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Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 9357

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Strange! how little sense of calamity came with them--at first. So graceful they were. So fitted--like waterfowl--to every mood of air and tide; their wings all furled, their neat bodies breasting the angry flood by the quiet power of their own steam and silent submerged wheels. So like to the numberless crafts which in kinder days, under friendly tow, had come up this same green and tawny reach and passed on to the queenly city, laden with gifts, on the peaceful embassies of the world.

But, ah! how swiftly, threateningly they grew: the smaller, two-masted fore-and-afts, each seemingly unarmed but for one monster gun pivoted amidships, and the towering, wide-armed three-masters, the low and the tall consorting like dog and hunter. Now, as they came on, a nice eye could make out, down on their hulls, light patches of new repair where our sunken fleet had so lately shot and rammed them, and, hanging over the middle of each ship's side in a broad, dark square to protect her vitals, a mass of anchor chains. Their boarding-netting, too, one saw, drawn high round all their sides, and now more guns--and more!--and more! the huger frowning over the bulwarks, the lesser in unbroken rows, scowling each from its own port-hole, while every masthead revealed itself a little fort bristling with arms and men. Yes, and there, high in the clouds of rigging, no longer a vague pink flutter now, but brightly red-white-and-blue and smilingly angry--what a strange home-coming for it! ah, what a strange home-coming after a scant year-and-a-half of banishment!--the flag of the Union, rippling from every peak.

"Ain' dey neveh gwine shoot?" asked a negro lad.

"Not till they're out of line with us," said Anna so confidently as to draw a skeptical grunt from his mother, and for better heart let a tune float silently in and out on her breath:

"I loves to be a beau to de ladies.

I loves to shake a toe wid de ladies--"

She felt her maid's touch. Charlie was aiming his great gun, and on either side of her Isaac and Ben were repeating their injunctions. She spoke out:

"If they all shoot true we're safe enough now."

"An' ef de ships don't," put in Isaac, "dey'll mighty soon--"

The prophecy was lost. All the shore guns blazed and crashed. The white smoke belched and spread. Broken window-panes jingled. Wails and moans from the slave women were silenced by imperious outcries from Isaac and Ben. There followed a mid-air scream and roar as of fifty railway trains passing each other on fifty bridges, and the next instant a storm of the enemy's shells burst over and in the batteries. But the house stood fast and half a dozen misquotations of David and Paul were spouted from the braver ones of Anna's flock. In a moment a veil of smoke hid ships and shore, yet fearfully true persisted the enemy's aim. To home-guards, rightly hopeless of their case and never before in action, every hostile shot was like a volcano's eruption, and their own fire rapidly fell off. But on the veranda, amid a weeping, prattling, squealing and gesturing of women and children, Anna could not distinguish the bursting of the foe's shells from the answering thunder of Confederate guns, and when in a bare ten minutes unarmed soldiers began to come out of the smoke and to hurry through the grove, while riders of harnessed horses and mules--harnessed to nothing--lashed up the levee road at full run, and Isaac and Ben proudly cried that one was Mahs' Chahlie and that the animals were theirs of Callender House, she still asked over the balustrade how the fight had gone.

For reply despairing hands pointed her back toward the river, and there, as she and her groaning servants gazed, the great black masts and yards, with headway resumed and every ensign floating, loomed silently forth and began to pass the veranda. Down in the intervening garden, brightly self-contained among the pale stragglers there, appeared the one-armed reporter, with a younger brother in the weather-worn gray and red of Kincaid's Battery. They waved a pocket-soiled letter and asked how to get in and up to her; but before she could do more than toss them a key there came, not from the ships but from close overhead under a blackening sky, one last, hideous roar and ear-splitting howl. The beautiful treasure-laden home heaved, quivered, lurched and settled again, the women shrieked and crouched or fell prone with covered heads, and a huge shell, sent by some pain-crazed fugitive from a gun across the river, and which had entered at the roof, exploded in the basement with a harrowing peal and filled every corner of the dwelling with blinding smoke and stifling dust.

