TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
ALLEGRO - STAVE XIV
S T A V E
George Washington, for all his entrenchments, his battlings, abandoned New York. Gave her up like a Wife he’d no longer use for, like the Concubine of Lot’s guest – tossed her out to the Sodomites and left her in a shambles. Billy can have her. After all, a city ain’t a Country. And a Country ain’t the land. It’s a Thought. But whose Thought? . . . Nevertheless, a fine city to occupy, though not with the Guards, consequently, the most urban of troops, as they and the Main of the Army camped about Harlem for Washington’s next move.
Geordie, asleep under the night sky – forty days since the weather deck, six days from between her legs. They’d not touched since – the women assigned their own tent and the Army always on the move, the Quartermaster Corps surely exhausted from the constant decampment – break it out, lay it down, take it up, pack it. A tedium to war. Private men and sergeants erect their own tents. Batmen for the officers personal effects – tighten the bed ropes, assemble the camp desk. For the Private man – cobble a new sole over the worn one, patch the tear in the knee of the trowsers, mend the broken leather spatter dash strap . . . This American heat – damn the long hair with its clubs and queues. Cut it off as the Light Bobs do. This ain’t the Cont-tinent. They ain’t the Hessians with moustache wax and fancy curls. Billy won’t care if they do it. Any relief.
He dreamed – Obedience pulling him across the field, tugging his fingers with a pensive look as if the slightest jostle might free them. But a power in her touch – something gypsy. She knew it, it held her too. Ahead, the sycamore, as she seemed to pull him from as much as take him to. What did he think they’d do? What indeed? But once there, she was gone and him in a different place the way Dreams tend to do. An attack on New York, great and fantastical, with fearful Engines not seen before – warships that sulk beneath the waves, rockets that leveled street blocks, gigantic balloons with fighting platforms sailing overhead, their silk in Regimental Colours: here – the 23rd with its three feathers, there – the 55th’s green with roses and white thistles. On a Guards’ balloon, Geordie’s lifted in the air, weightless and dizzy. They float over the Bowery and fire down into the fleeing crowds, light grenades and drop them to see them burst about rebel heads . . . The Enemy replies with exploding shot. Balloons go up in flames and the King’s Men fall. Geordie falls. A horrible rush. Certain death . . . Will Jehovah catch him? He thinks not. A Consequence of the Great Awakening . . . He falls and falls into some distant Future. The dream shifts again – play actors stroll a fanciful Camp, fat old men in Regimentals, studying knapsacks and counting threads, Scholars on the shape of French coat frogs, Virtuosos on military buttons – Archivists of Minutia – the precise dimensions of a fatigue cap frontlet. Teamsters as Generals, smug in their gold tape, swinging swords to make the firelocks go Bang . . . Quickly! Quickly! . . . And Geordie with a derisive laugh . . .
The Call to Arms.
Shocked from sleep, he scrambles.
“What is it?” Tim cries as they snatch their firelocks and boxes from the bell tent and rush into line. Officers shouting. Sergeants shouting. The drums like a storm.
Prime and Load.
A slap on the box. Pluck the charge. Pull the rammer.
They hear nothing.
A rattling in the dark.
What’s coming? It sees them surely, silhouetted by the campfires. An attack?
They march out under a waxing moon, firelocks recovered and halt at one hundred yards.
General Mathew looks. Trelawney looks. Osborn looks. Lt-Col. Ogilvie. Lt-Col. Archer. Are all the brigades turned out? A runner dispatched to General Howe for further orders.
“Marksmen, form Chain,” Trelawney’s order.
In the dark? Hair raises on the back of their necks as from each platoon a group of four advance fifteen paces to stand like bait. What’s to shoot at? A stupid order.
Again they wait. Officers standing cool for the men, but a jitter in their voice.
Minutes pass. A half of an hour. Two in the A.M.
Kneel – the order.
Geordie gripping Brown Bess in the chain with Jeff True, Tim and Jim Moddy. Damn the practice that put him there. Keep still as not to breathe. Nothing to hear but tree frogs singing. Nothing to see but the faintest glow to the south – a warm, flickering glow – a gesture of candle light . . . Do they see it? Or their weariness playing tricks? No. A fire. A diversion. New York burning. Put them off their guard. And just when they’re all astir and rush to the city’s aid, up comes Washington to hit them hard. Hit them in the dark amidst confusion. Is that the case? Would the Rebel burn his own city to get at them? Wouldn’t put it past him. He threatened to do it. Line up his children and shoot them for the Cause. If he had any, impotent poxy by blow . . .
