The Looting Of Washington City

By Nick Arvin

The President’s House and the Capitol had been afire for some time, and in the residential streets flames were moving rooftop to rooftop under long coursing streams of wind-driven sparks. The night air around Paul pulsed and trembled with noise — the crackle of flames and buildings in collapse, bells ringing, dogs yowling, a horse screaming, men bellowing, the percussion of musketry. From the Naval Yard rose a steady golden glow that occasionally flashed and leaped and threw long black craggy shadows. A stray goat wandered past Paul. Up the street a roof had collapsed, and perhaps there had been a printing press inside because newspaper pages streamed from the where the roof had been, many in flames, fluttering like bats from a cave at dusk. Occasionally Paul glimpsed furtive figures in the shadows, and he did see distinctly a man crossing the street with a pile of silken clothing hugged to his chest and three fur hats stacked on his head, the raccoon tails hanging down. Shuttered windows made it difficult to guess which houses might still be occupied. Paul turned up one street, and turned again, and circled a couple of times around a row of tall, gabled, darkened houses. When he grew frustrated in his irresolution he ran abruptly to the nearest house.

With his eye to the slats of a shutter he saw a fragment of light, possibly a candle. He moved to the next house. On the front door grimaced the monkey face of a heavy brass knocker, which he pounded, without answer. He went to the back of the house and peered through a crack between the shutters. He saw only darkness. He took a breath, glanced around, pried his fingers into the gap and pulled. An iron latch tore from the wood. One of the shutters escaped his grasp and slapped loudly against the siding. Four small shining panes of glass were revealed.

Hoping for a stone, Paul stooped and felt around in the grasses at his feet. He found only a thick twig which broke in two when he swung it against the glass. He ran to the street and found a rock the size of a man’s boot. The sky, he noted, was distinctly lightening. He hobbled around the house with the stone, heaved it through the glass, and scrambled inside.

He needed only minutes to ascertain that he was in an emptied house. The kitchen utensils, the furnishings, even the curtains had been taken. The stairs began with a large, ornately carved pineapple-shaped newel which he ran his fingers over thoughtfully. He stood a moment at a mullioned window and considered the merits of taking an entire window, or the length of the newel post. But it was ridiculous. He felt swindled. He kicked the newel post and ran upstairs and opened windows to admit the dim coppery light of the fires outside. But the upstairs rooms were empty too, except for a few rags and empty hempen sacks in a corner of the hall. Finally in the last dusty room he found a shabby leather trunk. It was unlocked, and inside were strange clothes, in odd shapes and cuts, with various straps. He pulled several out. They were trimmed with silks, stiffened with starch, heavy with small buttons and knotted lacings. Paul held them at arm’s length and turned them one way and another. He hesitantly pulled one inside out before it struck him that this was a woman’s undergarment. He threw it down, glanced to either side, then laughed and gathered several and pressed them to his face. He emptied the trunk onto the floor, picked out a silk chemise, held it against himself. He laughed again. It had short sleeves and a gathered frill at the neck. It was cut for a figure significantly smaller than his own. He lifted it higher, trying to better position it.

“Hello, boy.”

With a sudden and awful feeling of illness, Paul turned. In the doorway stood a British soldier. He wore a red coat and held in one hand a musket and in the other a long knife, and he regarded Paul with an unmoving ugly expression that Paul interpreted as extreme distaste. Paul was still holding the chemise. Somewhere outside a rooster began crowing. It crowed several times. When Paul could not bear the soldier’s scrutiny any longer he hurled the chemise onto the floor. “Disgusting!” he cried.

“Find anything to fit?” The soldier laughed. He drew closer and Paul saw pox scars on the man’s cheeks, sweat gleaming on his neck, stains on his coat. The soldier wiped his nose in a long stroke along his sleeve. He was one of the ugliest men Paul had ever seen. In addition to the pox scars, he had buck teeth and a bright red ravishment of broken blood vessels across his snout-shaped nose and much of his forehead. Paul was reminded of an albino feral pig he had once seen, caged and displayed outside an inn. The soldier’s eyes were blue and small, disappearing like chips of stone pressed deeply into mud. He had a long neck, a prominent Adam’s apple, and a thick, strong body that was nonetheless shapeless as a mealsack. “You’ve been looting,” the soldier said.

