TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
SCHERZO - STAVE XXXVIII
S T A V E
Women over washtubs behind the barracks, on their knees. Penance. Mounds of laundry awaiting the Water. Shirts and trowsers foul with muck while ‘round the yard rows of clean washing. Supplication. Washtubs in a circle and at the center, two large Kettles, one Copper – to boil water, one Iron – to cook the soap of potash lye and tallow. Every so often a Woman stirred the mixture, taking a drop on the tip of her tongue. She spits. Too much bite still. In and Out mollies scuttle with water for the Copper. Children too with wood. To one side, a bleaching tub, where a Wife, with a Bat, ‘bucks’ the laundry, a temple Priestess purging semen and shit – a man with any sense keeps out – no secrets. And beyond, through the waving linen, disfigured New York – a half-face – one side whole and the other scarred . . . like the Country.
Jaruesha, to her elbows in steamy water, jaundice. She shook, deep-down. It’ll pass, though she winced, her belly ‘gainst the tub. She worked, barely, under the sun that’s hotter on her than others. A beating in her temples and a hairy tongue. O’ for a tot of Rum. Just to calm her. Like a steadying hand –
She’d bought what she could, then stole the rest, and had the last drop this morning. She’d finish this wash for her five pense and then off for Beer – Rum, if she could get it – Gin, better still; and took it to walk Sober.
Tom Tree kept watch, the violence in him barely controlled. If she tied on another, he’d beat her to death . . . for her own good. Death’s preferable. The women looked out for her, except the new ones – glad to see her fall. Bloody bitch has it coming.
Jaruesha, wringing out a shirt, waivered and dropped it back in the water. Hand to her mouth to hold back her stomach, but there was nothing to hold down. She rocked, the world spinning, then rolled to the ground.
A Philadelphia girl laughed. “There – Again.”
Bess, on the next tub, gave her a bottle from her pocket. Jaruesha drank greedily.
Bess released it in disgust. “Keep it then. How long will that hold you?”
“Will it get ye through?”
Jaruesha, cheeks spidered with veins, licked her lips not to waste a drop. “An hour, maybe.” And wiped her mouth with a quivering hand. “I need to save some ‘til I can get money.”
“And you’ve got nothing?” Bess turned to the New Women. “Have any of you Drink?” They stared. “Any of you?” She’s a fool. “Any of you bitches have a goddamn bottle?”
“Not for her,” a New Wife said.
“Then I’ll buy one.” She dug into her purse while Jaruesha drank. “Here’s fourpense.”
“Go on,” the New Wife said. “I’d pay fourpense to see her croak.”
Bess dug further. “Sixpence.”
The alcohol took effect and Jaruesha wobbled up to her knees, trying to hold steady. “The hell with them,” she said.
“Shut up,” Bess said and pulled out more pennies. “Eight.”
“The hell with them, I said.”
“She don’t want your help,” the New Wife said.
Bess wheeled on Jaruesha. “Shut up or I’ll slap ye stupid.”
“Now for that you’d get eightpence,” a Philadelphia girl said. “Why waste time on her?
“Have you no compassion?” Bess said.
“The same she showed Mary Hammel,” replied the Philadelphia girl.
“I’ll separate a fool from her money,” said a wife with a Dutch accent. “Don’t matter to me if she lives or dies, but I could use the cash.” She walked into the barracks and came back with a mallet of rye. “Give me a shilling,” she demanded.
Bess slid back the pennies and pulled out a bob, and threw the bottle at Jaruesha. “No more, Mrs. Tree!”
Jaruesha struggled with the cork. “Help me?” Bess – an indignant pull on the stopper. Jaruesha motioned to a tin cup. “Pour, would you?” Out tapped the Rye with its pungent odour. Jaruesha drank, shoulders near her ears. “Thank ye, Mrs. Waddley. You’ve always been a friend.” And teary, handed the mallet back. “Keep it. I’ll drink it too fast.” She glared at the women. “How they hate me.”
“You give them cause.”
“What did I do? Push her off the cliff? And what do they know about loss?”
Children ran back and forth, feeding the fires.
“What do they know? . . . What do you know?” Jaruesha screamed at the women.
Bess picked up Jaruesha’s laundry and placed it at her tub. “Come on Mrs. T.” They walked to the barracks. “Not to worry, I’ll do yours and give ye the pennies – this time.”
“Hell you will. I didn’t ask ye.”
“Shut up Mrs. T.”
Bess held her breath as she placed Jaruesha on the bed. “You’ve got to dry out or this’ll end you. They’ll drum you out.”
“One more or I’ll die.”
“You’ll die with it.”
“Give me another,” Jaruesha demanded.
“You need to quit!”
“This’ll be my last.”
