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Liberty magazine
October 7, 1939, pp 9-12

 

The Last Night

A vivid tale of a famous ride and a loyal girl who sacrificed her heart

by Howard Fast

Illustrated by W.E. Heitland

A LONG time ago, they danced not so differently from the way we dance now. The measure of the waltz was the same, but the man and the woman wider apart, watching each other and held together with the lock of fingertips; and the minuet, forgotten, was not forgotten then, but each movement studied, each movement precise, each movement graceful with the planned gracefulness of generations who had danced that same dance. In a long line, men, in another women, facing each other, bowing, stepping, curtsying.

And she with the rest, striving to remember what she had learned, dreadfully afraid that she would make a mistake, a false move or a false step to be laughed at.

When the dance finished, he led her off proudly, triumphantly. With his eyes and with his manner he tried to tell her what he was fearfully afraid she would not understand. If she didn't, most of the people in the long ballroom did. Major Andrews remarked to the general:

"Young Fuller's taken — completely, you know."

"She's nobody, and that would be a good thing for him to remember," the general said.

"Look at her face. When you were young, sir, would you have gone through hell to have her smile at you the way she's smiling at him? "

"I would," the general nodded, thinking of a time when he had been young, and wondering whether women then had been like this girl on Fuller's arm — tall, with just enough awareness of her beauty to be neither retiring nor defiant.

Fuller led her over to where the general and Major Andrews stood. Andrews proposed a toast, and they went to the long table with its silver punch bowl.

A colored servant poured punch into the glasses, and, clustered about the woman, the officers raised their arms and proposed the toast. Andrews said : "To the loveliest thing in His Majesty's realm."

In that ballroom there were four hundred candles, and the place danced with light. More officers, drawn by the general's presence, joined the group about the table. Their coats were of yellow and red and green; they wore breeches, for the most part spotless white with a sheen of satin. They wore white powdered wigs.

To the woman it was like a dream; and more of a dream than anything else was the flushed proud face of the young subaltern who stood at her side.

The other young officers who had clustered about played it like a game. They courted her look and her favor. They outdid each other in grace and in wit. And the young subaltern became sullen.

Then the music started — a waltz. Fuller, the subaltern, seized her for the dance ; and they danced the waltz in those days not so differently from how we dance it now, only farther apart, fingertips touching.

It was in Boston. It was the 18th of April, and the year was 1775.
 

THAT night in Boston two men sat in a tavern, over two mugs of beer which had long since lost their heads. In those days they didn't ice beer; the drink was warm and sour. The younger and taller man sipped his beer and made faces. The other man, shorter, older, had long since forgotten that the beer was in front of him.

The shorter man, the older man, was thinking of country roads, of lanes that crossed meadows and surmounted hills, of little villages that clustered about Boston. And away from those villages, more roads that led on and on almost forever. It puzzled him to try to grasp it entirely. He summed it up, speaking to his friend.

"Don't trust a woman," he said.

"You don't know her."

"I know about women," the short man said. "So I can tell you — don't trust her."

"Damn you, you don't know her!"

"I've seen her. She's too beautiful."

"She's an angel," the younger man whispered. "I tell you, she's an angel."

"A sweet angel," the short man smiled. And then, speaking louder and more harshly: "I tell you, I've seen the lobsters swarming around her like flies!" At the word "lobsters" the young man reached over and grasped the other's arm. Their eyes shifted to two men in red uniforms who sat at the other end of the tavern room. For a moment the short man's eyes were clouded with panic. One of the soldiers rose and approached their table. He was a little drunk.

"What about lobsters? " he demanded. His voice was harsh and strange, with the accent of another city and another world.

The little man smiled and said "We eat them — that's all,"

The soldier swore, and the open palm of his hand cracked on the short man's face. It left a mark — five fingers printed white on his ruddy skin. But the little man, without moving, still smiled.

"Lobsters," he said, "the color of your coat — after they're boiled."

The soldier swore again and stumbled away. The younger man whispered: "I would have killed him for that."

