The Caroline

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Where is Henry?

She found Hannah in the kitchen, and evidence enough that she was not in a dream, with those papers lying on the table. It confirmed that she was awake and could now begin to see what she had been too blind to see until now and had let slip from her.

“Hannah. Where is Henry?”

“Who?”

She almost stamped her foot. “Henry, of course. Wyatt. Henry. You know who I mean.” She did indeed but could do nothing about it.

“He’s gone, of course, miss. A rider came through earlier this morning with a message.” Her conscience twinged only a little at such a gentle lie. “He left these for you”—she indicated the papers and a letter—“and that picture hanging behind the door that you wanted him to leave. I was just about to come up and wake you. So you did manage to come to your senses at last.” Caroline looked at her with tears in her eyes.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I couldn’t.” The older woman was close to tears. “He didn’t want me to, or I would have done. I saw how you were still in pain.”

Caroline could see in her mind that contract behind that drawing hanging in that place. It was hers now and freely returned to her as he had offered and as she had demanded, but it had lost its significance as a source of embarrassment and anguish to her now. She began to see it as he had seen it, now that she could stand in his shoes and see what he had seen in it. Why had he not told her who he was?

There were also the papers that had conveyed everything of the estate into his hands for her to deal with now as she would. There was that letter from him addressed to her, and that had sat in that log until just yesterday. The one with the damaged corner. It had her name on it, but it had been written years earlier. She knew that now. She snatched that to herself. She would read it later in the quiet of her room, when she could cry over it, but not yet.

He had left the contract and other papers as he told her he would, but she had never felt sure that he would comply with everything that she wanted. He had what she thought had been an unhealthy interest in that most personal contract that had made her feel so uncomfortable.

She understood why now, and she was edgy about it. She sat at the table and opened his older letter to her. It was weather beaten, with insects having chewed upon the envelope and having eaten the corner totally off it. She was almost afraid to read it. She replaced it in the envelope, unread, and compared it with her own, the one she had brought downstairs with her, and found that hers was relatively undamaged by exposure while his was showing signs of age in the outdoors and exposed to the ravages of insects. It was the other letter that she had been led to believe had spent five years in that environment, yet it hadn’t. He had carried it with him everywhere he had gone, looking for her, while the other had spent all that time exposed to the elements. He had indeed switched letters under her very nose.

Why had he not stayed? Why had he not told her who he was? No. It was not him and what he had not done. Why had she not known what had been in front of her since Liverpool even, and when he had first used her name? How had she not known him? There had been moments in that hotel in Vicksburg when she had felt most alive, lying in the arms of a relatively strange man in the dark, and yet trusting him as she had never trusted another for so many years, and her barely dressed. She thought she might understand it now. Her senses and instincts had not been playing tricks on her—they had told her the truth, as he had done in a peculiar way—that the situation was dangerous (yes, it had been) but that she was as safe as she wanted to be with him. What must he think of her?

She remembered the picture hanging by the door. She stood up and moved out of that room and along the hall to take a closer look at it. The Caroline, the boat. She knew what lay behind that. She looked at it for some moments and then took it down from where it was hanging. She lay it on the table and carefully removed the back from it. She retrieved that drawing and turned it over before she replaced it, and then hung it back upon the wall to show to the world the contract that had once caused her so much anguish.

She read it and then paused with her feet rooted to the spot.

It did not just show that one name, Wyatt, anymore but a full name, with a first, a middle name—Wyatt—and a final name. That full name had not been there just two days ago when it had been brought off the Caroline with them. Her breath caught in her throat. Here was final confirmation—if she might ever have needed it—of everything she had discovered but had not seen until just a few moments earlier.

Henry Wyatt Ibbotson.

She had assumed that the middle W of his name was for William, after his father, and he had never told her otherwise despite all those other personal details that they had shared with each other. She cursed herself, uncharacteristically for her blind stupidity, knowing so much of him and yet at the same time missing such an important piece of the puzzle that should never have been a puzzle to her in the first place.

She stared at it. He had been in front of her all this time, smiling at her, waiting for her to recognize him, and she had been blind, with her mind tangled up with a memory, when the real man had been in front of her the entire time.

