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   Chapter 29 A CASTAWAY ROSE

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 10281

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Gone to sleep the camp except its sentinels, and all Callender House save one soul. Not Miranda, not the Mandevilles, nor Madame Valcour, nor any domestic. Flora knew, though it was not Flora. In her slumbers she knew.

Two of the morning. Had the leader, the idol of Kincaid's Battery, failed in his endeavor? Anna, on her bed, half disrobed, but sleepless yet, still prayed he might not succeed. Just this one time, oh, Lord! this one time! With Thee are not all things possible? Canst Thou not so order all things that a day or two's delay of Kincaid's Battery need work no evil to the Cause nor any such rending to any heart as must be hers if Kincaid's Battery should go to-night? Softly the stair clock boomed three. She lifted her head and for a full three minutes harkened toward the camp. Still no sound there, thank God! She turned upon her pillow.

But--what! Could that be the clock again, and had she slumbered? "Three, four," murmured the clock. She slipped from her bed and stole to the window. Just above the low, dim parapet, without a twinkle, the morning star shone large, its slender, mile-long radiance shimmering on the gliding river. In all the scented landscape was yet no first stir of dawn, but only clearness enough to show the outlines of the camp ground. She stared. She stared again! Not a tent was standing. Oh! and oh! through what bugling, what rolling of drums and noise of hoofs, wheels, and riders had she lain oblivious at last? None, really; by order of the commanding general--on a private suggestion of Irby's, please notice, that the practice would be of value--camp had been struck in silence. But to her the sole fact in reach was that all its life was gone!

Sole fact? Gone? All gone? What was this long band of darkness where the gray road should be, in the dull shadow of the levee? Oh, God of mercy, it was the column! the whole of Kincaid's Battery, in the saddle and on the chests, waiting for the word to march! Ah, thou ladies' man! Thus to steal away! Is this your profound--abiding--consuming love? The whisper was only in her heart, but it had almost reached her lips, when she caught her breath, her whole form in a tremor. She clenched the window-frame, she clasped her heaving side.

For as though in reply, approaching from behind the house as if already the producer had nearly made its circuit, there sounded close under the balustrade the walking of a horse. God grant no other ear had noted it! Now just beneath the window it ceased. Hilary Kincaid! She could not see, but as sure as sight she knew. Her warrior, her knight, her emperor now at last, utterly and forever, she his, he hers, yet the last moment of opportunity flitting by and she here helpless to speak the one word of surrender and possession. Again she shrank and trembled. Something had dropped in at the window. There it lay, small and dark, on the floor. She snatched it up. Its scant tie of ribbon, her touch told her, was a bit of the one she had that other time thrown down to him, and the thing it tied and that looked so black in the dusk was a red, red rose.

She pressed it to her lips. With quaking fingers that only tangled the true-love knot and bled on the thorns, she stripped the ribbon off and lifted a hand high to cast it forth, but smote the sash and dropped the emblem at her own feet. In pain and fear she caught it up, straightened, and glanced to her door, the knot in one hand, the rose in the other, and her lips apart. For at some unknown moment the door had opened, and in it stood Flora Valcour.

Furtively into a corner fluttered rose and ribbon while the emptied hands extended a counterfeit welcome and beckoned the visitor's aid to close the window. As the broad sash came down, Anna's heart, in final despair, sunk like lead, or like the despairing heart of her disowned lover in the garden, Flora's heart the meantime rising like a recovered kite. They moved from the window with their four hands joined, the dejected girl dissembling elation, the elated one dejection.

"I don't see," twittered Anna, "how I should have closed it! How chilly it gets toward--"

"Ah!" tremulously assented the subtler one. "And such a dream! I was oblige' to escape to you!"

"And did just right!" whispered and beamed poor Anna. "What did you dream, dear?"

"I dremp the battery was going! and going to a battle! and with the res' my brother! And now--"

"Now it's but a dream!" said her comforter.

"Anna!" the dreamer flashed a joy that seemed almost fierce. She fondly pressed the hands she held and drew their owner toward the ill-used rose. "Dearest, behold me! a thief, yet innocent!"

Anna smiled fondly, but her heart had stopped, her feet moved haltingly. A mask of self-censure poorly veiled Flora's joy, yet such as it was it was needed. Up from the garden, barely audible to ears straining for it, yet surging through those two minds like a stifling smoke, sounded the tread of the departing horseman.

"Yes," murmured Anna, hoping to drown the footfall, and with a double meaning though with sincere tenderness, "you are stealing now, not meaning to."

