ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Bengal Bridegift


Chapter 39

     “Easy, my dear—I cannot breathe,” Juno gasped, and Jost loosed his hold on her only to kiss her full on the mouth, despite Horry’s amused presence.

     Mijn hart,” her husband exclaimed, which she interpreted as a sincere accolade.

     But Horry didn’t have much patience for this display of conjugal affection. “I say, Juno; Sir Jost says you’ve been in prison.”

     “Like a common criminal,” she affirmed.  “And where have you been, Horry?”

     “The opposite, I suppose. I’ve been posing as a sexton at a church.”

     “With Aditi?” Juno could not contain her surprise at the picture thus presented, as Jost settled her into the bench at the stern.

     “No, she was taken elsewhere—they told me Aditi was too conspicuous to be seen with me.”

      Juno could well believe it. “Yes, they found another use for Aditi. Is Mr. Landon nearby?”

     Jost answered as he pushed one of the oars against the embankment wall so that they were away. “Landon, he has been on the docks, watching.”

     “And you? I have missed you mightily.”  Unable to help herself, Juno leaned to place a hand on Jost’s knee, as he plied the oars.

     She saw his white smile flash in the darkness. “Me, I lead the birds up the river—they think I go to fetch the diamonds.”

     “A wild goose chase,” Horry pronounced with satisfaction. “Capital; I wish I could have gone.”

     “There are no wild gooses, here,” Jost explained patiently. “It is not the right time of year.”

     Juno could not resist laughing aloud, she was so happy to see them both.

     “Hush, lieve,” cautioned her husband. “You must stay quiet, until we are aboard.”

     “Do we board the Minerva?” Juno wasn’t certain, but it seemed to her they were headed away from the Blackwall Yard, instead of toward it.

     “No, we board a coal barge.  We stay quiet for a few days.”

     “Thank heaven; I would very much like to stay quiet.” Juno hoped she would share a private cabin with her husband—she was finding it difficult to refrain from touching him, and besides, it would be such a relief to no longer be an object of scrutiny.

     “I am sick of staying quiet,” Horry complained. “And I am sick of answering questions about Papa’s bank accounts.”

     “Poor you,” said Juno.  “Everyone seems to think we know more than we do.”

     “These people, they are not fools.” Jost glanced over his shoulder to correct his course. “And the diamonds, they are somewhere.”

     “At least the enemy doesn’t have them,” said Juno, repeating what the grey-eyed man had said. “There is that.”

     “And the Nabob is in prison,” Horry added. “Serves him right, the blackguard—trying to murder us.”

     “It wouldn’t have done him much good, with the diamonds still missing,” Juno pointed out. “All his scheming was for naught.” Reminded, she asked Jost. “Does Horry know about Peyton?”

     Rowing, Jost shook his head, as Horry asked with interest, “What about Peyton? Was he killed?”

     Juno leaned forward, happy to be able to impart something of interest to another, for once. “He was working with the enemy.”

     Horry was suitably astonished, and stared at each of them for a moment, speechless. “Peyton?   I wouldn’t think he had it in him; he seemed such a dull, milk-and-water fellow.”

     Juno nodded in confirmation. “It was all an act.”

     “I did see him lose his temper, once,” Horry remembered, gazing ahead at the lanterns that were now visible from the looming barge. “He had a row with Jairus, of all people.”

     Jost suddenly paused, and lifted the oars. “What does this mean—‘row’?”

     “A quarrel,” Horry explained. “It seemed so unlike him; I thought perhaps he’d been drinking, or something.”

     Jost sat very still, and Juno could sense his wariness as he asked softly, “When was this, Horry?”

     Realizing that Jost thought it significant, Horry considered. “It was about a week before we made landfall.”

     Jost leaned forward and said quietly, “Both of you must stay down—now.” Juno obeyed the urgency in his tone without hesitation, and slid off the bench to curl up on the floorboards, Horry beside her. Jost scissored one oar so that the skiff abruptly turned around, and then made in the direction from whence they had come, rowing rapidly and dipping the oars with a powerful rhythm.

