The Caroline

By johnksutherland All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Drama

That which we most fear....

“I have come to think about it a lot over the last two years. I find that despite having looked after myself for the last few years, that I am most afraid of being alone in life, and it becomes worse with each passing year, even as young as I am. I do not like that feeling. I am also afraid now, of never being loved, of never feeling love again, of dying alone, and far from a place I might call home. There are times when that thought terrifies me, and I even dream of it. Do you think it is true that which we most fear will happen to us because we make it happen?”

“No, I do not believe that. We make our own heaven and we make our own hell right here on earth. You are too young to fear such things, or has life dealt so harshly with you that you are forced to think of them? Yet you know love and were once loved, Miss Henstridge. You will also never be alone if am allowed to be close to you, if you will have me as a friend. At least as a friend.” Was he being too brave and risking too much to suggest that?

“Thank you. As we are now. You have already become a good friend in such a short time, and you have looked after me better than I deserve.”

“You deserve much more. I would also say that on another score, you have quite misread me. It is not so much those who might come in here who are dangerous for you, as me.” She snuggled closer into him. She obviously did not believe him no matter how often he might say it.

“And you, a man as deeply in love as you clearly are.” She was gently taking him to task. “You are saying that to make me feel wanted after what I just said about being fearful of dying alone and unloved. Kind of you but not necessary. There is—was—just one man I can love, but he is dead. He must be.”

She had returned to discussing the man she had loved and had at last stated what she had carried with her in her heart for the last few years.

“I would have heard by now if I had been wrong. Had it been otherwise he would have contacted me. I waited months for him to do so. He would have done, had he been able. He would have left a message for me in a secret place where we both left things for each other, yet he did not. After I had waited for a month, then two, I gave up hope and left. My home had become a place filled with hurt, as well as hatred, after what I began to believe.” He sensed the hurt she felt in her emphasizing that word: hatred. “My relationship with my father and brothers had always been strained. Then, it was impossible. I had to leave for my own peace of mind. I was surrounded by lies and deceit. I knew they were hiding something from me, and I began to suspect what that was. It was at that time that my brother died. I began to hate them all by then for what I became convinced they had done.” She looked up at him with tears glistening in her eyes.

“Does it shock you that I might be so callous toward my own family?” He did not directly answer her question, but spoke generally.

“Some of the greatest emotional difficulties are directed within one’s own family.” Yet he loved his own parents. He had never had either brothers or sisters, and wished that he had. He let her continue.

“I think I came to the realization that his disappearance and their wounds were rather too coincidental. They killed him. I have convinced myself of that. The night they were injured as they were was the night he disappeared. August the 23, 1868—a date that will forever be synonymous with pain and that memory. I find that I no longer believe in coincidences. My brother being here and that attempt on me in my cabin and now this. If they come.”

“Are you sure that they killed him?” He sensed the pain he caused by his further curiosity. She hesitated before answering.

“No. I am not sure. However, I believe they murdered him, though it took some time to come to that belief. I could think of no other reason why he left so suddenly without letting me know. He obviously did not leave in that way. It was not too hard for me to believe that my own brothers and father could do that. I have no illusions about what they were or were not capable of doing. They were cruel and inconsiderate men. I am sure that Robert still is.”

He quietly repeated some of what she had said but emphasized certain words. “If they did. You believe. You do not know. You obviously did not witness his death or see his body. Are you sure that he is dead?” She sighed heavily. She was still crying. He had to strain to hear her response.

Yes, even though I did not see. This simple ring, him giving it to me, and—it may have been noticed when I arrived home with it and its implication recognized. It may have caused his death and what happened, but I . . . I know he would not have left me like that unless he was dead.” It was obviously a painful subject, but he tried to draw her out.

“I think I would like to hear more if it is not too difficult even after so many years. I can promise you that it helps to speak of such hurts and to bring them out into the open, and you have spoken a lot about yourself this evening; for the first time in many years, I suspect.”

“It is still very hurtful. You speak of your own past with difficulty.”

“But at least I started to open up about it more than I ever have, as you did about your own past.”

“I would like some more of that wine if you do not mind.” He refilled and passed her the glass. Consolation did not come in a bottle, but he would not deny her it.

