The Caroline

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The Final Game

“Are we on time?” Henry had come into the pilothouse to check with the steersman. His uncharacteristic impatience and nervousness was evident. It was not usual for Mr. Wyatt to be that way, but he was this time for some reason.

“As near as we can be. I slowed after we passed the Folly and sounded off, two short blasts like you said. I guessed we were moving a little fast. We’ll be there in another two minutes by my reckoning.” They swept slowly around the curve in the river, and entered a long straight stretch of river where it was wider, and became quiet and slower once more. There were no steamboats ahead of them, coming or going. “Yes, I think I see what you warned me about. There’s that skiff in the river you asked me to look for. At this distance, I think I can see two women in it, directly in front of us. They intend to be picked up, just as you said. Do they know how dangerous it is to be just where they are?” He changed course slightly, but they did not seem to be in any hurry to move out of the way.

“Two, you say?”

“Two! Looks like an older woman and a young one, the older one with a parasol, with two men at the oars, but they ain’t movin’ out of our way.” They were almost a half mile ahead of them, but the distance was closing very fast.

Henry put his telescope on them, laughed to himself, and then looked behind the boat on the river to ensure that no other boat was close behind them, and signaled that the engines were to slow and then to go into reverse so that they would not mow down the skiff.

“Put them close in on the port side, Sam. You have it from here. I’ll see they get safely aboard.” He rushed out of the pilot house and was next seen heading along the rafts to ensure that nothing bad might happen, leaving the boat in the more than capable hands of the steersman. He knew what he must do. It was not an uncommon occurrence, but in this case, the skiff and its passengers could hardly be avoided, though he had plenty of warning about it, even before they had got there. Mr. Wyatt had even expected them to be exactly where they had been.

He saw the two men who handled the skiff, bring it smoothly alongside an empty raft, and hold it there, as they drifted down together with the current; and by then, Henry was with them and able to help the older woman and her obviously younger companion, safely aboard. Their relatively light luggage followed them. There should have been more of it. No matter.

Henry’s heart was singing. He knew them both well, of course, as they certainly knew him as he greeted them. He took his cue from the older woman who seemed to intend to stay between him and her companion even though she knew what both of them had in mind.

“Ma’am, Miss Henstridge. Caroline.” He could see that Caroline looked at him with her eyes blazing, but it was not with the anger that he almost might have expected after he had taken off like that, but something else that he had hoped he might see at last. Her attention was in the wrong place, of course, and she forgot where she was until he quickly reached out to stop her overbalancing and getting a dunking in the river. He pulled her back from that and onto the lead-most raft and into his arms. She did not fight him away but just returned his embrace as they stood like that, heedless of everything else going on around them. He was relieved beyond words about so many things. He liked the way she was looking up at him as he kissed her for the first time in many years, full on the lips, finding his kiss returned. His head was spinning. She gently pushed him away from her and spoke.

“I have a bone to pick with you, Henry.” He just smiled at her. “You should have told me who you were instead of having me break my heart further as I did when you went off the other morning! I had so much to say to you, and you had gone.” She had spoken softly. She intended that he would feel her pain, and he did, now. He would make it up to her.

“I tried to, my love. I tried in so many ways, short of telling you who I was. Hannah knew me even as I walked into your home, and yet you did not, even after four weeks. What was I to believe?”

“You could have believed your heart and taken pity on me rather than torment me as you did in so many ways, hiding yourself away behind…that beard.” Words almost failed her.

“It was not my heart that was in any difficulty, my love, but yours. I hope you are now recovered somewhat.” She had liked to hear those words of endearment that she had not heard for five years.

“Somewhat. Recovering from the difficulty of discovering that I could be in love with two men, and the shock of suddenly becoming aware of who you really were after almost living with you for four weeks. It came to me this morning even before I was fully awake. It will take a while to get used to this.” She moved back into his embrace.

“It will not take so very long now. How might I make it up to you?” He stroked her face. Her eyes flickered to her grandmother, standing there patiently, which was unusual for her. It could not last.

“We’ll see.” She would think up some suitable forfeit for him that would be more reward than penalty. The old woman had been patient for long enough and had heard enough to reassure her, taking her cue from them. They were not about to take brickbats to each other, but she hadn’t expected that they would, not after the conversation she had with them both over the last two days.

