“You see they’re under way?” asked Anna.
Yes, Miranda saw, and sighed with the questioner. For there, once more—low crouched, war-painted and gliding like the red savages so many of them were named for, the tall ones stripped of all their upper spars, but with the pink spot of wrath flickering at every masthead—came the ships of Farragut.
The two women could not count them, so straight on were they headed, but a man near the window said there were seven large and seven less, lashed small to large in pairs. Yet other counting they did, for now out of Sand Island Channel, just west of the ships, came a shorter line—one, two, three, four strange barely discernible things, submerged like crocodiles, a hump on each of the first two, two humps on each of the others, crossed the fleet’s course and led the van on the sunward side to bring themselves first and nearest to Morgan, its water-battery, and the Tennessee.
Anna sighed while to Miranda the man overflowed with information. Ah, ah! in Hampton Roads the Virginia had barely coped with one of those horrors, of one hump, two guns; while here came four, whose humps were six and their giant rifles twelve.
“Twenty-two guns in our whole flotilla,” the man was saying to Miranda, “and they’ve got nearly two hundred.” The anchor was up. Gently the boat’s engines held her against the flood-tide. The man had turned to add some word, when from the land side of Gaines a single columbiad roared and a huge shell screamed off into the investing entrenchments. Then some lighter guns, thirty-twos, twenty-fours, cracked and rang, and the foe replied. His shells burst over and in the fort, and a cloud of white and brown smoke rolled eastward, veiling both this scene and the remoter, seaward, silent, but far more momentous one of Fort Morgan, the fleet, and the Tennessee.
The boat crept southward into the cloud, where only Gaines was dimly visible, flashing and howling landward. Irby was in that flashing. Steve was back yonder in Powell with Kincaid’s Battery. Through Steve, present at the reading of a will made at Vicksburg the day after Hilary’s capture there, Irby had just notified Anna, for Hilary, that their uncle had left everything to him, Adolphe. She hoped it was true, but for once in her life had doubts without discomfort. How idly the mind can drift in fateful moments. The bell tapped for six. As it did so the two watchers descried through a rift in the smoke the Tennessee signaling her grim litter, and the four crawling forward to meet the ships. Again the smoke closed in, but the small boat stole through it and hovered at its edge while the minutes passed and the foe came on. How plain to be seen was each pair, how familiar some of those taller shapes!
“The Brooklyn, ’Randa, right in front. And there again is the admiral’s flag, on the Hartford. And there, with her topmasts down, is the Richmond—oh, ‘Ran’, it’s the same bad dream once more!”