The Bengal Bridegift
They were once again in court, and the Nabob’s advocate gestured toward Juno, who was sitting in the witness box. “It is understandable, certainly. A young woman, raised in a convent school and then thrown into close company with a foreign mercenary who has a certain—allure.”
Not going well, thought Juno, blushing hotly at the insinuation. Wishing for the hundredth time that Jost was here, she listened to the advocate’s insinuations of sexual subjugation. The new judge who was presiding over the matter listened with acute interest, nodding in agreement and giving Juno the occasional pitying glance.
That morning Juno had awakened to the alarming news that Judge Moore had been attacked, and now lay gravely injured and under the care of his physicians. His chambers had been ransacked, and the cache of diamonds, locked within a strongbox, had been stolen. Heartsick over these events, Juno concluded that the heavens had indeed fallen. The news was made even more alarming because it was given to her by a new turnkey who had replaced the old one without explanation; the new one spending much of his time surveying her with an expression closely approximating a leer.
Juno brought her attention back to the hearing, which had been hastily convened to discuss these latest alarming developments, and their impact on the pending matter.
“. . . a Barbary pirate, after all; it must raise grave concerns for any right-minded person.”
Exasperated, Juno interrupted to point out, “If Sir Jost wished to steal the diamonds, he had plenty of opportunity, for heaven’s sake—indeed, he held them safe for me, whilst we sailed to England.”
“My dear,” said the new judge in a gentle tone, leaning in to her. “You must not speak out of turn.”
Juno subsided, and wondered if anyone else had noticed she had no advocate to represent her, this time.
Spreading his hands, the Nabob’s advocate continued, “Where is Sir Jost? It cannot be a coincidence that he is missing, along with the diamonds. Instead, he abandons his too-trusting young bride to face disgrace alone.”
“Indeed,” nodded the new judge, clasping his hands before him on the bench and shaking his head in sorrow. “Deplorable.”
A fool, thought Juno with angry contempt; he must have been hand-picked, and I can only hope that the powers-that-be have everything under control—otherwise I might be tempted to think I am being thrown to the wolves.
Heartened by the judge’s comments, the Nabob’s advocate continued, “His first wife is also not present, and perhaps we may draw the obvious conclusion--reminded of his obligations, the gentleman has now abandoned this poor young woman, whom he has ruined.”
Ah; so at last I am ruined, thought Juno. And I imagine I will soon receive a chivalrous offer of marriage to resolve the situation—from the Nabob, or perhaps even Peyton, again. Where, oh where is Jost?
“My client—” here the advocate indicated the Nabob, who nodded solemnly in acknowledgment from the counsel table “—stands prepared to forgive the witness her breach of their engagement—”
“We were never engaged—” Juno protested, but the judge leaned over to her again, shaking his finger in a gentle admonishment. “Will you not let me speak?” Juno asked him in bewilderment. “You must see that this is all very untoward.”
The advocate and the judge exchanged a glance that spoke of the inability of a female to grasp the basic truth that she was incapable of making any judgments for herself. With a sigh, the judge pronounced, “I am given documentation—uncontradicted documentation—to the effect that Sir Jost’s first marriage was indeed valid, and that his alleged marriage to Miss Payne was a nullity. I admit I am inclined to release this poor young woman from her current confinement, and send along with her my sincere wish that she consult wiser heads in the future.”
I wish I had a blunderbuss about me, thought Juno in a fury—or even a knife to throw. “You make a grave error, my lord—if you would only listen—”
Sensing victory, the advocate made a deferential gesture with the palm of his hand, and said in an aside to the judge, “I imagine there is a pension connected with her father’s service to the East India Company; I can look into the situation and report back to the court.”
Whatever response the judge was to make, however, was interrupted by the sound of raised voices and the sudden tramping entrance of a dozen constables, some of whom came forward and some who remained standing guard around the perimeter of the courtroom area.
“Order,” ventured the judge, tapping his gavel and gazing about him in timid bewilderment. “My heavens—what is the meaning of this?”
A magistrate came forward, flanked by two constables. “Pardon the interruption, my lord, but I come from the Central Criminal Courts, and I must serve an arrest warrant for Mr. Finch.”
The Nabob sprang to his feet, or sprang as quickly as his bulk would allow. “Outrageous,” he thundered. “I assure you, you will not hold your job by this time tomorrow.”
But his wary advocate signaled to him to stay silent, “An arrest warrant? Surely there has been some mistake; my client is attempting to aid this young lady in her difficulties.”
“He must come along to the Old Bailey, to be arraigned forthwith,” the magistrate declared. “Does he plan to resist arrest?” The man glanced at the waiting constables, who looked as though they were looking forward to a set-to.
“Hold, hold—let us be reasonable,” offered the advocate in a conciliatory tone. “Perhaps there has been some mistake; what are the charges?”
With a flourish, the magistrate produced a parchment and handed it to the advocate, who held his pince-nez to his eyes and read the document as the magistrate recited the charges aloud. “Grand theft; conspiracy to commit a burglary; conspiracy to inflict grievous bodily injury on an Officer of the Crown; perversion of justice.”
Juno could hear the gasp of shock that reverberated throughout the court; the charges were serious indeed, and suddenly Juno’s sorry marital status seemed of little importance to the court watchers, who craned their necks in the back.
Blustering, the Nabob made to speak again, but his advocate again signaled him to stay silent, and instead gave voice to his own outrage. “You cannot contend that Mr. Finch was involved in any way with the attack on Judge Moore? Good Lord, man—think over the repercussions of such an accusation.”
