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Proceed, Sergeant Lamb, Page 3

Robert Graves

  I silently gripped Terry’s shoulder to impress upon him that I would face the thing out boldly and that I expected him to stand by me; but I could feel, by the shudder that took him, that he was almost dead with fear.

  ‘Good day to you, holy man,’ I cried. ‘And who pray, may you be? For this is the third time that you and I have met, yet we are still unacquainted.’

  ‘I disremember any such meeting,’ said he in an off-hand way. ‘Yet to be sure, you have an Irish accent.’

  ‘So had my father,’ I replied sternly. ‘But that is neither here nor there. I asked you your name. Then give it!’

  ‘I am the Reverend John Martin,’ he said, suddenly very humble, ‘a chaplain of the Rhode Island militia. I see that you belong to the captured, or Convention, Army. Many of your British comrades were killed hereabouts three years ago. Do you happen to be acquainted with a charming play, The Downfall of British Tyranny? I am not the author, but I mended a few lines, you know.’

  ‘A wretched, patched production, they tell me,’ I said, though I had never heard of it before.

  ‘No, no,’ the false priest persisted. ‘An altogether delightful one. It hits them all off. Admiral Tombstone (meaning Admiral Graves, ha, ha!) relates in tarry-trousered style: “Many powdered beaux, petits maîtres, fops, fribbles, skip-jackets, macaronies, jack-puddings, noble-men’s bastards and whores’ sons fell that day.”’

  ‘No more of that,’ said I, ‘or with my fists I shall resent the insult to the Army.’

  ‘No offence was intended,’ he said hurriedly, ‘A play is but a play, a harmless thing. But, good Sergeant, I myself took part in the battle. Indeed, it was I who, the night before, in the absence of Colonel Gridley, the patriot Engineer, oversaw the construction of this very redoubt. I had above a thousand men at work.’

  ‘Tell me more,’ said I, staring into his eyes, ‘and I’ll believe less.’

  But he would not meet my gaze, and tried instead to fascinate Terry, who was now quaking like a man in a fit.

  ‘Oh,’ said he, when I repeated my injunction in a louder voice. ‘Just as you wish. Well, then, on the next morning I went down into Charlestown yonder with a spy-glass, for a look at the foe. A cannon-ball came hurtling through the house where I was taking refreshment, the property of a Mr. Cary. It fetched off my hat, without touching me, and I returned to the Hill. There I sent a message back to General Ward at Cambridge for reinforcements, judging the force in the redoubt to be weak; and, in answer a little after noon, up comes Colonel Putnam with the Connecticut men.’

  ‘So,’ said I, ‘you took quite a prominent part, you say, in directing the battle?’ I sneered at him, for I could see that every word was a fabrication, and shook off all my fanciful terrors.

  ‘That was nothing to what followed,’ he continued, in hurried tones, his voice gradually rising. ‘I returned in person to headquarters at Cambridge, in order to press General Ward there to send forward wagons for the safe conveyance of the wounded. On my return the fighting was very warm. I stood down by that fence,’ [pointing to the left, as we faced Boston] ‘where the Connecticut men, intermixed with some Irish companies, were engaged with the Welch Fusiliers. The Irish inadvertently fired upon our line, but I ran forward and called on them in the Old Irish tongue to desist. The Connecticut men, not understanding this language, suspected treachery; but the Irish listened to me, and all was well.’

  ‘So you too are an Irishman,’ I said, very severe, as if I had learned this for the first time. ‘Now we can discourse on common ground. Continue!’

  He went on, his eyes flickering about like a candle-flame in a draught, ‘I had girded on an Irish long sword that day, and it was well that I came so armed. The British pushed around the end of the fence by the water, and damned me for a clerical dog, saying that they would have my life. A Welchman fired point-blank at me and rushed upon me with his bayonet. I let out his bowels with my sword. Then I engaged, cut and thrust, with an officer who drew his hanger; I slew him too with a stroke on the neck. I lost but a button sliced off my coat.’

