The Caroline

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Another strange request.

“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 too. 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 too, 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 his nightshirt away from her a little, 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 too much 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 wasafraid 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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