The Caroline

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An Unsettling Conversation


Caroline waited impatiently for Wyatt to be released from his duties as pilot for that day and sharing duties with the steersman, who was more familiar with most of the river than Wyatt was. After tying up as they had on the previous night, it would be early tomorrow before they put in to shore, opposite Helena for the cattle to be offloaded.

He joined her for dinner as had become a pleasantly anticipated interlude of an evening when he was free. She seemed tense that evening, and impatient as well as annoyed over something.

“Are you feeling well, Miss Henstridge?” He seemed concerned for her.

She smiled stiffly. “Just a slight headache. It will soon pass. I ordered for you when I first came in and saw you approaching. I hope you do not mind.”

“I am grateful that you did so. I had not realized that I was likely to be late until the steersman reminded me of the time. I had much on my mind.”

They settled down as the waiter brought them a soup, and they began their dinner. After she had dabbed at her lips with her napkin and they waited for the next course, she spoke to him about something that caused him to hesitate and to spill a little of the wine he had been pouring for her.

“Did you have a profitable evening last night?”

He paused. “In what way?” Might she have heard of that game?

“Gambling!”

“Now where did you hear that?” He was smiling at her. “I do not usually gamble.”

She thought about his answer, analyzing the words and they way he said them, teasing more meaning from them than he was comfortable with.

“You are not answering my question, sir. I heard that you gambled with my brother.”

“I don’t think I would call it gambling.” She tasted the wine and then drank more of it.

She persisted. “What would you call it? What other word is there for it? I heard that you won.”

He did not like the way the conversation was going and tried to correct it.

“It was a business transaction. Does anyone ever win at gambling? It foments greater recklessness and risk taking. Gamblers rarely win in the longer term.” She had to laugh, but it was a laugh of slight annoyance.

“You are asking a question to avoid answering a question, as a woman often does. You are striving very hard to avoid answering my question.”

He looked embarrassed.

“Yes, I am. I had hoped that what happened last night, might not be common knowledge on the boat quite so soon.” She decided that a more direct approach might allow her to learn more.

“Did you gamble with my brother last night?”

He poured himself a glass of wine and then topped up hers, realizing that he could not easily avoid answering her more direct question, which she would obviously persist with until he answered her to her satisfaction.

“Yes, I did. And no!” He was still vacillating. She was not sure how to take such an evasive answer.

“Did you win? And do not try to evade my question as you seem to be attempting to do, with some vague distraction or another question.”

He smiled at her. “Yes. I won. I could not lose, so I did not regard it as gambling, hence my evasion. The outcome was more like a contrived certainty.” She moved beyond his strange way of stating it.

“Thank you!” She went on to her next question. “What did you win? Or more to the point, what did he lose?” It was obvious that she would not let go of it until she knew everything as far as he dare tell her. He had not planned on telling her anything of that game; what he had won, or what her brother had lost. She would have found out for herself soon enough when her brother did not arrive home, but that would have been further out in time, unlike now. He could no longer hide it. He looked directly at her.

“I won everything that he possessed and that he had title to, and everything else sitting on the table at that time.”

“The estate? Our home? However, it was not my home anymore. Those cattle also?”

There was no point in trying to deny anything. He nodded. “Everything!”

Her lips tightened, and a slight furrow marred her brow. She almost preferred it when he was evading answering her. Her obvious discomfort as he sat down with her had been because of this. He would like to know how she had heard of it. None of those at the table last night would have said anything, and yet someone had.

She continued. “I suppose I can say nothing, nor do I have a right to say anything. I am very disappointed, of course, but I had no say in what he did with what was his after I left and Father died. I am only a mere woman after all”—heads had rolled because someone had mistakenly thought of the female of the human species as a mere woman—“and did not figure in any of that, even though I was the one who worked hard to put the estate back on its feet a couple of years after that war and from the time when I was about sixteen to when I left.” She shrugged her shoulders as if in resignation. “I can say nothing. It was his to lose, even though I hoped he might actually be trying, for once, to learn what he needed to do to make the estate pay for itself as it used to. A forlorn hope, obviously.” She was saddened to realize that all she had remembered of that place that she had called home for so long was now lost to her.

“That must be one of the few times he ever lost. He cheated you know, though few others seemed to realize it, or he would have been thrown overboard or worse. I never heard of him losing so much before.” Another thought occurred to her. “How did you win if he cheated? What did you mean when you said, contrived certainty?” He smiled at her.

“That is the embarrassing part, and I am loath to admit it to you, as it is not my proudest moment, but I knew that he cheated, and so I cheated much better than he did.”

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