TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
SCHERZO - STAVE XXXVII
S T A V E
Sir Henry Clinton to the American Secretary, Lord George Germaine:
. . .I must beg to leave to express how happy I am made by the return of Lord Cornwallis to this Country. His lordship’s indefatigable Zeal, his knowledge of the Country, his professional Ability, and the high estimation in which he is by the Army, must naturally give me the warmest confidence of efficacious support of him in every understanding which opportunity may prompt and our circumstances allow . . .
Cornwallis’ wife dead, died in his arms on Valentine’s Day – Jemima, his Bright, Handsome Girl – good family, but in want of money. They’d married for love and it was said she died because of his absence. “The separation proved too much for her weak nerves to bear; she literally fell prey to love, sunk beneath the weight of her grief, and died; thus affording a most singular instance of conjugal affection.” In truth, she was “as yellow as an orange” with a pain in her breast and swelling of her liver. Lord Charles blamed himself and could not bear looking at his children. Her voice seemed to echo through the mansion, and out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of her in shadows. How to deflect the madness? What else but the opiate of Action. “I have to go,” he told his brother William. “I have many friends in the American army. I love that army and I think they love me.”
“It is good to have you again,” Sir Henry greeted him, knowing the grief of a wife lost – his, a year before the war. “No one here understands this conflict like you. You know how they’ve tied my hands. But at last you’ve come with the reinforcements they promised and together we’ll set things right. Who did the Admiralty send to replace this dolt, Gambier, they left me?”
“Marriot Arbuthnot,” Lord Charles said.
“Arbuthnot?” Clinton mused. “I know nothing of him. Why not Rodney or Hood?”
“The Ministry thinks their talents are best served in the defense of the homeland and more strategic objectives.”
“And the fleet with the reinforcements?”
“A new French fleet under comte d’Estaing might try for Gibraltar. Arbuthnot has been detoured in its defense. Who knows where they might appear. Most likely they’re making for here.”
A blithe summer evening and officers and loyalists gathered in the Palladian mansion on the Harlem Heights. A wistful setting – lightening bugs flashing over the lawns, a scent of lavender on the air and Henry Clinton on the veranda recounting childhood pleasures when his father was Governor. Little did the guests imagine him an American boy at heart – his first commission at 14 with an independent New York company, somewhat late for a boy in a military family; he’d not stepped foot in England until 19. But once there, flourished – a Captaincy in the Coldstream Guards, then aide to Lord Ligonier, then Lieutenant-Colonel in the First Guards with gallant actions in the Seven Years War, then a full colonel of the 12th of Foot and promoted Major-General in ’72. So right and true until his good wife died in childbirth and his unbalanced mother died in Madness. Then money problems. Land disputes. Now this American War and he, like Prometheus, with endless Suffering.
“Coming in, Sir Henry?” called Rebecca Franks, coquettish at 19. “We’ve found you out. You intend to bore Mr. Washington into surrender.”
Clinton smiled without offense. “Join your officer friends, Miss Franks, and use your wit where it can do some good.”
She took his arm with a laugh. “Meet him on a field of Honour and you’ll be the Man.”
They came down the great stairs to the main parlour, the hall draped with silk in a series of shears like a sultan’s chamber. Negro boys in turbans and pantaloons, naked to the waist save for a short gold open waistcoat served while in the corner a band played Handel.
“A bit sombre,” Sir Henry said. “Music Master, give us Britons Strike Home.”
“The Commander-in-Chief has made a mistake,” Becky Franks quipped, still on his arm. “He meant to say: Britons – go home!”
“No wonder your father beats you,” said Sir Henry.
She laughed. “My father never beats me.”
“I’d be more demure.”
“What would the officers love then? You’d be just another pretty face.”
“What is there to love about them? You’re the only one who can match what I send. It is you, Sir Henry, I desire most.”
“Just what I need – another struggle. With you I’d use the Rule of Thumb.”
“You brought your fiddle I hope.”
“Yes – my Guarneri, though I know no Hebrew tunes.”
She swatted him with her china fan. “Such a bitch.”
