The Caroline

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Did I do wrong in coming here?

“Did I do wrong, shock you so very much coming into this room, dressed as I am, and with us being . . . together, like this? I know I should not have done so. Perhaps I might be the only unexpected visitor tonight. I hope so.” So did he.

“It was a pleasant surprise and far more pleasant than being alone. I am glad you had the courage to do so.”

“But what might you think of me after I was so careless of my reputation as to do this? A lady would not have done anything so rash.”

“I do not judge you ill, if that is what is worrying you.” It obviously was. “Your reputation is still secure with me. Such unanticipated surprises are what constitute the memorable moments of life.” She knew that to be true.

It seemed that he was forgiving her, but she persisted. “You say you do not judge me adversely for that, though how you could not, I don’t understand. It was very rash of me. Despite that, I would like to know what it is that you see when you look at me. What do you think of me, of my situation?” He had laid himself open to that request. He would have to be careful. He thought for some moments before he spoke.

“You are nervous of what will greet you from your former life.” That was a safe thing to begin with. “Your brother was almost as much of a surprise to you as you were to him. There are times when you are uncertain of yourself and how to go forward. I saw that you were often in a brown study, as you walked on the deck of the Osprey, and there were times, at table, when you were not aware that you had been asked a question, and you needed to apologize. You seemed to carry the burdens of the world about with you, though they seem to be slipping away gradually, or is it that they are becoming of a different kind, and more weighty, the closer you get to your former home with all its difficult memories?” He had obviously observed her quite well.

“Both. It is the home of my childhood with both good and not-so-good memories. I am excited to return because, of the better memories that I wish to experience once more before I must finally leave—forever. My brother inherited it, and the last thing he wants is to see me there. That much is at least obvious to me. There is nothing there for me, or that might hold me there now, but I have changed in the years I was away, and I am not sure what I will find there, if I dare go.”

“The future does that for all of us. Nothing stays the same. It is better to move forward, however, and embrace whatever we find there. Life deals us some strange surprises, as well as the losing hands, which are always there. However, apart from the obvious, and to return to this evaluation, you are intelligent; but I knew that when I heard that you taught, and not only that, but that you had been ready to set up your own school in the last year.” She had not remembered telling him that or about her grandmother either, but she had tended to chatter along when she was nervous. She could not remember all that she had told him. “You read many books. You speak Italian, though not well [how did he know that?], French exceptionally well [yes, she had spoken French to one of the waiters], and English, as well as anyone I have heard. You are independent and practical—or you would not have survived going abroad as young as you were. Eighteen at the time, I think you said.”

She had not remembered telling him that either. Nor had she remembered mentioning either being in Italy, to anyone here, or speaking Italian not at all well, but she had only been there for a few months, teaching English. “You are ethical, where your father and brothers were not, but you learned that by observing them and their obvious mistakes and deciding not to follow in their footsteps.” He seemed to know a lot about her that she had not remembered telling him, but then, being on the river as he had for some years he would hear tales of many of the families, and her father had often traveled down to New Orleans.

“I did observe you with your brother and overheard part of your conversation. It is not just the spoken word that speaks volumes about anyone, but the way they dress, behave, and who they mix with.”

“You seem to have known my father, as well as others of my family.”

“I told you. I have been on the river for some few years. I meet many people. I observe, and I listen. I know many of the names of the estates and prominent families along the river, as I know the river itself. To continue with my analysis of you: When you make up your mind about something, you are a ferocious defender of it. You stand no nonsense and learned long ago to defend yourself and to use a gun.” He wondered how far he dared go. He did not want to open up those other memories too suddenly for her. “You must have had an excellent teacher, but neither your father nor your brothers would ever have chosen to teach you that. Nor would they be so unwise as to trust you with a gun. Perhaps the man from your former life gave it to you knowing something of the difficulties that you might face.” He could sense that he was right.

“Was he the one who taught you to shoot?” She nodded. “I imagine he was the one who gave you that pistol.”

“He was. How did you know that?” He knew more about her than she realized.

“There are two sets of initials on the grip within a heart shape. CH, you, and HI.” He noticed too much.

“You make friends with difficulty, but when you make them, you are constant. I would guess that you were a tomboy growing up and would rarely refuse a dare.” How might he know that? Except she had sensed that he had been daring her to go with him, when he had gone off that morning to deliver the carriage, but he had not said anything directly. It had just been the way he had smiled at her. “You have little time for men or even for other women. I suspect you have grown used to loneliness and disappointment.” He seemed to know too much of her, though she had already told him some of that. “I also suspect that if you were ever to fall in love, it would be a commitment for a lifetime, as for me.”

“Yes.” He had said something that resonated with her, and she said nothing for some time as she thought about what he had said.

“While I think of it, happy birthday, Caroline!” Had he kissed her on top of the head again after saying that?

There was a moment of shocked silence as she stiffened beside him. “How did you know it was my birthday?” He had known she would ask that question, and had his answer ready.

That book you were reading, the one on your bedside table. I am sorry that I was curious about it, but I thought I might read some of it myself before it got too dark, before you came along to join me as you did. I saw the inscription in it for your birthday, and the date. Today’s date.” She could not criticize him for that. She had picked up a similar book of his for a few moments before she had retired onto his bed, but she had not thought to look in the front cover for what she might find out about him. She was only thankful that her diary had been in the bottom of her bag rather than laid out as it had been earlier, or he might have seen more than he should have seen, and some of it was about him.

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