March 1794, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
“Aaron, would you teach me to duel?”
“Not wouldst thou teach me to duel? Did you lose your Quaker manner of speech when the wind took your Quaker bonnet?” He leaned toward her from the saddle, his expression one of mock surprise. “And, Madam, art thou wearing . . . rouge?”
“I’ll have you know, sir, that any blush upon my cheek was caused by the chill air.” She dropped the reins and folded her arms. “Mostly. And as for my manner of speech, well, it didn’t seem appropriate given the request.”
He laughed and slapped his knee, vanquishing her pretended anger.
She smiled. “Besides, the Quakers and their ways have given me little but pain.”
“My dearest Dolley, I consider your little Payne a charming lad, possessing his late father’s brilliance and his mother’s beauty. No man, or woman, should ask for more.”
Joy and relief filled her soul. Giddy, she joined him in laughing at the play on her son’s name.
Their mounts stood in a fragrant meadow of green grass and brilliant wildflowers, miles outside Philadelphia. He dismounted, and assisted her in untangling herself from the sidesaddle. On her father’s plantation she’d only ridden astride, but once they moved to Philadelphia . . . .
Her feet touched the ground, and her right leg buckled, having once again fallen asleep—only his strong grasp prevented her from plopping into the mud.
He snorted in derision. “Chinese bind the feet of girls to hobble their women. We give them sidesaddles. What’s next? Make every woman carry a ten-pound bag of junk?”
“Colonel Burr!” She set her mother’s stern expression of disapproval on her face, then giggled. “I quite agree.”
“Call me Aaron, or I shall address you as the Widow Mrs. Dolley Payne Todd.“
She took his proffered arm and they strolled through the grass. The horses followed, grazing.
“There is,” he said, “a matter of some importance I wanted to discuss with you. Your mother mentioned you were rewriting your will, and were looking for a suitable guardian for young Payne.”
She stared at him, stomach queasy, and closed her mouth. Oh Mother! How could you! Why not just ask him outright to marry me? She nodded, speechless.
“Though it would grieve me to have the boy without his magnificent mother, I would be honored to accept the assignment.” He paused and looked at her sideways. “If you will have me.”
Shocked, still speechless, she nodded, vigorously, and said a brief prayer of thanks, blinking back tears of relief and gratitude.
He bowed, and she curtsied in response.
“What? A bonnet-less, rouge-wearing, plain-talking Quakeress that curtsies?” His voice boomed across the meadow, and his exaggerated expression of mock outrage set her to giggling. “What next? A demand to vote? Shameful dalliance with a rogue?”—his dancing eyebrows intensified her giggles—”Or perhaps, heaven forbid, a request to learn the fine art of dueling?”
They laughed together.
“Do you mind?”
“Of course not. Every woman should know how to defend herself. I taught little Theodosia last summer. May I ask why an avowed pacifist should desire such knowledge?”
“Just curious. Everyone talks about it, but I don’t know what it is.”
“Then, my dear, I shall teach you.”
He led his horse toward a stand of trees, and she followed, mind spinning. What sort of man teaches dueling to his daughter of ten? The same, I suppose, who teaches an errant Quakeress. The sort of man who values education over propriety. The perfect guardian, or step-father, for my son.
He secured the horses and retrieved a pistol, powder horn and pouch from his saddle, then led her toward a large tree, bursting with new leaves. They stopped twenty feet away.
“In Europe there are several notorious women duelists, but in these United States duels are fought between gentlemen of equal station to remedy a real or perceived insult. In this modern era, pistols are the usual weapons, but on rare occasions men might resort to swords, daggers, or even something non-lethal, like—”
“Pillows?” Her mind was still reeling at the concept of women dueling, and she’d blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
“I was going to say axe handles.” He chuckled at her expression. “Let us suppose Mr. Oak has offended me, and we have arranged to meet at this place and time to satisfy the requirements of honor.”
He stood ramrod straight, feet shoulder width apart, right side toward the tree, arms at his side, pistol in his right hand. “Here is the difficult part. In minutes one of us will be shot and die in agony. If you dwell on this thought, your breathing will become shallow, your hands will begin to sweat and shake, and your vision will narrow. Your marksmanship skills will be a fraction of what they were. To survive, you must control the body’s natural reaction to fear.”
