(the second chapter of Shell Games)
A Final Charge?
Glass Connors was standing mere feet from Bonnie Prince Charlie on the last battlefield of the Jacobite Scots the moment the earth collapsed upon them all, at Culloden, on April 16, 1746. He survived the day, and longer, to eventually become a small part of the DNA in the author’s left heel. Thus Glass Connors stood in exactly the right spot to make this entire work of a few hundred pages possible.
On that April day Prince Charlie, the author of “What Hath John Bull Wrought,” was inspired to write his greatest success about his greatest failure. Glass Connors, on the other hand, would never write a poem. Or a book, like a far-distant grandson. He would never write a word in his entire life.
This illiterate youth from the coastal village of Ayr would years later sit by the fire in Massachusetts colony, thousands of miles west of his homeland, and describe for his small son Cornelius the instant their world changed.
It went something like this:
“Charlie called for his silver cup, a large gleaming chalice that had been shipped north from London. Just before four cannoneers flew to pieces on a nearby ridge, he took a gulp then tossed the cup aside, spilling on another officer.”
“Father, what happened to the cup?”
“Cup?” Glass Connors huffed. “Why do you worry about a coin in the middle of loosing a fortune?”
Cornelius remained silent. His father could not have told his son what had happened to the cup, even if it had been worth a fortune.
This is what happened:
Unbeknownst to Prince Charlie or Glass Connors, this wine-soaked officer, a Captain James Hay from nearby Inverness, would pick the royal cup up off the ground (ground that suddenly no longer belonged to the thrower of the cup). Captain Hay would finally sell it four years later, for passage to Canada. There he would be involved in a spill of another kind in December 1754, taking a fall from his horse that would break his leg. He would be found three months later, having taken shelter inside a hallowed out log but freezing to death all the same.
But as Glass Connors never knew of Captain Hay’s end, eighteen miles west of Ottawa, he and the cup remained a mystery Cornelius Connors would wonder about the rest of his life.
“And after taking his wine, then Prince Charlie ordered a final charge?” young Cornelius would one day ask with large eyes, imaging some way to change Scottish history. Cornelius had been borrowing adventure books from his friends again, filled with last-minute military victories and the rescue of marooned sailors. Glass Connors could not read such stories. The hopeful question was ignored.
“He did not swallow. In fact, his face was painted with a very strange look; his right nostril twitched. The wine that had been in Charlie’s mouth was suddenly spit out, hitting the ground at the same moment as the bits of four cannoneers.”
Boom! Poof-poof-poof-poof. Splat.
“The Bonnie Prince had had his fill of battle from inside his spy glass. He then turned his horse around and slowly rode away, saying to himself, “All is lost, and my shoes are scuffed, to boot.”
Fresh Out O’ Water
As one of the few witnesses to Scotland’s hasty eulogy, Glass Connors later knew “What Hath John Bull Wrought” by heart. Yet it was not this poem that caught Glass Connors’ ear as he sailed from Ayr for America in 1747. On a ship called the Happenstance he heard another.
Aboard the departing ship a sailor with only a left arm was having difficulty heaving a heavy line onto the main deck. The missing arm was not the cause of his problems. The sailor, named Tyree Turnbull, had had a brother who also fought and fallen to pieces at Culloden. Since then Tyree Turnbull had pledged in the memory of his brother to always keep his back facing England. This oath made his work difficult at times, but he made do. While Glass Connors watched above from the forecastle, Tyree Turnbull began to compose a piece to help him complete his work:
The Lord went off one day
To attend a murky matter
Leaving the world in place
The stars still straight and full o’ luster
Upon return—Good God!
What a task before Our Savior
An island full of flame
And whole nations fresh out o’ water
Merciful Heav’n releas’d a raft of rain
Did it cease the fight and fodder?
Once dry, the gruesome game refrained
His task on the line complete, Tyree Turnbull swiped at his brow with his remaining hand and set off to make the mainsail. The poem was let out to sea by the breeze, never to be heard again.
The fodder is rarely well remembered.
If Glass Connors had been able to write it down, as the Happenstance cut through the waves and towards a new land, it would have been entitled “The Volleyed Folly of War Betwixt Two Nations, Who Speake Much a Similar Language.”