Constance and Miranda met Anna groping and staggering out of the chaos. Unharmed, herself, and no one badly hurt? Ah, hear the sudden wail of that battery boy as he finds his one-armed brother! Anna kneels with him over the writhing form while women fly for the surgeon, and men, at her cry, hasten to improvise a litter. No idle song haunts her now, yet a clamoring whisper times itself with every pulsation of her bosom: "The letter? the letter?"

Pity kept it from her lips, even from her weeping eyes; yet somehow the fallen boy heard, but when he tried to answer she hushed him. "Oh, never mind that," she said, wiping away the sweat of his agony, "it isn't important at all."

"Dropped it," he gasped, and had dropped it where the shell had buried it forever.

Each for the other's sake the lads rejected the hospital, with its risk of capture. The younger had the stricken one hurried off toward the railway and a refugee mother in the hills, Constance tenderly protesting until the surgeon murmured the truth:

"It'll be all one to him by to-morrow."

As the rearmost ship was passing the house Anna, her comeliness restored, half rose from her bed, where Miranda stood trying to keep her. From all the far side of the house remotely sounded the smart tramp and shuffle of servants clearing away wreckage, and the din of their makeshift repairs. She was "all right again," she said as she sat, but the abstraction of her eyes and the harkening droop of her head showed that inwardly she still saw and heard the death-struck boy.

Suddenly she stood. "Dear, brave Connie!" she exclaimed, "we must go help her, 'Randa." And as they went she added, pausing at the head of a stair, "Ah, dear! if we, poor sinners all, could in our dull minds only multiply the awful numbers of war's victims by the woes that gather round any one of them, don't you think, 'Randa--?"

Yes, Miranda agreed, certainly if man--yes, and woman--had that gift wars would soon be no more.

On a high roof above their apartment stood our Valcour ladies. About them babbling feminine groups looked down upon the harbor landings black with male vagabonds and witlings smashing the precious food freight (so sacred yesterday), while women and girls scooped the spoils from mire and gutter into buckets, aprons or baskets, and ran home with it through Jackson Square and scurried back again with grain-sacks and pillow-slips, and while the cotton burned on and the ships, so broadly dark aloft, so pale in their war paint below and so alive with silent, motionless men, came through the smoking havoc.

"No uze to hope," cooed the grandmother to Flora, whose gaze clung to the tree-veiled top of Callender House. "It riffuse' to burn. 'Tis not a so inflammab' like that rope and tar." The rope and tar meant their own burnt ship.

"Ah, well," was the light reply, "all shall be for the bes'! Those who watch the game close and play it with courage--"

"And cheat with prudenze--?"

"Yes! to them God is good. How well you know that! And Anna, too, she's learning it--or she shall--dear Anna! Same time me, I am well content."

"Oh, you are joyful! But not because God is good, neither juz' biccause those Yankee' they arrive. Ah, that muz' bring some splandid news, that lett'r of Irbee, what you riscieve to-day and think I don't know it. 'T is maybe ab-out Kincaid's Batt'rie, eh?" At Flora's touch the speaker flinched back from the roof's edge, the maiden aiding the recoil.

"Don't stand so near, like that," she said. "It temp' me to shove you over."

They looked once more to the fleet. Slowly it came on. Near its line's center the flag-ship hovered just opposite Canal Street. The rear was far down by the Mint. Up in the van the leading vessel was halting abreast St. Mary's Market, a few hundred yards behind which, under black clouds and on an east wind, the lone-star flag of seceded Louisiana floated in helpless defiance from the city hall. All at once heaven's own thunders pealed. From a warning sprinkle the women near about fled down a roofed hatchway. One led Madame. But on such a scene Flora craved a better curtain-fall and she lingered alone.

It came. As if all its millions of big drops raced for one prize the deluge fell on city, harbor, and fleet and on the woe-smitten land from horizon to horizon, while in the same moment the line of battle dropped anchor in mid-stream. With a swirling mist wetting her fair head she waved in dainty welcome Irby's letter and then pressed it to her lips; not for his sake--hah!--but for his rueful word, that once more his loathed cousin, Anna's Hilary! was riding at the head of Kincaid's Battery.

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