The Caroline

By johnksutherland All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Drama

An unexpected question.

“Who is Henry Ibbotson?” That was another bombshell she had not expected. He must have read from the dedication inside that book. “The individual, I assume, behind those initials on the gun handle, HI.”

“A friend. A very good friend from a long time ago.” She said no more, and he did not ask more about him, though it was obvious he had been much more than just a friend. He had felt her become tense and very defensive when he had used that name.

“I am sorry. I had no right to look as I did and even less right to pry.” She still said nothing. He had certainly touched a very personal and tender nerve.

She felt she needed to change the subject away from what her mind was dwelling upon, and that was causing her some considerable emotional pain at that moment, though he would not know that. She cleared her throat as silently as she could and began to ask her own questions to get his mind away from her, with the jangling her emotions had been getting.

“Have you ever been in love, Wyatt?” She thought she knew that answer before she asked the question. Questions you didn’t already know the answers to, tended to be dangerous. He knew why she was changing the subject. They would be hurtful memories for her. He realized once more that Mrs. Bainbridge had been forthcoming about him in many ways. He did not mind.

“Yes. Once. I am still in love.”

“And not only with the river and this life.” It had not been a question. She felt him shake his head beside her and heard, then felt him sigh deeply by the rise and fall of his chest, moving her with it. She felt the warm flood of his breath down onto her. Memories were indeed painful. For both of them.

He turned slightly to face her as moved closer to the edge of the chaise, dropping her between him and the back of it, but she was not concerned by that or by his closeness as they lay trapped together like two lovers. He moved her hair from across her brow, as he had done earlier, and looked steadily at her in the dark with them just barely able to see each other’s face.

“Some say that a man is married to his work. I was, but no longer. There is a woman. I would give up the river tomorrow for her.” She suspected that he was in love with the young Creole woman. She was obviously in love with him and would have done anything for him from what she had seen of them together. She began to feel envious. Had there been occasion for him to have been with that young woman as he was with her now? Had he made love to her?

“Then why don’t you marry her?”

“Because . . . she does not see me in that way. She does not know I exist even [they were obviously not thinking about the same woman, as that girl certainly knew he existed]. Some cynical person told me that we are all condemned to fall in love with someone who cannot return our love, or does the pain just make it seem that way? No. I fell in love with someone who did return my love and in every way before I lost her, and I think that makes the pain even worse.” She began to regret asking about such personal things now. He felt pain in the same way she did.

“You were in love yourself once with Henry Ibbotson!” He felt her nod, not trusting herself to speak. “What happened?”

“I don’t know. I would rather not talk about it. It is long in the past now.”

“But never forgotten!”

“No. There is not a day go by that I do not constantly think of him.” He knew that for himself now.

“Was he as in love with you as you were with him?”

He felt her nod. “He returned my love in every way. That is what makes it so hurtful, not knowing what happened.”

“The hurt does not die easily, does it. Our greatest hurts reside in our memory forever, seared into our minds.”

“The hurt never fades, and it never will.”

“It will lessen, however, when you can unburden yourself and talk of it. You should try. What a melancholy pair we are! We should enjoy each other’s company at this moment before it passes and leave such sad considerations for a more serious time.” They fell silent again as they listened to each other breathing and to the sounds outside of the window. Too many memories were being revived.

“Wyatt?” She paused after using his name. He knew enough to wait for her question.

“Who is the young Creole woman that I saw you speaking with once, and who had sat at your table several times before I came? She seemed to leave just as I approached each time.” She would have liked to have asked more but realized that she had resented him uncovering some of her own secrets so should not try to uncover his. Some things were best not touched upon, but she wanted to know. “Can you tell me of her, or is it too personal? I will understand if you do not wish to speak of her. It is, after all, none of my business how you conduct your life, but I cannot help but be curious with us all thrown so close together for a week on the same boat. We cannot all avoid each other for ever.”

“Another good friend from some years ago. Her name is Leonie.”

“Is that all it is? Friendship?” She had no right to ask such a personal question but did not feel that he would object too much, and for some reason she needed to know.

