TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
A L L E G R O - STAVE I
WERE I, like N I O B E, all tears - I’d weep,
And swell the Water of the mighty Deep:
If chang’d like A R E T H U S A to a Stream,
In Tears I’d flow - and Beauty make my Theme.
Curse the Madness of the Times - and those
Who made America our fellest Foes! . . .
The TEARS of the FOOT GUARDS
upon their DEPARTURE for AMERICA
written by an ENSIGN of the ARMY
Nos PATRIAM FUGIMUS
Nos DULCIA LINQUIMUS
O, I must tell you this dear Reader, I am on the Page. I, the Voice, a character in this play with these Contestants. Me, invisible, in and out their heads as they strive, seek, and bend. And the Trick is which of us is speaking, for I will Insert, Intercede and Digress. And Speak and Speak and Speak, breaking Boundaries. For this is the way of it – REVOLUTION – the mighty clash! That you’re flummoxed or must LOOK IT UP . . . I care not. For this, in truth, a WORLD foreign to your Conventions; I hijack a History ye do not know . . . And to ye Chroniclers, Thread-Counters, and Sabbath Day Thespians, I say – get into your Beer and OBJECT NOT – ‘tis not bloody SCRIPTURE I profane. But to all, linger here, for these poor Characters are but You. Yes, you, in your Conceits, Hopes, and Vanities. A SYMPHONEY! That it prick your Discomforts . . . Non possunt placeto omnibus.
A L L E G R O
The British Transport Fleet at Sea
S T A V E I
Below deck was stinking. Tar and pitch and the sour of human sweat, magnified by the heat and made more miserable by the woman weeping. A sound that came from nowhere and everywhere and mingled with the rush against the transport’s hull. It hung like Death about the soldiers feigning sleep, checked by its pitiful sound. They feared it like contagion. Should it seep too long into their ears, they too may be taken down, taken quickly and without warning like the dead soldier the woman wept over. For there was nowhere to go. No long street to bend around a corner ‘til the discomfort’s out of sight. No fields of great space to put distance between them and the trouble. These were luxuries of land sorely missed on a crossing taken far too long. There – the ship only, and though part of a great fleet, was their island and cage, and all they had in the world. And now, in the dark, save for a single beam of moonglow through the hatch, they curled up pretending not to hear as they rocked upon the midnight waters.
Geordie MacEachran on his bedding, his long hair, matted and greasy, stuffed between his ears and pressed hands. Little good it did. No good, in fact. Eyes can be shut. The nose can be pinched. But what squelches sound? A bit of tow coated in fat? A warm dab of wax? Sound penetrates always, not only heard but felt. Even the deaf feel it. It beats on the skin. It can knock a man down. For Sound is Life, thus more than Light. At the dawn, the morning is not alive until there is Sound. And if at noon on the fairest day, the heart would chill if suddenly there was Dead Silence. Light delivers an object’s reflection, while Sound is what it is. And yet, it can be a Liar. Men hear what they wish to hear. They hear what is not said. They can be moved. They can be deceived. They can be rallied. They can be broken. To a Believer, a rumbling from the sky can be the voice of God. To the Enlightened, the acoustics of thunder. And so her lament, like that rumbling, stirred a dread that the end can take you when you least expect it. That when you are fit as a fiddle and right with the world and survived all the travails that should have laid you low, you’re struck at the height of your glory, at the time when your safety is most seemingly secure. Providence? Nature? Whatever the flow, Geordie believed in Fate, be it God or the Universe’s Gears. What is, is and is meant to be. And it can come in an instant – Good and Bad.
Upon the deck, Twelve Bells. Geordie prayed the woman would cry herself to sleep. He jerked and speared his squadmate with his knee.
“Timmy,” Geordie whispered.
“Let it be.” Tim Crotty still like the dead.
Geordie ached on the hard, raw deck. The woman’s tears set children to whimpering. Mothers held them tight next to their soldier husbands. They were his Majesty’s Foot Guards sailing to a just war they cannot lose.
One of us dead.
He pressed against the hull and listened. Honour, it whispered. Glory. To be a part of a truly fine thing . . . What do civilians know of Honour, smug in their parlors, living for themselves? What do they know of this poor, dead fellow come all this way in defense of them?
A messmate before a shipmate; a shipmate before a stranger; a stranger before a dog; a dog before a soldier.
A dog before a soldier –
Our ‘prentice’ Tom may now refuse
To wipe his scoundrel Master’s Shoes
For now he’s free to sing and play
Over the Hills and far away.
