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Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 15537

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

At one end of a St. Charles Hotel parlor a group of natty officers stood lightly chatting while they covertly listened. At the other end, with Irby and Mandeville at his two elbows, General Brodnax conversed with Kincaid and Bartleson, the weather-faded red and gray of whose uniforms showed in odd contrast to the smartness all about them.

Now he gave their words a frowning attention, and now answered abruptly: "Humph! That looks tremendously modest in you, gentlemen,--what?... Well, then, in your whole command if it's their notion. But it's vanity at last, sirs, pure vanity. Kincaid's Battery 'doesn't want to parade its dinginess till it's done something'--pure vanity! 'Shortest way'--nonsense! The shortest way to the train isn't the point! The point is to make so inspiring a show of you as to shame the damned stay-at-homes!"

"You'll par-ade," broke in the flaming Mandeville. "worse' dress than presently, when you rit-urn conqueror'!" But that wearied the General more.

"Oh, hell," he mumbled. "Captain Kincaid, eh--" He led that officer alone to a window and spoke low: "About my girl, Hilary,--and me. I'd like to decide that matter before you show your heels. You, eh,--default, I suppose?"

"No, uncle, she does that. I do only the hopeless loving."

"The wha-at? Great Lord! You don't tell me you--?"

"Yes, I caved in last night; told her I loved her. Oh, I didn't do it just in this ashes-of-roses tone of voice, but"--the nephew smiled--the General scowled--"you should have seen me, uncle. You'd have thought it was Mandeville. I made a gorgeous botch of it."

"You don't mean she--?"

"Yes, sir, adjourned me sine die. Oh, it's no use to look at me." He laughed. "The calf's run over me. My fat's in the fire."

The General softly swore and continued his gaze. "I believe," he slowly said, "that's why you wanted to slink out of town the back way."

"Oh, no, it's not. Or at least--well, anyhow, uncle, now you can decide in favor of Adolphe."

The uncle swore so audibly that the staff heard and exchanged smiles: "I neither can nor will decide--for either of you--yet! You understand? I don't do it. Go, bring your battery."

The city was taken by surprise. Congo Square was void of soldiers before half Canal street's new red-white-and-red bunting could be thrown to the air. In column of fours--escort leading and the giant in the bearskin hat leading it--they came up Rampart street. On their right hardly did time suffice for boys to climb the trees that in four rows shaded its noisome canal; on their left not a second too many was there for the people to crowd the doorsteps, fill windows and garden gates, line the banquettes and silently gather breath and ardor while the escort moved by, before the moment was come in which to cheer and cheer and cheer, as with a hundred flashing sabres at shoulder the dismounted, heavy-knapsacked, camp-worn battery, Kincaid's Battery--you could read the name on the flag--Kincaid's Battery! came and came and passed. In Canal street and in St. Charles there showed a fierceness of pain in the cheers, and the march was by platoons. At the hotel General Brodnax and staff joined and led it--up St. Charles, around Tivoli Circle, and so at last into Calliope street.

Meantime far away and sadly belated, with the Valcours cunningly to blame and their confiding hostesses generously making light of it, up Love street hurried the Callenders' carriage. Up the way of Love and athwart the oddest tangle of streets in New Orleans,--Frenchmen and Casacalvo, Greatmen, History, Victory, Peace, Arts, Poet, Music, Bagatelle, Craps, and Mysterious--across Elysian Fields not too Elysian, past the green, high-fenced gardens of Esplanade and Rampart flecked red-white-and-red with the oleander, the magnolia, and the rose, spun the wheels, spanked the high-trotters. The sun was high and hot, shadows were scant and sharp, here a fence and there a wall were as blinding white as the towering fair-weather clouds, gowns were gauze and the parasols were six, for up beside the old coachman sat Victorine. She it was who first saw that Congo Square was empty and then that the crowds were gone from Canal street. It was she who first suggested Dryads street for a short cut and at Triton Walk was first to hear, on before, the music,--ah, those horn-bursting Dutchmen! could they never, never hit it right?--

"When other lips and other hearts

Their tale of love shall tell--"

and it was she who, as they crossed Calliope street, first espied the rear of the procession, in column of fours again, it was she who flashed tears of joy as they whirled into Erato street to overtake the van and she was first to alight at the station.

