The Caroline

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Lovers' secrets.

They wandered over to an old tree. It had been split by lightning many years earlier but had survived that trauma, leaving only the burn marks. It had obviously been visited by other much lesser traumas after that first one. He could see the marks in the bark where it had been used for target practice, but he said nothing. She had learned to shoot here. He knew that there were initials carved into the bark of that same tree about fifteen feet from the ground, where they had climbed together to be out of sight when they had seen one of her brothers riding the line between the two properties. He had pulled her up to get her started, and then they had climbed into the foliage to be out of sight, with him steadying her. She had not been afraid of anything as long as he had been with her. It was the same now, but she did not appreciate the similarity.

“We should have lunch.”

“What did you say?” Her mind had been elsewhere.

“Lunch. This is a good place. It will lighten the hamper, and then we can lean back and relax against the roots.”

“Oh yes. It is.” They unpacked the lunch that Hannah had packed for them and ate. There was a bottle of a cordial that they had brought along, as well as a half bottle of wine. She was silent as they ate and looked out across the expanse of the fields that they could see, with ant-like figures working even in that heat. He knew why she was quiet. He would not break into those personal thoughts. She needed to experience them all again after so long in a strange and foreign world, far from what she had known as home. She might begin to share some of them with him if he did not pry.

After they had tidied the remains of their lunch away, he wandered off a short distance and sat upon the fallen remains of a sister tree that had not survived one or other lightning strikes.

While she was looking off into the distance and being satisfied that there were no wasps or bees that might have taken over the old log, he looked along inside as far as he could. No snakes either. He pushed his arm in a short way and retrieved something, a letter, that he knew had been there from many years earlier. He had left it there in response to the one he had first found there; one she had written to him. She had left it for him to find, but he had not retrieved it in those first months that she had waited for him. She had watched it for some weeks, as hope gradually faded, and then she had stopped coming. She had left shortly after that, but he had returned and had not only found it, but had left a letter of his own in its place. His own letter was the one he retrieved. It had been in that log almost five years.

He had kept her letter with him since that moment and had checked on his own from time to time in the first three years in the hope that she would return, find his letter, and leave a response; but she had not. He wondered if she still remembered, or if it was just another painful memory to be swept aside.

He stood up. “Look there is a moldy old letter here in this hollow log. I wonder who could have written it and why.” She rushed over and almost snatched it from his hand.

“It is mine.”

“Yours?” He made a pretense of looking at the directions on the envelope. “No. You have not even seen it. It cannot be yours.”

“Why not?” She seemed anxious to get it from him.

“Because it is addressed to a man. Someone called”—he struggled as though having difficulty reading the faded name—“Henry?” It said nothing of the kind. The name on this one, was Caroline. He could see tears in her eyes and wanted to take her into his arms and comfort her and tell her that Henry was not so very far away, but he dare not. The shock might be too great.

“I wrote it many years ago. He was the young man . . .” She watched with alarm as he seemed not to want to believe her and began to open the unsealed envelope, to take the letter out and read it.”

“Oh no! Please, Wyatt. Please. You must not read it.” She was deeply disturbed.

“Why not?”

“Because it is very personal.” He already knew that. Her letter had been in his possession for more than five years after he had exchanged it for the one he had written and left in that same log. She had written that last one when she had almost totally given up on him ever returning. He knew it had not been the first letter that she had written and left there after he had gone missing but the last one that she had written and had left there when she had finally despaired. She had been able to say much more in that than she had even been able to say to his face, or in her earlier letters. She had even confessed to its pages that she had regretted that they had not made love and that if he ever appeared again in her life, she would not allow that mistake to be made again. Even with that promise hanging in the air, he had still not returned.

“So you exchanged love letters with this young man, Henry, by putting them in this old log. What an interesting way to do it.”

He turned away from her a little and put his own letter, addressed to her, back into his pocket. There was a right time for everything. It would be too much of a shock to her to find it now and brought out that first letter she had written. This one was indeed addressed to him. He had taken it with him wherever he had gone and had read it so often he knew it by heart. He passed that letter, the one she had written years earlier and that was addressed to Henry, over to her, seeing her almost snatch it from his hand and then once she had it was only then able to relax. She put it into a pocket.

“Thank you.”

“Are you not going to read it?” She had no need to, of course. She knew almost as well as he did what it said. “I envy him to spark such feelings of love after so long. Where is he?”

“Dead!” Her voice had a lifeless ring to it. “I told you that when we sat together that night in Vicksburg.”

“Oh. That one! No wonder you had such animosity against your father and brothers, believing that they had killed him. So there was just the one man in your life? No others since then?”

“There was only the one man for me. There never will be any other.” She raised her eyes as though to appeal to his spirit, wherever he was, to appear to her and to rescue her. In one way, it was reassuring for him to hear her say that, but in another, it was not. They had begun to make progress in Vicksburg as she had learned to trust him, but her learning of that contract and his initial reluctance to part with it had worked against him. However, he had many allies where they were now; memories; places; recollections; friends. She could not block out or deny all her memories forever or what she had begun to learn of him.

“Such a love and such painful memories.” He sympathized with her. “Do not give up so easily. I am sure that Henry is watching over you and protecting you even now.” If only she might understand what he meant by that.

She dare not speak for some time but just sat with her eyes brimming with tears. He sat on the log beside her and carefully put his arm about her and pulled her to lean into him as he spoke gently to her to console her. It was almost time.

She was quiet, almost too quiet on the walk back to the house. She had been most strongly affected by that letter.

She was quiet all through dinner too, barely saying more than a few words and responding only to a direct question. She ate very little.

“Pass Henry the pickles, dear!” She was not conscious of the name spoken, and almost absentmindedly passed him the pickles. Her mind was everywhere but where it needed to be. She had received a severe jolt today.

He shook his head at Hannah to warn her not to intrude into her thoughts, and thankful that she had not taken note of his name. He would tell Hannah what he could, later.

When Caroline had excused herself and retired after consuming a little more wine than was wise, he sat and read for some time, listening for her to settle in the room above them. Hannah joined him.

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