The Caroline

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Wyatt and Jennings.

“His ships? You said his ships?” Caroline was puzzled. “Does he own any? I thought he might be an officer, temporarily without a ship.”

“A lot of people make that mistake about Mr. Wyatt. He keeps his business to himself, but yes, he owns a few ships; even this one, and riverboats. My feeling is that he was over there searching for someone that once meant a lot to him. It must have been a woman, but he cannot have found her. Or maybe he did, and things didn’t work out.”

“You mentioned Jennings. Who is he?”

“Oh, yes. With just the two of us here, I expect it won’t harm to tell you a little of what I know, though Mr. Bainbridge, Jack, often tells me that I speak out of school.” She continued talking as Caroline sipped at her hot tea after putting a slice of fresh lemon in it.

“Mr. Wyatt is the owner of this ship now, the Osprey, and at least two other seagoing ships; former Clipper Ships, as well as three or four steamboats; nobody but him knows how many for sure. Jennings started with nothing, barely even the clothing on his back, about fifty years ago, I heard. He worked hard, saved his money, and bought his first boat. He, and one man, worked it up and down the river; and before you knew it, he had made his mark on the river. He left everything to Wyatt when he died. He doesn’t say much either—that one, Wyatt—but he observes, and he thinks. Jennings liked that about him, but that doesn’t tell you about Wyatt, does it?” She debated having another piece of bread and decided against it.

“Old Captain Jennings pulled him out of the river more dead than alive one night, or did I tell you that already?” Reassured by silence, she continued, “It was the year my father died. He was terribly beaten about, with that awful wound on his head and other wounds. I saw him a few days after, and the poor lad didn't know who he was or where he was, for a devil’s age. Jennings nursed him back to health with as much care as he would have given his own son, had he lived.

“The only name he gave anyone when he was back on his feet was Wyatt; some scrap of paper or other on him had that name visible on it, with the rest of it destroyed by the river, so Wyatt he was, until he could say otherwise, but he never did.” She refilled her companion’s teacup without asking her.

“Jennings was not a man who would pry into another’s secrets. He had enough of his own. One wife, at least, in New Orleans and another upriver in Cairo, as well as those other women he tolerated aboard his boat. He always said that he felt sorry for those women left destitute by war, and why should they not make a living doing what they knew; with so few opportunities left to them after the war had robbed them of everything and their families. Jennings said that he so loved helping women as well as being married to them, that he married—though not in any church—three times that I think I know about, or perhaps more, and all at the same general time too. I think they even knew about each other, but he helped lots of women and tried to see them settled in a more secure place by taking them on board and helping them find work with people he knew. He knew many good people. If he could not find work or a position for them, then they seem to have fallen into being married to him in that informal kind of way. They fell in love with his kindness and attention, and probably because of his kindly persistence, rather than because of the man himself because he was not what anyone might call handsome. He saw them looked after when he passed on, and Wyatt must know about them. He’s probably looking after them too.

“It was what he, Jennings, did, and from the heart. It harmed no one, and he said that it gave him such pleasure to help them.” She realized that she had perhaps said too much. “Well, enough of that! A goodhearted man, even if his morals were decidedly questionable. Now where was I? Oh, yes. He owned his own ship and was his own pilot too, and Pilots do not come cheap if you have to hire one.” Caroline was loath to interrupt, and so just listened.

“A pilot is a god on the river and well respected—slave of no man but slave to the river and his position on it—and determined that it shall not master him as it does to so many of them who misread it. He had to relearn it all after that war, as commerce essentially dried up when that war began. There was no certainty of any cargo from upriver getting through, confiscated by one side or the other, or one’s ship being shot up or sunk, or commandeered to ferry thousands of troops and horses across, or up or down, and no choice about it. He managed to take off one night and laid up his steamer in New Orleans after that, with a crew to look after it and fix it up while he went off on the high seas until the war ended. I may have some of the details wrong, but most of it is as I remembered hearing it.

“When it all started up again in ’65—the commerce, that is—Jennings had to relearn the river with its new hazards, wrecks and snags and . . . everything. Some hard-fought sections of the river, or because of changing sandbars, had twenty wrecks in a mile, I heard.

“After he pulled Wyatt out of the river and saved his life, as he did—most fateful that for them both [though she did not explain how it might have been fateful for Jennings]—he pretty well adopted him as a son and taught him the river. Up and down, down and up, a hundred times or more between New Orleans and Cairo, as well as farther upriver when it was passable, until his young protégé knew it almost as well as he did. That was how Wyatt got started. He’s a qualified river pilot, so my husband tells me; but I also know that Wyatt trusts no man to know all his business, so what I tell you, you must keep to yourself. When Jennings died in early ’72, he left Wyatt everything, as I told you. Considerable money too, but all honestly come by. Nobody was over much surprised by that. Wyatt was the closest thing to a son he ever had by then. That was almost two years ago, but I cannot be sure, with my mind the way it is.

“There were three steamboats and this ship and others at that time, and each of ’em—the steamboats—busy training other pilots so that they might expand with the rush back to the river and opening it all up again, but he’s added to it all since then. There are fortunes to be made and lost on the river and not all of them to do with boats and commerce, at least not that particular commerce.”