“Deep friendship. We are very close, but I am not in love with her, nor is she in love with me. She is the daughter of a Spanish mother and a French father, though there were other interesting ancestors mixed in there, on her mother’s side, even Seminole Indian. We helped each other once in a very difficult situation in New Orleans. I owe her and her family, my life.” He stayed silent for some time, but she knew better than to intrude. He would say more once he had sorted out his thoughts.

She would not dare ask if he had made love to Leonie though she would have liked to have known. It seemed as though they had that kind of a closeness between them. However, some secrets were best kept out of sight and out of mind. They seemed to have an understanding about each other as lovers did. It was too soon to ask, though there might come a time when she could. For some reason she felt that she needed to know that.

“And what of the man you spoke of, who almost killed you?”

“He is dead, and he can stay that way in every sense of that word. I would rather not recall any of that or speak of it.” She understood. If he had killed him, as seemed to be the case, it might indeed be difficult to speak of. They all had secrets.

“Your grandmother has entered out conversation more than once. Please tell me of her if you can or wish to.” It would at least distract her from her own tender memories. She moved those other thoughts out of the way and settled back to remember what she had been told so many times.

She, my grandmother, was one of the lucky ones who was born some few years after the worst of the French Revolution and was five or six when she and my great-grandparents escaped from France and the uncertainty of those later times. They believed that they were escaping the guillotine, which was still used more often than not by those in power to settle old scores rather than to achieve justice. Those bureaucrats misused their power to change the course of an inheritance or ownership of some property or person [often a young woman] that they coveted. Her parents, my great-grandparents, were subjected to just such a situation. My great-grandmother was very beautiful and was desired by many powerful men who would not easily be stopped.

“She often told me the story her mother had told her. How they had realized that they must escape. They had prepared for it for some time. They had dressed as peasants and had labored alongside their former servants [who would never betray them to their enemies] for several weeks, while those who had suddenly turned against them hunted out those they were after with the revolution seeming to turn in upon itself, though Napoleon also changed that, but not entirely.

“They wore the clothes of their servants, cut their hair and let it become dirty, and they labored as hard as any peasant to roughen their hands and their appearance. They lived their lives for a month. They bathed rarely, raised blisters; ate as they did; became sunburned and unkempt, even filthy, with rough hands and the clothing of peasants. They hid their pride and learned to speak as their servants spoke. Food that once would have been scorned became sought out. Hunger is a most painful master. My grandmother got used to going without shoes and wearing just one torn dress. They became even more poor and pathetic than those that worked for them. They had been relatively well looked after, and had appreciated it, so were happy to help.

“When they were able to leave, they were stopped once or twice as those guards examined papers, clothes, shoes, hair, hands, and the demeanor of those they suspected. Suspected of what was hard to know. They did not give my great-grandparents even a second glance. I think what convinced them as much as anything was that my grandmother, a little girl at that time, was crying with the toothache and presented a truly pitiable condition with the tears running down her dirt-streaked face, clearing the dirt off. That ate at the hearts of even those immoveable guards. Strange how they could so easily send fine men and women, even children, to their deaths so heartlessly if they were of the aristocracy in those years before, yet could be so moved by the heart-tugging cries of a filthy child with the toothache. They escaped with all that they were carrying, which was little enough, and some food. She had a foolish little doll, equally filthy and ragged, which I still have, and which contained some of what they dared take with them: relatively small items of great value that could be hidden inside an old doll or sewn into a bodice or in the hem of a torn and ragged dress. They risked much, but they got away with it and came to America.

“My father and brothers knew some of the story and suspected what might have happened when some papers that belonged to the family were sent on to them, much later, from France. Other relatives who had also escaped might write and drop some hints as to what they thought they knew, but they could not be sure the extent of what they might believe about grandmother and her parents having escaped with some jewels of great value, but there were rumors.”

She moved a little onto her back as he looked down on her, with her completely at ease in his presence, and alarmed him by pulling that nightshirt, caught under her, away from her, setting his heart thumping wildly at what he could now see of her and what she might intend, and lifted a ribbon from the loose front of her clothing.

“She gave me this ring when I was a girl. I keep it on a ribbon around my neck rather than trust it anywhere else. She told me that it might one day save me from being trapped in any awkward circumstance and that I should sell it if I ever needed money.”

