TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
RONDO - STAVE LXXIII
S T A V E
They filed into the Hornwork, flints pulled. The earthen parapet rose about them as if they were insects traversing across the bottom of a giant bowl. The new moon had made its course and began its descent towards the horizon. Three hundred fifty King’s Men formed two columns: the grenadiers of the Guards and the 80th Foot on the right, the Light Infantry on the left. In the middle – soldiers of the Royal Artillery with wheel nails and hammers tucked into their belts. A desperate mission: spike the Allied guns and buy time for the army to escape across the river and fight their way out – that, or earn the 'Honours of War'. A Forlorn Hope – a sortie for the most elite troops. Cornwallis could not surrender without an offensive Force of Arms. No respectable terms without this Gesture.
Geordie in his file, his shoulders unfettered by cartridge box and carriage. Just the bayonet. A naked feeling. Naked too without Tim. Cock-of-the-Walk he wanted to whisper. Are you with me, brother? I am – in his mind. Get to it. His head whirled from the tot he’d just downed, that and the camp coffee the officers had procured for them. Obedience tempted, but he shut her out. God help the men facing him this night. All that you betrayed, his conscience heckled, in that black heart you think so good. Providence knows. That he could be a Christian again . . . Obedience . . . No – throw her away. He looked at Elliot leading the squad, glad of him – that killer’s face – and his own face with its great sabre cut. You and me. How fitting.
Elliot sensed his stare. Did she tell you about the alley? Not a chance.
He’d followed her all that night, waiting in the shadows near Howard’s house, determined to end her. Himself as well. That it all be over. As she fled down the street, he fed off her fear – at last he meant something to her. Then into the Neger’s shack as if the witch might save her. Goddamn doxy he heard Binah say. Goddamn is right. They were like creatures, him and her, damned in their own way and in the same. Her – the actress, even to herself. But to him – grace And him – grace. A Rescue. ‘Love to the unlovely.’ O’ – that he might Save, and in saving, be Saved. What you don’t deserve. Beauty. And what is Beauty but a Sacrifice – the spotless lamb. And bear the sins we cannot stand less they murder us. Can we not help but kill it? Embrace me and stay my hand. That I be beautiful and die for you . . . And then she comes from the shack, walking across the yard like some saint to the cross. A look he’d not seen. “Tommy,” she said. He took her into the alley, put his hand on her bodice to rip open her dress, the other hand under her petticoats to jam her. She touched his cheek. He tore her gown. She rested her head on his breast, the weight crushing. Both felt his heart against her cheek. An infinite moment. He took her by the shoulders. Her face in anguish. So too his. Like creatures. That he Save –
I let you go.
Colonel Lake, leading the sortie, conferred with Captain Murry of the 80th and the light infantry’s Major Armstrong. “There is a swale midway across the field. We will cut to the right and enter it. It should shield any sight of us until we reached the French parapets. Major Armstrong, you must move to the left when we enter the sally port and into the American batteries. I will go right with the grenadiers to the French. Gentlemen, the fate of this army lies with us. There can be no failure. Good luck.”
The order was given. Over the Hornwork, down into the ditch, and to the open field.
Geordie with deliberateness, his foot falling lightly on the ground as if he was traversing a sheet of paper. No-man's land pulled him like a river to a waterfall. The ground rose and fell helter-skelter with craters. No rattle did his bayonet make having secured the socket tight with a tongue of leather. He grasped the sling lest it slap against the stock. The Hornwork vanished as if swept away by time. Yet with him a presence – Elliot close by.
They entered the swale crouching low, before them the parapets. Lake stopped them at the swale’s lip. The sentries unaware. They slipped into the juncture between the batteries, Armstrong and the light bobs turning left, the grenadiers right. They brought their bayonets up as they passed through a communication trench, when behind they heard a sentry call out, “What troops?” “French,” Armstrong replied and then cried out to his men, “Push on boys and skin the bastards!” The light bobs howled and drove into the American battery. And the grenadiers dashed into a redoubt where fifty soldiers slept.
Geordie jammed his bayonet into a man under a blanket, whose eyes popped wide to see him come down again, driving the bayonet through his chest and out his back. Geordie jerked the blade free as the grenadiers, berserk, stabbed through the Angnois' white uniforms. He raced into an officer’s tent behind three other Guards and then a child’s high pitch scream as they punctured repeatedly a boy servant. Geordie flew out of the marquee, drawn by the tide of men into the next battery. There stood four iron 24-pounders. The artillerymen set to work, trying to drive the wheel nails into the touch holes as the grenadiers and Agenois fought hand to hand.