Over the Hills and O’er the Main
To Flanders, Portugal and Spain
King George commands and we’ll obey
Over the Hills and far away . . .
So far away in time, in space. They’d sung it as they marched from London to Spithead, each company in their turn, a thousand Foot Guards, officers and men who had paraded before his Majesty on Wimbledon Common – the Composite Brigade for American Service, clean and smart in their Campaign Dress – grenadier bearskins stored away for jaunty hatt-caps. Officers in privates’ coats without emblems of rank. Spontoons and halberds exchanged for fusils. Lord Loudoun, the Household Commander and General Mathew, the detachment’s brigadier, planned for more radical alterations from lessons learned in the French and Indian War. His Majesty would not hear of it, not while his Guards remained in London. “Once the Detachment is given into your Hands,” Loudoun wrote General Mathew, “I shall ask no Questions.”
How eager they were. Every man a volunteer. None pressed into service, and if permitted, every Guardsman would go. So to compromise, every seventh man was drafted from each company in the three regiments. Lucky seventh man. Others felt cheated. Yet, none angrier than those who shipped to fight the rebels whom they hated. The Mob insults the King, and to insult the King is to insult his Guards, and the Guards would bear no insult. The Mob – crush them. Good Americans need not fear. They come as liberators and defenders of Constitutional Faith. Good Americans welcome them.
Are there good Americans?
Such liberality . . .
But her sobs . . . A haunting. Then a ghost of hobnails clicking down from the hatch. She caught her breath.
“Mrs. Gill,” the surgeon’s truncated voice in his truncated manner. “You must avail yourself to sleep.”
She whispered something.
“Mrs. Gill, we should prepare him for the morning.”
“Then you must try to sleep. Captain Bourne asked I give you this.”
“What is it?”
“Laudanum, ma-am. It will provide relief.”
Billy Gill and his pretty wife, Obedience. Poor fellow, took his last look at the sky and never knew it, then his groin swells bright and bursts. How did he imagine his life would end? With what value did he fill that space? And me?
I’m a good soldier.
His regimental hung on a rack peg – his second issue cut short, stripped of its taping and turned inside-out to protect it from tar and pitch.
No common private man, thought Geordie. Cock-of-the-Walk!
Billy Gill’s dead.
“Cock-of-the-Walk,” his whisper.
Do your duty. Be clean. And God will protect you . . . for the Colours, for their Honour. Without them, you’re nothing. You were nothing . . .
He ‘took the shilling’ on a breezy Monday fourteen years to the day, at a booth with three companions on the Kirkcaldy fairground downing the first of many pints of barley ale – threadbare clowns to respectable persons and a bunch of teuchters to everyone else. A sound of drums spun him around. On the edge of the Common a squad of British soldiers, each man with the finest cocked hat and regimentals of scarlet. Not common Madder Red of recruiting parties up from Yorkshire looking for labourers and broke tradesmen. These soldiers were something else. A drummer boy resplendent in his white regimental with blue taping of gold fleur-de-lys, beat upon a drum bearing the royal arms.
“Dè tha seo?” moaned Jamie Richie, one of Geordie’s companions in Gaelic. “Bloodybacks,” he spat and wiped his snotty nose on the sleeve of his faded green coat. “Gobshites and saccinocks.”
“Give heed,” a sergeant cried, stepping forward. “Give heed men of Lang Toun, for my call is not for every man. Come closer with care, for it is risky business to have your worth measured and found wanting. But if any of you aspire to be gentlemen, to be men of honour; if ravages of civilian life are dealing with you cruelly, draining you of your strength for too little wages and gnawing at your belly for lack of food, this could be the day sent by Providence as your salvation. Isn’t that right, MacCaskie?”
“You should know, Sergeant Grant,” said a private in line. “Yourself from Dundee.”
“Aye, mah-self from Dundee. And you know it too, MacCaskie.”
“Aye, Sergeant. I once was a threadbare clown,” the private replied wholly pleased with his station. “I feel like a prince now.”
“And what makes for such Conceit, MacCaskie? That elegant regimental tailored just for you?”
“No, Sergeant, though I could never acquire such a coat on my labourer’s wages.”
“Then, is it the weight of your purse, MacCaskie?”
“No Sergeant, though I have half a crown I had forgotten was in my pocket.”
“Then is it that weapon you hold and the power of Life and Death?”
“No, sergeant. Though with a firelock such as this, I shrink from no man.”
“Then what produces your contentment, MacCaskie?”
