The Caroline

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Getting out of hand.

“I would like to see that other document.” His heart sank. She was back to that again like a terrier at a rat. He wished he had never countenanced that aspect of their wager; but there had been something intriguing to him by that act, and he had not discouraged it, or objected to it, as a wise man would have done.

He sighed heavily and took the framed drawing of this same ship, the Caroline—she could see that name on the drawing of the boat and across the bottom—from the wall and laid it before her. She was confused for a moment. She looked at it and saw the name. “But this is this steamboat, the Caroline.”

“Look on the back.” He slid the drawing from behind the glass and gave it to her as he watched her. She turned it over, and he could see her mouth tighten at what she read:

This contract, made this ninth day of September 1873, gives Caroline Henstridge (spinster of twenty-three years) body, mind, and soul, and all else that she possesses about her, into the sole ownership of . . .

She saw the name Wyatt written boldly into the middle of that line and then continued reading:

. . . to do with as he wishes from this moment forward. This contract also conveys ownership of any and all future children between them, that may arise from his possession of her.

She closed her eyes for a few moments as she tried to keep her emotions under control. “You will surrender this to me, of course, or destroy it.” She had spoken very quietly, as though struggling to control her anger.

“That would be difficult.”

“Why?” She did not believe him.

“Because, regardless of that meaningless writing, the front drawing has great sentimental value to me.” So did that simple contract behind it, but he could not tell her that. “It was the last gift given to me by Captain Jennings before he died and left this boat and all others that he owned to me. So you see I cannot destroy it either.”

“Oh! But it is not meaningless to me.”

“I understand. However, I value that drawing in much the same way as you value that little copper ring that you wear. Both are worthless in terms of monetary value, yet you would be as loath to part with that, as I would be to part with this drawing.” “They are not the same. This is much more personal and offensively so.”

“Perhaps not exactly the same then. However, more to the point. If it is left here, in that frame, as it was, and hanging here, I can assure you that no one else would ever know about it.”

I would know! Others are aware of it too, else why those rumors, and those looks.”

“I cannot help what others might say or think. The rumors will soon fade and die when they see that there is no substance to their suspicions and they see that you and I are still on good terms. Which I hope we still are.” She was not sure she wanted to be on good terms after what he had done.

“But my name, as well as yours, is spelled out here and in a . . . a . . . shameful way. I shall never be the property of any man in this way. I might never relax knowing that something like this existed even. It is humiliating, demeaning in every way, as though I were a piece of property, a piece of common baggage to be passed from hand to hand as this piece of paper. As people once were.” They still were but under the guise of being an apprentice or an indentured servant.

“It shall never leave my possession, Miss Henstridge.”

That is not the point. It exists, and I know of it. So did those others in the dining room. I could detect it in their comments, their looks, their murmurings; but I was not sure of the reason. I am now.”

“No one else will see it. And it is only a piece of paper.” She glared at him.

“It is not just any piece of paper. I remember seeing other so-called pieces of paper like that, which conveyed entire families into slavery. My father had many of them. I hoped never to see anything so degrading like them again, and now I find that I am the subject of one.” She pulled at her handkerchief in agitation and then had another thought.

“I will buy it from you! I may not be able to afford to pay you for the estate, but I am sure that I could purchase that drawing.”

“I cannot sell it.”

“Why not?”

“The same reason I told you. Jennings.

“Then why was it written on the back of that if you valued it so highly?”

“I did not know at the time that what he wrote this on, was this particular drawing. I should have paid it more attention.”

“You will not give it up to me, will you?”

“I had rather not, to see it destroyed which I fear you would do. However, I will return the property to you just as I did for those others who lost at the table that night. I do not profit from anyone’s crime.

“Yet you will not return to me that which I find most aggravating. Without that, what use is the property to me? I do not intend to stay one minute longer than I need to with such embarrassment likely to follow me wherever I go. So what do you intend to do with that document?”

“I shall keep it close by me, of course, so it can never become more widely known, or follow you, as you say. You are also the only one of those who lost anything at that table who will not accept those losses returned to you.

“It was not my loss but my brother’s. I shall not accept one document without the other. Both or neither.” He breathed a sigh of relief, but he had better not let her see how relieved he was.

