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   Chapter 20 THE FIGHT FOR THE STANDARD

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 10421

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


His red képi in hand and with all the stalwart briskness of the flag-presentation's day and hour Hilary Kincaid stepped into the room and halted, as large-eyed as on that earlier occasion, and even more startled, before the small figure of Anna.

Yet not the very same Hilary Kincaid. So said her heart the instant glance met glance. The tarnish of hard use was on all his trappings; like sea-marshes on fire he was reddened and browned; about him hung palpably the sunshine and air of sands and waves, and all the stress and swing of wide designs; and on brow and cheek were new lines that looked old. From every point of his aspect the truth rushed home to her livelier, deadlier than ever hitherto, that there was War, and that he and she were already parts of it.

But the change was more than this. A second and quieter look, the hand-grasp lingering, showed something deeper; something that wove and tangled itself through and about all designs, toils, and vigils, and suddenly looking out of his eyes like a starved captive, cried, "you--you--" and prophesied that, whether they would or not, this war was to be his and hers together. A responding thrill must have run from her fingers into his and belied the unaccountable restraint of her welcome, for a joy shone from him which it took her ignoring smile and her hand's withdrawal to quench.

"Miss Anna--"

They sat down. His earlier boyishness came again somewhat, but only somewhat, as he dropped his elbows to his knees, looking now into his cap and now into her face. A glance behind her had assured Anna that there was no shadow on the screen, behind which sat Flora on the carpet, at graceful ease listening while she eagerly appraised the jewels in her hands and lap.

"Miss Anna," said the soldier again, "I've come--I've come to tell you something. It's mighty hard to tell. It's harder than I thought it would be. For, honestly, Miss Anna, you--from the first time I ever saw you, you--you--Were you going to speak?"

Behind the screen Flora smiled malignly while Anna said, "No, I--I was only--no, not at all; go on."

"Yes, Miss Anna, from the first time I--"

"When did you get back from Mobile?" asked Anna seeing he must be headed off.

"From Mobile? Just now, almost. You don't sup--"

"Oh! I hope"--she must head him off again--"I hope you bring good news?" There was risk in the question, but where was there safety? At her back the concealed listener waited keenly for the reply.

"Yes," said Hilary, "news the very best and hardly an hour old. Didn't you hear the battery cheering? That's what I've come to tell you. Though it's hard to tell, for I--"

"It's from Mobile, you say?"

"No, I can tell you the Mobile news first, but it's bad. Miss Flora's home--"

Anna gave a start and with a hand half upthrown said quietly, "Don't tell me. No, please, don't, I don't want to hear it. I can't explain, but I--I--" Tears wet her lashes, and her hands strove with each other. "I don't like bad news. You should have taken it straight to Flora. Oh, I wish you'd do that now, won't you--please?"

Behind the screen the hidden one stiffened where she crouched with fierce brow and fixed eyes.

Kincaid spoke: "Would you have me pass you by with my good news to go first to her with the bad?"

"Oh, Captain Kincaid, yes, yes! Do it yet. Go, do it now. And tell her the good news too!"

"Tell her the good first and then stab her with the bad?"

"Oh, tell her the bad first. Do her that honor. She has earned it. She'll bear the worst like the heroine she is--the heroine and patriot. She's bearing it so now!"

"What! she knows already?"

In her hiding Flora's intent face faintly smiled a malevolence that would have startled even the grandam who still killed time out among the roses with her juniors.

"Yes," replied Anna, "she knows already."

"Knows! Miss Anna--that her home is in ashes?"

Anna gave a wilder start: "Oh, no-o-oh! Oh, yes--oh, no--oh, yes, yes! Oh, Captain Kincaid, how could you? Oh, monstrous, monstrous!" She made all possible commotion to hide any sound that might betray Flora, who had sprung to her feet, panting.

"But, but, Miss Anna!" protested Hilary. "Why, Miss Anna--"

"Oh, Captain Kincaid, how could you?"

"Why, you don't for a moment imagine--?"

"Oh, it's done, it's done! Go, tell her. Go at once, Captain Kincaid. Please go at once, won't you?... Please!"

He had risen amazed. Whence such sudden horror, in this fair girl, of a thing known by her already before he came? And what was this beside? Horror in the voice yet love beaming from the eyes? He was torn with perplexity. "I'll go, of course," he said as if in a dream. "Of course I'll go at once, but--why--if Miss Flora already--?" Then suddenly he recovered himself in the way Anna knew so well. "Miss Anna"--he gestured with his cap, his eyes kindling with a strange mixture of worship and drollery though his brow grew darker--"I'm gone now!"

"In mercy, please go!"

