The Caroline

By johnksutherland All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Drama

In the Hotel that night.

They followed the maids carrying water for them up to their rooms. Wyatt entered Caroline’s room with her to see her bag already there, placed her second bag on the low table, and checked what he could see out of the window as he looked out across the busy street. No one on the street seemed interested in that upper floor of the hotel. He could see no one behind any of the windows opposite, and no one could see him. There was no easy way up to either of their rooms on the outside of the building, no roof for anyone to walk over or tree that might give access to that window.

She had overheard some of the exchange between Wyatt and the clerk and knew what his concerns were. She felt she could look after herself once he left her pistol, which she had given to him for safekeeping on the drive out of town, but was not about to scorn his help. However, she gently but firmly showed him to the door, or he might not have easily left. “Sir, after that most wonderful outing together, I need to bathe and change so that we may dine together. I can assure you that I can manage that by myself. If you are worried about my being safe without you, I assure you that I shall lock the door behind you, and I do have my pistol.” She watched him place it on her table. “When I am ready, I shall come and knock on your door, and then we can go down for dinner together.” He had to be satisfied with that. She saw him go along to his own room, and then, as he turned and watched her, she closed and locked her own door.

When she opened her door thirty minutes later, just as the dinner gong sounded, she found him waiting patiently for her, sitting by the table located at the top of the stairs. He had heard her key turn and had folded his newspaper and laid it on the table beside him and stood up, as a gentleman should when a lady approached him, especially one who smiled so charmingly at him. She hoped he had not been waiting long.

She had been as quick as she could be, but he had not wasted any time either. He said nothing about how long he might have been waiting for her, but made it seem—when she made the comment that she hoped that he had not been waiting long—as though he had just arrived there and had waited for less than a minute for her. It had been one of those minor deceptions but a gentle and forgivable deception compared to the others they had alluded to. He had probably been waiting for almost twenty minutes but would never admit to it.

“If I had been waiting for even an hour, my dear, that smile and the way you dress would have more than made up for it.” She acknowledged his obviously considerate response, as well as his carelessly calling her his dear with another smile. He had seen to their accommodation; the horses; the carriage; and getting to the Hudgin’s estate, while all that she had needed to concern herself with was seeing that she was properly dressed—a dress for the carriage ride, her riding clothes, clothes to dine in, clothes to walk back to the boat—and, of course, her toiletry, perfumes, and nightclothes. She had not taken such great care over herself for many years or had needed to. Men seemed to have so much more simple a time of it.

He took her key from her, placed it with his own in his pocket, and linked her arm as they went down to the dining room for dinner. She was aware that he had admired her with some surprise as she had walked the few tens of feet to join him along the corridor, but she had admired him, just as he admired her. He was dressed as a gentleman rather than as a ship’s officer. When they entered the dining room, there was a momentary lull in the conversation as several heads turned to see who the extraordinarily beautiful young woman with the long hair might be, with her husband on her arm. Some of them were frequent travelers themselves and may have known Wyatt by sight, and knew his business, though they had never seen him in company of any woman for longer than a few minutes. He would never marry and tie himself down but would have a woman waiting for him in every port.

She was not known at all. However, strangers were common through that town, with people coming and going all the time from the river; so they did not attract attention for long, and none at all once the food began to be served. He helped her to her seat and by that simple considerate gesture to her gender had set himself even farther apart from those others in that same room.

There was no choice on the menu other than to accept what was placed in front of you, or not, but no one needed to go hungry as there was hot bread, fresh from the oven, constantly being brought to each table and a little butter brought only for them to use. None had been placed on any other of the tables. It had once been a rare luxury, and still was, but not so much here for some reason. They were being shown as special and privileged guests.

They began with a spicy soup with various kinds of fish, as well as shrimp and crayfish. The main course was a rich meat stew in a thick gravy with carrots, onions, and sweet potatoes along with turnip and with a doughboy floating in the dish. The bread was for those more eager diners to use to mop up the gravy and who were not shy to do so. His companion was hungry, and they spoke very little as the meal progressed. Wyatt said nothing, but some of the tough meat in that stew was certainly horsemeat. Some things had not changed. Unlike those at the other tables, who seemed to be served only with beer, Wyatt had spoken for a bottle of wine for them both. They both decided to forego desert after that, though it looked delicious and might even be apple pie. There was another choice: Pecan pie.

The dining room was almost empty when they finally left. Wyatt noticed that she was a little unsteady on her feet. He reached out and took her arm to steady her. He had not realized that she had that much of the wine.

She apologized. “My foot seems to have gone to sleep.” He smiled at her and waited for her to recover as he escorted her upstairs.

She did not object when he steered her to the left, toward his room at the top of the stairs, rather than right, toward her own, though she had noticed.

He unlocked the door and moved across to the window as Caroline sat in an easy chair near the door. It was beginning to get dark outside, but he could see enough and would be seen in turn as he opened the curtains wide for a few moments as he looked around and then mostly closed them again. His luggage was at the foot of the bed, with his brushes and razor laid out on the dressing table. His nightshirt was also laid out on the bed. She knew that she was not in her own room. She had not drunk so very much as to be confused about it. Perhaps he wanted to continue their conversation.

“Why am I in your room and not my own?” She did not sound scared about that, but was curious.

“You are going to sleep in this room this evening.” Her eyes quickly rose to his at what he seemed to be suggesting.

“Oh, sir. I cannot. Surely you know that.” There was amusement rather than concern in her voice and her eyes. She thought she might know why he was saying that.