Paul said, and it seemed ingenious as he said it, “I live here.”

The ugly soldier laughed and his Adam’s apple fluttered inside his neck like a living thing trapped. “I watched you crawl in,” he said. “You live here and no key, is that it?” Paul crossed his arms and sulked. But the soldier shrugged and put his knife into a sheath on his belt. “Ah,” he said, “I don’t blame you.” He picked up the chemise and ran a thumb along the stitching, examining it critically. He sighed. He put the fabric to his face and blew his nose on it. In the distance, something exploded thunderously. The ugly soldier went over to the window and looked out a moment. Paul, standing with his arms crossed, watched from under his brows, his chin nearly on his chest. The ugly soldier sighed again, prodded through the undergarments with the barrel of his musket, said, as if conversationally, “How old are you?”

Paul shifted his feet. “Thirty,” he said.

The ugly soldier snorted, shook his head. “Well, that will be fine. That’s perfect. Thirty is perfect.” He gestured with his hand palm out, as if to receive something. “I would like your assistance. I need the aid of a healthy thirty year-old.”

Paul peered at the soldier’s little submerged eyes. He asked skeptically, “Aid?”

“I have a plan, and an assistant would be very advantageous. It will also be profitable for you, I believe.”

For a moment he looked at Paul, and Paul looked at him, then the soldier turned and went downstairs and out the back door, and after a second Paul followed.

Part Two

Paul was fourteen, thin and pimpled, dressed in a patched and soiled wool coat and trousers that his legs had outgrown, showing his bare ankles. The previous fall his mother had vomited thin green bile for a week and died. When the weather had warmed into spring, a lack of funds had caused Paul to abandon the rented room in Baltimore where he had lived with his mother. He came to Washington City because had heard employment was available, and for a time he worked odd jobs. But he became peripherally involved in a fight between a miserly cooper and several assistants employed to fashion barrel staves, and when the cooper lay bleeding on the ground with an adze in his shoulder, Paul had slipped away.

Since then he had been wandering among the surrounding villages. The previous afternoon, when the fighting broke out in the hills near Bladensburg, he had followed the sounds of musketry and watched from a distance as the Americans broke ranks and fled. The British had gathered only those of their own dead that they could find readily, then set away toward Washington. Paul had been impressed by their discipline: they formed into columns and marched and bugled as if on a parade through the streets of London, not the hot, humid, muddy roads and swamps of Maryland. He scavenged for a time among the bodies felled by shot and cannon; he felt no revulsion at the dead, and had quickly acquired two very intricate silver snuff boxes, a gold ring, and, most splendidly, two pieces of Spanish bullion — taken from one of the British dressed, confusingly, in a blue coat. Soon, though, the scavengers moving between the bodies had grown numerous, jealous, and surly, so Paul had moved on.

Now, in the streets of Washington, the fires were flaring in marigold colors. Paul’s foot slipped in a fresh horse dropping. The ugly soldier was silent and a little ahead of Paul, and Paul followed, curious, not entirely certain that he wasn’t actually being arrested. But the ugly soldier seemed preoccupied, and gradually Paul grew confident. A man walked down the center of the street with a small lamb under each arm, and another moved through the shadows with an armoire precarious on a wheelbarrow. A crash of glass rang from a nearby house. There was the report of a distant solitary gunshot. Even in the morning sun the light of the fires was fierce and steady.

The ugly soldier said, “It’s rather like when we burned San Sebastian during the Spanish Campaign.”

Paul, recalling the Spanish bullion in his pocket, said nothing.

“But Washington City,” said the ugly soldier, “is hardly a city. It is a village, at most. Rather pathetic, really.”

“I like it,” Paul retorted, feeling suddenly, defensively patriotic.

