The Bengal Bridegift
“I’ve no idea how much the diamonds are worth,” Juno concluded her recitation to Horry in a low voice. “But there are more than a few.”
“May I see them?” Her brother, an apprentice clerk with the Government House, was recovering from a recent bout with malaria, and lay on a cot in the fort’s infirmary. He was sixteen, and tall for his age which only accentuated his too-thin, lanky frame. His hair—a darker brown than Juno’s—lay damp against his forehead, and Juno had to hide her alarm; usually when the malaria-induced ague had run its course, Horry was restless, and refused to stay in bed. This time, he continued listless even though the fever had broken, betraying only a small spark of interest when informed of the cache of diamonds. It seemed to his concerned sister that his fits of fever were more frequent of late, leaving him alarmingly weakened. It was this unhappy conviction that fueled her desire to take him to England with all speed and by any means necessary—even if it meant marrying the Nabob.
“I am afraid to show the diamonds to anyone,” Juno admitted. “The priest was nearly beside himself, and I think the Mughals were after them—you should see what a shambles the place is, Horry—so I think it best to keep them out of sight, until they are delivered to the Nabob.” She paused delicately. “And perhaps if we make the delivery, the Nabob will see his way to repaying the underwriters at Lloyd’s—surely he will not begrudge us a diamond or two.”
Her brother’s brows drew together, and he stared at Juno in shocked disbelief. “You are not going to believe that those lies about Papa are true, are you?”
Unwilling to agitate him, Juno nevertheless ventured, “It does not look well, Horry—”
“No,” her brother interrupted hotly, making an abrupt gesture with his hand that reminded Juno of their late father. “It is not true, Juno.”
Dismayed, Juno dropped her gaze and contemplated her hands in her lap. “I know, Horry—I did not want to believe it myself; but apparently the evidence is irrefutable.”
“You didn’t know him as well as I did,” Horry insisted. “Papa would never have cheated anyone.”
“But the investigator from Lloyds of London—the admiralty insurers—he told me of it himself, Horry. He said Papa sank his last two ships—or pretended to—so as to collect on the insurance money. Then he sold the ships and the merchandise for a secret profit. Why would the investigator create such a shocking tale, unless he was certain?”
“Then where is the money?” Horry asked with undeniable logic. “There would be a fortune somewhere, and there isn’t.”
But Juno was already well-aware that this was a mystery. “The investigator seemed to think that I knew where the money was, and threatened to make a scandal if I didn’t lead him to it immediately—he hectored Sister Marie about it, too, unable to believe there was no fortune set aside somewhere for me. He was so disagreeable, Horry—I felt that for two pence he would have put me on the rack, until I confessed.”
“Ridiculous,” scoffed Horry. “You are teaching at a girls’ school with a passel of nuns; obviously you have no fortune.”
There was a pause while the Payne siblings considered their bleak circumstances. Juno ventured, “It does seem providential that—out of the blue—I am entrusted with a fistful of diamonds to deliver to the Nabob. If he would help us—and as Papa’s financier, I am certain he would—we could make amends, and scotch any scandal within the Company.” This was a sensitive subject; Juno was hoping Horry would agree to stay on in London as a provisions clerk for the East India Company, but her brother wanted to be a sea trader, like their father. In light of the current state of his health, however, this seemed to be a recipe for a quick death, and Juno could not even begin to contemplate how unbearable life would be if she lost Horry, too.
But her brother was puzzling over another aspect of her tale. “Why would a priest be smuggling diamonds to the Nabob?”
“I haven’t the first clue—he didn’t say. But he was killed for his pains, so someone else must have known of them.” Reminded, she asked, “Did Papa ever speak of a man—” she tried to decide how best to frame the subject “—a friend who was a pirate?”
Horry glanced up with interest. “Sir Jost?”
Juno blinked. “Sir Jost?”
“I’ve never met him, but Papa spoke of him often. I don’t think he meant he was an actual pirate, Juno—it was a figure of speech; if he holds a title, he can’t very well be a pirate.”
As Juno had no doubt that Horry would soon witness the error of this assumption, she didn’t correct him, but instead considered her brother with a knit brow. “What do you know of him—do you think he could have been involved in the scheme to defraud the insurers?”
“There was no scheme,” Horry corrected her, exasperated. “And it sounded as though they were good friends, and sailed together, from time to time. Why do you ask?”
Deciding that Horry probably should not be regaled with the particulars, Juno explained vaguely, “Only that he has arrived on the scene, and I do not think it a coincidence.” She realized that she was reluctant to explain to Horry that the Dutchman had known of the diamonds, or that the dying priest had implicated him in the attack. The reasons for her reluctance did not bear scrutiny, and so she did not scrutinize them.
Bending an arm behind his head, Horry leaned back on the cot. “I hate to disabuse you, Juno, but if the diamonds belong to the Nabob, it seems unlikely he will give any of them to us out of the kindness of his heart; he’s not a nabob for nothing.”
