Road to War – Excerpt
5 November 1810, Presidential Mansion, Washington City
James studied Monroe’s latest report: yet another American ship stopped by Great Britain, twenty sailors removed against their will and forced to serve in the Royal Navy because their names ‘sounded English’. What an outrage!
French John stood in the doorway, a peculiar look on his face that meant a self-perceived sense of conflicting duty; lately than meant an issue with Dolley. James beckoned the man into the office. “Yes?”
John closed the door behind himself, glanced about the room, and marched up to the President’s desk. James sighed: it was Dolley. Again. Ever since her return from Fort Lafayette she’d acted strangely.
John cleared his throat. “She wants me to teach her to duel with the sword.”
James smiled. Dearest Dolley’s been fencing for months, even bought weapons and a jacket for me, though the few lessons I took hurt my knees and aggravated my asthma. “How does that differ from regular fencing?”
“It’s a slower, more deliberate fighting style since the first point scored is often the last.” John frowned. “The real difference is the mental preparation required to take human life. I explained that to her and she became even more eager to learn.”
James recalled the last time he’d watched her fence: the graceful stance, the fluid movements, her form so well defined by the snug fencing jacket, the demonstrated strength and flexibility that transferred so well to other activities. James recalled those other activities, then mopped his brow.
James tucked away his handkerchief. “If learning to duel with the sword will keep her interested in fencing, then I see no problem with it. You have enough spare blades?”
“Yes, sir. The two dozen you ordered last month just arrived, should last us several years.”
1 December 1810, Presidential Mansion, Washington City
Major Steven Brown sat on the leather couch across from James’ desk, looking more devastated and despondent than any man he’d ever seen. They’d been at it for two straight hours, and finally, after promising and pleading and ordering and threatening, Brown broke down and told the entire story of Dolley defeating the brigands on the road to Fort Lafayette. He now sat head in hands, crushed and exhausted.
James stared across the room at the marble bust of Marcus Tullius Cicero. It all makes sense. Finally! Dolley’s love, then avoidance, of those dueling pistols; her odd hysteria at the death of Hamilton; her obsession with the martial arts—and the marital arts!—since her return from Lafayette. It also explains Sukey’s butterfly-like emergence from her cocoon of silence and the mother-daughter bond that’s formed between them.
Aaron taught her dueling and she continued to practice it for years. Ha! Too bad he didn’t teach anything to her worthless son. Payne has his mother’s good looks but failed to inherit her work ethic or moral character. What a waste.
Imagine! My darling Quakeress a steely-eyed killer! Fearlessly dueled the bandit leader, shot him right in the eye at twenty paces. Huzzah! This calls for a celebration.
James chuckled, stood and walked to the liquor cabinet.
“Mr. President, I have betrayed the trust and confidence of the Presidentress, and humbly request relief of duties so I can resign my commission.”
Brown stood at attention, face stiff and formal.
“Permission denied. You’re far too valuable.” James chuckled again and held out a goblet of wine. “Take it, Steven. It’s the good stuff, from Jefferson’s vineyard.”
Major Brown accepted the goblet, his expression now confused.
James raised his glass. “To our Presidentress.”
“The Presidentress,” whispered Brown.
They clinked glasses, and James motioned for the man to sit, then plopped into the leather easy chair across from him. “Don’t feel badly, son. Explaining to a husband why his beloved wife has been acting a bit strange isn’t dishonorable.”
“She was deathly afraid you’d confine her to Washington City, sir.”
James chuckled. “Well, I certainly won’t let her travel outside Washington without a larger escort. I naively thought you would be enough—no offense, Steven, please sit back down, drink your wine. Enough mad dogs can savage the noblest wolf, and a single bullet can fell the mightiest warrior. You’re the best we have, and you shouldn’t have had to scrounge those two militiamen on your own when you heard a rumor of brigands on Forbe’s Road. The fault was mine, and mine alone.”
James fetched the wine bottle, refilled both goblets and eased into the chair. “She continues to train?”
Brown nodded. “They both do, every chance they get. I’ve been out with them several times. They are quite good.”
“They enjoy what they do?”
“Then let’s not discourage them. Don’t tell her we had this little talk. Let me know if there is anything they require. I’m promoting you to Lieutenant Colonel, through proper channels, of course.”
“Thank you, sir!”
“Least I can do. Promotion means transfer, so we’ll have to work with the Arsenal Commander to ensure the right officers are available when she requires an escort. More wine?”
An hour later James bade Major (Promotable) Brown farewell and closed the door. He studied himself in the small mirror on the east wall, scowled at his reflection, then raised his arm, hand shaped like a pistol. “Ka Boom! Right in the eye!”
He giggled un-Presidentially, and looked about to ensure he was still alone. Then he chided himself for caring, sat again behind his desk and whistled as he attended to the affairs of state.
9 May 1813, New Castle, Delaware
Sukey remained mounted, two dozen feet behind the Presidential carriage as it sat on the dock. Beside them towered the Neptune, the ship that would carry the members of the peace delegation to St. Petersburg, Russia. Czar Alexander had graciously offered to mediate peace talks between the United States and Great Britain, and when he (and the Russian winter!) defeated Napoleon’s huge army, the War Hawks decided to accept his help and end the war before the country faced a British foe undistracted by Napoleon’s France.