"I'm gone, Miss Anna, I'm truly gone. I always am when I'm with you. Fred said it would be so. You scare the nonsense out of me, and when that goes I go--the bubble bursts! Miss Anna--oh, hear me--it's m

y last chance--I'll vanish in a moment. The fellows tell me I always know just what to say to any lady or to anything a lady says; but, on my soul, I don't think I've ever once known what to say to you or to anything you've ever said to me, and I don't know now, except that I must and will tell you--"

"That you did not order the torch set! Oh, say that!"

"No one ordered it. It was a senseless mistake. Some private soldiers who knew that my lines of survey passed through the house--"

"Ah-h! ah-h!"

"Miss Anna, what would you have? Such is war! Many's the Southern home must go down under the fire of--of Kincaid's Battery, Miss Anna, before this war is over, else we might as well bring you back your flag and guns. Shall we? We can't now, they're ordered to the front. There! I've got it out! That's my good news. Bad enough for mothers and sisters. Bad for the sister of Charlie Valcour. Good for you. So good and bad in one for me, and so hard to tell and say no more! Don't you know why?"

"Oh, I've no right to know--and you've no right--oh, indeed, you mustn't. It would be so unfair--to you. I can't tell you why, but it--it would be!"

"And it wouldn't be of--?"

"Any use? No, no!"

Torturing mystery! that with such words of doom she should yet blush piteously, beam passionately.

"Good-by, then. I go. But I go--under your flag, don't I? Under your flag! captain of your guns!"

"Ah--one word--wait! Oh, Captain Kincaid, right is right! Not half those guns are mine. That flag is not mine."

There was no quick reply. From her concealment Flora, sinking noiselessly again to the carpet, harkened without avail. The soldier--so newly and poignantly hurt that twice when he took breath he failed to speak--gazed on the disclaiming girl until for; very distress she broke the silence: "I--you--every flag of our cause--wherever our brave soldiers--"

"Oh, but Kincaid's Battery!--and that flag, Anna Callender! The flag you gave us! That sacred banner starts for Virginia to-morrow--goes into the war, it and your guns, with only this poor beggar and his boys to win it honor and glory. Will you deny us--who had it from your hands--your leave to call it yours? Oh, no, no! To me--to me you will not!"

For reply there came a light in Anna's face that shone into his heart and was meant so to shine, yet her dissent was prompt: "I must. I must. Oh, Capt--Captain Kincaid, I love that flag too well to let it go misnamed. It's the flag of all of us who made it, us hundred girls--"

"Hundred--yes, yes, true. But how? This very morning I chanced upon your secret--through little Victorine--that every stitch in all that flag's embroideries is yours."

"Yet, Captain Kincaid, it is the flag of all those hundred girls; and if to any one marching under it it is to be the flag of any one of us singly, that one can only be--you know!"

Majestically in her hiding-place the one implied lowered and lifted her head in frigid scorn and awaited the commander's answer.

"True again," he said, "true. Let the flag of my hundred boys be to all and each the flag of a hundred girls. Yet will it be also the flag of his heart's one choice--sister, wife, or sweetheart--to every man marching, fighting, or dying under it--and more are going to die under it than are ever coming back. To me, oh, to me, let it be yours. My tasks have spared me no time to earn of you what would be dearer than life, and all one with duty and honor. May I touch your hand? Oh, just to say good-by. But if ever I return--no, have no fear, I'll not say it now. Only--only--" he lifted the hand to his lips--"good-by. God's smile be on you in all that is to come."

"Good-by," came her answering murmur.

"And the flag?" he exclaimed. "The flag?" By the clink of his sabre Flora knew he was backing away. "Tell me--me alone--the word to perish with me if I perish--that to me as if alone"--the clinking came nearer again--"to me and for me and with your blessing"--again the sound drew away--"the flag--the flag I must court death under--is yours."

Silence. From out in the hall the lover sent back a last beseeching look, but no sound reached the hiding of the tense listener whose own heart's beating threatened to reveal her; no sound to say that now Anna had distressfully shaken her head, or that now her tears ran down, or that now in a mingled pain and rapture of confession she nodded--nodded! and yet imploringly waved him away.

It was easy to hear the door open and close. Faintly on this other hand the voices of the ladies returning from the garden foreran them. The soldier's tread was on the outer stair. Now theirs was in the rear veranda. With it tinkled their laughter. Out yonder hoofs galloped.

The hidden one stole forth. A book on a table was totally engaging the eyes of her hostess and at the instant grandma re?ntered laden with roses. Now all five were in, and Anna, pouring out words with every motion, and curiously eyed by Constance, took the flowers to give them a handier form, while Flora rallied her kinswoman on wasting their friends' morning these busy times, and no one inquired, and no one told, who had been here that now had vanished.

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