  Then I said to this parson: ‘Did I believe that you were either an honest man, or a clerk in Holy Orders, which I do not, I would spare you punishment. But you have sailed under too many false colours and proved a bird of ill omen to my comrade and myself on too many occasions. Now I am about to ‘change my luck’ in Indian fashion by making your feathers fly.’

  I turned to Terry. ‘Terry,’ said I, ‘for the honour of our Army, and of Ireland, I am resolved to give this liar a thrashing.—“be he Whaley, Goffe or the Devil himself”. Lend me the loan of that little hickory club you were carrying.’

  Terry cried: ‘No, no, Gerry. Let be! He will do us some mischief.’ But I snatched up the club notwithstanding, from where it lay in the trench, and swung at the false priest’s head.

  He dodged, and leaped nimbly over the parapet—I tripped, felt curiously numbed, as if I had touched a catfish, and was slow in following. When I had surmounted the parapet and gazed about me, he had disappeared as cleanly as if he had never been!

  Terry stared at me in a dazed way. ‘Oh, Gerry,’ he faltered, ‘it’s a brave boy you are, surely. When I meet that Devil I feel always like a frog before a black snake, and there’s no hiding it. I am sure now that when we return to Camp there’ll be black news waiting for us.’

  I reproved him with: ‘Terry, you must not allow these sick thoughts to weigh with you. Take a stick to the Devil and he leaps off and vanishes; for there is no power or force in lies. That you are a gallant man we know, from your defiance of Colonel Henley. I think that his Reverence will not show himself again to us in a hurry.’

  ‘If he were mortal flesh,’ said Terry, still in a whimpering voice, ‘I should not care. But he is as old as the wickedness of the world.’

  On our return to the Camp we found that Terry’s gloomy prediction was justified, and confirmation given to the headless rumours that had for long been flying through the Camp. The Convention of Saratoga, solemnly entered into by General Gates, was not to be ratified by Congress, and we were therefore to be kept prisoners for an indefinite time!

  Here, as always, when treating of the American Congress, a distinction must be made between the real motives guiding their policy, and their professed motives. Their excuse for not ratifying the Convention was that General Burgoyne had called American public faith in question by unjustly charging a militia colonel with attempted murder, and by complaining further that the wretched accommodation given his officers at Cambridge and to ourselves at Prospect Hill did not agree with what had been stipulated; and that therefore if he could express himself so warmly, he might well be himself meditating a breach of the Convention! Furthermore, we had retained our empty cartouche boxes and our cross-belts when delivering up our arms at Saratoga, and this (though it had not been insisted upon by General Gates that we should do so) was a failure to conform with the spirit of the agreement. Nor, they complained, had our officers supplied them with a personal description of all our non-commissioned officers and men—for which no express demand had, either, been made. Finally, when because of the danger and difficulties of bringing transports into Boston during the winter months, it had been demanded of Congress that we should be permitted to march to Providence in Rhode Island, where the harbourage was more convenient, and be fetched off from there, they pretended to regard this as an attempted evasion of the Convention, and the preparation for an offensive movement.

  The fact of the matter was that Americans in general, and New Englanders in particular, hate to be overreached in a bargain, and when it became known to Congress that General Gates, with our army surrounded and outnumbered by five to one, had yet yielded to General Burgoyne’s menace of a desperate attack and let us go freely, they felt cheated and looked for a legal loophole by which to escape. General Lafayette, a young French officer of fortune who, with the rank of major-general, was now one of General Washington’s military family, told Congress that it would be a
very foolish action to ratify the Convention. He pointed out that even if we were not sent back to America we could still serve as garrison troops elsewhere in the Empire, and release other regiments to take our places. Further, we might thereupon be actively employed against the French, whom the news of our surrender would surely now encourage into an open alliance with the Americans against us. General Lafayette urged these military considerations more readily because the proposed breach of faith affected only the American Republic, not his own country. It is said that General Washington and other men of honour were not of his way of thinking. They remonstrated indignantly at the weak and futile pretexts used by Congress to avoid their obligations. Nevertheless, General Lafayette succeeded in overriding all scruples by advancing as precedent an alleged breach, by our Government, many years before, of the Convention of Kloster Seben, where the French were the losers.

