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   Chapter 49 A CITY IN TERROR

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 10164

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Before the smart-stepping lamplighters were half done turning off the street lights, before the noisy market-houses all over the town, from Camp Callender to Carrollton, with their basket-bearing thousands of jesting and dickering customers, had quenched their gaslights and candles to dicker and jest by day, or the devotees of early mass had emerged from the churches, Rumor was on the run. With a sort of muffled speed and whisper she came and went, crossed her course and reaffirmed herself, returned to her starting-point and stole forth again, bearing ever the same horrid burden, brief, persistent, unexaggerated: The Foe! The Foe! In five great ships and twice as many lesser ones--counted at Quarantine Station just before the wires were cut--the Foe was hardly twenty leagues away, while barely that many guns of ours crouched between his eight times twenty and our hundred thousand women and children.

Yet, for a brief spell, so deep are the ruts of habit, the city kept to its daily routine, limp and unmeaning though much of it had come to be. The milkman, of course, held to his furious round in his comical two-wheeled cart, whirling up to alley gates, shouting and ringing his big hand-bell. In all his tracks followed the hooded bread-cart, with its light-weight loaves for worthless money and with only the staggering news for lagnappe. Families ate breakfast, one hour and another, wherever there was food. Day cabmen and draymen trotted off to their curbstones; women turned to the dish-pan, the dust-pan, the beds, the broom; porters, clerks and merchants--the war-mill's wasteful refuse and residuum, some as good as the gray army's best, some poor enough--went to their idle counters, desks and sidewalks; the children to the public schools, the beggar to the church doorstep, physicians to their sick, the barkeeper to his mirrors and mint, and the pot-fisher to his catfish lines in the swollen, sweeping, empty harbor.

But besides the momentum of habit there was the official pledge to the people--Mayor Monroe's and Commanding-General Lovell's--that if they would but keep up this tread-mill gait, the moment the city was really in danger the wires of the new fire-alarm should strike the tidings from all her steeples. So the school teachers read Scripture and prayers and the children sang the "Bonnie Blue Flag," while outside the omnibuses trundled, the one-mule street-cars tinkled and jogged and the bells hung mute.

Nevertheless a change was coming. Invisibly it worked in the general mind as that mind gradually took in the meanings of the case; but visibly it showed as, from some outpost down the river, General Lovell, (a sight to behold for the mud on him), came spurring at full speed by Callender House, up through the Creole Quarter and across wide Canal Street to the St. Charles. Now even more visibly it betrayed itself, where all through the heart of the town began aides, couriers and frowning adjutants to gallop from one significant point to another. Before long not a cab anywhere waited at its stand. Every one held an officer or two, if only an un-uniformed bank-officer or captain of police, and rattled up or down this street and that, taking corners at breakneck risks. That later the drays began to move was not so noticeable, for a dray was but a dray and they went off empty except for their drivers and sometimes a soldier with a musket and did not return. Moreover, as they went there began to be seen from the middle of almost any cross-street, in the sky out over the river front, here one, there another, yonder a third and fourth, upheaval of dense, unusual smoke, first on the hither side of the harbor, then on the far side, yet no fire-engines, hand or steam, rushed that way, nor any alarm sounded.

From the Valcours' balcony Madame, gasping for good air after she and Flora had dressed Charlie's wound, was startled to see one of those black columns soar aloft. But it was across the river, and she had barely turned within to mention it, when up the stair and in upon the three rushed Victorine, all tears, saying it was from the great dry-dock at Slaughter-House Point, which our own authorities had set afire.

The enfeebled Charlie half started from his rocking-chair laughing angrily. "Incredible!" he cried, but sat mute as the girl's swift tongue told the half-dozen other dreadful things she had just beheld on either side the water. The sister and grandmother sprang into the balcony and stood astounded. Out of the narrow streets beneath them--Chartres, Condé, St. Peter, St. Ann, Cathedral Alley--scores and scores of rapidly walking men and women and scampering boys and girls streamed round and through the old Square by every practicable way and out upon the levee.

"Incredib'!" retorted meanwhile the pouting daughter of Maxime, pressing into the balcony after Flora. "Hah! and look yondah another incredib'!" She pointed riverward across the Square.

"Charlie, you must not!" cried Flora, returning half into the room.

"Bah!" retorted the staggering boy, pushed out among the

m and with profane mutterings stood agaze.

