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   Chapter 45 STEVE--MAXIME--CHARLIE--

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 13542

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


There was no real choice. Nothing seemed quite rational but the heaviest task of all--to wait, and to wait right here at home.

To this queenly city must come first and fullest all news of her own sons, and here the "five" would not themselves be "missing" should better tidings--or worse--come seeking them over the wires.

"At the front?" replied Doctor Sevier to Anna, "why, at the front you'll be kept in the rear, lost in a storm of false rumors."

General Brodnax, in a letter rife with fatherly romantic tenderness and with splendid praise of Hilary as foremost in the glorious feat which had saved old "Roaring Betsy" but lost (or mislaid) him and his three comrades, also bade her wait. Everything, he assured her, that human sympathy or the art of war--or Beauregard's special orders--could effect was being done to find the priceless heroes. In the retreat of a great host--ah, me! retreat was his very word and the host was Dixie's--retreating after its first battle, and that an awful one, in deluging rains over frightful roads and brimming streams, unsheltered, ill fed, with sick and wounded men and reeling vehicles hourly breaking down, a hovering foe to be fended off, and every dwelling in the land a hospitable refuge, even captains of artillery or staff might be most honorably and alarmingly missing yet reappear safe and sound. So, for a week and more it was sit and wait, pace the floor and wait, wake in the night and wait; so for Flora as well as for Anna (with a difference), both of them anxious for Charlie--and Steve--and Maxime, but in anguish for another.

Then tidings, sure enough! glad tidings! Mandeville and Maxime safe in camp again and back to duty, whole, hale and in the saddle. Their letters came by the wasted yellow hands of two or three of the home-coming wounded, scores of whom were arriving by every south-bound train. From the aide-de-camp and the color-bearer came the first whole story of how Kincaid, with his picked volunteers, barely a gun detachment, and with Mandeville, who had brought the General's consent, had stolen noiselessly over the water-soaked leaves of a thickety oak wood in the earliest glimmer of a rainy dawn and drawn off the abandoned gun by hand to its waiting horses; also how, when threatened by a hostile patrol, Hilary, Mandeville, Maxime and Charlie had hurried back on foot into the wood and hotly checked the pursuit long enough for their fellows to mount the team, lay a shoulder to every miry wheel and flounder away with the prize. But beyond that keen moment when the four, after their one volley from ambush, had sprung this way and that shouting absurd orders to make-believe men, cheering and firing from behind trees, and (cut off from their horses) had made for a gully and swamp, the two returned ones could tell nothing of the two unreturned except that neither of them, dead or alive, was anywhere on the ground of the fight or flight as they knew it. For days, inside the enemy's advancing lines, they had prowled in ravines and lain in blackberry patches and sassafras fence-rows, fed and helped on of nights by the beggared yet still warm-hearted farm people and getting through at last, but with never a trace of Kincaid or Charlie, though after their own perilous search they had inquired, inquired, inquired.

So, wait, said every one and every dumb condition, even the miseries of the great gray army, of which Anna had mind pictures again, as it toiled through mire and lightning, rain, sleet and hail, and as its thousands of sick and shattered lay in Corinth dying fifty a day. And Flora and Anna waited, though with minds placid only to each other and the outer world.

"Yes," moaned Anna to Constance, when found at dead of night staring Corinthward from a chamber window. "Yes, friends advise! All our friends advise! What daring thing did any one ever do who waited for friends to advise it? Does your Steve wait for friends to advise?... Patience? Ah, lend me yours! You don't need it now.... Fortitude? Oh, I never had any!... What? command the courage to do nothing when nothing is the only hard thing to do? Who, I? Connie! I don't even want it. I'm a craven; I want the easy thing! I want to go nurse the box-carloads and mule-wagonloads of wounded at Corinth, at Okolona and strewed all the way down to Mobile--that's full of them. Hilary may be somewhere among them--unidentified! They say he wore no badge of rank that morning, you know, and carried the carbine of a wounded cavalryman to whom he had given his coat. Oh, he's mine, Con, and I'm his. We're not engaged, we're married, and I must go. It's only a step--except in miles--and I'm going! I'm going for your sake and Miranda's. You know you're staying on my account, not for me to settle this bazaar business but to wait for news that's never coming till I go and bring it!"

