TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
SCHERZO - STAVE LV
S T A V E
“You’re to remain in New York and continue your engagements,” Howard instructed over a late-night supper in his rooms. Unprecedented to have her over, always meeting in Public and in Daylight. “I expect you to take care of yourself. Your illness concerned me.”
Lost to bed for weeks in a melancholy humour. Cancelled an engagement.
Just as well, Howard thought, give the affair time to blow over. He penned a message of support. But a second cancellation, then a third, followed by a note from Tildon: she’d not been to lessons for weeks. Howard called on her and found her greatly altered. “The girl’s as pale as a ghost!” Mrs. Grisham said she’d seen it before. The English Malady. “Nonsense,” Howard said and procured a doctor straightaway.
A faint pulse, the physician said. Primum non nocere – his first inclination, and if that didn’t work, he’d purge the trouble by the least inviolate method – bleeding. “If it be the Blues, they’d be purged; she’d be weak, but in a better mood.”
Obedience slowly recovered, Howard checking in from time to time while this Negro woman nosed about with Mrs. Grisham having to direct her to some chore.
The other night, Obedience’s first recital in weeks, her voice altered – an ache in the timbre. A lower tessitura, projecting from a deeper place, she no longer need woo.
What’s happened to Mrs. M.? Has scandal improved her genius? A tragic heroine – good gossip. Big Lives – big Art. Not that they really cared. A distraction though with the war and all – the French sneaking about the Atlantic from Rhode Island to the West Indies, the Loyalists, depending on the town, either the ruling power or literally thrown out.
“I’m recovered,” she said, sitting juxtaposition to Howard.
“And Mr. MacEachran, he is doing well?”
“So I hear.”
“You’ve not seen him?”
“I have not. I can’t.”
A turn of her cheek. “I cannot face him.”
“Sorry – that,” Howard with sympathy. “I did not mean to scold you that afternoon . . . You’re a grown woman. You just need to know which is the right bed and at the right time . . . If that is what you wish to do –”
An uncomfortable silence.
“Are you distressed about going south?” she dissembled.
Howard with a quick sip of wine. “I volunteered. O’Hara is now brigadier.”
“Your pardon, sir.” She opened her silk fan to press over her cluster.
“None needed, MacEachran.” And settled back. “It’s been difficult for you. So many fall victim. Look at poor Cathcart – got Miss E. in the family way – had to marry her – dad’s Lieutenant Gov’nor. A lively girl, Lady Cathcart, though would’ve been just another fille mere if she had not Station . . . Cathcart would’ve abandoned the poor child to her shame showing as big as a house. But he’s devoted to her now and loves their infant girl. A happy little family. Too bad for the circumstance. Cathcart’s not a bad sort – war makes good men blackguards, but they’re fine fellows back home. To keep perspective, one must retain a sympathetic heart . . .”
What is it – listening to him, his voice on the back of her neck. And not just him, but felt it coming to his house, a shadow beyond her sight. She felt it at night. It awoke her.
Howard refilled her glass – a claret that goes for the head.
“You remind me of Cathcart’s sister, Mary, ” he said. “Pretty young thing, same heart-shaped face. Got consumption though, the poor dear. It’ll end her. So, you’re rather fortunate.”
Obedience nodded, wanting to leave.
“Have I ever spoken of Julia?” referring to his wife. “We’ve twins, you know. Five children in four years. Can’t remember when Lady Howard hadn’t a belly.”
Obedience began to itch.
“Difficult being away.” He placed a hand on the table.
An obvious move, and she felt herself lift from her body to watch from the end of the room. Another lover – her corporal thinking. Then the Gush, most involuntary.
No – she pressed her thighs together.
“The Carolinas are a wilderness,” he said. “Muddy hamlets. Lonely and far away.”
No – but wanting it to happen.
“I shall miss more than the city.” He rolled over his hand and opened it like a flower.
She lifted her finger, that of a lady’s, the care of the army scraped off. Would that finger be delicate for long if she refused?
She froze in mid-motion. “You have me at a disadvantage –” Her eyes glued on her manicured fingernail. “And would have thought . . .” Knowing she must succumb. “. . . would’ve thought – not from you, sir.”
His hand crawled like a spider, encircling hers. “Neither would I,” he said sadly.
“For the life of me, I’d not do it . . . But you called me.” And cocked his head to kiss.
She pulled away with a visceral sensation – rum and sea water, knitting pins, hands holding her down, the burning violation – by consent, by force. “Not you, sir,” she shuddered. “Please, sir, not you.”
Howard coldcocked. “Madam,” he stuttered.
