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   Chapter 19 FLORA ROMANCES

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 9590

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


"Dearest," warily exclaimed the Creole beauty, with a sudden excess of her pretty accent, "I am in a situation perfectly dreadful!"

Anna drew her to a sofa, seeing pictures of her and Hilary together, and tortured with a belief in their exquisite fitness to be so. "Can I help you, dear?" she asked, though the question echoed mockingly within her.

"Ah, no, except with advice," said Flora, "only with advice!"

"Ho-o-oh! if I were worthy to advise you it wouldn't flatter me so to be asked."

"But I muz' ask. 'Tis only with you that I know my secret will be--to everybody--and forever--at the bed of the ocean. You can anyhow promise me that."

"Yes, I can anyhow promise you that."

"Then," said Flora, "let me speak whiles--" She dropped her face into her hands, lifted it again and stared into her listener's eyes so piteously that through Anna ran another cry--"He has not asked! No girl alive could look so if he had asked her!"

Flora seemed to nerve herself: "Anna, every dollar we had, every picayune we could raise, grandma and I, even on our Mobile house and our few best jewels, is--is--"

"Oh, what--what? Not lost? Not--not stolen?"

"Blown up! Blown up with that poor old man in the powder-mill!"

"Flora, Flora!" was all Anna, in the shame of her rebuked conjectures, could cry, and all she might have cried had she known the very truth: That every dollar, picayune, and other resource had disappeared gradually in the grist-mill of daily need and indulgence, and never one of them been near the powder-mill, the poor old man or any of his devices.

"His theories were so convincing," sighed Flora.

"And you felt so pitiful for him," prompted Anna.

"Grandma did; and I was so ambitious to do some great patriotic service--like yours, you Callenders, in giving those cannon--and--"

"Oh, but you went too far!"

"Ah, if we had only gone no farther!"

"You went farther? How could you?"

"Grandma did. You know, dear, how suddenly Captain Kincaid had to leave for Mobile--by night?"

"Yes," murmured Anna, with great emphasis in her private mind.

"Well, jus' at the las' he gave Charlie a small bag of gold, hundreds of dollars, for--for--me to keep for him till his return. Anna! I was offended."

"Oh, but surely he meant no--"

"Ah, my dear, did I ever give him the very least right to pick me out in that manner? No. Except in that one pretty way he has with all of us--and which you know so well--"

An uncourageous faint smile seemed the safest response.

"Yes," said Flora, "you know it. And I had never allowed myself--"

With eyes down the two girls sat silent. Then the further word came absently, "I refused to touch his money," and there was another stillness.

"Dear," slowly said Anna, "I don't believe it was his. It would not have been in gold. Some men of the battery were here last evening--You know the Abolition schoolmistress who was sent North that day?"

"Yes, I know, 'twas hers."

"Well, dear, if she could entrust it to him--"

"Ah! she had a sort of right, being, as the whole battery knows, in love with him"--the beauty swept a finger across her perfect brows--"up to there! For that I don't know is he to blame. If a girl has no more sense--"

"No," murmured Anna as the cruel shaft went through her. "What did Charlie do with the money?"

Flora tossed a despairing hand: "Gave it to grandma! And poor innocent grandma lent it to the old gentleman! 'Twas to do wonders for the powder and gun, and be return' in three days. But the next--"

"I see," sighed Anna, "I see!"

"Yes, next day 'twas Sunday, and whiles I was kneeling in the church the powder, the gun, the old man and the money--Oh, Anna, what shall I do?"

"My dear, I will tell you," began Anna, but the seeker of advice was not quite ready for it.

"We have a few paltry things, of course," she spoke on, "but barely would they pay half. They would neither save our honor, neither leave us anything for rent or bread! Our house, to be sure, is worth more than we have borrowed on it, but in the meantime--"

"In the meantime, dear, you shall--" But still Flora persisted:

"Any day, any hour, Captain Kincaid may return. Oh, if 'twere anybody in this worl' but him! For, Anna, I must take all the blame--all!" The face went again into the hands.

"My dear, you shall take none. You shall hand him every dollar, every picayune, on sight."

"Ah, how is that possible? Oh, no, no, no. Use your money? Never, never, never!"

