The Bengal Bridegift

Chapter 8

     Both men turned their heads with one accord to stare at Juno, and neither attempted to conceal his astonishment.  “Me, I will hear this tale,” said Jost.

     “It is a capital tale,” Horry pronounced with enthusiasm.

     “Horry,” Juno demurred, embarrassed.

     But her brother had warmed to his role, and leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. “It was last spring, and we had just visited Chandannagar—up river—to see Papa, who was trading there.    We were returning in the cart through a mangrove forest, when the monsoon started—you know how it is sometimes; a horrific deluge. The lightning cracked—” here he made a dramatic gesture with his hands   “—and the poor horse panicked, and jumped over the traces.  We were all overturned in a heap, and I broke my leg.” He paused, grimacing in annoyance at the memory of such an inconvenient turn of events. 

     “Bad luck,” Landon noted.

     Recalling himself to the story, Horry continued, “The cart’s axle was splintered, so Jacob unhitched the horse, and rode to get help, while Juno stayed with me under the umbrella.”  He shook his head, remembering.  “It was teeming.  Then we saw the tiger—my leg was scraped, and he must have smelt the blood, even in the rain.” Horry’s eyes glowed at the memory. “He was huge—-there was nothing like it.  He circled `round, growling, and Juno opened and closed the umbrella at him, trying to frighten him away, but he didn’t flinch, and crouched to strike.” Pausing, he candidly confessed, “I thought we were done for.”

     “Assuredly,” agreed Jost.

     “So Juno closed the umbrella, and when he leapt, she planted the hilt in the mud, and impaled him on the point.”

     There was a small silence. “Verdomme,” Jost exclaimed.

     But Horry was not yet finished, and added with great relish. “He landed on top of us, dead, and we were completely pinned—he was so heavy.  There was blood everywhere.

     “Horry,” Juno cautioned faintly.

     “She wouldn’t let me keep the pelt,” he added with deep regret. “I wish I’d taken it.”

     “There will be other tigers,” Jost assured him.

     Horry laughed at the unlikeliness of this.  “I thought Jacob would faint, when he finally returned, and they had to roll the carcass off us.”

     Jost said to Juno, “This is how you came to have the scar on your arm, yes?”

     “Yes,” Juno admitted. There was a scar on the underside of her upper arm—he must have been paying closer attention than he seemed when she was in her shift. She hoped neither of the others paused to wonder how he knew of it.

     Landon asked, “And your leg, Horry? Did it knit well?”

     Horry lifted it to demonstrate, and flexed his foot. “It was a clean break—I was on crutches for a few weeks, and then I was up again—my scar is all that’s left of that episode.”

     “There will be other scars,” Jost assured him.

     “I sincerely hope not,” laughed Juno.  “One is quite enough, if you please.”

     “Ach, Juno,” said Jost in mock reproach. “The scars—they have the great interest for the women; it is the same as the tattoos.”  He slid her a meaningful glance.

     Blushing, she hurriedly disclaimed, “Horry needs neither scars nor tattoos, and you mustn’t encourage him.”

     “Spoken like a sister,” noted Landon, while the men folk—including Horry—exchanged amused glances. 

     Heavens, thought Juno; who is young man, and whatever has happened to my little brother? She could not be alarmed, though—the change in his condition and outlook was nothing short of extraordinary, and the quick recovery only seemed to support Jost’s theory that he had been deliberately poisoned. Wishing to discuss these matters, she shot Jost a glance that hopefully conveyed her desire for private speech.

      “Go—eat your carp,” Jost directed Horry.

     “I’d like to take the helm,” Horry reminded him.

     To Juno’s surprise, Jost leaned forward so that his face was inches from Horry’s. “You will obey orders. Now, go eat your carp.”

     Flushing, Horry nodded.  “Yes, sir.”

     Landon rose to follow Horry down to the half-galley, and Juno offered to Jost in apology, “Horry’s a bit headstrong, sometimes.”

     “On my ship, there are no strong heads,” her companion replied in a mild tone, and glanced up to gauge the sails.

     Aware that she was no longer to defend Horry, Juno conceded this point, and instead asked in a quiet tone, “I don’t understand how Horry’s being poisoned is connected to the search for the bridegift.  He would have no claim to it, after all—it would go only to my husband.”

      “Horry, he would know you did not marry, so he must not be the witness.”

     “Oh—I see.” It seemed such a callous calculation, but then it was clear they were dealing with evil people, who held life in little account. Nevertheless, she shook her head. “It seems a great deal of trouble to go to, when it is not at all clear that the bridegift truly exists.”

     “The bridegift, it exists.” He lifted a tendril of her hair where it had caught on her cheek, and smoothed it back behind her ear. “We are sure of it, and so is the enemy.”

     This seemed a strange turn of phrase, and she frowned. “Who is ‘the enemy’? Someone other than the Nabob?”  He didn’t answer immediately, but tried to tame the same tendril of hair that had escaped again—she could see that he debated whether or not to tell her. “Can’t you say? You are very mysterious, for a suitor.”

     He tilted his head. “Me, I do not know what this means.”

     “A man who seeks marriage—and do not change the subject, if you please.”

     “The French,” he said.

     She knit her brow. “Who is French?”

     “The French, they are the enemy,” he explained patiently. “You must pay closer attention, lieve.”

