TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
A L L E G R O - S T A V E II
S T A V E
Wind up, the ship rolling, and the grenadiers on the spar deck as easy as you please. Three months ago they’d be vomiting. Sergeants and corporals, up before dawn and in place even before the fifers sounded the assembly. Captain Bourne, a doe-faced Coldstream officer, perked himself up before the men as would any good father. Soldiers yawned. Few had slept including Captain Bourne; Gill had screeched most the night and then the wife sobbing off and on. Bourne conferred with the physician and the grenadier company commanding officer, Sir George Osborn.
“Not contagious?” Sir George had exclaimed as they had gathered in his cabin: Sir George, Captain Madan, Captain Bourne, Dr. Smithies and Sergeant Crookshank. “Well contagious or no, wash them down. Women and children too. We’ll not come all this way to be ruined by Fever. Clean, Sergeant Crookshank. Good lye soap ‘til their skin’s blushing.”
On deck the sergeants called roll. All present and correct save one. Sergeant Crookshank, bolt upright on the rolling deck, held the orderly book before his sunburned face as if he was going to quote Scripture:
“‘Company Head Quarters Royal George 12th Augt 1776, Captain Bourne, Officer of the Day. Dress of the Day,” his parade ground roll. “Trousers, checked shirts, waistcoat, ammunition shirt. Upon dismissal, the Men shall retrieve their Blankets and air them on deck. Corporals are to make Certain the blankets are properly secured with line so none blow into the Sea. The Men shall take Baths. Company Women and Children are to bathe later in the Day. The Company Commander orders an Exercise for the Well Being and Health of the Men. The Company, by Platoons, will dance for 60 minutes upon the open deck.’”
Within an hour the ship resembled Wash Day on the East End. Gray blankets, spliced on like stud sails, fluttered from ratlines and gunwales. Soldiers bathed naked as the women and children spied through the hatchways, the men’s pale torsos lathered with frothy soap and dowsed with sea water.
Geordie wiped soap from his eyes to see a blanket tear loose and tumble like a leaf down to the waves. That it not be mine, he prayed.
“Damn,” he heard a First Guard grenadier cry and rush to the transom.
“See to it you don’t go over yourself, Coalheaver,” Coldstreamers hooted.
It’ll be stoppages for that poor fellow – the cost of a blanket, even more the shame because they’re Household Troops. Worse for the corporals, worse for the sergeants – snooty officers and snooty men, ‘blaggards’ and ‘puppies’ the common foot call them, strutt’n ‘round like they own the world . . .
And with that, they dressed and assembled again, dried sea salt ‘round their cheeks and ears. Forever in line. Always in rank.
Geordie stood behind Tim Crotty, a good place in his estimation. Both proud of the Third, they’d become fast friends since the lottery. You make your family as you can, even if it’s an Irish labourer up from the London docks – that he’d joined the Third – and a Papist too who lied to take the shilling. Not that it matters. The King needs men and common folk ain’t rushing onto the Establishment. Better him than a Jamie Richie. But the time will come when they’ll take the likes of him too.
“The platoon will commence the exercise,” ordered Captain Bourne.
Fifers struck the tune. Geordie with Tim’s calloused hand promenaded the length of the deck, skipping to the music like little boys who stroll arm-in-arm. Safety in that hand, no danger or potency, not like a girl’s. ’Course, there’s thems that’s Mollified, but not as many as they’d like you to think, but maybe more than ye know . . . A wifie kin destroy ye, his father always said. A man’s soul’s cheap ‘n’ easily won. You’re a fish, laddie 'n' a wifie owns th' pond. Prick costs naught. Cunny wants cash. Bit they’re ne'er satisfied wi' that. If you’re smart, gie thaim th' dosh. Kin prick nor purse ne'er fail thee . . .
The academician on St. Anne’s Lane, Geordie thought as he held Tim’s fingers – his last fuck these many months, just a bend over as she gripped the arm of a sofa. No soul surrender in that hole. The only time their fingers met was giving her cash. Cost him two shillings. “Off you go, ‘Corporal Cartouche’,” she said and pushed him out the door as other grenadiers waited – a girl of Industry, a Capitalist through and through. How he wished it was her he was holding.
