The Caroline

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Let's get it right this time, Henry.

Five minutes later, and a little earlier than they had been told, Henry tapped on her door and was told to come in. He led the way in as Caroline’s grandmother saw the look of happiness on both of their faces with them still holding each other close. There was the smell of a cheroot still floating in the air, and it was clear that she had enjoyed both that and a second brandy.

“If I had known it might be so easy to get you two together, I would never have needed to come. You don’t need me here, standing in the way; but I am here, unfortunately, and so you will have to put up with me for a little longer.” She waved at the chaise in front of her own seat for them to sit down together. “We have little enough time before we get into Helena, where we will all disembark rather than head on to New Orleans, so we should get on with it.” They waited for her to explain what she intended.

She cleared her throat. “I am here, as—for once in my far too long life—I have a hankering to gamble somewhat recklessly. I heard many times that the river was the place to do it and that you were the man to take on, despite them outlawing gaming on the river some years ago. I heard that you never gambled in your entire life until a few days ago. I hope the experience of that did not put you off it forever.” She seemed to be referring to that contract that he could see lying against the back of the desk but hidden behind that drawing of the boat which faced outward. He said nothing, which she took as an affirmative answer.

“Good. How high were the stakes?” She looked at him for an answer.

“A man’s life was at stake, ma’am. I was not sure at the time which one of us that might be. His life, as it turned out, as well as everything that he possessed—though he did not know that his life was also on the table. I wagered only this boat. The man I was up against lost both, but it was an inevitable outcome.”

“Those stakes seem just about right and appropriate at such a serious time; all that a man might possess and have to his name, as well as his life. As that English fellow said, there is nothing like a good hanging to sharpen a man’s mind, or wagering his very life and all of his property. Just the right stakes for a game that so much hinges upon, or that matters. I heard that a woman’s reputation was at stake too, and saw evidence of it.”

“Yes, that rumor seems to have raced up and down the river. It was not supposed to be that way, but yes, as little as I care to admit it, a woman entered into that wager, but it was largely beyond my control at that moment.” She snorted as he continued, “A woman, the woman I loved”—his eyes met Caroline’s eyes at that moment as he felt the pain of that, once more—“became part of the wager, fortuitously, not intentionally on my part, but I welcomed it at the time in my foolishness. I occasionally do foolish things like that before I have adequately thought about them. I had not expected it, and had not intended it, but I could not refuse it. It might have been wiser if I had. It has caused me a great deal of grief and trouble and cast me in an unfavorable light when she found out about it.”

“I heard. But the important question to ask is... did you believe that you won, or did it seep through to you that you might have lost when you had to explain what had happened after that to Caroline?”

“I thought I had won. I did win, as I intended I would, in one way, and then I realized that I hadn’t won at all when she found out about what had been wagered and what had really been in the balance. However, she did not see it as I saw it.” His glance flickered to Caroline. She seemed happy to let both of them do all the talking as she held tightly onto him.

“Just like life then. We rarely win certain of those battles.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You think you win and it is quite the other way. My daughter had to learn that lesson when she married that Henstridge fellow against my wishes. She learned the hard way, and much to her cost, though some good did come of it: I now have two granddaughters. I won there. Alternatively, you think that you lose, and then you are most pleasantly surprised to find otherwise. She did leave him eventually, and is going to make a better go of it this next time.”

“Yes, ma’am, that was the way it was with me. I soon learned that I might have lost something that I valued even more highly than I valued my own life. I should have just been satisfied with killing him, and then we would have avoided all of the later difficulty.”

“Yes, especially as he was destined to die anyway. I rather think your loss might only have been temporary.” Indeed it had from what she could see. “The question to ask, however, is what did you expect to gain?” He looked across at Caroline. They could both see what he was thinking. He had already gained everything he wanted. Caroline blushed, but held his eyes. No one needed to ask what was in either of their minds. “Oh dear, I fear I really am in the way, aren’t I? Never mind, we shall soon be gone from here and then I shall get out of your way, and you two can become yourselves once more and make up for lost time.

“But to get back to something you said earlier, Henry. You said that your winning was an inevitable outcome. That is not usual when one gambles, surely, at least it was not in my day. Why was it inevitable?”

He sighed heavily. “I cheated!” She laughed at his confession, so easily given.

“And you survived? Yes, obviously you did survive, I am glad to say, while your opponent did not. My granddaughter already told me all about it after you told her. Normally, one tries to keep such things hidden. However, I cannot criticize you for cheating. I cheat at everything myself. I am an exceptionally poor loser. I even cheat at solitaire!

“I also cheated death, myself. Recently too. And attended my own funeral, so I hope you do not mind gambling with a corpse, Henry! You already know that, having been the one who organized my funeral.” Her mind went off on a tangent after remembering that.

“But it was such an unsatisfying death. I hope the real thing will not be as depressing as that was. Did you not find it depressing?” She was looking at Henry. “You were at my funeral, of course, you and barely a dozen others!” She reached over and patted Caroline’s hand. “Though you weren’t.” Caroline knew only a little of that. “However, you will be there for the next one.” She was not afraid to discuss anything, it seemed.

