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   Chapter 63 THE IRON-CLAD OATH

Kincaid's Battery By George Washington Cable Characters: 5141

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

Under Anna's passive air lay a vivid alertness to every fact in range of eye or ear.

Any least thing now might tip the scale for life or death, and while at the head of the veranda steps she spoke of happiness her distressed thought was of Hilary's madcap audacity, how near at hand he might be even then, under what fearful risk of recognition and capture. She was keenly glad to hear two men complain that the guard about the house and grounds was to-day a new one awkward to the task. Of less weight now it seemed that out on the river the despatch-boat had shifted her berth down-stream and with steam up lay where the first few wheel turns would put her out of sight. Indoors, where there was much official activity, it relieved her to see that neither Hilary's absence nor her coming counted large in the common regard. The brace of big generals were in the library across the hall, busy on some affair much larger than this of "ourn."

The word was the old coachman Israel's. What a tender joy it was to find him in the wretched drawing-room trying to make it decent for her and dropping his tears as openly as the maid. With what a grace, yet how boldly, he shut the door between them and blue authority. While the girl arranged on a table, for Anna's use, a basket of needlework brought with them he honestly confessed his Union loyalty, yet hurriedly, under his breath, bade Anna not despair, and avowed a devotion to the safety and comfort of "ole mahs's and mis's sweet baby" as then and forever his higher law. He was still autocrat of the basement, dropsied with the favor of colonels and generals, deferential to "folks," but a past-master in taking liberties with things. As he talked he so corrected the maid's arrangement of the screen that the ugly hole in the wall was shut from the view of visitors, though left in range of Anna's work-table, and as Anna rose at a tap on the door, with the gentle ceremony of the old home he let in Doctor Sevier and Colonel Greenleaf and shut himself out.

"Anna," began the Doctor, "There's very little belief here that you're involved in this thing."

"Why, then," archly said Anna, "who is?"

"Ah, that's the riddle. But they say if you'll just take the oath of allegiance--"

Anna started so abruptly as to imperil her table. Her color came and her voice dropped to its lowest note as she said between long breaths: "No!--no!--no!"

But the Doctor spoke on:

"They believe that if you take it you'll keep it, and they say that the moment you take it you may go free, here or anywhere--to Mobil

e if you wish."

Again Anna flinched: "Mobile!" she murmured, and then lifting her eyes to Greenleaf's, repeated, "No! No, not for my life. Better Ship Island."

Greenleaf reddened. "Anna," put in the Doctor, but she lifted a hand:--

"They've never offered it to you, Doctor? H-oh! They'd as soon think of asking one of our generals. They'd almost as soon"--the corners of her lips hinted a smile--"ask Hilary Kincaid."

"I've never advised any one against it, Anna."

"Well, I do!--every God-fearing Southern man and woman. A woman is all I am and I may be short-sighted, narrow, and foolish, but--Oh, Colonel Greenleaf, you shouldn't have let Doctor Sevier take this burden for you. It's hard enough--"

The Doctor intervened: "Anna, dear, this old friend of yours"--laying a finger on Greenleaf--"is in a tight place. Both you and Hilary--"

"Yes, I know, and I know it's not fair to him. Lieutenant--Colonel, I mean, pardon me!--you sha'n't be under odium for my sake or his. As far as I stand accused I must stand alone. The one who must go free is that mere child Victorine, on her pass, to-day, this morning. When I hear the parting gun of that boat down yonder I want to know by it that Victorine is safely on her way to Mobile, as she would be had she not been my messenger yesterday."

"She carried nothing but a message?"

"Nothing but a piece of writing--mine! Colonel, I tell you faithfully, whatever Major Kincaid broke prison with was not brought here yesterday by any one and was never in Victorine's hands."

"Nor in yours, either?" kindly asked Greenleaf.

Anna caught her breath and went redder than ever. Doctor Sevier stirred to speak, but Anna's maid gave her a soft thrust, pointed behind the screen, and covered a bashful smile with her apron. Anna's blush became one of mirth. Her eyes went now to the Doctor and again to the broken wall.

"Israel!" she laughed, "why do you enter--?"

"On'y fitten' way, missie. House so full o' comin' and goin', and me havin' dis cullud man wid me."

Out on the basement ladder, at the ragged gap of Israel's "on'y fittin' way," was visible, to prove his word, another man's head, white-turbaned like his own, and two dark limy hands passing in a pail of mortar. Welcome distraction. True, Greenleaf's luckless question still stood unanswered, but just then an orderly summoned him to the busy generals and spoke aside to Doctor Sevier.

"Miss Valcour," explained the Doctor to Anna.

"Oh, Doctor," she pleaded, "I want to see her! Beg them, won't you, to let her in?"

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