“I have honour.”
“What gives you honour?”
“I’m a Guardsman in the Third.”
“‘A Guardsman in the Third,’” the sergeant’s ring.
The sergeant nodded as if MacCaskie had revealed a truth only the chosen could fathom.
“You see before you no common foot, but the flower of his Majesty’s personal host – soldiers of the Third Regiment of Foot Guards! The very same raised by the Marquis of Argyll to guard King James. Aye, the Foot Guards are the flower of the field, and the Third is the stamen on the blossom. See how the Long Land firelock, finest weapon in the world, fits perfectly the hand of her husband.”
“Tha iad fuck asal ris,” Jamie Richie whispered.
Geordie snorted, sloshing ale on his stitched-up trousers. Fallacious pride. His elbows speared through his coat sleeves. And he looked at the worn old town where even the best dressed were Beau-Nasty. He gulped his beer. Tonight he’ll be stinking like most nights. And now comes Providence slumming. He drained the tankard. An easy thing to do. The best reply to ‘wanting better’. For what does it get you but a knock on the chin . . . But that Coat – with its pewter buttons and white taping – a laird in such a coat – and the white wool waistcoat and breeches – and the black-buttoned white gaiters tight about the legs. Who’d dare trifle with such a dashing figure? No one here, for soldiers like this would never be here. Come away, Providence called, and Providence, his maid, spinning her Threads.
“You, young man.” The sergeant pointed to a husky boy behind Geordie. “Yes, you. Come here, lad.” The sergeant swept off his silver-laced hat and placed it on the boy’s head. “See, he’s transformed.”
Jamie Richie, drunk, caterwauled:
“Cope sent a challenge frae Dunbar, say’n ‘Charlie meet me an’ye daur;
An’ I’ll learn ye the airt o’ war, if ye’ll meet me in the morning.’
O hey! Johnnie Cope . . .”
The sergeant spun on him and at arm’s length, pointed a gloved finger in the manner of a pistol touching the tip of Jamie’s nose. “You are a pissing little gobshite,” he said calmly. “You’re not fit to scrape dung off a guardsman’s shoes. Our Neger band boys are lords compared to you. They are smarter and they are cleaner.” Jamie’s smile broke apart. “You see this man? Look at him. He’s not only small in stature but small in spirit. He mocks something grand he can never attain. He will be forever what he is now – a clown scratching about in a coat to make a scarecrow blush. Staying close to home for he hasn’t a farthing to get him any farther. And the pinnacle of his life is getting drunk, itching his fleas and laughing at his betters. He will rise no farther in the ranks of men, even worse, no farther in the estimation of his community. They know him to be the fool he is.”
The sergeant turned his back, discarding Jamie like rubbish. “You have seen recruiting sergeants before and will see them again. They prey upon the ignorant with empty promises of comfort and money. I’m not so mean a peddler, though these can be yours. I offer Glory; so when a man looks back at the end of life, he’ll know he has made himself worthwhile; that he was not content to live and die the same ignorant fellow he was when he came into this world. I’ll not induce a man to get drunk or press the king’s shilling into his hand. I’m not here to enlist the average man. If he desires soldiering, let him join a regular foot regiment. You have until tomorrow before we move on. You may find us at the Thrum & Tow.”
Geordie presented himself that night. They prodded his shoulders, his belly and arms, inspected his teeth, gave him the shilling and bought him many rounds. Next morning he headed south on Providence’s adventure never to see Kirkcaldy again. The same afternoon, Jamie Richie cut the sergeant’s throat and was hanged a fortnight later –
Poxy face Jamie as clear as day, Geordie’d not thought of him in years – those squinty eyes and crooked smile, the way they would pinch when he was up to the devil, and that mere twitch in his cheek before he’d cut someone for pleasure. A real ‘Tom Nero’. If ever a body deserved hanging . . . That was me, once.
He touched the Coat. Cock-of–the-Walk.
Obedience whimpered as the laudanum kicked in.
Casualty of War – one dead. Geordie would mourn him as a brother soldier while he still had time to mourn – the Americans with their long rifles. Had they all long rifles? The bastards shoot once and run – battalions of Jamie Richies, ignorant, mean and cruel, cutting off the legs of dogs and cock-shying for sport. How easy to hate them.
Mrs. Gill now silent and Geordie closed his eyes to defend the rights of free Britons –
Parliament – the King – a fine blanket, Patriotism, but he couldn’t fall asleep. Obedience Gill alone in the sickbay.