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The Elks magazine
December, 1938

The red coats still sang, and even if they were the enemy they were men and they were singing Christmas carols

Merry Gentlemen

The Redcoats sang on that Christmas Eve,
while two men from the frozen hell of Valley Forge searched for a girl

By Howard Fast

Illustrated By NORMAN PRICE

A CHRISTMAS story, or a love story – I don't know. I know that we were hungry and cold, but we could laugh; men have to. That was in Seventy-seven, toward what we thought was the end, when the tall man had put us all into the valley for the winter. It was cold, but otherwise Valley Forge was a lot like hell.

But Cherry and I were two strong men, and Cherry said to me one day, "We both love a woman."

I was putting sacking around my feet because my shoes were not much like shoes, and Cherry was shivering in front of the fire, trying to warm himself; the fire was so small.

"I don't think about women anymore," I told him, tying the sacking tighter.

"So I say," Cherry went on, "that we should go to Philadelphia town and have our Christmas dinner with the women we love."

"Who's the woman you love?"

"As beautiful as your own Ellen–"

"I have no doubt. But you're mad."

Cherry laughed, and a thin Connecticut farmer sitting near us laughed, too, and coughed until his body was all doubled up. Then it began to snow, and I saw that soon the fire would go out entirely. Cherry began to hum a song, and I thought about a Christmas dinner, all the good steam from the roast rising over the table and filling the room. Where the turkey burst, stuffing oozed forth. I laughed – until Cherry slapped me in the face and told me not to be all kinds of a fool.

"I'm tired," I whispered. "Look at my feet."

"We're two strong men," Cherry said softly. "If we take our leave there'll be fighting enough when we get back. We'll eat our Christmas dinner with the women we love."

"We fight no more. Look at my feet, Cherry. If they hang us as spies it'll be warm, won't it?"

We weren't deserters, or if we were, men were deserting every day. I remember how I was once on guard duty in front of the tall man's house and I looked through the window and saw him sitting there, staring at nothing at all. And he saw nothing. But he had shoes, even if he didn't have much of an army anymore. God, how I envied him his shoes.

We were men going mad, so we did mad things; and what was the difference, if you had to die in the end of cold and hunger anyway?

It was a long walk to Philadelphia. Our regimentals were torn and dirty, so much that they resembled nothing at all, and certainly they were not uniforms. So if they caught us, wouldn't we be hung as spies? And, you see, that didn't matter; it didn't matter that the town was full of English and Hessians. It was all like a joke, the way we walked out of our camp. There was no army left; there was nothing left, except the tall man who sat in his headquarters and brooded. But I am not telling about that.

Christmas Eve, Cherry and I crept through the outposts into the city. It had stopped snowing now, and the sky was all dull and black. When we saw a sentry standing in the middle of the street and whistling to keep himself warm, we walked toward him like men. Instead of challenging us, he called out Merry Christmas in broken English, and Cherry whispered to me that all Hessians were fools.

"Or maybe we're dreaming. It's like a dream, Cherry."

"We'll go to an inn. A pint of beer'll fix you up."

Cherry had a goldpiece, which he had been hoarding for months. In front of an inn we stopped and looked at it, Cherry holding it and turning it in the light. Back in camp everyone had admired that goldpiece, and sometimes we would calculate what it was worth in Continental money. But he held on to it anyway, and that was something.

"Buy shoes," I told him.

He was smiling a little, thinking, perhaps, about how we had walked into a city that was practically an armed camp, and here we were on Market Street already; and how long ago was it that we were freezing in Valley Forge?

"Beer and room and a warm bed with this," Cherry said. "If we buy shoes they'll know we're Continentals." He glanced at the sacking bound on my feet, and I began to laugh. I laughed until the tears came down.

"Stop that!" he snapped. Then we went into the inn. It was called the Blue Pig and it had a big sitting-room with a fire. Oh, not the kind of a fire we had back there, but a fire of long, fat pine logs, with suckling pigs turning round and round on spits, all dripping with grease and smell.