  The Convention being not yet directly repudiated, we still had hope at least of being exchanged against American prisoners. Meanwhile, there were rumours running among our guards of an attempt on the part of Admiral Howe to enter Boston with his fleet and rescue us; and great excitement was caused one night by the lighting of a chain of beacons from hill to hill, which brought the militia up from a great distance to repel an attack. However, it was but a false alarm designed by the Americans to stimulate popular distrust in the public faith of Britain.

  Our captivity had begun to grow very wearisome, from the lack of employment and hope deferred, but we comforted ourselves with an assurance that the Spring would soon be upon us, and that the new campaign would be decisive for British arms. It was notorious that General Washington, who alone of American generals kept an army in the field during this winter, had been reduced to great straits by his enemies in Congress, who starved him of supplies, and by the desertion of his militia, who were impatient of the discipline that he imposed upon them. Less than three thousand men remained under arms with him in the camp at Valley Forge by the Schuylkill River, and General Howe, snug in Philadelphia, refrained from attack only because he believed that the force of the Revolution was already broken by the jealousies and rivalries of its leaders.

  Our watchword was ‘Patience’.

  However, before the year was much older, news came that the Colonists had done what we never believed them capable of doing—they had signed an armed alliance with our mortal enemies the French and thus renounced for ever the name and tradition of Englishmen! France from the beginning of the contest had secretly encouraged the Americans in their opposition and supplied them with munitions of war, while at the same time amusing Great Britain with declarations of the most pacific intentions. What made matters worse was that the traitors of our Opposition were in constant treaty with the American agents in France and openly rejoiced when news reached them of General Burgoyne’s capitulation at Saratoga.

  I am sorry to relate that the American agents who visited our camp, and constantly pestered us with threats and cajolements in an attempt to make us desert, had considerable success with some regiments even thus early in our captivity; though but little with The Ninth. We were promised our freedom, citizenship and liberty to pursue our trade in any State in which we chose to settle; and, if we cared to enter their army, the rank and pay of an officer for every man of three years’ service and upwards! Even the newest recruit of ours could turn a large fee by becoming a deserter; for the well-to-do farmers or manufacturers called out as militiamen now found it next to impossible to engage substitutes and were willing to offer almost any price for such. Remarkable it is how few men took this bait, and how many of those who did were but pretended deserters, and crossed over into New York at the earliest opportunity. However, the whole band of The Sixty-Second was seduced except the Master, and went to dispense Yankee Doodle and other patriotic airs to a Boston regiment; and once we recognized a soldier of The Forty-Seventh, who had deserted three years previously, riding up to the camp in major’s uniform at the head of a supply column. Our officers had the mortification of taking orders from him.

  On April 15th, when the Spring had suddenly appeared, and we saw green grass again for the first time since our captivity, our brigade (which consisted of the Artillery, the Advanced Troops and The Ninth) was paraded one morning and told to prepare for a march to Rutland in the interior of the province; because the Council of Boston had decided that we should fare better there. It happened very fortunately for us that a vessel under a flag of truce had arrived at Boston from New York two days previously with some necessaries for us, including blankets, linen and medicaments; else we should have been in a wretched state. We were marched along the same Worcester road which we had taken on our journey to Boston and halted about midday at a place called Weston, our destination that night being Westborough which lay at twenty-five miles’ distance from the camp. I was resting by the roadside, avoiding as far as possible any converse with the inhabitants of the place, who were exercising their wit at our expense, when I heard my name called and an American militia sergeant came forward from the crowd and gripped my hand.

