A voice of desperation. About virtue?
“And if I choose to become your property, do I get that document back?” Her words shook him. What was she suggesting?
“If you were to choose to be, then it would no longer matter would it? It would then seem that that contract—if anyone really knew about it—had been . . . brought to life; given meaning. I do not believe that you would intend that.”
“No. However, I am not sure what my future holds for me anymore. With all the trouble that has followed me once I left that school, I am beginning to wish that I had never left England.”
“You still have a home. I do not profit from the ill-judged mistakes that involve the innocent or those who are helplessly manipulated by the hand of others. Your brother was being mischievous, but even he did not plan on you knowing of this, and nor did I. I insisted that, win or lose, I would keep this and keep it out of your way. I suppose you could see that as a positive side to all this.”
“What is there that might mitigate or excuse what he did? There is nothing good could come of it.” She was becoming more agitated by his uncooperative attitude.
“If he might ever have claimed to have been your guardian after your father died or had any other familial claim upon you, he relinquished it to this document. He cut you loose, set you free. Symbolically, at least.” She was not sure she understood him or wanted to. He seemed to be torturing the situation to find an excuse for not giving it to her.
She seemed to crumple before his eyes and lay back onto the bed as she closed her eyes with her head turned into the pillow.
Her mind was still functioning, however, as well as her consciousness. She was more than pleased to notice that his pillow smelled only of him and not of that other woman as it would have done if—it was a reassuring discovery.
He looked down at her. Might she be asleep already? She had consumed half of that bottle, and it was strong wine.
He removed her shoes and then noticed that her eyes were open again. She also held him tightly by his coat sleeve.
“What must I do to recover that document from you if I promise not to destroy it?” He saw confusion and frustration both in her face. “I think I am beginning to think like those other women whose virtue might be traded for something of greater value.” He felt alarmed at first hearing that, but then smiled. She was now being disingenuous herself, trying to play an age-old game to get her own way when she seemed to be boxed in. He chuckled almost nervously. He recognized the game she was trying to play with him.
She continued. “I was brought up to think that a woman held nothing higher in value than her virtue. Once, I might have believed that. Not any longer. Virtue is a commodity like any other and should be used to greatest effect, where it will do the most good. Many women have been faced with that choice, and now it seems that I am too.”
He saw a war waging within her, a war between getting her own way and the value that she might place upon virtue on the one hand, and that contract on the other. He was glad to see that she was not used to such a situation, but he had already known that.
“And do you value this piece of paper so highly that you would sell yourself to retrieve it?” He saw the situation so starkly and was not afraid to state it clearly as he saw it. He rescued her before she might dare to answer that question. “No. I cannot allow you to do that, Miss Henstridge. I value your reputation much more than you seem to at this moment, and I shall not allow you to sell yourself so cheaply. I shall give it to you, rather than have you consider doing that.” She closed her eyes and then relaxed with a deep expulsion of breath. He smiled at her obvious relief.
“So you are a gentleman after all! Thank you. I had hoped you might say that.” He began to suspect she was not as inebriated as she had led him to believe and might just be as cleverly devious as he was when the situation demanded it.
“I will give both documents to you for that silver dollar that you carry with you, and on one other condition.”
She was suddenly more awake, waiting for him to tell her his condition.
“That you accept, without question or reservation, both documents and take over the estate as I believe you should and want to. In addition, I would like to see this property, and would like to go with you to see it. I will have less than three days before the Caroline returns downriver to pick me up. If you can put up with my obvious lack of feelings and my distasteful and questionable morals and company for that long, you can show me around this property that I once might have owned so that I might see it through your eyes. That is the entire price that you need to pay me, other than for that single dollar.”
He watched the look on her face. “Accept my offer, Miss Henstridge. It is much better for you and safer than yours. I promise that at the end of the third or fourth day, whenever the Caroline comes back downriver, that both documents will be yours without reservation. I request that you do not destroy either of them, especially not that drawing, no matter how much you feel the need to do so.”
“I promise that I shall not destroy it, but at least I shall control it.”
“Thank you. I shall also ask that you not deface the back of it. It can be hidden in another way.”
“I accept.” She reached up and stroked his head by way of thanks as he leaned over her and kissed her on the forehead.
She fell asleep almost immediately in his bed, having got what she wanted and without having to pay as high a price as she had fleetingly considered doing.
“Goodnight, Caroline.” She did not respond. He looked down at her. She really was asleep now. Had that document and those awkward rumors eaten at her so well to exhaust her? It seemed that they had. He stroked her face. “The journey is almost over, my love, just one final step to go, and then all your worries and concerns and pains will no longer exist, and there will be no more Henstridges to torment me as you all have done for the last five years.”
He slid the drawing back into its frame, with the drawing outmost, and hung it back on his wall.
After he had sorted out his clothing for the next morning, he left his cabin and locked it. He would ask one of the girls who looked after the rooms to come back and see to getting her ready for bed. He should have stopped her from consuming that wine. He would check in the pilothouse to let his jangling emotions clear, and then he would go and spend the night in her empty room.