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   Chapter 37 TILL HE SAID, 'I'M COME HAME, MY LOVE'

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 10327

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


How absurdly poor the chance! Yet they bade the old coachman turn that way, and indeed the facts were better than the hope of any one of them. Charlie, very gaunt and battered, but all the more enamored of himself therefor and for the new chevrons of a gun corporal on his dingy sleeve, was actually aboard that boat. In one of the small knots of passengers on her boiler deck he was modestly companioning with a captain of infantry and two of staff, while they now exchanged merry anecdotes of the awful retreat out of Tennessee into Mississippi, now grimly damned this or that bad strategy, futile destruction, or horrible suffering, now re-discussed the comical chances of a bet of General Brodnax's, still pending, and now, with the crowd, moved downstairs to the freight deck as the boat began to nose the wharf.

Meanwhile the Callenders' carriage had made easy speed. Emerging by the Free Market, it met an open hack carrying six men. At the moment every one was cringing in a squall of dust, but as well as could be seen these six were the driver, a colored servant at his side, an artillery corporal, and three officers. Some army wagons hauling pine-knots to the fire-fleet compelled both carriages to check up. Thereupon, the gust passing and Victorine getting a better glance at the men, she tossed both hands, gave a stifled cry and began to laugh aloud.

"Charlie!" cried Anna. "Steve!" cried Constance.

"And Captain Irby!" remarked Miranda.

The infantry captain, a transient steamboat acquaintance, used often afterward to say that he never saw anything prettier than those four wildly gladdened ladies unveiling in the shade of their parasols. I doubt if he ever did. He talked with Anna, who gave him so sweet an attention that he never suspected she was ravenously taking in every word the others dropped behind her.

"But where he is, that Captain Kincaid?" asked Victorine of Charlie a second time.

"Well, really," stammered the boy at last, "we--we can't say, just now, where he is."

("He's taken prisoner!" wailed Anna's heart while she let the infantry captain tell her that hacks, in Nashville on the Sunday after Donelson, were twenty-five dollars an hour.)

"He means," she heard Mandeville put in, "he means--Charlie--only that we muz not tell. 'Tis a sicret."

"You've sent him into the enemy's lines!" cried Constance to Irby in one of her intuitions.

"We?" responded the grave Irby, "No, not we."

"Captain Mandeville," exclaimed Victorine, "us, you don't need to tell us some white lies."

The Creole shrugged: "We are telling you only the whitess we can!"

("Yes," the infantry captain said, "with Memphis we should lose the largest factory of cartridges in the Confederacy.")

But this was no place for parleying. So while the man next the hack-driver, ordered by Mandeville and laden with travelling-bags, climbed to a seat by the Callenders' coachman the aide-de-camp crowded in between Constance and Victorine, the equipage turned from the remaining soldiers, and off the ladies spun for home, Anna and Miranda riding backward to have the returned warrior next his doting wife. Victorine was dropped on the way at the gate of her cottage. When the others reached the wide outer stair of their own veranda, and the coachman's companion had sprung down and opened the carriage, Mandeville was still telling of Mandeville, and no gentle hearer had found any chance to ask further about that missing one of whom the silentest was famishing to know whatever--good or evil--there was to tell. Was Steve avoiding their inquiries? wondered Anna.

Up the steps went first the married pair, the wife lost in the hero, the hero in himself. Was he, truly? thought Anna, or was he only trying, kindly, to appear so? The ever-smiling Miranda followed. A step within the house Mandeville, with eyes absurdly aflame, startled first his wife by clutching her arm, and then Miranda by beckoning them into a door at their right, past unheeded treasures of the Bazaar, and to a front window. Yet through its blinds they could discover only what they had just left; the carriage, with Anna still in it, the garden, the grove, an armed soldier on guard at the river gate, another at the foot of the steps, a third here at the top.

It was good to Anna to rest her head an instant on the cushioning behind it and close her eyes. With his rag of a hat on the ground and his head tightly wrapped in the familiar Madras kerchief of the slave deck-hand, the attendant at the carriage side reverently awaited the relifting of her lids. The old coachman glanced back on her.

"Missy?" he tenderly ventured. But the lids still drooped, though she rose.

"Watch out fo' de step," said the nearer man. His tone was even more musically gentle than the other's, yet her eyes instantly opened into his and she started so visibly that her foot half missed and she had to catch his saving hand.

"Stiddy! stiddy!" He slowly let the cold, slim fingers out of his as she started on, but she swayed again and he sprang and retook them. For half a breath she stared at him like a wild bird shot, glanced at the sentinels, belo

w, above, and then pressed up the stair.

