Caroline slept fitfully, with too much on her mind to rest. There were too many loose ends; too many unanswered questions and strange things to try to reconcile, but they were becoming clearer as though a fog were clearing from her thoughts.
She went back in her mind, analyzing each situation she remembered, to try to bring all of the pieces together. What had brought her home and why?
She recalled a letter from her grandmother. She had said little, except, reading between the lines, Caroline had sensed her excitement over something, but at the same time had given the impression that life was steadily advancing under her and that she would like to see her granddaughter one last time, rather than have her stay away much longer. Yes, that had been the start of it. She had not thought of anyone else until that letter had caught up with her, tied up with her own concerns until then.
Of course, she had heard of her father going missing before that, but it had not had any impact on her. It was too late to return home then, even if she might have thought to do so. She had no feelings on that. It had bothered her for a while, but there had been no love there in either direction.
It was after she had gone over to Paris for a brief respite that summer, from her teaching in England and a visit to her other relatives, that she began to be concerned, hearing again that her grandmother had written to them several times, inquiring about her granddaughter’s whereabouts and trying to locate her with some urgency.
She had been away too long and had given too little thought to others. She had given notice late in the summer and barely a few days away from the start of the new term, after hearing some interesting snippets about a bankruptcy sale, and had first taken off to Liverpool, not sure which port might be best to get a ship to North America. The closest was Liverpool. She would find out there.
Then, she had met that man Wyatt, the one here with her now and sleeping in the bedroom just down the corridor. She recalled that he had scared the wits out of her. He had stood over her as in a nightmare but then had smiled at her, addressed her by name and—how had he known her name? It seemed odd at the time, but it had not registered in her brain with all else going on around her. She had told no one who she was, not even that clerk in the hotel. At the last minute, she had not used her own name but that of one of the other teachers from that school. She had not liked the way he had looked at her, and this villainous-looking giant standing over her merely confirmed her impression of that area. She felt sure she had not told the captain what her name was, though she had heard it a short time earlier. “Those cattle are to go to Texas, with five of them going to the Henstridge estate in northern Mississippi.” No, she had not told him her name either, so how had Wyatt known it?
She went over what she remembered of him from that time, recognizing that her impression of him had gradually and steadily changed since that first meeting. A shock of unruly hair. That dreadful scar and that beard. All she had seen apart from them, had been his mouth, his nose, and his eyes. Those eyes! What was there about them, smiling at her, as they seemed to be all the time from that fierce visage?
She had seen very little of him for the next few days with him being as busy as he was, though they had exchanged a little by way of conversation at the captain’s table of an evening, and all under the watchful matronly eyes of Mrs. Bainbridge. She had liked that older woman. Almost a mother to her in some ways in the company of rough men, though they had all been polite and careful around her.
Then they had got to New Orleans. Could the time have gone so quickly? Yes, it had. Before her feet had properly touched the ground, she was on board that steamboat, all thanks to him seeing to it for her. The only difficult interval had been discovering that her bank account had been empty and that she had no money to her name.
No money! Why had no one told her what it would cost for that trip from Liverpool, and why had no one asked for payment? She had been housed—in a way—and fed for all that time, and it was none of it free. Could Wyatt have had something to do with that? Obviously, he had.
She stretched and tried to rest, but her mind was still too active.
Then there was that trip upriver on The Caroline with her in one of the best, if not the best cabin on the boat. It must have cost a small fortune, but no one had asked for payment then, either. Wyatt again?
She remembered that he had never been far away from her at any time since Liverpool. He had even given her his own cabin on the Osprey. Why? More questions than answers.
He had been close to her when her brother had come on board and had watched and had listened to what they had said to each other. Had he also been protecting her then? He certainly had that second night following that when those two men had attempted to get into her cabin and one had even succeeded. He had killed one of them, though no one else on board that boat seemed to know it or that she had shot the other man and had seen him go overboard. Such events normally did not go so well unnoticed, except on the river, where all evidence of such skullduggery was soon disposed of. Had he not intervened, who might know what the outcome would have been for her?
Wyatt had slowly crept up on her, not in any awkward sense of that expression, but in the sense of having slowly moved into her life, almost undetected, but in a most pleasant and relaxing way. Relaxing? Far from relaxing, considering what seemed to happen close to him all the time, but nonetheless welcome and even becoming trusted. How might that have occurred as it had, and in such a short span of time? She had grown used to his company at various times when he was freed from his duties, sometimes at breakfast, then at lunch, and even at dinner each evening. Then later, as they sat at those tables after he had joined her again, they had talked about nothing in particular. They were both occupying a small society, so they could not avoid bumping into each other at such times. She began to find that she had learned so much more about him from those moments. She also began to realize that their constantly meeting might not be entirely accidental. Others watched for her to appear and even reported to Wyatt when she entered that salon. She had not been fully conscious of that until now.
Yes, she had learned to trust him. She had trusted him when they had gone off to deliver that carriage and then after that in Vicksburg when she had gone along to join him in his room. Her room. How had she dared to do that with her dressed in just his loose nightshirt? He had not been shocked at her behavior but had seemed to understand, even though it had been shocking, and entirely reckless of her.