Abruptly, the marksmen are recalled, and without explanation, the brigade returns to camp. Roll taken. Arms stored back in the bell tents and the privates directed to change into Fatigue Order.
Familiar with outbreaks in the Devil’s Acre, the brigade came down with ropes and trenching tools following in wagons while the bulk of the Army stood on their Arms should something awful happen.
They smelled it before they heard it, acrid smoke with every breath. They heard it before they saw it, a great crackling like the breaking of sticks. Then the glow ever brightening, actually quite pretty, like a painter’s great dark canvas whose forte is candlelight – cadmium reds, yellows, oranges, and then the smoky veil like a cloak on the first lick of flames above the treetops, embers like rising souls as if straight out of Joseph Wright of Derby. But breaking from the highlands, a different scene. A sucking maelstrom. A roiling, roaring beast. Flames with the faces of demons. Shrieks. Terror. Disbelief. From down in the Bowery to the Paulus Hook Ferry – New York on the spit, aflame.
They came down Ryndert Street paralleling The Marshy Ground and the Fresh Water Pond on whose southern bank the city Powder Magazine stood, then to Broadway as it veered off The Common and the Soldiers’ Barracks along with the Gaol and the Work House.
“Mercy of God! Free us!” cried inmates from the Debtor’s Prison, arms wriggling like snakes through the window bars. “We cannot breathe!”
The Commons like a cattle stall, each victim on their patch of grass with a look of disbelief, watery eyes rimmed, sooty ears with a rime of black. Many sitting in the middle of the street where they stopped and could go no further. Burnt hair. Scorched coattails. Old Gentlemen buckling under the weight of possessions crammed into chests. Bon Ton wives layered in dress upon dress as dogs and rats scurry up and over them. Negro slaves clinging to their masters so not to be shot as looters. Rich and poor indistinguishable. Every so often a running man, shoulders and head aflame, pushing through the crowd. The lucky ones tackled and put out, while others fell screaming ‘til the fire sucked their breath and they fell. And above the cries and shouts, a great coughing.
The brigade pushed through the crowd onto the grounds of St. Paul’s Chapel. The fire clearly coming their way. Under the great portico, General Mathew and the officers watched the chaos.
“We must clear the streets,” Mathew said, “or we can effect nothing. Get that map. Ogilvie, have two companies control the crowd and load those who cannot walk into the wagons. Trelawny, take the rest, and form your firebreaks where you can. Ogilvie and I will stay here with 2nd battalion should you need support. Take the Light Company and leave the Brigade Company here.” He looked down Broad Street at the all-consuming monster. “The lower end is lost,” he said. “The winds are pushing it up.”
“The lights and grenadiers will proceed down Broad Street under Sir George,” Trelawny said. “I shall follow with the rest on their left down Nassau Street. The firebreaks must be at midtown.”
Geordie shouldered a sledgehammer as they pushed against the flow at the Oswego Market, a great wind down Broadway: papers flying along with objects of little weight swept to the flames’ vacuum. In his nose burning tar, burning wood, burning fat; a scorch of iron, melting lead. Doused with sweat, his ears ringing and him weaving from exhaustion. Down the avenue flames leaping from rooftop to rooftop over the gauntlet of the streets. Down near Garden Street the block in flame, while not far away at Pine Street the buildings still safe. At Cedar, a conflagration on their right moving towards the Hudson. And out of the corner of Geordie’s eye, through translucent curtains of dreamlike thermals, two figures on a mansard roof – a man and child on a widow’s walk. Fire shot up through the shingles and smoke pounded, coiling and thick. The child ‘round the man’s neck – boy or girl, Geordie couldn’t tell. They stepped over the rail. Then disappeared in a shooting column of smoke and were gone. So quick. Was it true? His soldier’s mind reeling. This is not war – to burn your own children . . . not a guttersnipe that picks your pocket and cuts you between the ribs . . . but your child, put to bed and set to dreaming with mother and father within earshot as loving parents do. The way a child cries knowing it’s going to die . . . the way it screams . . .
