Yet, for a brief spell, so deep are the ruts of habit, the city kept to its daily routine, limp and unmeaning though much of it had come to be. The milkman, of course, held to his furious round in his comical two-wheeled cart, whirling up to alley gates, shouting and ringing his big hand-bell. In all his tracks followed the hooded bread-cart, with its light-weight loaves for worthless money and with only the staggering news for lagnappe. Families ate breakfast, one hour and another, wherever there was food. Day cabmen and draymen trotted off to their curbstones; women turned to the dish-pan, the dust-pan, the beds, the broom; porters, clerks and merchants—the war-mill’s wasteful refuse and residuum, some as good as the gray army’s best, some poor enough—went to their idle counters, desks and sidewalks; the children to the public schools, the beggar to the church doorstep, physicians to their sick, the barkeeper to his mirrors and mint, and the pot-fisher to his catfish lines in the swollen, sweeping, empty harbor.
But besides the momentum of habit there was the official pledge to the people—Mayor Monroe’s and Commanding-General Lovell’s—that if they would but keep up this tread-mill gait, the moment the city was really in danger the wires of the new fire-alarm should strike the tidings from all her steeples. So the school teachers read Scripture and prayers and the children sang the “Bonnie Blue Flag,” while outside the omnibuses trundled, the one-mule street-cars tinkled and jogged and the bells hung mute.
Nevertheless a change was coming. Invisibly it worked in the general mind as that mind gradually took in the meanings of the case; but visibly it showed as, from some outpost down the river, General Lovell, (a sight to behold for the mud on him), came spurring at full speed by Callender House, up through the Creole Quarter and across wide Canal Street to the St. Charles. Now even more visibly it betrayed itself, where all through the heart of the town began aides, couriers and frowning adjutants to gallop from one significant point to another. Before long not a cab anywhere waited at its stand. Every one held an officer or two, if only an un-uniformed bank-officer or captain of police, and rattled up or down this street and that, taking corners at breakneck risks. That later the drays began to move was not so noticeable, for a dray was but a dray and they went off empty except for their drivers and sometimes a soldier with a musket and did not return. Moreover, as they went there began to be seen from the middle of almost any cross-street, in the sky out over the river front, here one, there another, yonder a third and fourth, upheaval of dense, unusual smoke, first on the hither side of the harbor, then on the far side, yet no fire-engines, hand or steam, rushed that way, nor any alarm sounded.
From the Valcours’ balcony Madame, gasping for good air after she and Flora had dressed Charlie’s wound, was startled to see one of those black columns soar aloft. But it was across the river, and she had barely turned within to mention it, when up the stair and in upon the three rushed Victorine, all tears, saying it was from the great dry-dock at Slaughter-House Point, which our own authorities had set afire.