ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Bengal Bridegift


Chapter 42

     Jost went to lean heavily on the wall next to the door, his knife held at the ready. “Come behind me, Juno, and if I tell you to run, you must run and scream—loud, yes?”

     Juno dutifully positioned herself behind him, but confessed, “I don’t know if I can leave you. I couldn’t, before.”

     Placing an ear against the door, he listened for a moment, then said matter-of-factly, “If they hold a knife to your throat, I will tell them anything they wish to know.”

     “Oh—I see; then I suppose I must run.”

     They heard two sharp whistles, and Juno closed her eyes in relief. “It is your men.”

     But he held up a cautioning hand. “Hold; it may be Jairus.  Be ready, and wait for me to say.”

     For the second time this night, Juno nervously gathered up her skirts in her fists, and waited, her heart beating in her throat.

     “Who is within?” asked a man’s voice.

     Jost did not respond, but waited.

     “Juno?” called Horry.

     “Horry!” Juno called out in relief, but Jost stayed her with his hand.

     “Horry, who is with you?” 

     “A Mr. Greeley,” called Horry. “And a boy who says you gave him Papa’s skiff.” This last in a tone of great injury.

     “If the young lady remembers,” said the man’s voice. “I caught her from the window in the prison.”

     “The turnkey,” pronounced Juno, and Jost allowed them entrance. Horry threw an affectionate arm around Juno and told her she looked a fright, whilst Jost held his blade to Greeley’s throat, and suggested he turn over his pistol.

     As the man readily complied, he offered, “I was aboard a man o’war at the Battle of Lissa, Captain, so I know something of your work.”

     “Report, then.” Jost tucked the man’s pistol into his belt.

     Indicating Horry, Greeley complied. “When the young master turned up, a contingent was sent to reconnoiter, and another man was sent to sound the alert. I stayed behind to guard the young master—”

     “Ridiculous,” retorted Horry with full scorn. “I was the one who knew where you were--”

     “Horry,” interrupted Jost, his tone sharp. “Enough.”

     Horry subsided, flushing, and Greeley continued, “And then this young lad appeared, insisting he speak to the tavern keeper, who had gone to raise the others—”

     “Yer bruvver says I can’t have t’ skiff,” Li’l Bob interrupted angrily. “Tell ʼim, Juno.”

     “No one has the row with Juno,” declared Jost in a tone that would have frightened Juno, had she been its recipient.  “Me, I will give you fifty pounds and a new skiff. Horry, he keeps his father’s skiff—yes?”     

     Mollified, Li’l Bob agreed with a sniff, “That’s jakey—Oi’m chuffed.” 

     Greeley offered, “I think it best we return to the Fancy; the cat will be among the pigeons when the young master comes up missing.”

     Jost considered this, his gaze on Juno. “We go by the river, then.”

     Juno noted with some delicacy, “The skiff may not be seaworthy.”

     Shrugging, Jost winced at the movement to his injured shoulder. “Then we take another.”

     “’Ere now,” protested Li’l Bob in alarm, “Oi can’t let ye steal one o’ the boats.”

     “You will follow orders,” said Jost, in the same tone he’d used with Horry. “No more of the mutiny.”

     Li’l Bob shot him a darkling look but was silent, and Juno had the impression Jost was amused, as he took the burlap sack and tucked it down the front of his shirt. “Come; we go outside—Juno stays between me and Greeley.”

     And so the small party cast off in a stolen rowboat, with Greeley manning the oars, and Jost silently watching the shoreline. I hope I am not going into the water again, thought Juno, still shivering, despite being wrapped in the threadbare blanket and Greeley’s coat; I truly believe I will never be warm again.

     Horry had been subdued ever since Jost rebuked him, and he now spoke into the silence. “I am sorry, sir.”

     “You are like your father,” Jost replied without rancor, “—with the hot head. But you must wait and listen; wait until you have more—” he thought about the right word.

     “S-seasoning?” suggested Juno, shivering.

     He tilted his head, his gaze never wavering from the shoreline. “I do not know what this means.”

     “Experience,” she explained. “J-judgment.”

     “The seasoning,” he agreed. He then turned his head to Li’l Bob. “You, also.”

     “Oi’m s’posed to watch o’er t’ boats,” the boy insisted stubbornly. “Not let the pirates do a bunk wi’ ʼem.”

     Horry started chuckling, and in a moment they all were chuckling, even Li’l Bob.