“I do too,” said the ugly soldier. “There is much to do here, possibilities, opportunities. Everything burned will have to be rebuilt. There will be expansion. A new nation, growing, growing. Not like old England, stale as a sea biscuit.” He looked round with a smile of benevolence. “Yes, there is a future to be found here.”

They passed the Capitol, its two large sandstone wings still smoking and flickering with flames that reached out the windows and blackened upward. The wings had been connected by a temporary covered wooden bridge which now lay in heaps of char. Chalking on a low wall nearby said, “JAMES MADISON IS A RASCAL, A COWARD, AND A FOOL.” They moved through back lawns parallel to Pennsylvania Avenue, and when a squad of British in green plumed shako hats came into view marching down Pennsylvania, the ugly soldier hid in the shadow of a doorway. Paul stood by, watched the British go past, watched the ugly soldier come out again.

They walked on, and after a moment Paul said, “You’ve deserted.”

“Pah,” said the ugly soldier. But he pulled his lips away from his buck teeth in a hideous grin.

Finally the ugly soldier stopped and pointed at a four-story building with white columns across the front. A number of British soldiers and officers were milling around the columns. “Blodgett’s Hotel,” said the ugly soldier. “Do you know what’s inside?”

“That’s the Patent Office.”

“Yes. Something good will be there, which I can take and set up myself a living with.” He glared hard at Paul, as if Paul had laughed at him. “Better a good living for the rest of my life than a few coins spent by the end of the month. I always was useful with my hands. There will be something.” He raised his hands and gestured in a complicated weaving motion. “For example, a mechanical loom, or a better lantern or plow. I could use a plow, but it would be better if I could use the idea and manufacture such plows and sell them. A man with a good idea can be a rich man. And it really does not matter where you might have obtained the idea. Possibly I will take it back to England, and you can use it here in the United States of America. An improved formulation for paint, for example. Or a clever sort of device for the sharpening of knives or scissors. A horseless conveyance of some type.” He faltered and gazed at the hotel a minute, then suddenly resumed: “That might be all that is needed to live very nicely the rest of one’s years.” He smiled happily. “You will help me carry away what I need, and anything else is yours. Possibly we will go into business together.”

For several minutes they watched the British gathered in front of the hotel. Paul said, “I believe they’re going to burn it.” The ugly soldier said nothing. There were a couple of Americans mixed in with the British and a discussion was on-going. Minutes passed. More British officers, bearing sword and epaulets, arrived and joined the disputations. The ugly soldier lingered skittishly behind a porch, peering over the rails.

The British and the Americans went on arguing, went into the hotel and came out again. It all seemed foolish to Paul, so it was a relief when the ugly soldier turned away abruptly. “I need to think over this,” he said. “Where can we get something to drink? To clear my head?”

They moved away and down the street. The ugly soldier wandered into an alley, tried some doors, and discovered an unlocked servants’ door. Paul followed him inside. Like an offered blessing, two open bottles of wine lay spilled on the table in the kitchen. The ugly soldier seized one bottle and drank the remnants. He coughed and slammed the bottle down. “Badly made wine is a vicious fluid,” he said.

Paul picked up the other bottle, but it was empty. “You drank it all,” he complained.

“Where do they print the money?” the ugly soldier asked. “Those are what we want. The presses. Or not the presses but the dies.” He swung the empty wine bottle loosely in his hand. “Along with some ink and paper stock. Even if they change money, they will still have to honor the old for a time. Make our own money. But we must be quick. If the officers find the presses, they will destroy them and burn the whole place to the ground.”

“If they’ve gotten to the Patent Office, surely they’ve already been to the Treasury.”

“You’re probably right.” The ugly soldier brooded. “If we could steal all the clocks, people will pay us to tell them what time it is.”

“And the watches and sundials.”

“Yes, those too.”

Paul snickered. The ugly soldier turned on him a mournful look, which, with the buck teeth, looked strange and awful.

“You’re American, are you not?” asked the ugly soldier. “You’re supposed to be a frontier entrepreneur. You’re supposed to be resourceful, are you not?”