So we went in, blinking like owls, and we sat down at a table. I sighed. It was warm and the ice was melting from my feet. Then I saw that a party of red-coats sat at a table over by the fire, singing and drinking beer. Cherry saw it, too, but he only grinned at me, and maybe he was thinking about how it had been yesterday at the camp.

"Let's get away from here," I said to him.

"You're a fool. They're watching us now. Just talk and laugh."

I'm not the sort of person you notice, but Cherry is big and blond, with Yankee written all over him. You look at him wherever he is, and he has fighting-man written upon his face. Few of us have, because most of us are farmers, not fighting men.

"Talk," Cherry whispered. Then he slammed his hand down on the table, calling for beer. "I want a roast," he said to the fat landlord, as if his coat weren't the faintest mockery of a coat, "and a fowl."

The landlord looked at him, and I knew then that he had seen Cherry before. You don't forget Cherry. The redcoats were singing, "God rest you, merry gentlemen – " I wanted to cry. I wondered if it hurt to hang by the neck till dead; but it wasn't that.

"Talk," Cherry whispered to me. "For God's sake, man, this is Christmas Eve, so don't act like a murderer hiding in his den. Talk, and tell me about that girl of yours, and forget about the war."

"I love her," I mumbled, quite certain that I shouldn't ever see her again.

"Good boy. Her name's Ellen May."

"I told you–"

"Yes. Keep those sacking-feet under the table, and tomorrow we'll tell the Continental army how we had our Christmas dinner in Philadelphia. I don't like that fat landlord–"

"He knows you."

"What of it?"

The beer came, and I drained my mug. While Cherry whistled, I hungrily watched the landlord carve the roast. When had I had enough to eat? Do Continentals eat? I still wanted to cry, but I said to Cherry, "Your girl – who is she? Where does she live? Maybe I know her, if she's a Philadelphia lassie."

Cherry grinned, but he didn't answer me, and I listened to the redcoats, who were singing, "Dame, get up and bake your bread, dame, get up and bake your bread–"

"We're two great friends," Cherry said, "so what do women matter? And if we're hung as spies before morning, we'll look into each other's eyes."

The roast came, and as fast as I could I stuffed it into me. Cherry, too; and even the redcoats stopped their singing to watch the way we ate. But by now we had had two more mugs of beer, each of us, and if the redcoats were there we didn't care too much. The fat landlord stood by us, looking at Cherry, sometimes looking at me, but looking at Cherry most of all.

When he had gone Cherry said, "Before the war I owned this inn – and two others. Yes, he knows me."

I nodded at the soldiers.

"If he talks to them I'll wring his fat throat as I would squeeze a tick."

"And we'll both swing in the morning," I told Cherry.

Cherry laughed and I ate. You see, I didn't care, and maybe you will understand that, if you know what winter was at Valley Forge – no fighting, no marching, only small fires and very little food, cold that ate into your bones when you had nothing to cover yourself with. You didn't care any more about just living. When your hands bled with the frost you rubbed them with snow, and when the flesh broke off you laughed or you cried. But it killed in you the fear of death. Anyway, it's warm in hell.

The redcoats still sang, and even if they were the enemy they were men and were singing Christmas carols. At camp we sang no carols. I guess they were all drunk by now because they didn't pay any more attention to us. But the landlord watched us. Cherry called him over, and said to him, "A room with two beds, my man!" Maybe Cherry was just a little drunk.

"My man, eh?"

Cherry made to rise and the landlord wallowed away. I told Cherry that he was an ass and a little drunk, but he only grinned at me. He was full of fire-warmth, of food and drink; and that isn't good for a man who has had no food or drink, except potatoes and rice and water.

"For the love of woman and God, there should be no fear in you!" he cried.

"Only caution, Cherry."