“Be careful. It is stronger than you realize.” She did not hear him. She drank it off without hesitation. So much talking had made her thirsty, or was she intending to deaden a painful memory? It would not work.

“Is your name really just Wyatt?” She had decided not to go further into her own pain. He could not fault her for that.

“Yes, it is now. It used to be the only name that I knew for a while until I recovered my memory of things, and by then it suited me better than any other. That is how I have been known for the last few years.”

“Nothing else?” He did not seem as though he would answer her, and she did not feel she should pry too hard. He chose not to answer. “But where from?”

“Such curiosity! I am footloose. The world is my playground. Each ship that I board is my home. I was disinherited many years ago by fate and needed to seek my own way in life, much as you had to do. I also lost the woman I loved, still love.”

“Is she still alive?”

“I hope so.”

“But you are not sure?”

“I am sure. She lives, yes, but she is not happy. I saw her only recently, but she did not clearly see me. She is . . . weighted down by many other difficulties, and we have grown apart with time. I am as good as dead to her.”

“Then we have much in common. At least you have seen her. She lives unlike my own love. You should approach her and let her know that you live and still have feelings for her. If you do.”

“I do. I have thought of nothing else for many years. With life, there is hope. I am an optimist. I shall let her know soon enough, but I am also afraid to move too quickly, and I hope that she might approach me first.”

“Faint heart. What is stopping you?”

“It is not yet the right time. There are difficulties with her family and other barriers that I must first address.” His words were strange, but he was not about to say more than he already had. She did not give up so easily and persisted.

“Please, tell me of her, if you can.” He sighed heavily. She sensed that it would be almost as difficult for him as it had been for her.

“She is a young woman, much like you, soft-spoken, a well-known family. I suppose that I should tell you that we also married!”

“You did?” That disclosure had shaken her, and she almost sat up to look at him.

“Yes. We married in a simple ceremony of no validity, but that was as binding to us as any proper marriage. At least to me it was. It was a promise we made to each other. We spoke of marriage, we promised to marry each other, and we planned on marrying, as all young couples in love do. In each other’s eyes we were married, and that is all that mattered to me.”

“So what happened to stop you?”

“There was a violent and unpleasant scene that threatened to involve many others. Her family did not approve of me, though for what reason I never did find out.”

It seemed to be a common thing, much as her family would not have approved of her choice, had she told them, but she had not. Might they have found out for themselves? He continued.

“I did not understand why at the time, though I believe I do now, and so I had to give up those ambitions and leave for both of our sakes and to protect others. I think she has forgotten too much about me by now.”

“I doubt she would be easily able to forget you. I would not have done.” He smiled to hear that.

“Thank you. Yet I fear she has.” They remained silent for some moments after that. She had a strange feeling that she was suddenly dreaming what was going on around her and that she would soon wake up. The darkness and the silence honed her other senses in strange ways, as the wine had dulled others, and there were times as he spoke gently beside her that she was in a dream and that she was in another time, another place, with another person, one she had known well at one time, had loved, had trusted, and had believed would be in her life forever. Yet this man was not that one, though he was comforting somehow, and reassuring. He was also safe. She felt safer than she had felt for years. She snapped out of that weak feeling. Her mind was playing a cruel trick on her as it often did when a smell she knew came to haunt her—a sound, a voice, a word, an expression. There were memories everywhere, but she had learned to suppress them and to control them by erecting barriers to keep them away. They were all so hurtful.

Despite those feelings that had been touched upon, she realized that she was not as anxious as she had been at other times when she had thought about the past. She was relaxed and recognized that she may have drunk a little more of the wine than she should have, again, but did not care. It did seem to deaden the pain a little, or was that more to do with where she was; who she was with; and the comfort that he provided for her.

“Why did you not go up to your grandmother when you left, all those years ago? You would have been safe and well looked after there.”

“She was in Europe at the time, so I couldn’t.”

“Perhaps you should have waited longer. This man—he may have been injured in some way rather than dead as you thought. He may have fallen ill from a fever or had been indisposed for some time, recovering, and could not get to that rendezvous.”

“Had it been that way, he would have seen that a message was sent to me. I know he would have done.” She had tormented herself many times with those same thoughts only to see them fade as one month became two. Then she had left.

