The Caroline

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The old emotions still simmered.

Caroline was gripping that key as hard as she would have liked to have gripped his neck at that moment. She would not correct him about anything he assumed. “Not taken up…?” He cut off his further thoughts about her having taken up that older profession to be able to afford that kind of accommodation if her grandmother had not helped her. What a teacher might earn would never cover that, and it would not be wise to offend her too much at just this moment.

“You may relieve your mind, Robert. I am not here to challenge your authority or to question your claim to the estate. I may go up and see what happened to Grandmother’s estate. It seems that she left none of us anything. I have good memories of that place, and I think I would like to see her grave.” Certainly, she would like to see her grave and have a good laugh about it, with her grandmother standing with her to reminisce about it. “I shall be staying in my old room when I return from there and reacquaint myself with friends unless you turned them all off or discouraged them, or intend to try to keep me out of my own home.”

Former home.” He made a point of emphasizing that. “I hope you don’t plan on staying long. Some of your old friends—if one can call them that--are still there.”

“So you do manage to pay them, or they wouldn’t stay for long. I do not plan to stay long myself, provided I get what is mine. There were some things I left behind that I wish to recover.” That seemed to catch his attention this time, even though she had said the same thing earlier.

“What things? You left without telling anyone, remember? There is nothing there. You own nothing now other than minor bits and pieces. You gave up all claims to anything when you left. I rather think that it was all cleared out anyway. You cannot just walk in and expect to walk out with anything. Father left everything to me after Jeff died, and our grandmother left nothing to any of us unless she left you something. Her estate was encumbered even worse than ours.”

“Not everything. Grandmother left some things in our home, which were meant to come to me. I wish to recover those, if she didn’t reclaim them after I left.” She saw that he did not like to learn that. “Things that she gave to me at one time and that only a woman might value unless you’ve taken to wearing dresses or cheap jewelry. There are certain books too, and little knick-knacks that only a woman might appreciate.”

He was annoyed with her for that comment but realized that he should not be too difficult. He and his father had been led to believe that nothing of her grandmother’s had been cheap jewelry, but she had kept it well out of everyone’s way, except for what she might have given to Caroline beyond their knowledge. It seemed that she had used whatever she hadto pay off some of her debts before she died or had seen it sent on to her granddaughter, but Caroline was not about to disclose anything. He didn’t care about books or knick-knacks of no perceived value.

“Then I suppose that you should recover what you can.”

“Don’t worry, there is nothing of real value to anyone if that is what concerns you.” He knew enough not to believe her but would not fight with her any further and attract unwanted attention to them both. She was as deeply distrustful and devious as their grandmother had been. His sister had a knack of getting under his skin that she had not had such facility to do, before. “I understood that I was supposed to get an allowance each year from the estates, but as Grandmother’s estate, as you pointed out, was sold off to cover other of her debts, there was none from that source.”

“So you did get Father’s letter telling you about what he did to try and mollify you and to show you that you were not forgotten, and would be welcome to return. I told you that times have been difficult after the war.” He turned away from her and looked out across the Levee.

“You would not have heard. I married.”

“Yes, I did hear about that, from the banker. Was it anyone I might know?” She knew that it wasn’t. Her friends had all known about her father and brothers.

“No.” He was not about to divulge any more on that.

“So when you and she discovered that you had both misled each other about the state of your respective finances and character, she left you.” The banker had hinted at that too. Mr. Soames had not liked the males of her family, having learned of their ways from long association, and had tried to warn her of trouble (Mrs. Bainbridge had been right about that).

“How in hell!” He had spoken before he could restrain himself. How had she known that? “She misled me, as you guessed.” He did not like to have his personal affairs revealed where others might overhear them.

“Just as you, no doubt, misled her. I can see it about you. You are too tense to be happily married. You don’t look married either, to pay you back in your own coin. You show signs of excess.” She noted his florid features from too much drinking, and his middle was pudgy too, and straining at his clothing from careless eating. “A married man is usually more careful with his wife and his habits. There are no children of course.” He just scowled. It had not been a question.

He itched to reach out and grasp her arm or even strike her for her annoying attitude. She was as aggravating and as provocative as she had always been, just as he and their late brother had been for her. They had struck sparks off each other growing up, but he had forgotten most of it until now, never expecting to see her again. He resisted that urge, noticing others watching them with some interest.

“So having lost a wife and with expensive habits still dragging at your heels, you thought to recoup by gambling again, and taking your winnings in cattle.” He had foolishly told her as much before he realized that she was just the same toward him as when she had left. “I wonder if the man you won them from knows that you cheat!” She had not lowered her voice when she said that. He looked about nervously. He would have liked to have shut her up before she said too much but was not sure how to do that without inviting some intervention. “Perhaps I should find out who he is and write and tell him. He resides in Texas, you know. They still hang cattle thieves there, and what they do to cardsharps who steal cattle, one can only guess. Perhaps they hang them twice.” She saw her brother flush to the roots of his hair and to look around to make sure that no one had overheard her. He was relieved to see that others close to them had turned away after the first few minutes of their conversation. “I wonder if anyone else on board this packet knows that you frequent the river as you do to draw people into gaming with you in order to fleece them.” He had an alarmed look still on his face. “Yes, I heard. You and Father were the same that way. Don’t worry, I will say nothing for the moment, but I will hold you to your promise to see the money that you took from my account replaced. And soon, or I may decide to let him know what you did, and where to find you.” He was flushed with anger.

“It will be. I did not expect you, and I have nothing at the moment. No, you would not be married would you. Not with that viperous tongue of yours.” He walked away quickly, afraid of what else she might divulge after that barb and that others might overhear. She was a difficulty he had not counted upon, and was as annoying as she had always been, but they would be a week or more in transit. A lot could happen to dispel such annoyances in the span of a week and in the broad expanse of the river. The sooner, the better, and preferably before they reached the estate and she began to cause trouble for him there too. She could be dealt with as he had dealt with his wounded brother, and no one would be the wiser.

Jefferson had never recovered from his wounds and had survived against all odds, though lying ill, almost paralyzed, after that night of violence. As long as he was like that, nothing would be settled, so Robert had paid him a visit very early one morning and assisted him to that other place with a pillow over his face while he had been quite heavily sedated so that he could sleep without pain. It had been done so gently that Jefferson had not struggled, and no one had ever found out.

As far as anyone might know, he had passed away in his sleep. Their father had been away at the time.

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