"Tomorrow we go back to hell, with caution enough." How is it I thought of the tall man then, and how he was sitting and looking at nothing at all. I asked Cherry why I wanted to cry.

"You're soft."

"Christmas, tonight. Cherry."

"If we hang, they'll hang us Christmas Day, and sing a carol."

"Come to bed."

"Am I drunk, laddie?"

"You're a fool, Cherry. You've put your head in a noose."

Cherry laughed. "Come to bed," I said again. I could see how the redcoats were watching us. I was afraid. You see, it's one thing to starve and freeze, and quite another to swing from the end of a rope to the beating of British drums. I should have gone out of the inn then, out of Philadelphia, but I couldn't face the cold. I was tired. "Come to bed," I told him.

 
I HELPED him upstairs, and when I got him into the room I poured some cold water over his head. He growled deep in his chest and then he shook his head; then he looked at me, with a curious light in his eyes, shivering a little.

"I got you into a precious fix. Tommy," he said softly. "If we hang, your death will be upon my immortal soul. And I can't have that. I don't trust the landlord."

Looking through the window into the inn-yard I saw that it was just beginning to snow. Snow and cold and the long night; and it was many miles back to Valley Forge. My feet would bleed, and I was tired. I wanted to sleep.

"They'll have other things to think of," I said, "since this is Christmas Eve. They'll not bother us."

"Your Ellen May loves you," Cherry said. He was listening for something, I think, his handsome yellow head cocked to one side.

"What of that, Cherry?"

"We're strong, both of us – what's that?"

"Nothing."

Then I heard footsteps in the hall, not one man, but at least four or five. Cherry blew out the lamp, ran to the window and threw it open. "Come along," he whispered.

We climbed out along the eaves, and then we dropped to the roof of a shed. From there it was only a few feet to the wet cobbles of the inn-yard. We were crouching under the shed when we heard someone calling through the window.

"Down there – who goes?"

Cherry took my hand, leading me through the dark. However, we had to come about, so that we were no longer hidden by the roof of the shed, but opposite the window instead. Looking up, I could see men framed and dark in front of the light. Then they saw us.

"Halt down there!"

"Come about!"


We were through and out in the alley. We ran through to the street behind, Cherry cursing all the time.

A musket crashed, and little splinters flew from the gate near us. Then Cherry found it, and we were through and out in the alley. We ran through to the street behind, Cherry cursing softly all the time.

"Walk," Cherry whispered. "Sing – "

"God rest you, merry gentlemen – "

We turned a corner, darted back toward Market, and then I saw men pouring from the inn. A shot whined by and the street rumbled with sound. I was running with Cherry.

I was thinking how perhaps this was the end, and all things taken together, it was not so bad to have a bullet in your back as to freeze, or die at the end of a rope. Only it was Christmas Eve. Ellen May was a woman, and I loved her. If we ran past her house, she still wouldn't know that we had died this way. And Cherry – but he loved nothing at all, only his proud self.

From a house, as we ran, we heard it again – God rest you, merry gentlemen – and Cherry laughed. Then another bullet followed us.

Cherry cried to me, running, "Drop into an alley! They can just see us, but not enough to know one from two! I'll put them off!"

"Go to hell!" I sobbed.

"Mark me, boy!"

And I couldn't run as fast, my feet being bound over with the sacking. I shook my head, ran on, and then he whirled and faced me. His clenched fist shot up, catching me on the side of the face, and then it was all like a dream. I know he picked me up and threw me close to the wall of a house.

As I lay there, unable to move, I saw him dart back toward a cross street. A musket crashed and he stumbled, sprawled out like a sack of potatoes. But then he was up and running, and the chase passed with him into a side street. I rose and began to walk, shaking my head to clear it. I went to Ellen May's house. Why should I go anywhere else, and what did it matter? I was mumbling to myself. Perhaps I said, "Greater love hath no man."

Ellen May opened the door, after I had pounded several times. She had drawn a robe over her nightdress, and she was holding a candle. At first she would not open the door all the way.