Obedience tearing. “I cannot. I cannot.”
“No, you mustn’t. Quite right, you mustn’t. I mustn’t. Not to worry. No harm.”
“You’re not like the others,” she cried.
“No.” He fumbled. “I must not be like the others. Not to worry. All is as it has been. You’re to continue in your house and perform your engagements – make money for us both. Not to worry. You shall be in my care.”
“You said I called to you.”
“Well, I . . . I . . .”
“That I called to you –
Howard collected himself and said with a melancholy, “You did.”
Her mouth gaped, unsure of herself, unsure of him.
“But that is no excuse,” he said. “No excuse on my part.”
“I did not,” she said. Over her shoulder she felt the presence. “I must leave.”
“Yes, Mrs. MacEachran. Go home.”
She stood from the table but froze.
“Yes, Mrs. MacEachran, it’s all right.” He waved her on. “As I said, not to worry, we’re not all that kind, even if the war would make us so.”
On the street, Obedience, wrapped tight in her cloak, pulled up the hood. That the Forces may not see . . . But they always see. Always. And are weary. And the tragedy – it was not her doing . . . Not this time.
Unfair. She simpered. And yet, not unfair – never are you hanged for the crimes of your doing. It’ll be “all right”, Howard said. What does he know of “all right”? Does he feel dirty?
I called to him.
I did not.
She wrapped the cloak tighter. Leaves, colourful and stiff, fluttered from the trees. An autumn wind tumbled them in a crackling chorus. Chimneys smoked with the scent of burnt maple. And always a tang of sewer even when it’s not there.
Her steps echoed, a click of the heels, noisier in the dark. They resound, like crashing thoughts. She listened. How loud. And the reply, silent . . . like a living thing.
Then a single, heavy footfall . . . She’d heard it before on her way to Howard’s.
Duck Lane, she imagined and her spine prickled.
Walk faster. Where’s a link-boy when ye need ‘em. In New York there’s no such thing, just a dark, grimy lane, black like the city’s heart, like a stinking ship . . . Another set of footfalls. Imagined? She moved past a lit window and turned around. A movement – the ghost of a shoulder ducking into an alley. If only she had her knife. Come out Devil, she wanted to scream. But maybe it was God who sent the Devil.
She bolted down the street in her stylish courtier, the heels of her shoes drumming the pavers, running for her life. Running from her life as it closed from shadow to shadow. A stalker indeed, she could feel its heart beating. It comes, unchecked, to overtake her. No redemption. No release. For it. For her. And her father’s voice – I Wound and I Heal. I Kill and make Alive. And from my Hand there is no Rescue . . .
She tripped, all flouncy and jumbled, a hem under her shoe, and pitched, arms splayed. The street unforgiving as she knocked against the bricks.
Down the block, two dragoons crossed the intersection on patrol. The stalker held still. Obedience would scream, but her wind knocked out.
She clambered to her feet and limped. One more corner and she’d be home. She felt him on her heels. He’ll take her any moment. She sprinted – oh, the pain, but there, the house. She cut down an alley, threw open the gate and rushed headlong into Binah’s shack.
Binah, smoking her pipe in a straight back chair, jumped in electric reaction. “You get out of here!”
Obedience on her knees at Binah’s petticoat. “Help me, please!”
“You get out of here and take your trouble! I’m done with you! Done enough already!” Binah whirled around between Obedience and the dark. “What you do now? Something with men. Stupid doxy.” Then saw Obedience’s bloody palms and chin. “God-A-Mighty.”
Before her, the open door and whatever might come in. She slammed and locked it.
“You got to get out of here,” she hissed, “and take what’s follow’n with you.”
“Nothing,” Obedience moaned.
“Your husband found out and he’s gonna skin you . . . Stupid doxy. Thinking of no one but herself –”
Binah crept to the door and pressed her ear to the wood. She felt it tremble.
“What’s out there? You tell me.”
“Goddamn doxy.” Anger over panic. “Stupid White Whore. Not your Neger by no means . . . Now tell me what’s out there.”
“Judgment,” she whispered.
Binah backed away. The Dark Man. Jesus save me.
“Can’t help you. Not in this. Whatever you called, it’s come for you.”
Obedience – a swirling in her body: hands upon her shoulders, kisses upon her neck, the heated writhing. Guilt. Terror. Loathing.
Binah’s panic rising. “What you gonna do?”
Obedience with a thin breath – “Nothing.” She floated to the door and gestured with her head. “You’ve been kind to me . . . Kinder than I deserved.”
And opening the latch, she walked into the dark.