He took it from her and held it, looking closely at it. It sparkled even in that dim light. It had one central large stone with others set around it. It was heavy and obviously very valuable. He could feel its warmth from where it had been. His mouth felt suddenly dry. He felt humbled that she might trust him so well not only to dare show him that, but also how much she seemed to trust him, especially being where she was.

“I am afraid I am still not in a position to repay you for being on the Osprey, or where I am now, after my brother emptied my account at the bank and may not be able to for some time. I once feared that I might need to sell myself, as others were obliged to do, to survive [he smiled at her daring to discuss such a thing while lying in the arms of a man she seemed to barely know] before I would ever part with it, but . . . that situation never arose, fortunately, and I was always able to keep my head above water until now. Will you accept this ring as my thanks and security, Mr. Wyatt?”

Mr. Wyatt now, and not just Wyatt? No, Miss Henstridge”—he repaid her in kind—“I will not. I suspect that it is worth ten or a hundred times more than what you seek to cover with it.” He gave it back into her hand rather than risk being the one responsible for lowering it back down into that disturbingly snug security where it had been, between her warm breasts. He could indistinctly see more of her in the loose front of his nightshirt again, as she had lifted if from herself, first to lift that ring out, and again to settle it back in there again, and the way she was lying close into him and just below him. “What made you change your mind about parting with it?” She looked up at him in the dim light.

“I think . . . I believe I can trust you. There are some people one can know that about sometimes. I know I can trust you. Do I shock you for saying that?”

“I am not shocked. I do not buy into the argument of you being vulnerable either. I suspect that you are more than able enough to defend yourself, both verbally and physically. That incident at the docks in Liverpool caught you off guard. Had you been able to get to your pistol, those men might not have survived. It seemed as though your mind was everywhere but where it should have been. You responded most resolutely and swiftly when it was needed when those men tried to enter your room the other night.”

She noticed that he was close enough to kiss her if he thought about it. She would not mind being kissed. It would bring back only pleasant memories. “I am not wrong about you.”

“No, Caroline, you are not wrong. I must be too easily read, but I have also learned to judge no one. One is usually wrong about others anyway, until we learn their story.”

“Like Leonie?” she would not let the opportunity to ask about her escape.

“Like Leonie. I see now why you were not so worried about not having the money available to cover your various expenses, but you should protect it and hang onto it. I will not accept that from you. You are being very trusting under the circumstances. I could be a complete villain seeking just such an opportunity.”

He knew she smiled even though he could not see her face. Had she been testing him, his character? “You would not take it from me, though I would willingly give it to you. Trust is most strange. I do not understand it. I never thought I might ever trust anyone again, certainly not a man, yet I am here and not at all as protective of my virtue as I know that I should be. Yet my virtue is not threatened. Money is not important to you. It is not important to me either, but my grandmother’s history and what she suffered, to see that the family endured, is important to me. It is safe.” She referred to the ring, but it applied equally to her virtue.

“No, I would not take it from you. A valuable bauble that peoples’ lives were put in jeopardy to recover. Probably a king’s ransom sitting within reach, a beautiful woman beside me [and only scantily dressed, and very desirable, alone in her bedroom with me], and sitting where we can feel each other’s warmth and with her in my arms as we talk of such personal things. You would tempt a gargoyle, Miss Henstridge. Are you really not afraid?”

“Not as long as you call me Miss Henstridge. My name is Caroline.” Yet him calling her Miss Henstridge was safer at the moment and placed a barrier, however flimsy, like that little bolt on her cabin door on the Osprey, between them, rather than invite more familiarity or intimacy, considering where they were and as they were. She did not seem to tempt him at all. “You were able to use it not so long ago, but when the situation becomes threatening to you, you forget it. You have asked that question several times now.” She thought about it for a few moments. She was not afraid of him, but she was afraid of anything happening to him on her behalf, which was why she had joined him.

“With anyone else I might be. I do not understand it, but I do not fear you. I was afraid at first, in Liverpool when I saw what you did, the violence to those two men and the way you beat them entirely without mercy. Look at what has happened since then. I have even become violent myself when I shot that man. I intended to kill him. Besides, you have no need of money, which is why I could easily give it to you for you to look after. I fear that I am far enough in your debt and owe far more than I can pay at the moment, except for this ring, and yet you will not accept it.”

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