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   Chapter 58 ARACHNE

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 9658

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Behold, "Vicksburg and the Bends."

In one of those damp June-hot caves galleried into the sheer yellow-clay sides of her deep-sunken streets, desolate streets where Porter's great soaring, howling, burrowing "lamp-posts" blew up like steamboats and flew forty ways in search of women and children, dwelt the Callenders. Out among Pemberton's trenches and redans, where the woods were dense on the crowns and faces of the landside bluffs, and the undergrowth was thick in the dark ravines, the minie-ball forever buzzed and pattered, and every now and then dabbed mortally into some head or breast. There ever closer and closer the blue boys dug and crept while they and the gray tossed back and forth the hellish hand-grenade, the heavenly hard-tack and tobacco, gay jokes and lighted bombs. There, mining and countermining, they blew one another to atoms, or under shrieking shells that tore limbs from the trees and made missiles of them hurled themselves to the assault and were hurled back. There, in a ruined villa whose shrubberies Kincaid named "Carrollton Gardens," quartered old Brodnax, dining on the fare we promised him from the first, and there the nephew sang an ancient song from which, to please his listeners, he had dropped "old Ireland" and made it run:

"O, my heart's in New Orleans wherever I go--"

meaning, for himself, that wherever roamed a certain maiden whose whereabouts in Dixie he could only conjecture, there was the New Orleans of his heart.

One day in the last week of the siege a young mother in the Callenders' cave darted out into the sunshine to rescue her straying babe and was killed by a lump of iron. Bombardments rarely pause for slips like that, yet the Callenders ventured to her burial in a graveyard not far from "Carrollton Gardens." As sympathy yet takes chances with contagions it took them then with shells.

Flora Valcour daily took both risks--with contagions in a field hospital hard by the cemetery, and with shells and stray balls when she fled at moments from the stinking wards to find good air and to commune with her heart's desires and designs. There was one hazard beside which foul air and stray shots were negligible, a siege within this siege. To be insured against the mere mathematical risk that those designs, thus far so fortunate, might by any least mishap, in the snap of a finger, come to naught she would have taken chances with the hugest shell Grant or Porter could send. For six weeks Anna and Hilary--Anna not knowing if he was alive, he thinking her fifty leagues away--had been right here, hardly an hour's walk asunder. With what tempest of heart did the severed pair rise at each dawn, lie down each night; but Flora suffered no less. Let either of the two get but one glimpse, hear but one word, of the other, and--better a shell, slay whom it might.

On her granddaughter's brow Madame Valcour saw the murk of the storm. "The lightning must strike some time, you are thinking, eh?" she simpered.

"No, not necessarily--thanks to your aid!"

Thanks far more to Flora's subtlety and diligence. It refreshed Madame to see how well the fair strategist kept her purposes hid. Not even Irby called them--those he discerned--hers. In any case, at any time, any possessive but my or mine, or my or mine on any lip but his, angered him. Wise Flora, whenever she alluded to their holding of the plighted ones apart, named the scheme his till that cloyed, and then "ours" in a way that made it more richly his, even when--clearly to Madame, dimly to him, exasperatingly to both--her wiles for its success--woven around his cousin--became purely feminine blandishments for purely feminine ends. In her own mind she accorded Irby only the same partnership of aims which she contemptuously shared with the grandam, who, like Irby, still harped on assets, on that estate over in Louisiana which every one else, save his uncle, had all but forgotten. The plantation and its slaves were still Irby's objective, and though Flora was no less so, any chance that for jealousy of her and Hilary he might throw Anna into Hilary's arms, was offset by his evident conviction that the estate would in that moment be lost to him and that no estate meant no Flora. Madame kept that before him and he thanked and loathed her accordingly.

Flora's subtlety and diligence, yes, indeed. By skill in phrases and silences, by truth misshapen, by flatteries daintily fitted, artfully distributed, never overdone; by a certain slow, basal co-operation from Irby (his getting Mandeville sent out by Pemberton with secret despatches to Johnston, for example), by a deft touch now and then from Madame, by this fine pertinacity of luck, and by a sweet new charity of speech and her kindness of ministration on every side, the pretty schemer had everybody blunderin

g into her hand, even to the extent of keeping the three Callenders convinced that Kincaid's Battery had been cut off at Big Black Bridge and had gone, after all, to Mobile. No wonder she inwardly trembled.

