The Bengal Bridegift
After leaving the infirmary, Juno waited beside Jost, whilst he stood for a moment in the dirt yard outside the garrisons, apparently lost in thought. Several passersby in the immediate area stared with frank curiosity, but he seemed unaware of their scrutiny, and Juno strove to be as unconcerned as he, as though keeping company with a Barbary pirate was something completely routine for her. The day before, he’d escorted her only as far as the exterior gate, and then had excused himself, citing his intention to see to some arrangements on the dock. This had relieved Juno to no end, as she had been trying without much success to come up with an explanation for his accompanying presence. After this morning, however, it all seemed rather moot. She could always claim him as a friend to her father, but that may not be the best course to take, either—although she would very much like to see the Lloyd’s investigator try to harass Sir Jost. She had little doubt as to who would emerge the victor, from such an altercation.
“Your brother,” her companion interrupted her thoughts, his hands on his hips as he gazed into the distance. “He is sicker this time, yes?”
“Yes—and I am longing to take him to England; how soon do you think we can leave?”
“Very soon.” A passing soldier tugged at the brim of his hat, and Jost nodded in acknowledgment. “Come, we go to the Purser’s Office, now.”
She fell into step beside him, finding that she was more than willing to accompany him on whatever errand he contemplated. “Do you have business with the Purser?’
“You do,” he replied in his easy manner. “We will ask questions about the money for you and your brother.”
She thought this over as she walked beside him, hurrying to keep up with his long strides. “Do you mean there may be a pension, of some sort?”
“I know not,” he replied. “But we will see.”
This did seem prudent, considering they would be leaving for England soon, and so she asked no further questions, but instead apologized, “I was not aware that you held a title.”
“I did not mention?” He glanced down at her in surprise, his expression guileless.
“No,” she confirmed, hiding a smile. “You should have corrected me, when I addressed you improperly.”
He shook his head, chiding her gently. “Juno, Juno; you must not be impressed by such things; the Nabob’s riches, the titles.”
Struggling to maintain her countenance, she insisted, “It is not that I am impressed by such things—it is the proper protocol.”
He tilted his head toward hers. “Me, I do not know what this means.”
“It means the right way of doing things, I suppose. The rules.”
“Ah,” he said. “Decorous.”
“I think—” she opined as they walked past the garrison wall, gleaming white in the mid-morning sun “—that you enjoy teasing me.”
“Yes.” He turned his head to observe her with his flashing smile. “The color, it comes to your face.”
Blushing hotly, she could only look away and try to control her smile, which seemed irrepressible, when in his company. Another soldier passed by. “Cap’n,” the man said, tugging on the brim of his hat in a respectful fashion.
“You are well-known,” Juno observed as they walked along. “Are you indeed a captain?”
“When I sail a ship. Me, I have sailed many ships—some with your father.”
“Do you have a ship docked here, in Calcutta?” She realized she was asking a great many impertinent questions, but found that she could not seem to help herself and besides, he was a pattern-card of impertinence, so it hardly mattered. She wished he would slow his pace; truly, it was a lovely day, and should be enjoyed at leisure.
“My ship, she is in Algiers, now.”
This comment put a halt to Juno’s idle questions, and reminded her that she needed to temper her inclination to tarry with him. Algiers was the bane of shipping in the Mediterranean—a hotbed of pirate activity, and infamous for its slave trade.
They entered into the Purser’s Office, a small, fortified building that handled the fort’s treasury and other monies on deposit. The young clerk behind the counter looked up, and smiled upon viewing Juno; she had met him previously, when he’d delivered her father’s payments to the convent—on those occasions when her father remembered, that was. “Miss Payne, are you quite safe? I heard there was some unpleasantness at the school.”
“Indeed I am,” said Juno, thinking that “unpleasantness” did not even begin to describe it, but that it was very like the military to understate things. “It will take some work to set it back to rights, unfortunately.”
“Allow me to aid you in any way I can—I stand at your disposal.” The young man managed to drag his gaze from Juno long enough to give Sir Jost a perfunctory greeting.
Juno decided it would be best to turn the topic to the object of their visit before the young man declared himself. “I would like to make an inquiry as to whether there are any funds on deposit for me or my brother—whether my father had any money, set aside.”