Her color rising, Juno made her reluctant confession. “He did raise the topic of marriage.”
Horry stared at her in frank astonishment. “To you?
Unable to resist a smile at his evident horror, she chided, “Yes, to me—for heaven’s sake, Horry, am I so repulsive?”
Horry was motivated to sit upright again. “More like he is repulsive, Juno—don’t tell me you are considering such a thing; I’ll not believe it.”
“Please don’t vex yourself, Horry, and lie down.” Best not to confess that she had indeed been considering it—or was, as late as yesterday evening. Nor did she mention that suitors appeared to be thick on the ground in Bengal. “But you must admit the Nabob could be very helpful in dealing with the Lloyd’s investigation, Horry—he is very powerful within the Company, and I didn’t want to antagonize him.”
Horry stared at her for a moment, then couldn’t suppress a grin. “Good God, Juno.”
She couldn’t help laughing in response, and they laughed together, unaware they were no longer alone, until they were interrupted by the infirmary physician, who cleared his throat at the door. Juno looked up to see that the man was accompanied by Mr. Van der Haar—Sir Jost, more properly—who quite filled up the doorframe and the sight of whom inspired a breathless feeling within her breast. He looked no less out of place in the infirmary than he did in the convent school, but Juno was nonetheless aware that she had been unconsciously marking the time until she was once again in his company—not that she had any intention of considering his offer, of course. Nevertheless, she’d been inspired to purchase some perfumed scent, at the commissary.
“I say,” Horry breathed in wonder.
The physician himself appeared a bit unsettled by this turn of events; he was a humorless man, with a brusque manner that Juno found at odds with his professed calling. “I understand you are acquainted with Sir Jost, Miss Payne.”
He sounded as though he half-hoped she would refute such a claim, but Juno only smiled and replied, “Yes—Sir Jost was a friend of our father.”
Impatient with these preliminaries, Sir Jost shouldered past the man to pull up a stool and shake Horry’s hand. “Yellow jack?” he asked in a negligent manner.
This remark prompted a grin from Horry, as yellow fever was a deadly disease, and acutely contagious. “Only malaria, I’m afraid—I am pleased to meet you, Sir Jost; my father spoke of you often.”
“You have the look of him,” said the Dutchman, and Horry flushed with pleasure.
“Horatio and Juno,” the physician observed in his dry voice. “A hero, and a goddess.”
“Our mother admired the classics,” Juno explained, rather wishing that she hadn’t.
“That is all,” Sir Jost abruptly addressed the physician. “You will leave us, now.”
That worthy appeared startled at being thus dismissed, but bowed and retreated with a measured tread. Horry met Juno’s eye with an expression that conveyed his intense admiration for someone who could so easily dispense with polite behavior, and Juno could not resist an answering gleam.
Jost then turned back to Horry. “So—can you eat?” He leaned in to lift Horry’s eyelid, and check the white of his eye in a matter-of-fact manner.
“Not yet,” Horry admitted, blinking in surprise.
Sir Jost leaned back, and regarded him thoughtfully. “Your sister, she is not a good cook.”
Juno sat, horrified that he was going to expound on their stay together, replete with references to ruination and compromising, but no such exposition was forthcoming. Instead, Horry offered with another grin, “No. If she is pressed, she can make toast.”
Their guest stretched his long legs out before him and pushed his hands into his pockets. “What is it you like to eat? The best thing?”
Horry considered. “Papa and I would go fishing off his skiff, when he was in port. Sometimes we would catch a skipjack tuna.”
“Ah,” Sir Jost nodded. “That is good fish.”
Remembering, Horry continued, “If we caught one, we’d pull the skiff on shore, and cook it over a pail of hot coals—it was the best meal imaginable.”
“Me, I like the tuna with the pepper sauce.” Jost contemplated the wall for a moment, dwelling on this imaginary meal. “Juno’s toast—maybe it needs the pepper sauce.”
“I shall hear no more of your aspersions,” laughed Juno. It occurred to her that Horry’s spirits had risen considerably since their guest had walked into the room, and she cast him a grateful glance, only to find his own gaze warm upon her. He doesn’t know that he shouldn’t look upon me in such a way, she thought in confusion—or he is aware and doesn’t much care, which is more likely the case. To cover this breach, she announced, “Sir Jost will accompany us to London, Horry.”
“Capital,” said Horry, surprised, but willing to be enthusiastic. “What’s the ship?”
“Me, I will tell you soon.” In his abrupt manner, Jost rose to take his leave. “Come, Juno, we must be busy.”
He doesn’t know he shouldn’t use my Christian name, either, thought Juno as she bade goodbye to Horry—and I should explain this to him, or people will believe that we are indeed betrothed. She glanced at him sidelong, as they made their way to the infirmary’s entry. I can’t very well be betrothed to a pirate, and I definitely dare not trust him—not until I find out how he’s involved in all this, and what he knows about the diamonds.
“This way, Juno.” Her companion walked outside, into the bright Bengal sunlight.
Without demur, she hurried to follow him.