TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
ADAGIO - STAVE XIX
S T A V E
Head of the Elk, MaryLand, a pleasant little village: fieldstone and red brick houses, some plastered and whitewashed, others a subdued yellow . . . like its citizenry. Fortress-like rock and mortar churches, and Quaker Meetings equally strong – fine for barracks and defensive positions should they need them. The fields beyond, a bucolic scene: cleared land and farmhouses, corn and tobacco crop crisscrossed with fences, mills and apple orchards, dense copse of trees. They marched in, but no one greets them. Doors and windows locked and shuttered. On second glance, the town looked ill-used. Just two days prior, Washington had been here.
No Marauding upon Pain of Death – Billy’s orders.
Right – must mean Hessians. The Light Bobs and Grenadiers had marked out houses as they marched to their camps outside Town. Their Captains won’t stop them, most likely lead them on. How’s it Plunder when a house’s abandoned? Commandeering more like it – the prevention of Means falling to the Enemy. And is it stealing to find a dropped coin? It’s a sin not to pick it up. And what can Billy do? Hang the whole army? Officers too? But there – Handbills, tacked to every door, on posts, on trees, rendering a look of celebration. They waved in the breeze and those come loose blew over the street, catching in fences.
Sir William Howe, regretting the calamities to which many of His Majesty's faithful subjects are still exposed by the continuance of the Rebellion, and no less desirous of protecting the innocent, than determined to pursue with the rigors of war all those whom His Majesty's forces, in the course of their progress, may find in arms against the King, doth hereby assure the peaceable inhabitants of the Province of Delaware, and the counties of Maryland on the Eastern Shore of the Cheaspeak-Bay, that in order to remove any groundless apprehension which may have been raised of their suffering by depredation of the army under his command, he has issued the strictest orders to the troops for the preservation of regularity and good discipline, and has signified that the most exemplary punishment shall be inflicted upon those who shall dare to plunder the property, or Moldst the persons of any of His Majesty' well-disposed subjects.
Security and protection are likewise extended to all persons, inhabitants of the Province and Counties aforesaid, who, not guilty of having assumed legislative or judicial authority, may have acted illegally in subordinate station, and, conscious of their misconduct, been induced to leave their dwelling provided such persons do forthwith return and remain peaceable at their usual places of abode.
Considering moreover that many officers and private men, now actually in arms against His Majesty, may be willing to relinquish the part they have taken in this Rebellion, and, return to their due allegiance: SIR WILLIAM HOWE doth therefore promise a free and general pardon to all such officers and private men, as shall voluntarily come and surrender themselves to any detachment of His Majesty's forces, before the day on which it shall be notified that the said indulgence is to be discontinued.
‘Pardon’? They could tear the bill to shreds. Criminals, bloody criminals. I’ll pardon you, Yankee Doodle, with a bayonet up your arse, you bog-trotting reptile.
So thought Geordie, he and his mates like corpses come off the boats. They had cantoned on open ground in the reed bottom land the first night off the ships. A line of Militia had tried to stop them, but ran as the first wave hit. There’d be no stopping, better a ball in the brain than retreat to the stinking ships.
On the fens, laying against their packs by the fires, thunder sounded, yet no man pulled his blanket – it’d be one more thing to dry out and clean –
“Untie those packs and use your blankets – for your own bloody health.” Webb and Crookshank going down the line. “Colonel Osborn will have it. General Mathew will have it. Lazy Guardsmen, I’ll throw any blanket in the mud myself I find in the pack.”
Well and good for bloody officers, Geordie thought – batmen to clean their kit. Above his head, another crack of thunder. He shoved his bayonet between the flaps of his knapsack. Then the sky opened up and he hugged Brown Bess, covering them both with his blanket – that its lanolin hold up. Rain had pinged off his stiffened hatt-cap as if off a drumhead, though the flossy feather didn’t fair so well. Then in his ear, a high pitched buzz followed by a sting – Yankee mosquitos. Welcome to the middle colonies. Why in God’s name are we here? . . . To save America – glorious and stupid America . . .
Shots in the distance as they cleared the village, the crack of rifles one, two, three, each with their own voice. A constant skirmishing in the van, a man killed per day, maybe two. Little taps of death happening right next to you. Then a rush by comrades to save the man, “He’s down! He’s down! –’s down!” Crack. Crack. Crack. “In the barn! The bastards’ in the barn! Fire on the barn!” “Stay with me, Johnny, stay with me! Don’t you go! Don’t go! . . .” “I’m going down. I’m going down . . .” He may expire or linger and die in the next few days. And the squad mourns, but it happens. A quick burial in an unmarked grave . . .