But Paul had grown up post-Revolution and had always been American with no idea that an American was supposed to be anything. He had been nowhere else, and to him America was everything. Attempting to placate the ugly soldier, Paul said, “We might go to some of the houses that have burned and gather the nails out of the ashes.”

In a cupboard they found food and a couple more bottles of wine and passed some hours drinking and discussing in this fashion. By late afternoon both were exhausted, and they went into separate bedrooms on the second floor. Paul’s bed was small, forcing him to curl his legs.

In his sleep he was bothered by the face of his mother. She looked down on him from the greatest possible heights, and he wished he could earn her pride, but in himself knew he never would. His mother was uncompromising, and life was too hard. When it offered certain chances, he could not turn from them.

After a few hours of worthless sleep, he got up and wandered about the room.

She had punished him if he failed to stand when addressed; if he said I have heard this before; if he sniggered; if he forgot to remove his hat when entering a doorway; if he failed to bow to a stranger; if he made what she called antic postures. Forbidden were nicknames, ugly faces, pointing, lying, jeering, or wicked assertions. Sometimes in punishment a branch was cut and split at one end, then pinched over his nose and left hanging. Sometimes he was struck about the head with a heavy thimble. Sometimes he had to sit for hours on a one-legged stool. Sometimes, if he had been surly, a wooden rod was tied into his mouth like a horse’s bit. He never knew his father, and he hated his mother. Then she died, and he cried for days, and he would have turned a knife in his own guts to have her back.

Part Three

It was nighttime. He went down to the kitchen and found the ugly soldier in the light of two candles, slowly scratching his back side-to-side against a corner.

Paul sat in a small wooden chair and asked, “How did the women look in Spain?” He had certain glamorous ideas of soldiering.

“Some are beautiful. Dark eyes.” The ugly soldier shrugged. “I never had any great success with them.”

“Women are beyond my understanding,” said Paul.

“They are a strange and wondrous type of creature.”

Together, they pondered a moment.

“The army is a bastard,” the ugly soldier said. “General Ross marches us as if we were animals. So many mules, who cares if a few fall by the side of the road? Ross needs a tourniquet for his head. We fight with our sacred lives for the crown to come into these places. But, having won a city, we are not to take the women, not to take anything we find, not even so much as a teaspoon.”

“What will happen if they catch you?”

“They will whip me, or perhaps they will hang me.” He shrugged. “How is this country?”

“Fine enough,” Paul said. But then he admitted, “I have known no other.”

“Well, they’re all so proud of their splendid British army, best trained and most disciplined in the world. Yes. Yes. We put your absurd militia on the run didn’t we? Set them off to the races, certainly. It’s all very fine, but it’s not for me anymore. It all may be quite splendid for King and Empire, but a man has to think of himself also.”

They went outside and walked. The walls of the President’s House were holding upright, but the roof had collapsed, and an orange glow shimmered inside. In the distance someone shouted that the slaves were in revolt.

“If we could get some rifles,” said the ugly soldier, “or muskets, from the Armory. Where is the Armory? We could sell them to the slaves.”

“Slaves haven’t any money.”

“They might have some if they’ve been busy with uprisings and thieving.”

“I don’t believe there’s any uprising. That rumor goes around at every opportunity. It’s never happened. For an uprising, the slaves would need the weaponry that we cannot sell them because they haven’t any money.”

“Perhaps we might take pictures off the walls of the houses and cut them into smaller pictures.”

“That is stupid.”

“In certain instances it might be profitable.”


“Well, and what is your idea?”

“Take everything of value, preferring smaller items.”

“You have no imagination.”

“We must obtain something,” Paul said. A load of broken crockery lay scattered over the roadway, and Paul kicked irritably at the pieces in his path. “Soon. While there is still the opportunity. I’ll work alone if I must.”

The ugly soldier sighed. “Reduced to petty, unimaginative theft.” He sighed again, a great upwelling and collapse of his chest. “Fine. If it must be. Such is the lot I have granted myself.”

They went to the backside of the nearest house, and the ugly soldier watched as Paul pried open a pair of shutters, then picked up a rock. The ugly soldier stopped him with a hand on the shoulder. He put his hands on the window and pushed it open. He crawled inside. Paul set down his rock and followed.