Bess took Jaruesha’s cup. “‘This’ll be my last,’ she says until she screams for another.” She poured the rye halfway up.
Jaruesha’s lips bowed. “They don’t know.”
Bess shook her head. “They don’t. Now sleep.”
At evening mess, Geordie stared at Tom Tree. Next to Tree, his cup of beer, which he treated like Poison – all liquor Poison – Jaruesha ‘cross the way in the women’s barracks drunk. A Spectacle before the Wives, the Men, the Battalion – making a Spectacle of Tom Tree. He should straighten her out with a fist.
A husband’s burden, thought Geordie, his own face grim – Obedience, out again singing in the company of officers and Tory men while he stands post in the lines on Laurel Hill. The MacEachrans – talk of the company again. A matter of time, thought many. He’s not the type to keep her – too in for her. Yet, notwithstanding, even the best wives require a bap. And if he’s fool enough to let her caper, be a managing husband and rent her out for Cash.
“A stroke of fortune,” he’d rationalized to Tim. “And she’s happy.”
“And you’re happy?” Cynical Tim.
“I’m proud of her.”
“You believe that?”
“What I believe is my business.”
“Why tell me then?” Jealous Tim. “But you know . . . some thinks she’s a woman of Reputation.”
“Damn what some thinks. Let me hear ’em speak it.”
“You love her.” An accusation.
“You don’t know her. None of you do. ”
Tim chewed on his answer.
Out the window – the Women’s Barracks. “Least of all them,” Geordie said.
“Well . . . You can’t hold on to something that can’t be held on to.”
“Shut your gob.”
“A woman’s for swiving – it ain’t like you’re friends . . . I don’t want you hurt.”
“Put me in a bandbox then – my bloody head could’ve been blown off the past three years.”
“Just don’t do nothing stupid if things fail.”
“Yeah, you’d like that wouldn’t ye?” –
‘Nothing stupid’ Geordie thought, watching Tom Tree. Life’s stupid. If Howard touches her, I’ll gut him, Knob or not, and send my life to bloody hell. At the room’s far end, Elliot sat with his Coldstream mates. And I’ll deal with you too . . .
Obedience, in his mind, pulling him tight and weepy to be so cherished – two souls in search of Fit and finding Imprint – it do happen . . . like the shock of the Coat on the Kirkcaldy fairground – yet more. A Universe more. Truth to make lies of other truths (damn you, you Skeptic, you O-So-Grand in your tight little world of Right Angles . . . They’re meant to be . . .) He imagined her at the great house, performing – she raises the hem of her gown as she takes the steps, voices and the music, her heart beating as she walks in. He marshals his spirit and calls to her. Deorsa, she thinks . . .
She appeared at the barrack room doorway in makeup and costume. Heads turned. She, Miraculous, demanding they look as she made for Geordie like a princess for her frog.
“What are you doing here? Your engagement –”
“I wanted you to see.”
She led him into the corridor the way she had led him to the sycamore. All eyes followed, especially Elliot’s.
“What’d you think?” she said in the hallway, arms out.
He’d not say beautiful, for beautiful was a Look, a Touch, a Sound – the beautiful bodily nakedness wherein leads to the naked heart. It lay beneath the wig and rouge, the stays, petticoats and chemise – the truth of her – truth she could not see. So he framed it. All misgivings fell away. “I am conquered –”
“You’re a good man,” she said with a rush of feeling. “A Good man – more than I can imagine.” She kissed him. “I wish this dress-up was for you . . . It shall be – when this evening’s over – a night in the summer kitchen – ”
“Tom Tree! Tom Tree!” Bess cried, bounding into the dormitory, and after a row, she and Tom Tree flew out and down the stairs. Obedience and Geordie followed.
Screams from the women’s barracks. Obedience and Geordie pushed into the long room, Jaruesha writhing in her bed, her twisted hands striking the air, then raking her arms and shoulders. Blood trickling from her nose and chin with Tom Tree at her side struggling to grasp her. “What’ve you done?” His cries more fear than anger. “Goddamn you! Goddamn you!”
Tom Tree could not pin her down. Blood spewing from her mouth and her breath a gurgling sound. “Somebody help me!”
Geordie and Tim wrenched her over to keep the blood from her lungs. She gagged, the blood piping up.
“She’s drowning!” Tom Tree shouted. “Hold her!” he commanded Geordie and Tim, but she proved too much.
Elliot pushed through and lifted her like a rag doll. He wrenched her arms up in a double shoulder lock and bent her over. Tom Tree took his knife to the base of her throat and pushed the point in. Blood spewed with a stench.
Obedience covered her painted lips and ran from the room gagging.
Jaruesha buckled, and there she was, held upright by Elliot.