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   Chapter 61 THE FLAG-OF-TRUCE BOAT

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 13715

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


September was in its first week. The news of Vicksburg--and Port Hudson--ah, yes, and Gettysburg!--was sixty days old.

From Southern Mississippi and East Louisiana all the grays who marched under the slanting bayonet or beside the cannon's wheel were gone. Left were only the "citizen" with his family and slaves, the post quartermaster and commissary, the conscript-officer, the trading Jew, the tax-in-kind collector, the hiding deserter, the jayhawker, a few wounded boys on furlough, and Harper's cavalry. Throughout the Delta and widely about its grief-broken, discrowned, beggared, shame-crazed, brow-beaten Crescent City the giddying heat quaked visibly over the high corn, cotton, and cane, up and down the broken levees and ruined highways, empty by-ways, and grass-grown railways, on charred bridges, felled groves, and long burnt fence lines. The deep, moss-draped, vine-tangled swamps were dry.

So quivered the same heat in the city's empty thoroughfares. Flowers rioted in the unkept gardens. The cicada's frying note fried hotter than ever. Dazzling thunder-heads towered in the upper blue and stood like snow mountains of a vaster world. The very snake coiled in the shade. The spiced air gathered no freshness from the furious, infrequent showers, the pavements burned the feet, and the blue "Yank" (whom there no one dared call so by word or look), so stoutly clad, so uncouthly misfitted, slept at noon face downward in the high grass under the trees of the public squares preempted by his tents, or with piece loaded and bayonet fixed slowly paced to and fro in the scant shade of some confiscated office-building, from whose upper windows gray captives looked down, one of them being "the ladies' man."

Not known of his keepers by that name, though as the famous Major Kincaid of Kincaid's Battery (the latter at Mobile with new guns), all July and August he had been of those who looked down from such windows; looked down often and long, yet never descried one rippling fold of one gossamer flounce of a single specimen of those far-compassionated "ladies of New Orleans," one of whom, all that same time, was Anna Callender. No proved spy, she, no incarcerated prisoner, yet the most gravely warned, though gentlest, suspect in all the recalcitrant city.

Neither in those sixty days had Anna seen him. The blue sentries let no one pass in sight of that sort of windows. "Permit?" She had not sought it, Some one in gold lace called her "blamed lucky" to enjoy the ordinary permissions accorded Tom, Dick, and Harry. Indeed Tom, Dick, and Harry were freer than she. By reason of hints caught from her in wanderings of her mind on the boat, in dreams of a great service to be done for Dixie, the one spot where she most yearned to go and to be was forbidden her, and not yet had she been allowed to rest her hungry eyes on Callender House. Worse than idle, therefore, perilous for both of them and for any dream of great service, would it have been even to name the name of Hilary Kincaid.

What torture the double ban, the two interlocked privations! Yonder a city, little sister of New Orleans, still mutely hoping to be saved, here Hilary alive again, though Anna still unwitting whether she should love and live or doubt and die. Yet what would they say when they should meet? How could either explain? Surely, we think, love would have found a way; but while beyond each other's sight and hearing, no way could Hilary, at least, descry.

To him it seemed impossible to speak to her--even to Fred Greenleaf had Fred been there!--without betraying another maiden, one who had sealed his lips forever by confessing a heart which had as much--had more right to love than he to live. True, Anna, above all, had right to live, to love, to know; but in simplest honor to commonest manhood, in simplest manhood's honor to all womankind, to Flora, to Anna herself, this knowledge should come from any other human tongue rather than from his. From Anna he needed no explanation. That most mysteriously she should twice have defaulted as keeper of sacred treasure; that she stood long accused, by those who would most gladly have scouted the charge, of leanings to another suitor, a suitor in the blue, and of sympathies, nay, services, treasonous to the ragged standards of the gray; that he had himself found her in the enemy's lines, carried there by her own steps, and accepting captivity without a murmur, ah, what were such light-as-air trials of true love's faith while she was still Anna Callender, that Anna from whom one breath saying, "I am true," would outweigh all a world could show or surmise in accusation?

