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   Chapter 52 HERE THEY COME!

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 9517

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


What a night! Yet the great city slept. Like its soldiers at their bivouac fires it lay and slumbered beside its burning harbor. Sleep was duty.

Callender House kept no vigil. Lighted by the far devastation, its roof shone gray, its cornice white, its tree-tops green above the darkness of grove and garden. From its upper windows you might have seen the townward bends of the river gleam red, yellow, and bronze, or the luminous smoke of destruction (slantingly over its flood and farther shore) roll, thin out, and vanish in a moonless sky. But from those windows no one looked forth. After the long, strenuous, open-air day, sleep, even to Anna, had come swiftly.

Waking late and springing to her elbow she presently knew that every one else was up and about. Her maid came and she hastened to dress. Were the hostile ships in sight? Not yet. Was the city still undestroyed? Yes, though the cotton brought out to the harbor-side was now fifteen thousand bales and with its blazing made a show as if all the town were afire. She was furiously hungry; was not breakfast ready? Yes, Constance and Miranda--"done had breakfuss and gone oveh to de cottage fo' to fix it up fo' de surgeon ... No, 'm, not dis house; he done change' his mine." Carriage horses--mules? "Yass, 'm, done gone. Mahs' Chahlie gone wid 'm. He gone to be boss o' de big gun what show' f'om dese windehs." Oh, but that was an awful risk, wounded as he was! "Yass, 'm, but he make his promise to Miss Flo'a he won't tech de gun hisseff." What! Miss Flora--? "Oh, she be'n, but she gone ag'in. Law'! she a brave un! It e'en a'most make me brave, dess to see de high sperits she in!" The narrator departed.

How incredible was the hour. Looking out on the soft gray sky and river and down into the camp, that still kept such quiet show of routine, or passing down the broad hall stair, through the library and into the flowery breakfast room, how keenly real everything that met the eye, how unreal whatever was beyond sight. How vividly actual this lovely home in the sweet ease and kind grace of its lines and adornments. How hard to move with reference to things unseen, when heart and mind and all power of realizing unseen things were far away in the ravaged fields, mangled roads and haunted woods and ravines between Corinth and Shiloh.

But out in the garden, so fair and odorous as one glided through it to the Mandeville cottage, things boldly in view made sight itself hard to believe. Was that bespattered gray horseman no phantom, who came galloping up the river road and called to a servant at the gate that the enemy's fleet was in sight from English Turn? Was that truly New Orleans, back yonder, wrapped in smoke, like fallen Carthage or Jerusalem? Or here! this black-and-crimson thing drifting round the bend in mid-current and without a sign of life aboard or about it, was this not a toy or sham, but one more veritable ship in veritable flames? And beyond and following it, helpless as a drift-log, was that lifeless white-and-crimson thing a burning passenger steamer--and that behind it another? Here in the cottage, plainly these were Constance and Miranda, and, on second view, verily here were a surgeon and his attendants. But were these startling preparations neither child's play nor dream?

Child's play persistently seemed, at any rate, the small bit of yellow stuff produced as a hospital flag. Oh, surely! would not a much larger be far safer? It would. Well, at the house there was some yellow curtaining packed in one of the boxes, Isaac could tell which--

"I think I know right where it is!" said Anna, and hurried away to find and send it. The others, widow and wife, would stay where they were and Anna would take command at the big house, where the domestics would soon need to be emboldened, cheered, calmed, controlled. Time flies when opening boxes that have been stoutly nailed and hooped over the nails. When the goods proved not to be in the one where Anna "knew" they were she remembered better, of course, and in the second they were found. Just as the stuff had been drawn forth and was being hurried away by the hand of Dilsie, a sergeant and private from the camp, one with a field glass, the other with a signal flag, came asking leave to use them from the belvedere on the roof. Anna led them up to it.

How suddenly authentic became everything, up here. Flat as a map lay river, city, and plain. Almost under them and amusingly clear in detail, they looked down into Camp Callender and the Chalmette fortifications. When they wigwagged, "Nothing in sight," to what seemed a very real toy soldier with a very real toy flag, on a green toy mound in the midst of the work (the magazine), he wigwagged in reply, and across

the river a mere speck of real humanity did the same from a barely definable parapet.

