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   Chapter 33 LETTERS

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 9478

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Hardly any part of this picture had come to Anna from Hilary himself.

Yes, they were in correspondence--after a fashion. That signified nothing, she would have had you understand; so were Charlie and Victorine, so were--oh!--every girl wrote to somebody at the front; one could not do less and be a patriot. Some girl patriots had a dozen on their list. Some lads had a dozen on theirs.

Ah, me! those swan-white, sky-blue, rose-pink maidens who in every town and on every plantation from Memphis to Charleston, from Richmond to New Orleans, despatched their billets by the forlornly precarious post only when they could not send them by the "urbanity" of such or such a one! Could you have contrasted with them the homeless, shelterless, pencil-borrowing, elbow-scratching, musty, fusty tatterdemalions who stretched out on the turfless ground beside their mess fires to extort or answer those cautious or incautious missives, or who for the fortieth time drew them from hiding to reread into their guarded or unguarded lines meanings never dreamed by their writers, you could not have laughed without a feeling of tears, or felt the tears without smiling. Many a chap's epistle was scrawled, many a one even rhymed, in a rifle-pit with the enemy's shells bursting over. Many a one was feebly dictated to some blessed, unskilled volunteer nurse in a barn or smoke-house or in some cannon-shattered church. From the like of that who with a woman's heart could withhold reply? Yes, Anna and Hilary were in correspondence.

So were Flora and Irby. So were Hilary and Flora. Was not Flora Anna's particular friend and Hilary's "pilot"? She had accepted the office on condition that, in his own heart's interest, their dear Anna should not know of it.

"The better part of life"--she wrote--"is it not made up of such loving concealments?"

And as he read the words in his tent he smilingly thought, "That looks true even if it isn't!"

Her letters were much more frequent than Anna's and always told of Anna fondly, often with sweet praises--not so sweet to him--of her impartial graciousness to her semicircle of brass-buttoned worshippers. Lately Flora had mentioned Greenleaf in a modified way especially disturbing.

If Anna could have made any one a full confidante such might have been Flora, but to do so was not in her nature. She could trust without stint. Distrust, as we know, was intolerable to her. She could not doubt her friends, but neither could she unveil her soul. Nevertheless, more than once, as the two exchanged--in a purely academical way--their criticisms of life, some query raised by Anna showed just what had been passing between her and Hilary and enabled Flora to keep them steered apart.

No hard task, the times being so highly calculated to make the course of true love a "hard road to travel," as the singing soldier boys called "Jordan." Letters, at any time, are sufficiently promotive of misunderstandings, but in the Confederacy they drifted from camp to camp, from pocket to pocket, like letters in bottles committed to the sea. The times being such, I say, and Hilary and Anna as they were: he a winner of men, yes! but by nature, not art; to men and women equally, a grown up, barely grown up, boy. That is why women could afford to like him so frankly. The art of courtship--of men or women--was not in him. Otherwise the battery--every gun of which, they say, counted for two as long as he was by--must have lost him through promotion before that first year was half out. The moment he became a conscious suitor, to man or woman, even by proxy, his power went from him; from pen, from tongue, from countenance. And Anna--I may have shown the fact awkwardly, but certainly you see--Anna was incurably difficult.

Too much else awaits our telling to allow here a recital of their hearts' war while love--and love's foes--hid in winter quarters, as it were. That is to say, from the season of that mad kiss which she had never forgiven herself (much less repented), to the day of Beauregard's appeal, early in '62, to all the plantations and churches in Dixie's Land to give him their bells, bells, bells--every bit of bronze or brass they could rake up or break off--to be cast into cannon; and to his own Louisiana in particular to send him, hot speed, five thousand more men to help him and Albert Sidney Johnston drive Buel and Grant out of Tennessee.