     “May I tell Horry about what we found?” asked Juno, aware that she should be circumspect in front of the others.

     “Horry,” said Jost. “If your father, he wanted to hide something, and said Horry will know where it is, where would it be?”

     Horry thought about it for a moment. “He hollowed out a hole in the stern of the Juno, to hide his purse when we went out fishing.”

     Verdomme.”  Jost shook his head with a grim expression.

     Horry stared at him in disbelief. “The bridegift? Truly?”

     “Not really a bridegift,” Juno explained. “We were distracted by the wrong Juno—Papa meant the skiff, not me.”

     As the realization sank in, Horry grinned. “Lord—think on it; we sailed half way around the world, and it was with us the whole time.”

     “Me, I do not think it is funny,” Jost replied.

     “Papa would think it was,” Horry countered, and they all chuckled again.

     They arrived at the pier without incident, and Greeley scaled the ladder first, to ascertain if it was safe to enter the tavern. Thankfully, the area was deserted, and in short order Juno found herself seated on the hearth before a roaring fire at The Nob’s Fancy, a better blanket wrapped around her shoulders, and Jost seated beside her, pretending to examine Greeley’s pistol, although Juno knew he was actually watching the door. The cook had thrown together bread and cold meats, and Horry and Li’l Bob sat at a table, devouring the repast as though they hadn’t eaten in weeks.

     Softly, Juno addressed her husband. “You need to see a doctor—does it hurt?”

     “Soon,” Jost replied. “First, we will see that you are made safe.”

     Embarrassed, she laid a hand on his leg in apology. “I am sorry to worry you so—I can’t seem to help my hysterics. I do not make a very credible pirate’s wife.”

     His gaze slid toward her for a moment, a gleam of amusement contained therein. “Juno, when I think of what you did—my heart, it stops.”

     “I had no choice,” she confessed in all honestly.  “It is not brave when you have no choice.”

     His reply was curtailed by the approach of voices and footsteps outside, and Juno could hear Jost cock the pistol on his lap.  No further heroics were needed, however, as first Landon, then the grey-eyed man entered, accompanied by several other rough-looking men.

     “Lady Van der Haar,” Landon greeted her with a nod. Then to Jost, “I have something for you.” He tossed Jost his sword, which was deftly caught with much appreciation. “Took it off one of the men we swept up.”

     “Landon, you are the good man—do you know of Jairus?”

     “We managed to seize him,” said the grey-eyed man, who Juno noted was dressed once again as a common sailor. “Although your arrival on the scene disrupted the proceedings to no small extent.”

     Jost was silent, trying to decipher what was meant, and so Juno helped him out. “Do you mean you had set up a trap for Jairus and the others?”

     “Indeed; originally, we had planned to lure them into the Blackwall Docks, and seize them there.  In the end, however, there was no harm done.”

     Juno gasped as Jost sprang up, his sword flashing in the lamplight to rest against the grey-eyed man’s throat. The threatened man held out his hands to each side and carefully backed away from the point of the sword, but Jost advanced also, with the result that the other found himself pinned against the wall, the tip of the blade pressing into the hollow at the base of his throat. In the sudden and profound silence, no one moved.

     “Hold,” said the grey-eyed man with what Juno thought was admirable calm. “You forget yourself, Sir Jost.”

     “You knew of Jairus, and did not tell me?” Jost’s soft tone was no less menacing for its volume.

     “I didn’t want to give away the game,” the other explained, his hands still raised.  “How was I to know you would go to shore, instead of to the barge?”

     Incensed, Jost ground out, “My Juno is not now a widow, only because she has the heart of a tiger. I should slit your throat, yes?”

     “No,” said Juno, who felt it incumbent upon herself to interject.  “You are making yourself bleed again, Jost. And recall that everything worked out for the best, after all—if I hadn’t given the skiff to Li’l Bob, I would never have pulled the nameplate.”

     Jost did not move for a moment, and the cornered man took the opportunity to acknowledge, “I must beg your pardon; Jairus was your man, and you had every right to know.”

     Slowly, Jost lowered the point of his sword and reached into his shirt. Pulling out the burlap sack, he tossed it to the grey-eyed man. “Your diamonds,” he said with a hint of scorn. “Juno found them.”

     The other stared at Jost then stared at the bag in his hands. “God in heaven.” 

     “My husband needs a doctor,” ventured Juno, who felt it an opportune time to make some demands.