The Caroline

By johnksutherland All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Drama

Let's get it right this time, Henry.

Five minutes later, and a little earlier than they had been told, Henry tapped on her door and was told to come in. He led the way in as Caroline’s grandmother saw the look of happiness on both of their faces with them still holding each other close. There was the smell of a cheroot still floating in the air, and it was clear that she had enjoyed both that and a second brandy.

“If I had known it might be so easy to get you two together, I would never have needed to come. You don’t need me here, standing in the way; but I am here, unfortunately, and so you will have to put up with me for a little longer.” She waved at the chaise in front of her own seat for them to sit down together. “We have little enough time before we get into Helena, where we will all disembark rather than head on to New Orleans, so we should get on with it.” They waited for her to explain what she intended.

She cleared her throat. “I am here, as—for once in my far too long life—I have a hankering to gamble somewhat recklessly. I heard many times that the river was the place to do it and that you were the man to take on, despite them outlawing gaming on the river some years ago. I heard that you never gambled in your entire life until a few days ago. I hope the experience of that did not put you off it forever.” She seemed to be referring to that contract that he could see lying against the back of the desk but hidden behind that drawing of the boat which faced outward. He said nothing, which she took as an affirmative answer.

“Good. How high were the stakes?” She looked at him for an answer.

“A man’s life was at stake, ma’am. I was not sure at the time which one of us that might be. His life, as it turned out, as well as everything that he possessed—though he did not know that his life was also on the table. I wagered only this boat. The man I was up against lost both, but it was an inevitable outcome.”

“Those stakes seem just about right and appropriate at such a serious time; all that a man might possess and have to his name, as well as his life. As that fellow said, “There is nothing like a good hanging to sharpen a man’s mind” or wagering his very life and all of his property. Just the right stakes for a game that so much hinges upon, or that matters. I heard that a woman’s reputation was at stake too, and saw evidence of it.”

“Yes, that rumor seems to have raced up and down the river. It was not supposed to be that way, but yes, as little as I care to admit it, a woman entered into that wager, but it was largely beyond my control at that moment.” She snorted as he continued, “A woman, the woman I loved”—his eyes met Caroline’s eyes at that moment as he felt the pain of that, once more—“became part of the wager, fortuitously, not intentionally on my part, but I welcomed it at the time in my foolishness. I occasionally do foolish things like that before I have adequately thought about them. I had not expected it, and had not intended it, but I could not refuse it. It might have been wiser if I had. It has caused me a great deal of grief and trouble and cast me in an unfavorable light when she found out about it.”

“I heard. But the important question to ask is did you believe that you won, or did it seep through to you that you might have lost when you had to explain what had happened after that to Caroline?”

“I thought I had won. I did win, as I intended I would, in one way, and then I realized that I hadn’t won at all when she found out about what had been wagered and what had really been in the balance. However, she did not see it as I saw it.” His glance flickered to Caroline. She seemed happy to let both of them do all the talking as she held tightly on to him.

“Just like life then. We rarely win certain of those battles.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You think you win and it is quite the other way. My daughter had to learn that lesson when she married that Henstridge fellow against my wishes. She learned the hard way, and much to her cost, though some good did come of it: I now have two granddaughters. I won there. Alternatively, you think that you lose, and then you are most pleasantly surprised to find otherwise. She did leave him eventually, and is going to make a better go of it this next time.”

“Yes, ma’am, that was the way it was with me. I soon learned that I might have lost something that I valued even more highly than I valued my own life. I should have just been satisfied with killing him, and then we would have avoided all of the later difficulty.”

“Yes, especially as he was destined to die anyway. I rather think your loss might only have been temporary.” Indeed it had from what she could see. “The question to ask, however, is what did you expect to gain?” He looked across at Caroline. They could both see what he was thinking. He had already gained everything he wanted. Caroline blushed, but held his eyes. No one needed to ask what was in either of their minds. “Oh dear, I fear I really am in the way, aren’t I? Never mind, we shall soon be gone from here and then I shall get out of your way, and you two can become yourselves once more and make up for lost time.

“But to get back to something you said earlier, Henry. You said that your winning was an inevitable outcome. That is not usual when one gambles, surely, at least it was not in my day. Why was it inevitable?”

He sighed heavily. “I cheated!” She laughed at his confession, so easily given.