Constance, behind the shutters, wept. "Go away," she pleaded to her husband, "oh, go away!" but pushed him without effect and peered down again. "He's won!" she exclaimed in soft ecstasy, "he's won at last!"

"Yes, he's win!" hoarsely whispered the aide-de-camp. "He's win the bet!"

Constance flashed indignantly: "What has he bet?"

"Bet. 'He has bet three-ee général' he'll pazz down Canal Street and through the middl' of the city, unreco'nize! And now he's done it, they'll let him do the rest!" From his Creole eyes the enthusiast blazed a complete argument, that an educated commander, so disguised and traversing an enemy's camp, can be worth a hundred of the common run who go by the hard name of spy, and may decide the fortunes of a whole campaign: "They'll let him! and he'll get the prom-otion!"

"Ho-oh!" breathed the two women, "he's getting all the promotion he wants, right now!" The three heard Anna pass into the front drawing-room across the hall, the carriage move off and the disguised man enter the hall and set down the travelling-bags. They stole away through the library and up a rear stair.

It was not yet late enough to set guards within the house. No soul was in the drawing-rooms. In the front one, on its big wheels between two stacks of bayoneted rifles, beneath a splendor of flags and surrounded by innumerable costly offerings, rested as mutely as a seated idol that superior engine of death and woe, the great brass gun. Anna stole to it, sunk on her knees, crossed her trembling arms about its neck and rested her brow on its face.

She heard the tread in the hall, quaked to rise and flee, and yet could not move. It came upon the threshold and paused. "Anna," said the voice that had set her heart on fire across the carriage step. She sprang up, faced round, clutched the great gun, and stood staring. Her follower was still in slave garb, but now for the first time he revealed his full stature. His black locks were free and the "Madras" dropped from his fingers to the floor. He advanced a pace or two.

"Anna," he said again, "Anna Callender,"--he came another step--"I've come back, Anna, to--to--" he drew a little nearer. She gripped the gun.

He lighted up drolly: "Don't you know what I've come for? I didn't know, myself, till just now, or I shouldn't have come in this rig, though many a better man's in worse these days. I didn't know--because--I couldn't hope. I've come--" he stole close--his arms began to lift--she straightened to her full height, but helplessly relaxed as he smiled down upon it.

"I've come not just to get your promise, Anna Callender, but to muster you in; to marry you."

She flinched behind the gun's muzzle in resentful affright. He lowered his palms in appeal to her wisdom. "It's the right thing, Anna, the only safe way! I've known it was, ever since Steve Mandeville's wedding. Oh! it takes a colossal assurance to talk to you so, Anna Callender, but I've got the colossal assurance. I've got that, beloved, and you've got all the rest--my heart--my soul--my life. Give me yours."

Anna had shrunk in against the farther wheel, but now rallied and moved a step forward. "Let me pass," she begged. "Give me a few moments to myself. You can wait here. I'll come back."

He made room. She moved by. But hardly had she passed when a soft word stopped her. She turned inquiringly and the next instant--Heaven only knows if first on his impulse or on hers--she was in his arms, half stifled on his breast, and hanging madly from his neck while his kisses fell upon her brow--temples--eyes--and rested on her lips.

Flora sat reading a note just come from that same "A.C." Her brother had gone to call on Victorine. Irby had just bade the reader good-by, to return soon and go with her to Callender House to see the Bazaar. Madame Valcour turned from a window with a tart inquiry:

"And all you had to do was to say yes to him?"

"That would have been much," absently replied the reader, turning a page.

"'Twould have been little!--to make him rich!--and us also!"

"Not us," said the abstracted girl; "me." Something in the missive caused her brows to knit.

"And still you trifle!" nagged the grandam, "while I starve! And while at any instant may arrive--humph--that other fool."

Even this did not draw the reader's glance. "No." she responded. "He cannot. Irby and Charlie lied to us. He is already here." She was re-reading.

The grandmother stared, tossed a hand and moved across the floor. As she passed near the girl's slippered foot it darted out, tripped her and would have sent her headlong, but she caught by the lamp table. Flora smiled with a strange whiteness round the lips. Madame righted the shaken lamp, quietly asking, "Did you do that--h-m-m--for hate of the lady, or, eh, the ladies' man?"

"The latter," said the reabsorbed girl.

"Strange," sighed the other, "how we can have--at the same time--for the same one--both feelings."

But Flora's ears were closed. "Well," she audibly mused, "he'll get a recall."

"Even if it must be forged?" twittered the dame.

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