Geordie’s chest tightened and he reached out for Tim. Even so, the column pressed forward.
Col. Osborn beside himself. Many fires. Many causes – they spring from nowhere. Then up ahead, of all things, a gibbeted body, hung by the heels surrounded by the King’s Men abusing it.
“Sir George, Colonel Martin,” cried a captain of Marines running up to them. “Thank God you’re here. We’ve been at it since first alarm.”
“Madness,” said Martin. “I’ve not seen the like even in London.”
“Incendiaries,” said Captain Toby Caulfield, wiping a smudged face with his sleeve. “Started in some dockside brothel. Assassins.” He looked at the body. “This one stabbed his own wife because she carried water buckets. Peeled her arm open like an orange. Poor woman won’t last the night. She said she found him cutting bucket handles. I could not contain the men. I would not – that he could’ve suffered more. Soldiering’s a bloody business, but women and children don’t fall from our Arms. By God, they’ve injured friend and foe alike. I’d hang that Washington on sight, the ‘Town Burner’.”
“Where are the Fire Clubs?” Osborn asked.
“About,” Caulfield said.
“They’re overwhelmed. Only the Tory ones responded.”
“And the rest?”
“Are there any water engines?”
“We’ve found one. Most are burned up. The fire out of control before anyone noticed. No alarm was raised. All the church bells are gone.”
“Taken by the rebels to make cannon –”
A roar absorbed his words; the steeple of Trinity Church suddenly alight, flame danced upon the arms of its gilded cross.
“Congregationalists,” Martin spat.
“We’re set up in Courtlandt’s sugar house, but that might soon be gone. We’re back to the fleet now you’re here.”
“We must retreat . . . The map,” Osborn said, motioning to Crookshank. “Here,” he said pointing to a spot. “Courtlandt Street . . . and haul down any wood buildings.”
“I say we pull back to St. Paul’s,” said Captain Madan, his eyes red with tears and soot blotching his cheeks and nose like a made-up Indian. Down the Broad Street, the flames rose a hundred feet in the air, Trinity Church like a burning martyr. “There’s nothing to be done. Abandon the city. Let it burn.”
“That’s what the rebels want,” said Captain Bourne.
“I’m with Madan,” cried Ensign Thoroton of the light company.
“Shut up,” said Captain Archer his senior officer.
“I didn’t come to America to be burned alive. This is not war,” young Thoroton whined.
“Be assured,” Archer instructed the twenty-three year old who’d languished as an ensign these four years, God knows Poppa, a M.P., could’ve afforded better . . . “this is war – I can have the men shoot at you if you wish. Most would gladly do it – That’d seem like war wouldn’t it?”
“Stop it,” Osborn scolded. “Get your wits – the men.”
Cortlandt Street – dark and seedy with its tippling shops and bawdy houses – the black heart of Holy Ground. The district empty, its ‘residents’ fled along with the rats and dogs though the rats and dogs eschewed their company. Holy Ground – a fitting place to start, never a block so warranted destruction. Better to let it burn, but the fire would then take King’s College to its north. Maybe they should’ve let the Rebels keep it altogether and the clap take them down. Even so the British after a week . . . Prostitutes – the unwitting Fifth Column. But where else in New York the quantity of gin? The Dutch, with their long, nefarious reach –
No, pull it down.
The column halted and the squads set to disperse, each to a gin house. Madan and Bourne the first in to reconnoiter and come out quick with their coats weighted and clinking with slender green bottles. “Start in here,” Bourne said to Crookshank’s squad and was off with the rest to the next shop.
In a dusky corner of an old creep where the musk of cunt still lingered (cunt is what they calls it, no honeypot here, but the sewer, the gash and the mollies up for it, more so when thieving cash – he in her nether mouth and she in his pocket) Geordie swung his sledge where the post and beams met. How easily it cracked. Good distraction. Floorboards moaning. A building of sticks, thrown up for a single purpose. Blow it over with a breath. If he could’ve only give the incendiary the same whack. Crack him like a melon, brains and guts spill out . . . “Hey, help will ye?” he called to Tim in the taproom filling their canteens – nothing left but beer as Bourne and Madan, with noses for gin, lobbed all the spirits. The corner smelled like piss and his own grimy sweat stinging him. “Come on –”
“Here.” Tim handed him a canteen and he guzzled – a pine tar and ginger that gagged him ‘til his tongue flattened and then it not so bad. He knocked loose the post’s footing. The wall plaster . . . that there should even be a plaster wall, only one in the whole house, partially covered by a tattered blue swag . . . cracked. The building moaned and then he saw it peeking out from behind the fold – an erect and spurting prick, as high as a man would sit, etched in the daub with a taupe of dried blood. ”Genial Juice” - JAn Schut – 1702 its imprimatur.