He changed the subject a little, not wishing to dwell on something that was still awkward for her.

“Tell me what you did after you left.”

“I went to my mother and my younger sister in Baltimore and completed my education. Then I went to France. I have distant relatives there near Paris and had hoped to find my grandmother there, but she had returned to this country. Our paths had crossed, as they say, like ships in the night. I finished my social schooling under their care and then obtained a teaching position in various schools. I could not settle anywhere and moved around a lot, first to Italy, teaching French and English, and then back to France to teach English and eventually to England, where I taught French.

“I did write to my grandmother, however, and we corresponded most faithfully; but it seemed to take months to get her letters with all the redirection, and I am sure there were many that I have not yet received and I may never get them.

“I went to England to teach, as I said, and eventually settled for a year in the north of England, near Liverpool. Purely by accident, I heard of the sale of cattle in a bankruptcy proceeding and learned from the men that accompanied them, as they were being loaded, that they were going to Texas, but that some of the cattle were the property of Henstridge in Mississippi. There are no other Henstridges that I know of, so I chose to believe that providence or fate was giving me a message and that it was time to return.” She believed in neither providence nor fate. “I was footloose and unable to relax no matter where I went. I needed to see my grandmother. Her letters suggested that I should return. That was when you rescued me that day on the docks.”

Words failed them both for a while after that. They listened as various sounds that were not easily identified intruded into their space, the scrambling of a mouse in the wall, the patter of rain drops from a brief shower on the roof, the wind outside, rustling leaves, or the sound of lumber in the building construction, contracting after a very hot day—but no sound of anyone else approaching along the corridor. She spoke again.

“I am afraid of what the future holds for me now. Maybe I am destined to die alone as I most fear. Most of the teachers in those schools were all old women, bitter about so many things, unmarried, and mostly friendless. I became terrified of ending my life like that and of being alone as they were. I had to run away from that too. I left the security of one job after another, teaching in Europe and then England. You saw my meeting with Robert. I should have known there would be nothing back here for me other than a difficult reception, except for the welcome that I know my grandmother will provide. Everything is as strained now as it always was, even with just one brother and no father. I am not welcome in my own family home even. I am not sure what the future holds for me now.”

He kissed her on top of her head and then upon her forehead, and pulled her closer. She did not object. She was now warm and felt safe. It had been a comforting gesture and as a mother might have done rather than one that might be assumed to carry any other intent with it. “It begins to sound as though you have given up on life, Caroline.” He felt that he was now able to use her first name again more easily. She noticed.

“Not given up, I will never do that. It’s just that it has become difficult to decide upon a way forward. It helped for a while when I left here and found a new direction. I was busy teaching in Europe, and that distracted me and was a challenge, but I could still not forget what had happened. I find that I do not want to forget. I would not wish to betray such a love by forgetting any of it. I would lose so much of myself if I did that and diminish myself.”

“I know how you feel." He smoothed his hand across her forehead. "Then don’t forget it. Build upon what you still have. You are young, you are very beautiful, you are intelligent, and you have the rest of your life ahead of you. There are many paths open to us”—he corrected himself—“to you. Closing off one of them does not mean that life stops. It just means that we have to work on learning and seeking out other ways forward. Life must go on.” She was somehow happy that he thought her beautiful, and the wine was warm in her stomach.

“Life will inevitably throw other choices in your way whether you like, or welcome it or not, for that is the nature of life. We get up one more time that we are knocked down; we fight, and we struggle to survive. That is what nature does; that is what life is all about and what we must do.” He nuzzled into her hair and spoke gently, almost forgetting she was awake and there with him. “You need have no fear for your future. Not now.” Her mind was sufficiently befuddled, that she did not fully understand what he was saying or why he said it. It almost sounded as though he were placing himself solidly in her life from that moment forward as a true friend would. Yet he had this other life on the river that would take all his effort, and that other woman that he loved was still waiting out there. She would eventually wake up to discover a love she had thrown aside. Foolish woman! Still, it was kindly meant, and she did get some comfort from it and his closeness and protection. She had not been able to relax so well in years despite the threat of what still might happen. She did not worry about it. She was safe and in a different world. He would protect her as he already had.