The General and his staff were just reaching it. Far down behind them shone the armed host. The march ceased, the music--"then you'll rememb'"--broke off short. The column rested. "Mon Dieu!" said even the Orleans Guards, "quel chaleur! Is it not a terrib', thad sun!" Hundreds of their blue képis, hundreds of gray shakos in the Confederate Guards, were lifted to wipe streaming necks and throats, while away down beyond our ladies' ken all the drummers of the double escort, forty by count, silently came back and moved in between the battery and its band to make the last music the very bravest. Was that Kincaid, the crowd asked, one of another; he of the thick black locks, tired cheek and brow, and eyes that danced now as he smiled and talked? "Phew! me, I shou'n' love to be tall like that, going to be shot at, no! ha, ha! But thad's no wonder they are call' the ladies' man batt'rie!"

"Hah! they are not call' so because him, but because themse'v's! Every one he is that, and they didn' got the name in Circus street neither, ha, ha!--although--Hello, Chahlie Valcour. Good-by, Chahlie. Don't ged shoot in the back--ha, ha!--"

A command! How eternally different from the voice of prattle. The crowd huddled back to either sidewalk, forced by the opening lines of the escort backed against it, till the long, shelled wagon-way gleamed white and bare. Oh, Heaven! oh, home! oh, love! oh, war! For hundreds, hundreds--beat Anna's heart--the awful hour had come, had come! She and her five companions could see clear down both bayonet-crested living walls--blue half the sun-tortured way, gray the other half--to where in red képis and with shimmering sabres, behind their tall captain, stretched the dense platoons and came and came, to the crash of horns, the boys, the boys, the dear, dear boys who with him, with him must go, must go!

"Don't cry, Connie dear," she whispered, though stubborn drops were salting her own lips, "it will make it harder for Steve."

"Harder!" moaned the doting bride, "you don't know him!"

"Oh, let any woman cry who can," laughed Flora, "I wish I could!" and verily spoke the truth. Anna meltingly pressed her hand but gave her no glance. All eyes, dry or wet, were fixed on the nearing mass, all ears drank the rising peal and roar of its horns and drums. How superbly rigorous its single, two-hundred-footed step. With what splendid rigidity the escorts' burnished lines walled in its oncome.

But suddenly there was a change. Whether it began in the music, which turned into a tune every Tom, Dick, and Harry now had by heart, or whether a moment before among the blue-caps or gray-shakos, neither Anna nor the crowd could tell. Some father in those side ranks lawlessly cried out to his red-capped boy as the passing lad brushed close against him, "Good-by, my son!" and as the son gave him only a sidelong glance he seized and shook the sabre arm, and all that long, bristling lane of bayonets went out of plumb, out of shape and order, and a thousand brass-buttoned throats s

houted good-by and hurrah. Shakos waved, shoulders were snatched and hugged, blue képis and red were knocked awry, beards were kissed and mad tears let flow. And still, with a rigor the superbest yet because the new tune was so perfect to march by, fell the unshaken tread of the cannoneers, and every onlooker laughed and wept and cheered as the brass rent out to the deafening drums, and the drums roared back to the piercing brass,--

De black-snake love' de blackbird' nes',

De baby love' his mamy's bres',

An' raggy-tag, aw spick-an'-span,

De ladies loves de ladies' man.

I loves to roll my eyes to de ladies!

I loves to sympathize wid de ladies!

As long as eveh I knows sugah f'om san'

I's bound to be a ladies' man.

So the black-hatted giant with the silver staff strode into the wide shed, the puffy-cheeked band reading their music and feeling for foothold as they followed, and just yonder behind them, in the middle of the white way, untouched by all those fathers, unhailed by any brother of his own, came Hilary Kincaid with all the battery at his neat heels, its files tightly serried but its platoons in open order, each flashing its sabres to a "present" on nearing the General and back to a "carry" when he was passed, and then lengthening into column of files to enter the blessed shade of the station.

In beside them surged a privileged throng of near kin, every one calling over every one's head, "Good-by!" "Good-by!" "Here's your mother, Johnnie!" and, "Here's your wife, Achille!" Midmost went the Callenders, the Valcours, and Victorine, willy-nilly, topsy-turvy, swept away, smothering, twisting, laughing, stumbling, staggering, yet saved alive by that man of the moment Mandeville, until half-way down the shed and the long box-car train they brought up on a pile of ordnance stores and clung like drift in a flood. And at every twist and stagger Anna said in her heart a speech she had been saying over and over ever since the start from Callender House; a poor commonplace speech that must be spoken though she perished for shame of it; that must be darted out just at the right last instant if such an instant Heaven would only send: "I take back what I said last night and I'm glad you spoke as you did!"