"Now?" whispered the other, "how can that be?" though she knew. "Ah, if I could steal now your heart al-so! But I've stolen, I fear, only--your--confidenze!" Between the words she loosed one hand, stooped and lifted the flower. Each tried to press it to the other's bosom, but it was Anna who yielded.

"I'd make you take it," she protested as Flora pinned it on, "if I hadn't thrown it away."

"Dearest," cooed the other, "that would make me a thief ag-ain, and this time guilty."

"Can't I give a castaway rose to whom I please?"

"Not this one. Ah, sweet, a thousand thousand pardon!"--the speaker bent to her hearer's ear--"I saw you when you kiss' it--and before."

Anna's face went into her hands, and face and hands to Flora's shoulder; but in the next breath she clutched the shoulder and threw up her head, while the far strain of a bugle faintly called, "Head of column to the right."

The cadence died. "Flora! your dream is true and that's the battery! It's going, Flora. It's gone! Your brother's gone! Your brother, Flora, your brother! Charlie! he's gone." So crying Anna sprang to the window and with unconscious ease threw it up.

The pair stood in it. With a bound like the girl's own, clear day had come. Palely the river purpled and silvered. No sound was anywhere, no human sign on vacant camp ground, levee, or highroad. "Ah!"--Flora made a well pretended gesture of discovery and distress--"'tis true! That bugl' muz' have meant us good-by."

"Oh, then it was cruel!" exclaimed Anna. "To you, dear, cruel to you to steal off in that way. Run! dress for the carriage!"

Flora played at hesitation: "Ah, love, if perchanze that bugl' was to call you?"

"My dear! how could even he--the 'ladies' man,' ha, ha!--imagine any true woman would come to the call of a bugle? Go! while I order the carriage."

They had left the window. The hostess lifted her hand toward a bell-cord but the visitor stayed it, absently staring while letting herself be pressed toward the door, thrilled with a longing as wild as Anna's and for the same sight, yet cunningly pondering. Nay, waiting, rather, on instinct, which the next instant told her that Anna would inevitably go herself, no matter who stayed.

"You'll come al-long too?" she pleadingly asked.

"No, dear, I cannot! Your grandmother will, of course, and Miranda." The bell-cord was pulled.

"Anna, you must go, else me, I will not!"

"Ah, how can I? Dear, dear, you're wasting such golden moments! Well, I'll go with you! Only make haste while I call the others--stop!" Their arms fell lightly about each other's neck. "You'll never tell on me?... Not even to Miranda?... Nor h-his--his uncle?... Nor"--the petitioner pressed closer with brightening eyes--"nor his--cousin?"

Softly Flora's face went into her hands, and face and hands to Anna's shoulder, as neat a reduplication as ever was. But suddenly there were hoof-beats again. Yes, coming at an easy gallop. Now they trotted through the front gate. The eyes of the two stared. "A courier," whispered Anna, "to Captain Mandeville!" though all her soul hoped differently.

Only a courier it was. So said the maid who came in reply to the late ring, but received no command. The two girls, shut in together, Anna losing moments more golden than ever, heard the rider at the veranda steps accost the old coachman and so soon after greet Mandeville that it was plain the captain had already been up and dressing.

"It's Charlie!" breathed Anna, and Flora nodded.

Now Charlie trotted off again, and now galloped beyond hearing, while Mandeville's booted tread reascended to his wife's room. And now came Constance: "Nan, where on earth is Fl--? Oh, of course! News, Nan! Good news, Flora! The battery, you know--?"

"Yes," said Anna, with her dryest smile, "it's sneaked off in the dark."

"Nan, you're mean! It's marching up-town now, Flora. At least the guns and caissons are, so as to be got onto the train at once. And oh, girls, those poor, dear boys! the train--from end to end it's to be nothing but a freight train!"

"Hoh!" laughed the heartless Anna, "that's better than staying here."

The sister put out her chin and turned again to Flora. "But just now," she said, "the main command are to wait and rest in Congo Square, and about ten o'clock they're to be joined by all the companies of the Chasseurs that haven't gone to Pensacola and by the whole regiment of the Orleans Guards, as an escort of honor, and march in that way to the depot, led by General Brodnax and his staff--and Steve! And every one who wants to bid them good-by must do it there. Of course there'll be a perfect jam, and so Miranda's ordering breakfast at seven and the carriage at eight, and Steve--he didn't tell even me last night because--" Her words stuck in her throat, her tears glistened, she gnawed her lips. Anna laid tender hands on her.

"Why, what, Connie, dear?"

"St--Ste--Steve--"

"Is Steve going with them to Virginia?"

The face of Constance went into her hands, and face and hands to Anna's shoulder. Meditatively smiling, Flora slipped away to dress.

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