TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
ADAGIO - STAVE XXIII
S T A V E
“Feeling strong?” Tim, a pipe between his teeth, trying to rub Geordie’s shoulders. Geordie shook him off. “Are you warm?” His tongue a slur. Geordie paced wrapped in blankets, snow over the tops of his ankles, his squad, like a guard, ringing him in.
“I’m hot,” he complained.
“Good-good-good. And your legs?”
“Legs are fine,” he snapped.
“Can’t be too warm,” Tim prattled, his breath visible. “Take a little rum. Keep you greased?” Many were greased. “Hey – ” he called over to the raucous 2nd Platoon that had never gone to sleep – carnival atmosphere on an early Sabbath morning; f_ck Church Parade. “Tom Tree – the Spirits.”
Tom Tree, knocking back a tot. “Give him yours,” he huffed. “Bugher.”
“For your bloody honour, bloody Englishman,” Tim scolded. “Good you ain’t running, we’d be shamed.” And handed Geordie a bottle from his pocket. “A swallow now . . . Here –” giving him the pipe, “to clear the lungs.”
An overnight snow and the sun trying to break through. Philadelphia unspoiled in a cold ermine, and the way she should be . . . before the town bustle, like a Queen. Really her, dirty, raucous old Phillie? Yes, in this Course of Human Events, and all Bob now she’s British. Makeup on a poxy whore; Willcock off in a doorway pissing in the snow Nulli Secundus, a drunken Molly with her tits out, and Geordie the only one Sober.
Watson’s and Hyde’s, with a legion of Camp Wives, lined Second Street, the companies chortling, singing. Loud talk the way crowds do, more boorish than clever. Burlesque? No, plain Mob-Stupid and to steer clear of if ye have any sense. What trumpery! Female bleats in great, high cracks. The block hijacked. And for what? A Race, to boost Morale and foster good Spirits. Such were common for private men; they could not share in cricket or hunting, and too cold for Rounders. A snowball fight might lead to a brawl . . . It was Sergeant Webb who approached his peer in Watson’s with the challenge: no Light Bob, Guard or otherwise, could match the endurance of a Grenadier. Sergeant Billings informed him he was wrong. Not a word of William’s Alley. No officers paid notice, giving permission albeit grudgingly, but permission none the less. And no ease of ‘Small Clothes’ like some backyard contest. Make it tough. Make it formal. They’ll run in ‘Full Order’. Crookshank volunteered Geordie as the company champion; he had the build and the wind, light enough to be fast and well-muscled to handle the full kit. A fleet Scot. Geordie wanted no part of it ‘til Obedience, uncontained, forced him – all she’d done is smile. And now she stood like a Hostess in her Salon, gossiping, laughing, and every so often casting an eye on Geordie: “Mr. MacEachran this . . . Mr. MacEachran that . . .” and to see Jaruesha on her ear.
And if I lose? Geordie chased the thought. What peril? But she’d smiled at him. Providence. A trick? On so fine an American morning, the prettiest he'd seen? Danger here. When ye least expect it.
Sergeants Webb and Billings walked into the intersection of Second and Race to draw a line in the snow with the tips of their canes. “The contestants shall advance.”
Geordie dumped the blankets and stood in spit and polish, Brown Bess’ barrel cold as ice. All cleared to the curb except for his opponent, a First Guards’ with a tender face and not to Geordie’s liking: thin hips, long legs, a chest still awaiting maturity’s expansion – like Geordie in his youth. In another ten years on beef and beer, he’d bulk into a grenadier. He’ll be fast off the line and that’ll undo him, Geordie thought. Stay with him to the end and he’ll have no kick. But in truth, he could kick all day. It was then the young ‘Coalheaver’ glared – I’ve got you, old man.
Do ye now, ye surly bastard?
“You will run east on Race Street to Water,” Sergeant Webb said, “where you’ll turn south along the river, follow it down to Cedar, turn back for Second Street and then come up to Race where we stand now – a rectangle of a mile. There will be judges at each block – a man from each company. You understand?”
“To your marks,” said Billings.
Firelocks in hand, they put their toes on the line. Geordie looked at Obedience. She smiled with demand. Behind her, in the crowd, Elliot watching. Fucking Bull Calf, Geordie thought. Deal with you when this is over.
Billings with a sharp trill and the First Guards’ was off with Geordie staring Elliot down. “Goddamn you, MacEachran!” someone shouted as a horn sounded: “Fox Away”.