"Who is it?" she wanted to know. I think she was afraid. Then it occurred to me that there might be soldiers quartered upon her.

"Tommy," I said, "Tommy."

I went in and I sat down there, next to the door and I began to cry. It isn't easy for a man to cry, but then I cried like a baby; and all the time she stood there, holding the candle and staring at me. Oh. I didn't look nice. None of us in that tattered army looked nice, and most of us were a little mad.

"Tommy," she whispered.

"Yes. Isn't it funny? Why am I crying?"

"No, no – don't." Then the candle fell out of her hand. She dropped down and put her arms around me. and I remember saying, "Don't do that. I'm all wet and dirty."

"Quiet, Tommy. There are men sleeping upstairs. They're quartered here on me. Tell me what you're doing in Philadelphia. You deserted–"

"No."

"You're trembling. I heard shots. Were they shooting at you?"

I didn't care a great deal about anything now. I held Ellen May in my arms and kissed her, and she was warm and good and I was wet and dirty. Back in Valley Forge, the fires still burned and the tall man sat in his house and brooded. Cherry was dead, out there in the street, somewhere. I said to Ellen May, "I came here to see you."

"You're mad, boy."

"Yes – we're all mad, or starving, or freezing. What difference does it make? Tonight's Christmas Eve, you know. I heard them singing carols-singing carols–"

"Tommy!"

"No – I'm all right, tired maybe. You say there are officers upstairs, sleeping? They sleep like fat pigs, and they're warm. I'm never warm. Do you want me to go?"

"Stay here, Tommy. You can't go now."

"If they find me, they'll hang me. You understand that. On Christmas Day. I'm tired–"

"Tommy – don't go to sleep here. Come inside, in the drawing-room. Look, take my hand."

"I love you," I murmured.

"Yes."

Sitting down on a little sofa, I took her hand. It was very dark there, and I could barely see the outlines of her face. Then I closed my eyes. I wasn't crying any more, but I was tired now, terribly tired; I only wanted to sleep.

"Let me sleep," I whispered.

"No – no, Tommy. Don't you understand? They're upstairs–"

"All swine – let me sleep."

"Tommy, talk to me!"

I hardly remember what I said then, but I know that I was speaking about Cherry. I think I told her everything about Cherry. I told her how they had shot him, and how that had been for me. I don't know how long it took, maybe hours, and I think that some of the time I dozed. I was telling her about Cherry, and perhaps she was crying; I don't remember.

And all the time I had only seen her once, and for a moment, when she stood there in the door with the candle, this, my beautiful Ellen May. You see, I was a little mad, thinking of all these different things, how we weren't an army at all, only a rabble of beggars in rags, and how Cherry had been shot, and how funny it was for the tall man to sit in his house in Valley Forge and brood.

"Beggars," I said to Ellen. She was crying. I heard her crying.

"He was coming to see some girl, like I was," I mumbled. "I guess that's why we did it. If we knew that we were coming to Philadelphia to die, we would have done it anyway, because dying isn't so terrible any more. Nothing is, except cold. It makes me afraid, and I don't want to go out into the cold. But I guess you'll want me to. You'll want me to go out into the cold-"

"What?"

"You're crying." Perhaps I dozed again, then; it seemed to me that something like the grey of dawn was creeping through the window. But it couldn't have been that long.

"Don't go away," I said to her. "Don't go away from me now."

"No – I won't, Tommy."

"Was I speaking about Cherry? You know, he's mad. But we all are, and they call us an army-"

"Yes–"

"It's Christmas morning, isn't it?"

"Yes."

"I'll go now. You'll want me to go, won't you? I'll have to walk all the way back to Valley Forge, if I get out of the city. If I don't go back -- I could go home. Are there soldiers there, too?"

"I don't know, Tommy."

It was lighter now, and I knew that the sun would rise soon. But I had to go. If I stayed, it would only make trouble for Ellen May, and I didn't want that. There had been trouble enough this night.