“And you survived? Yes, obviously you did survive, I am glad to say, while your opponent did not. My granddaughter already told me all about it after you told her. Normally, one tries to keep such things hidden. However, I cannot criticize you for cheating. I cheat at everything myself. I am an exceptionally poor loser. I even cheat at solitaire!

“I also cheated death myself. Recently too. And attended my own funeral, so I hope you do not mind gambling with a corpse, Henry! You already know that, having been the one who organized my funeral.” Her mind went off on a tangent after remembering that. “But it was such an unsatisfying death. I hope the real thing will not be as depressing as that was. Did you not find it depressing?” She was looking at Henry. “You were at my funeral, of course, you and barely a dozen others!” She reached over and patted Caroline’s hand. “Though you weren’t.” Caroline knew only a little of that. “However, you will be there for the next one.” She was not afraid to discuss anything, it seemed.

“It was not at all well attended. However, it was by special invitation only, and I invited those friends who came, so I should not complain. Not a good turnout to see me off, so it is fortunate that I was able to change my mind for the next time. I told no one of that until they discovered me afterward, to their great consternation at first, mingling with the mourners. It was all so exciting once I got over the disappointment. I found that I could not keep away. It had all been so well planned and for the best of reasons--to keep me alive a little longer. It was, after all, my own funeral. I could not allow the moment to go to waste and stay hidden when there was so much fun to be had. The party afterward, however, tended to make up for all the other once everyone discovered that I was very much alive.”

“It was a beautiful funeral, ma’am.” She smiled at him.

“Of course it was, once I was able to relax. I am only sorry that my granddaughters were not there. You were the one who suggested it, Henry, and organized it down to the last detail after you alerted me to what my son-in-law was trying to do. I suppose I should thank you for killing me off. I should also thank you for killing that last grandson of mine, and taking all the distemper out of my life, but I couldn’t relax my guard until they were all gone. Well now they are!” She raised her glass to that thought, and drank. “What a bloodthirsty lot we are! Goes with the history I suppose.

“In the meanwhile, all that I was required to do was to go into a sudden decline and die. However, there were not enough tears to suit me. I began to think I was not loved. I hope the next time around will not be so flat and joyless.” He and Caroline smiled at each other. Caroline had heard little of this.

“They knew you were not dead, ma’am. Not too many dead people can listen to their own eulogy, from the pews.”

“Yes. I suppose that was the reason why they said all those dreadfully flattering things about me.”

“You wrote it yourself.”

“Did I? Oh! I’d forgotten. I suppose only when I am dead and gone, will the awkward truth be told behind my back or over my head while I turn over in my coffin. I will, you know. I may just object very loudly if they don’t get it right the next time. No matter, we had a good little party afterward as we laughed about having poked those Henstridges in the eye, and then we all admired that little sculpture of me for my grave and those daguerreotypes or tin types that showed me in my coffin, in case anyone might doubt it.

“The camera man was very understanding about it all and seemed to think I was only a little bit mad. I thought I might burst trying to hold my breath for long enough until he told me that I could breathe lightly, as it would take almost a minute to make the exposure, and no one would be able to see much anyway with me dressed all in white and with such a healthy complexion. I was in my wedding gown. I must make sure that it is not buried with me.” She looked at Caroline. “It will be all ready for you this evening, my dear. It will fit you now after the few changes we made. Perhaps I should have one of those little bells installed on top of the grave, so that if I wake up in my coffin the next time that I can ring for them to get me out. A dead ringer! Oh my.” She chuckled. “What a morbid conversation, but that coffin was most comfortable. I almost fell asleep in it.

“We let it all go forward as intended, with all of the announcements of course, to throw them off track. There is something to be said for dying penniless—I believe is the word—we took great pains about that, and before one’s time. They were so disappointed to hear that. It is exceptionally peaceful to read one’s own obituary, though I saw where improvements can be made for the next time. There is a lot to be said for having such a dress rehearsal. I didn’t much like the plot I chose the first time either, not with all those dead people around me. No, I intend to be buried on that hilltop behind my house and buried standing up so that I can survey everything, and shall insist that I am visited daily so that you might learn my instructions for the day. At least when I was believed to be dead, there were no visitors to annoy me other than those one can trust or that one wanted to see. No inquisitive relatives either, forever hounding me. It threw sand in those Henstridge’s eyes and put a burr under their saddles after all their efforts to part me from my money. I don’t have to worry about them anymore, do I?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Robert came up to see the grave, just to be sure, you know. He learned of the service, and saw the photographs of me laid out in my coffin. I am only surprised that he did not decide to resurrect me, to be sure I was dead. I heard that he also had the gall to piss on my grave, and laughed as he did it. The grounds man told me! It is a pity that Robert did not die on land, and then I would be sure to go and piss on his grave as a daily ritual.” She laughed at her own outspokenness. “Still, the Mississippi sees its own share of that, and worse, every day. He is where he deserves to be.” She brought herself back to the present discussion.

