The Bengal Bridegift
“Are you awake yet, Juno?”
She wasn’t, but she could hear in Horry’s voice the desire that she wake up forthwith, and so she made a mighty effort. Opening her eyes, she gazed at the cabin ceiling, and felt the boat’s movement. “I’m awake.”
Turning her head, she saw Horry, propped up on an elbow and regarding her from across the narrow space between their berths, his brows drawn together. “Sir Jost thinks Papa was murdered.”
Dismayed that Horry was privy to this unsettling theory, and wishing she had been given a few more minutes to gather her sleepy wits, Juno replied, “Yes—although we don’t know why, and we mustn’t jump to conclusions, Horry.”
But Horry was not yet done, and added in outrage, “He thinks that someone may have been trying to kill me.”
“That does seem unbelievable,” she cautioned faintly. “Pray do not upset yourself.”
“It’s beyond anything,” her brother flashed. “Despicable.”
“I cannot imagine the fort’s physician—” Juno ventured, but was interrupted by her brother, who certainly no longer could be described as listless.
“Are you all right, Juno? He said you’ve had a rough time of it.”
A bit taken aback, she assured him that she had managed to survive the various perils to which she had been exposed over the past several days.
Her little brother reached over and clasped her arm with his hand. “He reminded me that—with Papa gone—I am now responsible for you.”
Juno assimilated this change in his attitude with some bemusement. “I appreciate it, Horry—truly I do.”
He swung his legs over the edge of the berth. “Let’s go above, shall we?” He paused, considering his new responsibilities. “I’ll wait outside, and allow you to dress first.”
“Do you feel well enough?”
“Juno,” he admonished, filled with new resolve. “We don’t have time to rest; we have to find out what is afoot.”
When they emerged on deck, it was to see Jost at the helm, in quiet conversation with the investigator, their heads bent together. Two other sailors were manning the sails, and looked upon Juno with barely-concealed curiosity.
Shading her eyes against the bright sunlight, Juno reviewed the lush shoreline to the starboard side, as the schooner skimmed along on its way down the east coast of India toward Madras. In this area, the subtropical forest came all the way to the shoreline, and the day birds could be heard chattering in the canopies—a familiar sound to anyone who’d lived in the region. She and Horry went over to join the two men, and with palpable reluctance, Juno introduced her brother to the tender mercies of the Lloyd’s investigator. “Horry, this is Mr. Landon.”
But the lean, saturnine gentleman rose and replied with some stiffness, “Miss Payne, I must apologize if my manner was a bit overbearing, when last we met.”
Nonplussed by this turnabout, Juno refrained from sliding a speculative glance at Jost. Instead, she said graciously, “Pray think nothing of it, Mr. Landon—I understand that it is a vexing problem.”
As they settled into the cockpit, Horry asked Jost, “May I take the helm?”
“You may not,” the other replied easily. “To the stern, there is a fishing line. Catch us a skipjack, if you please.”
“Capital.” Horry needed no further encouragement, and moved toward the back of the schooner, steadying himself by grasping the shrouds along the way.
“Boy needs to eat,” commented Landon, watching him go.
Juno nodded in agreement, having suppressed an urge to ask Horry to sit quietly and rest; apparently, she was not to fuss over him, any more. She thought about Jost’s theory—that Horry was being poisoned—and found she had to take her gaze away from her too-thin brother, because she couldn’t bear thinking about it.
“Landon would ask a question of you, Juno.”
Juno blushed, aware that she should have already put an end to Jost’s use of her Christian name. Hopefully, he wouldn’t compound the transgression by invoking the endearment he had used multiple times the night before.
The investigator fixed his gaze upon her. “Have you married, Miss Payne?”
Juno blinked, thinking this entirely unexpected. “No, sir.”
“Are you certain?” the man persisted.
Perplexed, Juno pointed out, “I believe I would be not be in any doubt if such an event had occurred, sir.”
The investigator drew his brows together and regarded her for a moment. “Can you tell me when you last spoke with Mr. Finch?”
A bit confused by this reference to the Nabob, Juno answered, “It was about a week ago. He came to the school shortly after your own visit, when you told me of Papa’s death. He did speak of marriage—he explained that the protection of his name would go a long way toward helping to scotch any scandal. But I assure you, there has been no wedding ceremony.”
“Did he express an intention to travel to Madras?”
Juno shook her head in puzzlement. “No—he claimed pressing matters in London, and he traveled ahead, to lease a house for Horry and me. Did he indeed travel to Madras?”
The man leveled a stern look upon her. “I will ask the questions here, Miss Payne.”
