19 December, 1801
Presidential Mansion, Washington City
She burst through the doors of the Presidential Mansion, face burning with embarrassment and tears of frustration, swirling past the startled guests in the foyer, past a clutter of servants in the hallway, and into the room Mr Jefferson had set aside for her and Jemmy. She slammed and locked the door behind her, leaning against it for support, trembling with rage, fists balled up, ready to strike out. Thank the Good Lord Jemmy isn’t in! I need some time alone to calm down.
Eyes closed, she began to breathe, slow and deep. How dare they refuse my entrance to the Capitol Building! How dare they! Thomas asked me to assist Mr Latrobe with the interior decorations, but because I’m a woman I cannot enter the Capitol alone. The Sergeant of the Guard was so smug, so eager to put me in my place as he addressed his comments to my chest. The nerve!
She wanted to scream, but instead retrieved an oak box from the bottom drawer of her dresser. Inside was a matched set of dueling pistols. They were beautiful, with polished maple grips and shiny brass fittings and shiny gold inlay on both barrel and trigger guard. Her finger traced the bright gold-leafed letters stenciled on the red silk lining the box: Wogdon & Barton of London. The best dueling pistols money could buy.
They had been a wedding present from a dear friend, the man who introduced her to darling Jemmy, who had helped her resolve her first husband’s estate, and who had taught her the one skill she needed to deal with the idiots and idiocies of life. They had been a grand gift, a hilarious gift, a gift evoking scandalized whispers from the old ladies and envious looks from everyone else. She and Jemmy took them on their frequent horseback rides, for protection and to shoot rabbits for evening stew.
Her friend had winked conspiratorially at her during the presentation, and only the two of them knew why he had chosen this specific gift. But he never suspected how essential his single lesson on overcoming fear had been to her sanity. Jemmy didn’t know either. She sighed. Wives and husbands shouldn’t keep secrets from one another, but this was one secret she wasn’t ready to tell, even after seven years of marriage. It was too . . . personal. Too scandalous! But she needed a way to work off the terrible frustrations men never experienced. Well, at least I’m not beating my darling little boy, or whipping some poor servant, or abusing my horse, or screaming at Jemmy. I have a better way.
She extracted her favorite pistol and stood before the mirror, head turned over the right shoulder, pistol cocked at her side. She met the eyes of that other woman and began to breathe deeply, through her nose, and clear 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. The reflected woman smiled at her. The ritual was so much more satisfying when they didn’t have to pretend.
Gunpowder wasn’t necessary. When she knew for certain Jemmy would be out of town for the day she’d put a little powder in the priming pan for a delightful flash and aromatic puff of smoke. Once, for reasons she still didn’t understand, she used a full powder charge tamped with a scrap of rag instead of a bullet. The pistol had made a much louder POP! than she had anticipated, and the flaming rag had struck the mirror and fallen to the carpet, starting a small fire she doused with a vase of freshly cut roses. She had fibbed to Mother Madison about the noise (“I smashed a spider with my shoe.”) and spent hours trying to mask the distinct aroma of gunpowder smoke. The room still reeked when Jemmy returned, and only her bawdy and scandalous behavior distracted him from the odd scent combination of lavender, rose, daffodil, onion, fried chicken, and gunpowder.
No gunpowder today. 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 had 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, but by the sixth she had it down to a routine.
Wait… do I need to replace the flint? Those sparks are so delightful, and after that outrageous treatment today . . .
She sighed, her concentration broken, raised the pistol and pulled the trigger. No spark. Damn! Sorry, forgive me, Lord. This blessed flint does need replaced. She tossed the spent flint into a small wooden chest hidden under hat boxes in the back of her closet, frowning when the lid wouldn’t seat properly. She peered inside: it was packed with worn flints!
Goodness! Seems like I just emptied that out. Has it been a year already? Better toss them out tonight, before the moon rises. She retrieved a new flint from another wood chest, concealed under a stack of shoe boxes, 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.
She 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 breath deep and through her nose, trying to clear her mind of all extraneous thoughts as she focused on her target.
She raised her hand and caressed the trigger in one swift motion, her eye capturing the sight picture the moment the hammer sparked on the frizzen. She had missed the reflected woman’s eye, hitting instead the bridge of her nose.
She held the pose for three seconds, lowered her arm, and sighed in disgust.
Gosh, I hope Jemmy takes his time coming home tonight. This might take hours.
She cocked the pistol, found the eyes of the reflected woman, and began her ritual again.