The Caroline

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The Caroline

It was strange, but somehow comforting to be on a boat that bore her own name. From the uppermost deck of the Caroline, thirty feet above the dock, it was easy to observe those last passengers joining the boat.

Most of those other vessels that were going upriver had already gone, with others coming in from upriver in a steady sequence, but she could still see the dark plumes of smoke, and with others, laggards like themselves, belching black smoke as they set out to play catch-up. They would not be able to. The faster boats tended to get out first and intended to stay there.

She was not sure she had entirely believed Mrs. Bainbridge when she had told her of certain women that accompanied some of the more wealthy men until she recognized one of them. That young Creole woman had changed into more fashionable attire, but she was unmistakably one of those women who had waved back at the sailors on that other ship after spending the night aboard (if they had) and being suitably rewarded. She was on the arm of a much older gentleman taking the same boat as she was, upriver. They would go at least as far as the junction with the Ohio River to the small town of Cairo, where several rafts of cargo awaited and where they would turn and head back downriver. That young woman might then return with a similar escort, or ply her trade in that town for a while until she was escorted off by the morally protective and fearsome women of the local church, and put aboard the next steamer returning to New Orleans.

It was a sobering thought for Caroline, that she herself might soon be reduced to a similar circumstance if she were not careful, and almost had been, except that when she had disclosed her embarrassingly straightened circumstance to Mr. Wyatt, he had again smiled at her and told her not to worry about it—that it was all taken care of. There had been no underlying suggestions in his words to cause her to worry for her safety, or being likely to be put off the boat if her true financial state were discovered.

She had been given a cabin on the uppermost deck of the three without her asking for such relatively spacious and luxurious accommodation. She had spoken for a modest cabin on a lower deck while trying to explain her circumstance, but her words had seemingly been ignored, and she had to follow the boy off with her luggage. She knew that her even more depleted funds would not cover this cabin either, except no one had approached her about it. She thought it strange that no one had asked her for any money to cover her passage on the Osprey either. He, Wyatt, had something to do with that. She would need to ask Mr. Wyatt about that again and not let him fob her off with “it’s all been taken care of.” She did not like to be in anyone’s debt, as it nagged at her.

She would ask him later, or it might be better to say nothing that might possibly embarrass him and herself. There had not been the money in the bank that she had expected. She learned that her brother had made gradual inroads upon it each month over the last two years, but she had not realized that he might have had access to any of it, or she would have made other arrangements. That would be another sore point for her to raise with her brother when she saw him. If she saw him.

She felt quite sure that she could find enough to cover the cost of her accommodation, if it was absolutely necessary (she touched at her neck, where her grandmother’s ring was secured safely). At the moment the only thing that stood between her and selling herself like those other women was her resolute character, intact so far, and that one piece of her grandmother’s jewels, which she constantly carried with her for such an emergency, as well as one silver dollar, which would buy very little. She had come close to losing it along with her money in Liverpool but for Wyatt’s timely intervention which had driven them off before they might have thought to have searched her further, or worse, as they seemed to have intended.

Having thought about it, she realized that if it came to a sticking point, her own virtue would go before she would see even the least part of her grandmother’s legacy wasted. She surprised herself by thinking that most shocking way, but she had thought about it when she had been faced, as she had been more than once, with ruin, and was more pragmatic about it now, where she had judged before. She had learned that when one stood in the shoes of those other women, as she had come close to doing, that her own views on morality had been forced to change with the reality of what she had seen around herself every day. Everyone deserved to live the life they chose, but few had that choice. She had learned to accept what came at her, up until that point. She had already lost everything that she had once valued, or had been promised, and had little of value left to lose other than her virtue—if it had value—before ever she would part with her grandmother’s gifts. She did not value herself so highly as she once had as to fritter away all that her grandmother had put together for her granddaughter’s security, if a few moments of guilty intimacy might protect it, and get her what she wanted or needed. Realism, when ruin faced one and when one might go hungry as she had done, was a remarkably good adjuster of values, though she had never needed to sacrifice herself in that way, and never would if it could be avoided.

She concluded that there was no such thing as a truly virtuous woman. Every woman had her price if the going became rough enough, and if she was hungry and desperate. It depended upon what she was prepared to sell herself for and what she needed. Many did it calculatingly, without any illusions hanging on to it, for a husband and security, or for wealth or the promise of it, others, for position and power. Yet others because they had no use for virtue hanging at their heels when they were hungry or in need. Each valued something that the other had, a little more than they valued their own property. In the case of the older gentleman and his young paramour, he valued her intimate company and she valued some of his wealth and the comforts that went with associating with him. Each gained. Some sacrificed it, in material expectations that often disappointed, for the elusive and often ephemeral prize of becoming married, in the security of marriage, and the image of contentment and happiness that was assumed to go with it. Such had been the woman who had foolishly married her brother before she knew anything about him, dazzled by his superficially charming manner and affectations, discovering too late that he and what he offered, as with most men, was an illusory prize not worth the claiming.