That night at Evening Parade, Colonel Osborn stood before the grenadiers, their single officer, looking to the sergeants to handle the platoons. So few Guards officers left – fallen ill, shot dead, ordered home. America – an exhausting service. Especially for the Guards grenadiers and light companies, which Osborn found himself commanding both. A battalion unto themselves, Elite of the Elite, and therefore a governance of their own. So their conceit with special duty, General Mathew working them harder than all the brigade, and with heavier service more . . . latitude. So Osborn took it . . . to the resentment of fellow officers. Then again, flank commanders survive by half compared to line officers. So too the grenadier and light privates. Even now, twenty men applied as Sick.
“The Company will confine itself to the procurement of necessities,” Osborn instructed them. “Necessities,” he repeated. “Staples to improve Health – Spirits and Tobacco, Flour and Smoked Meats. It is my hope should you come across some Claret, you might save it for me.” They chuckled. “There should be a quantity of fresh eggs, we must boil them as they’ll not last in this heat. It’s small animals we need that can be butchered quickly. We’ve no salt and the meat’ll go bad in an instant. And pay heed to General Orders – No Marauding. Confiscate only from rebel stores. You may assume if a house is deserted, it belongs to a Rebel. Loyal Subjects have no reason to flee. If a dwelling’s occupied, move on. Remember, you, more than any soldiers, represent the King. How you comport yourselves is seen as the King’s love for his Subjects. Shame not the honour you bear.”
“Come on, Tommy, break it in,” the Coldstreamers shouted.
Elliot laid into the door with his shoulder, a stolid country door, defiant and no worse for wear, holding firm that they give up for an easier target. But not Elliot. The double chimney farmhouse, dark and shuttered, stood out like a doxy swishing her skirts. How, in good conscience, could he dessert her? He banged her all the more. “Move over.” John Notton pushed in. Elliot would not have it.
“What’s a jack-of-legs like you going to do?” Willcock said.
The door, abused, burst open and Elliot strode through alone. His. They watched him . . . looking about as if he was a bloody prince, ‘til Willcock with an “Augh,” and waltzed in. “I got that,” he said, pointing to some curtains. Mobcaps on the wall pegs, pewterware on the mantle, china cups and candlesticks, lace – abandoned, and not too long for the tang of wood smoke and the sour of burnt tallow. Harried footprints crisscrossed the floor. Elliot eyed a pewter cup and shoved it in his haversack. Run ye now and thank ye for it. Next he grabbed a puzzle jug. Like a Woman – shew ye one thing, do ye another. It jumped from his hand to break itself on the hearth. He stared at the pieces and ground them with the hobnails in his heel. A measured crush, slow and pleasing. The life put out of each bit. Like popping a hard ripe boil – cheesy, lumpy, moggy grit. A purge. Release. How he could pester himself . . . In the larder, the sound of his mates. He took a step and the floorboards whimpered. A tightness in his chest. He sighed without thinking. Licked his lips without thinking. From the larder – “Fucking bi-blow, that’s mine.” “Get yer shitty mits off it . . .”
Elliot walked to the stairs. Three closed doors on the landing. Let ‘em fight down here, the lubcocks. He went up and reached for the first latch. And there it was – a dressing table with a hand mirror and comb next to a cup of wildflowers, a young woman’s room – how he could pick ‘em. In the corner, the bed, coverlets tossed aside and sweeping down to the floor, the mattress in an odd crumple as if the sleeper had been startled and flew out the door. Single bed. Yet to be married.
He sat on the bed, her ghost on his skin, and fingered the sheets to imagine her neck and bare shoulders. A perfume. Apple blossoms. He sniffed. And a Devil whispered in his ear. He unbuttoned his trowsers and peeked under the bed. There she be, all curled up.
He pulled her out and rolled her on her back as she played dead, but couldn’t stop shaking. Then he too froze – just like the Devil to whip him up, then drop him cold to do the deed by his own volition. Such is Sin and him the Monster. Does one see oneself as the Monster? Let her go. He touched her cheek. “There,” he said softly. Stroked her collarbone with his thumb. Then slipped two dry fingers into her cunny.
Shrieks rattled the walls down to the cellar as if the house, itself, was screaming. A sound of blows ‘til the screaming stopped and a scraping across the floor. Then the worst of all, silence.
He wiped himself with her chemise, sweat dripping off his nose. On her lifeless hand a flat silver ring. He reached in his pocket for his soldier’s knife.