The Caroline

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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 goes 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.”

“She is 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.

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