Back aboard the Pelican. A Letter to write.
As Wyatt rested in his cabin, with much on his mind that he had learned from that kind and hospitable family who tended to him, he wrote a letter to that same woman that Leonie, the older Creole girl, had told him of.
He knew her from some years earlier. She was an old woman who lived in northern Mississippi and had little to do with her own family after her only daughter had married into the Henstridge family. She had been kind to him and had welcomed him when he had visited her once in company of her granddaughter.
She was also called Hortense de Tourneau, her married name, which she had never given up after her husband had died.
14 May 1871
From the steamboat, Pelican, under Captain Jennings.
He hesitated, wondering if he was doing the right thing and what he dare, or should tell her, and how, but realized that he must warn her of what he had learned.
He had met her on but two occasions, and she may not remember him that well or place any credence on his seemingly wild accusations. He was at a loss as to how to tell her that her own family was probably plotting her death, just as they had plotted his almost three years earlier and how she might avoid it, but he tried. She might well think him deranged or be suspicious of him or his motives.
He felt it better if he did not let her know that he had just killed her son-in-law in New Orleans even before he became aware of the plot against her, though he knew she would not feel distressed about the death of that man. He knew of the older woman’s deep distaste for the family that her irrational and emotionally insecure daughter had married into over her objections. Her daughter, Desiree, had many years to regret her foolish actions; and she had regretted it, finding out too late what she had trapped herself into. Wyatt had learned some of that family history from madame de Tourneau’s granddaughter, Caroline.
Wyatt sat back and reconsidered, but realized that he had no choice. The old lady might not even believe him or anything he said, but he had liked her immediately upon their first meeting and would try to protect her if he could. He owed her that much.
He wrote steadily for almost ten minutes.
Almost as an afterthought, wondering if he dare ask her again, he made inquiries about her granddaughter, Caroline, with whom he had entirely lost all contact earlier while he was laid up from his injuries of some years before, inflicted by that same family.
He already knew that her granddaughter had left her family home, but he did not know where she had gone. It was as though she had burned all bridges and cut all ties. He had tried to discover where she was after that, and had even written to her grandmother once before, almost two years earlier, but had never received any reply and had given up.
After his most recent brush with death at the hands of that same family still fresh in his mind, he knew that he had to write to the old lady once more to warn her and to renew his plea for her help in finding her granddaughter. He held out little hope of getting any response after she had ignored him once.
He also resolved to allow his beard to grow. It had hidden Henstridge’s identity from him and would hide his own from the remaining male member of that family that he knew was still alive. He had been recognized once, with dire consequences, and it must not happen again.
He was surprised to get a reply from Madame de Tourneau after the passage of just a week. The name she had addressed her response to; Mr. Wyatt of the steamship Pelican, was well-known on the river, and he got it a week earlier than he might have done had it been addressed anywhere else.
She surprised him by taking him gently to task for not writing sooner (she mentioned that she had not received his earlier letter that he had alluded to, or she would certainly have responded to it).
She had not regarded him as having more imagination than wit, but told him that she had suspected that much of what he had told her about Henstridge was true and had taken it to heart. She assured him that she would be certain to take the necessary precautions to avoid it after his warning, but she did not go into any detail.
She went on to tell him what he had tried to find out for almost three years before he had decided to approach her again.
I must thank you again for your timely warning about my daughter’s family. I also did hear some details from a banker in New Orleans on several occasions about various attempts to discover certain things about me. I could see the hand of my son-in-law in all of it, so I already suspected some of what you told me to confirm it, and for that, I thank you.
If you had not reminded me of our earlier meetings, I would not have known who you were with that new name of yours.
Caroline took off almost three years ago with a broken heart, fearing that you were certainly dead and that her own father and brothers had somehow done that. I am most pleased, as she will be, to learn that you still live.
She is traveling in Europe to keep herself occupied after completing her education. I hear from her several times a year; but she seems to be aimless, footloose, and forever on the move, with you gone from her life. She needs to be rescued from herself, but I cannot do it. I cannot easily get in touch with her to tell her anything with my letters constantly trying to catch up to her or even being returned, and I am beyond traveling off to Europe again to locate her myself. However, I can write and alert some of our relatives to let her know that she should return home. I shall tell them that I am in poor health, though, in truth, I have never felt so alive in all my life after I got your letter.
The last I heard was that she was taking up a position teaching English or perhaps French, in Italy, but that is all old news. How long she will be there, I do not know, but I will give you her last address at the end of this letter. Every time I receive a new letter, it is from a different location and almost a year earlier, and I can never be sure that she gets any of my letters without considerable redirection as they follow her, if she gets them at all.