Well, Mr. Schut, he thought discordantly, squirt’n outside the holster? And Little Lavinia came to mind – such a pretty, though breasts like a boy’s, yet that mossy cavern. And Obedience, his thought in a different manner. A coil of smoke pinched him out of it and he saw graffiti to the giant prick’s left:
Buxom Nan full and trim with luscious dumplings and cherry q. . .m
A Congregationalist no doubt and loses while tipping off his kicks. He called to Tim. “Think they’ve got a List?” An edge to his voice as the brume grew strong.
“In this cow town?” Tim said.
“Well, some frigates . . . ”
“Hulks if you ask me, with poxy faces.”
“No two guinea girls . . .”
“Two for a penny . . . and a parting gift.”
“I like a two guinea girl – it must be worth paying for . . . Miss Brown on Old Compton – sings, acts, plays piano forte – hazel eyes, auburn hair like . . .” No, not like at all . . .
Tim smiled. “Ah, Miss Brown . . .”
Geordie turned away, a tightness in his jaw, and hit the post hard.
At eye level more graffiti:
Billy BeeB – ‘42 . . .
Liberty! - 5th Conn. Reg., 1776
Die f – - ing Regulars.
Die Fucking Regulars. They meant him, dragging him naked through the streets like a slaughtered pig, all smiling and celebratory; a kick to the haunch, a kick to the cheek. Children shouting, wives laughing all jolly like at Tyburn Tree, while his mouth gapes and his dead eyes stare. The thing’s dead. He once was a human being . . . That they all be dead. He leaned on the hammer and stared, hit suddenly by the beer and exhaustion. And him come to save them. Did the author think he’d see it? Would he have the nerve to say it to his face? Them burning their own town . . . burning their own children . . . to kill us.
He smacked the graffiti, as if smacking the author’s head and all the brains and bits and hair stuck to the hammerhead, and the greatest satisfaction is he’s not yet dead and awake for another. Die fucking Rebel. He hit it again. A soldier’s fury. The wall burst in flakes. His hands stinging. A clod in a fancy red suit, not a man, but a ‘troop’. . . as in so many troops killed, wounded, missing . . . Hadn’t they names? Nobody cared for their names? When he could hit no more, he tippled his canteen, three good swallows, and then he whipped out his prick to piss on the rubble.
“MacEachran, the bloody hell?” Sergeant Crookshank in the doorway. Then a crash. Smoke and debris punched through the doorway, knocking them down. Above their heads a crackling and dropping of embers, smoke burning their eyes and mouths, needles in the lungs, and would’ve laid there for dead, if not for Willcock and Harrison pushing in to pick them up.
The Trinity Church had toppled, brick and wood by the tons crushing its neighbours. A Pyramid of fire. Ominous symbol as the city blazed; it started burning long before the main fire had reached it. They said they’d do it – the Rebels. Burn it, their General Greene had said. Burn it, Vestryman John Jay had said. Not four months ago, a battalion had marched in during services, primed and loaded, and threatened to shoot Rev. Inglis if he offered prayers for the King – so the Rev. Inglis had said. And Geordie, Tim and Crookshank coated white and coughing as if fallen in a chalk bin, dragged into the street as Holy Ground started to blaze.
The column formed quickly as the buildings to their front went up, and before they knew it the block lost. Bent low, each man put his hand on the soldier in front of him and right about back to Broad Street and falling to the curb, Geordie’s face creased with a fine white dust.
Drink – the officers ordered. Geordie sweated and half the beer gone. How he craved water.
On Partition Street, just west of Broadway, they worked to take a house down – keep the fire from King’s College, though most of the west end was lost. Still, they chopped at the corners of one of the few wood structures on the block until the building listed and like a wounded beast, moaned. Fifty grenadiers stood on the ropes running in and out of the second story windows while Geordie and Tim watched, exempted by their injuries.