“Goddamn it!” cried an artilleryman trying to force the wheel nail in the touch hole; the sortie had been planned in such haste the artillerymen were not issued the proper spikes. Amidst the screams and the ring of metal, the artillerymen cried out, “The bloody nails are useless!”
“What is this?” Captain Murry cried as the last French picquet was killed.
“We cannot spike the guns,” the sergeant said.
“What?” Lake bellowed, the breast of his regimental slashed open and a cut creased along his cheek.
“The wheel nails are too fat.”
"What can be done?"
"If the men jam their bayonets into the touch holes and break off the points, it will work."
"See to it," Lake ordered Murry and then whirled around. “Sergeant,” he called to a giant silhouette in the firelight.
“Sir,” Elliot answered.
“Take two squads into the next battery while we go on. Spike the guns with your bayonets.”
They raced through the trenches to the next battery. Geordie hurtled a fire pit to knock down a Sissonnais rising to his feet and scythed the man's chin with the butt of his firelock. Guardsmen jammed their bayonets into the cannon touch holes, breaking them off with a "tink".
Musket fire broke out ahead, mingled with the cries of men. Redcoats tumbled back into the battery as musket balls whistled passed them. Geordie with three others waited at the juncture as more Guards grenadiers came back. White uniforms appeared at the entrance and Geordie launched forward running the first man through. A muzzle blast exploded before him and his shoulder knocked back, nearly dropping him to the ground. A Frenchman was upon him, his bayonet a blur as it darted for his heart. But the blade shot sideways and stabbed into Geordie's hip. The Frenchman grunted, Elliot’s bayonet shanked into him. Geordie jumped to his feet as if he’d not been hit.
A whistle sounded – retreat.
The Redcoats rushed back to the entrance, the French firing on them as they came. The grenadiers and the light-bobs knocked into each other as they funneled through the narrow gap and back into the swale. The sun rising and the retreating figures could be seen re-crossing the field.
Geordie hit the gap, blood pouring from his hip and shoulder. He reeled. Something struck his back – a mule kick. He hit the earth and rolled stomach down. He turned his head to view the sally port. Redcoats continued to pour out. They hurtled him, some tripping. And when the last had gone, Geordie looked up. There, alone in the breech, Elliot with his bayonet charged.
Elliot looked back to see the sortie making for the Hornwork. Then he looked down at Geordie staring up at him with a bullet hole in his back. He nodded and faced the front. The French swarmed him.
He cut the first man down, but not before a bayonet popped his side. A second man came and Elliot jammed him so hard he lifted him off his feet. Three French grenadiers stabbed him in the groin and thigh. Elliot clubbed them with his firelock, knocking two down, and kicking one in the face and stabbed him through the heart. It was then an Agenois caught him in the throat, but Elliot pulled the blade and stabbed his attacker again and again, blood flowing out Elliot’s nose and mouth. Two more bayonets ripped into his lungs. Elliot fell to his knees, his firelock fallen away. The French with their blades on him . . .
Geordie, a numbness in his legs, knew he would follow. A thirst. Mouth dry as sand. The sun rising and with it, a terror.
This is it. Virginia, I die in Virginia. And then the creep. “No,” his breathless whimper. Here.
The combined American and French batteries, after drilling out the bayonets points, opened fire on the British lines from their new positions.
Earl Cornwallis to General Washington, Yorktown, Virginia, October 17th, 1781:
S I R,
I P R O P O S E a cessation of hostilities for twenty-four hours, and that two officers may be appointed by each side, to meet at Mr. Moore's house, to settle terms for the surrender of the posts of York and Gloucester.
I have the honour to be, &c.
C O R N W A L L I S.
In the days following, as French officers entertained their prisoner counterparts, Captain Samuel Graham of the 76th Foot, was given a tour of the Allied batteries. As they strolled along the parapets, they stopped at the junction between the American and French works.
“Come, Captain Graham, I have something to show you,” a French major said and pointed to a mound of earth below the parapet. “This is something you should know. This is a grave of a British soldier we buried with high military honours. He was a sergeant in your King's Guards.” Graham examined the mound curiously. “This sergeant was a magnificent soldier,” the major said. “The troops who fought him saw nothing like his kind. When your British troops were withdrawing from their valiant sortie, this man alone stayed behind to cover their retreat. Twelve times he was struck before he fell. He must have saved many men.” The major looked at Elliot's grave and shook his head. “Voila un de vos braves gens. He must have been a fine man.”