The Caroline

By johnksutherland All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Drama

New Orleans, 1873

New Orleans: once the center of regular slave sales, which attracted buyers from the entire region upriver. The war stopped all that, as well as halted exports from farther up the river. Commerce plummeted at the same time, and the wealth of the area largely disappeared soon after.

Caroline was awoken by the sudden noise of activity from the deck above her and even from all around her, which she could no longer block out. It had been the most peaceful night she had spent on board that ship with it tied-up dockside in New Orleans for the entire night. Now, with a new day beginning to dawn, the activity began anew. Cargo was to be offloaded and a new cargo taken on.

There was no sleeping through the noise of that increasingly urgent activity, with the sound of raised voices—shouting orders or directions—and feet, bare or shod, padding or clattering on the bare planking somewhere above her and along the corridor passing by her cabin door and then up the six steps to gain the deck. She was in her own little cocoon, fragile and too easily accessible by others to her mind. The corridor was central and sheltered and gave off to two cabins on each side of the ship for the few passengers they carried (she had been the only passenger that she had been aware of) and to steep stairs, next to the hold, that allowed access down to the sailors quarters below and to the holds. The crew bunked together below deck, somewhere midship—which was where she was, but lower, close to the waterline—and where the motions of the vessel were likely to be less obvious and less disturbing to their rest in a rough sea.

The sounds of the crew’s continuous activity throughout the night, as they moved mostly along that corridor past her room to get to the deck and to start their day’s work or to take on the duties of the night watch had startled her awake with some regularity, suddenly fearful for her safety. As the only young woman aboard the small ship, and alone, she inevitably attracted their curiosity and attention, and everyone knew where she slept.

It had been a fast and relatively calm crossing—or so she had been told—from Liverpool, though it had not seemed calm to her, nor fast; taking three weeks, though she had heard that five or even seven weeks might be expected. The wind had been strong, and mostly favorable, requiring few sudden heart-stopping changes of course, which might almost throw her out of her bunk, as would have been more often the case had the wind been in almost any other direction. She had tried to sleep, but the strange motions of the ship beneath her would not let her.

When she had ventured on deck after being able to rest no longer with all the creaking of the planks of the hull and of the straining rigging, she had seen that the ship had been laid over at an alarming angle (to her view of things, and undoubtedly for the cattle too), which she noticed had gradually lessened over the hours and days as the wind had changed to be more behind them than abreast of them. She noticed that what looked like a fishing net had been arranged to stop her from accessing the sides of the ship and possibly tumbling overboard, or slipping on the deck and landing indecorously in the scuppers, if not worse. Wyatt must have put that there. The crew had ropes to hang on to if they needed to maneuver on the deck, which they seemed to have no difficulty doing, choosing their moment carefully and then moving quickly. They were mostly aloft anyway, seeing to the sails. How they could stand to be so high off the ground she could not understand. If one of them fell, he would hit ropes and wood on the way down; and if he were not hanged in the rigging, he would land on the deck with broken bones. Alternatively, he would wind up in the sea and with little likelihood of anyone getting to him before he drowned.

For the first day or so, the hatches had been covered over. She could hear the cattle complaining in the relative dark of the hold as their handlers tried to calm them. She felt sorry for them, though they were well attended. They needed to see the sky just as she did.

She was proud of herself. She had not been seasick even once on the crossing as she had been constantly the first time she had left for Europe, almost five years earlier. She wondered if cows, with so many stomachs to contend with, got seasick. She had even seen one of the sailors, deathly pale, leaning over the side being ill and had to turn her head away quickly lest thought of what was happening to him triggered a response in her.

She realized that there would be no more sleep for her, and stretched as much as she could in the confined space that housed a lower and an upper bunk. She had been the only woman on board (apart from the captain’s wife, and feeling vulnerable because of it, in the company of so many rough men). Their usual coarse language and shocking expressions were not moderated any by her presence as they took no notice of where she might be in their world, and they had a job to do. Apart from the small narrow bunks, there was a single wooden chair and small desk below the one porthole, and there were shelves for bedding or clothes. It was all very Spartan, and did not provide any comfort, but at least it was dry, and it was warm enough with the added blankets. The space was no more than eight feet by seven, with what seemed like paper-thin walls; and the beams, which went across above her head, came down to about five and half feet above the floor—close to her own height—and only two feet above the upper bunk.

She had slept fitfully in most of her clothes the first two nights. Every single noise had startled her awake, clutching the covers up to her chin, and there were many such noises. The most heart-stopping moment had been when the ship’s cat had somehow gained access to her cabin and had leapt upon her bunk. It had come in through a small flap that she had not noticed before, set into the bottom of the door. After her first moment of panic, she had welcomed it, and they had made friends. She had a pathological horror of rats, but with that cat close by, she knew she had nothing to fear from that direction now. Her cabin seemed to be its base of operation throughout the ship, though mice would be a safer target than a rat. Only now was she beginning to recognize that there was no threat to her aboard this ship and began not to regret having leapt at the offer of a berth.

