TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
SCHERZO - STAVE XXXVI
S T A V E
The Long Room and a cloth to her nose. That it should matter, she lived with smoke, from campfires to dirty chimneys, and Tobacco – a mark of Progress, of Commerce, Civilized Air, Gentlemen and Ladies taking their Ease. Crimes accompanied by Drink, but what soul did not cast off its tensions by the comfort of a Bowl? And in an Establishment, no less, than the Queen’s Head Tavern. Still, it hung on Obedience’s cords.
Take a little Port, Guards sergeants say. It warms the voice before parade.
She knew better: best to refrain from luxuries. A warm towel ‘round the neck . . . But here, her first public show. First in America. First in three years . . . Why so care? They’ll ignore her – window dressing – curtains, sconces, picture frames. She’ll enter and occupy near the fireplace, open her mouth and sing. What Matter if they cared? She’d have her shillings, an accomplishment itself, and to sing at Queen’s Head . . . No mean tavern with proprietor, Samuel Fraunces, respected by both Tory and Whig . . . That she’d convinced Fraunces to hire her . . . No shabby trick – a Woman-on-the-Ration . . . The toughest scarecrows the Old City’s seen, makes Holy Ground doxies refined Ladies . . . But Obedience, her clothes laundered, her hair washed with rain water and her clusters pushed up by whalebone stays, had Fraunces the moment he saw her. Stupid Men. Sheep. “So you sing!” his cheery rejoinder. “Would ye like me to sing for ye now?” The way she smiled and him with a hopeful look she might grab his prick and take it out . . .
Far harder convincing Geordie. Nothing that he’d said. Nothing that he need to say with his posture bracing; the flank companies had just returned from raiding the Virginia and Connecticut coasts and then an attack up the Hudson at a fort on Stoney Point. Now this.
“I will do It,” she’d said, irked by his silence. “We need the Cash. I’ll not stay in those Women’s Barracks. What am I t’do alone? I do not feel Safe.”
“Safe?” he said with alarm. “When’d you not feel safe? I keep ye safe.”
“When you’re not here?”
“Are you not here with the rest of the women?”
“Yes.” She rolled her eyes. “Harpies except Bess; the Philadelphia girls constantly whining, the women from other regiments back alley cut-throats with their dirty brats, Jaruesha drunk day and night . . .”
“And Cash keep you safe?”
“I can rent a room of my own – a room for us.”
“And Captain Garth’ll give permission,” him sceptically.
“What would he know? He’s never here. Webb’s never here and that new man, Machesney . . . The Flank Companies on missions and the rest run loose like a pack of savages.”
“I cannot leave the barracks . . .”
“But I can.”
He took her arm. “Why you doing this to me?”
She pulled away. “What am I doing to you?”
His shoulders rounded in a most un-guardsman-like manner. “Don’t go.”
She thwacked him on the side of the head, like a mother knocking sense. “And where am I going? I said it was for us.”
Above them the floorboards squeaked. Muffled voices through the walls. A child crying. At the baseboards, the occasional rat. The building had a tang.
“I miss Philadelphia,” he said.
“As do I.”
“The war’ll end.” His hopeless comfort.
“It’s always ending – a never ending, ending.”
“I’ll rise. You’ll see – first corporal and then a sergeant’s cord. I’ll give you a good life once again. I’ll run the race or do something better.” He un-balled her fist and kissed it. “When have I failed you?”
“Never . . . But I will sing.”
“They’ll all see you,” he lamented, “up there on stage. And they’ll all want you.”
“They want me now . . . But you have me. The candle burns.”
At the Long Room’s tables, a mixture of military and civilian men moved in and out of each other’s company as they saw fit.
I want no protection, she thought as she waited.
Samuel Fraunces motioned her to go in. She crossed in front, her heels announcing her as they clicked to no one’s attention. But she noted them through the fumy candlelight and when ready, gave them a Note. Measured. Controlled. Opening like a peony, ‘til big and bright. They ceased their conversations.
How gentle was my Damon’s air
Like funny beams his golden hair:
His voice was like the nightingale’s;
More sweet his breath than flow’ry vales.
How hard such beauties to resign!
And yet that cruel talk is mine.
They looked at her curiously, knowing well the singers in Fraunces’ stable. Her dress was that of an English girl. An Army Woman? But that Voice, so pure with a comely face to boot.
On ev’ry hill, in ev’ry grove,
Along the margin of each stream,
Dear conscious scenes of former love:
I mourn and Damon is my theme.
She marked them, noting each stripe: here – the ones ready to swive and forget her in a second, there – the ones just getting randy, but these – the self-assured Johnnies with a sudden doe-like wanting. She knew the look – Upright merchants, ministers, Loyal husbands and fathers who would not think to trifle and would not trifle – No, they’d throw it all away: loving Children, devoted Wives, a good Reputation, and toss themselves into Hell and tolerate the flames so long as she’s there. Such did Geordie, but he’d stay to burn even if she ran. Does that make him special? Or too fearful to admit mistake? “Something happened to me,” he always said. What could happen to him that’s any different?
The hills, the groves, the streams remain,
But Damon there I seek in vain.
The hills, the groves, the streams remain,
But Damon there I seek in vain.
At the room’s other entrance at the far end, a British officer stuck in his head as if her voice had snatched him – Colonel West Hyde, and upon recognizing Obedience he beamed. He motioned to his companions who popped in at his shoulder, a slightly bald First Guards officer in his forties and a pretty, diminutive woman twenty years younger. They folded their arms and listened. The thin-haired officer said something to the woman who nodded. West Hyde, upon hearing, leaned into both and made some reply.
