The Caroline

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A tense, family re-union.

Wyatt watched the final group approaching the boat. The brother, whom he recognized, seemed to have three colleagues of much the same stripe as him who trailed along behind him and were to go with them. Her brother was inclined to vanity, the way he dressed, and carried a black walking stick with an ornate silver head. He tried to dress well to hide the fact that he was almost ruined, financially, and had nothing other than a fine-sounding estate to his name. His companions were less outgoing. Wyatt knew all about him.

He had watched as the two, brother and sister, had greeted each other. She had known that he would be there, but he had no idea that she would be. She seemed to surprise him far beyond what he had expected. Wyatt stayed back out of the way and watched, not sure what might transpire. It had not been a pleasurable surprise for him, and their meeting was strained.

“Robert!” She said only his name, but it was said coldly. She had many days to prepare how to greet him when she did eventually meet him again, whereas he had been caught off guard, and it showed. Her saying his name as she had, had been without any affection that one might expect between adult siblings pleased to see each other. It was as though someone had just thrown a bucket of cold water over him and with no time to hide his initial feelings. It was a tense meeting for them both.

He seemed stupefied for some moments. He had not expected her, though she seemed to have known that he would be meeting the cattle. He was not to know that she had taken time to converse with the drover as they had both nervously watched the cattle, trans-shipped.

He recovered quickly. “Caroline. Good god! You are the last one I expected to see.” Indeed she was. His eyes rapidly took in her clothing and her stance, almost as if she expected a fight. “What are you doing here?” He was quite pale and not at all pleased to see her. He frowned, searching for some reason that he might understand as to why she had returned. She had changed a lot from the time she had gone. She had been a relatively quiet individual then, though she had been used to getting her own way despite him being two years older and the heir, after Jefferson had died. Jeff, as he had been called out of his father’s hearing, had ignored her as much as he could, but accepted that she was the one who could smooth over any difficulties with the former slaves and see that the work got done. When Jefferson had died from his wounds after that last difficulty, Robert had been thrust into a role he had long coveted, that of heir; but she had gone, immediately after that, leaving him to flounder and to curse her for leaving him in such a situation that he could not handle. Nothing had gone right for them since that time, but much of that was also to do with the emancipation that had been forced upon them after the war had gone against them. Plantations could no longer depend upon slave labor but had to come to grips with the new order of things and reach an agreement with the former slaves—those few who remained—despite the way they had been treated. They had to live, just as their former owners did. They also had to be paid somehow, or were given land in exchange for their labor. They had been tense and difficult times.

“I came across from Liverpool with the cattle when I heard where they were to go. Since when did you take an interest in raising quality livestock?”

“I try my hand at different things. I can’t get the labor for cotton or other crops. We don’t have slaves after the war, but you know that, so we had to adjust to the times. The easy money is behind us now. I won them two months ago in a poker game.” He regretted saying that even as he said it. “I didn’t realize that good stock brought such a high price, but I can see now why they did, even at this distance, and from the comments that I’ve heard. Their handler will be with us for six months to see them settled in. When we join up with the rafts, I will walk up and see what I won. You are aware that Father is dead, of course. I believe our grandmother may have written to tell you. I got no response from Mother about it, almost as if she did not care. At least we assume he is dead; his body was never found, and his hotel room had been empty. It seemed that he had decided to leave without saying anything to anyone.”

Robert was obviously uncomfortable discussing it, as though there was much more to it than that. She did not care. It was all past history now and could not affect her. “Uncle Matthew, whom he occasionally contacted at the time, heard that there was rumor of some violence, but it was all just rumor, and we could find out nothing more. He disappeared two years ago after one of his jaunts down here.”

She did not voice her first thoughts that one of his women or more likely, the woman’s husband may have killed him. He had been a womanizer like both of her brothers and had been cruel, physically and mentally, with those women who were close to him. As with that old adage about children being seen but not heard, he had also believed that women should be neither seen nor heard. That was only one of the reasons why her mother had left, and then her.

