; they were back to the wretched bridegift again, and Juno hid her annoyance only with an effort—it seemed he was openly suggesting that they operate without the consent of the court. Coolly, she replied, “I can’t imagine how I can help you in this aim, Sir James.”

     But the gentleman persisted, even in light of her unbending attitude.  “Perhaps—if you would—you could influence your brother; convince him that there is no point to keeping your father’s secret any longer.”

     Juno stared at him in surprise. “I’m afraid you are mistaken, Sir James. My brother knows no more of this than I.”    

     But the gentleman disagreed, and leaned forward again, speaking softly. “No, my lady. One of those who worked closely with your father is now here in London; he is adamant that your father said the funds were on deposit under your name, and that Horry is the one who knows where they are located.”

     Astonished, Juno now understood the impetus behind everyone’s sudden interest in Horry’s whereabouts. She could only stammer, “Sir James—I assure you that Horry knows no such thing. He would have no reason to keep such a secret from me, or my husband.”

     After a moment’s hesitation, Sir James offered, “Could it be he does not trust Sir Jost? Young Master Payne may fear that anything he tells you will reach Sir Jost’s ears.”

     Adamant, Juno shook her head. “That is not the case, Sir; Horry trusts Sir Jost—I am certain of it.”

     There was a pause while Juno and her visitor thought over this particular stalemate.  “If I may ask,” the man ventured, “—do you indeed know of Master Payne’s whereabouts?’

     “No, I do not,” said Juno in a tart tone uncharacteristic for her. “I do not.” She then stood so as to bring the conversation to a halt, signaling to the turnkey to see her visitor out.

     Juno’s third visitor this day was more welcome than the other two; the turnkey announced Judge Moore, and as the older man approached, Juno held out her right hand through the bars to shake his, until she corrected her gaffe, and switched hands. “I beg your pardon.”

     “Happens all the time,” he assured her as he settled into the chair recently vacated by Sir James. The judge indicated the empty sleeve pinned to his chest. “Lost it to a cannonball in Spain. I was a battlefield surgeon at the time, and had to come up with a new way of earning my bread.”  With a twinkle, he added, “At the very least, I hoped to be mistaken for Admiral Nelson by the ladies but alas—it never happened.”

     As Juno smiled at him, he leaned forward to ask with all sincerity, “How are you, my dear? Is it bearable, here?”

     “I miss my husband, but I understand the necessity.”

     Nodding thoughtfully, he disclosed, “I’m afraid pressure is being brought to bear—and from more than one source.”

     “Yes,” she agreed with empathy.  “I entertained Sir James Brenthaven, just now.”

     ”Ah.” He raised his brows. “Then I tell you nothing you haven’t already heard.”

     Juno recited what she knew. “The company’s Board of Directors would like to see the matter resolved discreetly, and they want the diamonds handed over with no further ado. Apparently the impact of a prolonged scandal will be catastrophic for England’s trade interests.”

     “Indeed—although, are you aware—” he asked carefully, “—that there is an international interest in your bridegift, also?”

     “I am,” she admitted, and was not certain whether she should say anything further.     

     Focusing his gaze on the grated window, he said almost idly, “I have been presented with a marriage license, and a witness who will attest to your husband’s first marriage to the pretender.”

     “I am not surprised; it must have been extremely annoying to them to find out that the putative first wife was not going to cooperate at the hearing.”

     Nodding slowly, he agreed. “I confess that is what struck me as strange, also.  I wonder why she testifies so adamantly that there are no witnesses and no marriage lines in England; it would be to her benefit—one would think—to instead say that there were.”

     “That is true,” Juno agreed, knowing she mustn’t say anything further about Preya’s role in the scheme to thwart the Nabob.

     “What is she like, can you tell me?”

     Juno shook her head. “We have never met, my lord.”

     This brought his gaze back to her in mild surprise. “Is that so? I had thought she looked upon you as a dear friend.”

     “Isn’t that strange? I had the same impression.” Juno knit her brow in puzzlement.  “But we have never met and indeed, it seems unlikely—given the circumstances—that she would look upon me with any favor at all.” 

     Stroking his chin with his good hand, the judge offered, “You and I, it appears, are at the pressure point of immensely powerful competing interests—and through no fault of our own, I might add.”

     “What will you do?” Juno was genuinely curious.  “If it is indeed a matter of national security, as Sir James suggests, perhaps the matter should be resolved discreetly.” Catching herself, she remembered that she mustn’t disrupt whatever plan Jost and the others had put into play, and tempered her comment accordingly. “Although I imagine you’d like to be certain, and not influenced by those perceived as influential.”

     “Fiat justitia ruat caelum,” he agreed.

     “I’m afraid I do not know what that means,” she admitted.

     “’Let justice be done, though the heavens fall,’” he translated, a twinkle appearing in his eye. Reaching into his inner waistcoat pocket, he pulled out a well-worn deck of cards. “May I offer a game, to help pass the time?”