The Caroline

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If she'll have you!

I doubt that you will be given any choice in that. She damned near threw herself onto you as we stepped off that skiff. I am only surprised you did not both go into the river. I’d got used to seeing you with that beard since the funeral and then to see it gone a few days ago was quite a shock for me, never mind for her. She almost went into the river when she first saw who you were, helping her aboard, and heard your voice.”

“I shall convey it back to you, ma’am, any time you wish it.”

“Thank you, but it must be done in a way that I shall dictate, or I do not want it. You shall put it on the table along with the rest of it. I told you I need some excitement—little as that might be--at my age.” He smiled. “I have lived an almost blameless life up until now, and I fear that the excitement that caused my parents’ blood to run cold as they escaped from France is something that I might miss, unless I try to live my last years with some excitement. However, there was a moment there when I feared that I was about to be run down before you might see me in the river, and I began to regret having become so rash, so late in life.”

He knew better than to believe that. “I saw you, and I told you which side of the river to be. We would have missed you.”

“How long do we have before we come opposite Helena?”

He looked out of the window. About two hours.”

“I told the captain we would all be getting off there. You too.” She looked specifically at Henry. “Well, shall we get down to business?” He nodded, anxious to find out what she had in mind.

She rummaged in her purse. “Now where are those cards? I saw them less than an hour ago.” She fished them out. “I propose that we need only one simple game. I suppose I should warn you, Henry, that I cheat too, except I already did warn you. As we both are admitted cheats, we can have no secrets from each other in that way. It should prove interesting, even though I undoubtedly cheat better than you do.”

“Tell me, ma’am, if it is decided already, am I to win or lose?” They had not covered any of this. The plan had only been to bring Caroline onto the boat and to stay with her as chaperone once she knew all that she should know. She smiled at him in a way he could not fathom.

“It will come to you.”

“And what shall we wager?”

“Everything you are and everything you own, and I shall do the same!” She brought the second larger package out of her purse. It seemed heavy for its volume. “You already own my property, so this is what I shall wager against you.”

She carefully took apart her little bundle. “My parents risked all our lives to escape with these. There were more at one time, but these still represent wealth enough to buy this entire state.” She carefully laid them out on the small table beside her. They were mostly of gemstones set in the most exquisitely worked settings and were clearly of immense value. “They are no use to me at my age. They are yours now, my dear.” She looked at Caroline. “Provided I do not lose, of course. If I do, they will still be yours. That is the advantage of wagering within the family.” She looked from one to the other. “So let us play, if you are ready and have the stomach for it.”

“I believe I do. Is the outcome certain? No awkward little surprises?”

“As certain as it can be if I have cheated well enough, and if I am a sufficiently good judge of character, it is. Though the outcome is never certain; except in this case, I think it is. Yes, it is certain. But whether a win or a loss depends upon the players wanting what they eventually get, or getting what they really want.”

“I am intrigued. It sounds like a most unusual game, ma’am.”

“Very unusual.”

“And what game do we play, bearing in mind that I told you that I cheated your grandson?”

“He deserved it. It is a simple cut of the cards. High card wins.”

“It does not sound conducive to being manipulated, ma’am, but more to chance.” She smiled at his naïve simplicity.

“You will see. The cards are just cards; it is the players that can be manipulated like puppets if one knows what one is doing.” He had a feeling of wanting to laugh. He was being played himself, even before the game had begun. It was difficult to believe that this was her first time gambling. He was not sure he should believe that.

“Are you sure you have not gambled before, ma’am? I have the uncomfortable feeling that I am the one being railroaded, and that I am up against a most formidable opponent.”

You are. Nonetheless, it all boils down to you, Henry.”

“I do not understand what you mean.”

“You will.”

She placed a complete deck of cards on the small table between them. “They are to be neither shuffled nor cut. We play with them as they sit.” He had recently played a similar game where the cards had already been stacked against him. This was to be another just like it. He was not to be allowed any leeway to change the outcome of this game.

Henry could see that two cards within the deck had been crimped in some way so that they stood out from the others. He began to laugh at the utter blatant audacity of it and found that he did not care.

“Who goes first, ma’am?”

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