They had talked all night after that, as they had sat somewhat close together (very close together) on that chaise, so that they might speak without being overheard. Yes, they had sat very close together. Even more than that after she had felt something run over her foot, then they had been more relaxed, and she had somehow become recumbent! Recalling all of that shocked her. Then waking up in her own bed with the maid looking at her strangely, just as that clerk in the hotel in Liverpool had, judging her not at all kindly. How had she got into bed? He must have put her there!
What had they talked about? It seemed that they had touched upon everything important to her. Feelings, mostly. Personal feelings, as they had both discussed lost loves, family issues, and her grandmother. She had gradually told him of her life.
He had known her grandmother and where she lived. How had he known that? He may even have known about that valuable ring before she had shown it to him. She had offered it to him in some sudden mood of wanting to repay him for all he had done for her without any payment being asked of her for her passage on either ship. He had refused it, of course, as she knew that he would, and instead had requested that she could give him that copper ring that Henry had made for her. How had he known about that?
How had he known that it had been her birthday on that very day? The inscription in that book, now that she thought about it, had merely wished her “Happy Birthday, with all my love, Henry. September 1866.” That day’s date, the seventh, had been written in, but it had not been legible after a drop of rain had fallen on it at just that moment as they had sheltered under that tree together, yet he had wished her a happy birthday on that exact day! Henry was the only name that was written there, but he had mentioned Henry Ibbotson. How had he known that last name? She had not told him. He seemed to know, or had guessed, a lot about her.
Her heart began to beat more noticeably then, and her mind was even busier, trying to remember more; but there was already more than enough for her to know everything she needed to know.
She had tossed and turned all night wondering what she should do with her life, until that wine had overpowered her, but it was all becoming clear to her now. She noticed that it seemed very light outside. She must have overslept. That damned wine!
He had spoken of his life too, of being in love, but his love not knowing that he lived. What else had he said? She could recall his exact words: “There are difficulties with her family and other barriers that I must first remove.” He had been speaking of her and of Robert! What else had he said? “I think she has forgotten too much about me by now. I saw her only recently, but she did not see me. She is . . . weighed down by many other difficulties, and we have grown apart with time. She did not clearly see me. I am as good as dead to her.” He had been speaking of her! Her own jealous feelings after Leonie had stolen him away from her became obvious to her now. She had even felt more than jealousy. She had . . . she had fallen in love with him but had not understood it. She did now!
She sat up in bed then with a sudden clarity sweeping away all the previous uncertainties. She knew now how it was possible for her to be in love with two different men. They were not different at all, but one and the same!
The first thing she saw was that letter that she had written years ago lying on her bedside table, along with that delicate porcelain figurine of a ballet dancer that Henry had also given her years earlier. A ballet dancer caught in that most graceful act of fouetté en tournant. She had once flirted with the idea of going to Paris and becoming such a dancer, but the war had taken such ambitions away, even if her own father would not have done, but she had not told him any of her plans anyway. There also had been a time when such dancing was not at all respectable but had been a way for certain women of that day in the seventeenth century to parade and flaunt their exposed physical attractions to wealthy patrons who had something much more earthy on their minds than dancing.
She put those distracting thoughts aside and picked the letter up to look at it closely. It was not the same letter he had first found in that log. It had also been opened, though without being torn. She had sealed it. She had seen that first one in his hand, and it had a damaged corner, as well as being sealed. This one did not show that same damage, and it looked a little worn in other ways, with a few wrinkles, creases, and stains on it that should not have been there. At least one of them looked like soup, and there were ink splashes that she had not left on it. He had not just recovered this one from that log as he had said, but another. He had exchanged them as he had turned away from her to stop her snatching it from him. Why? To give her own letter back to her, of course. Her letter, the one that he had carried with him for years, while he kept the one that he had written to her that had sat in that same log for all those years up until that very day.
No wonder he had told her that she should have waited for him longer before giving up on him. Yes, she should have done, but hindsight was of no use now. Why had he not given her his letter at that moment? It would have explained everything to her. Perhaps he had not wanted a suddenly emotional and hysterical woman, fainting, on his hands. No, that was not it. It would have been too sudden for them both. She had to make these discoveries for herself and while she was alone.
“Henry!” She spoke that name aloud as she had so many times as well as in her thoughts each day that had gone by since that time. Hannah had even forgotten her momentarily devious role and had called him by that name during dinner that previous evening as she had requested that Caroline pass him the pickles. It had not registered in her conscious mind until now.
She threw aside the covers and launched herself out of bed, heedless of her appearance. It no longer mattered. She did not bother with a wrap to cover herself but almost ran along the corridor to where he slept. She did not knock but pushed his door open and entered his room. It was still dark in there with the curtains drawn to keep out the morning sun. She moved over to the bed and reached out for him as she said his name, Henry, again, but there was no response.
There was no one there, though the bed was turned down and had been slept in. She touched where he had lain. There was no warmth there. He had left it sometime before and not recently. A cold hand gripped her heart and seemed to squeeze it. She felt a sudden knot of cold anxiety in the pit of her stomach as though a bout of nausea was about to overcome her. She sat on the bed and tried to think.
The house began to seem empty and too quiet and with her the only one in it. She rushed downstairs, wondering if she had still not fully woken up from one of those dreams that she still suffered, to find that everything was not just as bad as she had feared, but worse.