They were in a parlor, with a fireplace, armchairs, a large round table, and, set into the dark corners, a cabinet and a lowboy with cabriole legs. An empty black hallway ran from the far end of the room. The ugly soldier flung open the cabinet, while Paul peered into the lowboy. He found only a single wooden tobacco pipe, roughly carved, chewed on the stem. The ugly soldier came away from the cabinet empty-handed, his buckteeth gnawing against his lip in disgust. Paul offered him the pipe and the ugly soldier took it and hurled it down the dark hallway. It struck a far wall loudly.

Immediately there followed a scream, a door at the end of the hall crashed open, and a figure sprang into the hallway. Paul started and nearly cried out, for among the shadows at the end of the hall stood a spirit shape that wore Paul’s mother’s own wide white collar and cuffs, and he knew her reprimand and punishment for him would be inventive, dreadful, and merciless, would involve teeth and needles and heat and would leave him empty, boneless. But then he saw this woman’s long skinny limbs, and it was only a woman, a stranger to him, gazing with wide, yellow-rimmed eyes, her rather flat chest heaving. She looked precarious on her long legs, and she reached slowly to the wall to support herself. In her other hand she clutched several pieces of silver flatware.

The ugly soldier shuffled a couple of steps toward her.

“It’s a woman,” Paul said.

“Leave me be,” she said.

“By God,” said the ugly soldier, in a tone that could have meant nearly anything.

The woman’s skirts were muddy around the hem, and her hair hung in loose disarray. But she held herself very much upright, like those trained in posture by daily use of a backboard. Her long legs twitched. “I live here,” she said. “What business do you have?”

“I’ve heard that before, haven’t I?” The ugly soldier glanced at Paul and laughed. “If you live here, why steal the silver?”

“I am putting it away for safekeeping.”

The ugly soldier bowed slightly. “Of course.”

The lady took a step back. “You must leave.”

“As you wish,” said the ugly soldier. He then failed to move.

“You don’t really live here,” Paul said.

The woman’s eyes widened, and she abruptly flung down the silver. It crashed with wild bright noise on the floor. “You are thieves,” she said.

The ugly soldier glanced at Paul. “She thinks us thieves.”

“We have merely noble motives,” Paul assured.

“Incidentally, have you any rum or the like?” the ugly soldier asked her.

“Noble motives,” Paul repeated, liking the sound.

“I come of good family,” said the woman.

“Of course,” said the ugly soldier. He suddenly moved his legs and hips in a weird capering of lewd dance.

The woman clutched herself and issued a tiny piping scream.

The scream frightened Paul, more than he dared let show. He looked away a moment, feeling wet-eyed. He was startled at himself, shaken to find he had come into this scene. Events had begun to seem dreamlike. The ugly soldier now appeared particularly hideous of visage. The woman had her hand on a door, and suddenly she pulled it open. The ugly soldier lunged down the hallway after her, and vanished behind her through the doorway.

Paul followed after, more slowly. He found the ugly soldier alone in the foyer with the front door open and the road below empty. The ugly soldier looked at Paul unhappily.


The ugly soldier said, “You were distinctly and absolutely reluctant.”

“Well,” Paul shouted at him, suddenly maddened, “what if I was? I thought you wanted to find a fortune! Now you want to pass the time pursuing horrid bird-legged tarts? That’s fine. Fine! I’ll go off on my own. I don’t know why I’m with you anyway. Your ideas are terrible, and we’ve got little enough time left now.”

“Oh,” said the ugly soldier. “Oh, don’t say that.”

Paul paced in a small, impatient circle. “It’s quite true. There is not a great deal of time.”

“You have to understand I have never–” The ugly soldier came over and took Paul’s hand in his own. “Most women cannot bear even to glance at me.”

“You are quite foul looking,” said Paul.

“Yes, that’s it exactly.” The ugly soldier passed his fingers slowly and very lightly over his face, as if probing at filth; it did make Paul feel bad for him. “But,” added the ugly soldier, “what you say is true. There will be time for the female folk after we’ve made our fortunes.”

