The Caroline

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Is she still alive?

“I hope so.”

“But you are not sure?”

“I am sure. She lives, yes, but she is not happy. I saw her only recently, but she did not clearly see me. She is . . . weighted down by many other difficulties, and we have grown apart with time. I am as good as dead to her.”

“Then we have much in common. At least you have seen her. She lives unlike my own love. You should approach her and let her know that you live and still have feelings for her. If you do.”

“I do. I have thought of nothing else for many years. With life, there is hope. I am an optimist. I shall let her know soon enough, but I am also afraid to move too quickly, and I hope that she might approach me first.”

“Faint heart. What is stopping you?”

“It is not yet the right time. There are difficulties with her family and other barriers that I must first address.” His words were strange, but he was not about to say more than he already had. She did not give up so easily and persisted.

“Please, tell me of her, if you can.” He sighed heavily. She sensed that it would be almost as difficult for him as it had been for her.

“She is a young woman, much like you, soft-spoken, a well-known family. I suppose that I should tell you that we also married!”

“You did?” That disclosure had shaken her, and she almost sat up to look at him.

“Yes. We married in a simple ceremony of no validity, but that was as binding to us as any proper marriage. At least to me it was. It was a promise we made to each other. We spoke of marriage, we promised to marry each other, and we planned on marrying as all young couples in love do. In each other’s eyes we were married, and that is all that mattered to me.”

“So what happened to stop you?”

“There was a violent and unpleasant scene that threatened to involve many others. Her family did not approve of me, though for what reason I never did find out.”

It seemed to be a common thing, much as her family would not have approved of her choice, had she told them, but she had not. Might they have found out for themselves? He continued.

“I did not understand why at the time, though I believe I do now, and so I had to give up those ambitions and leave for both of our sakes and to protect others. I think she has forgotten too much about me by now.”

“I doubt she would be easily able to forget you. I would not have done.” He smiled to hear that.

“Thank you. Yet I fear she has.” They remained silent for some moments after that. She had a strange feeling that she was suddenly dreaming what was going on around her and that she would soon wake up. The darkness and the silence honed her other senses in strange ways, as the wine had dulled others, and there were times as he spoke gently beside her that she was in a dream and that she was in another time, another place, with another person, one she had known well at one time, had loved, had trusted, and had believed would be in her life forever. Yet this man was not that one, though he was comforting somehow, and reassuring. He was also safe. She felt safer than she had felt for years. She snapped out of that weak feeling. Her mind was playing a cruel trick on her as it often did when a smell she knew came to haunt her—a sound, a voice, a word, an expression. There were memories everywhere, but she had learned to suppress them and to control them by erecting barriers to keep them away. They were all so hurtful.

Despite those feelings that had been touched upon, she realized that she was not as anxious as she had been at other times when she had thought about the past. She was relaxed and recognized that she may have drunk a little more of the wine than she should have, again, but did not care. It did seem to deaden the pain a little, or was that more to do with whereshe was; who she was with; and the comfort that he provided for her.

“Why did you not go up to your grandmother when you left, all those years ago? You would have been safe and well looked after there.”

“She was in Europe at the time, so I couldn’t.”

“Perhaps you should have waited longer. This man—he may have been injured in some way rather than dead as you thought. He may have fallen ill from a fever or had been indisposed for some time, recovering, and could not get to that rendezvous.”

“Had it been that way, he would have seen that a message was sent to me. I know he would have done.” She had tormented herself many times with those same thoughts only to see them fade as one month became two. Then she had left.

He changed the subject a little, not wishing to dwell on something that was still awkward for her.

“Tell me what you did after you left.”

“I went to my mother and my younger sister in Baltimore and completed my education. Then I went to France. I have distant relatives there near Paris and had hoped to find my grandmother there too, but she had returned to this country. Our paths had crossed, as they say, like ships in the night. I finished my social schooling under their care and then obtained a teaching position in various schools. I could not settle anywhere and moved around a lot, first to Italy, teaching French and English, and then back to France to teach English and eventually to England, where I taught French.

“I did write to my grandmother, however, and we corresponded most faithfully; but it seemed to take months to get her letters with all the redirection, and I am sure there were many that I have not yet received and I may never get them.

“I went to England to teach, as I said, and eventually settled for a year in the north of England near Liverpool. Purely by accident, I heard of the sale of cattle in a bankruptcy proceeding and learned from the men that accompanied them, as they were being loaded, that they were going to Texas, but that some of the cattle were the property of Henstridge in Mississippi. There are no other Henstridges that I know of, so I chose to believe that providence or fate was giving me a message, and that it was time to return.”

She believed in neither providence nor fate. “I was footloose and unable to relax no matter where I went. I needed to see my grandmother too. Her letters suggested that I should return. That was when you rescued me that day on the docks.”

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