  I did not at first recognize him but he swore that, being indebted to me for his life, he must at least insist on my taking refreshment with him at a tavern near by. He was one Gershom Hewit, whose wounds I had dressed after the fight at Fort Anna. I declined at first to go with him, lest I might be apprehended for quitting the column, but he undertook to write me out a pass, and his offer of a glass of mimbo—that is to say, hot rum and water sweetened with molasses—was very inviting; so I went with him up the hill to the tavern.

  Hewit took me into a private apartment where the mimbo was set before us. When the landlord had departed, he clapped me on the back in a very cordial manner, and told me that we had met again in a fortunate hour, since it now lay in his power to do me a very considerable service; in quittance of his debt to me.

  When I asked him what that could be, he told me in evident expectation of my acceptance, that if I would desert the King’s service and a cause which was, I must admit, both an evil and a lost one, he had it in his power to make me the surgeon of his regiment, at very good pay—for he had been commissioned that very day to find a man to fill the vacancy!

  Said I: ‘Sergeant Gershom Hewit, you have formed a mistaken opinion of my character. I thank you for your offer of this surgeon’s commission and for your present hospitality, but I must decline to talk treason with you, even in a private apartment.’ I took up my smoking glass and toasted the health of King George, adding, ‘If you will not drink with me, I must drink alone.’

  I drank alone, for he arose and left me without another word. I stayed a minute or two more in the room, reading a well-thumbed copy of Poor Richard’s Almanack, for the year 1744, published at Philadelphia by Dr. Benjamin Franklin, that lay upon the chimney-shelf.

  There was a rhyme in it that struck my eye, and I memorized it for the edification of my comrades. It referred to the New England custom of ‘bundling’, namely the supposedly chaste lying in bed together of young, affectionate, unmarried persons of opposite sexes for the sake of company and the saving of fuel; this was still universally practised among the common people hereabouts, who held that the man and woman (being already sanctified by Grace) could not yield to temptation. The mother of the girl concerned would usually tuck the pair in bed herself and blow out the light. It may be remarked here that love-children were frequent in America; but the man almost invariably married the woman whom he had seduced, and the advantage of a large population in so extensive and rich a country excused the fault even if it were not repaired by subsequent wedlock; so long as it was not incestuous or too often repeated by the same woman. Bundling was the subject of much raillery, and I found that if ever, while in American company, I looked grave at jests on this head, I was adjudged a person of evil imagination who doubted the innocence of my hosts.

  The rhyme ran:

  Biblis does solitude admire,

  A wondrous Lover of the Dark:

night puts out her Chamber Fire

  And just keeps in a single Spark;

  ’Till four she keeps herself alive,

  Warmed by her piety, no doubt;

  Then, tired with kneeling, just at five

  She sighs—and lets that Spark go out.

  I thought: ‘These are a people whom I will never come to understand. If the practice be indeed blameless, how come the country people to take such delight in salacious jokes on the subject? Or, if it be vicious, how do the ministers, who hold such a sway over the people, tolerate and even encourage it as innocent?’

  At this point of my reflexion there came a noise of angry shouting from the common tap-room of the inn, crashes as if a battle were in progress, and screams of grief and indignation from the women of the house. I learned later that a company of our artillerymen had followed me to the tavern for a drink of mimbo, and that Sergeant Hewit, after leaving my presence, had attached himself to their company and attempted to wean them from the Service. They had made scornful replies, which the Americans present had resented, and a battle was joined with stools and fists. Three drinking-glasses were broken, but no injuries done to the contestants beyond a few bruises. The artillerymen had made good their retreat and rejoined their column just as it marched off.

  The landlord, fearing that he would get no satisfaction, cried out in my hearing, just as I was quietly taking my departure: ‘I have a hostage, wife, never fear. I’ll squeeze payment out of him, I swear.’ He ran up to me, catching at the collar of my jacket and, says he: ‘You rogue of a Britonian, you will pay me for these broken glasses, or I’ll have the Law on you.’

  I replied: ‘Landlord, you know as well as myself that I was not in this room while the stools were flying, but in the parlour.’