“So, where does Mr. Wyatt live? Does he have an estate near here? As a ship owner, and undoubtedly wealthy, I expect he can afford to live well. He is obviously from the South. I can sometimes detect that in his speech.”
“No. He could afford to live anywhere he chose to live and can blend into any level in society as though he belonged there. He has little use for ostentation or class distinctions, like the English, or anywhere else for that matter. He lives like a church mouse, with no use for any of that folderol and faradiddle.
“For the last two years he has lived on board one ship or another or in one of the hotels that the sailors use. Hotels!” She had her own views on those. “He carries his life with him. Never still for a minute. On the river you cannot do otherwise, though there are many women who would like to see him settle down, if he settled down with them.” She sighed. “Another Jennings in the making, except he ignores them all—almost all. There was one I saw him with, still do, when he gets back here—a swarthy beauty, Creole I think—or he is very discreet in his relations with her. No, it’s not that. He has little time for the women here even, as though his mind is . . .” She hesitated to say more.
“Yes?” Caroline tried to encourage her.
“As though his mind is upon something else, though not as bad as it was. He has no time for women except that one I mentioned—a pretty young woman too, who speaks that peculiar dialect, mostly French, when she is with others of her—but she is also well educated too. I heard her speaking as well as any of the society ladies and she can dress the part too. I couldn’t believe my eyes at first, but then I saw that it was the same girl. She wouldn’t be any more than twenty. She ‘works the river’ is one expression, but is most discreet and very selective about who . . . well, enough said.” Mrs. Bainbridge held herself back from saying more than that, and did not explain what she meant. She realized she had already said too much, but Caroline thought she might be able to guess. She selectively sold her favors, was a delicateway of putting it.
“My woman’s instinct. I already told you that. If it is a woman, another woman than the one I mentioned, she is probably married or turned him away. Foolish woman. Foolish man for letting her! I thought he might have had a . . . an understanding with that young Creole woman I told you of, but nothing came of it that I might know about, so it wasn’t what I had assumed because it was just after that that he took off. I am glad he’s back now. He’s different too. Something happened to him again to change him, but I would say that it changed him for the better, whatever it was. The tragedy of love is that we often fall in love with the wrong person. Another is that we fall in love with the right person, only to be denied a life with that person.” Caroline knew all about that.
“Mr. Bainbridge was not my first love. Oh, no. I was in love many times or imagined myself to be. Where I might be now with any of those others I do not know, of course, but all those possible lives would have been very different from this one, perhaps less happy or more so, I do not know. The key is to be happy with what you have. Different doors to pass through, different experiences, different lives. I do not profess to understand any of it. I do not regret any of it either, and I envy no woman.” She considered her own experiences.
“I believe that there is never just one woman for any man, or vice versa, even if vice might enter into it as it did with Jennings and his little affaires d’amour, but Mr. Wyatt—and I could be wrong about him, but I don’t think I am—has a sense of moral values that he hangs on to, without being stuffy about it or judging others. Live and let live might be his code. He turns a blind eye to a lot of what goes on and tolerates much more than he should, but then I am only a woman and what do I know?
“But I have done all the talking. What must you think of me? You are going upriver for a good reason I would suppose. Most daring of you, a young woman on her own, though you will have Mr. Wyatt with you to keep an eye on you.” Caroline had not been sure of that but said nothing, although that thought was pleasing. His company would be comforting. “But you can ignore me, my dear, if you would rather. This is the first time we have dined alone together. You know how men are at monopolizing the conversation as they do—especially my husband when I let him—so now it’s our turn. I do tend to chatter though, given the freedom to do so as there is rarely anyone to talk to on board; and if I say the same thing twice or more, I can only ask you to forgive a chattering old woman.”
“You said that Mr. Wyatt is going upriver too?” She had learned from different sources that Wyatt would be taking the steamer upriver with the cattle. Having been off the river for almost a year, he would be more of an observer, relearning of those inevitable changes in channel and sandbars that had occurred while he had been away and asking questions.
“Yes. He’s seeing to the rafts being tied together even now, but he also has good men doing that for him. How they keep track of it all and see they don’t fly apart when the current gets to moving them around as it does, or they have to head into one of those hundreds of bends in the river, I don’t know. I gather that they have rudders to steer them at the front or even bow boats to push or pull them around. Most river men do not want to get involved with mixing steamboats and rafts. A few of them tried and did not have good experiences of it, so they left it to others, but Wyatt knows what to do with his chains and yokes and stuff and what not to do. I can tie my own shoelace, but that is all I know of tying anything, and it still comes undone.
