The Caroline

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The Final Game

“Are we on time?” Henry had come into the pilothouse to check with the steersman. His uncharacteristic impatience and nervousness was evident. It was not usual for Mr. Wyatt to be that way, but he was this time for some reason.

“As near as we can be. I slowed after we passed the Folly and sounded off, two short blasts like you said. I guessed we were moving a little fast. We’ll be there in another two minutes by my reckoning.” They swept slowly around the curve in the river, and entered a long straight stretch of river where it was wider, and became quiet and slower once more. There were no steamboats ahead of them, coming or going. “Yes, I think I see what you warned me about. There’s that skiff in the river you asked me to look for. At this distance, I think I can see two women in it, directly in front of us. They intend to be picked up, just as you said. Do they know how dangerous it is to be just where they are?” He changed course slightly, but they did not seem to be in any hurry to move out of the way.

“Two, you say?”

“Two! Looks like an older woman and a young one, the older one with a parasol, with two men at the oars, but they ain’t movin’ out of our way.” They were almost a half mile ahead of them, but the distance was closing very fast.

Henry put his telescope on them, laughed to himself, and then looked behind the boat on the river to ensure that no other boat was close behind them, and signaled that the engines were to slow and then to go into reverse so that they would not mow down the skiff.

“Put them close in on the port side, Sam. You have it from here. I’ll see they get safely aboard.” He rushed out of the pilot house and was next seen heading along the rafts to ensure that nothing bad might happen, leaving the boat in the more than capable hands of the steersman. He knew what he must do. It was not an uncommon occurrence, but in this case, the skiff and its passengers could hardly be avoided, though he had plenty of warning about it, even before they had got there. Mr. Wyatt had even expected them to be exactly where they had been.

He saw the two men who handled the skiff, bring it smoothly alongside an empty raft, and hold it there, as they drifted down together with the current; and by then, Henry was with them and able to help the older woman and her obviously younger companion, safely aboard. Their relatively light luggage followed them. There should have been more of it. No matter.

Henry’s heart was singing. He knew them both well, of course, as they certainly knew him as he greeted them. He took his cue from the older woman who seemed to intend to stay between him and her companion even though she knew what both of them had in mind.

“Ma’am, Miss Henstridge. Caroline.” He could see that Caroline looked at him with her eyes blazing, but it was not with the anger that he almost might have expected after he had taken off like that, but something else that he had hoped he might see at last. Her attention was in the wrong place, of course, and she forgot where she was until he quickly reached out to stop her overbalancing and getting a dunking in the river. He pulled her back from that and onto the lead-most raft and into his arms. She did not fight him away but just returned his embrace as they stood like that, heedless of everything else going on around them. He was relieved beyond words about so many things. He liked the way she was looking up at him as he kissed her for the first time in many years, full on the lips, finding his kiss returned. His head was spinning. She gently pushed him away from her and spoke.

“I have a bone to pick with you, Henry.” He just smiled at her. “You should have told me who you were instead of having me break my heart further as I did when you went off the other morning! I had so much to say to you, and you had gone.” She had spoken softly. She intended that he would feel her pain, and he did, now. He would make it up to her.

“I tried to, my love. I tried in so many ways, short of telling you who I was. Hannah knew me even as I walked into your home, and yet you did not, even after four weeks. What was I to believe?”

“You could have believed your heart and taken pity on me rather than torment me as you did in so many ways, hiding yourself away behind…that beard.” Words almost failed her.

“It was not my heart that was in any difficulty, my love, but yours. I hope you are now recovered somewhat.” She had liked to hear those words of endearment that she had not heard for five years.

“Somewhat. Recovering from the difficulty of discovering that I could be in love with two men, and the shock of suddenly becoming aware of who you really were after almost living with you for four weeks. It came to me this morning even before I was fully awake. It will take a while to get used to this.” She moved back into his embrace.

“It will not take so very long now. How might I make it up to you?” He stroked her face. Her eyes flickered to her grandmother, standing there patiently, which was unusual for her. It could not last.

“We’ll see.” She would think up some suitable forfeit for him that would be more reward than penalty. The old woman had been patient for long enough and had heard enough to reassure her, taking her cue from them. They were not about to take brickbats to each other, but she hadn’t expected that they would, not after the conversation she had with them both over the last two days.

“Hold your horses, you two. Not so fast. Another few hours will not make much difference to you, but it might be the death of me. We need to get some other things out of the way first, like seeing to our own comfort after that skiff ordeal. I feared we would overturn any minute. Are we to stand here all day? There will be time for all of this reminiscing and recrimination later. I fear that if I stand here any longer while you two forget about the world around you and about me, that I shall take root or be eaten alive by these dreadful little flies that I cannot see, if I do not die of thirst before then. I shall need a hot bath to get rid of the feeling of them on me. It was bad enough waiting for you in that skiff with both of those men being under the weather [she had been the one to offer them a drink and had bribed them with a bottle, to get them out on a Sunday, so she only had herself to blame]. I feared they would see us mowed down rather than get out of the way of this monster, belching black smoke and coming at us as though it would not stop for anything or anyone.” She had feared nothing of the kind, though they had.

“But that’s what you told them, Grandmother, not to move out of the way. I thought that was why you were so ready to ply them with—” her grandmother cut her off before she said any more.

“Are we going to stand here yammering all day after baking in that sun? See to that luggage”—she addressed another man who had appeared—“and be careful with that drawing, it’s more than your life’s worth to damage it or lose it. See it gets up to my room, wherever that might be. And pay them off, Henry!”

“Yes, ma’am.” Henry smiled and gave them some money. She had already paid them once to persuade them out into the river, but she smiled at them nicely to thank them for their efforts. It had all unfolded as she had said it would. They deserved to be rewarded for standing their ground as they had and risking being splintered into a thousand pieces, as they had put it, to try to increase their fee when they had heard what she wanted. “You don’t play games with a steamer comin’ at you downriver, ma’am, no you don’t.”

Now they could row ashore and finish off the bottle she had been prepared to see them consume to keep them on station for as long as they needed to be there, but she had cut it rather fine. They had only just got into position when they had heard the whistles announcing the boat they had expected, coming around that bend at them. At least she hadn’t asked for her bottle back.

“I shall want a cabin, Henry.”

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