“Hold your horses, you two. Not so fast. Another few hours will not make much difference to you, but it might be the death of me. We need to get some other things out of the way first, like seeing to our own comfort after that skiff ordeal. I feared we would overturn any minute. Are we to stand here all day? There will be time for all of this reminiscing and recrimination later. I fear that if I stand here any longer while you two forget about the world around you and about me, that I shall take root or be eaten alive by these dreadful little flies that I cannot see, if I do not die of thirst before then. I shall need a hot bath to get rid of the feeling of them on me. It was bad enough waiting for you in that skiff with both of those men being under the weather [she had been the one to offer them a drink and had bribed them with a bottle, to get them out on a Sunday, so she only had herself to blame]. I feared they would see us mowed down rather than get out of the way of this monster, belching black smoke and coming at us as though it would not stop for anything or anyone.” She had feared nothing of the kind, though they had.

“But that’s what you told them, Grandmother, not to move out of the way. I thought that was why you were so ready to ply them with—” her grandmother cut her off before she said any more.

“Are we going to stand here yammering all day after baking in that sun? See to that luggage”—she addressed another man who had appeared—“and be careful with that drawing, it’s more than your life’s worth to damage it or lose it. See it gets up to my room, wherever that might be. And pay them off, Henry!”

“Yes, ma’am.” Henry smiled and gave them some money. She had already paid them once to persuade them out into the river, but she smiled at them nicely to thank them for their efforts. It had all unfolded as she had said it would. They deserved to be rewarded for standing their ground as they had and risking being splintered into a thousand pieces, as they had put it, to try to increase their fee when they had heard what she wanted. “You don’t play games with a steamer comin’ at you downriver, ma’am, no you don’t.”

Now they could row ashore and finish off the bottle she had been prepared to see them consume to keep them on station for as long as they needed to be there, but she had cut it rather fine. They had only just got into position when they had heard the whistles announcing the boat they had expected, coming around that bend at them. At least she hadn’t asked for her bottle back.

“I shall want a cabin, Henry.”

“I believe I have one available.” She already knew that. They had made their plans earlier.

“Good. I shall also need one for my companion.” He was not expecting that, however. He thought that Caroline would be staying in the same cabin as her grandmother until they got down to New Orleans, giving both of them time to fill in the gaps and to get to know each other again without all of the unpleasant baggage that her brother had represented. He recovered quickly, realizing that the older woman had made changes to what they had discussed when he had visited her.

“She can have mine. I shall sleep in the pilothouse. There is a cot there.”

“It won’t get to that. We won’t be here that long, but she’ll need somewhere to rest, away from all my . . . questionable habits.” That was not what they had discussed either. He saw her smiling at him. “Well, that was easier than I’d have thought. I would appreciate a cool drink. It was hot sitting out in the full sun in that skiff waiting for you. It felt like hours.” He saw Caroline look at her, as unspoken messages passed between them concerning slight deceptions, and then smile up at him as he walked her back to the boat along the rafts, with him holding tight onto her to steady her on the uneven footing and the old woman holding on to his other arm. The boat began to pick up speed again as the skiff fell away.

“I am sorry if you were waiting long.” He knew they had waited for barely ten minutes, if that. He had told her the exact time they would be passing Crock’s point on their way downriver, and they had been on time to the minute. She’d had a full day and more to get everything ready.

“I am both hungry and tired, Henry, and need to rest a little. You serve food on this tub, do you?” He smiled at her strange humor. She knew they did. “After that I shall need to rest to get over that shock to my system, but I will expect a visit from you both in my cabin after that to discuss how we are to go forward. My granddaughter is not quite herself, I see, after that harrowing little experience in the skiff.” She had seen the way she was hanging on to Henry’s arm, and it had nothing to do with that skiff ride. “At least I need to rest for a while. We shall meet in my cabin—here in an hour, all three of us—and find out what there is that we can do about this present situation while satisfying an old woman’s yearning for some excitement, now that I am able to get out into the world again, with all of my worst enemies gone.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He began to suspect that she had decided upon some other course of action than that which they had planned together, but she was not about to tell him about it until she was good and ready, but she always had been unpredictable.

Henry opened her cabin door and led the way in. It was the room that Caroline had occupied while she had been on the boat, but it was laid out a little differently, with two beds now. There were various bottles arranged on top of the dresser and some dainty finger foods and sandwiches already waiting there, as well as various preserves in brandy, and a selection of cheeses from England and Europe. She really had been expected. Henry poured her a glass of Napoleon brandy (one of the few good things to come out of France after the troubles) and passed it to her as she arranged herself in the comfortable chair that had been made ready for her. Everything was within reach. Even some ice. She waved them off and picked up a cheroot, which she rolled in her fingers as she held it up to her ear to assess how dry it might be. There was no obvious crackling sound. It had been well protected from the heat and had not had time to dry out and become fit only as a suppository to feague or ginger up a horse (as they say) to liven it up for show or sale, just as a well-directed squirt of tobacco spittle under the tail would do the same. She had everything she needed for the moment.

