In Mobile the exiles had learned the true whereabouts of the brigade, and of a battery then called Bartleson’s as often as Kincaid’s by a public which had half forgotten the seemingly well-established fact of Hilary’s death. Therein was no new shock. The new shock had come when, as the three waited for telegrams, they stood before a vast ironclad still on the ways but offering splendid protection from Farragut’s wooden terrors if only it could be completed, yet on which work had ceased for lack of funds though a greater part of the needed amount, already put up, lay idle solely because it could not be dragged up to a total that would justify its outlay.
“How much does it fall short?” asked Anna with a heart at full stop, and the pounding shock came when the shortage proved less than the missing proceeds of the bazaar. For there heaved up the problem, whether to pass on in the blind hope of finding her heart’s own, or to turn instead and seek the two detectives and the salvation of a city. This was the dilemma which in the last few days had torn half the life out of her and, more gravely than she knew, was threatening the remnant.
Constance and Miranda yearned, yet did not dare, to urge the latter choice. They talked it over covertly on the back seat of the carriage, Anna sitting bravely in front with the young “web-foot,” as their wheels next day plodded dustily westward out of Clinton. Hilary would never be found, of course; and if found how would he explain why he, coming through whatever vicissitudes, he the ever ready, resourceful and daring, he the men’s and ladies’ man in one, whom to look upon drew into his service whoever looked, had for twelve months failed to get so much as one spoken or written word to Anna Callender; to their heart-broken Nan, the daily sight of whose sufferings had sharpened their wits and strung their hearts to blame whoever, on any theory, could be blamed. Undoubtedly he might have some dazzling explanation ready, but that explanation they two must first get of him before she should know that her dead was risen.
Our travellers were minus their outriders now. At dawn the squad, leaving tender apologies in the night’s stopping-place, had left the ladies also, not foreseeing that demoralized servants would keep them there with torturing delays long into the forenoon. When at length the three followed they found highways in ruin, hoof-deep in dust and no longer safe from blue scouts, while their infantry boy proved as innocent of road wisdom as they, and on lonely by-ways led them astray for hours. We may picture their bodily and mental distress to hear, at a plantation house whose hospitality they craved when the day was near its end, that they were still but nine miles from Clinton with eleven yet between them and Big Black Bridge.
Yet they could have wept for thanks as readily as for chagrin or fatigue, so kindly were they taken in, so stirring was the next word of news.