The cubbyhole below the shelves and the narrow space below the bunk were where her own limited luggage sat. There were hooks for coats and other clothing. Her trunks, which she had seen brought aboard, had been stored somewhere else with more space. Fortunately, she hadn’t needed them. She climbed out of the narrow bunk, mindful of the bunk above her, and of the limited headroom in the small cabin once she stood up, and washed in the cold water (tepid after that warm night tied up) from the jug on the desk. It had been brought in for her the night before by the cabin boy. She dressed, tidied away her few things—leaving the copy of the newspaper that had been given her the night before to read, the Picayune—and packed her bag ready to leave. Some of the personal names and street names in the various news stories were familiar to her from previous visits, but the news was that of a foreign land to her now, including the reports of violent deaths which had never been reported, or had not occurred with the same shocking frequency, in France or England. For some reason she had checked the obituaries, seeing familiar names but no one she might know. It would all soon come back to her and displace her difficult memories of France and England where she had taught for some years. It had taken her some time to adjust to the different views of society and what was expected of a woman in those places. She began to see how European humorists mischievously spoke of this upstart America as having been the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without a period of civilization in between. They had regarded her with suspicion at first, as they tended to view all foreigners.

She checked that her small pistol was still where she expected it to be and then put it back. She had packed it away after their second night out from Liverpool, despite there being no lock on her door. There was just a small bolt to secure it from the inside, but a bolt that would not have resisted even the effort of a child to gain entry. She had realized that there was no threat here, at least not with Wyatt keeping an eye on her as he had—but without being too obvious about it—and went on deck. She thought Wyatt might have slept in one of the cabins opposite hers, but as she had neither heard nor seen him, she could not be sure. Like the rest of the crew, he seemed to be up and about at all hours. She really only saw him at the captain’s table, but she was aware that he watched her and kept an eye on her safety and comfort at other times. It had been an amusing, but comforting, recognition.

She stepped cautiously outside of the companionway to watch five of the many cattle in the hold being transferred, one at a time in a canvas sling, to a barge moored alongside in the wide and still river (it was all relative; it certainly wasn’t still, farther out where the wind was stronger) while other heavy cargo was winched to dockside off the other side of the ship. The nerve-jarring screaming of the winches and the slight tilting of the ship as their heavy loads were swung out away from the ship, fore and aft, to be lowered quickly to the dock, were unsettling at first, but were to be expected.

Five of the thirty cattle that were aboard, four of the cows already marked for transshipment, by paint on their horns, and one of the two bulls, were transferred directly to a barge, which had been maneuvered alongside by a small steamboat. One of the three handlers went with those cattle.

Wyatt was where he had told her he would be that morning, supervising transfer of the cattle and, after that, giving instructions to those on the dock who expected to receive cargo. He was also to make sure that they signed for it before he would release it to them as he checked his manifest for matching the cargo with names of individuals or companies. She watched him for a while. He was confident and capable in everything he did. He was a quiet man, very different from the usually garrulous sailors or even some of the officers, and rarely joined in their conversation at dinner—the select few around the captain’s table—unless he was asked a direct question. Then, he spoke gently and well. He was like her in that regard, observing and learning. He was not a regular part of the crew. He seemed separate from them, yet was able to give them directions and orders, which they never questioned. He was not one of the ships regular officers either.

She had first met him more than three weeks earlier when he had come to her rescue on the dock in Liverpool. She had been alarmed when she had first seen him standing over her as he had given her purse back into her hands from where he had recovered it. She checked it quickly before he helped her to her feet. He had a wild look in his eyes then, almost the only thing she had seen above his beard. Everything about him had concerned her at that moment as he looked at her—well, he had just laid out two men who had thought to rob her—and had recovered most of her belongings from them and the ground near them, and put them back into her purse to give back to her. It was the pale scar on his forehead, extending almost its full width, that had first struck her (it must have been a terrible wound when he had first suffered it) and then his sharp eyes, and then his full bearded face.

Blackbeard! Captain Teach! That name had once struck fear into the hearts of sailors and women a hundred and more years earlier. He was no Blackbeard, however. His gently reassuring words, seemingly out of place with his ferocious aspect, had dispelled her concerns and calmed her a little as he had helped her to her feet and had supported her for a few moments—still unsteady—as she had assessed her condition for walking. She had brushed off her dress, straightened the rest of her clothing, and recovered her hat from the ground as he had helped her up. She was not sure what to expect. She was bruised, and she hurt in a few places after that violent attack had seen her thrown to the ground, but there was nothing broken.