“When you are settled into married life, I shall expect you to tell me more of what happened to my son-in-law and both of those useless grandsons of mine, unless the last one was too recent for you and still pulls at your conscience.” She saw him smiling at her various bouts of reminiscing and humor. “No, no chance of that is there. They were not sure what to believe after learning that I had died, leaving no property behind that the bailiff did not immediately claim. It was a nice touch that, I thought. I’ve been living on someone else’s property, in my own home, for the last few years, even though nothing really changed. Now that the thorns in my side are gone, I think I would like to get it back from you, Henry, for a while.” She looked at them both. “On the other hand, as I shall bequeath it to you and my granddaughter anyway, you may as well keep it.”

“If she’ll have me.” He saw Caroline smiling at him.

“I doubt that you will be given any choice in that. She damned near threw herself onto you as we stepped off that skiff. I am only surprised you did not both go into the river. I’d got used to seeing you with that beard since the funeral and then to see it gone a few days ago was quite a shock for me, never mind for her. She almost went into the river when she first saw who you were, helping her aboard, and heard your voice.”

“I shall convey it back to you, ma’am, any time you wish it.”

“Thank you, but it must be done in a way that I shall dictate, or I do not want it. You shall put it on the table along with the rest of it. I told you I need some excitement—little as that might be—at my age.” He smiled. “I have lived an almost blameless life up until now, and I fear that the excitement that caused my parents’ blood to run cold as they escaped from France is something that I might miss, unless I try to live my last years with some excitement. However, there was a moment there when I feared that I was about to be run down before you might see me in the river, and I began to regret having become so rash, so late in life.”

He knew better than to believe that. “I saw you, and I told you which side of the river to be. We would not have run you down.”

“How long do we have before we come opposite Helena?”

He looked out of the window. About two hours.”

“I told the captain we would all be getting off there. You too.” She looked specifically at Henry. “Well, shall we get down to business?” He nodded, anxious to find out what she had in mind.

She rummaged in her purse. “Now where are those cards? I saw them less than an hour ago.” She fished them out. “I propose that we need only one simple game. I suppose I should warn you, Henry, that I cheat also, except I already did warn you. As we both are admitted cheats, we can have no secrets from each other in that way. It should prove interesting, even though I undoubtedly cheat better than you do.”

“Tell me, ma’am, if it is decided already, am I to win or lose?” They had not covered any of this. The plan had only been to bring Caroline onto the boat and to stay with her as chaperone once she knew all that she should know. She smiled at him in a way he could not fathom.

“It will come to you.”

“And what shall we wager?”

“Everything you are and everything you own, and I shall do the same!” She brought the second larger package out of her purse. It seemed heavy for its volume. “You already own my property, so this is what I shall wager against you.”

She carefully took apart her little bundle. “My parents risked all our lives to escape with these. There were more at one time, but these still represent wealth enough to buy this entire state.” She carefully laid them out on the small table beside her. They were mostly of gemstones set in the most exquisitely worked settings and were clearly of immense value. “They are no use to me at my age. They are yours now, my dear.” She looked at Caroline. “Provided I do not lose, of course. If I do, they will still be yours. That is the advantage of wagering within the family.” She looked from one to the other. “So let us play, if you are ready and have the stomach for it.”

“I believe I do. Is the outcome certain? No awkward little surprises?”

“As certain as it can be if I have cheated well enough, and if I am a sufficiently good judge of character, it is. Though the outcome is never certain; except in this case, I think it is. Yes, it is certain. But whether a win or a loss depends upon the players wanting what they eventually get, or getting what they really want.”

“I am intrigued. It sounds like a most unusual game, ma’am.”

“Very unusual.”

