TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
SCHERZO - STAVE XL
S T A V E
Sleet against the window awakening Obedience, like the Beating of the Bounds. She stretched, a long and lazy reach. No need to obey the Drum. Clean sheets and blankets and she, like a queen, splayed on a bed completely hers. Rain pestered the sill. You shall not come in.
The room was small, barely enough for the post bed and highboy that looked taller than it was for the low ceiling – a grenadier might knock his head especially where the roof sloped. But she liked the odd angle, particularly the single dormer where she could nestle on its window seat and look out to the Brooklyn Heights – her private view and countered any deficits. No deficits to her way of thinking, not even the wall crack near the highboy. Patina, she reasoned, wholly dignified of a New York granddame and would be so placed as an embellishment – a beauty mark to give the lady character. And it was hers with its furniture and fireplace, procured and paid for by Colonel Howard, but hers all the same. She worked for it. And to think, she had nearly turned Howard down. Sex – her first conclusion; the singing and the lessons pretence, an elaborate ruse by a Peer who in ’74 got a spinster in the Family Way in a barn and pressured to marry . . . And all men want to swive with her eventually. But he showed no interest other than her voice – that, it was clear, he wished to own. That, he can have, or rather she let him think he could have so long as he paid for it. An acceptable kind of whoring. And certainly not objectionable with a pregnant wife at home. But it was Jaruesha’s death convinced her.
She came back from her performance that night, still in make-up but in her own clothes, and made straight for the women’s barracks, not the summer kitchen night with Geordie she’d promised. Bess greeted her smoking a pipe and sitting on the landing, unable to stay in the same room “as them Bitches”.
“We’ve got work, you and me,” Bess said with a bucket of water, lavender soap and rags.
“Where is she?”
The cellar made for a cool, dry morgue, and Jaruesha on a table of rough cut boards that would have pestered any living body. Bess had combed her hair into a single slick braid and secured her jaw closed with a cloth tied at the top of her head. Lividity already with her face turning purple.
“They had tossed her in a corner,” Bess said. “So I put her here.”
Obedience, stolid behind the white mask, pressed the corner of her eye with a knuckle.
They undressed her, caringly, respectfully, but for all their care, violated what Jaruesha hid – great stretch marks and one breast considerably smaller than the other, lying lifeless and flat like their own dead beings. A frightful old burn ran from the top of her buttocks to the blades of her shoulders and another on the tops of her thighs.
“She had children,” Obedience said and washed Jaruesha’s fingers with an intimacy not granted in life. “Where are they?”
“Dead – two from the crib, one in a fall out a window, two in a building burned down.”
Obedience nodded. “Poor wretch – that explains it.”
“That she was a harridan? No, she was that to begin with . . . She was that . . . Maybe not so much if life been different.”
“You knew her long?”
“Our husbands joined the same year. When Mrs. Tree was your age, she was very pretty – the handsomest woman on the ration. Look what it did.”
“The drink killed her.”
“She couldn’t stand the feel in her own skin and benumbed it. Some people just born that way – born to do the things they do with no say. They just think they have a say . . . They try to have a say. And then Life comes down hard and they bend the way they naturally go, even if they don’t want to. And then beauty’s gone – worn out and tired of fighting. What else is there but drink? Everyone their Weakness.”
“I’ll not believe that.”
“Agh, we’re all brittle.”
“I will not believe that.” She worked up Jaruesha’s wrist. Such a big hand. “She saved me at Freehold. Pulled me under the wagon when Grace got hit. I’d be dead if she hadn’t. And I struck her –”
“She give you reason. If not you, then someone else . . . Better you than one of them bitches that hates her.” She sighed. “And here she ends. A cruel life and Tom Tree, though in the end even Jesus would’ve hit her. Shame to wash her cause they’ll throw her in some shit grave, least she’ll be clean when the chaplain reads over her. Tom Tree’ll want to lift the veil and kiss her.”
“He shouldn’t be allowed,” Obedience spat.