     Staring at him, she wondered if she had misheard. “The French? The French are trying to poison Horry?”

     “Do you know who Napoleon is?”

     This seemed a non sequitur, and she struggled to keep up.  “For heaven’s sake—of course I do.” She paused. “Hasn’t he been executed, or something?”

     With a grave expression, Jost explained, “He has been captured, but it is believed he will escape soon. His people are collecting money to make this happen.”

     But this was too implausible for Juno, who regarded him with stark disbelief. “The Nabob is collecting the bridegift for Napoleon?”

     “Assuredly,” said her companion matter-of-factly.

     Juno watched him for a moment as he adjusted their heading, but try as she might, could not find the logic in this theory. “Why would the Nabob do such a thing? He isn’t French, certainly—why, it would be treason, and he would be hanged.”

     “The French, they hold his debts.  The Nabob continued to trade when it was stopped—” the Dutchman made a gesture indicating he could not think of the correct word in English.

     “The embargo,” offered Juno, beginning to understand. “He traded in violation of the embargo, the French secretly financed him, and now—now he cannot risk exposure.” She frowned, thinking this over. “Nevertheless, to think that an Englishman would do such a thing—it defies belief.”

     “He is not a good man,” Jost offered. “Me, I am not surprised.”

     Reminded, Juno suddenly gasped. “The dead priest was French—and he wanted me to bring the diamonds to the Nabob.”

     "Yes,” her companion agreed. “But he was not a priest, lieve.”

     It was so fantastic as to be almost unbelievable, except for the fact that it had indeed happened; her father had died, everyone thought there was a fortune hidden in her name somewhere, the faux priest was desperate to smuggle diamonds to the Nabob, and Horry had been the victim of a poisoning attack.  Much shaken, Juno tried to assimilate these ominous events, as Jost absently stroked the back of her head, even though the calluses on his fingers kept getting caught in her hair. Leaning away from him, she said gently, “You mustn’t, you know.”

     “Ach, Juno—” he protested, “—we are nearly wed.”

     “No, we are not.” She smiled, to soften the rejection.  “And you mustn’t kiss me, either.”

     The dark, guileless eyes widened. “Did I kiss you?”

     She decided it was past time to match him at this game, and copied his negligent shrug. “Well, it wasn’t much of a kiss—I am not surprised at all that you do not remember.”

     In response to this challenge, he leaned forward, and met her eyes. “The next time,” he assured her, “you will not complain.”

     She had not reckoned on the effect that his intense, heated gaze would have on her midsection, and she very much feared that if he wanted to demonstrate an unforgettable kiss, she would have gladly allowed him the liberty on the spot. Instead, this promising discussion was curtailed by Landon, who cleared his throat as he rejoined them. “Boy’s eaten, and now he’s asleep.”

     “Oh—oh, is he? I am so glad,” Juno stammered, blushing. 

     “A likely lad,” Landon observed as he sank down into the cockpit across from them. “Full of juice—he’ll make captain, someday.”

     But Juno shook her head.  “He has malaria, I’m afraid; instead I am hoping he will be apprenticed as a provisions clerk.”  With some disquiet, she noted that both men regarded her with amused sympathy.

     “If you say,” agreed Jost in an indulgent tone.

     Juno subsided, and gazed out over the water as the vessel skimmed along close to the wind, her emotions mixed.  It was evident that she no longer had the ordering of Horry, and she very much feared the others had the right of it—her brother was no clerk.  He loved the sea, as had their father, but it was a perilous existence and she wished—oh, how she wished—that they could live one of those lives one reads about; a safe, comfortable life in England. I would like to grow roses, she thought wistfully, having seen pictures of them. 

     She glanced at Jost, who’d looked up to gauge the sails again. The movement exposed his thick, muscular throat, and she had to look away quickly, lest she sit and stare.  She was fast coming to the conclusion that she would not object to a mutual future with this man—even though the very thought had been nothing short of incredible, when he’d first broached the subject. With an inward sigh, she admitted that there was not the smallest chance that Sir Jost Van der Haar would acquiesce to a safe, ordered life in England.  Or even worse—that he would do so just to please her, and she would never forgive herself; it would be akin to keeping a tiger in a cage.  I am not cut out for any of this, she thought, a bit crossly.  I am constantly being called upon to do something courageous, even though I am not at all brave.  And I need to be a bit more cautious when it comes to him—there is always the chance that he is another one, like the Nabob, whose only aim is to secure the missing bridegift for himself.  His gaze met hers, and she acquitted him of such a motive—if he wanted to seize a fortune, he would simply do so; he was nothing if not straightforward.

     “What is it you think of?” he asked in a soft tone.

     “I am wondering what is to happen,” she answered honestly.

     He leaned forward to cover her hand with his, even though Landon watched. “All will be well, slayer of tigers. Me, I will see to it.”

     “Do we stop for provisions at Vishakhapatnam?” Landon asked. “We’ll be running low, by then.”

     Jost shook his head. “Kakinada, instead—I must pick up a stray.”

     There was something in his tone that indicated to Juno he did not look forward to the task.  “What sort of stray?”

     “A troublesome one,” was all he replied as stood to loose a sheet, and adjust the jib.

     Adding a troublesome passenger at this juncture did not seem well-advised, and so Juno ventured, “Because, I suppose, we haven’t enough troubles already.”

     He flashed his white smile. “Assuredly not.”