     “Is it a trap?” Horry concluded in a soft tone.

     Jost looked over his shoulder to see where he was headed. “Jairus should not be in the quarrel with Peyton.  It may be nothing, or it may be something; we shall see. Can you swim, Horry?”

     Juno could not like the tenor of the question, and she clasped her hands to keep them from trembling as she listened to the water slough against the bottom of the boat.

     “Yes, sir,” Horry answered without a qualm.

     “And you, Juno? Can you swim—swim strong?”

     “Yes,” she whispered, and hoped she sounded more confident than she felt. Surely he didn’t expect them to swim in the cold river in the middle of the night?

     “Good.” He was slightly out of breath from his exertions.  “They think we go to the barge, so we will run to the shore and disappear instead, yes?  But if they come after us, Juno must go into the water, and hide among the boats while Horry swims to get help. He goes to the tavern on the pier—you remember the one?”

     Horry nodded, his face close to Juno’s. “Yes, sir.”

     “Speak to the tavern keeper—but no one else; yes?”

     “Yes, sir.”

     Although Juno very much wanted to ask where Jost would be, she held her tongue, trying to emulate Horry’s steadiness. Fortunately her husband knew her well, and said to her, “I will lead them away.”

     Jost cautioned them to stay down, as the skiff silently bumped up against one of the boats that was docked along a dark, narrow pier. Lifting his head to peer over the boat toward the shoreline, he quietly stored the oars, and began to pull the skiff along the sides of the tied-up boats, his actions wary and deliberate, as they slowly came closer and closer to the shore.  He whispered, “We land here, but Juno, be ready to run back into the water.”

     She nodded from her position on the floorboards, and watched what she could manage to see over the gunwale, as they advanced upon the shallows. It was low tide, and the seaweed lay on the exposed shore, all the way up to the wooden palisade that acted as a seawall. There were crude steps built onto the palisade for the boarding of boats when the tide was higher, and it appeared that these steps were their object.  First, however, they must cross the exposed shore, and Juno nervously gathered up her skirts in her hands and made ready, hoping that she wouldn’t slip on the slick seaweed.

     Suddenly, there was a loud crack to the left, and several things happened almost simultaneously. Jost grunted in pain, and immediately threw his weight toward the right side of the skiff, so that Horry and Juno were unceremoniously dumped into the cold, shallow water.    Then, with a mighty heave, Jost lifted the skiff so that it was balanced on its side like a shield, just as another shot rang out, and hit the bottom of the skiff with a thud.

     “Go, Horry,” said Jost softly, drawing one of his pistols, and peering over the top of the tilted skiff into the darkness.

     But Horry hesitated, crouching beside Juno in the dark, shallow water. “No—give me a pistol.”

     Jost did not look at him, but said in the same soft tone, “You will obey orders.”

     Horry sank down into the water, and silently disappeared.

     Juno watched in shock, as Jost braced his pistol with careful deliberation on the top edge of the tilted skiff, and fired. A startled exclamation could be heard from the neighboring pier.  “Go hide between the boats, lieve, and stay low in the water; we wait for Horry to bring help.”

     “You are hurt,” she whispered through stiff lips, watching the bloodstain spread on the back of his left shoulder.

     His gaze never leaving the opposite pier, he spoke to her in a reasonable tone, as though nothing extraordinary was unfolding.  “We will have the pact, lieve. You will go, and I will catch up to you.  But you must go, yes?”

     “I can tell them I know about the diamonds,” she whispered, trying to control the quaver in her voice. “I—I can make up a tale—I want you to be safe.”

     But he only repeated, “You must go, lieve. I will catch up to you.”

     Another shot rang out, and another thud hit the bottom of the skiff. Trembling violently, Juno emulated Horry, and sank down into the cold water, backing away between the pilings under the pier, and moving soundlessly away from him.  But then she stopped, unable to obey her orders, because if she knew nothing else, she knew that she could no more leave him to face them alone than she could have left Horry to face the tiger alone.  So instead, she clung to a piling, shivering in her sodden clothes, and trying to force her paralyzed mind to think.