The Caroline

By johnksutherland All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Drama

The steamship for upriver.

The steamers for upriver—there seemed to be a hundred or more of them, so how she might find the one she was to take caused her no little worry—mostly left New Orleans in the afternoon. Many of them were even now throwing out plumes of thick black smoke from their stacks to give warning that they were preparing to leave, and any passengers had better be on board. Some of them were loaded with cargo and passengers, but were not about to be encumbered by rafts to slow them down as the steamer she was to take, would be. They were intent on making the journey as quickly as possible though not trying to break any records as the Natchez had set out to do in ’70 when it raced the Robert E. Lee to St. Louis, a distance of more than 1,200 miles, both of them doing the trip in just under four days at an unthinkable average speed of about 14 miles an hour against the current. Only the railroad could beat that, but washouts were not unheard of, which slowed those trains and even saw them derailed to the unspoken delight of the ship owners. Most other boats carrying passengers and making stops and layovers at night, if the river demanded it or if repairs were needed, might take ten days or more, but six or seven seemed to be typical.

She learned that the steamship she was to take was named the Caroline; her own name, and was the same one that Mrs. Bainbridge had mentioned. Perhaps a good sign (though in what way, after she had pooh-poohed in her mind any such superstitious suggestions, she was not sure). Nonetheless, she knew that her welcome once she arrived at the Henstridge plantation, still some few days of tiresome travel away, would be certain to be strained and difficult. Yes, there would be trouble indeed, but Mrs. Bainbridge could not know the least of it. The thought of the confrontation and bad feelings that her sudden arrival would provoke was weighing on her. Her brother was not expecting her, and would not be pleased to see her.

She felt another weight descend upon her that had been revived by her seemingly harmless conversation with Mrs. Bainbridge as she had related some of her experiences before she had left. The intervening years had not dulled the pain quite as well as she had hoped they might. Other emotions began to sit uneasily upon her, and they had to do with the sudden way she had left her home years earlier and the turbulent emotions that had been in play at that time. She had hoped the hurt and the pain might have diminished with the years, but they had not. It was almost as if she hadn’t left some things behind, but had carried them with her in a hidden part of her being (she knew that to be true. They had contributed to many sleepless nights), and they were still fresh in her mind, even from five years earlier. They would get worse the closer she got to her former home. She choked back the suddenly felt hurt and the tears, and focused on what was close around her and that she could see and touch and deal with, rather than have to relive the hurtful emotions that had caused her to leave with such a heavy heart when she had.

The Osprey would depart later on that same day with the rest of the cattle and go on to Galveston or some other port in Texas. There would be no one to alleviate the older woman’s tedium for that part of the voyage.

She had been warned about not wandering anywhere alone on the New Orleans levee, which served as the docks and where cargo was being constantly loaded or unloaded. It was busy with horses and carts and was thick with mud. It stretched as far as she could see. She had taken that warning to heart, considering what had happened to her in Liverpool. There seemed few women about, except perhaps for those other women who did not mind being there, and were as much a part of the scenery and the commerce as those boats.

Some of those women were leaving another ship, the Montezuma, that had arrived with the Osprey on the previous evening. Those women had boarded that ship last night as it had docked, and had been there overnight for other undoubtedly more intimate purposes not usually openly spoken of in polite company, though certainly as much a commercial venture as most other things that transpired at the docks. It might almost have been an amusing thought, but some of those women—most of them, perhaps all of them—had little choice in what they did. When she thought about in those terms, it became a discomforting thought. There, but for the grace of god….

Mrs. Bainbridge had not been shy to touch upon those tender topics in her description of Captain Jennings. The three young women leaving the Montezuma—all of them strikingly beautiful—had a slightly darker skin, suggesting more of a Spanish than a French origin. The word mulatto came to mind, but then she was a mongrel herself. Who might say what other mixes there were in their bloodline and perhaps belonging to that much older culture of that region and of Creole descent, as well as other admixes of native people. They all waved animatedly and cheerily back up to some of the sailors.

They had leaned over the side, reluctant to see the women go so soon, and to arrange for their next rendezvous when they came through again, whenever that might be. Had there been any of those women welcomed aboard her own ship the previous night after they had tied up she had not known of it. She would not have begrudged those hardworking sailors any of the concupiscent benefits that seemed few and far between in their lonely, dangerous, and hard lives and would not judge the women for what they did either. She quite surprised herself how morally relaxed and tolerant her thinking had become over the years as she had observed the sexes.

The river steamer she was to take was berthed just a short distance away and would not depart for at least another three hours. It was even then loading wood and getting the fires started under her boilers. She had not yet converted to coal, as many of the other steamboats had, even though she had learned from Mrs. Bainbridge that the Caroline had one of the most efficient high-pressure engines. There was always an abundance of wood on the river, and it was cheap enough, whereas coal had to be brought down the Ohio from Pittsburgh and was not only relatively expensive but was not always available when it was needed.

Other of the boats were spewing black clouds of smoke from their tall chimneys, drifting inland and depositing a fine wet soot onto everything it passed over. Its blackness was in sharp contrast to the steady flow and spurts of white plumes of condensed steam from vents behind those chimneys as other boats pulled out from the landing. There was also a sudden eruption of steam and vapor from a steam whistle, announcing the departure of one boat farther off along the levee and then another. It took almost two seconds for the sounds to get to her. At least on the river it was certainly the age of the steamboat.

Mr. Wyatt had seen that she had an escort when she took a carriage into the city to her bank. The boat she was to take was not constrained by the vagaries of the tide as they had been in Liverpool, but could leave whenever cargo and passengers were loaded, though the captain preferred to let most of those other boats leave first. Mr. Wyatt had almost jokingly told her that the boat would not leave without her, but he was being serious. He wouldn’t. She was aware that not many boats waited for tardy passengers but would leave without them.

He had spoken as much to the youth who was to be her escort as to her. He was telling him to waste no time before returning as he couldn’t be sure when his last passengers would come, but they would need to wait for them anyway, as they would be accompanying the cattle to where they were going.

That was when she had learned that her brother was meeting the boat there, but had not yet arrived, and that he was to accompany the cattle upriver. Her confrontation with him was about to take place much sooner than she had expected. It promised to be less of a comfortable journey than she had anticipated.

Another problem had arisen for her, however, when she had been to her bank in the city, and she would need to let Mr. Wyatt know of it. She had discovered that her bank account did not have the funds in it she had expected to find, and had relied upon. Indeed, it had nothing in it. Her brother would have some explaining to do. Mr. Soames, the banker, had told her that his name and that of her father had also been on that same account. She had not known that, but might have expected it. Her father was dead, or so it was believed, as his body had never been found, so it was her brother that had gradually removed all the money that she had assumed was hers and hers alone, over the last two years.

She did mention her financial difficulties to Wyatt once she returned to the boat, but he seemed almost to ignore her and told her not to worry about it, and that her passage was already paid for, before he moved on to deal with other last-minute issues. She could not understand it. She tried to protest that could not be right and wanted to know who had paid it, but he said nothing more as he trundled their bags across to the steamer. She would broach it with him later if he would let her.

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