The contract was now there for all to see. She had agonized over what others might think when they saw it or became aware of it. Now, she did not care. Now, it meant something very different to her. It had taken on an entirely new meaning. Now, she wanted to be his property in that way. She was not sure whether to laugh or cry, but whichever it would be, it would be done because of relief.

She left it where it was, displayed for all and everyone who entered the house to see, a contract conveying her into possession of the man she had loved all the life she wanted to remember.

She went back into the kitchen, to Hannah. “Where is he?”

“Well, It took you long enough to come to your senses, missy.”

“Where did he go? Why did he leave? I need to find him, to stop him.”

“You came to your senses a little late, honey. He’s gone. He left. I seem to remember him being here from way back in better times, if they was better. I guess they wasn’t so good with your father around, and his moods, and those brothers of yours who were a constant annoyance to you both, but they’s all gone now, and you got back everything that you ever wanted. If you want them.”

Caroline looked stunned. She might have just lost everything. “I want them now, but mostly I need to find him again. Why did you not stop him or let me know he was leaving?”

“Why? You wanted him gone. You made that obvious in enough ways. Myself, I couldn’t understand it, you not recognizing him, but he said to wait and that eventually you would plough through all those awkward memories and find out what was left. He said you would know where to find him. It would just be a matter of time after what you’d done together over the last few days, and especially yesterday, but he figured it was all too much for you to take in.” She thumped at the dough she was making up for bread. She would like to do the same for the young woman in front of her, except she needed gentler handling at this moment.

“You agitated for him to leave you those papers, so he did. There’s others of them on the table for you. One he just wrote. And then he left. He was called away, or I think he might have stayed a little longer.”

She picked it up and read it quickly. It told her nothing that Hannah had not already told her. “Called away?”

“Yes. A rider came with a message for him this morning early. He’s been called away up to Cairo for a day or so, and might be stalled in Memphis for a day on the way back.” She paused as she remembered something about that. “Memphis. I remember it used to take pretty near a week to get up to there when we walked; all seventy-five miles of it, and now those steamers do it in just a few hours. What next?”

“Damn, Memphis!” Hannah smiled. That was more like it! “I did not want him to leave, and why did he leave that contract?” Hannah looked at her as though she were demented but was glad that she had woken up at last. “It seemed to mean so much to him and I couldn’t understand why.” She knew why, now. It had been something of her that he had valued more than she had recognized at the time, just like that copper ring was to her.

Hannah scattered more flour under the dough. “It’s your own fault, girl. You insisted he leave it. I heard you reminding him about it as though he couldn’t be trusted to keep his word. I could have boxed your ears for that!”

“Yes, I did insist didn’t I.” She agonized over that. “Except now, I would rather that he had kept it.”

“You can’t have it both ways, girl. You are getting to be too like your mother. She could never make her mind up neither. He wanted to keep it, but you wouldn’t hear of it. You wanted it back, and now that you have it, you wish he’d kept it. Will I ever understand you? You’s a strange woman who don’t seem to know what she wants even when it’s right under her nose and has been there for the last four weeks.”

“I do know what I want now, Hannah.”

“A bit late now, honey. He’s gone! However, he did leave his belongings upstairs he said, and that he’d be back for them in a day or so, a few days, maybe a week.” She paused and thought about that. “Or did he say he’d send for ’em. I cain’t remember.” She smiled to herself. She knew what he’d said right enough. He’d be back when the moment was right.

“Cairo, you say?”

“Yes’m.”

“When a woman gets what she wants, she very often soon changes her mind.” She remembered his words and the look on his face when he had said them. Hannah looked at her blankly.

“What’s that you say, honey? Don’t fret like that. He said he would be back or send someone. I told you he left most of his things behind. All his personal stuff too.” She watched her take off, and called after her. “Are you sure you should be messin’ in his stuff? He won’t like that.” She smiled as she saw her disappear upstairs. He’d left it all for a reason, which was for her to do exactly that, to mess about in, to help her get back to her senses, but she’d already done that and without any further help. He had known what he was doing right enough.

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