The Bengal Bridegift
Juno addressed Aditi in a pointed tone. “Mrs. Landon; where is your husband, Mr. Landon?”
“You do not ask the questions,” retorted Aditi at her most insolent, tossing her head. “You will answer the questions.” She then ran her fingers down Peyton’s arm in a proprietary manner, and leaned into his shoulder, looking up to him with a seductive smile.
Thoroughly shocked, Juno admonished the girl, “Aditi, you are a married woman, now; recall that you have your ring.”
“And you are a stupid, stupid girl,” riposted Aditi, her temper flaring. “You lecture me—you! You who let Jost take you to bed every night before you were married.”
“Aditi,” breathed Juno in embarrassed dismay.
But the girl was unrepentant, and lifted her chin. “Mr. Landon does not have money; Mr. Peyton has money. It is simple, and you are stupid.” With a full measure of spite she emphasized the adjective once again, nearly hissing in her triumph.
“Please,” interpolated Peyton in his calm voice, patting Aditi’s hand on his arm. “Do not be unkind, my dear—I must ask my questions, remember?”
“Hurry,” urged Aditi as she wound her arms around his neck with a sensuous motion, and Juno wondered in horror if she was, in fact, drunk.
His ears turning pink, the man gently drew her away. “You must forgive her,” he apologized to Juno. “She was not raised as a gentlewoman, I’m afraid.”
But Juno was having none of it. “I confess I am shocked by your behavior, Mr. Peyton; I thought you were a gentleman, and a friend to Mr. Landon.”
He bowed his head in acknowledgment of the justness of her accusations. “Yes; but I’m afraid matters have reached the sticking point, and I must reassess my plans—indeed, I fear I must depart England immediately, and I cannot resist the offer of such pleasant companionship. You must agree that I cannot claim your husband’s prowess with the opposite sex.”
Aware that he was trying to wound her with the innuendo, Juno didn’t flinch but instead reiterated, “You are no gentleman, sir, to play such a trick.”
But he was not discomfited and only returned, “I confess I am rather shocked in turn; I never would have guessed that you could participate in the scheme to trap the Nabob—such duplicity would seem beyond your powers.”
So; the gloves were off, and he would no longer pretend he wasn’t involved in the treasonous scheme. Aware that she should be careful not to give anything away, Juno drew herself up. “I will not discuss these matters with you, and I believe you should take your—companion—and leave.”
Petyon watched her narrowly for a moment. “First, I must know whether the remaining diamonds—the ones from your father—are also paste. You will save me and many others a great deal of time and trouble.”
But Juno held firm, unwilling to give him any advantage. “I will tell you nothing. Take Mrs. Landon and leave, please.”
With an apologetic smile, Peyton played his trump. “Perhaps you will reconsider? If I am left to believe the diamonds are genuine, then Aditi has agreed to lead me to your brother; she knows where he is, you know.”
Horrified, Juno advanced to the bars and said in an urgent tone to Aditi, “You mustn’t; whatever he has promised you is false—he is not a good man, Aditi.”
Tossing her head, Aditi turned a shoulder to her and refused to answer.
Trying to quash her burgeoning panic, Juno addressed Peyton again. “Horry knows nothing of this; the rumor that he has knowledge of the diamonds is simply not true.”
“My concern is not whether Horry can find the diamonds—I am certain he can. My concern is whether I will wind up with a bagful of paste, for my trouble,” Peyton explained patiently. “You will tell me what you know, and then we shall see if Horry is worth my time.”
Sickened, Juno struggled, wishing she knew what she was supposed to say. I imagine everyone is expecting me to behave as I normally do, she decided, and then admitted honestly, “I have no knowledge of whether the diamonds are real or paste, or indeed if they exist at all.”
Watching her, Peyton nodded, apparently satisfied. “I see.”
“Please leave Horry alone; Aditi—”
“Enough,” said Peyton, and for the first time, Juno heard a touch of steel, underlying his normal courteous tone. Addressing Aditi, he turned to leave. “We must go see to the boy, my dear.”
Desperate, Juno clutched at the bars and begged, “Aditi—oh, please—”
But Aditi was not to be moved, and instead followed Peyton toward the door, swinging her hips. Whirling, she paused to mock Juno once more in parting. “Aditi, Aditi,” she imitated in a sing-song, scornful tone. “That is not even my true name, stupid girl—I am Judith.”
Juno stared in shock as the Indian girl’s gaze held hers for a long moment. The reference was to Aditi’s favorite Bible heroine—the one who had seduced, and then beheaded the enemy general.
Peyton signaled to the turnkey to open the door, and said in parting, “Farewell, Lady Van der Haar; I doubt we will ever meet again.”
As Juno watched him go—presumably, to his death---Aditi followed him out the door. Just before she left, Aditi turned to Juno one last time, and dropped the perfectly executed curtsey that Juno had taught her.
The door clanged shut, and Juno was left in the profound silence of her cell. “Well, then,” she said aloud, and sank back into her chair. Impossible to puzzle out how Aditi had come to be with Peyton, but one thing seemed clear; Horry was safe and Peyton was not. I wonder how many more are to be lured into a trap, she thought, and kicked the leg of her chair with her heel in frustration. I am heartily sick of this cell.
