The Bengal Bridegift
Juno knelt beside Jost, and gingerly moved her fingers over his head, feeling the lump, and noting that this hair was matted with blood around the wound. Head wounds bled, though, so it probably appeared worse that it looked. In reaction to her fingers, he frowned, and moved his head, muttering for a moment. Heartened by this sign of returning consciousness, she stroked his forehead with her palm—he was pale, but seemed to be breathing regularly. I hope our allies find us before our enemies do, she thought, and thus reminded, looked about the shed for some sort of weapon. There was nothing to hand, so she checked Jost’s boots, looking for his knife. It was there, and she placed it on the floor beside them, just in case she’d need it—although it would be desperate times indeed, if she did.
Any moment now, she thought, trying to give herself some much-needed encouragement. Horry or Landon or the grey-eyed man would come through the door, and they would be rescued. No one knew they were here except Li’l Bob, and as long as he didn’t speak to the wrong people by mistake, they were safe.
Pausing, she realized that there was one indicator that would betray their presence—Jairus would recognize the Juno. After looking about her, she grasped a burlap potato sack that had been propped in the corner, and dumped out the few blackened potatoes that remained within. With the sack in hand, she carefully slipped out the door, holding the knife at the ready. Holding up her wet skirts, she hurried down the bank to crouch beside the Juno, thinking to cover the nameplate with the sack. Her hands paused, and she ran her fingers gently over her father’s carved accolade to her. I wonder if I could take it with me, she thought; then Horry could have his pipe, and I could have this nameplate. Using the knife, she began to pry along the edges and found, to her surprise, that the nameplate popped out easily.
Papa, she thought with a rush of emotion, and held it against her breast for a moment. I hate to leave your skiff behind, but it is going for a good cause, believe me. Gazing at the forlorn and abused vessel, she noticed that there was a dark area behind where the nameplate had been—a cavity of some sort. Tentatively she ran her hand along the edge of it, and then reached inside.
As soon as her fingers touched the object, she knew exactly what it was, and caught her breath. Carefully, she drew out a small sack that was securely tied at the neck—a sack that felt as though it contained several pounds of small pebbles. At long last; the diamonds.
Galvanized, she stuffed the sack into the burlap bag, and fled back to the shed to slam the door behind her, and lean against it, her breath coming in gasps. They had misunderstood—all of them; Papa had put the diamonds under Juno’s name—literally--and Horry must have known that the hidey-hole existed, but no one had thought to ask Horry where Papa would have hidden something valuable, that only Horry would know. Instead, everyone had assumed Papa meant the diamonds were on deposit in a bank under Juno’s name—disguised as a bridegift. But there was no bridegift, and never had been; instead, confusion had reigned because there were two Junos—and no one had asked Horry the right question.
Hearing footsteps approaching outside, she crouched down next to Jost, tossing the potato sack into the corner. Her mouth dry, she brandished the knife, and waited for whatever was to come, wondering if she had the wherewithal to try and stab someone. The door cracked open, and she could see two rough-looking men peer into the interior of the shed with some trepidation.
Now what? she thought in irritation; honestly, I shall have no nerves left, after this night. “Go away,” she said in a firm tone.
“Where’s Li’l Bob?” asked one, his voice slightly slurred.
Coming to the conclusion that the two had been drinking, Juno responded, “I sent him on an errand. Pray shut the door, it is cold.”
“Oi sees ye take sommat from t’ boat,” accused the other suspiciously. “What’ve ye done wi’ Li’l Bob?”
“An who’s this?” asked the other, indicating Jost on the floor. The door opened wider and the two made as if to enter, so Juno said the first thing that came to mind. “You mustn’t approach—he has yellow jack.” Turning to Jost, she deftly lifted an eyelid, as she had seen him do with Horry. “Do you see?”
For once, Juno was a good liar. Scrambling, the men exited in disarray, and couldn’t shut the door behind them fast enough. Speaking through the door, one said, “Cor, lady—iffen e’s got t’ yellow jack, yer a goner.”
“Not I,” she explained in a loud voice. “I am immune. But you must keep everyone away until he recovers.”
But the two had already determined that the shed represented a hazard, and she could hear them stumble away. Letting out a long breath, she turned to see Jost watching her, the dark eyes slightly unfocused.
“Waar ben ik?” he muttered.