“And what game do we play, bearing in mind that I told you that I cheated your grandson?”

“He deserved it. It is a simple cut of the cards. High card wins.”

“It does not sound conducive to being manipulated, ma’am, but more to chance.” She smiled at his naïve simplicity.

“You will see. The cards are just cards; it is the players that can be manipulated like puppets if one knows what one is doing.” He had a feeling of wanting to laugh. He was being played himself, even before the game had begun. It was difficult to believe that this was her first time gambling. He was not sure he should believe that.

“Are you sure you have not gambled before, ma’am? I have the uncomfortable feeling that I am the one being railroaded, and that I am up against a most formidable opponent.”

“You are. Nonetheless, it all boils down to you, Henry.”

“I do not understand what you mean.”

“You will.”

She placed a complete deck of cards on the small table between them. “They are to be neither shuffled nor cut. We play with them as they sit.” He had recently played a similar game where the cards had already been stacked against him. This was to be another just like it. He was not to be allowed any leeway to change the outcome of this game.

Henry could see that two cards within the deck had been crimped in some way so that they stood out from the others. He began to laugh at the utter blatant audacity of it and found that he did not care.

“Who goes first, ma’am?”

“I do, of course.” He could not help but laugh. She reached and cut the deck at the first crimped card and turned them over for the three of them to see. Exposed was the two of clubs. She did not even look at it. She already knew what the card would be.

Henry was not sure what to believe. He was being forced to win. There was no lower card in the deck than the two of clubs. He was confused. He did not understand.

“Oh. Before you cut, Henry, there is something you need to know.” He could see the older woman smiling at him, seeing his confusion. He waited for the awkward surprise she was about to present him with. “Caroline, my dear, would you bring over that drawing that hides that infamous contract that you once objected to?” She did so. “This is mine now, Henry, to wager as part of that which I possess.” He saw the look in her eyes but could not read it. “You placed such a very high value upon it at one time, so it is only fair that it should come back to you, if you dare go after it. Caroline decided that she really did prefer for you to have it.”

He did not understand what was going on. He was being given everything and much more than everything, and he was not sure that there was not a catch in it somewhere. When a man thinks he wins is when he loses. When he loses in some things, is when he wins. He had been boxed in. Then he began to realize that this wonderful old woman smiling at him was neither capricious nor cruel nor his enemy. She loved her granddaughter without reservation and would not see her hurt by any action she made, and that was all that was important to him too. She had other intentions that he could not possibly know, for her to have so manipulated everything that he must win.

He watched her take a drink of her brandy. “Well, Henry, what is it to be?”

He cut the remaining deck at the place indicated by that second crimped card, then after waiting for a few seconds, as though his life might depend upon it, he turned it over. He looked at it intently, not sure what to make of it. She really had outfoxed him and put him on the spot.

“You do know what it means, don’t you, Henry?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“So what is it to be? The choice is yours.”

He stared at the card. It was the black joker. He was not indecisive for more than a second or two. “I think, ma’am, that the two of clubs, your card, will beat this card and that you win everything.” He sat back and smiled at her. In his heart, he knew that it was the safest possible decision for him to make. That contract had tilted him against thinking of winning. He had lost more than he realized, winning it, as he had that first time, and he would not make that mistake again when the real woman was his for the claiming . For a man who had just lost everything he had ever owned, he did not seem to be put out, or unhappy with the outcome, but seemed most satisfied.

“You found me out, Henry. I played the man, you, but I still put you into a corner for a moment when I turned up that two. The look on your face at that moment was worth it. It would not have mattered whether you won or lost—you still get everything—but it was a thrill wasn’t it! You, not knowing what to expect this time. I was not sure which way you would go, but you played it well, and with consideration for a difficult old woman. Like you, however, I cannot keep what I unfairly won, and I freely give it all back to you, along with my most valuable possession.” She looked across at Caroline. “Look after him, my dear. He is worth keeping, but you already knew that. If it does not scare you, Henry, after the difficulty it once caused you, we would also like you to have this.” She saw Caroline pass him that drawing and saw him take it out of its frame and turn it over. It no longer seemed to hold the same value that it once had, now that the woman that gave rise to it all was within his reach. He heard her warning words.