Caroline had seen what she had meant by that when she had watched those young women leave that other ship.

“Too many drifted away from the river life, and there were a lot of steamboats to be picked up at a good price [though others had rotted out by then or had been broken up], and there were lots of men looking for work, to crew them, but few pilots familiar with the river. The aftermath of that war saw many fortunes made, especially on the river. What war does not destroy, it builds anew, and bigger and better. He made his fortune as others lost theirs; but like Jennings he made it honestly, unlike too many others. I believe it was Balzac who said that behind great wealth, there is great crime, or something like that. With others, that was the case, but not with either Jennings or Mr. Wyatt. That strange Frenchman, Proudhon, also said something similar, if a bit silly—property is theft—but I never could see the sense of saying that, even by an anarchist. Anyone would think he didn’t own his own clothes.” She smiled foolishly as she explained herself. “I read a lot and see things while I usually say nothing. Nobody likes a woman who knows more than they do. They have not very complimentary names for them, but there is not much else to do on a long voyage. Mr. Bainbridge is not as spry or as romantic as he once was when we first began to live like this, but that’s all to the good at our age.” Caroline smiled at her hostess’s outspoken views and not afraid to touch on some very personal things.

“So where does Mr. Wyatt live? Does he have an estate near here? As a ship owner, and undoubtedly wealthy, I expect he can afford to live well. He is obviously from the South. I can sometimes detect that in his speech.”

“No. He could afford to live anywhere he chose to live and can blend into any level in society as though he belonged there. He has little use for ostentation or class distinctions like the English do, or anywhere else for that matter. He lives like a church mouse, with no use for any of that folderol and faradiddle.

“For the last two years he has lived on board one ship or another or in one of the hotels that the sailors use. Hotels!” She had her own derisive views on those. “He carries his life with him. Never still for a minute. On the river you cannot do otherwise, though there are many women who would like to see him settle down, if he settled down with them.” She sighed. “Another Jennings in the making, except he ignores them all—almost all. There was one I saw him with. I still do, when he gets back here—a swarthy beauty, Creole I think—or he is very discreet in his relations with her. No, it’s not that. He has little time for the women here even, as though his mind is . . .” She hesitated to say more.

“Yes?” Caroline tried to encourage her.

“As though his mind is upon something else, though not as bad as it was. He has no time for women except that one I mentioned—a pretty young woman. She speaks that peculiar dialect, mostly French when she is with others of her—but she is also well educated. I heard her speaking as well as any of the society ladies, and she can dress the part too. I couldn’t believe my eyes at first, but then I saw that it was the same girl. She wouldn’t be any more than twenty. She ‘works the river’ is one expression, but is discreet and very selective about who... well, enough said.” Mrs. Bainbridge held herself back from saying more than that, and did not explain what she meant. She realized she had already said too much, but Caroline thought she might be able to guess. She selectively sold her favors, was a delicate way of putting it.

“My woman’s instinct. I already told you that. If it is a woman, another woman than the one I mentioned, she is probably married or turned him away. Foolish woman. Foolish man for letting her! I thought he might have had a . . . an understanding with that young Creole woman I told you of, but nothing came of it that I might know about, so it wasn’t what I had assumed because it was just after that, he took off. I am glad he’s back now. He’s different in some way. Something happened to him again to change him, but I would say that it changed him for the better, whatever it was. The tragedy of love is that we often fall in love with the wrong person. Another is that we fall in love with the right person, only to be denied a life with that person.” Caroline knew all about that.

“But I have done all the talking. What must you think of me? You are going upriver for a good reason I would suppose. Most daring of you, a young woman on her own, though you will have Mr. Wyatt with you to keep an eye on you.” Caroline had not been sure of that, but said nothing, although that thought was pleasing. His company would be comforting. “But you can ignore me, my dear, if you would rather. This is the first time we have dined alone together. You know how men are at monopolizing the conversation as they do—especially my husband when I let him—so now it’s our turn. I do tend to chatter on though, given the freedom to do so, as there is rarely anyone to talk to on board; and if I say the same thing twice or more, I can only ask you to forgive a chattering old woman.”

“You said that Mr. Wyatt is going upriver too?” She had learned from different sources that Wyatt would be taking the steamer upriver with the cattle. Having been off the river for almost a year, he would be more of an observer, relearning of those inevitable changes in channel and sandbars that had occurred while he had been away, and would be asking questions.

“Yes. He’s seeing to the rafts being tied together even now, but he also has good men doing that for him. How they keep track of it all and see they don’t fly apart when the current gets to moving them around as it does, or they have to head into one of those hundreds of bends in the river, I don’t know. I gather that they have rudders to steer them at the front or even bow boats to push or pull them around. Most river men do not want to get involved with mixing steamboats and rafts. A few of them tried and did not have good experiences of it, so they left it to others, but Wyatt knows what to do with his chains and yokes and stuff, and what not to do. I can tie my own shoelace, but that is all I know of tying anything, and it still comes undone.

