The Caroline

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Getting what you want, may not be the same as wanting what you get.

“Thank you.” She continued to smile at him.

When they had finished, and with a feeling of foreboding, he helped her to her feet and took her arm in his as he slowly walked with her to his cabin. It would not be obvious to the others who watched them, but a gulf seemed to have opened up between them. And they had been doing so well.

Others watched them leave, and then the speculation, rumors and giggling began once more, but the doubts, concerning what they had overheard and had gossiped about, had also been seeded.

He led them both into his room. It was the first time she had been in there, but she had seen him go into it two nights ago with that other young woman. Her perfume even lingered there, or was that her disordered imagination confusing her? She could certainly smell the woodwork. It was clearly a man’s cabin without the finer touches that a woman would think to provide, though it was much tidier than she expected, except his cabin on the Osprey had been clean and tidy too, the little that there had been of it to see.

There were marine navigational instruments arranged on the wall. They were of no use on the river. A good pilot could wake up in the dead of night and go up to the pilot house and know, even before he got there, where he was on the river, and to within a few tens of feet, even he’d just woken up from a year-long coma. Beside them was a shelf of books, with the books held in place by a small brass rod to stop them being vibrated onto the floor or tumbling there if they suddenly ran aground. She would have liked to have seen their titles. It would have been a way to learn more about him, but the light was not very strong, and they were still indistinct even when he turned the wick, higher. There was also a journal and an unfinished letter on his desk. This cabin had been reserved for him while he had been away in Europe for whatever purpose and seemed to be his home. It was more than she might claim for herself, rootless and now able to call no place home, unless she accepted his offer. She had been suddenly disinherited in so many ways of what she had loved, and now it was brought home to her more forcefully with her brother’s stupid wager. It seemed to be a final straw, and there was an emptiness—a feeling of being denied something important that she felt most acutely—and this man whom she had learned to trust and had grown to like had been part of it. She began to feel a little sick.

She also felt a distasteful feeling of having been betrayed by everyone in her life, even by this man. She should never have returned to face such heartache and unexpected difficulty. Had she been required to explain her feelings to anyone in a logical way, she was not sure that she could have done so.

She watched as he tidied some papers away, closed his journal—or a log, perhaps—opened a small wooden box sitting on his desk top and extracted some papers from it, returning all but one of them, which he laid in front of her.

She glanced at it and then picked it up and read it. It was the conveyance of the estate that had been her home. Everything that she had once had ambition to own for herself, no matter how far out of her reach it had been, with her father and brothers controlling it, had been wagered away over her brother’s witnessed signature, and now they were all dead but her.

“It is yours, Miss Henstridge”—he was smiling, but her anger must have been palpable toward him for him to use her more formal name—“as I won it unfairly and by subterfuge. I suggest that you do not destroy it. As I told you, there might be unexpected heirs, if your brother produced any, who might then be able to challenge your claim.”

She put the document down, shaken by his words and by his unexpected generosity. She felt stubborn and proud as poor people tended to be, and she was now poor. She would not easily accept it.

“You won it. It is yours.”

“Yes, I won it, but I told you that I did not win it fairly and so cannot keep it. My conscience would not let me.” She laughed in disbelief.

“Your conscience would not let you? Yet if I understood you correctly, you killed my brother after you had maneuvered him into wagering it. How is your conscience dealing with that?” He did not respond to that.

“I cannot accept your generosity without repaying you in some way, yet I am not sure how it might be achieved. Land, has value, and I could never raise the sum of money required to cover that nor pay off the debts he incurred.”

“I do not see the same impediments that you do. You could take it over without worrying about repaying me. I am a very patient man, and no one will seek to try and force payment of those debts.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because I own them! I was the one who lent your father money from time to time, though he did not know that it was I. I would have taken over the entire property in another few years anyway, and then—”

“And then?”

“I cannot see that far into the future. Fortunes change.”

She felt a sudden concern about his motives and realized that she was probably—no, not probably, but certainlywrong about them. He had not mentioned anything about what she owed for the journey on the Osprey, or this trip either. And she had spent the night with him in that same room in Vicksburg, and he had not tried to take advantage of her then, or to maneuver her into any difficulty. She had done all that by herself, and he had not pursued his advantage. “I have all that I need. Almost!”

“Yes, you are very patient if you waited so many years to be revenged upon my brother, for whatever reason. He must have done you a great injury at one time, just as they did to me, though I can never find out about that now, with them all being dead. Are you biding your time while you have a greater ambition with me?”

He was just like other men, always seeking an advantage over a helpless woman. That thought shocked and saddened her but was quickly put aside. He did not immediately deny it and had an unusual look on his face. “Nonetheless, I find that I cannot easily accept that property.” He detected a change, however slight in her previous intransigence. “I cannot afford it even in my wildest dreams even if I taught for a lifetime. You won it by turning my brother’s intent against himself. I would say that because of that, you deserved to win it, and it is now yours.”

He did not try to argue with her or suggest that she could work the estate and bring it back to what it had been and would then be easily able to pay him back. He had heard a small concession in that word easily, and he was patient.

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