And Anna: What could she say after what she had seen? Could she tell him--with Flora, as it were, still in his arms--could she explain that she had been seeking him to cast herself there? Or if she stood mute until he should speak, what could he say to count one heart-throb against what she had seen? Oh, before God! before God! it was not jealousy that could make her dumb or deaf to either of them. She confessed its pangs. Yes! yes! against both of them, when she remembered certain things or forgot this and that, it raged in her heart, tingled in the farthest reach of her starved and fever-dried veins. Yet to God himself, to whom alone she told it, to God himself she protested on her knees it did not, should not, could not rule her. What right had she to give it room? Had she not discerned from the beginning that those two were each other's by natural destiny? Was it not well, was it not God-sent to all three, that in due time, before too late, he and she--that other, resplendent she--should be tried upon each other alone--together? Always hitherto she, Anna, had in some way, some degree, intervened, by some chance been thrust and held between them; but at length nature, destiny, had all but prevailed, when once more she--stubbornly astray from that far mission of a city's rescue so plainly hers--had crashed in between to the shame and woe of all, to the gain of no cause, no soul, no sweet influence in all love's universe. Now, meeting Hilary, what might she do or say?

One thing! Bid him, on exchange or escape--if Heaven should grant the latter--find again Flora, and in her companionship, at last unhindered, choose! Yes, that would be justice and wisdom, mercy and true love, all in one. But could she do it, say it? She sprang up in bed to answer, "No-o-o!" no, she was no bloodless fool, she was a woman! Oh, God of mercy and true love, no! For reasons invincible, no! but most of all for one reason, one doubt, vile jealousy's cure and despair's antidote, slow to take form but growing as her strength revived, clear at last and all-sufficing; a doubt infinitely easier, simpler, kinder, and more blessed than to doubt true love. Nay, no doubt, but a belief! the rati

onal, life-restoring belief, that in that awful hour of twilight between the hosts, of twilight and delirium, what she had seemed to see she had but seemed to see. Not all, ah, no, not all! Hilary alive again and grappling with death to come at her call had been real, proved real; the rest a spectre of her fevered brain! Meeting him now--and, oh, to meet him now!--there should be no questionings or explainings, but while he poured forth a love unsullied and unshaken she, scarce harkening, would with battle haste tell him, her life's commander, the one thing of value, outvaluing all mere lovers' love: The fact that behind a chimney-panel of Callender House, in its old trivial disguise, lay yet that long-lost fund pledged to Mobile's defense--by themselves as lovers, by poor war-wasted Kincaid's Battery, and by all its scattered sisters; the fund which must, as nearly on the instant as his and her daring could contrive, be recovered and borne thither for the unlocking of larger, fate-compelling resources of deliverance.

One day Victorine came to Anna with ecstasy in her almond eyes and much news on her lips. "To bigin small," she said, Flora and her grandmother had "arrive' back ag-ain" at dawn that morning! Oddly, while Anna forced a smile, her visitor's eyes narrowed and her lips tightened. So they sat, Anna's smile fading out while her soul's troubles inwardly burned afresh, Victorine's look growing into clearer English than her Creole tongue could have spoken. "I trust her no more," it said. "Long have I doubted her, and should have told you sooner but for--Charlie; but now, dead in love as you know me still to be, you have my conviction. That is all for the present. There is better news."

The ecstasy gleamed again and she gave her second item. These weeks she had been seeking, for herself and a guardian aunt, a passport into the Confederacy and lo! here it lay in her pretty hand.

"Deztitution!" she joyfully confessed to be the plea on which it had been procured--by Doctor Sevier through Colonel--guess!--"Grinleaf!--juz' riturn'" from service in the field.

And how were the destitute pair to go?

Ah! did Anna "rim-emb'r" a despatch-boat of unrivalled speed whose engines Hilary Kin--?

Yes, ah, yes!

On which she and others had once--?

Yes, yes!