Part Four

They began in the house they were in. They pulled open the cupboards in the kitchen, opened drawers and trunks and armoires. Paul climbed a ladder and put his head into the attic, where the dust and the scent of dust were thick and a breeze hissed uneasily over the shingles. The only things of value to be found were the silver the lady had dropped, and, hidden behind a bedstead, several bottles of rum which the ugly soldier promptly uncorked. They began to drink. “We should go on,” Paul said. But nothing happened, and he felt too tired to repeat the point.

The night went by, and the soldier fell asleep on the floor. Paul got up and wandered into the bedrooms. In a dresser was a pile of musty-smelling women’s undergarments. He discovered a corset, and pulled it around his torso. He turned it around backwards so that he could lace it up. It was tight. He muttered to himself, “Pride feels no pain.” Once he had it laced, he turned it forward again. A pair of cups were positioned to push the breasts up, and he adjusted them so that they were properly located. He discovered a pair of baggy muslin pantalettes, and he pulled them over his legs and tied them at the ankles. All this he wore over his own soiled coat and trousers, and looking down at himself he laughed. He adjusted his posture, arching his back a little, and took several mincing steps around the room. He was pleased by the stiffness of the whalebone against him. He looked in the trunk again and found a sausage-shaped bustle which he examined a moment, then tied around the waist, with the roll in back to give the posterior amplitude. He giggled. He pulled out another, shorter corset and pressed it to his nose. There did seem to be some other odor under the stale scent of storage. With his tongue he tested the inside of a breast cup.

Then he heard something, faintly, a low voice possibly, from outside. Paul dropped the corset and sidled to the window. Coming down the street, already nearly at the house, were a dozen British soldiers, and with them was the thin-legged woman, hissing and whispering to the troops around her.

Paul looked down at himself, in terror. He yanked ineffectually at some of the straps. Then he gave it up and ran downstairs in the undergarments to the parlor doorway and called, holding his voice low, “Soldiers, soldiers, here. She’s brought back soldiers.”

The ugly soldier in his sleep twitched his head.

Paul stepped toward him, but then loud as musket shots someone hammered on the door. The ugly soldier sat up, looking wildly about. The door smashed open. Paul sprinted through the house to the kitchen. Voices behind him shouted incoherently. He opened the window and slithered out, landing face-first on the ground. Boot steps sounded around the side of the house. Paul gained his feet and ran. Shouts followed him. A shot exploded behind him, and the muscles in his back tensed convulsively in anticipation of a wound that did not come. He did not glance back. As he ran the whalebone prodded his ribs and the bustle bounced like the puff of a white-tail deer.

After several turns and running a quarter mile or so he heard no one behind him, but still he ran, until he was winded and finally he had to slow to a jog. He twisted mid-stride to look back, and could see no soldiers. He slowed to a walk. He looked around himself more carefully. Seated on a porch with a rifle on his lap was an old man with a pinched, lean face, staring at Paul with squint-eyed curiosity.

Paul felt bitterly aggrieved by the attention and by the fact that a man might sit on his porch watching passersby as if this were any normal day. Half-choking with rage and exhaustion, Paul screamed at the old man, “Go away!” The old man varied neither position nor squint. Paul, in the middle of the street, furiously, laboriously, with trembling fingers, pulled off the bustle, the corset, the pantalettes, and hurled them one by one into the dirt of the street. With a series of great leaps he stomped on the garments.

He stalked away from this scene with his hands bunched in fists, and at the first chance turned on a side street. He walked a while aimlessly, keeping mostly to the shadows, watching his boots mark the road and feeling the fog of panic and fury inside himself slowly dissipate. Only when he looked up and happened to see a group of British crossing the street ahead, and among them the ugly soldier, did he realize he had been circling back. The ugly soldier wore heavy rusting shackles on his wrists and legs and hobbled painfully. The soldiers around him pointedly did not look at their prisoner. Paul followed at a distance. They passed the desiccated Capitol, headed toward the Armory.

