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   Chapter 48 FARRAGUT

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 7805

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


The cathedral clock struck ten of the night. Yonder its dial shone, just across that quarter of Jackson Square nearest the Valcours' windows, getting no response this time except the watchman's three taps of his iron-shod club on corner curbstones.

An hour earlier its toll had been answered from near and far, up and down the long, low-roofed, curving and recurving city--"seven, eight, nine"--"eight, nine"--the law's warning to all slaves to be indoors or go to jail. Not Flora nor Anna nor Victorine nor Doctor Sevier nor Dick Smith's lone mother nor any one else among all those thousands of masters, mistresses and man-and maid-servants, or these thousands of home-guards at home under their mosquito-bars, with uniforms on bedside chairs and with muskets and cartridge-belts close by--not one of all these was aware, I say, that however else this awful war might pay its cost, it was the knell of slavery they heard, and which they, themselves, in effect, were sounding.

Lacking wilder excitement Madame sat by a lamp knitting a nubia. Victorine had flown home at sundown. Charlie lay sleeping as a soldier lad can. His sister had not yet returned from Callender House, but had been fully accounted for some time before by messenger. Now the knitter heard horses and wheels. Why should they come at a walk? It was like stealth. They halted under the balcony. She slipped out and peered down. Yes, there was Flora. Constance was with her. Also two trim fellows whom she rightly guessed to be Camp Callender lads, and a piece of luggage--was it not?--which, as they lifted it down, revealed a size and weight hard even for those siege-gunners to handle with care. Unseen, silently, they came in and up with it, led by Flora. (Camp Callender was now only a small hither end of the "Chalmette Batteries," which on both sides of the river mounted a whole score of big black guns. No wonder the Callenders were leaving.)

Presently here were the merry burden-bearers behind their radiant guide, whispered ah's and oh's and wary laughter abounding.

"'Such a getting up-stairs I never did see!'"

A thousand thanks to the boys as they set down their load; their thanks back for seats declined; no time even to stand; a moment, only, for new vows of secrecy. "Oui!--Ah, non!--Assurément!" (They were Creoles.) "Yes, mum 't is the word! And such a so-quiet getting down-stair'!"--to Mrs. Mandeville again--and trundling away!

When the church clock gently mentioned the half-hour the newly gleeful grandam and hiddenly tortured girl had been long enough together and alone for the elder to have nothing more to ask as to this chest of plate which the Callenders had fondly accepted Flora's offer to keep for them while they should be away. Not for weeks and weeks had the old lady felt such ease of mind on the money--and bread--question. Now the two set about to get the booty well hid before Charlie should awake. This required the box to be emptied, set in place and reladen, during which process Flora spoke only when stung.

"Ah!" thinly piped she of the mosquito voice, "what a fine day tha's been, to-day!" but won no reply. Soon she cheerily whined again:

"All day nothing but good luck, and at the end--this!" (the treasure chest).

But Flora kept silence.

"So, now," said the aged one, "they will not make such a differenze, those old jewel'."

"I will get them yet," murmured the girl.

"You think? Me, I think no, you will never."

No response.

The tease pricked once more: "Ah! all that day I am thinking of that Irbee. I am glad for Irbee. He is 'the man that waits,' that Irbee!"

The silent one winced; fiercely a piece of the shining ware was lifted high, but it sank again. The painted elder cringed. There may have been genuine peril, but the one hot sport in her fag end of a life was to play with this beautiful fire. She held the girl's eye with a

look of frightened admiration, murmuring, "You are a merveilleuse!"

"Possible?"

"Yes, to feel that way and same time to be ab'e to smile like that!"

"Ah? how is that I'm feeling?"

"You are filling that all this, and all those jewel' of Anna, and the life of me, and of that boy in yond', you would give them all, juz' to be ab'e to bil-ieve that foolishness of Anna--that he's yet al-live, that Kin--"

The piece of plate half rose again, but--in part because the fair threatener could not help enjoying the subtlety of the case--the smile persisted as she rejoined, "Ah! when juz' for the fun, all I can get the chance, I'm making her to bil-ieve that way!"

"Yes," laughed the old woman, "but why? Only biccause that way you, you cannot bil-ieve."

The lithe maiden arose to resume their task, the heavy silver still in her hand. The next moment the kneeling grandam crouched and the glittering metal swept around just high enough to miss her head. A tinkle of mirth came from its wielder as she moved on with it, sighing, "Ah! ho! what a pity--that so seldom the aged commit suicide."

"Yes," came the soft retort, "but for yo' young grandmama tha'z not yet the time, she is still a so indispensib'."

"Very true, ma chère," sang Flora, "and in heaven you would be so uzeless."

Out in the hazy, dark, heavily becalmed night the clock tolled eleven. Eleven--one--three--and all the hours, halves and quarters between and beyond, it tolled; and Flora, near, and Anna, far, sometimes each by her own open window, heard and counted. A thin old moon was dimly rising down the river when each began to think she caught another and very different sound that seemed to arrive faint from a long journey out of the southeast, if really from anywhere, and to pulse in dim persistency as soft as breathing, but as constant. Likely enough it was only the rumble of a remote storm and might have seemed to come out of the north or west had their windows looked that way, for still the tempestuous rains were frequent and everywhere, and it was easy and common for man to mistake God's thunderings for his own.

Yet, whether those two wakeful maidens truly heard or merely fancied, in fact just then some seventy miles straight away under that gaunt old moon, there was rising to heaven the most terrific uproar this delta land had ever heard since man first moved upon its shores and waters. Six to the minute bellowed and soared Porter's awful bombs and arched and howled and fell and scattered death and conflagration. While they roared, three hundred and forty great guns beside, on river and land, flashed and crashed, the breezeless night by turns went groping-black and clear-as-day red with smoke and flame of vomiting funnels, of burning boats and fire-rafts, of belching cannon, of screaming grape and canister and of exploding magazines. And through the middle of it all, in single file--their topmasts, yards, and cordage showing above the murk as pale and dumb as skeletons at every flare of the havoc, a white light twinkling at each masthead, a red light at the peak and the stars and stripes there with it--Farragut and his wooden ships came by the forts.

"Boys, our cake's all dough!" said a commander in one of the forts.

When day returned and Anna and Flora slept, the murmur they had heard may after all have been only God's thunder and really not from the southeast; but just down there under the landscape's flat rim both forts, though with colors still gallantly flying, were smoking ruins, all Dixie's brave gunboats and rams lay along the river's two shores, sunken or burned, and the whole victorious Northern fleet, save one boat rammed and gone to the bottom, was on its cautious, unpiloted way, snail-slow but fate-sure, up the tawny four-mile current and round the gentle green bends of the Mississippi with New Orleans for its goal and prey.

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