“Relax, Henry. It is not the end of the world. So I made a few changes to improve upon what we discussed.” She saw the smile on his face. They would both have to trust that she knew best and what was now needed.

“Well, take yourselves off then!” She waved them off. She could see that they were excited to see each other under different circumstances than they had, up until the moment they had come aboard, and they suddenly needed to be alone with each other. Not much privacy on a boat, though, except for the cabins. “I will see you both in one hour.” She watched them leave and smiled to herself as Henry closed the door with a wink at her and after mouthing the words thank you. They walked slowly around the deck, arm in arm and holding on to each other, without saying anything.

The old woman waited until she heard their footsteps on the deck fade before she lit her cheroot, sat back, and then reached for her brandy. The rest of what would happen had been carefully thought out in her own mind, but that pair needed time alone together after five years apart, and with her granddaughter only now waking up to who he was. She fished in the bottom of her purse and checked that both items were where she expected them to be. Henry would expect none of what she had now planned. There was a very old pack of playing cards with which she had whiled away many a sleepless hour of worrying, and a somewhat larger package, very carefully wrapped. If anyone had known what was in that particular package, she might never have made it onto the boat alive or might never leave it, except in a box.

Henry let them both into his cabin, finding that she immediately turned into his arms again to be kissed as he moved the door too, with his foot. She left him in no suspense as to her great pleasure in finding him again now that she knew him. She rested her head on his shoulder and cried tears of happiness. He was content just to hold her.

Eventually, they both sat on the edge of his bed to recover, and talked as they held each other close, looking into each other’s faces as they turned to each other, and talked. They clasped hands as though afraid to let each other go. She gently took him to task.

“Why did you not tell me who you were, Henry? It would have made everything so much easier and more bearable after believing you were dead all of these years.”

“I wanted to, my love. I waited for you to recognize me on those docks in Liverpool, especially with me addressing you by name, but you did not see me at all. You saw . . . a rough and violent villain, which I was at that moment, seeing what those thugs had done to you, and . . . events did not make it easy.” She had to agree with that as he continued.

“When I thought about it, I think I was relieved that you did not seem to know me then. What could we have done about it? I could also see that you were concerned even about being alone with me in that dingy hotel room and with the door closed. I found that quite humorous. I wanted to laugh but dare not.”

“Had I recognized you, Henry, I would not have allowed you, or us, to leave so easily with five years to make up for.” Her eyes twinkled.

He laughed at her daring. “I know. It began to concern me. We had only just met again, and I could not be sure when you might become aware of who I was, and overwhelm me as I hoped you would. After that, we were never alone long enough to be able to talk, nor for quite some time as we would have needed to be, to revive those old memories. My work also kept me out of your way, or who knows what might have happened? I thought it better at that moment if I stayed out of your way as much as I could, and hoped that you might see me eventually for who I was.” He sighed. “But you didn’t.

“It soon became obvious to me, that you did not see me, because you had become convinced that I was dead when I was very much alive, close to you even, and determined to be in your life from that moment forward. I decided that I would show you gradually that I had not changed in any of the ways that you might have remembered. I knew that I must try not to rush things along and present you with what might have been too much of a shock to your system if I had revealed myself to you too soon. I am sorry if I caused you any difficulty by that, but I was afraid…of what might….”

“You should have told me as soon as you could,” she gently berated him again. He could see that the tears of happiness were not so far away. He would kiss them away if they began.

“Yes, I should have, but there were so few opportunities. Then, your brother distracted you, and I was still needed to take over some duties on the boat as I tried to relearn the river while trying not to let you out of my sight. There were so many other things that needed to be addressed.” He referred to Leonie and her father and their plans, hatched long before that, to deal with her brother. Especially before her brother might succeed in his own—all-too-obvious plans after that confrontation with his sister.

She raised his hand to her face and held it close to her cheek. “We were really alone only that once, that night in Vicksburg, and I still did not know you, but it was beginning to feel different. I began to question my own feelings. You were beginning to have a disturbing effect on me, and I did not understand it. I was falling in love with you. I had lost all fear about your intentions toward me about then, or I would never have dared appear in that nightshirt but would have dressed.”