“How do you control fear?”
“With the pistol pointed down, cock the hammer. Lock eyes with your opponent. Close your mouth and breathe through your nose, slowly and deeply. Four-count on the inhale, hold it for four, exhale in four, hold for four. Repeat. Empty your mind of all thoughts of hate, love, pity, or mercy. Focus on his right eye to the exclusion of all else.”
He turned his head to the right, looking over his shoulder, watching the tree. “The breathing and focus will calm you and unsettle your opponent. The longer you wait, the calmer you become and the more nervous he becomes. Upon the command to fire, raise your pistol so that the sights touch the imaginary line extending from your right eye to his, and caress the trigger with the tip of your finger.”
He smoothly raised his right hand, and an instant later the flintlock pistol boomed! flame and smoke, his arm absorbing the recoil as the muzzle raised slightly and realigned with the target. The sound of the shot echoed from a nearby stand of trees. He stood there for a full three seconds, wreathed in white smoke, before lowering the pistol. Chipped bark indicated a fresh hole in the trunk of the tree.
“Caress the trigger?”
“Yes. If you are slower than your opponent, it will be the last thing you ever love.”
Two weeks later . . . .
What am I supposed to do?
Dolley’s eyes burned with tears of frustration. James, her brother-in-law, had once again ignored her requests for the accounting documents from her late husband’s business, of which James had been the bookkeeper. Without these documents she could not settle his estate and access the money she desperately needed to buy food for her child. Aaron had helped with these issues in the past, but he’d returned to New York to spend time with his dying wife.
She strode about the room, frustration feeding anger, thoughts churning. James never gave him grief. He seemed terrified of Aaron. On two previous occasions his mere presence had elicited meek compliance from the bookish James. He ignores me because I am just a woman. James is a bully. Why if I were a man I would . . . I would . . . .
What would I do?
A forlorn girl trembling with helpless rage stared at her from a full-length mirror across the room. A victim in desperate need of a protector, alone and afraid.
Fear. How do you control fear?
She stood ramrod straight, feet shoulder width apart, right side toward the girl in the mirror, arms at her side. She locked eyes with those other eyes, closed her mouth, and breathed through her nose, slowly and deeply:
Inhale . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . .
Hold . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . .
Exhale . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . .
Hold . . . two . . . three . . . four.
She continued to breathe in this fashion for several minutes, emptying her mind of fear, of love, of hate, and of mercy, studying those brilliant blue eyes still red from crying, yet now glimmering in anticipation.
Anticipation of . . . what?
She recalled the pistol she’d held, its weight on her arm, the sensation of the polished maple grip in her hand, the exhilaration of its discharge, the satisfaction of the shot hitting her point of aim. She raised her right hand so that the sights of her imaginary pistol touched the line extending from her right eye to that of the girl in the mirror.
Her finger caressed the trigger.
She held this pose for three seconds, imagining herself again wreathed in smoke, and shifted her focus from the imaginary front sight to the mirror—
Glittering blue eyes transfixed her soul, the gaze predatory and fierce, and then she perceived herself, eyes wide in disbelief. She recoiled in horror. In my heart I’ve murdered Friend James! No amount of money or suffering is worth that.
Yet . . .
It was not James that I envisioned shooting.
I was aiming at . . . myself. My fear. My frustration. My helplessness. Are those not opponents worthy of destruction?
The wall clock chimed the hour, unheard.
Two women stood in the room, one of flesh, one a reflection, backs straight, each with her side toward the other, arms down. They breathed in unison, slowly and deeply, purging their minds of intrusive thoughts from the outside world.
Each contemplated the other with heads turned over the shoulder, eyes locked in the impassive gaze of the supremely confident.
Their arms raised together, each extending an imaginary pistol toward the other.
Eight years later . . . .
19 December 1801, Presidential Mansion, Washington City
Dolley burst through the doors of the Presidential Mansion, face burning with embarrassment, vision blurred by tears of frustration. She swirled through the startled guests in the foyer, past a clutter of servants in the hallway, and into the room set aside for her and Jemmy. She slammed the door behind her then leaned against it for support, trembling with rage, fists balled up and ready to strike out.
