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   Chapter 27 HARD GOING, UP STREAM

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 7957

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Very pleasant it was to stand thus on the tremulous deck of the swiftest craft in the whole Confederate service. Pleasant to see on either hand the flat landscape with all its signs of safety and plenty; its orange groves, its greening fields of young sugar-cane, its pillared and magnolia-shaded plantation houses, its white lines of slave cabins in rows of banana trees, and its wide wet plains swarming with wild birds; pleasant to see it swing slowly, majestically back and melt into a skyline as low and level as the ocean's.

Anna and Kincaid went inside to see the upper and more shining portions of the boat's beautiful machinery. No one had yet made rods, cranks, and gauge-dials sing anthems; but she knew it was Hilary and an artisan or two in his foundry whose audacity in the remaking of these gliding, plunging, turning, vanishing, and returning members had given them their fine new speed-making power, and as he stood at her side and pointed from part to part they took on a living charm that was reflected into him. Pleasant it was, also, to hear two or three droll tales about his battery boys; the personal traits, propensities, and soldierly value of many named by name, and the composite character and temper that distinguished the battery as a command; this specific quality of each particular organic unit, fighting body, among their troops being as needful for commanders to know as what to count on in the individual man. So explained the artillerist while the pair idled back to the open deck. With hidden vividness Anna liked the topic. Had not she a right, the right of a silent partner? A secret joy of the bond settled on her like dew on the marshes, as she stood at his side.

Hilary loved the theme. The lives of those boys were in his hands; at times to be hoarded, at times to be spent, in sudden awful junctures to be furiously squandered. He did not say this, but the thought was in both of them and drew them closer, though neither moved. The boat rounded to, her engines stopped, an officer came aboard from a skiff, and now she was under way again and speeding up stream on her return, but Hilary and Anna barely knew it. He began to talk of the boys' sweethearts. Of many of their tender affairs he was confidentially informed. Yes, to be frank, he confessed he had prompted some fellows to let their hearts lead them, and to pitch in and win while--

"Oh! certainly!" murmured Anna in compassion, "some of them."

"Yes," said their captain, "but they are chaps--like Charlie--whose hearts won't keep unless they're salted down and barrelled, and I give the advice not in the sweethearts' interest but--"

"Why not? Why shouldn't a--" The word hung back.

"A lover?"

"Yes. Why shouldn't he confess himself in her interest? That needn't pledge her."

"Oh! do you think that would be fair?"

"Perfectly!"

"Well, now--take an actual case. Do you think the mere fact that Adolphe truly and stick-to-it-ively loves Miss Flora gives her a right to know it?"

"I do, and to know it a long, long time before he can have any right to know whether--"

"Hum! while he goes where glory waits him--?"

"Yes."

"And lets time--?"

"Yes."

"And absence and distance and rumor try his unsupported constancy?"

"Yes."

With tight lips the soldier drew breath. "You know my uncle expects now to be sent to Virginia at once?"

"Yes."

"Adolphe, of course, goes with him."

"Yes."

"Yet you think--the great principle of so-much-for-so-much to the contrary notwithstanding--he really owes it to her to--"

Anna moved a step forward. She was thinking what a sweet babe she was, thus to accept the surface of things. How did she know that this laughing, light-spoken gallant, seemingly so open and artless--oh! more infantile than her very self!--was not deep and complex? Or that it was not he and Flora on whose case she was being lured to speculate? The boat, of whose large breathings and pulsings she became

growingly aware, offered no reply. Presently from the right shore, off before them, came a strain of band music out of Camp Callender.

"Anna."

"What hosts of stars!" said she. "How hoveringly they follow us."

The lover waited. The ship seemed to breathe deeper--to glide faster. He spoke again: "May I tell you a secret?"

"Doesn't the boat appear to you to tremble more than ever?" was the sole response.

"Yes, she's running up-stream. So am I. Anna, we're off this time--sure shot--with the General--to Virginia. The boys don't know it yet, but--listen."

Over in the unseen camp the strain was once more--

"I'd offer thee this hand of mine--"

"We're turning in to be landed, are we not?" asked Anna as the stars began to wheel.

"Yes. Do you really believe, Anna, that that song is not the true word for a true lover and true soldier, like Adolphe, for instance--to say to himself, of course, not to her?"

"Oh, Captain Kincaid, what does it matter?"

"Worlds to me. Anna, if I should turn that song into a solemn avowal--to you--"

"Please don't!--Oh, I mean--I don't mean--I--I mean--"

"Ah, I know your meaning. But if I love you, profoundly, abidingly, consumingly--as I do, Anna Callender, as I do!--and am glad to pledge my soul to you knowing perfectly that you have nothing to confess to me--"

"Oh, don't, Captain Kincaid, don't! You are not fair to me. You make me appear--oh--we were speaking only of your cousin's special case. I don't want your confession. I'm not ready for--for anybody's! You mustn't make it! You--you--"

"It's made, Anna Callender, and it makes me fair to you at last."

"Oh-h-h!"

"I know that matters little to you--"

"Oh, but you're farther from fair than ever, Captain Kincaid; you got my word for one thing and have used it for another!" She turned and they tardily followed their friends, bound for the gangway. A torch-basket of pine-knots blazing under the bow covered flood and land with crimson light and inky shadows. The engines had stopped. The boat swept the shore. A single stage-plank lay thrust half out from her forward quarter. A sailor stood on its free end with a coil of small line. The crouching earthwork and its fierce guns glided toward them. Knots of idle cannoneers stood along its crest. A few came down to the water's edge, to whom Anna and Hilary, still paired alone, were a compelling sight. They lifted their smart red caps. Charlie ventured a query: "It's true, Captain, isn't it, that Virginia's out?"

"I've not seen her," was the solemn reply, and his comrades tittered.

"Yes!" called Constance and Miranda, "she's out!"

"Miss Anna," murmured Hilary with a meekness it would have avenged Charlie to hear, "I've only given you the right you claim for every woman."

"Oh, Captain Kincaid, I didn't say every woman! I took particular--I--I mean I--"

"If it's any one's right it's yours."

"I don't want it!--I mean--I mean--"

"You mean, do you not? that I've no right to say what can only distress you."

"Do you think you have?--Oh, Lieutenant, it's been a perfectly lovely trip! I don't know when the stars have seemed so bright!"

"They're not like us dull men, Miss Callender," was the sailor's unlucky reply, "they can rise to any occasion a lady can make."

"Ladies don't make occasions, Lieutenant."

"Oh, don't they!" laughed the sea-dog to Hilary. But duty called. "No, no, Miss Val--! Don't try that plank alone! Captain Kincaid, will you give--? That's right, sir.... Now, Captain Irby, you and Miss Callender--steady!"

Seventh and last went the frail old lady, led by Kincaid. She would have none other. She kept his arm with definite design while all seven waved the departing vessel good-by. Then for the walk to the house she shared Irby with Anna and gave Flora to Hilary, with Miranda and Constance in front outmanoeuvred by a sleight of hand so fleeting and affable that even you or I would not have seen it.

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