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   Chapter 46 THE SCHOOL OF SUSPENSE

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 6315

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Thus it fell to Flora to be letter-bearer and news-bearer in her brother's stead. Yet he had first to be cared for by her and the grandmother in a day long before "first aid" had become common knowledge. The surgeon they had hailed in had taken liberal time to show them how, night and morning, to unbandage, cleanse and rebind, and to tell them (smiling into the lad's mutinous eyes) that the only other imperative need was to keep him flat on his back for ten days. Those same weeks of downpour which had given the Shiloh campaign two-thirds of its horrors had so overfed the monstrous Mississippi that it was running four miles an hour, overlapping its levees and heaving up through the wharves all along the city's front, until down about the Convent and Barracks and Camp Callender there were streets as miry as Corinth. And because each and all of these hindrances were welcome to Flora as giving leisure to read and reread Irby's long letter about his cousin and uncle, and to plan what to say and do in order to reap all the fell moment's advantages, the shadows were long in the Callender's grove when she finally ascended their veranda steps.

She had come round by way of Victorine's small, tight-fenced garden of crape-myrtles, oleanders and pomegranates--where also the water was in the streets, backwater from the overflowed swamp-forests between city and lake--and had sent her to Charlie's bedside. Pleasant it would be for us to turn back with the damsel and see her, with heart as open as her arms, kiss the painted grandam, and at once proceed to make herself practically invaluable; or to observe her every now and then dazzle her adored patient with a tear-gem of joy or pity, or of gratitude that she lived in a time when heroic things could happen right at home and to the lowliest, even to her; sweet woes like this, that let down, for virtuous love, the barriers of humdrum convention. But Flora draws us on, she and Anna. As she touched the bell-knob Constance sprang out to welcome her, though not to ask her in--till she could have a word with her alone, the young wife explained.

"I saw you coming," she said, drawing her out to the balustrade. "You didn't get Anna's note of last night--too bad! I've just found out--her maid forgot it! What do you reckon we've been doing all day long? Packing! We're going we don't know where! Vicksburg, Jackson, Meridian, Mobile, wherever Anna can best hunt Hilary from--and Charlie too, of course."

"Yes," said Flora, one way to the speaker and quite another way to herself.

"Yes, she wants to do it, and Doctor Sevier says it's the only thing for her. Ah, Flora, how well you can understand that!"

"Indeed, yes," sighed the listener, both ways again.

"We know how absolutely you believe the city's our best base, else we'd have asked you to go with us." The ever genuine Constance felt a mortifying speciousness in her words and so piled them on. "We know the city is best--unless it should fall, and it won't--oh, it won't, God's not going to let so many prayers go unanswered, Flora! But we've tossed reason aside and are going by instinct, the way I always feel safest

in, dear. Ah, poor Anna! Oh, Flora, she's so sweet about it!"

"Yes? Ab-out what?"

"You, dear, and whoever is suffering the same--"

Flora softly winced and Constance blamed herself so to have pained another sister's love. "And she's so quiet," added the speaker, "but, oh, so pale--and so hard either to comfort or encourage, or even to discourage. There's nothing you can say that she isn't already heart-sick of saying herself, to herself, and I beg you, dear, in your longing to comfort her, please don't bring up a single maybe-this or maybe-that; any hope, I mean, founded on a mere doubt."

"Ah, but sometime' the doubt--it is the hope!"

"Yes, sometimes; but not to her, any more. Oh, Flora, if it's just as true of you, you won't be--begrudge my saying it of my sister--that no saint ever went to her matyrdom better prepared than she is, right now, for the very worst that can be told. There's only one thing to which she never can and never will resign herself, and that is doubt. She can't breathe its air, Flora. As she says herself, she isn't so built; she hasn't that gift."

The musing Flora nodded compassionately, but inwardly she said that, gift or no gift, Anna should serve her time in Doubting Castle, with her, Flora, for turnkey. Suddenly she put away her abstraction and with a summarizing gesture and chastened twinkle spoke out: "In short, you want to know for w'at am I come."

"Flora!"

"Ah, but, my dear, you are ri-ight. That is 'all correct,' as they say, and one thing I'm come for--'t is--" She handed out Mandeville's two letters.

The wife caught them to her bosom, sprang to her tiptoes, beamed on the packet a second time and read aloud, "Urbanity of Corporal Valcour!" She heaved an ecstatic breath to speak on, but failed. Anna and Miranda had joined them and Flora had risen from her seat on the balustrade, aware at once that the r?le she had counted on was not to be hers, the r?le of comforter to an undone rival.

Pale indeed was the rival, pale as rivalry could wish. Yet instantly Flora saw, with a fiery inward sting, how beautiful pallor may be. And more she saw: with the chagrin then growing so common on every armed front--the chagrin of finding one's foe entrenched--she saw how utterly despair had failed to crush a gentle soul. Under cover of affliction's night and storm Anna, this whole Anna Callender, had been reinforced, had fortified and was a new problem.

She greeted Flora with a welcoming beam, but before speaking she caught her sister's arm and glanced herself, at the superscription.

"Flora!" she softly cried, "oh, Flora Valcour! has your brother--your Charlie!--come home alive and well?--What; no?--No, he has not?"

The visitor was shaking her head: "No. Ah, no! home, yes, and al-I've; but--"

"Oh, Flora, Flora! alive and at home! home and alive!" While the words came their speaker slowly folded her arms about the bearer of tidings, and with a wholly unwonted strength pressed her again to the rail and drew bosom to bosom, still exclaiming, "Alive! alive! Oh, whatever his plight, be thankful, Flora, for so much! Alive enough to come home!"

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