How dare they refuse me entrance to the Capitol Building! How dare they! Mr. Jefferson—Thomas—asked me to assist Mr. Latrobe with the interior decorations, but when I arrived there with an armload of fabric the Sergeant of the Guard blocked the doorway. Unaccompanied women are not allowed inside, he said. I must find a gentleman escort, he said. Finding an escort should be easy for someone with my assets, he said—to my bosom!
Her instinct was to scream, but by habit she closed her eyes and forced herself to breathe slowly and deeply until the murderous rage passed. Continuing to breathe in this fashion, she locked the door and retrieved an oaken box from the bottom drawer of her dresser. Inside were two old friends of captivating beauty, and she greeted them with a warm smile, caressing their smooth and lustrous hardwood, savoring intricate patterns of gold etched deeply into darkened steel, inhaling the beloved fragrance of oil and metal. Manufactured by Wogdon & Barton of London, they were the finest dueling pistols money could buy.
They had been a wedding present from dear Aaron, now the Vice President of these United States of America. She was much in his debt, for it was he who had introduced her to darling Jemmy. The pistols had been a grand and hilarious gift, evoking scandalized whispers from the old ladies and envious looks from everyone else. Aaron had winked conspiratorially during the presentation, and only the two of them knew why he’d chosen this specific gift. But he never suspected their importance in overcoming the idiots and idiocies of life.
Jemmy didn’t know either.
I know wives and husbands shouldn’t keep such secrets from one another, but this is one secret I’m not ready to tell, even after seven years of marriage. He might object, and I need it to work off the terrible frustrations he never experiences. Well, at least I’m not screaming at him, beating my darling little boy, or whipping some poor servant. I have a better way.
She extracted her favorite pistol and stood before the mirror, head turned over her right shoulder, pistol cocked at her side. She met the eyes of that other woman and continued to breathe deeply through her nose, clearing her mind of extraneous thoughts. She felt the weight of the pistol on her arm, the sensuous smoothness of the polished maple grip in her hand.
Her finger hovered over, but did not touch, the sensitive hair trigger. She’d discovered it by accident while cleaning the pistol: a second trigger, hidden within the lock mechanism and lowered by an unobvious button. It had taken her an entire year to master its light touch, but the tremendous increase in accuracy was worth it.
The reflected woman smiled at her. The ritual was so much more satisfying with a real pistol.
She preferred a little gunpowder in the priming pan to produce a delightful flash and aromatic puff of smoke, but it also left behind a tell-tale scent that evoked embarrassing questions. It was enough to have the hammer strike its flint against the frizzen and make a spark. Flints wore out from use, and she had to replace them after a hundred or so shots. The frizzen required replacement every dozen or so flints, a task she’d left to the local gunsmith until he made a snide remark about cheap British pistols requiring four frizzens per year. Miffed, she’d purchased a dozen frizzens and learned to change them herself; the first took hours, by the sixth it was routine.
Wait. Do I need to replace this flint? Those sparks are so delightful, and after that outrageous treatment today . . . .
Concentration broken, she raised the pistol and pulled the trigger. No spark. Drat! Sorry, forgive me, Lord. This blessed flint does need to be replaced.
She stuffed the spent flint into a small wooden chest hidden under hat boxes in the back of her closet. The lid wouldn’t seat properly: it was packed to the brim with worn flints. Goodness! Seems like I just emptied that. Has it been a year already?
She retrieved a new flint from a sack concealed within a shoe box and clamped it into the hammer. I’m down to my last dozen flints. Better put them on the shopping list for tomorrow. Busy, busy, busy.
Dolley stood again before the mirror, ramrod straight, looking over her shoulder into the eyes of that other woman, the one in the mirror who held a pistol identical to hers. She began again to breathe deeply, clearing her mind of all extraneous thoughts as she focused on her target.
She raised the pistol and caressed the trigger in one swift motion, held the pose for three seconds, and lowered her arm.
She sighed in disgust: her eye had captured the sight’s placement the moment the hammer sparked on the frizzen and she’d missed the reflected woman’s eye, hitting instead the bridge of her nose.
Not even close. Gosh, I hope Jemmy takes his time coming home tonight. This might take hours.
Dolley cocked the pistol, found the eyes of the reflected woman, and began her ritual again.