"Because you're a fool."

"You sit there and smile. I tell you, if he had struck me like that, I would have killed him!"

"Because you're a fool — because you're hotheaded and young and stupid. A woman is beautiful, so she's to be trusted. A soldier is drunk, so you'd throw things away — throw everything away. For your pride, for your rotten little pride. Don't glare at me. I'm trying to make you understand. This is big, so big that you don't know and I don't know, and nobody really knows. But I have an idea — roads, they stretch away from here like threads. Miles and miles of roads, and they'll burn with it, once it's started. After it's started there'll be no going back; it'll burn like a fire. But to start it right — at the instant. Only one mistake, and it's over before it starts. That's what they're waiting for, that mistake. And I trusted you — to find out, to tell me. And now you say you've put the whole thing in the hands of a woman."

"She loves me," the younger man said miserably.

"Why? What can you give her? If she's successful, you leave her after tonight — nobody knows for how long. What can you give her? Young Jeff Fuller, his lordship—"

"That's a lie!"
 

IT'S not a lie. That English lieutenant has an estate in Europe, wealth, position, breeding. Don't look at me like that, you poor backwoods lout. I'm no more afraid of you than of that lobster. Why don't you strike me? Why don't you?"

The younger man shook his head. He started to speak, stopped, picked up his beer and sipped at it, made a wry face and banged the mug on the table. The two soldiers were singing. Singing, they rose and swayed toward the door. As they passed the table where the two were sitting, one of them paused and deliberately spat on the short man's sleeve. The little man smiled and nodded, said

"That I'll remember, my friend."

They went out, and the short man sat there, smiling curiously.

"You're not human," the younger man remarked.

"Tonight — we're none of us human. To be human is to be a fool, do you understand? Tonight only one thing exists—"

"She won't betray us."

"Will she betray the man she loves?"

"She loves me."

The small man shook his head wearily. He was very tired, and before the night was over he would be more tired. He had worked and planned, and built with others the most intricate of all machines, one that depended for its existence upon the faith of men. And now one cog had slipped. He saw no way of putting that cog back into place. The machine was too finely constructed, too delicately balanced. And there was not enough time. From now on each minute and each second was precious.

"What can we do?" the younger man asked him.

"Nothing. Go on as we had planned. And hope — or pray to God. But go on as we had planned. There's nothing else to do."
 

AFTER the waltz she was taken away from Fuller, and he sulked at one side of the broad ballroom. But from where she was dancing, whirling, she kept glancing at him; and when he caught her eyes, he smiled as though he had seen all his heart desired.

He was ridiculously easy to read.. She thought of what he had told her of himself, and she realized that it had to be true. He couldn't lie. What he thought planted itself upon his face.

She wondered at herself. This evening had been like no other evening in her life. From when it started until now, she had been completely happy. Completely, because she had forced herself not to think of what she was doing, of what the end of the evening would be. Even now telling herself that she didn't know what the end would be.

Lying to herself and lying to the young subaltern, who could lie to nobody, who had not in his whole head the cleverness and subtlety of her small finger. She wondered at it, trying to understand what forces possessed and moved her. And then, dancing with some one else, seeing him standing with his eyes upon her, she realized how she had come to love him. And all her cleverness had no answer to that.

She had stopped in the middle of a movement, weak, faint. She had a sudden wild desire to be out of this, to breathe cool fresh air, to run until she had gotten away.

"You're not well?" her partner inquired. "Can I help you? Can I get you something to drink?"

"No, no — I'm all right. I must go — forgive me."

And then, almost forcibly, she tore herself away, pushed through the dancers toward a door that opened on a small terrace. She glanced back toward Fuller, saw him seeking her, and then at the door of the terrace almost collided with Major Andrews.

His portly bulk was a wall of red and white and green, sashes and smooth satin, short breath and the odor of punch. "Can I help you, my dear?" he asked.

"No — no. I was a little faint. I thought some air—"

He opened the door to the terrace. "A drink, perhaps?" he asked her.