And which had been captured when the city fell? That boat was now lying off Callender House! Did Anna not know that her shattered home, so long merely the headquarters of a blue brigade, had lately become of large, though very quiet, importance as a rendezvous of big generals who by starlight paced its overgrown garden alleys debating and planning something of great moment? Doctor Sevier had found that out and had charged Victorine to tell it with all secrecy to the biggest general in Mobile the instant she should reach there. For she was to go by that despatch-boat.

"Aw-dinner-illy," she said, a flag-of-truce craft might be any old tub and would go the short way, from behind the city and across the lakes, not all round by the river and the Chandeleur Islands. But this time--that very morning--a score or so of Confederate prisoners (officers, for exchange) had been put aboard that boat, bound for Mobile. Plainly the whole affair was but a mask for reconnaissance, the boat, swiftest in all the Gulf, to report back at top speed by way of the lakes. But!--the aunt would not go at all! Never having been a mile from her door, she was begging off in a palsy of fright, and here was the niece with a deep plot--ample source of her ecstasy--a plot for Anna, duly disguised, to go in the aunt's place, back to freedom, Dixie, and the arms of Constance and Miranda.

Anna trembled. She could lovingly call the fond schemer, over and over, a brave, rash, generous little heroine and lay caresses on her twice and again, but to know whether this was Heaven's leading was beyond her. She paced the room. She clasped her brow. A full half of her own great purpose (great to her at least) seemed all at once as good as achieved, yet it was but the second half, as useless without the first as half a bridge on the far side of the flood. "I cannot go!" she moaned. For the first half was Hilary, and he--she saw it without asking--was on this cartel of exchange.

Gently she came and took her rescuer's hands: "Dear child! If--if while there was yet time--I had only got a certain word to--him--you know? But, ah, me! I keep it idle yet; a secret, Victorine, a secret worth our three lives! oh, three times three hundred lives! Even now--"

"Give it me, Anna! Give it! Give it me, that sick-rate! I'll take it him!"

Anna shook her head: "Ah, if you could--in time! Or even--even without him, letting him go, if just you and I--Come!" They walked to and fro in embrace: "Dear, our front drawing-room, so ruined, you know, by that shell, last year--"

"Ah, the front? no! The behine, yes, with those two hole' of the shell and with thad beegue hole in the floor where it cadge fiah."

"Victorine, I could go--with you--in that boat, if only I could be for one minute in that old empty front room alone."

Victorine halted and sadly tossed a hand: "Ah! h-amptee, yes, both the front and the back--till yes-the-day! This morning, the front, no! Juz' sinze laz' week they 'ave brick' up bitwin them cloze by that burned hole, to make of the front an office, and now the front 't is o'cupy!"

"Oh, not as an office, I hope?"

"Worse! The worse that can be! They 'ave stop' five prisoner' from the boat and put them yondeh. Since an hour Col-on-el Grinleaf he tol' me that--and she's ad the bottom, that Flora! Bicause--" The speaker gazed. Anna was all joy.

"Because what?" demanded Anna, "because Hil--?"

"Yaas! bicause he's one of them! Ringgleadeh! I dunno, me, what is that, but tha'z what he's accuse'--ringg-leadingg!"

Still the oblivious Anna was glad. "It is Flora's doing," she gratefully cried. "She's done it! done it for us and our cause!"

"Ah-h! not if she know herseff!"

Anna laughed the discussion down: "Come, dear, come! the whole thing opens to me clear and wide!"

Not so clear or wide as she thought. True, the suffering Flora was doing this, in desperate haste; but not for Anna, if she knew herself. Yet when Anna, in equal haste, made a certain minute, lengthy writing and, assisted by that unshaken devotee, her maid, and by Victorine, baked five small cakes most laughably alike (with the writing in ore) and laid them beside some plainer food in a pretty basket, the way still seemed wide enough for patriotism.

Now if some one would but grant Victorine leave to bestow this basket! As she left Anna she gave her pledge to seek this favor of any one else rather than of Greenleaf; which pledge she promptly broke, with a success that fully reassured her cheerful conscience.

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