“He was telling Mr. Bainbridge that he had been too long away from the river—even a few months can be too long—and needed to learn about it again. A year, perhaps even two, I am not really sure—off in the Mediterranean and Europe—is too long away from this river, so he’ll be careful for a while. A couple of trips should do it, with his memory. He never forgets a name or a face or a good or a bad deed, and that makes a few people nervous. He has good captains on all his ships and listens to them too. Pays them well enough to make sure he gets the best. Same with pilots. He will be on the boat with you for the whole journey, and then back again as he relearns the river. It’s the only wife any of ’em pay close attention to. I assume you’ll take the same boat now that you’ve got to know each other, unless you’re in a great hurry, and then you can take one of those others that charge off as though they were in a race. Something undignified about such haste.
“Some of those steamers take just a few days in their mad scurry to make the owners rich, and they pay the price too, but the Caroline is usually ten days getting up to Cairo. Not many captains know how to move big rafts, but he does. You won’t have to worry about running aground or hitting a wreck or be anxious about colliding with another vessel at night in one of those strange chutes I hear so much of, nor be concerned about a boiler explosion with him. Those explosions, when a boiler fails, are so frequent when men get careless or tired in their mad haste. Why, there is news of one in the paper every time I come through here—I read about one just the other day—with such loss of life and with others scalded and maimed and, if not that, then a fire, with many lost and drowned, as nearly all those returning Union prisoners were, aboard that unfortunate boat, Sultana.” Caroline had heard of that. “Fires, explosions, collisions—no end of problems.” She realized that she might be frightening her listener and had better cease. “So what of you, my dear? I feel as though I’ve done all the talking so far, which I have, if you feel you can tell me.”
For the first time in many years, Caroline spoke of her own origins in northern Mississippi, dealing mostly with her childhood and the more pleasant memories of growing up with her grandmother and mother, the true stalwarts in her life, but kept her reasons for leaving it all those years before—when she was just eighteen years old—to herself. She’d managed to stay out of trouble all the years of that war, though seeing it come too close for comfort too many times; and then when things might have been looking up, after the war ended, it had all changed for her, and she had to leave. There was still too much pain there to discuss her reasons with anyone else, though she had been able to open up a little, where she never had before.
After breakfast, and as opportunity permitted, she felt she should enquire about steamers heading upriver rather than rely upon anyone else, concerned that she might miss the one she had been told about, the one taking the cattle up to her family estate. Perhaps that would be the same one that Wyatt, Mr. Wyatt, would be on.
“I told you not to worry your head on that score, my dear. Mr. Wyatt knows where you are and will not see you left behind.”
He would not indeed, but she would not say any more. Miss Henstridge did not seem to know it yet, but Mr. Wyatt was not about to see her stranded in New Orleans if Mrs. Bainbridge was reading the signs right. It was the first time she had seen him take an interest in any female for longer than about an hour, except for that Creole beauty. She needed a man like him close to her. Before Caroline had chance to quit the table, Mrs. Bainbridge—Harriet—suggested that Caroline humor a silly old woman and swirl her teacup three times and empty the dregs into her saucer so that she might read the tea leaves remaining in the cup.
It was a harmless enough thing to do, so she complied and passed her cup for the older woman to decipher for her. She saw Mrs. Bainbridge puzzle over it for a few moments, turning the cup this way and that as she tried to make some story out of the soggy bits and pieces still left.
“Well? What do you see?” The older woman said but the one word at first but lent emphasis to it by repeating it.
“Trouble! Trouble!” She sighed. “I can’t make aught else out of it, and I usually can. A mountain of it, overshadowing everything else.” She laughed gently as though to dismiss what she had said. “But then who believes that superstitious rubbish. I am sure that I don’t.” She did, but she was not about to say more than she had. “It’s but a harmless enough pastime and nothing like the more serious stuff, like casting bones and laying a curse after biting the head off a chicken or playing about with those voodoo dolls, as they do in this place.” She shivered at thought of that. “But tread carefully, my dear, and if there is trouble, I am sure it is because you will be the instigator of it to others. Isn’t that what all of us women are to the men in our lives?” Caroline gently took the cup from her hands and looked for herself. One could possibly interpret that messy spread of tea leaves if one had a good imagination, but how much it might bear to reality, she doubted. She saw nothing that made sense, but as her own mother had said, “It requires a belief in such things to see what they will tell you.” Her own mother had read the palms of her friends, and they used to laugh over the changing stories that she might concoct. She decided against asking Mrs. Bainbridge to show her what she had meant that might indicate trouble or ask her for more specific information.
Caroline soon put that latter part of their conversation behind her and was happy to see that everything she might need to do was already being taken care of for her as Mrs. Bainbridge had hinted. Her own luggage, her trunks and her personal bag, were removed from the Osprey and loaded onto a handcart for transfer to one of the many steamers located further up on the levee that served the city as a harbor front. Many of them were already belching thick smoke and were preparing to leave. Wyatt seemed to have organized everything for her. She wondered why he had merely smiled at her when she had explained that she would need to get into New Orleans to repay him. Did he not care whether he was paid or not?