“Yes, you can. There is everything you need here until morning. I am not plotting anything out of place or awkward for you, but I believe that you will be safer here, in my room, while I shall occupy yours. From what the clerk disclosed, I believe we might be able to anticipate an uninvited visitor to your room, later, though I do not seriously believe anyone would be so stupid, after what happened the other night.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, Miss Henstridge.” He smiled at her. “That! Rather than the other that you might have feared.” He heard her chuckle. She had feared nothing of the kind, and gently took him to task.

Miss Henstridge. You did so well there for a while using my first name quite often over dinner and even calling me, your dear, at least twice.”

“Did I?” He seemed surprised. “It must have slipped out absent-mindedly. Was I so bold and so rash?” He was smiling again. He knew that he had been. She had not objected.

“Yes, sir, you were. And how long must I remain here?”

“As long as necessary for your safety. Perhaps until morning or until you hear a shot or sounds of violence from the direction of your room. I would suggest that if you hear anything of the kind that you remain here rather than rush along to find out who may have been injured.” The humor of the situation was quickly lost after that sobering consideration. “There is everything you need here, including a bottle of wine and another of beer.” He decided that he had better take the bottle of wine with him, but would not tell her his reasoning. She liked wine but did not have a head for it. “I believe my nightshirt will fit you. It is not as soft or as delicate as yours, I am sure, but better if we leave the luggage as it is and other things as they are. There is no access to this window from outside, and you have your pistol.” He laid it on the table for her once more. “Try not to light a lamp or you might be seen, rather than me. I shall knock on your door in the morning, and speak to you, so do not shoot me, and you shall lock your door as soon as I leave. Please.” She nodded and put her arms around him before he might leave. He stood still in surprise, and gently held her to him until she stepped away almost apologetically.

“Thank you again. It was a wonderful day.”

“Thank me in the morning. Now, get some sleep, and I shall do the same. It might be wise if you also put the back of that chair under the doorknob after you lock it.” He turned to look at her, ready to say more, but didn’t. “Goodnight, Caroline.”

“Goodnight, Mr. Wyatt.”

He heard her lock the door behind him and move the chair into position as he had suggested before he cautiously moved the length of the corridor and quietly let himself into her room, unseen by anyone.

It had been a busy day, and she was certainly tired but well fed after that dinner. His nightshirt was laid ready. She had no choice about what she would wear, and the door was secured; so she undressed, placed her own clothes out of sight, and donned his nightshirt, finding that it was not as coarse or as heavy as she had thought it would be, or as long, and the neck was open a little too deep for her, if not for him. Still, it came down to well below her knees. It would have to do. She found a comb among his toiletry on the dresser and combed out her hair in the semi-darkness in front of the mirror.

She lay on his bed and waited for the noises outside and inside of the hotel, as well as for those inside her own head to subside. She had drunk too much of the wine. Her foot had not gone to sleep at all, and he may have known that. He had smiled at her in a strange way as she had told that little lie. Another deception! She had not realized that her life was filled with so many until that conversation, and now.

There was the sound of revelry from the bar in the hotel and from another farther down the street. Saturday nights could be expected to be more boisterous than other nights of the week. She had far too much to think about to sleep easily. Did Wyatt really believe that there would be another attempt made to get to her? Yes, he did. Where he was now, he would be the one to deal with it again, except this time whoever might attempt anything was now aware that she was armed and could defend herself. They—her brother, if it was him—must surely know what had happened when his friends had not returned despite the unlikely tale that had been circulated about a shot taken at an alligator. She did not believe that alligators were common this far north. He would also know that she was still unharmed and must have put it all together by now.

She heard others mount the stairs to go to their rooms—the dining room had been full, with the hotel fully booked by that afternoon, and most of them had migrated to the hotel bar afterward—and then heard the last revelers in the street outside, moving off to their homes and their beds. The sound of a horse’s hooves on the hard earth signaled what seemed to be the departure of the last person from town before the hotel and the other hostel down the street fell into complete silence. The quiet was disturbed only by the barking of a dog in the distance, the chirping of insects telling each other where they were, and the clearly heard noises from the river not so very far off.

There was too much on her mind to sleep. She felt uncomfortable that someone else would place themselves in danger again just to protect her.

She got out of bed and looked cautiously out of the window, confident that she could not be seen. There was gas lighting along the street; and moths and other insects were attracted to the brighter light, in turn attracting other animals, bats finding a ready feast thanks to the ingenuity of man. There was no one to be seen. She heard the clock below stairs strike twelve, signaling the start of a new day but without fanfare or any other indication that anything of any significance had happened.

She closed her eyes, recollecting what day it now was. It had almost slipped her mind, but today was the seventh of September—her birthday. She was now twenty-three years old. She had almost forgotten it. She had deliberately overlooked it before rather than invite unwanted attention to herself or to encourage fanfare or familiarity in any of the schools where she had taught. She had been told that it was important for a teacher to maintain her dignity and to discourage any appearance of personal pride or allow any untoward familiarity from any of her students, some of whom were only a year or two younger than herself. Those times and memories (mostly fairly pleasant, except for the reasons that had put her there) were a world away, and she was not sure she would ever choose to return to them, though she might have to, eventually.

She made up her mind what she would do. She did not need to dress again. It was dark where she was going, and it was too warm anyway. She cautiously and silently removed the chair from under the door handle and slowly turned the key. She cracked the door open a fraction and looked down the corridor. It was empty, of course, though there was a small lamp left burning upon the table at the top of the stairs. It would be burning there all night.

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