Wyatt fell silent and began to digest what he had learned of her in her absence. She needed to be distracted from the hurtful mood that gripped her, a distraction that would wrench her out of her mood, though it was not one of self-pity. She needed to be enervated, provoked, needled, cajoled, and pushed into a different consideration, except she seemed to have given up on life as it should be lived by someone so young. She needed to wake up, or to be woken up, and to break free of those emotional chains that held her back. He knew that he could do it for her, and even to some measure, how it could be done and would be done, but he could not discuss it with her. It would happen soon, now that he had learned what he had needed to learn, and his heart sang because of it, but things must go forward slowly, or it might all come to an end in the wrong way.

Certainly, the last few days on the river and that attempted robbery or attempt on her life had sparked her out of lethargy, as had that meeting with her brother. She had been enervated then, though not in the best of ways, but it had changed her a little and for the better, and now this distraction of Vicksburg and his company. She would wake up eventually and see him for who and what he was and that he was the answer to all her difficulties.

Unfortunately, the closer she got to home, the more those other memories would surface and would need to be dealt with as they soon would be. Yes, that was the place where it could all come to end if he could engineer it to happen that way, but how it would play out with her brother standing in the way of what he wanted presented its own difficulties. That problem was being addressed even as he waited. There was just one hurdle left, blocking him. He had killed two men who had stood in his way up to this time, and there was one left. That man was also on the boat with them. Her brother!

It was beginning to get even more light. They had talked almost the entire night away. No one was coming now. He could hear her breathing differently. She slept. Where she was, and lying as she was, she was more than comfortable enough, but it would not do for them to be discovered like this, especially not with her in his nightshirt when the maid brought hot water to the room in the morning. He should not be where he was either, but he would willingly have spent the better part of the rest of his life with her like this. He could not leave, or put her to bed at just that moment in case the difficulty they anticipated still might happen.

After a further hour, and as it began to grow light outside, he gently moved off from beside her. He slid his arm under her legs, slid his other arm behind her, lifted her from her relaxed position without disturbing her, and carefully put her into the bed, where she would be more comfortable. He envied her that ability to rest so easily. No one was going to come now, but he continued to sit with her until obvious noises around them told him that the new day had started. He let himself quietly out of her room, locking the door. There was no one to see him or to pass comment upon how they had spent the night together and even in each other’s arms.

When she later awoke, he was sitting near the bed watching her, putting a book he had been reading off to one side. Her book. He was fully dressed, yet she had not remembered him putting her to bed or heard him return to his room, and he had not disturbed her when he had returned.

He heard the top stair creak several times as the hotel staff began to distribute hot water for their guests. The maid knocked at the door and brought in a jug of hot water and a towel. She removed those from the previous evening. She looked sharply at him as he let her in. A man was not supposed to be in this room. At least he was fully dressed, and the woman who had just woken up was smiling, which she would not have been had he not been welcome. It was also obvious that only one person had slept in that bed for that entire night. Her nightdress was also not her own, but his. She noticed such little things that revealed so much about individuals, but said nothing. He smiled at her. She could see that it was not as she had at first assumed, though they were clearly not husband and wife. They were not brother and sister either. She knew Miss Henstridge’s brother. Why was she in his nightshirt?

He gave her the key to his room to let herself in when she brought hot water to his room.

Caroline was watching him strangely as he spoke to her, “I brought all your clothes along from my bedroom. You will be relieved to know that we did not receive any unexpected visitors in the night. If you feel brave enough to tolerate my presence once more, I will suggest that you wash and dress behind that screen while I continue reading here; then we can go back to my room while I do the same. Then we shall appear for a coffee together and set tongues wagging after the maid discloses what she saw, but we shall ignore them. After that, we can stroll down to the boat, which will leave once we get there. I just heard it whistle for us, so they have the engines warmed and steam up. We can breakfast on the boat.”

He smiled as she slipped out of bed wearing his nightshirt, entirely unconcerned by his presence, even though it was now daylight. She was well aware of his attention to her. She sorted out the clothes she would wear, and then went off behind the screen as he had suggested. He continued reading but responded to her questions while she bathed, as she seemed to have others still to ask.

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