“I already know the answer.” The clerk shook his head with regret. “Mr. Finch was asking the same thing last week; he was very concerned about your future.”
Mr. Finch was the Nabob, and Juno concluded, “There is nothing, then?”
“I’m afraid not—or at least, not here; I cannot speak for any arrangements that may have been made in Cutler Street.” Cutler Street was the address for the East India Company’s headquarters, in London.
Sir Jost spoke up. “There is no account for Juno? You are sure?”
“No, sir,” the clerk confirmed. “I am sorry.”
Juno thanked him and then, under Jost’s amused eye, responded to the young man’s shy inquiry by explaining she was temporarily residing at the women’s quarters in the fort. They then took their leave, and once more Juno noted that her companion seemed distracted as he stood for a moment on the stone steps, lost in thought.
But Juno had pieced together an explanation for his unusual interest in these matters, and prompted, “Are you searching for the bridegift you spoke of? Is that what this is all about?”
If she had surprised him by the question, he hid it well, and instead, indicated that they should walk forward, away from the building. Once in the courtyard, he replied, “Yes, I look for the bridegift—it is important that it be found.”
Shaking her head, she said with all sincerity, “I can’t believe there is a bridegift; surely my father would have mentioned it to me.”
He met her eyes. “It is a secret, Juno. Even from you.”
This seemed unlikely, as the whole point of a bridegift was to attract a husband. And besides, her father was not one to put money away; indeed, there were times when her boarding fees had been many months in arrears, with Sister Marie shaking her head over Juno’s lackadaisical parent.
Her brow knit, Juno puzzled over her companion’s acute interest—it was evident he was not best pleased by what the clerk had disclosed. She reminded herself that he was a pirate, and perhaps had been involved in the insurance fraud scheme—although Horry did not believe there was such a scheme, in the first place. Indeed, all things considered, it would not be surprising if Sir Jost was bent on stealing the bridegift—if it indeed existed. She glanced up at him, briefly, and was almost embarrassed to realize that she trusted him completely, and would stake her life that he intended no evil purpose. Surely the fact that he hadn’t already wrested the diamonds from her proved this; and he’d been a friend to their father, and kind to Horry, just now. Truly—it all made little sense.
He interrupted her thoughts. “I must ask the promise from you, Juno.”
His tone was serious, and she lifted her face to his in trepidation, wondering if he was going to start pressing his suit again.
“You must stay in the fort, today, yes? Do not walk outside.”
So—apparently he wasn’t going to start pressing his suit again, which was annoying in its own way. For a man who had proposed on such short notice yesterday, he certainly wasn’t very lover-like today—and the perfumed scent had been rather expensive. With an effort, she focused on his request. “Do you think there is still a danger of attack, then?”
“It is the best to be safe,” was all he would say, his hands clasped behind his back as they began to walk forward again.
“Then I do promise. I have no plans to leave, anyway—I thought to visit Horry later, and play cards, to pass the time.”
But he could not like this plan, and raised his chin to contemplate the high turrets that flanked the fort’s entrance. “You must not visit the infirmary again. Not today.”
She teased him, “Then you leave me no choice but to go out walking with the Purser’s clerk.”
But she could not provoke a display of jealously, and instead, he threw her an amused glance. “Me, I do not worry.”
She subsided in confusion, wishing she could be a bit less transparent. Truly, he shouldn’t be so certain of her—after all, she wasn’t even certain of herself. As they paused before the women’s quarters, he soothed her sensibilities by bending his head to hers, and saying with a world of warmth, “Me, I would like to go walking with you, Juno, but I must be very busy, today.”
Mollified, she asked a bit shyly, “I should like to hear your story, some time.”
“Assuredly.” His teeth flashed white as he contemplated her. “Although there are the parts I must not tell you.” He tilted his head, thinking about it. “Maybe, I will tell you after we are married.”
Juno found that she was unable to deny this assumption outright, and so instead she cautioned, “I’ll remind you that I have not yet agreed to such a course.”
“You will.” With a parting gleam, he walked away, leaving her to gaze at his retreating form in bemusement.