From hill, from dale each charm fled,
Groves, flocks and fountains please no more;
Each flow’r in pity droops its head,
All nature does my loss deplore.
They took seats at a far table, the balding officer not averting his gaze as his thin lips grinned critically.
All, all reproach the faithless swain,
Yet Damon still I seek in vain.
All, all approach the faithless swain,
Yet Damon still I seek in vain.
When finished, the room Stupefied, uncertain what to do. Applaud maybe?
She smiled. The ones in love smiled back, thinking she’d noticed only them. To their delight, a hard summer rain had forced the windows closed and the Long Room heated so her bosom was a glaze with perspiration.
She sang again – Dear Colin prevent my warm Blushes and upon finishing, broke into, The Cruelty of Barbara Allen. This time they clapped. She curtsied, a hand to her cleavage to tempt them more. Soothed her throat with warm water and when looked up, the room had filled, but West Hyde and the officer gone.
They paraded on the common near Hanover Square, the Skyline like a deformed face to their mind’s eye: to the right – buildings of sandstone and brick, to the left – charred remains of the ’76 fire.
Scars of war – that it should’ve happen here to husbands, children, wives and mothers who never took the field or raised a hand in Anger. Those were Other men who’d toppled King George’s statue and tore up the streets – The majority here Innocent and Loyal.
Who’s innocent? – the Guards’ unspoken thought. Not them. Who did not commit crimes? Though not in breaking Laws; it was a Duty to break Laws in an Occupied Country. The crime was Inaction. To be bored. Would to God someone attack today. Would any confess they longed for campaign? What to do but the same old Drink and the same old Fuck. No Life and Death in that.
The Brigade reduced, like the Old City, down by a quarter, Hat Companies reconstituted into each other and new Flank Companies formed with so few Officers. West Hyde now commanded 1st Battalion. General Mathew still in charge. The women – another matter, three years ago numbering sixty. One Hundred Fifty-Two this morning with children of equal number.
“MacEachran,” called Thomas Allens upon parade’s dismissal, a Coldstream sergeant and a mere twenty-six, newly arrived. “You are to find your Wife and report to the Battalion Major within the half-hour at H.Q.”
“Colonel West Hyde? Me and my wife?” Geordie with anticipation
“Within the half hour.” Allens repeated.
“He’s going to take you back?” Obedience following Geordie into the barracks magazine.
“Don’t know.” He placed the musket in the rack with his cartridge box.
“It must be.”
A narrow brick home near the Seaman’s Sugar House served as the battalion H.Q. An equally young First Guards sergeant perched on a high stool behind a clerk’s desk in the foyer, transcribing orders. Sleepiest of operations as the MacEachrans walked in. Shouldn’t it be a hubbub with war? In truth, so little war. Aside from some coastal raids and a disastrous action at Stony Point, the army was Indolent. Just as well, thought Geordie for Obedience and him. Little did he know Spain had come in with France and the homeland was bracing for an Unparalleled Threat since the Great Armada. Little did anyone know in America.
“Yes?” The young sergeant could not help but eye Obedience.
“Private MacEachran and Mrs. MacEachran to see the battalion major by his order.”
The sergeant ran his finger down a list and put a check to their names, noting the time by a floor clock against the wall. He took a chit and scribbled upon it and handed it to Geordie. “Up the stairs and to the back. Second room on the right. Present it to the guard.”
“MacEachran,” Colonel Hyde beamed behind his desk in a converted bedroom. “And Mrs. MacEachran!” At the end of the room, sitting on a bow-back chair near a Dutch tiled fireplace was the balding First Guards officer from Queen’s Head. “I’ve requested you come on a personal matter on behalf of Colonel Howard here.”
Howard dipped his chin.
“We heard you sing, Mrs. MacEachran,” West Hyde said. “Well done.”
“Thank ye, sir. I’m gratified.”
“Please and surprised, I must say,” Hyde continued. “You’ve sung publicly before?”
“Yes, yes, you’ll have to sing more. Well, MacEachran,” he said to Geordie. “You’re a lucky man to have a wife of Ability. Shouldn’t have been hiding her all this time. You could both do quite well. You should have sung in Philadelphia. Could’ve used you for the Stage – the Players and all.” He turned to Howard. “Both of them living in my house as my man and maid and not one song.” He turned back to Obedience. “Well, your Opportunity is here.”
“Sir?” Obedience stammered before Geordie could say a word.
“Mrs. MacEachran,” Colonel Howard said fatherly. “I am having a Supper ‘n Party Thursday. I wish you to sing. I’ll pay you a crown for an hour’s work. I’ll double it if you prove very good and the guests request to hear more. What’d you think? Would it be convenient? . . . Private MacEachran?”
“I am speechless,” Obedience responded.
“Please, discuss it with your husband,” Howard said.
“We are honoured by your Employment,” she said.
Howard looked to Geordie.
“I will send ‘round the name of the dressmaker to fit you with a gown,” Howard said.
“They’ll also set you up with a Coiffeur for your wig and someone for makeup. I’ll also send you the address and time.”
“Very good,” West Hyde followed in conclusion.
“Thank you for coming,” Howard said.
Obedience curtseyed and Geordie saluted.
“And Mrs. MacEachran, do not be ill that night. Do not have your elbows in a laundry tub or your throat exposed to the weather. I would hate for you to disappoint.”