TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
SCHERZO - STAVE XLII
S T A V E
St. Stephen’s Day – the Expeditionary Fleet put to sea – eight thousand troops and equipment. It had always been Clinton’s plan – an Invasion of Charlestown, and now reality since the news of Savannah, but the Objective kept secret. Something big, thought all. It had to be big to make Sir Henry move. Not only big, but sure, or nearly sure. Sir Henry would think it through with brilliance, of the German School, as only he could – no attack dog like Cornwallis with his ‘straight-at-them’.
Not a great general – Clinton, but thought himself better than most. Such happens with the Occasional Success – a white spot on a black wall, which draws the attention. And if success should not happen, it was never Sir Henry’s fault: it was Germaine siphoning off troops to the Caribbean, or the Prime Minister’s doubts, or Arbuthnot an incapable fool, or having to inherit Billy Howe’s War . . .
Lucky to have me, he thought. They refuse my resignation. The Saviour of America, Whitehall calls me. Five Loaves and Two Fishes. “This is the most important hour Britain ever knew,” he wrote to Sir William Eden. “If we lose it, we shall never see such another.”
Whitehall agreed, the fall of Charlestown would be “a blow to the rebellious colonies which they could not recover, and which might reduce them to reason much sooner than anything that can be effected to the northward.” In other words: abandon the Northern Strategy of inducing Washington to Fight. What a relief and Whitehall needed movement with the Home Front in Chaos – markets near collapse, the price of wheat the lowest since the turn of the Century. High taxation. The increasing power of the Crown. Radicalism. Unionism. Anti-Parliament fever . . . Catholic Relief! Anti-Catholic protests. The Irish on the verge of rebellion. If only the American conflict would quell. “Let them Go!” the ever-rising cry. Anti-war M.P.s wear the Blue and Buff of Washington’s soldiery. . . But Opinion would turn with Success. And for Success, Britain must maintain Superiority, maintain it with the force Clinton had while in the Caribbean, the Navy does Double Duty. Never mind Britain lost control of American waters twice before, albeit temporarily, and now with the abandonment of troop consolidation, the Navy would have to work extra hard supplying two armies – one in New York and the other in Charleston. Any check could bring disaster.
“But the Americans chiefly depend upon presumptuous appearances and imposition,” assured the Royal Governor in Florida. “The lower their affairs are reduced, the higher they hoist the flag to show and imposture, that they may thereby conceal their wretched state and condition . . . I am certain the four southern provinces are incapable of making any formidable resistance; they are not prepared for the scene of war.”
The night wind made no sound, but the trees clattered. Snow swirled, blinding, stinging. Naked skin turned red then black; the dead patches crystalline as onyx. The Laurel Hill camp writhed like an animal trying to shake off winter. Campfires clung to life tenaciously, harried by gusts; it threw their flames wilder ‘til they lapped the edge of a too-close tent and up it went.
Geordie watched from his guard post on the Bell of Arms bent from a snow drift near its top. The wind puffed the back fall of his fatigue hat he’d tucked beneath his coat collar and the army blanket covering his head. He wore two shirts topped by two waistcoats, one double-breasted made from his third issue regimental. On his legs, thick woollen hose, woollen breeches, overalls and thick blue Indian leggings. But cold still, though not so cold as the by-blows down the way diving out of the burning tent. Not his tent, thank God, for it was a squad of First Guards, cursing to high heaven.
They should’ve been in huts by now, but the construction hampered by such a winter, the worst in a hundred years; it’d come so fast. They worked on the cabins by day and froze in tents by night. Officers too, when they had the duty, otherwise, kept apartments in Town and only in the lines when they had to be. And so few had to be. If not for Hard Winter, they’d be children running Wild.
Clinton had wanted the Guards for his Charlestown expedition, but they were so understrength and under-officered, even with the August reinforcements, he left them with the other depleted regiments under Von Knyphausen as a defensive force. All they were suited for was harassment and raiding parties and for that purpose they’d been reorganized into light infantry and grenadiers.
Geordie supported his firelock with folded arms. Thank god, not too much more of this before it’s back to the City and Obedience’s house and Obedience’s arms. Obedience’s arms – as the blizzard embraced him like a mad lover, he’d not felt them since Christmas and the touch not so warm.
Endure, he thought, the Measure of a Household soldier. Cock-of-the-Walk. He clenched his jaw to keep from chattering. A cruel beauty – the storm – cut his cheeks. And so Quiet, devouring all sound. He stilled in the silent bands of snow, alone. A frozen thing. Then the wind held its breath and the snow fell straight like a curtain, mounding up around his Indian leggings till they actually felt warm. “Here” – her voice in his mind. She looked different the last time he saw her – her face full, pale, and smooth, a face he hardly knew, a Carnevale mask; he wanted to shake her, put the blood back in her cheeks. The house had done it. Or was it the costume she wore, the way the green hood framed her heart-shaped face? That she be dirty and thin.
“Geordie?” He had surprised her as she was walking out the door. “Why are you here? Is the company down? I thought they were in the lines for another month.”
“You’re not pleased?”
“Didn’t expect you,” she said muddled, but managed a smile. “You didn’t desert?”
“You told me not to.”
“Are you here to stay?”
“I’m with a detail down to fetch a load of blankets. I convinced Sergeant Webb to let me see you.” He laughed. “A rope of tobacco.”