This tiny, puny, paltry business of the bazaar--the whereabouts of the dagger and its wealth, or of the detectives, gone for good into military secret service at the front--she drearily smiled away the whole trivial riddle as she lay of nights contriving new searches for that inestimable, living treasure, whose perpetual "missing," right yonder "almost in sight from the housetop," was a dagger in her heart.

And the Valcours? Yes, they, too, had their frantic impulses to rise and fly. For Madame, though her lean bosom bled for the lost boy, the fiercest pain of waiting was that its iron coercion lay in their penury. For Flora its sharpest pangs were in her own rage; a rage not of the earlier, cold sort against Anna and whoever belonged to Anna--that transport had always been more than half a joy--but a new, hot rage against herself and the finical cheapness of her scheming, a rage that stabbed her fair complacency with the revelation that she had a heart, and a heart that could ache after another. The knife of that rage turned in her breast every time she cried to the grandam, "We must go!" and that rapacious torment simpered, "No funds," adding sidewise hints toward Anna's jewels, still diligently manoeuvred for, but still somewhere up-stairs in Callender House, sure to go with Anna should Anna go while the manoeuvrers were away.

A long lane to any one, was such waiting, lighted, for Anna, only by a faint reflection of that luster of big generals' strategy and that invincibility of the Southern heart which, to all New Orleans and even to nations beyond seas, clad Dixie's every gain in light and hid her gravest disasters in beguiling shadow. But suddenly one day the long lane turned. The secret had just leaked out that the forts down the river were furiously engaged with the enemy's mortar-boats a few miles below them and that in the past forty-eight hours one huge b

omb every minute, three thousand in all, had dropped into those forts or burst over them, yet the forts were "proving themselves impregnable." The lane turned and there stood Charlie.

There he stood, in the stairway door of the front room overlooking Jackson Square. The grandmother and sister had been keenly debating the news and what to do about it, the elder bird fierce to stay, the younger bent on flight, and had just separated to different windows, when they heard, turned and beheld him there, a stranger in tattered gray and railway dirt, yet their own coxcomb boy from his curls to his ill-shod feet. Flora had hardly caught her breath or believed her eyes before the grandmother was on his neck patting and petting his cheeks and head and plying questions in three languages: When, where, how, why, how, where and when?

Dimly he reflected their fond demonstrations. No gladness was in his face. His speech, as hurried as theirs, answered no queries. He asked loftily for air, soap, water and the privacy of his own room, and when they had followed him there and seen him scour face, arms, neck, and head, rub dry and resume his jacket and belt, he had grown only more careworn and had not yet let his sister's eyes rest on his.

He had but a few hours to spend in the city, he said; had brought despatches and must carry others back by the next train. His story, he insisted, was too long to tell before he had delivered certain battery letters; one to Victorine, two to Constance Mandeville, and so on. Here was one to Flora, from Captain Irby; perhaps the story was in it. At any rate, its bearer must rush along now. He toppled his "grannie" into a rocking-chair and started away. He "would be back as soon as ever he--"

But Flora filled the doorway. He had to harden his glance to hers at last. In her breast were acutest emotions widely at war, yet in her eyes he saw only an unfeeling light, and it was the old woman behind him who alone noted how painfully the girl's fingers were pinched upon Irby's unopened letter. The boy's stare betrayed no less anger than suffering and as Flora spoke he flushed.

"Charlie," she melodiously began, but his outcry silenced her:

"Now, by the eternal great God Almighty, Flora Valcour, if you dare to ask me that--" He turned to the grandmother, dropped to his knees, buried his face in her lap and sobbed.