Here now the moment seemed at hand. For here was the officers' box-car and here with sword in sheath Kincaid also had stopped, in conference with the conductor, while his lieutenants marched the column on, now halted it along the train's full length, now faced it against the open cars and now gave final command to break ranks. In comic confusion the fellows clambered aboard stormed by their friends' fond laughter at the awkwardness of loaded knapsacks, and their retorting mirth drowned in a new flood of good-bys and adieus, fresh waving of hats and handkerchiefs, and made-over smiles from eyes that had wept themselves dry. The tear-dimmed Victorine called gay injunctions to her father, the undimmed Flora to her brother, and Anna laughed and laughed and waved hi all directions save one. There Mandeville had joined Kincaid and the conductor and amid the wide downpour and swirl of words and cries was debating with them whether it were safer to leave the shed slowly or swiftly; and there every now and then Anna's glance flitted near enough for Hilary to have caught it as easily as did Bartleson, Tracy, every lieutenant and sergeant of the command, busy as they were warning the throng back from the cars; yet by him it was never caught.

The debate had ended. He gave the conductor a dismissing nod that sent him, with a signalling hand thrown high, smartly away toward the locomotive. The universal clatter and flutter redoubled. The bell was sounding and Mandeville was hotly shaking hands with Flora, Miranda, all. The train stirred, groaned, crept, faltered, crept on--on--one's brain tingled to the cheers, and women were crying again.

Kincaid's eyes ran far and near in final summing up. The reluctant train gave a dogged joggle and jerk, hung back, dragged on, moved a trifle quicker; and still the only proof that he knew she was here--here within three steps of him--was the careful failure of those eyes ever to light on her. Oh, heart, heart, heart! would it be so to the very end and vanishment of all?

"I take back--I take--" was there going to be no chance to begin it? Was he grief blind? or was he scorn blind? No matter! what she had sown she would reap if she had to do it under the very thundercloud of his frown. All or any, the blame of estrangement should be his, not hers! Oh, Connie, Connie! Mandeville had clutched Constance and was kissing her on lips and head and cheeks. He wheeled, caught a hand from the nearest car, and sprang in. Kincaid stood alone. The conductor made him an eager sign. The wheels of the train clicked briskly. He glanced up and down it, then sprang to Miranda, seized her hand, cried "Good-by!" snatched Madame's, Flora's, Victorine's, Connie's,--"Good-by--Good-by!"--and came to Anna.

And did she instantly begin, "I take--?" Not at all! She gave her hand, both hands, but her lips stood helplessly apart. Flora, Madame, Victorine, Constance, Miranda, Charlie from a car's top, the three lieutenants, the battery's whole hundred, saw Hilary's gaze pour into hers, hers into his. Only the eyes of the tumultuous crowd still followed the train and its living freight. A woman darted to a car's open door and gleaned one last wild kiss. Two, ten, twenty others, while the conductor ran waving, ordering, thrusting them away, repeated the splendid theft, and who last of all and with a double booty but Constance! Anna beheld the action, though with eyes still captive. With captive eyes, and with lips now shut and now apart again as she vainly strove for speech, she saw still plainer his speech fail also. His hands tightened on hers, hers in his.

"Good-by!" they cried together and were dumb again; but in their mutual gaze--more vehement than their voices joined--louder than all the din about them--confession so answered worship that he snatched her to his breast; yet when he dared bend to lay a kiss upon her brow he failed once more, for she leaped and caught it on her lips.

Dishevelled, liberated, and burning with blushes, she watched the end of the train shrink away. On its last iron ladder the conductor swung aside to make room for Kincaid's stalwart spring. So! It gained one handhold, one foothold. But the foot slipped, the soldier's cap tumbled to the ground, and every onlooker drew a gasp. No, the conductor held him, and erect and secure, with bare locks ruffling in the wind of the train, he looked back, waved, and so passed from sight.

Archly, in fond Spanish, "How do you feel now?" asked Madame of her scintillant granddaughter as with their friends and the dissolving throng they moved to the carriage; and in the same tongue Flora, with a caressing smile, rejoined, "I feel like swinging you round by the hair."

Anna, inwardly frantic, chattered and laughed. "I don't know what possessed me!" she cried.

But Constance was all earnestness: "Nan, you did it for the Cause--the flag--the battery--anything but him personally. He knows it. Everybody saw that. Its very publicity--"

"Yes?" soothingly interposed Madame, "'t was a so verrie pewblic that--"

"Why, Flora," continued the well-meaning sister, "Steve says when he came back into Charleston from Fort Sumter the ladies--"

"Of course!" said Flora, sparkling afresh. "Even Steve understands that, grandma." Her foot was on a step of the carriage. A child plucked her flowing sleeve:

"Misses! Mom-a say'"--he pressed into her grasp something made of broadcloth, very red and golden--"here yo' husband's cap."

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