The delegation was departing from New Castle, Delaware, thirty miles south of Philadelphia, because British Admiral Sir George Cockburn controlled the Chesapeake Bay. He’d already burned the Maryland cities of Frenchtown, Fredericktown and Havre de Grace, then destroyed the cannon foundry in Principio and savaged numerous farmsteads. Because of this a regiment of Dragoons guarded the carriages, and the mysterious Mr. James Smith guarded Mr. Madison.
Sukey grinned at Mr. Mysterious, mounted beside her, and he interrupted his surveillance of the area long enough to wink at her. He’d been quite upset after the misunderstanding in March, but Mizz Dolley won him over with nonstop apologies, a doctor to tend his wounds, and tailors to replace his ruined clothing, winning a friend for life because her tailors knew how to make clothing that kept concealed pistols concealed. Sukey had initially been quite unimpressed that the President’s premier bodyguard was so easily neutralized, then discovered he’d attended several of Mizz Dolley’s parties in disguise, knew exactly who Mizz Dolley was, and never expected her to clobber him. He knew of Sukey’s self-appointed role as Mizz Dolley’s guardian angel, seemed to know about their training regimen and even coached Sukey on the fine points of body guarding. However, he avoided any discussion of Stephen Pleasonton, the Office of the Fifth Auditor, the State Department, Rangers in general, or his activities when not guarding Mr. Madison. Mysterious!
They’d ridden together for the three-day, hundred-mile journey, following the Presidential carriage to give the Madison Family their privacy. Mizz Dolley had been dreading this day because Payne, her only surviving son, would accompany the peace delegation to St. Petersburg. Nobody knew when they’d return. Mizz Theo’s death still weighed heavily on Mizz Dolley’s mind, and she feared for the boy’s safety. The carriage had been stationary for some time, and Sukey could only imagine the tearful drama occurring within. Please, Lord, for her sake, protect Payne and bring him home safely when his mission is accomplished.
Payne stepped from the carriage alone, and approached a ship’s officer. She followed Smith’s example and remained mounted, awaiting Mizz Dolley’s appearance.
Payne stood six feet tall, handsome and dashing in the custom-made dress uniform of a Cavalry officer, wearing the unearned rank of Third Lieutenant. He was well schooled in etiquette, a charming conversationalist, spoke passable French, and was utterly indifferent to his lack of accomplishment in every other academic subject.
Poor Mr. Madison had to cash in political favors just to keep the boy in boarding school, and when he finally graduated his grades were far too low for admission to Princeton University, Mr. Madison’s alma mater. Payne moved back into the mansion last December, becoming a regular fixture at Mizz Dolley’s parties: a handsome, witty, well-mannered, unaccomplished embarrassment to the Democratic-Republican ideal. When Mr. Madison’s secretary took ill, he pushed Payne into the position, then yanked him out days later to everyone’s relief.
At the April First party Albert Gallatin explained to Mizz Dolley his desperate need for an additional attaché for the St. Petersburg peace mission: a young man, well-connected, intelligent, charming, handsome, with the ability to speak French, the language of the Russian court. There was, apparently, a lack of qualified candidates, and might she know of one? Mizz Dolley had dithered in her response, but by chance Payne chose that moment to attend his mother, and Gallatin’s well-rehearsed Why didn’t I think of Payne!, along with similar sentiments by several others who chanced by at the time, ensured the boy got the job. Afterwards, while Mizz Dolley was consoling her son in his room, Mr. Madison had insisted Sukey accept a half-eagle gold piece for coordinating the operation. Sukey fingered the coin, carried in her pocket for luck. The sum paid to Mr. Gallatin must have been enormous!
The carriage door opened, and Mr. Madison assisted Mizz Dolley down the steps. She was uncharacteristically subdued and distracted, eyes red from crying, clinging to Mr. Madison for support as they watched her son supervise the loading of his baggage.
Sukey dismounted and stood beside Smith. A sailor carried Payne’s last trunk aboard ship and Payne faced his mother to say goodbye. Mizz Dolley lost all control, ran across the dock and threw herself into his arms, weeping and hanging on to the young man. Payne, for the first time Sukey could recall, returned the hug with warmth and actually seemed reluctant to depart.
“Momma’s gonna miss her little pumpkin! Yes she is! You gonna write your Momma? You Are? You are? That’s my precious little boy! Tell Momma everything you do, every day, so she doesn’t worry about her little Payne! Oh, I’m gonna miss my baby boy! My only baby boy! Yes I am! Make a good impression on Czar Alexander. Make your Momma and Father Jemmy proud of their little pumpkin.”
Mizz Dolley continued to prattle, on the verge of hysteria. Most of the spectators fought to keep from laughing, but Sukey chomped her lip and brushed away a tear. Poor Mizz Dolley! I’ve never seen her this upset! If he vanishes like Mizz Theo, she’ll curl into a ball and die, just like her father! And if she keeps this up I’m gonna start blubbering for that lout. Gotta think of something else.
Sukey nudged Mr. Smith. “Ever notice how Mizz Dolley talks to her son like she talks to her snake?”
The chuckle beside her was not Mr. Smith’s, but Mr. Madison’s. They’d switched places!
“Yes. My Dolley can read people better than anyone I’ve ever met.”
Did he really just say that? Sukey felt her face start to burn and stared at him, speechless.
Mr. Madison winked at her. “Praying he’ll marry a Russian Princess and stay?”
“No, sir. I’m praying he returns safely to Mizz Dolley.”
He appeared astonished. “You love her that much?”
Sukey nodded. “She’s the only mother I’ve ever known.”
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