“Up my boys, dance for the King,” Sergeant Crookshank prodded as he jigged with Sergeant Webb. “The Doodles’ll run a damn sight faster. How can you catch him with wobbly knees? Up there Willcock. Up there Moddy. Mr. Burrows, Mr. Burrows, you fading on me? You going to make Vaughn drag you about the deck like a sack of meal? How about I take a chunk out your arse with my teeth?”
They sweated, grabbed their knees, cheeks rosy and hallow. Not Geordie though his lungs burned while Captains Bourne and Madan conversed on the quarterdeck as easy as you please about their lodges, cricket and actresses.
“And you, MacEachran,” Crookshank said, who stood unwinded with the same upright pride. “Not enough for you?”
“Plenty for me, sergeant,” Geordie answered like a good son.
“Plenty you’ll get. This war will be a sprint.”
“Signal from Emerald, Mr. Wayland,” cried the forecastle lookout. “New York.”
Soldiers dashed to the transom. Though the fleet had been paralleling the Long Island coast, the bay had lain beyond their sight. None of the private men had ever seen it. America. Mysterious and beautiful America. Three thousand miles from home. If they were to land at Calais and march three thousand miles east, they’d be on the Caspian Sea. Even in this modern age, the distance was humbling. They cheered – to be off this ship and get at them –
“Hazza–hazza,” Geordie shouted, his fist in the air, then noticed a woman at the rail. Obedience Gill.
She stood ghost-like, immune to the shouts and wind, even the jostling by the grenadiers who seemed as invisible to her as she was to them. Any day they would’ve looked her up and down – Obedience Gill, handsomest woman on-the-ration, in the company, in the brigade, a vivacious laugh and easy boundaries, a tavern singer with a voice even better than her looks. Today not so pretty, with her pinched face, clutching her husband’s coat like a child’s blanket, and Billy below wrapped in hemp ready for the drink.
Poor girl, Geordie thought. What are you doing here? You’d never be one to book passage and follow Billy if they hadn’t let you come. Don’t they see you now? You just wait, they will, and if you’re smart, you’ll be some officer’s doxy – better than the company tearing at your skirts. And they’ll do it and you’ll do it. He ground his teeth at the thought. Why don’t the women comfort her? Don’t they stick to their own, them bitches? Someone with a kind word?
He started toward her.
Captain Bourne beat him.
“Mrs. Gill,” he heard Bourne say delicately. “Mrs. Gill.” He was patient. “my deepest consolation.”
“Thank you.” A whisper.
“A sad predicament.” She dropped her gaze. “No hurry now,” he said, “but you must think what you will do.”
She scanned the deck.
“Not to fret, Colonel Osborn will secure for your return passage home and the begging license if you’ve no trade. You’ll benefit from a widow’s fund. Of course, a return passage might not be for months. The pay Master will arrange it. You’ll remain on-the-ration ‘til then.”
“The death of a husband is very sad . . . You have family to receive you?”
She teared. “No.”
“I see . . . Though a woman such as yourself should have no trouble procuring a marriage and then you’ll again be secured . . . Hold up,” he said kindly. “Yours, unfortunately, is only the first. If there is anything I can do in my capacity?” She nodded and he walked away.
Soon as he left, a Coldstream grenadier materialized from the crowd. Materialize – the word, for he was there by Magick, neat trick as he towered above his peers. She caught her breath and he stopped like a reared-up bear. But then she nodded.
They talked, or rather, he talked, with a tilt of his head, his big hand pushed out. She gripped the coat to protect her. He said something. Her eyes electric. He offered his hand again. She shook her head. His paw empty. That a vein burst in his cheek, how bright with heat, and he turned away with jaw clinched. She donned Billy’s coat and pressed the rail as if to break it.
And America emerged from the waves, green and solid. Along the starboard, the Long Island banks that they’d been skirting since last evening, and ahead the arms of Rockaway and Sandy Point like a mythical gate. A chill in Geordie. Who’d not admit it, seeing America for the first time? Like looking into a temptress’ eyes. A forest of masts in the Lower Bay as they got closer, hundreds of ships riding at anchor – Britannia’s might.
Tars sprang to reef the mains and foreyards, the convoy slowing to a crawl. They sailed into the channel to cheers. Fifes and drums rose above the cries and roused the shouts into song. The troops on deck waved to Staten Island shore whose gray beach brightened from a line of undulating Red. From the bluffs, batteries fired a salute. Emerald replied with a broadside.
How grand, Geordie thought. How very grand. To be part of a very fine thing. He looked to Mrs. Gill.