A love token more valued than gold.
Wyatt changed the subject to something a little safer. “But what of this other ring that you wear?” He touched her hand, and she brought it up into view so that he could see it on her finger. “It seems plain by comparison. I believe I may have seen only one other like it.”
“Plain and simple, made of copper, but of great value to me. Of far greater value than the other for all its monetary value. It was a gift from the man I loved.”
“Loved?” Her use of the past tense, caught his attention. “Poor Mr. Ibbotson. You no longer love him?” That was not what she had said earlier, but he wanted to hear more. “What happened?”
“Loved, and still love. I shall love him until the day I die.”
He had another thought. “Miss H…Caroline, I would not accept that ring of your grandmother, but I would accept that other ring from you if you would give it to me as surety. I would see it returned to you.”
“I cannot. It may have no value to anyone else, yet it has immense value to me, and I would not part with it in any way, not for any sum of money.” He decided that he would not test her on that score. He could not help but smile. He had already known that, before he had asked.
“You would freely give me a ring worth more than a simple man might earn in a lifetime, yet you will not give me a simple copper ring that one man made for you out of love and with little effort. There must have been great love in the making and the giving of it. It speaks of a love that I find to be most moving. A painful love indeed, but there is never just one love in anyone’s life, though I am sure that it seems that way.”
“Perhaps to a man. I am a woman, and women are more constant in their given affection.” He would not argue with her. “I believe that there is just one true love. There was for me.” She was sure of that. He added his own thoughts and feelings to what she had just said.
“Perhaps falling in love like that changes a person and makes it impossible to feel love again in the same way.” He felt her sigh deeply beside him, recognizing that he well understood her feelings. She might even be crying if the dampness on his shirt told him anything, yet he felt that he had to ask.
“The date in that book was seven years ago when you had just turned sixteen. Seven years is a long time to carry such a love. Did you disagree over something and you sent him off, or did he become angry and went away from you? Young lovers do have quarrels.”
“No. We grew closer after that. We parted that last time, just over five years ago, on very good terms [she misled him; they had been on very much more than good terms], as we always did and made plans for the following evening, but it was storming hard, so I had to be patient until the next evening. My family knew little of what I did and did not see me for days at a time. If I was not working in the fields or directing other things, then I was seeing to the comfort of the workers, former slaves, trying to help them in some way or other. I approved of none of it; slavery was barbaric, and I was glad to see it end.. I ate with them, and I often slept down in one of the empty cabins, so my own family did not miss me.
“When I did return to the house, I found it to be very different. My oldest brother was dying after being shot several times in the belly; my next brother had been shot in the arm, and my father had lost two of his fingers.” She recalled that night vividly. “The story they told was that they had been set upon by some drunken Union soldiers who had then taken off downriver. I did not know what to believe, but I soon began to suspect that they were lying.
“It was warm on that next night, but Henry did not come as he should have done. He did not come the next night either nor the one following. That was when I began to suspect what my own family might have done to him. I was fearful of what might have happened to him by then. There was nothing that could have kept us apart short of . . . I visited his parents, but they were as concerned as I was as he was not there either. I knew something was very wrong by then, and I began to be even more sure what it might be.
“I went to our rendezvous every night for two months. I asked everyone I could trust. I did all that I could to try to find what might have happened to him, but he was gone without trace. That was just over five years ago. I have not felt happy since that time. I left home soon after that. I told no one. I just packed a few belonging and the little that I had saved, and left.”
Wyatt knew that she was crying but just held her closer.
“No word? No letters?”
“Nothing! Yes, we used to disagree on some things when we first met more than ten years ago, when I was just thirteen and he fourteen, but not many. He was very gentle and considerate, and I never thought that he would ever be gone. I am afraid I was the one who was not so very kind to him. He mentioned that he felt that he should enter that war, but he was only fourteen or fifteen then, and we had only just met. The thought that he might get killed horrified me. I think I was already in love with him even then. I am afraid I was not very kind to him over that.”
“It was probably just the bluster of an overeager youth, trying to impress you. They would not have accepted him.”
“Oh yes, they would!” She sounded very certain of that. “The South was desperate for men and would have taken anyone, except he wanted to join the Union army. He abhorred slavery as much as I did.”
“Oh dear. How unwise, in this neck of the woods, though prescient, considering how the war turned out for the South.”
“He was not so very serious, but standing aside and constantly hearing about it raging on, backward and forward and of the battles, even close to us on the river, nagged at him. I worried for nothing. His father and mother would not have permitted him, and then to my everlasting relief, the war ended. I felt much better after that, and as we grew older and understood the feelings we had for each other much better, we made our plans, though we told no one. At least I did not. My father would have been furious if anything threatened to take me away from what I was doing, at such a crucial time after that war, with all the reorganization needed and with the slaves being given their freedom. Most of them had nowhere to go or were too old or scared to go and knew nothing else. Emancipation was as difficult for many of them as it was for us. They, the slaves, and my family, relied upon me to sort out the difficulties after that.” She was now talking more about that time, and he was happy to let her.
“He was as needed on his parents’ property as I seemed to have become on our own. I had been brought up more by the slaves than by my own mother, who seemed to be prone to illness, and hysteria, and I had more in common with them. Our plights were similar, though mine was easier. My mother had left when I was only twelve. Her constant infirmity angered my father dreadfully. He could not deal with it, and he could do nothing about it. He would not send her off to the East to recuperate with better medical care as both the doctor and she wanted.
“I only recently realized that it was her way of trying to escape him, and I think he knew that. The only way I could stay far away from the constant annoyances and arguments was to become involved in the management of the estate, even from an early age. I had a head for figures, and the slaves relied upon me eventually to stand between them and my father and brothers, which I did from an early age. Nonetheless, he appreciated the changes and did not wish to see it jeopardized, so I continued, and managed to bring the estate back to where it had been, except that during the war it became impossible to do very much. After the war, it was more important that I stay, and I tried to find some way to balance the needs of the estate with those of the slaves. Then, it all changed.” Her life had changed dramatically since that earlier time. “Tell me, Mr. Wyatt, is there anything that frightens you? You seem so assured, so steady, and so dependable.”
“There are many things that I am afraid of, but there is nothing I can do about most of them, so I have learned to accept it. I could ask you that same question. What are you most afraid of, Caroline? However, perhaps you have not thought about it. Few young people do.” She had and wondered if she would dare tell him of her deepest fear. She would tell him.