A voice close beside her interrupted her reverie. She recognized the voice and turned to see him; Wyatt, but he was different. He had bathed away all signs of his earlier toil and had changed his clothes from when she had last seen him. He now had on the uniform of a ship’s officer. At least it looked like it. Perhaps more to do with steam boating than ocean-going shipping. He had also had his beard trimmed neatly and brought down from being so high on his cheekbones and had his hair cut by the resident barber, a much esteemed individual (she eventually learned) who boasted that he had shaved, and shorn the heads of the royalty of most of Europe and the Russias when they had traveled the impressive river aboard the most luxurious accommodation that catered to an endless succession of such distinguished and wealthy visitors, and charged them extortionately for the privilege.

Wyatt was not the same man. He looked distinguished—though he would look better without his beard—younger and less tired, now that he was in an environment he was more familiar with (from what Mrs. Bainbridge had said) but was no less imposing. His eyes were less intense, but were just as direct, staring into hers. He smiled at her as he noted that she was almost the last one to board, with the other stragglers joining even now, so they could eventually head out and pick up the train of rafts and push them ahead of them, dropping some off as they progressed, picking others up, and ending this particular trip, up at Cairo.

“We leave in an hour or two. We are just awaiting a couple of late passengers and for the final raft to be tied in place.”

She had seen a smaller steamer bringing rafts to be lashed together, including the store-boat with the nervous cattle on board, tended by their helper. He had accompanied them from England and, like those cattle, was glad to have been taken out of that confining hold. Now he was to embark on yet another nightmarish journey of discovery up this gigantic river.

Caroline had seen that one of the loaded rafts held a nice little carriage from a bankruptcy sale in the city, along with a considerable amount of furniture, all under a tightly tied canvas cover to keep the inevitable rains off it, and to keep urchins and others out of it. It was all going up to Vicksburg where it would be picked up. At least there was something of tangible value there that had suggested a once-prosperous existence possibly fallen to the vicissitudes of war. With her, all that she owned or had in the world, after learning with some surprise about the money she had expected to find in the bank, was carried upon her person.

Despite her misgivings about doing so, considering her financial circumstances, she settled in to her much more spacious and luxurious quarters on the upper deck of the Caroline, a boat even larger than the Osprey that she had just left. The accommodation on the upper deck, below and behind the pilothouse, was for those passengers who could afford it, as well as for her, on this occasion, despite her wondering how she might even begin to repay it. After that, she took a stroll about the upper deck.

Their passage included all meals in the spacious restaurant and lounge, or even in one’s own cabin, along with the best French wines and whiskeys from the South as well as those from Scotland and Ireland, and other exotic liqueurs to go with the sumptuous dinners that she had heard about. She could not believe that she was one of the privileged few to be able to take advantage of it, though how she might afford it still nagged at her.

The open foredeck, popular of an evening for its cooling breeze, and its relaxing atmosphere, was covered by canvas at night to keep the low light from its candlelit tables, cigars, pipes, and matches from impairing the night vision of its pilot and was partially covered during the day if there was a need to protect those who frequented it, from the sun, or from the torrential downpours, as thunderstorms moved through with some regularity.

Those who could not afford what seemed extortionate rates for the luxury and comforts of the upper deck could live in lesser comfort in more cramped and noisy quarters, shared with unwashed bodies, noisy inconsiderate drinkers, itinerant musicians, but with the possibility—or danger—of more intimate social interactions in the crowded quarters with everyone bedding down, cheek by jowl, just above the noisy engine room and toward the stern. At least they were warm when it was wintry outside, though too warm at this time of year. Others, as well as their families, who could not afford passage in any way, or would not tolerate the social hazards of the enclosed accommodation, were allowed to occupy the empty parts of specific rafts pushed upriver ahead of the boat and could work their passage, helping load and offload or move cargo. It seemed that Mr. Jennings had been a man with liberal views on many things and would not deny any man accommodation if his simple and basic needs outran his ability to pay for them. As long as that man fed himself and did not set fire to anything or damage cargo, he would be allowed to ride with them on the rafts.

No man need starve on the river. Food might not always be presented on time or by the clock, or served upon the best of china, but any man who could not afford to buy his food could fish and usually carried the means to do so, or knew where the mostly nocturnal catfish might hide under a log, or dig into the roots, though sometimes the fight between the two to survive might be tilted more in favor of the catfish. There were also wild pigs and deer, as well as nuts and fruit. A man might forage well and eat better than any king, at times. Any such bounty was also willingly shared with others out of necessity, or the acquirer might see it taken from him. Hungry men did not like to watch another eating alone. Better to eat a little after sharing, than nothing at all after trying to be greedy, and having it taken by force.

They were still waiting for the man who had bought the cattle to join the ship for the voyage upriver. The Osprey had arrived some days before she had been expected, so he had not been waiting for them but the other way around. That man was also called Henstridge. He was her brother. Wyatt said nothing but was aware that he and Miss Henstridge, were siblings.

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