Rourke’s Progress

From sixty paces across the field, Henry Rourke heard the British officer give the order to fire. He heard the crack of powder igniting in the musket pans. Then came the simultaneous boom of the powder exploding in the barrels and the appearance of the cloud of smoke. A musket ball hit a soldier to his right. The man jerked and crumpled to the ground. Rourke barely noticed for at the same moment another musket ball tore off his felt shako. Without conscious thought, Rourke started to turn and stoop to retrieve his hat. But than he remembered himself, and returned to attention just in time to hear his captain order the company to take aim. Positioned two paces behind the firing line, his duty was to act as a steadying influence. Rourke thought this quite laughable. He had never been in battle, whereas many of the men it was his duty to steady had fought in the Battle of Tippecanoe against the tribes gathered at Prophetstown. And some of the sergeants, he had been told, had fought at Fallen Timbers.

“Fire!” The smoke of the American volley mingled with that of the British musketry, and further obscured the red-coated enemy. Rourke fancied the British soldiers apparitions. However, he was not in an old neglected graveyard on a moonless night. Rather, he was standing beneath the hot August sun which made the fancy of ghosts evaporate as quickly as it came into being.

“Prime and load!”

His hand came to rest on his vest pocket, and he thought of the letter from his friend, Lord Fitzwilliam, contained therein. In the letter, Fitzwilliam extolled the beauty of Byron’s work Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, lately published. Rourke smiled briefly thinking how Fitzwilliam and his sister Louisa – more properly Miss Fitzwilliam – would have laughed at his lace-covered uniform with its high collar that was covered by a black neck-stock. His doubly protected throat and his fully-buttoned coat would be such comedy to them because it could not be further from Rourke’s attire when they were together in England. In those days, his collar had been undone and his coat most often promiscuously draped over a branch or rock. Rather than standing perfectly erect, he and his friends were most often languidly laying in a field or some other wild place. And instead of “steadying the line,” Rourke and Fitzwilliam were most often disputing the merits of Byron’s Hours of Idleness relative to the works of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Perhaps, the Fitzwilliam and Louisa would look upon him with pity rather than humor now.

* * *

He had met the the brother and sister by chance. Rourke’s father, an ambitious producer of textiles, had sent the younger Rourke to England to induce English mill workers to come to America. Ostensibly, these workers would add their skills, and, hopefully pieces from the newest machines to his father’s company. After landing in Bristol, Rourke had proceeded by coach to Bath where he tarried longer than planned. One day while crossing the Pump Room, a young lady possessed of flaxen hair called him by his given name. Rourke stopped, looked at her, and said, “Good afternoon, we have clearly met before, but I am ashamed to say that I cannot remember the occasion.”

“I am sorry sir. There has been a misunderstanding.” The young lady pointed past Rourke to another gentleman behind him.

“I do not believe my sister is acquainted with you, sir,” someone said.

Rourke turned to face the possessor of the voice. Where the young American had black hair and a ruddy complexion, this young Englishman was a fair and blue-eyed counterfeit of the young woman.

“I apologize. The young lady called my name. I presumed we had already been introduced. It seems we have not.”

“Indeed.”

“I am Henry Rourke,” the American said and offered his hand.

“What a coincidence,” the young lady said, looking at her brother. “Mr. Rourke stepped between us at the moment I spoke your name.”

The Englishman took the American’s hand. “I am Henry Fitzwilliam, and it appears we share more than a given name. We share an interest in Wordsworth.”

Rourke followed Fitzwilliam’s eyes down to the volume clutched in his own left hand.

“You are well mannered for an American, and you are well read,” Fitzwilliam said. “What say you Louisa, should Mr. Rourke dine with us?”

“Yes, he must,” she said.
Fitzwilliam formerly introduced his sister Lousia to Rourke and then took the American by the arm and lead him away.

Over the next few days, Rourke was introduced to their sociable set. This suited Rourke very well, as he was far more inclined towards spending his time – and his father’s money – in the company of Fitzwilliam and Louisa, than in finding mill workers amenable to a voyage across the Atlantic. Sadly, the money was soon exhausted, and Rourke was forced to make his excuses and prepare to return to America.

“You must return next spring. I shall be embarking upon the Grand Tour and you must accompany me,” Fitzwilliam announced. Rourke attempted to protest, but Fitzwilliam would brook no refusal. He embraced his friend and left Rourke alone with Louisa.

Louisa took Rourke’s hand and said, “Promise me that you shall write us.”

Rourke smiled. “I promise. Letters and more poems. As long as I have paper and ink.”

“I know you shall,” Louisa said. “And I shall write you and hide my letters inside Henry’s to avoid offending propriety.” She laughed. The smile faded and then Louisa squeezed his hands and quickly lefty Rourke alone.

Rourke returned to Boston with empty pockets, disarrayed apparel, and a modest number of mill workers he had managed to recruit. His father observed these things and concluded that he had made a grave error. His son was clearly not ready for the world of trade. As the elder Rourke had fought with General Washington against the British, the solution was clear: The son would join the army and learn the discipline he so clearly needed. Moreover, if Providence was with him, his son would add to the family’s fame in the war with Britain that was soon to be declared.

Henry’s first impulse was to resist, but he knew his father would withdraw support if he refused. And he knew that his education had not prepared him for any trade that would provide him with the means to support himself, let alone accompany Fitzwilliam on the Grand Tour. And what if he somehow did obtain passage back to England? Once there, he could only hope for dependence upon the generosity of his friends for his very food, drink, and shelter. His pride could not countenance such an idea.

At first, clouds of melancholy bloated out the sun that usually warmed Rourke’s disposition, but soon hope stirred in his mind. He would miss the Grand Tour. This fact could not be denied. However, his salary would provide him the means to return to England eventually. Moreover, the army might provide ample time to read and write – if his father’s stories of the boredom of camp life proved true. Indeed, he was fortunate his father had not decided it would be best for his son to work in the family’s mill.

Presently, mere hope bloomed into enthusiasm when Rourke thought of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, and their English landscapes. Perhaps his own writings on the beauty of the American frontier with its Great Lakes would inspire American poets to come together as Wordsworth and Coleridge had in the Lake District of England.

His father’s influence procured him the rank of ensign with the Fourth Infantry Regiment. In March of 1812, he arrived at Fort Knox in Vincennes. It was not the posting on the shores of the Great Lakes he would have preferred, but it was close enough to the mark for the moment. And indeed, Rourke did not have to wait long or campaign hard for a posting to the Michigan Territory. The young United States did indeed declared war on England in June, and he and his regiment marched north through the Black Swamp to Fort Detroit. After two months of marches, counter-marches, and a few brief skirmishes, his company marched south towards Frenchtown to escort desperately needed cattle and flour back to Detroit. However, before they reached their destination, they found British and Canadian soldiers, and Indian warriors astride their path and arrayed for battle.

* * *

“Make ready!” The British order floated across the field, and Rourke thought of the words of another poet from England.

Would I were in an ale house in London…

“Present!”

I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety.

“Fire!”

* * *

Over four years ago, I read a blog post (which I have now lost) about wishes. As I read it, a certain quote from Shakespeare popped into my head. At about the same time I was reading up on the War of 1812 which played an important role in the history of Michigan. Indeed, the first six months of 1812 was full of dramatic events. Many in America loudly demanded war with Britain while Luddites in England smashed new machines. The Romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge feuded while Lord Byron published Childe Harold’s Pilgramage which received immediate acclaim. The more I thought about it the more I felt placing a character into the middle of all these events would be a rewarding story to write.

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