“An ultimatum. Ultimatums are often dangerous, but I am tempted. Will you promise not to destroy either of them, especially not that drawing?”

“I doubt the drawing is of such deep interest as you say. As a typical man, you will hang it so that the contract is on display, somewhere on board your boat for all to see and snicker over as you boast of it. Oh, look, he owns Caroline Henstridge, body, mind, and soul.!”

“I promise you that I shall not do so. You place too much value on it. I told you it is only an inconsequential scrap of paper. It does not give me ownership of you.”

“I shall become a laughing stock along the river, without my honor, my reputation, with this stigma forever haunting me, as though I had approved or even agreed to it, which I did not. Furthermore, with us being seen together, it must be true. It will appear as though you took possession of me, and that is what everyone might now assume, seeing us together. They would know that I have nothing.” She had another horrifying thought. “I would not be surprised if they do not already know that we spent the night together in Vicksburg.”

“I said nothing of the kind, and I doubt they will learn of it unless you care to raise your voice a little louder.”

“If my brother were alive, I would kill him myself for this. As for the estate, I hate it. It holds too many bad memories.” She was severely agitated and did not mean what she was saying.

“Good ones too, surely?” He tried to inject a more reasonable view of things.

“They are in the past and still hurt.” He understood.

“Those memories cannot all be painful if they concern that young man that you fell in love with. How would he suggest that you deal with this thorny matter?” She saw him smiling gently at her. She would not answer his curiosity. How might he know of that? She may have told him in Vicksburg that night. She should not have drunk so much of that wine, then or now. “I am a good listener.”

“I do not know you well enough to discuss such personal memories.” Yes, she had forgotten.

“I think you do, Caroline. You are more than a fair judge of character. We spent some time on the Osprey together, though at a distance, except for meals with the captain, and then on this boat where we got to know each other a little better. You observed everything going on around you most keenly. You knew everything there was to know about most persons on the Osprey, including me, though I tried to keep out . . . though I was busy seeing to getting us to New Orleans while the wind was with us. We were more than three weeks in each other’s company then. I cannot believe that you did not form what I had hoped might be a favorable opinion of me over that time. I have never deliberately set out to hurt your feelings.” She had indeed formed an opinion, a most favorable one, but she was not about to compliment him by what she had learned, and not while he was being so disobliging.

“I did form a favorable impression of you. Initially! Then you destroyed it by what you and my brother did and by what you refuse to do to rectify it.” He smiled at her, as though she were behaving in a childish way. He would give it up to her, but not too easily.

“It is only a mere scrap of paper, much like a piece of biblical verse or a sampler or a charming piece of poetry.”

“I will give you a thousand dollars for it.” He looked at her sharply.

“Like that copper ring of yours, it is worth much more than a thousand dollars to me. Do you have a thousand dollars, Miss Henstridge?” She was looking at him, and her face was pale. He knew that she hadn’t. She did not seem to notice him sliding back to more formality.

“No, but I can get it. I also have jewelry. I would give you that other ring; my grandmother’s, for that contract.”

“We already went over that in another circumstance, and I told you that I would not accept your grandmother’s jewelry.”

“Then five thousand dollars.”

“You do not have one thousand, never mind five.”

“I can get it.”

He looked at her. “Why would you wish to purchase a mere piece of paper that has an unenforceable clause in it, concerning you, and for much more than it is worth?”

“You said it has no value, yet you will not accept money.”

“The drawing has value.” He was tormenting her by being devious. He really did not care so much for that drawing other than for sentimental reasons, but he did place great value in that contract. He had never owned “everything” before of a person, of this woman who did not know him at this moment, or how much she meant to him, even if it was only an illusion of possession.

“I am stuck on this boat with nothing and no means to get at the money I believed I had, thanks to my brother. I have no money that I can easily access. I have nothing, not even a dream left to me, thanks again to my dead brother and you, and I am going to a home that I no longer own to clear out my last few possessions and those of my mother. There is a piece of paper that states that I am now the property of another. You, when I am not. Am I?” The wine that she had consumed had dulled her perception of things. He sat by her and reached out for her hand again.

“No. You are neither my property nor anyone else’s, unless you choose to be.” She fell silent and considered that strange statement.

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