“Ready,” said Captain Bourne. “Clear on the left. Clear on the right.” Put his whistle to his lips and signaled. They pulled. The house refused with a growl and shudder. The men struggled, skidding on the cobblestones. Two sharp toots from Bourne’s whistle. They slumped.
“Grenadiers . . .” And shamed them with his stare, their exhaustion an insult. “Do it,” he demanded and raised the whistle.
They heaved and the façade pulled from the building with a groan. It teetered as the building itself collapsed. Then the front, falling forward, crashed with a burst of timber and debris leaving a cavity among the row of houses like a pulled tooth. They went to the next building – now they’d do it and in short time, the block would be down.
A flash caught Geordie’s eye as he watched the grenadiers’ ant-like precision, none more ant-like than Elliot, with massive mandibles taking chunks out of a building with an axe . . . Just a flicker down the darkened lane. He could not help but stand. In the sky, no flying embers to ignite a roof. But there – another, like a lantern door opening and closing. Should he tell Captain Bourne? No – seek it out, make himself useful. Tim and Crookshank, hacking and miserable, didn’t notice him leave with an axe.
His hobnails on the cobblestones: It ain’t nothing, Geordie thought, though he’d trade the axe for firelock and bayonet. Ain’t nothing in the dark. Die fucking Regular. A footfall behind him. He turned – only silhouettes up the street. Then a clink of breaking glass. He moved toward the sound, and there, a mansion with porticos and columns rising above its neighbours, a fine Tory house with a widow’s walk and a clear view of the Hudson.
A flame on a first floor casement, just a lick, dancing on the window’s stool. The wood, at first, resisted – such a little thing ‘til it spread to mutin and stile. Several panes cracked. Then it jumped to the clapboards.
“Fire – ” Geordie started to cry when an arm wrenched about his neck and the axe fell ringing on the bricks. A punch to his gut and up spewed the beer. “Christ!” cried the second attacker all splattered, answering with a kick. Untouched – the arm ‘round his neck like an Indian Python and Geordie’s chalked face a pale blue. But suddenly the man grunted and let go. The manse now afire lit the scene: the assailant’s head in Elliot’s arms, his shoes kicking the pavers. A twist and a snap – like a sack he fell – then onto the other who lunged with a sgian-dubh. Elliot took the cut, grabbing the man’s throat, shaking him like a poppet. Up and over his head, Elliot striding to the burning house and tossed him through the fiery window. How easily the man lit from the upchucked beer and jigged about. The screaming – Such screaming – The wild, high pitch –
Looking at Geordie, Elliot picked up the axe, the cut from his hand bleeding on the handle, his gray eyes flickering with firelight. A cold, dead stare.
Harrison, Burrows, Willcock and Webb came charging up the street.
“What here?” called Sergeant Webb.
“Arsonists,” Elliot said. “There’s one,” nodding to the fellow dying in the street. “They hung one on your mate, here.”
“Anymore?” asked Webb.
“In there.” Elliot motioned to the house.
“He tossed the bastard in,” Geordie said.
“And good for you he did,” the sergeant said.
Webb knelt down at the man and took out his knife. “Feel that?” Webb had pricked the fellow’s hand. The man blinked. Webb poked the back of his leg. “And that?” He blinked again. “Good.” Webb stood. “Pick him up.”
They lifted him and threw him into the burning building.
“Who’s this?” Billy Howe hissed.
The roughed up civilian stood between two grenadiers.
“He says he is a spy?” replied Howe’s aid-de-camp, having never seen his chief so rattled – a hollow look with dark circles made worse by rye.
“What fool admits to the Spy?”
“We took him at Cedars Tavern – an arsonist we thought. He carried details of our cantonments in his shoe. He confessed outright.”
“And who are you?” Howe asked pointedly the rather plump figure with light short hair.
“Captain Nathan Hale,” his voice rather piercing, doing him little good, “Knowlton’s Connecticut Rangers, Continental Army of the United States.”
Howe plunked himself down behind his camp desk. “Your uniform, Captain Hale?”
“Operating incognito, sir.”
“As a spy.”
“As a patriot for my Country.” Pat-trí-ot he calls it. How lofty. How pious. As if the Holy Ghost spoke it.
Howe rocked back astonished. “You, sir, are an idiot,” then to his aide, “Hang him.”