"It isn't money, Flora. And no one shall ever know. I've got some old family jewellery--"

"Family--Oh, sweet, for shame!"

"No shame whatever. There's a great lot of it--kinds that will never be worn again. Let me--" The speaker rose.

"No, no, no! No, Anna, no! For Heaven's

sake--"

"Just a piece or two," insisted Anna. "Barely enough to borrow the amount." She backed away, Flora clinging to her fingers and faltering: "No, blessed angel, you must not! No, I will not wait. I'll--I'll--"

But Anna kissed the clinging hands and vanished.

A high elation bore her quite to her room and remained with her until she had unlocked the mass of old jewels and knelt before them. But then all at once it left her. She laid her folded hands upon them, bent her brow to the hands, then lifted brow and weeping eyes and whispered to Heaven for mercy.

"Oh"--a name she could not speak even there went through her heart in two big throbs--"if only we had never met! I never set so much as a smile to snare you, you who have snared me. Can Connie be right? Have you felt my thraldom, and are you trying to throw me off? Then I must help you do it. Though I covet your love more than life I will not tether it. Oh, it's because I so covet that I will not tether it! With the last gem from my own throat will I rather help you go free if you want to go. God of mercy, what else can I do!"

In grave exultancy Flora moved up and down the drawing-room enjoying her tread on its rich carpet. She would have liked to flit back to the side of yonder great chimney breast, the spot where she had been surprised while sounding the panel work, but this was no time for postponable risks. She halted to regale her critical eye on the goodly needlework of a folding-screen whose joints, she noticed, could not be peered through, and in a pretty, bird-like way stole a glance behind it. Nothing there. She stepped to a front window and stood toying with the perfect round of her silken belt. How slimly neat it was. Yet beneath the draperies it so trimly confined lay hid, in a few notes of "city money," the proceeds of the gold she had just reported blown into thin air with the old inventor--who had never seen a glimmer of it. Not quite the full amount was there; it had been sadly nibbled. But now by dear Anna's goodness (ahem!) the shortage could be restored, the entire hundreds handed back to Captain Kincaid, and a snug sum be retained "for rent and bread." Yet after all--as long as good stories came easy--why hand anything back--to anybody--even to--him?

He! In her heart desire and odium beat strangely together. Fine as martial music he was, yet gallingly out of her rhythm, above her key. Liked her much, too. Yes, for charms she had; any fool could be liked that way. What she craved was to be liked for charms she had not, graces she scorned; and because she could not be sure how much of that sort she was winning she tingled with heat against him--and against Anna--Anna giver of guns--who had the money to give guns--till her bosom rose and fell. But suddenly her musing ceased, her eyes shone.

A mounted officer galloped into the driveway, a private soldier followed, and the private was her brother. Now they came close. The leader dismounted, passed his rein to Charlie and sprang up the veranda steps. Flora shrank softly from the window and at the same moment Anna re?ntered gayly, showing a glitter of values twice all expectation:

"If these are not enough--" She halted with lips apart. Flora had made sign toward the front door, and now with a moan of fond protest covered the gem-laden hand in both her palms and pushed it from her.

"Take them back," she whispered, yet held it fast, "'tis too late! There--the door-bell! 'Tis Hilary Kincaid! All is too late, take them back!"

"Take them, you!" as vehemently whispered Anna. "You must take them! You must, you shall!"

Flora had half started to fly, but while she hung upon Anna's words she let her palms slip under the bestowing hand and the treasure slide into her own fingers.

"Too late, too late! And oh, I can never, never use them any'ow!" She sprang noiselessly aside. To a maid who came down the hall Anna quietly motioned to show the newcomer into an opposite room, but Flora saw that the sign was misinterpreted: "She didn't understan'! Anna, she's going to bring him!" Before the words were done the speaker's lithe form was gliding down the room toward the door by which the other ladies had gone out, but as she reached it she turned with a hand-toss as of some despairing afterthought and flitted back.

Out in the hall the front door opened and closed and a sabre clinked: "Is Miss Callender at home?"

Before the question was half put its unsuspected hearers had recovered a faultless poise. Beside a table that bore her roses she whom the inquirer sought stood retouching them and reflecting a faint excess of their tint, while Flora, in a grave joy of the theatrical, equal to her companion's distress of it, floated from view behind the silken screen.

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