After a dramatic pause, the magistrate played his trump. “The stolen diamonds were discovered an hour ago in Mr. Finch’s home safe.”
“Ridiculous,” blasted the Nabob, unable to stay silent. “I store gold, diamonds and precious gems in that safe as a matter of course; how dare you—how dare you imply they are the stolen diamonds.”
“Not diamonds,” the magistrate corrected him. “Mere paste.”
There was a small silence. “Paste?” asked the advocate, and Juno noted that the Nabob drew out a handkerchief, and held it to his lips.
“Paste,” the magistrate confirmed. “And specially marked, besides.” Turning to the constables flanking him, he directed them to manacle the suspect, which they did by roughly turning him about and pulling his arms behind him. “I would much enjoy hearing an explanation as to how the marked diamonds came to be in your safe, Mr. Finch.”
“Say nothing,” the advocate instructed the Nabob, himself a bit pale as he accompanied the group out of chambers. The court-watchers, anticipating a much more interesting session in the criminal assizes, followed them out, leaving only Juno and the judge in the courtroom, flanked by a few remaining constables.
“Well, fancy that,” said the judge, in some shock. “Poor Bernie.”
Juno imagined he referred to Judge Moore, but she was still staring at the retreating group of men and marveling at the trap that had been sprung. So; the diamonds entrusted to her by the dying priest—or faux priest—were indeed planted, and not diamonds at all. It would be impossible to directly implicate the Nabob in the insurance scheme, so Jost and the others had done the next best thing and set up a situation where he would be desperate to seize whatever diamonds he could—only these could be traced, and were not diamonds at all. It was damning evidence indeed, and one would think all the money in the world could not purchase mercy from a court seeking vengeance for an attack on one of its officers. The Nabob was finished, and there would be no more nefarious schemes—indeed, he may well hang. Was it over? Juno wondered as she thought it through. Could she go to Jost now, wherever he is?
The answer, unfortunately, presented itself almost immediately. One of the constables came forward to stand before the still-stunned judge and explain deferentially, “I’ve been instructed to take the lady back to her cell, my lord.”
Juno saw, with an inward sigh, that the erstwhile constable was actually the grey-eyed man. Without waiting for permission from the incompetent judge, she rose and stepped down from the witness box and then willingly accompanied her escort and another constable back to her cell—and now that she was paying attention, she recognized the other man as her former turnkey. They entered the transport coach, and as soon as the driver had been given direction, Juno decided these people owed her some answers, after the humiliations of this day. “Where is Sir Jost?”
The grey-eyed man answered without looking at her. “He is otherwise engaged. As for myself, I would prefer to be watching the assizes, but I was required to give my solemn oath that I would escort you back to your cell, personally.”
Her escort seemed disinclined to speak further as the transport coach rattled up the Strand to the Fleet Prison. Nevertheless, she asked in a quiet voice, “So; it is not yet over?”
“It is never over,” he replied cryptically. “And you are better off in your prison cell, believe me. The bridegift remains undiscovered, and you remain at the center of this mystery.”
“I am given to understand that it is Horry who is at the center of the mystery, and not me.”
But he would neither confirm nor deny. “Perhaps, but marrying Horry will win no one a fortune.”
Sighing, Juno reflected, “I used to be no one of importance.”
“The perils of war,” her companion agreed. “Chin up; it is entirely possible you will retreat back into obscurity very shortly—although obscurity is probably no longer an option, given who you’ve chosen to marry.”
Juno retorted with defiance, “I wouldn’t change a moment of what has happened, if it meant I wouldn’t have met my husband; not a single moment.”
But her cynical companion only made a sound of impatience. “Spare me the sentiment, if you please; you have no idea what you have married into.”
“On the contrary,” she retorted with some heat, “I have every idea, and I will not listen to you disparage him.”
“Don’t make her angry,” cautioned the turnkey in all seriousness. “I heard tell that she killed a tiger with her bare hands.”
“I did not kill him with my bare hands; I speared him with an umbrella,” Juno corrected him crossly. “Honestly, I don’t know how such stories get started.” A sudden silence settled over the coach’s interior, and nothing more was said for the remainder of the journey.
When they arrived at her cell, the grey-eyed man indicated to the replacement turnkey that he had been relieved, and the man seemed very surprised by this news. “Are ye sure? I bin tole…”
“Oh, I am sure. Come along.” He then turned to say to the former turnkey, who was now back in place, “Report any visitors to me through the usual channels.”
Puckering her brow, Juno watched him leave from behind her grated door, and wondered at the command—apparently she was to continue her role as the bait in the trap, even though one would imagine the trap had already been successfully sprung. Sighing, she settled into her chair and took up a book, awaiting the next dire event.
She didn’t have long to wait. In a little while, the turnkey entered to announce that Peyton waited without. “Oh—oh, of course; do show him in.” If Peyton was aligned with the Nabob—or the French—he must be very uneasy about the latest turn of events; indeed, she wondered that he’d come at all, instead of choosing to flee with all speed.
“Mr. Peyton is accompanied by a young woman, who claims your acquaintance,” the turnkey added with a wooden expression.
Preya, thought Juno in some surprise, and decided there was no harm in hearing what the woman had to say. Rising to greet her visitors, she was astonished to behold not Preya, but Aditi; clinging to Peyton’s arm and gazing upon Juno with a triumphant, spiteful expression.
Trouble, thought Juno with a sinking heart, and wondered if the grey-eyed man knew of this particular disaster.