She dropped the knife with a clatter and knelt beside him. “English,” she prompted with a delighted smile, her hands cradling his face. “Do you remember English?”
“No,” he said. “But me, I remember you.”
“Thank heaven you are awake—I am heartily sick of being brave.”
His eyes focused on the interior of the shed, assessing. “Do I have a weapon?”
“Only one knife,” she replied with regret. “But—but I think we are safe for the time being—I—I said you had yellow fever, and I sent Li’l Bob to The Nob’s Fancy.”
He made no comment in response to this disjointed explanation, and instead propped himself up on an elbow, grimacing as he tried to gather his bearings. “Verdomme, my head hurts.”
“They--they kn-knocked you out.” She found that she was having trouble catching her breath. “And—and then I knocked him out and I—I found the diamonds and here we are.” Unable to control it, she placed the back of her hand against her mouth and began to tremble violently. Pulling himself upright, Jost put his good arm around her, grunting in pain when he moved his left shoulder.
“C—careful,” she warned, her teeth chattering. “You—you’ve been shot.”
“Who is this Li’l Bob?” he asked gently, his cheek against hers, while he stroked his right hand across her back.
“A—a boy who went for help. I said you—you would give him fifty pounds, although—although he seemed to think this excessive and didn’t know whether to believe me. I-I said I would give him Papa’s skiff, also, which seemed to interest him more although—although I--I didn’t tell him about the holes in the bottom—” With a deliberate action, she clamped her teeth together, and made a mighty effort to stop gabbling.
“Tell me, Juno,” he soothed. “Do not stop.”
Instead she began to cry, relieved beyond words to weep onto his capable chest. “I—I didn’t know what to do—I was so—so very afraid they had killed you.”
“Me, I am hard to kill.”
She pulled back to look up at him, shaking like a leaf. “I—I planted my shoe to make a false trail—just as you did at the Rajah’s palace—it worked wonderfully.”
“Juno, you are larger than life,” he observed in wonder, taking a tendril of her hair and smoothing it behind her ear. “Here, lieve—let me put the blanket around you.”
“I-I am sorry I am acting like a peagoose, but I was so very afraid, Jost. I whistled, and—and he didn’t know I was in the water and—bang!—I knocked him out.”
“In the time of nick.” He wrapped in the blanket tightly around her.
Smiling through her tears, she agreed, “Yes, in the time of nick.” In a few moments her trembling subsided, to be replaced by the occasional shudder. “I feel much better—thank you.”
“Me, I did not know you could whistle.”
“Papa taught me. Who killed Papa?” She shuddered again.
“Peyton,” he answered without hesitation, his hand running along her back.
She thought about it, unsurprised. “And you knew all along?”
“Me and Landon, we guessed this. Someone close killed your father, and Aditi’s brother. But I didn’t know about Jairus.”
“Despicable,” she breathed. “To betray one’s friends.”
She could feel him tilt his head. “The money, it makes men think wrong.”
“Yes—but now we are the ones who have the money.”
Embracing her again, he rubbed his bristled cheek against hers. “Hush, lieve.”
Pulling away from him, she insisted, “It is true, Jost; I have found the diamonds. They were hidden in the skiff—beneath the nameplate—do you see? Papa said they were under my name.”
“Verdomme,” said Jost, much struck. “Are they there now?”
“No.” She gestured to the potato sack. “I put them in there.”
He reached for the sack and with quick fingers, unlaced the bag, and poured a few diamonds into his hand.
“Oh,” Juno gasped as they glittered brilliantly in the lantern light. “They are beautiful—not at all like the paste ones.”
With a smile, Jost picked up one in his fingers and gently tucked it down into her cleavage. “The children, how many do you think we will have?”
“Jost,” she protested, laughing, “—we cannot steal the diamonds.”
“Four, I think,” said her husband, ignoring her and tucking three more down her bodice. He then leaned forward and kissed the hollow between her breasts. “Me, I will negotiate my price—do not worry; I am the honest man.”
“So there was no bridegift, after all—perhaps you should never have married me.”
“Vloek zij,” he complained, as he rose stiffly to his feet. “Me, I need a new woman; where are my dice?”
“Oh? Then where’s my blunderbuss?”
“Hush,” he said suddenly, and raised his hand in caution, as the sound of men’s voices could be heard outside on the dock.