The Caroline

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The ultimate in cheating.

I do, of course, else what's the point in my cheating.” He could not help but laugh.

She reached and cut the deck at the first crimped card and turned them over for the three of them to see. Exposed was the two of clubs. She did not even look at it. She already knew what the card would be.

Henry was not sure what to believe. He was being forced to win. There was no lower card in the deck than the two of clubs. He was confused. He did not understand.

“Oh. Before you cut, Henry, there is something you need to know.” He could see the older woman smiling at him, seeing his confusion. He waited for the awkward surprise she was about to present him with.

“Caroline, my dear, would you bring over that drawing, that hides that infamous contract that you once objected to?” She did so. “This is mine now, Henry, to wager as part of that which I possess.” He saw the look in her eyes but could not read it. “You placed such a very high value upon it at one time, so it is only fair that it should come back to you, if you dare go after it. Caroline decided that she really did prefer for you to have it.”

He did not understand what was going on. He was being given everything, and much more than everything, and he was not sure that there was not a catch in it somewhere. When a man thinks he wins is when he loses. When he loses in some things, is when he wins. He had been boxed in. However, he knew that this wonderful old woman smiling at him was neither capricious, nor cruel, nor his enemy. She loved her granddaughter without reservation and would not see her hurt by any action she made, and that was all that was important to him too. She had other intentions that he could not possibly know, for her to have so manipulated everything that he must win.

He watched her take a drink of her brandy. “Well, Henry, what is it to be?”

He cut the remaining deck at the place indicated by that second crimped card, then after waiting for a few seconds, as though his life might depend upon it, he turned it over. He looked at it intently, not sure what to make of it. She really had outfoxed him and put him on the spot.

“You do know what it means, don’t you, Henry?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“So what is it to be? The choice is yours.”

He stared at the card. It was the black joker. He was not indecisive for more than a second or two. “I think, ma’am, that the two of clubs, your card, will beat this card and that you win everything.”

He sat back and smiled at her. In his heart, he knew that it was the safest possible decision for him to make. That contract had tilted him against thinking of winning. He had lost more than he realized, winning it as he had that first time, and he would not make that mistake again when the real woman was his for the claiming . For a man who had just lost everything he had ever owned, he did not seem to be too put out, but seemed most satisfied.

“You found me out, Henry. I played the man, you, but I still put you into a corner for a moment when I turned up that two. The look on your face at that moment was worth it. It would not have mattered whether you won or lost—you still get everything—but it was a thrill wasn’t it! You not knowing what to expect. I was not sure which way you would go, but you played it well, and with consideration for a difficult old woman. Like you, however, I cannot keep what I unfairly won, and I freely give it all back to you, along with my most valuable possession.” She looked across at Caroline. “Look after him, my dear. He is worth keeping, but you already knew that. If it does not scare you, Henry, after the difficulty it once caused you, we would also like you to have this.” She saw Caroline pass him that drawing and saw him take it out of its frame and turn it over. It no longer seemed to hold the same value that it once had, now that the woman that gave rise to it all was within his reach. He heard her warning words.

“It is not quite as you remembered it, I am sure. It is a little better done, and it is not Robert who saw to it being drawn up, in ink this time [no erasing that], but both of us, Caroline and I, before we came up here. We got rid of the pencil from the other one with a little ball of gutta-percha. I think we might safely say that she approves of this one and wants you to have it this time. She even knows where she will hang it.”

He read it aloud, as Caroline held the other end of it, smiling at him occasionally at the pleasure she knew that it would give him.

I, Caroline Serena Henstridge, on this Sunday, the fourteenth day of September 1873, do give myself out of love, entirely and freely, body, mind, and soul, in every way, and all that I possess or ever will possess into the sole care of Henry Wyatt Ibbotson.

Caroline herself had signed it.

“So you see, Henry, you do get everything. As far as I am concerned, you are now married.”

Below it was a repeat of all of it, but with his name written in.

I, Henry Wyatt Ibbotson, on this Sunday, the fourteenth day of September 1873, do give myself out of love, entirely and freely, body, mind, and soul, in every way, and all that I possess or ever will possess into the sole care of Caroline Serena Henstridge.’

He had no hesitation about adding his own signature to the bottom of it, and did so, once he had found the pen and ink, hidden amidst those bottles.

The whistle sounded, giving three blasts, two seconds apart.

“Just in time. They will hear that, and have a carriage waiting for me. We are still some few minutes away. We are all spending the night at the new, Ibbotson estate. That other name is gone forever.”

“We are?”

“Yes. Hannah is expecting us all and will have dinner ready. Along with my granddaughter, you will take control of all the estate, which now carries your name and her new name—Ibbotson or it will be—once we get that other step out of the way with the vicar. He will be there, too. Your parents will meet us there. Both estates are now one, and I am sure that they will prosper. It never rains but it pours, Henry. You are now a landowner as well as a ship owner, though you did look after my estate for me and may continue to do so.”

They heard the engines go into reverse and felt the boat begin to slow.

“Between the two of us, Henry, we have removed the last of the Henstridges, just as we both wanted, except for my other granddaughter, but she doesn’t count as one of them anyway. She wisely took on my daughter’s maiden name, which is also my own. I shall be your guest for a few days. I promise not to be in your way. I retire very early, I am deaf, blind, and a very late riser.” She was usually none of those things. “All I ask is that I have enough brandy and a good cheroot.” She looked at them both to see that they understood her. She would stay out of their way.

“By the way, you two are not coming with me. We still have many things to do, and we do not need you underfoot. There is a hamper of everything you will need over at the swimming hole. It is one of those little things I organized with those letters. Just make sure that you are able to make it back to the house before dark, to be married officially, or we shall send a search party out for you.”

As the boat came to a slow crawl under the bank and then stopped briefly, they went down to the front of the rafts nudging in close to the bank; and they both held hands and leapt into the water, which was only about a foot deep and then went running off up the bank as they held each other’s hands and laughed in pure joy and happiness. They turned to see most of the passengers, as well as Leonie and her father, waving at them. They would need to get down to New Orleans to visit them too. Caroline’s grandmother waited for the gangways to be brought out for her and a more sedate exit with her belongings. They heard her behind them admonishing those who helped her off the boat.

“Take care of that drawing. It is worth more than your life to lose it at this moment!”

They were twenty minutes getting to the salt spring but did not notice the time as they strolled and talked, holding on to each other, pausing often to kiss. They had several hours before they needed to think of going back to the house.

At the swimming hole, Henry opened the hamper, left for them, and began to find what it contained. There was enough food for a half dozen hungry individuals.

“Might I offer you something to eat and a glass of wine, my love?”

“Not yet, Henry. Later. Much later! How can you think of food at such a time? You will not need the wine to overwhelm my defenses. Not this time.”

He looked up, sensing the way she had said that. Caroline was slowly getting rid of all her clothes, even as she was watching him in turn, seeing the look of pleasant surprise on his face as he watched her. Then, as he seemed not to catch on fast enough to what she intended after she had got rid of all of hers, she walked over to him with no shred of shyness about her and began to help him get rid of his own. He laughed and helped her, as they paused often to kiss, and to touch.

They embraced then, caring nothing about their total lack of clothing. Feeling no embarrassment, and holding on to each other, they waded out into the warm water as they had done so many times in the past and then turned to face each other in the deeper water.

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