The Caroline

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We're close to the end, Hannah.

“What got into her? She is in that despairing mood again. I remember seeing her like that five years ago. It tore me apart then. You’d better let her know who you are.”

“I won’t need to. She will soon know. She found a letter, or more correctly, I found it for her. I couldn’t let her find mine, so I pocketed my own and put her last letter in its place.”

“You should have let her find yours and all this agonizin’ would have been over. It might have been the best thing to happen to her, givin’ her hope. It would have woken her up. I couldn’t understand how it was that she never found out you was alive. Her grandmother told her in her letters, but she can’t have got them. It would have taken all of that pain away, but now she’s livin’ it all over again. Why don’t you save her from all of that now tonight? It’s in your power, you know.”

“I know. I should have done it differently, but I didn’t. She has to wake up for herself. I would like to destroy that nightmare that she carries with her, but I would like to do it one step at a time and replace it with something that she can accept easily without angering her too much. I thought I had made a good start on it, until”—he remembered the change that had come over her when she learned of that contract—“I have been in her life again now for only the last four weeks, and she still does not see me for who I am, not with everything that has happened around her. She will be as mad as blazes when she finds out I didn’t tell her who I was, right at the beginning, but I’m looking forward to that sign that she is alive once more as she should be. I hoped she might see me and recognize me on the dock in Liverpool when I addressed her by her name, but she had just been robbed and knocked off her feet. All she saw then was this bearded stranger with this scar across his brow, standing over her after I’d dealt with two thugs. She didn’t know what to expect. I was ready to tell her so many times, but we were never alone those first weeks. After that, I was curious as to how long it might take her.

“Then, her brother being on that boat with us was another distraction, and after that, she learned that he had lost everything that he owned in a poker game, and to me. Then she learned of that other contract. She was frustrated with me by then, with me trying to hide things from her to save her from some awkwardness.” He stood up and took the drawing down from where it was hanging and took the paper out of it to show to Hannah. “Somehow, the rumor had spread about this aspect of our wager, and she overheard it, or I would have said nothing about any of it. To think I owned her, on paper at least. However, she found out about it. I would not even have let her know about her brother losing the estate. She could have come here, wondering where her brother was, and then eventually it would have dawned on her that he had met an accident, like her father, and it all belonged to her again.” Hannah read it, shocked.

“Yes, this would make her mad, her own brother putting her up as a bet in a poker game. I would have killed him myself for this if he’d showed up. So what are you going to do now?”

“I am going to fill in the rest of this, and then I am going to leave!”

“Oh no, Henry! You can’t do that. You can’t leave, not now.” She watched as he went across to the sideboard and recovered a pencil from there and then sat down to fill in his full name in the same way he had filled in just his middle name. He wrote in the name Henry before the Wyatt and followed that with his surname Ibbotson.

“I must leave. I need her to discover for herself what she now can discover, but in her own time and not with me pushing things along too fast, as I fear I would, and distracting her. Do not worry, it will be for only a short while. I suspected it might come to this when she did not recognize me sooner, and I prepared for it.” He rubbed at his face. “Time for this to go. It hid me away from her brother until I did what I needed to do, but it also hid me from her.”

“It wouldn’t have hidden you from me. It didn’t. I recognized you soon enough.”

“But you knew I was alive, Hannah. She didn’t. She gave me up for dead long ago. There are none so blind as those who not only will not but cannot or dare not see. She could not see. I think she was beginning to fall in love with me again, and then I made a misstep with that contract. I should have denied it and never have shown it to her.”

Hannah blinked away tears of her own. “You can’t cut that off yourself. You’ll take half of your face with it. Let me do that for you. You got to do it properly, or you’ll leave more scars to hide that face of yours. It isn’t you with all that hair growing to hide everything about you, and she can’t see beyond that beard or behind that scar on your forehead. You sit down, and I’ll see to it. Get your shirt undone while I get soap and razor, and we’ll get started. She ain’t going to be comin’ down tonight, not after the wine she drank, and the peculiar mood she’s in, but she ain’t goin’ to sleep well neither.” She brought everything together and after lathering his face and sharpening the razor started in on shaving him very carefully.

“You’d better tell me what you’re thinking of doing.”

“I am already started on doing it, but there is more still to do. I am going to leave her a note along with all those documents she expected from me and a few others that will remind her of a few things. Better if I am not close by when she makes those discoveries, or she’ll come after me for not telling her right off who I was. I’m not up to fending her off. I might break down myself then.”

He adjusted his expression as she demanded and stretched his skin as she helped him to get under his nose and his neck. She had to resharpen the razor several times to finish it. She wiped the rest of the soap off his face and saw him inspect himself. There were only two small nicks, whereas had he done it, he would have been streaming with blood.

“I am going to leave here at first light to see that old friend again—her grandmother—but I needed to do this first. She will try to find me tomorrow first thing and will enter my room to find me, as she did this morning, but I won’t be there.

“She will also find many things of mine, some of which she gave me, letters between us. Love letters, gifts. She will also wonder how I might have those books that she gave me with both of our names in the front. That will cause her to see even more. If she gets curious enough—and I think she will—she will also find a lock of her hair, as well as poems we wrote for each other. There is another contract up there too, the first one. It contains our vows that we made together in happier times and our thumb marks in our own blood to bind us together. She has forgotten too much, and yet I know she has also forgotten nothing. It is all just locked a little way beneath the surface and is ready to break out. I could see it in her eyes as we toured the estate and went through all those memories that we made together as children and as adults. She just did not see me in that same picture. No. She has forgotten nothing; it is just that she has blocked it all away so that it cannot hurt her again, though I almost shook her loose with this.” He tapped the contract. He replaced it in its frame and hung it back where it had been with the drawing facing out as before.

“There are other papers that she should have.” He took a letter from his pocket and placed it on the table. It was timeworn, stained, and partially insect eaten from the time it had spent in that old log up until the time he had found it again just earlier that day. It was addressed to Caroline, but Hannah could see that it had not been written recently. It was the one he had written to her just before he had found her letter five years earlier. He could not have let her discover that letter just then, although he wondered what she might have done if she had.

“I shall get you to keep these original documents safe, the ones conveying the estate to me, so that she cannot see them notarized or destroyed. She might just be angry enough with me to do that. She always did have a temper.” It had been her defense against her own siblings, and he had seen it the odd time when he had been difficult, though very rarely.

Hannah put her hand on his arm. “You should go up and see her now, Henry. She could not help but recognize you the way you look now.”

“I dare not. It would be too sudden for us both. I would never be able to leave, after that.”

“Then promise me that you will not stay away long.”

“Hannah, nothing could keep me away from her for long now.” She sighed at hearing that.

“Good. It would not be fair to leave her like that again once she knows who you really are.”

“I’m not sure what my welcome might be. She might just shoot me out of extreme anger and utter frustration at my hiding who I was from her, though I didn’t try too hard. But I’ll risk it if it gets to that.”

“She won’t do that to you. I wouldn’t let her. What should I tell her?”

“There is no need to tell her anything much, except that I was called out in the early morning before she was awake to go up to Cairo, and that I will be coming downriver with The Caroline in a few days. I will probably spend a day in Memphis, and then I will drop in and pick up my belongings on the way back. At least she will know then that I will be coming back. It might not be amiss to suggest that she visit her grandmother. I’ll go and see her grandmother myself first, however, and fill her in on everything that has happened and enlist her help.”

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