“I am glad that you didn’t. You can have no idea how disturbing to my peace of mind, you were when I saw you outlined in the doorway with the light behind you and shining through that well-worn nightshirt of mine. I was not sure I would survive that excitement.” She laughed at that confession. She had been unaware of any of that, but was pleased that he had told her of it, and that she had excited him as she always had been able to. “As if that were not enough, you speculated about how I should really have my own nightshirt on, and you, yours, and that we could make that happen there and then, in the dark that was not so very dark. I almost died. I had seen your nightdress, and it was…well, not at all substantial.” She began to appreciate the constant little torments that she had unconsciously thrown in his way where she had done them consciously with him before. They had hidden little from each other eventually and had made their own plans for their life together when she would reach her eighteenth birthday, and she would go off with him to make their own lives together. Two weeks before that date, her family had intervened as violently as they had, and had destroyed those plans for them both.

“Thank you for telling me, Henry. I remember that there were few topics of conversation that we did not discuss. Were there?” She blushed up at him.

“Very few, my love.”

“I wanted to die when I thought about what might have happened to you, and that you had—” He stroked her face to comfort her. “In that room in Vicksburg, together, I know now that I began to suspect something that I did not clearly understand as we sat together. I recognized that I knew you from somewhere, but I was not sure how or from where. You let some strange things slip that did not register in my brain as they should have done at the time—waiting for that murderous visitor—though they did later, after I had more time to think about them. The moment had gone by, by then, and I could not be sure. I still did not recognize you for who you really were, but my senses were telling me that I needed to wake up and try to understand my own feelings. You could have told me, then. I think I would have been able to deal with it at that moment. I had a feeling about you, but I dare not believe any such thing.”

“Vicksburg was too dangerous.”

“Oh! Of course. That other . . . man. The distraction. Yes, you said as much.”

“No! I misled you a little. There was only the one person who was the most danger for you then. Me! Especially the way you were dressed in that nightshirt of mine. No one else. I wanted to tell you then who I was, and almost did, but you were in a strange mood. So was I, holding you close in my arms as we lay together just as we used to, and with no complaint from you about the impropriety of it all. It would not have been safe for you had I thought for one minute…about….” He sighed and kissed her as she lifted her face to his. He swallowed hard and exhaled over a few seconds, as though to calm his tormented feelings. “It still isn’t. You, alone with me, in my room for almost an hour after five years apart.” She knew what he was telling her and could read it in his eyes. She felt elated, seeing and knowing about each other, almost as though they had picked up where they had left off, five years earlier, and ready to move forward again but with much less hesitation. She blushed, unable to meet his eyes for just a moment, and then laughed. She knew exactly how he felt. It mirrored her own feelings. “Perhaps it is not safe for you to be here with me, Henry. You must have read my last letter to you and thought about what I wrote.”

“I read it many, many times. I left you my outspoken response in my own letter, but you had gone by then, and I did not know where to find you. I wrote to your grandmother, but she did not get my first letter—though I did not know that at the time—and I did not have a direction for your mother to ask her. I was lost.”

She reached up and stroked his face. They had both felt a similar pain. “I told you in my letter that I regretted how we had not made love before you had been taken from me, despite us coming close to it so many times, and that if you would but come back into my life, I would not hesitate again.” She paused and closed her eyes. “I still would not.” She looked up at him after that confession and smiled. “No one will disturb us. If you would like….” She sat up and began to slowly and shyly unbutton her dress at the neck.

He stopped her after the third button, by holding her hands still. She felt him trembling as he leaned his head against hers. “God knows that I would like to, but I must not at this moment. We will have time later, my love. We have waited ten years. A few more hours will not make much difference, and it will be the better for waiting.” She knew that what he said was true. This was not the time or the place, but she knew that she could so easily have overridden him and moved it forward had she insisted, or could have gently moved his hands aside and continued.

“I should have known you long before now, Henry, with all the little clues that you dropped. I would have done, but for your beard and that scar that my brother gave you, and for everything else that was distracting me; especially meeting my argumentative brother as I did, and inflaming all those old and very hurtful feelings. Then there was his attempt on my life—it had to be him behind it—and the dangers that we both faced in Vicksburg, as well as the temptations that we both felt and that you resisted so well. Perhaps that was why I felt so very safe in your company.”

“I expect and hope so. However, you were not as safe as you assumed. You are still not safe with me.” She knew that for herself but delighted in that feeling.

