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Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 8994

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Mere mind should ever be a most reverent servant to the soul. But in fact, and particularly in hours stately with momentous things, what a sacrilegious trick it has of nagging its holy mistress with triflet light as air--small as gnats yet as pertinacious.

To this effect, though written with a daintier pen, were certain lines but a few hours old, that twenty-fourth of April, in a diary which through many months had received many entries since the one that has already told us of its writer paired at Doctor Sevier's dinner-party with a guest now missing, and of her hearing, in the starlight with that guest, the newsboys' cry that his and her own city's own Beauregard had opened fire on Fort Sumter and begun this war--which now behold!

Of this droll impishness of the mind, even in this carriage to-day, with these animated companions, and in all this tribulation, ruin, and flight, here was a harrying instance: that every minute or two, whatever the soul's outer preoccupation or inner anguish, there would, would, would return, return and return the doggerel words and swaggering old tune of that song abhorred by the gruff General, but which had first awakened the love of so many hundreds of brave men for its brave, gay singer now counted forever lost:

"Ole mahs' love' wine, ole mis' love' silk--"

Generally she could stop it there, but at times it contrived to steal unobserved through the second line and then no power could keep it from marching on to the citadel, the end of the refrain. Base, antic awakener of her heart's dumb cry of infinite loss! For every time the tormenting inanity won its way, that other note, that unvoiced agony, hurled itself against the bars of its throbbing prison.

"Ole mahs' love' wine, ole mis' love'--"

"Oh, Hilary, my Hilary!"

From the Creole Quarter both carriage and wagon turned to the water front. Charlie's warning that even more trying scenes would be found there was in vain. Anna insisted, the fevered youth's own evident wish was to see the worst, and Constance and Miranda, dutifully mirthful, reminded him that through Anna they also had now tasted blood. As the equipage came out upon the Levee and paused to choose a way, the sisters sprang up and gazed abroad, sustaining each other by their twined arms.

To right, to left, near and far--only not just here where the Coast steamboats landed--the panorama was appalling. All day Anna had hungered for some incident or spectacle whose majesty or terror would suffice to distract her from her own desolation; but here it was made plain to her that a distress before which hand and speech are helpless only drives the soul in upon its own supreme devotion and woe. One wide look over those far flat expanses of smoke and flame answered the wonder of many hours, as to where all the drays and floats of the town had gone and what they could be doing. Along the entire sinuous riverside the whole great blockaded seaport's choked-in stores of tobacco and cotton, thousands of hogsheads, ten thousands of bales--lest they enrich the enemy--were being hauled to the wharves and landings and were just now beginning to receive the torch, the wharves also burning, and boats and ships on either side of the river being fired and turned adrift.

Yet all the more because of the scene, a scene that quelled even the haunting strain of song, that other note, that wail which, the long day through, had writhed unreleased in her bosom, rose, silent still, yet only the stronger and more importunate--

"Oh, Hilary, my soldier, my flag's, my country's defender, come back to me--here!--now!--my yet living hero, my Hilary Kincaid!"

Reluctantly, she let Constance draw her down, and presently, in a voice rich with loyal pride, as the carriage moved on, bade Charlie and Miranda observe that only things made contraband by the Richmond Congress were burning, while all the Coast Landing's wealth of Louisiana foodstuffs, in barrels and hogsheads, bags and tierces, lay unharmed. Yet not long could their course hold that way, and--it was Anna who first proposed retreat. The very havoc was fascinating and the courage of Constance and Miranda, though stripped of its mirth, remained undaunted; but the eye-torture of the cotton smoke was enough alone to drive them back to the inner streets.

