For reply despairing hands pointed her back toward the river, and there, as she and her groaning servants gazed, the great black masts and yards, with headway resumed and every ensign floating, loomed silently forth and began to pass the veranda. Down in the intervening garden, brightly self-contained among the pale stragglers there, appeared the one-armed reporter, with a younger brother in the weather-worn gray and red of Kincaid’s Battery. They waved a pocket-soiled letter and asked how to get in and up to her; but before she could do more than toss them a key there came, not from the ships but from close overhead under a blackening sky, one last, hideous roar and ear-splitting howl. The beautiful treasure-laden home heaved, quivered, lurched and settled again, the women shrieked and crouched or fell prone with covered heads, and a huge shell, sent by some pain-crazed fugitive from a gun across the river, and which had entered at the roof, exploded in the basement with a harrowing peal and filled every corner of the dwelling with blinding smoke and stifling dust.
Constance and Miranda met Anna groping and staggering out of the chaos. Unharmed, herself, and no one badly hurt? Ah, hear the sudden wail of that battery boy as he finds his one-armed brother! Anna kneels with him over the writhing form while women fly for the surgeon, and men, at her cry, hasten to improvise a litter. No idle song haunts her now, yet a clamoring whisper times itself with every pulsation of her bosom: “The letter? the letter?”
Pity kept it from her lips, even from her weeping eyes; yet somehow the fallen boy heard, but when he tried to answer she hushed him. “Oh, never mind that,” she said, wiping away the sweat of his agony, “it isn’t important at all.”
“Dropped it,” he gasped, and had dropped it where the shell had buried it forever.
Each for the other’s sake the lads rejected the hospital, with its risk of capture. The younger had the stricken one hurried off toward the railway and a refugee mother in the hills, Constance tenderly protesting until the surgeon murmured the truth:
“It’ll be all one to him by to-morrow.”