"I'll go."

I saw her now, clearly enough. Her face was tired and drawn, older, and her eyes were red. Women, too, I thought. Her yellow hair was like Cherry's

I stood up.

"God bless you, Tommy," she whispered.

We were standing there, staring at each other, when we heard him knocking at the door. And we still stood and looked at each other.

Then we went to the door, opened it; and before we did, I think I knew it would be Cherry. He stood there, smiling, wet and dirty, his sleeve all stiff with clotted blood. He was smiling.

"I came for the little one," he said, nodding at me; and then he was holding Ellen May in his arms, and she was crying and kissing his face and smoothing his yellow hair. And still crying, babbling like a baby, she led him into the drawing-room.

But Cherry was the same, smiling and big and sure of himself; but, nevertheless, with a funny light in his eyes when he looked at me.

He said to me, "We're strong men, Tommy, and close. You know–"

"I know, Cherry." But I was thinking that he should have told me.

 
ELLEN May turned to me. You know how a face can be dead one moment, and then alive the next? Well, that's the way her face was, all glowing, and if I looked into her eyes, I knew well enough that she loved him.

"Tommy–"

I thought of many things, all in a moment, and of how the tall man sat in his house at Valley Forge, brooding over his army. I would go back into the cold, and Cherry would be with me.

"You know, boy–" Cherry said.

I shook my head. That didn't matter – not like Cherry thought it mattered.

But Ellen May was looking at me. I tell you, she was looking at me that Christmas morning, looking at me and smiling; and what were her smiles?

"He's my friend," I said, as if to tell her that I could bear it for Cherry's sake, and more than that for Cherry's sake. "So if you love him–"

Ellen May was shaking her head.

Outside the window a party of boys came by, singing, "God rest you, merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay–"

Ellen May said, "Christmas morning, Tommy. No war now and no hate. When he left me, in seventy-three, I thought I should hate him. But not now, Tommy. Only he's the same. Did he ever tell you his name – not Cherry?"

"He's your husband," I said.

Someone coughed at the door, and when we turned we saw a British officer standing there, tall, and wonderfully clean and satisfied in his red coat.

Cherry smiled, and Ellen May's face went dead. Cherry said, "All together, Tommy. We're two strong men. We'll hang together – because ours is a great love–" He stopped; I think he couldn't speak any more.

The boys were standing under the window, singing the carols. Ellen May was crying softly. I thought of how Cherry was hers, and she–

"Continentals?" the officer asked.

"Yes," I told him.

Then Ellen May came to me, put her arms about me, and kissed me. "You see, I love you, Tommy," she whispered. "Be brave for me, Tommy." And Cherry was smiling–

"Continentals," the officer repeated.

"Seventh Pennsylvania," Cherry nodded.

He looked at our feet. Cherry had the broken remains of shoes, but through my sacking, my feet were bleeding. I say, why do men fight? Or was Christmas His gift, and is there no other day? There was no use attempting to escape. I was thinking of how Ellen May loved me, not Cherry – how we would be hanged by the neck until we were dead.

The officer was staring straight at me. I don't know why I smiled, but when I did, he smiled back. He seemed to be listening to the boys outside, and their carols.

Then he sat down, and when he drew off his boots, held them out to me, I wanted to cry.

Ellen May was crying.

"Take them," the officer said.

I took them. Cherry whispered, "The enemy."

The officer was smiling. He seemed glad, as if he knew something now that he had always dreamed of knowing be fore. "You may go," he said hoarsely. "You had better go – Merry Christmas, gentlemen."

I said, "Merry Christmas – splendid enemy." I couldn't say any more. The words were lost in my throat.

It was a long walk back to Valley Forge. I remember how Ellen May kissed me before I left, how she said, "I love you, Tommy. But my brother is a fool and a child. Take care of your Cherry, and when you come back, bring my brother with you–"

 


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