It appeared much of the British army had converged around the American Armory. From a distance Paul watched as the ugly soldier was brought to an officer, dressed in a red coat and bright braids, and a series of consultations ensued between this officer and other officers and soldiers. Then the ugly soldier was tied face-first against a cottonwood. Some minutes passed. An officer came forward with a horsewhip.

Part Five

Paul crouched among some tall grasses and milkweed and under his breath he counted the lashings. The ugly soldier did not scream but whimpered loudly, and the strokes proceeded at a mechanical rhythm. After the one hundredth lashing the ugly soldier was untied, and he collapsed to the ground. Only now did he utter a long, howling scream. Another soldier came and slopped water into the ugly soldier’s gaping mouth and, in a strangely off-handed manner, tied yellow rags around the enormous bloody open wound of the ugly soldier’s back.

Paul regarded the yellow bandages sadly a minute. The ugly soldier did not move, except for a very faint breathing motion of his chest. After a number of minutes he lifted his head half an inch, then it fell back again. His features were still and colorless; even the blood vessels over his nose had paled. Beyond him several soldiers carried barrels from the Armory. They moved in and out, in and out, toting barrels around rather excitedly. Others loitered near a fire in various attitudes of boredom, watching two soldiers construct a spit over the flames. Glistening skinned hares hung upside down from a nearby tree.

Paul felt despondent, tricked, although he could not say by whom. He had gained nothing by all of this. He began dourly to think of traveling back to Baltimore, of that long dusty walk, when there was a noise. It was an unusual low noise, like the short huff of a fat man, but something in it lifted the hairs on Paul’s arms, and he glanced around in time to see the Armory rise quickly several inches from its foundation, then explode outward and tumble soldiers about, before Paul himself was heaved up and backward and his head knocked hard against the earth, creating thick white clouds in his vision which he stared at and blinked against, unthinkingly, feeling vaguely alarmed. He heard and saw dimly various unknown objects passing overhead.

As his ears slowly cleared, he began to hear men screaming. After a minute he lifted himself up on an elbow and saw that the buildings of the armory had been torn into fragments and splinters and flung in every direction. An enormous thick black column of smoke rose from where the armory had been. Men too had been ripped apart, or pierced with pieces of wooden shrapnel, and they were making the screams.

Paul crawled a distance away into the woods and lay upon some mossy earth. Overhead he saw the sky darkening, in all directions. It appeared to Paul that this was not only the smoke of the armory.

He gazed at the gathering weather with a sense of dubiousness. He had only seen such black clouds once before, when he was quite young, during a storm which had driven he and his mother to the cellar where they had listened to the sound of the chicken coop blowing over and the chickens calling in terror. His mother had held him very tightly. This was a good memory. The reappearance of such clouds now seemed suspect, perhaps a sort of inversion of the white clouds he had seen when he struck his head, and he felt discouraged by his distrust of his own mind and senses.

The tree limbs overhead grew frantic. That’s wind, he thought. He lost consciousness for a time, and woke with unpleasant abruptness to the splashing of water upon him. He sat up, and squinted into masses of falling water. Great black clouds like fragments of night scudded overhead. When the wind gusted up it blew curtains of horizontally moving rain. Branches broke loudly from the trees.

Without any sense of direction, Paul began to crawl. It seemed if he stood upright in this wind he would be carried off some miles. He came to a shallow ditch and lay flat in it. The wind was a terrible thing, a vexed screaming beast trying to escape some malicious torture. It took up the things of the world and hurled them about, it rushed on and on above him. He had never seen the like of such a storm, and he lay under it in a mindless awe. The ditch began to fill with water, and soon it ran rapidly from his feet toward his head. He only lifted his face high enough to breathe. He began to fear that he would need to climb from the ditch to avoid drowning, and that in doing so would be blown away to his death.