Juno had no more visitors that day—even the turnkey did not enter again. However, she was awakened later that evening when she heard the key turn in the outer door. Juno had gone to bed early to avoid wondering when her errant husband would return, and her first thought was that he had finally appeared. “Jost,” she whispered in profound relief.
“Not Jost, I’m afraid,” the grey-eyed man responded, his lean figure outlined against the moonlight that streamed in through the window. “Please prepare to depart.”
“Where?” she asked warily, noting that the turnkey stood with him. It seemed an odd time to make a departure.
“I shall take you to this husband of yours; we leave in five minutes.”
But Juno knew a moment’s qualm, considering the various crosses and double-crosses she had witnessed this day. “Perhaps I shall instead await him here.”
He crossed his arms and regarded her thoughtfully. “You are an untrusting soul; I am to tell you ‘the frizzen is fixed.’”
It was the first thing Jost had ever said to her. “I shall be ready in three minutes, she exclaimed, leaping up. Finally, finally, she was to leave this wretched place—and not a blessed moment too soon.
A short time later, Juno soon stood beside the grey-eyed man in her cell and watched as he and the turnkey yanked the cage of bars from the window— the bars having been neatly severed at some earlier time. After he leaned to look out over the mews two stories below, her companion turned to say to the turnkey, “Go below, I shall send her first.” He then produced a rope and began to loop it in preparation. “Do not be alarmed—” he began.
“I am to be carried on your back—yes, I know,” interrupted Juno with impatience, hiking up her skirts in anticipation.
He glanced at her as he completed his preparation with unhurried movements. “As inviting as such a course of action would be, instead I shall ask that you place your foot in this loop—” he paused to demonstrate “—and wrap this other loop around your arms so that I may lower you down.”
Juno dropped her skirts back down in embarrassment. “Oh—I see. Sir Jost usually puts me on his back, when we must stage an escape.”
Taking her waist in his hands, her companion boosted her up on the window ledge. “I am beginning to understand how this extraordinary alliance took place.”
“I held a blunderbuss on him,” she reminisced as she threw her legs over the brick sill and secured her foot on the loop. “And he felt compelled to marry me.”
“Spare me the details, if you please. Over you go.”
“You are not a romantic, I fear,” she observed with a small smile as she wound the rope around her arms.
“On the contrary.” He peered over the ledge to make certain the turnkey had appeared below. “I consider myself bound by a long-term understanding.” He then raised the hood of her cloak over her head, and carefully lowered her down the wall to the mews below, Juno using her feet to keep from knocking into the building.
“Here you are, my lady,” said the turnkey as he caught her in his arms. “Hurry, now.” He disentangled her from the loops, and then held the end of the rope as the grey-eyed man rapidly followed with quick hand-over-hand movements.
“This way,” that gentleman instructed upon landing, and they moved across the street to the Fleet River, keeping to the shadows. “You have served your purpose and it is time you were removed to a more secure place.”
In a fever of curiosity, she asked, “Is Mr. Peyton still at large?”
After carefully checking to see that their way was clear, he replied, “No longer; in fact, the two of us have had a very civil conversation.”
Juno thought she heard the turnkey chuckle, and decided she didn’t want to know the particulars. She followed him along the river bank for a few minutes in silence, careful to keep up with his rapid pace. “How did you know to put Aditi to use?”
He slowed for a moment so as to walk beside her, his sharp gaze scrutinizing the shadows. “A very useful sort of young woman—I questioned her at length and you can imagine my surprise when she let drop the interesting fact that Mr. Peyton had offered to pay for her—services—during your voyage.”
Juno made a sound of disgust. “When he was not offering me marriage.”
“Yes; a busy man. But with a fortuitous weakness, as it turned out. And apparently he is also a desperate man; the Nabob is not one to stand bluff, and his cohorts are now very uneasy about what he will disclose to the authorities.”
“The birds are flapping their wings,” Juno noted in a knowing tone.
He eyed her askance. “God in heaven; you are beginning to sound like him.”
“Where is he?” she demanded, hurrying along beside him as they continued to make their way along the river bank. “And why is it always so cold in this miserable country?”
“Patience,” he instructed without sympathy. “And a pox on your father for not making himself clear—my only comfort is that the enemy knows as little as I do.”
“It is very strange; Papa was always so straightforward.”
Juno suddenly caught the scent of sea air as the Thames came into view. Her companion did not hesitate, but made a right turn along the embankment. “Do we head to the dock again?”
“Perhaps. As we may not meet again, I wish you well in your future endeavors—and pray do not mention to your husband that you displayed your legs to me.”
“I won’t,” she promised. “Are you leaving?”
“No, you are.” He grasped her beneath the arms, picking her up bodily. Juno knew a moment’s horror, thinking she had indeed walked into a trap and he was going to throw her into the Thames. But instead, he lowered her quickly over the side of the embankment and into Jost’s waiting arms, raised to receive her from where he stood, balancing on the floorboards of the Juno. As she was crushed in a bear hug, she looked over her husband’s shoulder to see the welcome sight of her grinning brother.