“I am only as safe as I want to be?” He had often told her that. He nodded. “But I don’t want to be safe, Henry. I have had five years of that, and a truly miserable time I had of it. I want to be cherished, held, and loved. I’ve dreamed of nothing else.” He understood her mood. “Then, Henry, my love, before temptation overcomes us both, as it is sure to do if we stay here with the mood both of us are in, and makes us forget about my grandmother and everything else, we should go and have a coffee before we join her and learn what she has in mind. It might be better if you tell me first what you both plan for me. I shall accept it, whatever it is, as long as it involves us both.”

He laughed. “I cannot tell you what is planned now. I thought I knew, but I do not know what she plans now any more than you seem to, but it obviously must involve us both. I saw her two days ago for just three hours. I opened my heart to her and told her everything that had happened to us both in the last four weeks and asked for her help before I made a bigger mess of everything, as I did with that very personal contract.” Caroline nodded as she listened. She had done essentially the same thing. Her grandmother would know what to do. Henry continued talking.

“She told me that you and she would meet me on the river as I suggested, today, just as we did, when I came down with this boat again. She wanted to make sure that all was well between us, one way or another, as we went down to New Orleans before we returned, but I think it already is as well as it can be between us.” He knew it was, by the way they both smiled, and held on to each other. “However, whatever it is that she has planned, we must ensure that she can carry it out and with our full cooperation. I think she has had little enough excitement in her life over the last five years, with one small exception, that she needs to do this for us in order to feel alive again.

“I told her that I could delay leaving Memphis so that we would be at a certain place on the river, at a certain time, and that we would whistle to let her know that we were coming. I was afraid that you would be so angry with me for not telling you who I really was before I left, and hurting you by doing that, that you would never want anything to do with me again, and I was not even sure you would be there with her. Before I left, I did make sure that you got your property back and even that contract that I had hoped to keep secret, especially from you. I am sure you did not understand my peculiar interest in that.”

“I understand it now, Henry. I understood it before I saw your full name signed there, proclaiming that you were the proud possessor of Caroline Henstridge, me, even if only on paper. That will soon change now. However, not yet being sure that you had the woman it referred to, me, you would desperately hang on to that instead. How little faith you had in yourself, or knew of me, after so long apart; but that was my own fault for not seeing you for who you were as soon as I should have done. Yet who am I to say anything? I thought that you had given up on me, and had abandoned me after I frustrated you by continuing not to know who you were. I realize now that I came so close to recognizing you so many times. Vicksburg was when you first began to chip away at me as we talked together and disclosed our innermost feelings and secrets to each other, and then, when you wished me a happy birthday…! You could not have learned that from the cover of that book. The date was partially obliterated.” He put his arms about her and pulled her closer as he kissed her on her forehead.

“I had forgotten.” He had forgotten nothing.

“I took a look inside that book again. It had been inscribed ’with love, from Henry.’ Henry only. Not Henry Ibbotson. Then, when you came upon me while I was swimming in that place where we shared so much, and matured together, I did not see you approach. I was almost out of the water when I saw you sitting on my clothes as you had done all of those years before; ten years ago now.”

He corrected her with a smile. “You were entirely out of the water, my love. You set my heart a-fluttering. You were just as mature as I remembered, and as nature had blessed you when we swam together and lay on those rocks together to dry off.” He was smiling at her blushes. “You used to drive me wild.”

“Yes, I did, didn’t I? I knew you for a moment, or thought I did with the sun behind you; but then I lost you again, and saw only Wyatt, and not the man I had hoped to see for just a second, and I retreated again.”

“Had you recognized me, you would not have retreated. You never had been so shy with me and had never retreated before. It was then that I realized that I should have taken my beard off sooner. If I had done so, none of this might be necessary, and we could have stayed and swum together as I wanted to.”

“And made love.” She blushed up at him again.

“And certainly we would have made love. An opportunity missed. You were quite annoyed with me when you saw who I was, without seeing who I really was.”

“Not for long after that. At dinner that evening, I was preoccupied with what I was learning about you that was still confusing me, and so much so that I missed Hannah addressing you as Henry.” He smiled at her. “I was still wondering how it could be that I was in love with two men: one of them, only a memory, and the other, a lovingly annoying person who had resisted giving me what I wished to recover; my name; my reputation.

“It was just a matter of time, my love. So near, so many times, and yet so far. That was why I wanted to hold on to that contract. It was a poor substitute for having you, the real woman; but it was all I might have at that moment, or ever, with you so annoyed with me. It was a dream partially fulfilled.”

He stood up. “We should go. I am curious what your grandmother has planned for us that has us leaving this boat much earlier than we had originally planned.”

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