“Who are you to judge? Army life, my dear, makes us mean and ugly. Give a hand. Let’s turn her – ”
Obedience sat up in bed. The sound of the sleet lessened. She turned back the covers and stood; tugging the chemise to make sure it came down over her smooth rump. On the sheets were dried spots of blood.
That’s a surprise. Not been Regular since Billy’s death – But with the good food and rest . . . She and MacEachran must take care. Not that it mattered – now the brigade had gone into the Laurel Hill lines and Sir Henry preparing to take most of the army south . . .
MacEachran, she thought as the storm battered, and the women in the dingy barracks on salt pork and reconstituted cod. Must get Bess something, buy her some cheese or a pound of butter, better yet, a pair of wool stockings . . . Is he angry? Let him. To hell with army life. What’s she to do? Stay with him in the barracks? And if he’s killed . . .
She saw him two weeks ago; had lain with him in the fine bed, placed her head on his chest and hooked her leg over his thigh as she used to, but in no want of Sex. He told her he loved her. “I know,” she said. He pressed and she conceded out of habit. It hurt. Dirty – she thought as he pumped her. “Love thee,” he whispered. She felt him climax and lurched. “Not in me.” And cupped her hand over him so he wouldn’t soil the bed – not the blankets, not the room, not the setting. He gripped her and the warm wash shot on her belly. She pushed him off and hurried to the pitcher and basin. “What are you doing?” She lathered. “What are you doing?” She turned to him naked and dripping. “I don’t want the bedding soiled.” She laid with her back to him. “I don’t want to go,” he said. “You must or you’ll be punished.” “Let me be punished.” “You cannot do that. It would ruin everything.” “Ruin everything?” His voice rose. “By God, I’d burn down the world.” “You’ll ruin us. I’ll not have it. You’re a good man, good men don’t do such things.” He clutched her. She pushed against his grip. “I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “Stop talking now or I’ll throw you out. You’ve only an hour before you have to be back.” He kissed the top of her head. Before the hour she walked him down and gave a wifely kiss. Easy when sending him off –
She went to the little hearth and stoked the smouldering embers. On the dressing table – the fine Delft pitcher and basin – fine in her estimation. She pulled down the chemise to tie about her waist. To toilet alone . . . Alone. Alone. What Luxury. The Poor in Crowds . . . To be above the Crowds . . . And send heartfelt Charity from afar. The Mob – they eat their children . . .
She washed and towelled quickly. A clean chemise from the highboy and into clothes Howard had purchased – a reasonable style of a merchantman’s wife. She’s out today despite her flow – a Lesson; Howard already paid for it.
“Obedience,” called Elizabeth Grisham, the house mistress hearing her coming down. A smell of bacon wafted up the stairs. “Get yourself some coffee.” She’d ceased addressing her as Mrs. MacEachran not a week after letting the room.
“Good morning.” Obedience all a-beam entering the kitchen; Mrs. Grisham, a woman of a strong build, reminded her of Grace.
“Sit ye down,” a motherly command. “Binah,” she said to a Negro tending a spider skillet, “pour coffee for Mrs. MacEachran.”
The woman, pure African of ebony skin, took hold of the pot handle with her bare hand and poured into a large china cup with a detached deference.
“Eat, my dear,” Grisham said. “Binah, fix a plate of wheat cakes and butter, some bacon and corncake.”
Obedience shook her head, “No thank you, Mrs. Grisham. I’ve a voice lesson. A small cake will due. If I’m too full, I can’t perform.”
“Too full – never heard such a thing.” So American and put a piece of bacon on the plate.
“Well, just one, thank you.”
“You need it,” the older woman said. “You’ve yet to fill out. You were so lean when Grisham and me first saw you. We feared you might eat us into ruin.”
The Grishams, loyalists, were leery at first, having heard about soldiers, no less their women. But how could they refuse an officer in his Majesty’s Guards fighting on their behalf? The money helped, an outrageous charge which Grisham justified, such the Rate during war. And Howard paid it on the guarantee his protégée not be shoved into some storage room or stable, but Proper lodging with her own bed. They thought her his doxy and gave a room to engage in style. No need, Howard assured them, just an acceptable space for a young woman and soldier husband who may visit from time to time.
