The Caroline

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Passage to America.

Once aboard the ship, Wyatt led her to a small and dark cabin, a very small cabin, containing little more than two bunks, one above the other, a chair, and a drop-down piece of planking supported by a chain, and that might serve as desk, dining table, washstand, and whatever else she might think of. It was entirely devoid of luxury, but it was clean. It would also be home for a few weeks, depending upon how long, their crossing the Atlantic, took. He moved other things that were already there across to another cabin. He told her nothing about what was expected of her before he left. There was no key to the door to lock herself in, just a small bolt, which she threw.

She sat on the hard chair, wondering how she was to eat or even if they served food (she might starve!) or what she might need to know, until a gentle knock at her door caught her attention.

“Yes?” She hoped the nervousness in her voice was not too obvious.

“Mr. Wyatt told me to bring you some hot water, miss, and to give you some directions about the ship.” She opened the door.

It was a cabin boy with a jug of hot water, a basin, and a towel and soap. He set them onto the small table as she moved aside to allow him to do so as he kept up a steady flow of conversation, sensing her nervousness. He told her that she would take her meals in the captain’s cabin with Mrs. Bainbridge, the captain’s wife, and the officers not on duty, and she could spend all her waking hours there, with Mrs. Bainbridge. She was relieved to hear that she was not a prisoner in that little cabin. “Mr. Wyatt suggested I show you about the ship before we set sail and introduce you to Mrs. Bainbridge, who saw you come aboard.”

“Oh, and where is Mr. Wyatt?” At least she now knew his name.

“He’s on the dock, miss, seeing to last-minute details and seeing to us casting off.” She could not see him, but she could hear the complaints of the cattle from the hold. She felt sorry for them but no longer felt sorry for herself. She was on her way home but was not sure what might await her there.

Over the next few weeks, on those occasions when she got out on deck, she had watched him and other sailors—he was one of them, as well as some kind of officer—at work on deck or high in the rigging.

She discovered with some relief that she was expected only to sleep in her cabin, rather than be cooped up there all day but was, as she had been told, invited to spend most of her time with the captain’s wife, a friendly older woman. She was to take all her meals with her and the captain and a few of the officers for each meal after they had cleaned up and changed, except she might soon run out of clean clothes. Wyatt was also at the same table, but none of the other common sailors were there. She began to wonder about Mr. Wyatt: who he was, how old he was behind that beard, what he did on board? She would ask the cabin boy when she got chance.

When they dined, he was almost as silent as she was at those times, happy just to listen and learn what was discussed around that table after the initial introductions had been made, and the usual perfunctory questions asked about her being comfortable enough. She was now. Someone had left some additional blankets at the foot of her bed. She discovered, with some minor concern, that none of the cabins had keys, but that once inside, she could bolt the door. The bolt was small and would have withstood no amount of effort if anyone was really determined to get in, and yet it provided some measure of protection, more symbolic than actual. In addition to that bolt, she began to realize that she had something much more effective watching over her and protecting her. Wyatt himself, and that she was much safer now than she had ever been for the last few years but could not fully understand why she felt that way. He was far different from the other men she had come across in her travels; but she was not sure why she felt that way, probably because he was a fellow countryman, a kindred spirit.

He was not obviously an officer, yet he seemed to be a very privileged individual. She noticed that though the captain gave orders—in a gentle way—to all the others there, as they sat over their tea at the end of each meal, he did not give Wyatt any orders, though he was included in everything said. Despite that, he had worked alongside any and all of the sailors, even going aloft to see to the rigging and setting sail. Her heart had been in her mouth when she had seen the things those sailors did, clambering about like monkeys high above the deck one minute, and over the ocean the next, mostly in bare feet; yet they helped each other so well and never seemed to be in any real danger with so many ropes close to them to hang on to, or to grab, and with all of them watching out for each other. The new steamships would soon put most of the last of the sailing ships into retirement.

Change was inevitable. She was reminded of the tale of a great sultan who had summoned his wise men around him. He had instructed them to provide him with words of wisdom that would be forever true throughout time, and had those words engraved upon a ring that he could consult from time to time. Written upon it were the simple ever-pertinent words to sober even the most powerful and wealthy of men: “Even this shall pass away.” She had lain awake many nights—suffering in silence, grieving alone—as one must do, and had tried to find solace in those words, but they had meant nothing to her. Nothing changed in her life. The pain would live forever.

Shelley had captured the moment in his poem of Ozymandias who—at least in the poem—must once have ruled over an extensive kingdom while all that remained was a pair of feet, minus their body, on a ruined pedestal engraved with the words “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Yes, change was inevitable. Accepting it was optional, and took time. She was not prepared to accept it.