“I think Mother may have written from Baltimore, of all places, and told me.” She was not interested in discussing their father. She had not felt any sorrow to hear of his death as she eventually had, other than for a mild twinge of conscience for feeling that way about him. Some memories did not get better with time.

“I assume you are going up to see what may be left at Grandmother’s little estate that she supposedly set aside for you.” He saw no confirming response. “You shouldn’t count on anything. She deceived us all. Others own it now. She wanted nothing to do with any of us even before Mother left. We were not aware that she had died until more than a week after she was buried, and we were obviously not invited to her funeral. No one seemed to know about us being related, so we heard only after the fact and too late to do anything. We had little contact with her when she was alive and none since you left.”

She knew all that. She had heard from her grandmother several times since her “death” and knew what her plans were, so he could tell her nothing that she did not already know. Their grandmother had told none of her daughter’s family anything, except for what she had related to her granddaughter. She never had trusted any of them with any information that they might seek to use against her, and had decided that it were better if they thought her to be dead. So she had ‘died’.

He had recovered from his initial surprise at seeing her and reverted to his usual tormenting ways.

“Not married are you? No children or husband in tow? No, of course not. No ring, and you don’t look married.” What did a married woman look like? “I thought you were fixed at that school in France or might join our mother in Baltimore, but I never heard from either of you, and only heard about you teaching in France a couple of years ago and then only by accident.”

“No, Robert. I am going home, to the same place you are, before I decide what to do. It was my home too, you know, and I have some things that I left there when I went east.” That did not sit easily with him. She told him nothing more of her intentions after that.

“Why? There is nothing there for you. If you go with us, I should warn you that there have been changes that you won’t approve of.” He would not make her welcome—she knew that—and would do all that he could to see her depart as quickly as she arrived. It fitted in with her own plans anyway. “I know that Father trusted you to see to things until . . . until you had your falling out, but when you left, all that changed. We lost a few of the workers after that emancipation bill.” He said nothing about most of them leaving long after that, leaving once they had realized that Caroline had gone, but better if she did not know that. “You should have talked to Father first. He would have made it worth your while.” She said nothing. It had been a lesson he had learned too late. Her father had not been interested in talking to her or any other woman in his family, and would have found some way to cheat her while taking advantage of her close relationship with the former slaves.

“I expect you went to the bank after you landed, and discovered that there was nothing there. You should have written, and I would have made sure that there was enough money in that account for you, rather than have you show up like this. I don’t know what you expected to achieve. Father set it up for you when he thought you might come back to help out, running the estate, as he hoped you would.”

Help out? She had effectively managed the entire plantation for her father and brothers, keeping the books and ordering what was needed, as well as dickering about the price of everything, and organizing the planting and harvesting. Men did not like a woman doing any of that, putting them in a bad light, but she was even more hard-nosed than they were. She had mostly stood between the workers and her family, and had protected them from her father’s temper and the stupidity of both of her brothers.

“He wrote and told you about putting an allowance in there for you.” She knew that he had done that to entice her back if he could, but she had not acknowledged it or responded. “Father kept access to it, just in case it was needed, as it was, or if you didn’t come back. It got to the point where it was obvious you were not coming back, and I needed the money.” He said it all, so matter-of–fact. “It was sitting there doing nothing, and you never got back in touch with anyone about it. You could have been dead, for all we might know.” She was not about to say much more to him.

“I suppose Grandmother saw you well provided for, out of what little she had left.” He could not know that, but wanted to see her response to that suggestion. He was disappointed. “We didn’t see her will, if she left one. She always seemed to have money for what she wanted to do, her cigars and her brandy and wines but perhaps not. She died in poverty from what I heard, and that was probably why she would never give father a loan. She couldn’t, or so she told him enough times, though he didn’t believe her. She always pleaded poverty.”