And there was yet another reason: since coming into Vicksburg, all unaware yet why Anna so inordinately prized the old dagger, she had told her where it still lay hid in Callender House. To a battery lad who had been there on the night of the weapon's disappearance and who had died in her arms at Champion's Hill, she had imputed a confession that, having found the moving panel, a soldier boy's pure wantonness had prompted him to the act which, in fact, only she had committed. So she had set Anna's whole soul upon getting back to New Orleans to regain the trinket-treasure and somehow get out with it to Mobile, imperiled Mobile, where now, if on earth anywhere, her hope was to find Hilary Kincaid.

Does it not tax all patience, that no better intuition of heart, no frenzy of true love in either Hilary or Anna--suffering the frenzies they did--should have taught them to rend the poor web that held them separate almost within the sound of each other's cry? No, not when we consider other sounds, surrounding conditions: miles and miles of riflemen and gunners in so constant a whirlwind of destruction and anguish that men like Maxime Lafontaine and Sam Gibbs went into open hysterics at their guns, and even while sleeping on their arms, under humming bullets and crashing shells and over mines ready to be sprung, sobbed and shivered like babes, aware in their slumbers that they might "die before they waked." In the town unearthly bowlings and volcanic thunders, close overhead, cried havoc in every street, at every cave door. There Anna, in low daily fevers, with her "heart in New Orleans," had to be "kept quiet" by Miranda and Constance, the latter as widowed as Anna, wondering whether "Steve was alive or not."

This is a history of hearts. Yet, time flying as it does, the wild fightings even in those hearts, the famishing, down-breaking sieges in them, must largely be left untold--Hilary's, Anna's, Flora's, all. Kincaid was in greater temptation than he knew. Many a battery boy, sick, sound or wounded--Charlie for one--saw it more plainly than he. Anna, supposed to be far away and away by choice, was still under the whole command's impeachment, while Flora, amid conditions that gave every week the passional value of a peacetime year, was here at hand, an ever-ministering angel to them and to their hero; yet they never included him and Flora in one thought together but to banish it, though with tender reverence. Behind a labored disguise of inattention they jealously watched lest the faintest blight or languor should mar, in him, the perfect bloom of that invincible faith to, and faith in, the faithless Anna, which alone could satisfy their worship of him. Care for these watchers brought the two much together, and in every private moment they talked of the third one; Flora still fine in the role of Anna's devotee and Hilary's "pilot," rich in long-thought-out fabrications, but giving forth only what was wrung from her and parting with each word as if it cost her a pang. Starving and sickening, fighting and falling, the haggard boys watched; yet so faultless was the maiden's art that when in a fury of affright at the risks of time she one day forced their commander to see her heart's starvation for him the battery saw nothing, and even to him she yet appeared faultless in modesty and utterly, marvelously, splendidly ignorant of what she had done.

"Guide right!" he mused alone. "At last, H.K., your nickname's got a meaning worth living up to!"

While he mused, Flora, enraged both for him and against him, and with the rage burning in her eye and on her brow, stood before her seated grandmother, mutely giving gaze for gaze until the elder knew.

The old woman resumed her needle. "And all you have for it," was the first word, "is his pity, eh?"

"Wait!" murmured the girl. "I will win yet, if I have to lose--"

"Yes?" skeptically simpered the grandam, "--have to lose yourself to do it?"

The two gazed again until the maiden quietly nodded and her senior sprang half up:

"No, no! ah, no-no-no! There's a crime awaiting you, but not that! Oh, no, you are no such fool!"

"No?" The girl came near, bent low and with dancing eyes said, "I'll be fool enough to lead him on till his sense of honor--"

"Sense of--oh, ho, ho!"

"Sense of his honor and mine--will make him my prisoner. Or else--!" The speaker's eyes burned. Her bosom rose and fell.

"Yes," said the seated one--to her needle--"or else his sense that Charlie--My God! don't pinch my ear off!"

"Happy thought," laughed Flora, letting go, "but a very poor guess."

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