Geordie came up to speed, though cautious of the slick pavers. He and the First Guardsman abreast, testing each other, firelocks sloped and chopping through the snow one-two, one-two. The Delaware, a distant patch through the canyon of buildings. The street, once treelined, naked with stumps every twenty yards. But why race through the City and not some field? Because – What’s the use of owning the Town? Their playground. The Regulars own the Town, not stupid civilians.
The Delaware ahead, frozen to the center with a current just wide enough for a gondola to pass. On the ice, a fresh snow with hearty souls on barrels fishing. Masts and spars, on the few ships in port, glistened with a rimy coat. How pretty, like a painting, Geordie thought while keeping the First Guardsman in the corner of his eye. Philadelphia with its sharp angles, a grid of straight lines, unlike towns back home with their circles. In what center can the Sovereign stand? This is new. This is planned. And not our countrymen whatever their loyalties . . .
The wind off the Delaware hit him and his side began to cramp. He willed it away and pictured Obedience at the finish line, his winning or losing for all to see. The Light Bob was still next to him. What are ye running for ye little shit?
They turned at Water Street where two Guardsmen waved them on. The Light Bob picked up the pace, barely winded.
The street began to crowd: carts, wheelbarrows, pedestrians pushing about. “Out of the way,” the runners cried and the pedestrians, not knowing where to go, froze. Midway through the block, the First Guards’ speared Geordie and ran him into a woman carrying buckets of snow. She whirled until her feet flew out from under her. Though Geordie stumbled, he didn’t fall.
“Foul!” Geordie cried, but his words lost amidst street sounds. “Foul!” he shouted again; the judges drunk and no one cared.
The Light Bob turned down Cedar. Geordie after him, sprinting hard, his once tight pack jostling. The gap narrowed. His lungs aflame. At the sound of him, the First Guards’ ran faster. Little fart-catcher going to replace me? Trumped up Get playing soldier. Ten feet apart. Geordie’s legs burned. But the First Guards’ flagged. Ain’t no Light Bob, just a brat. Yet flagging not enough. Geordie, a panic – Obedience, and life would be finished.
“Come on, you bloody Kiddie!” the grenadiers shouted.
Geordie with another surge. There, at Second Street, the finish line. Catch the little Cunt, and up he came beside him.
The First Guards’ again tried to spear him, but Geordie dipped ‘Bess between the man’s legs and he flew. Such a clatter – firelock, tin cup and bayonet against the bricks; hatt-cap tossed into the air, the handsome young face smushed in the snow and cut above the eye from an unseen object –
“Foul!” both sides called and Geordie, at the finish line, fell.
The grenadiers circled him, Tim and George Harrison hoisting him up. “Hip-hip hazza! Hazza! Hazza!” While on the perimeter, Fathers and Sons baited and shoved.
Not all grenadiers cheered. Elliot gone.
“MacEachran!” Crookshank called, pressing through the circle. “MacEachran, come with me.” He turned to Obedience. “You as well.”
They left just in time, someone threw a punch.
Down Cherry Street, between the German Reform Church and the Mikveh Israel Synagogue, a three story brick house.
“Look at you, MacEachran,” Crookshank said motheringly. “The race is still on you. Must I groom you like a thoroughbred? See to him, Mrs. M.” She re-clasped Geordie’s horsehair stock and straightened his waistcoat and regimental. “There,” he said and tapped Geordie’s cheek and knocked on the door with his cane.
A middle-aged woman peaked out, holding the door tight to her.
“We’re here to see Colonel Hyde. He’s expecting us.”
She looked them up and down regrettably, and led them up to the second floor. “Must you bring that firearm in with you?” she said as Geordie’s firelock knocked against the railing.
“This is a civilized house.”
“An ‘Independence’ house?” asked Crookshank pointedly.
“A ‘house’, not a barracks, not a tavern, nor a shooting gallery where macaroons take target practice at crows and rats out their bedroom windows! A gentleman would know better. Apparently title and commission cannot make him aware of that.” She left them in the parlour.
“Sergeant.” Colonel Hyde came in on cue in a tapestry cap and banyan. “And MacEachran, it is you.” He would’ve taken Geordie’s hand if his own was not in a sling outside the sleeve. “I take it you won.”
“He did, sir,” Crookshank said, “and impressive too. The Light Company will charge foul, but any foul was started by their man and MacEachran won.”
“Good fellow.” An aristocratic smile. “You’ve done the Grenadier Company and me a service. You’re the type that makes his officer proud – you and your pretty wife.” He considered her. “Yes –” Hyde took a seat and called out, “Mrs. Edmonds . . . Mrs. Edmonds?”
“Yes, Colonel Hyde?” her voice calling up from the foot of the stairs.
“Would you be so kind to grind some Coffee?”
“Coffee?” she puffed. “You’ll have tea.”