“He had the gall to ask, did he?” Caroline knew that a “loan” to any of her family would never be repaid, and so had her grandmother.

“Yes. Of course, but having no luck with the old . . . dear. That’s why he was forever down here, trying to raise money. No doubt grandmother helped you all these years where she wouldn’t help us.” He was fishing again. “She wanted nothing to do with any of us after Mother and Janine left. Things have been very difficult for the last few years. You’ll get the money back.” The money. Not, your money.

“I hope so. Mr. Soames told me that before you began to raid it, there was more than two thousand dollars there.”

He’d have something to say to the banker about disclosing that information.

“I want back every penny of what you robbed me of. The sooner you do so, the sooner I will be gone.” She added a comment that was sure to irk him. “I may not leave until I get it.”

She was going to be difficult and awkward. He flushed with anger, knowing that she could make his life very miserable if she chose to do so, with all of the things she knew about him and the family.

“I did not rob you. My name, as well as yours, was on that account. You should have stayed in Europe or taken up residence here, in New Orleans, though even this place is not as safe as it was, with so many looking for work and fallen on hard times. Someone is murdered here every week, if they find the bodies to know, and it is almost as bad on the river. What a pity you are too late to go and live with Grandmother. She would have welcomed you,” where he would not. “There is nothing here for you now. Besides, you don’t seem to be in any straightened circumstance yourself in that accommodation, so perhaps Grandmother did manage to leave you something. I can’t even afford to eat in the salon here.” He had noticed the golden tassel on the key that she carried tightly clenched in her hand, which proclaimed her status on board.

She had gripped that key as hard as she would have liked to have gripped his neck at that moment. She would not correct him about anything he assumed. “Not taken up…?” He cut off his further thoughts about her having taken up that older profession, to be able to afford that kind of accommodation if her grandmother had not helped her. What a teacher might earn would never cover that, and it would not be wise to offend her too much at just this moment.

“You may relieve your mind, Robert. I am not here to challenge your authority, or to question your claim to the estate. I may go up and see what happened to Grandmother’s estate. I have good memories of that place, and I think I would like to see her grave.” Certainly, she would like to see her grave and have a good laugh about it, with her grandmother standing with her to reminisce about it. “I shall be staying in my old room when I return, and reacquaint myself with friends at home, unless you turned them all off or discouraged them, or intend to try to keep me out of my own home.”

“Former home.” He made a point of emphasizing that. “I hope you don’t plan on staying long. Some of your old friends—if one can call them that--are still there.”

“I do not plan to stay long myself, provided I get what is mine. There were some things I left behind that I wish to recover.” That seemed to catch his attention this time, even though she had said the same thing earlier.

“What things? You left without telling anyone, remember? There is nothing there. You own nothing now other than minor bits and pieces. You gave up all claims to anything when you left. I rather think that it was all cleared out anyway. You cannot just walk in and expect to walk out with anything. Father left everything to me after Jeff died, and our grandmother left nothing to any of us unless she left you something. Her estate was encumbered even worse than ours.”

“Not everything is yours. Grandmother left some things in our home, which were meant to come to me.” She saw that he did not like to learn that. “Things that she gave to me at one time and that only a woman might value unless you’ve taken to wearing dresses or cheap jewelry. There are certain books, and little knick-knacks that only a woman might appreciate.”

He was annoyed with her, but realized that he should not be too difficult. He and his father had been led to believe that nothing of her grandmother’s had been cheap, but she had kept it well out of everyone’s way, except for what she might have given to Caroline beyond their knowledge. He didn’t care about books, or knick-knacks of no perceived value.

“I suppose that you should recover what you can. It will likely be up in the attic.”

“Don’t worry, there is nothing of real value to anyone if that is what concerns you.” He knew enough not to believe her but would not fight with her any further and attract unwanted attention to them both. She was as deeply distrustful and devious as their grandmother had been. His sister had a knack of getting under his skin that she had not had such facility to do, before. “I understood that I was supposed to get an allowance each year from the estates, but as Grandmother’s estate, as you pointed out, was sold off to cover other of her debts, there was none from that source.”