With her maid beside her Anna lingered a bit. She loved to be as near any of the dear South's defenders as modesty would allow, but these two had once been in Kincaid's Battery, her Hilary's own boys. As lookouts they were not yet skilled. In this familiar scene she knew things by the eye alone, which the sergeant, unused even to his glass, could hardly be sure of through it.

Her maid looked up and around. "Gwine to rain ag'in," she murmured, and the mistress assented with her gaze in the southeast. In this humid air and level country a waterside row of live-oaks hardly four miles off seemed at the world's edge and hid all the river beyond it.

"There's where the tips of masts always show first," she ventured to the sergeant. "We can't expect any but the one kind now, can we?"

"'Fraid not, moving up-stream."

"Then yonder they come. See? two or three tiny, needle-like--h-m-m!--just over that farth'--?"

He lowered the glass and saw better without it.

The maid burst out: "Oh, Lawd, I does! Oh, good Gawd A'mighty!" She sprang to descend, but with a show of wonder Anna spoke and she halted.

"If you want to leave me," continued the mistress, "you need only ask."

"Law, Miss Nannie! Me leave you? I--"

"If you do--now--to-day--for one minute, I'll never take you back. I'll have Hettie or Dilsie."

"Missie,"--tears shone--"d' ain't nothin' in Gawd's worl' kin eveh make me a runaway niggeh f'om you! But ef you tell me now fo' to go fetch ev'y dahky we owns up to you--"

"Yes! on the upper front veranda! Go, do it!"

"Yass, 'm! 'caze ef us kin keep 'em anywahs it'll be in de bes' place fo' to see de mos' sights!" She vanished and Anna turned to the soldiers. Their flagging had paused while they watched the far-away top-gallants grow in height and numbers. Down in the works the long-roll was sounding and from every direction men were answering it at a run. Across the river came bugle notes. Sighingly the sergeant lowered his glass:

"Lordy, it's the whole kit and b'ilin'! Wag, John. When they swing up round this end of the trees I'll count 'em. Here they come! One, ... two, ... why, what small--oh, see this big fellow! Look at the width of those yards! And look at all their hulls, painted the color of the river! And see that pink flutter--look!" he said to Anna, "do you get it? high up among the black ropes? that pink--"

"Yes," said Anna solemnly, "I see it--"

"That's the old--"

"Yes. Must we fire on that? and fire first?"

"We'd better!" laughed the soldier, "if we fire at all. Those chaps have got their answer ready and there won't be much to say after it." The three hurried down, the men to camp, Anna to the upper front veranda. There, save two or three with Constance and Miranda, came all the servants, shepherded by Isaac and Ben with vigilant eyes and smothered vows to "kill de fuss he aw she niggeh dat try to skedaddle"; came and stood to gaze with her over and between the grove trees. Down in the fortification every man seemed to have sprung to his post. On its outer crest, with his adjutant, stood the gilded commander peering through his glass.

"Missie," sighed Anna's maid, "see Mahs' Chahlie dah? stan'in' on de woodworks o' dat big gun?"

"Yes," said Anna carelessly, but mutely praying that some one would make him get down. Her brain teemed with speculations: Where, how occupied and in what state of things, what frame of mind, was Victorine, were Flora and Madame? Here at Steve's cottage with what details were 'Randa and Connie busy? But except when she smiled round on the slaves, her gaze, like theirs, abode on the river and the shore defenses, from whose high staffs floated brightly the Confederate flag. How many a time in this last fearful year had her own Hilary, her somewhere still living, laughing, loving Hilary, stood like yon commander, about to deal havoc from, and to draw it upon, Kincaid's Battery. Who would say that even now he might not be so standing, with her in every throb of his invincible heart?

Something out in the view disturbed the servants.

"Oh, Lawd 'a' massy!" moaned a woman.

"Trus' Him, Aun' Jinnie!" prompted Anna's maid. "Y' always is trus' Him!"

"Whoeveh don't trus' Him, I'll bus' him!" confidentially growled Isaac to those around him.

"We all of us must and will!" said Anna elatedly, though with shameful inward sinkings and with no sustaining word from any of the flock, while out under the far gray sky, emerging from a slight angle of the shore well down the water's long reach the battle line began to issue, each ship in its turn debouching into full relief from main-truck to water-line.

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