"No, thank you." She was trying to find excuses to leave him.

"I'm flattered," he said, "immensely flattered. With a hall of young bucks, that you should seek an old codger like me—"

She forced herself to smile.

He said: "I can tell you how beautiful you are, my dear. Age allows me that."

"Thank you."

"Beautiful — and clever. You are clever, aren't you? You've bewildered poor Fuller."

Her heart raced. She wondered: Does he know? Is he playing a game with me?

"All you Yankees," he nodded, "all so infernally clever. Never think you were English way back. You were, you know. Way back. And it's hard to believe. So clever. We English aren't clever — plod along."

She tried to remember that her face must not give her away — the way Fuller's face gave him away. She smiled and looked at the major archly. Why didn't he let her go — get out of it? She said: "We can be too clever, we Yankees, major."

And he smiled and nodded and agreed: "There you have it — too clever. All very well to spin thread for the cloth, but easy to get tangled up in your own weaving. Marvelous plotters, you Yankees, but too complicated for your own good — too clever."

Still smiling, she said: "Or not clever enough, major? It's common knowledge that you're a step ahead."

"Is it?"

"Not his lordship — talk over the punch table, perhaps. Or perhaps the clever Yankees are out of the plot. If I were in your place, major—"
 

AND if you were? "

She smiled more insinuatingly than before, took his arm and said: "If I were in your place, I would do this: Hold a ball — a great ball which should last well into the morning. Your officers are all dancing, and therefore no danger until morning."

"And then?"

She plunged headlong, hating herself, despising herself: "And then, at or before midnight your troops are ready. Your officers slip away. A quick march, and a silly rebellion is crushed before it begins."

He stared at her. "If you were a man," he said, "I would appoint you to my staff."

"Then I'm right," she smiled.

"Almost, my dear. So right that I'm relieved young Fuller has your heart, if not your head. Don't deny it. Only — our men will not march. Boats, my dear. Boats."

They laughed together. The waltz had stopped. The Hessian musicians were turning the pages of their music. Fuller found her. His eyes lit with relief when he saw only Major Andrews at her side.

"Take her," Andrews said. "Take her out on the terrace—"

Fuller's face reddened. He took her arm and they went out. It was cool outside, misty. Already it was late, and only a few lights burned vaguely in the mist.

"Like London," he said, "the air and the mist—"

She didn't answer. She felt trapped, lost. She felt forces inside of her and outside of her struggling with each other.

"I've acted like a fool," he said.

"No—"

"Like a fool. I should have told you, asked you — instead of blundering about, making you uncomfortable."

"What should you have told me? " she whispered, her lips trembling.

For a moment he was silent; then he said: " I didn't think it would be this way — so far from home. You know, it is far, a great distance. That's what makes it so strange, that I should have found you across all this great distance."

"What should you have told me?" she whispered.

"You know, I guess."

"I know," she nodded.

Then he took her in his arms, and then he saw that her eyes were wet, and he said:

"Don't cry. You're happy, aren't you?"

"I'm happy — terribly happy."

"And you love me?"

She nodded. She put her hands up to touch his face, under the white powdered wig he wore, to handle his soft hair. Like silk, his hair, soft. She remembered the color, a golden brown. And all at once her mind leaped ahead, so that she was thinking of children that were his and hers, with hair like this. And he was saying:

"This will be over, you know. There can't be war. We march tonight, and we nip it in the bud. That's the best way. I admire your people, and why should there be war if we can live together in peace? As for freedom, the rule of His Majesty is freedom enough. We're free in England. So only a month or two more at the most, possibly only a fortnight, and then you'll go home with me—"

She was thinking, The rule of His Majesty — She was thinking of the many men, dark figures in the night, waiting. And she knew — only she. But what was it to her? All that mattered was the man she loved, and his love for her. In all the world there was nothing else but their love.

"We'll go home," he was telling her. "It will be strange at first, but you'll come to love it. You'll love my sister. She's all there is to the family. The title's mine, and it will be yours. The place is in Kent, an old, old house. But it won't be old any more with you in it..."

