The Caroline

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Passage to America.

Once aboard the ship, Wyatt led her to a small and dark cabin, a very small cabin, containing little more than two bunks, one above the other, a chair, and a drop-down piece of planking supported by a chain, and that might serve as desk, dining table, washstand, and whatever else she might think of. It was entirely devoid of luxury, but it was clean. It would also be home for a few weeks. He moved other things that were already there across to another cabin. He told her nothing about what was expected of her before he left. There was no key to the door to lock herself in, just a small bolt, which she threw.

She sat on the hard chair, wondering how she was to eat or even if they served food (she might starve!) or what she might need to know, until a gentle knock at her door caught her attention.

“Yes?” She hoped the nervousness in her voice was not too obvious.

“Mr. Wyatt told me to bring you some hot water, miss, and to give you some directions about the ship.” She opened the door.

It was a cabin boy with a jug of hot water, a basin, and a towel and soap. He set them onto the small table as she moved aside to allow him to do so as he kept up a steady flow of conversation, sensing her nervousness. He told her that she would take her meals in the captain’s cabin with Mrs. Bainbridge, the captain’s wife, and the officers not on duty, and she could spend all her waking hours there too, with Mrs. Bainbridge. She was relieved to hear that she was not a prisoner in that little cabin. “Mr. Wyatt suggested I show you about the ship before we set sail and introduce you to Mrs. Bainbridge, who saw you come aboard.”

“Oh, and where is Mr. Wyatt?” At least she now knew his name.

“He’s on the dock, miss, seeing to last-minute details and seeing to us casting off.” She could not see him, but she could hear the complaints of the cattle from the hold. She felt sorry for them but no longer felt sorry for herself. She was on her way home but was not sure what might await her there.

Over the next few weeks, on those occasions when she got out on deck, she had watched him and other sailors—he was one of them too as well as some kind of officer—at work on deck or high in the rigging.

She discovered with some relief that she was expected only to sleep in her cabin rather than be cooped up there all day but was, as she had been told, invited to spend most of her time with the captain’s wife, a friendly older woman. She was to take all her meals with her and the captain and a few of the officers for each meal after they had cleaned up and changed, except she might soon run out of clean clothes. Wyatt was also at the same table, but none of the other common sailors were there. She began to wonder about Mr. Wyatt: who he was, how old he was behind that beard, what he did on board. She would ask the cabin boy when she got chance.

When they dined, he was almost as silent as she was at those times, happy just to listen and learn what was discussed around that table after the initial introductions had been made and the usual perfunctory questions asked about her being comfortable enough. She was now. Someone had left some additional blankets at the foot of her bed. She discovered, with some minor concern, that none of the cabins had keys, but that once inside, she could bolt the door. The bolt was small and would have withstood no amount of effort if anyone was really determined to get in, and yet it provided some measure of protection, more symbolic than actual. In addition to that bolt, she began to realize that she had something much more effective watching over her and protecting her. Wyatt himself, and that she was much safer now than she had ever been for the last few years but could not fully understand why she felt that way. He was far different from the other men she had come across in her travels; but she was not sure why she felt that way, probably because he was a fellow countryman, a kindred spirit.

He was not obviously an officer, yet he seemed to be a very privileged individual. She noticed that though the captain gave orders—in a gentle way—to all the others there, as they sat over their tea at the end of each meal, he did not give Wyatt any orders, though he was included in everything said. Despite that, he had worked alongside any and all of the sailors, even going aloft to see to the rigging and setting sail. Her heart had been in her mouth when she had seen the things those sailors did, clambering about like monkeys high above the deck one minute and over the ocean the next, mostly in bare feet; yet they helped each other so well and never seemed to be in any real danger with so many ropes close to them to hang on to, or to grab, and with all of them watching out for each other. The new steamships would soon put most of the last of the sailing ships into retirement. Change was inevitable. She was reminded of the tale of a great sultan who had summoned his wise men around him. He had instructed them to provide him with words of wisdom that would be forever true throughout time, and had those words engraved upon a ring that he could consult from time to time. Written upon it were the simple ever-pertinent words to sober even the most powerful and wealthy of men: “Even this shall pass away.” She had lain awake many nights—suffering in silence, grieving alone—as one must do, and had tried to find solace in those words, but they had meant nothing to her. Nothing changed in her life. The pain would live forever.

Even Shelley had captured the moment in his poem of Ozymandias who—at least in the poem—must once have ruled over an extensive kingdom while all that remained of his kingdom was a pair of feet, minus their body, on a ruined pedestal engraved with the words “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Yes, change was inevitable. Accepting it was optional and took time. She was not prepared to accept it.

Others on board the ship had watched for her to appear from her cabin that final morning in New Orleans. She was to have breakfast, for the last time, unfortunately, with the captain’s wife, to thank her and to take her leave. She wondered if any other of the officers whom she had met at the captain’s table of an evening might be there. The two women were dining alone, however, with the sudden noisy activity outside and above them, claiming all the officers for other duties, seeing to the cargo about to be loaded, or checking with the ship’s agent ashore. They had all eaten earlier anyway or had been ashore seeing to other business. Mrs. Bainbridge would have liked her company for much longer, but it was not to be. She was to go on to Galveston with the ship as soon as it could depart, while Miss Henstridge, Caroline, was to board another ship, a paddle wheeler, heading upriver with the cattle. Whether they might ever meet again was out of both of their hands.

Their last conversation before Caroline was to leave to join the next boat she was to take—a river steamer—had been enlightening. Mrs. Bainbridge had inquired about how she had met Mr. Wyatt. They—meaning she and Mr. Wyatt—had seemed to have become a little more than friends together, the two of them, despite having had little conversation alone together that Mrs. Bainbridge had seen. She had noticed, however, that he had seemed to pay much more attention to herthan he ever had to almost any other woman in their confined society, whether aboard ship or ashore.

Caroline had not noticed, having nothing to compare it with.

The little she had seen, however, had been quite instructive to the older woman. She was another one who listened and watched—not much else to do on a working ship—and she had formulated her own impressions of their two guests, both of them being on the ship for just the one crossing. Caroline had been taken aback to hear that. He had seemed to be part of the crew, or even an officer, and had taken no time at all to blend in and to take on any number of duties with which no stranger would ever have been trusted. There was much more to Mr. Wyatt than met the eye, though she had seen that he was more used to giving orders than being ordered.

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