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   Chapter 26 SWIFT GOING, DOWN STREAM

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 7918

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Strangely slow travelled news in '61. After thirty hours' bombardment Fort Sumter had fallen before any person in New Orleans was sure the attack had been made. When five days later a yet more stupendous though quieter thing occurred, the tidings reached Kincaid's Battery only on the afternoon of the next one in fair time to be read at the close of dress parade. But then what shoutings! The wondering Callenders were just starting for a drive up-town. At the grove gate their horses were frightened out of all propriety by an opening peal, down in the camp, from "Roaring Betsy." And listen!

The black driver drew in. From Jackson Square came distant thunders and across the great bend of the river they could see the white puff of each discharge. What could it mean?

"Oh, Nan, the Abolitionists must have sued for peace!" exclaimed the sister.

"No-no!" cried Miranda. "Hark!"

Behind them the battery band had begun--

"O, carry me back to old Vir--"

"Virginia!" sang the three. "Virginia is out! Oh, Virginia is out!" They clapped their mitted hands and squeezed each other's and laughed with tears and told the coachman and said it over and over.

In Canal Street lo! it was true. Across the Neutral Ground they saw a strange sight; General Brodnax bareheaded! bareheaded yet in splendid uniform, riding quietly through the crowd in a brilliantly mounted group that included Irby and Kincaid, while everybody told everybody, with admiring laughter, how the old Virginian, dining at the St. Charles Hotel, had sallied into the street cheering, whooping, and weeping, thrown his beautiful cap into the air, jumped on it as it fell, and kicked it before him up to one corner and down again to the other. Now he and his cavalcade came round the Clay statue and passed the carriage saluting. What glory was in their eyes! How could our trio help but wave or the crowd hold back its cheers!

Up at Odd Fellows' Hall a large company was organizing a great military fair. There the Callenders were awaited by Flora and Madame, thither they came, and there reappeared the General and his train. There, too, things had been so admirably cut and dried that in a few minutes the workers were sorted and busy all over the hall like classes in a Sunday-school.

The Callenders, Valcours, and Victorine were a committee by themselves and could meet at Callender House. So when Kincaid and Irby introduced a naval lieutenant whose amazingly swift despatch-boat was bound on a short errand a bend or so below English Turn, it was agreed with him in a twinkling--a few twinklings, mainly Miranda's--to dismiss horses, take the trip, and on the return be set ashore at Camp Callender by early moonlight.

They went aboard at the head of Canal Street. The river was at a fair stage, yet how few craft were at either long landing, "upper" or "lower," where so lately there had been scant room for their crowding prows. How few drays and floats came and went on the white, shell-paved levees! How little freight was to be seen except what lay vainly begging for export--sugar, molasses, rice; not even much cotton; it had gone to the yards and presses. That natty regiment, the Orleans Guards, was drilling (in French, superbly) on the smooth, empty ground where both to Anna's and to Flora's silent notice all the up-river foodstuffs--corn, bacon, pork, meal, flour--were so staringly absent, while down in yonder streets their lack was beginning to be felt by a hundred and twenty-five thousand consumers.

Backing out into mid-stream brought them near an anchored steamer lately razeed and now being fitted for a cloud of canvas on three lofty masts instead of the two small sticks she had been content with while she brought plantains, guava jelly, coffee, and cigars from Havana. The Sumter she was to be, and was designed to deliver some of the many agile counter-thrusts we should have to make against that "blockade" for which the Yankee fri

gates were already hovering off Ship Island. So said the Lieutenant, but Constance explained to him (Captain Mandeville having explained to her) what a farce that blockade was going to be.

How good were these long breaths of air off the sea marshes, enlivened by the speed of the craft! But how unpopulous the harbor! What a crowd of steamboats were laid up along the "Algiers" shore, and of Morgan's Texas steamers, that huddled, with boilers cold, under Slaughter-House Point, while all the dry-docks stood empty. How bare the ship wharves; hardly a score of vessels along the miles of city front. About as many more, the lieutenant said, were at the river's mouth waiting to put to sea, but the towboats were all up here being turned into gunboats or awaiting letters of marque and reprisal in order to nab those very ships the moment they should reach good salt water. Constance and Miranda tingled to tell him of their brave Flora's investment, but dared not, it was such a secret!

On a quarter of the deck where they stood alone, what a striking pair were Flora and Irby as side by side they faced the ruffling air, softly discussing matters alien to the gliding scene and giving it only a dissimulative show of attention. Now with her parasol he pointed to the sunlight in the tree tops of a river grove where it gilded the windows of the Ursulines' Convent.

"Hum!" playfully murmured Kincaid to Anna, "he motions as naturally as if that was what they were talking about."

"It's a lovely picture," argued Anna.

"Miss Anna, when a fellow's trying to read the book of his fate he doesn't care for the pictures."

"How do you know that's what he's doing?"

"He's always doing it!" laughed Hilary.

The word was truer than he meant. The Irby-value of things was all that ever seriously engaged the ever serious cousin. Just now his eyes had left the shore, where Flora's lingered, and he was speaking of Kincaid. "I see," he said, "what you think: that although no one of these things--uncle Brodnax's nonsense, Greenleaf's claims, Hilary's own preaching against--against, eh--"

"Making brides to-day and widows to-morrow?"

"Yes, that while none of these is large enough in his view to stop him by itself, yet combined they--"

"All working together they do it," said the girl. Really she had no such belief, but Irby's poor wits were so nearly useless to her that she found amusement in misleading them.

"Hilary tells me they do," he replied, "but the more he says it the less I believe him. Miss Flora, the fate of all my uncle holds dear is hanging by a thread, a spider's web, a young girl's freak! If ever she gives him a certain turn of the hand, the right glance of her eye, he'll be at her feet and every hope I cherish--"

"Captain Irby," Flora softly asked with her tinge of accent, "is not this the third time?"

"Yes, if you mean again that--"

"That Anna, she is my dear, dear frien'! The fate of nothing, of nobody, not even of me--or of--you--" she let that pronoun catch in her throat--"can make me to do anything--oh! or even to wish anything--not the very, very best for her!"

"Yet I thought it was our understanding--"

"Captain: There is bitwin us no understanding excep'"--the voice grew tender--"that there is no understanding bitwin us." But she let her eyes so meltingly avow the very partnership her words denied, that Irby felt himself the richest, in understandings, of all men alive.

"What is that they are looking?" asked his idol, watching Anna and Hilary. The old battle ground had been passed. Anna, gazing back toward its townward edge, was shading her eyes from the burnished water, and Hilary was helping her make out the earthwork from behind which peered the tents of Kincaid's Battery while beyond both crouched low against the bright west the trees and roof of Callender House--as straight in line from here, Flora took note, as any shot or shell might ever fly.

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