Young woman indeed. She would’ve been their daughter’s age who died of Yellow Fever. Same copper hair. A girl of Quality who, by some Tragick means, fell in with the Army. Such things happen. It must be – she has too good a mind. And them ever protective, even of her husband – this MacEachran, whom they rarely saw as he was off at his Soldiering. “You’re a rare find, my dear,” Mrs. Grisham had said. “I hope Mr. MacEachran is up to you.”
A bit of cake and Obedience up. “Must be going.” She tied a linen coif about her head and grabbed a heavy green cloak from a wall peg, Howard could not allow his protégée going about in a blanket.
“Watch yourself,” Mrs. Grisham warned, seeing her daughter. “It’s dirty outside.”
“Not to worry,” Obedience said, pulling up the hood. “I’ve endured all weather.”
She shivered in the street, the wind bit through the folds of the cape. Would she’ve noticed if still in the barracks?
She leaned against the sleet, heading to the Lesson, and pretended as much to be a singer as to be one. Maestro Tildon, her instructor, agreed: “You wail like a fishmonger in the street. ‘Tis an Aria not a Mackerel, Mrs. MacEachran. Sing it again . . . Again . . . Oh God – Again.” She hurried as she was perpetually late – her Serial Life – and would hear it from her little master from whom she would pretend to shrink.
Giuseppe Davide Tildolini, his baptismal name, which he abhorred with his flawless Cambridge intonation. English by birth. Parents from Parma in Emilia-Romagna. “Joseph Tildon,” he would say to the slack-jawed popinjays, “of the Church of England,” feigning to be one of them, but found out quickly. One cannot ape Gentry long, subtleties betray – too much Indifference, too little Disregard, the turn of a phrase that hints of Caricature. But here, in America, he could be English, and though no gentleman, was celebrated for his Art, both Voice and Fiddle. Fiddle indeed – a Guarneri. He could even tout his Romagni. A volcanic Little Man should he not get his way, though to him it was Theatre and Play. When not wrapped in music, he was most at home between a willing girl’s legs; no prettier picture he could imagine than the young Cleft of Venus. And the girl should know it too if she’s smart.
Down an alley to an old creep with a robin’s egg door. Obedience knocked but once and pushed through, past the maid, past the stairs, to find Tildon and an officer waiting in the hall.
“Our Mrs. M,” said Captain James Dalrymple of the 44th.
“Indeed,” Tildon said as he walked into the parlour.
Captain Dalrymple, a fellow student, waited as she unloaded her wraps on Tildon’s housemaid.
“I am charging you by the hour,” Tildon called from the next room. “I am paid whether there is instruction or not. ‘Tis your own time you’re wasting.”
Dalrymple guided Obedience, a hand on her elbow, admiring her cheek with the little “Sicilian” as he put it. “Be kind to our dear Mrs. MacEachran. It’s difficult to get about in this blasted cold. If you should blame anyone, blame me for not picking her up and escorting her here,” then whispered to Obedience, “If this was a club, he might fine you.”
“And what might that be?” her whispered reply.
“The Edinburgh Golfers fined me six pints for improper attire.”
“I’m not surprised,” – their running game, “and tried, no doubt, to get out of it.”
“I confessed, as would any gentleman, and they fined me three more for admitting it.”
“That’ll teach you not to tell the truth,” she said.
Tildon waited at a Silbermann, an inferior fortepiano to his conceit, and struck a key. “Warm up.”
Obedience sang the scales as Tildon had taught her, working through each vowel and taking each an octave higher. And Dalrymple amused – how she’s progressed in so short a time. Then he too began the scales in his own rich voice, a paradox to his looks for its quality.
Tildon drilled them like a sergeant. “Stop,” he commanded with two raised fingers. “Again . . . No . . . Again . . . No . . . No – Stop. Again.” Demanding but patient.
Obedience, in the middle of a stanza, threw up her hands before Tildon could correct her. “What am I doing wrong?”