“And that’s why you love me.”
When Handel was finished, the music master motioned for the singer. Obedience swept in, a rustling of her ivory gown of medium linen, embroidered with vines and flowers of Floss in red, orange and green. The great hooped petticoat and the tight whalebone stays beneath the skirt and bodice sculpted her torso into a most fetching V. This, with her stomacher, both flattening and pushing up her breasts, turned heads like marionettes pulled by a string. The women too, as no other so dominated the room. Her broad, smooth décolletage, a pillow for each man’s head, if only for a moment. Yet, most striking, her face, that had been oft described as “pretty”, now washed and makeup-ed and stripped of all care, transformed to Beauty.
“Who’s this Creature?” A thought said aloud. And Obedience, miraculous, captured the ground with Becky Franks on her ear.
She sang before they could settle, her way to keep them off guard.
West Hyde stared like a gaper – Mrs. MacEachran? Mrs. MacEachran!
She sang to his eyes and owned him. Clinton too. Cornwallis. Owned them all.
“Where’d she come from?” Sir Henry whispered to General Mathew.
“Howard discovered her,” he said under his breath. “Wife of a Third Guards grenadier.”
“Amazing,” Sir Henry said. “I’ll have to start combing the Rank and File. Wonder if she could be accompanied by violin?”
After thirteen songs she strained, her cords yet to be seasoned, and toward the end,
on a high note, Cracked. The crowd sighed, but applause no less hearty and heaped with praise. Who’d a Think? And there, Howard at her side, the instant Patron. And she dared not speak more than a few words, fearing her dialect of Old Pye.
With supper announced, they left her standing. As for the band, they were glad the tufts were out so to get a bloody drink. A horn player eyed her, a look she knew too well and retreated into an empty parlour. He followed.
“My husband’s a grenadier in the Brigade of Guards,” she said before he could banter.
“He’d be happy to break your head. You’d not be the first, though by your look, you’d be the easiest.”
The horn player simpered. “I should think you have the wrong idea. I love your voice and want only to be friendly.”
“Then go away,” she said. “I’m not the girl you think.”
She sighed theatrically. “If you don’t go, I’m so afraid I might put you off.”
“What could you do to put me off?” he said revealing a set of scraggly teeth.
She picked her nose and wiped it on his chin.
He reeled, flicking at his cheek. “Bloody bitch.” He brushed his fingers on the back of a chair. “Army woman! Good thing you’re pretty, nothing else to recommend you.” And left.
She laughed, her skirt ballooning as she twirled; she could wear this forever like the redcoat Geordie wore. Transformation – the guests had seen it – men and women of privilege. In her eyes, they too transformed seeing them up close – Sir Henry with his pouty face, good he’s rich and brave for he be bullied. And General Mathew – the bullying type. Rebecca Franks could be a friend if not so conceited – that would take some doing. So she imagined, lounging on a humpback sofa whose scrolled arms wrapped about her like a protecting wall.
She noticed her hands, unaffected by the glamour and fingering the dress’s embroidery. Cruel, her hands, the part that must touch the world and bear all signs of her interactions. They prophesize – her worries and fears, her duplicities – that loveliness is a passing thing: the chin lengthens, the nose enlarges and turns, ears grow big – once charming imperfections become grotesque. She rubbed them, but no massage could work off the barracks. “Don’t cheat me.” And kneaded them harder. You will turn. You cannot help but turn. This night a triumph. And she’ll have another, and then another until her hands, her life, are transformed. She’s only twenty-four. Yet how old it felt to be twenty-four.