Here the direction of their caravan, away from all avenues of escape, no less than their fair faces, drew the notice of every one, while to the four themselves every busy

vehicle--where none was idle,--every sound remote or near, every dog in search of his master, and every man--how few the men had become!--every man, woman or child, alone or companioned, overladen or empty-handed, hurrying out of gates or into doors, standing to stare or pressing intently or distractedly on, calling, jesting, scolding or weeping--and how many wept!--bore a new, strange interest of fellowship. So Callender House came again to view, oh, how freshly, dearly, appealingly beautiful! As the Callender train drew into its gate and grove, the carriage was surrounded, before it could reach the veranda steps, by a full dozen of household slaves, male and female, grown, half-grown, clad and half-clad, some grinning, some tittering, all overjoyed, yet some in tears. There had been no such gathering at the departure. To spare the feelings of the mistresses the dominating "mammy" of the kitchen had forbidden it. But now that they were back, Glory! Hallelujah!

"And had it really," the three home-returning fair ones asked, "seemed so desolate and deadly perilous just for want of them? What!--had seemed so even to stalwart Tom?--and Scipio?--and Habakkuk? And were Hettie and Dilsie actually so in terror of the Yankees?"

"Oh, if we'd known that we'd never have started!" exclaimed Constance, with tears, which she stoutly quenched, while from all around came sighs and moans of love and gratitude.

And were the three verily back to stay?

Ah! that was the question. While Charlie, well attended, went on up and in they paused on the wide stair and in mingled distress and drollery asked each other, "Are we back to stay, or not?"

A new stir among the domestics turned their eyes down into the garden. Beyond the lingering vehicles a lieutenant from Camp Callender rode up the drive. Two or three private soldiers hung back at the gate.

"It's horses and mules again, Nan," gravely remarked Constance, and the three, facing toward him, with Miranda foremost, held soft debate. Whether the decision they reached was to submit or resist, the wide ears of the servants could not be sure, but by the time the soldier was dismounting the ladies had summoned the nerve to jest.

"Be a man, Miranda!" murmured Constance.

"But not the kind I was!" prompted Anna.

"No," said her sister, "for this one coming is already scared to death."

"So's Miranda," breathed Anna as he came up the steps uncovering and plainly uncomfortable. A pang lanced through her as she caught herself senselessly recalling the flag presentation. And then--

"--oh! oh!"

"Mrs. Callender?" asked the stranger.

"Yes, sir," said that lady.

"My business"--he glanced back in nervous protest as the drivers beneath gathered their reins--"will you kindly detain--?"

"If you wish, sir," she replied, visibly trembling. "Isaac--"

From the rear of the group came the voice of Anna: "Miranda, dear, I wouldn't stop them." The men regathered the lines. She moved half a step down and stayed herself on her sister's shoulder. Miranda wrinkled back at her in an ecstasy of relief:

"Oh, Anna, do speak for all of us!"

The teams started away. A distress came into the soldier's face, but Anna met it with a sober smile: "Don't be troubled, sir, you shall have them. Drive round into the basement, Ben, and unload." The drivers went. "You shall have them, sir, on your simple word of honor as--"

"Of course you will be reimbursed. I pledge--"

"No, sir," tearfully put in Constance, "we've given our men, we can't sell our beasts."

"They are not ours to sell," said Anna.

"Why, Nan!"

"They belong to Kincaid's Battery," said Anna, and Constance, Miranda, and the servants smiled a proud approval. Even the officer flushed with a fine ardor:

"You have with you a member of that command?"

"We have."

"Then, on my honor as a Southern soldier, if he will stay by them and us as far as Camp Moore, to Kincaid's Battery they shall go. But, ladies--"

"Yes," knowingly spoke Miranda. "Hettie, Scipio, Dilsie, you-all can go 'long back to your work now." She wrinkled confidentially to the officer.

"Yes," he replied, "we shall certainly engage the enemy's ships to-morrow, and you ladies must--"

"Must not desert our home, sir," said Anna.

"Nor our faithful servants," added the other two.

"Ah, ladies, but if we should have to make this house a field hospital, with all the dreadful--"

"Oh, that settles it," cried the three, "we stay!"

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