Jost turned his head to consider the investigator dispassionately, and after a few moments the other man cleared his throat and capitulated. “Yes—he did travel to Madras. And I have received word that a marriage license has been filed with the British authorities at Fort St. George.”
Thoroughly astonished, Juno could only look from one man to the other in disbelief. “Why—I know nothing of this.”
“The license indicates the marriage was performed by the priest who was killed at the school, but my investigation reveals that the deceased man was not, in fact, a priest.”
Juno recalled that Jost had said as much, and exclaimed in bewilderment, “I suppose you believe this was an attempt to lay claim to the bridegift, but it makes little sense—it would be a simple thing to disprove such a plot. Why, I need only attest that no marriage took place, and the Nabob would forfeit any bridegift—real or imagined.”
“Unless—,” the investigator offered gravely, “—unless you were deceased, and unable to make such a refutation.”
There was a small silence whilst Juno tried to assimilate what was meant as the schooner swept through the water, and the birds could be heard chattering on shore. “You think—you think Mr. Finch meant to have me killed?” With no small alarm, she looked to Jost, who met her eyes, the expression in his own very serious. “The Mughals were sent to kill me? No—the Mughals killed the priest, so surely they were not complicit in the scheme.”
“No; I believe the Mughals were not aligned with Mr. Finch,” agreed Landon.
But Juno was distracted, finding the man’s accusations implausible. “But surely—Mr. Finch is one of the East India Company’s directors, and a wealthy nabob. It is hard to imagine he would resort to such despicable measures, to lay hands on any paltry bridegift.”
“There is nothing paltry about your bridegift, Miss Payne,” corrected Landon.
Juno looked from one man to the other but neither spoke, and she was given the impression they were reluctant to impart any more information. Nevertheless, she managed to drawn her own conclusions. “You believe the bridegift is connected to the insurance fraud—that Papa was depositing the fraudulent funds under my name, so that it could not easily be found.” This seemed evident; as Horry had pointed out, if Papa was fleecing the insurers out of a fortune, then where was the fortune? Unfortunately, this also indicated that Papa was indeed involved in the illegal scheme, and her heart sank. “And—and I supposeif the Nabob is willing to have me killed to secure the bridegift, that means he knew about the insurance scheme, and seeks to hide his own complicity.”
“Best not to speculate, Miss Payne—”
But Juno had leapt ahead, and was now staring at Jost. “You think the Nabob murdered Papa—murdered him for double-dealing, and hiding the money from him.”
Juno could see Landon shift uncomfortably, as though concerned about what Jost would disclose, but Jost confirmed her suspicions with a nod. “The Nabob, or someone else, on the Nabob’s orders.”
But Juno held her hands to her face, horrified by the dawning realization. “I would have married my father’s murderer.”
Awkwardly, Landon offered cold comfort. “There, there, Miss Payne—chances are you would have died before you ever found out.”
“No—he would have died first,” Jost assured them. “And not easy.”
While Juno could appreciate this bloodthirsty sentiment, she was still trying to come to terms with this disturbing news. “Why on earth would someone like the Nabob become involved in such a fraudulent scheme? And risk everything he has?”
Landon answered smoothly, “I’m afraid we can only speculate until further information is discovered; however, it would be best to present you at the court in Madras without delay, to refute any professed marriage.”
She nodded in understanding, trying to hide her extreme dismay. Clearly, she stood in grave danger, since only she could denounce the marriage, and apparently there was a great deal of money at stake. And in addition, her testimony would immediately put the Nabob under suspicion—perhaps even expose his dark doings. Small wonder Jost had swept them away in the dark of night, and had hired this swift schooner, instead of a more comfortable vessel.
Horry re-joined them, barefoot and brandishing his catch. “Only a paltry carp so far—worse luck.”
“Jairus, he can dress a carp to taste like a cod,” Sir Jost assured him, and called to the sailor to perform this feat. The short, merry-looking man was revealed to be a cook, and he took the carp from Horry with such a show of mock-reverence that Horry laughed, and cuffed him.
Juno noted that Horry looked a bit weary, and patted the bench, resisting an urge to advise him to rest. Willingly, he settled in beside her, stretching his legs out before him and leaning his head to rest on the back of the bench, so as to feel the sun on his face. His color was much improved already, and she ran her hand over his head in a fond gesture.
Jost indicated a white scar that was exposed on the boy’s bare leg. “Shark?” he asked in his negligent manner.
His eyes sparkling, Horry slanted him a glance. “No—tiger.”
Impressed, the Dutchman raised his black eyebrows. “In truth, you outran a tiger?”
“No such thing,” Horry grinned. “Juno killed it.”