The maelstrom abated very suddenly, however, and a blinding sunlight burst into the air. Paul pushed himself up and peered about. He crawled from the ditch and lay drying on a grassy hummock. After everything — the many dead and the end of a government and the burning and destruction and looting and explosion and hurricane — this last stroke of glorious, crushing weather left Paul wallowing in sensations dazzling and profound. It was vast and monstrous and beyond understanding. That he had seen and survived all this — it made him feel his smallness. He lay watching a few white clouds in the sky. He was a ball of grapeshot hurled into an untracked landscape. His smallness was a revelation. His mother had imposed scripture upon him relentlessly, but it had never taken, he had never gained from it any sense of a god. The force of his mother in his life had been too vast. But now it was as if before he had seen the world only through a tunnel, perhaps from the bottom of a well, and now he was out and the world about him was immense past all imagination. And from within his diminished state he saw, to his great surprise, the future, the possibility of days into weeks into years beyond the day or two before him. That indeed one day even his mother might be forgotten. It was wondrous and dreadful, and he felt a sweeping sympathy for himself, for the dead and the living, for his nation and for the British as well.

He roused himself and saw the British moving about dazedly, slowly reassembling their units, beginning to assess the wounded and to aid those they could. Paul began crawling toward them, then saw, not fifty feet away, the ugly soldier slumped under a tree, his legs spread before him, staring down at his own crotch. The tree he sat under had lost its crown, nowhere to be seen. Paul moved toward him, the poor man, foredoomed to the long, long march of days ahead with that face.

Paul touched him on the knee. “Come with me,” he whispered.

The ugly soldier slowly raised his head. Rivulets and spatters of blood marked his cheeks and one of his buck teeth had been chipped. He gazed uncomprehendingly at Paul for several seconds, then he closed his eyes and bowed his head. “I’ve paid my punishment. It’s over. I might as well go on with them.” He sighed. “I think perhaps I would like to go home one day.”

Paul scowled. “You could go home rich.”

The ugly soldier said nothing. Paul sat on the earth beside the ugly soldier and rested there a while, just sitting, gaping a little. The ugly soldier did not move or speak, and eventually Paul stood and walked away into the city.

Roofs had been torn off a number of houses, and some structures had been demolished entirely. The streets were now deep with mud and swampy standing water. Everywhere lay a detritus of fallen branches and leaves, loose shingles and slats of siding, fragments of paper and cloth. A surprising number of chickens wandered about, pecking or perched on rooflines. For a moment Paul watched a woman with a goiter chase a screaming piglet in circles in the street.

That night he lurked in the brush and watched the British encampment. The soldiers built up their fires to great, roaring intensity. In the glare it was difficult to see the men, and he looked for the ugly soldier but did not find him. He sat watching and eventually fell asleep. When he woke, at the first light of dawn, the fires were still moldering and sending up streams of smoke, but the British and all their horses and artillery were gone.

Paul watched a few ragged civilians wander into the field where the British had been and poke into the guttered fire pits. Others came and looked, then ran off shouting. Paul turned and walked again into the streets of the city. The storm had put out the fires, and the British were gone. For the moment, the city was empty of any authority at all. Paul looked round and saw a muddy, savaged little town existing precariously within wildernesses and swamps which might readily overwhelm everything here human. The British had begun the job of erasing this place, and the storm had reinforced their work. The ugly soldier had been wrong; this place would not be rebuilt. It was inevitable, Paul thought, that President Madison and the government would now abandon this raw spot, leave the burned ruins to nature, and return to New York or some other well-established city. Without the government here, the residents would drift away, the weeds would fill in, and then the trees would slowly regain the ground they had been cut and burned out of, like an animal’s eye briefly opened to the summer sun, closing again, lazily.

Well, and what did he care for this place? The feeling was deepening in him that all this was his, for a short while only. And what would remain his was only what he could take with him. The future had moved far away again; the opportunities were not of the future but now. Thumbing the Spanish bullion in his pocket, he came into the broad muddy rubbish-strewn track of Pennsylvania Avenue. In the distance stood the President’s House, charred and roofless. It too had been abandoned by the British, and, as Paul watched several small running greedy figures were converging toward it. He had a flickering, wondering thought about the silverware, gilt lamps, gold platters, and silken garments that James and Dolley Madison might have abandoned in their cupboards and closets. Paul began to run.