“You shouldn’t have.” She pecked him on the lips. “But I’m glad.”
“You’re going out.”
She threw back the hood. “Sometimes I walk about.”
“I shall walk with you.”
“No.” She unclasped the cloak with agitation and hung it on a peg. “Best you came though. You saved me from poor judgment. Foul weather – bad for the throat.”
He took her hand.
“Hot coffee in the kitchen,” she said to divert him.
“Something to eat?”
“I think not.”
“Very well.” And she called back into the house: “Mrs. Grisham, Mr. MacEachran is here. We’re going up.” And led him like an academician.
He stood in the dormer, looking over the rooftops on the gray day. “There’s the fleet in the harbour. You can just see them if you press your cheek against the glass and look hard.” The wind whipped a Union Colours on a tall flag pole in a square at the end of the street. “Poor fellows in the holds, crammed together. Least they’ll be warm – nothing like a close body.”
“I don’t want to do it.” Her tone matter-of-fact as she stood at arm’s length “I know you want to, but there it is. Besides, you’ve just an hour.”
“I’ve more than an hour.”
“Mrs. Grisham and all downstairs.”
He raised an acquiescent hand.
“I don’t want to.” Emphatic, hand on her hip. “You understand?”
She cocked her head.
“I do,” he repeated.
She looked out the window. “Where do you see the masts?”
“Over there,” he said and pointed to the right. “In the harbour.”
“A grand fleet,” she said.
“Not so grand as ‘76.”
“Isn’t it?” She tried not to bridle.
“No fleet as big. More timber in the harbour than in the town.”
“I know you’ve the right.”
“I know that you’d not force me. You’re not that kind. But you do want to . . .”
He stared out the window.
“But you do.”
“I’m learning Italian,” she pivoted. “I’ve a lesson at 2:00. A beautiful language.” She said it so gay. “Not that guttural Gaelic or broad of Scottis. Want to hear a phrase?”
“What’s this?” Geordie picked up a letter on the table next to her chair; it lay over the Italian book.
“From Captain Dalrymple, my singing partner,” she said, natural as you please. “Maestro Tildon has us singing a duet.”
Regarding the Engagement planned forthwith, schedules must be Coordinated. My people shall contact your people in an effort to finalize the afore mentioned. I most earnestly advocate to you to rest yourself as to be fresh for the Performance.
James Westly Dalrymple, Capt. 44th Foot
“Montis Insignia Calpe”
“The Two-Fours – hard luck regiment.” This fellow fucking you?
She waited for him to ask it. “I said: he’s a singing partner for a duet . . . Jealous?”
“That he sees more of you than me.”
She smiled. “Not to worry, Colonel Howard is your guardian too and will protect his valuable protégée from any untoward advances. Not that he needs to . . .”
“Not that he needs to . . .”
She threw the letter in the hearth fire. “Vain, pompous ass who can sing like an angel, rather an archangel I guess . . . He certainly knows of you.”
“Of me?” Geordie surprised.
“I’m forever speaking of my savage, grenadier husband in the Third Guards.”
“And he quakes, I assume.”
“His dumpling cheeks pale.” She narrowed her eyes with a feigned seduction and in spite of themselves, they laughed. She shut the door with a shake of her head. “Only a cuddle, mind you. Can you do it?”
“I can try.”
She lay on the bed. “You must more than try or I shall have you out.” He kissed the top of her head. “Who could I do this with, but you? You really love me,” she said like a revelation. “Why’s that? . . . I mean – the way you do it. Not natural. If I say go – you go. If I say come – you come. Frightens me. Why’s that?”
“Something happened to me,” was all he could say.
“You’d be better off without me.”
“What are you saying?”
“It frightens me.” She pressed her palm against him as if to push herself away. “It’s burning me up. And when it burns up, there’s nothing left . . . Must lovemaking be so intimate? Don’t you ever just want a strum?”
“There’s nothing I place above you.”
“Nothing?” she asked, incredulous. “Honour? Loyalty? Practicality? . . . Practicality above all . . . How can I have a husband if these are not first?”
“But I put them first for you.”
“It’s not proper. I cannot be the pinnacle of your life. I will not.”
And they laid in silence until the clock struck the hour.
“I’ve the lesson.” She walked him down, but when she kissed, she contradicted all.
As he strode away, there, on his sleeve were strands of her hair. He took out a patch of linen from his pocket and wrapped them.
Snow mounded on Geordie’s shoulders, the wind still dead. From his left he saw a column of soldiers approaching; Willcock, a corporal again, advanced with four paces and Geordie brought his firelock to the shoulder.
“Private Elliot,” Willcock said to Elliot in line, “Advance and receive your orders.”
Elliot came forward, and he and Geordie presented arms. “You are to guard the Bell Tent of Arms and keep it secure from the weather,” Geordie said. “And you are to watch the tree line and report anything uncommon.” And freeze your bloody prick till it turns black and falls off.
“And what are you to do, Private Elliot?” Willcock inquired as procedure.
“Guard the Bell Tent of Arms and keep it secure from the Weather. Watch the tree line and report anything uncommon.”
“Sentry – post,” Willcock ordered.
Geordie took up at the end of the line, unfixing his bayonet, in his wallet – the patch with Obedience’s hair. Back in the tent, he’ll take it out and toss off under his blanket. And then he’ll feel empty and miserable and stupid. They say tossing off can make you go mad.