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   Chapter 47 FROM THE BURIAL SQUAD

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 7319

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


The pinioned girl tried to throw back her head and bring their eyes together, but Anna, through some unconscious advantage, held it to her shoulder, her own face looking out over the garden.

"Ah, let me be glad for you, Flora, let me be glad for you! Oh, think of it! You have him! have him at home, to look upon, to touch, to call by name! and to be looked upon by him and touched and called by name! Oh, God in heaven! God in heaven!"

Miranda's fond protests were too timorous to check her, and Flora's ceased in the delight of hearing that last wail confess the thought of Hilary. Constance strove with tender energy for place and voice: "Nan, dearie, Nan! But listen to Flora, Nan. See, Nan, I haven't opened Steve's letter yet. Wounded and what, Flora, something worse? Ah, if worse you couldn't have left him."

"I know," sighed Anna, relaxing her arms to a caress and turning her gaze to Flora. "I see. Your brother, our dear Charlie, has come back to life, but wounded and alone. Alone. Hilary is still missing. Isn't that it? That's all, isn't it?"

Constance, in a sudden thought of what her letters might tell, began to open one, though with her eyes at every alternate moment on Flora as eagerly as Miranda's or Anna's. Flora stood hiddenly revelling in that complexity of her own spirit which enabled her to pour upon her questioner a look, even a real sentiment, of ravishing pity, while nevertheless in the depths of her being she thrilled and burned and danced and sang with joy for the very misery she thus compassionated. By a designed motion she showed her grandmother's reticule on her arm. But only Anna saw it; Constance, with her gaze in the letter, was drawing Miranda aside while both bent their heads over a clause in it which had got blurred, and looked at each other aghast as they made it out to read, "'--from the burial squad.'" The grandmother's silken bag saved them from Anna's notice.

"Oh, Flora!" said Anna again, "is there really something worse?" Abruptly, she spread a hand under the bag and with her eyes still in the eyes of its possessor slid it gently from the yielding wrist. Dropping her fingers into it she brought forth a tobacco-pouch, of her own embroidering, and from it, while the reticule fell unheeded to the floor, drew two or three small things which she laid on it in her doubled hands and regarded with a smile. Vacantly the smile increased as she raised it to Flora, then waned while she looked once more on the relics, and grew again as she began to handle them. Her slow voice took the tone of a child alone at play.

"Why, that's my photograph," she said. "And this--this is his watch--watch and chain." She dangled them. A light frown came and went between her smiles.

With soft eagerness Flora called Constance, and the sister and Miranda stood dumb.

"See, Connie," the words went on, "see, 'Randa, this is my own photograph, and this is his own watch and chain. I must go and put them away--with my old gems." Constance would have followed her as she moved but she waved a limp forbiddal, prattling on: "This doesn't mean he's dead, you know. Oh, not at all! It means just the contrary! Why, I saw him alive last night, in a dream, and I can't believe anything else, and I won't! No, no, not yet!" At that word she made a misstep and as she started sharply to recover it the things she carried fell breaking and jingling at her feet.

"Oh-h!" she sighed in childish surprise and feebly dropped to her knees. Flora, closest by, sprang crouching to the rescue, but recoiled as the kneeling girl leaned hoveringly over the mementos and with distended eyes and an arm thrust fo

rward cried aloud, "No! No! No-o!"

At once, however, her voice was tender again. "Mustn't anybody touch them but me, ever any more," she said, regathering the stuff, regained her feet and moved on. Close after her wavering steps anxiously pressed the others, yet not close enough. At the open door, smiling back in rejection of their aid, she tripped, and before they could save her, tumbled headlong within. From up-stairs, from downstairs came servants running, and by the front door entered a stranger, a private soldier in swamp boots and bespattered with the mire of the river road from his spurs to his ragged hat.

"No, bring her out," he said to a slave woman who bore Anna in her arms, "out to the air!" But the burden slipped free and with a cleared mind stood facing him.

"Ladies," he exclaimed, his look wandering, his uncovered hair matted, "if a half-starved soldier can have a morsel of food just to take in his hands and ride on with--" and before he could finish servants had sprung to supply him.

"Are you from down the river?" asked Anna, quietly putting away her sister's pleading touch and Flora's offer of support.

"I am!" spouted the renegade, for renegade he was, "I'm from the very thick of the massacre! from day turned into night, night into day, and heaven and earth into--into--"

"Hell," placidly prompted Flora.

"Yes! nothing short of it! Our defenses become death-traps and slaughter-pens--oh, how foully, foully has Richmond betrayed her sister city!"

Flora felt a new tumult of joy. "That Yankee fleet--it has pazz' those fort'?" she cried.

"My dear young lady! By this time there ain't no forts for it to pass! When I left Fort St. Philip there wa'n't a spot over in Fort Jackson as wide as my blanket where a bumbshell hadn't buried itself and blown up, and every minute we were lookin' for the magazine to go! Those awful shells! they'd torn both levees, the forts were flooded, men who'd lost their grit were weeping like children--"

"Oh!" interrupted Constance, "why not leave the forts? We don't need them now; those old wooden ships can never withstand our terrible ironclads!"

"Well, they're mighty soon going to try it! Last night, right in the blaze of all our batteries, they cut the huge chain we had stretched across the river--"

"Ah, but when they see--oh, they'll never dare face even the Manassas--the 'little turtle,' ha-ha!--much less the great Louisiana!"

"Alas! madam, the Louisiana ain't ready for 'em. There she lies tied to the levee, with engines that can't turn a wheel, a mere floating battery, while our gunboats--" Eagerly the speaker broke off to receive upon one hand and arm the bounty of the larder and with a pomp of gratitude to extend his other hand to Anna; but she sadly shook her head and showed on her palms Hilary's shattered tokens:

"These poor things belong to one, sir, who, like you, is among the missing. But, oh, thank God! he is missing at the front, in the front."

The abashed craven turned his hand to Flora, but with a gentle promptness Anna stepped between: "No, Flora dear, see; he hasn't a red scratch on him. Oh, sir, go--eat! If hunger stifles courage, eat! But eat as you ride, and ride like mad back to duty and honor! No! not under this roof--nor in sight of these things--can any man be a ladies' man, who is missing from the front, at the rear."

He wheeled and vanished. Anna turned: "Connie, what do your letters say?"

The sister's eyes told enough. The inquirer gazed a moment, then murmured to herself, "I--don't--believe it--yet," grew very white, swayed, and sank with a long sigh into out-thrown arms.

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