“It is not quite as you remembered it, I am sure. It is a little better done, and it is not Robert who saw to it being drawn up, in ink this time [no erasing that], but both of us, Caroline and I, before we came up here. We got rid of the pencil from the other one with a little ball of gutta-percha. I think we might safely say that she approves of this one and wants you to have it this time. She even knows where she will hang it.”

He read it aloud, as Caroline held the other end of it, smiling at him occasionally at the pleasure she knew that it would give him.

I, Caroline Serena Henstridge, on this Sunday, the fourteenth day of September 1873, do give myself out of love, entirely and freely, body, mind, and soul, in every way, and all that I possess or ever will possess into the sole care of Henry Wyatt Ibbotson.

Caroline herself had signed it.

“So you see, Henry, you do get everything. As far as I am concerned, you are now married.”

Below it was a repeat of all of it, but with his name written in.

I, Henry Wyatt Ibbotson, on this Sunday, the fourteenth day of September 1873, do give myself out of love, entirely and freely, body, mind, and soul, in every way, and all that I possess or ever will possess into the sole care of Caroline Serena Henstridge.’

He had no hesitation about adding his own signature to the bottom of it, and did so, once he had found the pen and ink, hidden amidst those bottles.

The whistle sounded, giving three blasts, two seconds apart.

“Just in time. They will hear that and have a carriage waiting for me. We are still some few minutes away. We are all spending the night at the new Ibbotson estate. That other name is gone forever.”

“We are?”

“Yes. Hannah is expecting us all and will have dinner ready. Along with my granddaughter, you will take control of all the estate, which now carries your name and her new name—Ibbotson or it will be—once we get that other step out of the way with the vicar. He will also be there. Your parents will meet us there. Both estates are now one, and I am sure that they will prosper. It never rains but it pours, Henry. You are now a landowner as well as a ship owner, though you did look after my estate for me and may continue to do so.”

They heard the engines go into reverse and felt the boat begin to shudder, and slow, as bottles moved across the top of the cabinet to come up against the rail.

“Between the two of us, Henry, we have removed the last of the Henstridges, just as we both wanted, except for my other granddaughter, but she doesn’t count as one of them anyway. She wisely took on my daughter’s maiden name, which is also my own. I shall be your guest for a few days. I promise not to be in your way. I retire very early, I am deaf, blind, and a very late riser.” She was usually none of those things. “All I ask is that I have enough brandy and a good cheroot.” She looked at them both to see that they understood her. She would stay out of their way.

“By the way, you two are not coming with me. We still have many things to do, and we do not need you underfoot. There is a hamper of everything you will need over at the swimming hole. It is one of those little things I organized with those letters. Just make sure that you are able to make it back to the house before dark, to be married officially, or we shall send a search party out for you.”

As the boat came to a slow crawl under the bank and then stopped briefly, they went down to the front of the rafts nudging in close to the bank; and they both held hands and leapt into the water, which was only about a foot deep and then went running off up the bank as they held each other’s hands and laughed in pure joy and happiness. They turned to see most of the passengers, as well as Leonie and her father, waving at them. They would need to get down to New Orleans to visit them too. Caroline’s grandmother waited for the gangways to be brought out for her and a more sedate exit with her belongings. They heard her behind them admonishing those who helped her off the boat.

“Take care of that drawing. It is worth more than your life to lose it at this moment!”

They were twenty minutes getting to the salt spring but did not notice the time as they strolled and talked, holding on to each other, pausing often to kiss. They had several hours before they needed to think of going back to the house.

At the swimming hole, Henry opened the hamper, left for them, and began to find what it contained. There was enough food for a half dozen hungry individuals.

“Might I offer you something to eat and a glass of wine, my love?”

“Not yet, Henry. Later. Much later! How can you think of food at such a time? After five years of being away from you, I am sure that you will not need the wine to overwhelm my defenses. Not this time.”

He looked up, sensing the way she had said that. Caroline was slowly getting rid of all her clothes, even as she was watching him in turn, seeing the look of pleasant surprise on his face as he watched her. Then, as he seemed not to catch on fast enough to what she intended after she had got rid of all of hers, she walked over to him with no shred of shyness about her, knelt with him, and began to help him get rid of his. He laughed and helped her as they paused often to kiss, and to touch.

They embraced then, caring nothing about their total lack of clothing. Feeling no embarrassment, and holding on to each other, they waded out into the warm water as they had done so many times in the past and then turned to face each other in the deeper water.

Finis.

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