“You are not wrong, Mrs. MacEachran,” Tildon said. “You are weak. And because you are weak, you have no control. The notes come out of you like water spilling from a bucket – a splashing mess. You’ve no inner throat – which is the purpose of the exercise. You have a clear voice and can hold to a tune, but if you do not open your mouth, you cannot sing. Thus the lessons. Again. Thank you.”
She worked, her voice climbing and descending through the register until Tildon stopped her and motioned to Dalrymple. “Captain, if you please.”
Dalrymple’s slouching figure posed, his left foot stepping forward to suggest a runner at the line. Tildon struck a key. Dalrymple raised his hand and with an inhalation of breath, attacked with a silken tenor ascending like a fountain. And singing with his strong inner larynx, the parlour resonated. A voice to be heard over an orchestra as it would in the crash of battle, Jupiter’s Thunderbolts, and yet supple – the sotto voce – the soft under voice, a divine stiletto piercing the soul.
The Lord passed by, and a great wind rent the mountains; but the Lord
was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was
not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not
in the fire: and after the fire – a still small voice.
Expiation and she green with Envy – with his long face and poxy cheeks . . . Passion in pursuit of Craft. . . . A waste on him. He has. And this? He has this? And what should he do? Give up his commission? He sings . . . For Pleasure – the way one Eats, the way one Rides. And disciplined, the Lazy Jack – lost in his Art . . . How pure . . .
The notion struck her – purer than Dalrymple’s singing – an Aesthetic groaning for his Object. Me . . . Me – the Object, the Power. It seduced. It soured. And his – a maddening constancy, a fatal flaw, not to be condoned, not to be trusted. To be his Object – yes, but not the Objectified, and not all the time. She could not bear it. O, for an equal partner – she’s beyond him now, not smarter, not better – loves him still. A cherished Memory from a former Self, a Self of England, of Billy, of the Guards and could not change her course any more than a youthful girl attempting to stave off puberty. Providence.
“Bello,” she cheered at Dalrymple’s finish.
“Yes,” Tildon with a hint of scorn. “Now, if you please – the duet.”
Obedience took her place at Dalrymple’s side. She could not help but sway to the introduction, which annoyed Tildon to no end. The music paused; Obedience took her breath and the sweetest note came from her, softening the mistakes to follow. Dalrymple’s eyes traced her neckline. She moved closer as she sang for it was part of the performance. He pressed her theatrically as he joined, touching her elbow. Their voices entwined like their arms as they sang to each other. As the melody faded, their voices falling away, they froze in an awkward silence as if pulling apart would expose the moment. They laughed.
“Many mistakes,” Tildon said, “but I indulged it. A good performance must have passion.
But next time I want you to concentrate. Technique! Mrs. MacEachran, any public house singer can ooze emotion. Seduction is disciplined. You must sing it right this time. You’re running the words together. Each word must be heard. It sounds as if you don’t understand the words you are singing. You are mimicking the sounds. It’s Italian, not some Gaelic tune ‘round a campfire.”
“I know the meaning,” she said. “Captain Dalrymple provided an interpretation.”
“You must know the language, Mrs. MacEachran. You must learn Italian or this is futile.”
“Yes,” Dalrymple quipped, “like the war.”
“I will speak to Colonel Howard,” Tildon said. “I suppose I can teach you. Have you ever learned another language?”
“It will take up much of your time. You must study every day. Frankly, you’re too old. You’re too old for everything. What does Howard think this will accomplish?”
Obedience blushed, Tildon’s plan – the pretty upstart. And she was pretty, his other girls sounded like angels and looked like cows save for one or two exceptions.
“I’ll not squander this opportunity to increase myself. I am most grateful for your instruction. I want to make you proud of me.”
“We shall see. Come an hour earlier next session.”
Dalrymple took her hand. “It helps to have someone that knows the language with whom you can practice. I will tutor you if you wish.”
“How kind.” A tingle of warning, yet she bristled – I can handle you.
“May we proceed,” Tildon said.