She nodded, shivered.

"And after that travel — the whole Continent to see. France, Italy. About England I can't tell you. You have to see it, and then you'll love it. It's not like your land over here, wild, untamed. It's an old country—"

He saw that she was crying, and he bent over her, murmuring, "What is it?" helpless again, and awkward, his broad open face eager and afraid at the same time.

"Nothing, nothing — I'm tired, I guess. I'll go now."

"But you'll let me take you home?" he asked.

"No—" She was frightened, like a wild animal trapped.

"But why? You can't go home alone. There are soldiers walking the streets—"

Your soldiers, she was thinking. Soldiers from a land far away, indistinct, vague beyond rolling seas. And now they were part of the city where she had been born, holding it in their grasp.

She managed to say calmly: "You march tonight, you told me. You can't leave."

He stared at her a moment, then said: "I was never afraid before — the way I'm afraid now for you to leave me."

"Don't be afraid."

"You don't know. It wasn't meant that I should have anything so beautiful as you, so fine. I'm not good enough."

"You believe that?" she asked him wonderingly.

"I know it."

"And if you were told — otherwise?"

"Nobody could tell me different," he said softly.

She said: "Take me in your arms. Take me and hold me — hold me."

Then they went back into the ballroom, and she was very calm when she said good night to him. "Two or three days," he told her. "No more than that. In two or three days we'll be together."

He helped her into the carriage, held her hand a moment, then smiled at her.
 

SHE sat in a corner of the seat, crouched small, wrapped in her cloak. Now it would be easy — too easy — to do nothing, to close her eyes and wait until the carriage brought her home, to go to bed, to sleep, to forget all except that he loved her.

She tried to count the beats of the horse's hoofs. She tried to see things through the mist. She tried to hum over some of the strange Hessian waltzes she had danced that night—

Then she was calling to the driver to stop.

He eyed her curiously as he helped her out of the carriage. "You don't want me to take you home, miss?" he asked her.

"No — I remembered—

"Shall I take you back?"

"No. Leave me alone, please. I'll be all right. Leave me alone."

She stood there, leaning against a house front in the mist, listening to the dull beat of the horse's hoofs as the carriage drove away. The city was very quiet and very dark. For a long time she heard the sound of the horse's hoofs.

Then she began to walk. Coming into a dark narrow street, she had the helpless feeling of some one lost. She ran then, stopped, leaned against a tree, her breath coming in short gasps.

She took hold of herself. She was no stranger to this city. It was hers, and she was a part of it. She walked slowly and with assurance, telling herself that she was not afraid. She came to a street corner and recognized the avenue.

Then she began to walk more quickly. Over to her right she saw the dark glint of water.

She heard footsteps, and she saw the blurred light of an approaching lantern. Footsteps marching in rhythm. She forced herself not to increase her pace. The lantern light fell on her, and beyond it she saw the dark red of uniforms.

"Declare yourself," some one said. Light glinted on a bayonet.

"I'm going home," she managed. "Let me pass."

"Alone? Well, you're a nice little bit."

She stood rigidly while they crowded around her. One of them pinched her cheek.

Another said: "Don't be afraid, sister."

"I'm not afraid. Let me pass." "Now, just a kiss. We're lonely men."

She made her voice calm, light: "Another time. I have an appointment now."

"With some Yankee."

"Perhaps," she smiled.

THEN the patrol let her through, and the light went on, swinging, becoming more and more diffused. She walked a few steps, then stopped, weak, trembling. Her hands were wet.

She went over to a railing and leaned against it, taking deep breaths. She felt like screaming, sobbing — anything to ease the deadly tension inside of her.

Then she went on.

Finally she came to the place — driven, as if she had come by no will of her own. She stood at the door of a church which loomed up high above her, shapeless in the dark.

She opened the door and went in. Inside the darkness was complete, solid and unrelieved. She felt that she would have to force her way through that darkness, fight for every inch.