“It was not at all well attended. However, it was by special invitation only, and I invited those friends who came, so I should not complain. Not a good turnout to see me off, so it is fortunate that I was able to change my mind for the next time. I told no one of that until they discovered me afterward, to their great consternation at first, mingling with the mourners. It was all so exciting once I got over the disappointment. I found that I could not keep away. It had all been so well planned and for the best of reasons--to keep me alive a little longer. It was, after all, my own funeral. I could not allow the moment to go to waste and stay hidden when there was so much fun to be had. The party afterward, however, tended to make up for all the other once everyone discovered that I was very much alive.”

“It was a beautiful funeral, ma’am.” She smiled at him.

“Of course it was, once I was able to relax. I am only sorry that my granddaughters were not there. You were the one who suggested it, Henry, and organized it down to the last detail after you alerted me to what my son-in-law was trying to do. I suppose I should thank you for killing me off. I should also thank you for killing that last grandson of mine, and taking all the distemper out of my life, but I couldn’t relax my guard until they were all gone. Well now they are!” She raised her glass to that thought, and drank. “What a bloodthirsty lot we are! Goes with the history I suppose.

“In the meanwhile, all that I was required to do was to go into a sudden decline and die. However, there were not enough tears to suit me. I began to think I was not loved. I hope the next time around will not be so flat and joyless.” He and Caroline smiled at each other. Caroline had heard little of this.

“They knew you were not dead, ma’am. Not too many dead people can listen to their own eulogy, from the pews.”

“Yes. I suppose that was the reason why they said all those dreadfully flattering things about me.”

“You wrote it yourself.”

“Did I? Oh! I’d forgotten. I suppose only when I am dead and gone, will the awkward truth be told behind my back or over my head while I turn over in my coffin. I will, you know. I may just object very loudly if they don’t get it right the next time. No matter, we had a good little party afterward as we laughed about having poked those Henstridges in the eye, and then we all admired that little sculpture of me for my grave and those daguerreotypes or tin types that showed me in my coffin, in case anyone might doubt it.

“The camera man was very understanding about it all and seemed to think I was only a little bit mad. I thought I might burst trying to hold my breath for long enough until he told me that I could breathe lightly, as it would take almost a minute to make the exposure, and no one would be able to see much anyway with me dressed all in white and with such a healthy complexion.

"I was in my wedding gown. I must make sure that it is not buried with me.” She looked at Caroline. “It will be all ready for you this evening, my dear. It will fit you now after the few changes we made. Perhaps I should have one of those little bells installed on top of the grave, so that if I wake up in my coffin the next time that I can ring for them to get me out. A dead ringer! Oh my.” She chuckled. “What a morbid conversation, but that coffin was most comfortable. I almost fell asleep in it.

“We let it all go forward as intended, with all of the announcements of course, to throw them off track. There is something to be said for dying penniless—I believe is the word—we took great pains about that, and before one’s time. They were so disappointed to hear that. It is exceptionally peaceful to read one’s own obituary, though I saw where improvements can be made for the next time. There is a lot to be said for having such a dress rehearsal. I didn’t much like the plot I chose the first time either, not with all those dead people around me. No, I intend to be buried on that hilltop behind my house and buried standing up so that I can survey everything, and shall insist that I am visited daily so that you might learn my instructions for the day. At least when I was believed to be dead, there were no visitors to annoy me other than those one can trust or that one wanted to see. No inquisitive relatives either, forever hounding me. It threw sand in those Henstridge’s eyes and put a burr under their saddles after all their efforts to part me from my money. I don’t have to worry about them anymore, do I?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Robert came up to see the grave, just to be sure, you know. He learned of the service, and saw the photographs of me laid out in my coffin. I am only surprised that he did not decide to resurrect me, to be sure I was dead. I heard that he also had the gall to piss on my grave, and laughed as he did it. The grounds man told me! It is a pity that Robert did not die on land, and then I would be sure to go and piss on his grave as a daily ritual.” She laughed at her own outspokenness. “Still, the Mississippi sees its own share of that, and worse, every day. He is where he deserves to be.” She brought herself back to the present discussion.

“When you are settled into married life, I shall expect you to tell me more of what happened to my son-in-law and both of those useless grandsons of mine, unless the last one was too recent for you and still pulls at your conscience.” She saw him smiling at her various bouts of reminiscing and humor. “No, no chance of that is there. They were not sure what to believe after learning that I had died, leaving no property behind that the bailiff did not immediately claim. It was a nice touch that, I thought. I’ve been living on someone else’s property, in my own home, for the last few years, even though nothing really changed. Now that the thorns in my side are gone, I think I would like to get it back from you, Henry, for a while.” She looked at them both. “On the other hand, as I shall bequeath it to you and my granddaughter anyway, you may as well keep it.”

“If she’ll have me.” He saw Caroline smiling at him.


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