“Tea shall be fine . . . And please, do join us.” He motioned they sit.
“Thank you, sir,” Crookshank spoke for all of them.
“MacEachran, I’m in earnest: I’m in your debt. You’re relieved from duty tonight and tomorrow with a reward of three guineas to spend as you will. I need a personal man and a maid, at least in Philadelphia. You and your wife will take up quarters here.”
“Yes,” Obedience said readily.
Mrs. Edmonds came with tea and biscuits.
“Do sit, Mrs. Edmonds.”
“I cannot. I’ve no milk . . . and very little sugar. Anything else?”
“Yes, Private MacEachran and his wife here are my servants and will move in immediately. I shall, of course, pay their rent.”
Mrs. Edmonds, a broad-faced woman, squared her shoulders. “I shall have to make room.”
“Thank you,” Hyde said as she toddled out. “And in such a teeming house . . .” Just her and him. “Mrs. Edmonds,” he said, “is purely American: a principled woman ‘til money’s concerned.”
“This is not what I bargained for when that officer of yours was forced on this house.” Mrs. Edmonds led Obedience and Geordie down the back hallway to the servants door. “If Mr. Edmonds were here, this would never happen. Don’t think you’re going to have a room. You’ll put your ticking on the floor in the summer kitchen and find your own wood to keep warm. If you freeze to death, it’s not on my conscience . . . Sail home if you want to be warm.”
The backyard, a walled-in court with a small brick building, was mottled by snow. In the center, a tired herb garden raised above the pavers iced over. Neighbouring houses rose on all sides, shielding the quad from sun and wind and prying eyes. In an out-of-the-way corner, where the wall and the summer kitchen met, a secret cord of wood. Mrs. Edmonds unlocked the door, but not before kicking ice off the threshold. Dried herbs, hanging from the ceiling, rustled from the draft, dropped flakes on a marred country table. A fireplace on the far wall with cranes and beehive oven with an iron door. Robin’s Egg Blue for the walls and yet, little cheer.
“If we had any meat, we’d put it here . . . But we don’t, like the rest of the city. All that’s left are a few smoked hams. Guess you think you’re lucky. God knows why. I think you’d be warmer in your barracks . . . And don’t go getting light fingers; I know the exact contents of this room.” She wrapped her shawl tight and left.
They spread out their kits, which they’d retrieved from the barracks. “Two days leave and three guineas,” Grace had said, as she sat in a pew mending shirts. “All for a race. Hope it’s all you have to do.”
“MacEachran’s to be Colonel Hyde’s man and me his maid.”
“A grenadier for an officer’s man?” Bess had scoffed in the next pew. “It isn’t done.”
“It’s done here,” Obedience had said, holding up a coin.
“Don’t wave that around, ye fool,” Bess said.
“I don’t want to spend it, just hold it in my hand,” Obedience said packing.
“You’ll spend it,” Jaruesha said behind a pile of shirts. “MacEachran won’t see a pence.”
Obedience bridled. “What’s that’s supposed to mean?”
“Men are fools,” Jaruesha said as she sewed.
“I’m no fool,” Geordie said.
“Let’s go.” Obedience had grabbed his arm like a possession and Geordie, willing property in her hand.
She took him now and he went to kiss her, but she reared back. Then, with a wicked leer, pressed hard against his thigh. He worked his cold fingers under her skirt. She jumped and they laughed.
“Wait here,” he said like a boy eager to commit sin. He returned with an armful of logs. “Now I know where the wood is in Philadelphia. She must be in the black market. She’ll skin us, but we’ll be warm. And I found straw tucked behind the wood pile.”
They lit the beehive, fed it wood; the bricks would heat and hold warmth for hours. Geordie stuffed the bed ticking and placed it near the oven. A single candle melted upright on the table. And for the first time since Christmas they lay in a room alone.
“My knight,” she whispered.
“What's that?” he barely heard.
“Nothing.” She put her cheek to his chest. “When did this start? I can't remember. Feels like you've always been.” He brushed her hair. “When I was young,” she said, “before I started bleeding, a boy got me drunk and took me. I didn’t fight, though I thought I should. Never had anything so hurt. That was my first. The second time was with a different boy and I took him. It was much better and he was glad of it. I’ve had many men since, hoping the pleasure would take away the pain. I hoped they loved me even when I didn’t love them. How I love you. I wish I didn’t. With you I can’t pretend. I must tell you this even if I lose you.”
Placing his lips to her ear, his gritty voice sang:
Oh gin I were a baron's heir
And could I braid wi' gems your hair
And mak ye braw as ye are fair
Lassie, wad ye lou me?