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首页 » 经典英文小说 » The Cavalier » V EIGHTEEN, NINETEEN, TWENTY
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On entering Hazlehurst I observed all about the railway-station a surprising amount of quartermaster's stores. A large part were cases of boots and shoes. Laden with such goods, a train of shabby box-cars stood facing south, its beggarly wood-burner engine sniffing and weeping, while the cork-legged conductor helped all hands wood up. Though homely, the picture was a stirring one. Up through the blue summer morning came the sun, bringing to mind the words of the dying Mirabeau, "If that is not God, at least it's his first cousin."

Even in the character of the goods there was eloquence, and not a drollery in the scene, not even an ugliness, but was touched, was rife, with the woe of a war whose burning walls were falling in on us. And outward, too, upon others; a few up-ended cottonbales leaned against each other ragged and idle, while women and babes starved for want of them in far-away Lancaster.

One of the cars furthest from the engine had no freight proper, only a number of trunks; and these were nearly hidden by the widely crinolined flounces of an elegant elderly lady who sat on the middle one. And now she, too, was hidden, and the wide doorway in the side of the car more than filled, by the fashionable gowns of three girls. On the ground below there stood a lieutenant in a homemade gray uniform, and at his back half a dozen big, slouching, barefoot boys squirted tobacco juice and gazed at the ladies. The officer scanned me, spoke to the ladies, scanned me again, and threw up an arm. "Ho--o! Come here! Hullo! Come here--if you please."

If he had not said please he should have ho'd and hullo'd in vain, but at that word I turned. Before I had covered half the distance I read New Orleans! my dear, dear old New Orleans! in every line of those ladies' draperies, and at twenty-five yards I saw one noble family likeness in all four of their sweet faces. Oh, but those three maidens were fair! and I could name each by her name at a glance: Camille, Cécile, Estelle; eighteen, nineteen, twenty!

There was a hush of attention among them as the lieutenant and I saluted. His left hand was gone at the wrist and the sleeve pinned back on itself. He asked my name; I told him. In the car there was a stir of deepening interest. I inquired if he was the post-quartermaster here. He was.

"Ain't you Major Harper's quartermaster-sergeant?" he asked.

"I am his clerk." In the car a flash of joy and then great decorum.

As he handed me a writing he glowed kindly. It proved to be from Major Harper; a requisition upon this officer for shoes and clothing; not for a brigade, regiment or company, but for me alone, from hat to shoes. I tendered it back silently, and saw that he knew its purport already from the Major, and that the ladies knew it from him. The good fellow looked quite happy a moment, but then reddened as they joyfully crowded the car's doorway to see me fitted!

"We can select out sev'l pair--" he began, but heard a puerile titter and lost his nerve. "Now, you boys that ain't got any business here, jest clair out!--Go! I tell you, aw I'll--" The boys loitered off toward the engine. "We can select out sev'l si-izes," he drawled, uncovering a box, "and fit you ove' in my office. You ain't so pow'ful long nor so pow'ful slim, but these-yeh gov'ment contrac's they seldom ev' allow fo' anybody so slim in the waist bein' so long in the, eh,--so, eh,--so long f'om thah down. But yet still, if you'll jest light off yo' hoss and come and look into this-yeh box--"

Hmm! yes! I wouldn't have got off my horse and leaned over that box to save the Confederacy. "I thank you, Lieutenant, but I can't stop. If you'll hand me up a jacket and pair of shoes I'll sign for them and go. I don't want a hat, but I reckon I'd as well include shoes, although really,--" I glanced down brazenly at the stirrup-leathers that so snugly hid my naked toes.

As the quartermaster lifted out a pair of brogans as broad as they were long, there came a cry of protestation from the freight-car group, that brought the entire herd of rustics from the woodpile and the locomotive. Miss Harper rose behind her nieces, tall, slender, dark, with keen black eyes as kind as they were penetrating. "My boy!" she cried, "you cannot wear those things!"

Camille, the youngest, whispered to her, whereupon she beckoned. "Oh!--oh, do come here!--Mr. Smith, I am the sister of Major Harper. You're from New Orleans? Does your mother live in Apollo Street?"

"Yes, madam, between Melpomene and Terpsichore."

"Richard Thorndyke Smith! My dear boy," she cried, while the nieces gasped at each other with gestures and looks all the way between Terpsichore and Melpomene, and then the four cried in chorus, "We know your mother!"

"We've got a letter for you from her!" exclaimed Camille.

"And a suit of unie-fawm!" called Cécile, with her Creole accent.

"We smuggled it through!" chanted the trio, ready to weep for virtuous joy. And then they clasped arms like the graces, about their aunt, and let her speak.

"We all helped your mother make your uniform," she said. "In the short time we've known her we've learned to love her dearly." With military brevity she told how they had unexpectedly got a pass and were just out of New Orleans--"poor New Orleans!" put in Estelle, the eldest, the pensive one; that they had come up from Pontchatoula yesterday and last night, and had thrown themselves on beds in the "hotel" yonder without venturing to disrobe, and so had let her brother pass within a few steps of them while they slept! "Telegraph? My dear boy, we came but ten miles an hour, but we outran our despatch!" Now they had telegraphed again, to Brookhaven, and thanks to the post-quartermaster, were going down there at once on this train. While this was being told something else was going on. The youngest niece, Camille, had put herself entirely out of sight. Now she reappeared with very rosy cheeks, saying, "Here's the letter."

My thanks were few and awkward, for there still hung to the missive a basting thread, and it was as warm as a nestling bird. I bent low--everybody was emotional in those days--kissed the fragrant thing, thrust it into my bosom, and blushed worse than Camille.

"Poor boy!" said the aunt. "It's the first line you've had for months. Your sweet mother wrote, but her letters were all intercepted, and the last time she was warned that next time she'd be dealt with according to military usage! I'm glad we could give you this one at once. We can't give you the uniform, for we--why, girls, what--why, what nonsense!"

Maybe I did not say vindictive things inside me just then! The three nieces had turned open-mouthed upon one another and sunk down upon their luggage with averted faces.

"I say we can't give it to you now," Miss Harper persisted, with a motherly smile; "we're wearing it ourselves. We've had no time to take it off. I couldn't get the boots off me last night. And even if you had the boots, the other things--"

"Aunt Martha!" moaned some one. "Well, in short," said the aunt, twinkling like her brother, "we can't deliver the goods, and--" She started as though some one had slapped her between the shoulder-blades. It was the engine caused it, whistling in the old, lawless way, putting a whoop, a howl, a scream and a wail into one. The young ladies quailed, the train jerked like several collisions, the bell began tardily to clang, and my steed whirled, cleared a packing case, whirled again, and stood facing the train, his eyes blazing, his nostrils flapping, not half so much frightened as insulted. The post-quartermaster waved to the ladies and they to us. For a last touch I lifted my cap high and backed my horse on drooping haunches--you've seen Buffalo Bill do it--and then, with a leap like a cricket's, and to a clapping of maidens' hands that made me whooping drunk, we stretched away, my horse and I, on a long smooth gallop, for Brookhaven.


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