Others on board the ship had watched for her to appear from her cabin that final morning in New Orleans. She was to have breakfast, for the last time, unfortunately, with the captain’s wife, to thank her and to take her leave. She wondered if any other of the officers whom she had met at the captain’s table of an evening might be there. The two women were dining alone, however, with the sudden noisy activity outside and above them, claiming all the officers for other duties, seeing to the cargo about to be loaded, or checking with the ship’s agent ashore. They had all eaten earlier anyway or had been ashore seeing to other business. Mrs. Bainbridge would have liked her company for much longer, but it was not to be. She was to go on to Galveston with the ship as soon as it could depart, while Miss Henstridge, Caroline, was to board another ship, a paddle wheeler, heading upriver with the cattle. Whether they might ever meet again was out of both of their hands.

Their last conversation before Caroline was to leave to join the next boat she was to take—a river steamer—had been enlightening. Mrs. Bainbridge had inquired about how she had met Mr. Wyatt. They—meaning she and Mr. Wyatt—had seemed to have become more than friends together, the two of them, despite having had little conversation alone together that Mrs. Bainbridge had seen. She had noticed, however, that he had seemed to pay much more attention to her, than he ever had to almost any other woman in their confined society, whether aboard ship or ashore.

Caroline had not noticed, having seen nothing to compare it with.

The little she had seen, however, had been quite instructive to the older woman. She was another one who listened and watched—not much else to do on a working ship—and she had formulated her own impressions of their two guests, both of them being on the ship for just the one crossing. Caroline had been taken aback to hear that. He had seemed to be part of the crew, or even an officer, and had taken no time at all to blend in and to take on any number of duties with which no stranger would ever have been trusted. There was much more to Mr. Wyatt than met the eye, though she had seen that he was more used to giving orders than being ordered.

Mrs. Bainbridge confided to her that she had gained the impression that he—Mr. Wyatt—had studied Miss Henstridge whenever he might do so without being seen. Caroline had sensed the same thing but did not place any store by it. Some persons were more curious than others. Perhaps he had been concerned that she had not suffered any lasting hurt from her experience in Liverpool. His deep curiosity about her seemed to puzzle the older woman in a strange way, almost as though it was not believable, and that she would welcome an explanation. Caroline recognized that Mrs. Bainbridge had been too long away from land, and real people and life, and tended to see gentle intrigue in everything about her where a man and a woman were concerned. She also seemed to believe that all women should be married by the time they were twenty-two (Caroline’s age for just a few more days), but no man should be married before thirty. It was a little different from what that stupid Disraeli fellow in England had said, that “every woman should marry . . . and no man,” but without saying anything else to qualify it and render it less stupid.

Caroline had been surprised to hear those observations upon her and Mr. Wyatt, and even more from the older woman who seemed to have taken a motherly interest in her. Unlike Mrs. Bainbridge, she had not particularly noticed that Mr. Wyatt had paid her any special attention other than that he had stayed out of her way, except at mealtimes, and yet she had known that he had always been somewhere very close by, and not just because they were on a small ship either. He had been close in every sense, occupying the cabin opposite her own and keeping an unobtrusive eye on her while staying out of her way.

She admitted that Wyatt had an easy manner about him that would attract many women, and did attract them. She had seen that from various interchanges at dockside the night before, with those women that spent a lot of time there. He seemed to know them but not in any questionable way, and had laughed easily with them as they had exchanged comments, but he had not seemed interested in them in that personal way that the other sailors did. He seemed to be inquiring after someone, as she could see, when she saw one of the women point farther down the dock. That he did not return their obvious interest in him was not what she might have assumed of any man just setting foot ashore after weeks, or months of enforced celibacy (men tended to be reckless after such a period of being deprived of women), except that Mr. Wyatt had not seemed to pay her any special attention either (though Mrs. Bainbridge seemed to think that he had) other than for the help he had been in Liverpool. He had generally sat quietly and had just listened when he had dined with the captain and his wife, usually sitting directly opposite the two women and, unlike most men, had been prepared to encourage them to voice their views and to draw them out. At least he made the effort, but met with little success. Yes, there had been something exchanged between them as their eyes had met across the table, which seemed quite often. She studied him from time to time when she knew he was not looking at her, but always her eyes were drawn to that terrible white scar across his forehead. She would have liked to have asked him about it, but knew that she must not.

As her inquisitor was curious, but in a polite way, and not desiring to hurt her feelings, Caroline told Mrs. Bainbridge of the incident on the dock in Liverpool that had seen Mr. Wyatt—or just, Wyatt, as others called him—intervene to help her after she had been roughly knocked off her feet and robbed. She had not known him even a little then, and had been shocked at how violent that exchange had been with nothing being said. That had formed her first impression of Blackbeard, as she had seen him and thought of him at that moment, but which had been slowly and gradually revised favorably since that moment. Her heart had been quaking as he had approached her after that, with that stick that he had taken from one of the men still in his hand, and a thunderous look on his face.