He did not like what he was learning. “I assume you got Father’s letter telling you about what he did to show you that you were not forgotten, and would be welcome to return. I told you that times have been difficult after the war.” He turned away from her and looked out across the Levee.

He spoke almost as an afterthought. “You would not have heard. I married.”

She was not surprised. “Yes, I did hear about that, from the banker. Was it anyone I might know?”

“No.” He was not about to divulge any more on that.

“So, when you and she discovered that you had both misled each other about the state of your respective finances, and character, she left you.” The banker had also hinted at that. Mr. Soames had not liked the males of her family, having learned of their ways from long association, and had tried to warn her of trouble (Mrs. Bainbridge had been right about that at least, from reading those tea-leaves).

“How in hell!” He had spoken before he could restrain himself. How had she known that? He wished he’d said nothing about it now. “She misled me, as you guessed.” He did not like to have his personal affairs revealed where others might overhear them.

“Just as you, no doubt, misled her. I can see it about you. You are too tense to be happily married. You don’t look married either, to pay you back in your own coin. You show signs of excess.” She noted his florid features from too much drinking, and his middle was pudgy and straining at his clothing from careless eating and from the company he kept. “A married man is usually more careful with his wife and his habits. There are no children of course.” He just scowled. He itched to reach out and grasp her arm or even strike her for her annoying attitude. She was as aggravating and as provocative as she had always been, just as he and their late brother had been for her. They had struck sparks off each other growing up, but he had forgotten most of it until now, never expecting to see her again. He resisted that urge, noticing others watching them with some interest.

“Having lost a wife and with expensive habits still dragging at your heels, you thought to recoup by gambling again, and taking your winnings in cattle.” He had foolishly told her as much before he realized that she was just the same toward him as when she had left. “I wonder if the man you won them from knows that you cheat!”

She had not lowered her voice when she said that. He looked about nervously. He would have liked to have shut her up before she said too much but was not sure how to do that without inviting some intervention.

“Perhaps I should find out who he is and write and tell him. He resides in Texas, you know. They still hang cattle thieves there, and what they do to cardsharps who steal cattle, one can only guess. Perhaps they hang them twice.” She saw her brother flush to the roots of his hair and to look around to make sure that no one had overheard her. He was relieved to see that others close to them had turned away after the first few minutes of their strained conversation. “I wonder if anyone else on board this packet knows that you frequent the river as you do, to draw people into gaming with you in order to fleece them.” He had an alarmed look still on his face. “Yes, I heard. You and Father were the same that way. Don’t worry, I will say nothing for the moment, but I will hold you to your promise to see the money that you took from my account, replaced. And soon, or I may decide to let him know what you did, and where to find you.” He was flushed with anger.

“It will be. I did not expect you, and I have nothing at the moment. No, you would not be married would you. Not with that viperous tongue of yours.”

He walked away quickly, afraid of what else she might divulge after that barb and that others might have overheard. She was a difficulty he had not counted upon, and was as annoying as she had always been, but they would be a week or more in transit. A lot could happen to dispel such annoyances in the span of a week, and in the broad expanse of the river. The sooner, the better, and preferably before they reached the estate and she began to cause trouble for him there too. She could be dealt with as he had dealt with his wounded brother, and no one would be the wiser.

Jefferson had never recovered from his wounds and had survived against all odds, though lying ill, almost paralyzed, after that night of violence. As long as he was like that, nothing would be settled, so Robert had paid him a visit very early one morning and assisted him to that other place with a pillow over his face while he had been quite heavily sedated so that he could sleep without pain. It had been done so gently that he had not struggled, and no one had ever found out. As far as anyone might know, he had passed away in his sleep. Their father had been away at the time.

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