She walked forward slowly. She knew the church, the rows of pews on either side of her. She counted her steps, and stretched out her hands to find the pulpit. She felt her way around it, up some steps, to another door. Silent, dark, the church was noncommittal. She felt that in this place, all around her, were the answers to the questions that perplexed her. Yet the dark bulk of the church held its secret.

She opened the door, walked through a room, feeling her way carefully, and then opened another door. A draft of cold air struck her face. She went on until her hands grasped the rungs of a ladder, and then she began to climb. Up and up, until her arms and legs were heavy as lead. Until a voice stopped her. The voice came out of the dark like a solid, accusing thing.

"Who's there?"

She wondered how much black distance there was beneath her if she were to open her hands and fall.

"Who's there? Answer or I'll shoot!"

She said: "Be quiet. There's a patrol near by."

She thought she could hear the relieved intake of breath. She climbed on until her head and shoulders thrust through an opening above her. A hand caught her arm, and then she was standing on a little platform at the top of the church tower. Below and around her were the shapeless dark of Boston, the faint glint of water where it nestled to land.

She turned and faced the man who was standing beside her.

"You didn't think I'd come?" she asked dully.

"I knew — I knew. He said you wouldn't. But I told him you'd come — I knew."

She nodded. The man came toward her, holding out his hands. She shook her head.

"Don't — please," she said.

Awhile he stood like that in front of her. Then he said: "It's true. He told me — not to trust a woman. And I said you loved me. Then he laughed at me."

"Don't make it harder than it is," she said.

"Harder — harder for you? I'm sorry, your ladyship."

She struck him across the face. Then she stared at her hand.

"I don't mind that," he muttered. "I learned control tonight. It is Fuller, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is."

"I suppose you love him?"

"I love him."

In that moment it was all clear to her — how the rebellion would be crushed by this quick night stroke; how young Fuller would come marching back with his triumphant troops; how they would sail together for England; how they would live the quiet, serene way of their lives on the estate in Kent; how all that she desired of life would be hers. And the little group of men who called themselves patriots would be hanged. However, she would not be here to see that.

It would mean only one thing — for her to keep silent, to say she knew nothing.

The man said: "I guess — we can go down now."

She walked to the edge of the platform and looked at the bulk of the city beneath her, dark and shapeless. And the land was like that — shapeless, untamed. He had said that himself. Only this place lying like a dormant spark, ready to flare up and send its flames out over a network of crude roads. A flame that would burn like a light in the sky.
 

SHE felt very weary. Her thought ran slowly, sluggishly, in the form of questions. And she groped for the answers.

Then she said: "They march tonight."

The man's voice darted out like a lash of victory:

"Tonight? You're sure of that? What road?"

"By sea. Then overland to Lexington."

The man's hands gripped her shoulders like iron claws.

"You're not lying?" he demanded harshly. "You're telling me the truth?"

She nodded wearily.

"But why? Why? Don't you know we'll intercept them? Don't you know it will mean war — long and bitter war?"

"I know—"

"And him? What about him?"

She shook her head. "I told you what you wanted," she whispered.

He stared at her, then bent over and lifted two shuttered lanterns. Hooking them on to the railing of the platform, he opened the shutters. Yellow light streamed forth, lighting the edge of the platform, glistening on the brocade gown she wore, glistening on the beads of sweat that stood out on his brow.

Then he leaned over the railing, trying to pierce the dark, trying to see on the farther side of the water the figure of a small man mounting a horse, shortening the stirrups, riding hard and harder, crying out for the land to awake and rise. He thought he could hear, ever so faintly, the drumming of hoofs...

He turned back to the woman, and saw that she was standing there, still, straight, listening.

"We'll go down now," he said.

She nodded. He took her arm tenderly.

Then they descended into the deep consoling darkness of the church.

THE END

 

HOWARD FAST, a native New Yorker, hated school and, when his family suggested college, tried to join the Navy. Refused because of his youth, he studied drawing, then got a job and, on the side, took up writing. Now, in his early twenties, he is well established as writer of popular fiction.


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