The band resumed, an innocuous air as the guests dined in the great room. She should go, her performance over. Just a moment – play the Lady a bit longer, and eased back, the dress a marvelous crush of fabric, and slipped off her stiff paper and linen shoes. The wig tipped forward, but she’d not spoil the illusion by removing it. The Band of Music stopped and what followed was a string quartet – Corelli. She closed her eyes. Its ornamentation hypnotic. A Life once Lived. Her heart fluttered. It must’ve been. And she saw herself in the wakeful dream on the road in her gown, in the basso – the creak of the wagon wheel and Grace walking beside her in her fleshy prime, peaking out of her frilly coif and black hat. Obedience said to her: “I’m glad you’ve got your hat. It never quite fit me and how can I wear it with this dress?” Grace smiled, her gap teeth showing. Then Geordie up from behind and kissed her neck – the heat of his lips – and pulled her to him. “Let’s get in the wagon.” “It will ruin the dress.” And he was gone. So too Grace. She walked away from the column and into a house filled with guests, Colonel Howard waiting. She sidestepped him and mounted a dais to sing . . .
A burst of laughter opened her eyes. She looked about, bookshelves along the far wall stood guard. She deserved to be here and laid back again.
“You’re just coming in,” Geordie said, sitting on their undisturbed bed. He’d seen her down the street when coming off the guard, her face all white with rouged lips and cheeks, like a strumpet from a night on her back.
“I didn’t finish until 2:00 and had to return the gown to the dressmakers this morning.”
“Then they liked you,” he said, dubious.
She beamed. “They thought me wonderful. Lord Cornwallis was there. Sir Henry, himself, there. General Mathew, too. I had sung for an hour and retired to the next room while the guests dined. I fell asleep, then ‘round eleven they woke me. I would’ve left if I hadn’t been so tired. ‘Where is she?’ they said, ‘that fetching creature with the golden throat?’ Sir Henry, a little drunk – they were all a bit drunk, took up his violin and played for the guests. We did a song together, him and me . . .”
“You and the Commander-in-Chief?”
“I know some don’t think well of him, but he’s a kindly man and a musician. How can one be dull that knows the Arts?”
“‘The Arts’?” Geordie said incredulously.
“Lord Cornwallis has a sadness about him – like a man who would cry, but won’t allow it. Like an uncle he is and oddly attractive with his cocked eye. Actually, quite refined. The gentry indeed are quite refined. A different world.”
“I know it too well,” he said. “The Court of St James – not like us in anyway. No mixing. And if they do it, it’s when it suits them and if they like you, it’s the same as patting the head of a dog.”
Her face wrinkled, the white makeup glowing in the morning light, looking quite a different person. “You’re jealous.”
“Worried – They’ll use you and when tired, throw you back.”
“I’ll use them,” she said defensively.
“Will you? You think them so dull and you that clever?”
“You think they’ll care?” she said with a spark of irritation.
“They won’t care.”
“Like you?” The white makeup seemed porcelain.
“Obedience . . . Obedience?”
“This isn’t . . .”
“‘Isn’t me’ – you’ve said that before. Too often. Tell me, you who know so much – that I’ve been up since 5:00 yesterday morning – that I’ve walked seven blocks since Howard’s carriage dropped me off at the dressmakers – that this night the most powerful men in America judged me, my greatest night, and what do you do? You who love me so deeply? I’m going to sleep in the women’s barracks.” She walked to the stairs. “Colonel Howard wants to be my patron,” she said matter of fact. “He wants me to take a house. I must protect my voice. He’ll pay me a stipend. He says I have a natural talent and can rise high if I dedicate myself. He says I should seek your consent, but he said a husband would be a fool not to permit it . . . He will sponsor me even if I decide without your permission. He would not encourage it, but if I decide on my own, he’ll not refuse.”
Geordie stared at his shoes. “I know that you love me.”
“You think I’d do this to swive with an officer? If that be the case, it would’ve happened long ago. Last night I pushed away some greasy musician. I will do this, Deorsa. Do you want me in those dreary barracks?”
“No. And I wouldn’t stop you.”
“No, I could not.” A smile of surrender. “Providence – I welcome it . . . Thank God for it. A room of your own as it should be.”
Her eyes flashed from the white face. “You’re not just saying that? The truth will come out. You can’t hold onto me. I told you from the start.”
“You did and I accepted it. I accept it now.”
“Very well then.” She squeezed his hand. “I’ll say one thing: you know how to keep me. You’re an odd sort of man. Gill wouldn’t put up with it. The others would’ve said no.”