With genuine tenderness she stroked his locks. Yet while she did so she lifted to the sister a face lighted up with a mirth of deliverance. To nod, toss, and nod again, was poor show for her glee; she smirked and writhed to the disdaining girl like a child at a mirror, and, though sitting thus confined, gave all the effects of jigging over the floor. Hilary out of the way! Kincaid eliminated, and the whole question free of him, this inheritance question so small and mean to all but her and Irby, but to him and her so large, so paramount! Silently, but plainly to the girl, her mouth widely motioned, "Il est mort! grace"--one hand stopped stroking long enough to make merrily the sign of cross--"grace au ciel, il est mort!"

No moment of equal bitterness had Flora Valcour ever known. To tell half her distresses would lose us in their tangle, midmost in which was a choking fury against the man whom unwillingly she loved, for escaping her, even by a glorious death. One thought alone--that Anna, as truly as if stricken blind, would sit in darkness the rest of her days--lightened her torture, and with that thought she smiled a stony loathing on the mincing grandam and the boy's unlifted head. Suddenly, purpose gleamed from her. She could not break forth herself, but to escape suffocation she must and would procure an outburst somewhere. Measuredly, but with every nerve and tendon overstrung, she began to pace the room.

"Don't cry, Charlie," she smoothly said in a voice as cold as the crawl of a snake. The brother knew the tone, had known it from childhood, and the girl, glancing back on him, was pleased to see him stiffen. A few steps on she added pensively, "For a soldier to cry--and befo' ladies--a ladies' man--of that batt'rie--tha's hardly fair--to the ladies, eh, grandmama?"

But the boy only pressed his forehead harder down and clutched the aged knees under it till their owner put on, to the scintillant beauty, a look of alarm and warning. The girl, musingly retracing her calculated steps to where the kneeler seemed to clinch himself to his posture, halted, stroked with her slippered toe a sole of his rude shoes and spoke once more: "Do they oft-ten boohoo like that, grandma, those artillerie?"

The boy whirled up with the old woman clinging. A stream of oaths and curses appallingly original poured from him, not as through the lips alone but from his very eyes and nostrils. That the girl was first of all a fool and damned was but a trivial part of the cry--of the explosion of his whole year's mistaken or half-mistaken inferences and smothered indignation. With equal flatness and blindness he accused her of rejoicing in the death of Kincaid: the noblest captain (he ramped on) that ever led a battery; kindest friend that ever ruled a camp; gayest, hottest, daringest fighter of Shiloh's field; fiercest for man's purity that ever loved the touch of women's fingers; sternest that ever wept on the field of death with the dying in his arms; and the scornfullest of promotion that ever was cheated of it at headquarters.

All these extravagances he cursed out, too witless to see that this same hero of his was the one human being, himself barely excepted, for whose life his sister cared. He charged her of never having forgiven Hilary for making Anna godmother of their flag, and of being in some dark league against him--"hell only knew what"--along with that snail of a cousin whom everybody but Kincaid himself and the silly old uncle knew to be the fallen man's most venomous foe. Throughout the storm the grandmother's fingers pattered soothing caresses, while Flora stood as unruffled by his true surmises as by any, a look of cold interest in her narrowed eyes, and her whole bodily and spiritual frame drinking relief from his transport. Now, while he still raged, she tenderly smiled on their trembling ancestress.

"Really, you know grandmama, sometimes me also I feel like that, when to smazh the furniture 't would be a delightful--or to wring somebody the neck, yes. But for us, and to-day, even to get a li'l' mad, how is that a possibl'?" She turned again, archly, to the brother, but flashed in alarm and sprang toward him.

His arm stiffly held her off. With failing eyes bent on the whimpering grandmother he sighed a disheartened oath and threshed into a chair gasping--

"My wound--opened again."

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