Out across the Square and the ever-multiplying flow of people through and about it, and over the roof of the French Market close beyond, the rigging of a moored ship stood pencilled on the sky. It had long been a daily exasperation to his grandmother's vision, being (unknown to Charlie or Victorine), the solitary winnings of Flora's privateering venture, early sold, you will remember, but, by default of a buyer, still in some share unnegotiably hers and--in her own and the grandmother's hungry faith--sure to command triple its present value the moment the fall of the city should open the port. Suddenly the old lady wheeled upon Flora with a frantic look, but was checked by the granddaughter's gleaming eyes and one inaudible, visible word: "Hush!"

The gazing boy saw only the ship. "Oh, great Lord!" he loathingly drawled, "is it Damned Fools' Day again?" Her web of cordage began to grow dim in a rising smoke, and presently a gold beading of fire ran up and along every rope and spar and clung quivering. Soon the masts commenced, it seemed, to steal nearer to each other, and the vessel swung out from her berth and started down the wide, swift river, a mass of flames.

"Oh, Mother of God," cried Victorine with a new gush of tears! "'ave mercy upon uz women!" and in the midst of her appeal the promised alarum began to toll--here, yonder, and far away--here, yonder, and far away--and did not stop until right in the middle of the morning it had struck twelve.

"Good-by! poor betrayed New Orleans!" exclaimed Charlie, turning back into the room. "Good-by, sweetheart, I'm off! Good-by, grannie--Flo'!"

The three followed in with cries of amazement, distress, indignation, command, reproach, entreaty, all alike vain. As if the long-roll of his own brigade were roaring to him, he strode about the apartment preparing to fly.

His sister tried to lay preventing hands on him, saying, "Your life! your life! you are throwing it away!"

"Well, what am I in Kincaid's Battery for?" he retorted, with a sweep of his arm that sent her staggering. He caught the younger girl by the shoulders: "Jularkie, if you want to go, too, with or without grannie and Flo', by Jove, come along! I'll take care of you!"

The girl's eyes melted with yearning, but the response was Flora's: "Simpleton! When you haven' the sense enough to take care of yourself!"

"Ah, shame!" ventured the sweetheart. "He's the lover of his blidding country, going ag-ain to fighd for her--and uz--whiles he can!--to-day!--al-lone!--now!" Her fingers clutched his wrists, that still held her shoulders, and all her veins surged in the rapture of his grasp.

But Charlie stared at his sister. It could not enter his mind that her desires were with the foe, yet his voice went deep in scorn: "And have you too turned coward?"

The taunt stung. Its victim flashed, but in the next breath her smile was clemency itself as she drew Victorine from him and shot her neat reply, well knowing he would never guess the motives behind it--the bow whence flew the shaft: the revenge she owed the cause that had burned their home; her malice against Anna; the agony of losing him they now called dead and buried; the new, acute loathing that issued from that agony upon the dismal Irby; her baffled hunger for the jewels; her plans for the chest of plate; hopes vanishing in smoke with yonder burning ship; thought of Greenleaf's probable return with the blue army, of the riddles that return might make, and of the ruin, the burning and sinking riot and ruin, these things were making in her own soul as if it, too, were a city lost.

"Charlie," she said, "you 'ave yo' fight. Me, I 'ave mine. Here is grandma. Ask her--if my fight--of every day--for you and her--and not yet finish'--would not eat the last red speck of courage out of yo' blood."

She turned to Victorine: "Oh, he's brave! He 'as all that courage to go, in that condition! Well, we three women, we 'ave the courage to let him go and ourselve' to stay. But--Charlie! take with you the Callender'! Yes! You, you can protec' them, same time they can take care of you. Stop!--Grandma!--yo' bonnet and gaiter'! All three, Victorine, we will help them, all four, get away!"

On the road to Callender House, while Charlie and Victorine palavered together--"I cannot quite make out," minced the French-speaking grandmother to Flora, "the real reason why you are doing this."

"'T is with me the same!" eagerly responded the beauty, in the English she preferred. "I thing maybe 't is juz inspiration. What you thing?"

"I? I am afraid it is only your great love for Anna--making you a trifle blind."

The eyes of each rested in the other's after the manner we know and the thought passed between them, that if further news was yet to come of the lost artillerist, any soul-reviving news, it would almost certainly come first to New Orleans and from the men in blue.

"No," chanted the granddaughter, "I can't tell what is making me do that unlezz my guardian angel!"

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