He had also used her name, Henstridge, as he had helped her to her feet. He had responded to the puzzled look on her face, seeing her fear rise and then subside, and explained that the captain had sent him after her to let her know that he had been mistaken, and that he did have a berth for her to New Orleans as there had been a last-minute change. Her relief at hearing that must have been obvious, but she had not recalled telling the captain her name, or he might not have refused her so easily. Being turned away, at first, as she had been, and then being brutally robbed had given her a poor impression of Liverpool and of her circumstance. She might not have survived another day in that area before she managed to find another ship. However, one did not turn one’s back on such unexpected fortune.

He spoke intelligently, and had clearly been as well educated as she herself had been. His clothing—some kind of uniform—was also not that of a regular seaman but had the look of having been tailored to fit him, as with a ship’s officer. If he had not been there to drive them off and then to deal with them as decisively and as violently, as he had, those men would have done more than they had. They had been interrupted suddenly, and had then tried to make off with her bag and almost everything of value to her name. He had run after them and had tripped one of them, finding the other one had turned on him with a knife in his hand as he came at him. She was not sure what happened after that, but it seems that he broke that man’s arm and then picked up a stick that the first one had dropped and had beaten them both with it. Had they got clean away with her purse, she would have been in difficulty and might have been stuck in Liverpool for some time after that. Fortunately, she had paid for one night in that hotel already, so she would have had time to contact others who might be able to help her financially. It was not needed with such urgency now. It was not the kind of place where anyone, especially not a young woman with no protection, might want to be stranded without resources.

He was looking at her strangely, as though waiting for a response, and wondering why she might be tongue-tied. She was distracted by the small spots of blood on his hand and the blood and bits of hair on the stick that he tossed aside when he saw her looking at it with some concern in her face. What had he just said? That there was a berth on board that ship she had just left; the Osprey, if she wanted it. She was not sure what had changed. She had applied to the captain upon hearing that the cattle that were being loaded, were going across to New Orleans first, and then upriver to the Henstridge estate—her own home—but he had told her (quite brusquely, she thought) that he had no accommodation for any passengers, never mind a woman! She had turned away with a heavy heart. Her best and only chance for a few days or even weeks, taken from her. Now she was to be given that opportunity again.

She nodded in surprise and sudden relief. She would take it, and blurted out her response before he thought her wits were somewhere else. “Yes. Yes, I do. I most certainly do, but I have no money. They got away with most of that.” He had ignored that last comment but had asked if she was hurt in any way. “No. Thank you. I don’t believe I am hurt, just a little shaken up and bruised. Thank you for your help.” He inclined his head to acknowledge her thanks. “But they got away with my money. I doubt I can afford passage now.”

“I don’t think you should worry about that at this moment. We can sort that out later. We depart in an hour or we miss the tide, so there is little time. If you will tell me where you are staying and where I might pick up your luggage, I’ll see you safely aboard.” He was waiting for a response. “The docks are no place for someone who does not know them.” After the first shock of seeing him standing over her with that look on his face, she had to reassess her first impression and realized that he had spoken gently and intelligently. He had also smiled, perhaps. It was hard to know with all that facial hair.

She directed him to where he might recover her luggage and to see her—and it—safely stowed away on board. He had seen to all that for her as she had tried to keep out of his way, yet after that initial moment and the inevitable and necessary introductions, and her directing him to her hotel, they had not spoken very much at all. She was still not sure how safe she might be in his company after what she had seen him do to those two men, but he had at least used her name.

She was wary of everyone after that attempted robbery and was not even sure she should trust him, though he had most certainly helped her. Her eyes frequently drifted across to him as he had helped her in her room at the hotel. She had not expected to be helped, but he did not look to be the kind of man who would take any notice of her if she had told him that she could manage for herself when there seemed to some need for haste, so she kept quiet as he helped her. She caught him looking at her more than once as she packed some few things away, causing him to hesitate a little as their eyes met, as though waiting for her to say something (strange, that) and turn back to what he was doing when he saw that he might be discomforting her by his glance. She had been concerned by his curiosity at first, especially when he had closed the door to her room, trapping her inside with him. She knew how vulnerable she was.

Her fear soon subsided, but she still kept her bag close to her with her hand out of sight, holding that pistol. He might be understandably curious about her, as she was about him, but he was focused mostly upon helping her pack and to get down to the ship. He had looked briefly from her, to her bag, and had smiled but said nothing. She had the feeling that he knew about the gun that she was keeping within reach to protect herself, even from him. He seemed amused by it. When she thought about it later, she admitted that she had found his brief admiring attention to her to be curiously flattering without it being so very threatening, even though she well knew, from what she had seen of the violence that he was capable of, that he could easily have taken that gun from her before she might think to use it. She did not even know his name.

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