“He was telling Mr. Bainbridge that he had been too long away from the river—even a few months can be too long—and needed to learn about it again. A year, perhaps even two, I am not really sure—off in the Mediterranean and Europe—is too long away from this river, so he’ll be careful for a while. A couple of trips should do it with his memory. He never forgets a name or a face or a good or a bad deed, and that makes a few people nervous. He has good captains on all his ships and listens to them too. Pays them well enough to make sure he gets the best. Same with pilots. He will be on the boat with you for the whole journey, and then back again as he relearns the river. It’s the only wife any of ’em pay close attention to. I assume you’ll take the same boat now that you’ve got to know each other, unless you’re in a great hurry, and then you can take one of those others that charge off, as though they were in a race. There is something undignified about such haste.

“Some of those steamers take just a few days in their mad scurry to make the owners rich, and they pay the price for their impatience, but the Caroline is usually ten days getting up to Cairo. Not many captains know how to move big rafts, but he does. You won’t have to worry about running aground or hitting a wreck or be anxious about colliding with another vessel at night in one of those strange chutes I hear so much of, nor be concerned about a boiler explosion with him. Those explosions, when a boiler fails, are so frequent when men get careless or tired in their mad haste. Why, there is news of one in the paper every time I come through here—I read about one just the other day—with such loss of life and with others scalded and maimed and, if not that, then a fire, with many lost and drowned, as nearly all those returning Union prisoners were, aboard that unfortunate boat, Sultana.” Caroline had heard of that. “Fires, explosions, collisions—no end of problems.” She realized that she might be frightening her listener and had better cease. “So what of you, my dear? I feel as though I’ve done all the talking so far, which I have, if you feel you can tell me.”

For the first time in many years, Caroline spoke of her own origins in northern Mississippi, dealing mostly with her childhood and the more pleasant memories of growing up with her grandmother and mother, the true stalwarts in her life, but kept her reasons for leaving it all those years before—when she was just eighteen years old—to herself. She’d managed to stay out of trouble all the years of that war, though seeing it come too close for comfort too many times; and then when things might have been looking up, after the war ended, it had all changed for her, and she had to leave. There was still too much pain there to discuss her reasons with anyone else, though she had been able to open up a little, where she never had before.

After breakfast, and as opportunity permitted, she felt she should enquire about steamers heading upriver rather than rely upon anyone else, concerned that she might miss the one she had been told about, the one taking the cattle up to her family estate. Perhaps that would be the same one that Wyatt, Mr. Wyatt, would be on.

“I told you not to worry your head on that score, my dear. Mr. Wyatt knows where you are and will not see you left behind.” He would not indeed, but she would not say any more. Miss Henstridge did not seem to know it yet, but Mr. Wyatt was not about to see her stranded in New Orleans if Mrs. Bainbridge was reading the signs right. It was the first time she had seen him take an interest in any female for longer than about an hour, except for that Creole beauty. She needed a man like him close to her. Before Caroline had chance to quit the table, Mrs. Bainbridge—Harriet—suggested that Caroline humor a silly old woman and swirl her teacup three times and empty the dregs into her saucer so that she might read the tea leaves remaining in the cup.

It was a harmless enough thing to do, so she complied and passed her cup for the older woman to decipher for her. She saw Mrs. Bainbridge puzzle over it for a few moments, turning the cup this way and that as she tried to make some story out of the soggy bits and pieces still left. She frowned. Caroline could contain herself no longer.

“Well? What do you see?” The older woman said but the one word at first but lent emphasis to it by repeating it.

“Trouble! Trouble!” She sighed. “I can’t make aught else out of it, and I usually can. A mountain of it, overshadowing everything else.” She laughed gently, as though to dismiss what she had said. “But then who believes that superstitious rubbish. I am sure that I don’t.” She did, but she was not about to say more than she had. “It’s but a harmless enough pastime and nothing like the more serious stuff, like casting bones and laying a curse after biting the head off a chicken or playing about with those voodoo dolls, as they do in this place.” She shivered at thought of that. “But tread carefully, my dear, and if there is trouble, I am sure it is because you will be the instigator of it to others. Isn’t that what all of us women are to the men in our lives?” Caroline gently took the cup from her hands and looked for herself. One might possibly interpret that messy spread of tea leaves if one had a good imagination, but how much it might bear to reality, she doubted. She saw nothing that made sense, but as her own mother had said, “It requires a belief in such things to see what they will tell you.” Her own mother had read the palms of her friends, and they used to laugh over the changing stories that she might concoct. She decided against asking Mrs. Bainbridge to show her what she had meant that might indicate trouble or ask her for more specific information.

Caroline soon put that latter part of their conversation behind her and was happy to see that everything she needed to do was already being taken care of for her, as Mrs. Bainbridge had hinted. Her own luggage, her trunks and her personal bag, were removed from the Osprey and loaded onto a handcart for transfer to one of the many steamers located further up on the levee that served the city as a harbor front. Many of them were already belching thick smoke and were preparing to leave. Wyatt seemed to have organized everything for her. She wondered why he had merely smiled at her when she had explained that she would need to get into New Orleans to repay him. Did he not care whether he was paid or not?

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