Before the battery had got half way to Virginia Hilary had written back to Anna his inevitable rhapsody over that amazing performance of hers, taking it as patent and seal of her final, utter, absolute self-bestowal. And indeed this it might have turned out to be had he but approached it by a discreet circuit through the s

implest feminine essentials of negative make-believe. But to spring out upon it in that straightforward manner--! From May to February her answer to this was the only prompt reply he ever received from her. It crowds our story backward for a moment, for it came on one of those early Peninsula days previous to Manassas, happening, oddly, to reach him--by the hand of Villeneuve--as he stood, mounted, behind the battery, under a smart skirmish fire. With a heart leaping in joyous assurance he opened the small missive and bent his eyes upon its first lines.

As he did so a hostile shell, first that had ever come so near, burst just in front of his guns. A big lump of metal struck one of them on the chase, glanced, clipped off half the low top of his forage-cap and struck in the trunk of an oak behind him, and as his good horse flinched and quivered he looked unwillingly from the page toward a puff of white smoke on a distant hill, and with a broad smile said--a mere nonsense word; but the humor of such things has an absurd valuation and persistency in camps, and for months afterward, "Ah-r?--indeed!" was the battery's gay response to every startling sound. He had luck in catchwords, this Hilary. He fought the scrimmage through with those unread pages folded slim between a thumb and forefinger, often using them to point out things, and when after it he had reopened them and read them through--and through again--to their dizzying close, the battery surgeon came murmuring privately--

"Cap, what's wrong; bad news?"

"Oh!" said Hilary, looking up from a third reading, "what, this? No-o! nothing wrong in this. I was wrong. I'm all right now."

"No, you're not, Captain. You come along now and lie down. The windage of that chunk of iron has--"

"Why, Doc, I shouldn't wonder! If you'll just keep everybody away from me awhile, yourself included, I will lie down," said the unnerved commander, and presently, alone and supine, softly asked himself with grim humor, "Which chunk of iron?"

The actual text of Anna's chunk was never divulged, even to Flora. We do not need it. Neither did Flora. One of its later effects was to give the slender correspondence which crawled after it much more historical value to the battery and the battery's beloved home city than otherwise it might have had. From Virginia it told spiritedly of men, policies, and movements; sketched cabinet officers, the president, and the great leaders and subleaders in the field--Stuart, Gordon, Fitzhugh Lee. It gave droll, picturesque accounts of the artillerist's daily life; of the hard, scant fare and the lucky feast now and then on a rabbit or a squirrel, turtles' eggs, or wild strawberries. It depicted moonlight rides to dance with Shenandoah girls; the playing of camp charades; and the singing of war, home, and love songs around the late camp fire, timed to the antic banjo or the sentimental guitar. Drolly, yet with tenderness for others, it portrayed mountain storm, valley freshet, and heart-breaking night marches beside tottering guns in the straining, sucking, leaden-heavy, red clay, and then, raptly, the glories of sunrise and sunset over the contours of the Blue Ridge. And it explained the countless things which happily enable a commander to keep himself as busy as a mud-dauber, however idle the camp or however torn his own heart.

From Anna's side came such stories as that of a flag presentation to the Sumter, wherein she had taken some minor part; of seeing that slim terror glide down by Callender House for a safe escape through the blockading fleet to the high seas and a world-wide fame; of Flora's towboat privateer sending in one large but empty prize whose sale did not pay expenses, and then being itself captured by the blockaders; of "Hamlet" given by amateurs at the St. Charles Theatre; of great distress among the poor, all sorts of gayeties for their benefit, bad money, bad management, a grand concert for the army in Arkansas, women in mourning as numerous as men in uniform, and both men and women breaking down in body and mind under the universal strain.

Historically valuable, you see. Yet through all this impersonal interchange love shone out to love like lamplight through the blinds of two opposite closed windows, and every heart-hiding letter bore enough interlinear revealment of mind and character to keep mutual admiration glowing and growing. We might very justly fancy either correspondent saying at any time in those ten months to impatient or compassionate Cupid what Hilary is reported to have said on one of the greatest days between Manassas and Shiloh, in the midst of a two-sided carnage: "Yes, General, hard hit, but please don't put us out of action."

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