Mrs. Bainbridge had laughed at her description of that. She told Mrs. Bainbridge how he had recovered most of her belongings but did not tell her that she lost almost all her money in that robbery. Despite her trying to tell Mr. Wyatt that she now had no money, he had still seen her accommodated on board her ship. However, it did suggest that little axiom about first impressions generally being wrong, had some element of truth to it. He had just smiled at her and told her that it could wait until they got to their destination. How she might repay him had become forefront in her mind once more. At least she could now visit her bank in New Orleans and see to that omission at the first opportunity.

“Yes, he can be decisive where it is called for, as I have seen for myself, so I already knew that. They smile and are all politeness to us, most of the time, and to other men; but when they cross swords or become angry, which happens very rarely in our company, then we do not know them at all. Then, they go off out of sight to settle their differences, to fight and sometimes to kill each other. If they do not kill each other, then they are sometimes friends again in no time at all until the next woman comes along. All men have a dark side and secrets from us women, but then they lead much harder lives. I watched him. I have nothing much else to do but study character and how these men behave with each other. There is no room for bluster in the tight community of a ship’s company, and a man is soon seen for what he really is. Wyatt keeps to himself and generally does not mix with either the men or the officers even, except for my husband, and Wyatt sees everything while he says very little.” Caroline was already aware of that. “He’s a sharp one and is someone that any woman could trust, but he was not always . . . as decisive as he is now. He changed in the last two or three years.” She expanded upon that comment.

“When I first met him, soon after Jennings took him on board the Pelican, the Caroline now—the same name that you have—he was sorely wounded and recovering from that nasty wound to his head. I approved of the change of name. That first name, Pelican, made it seem so clumsy, just like that top heavy bird, while the change of name was to something much more graceful, which it is, rather like you.”

She swirled the teapot finding that it was almost empty. “The rumor was that he changed—got his mind back, perhaps, that again—after he had been involved in a duel with a man who had once wronged him, or someone close to him, over a woman very likely. A common occurrence in this place where honor, or what passes for it, and dueling over it, seems to be a way of life, though I do not know if it was a duel or not, nor could I learn if it was about a woman, which these things are usually about. Those things do not usually end well for one of them, but I heard no more. That was when he took a new interest in the river, but for what reason I do not know; and then soon after that, he began to get this urge to wander off to Europe on one or other of Jennings’s ships.

“I could get no more than that out of Mr. Bainbridge or anyone else, but from what I know of Mr. Wyatt, and despite what the Bible might say about turning the other cheek—doesn’t work in this neck of the woods—whatever he did, it was because the other man deserved it. I know your Mr. Wyatt enough to know that.”

Her Mr. Wyatt? Surely she had not given that impression. “Call it my womanly intuition, but it was over a woman I’d warrant, except I could learn nothing more than I did, and got told off by Mr. Bainbridge for trying to find out any more than that. A man needs his secrets. They all do. In this town, a man can get himself killed trying to find out the secrets of another. It was sometime after that, not so very long either, that Mr. Jennings died.” She fell silent as the cabin boy knocked and entered the spacious cabin with boiling hot water to refresh their tea and to find out what else they might need.

“You read my mind, Zeb.” She refilled the teapot and swirled it again several times before pouring a little into her cup. Liking the color of it, neither too strong nor too weak, she refilled both of their cups.

He seemed to read Caroline’s mind. “Laundry is expected back anytime, miss. Mr. Wyatt had some shirts cleaned, and havin’ so few, he ain’t gonna leave without ’em.”

“Thank you.” She had seen as much of her clothing as she could spare, sent out for laundering that previous night after they had docked, and was promised that everything would be returned in time for the final, and shortest part of her journey. It seemed that they would be.

“You must have made an impression on him for him to give up his own cabin for you like that and bunk with the first officer.” Caroline had not known that. So she had slept in Mr. Wyatt's cabin, and the cat was his, as far as a cat might belong to anyone.

“Cummins is a nice-enough man, but he is slapdash with his personal habits—chews tobacco you know, and cusses as well as any mule skinner [oh dear, my origins sometimes show themselves]—and I am told that he snores loud enough, though that might have been what he said just to make sure he had a cabin to himself. After Liverpool we would have put in at Gibraltar and seen him transfer—Mr. Wyatt, that is—to another one of his ships, to go into the Mediterranean and the south of France [that wanderlust again], but he changed his mind as a woman might change her dress or her hairstyle on a whim. Comes and goes as he pleases and no explanation to anyone, but then he has many irons in the fire. We had no need to go to Gibraltar after that for some reason but came directly across the Atlantic instead, if one can call it direct.”

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