The Caroline

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Wyatt and Jennings.

“His ships? You said his ships?” Caroline was puzzled. “Does he own any? I thought he might be an officer, temporarily without a ship.”

“A lot of people make that mistake about him. He keeps his business to himself, but yes, he owns a few ships and riverboats too. My feeling is that he was over there searching for someone that once meant a lot to him. It must have been a woman, but he cannot have found her. Or maybe he did, and things didn’t work out.”

“You mentioned Jennings. Who is he?”

“Oh yes. With just the two of us here, I expect it won’t harm to tell you a little of what I know, though Mr. Bainbridge, Jack, often tells me that I speak out of school.” She continued talking as Caroline sipped at her hot tea after putting a slice of fresh lemon in it.

“Mr. Wyatt is the owner of this ship now, the Osprey, and at least two other seagoing ships; former Clipper Ships, as well as three or four steamboats; nobody but him knows how many for sure. Jennings started with nothing, barely even the clothing on his back, about fifty years ago, I heard. He worked hard, saved his money, and bought his first boat. He, and one man, worked it up and down the river; and before you knew it, he had made his mark on the river. He left everything to Wyatt when he died. He doesn’t say much either—that one, Wyatt—but he observes, and he thinks. Jennings liked that about him, but that doesn’t tell you about Wyatt, does it?” She debated having another piece of bread and decided against it.

“Old Captain Jennings pulled him out of the river more dead than alive one night, or did I tell you that already?” Reassured by silence, she continued, “It was the year my father died. He was terribly beaten about, with that awful wound on his head and other wounds too. I saw him a few days after, and the poor lad did not know who he was or where he was for a devil’s age. Jennings nursed him back to health as though he were his own son.

“The only name he gave anyone when he was back on his feet was Wyatt; some scrap of paper or other on him had that name visible on it, with the rest of it destroyed by the river, so Wyatt he was, until he could say otherwise, but he never did.” She refilled her companion’s teacup without asking her.

Jennings was not a man who would pry into another’s secrets. He had enough of his own, one wife, at least, in New Orleans and another upriver in Cairo, as well as those other women he tolerated aboard his boat. He always said that he felt sorry for those women left destitute by war, and why should they not make a living doing what they knew, with so few opportunities left to them after the war had robbed them of everything and their families. Jennings said that he so loved helping women as well as being married to them that he married—though not in any church—three times that I think I know about, or perhaps more, and all at the same general time too. I think they even knew about each other, but he helped lots of women and tried to see them settled in a more secure place by taking them on board and helping them find work with people he knew. He knew many good people. If he could not find work or a position for them, then they seem to have fallen into being married to him in that informal kind of way. They fell in love with his kindness and attention, and probably his kindly persistence, rather than the man himself because he was not what anyone might call handsome. He saw them looked after when he passed on, and Wyatt must know about them.

“It was what he, Jennings, did, and from the heart. It harmed no one, and he said that it gave him such pleasure to help them.” She realized that she had perhaps said too much. “Well, enough of that! A goodhearted man, even if his morals were decidedly questionable. Now where was I? Oh, yes. He owned his own ship and was his own pilot too, and they do not come cheap if you have to hire one.

“A pilot is a god on the river and well respected—slave of no man but slave to the river and his position on it—and determined that it shall not master him as it does to so many of them who misread it. He had to relearn it all after that war, as commerce essentially dried up when that war began. There was no certainty of any cargo from upriver getting through, confiscated by one side or the other, or one’s ship being shot up or sunk, or commandeered to ferry thousands of troops and horses across, or up or down, and no choice about it. He managed to take off one night and laid up his steamer in New Orleans after that, with a crew to look after it and fix it up while he went off on the high seas until the war might end. I may have some of the details wrong, but most of it is as I remembered hearing it.

“When it all started up again in ’65—the commerce, that is—Jennings had to relearn the river with its new hazards, wrecks and snags and . . . everything. Some hard-fought sections of the river, or because of changing sandbars, had twenty wrecks in a mile, I heard.

“After he pulled Wyatt out of the river and saved his life, as he did—most fateful that for them both [though she did not explain how it might have been fateful for Jennings]—he pretty well adopted him as a son and taught him the river too. Up and down, down and up, a hundred times or more between New Orleans and Cairo, as well as farther upriver when it was passable, until his young protégé knew it almost as well as he did. That was how he got started. He’s a qualified river pilot too, so my husband tells me; but I also know that Wyatt trusts no man to know all his business, so what I tell you, you must keep to yourself. When Jennings died in early ’72, he left Wyatt everything, as I told you. Considerable money too, but all honestly come by. Nobody was over much surprised by that. Wyatt was the closest thing to a son he ever had by then. That was almost two years ago, but I cannot be sure, with my mind the way it is.

“There were three steamboats and this ship and others at that time, and each of ’em—the steamboats—busy training other pilots so that they might expand with the rush back to the river and opening it all up again, but he’s added to it all since then. There are fortunes to be made and lost on the river and not all of them to do with boats and commerce, at least not that particular commerce.” Caroline had seen what she had meant by that when she had watched those young women leave that other ship. “Too many drifted away from the river life, and there were a lot of steamboats to be picked up at a good price [though others had rotted out by then or had been broken up], and there were lots of men looking for work to crew them, but few pilots familiar with the river. The aftermath of that war saw many fortunes made, especially on the river. What war does not destroy, it builds anew, and bigger and better. He made his fortune as others lost theirs; but like Jennings he made it honestly, unlike too many others. I believe it was Balzac who said that behind great wealth, there is great crime, or something like that. With others, that was the case, but not with either Jennings or Mr. Wyatt. That strange Frenchman, Proudhon, also said something similar, if a bit silly—property is theft—but I never could see the sense of saying that, even by an anarchist. Anyone would think he didn’t own his own clothes.” She smiled foolishly as she explained herself. “I read a lot and see things while I usually say nothing. Nobody likes a woman who knows more than they do. They have not very complimentary names for them, but there is not much else to do on a long voyage. Mr. Bainbridge is not as spry or as romantic as he once was when we first began to live like this, but that’s all to the good at our age.” Caroline smiled at her hostess’s outspoken views and not afraid to touch on some very personal things.

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