You were right to warn me of what you had learned, and it is most important (those two words were underlined) that you visit me at your earliest opportunity so that we may take this further. You know where I live. It is better if I do not travel anywhere and make myself vulnerable after what you told me. I suspected that I was being watched, but you have convinced me of it now. I am safe where I am for the moment, surrounded by those who love me and will protect me.
I would prefer to speak with you face-to-face to learn what you know of various things, as your suspicions confirmed my own about that Henstridge clan, and to seek your advice on a few things of importance to me, as well as to us both. There is much that I need to tell you, as well as to ask. I would also speak with you on another matter. If you are able to come, contact Nathaniel Gass when you step off the boat. He will take the necessary precautions and see you brought to me without others learning of it.
The little I know of you is all to your credit. My granddaughter, whom I do not regard as one of that family, would not have fallen in love with you otherwise. I now have something more to live for. My heart felt her pain for so long when she came to live with me just after she thought she’d lost you forever, so I learned to see you through her eyes.
What a pity I did not get your earlier letter, or all this might even now be history and the upset of the last few years need not have progressed as far as it has done.
He knew the upset she referred to.
Do not delay. Too much hangs upon our meeting again.
Hortense de T.
He would be in northern Mississippi in a week or so, after a short trip up to Baton Rouge—hauling supplies and bringing sugar, cotton, and hemp, waiting for them, back down, before they went up as far as Cairo—and would arrange to see her. He replied in a hastily written letter, sent on the fast mail packet, which would get it there in just two or three days at most. He would not be so far behind it.
Jennings listened to his entire tale when he got back aboard the Pelican and was relieved that he had recovered so quickly from his more recent injuries and seemed ready now to begin to tell him what had happened almost three years earlier when he had fished him out of the river, more dead than alive.
He was pleased to see that whatever it was that Wyatt had learned in that letter from that lady with the strange French name, had enervated him and had brought color to his cheeks and much more purpose to his life. He did not have to worry about Wyatt deciding to try to pick up his former life. There was still at least one enemy out there. The river had got into his blood as it had with him, and it would not be easy to abandon it.
After seeing the rafts from Baton Rouge offloaded, and as a final step before they headed upriver again to Cairo, Jennings decided to paint a new name on the boat. He had never much liked the name he had bought her under. She was no longer the Pelican, but became the Caroline. He had seen the new life that name had brought to his young protégé, learning from the letter that the old lady had sent him—that Caroline, the living one, was somewhere in Europe. He would help him in any way that he could.
Wyatt got his pilot’s license soon after that and was trusted to take that steamer upriver, downriver, day or night, to give Jennings a rest. He also learned more of the business and reinvested what Jennings gave him into other endeavors that succeeded just as well as everything else he touched.
Some little time later, after further meetings with Madame de Tourneau, he learned that she had died. He had even attended her funeral. It had been small and private, as she had wanted, with little fanfare given to her passing, and only close friends in attendance.
Shortly after that, he had asked Jennings permission to take a break and go over to Europe. He had certain things that he needed to do over there. Jennings had embraced that idea, though he would be sad to see him go. It was what the young man wanted to do, however, and no one should stand in his way. He had no hold over him.
Jennings was also building up a marine shipping business, and owned several seagoing ships. He could not teach the young man any more about the river, and he needed a break and a change, learning the other side: the seagoing side of the business. There was a woman Wyatt needed to find in Europe. Her name was Caroline Henstridge, and he was in love; but whether or not it was returned was not clear. That love had almost cost him his life on two occasions now, but love could be a violent affair.
Hearing that name, Henstridge, again, and this time attached to a young woman, Jennings was able to put the final pieces together and guessed what had happened some years earlier at Helena when that young lady’s brothers and father had tried to murder him on that wharf above Helena.
Wyatt learned that a month or two after that incident in New Orleans, laying him up, that the surviving Henstridge son, Robert, had come to New Orleans to try to learn what had happened to his father. He was too late, of course. The trail had gone cold by then. He learned that his father seemed to have packed all his cases one night and had departed without saying where he was going. He could not understand it. He had approached Leonie’s family after that, having seen her name mentioned in one of the last letters his father had sent.
She had not denied knowing his father but told him that her brief business association with him had not been successful and had lasted only a week before he had dispensed with her services.
He had no choice but to accept what she told him.
He was watched carefully from that moment forward, but without ever being aware of it.