Wednesday, August 24, 1814
Crowds started to gather outside the President's House not long after breakfast.
" 'Tis a good sign," remarked Dolley Madison, setting down her coffee-cup with a hand she hoped wasn't visibly shaking.
When they were girls together in Hanover County, Virginia, Dolley had always striven to live up to her friend Sophia Sparling's elegance, and Sophie, she observed now, almost forty years later, awaited news of the invasion with perfect calm.
Because she hath less to lose?
Or for some other reason entirely?
It was true that Sophie was only a dressmaker these days, and Dolley the wife of the President --- the man whom the British commander had sworn to bring back to London in chains.
Jemmy Madison had ridden out in the black predawn cool, to join the militia camped by the Navy Yard. Since first light, Dolley had been at the window with her spyglass, watching the road from the Chesapeake shore.
Sophie half-turned from the parlor window, raised an eyebrow. Even in the thick summer heat she wore her usual widow's black. "They're waiting to see if you'll flee. Taking bets, I shouldn't wonder."
"Excellent." Dolley touched the coffee-pot's gay green-and-cream cheek with expert fingers, poured another half-cup for her friend while the brew was still warm. In spite of the grinding millstone of anxiety behind her breastbone, she made her voice light. "If enough people remain in the town to loiter about watching what I shall do, the British can't be all that near. When they flee --- " She nodded toward the windows, through which, beyond the ragged lawn and groves of half-grown poplar trees, could be seen the southern wall of the grounds topped with a frieze of boys and young men, " --- I shall know to worry."
A gunshot cracked the morning air and Dolley's hand jerked, giving the lie to her calm. The coffee-pot's foot caught the handle of her cup and sent the smaller vessel and its saucer somersaulting to the floor. In her cage beside the open window, Polly spread her gaudy wings and screamed appreciatively, "Merde alors!"
The hall door flew open and Paul came in, fifteen, slender, and very grave in his new duties as valet. "It's all right, ma'am," he said quickly, hurrying to the table as if it were a point of honor to clean up the mess before his mistress could stir from her chair. "Some of those white gentlemen outside the house got guns, and more than one been drinkin' by the sound of it. That's all it is."
He whipped the folded towel from its place on his shoulder and wiped the spilled coffee from the woven straw mat that was the parlor's summer flooring. "If it was the British, you'd be hearin' more than one shot, that's for sure. I get you a clean cup, ma'am."
"Don't trouble thyself, dear," said Dolley. "Mrs. Hallam and I are quite finished here, are we not, Sophie?"
As she gathered the newspapers she'd been perusing when Freeman the butler had announced Sophie, her eye touched again the printed columns:We feel assured that the number and bravery of our men will afford complete protection to the city . . . It is highly improbable that the enemy . . . would advance nearer to the capital . . .
"Will you flee?" Sophie asked abruptly.
Dolley turned to face her. Grilling sunlight already made the yellow parlor uncomfortably hot, and her light muslin gown --- fashionably "Greek" and mercifully appropriate for Washington City's swampy summer climate --- stuck to her thighs. The parlor windows, open to catch the slightest whisper of breeze, admitted no sound but the occasional uneasy mutter of voices beyond the trees and the wall.
Further than that, silence lay on the Federal City's marshy acres of woods and cow-pastures like fevered sleep.
"No," she answered quietly. "No, I am staying."
"To meet Admiral Cockburn? I'm sure he'll be flattered." Fifteen months ago, Cockburn's marines had sacked and burned the Maryland port of Havre de Grace. In addition to parading James Madison through the streets of London as a trophy, the Admiral had announced his intention to bring Dolley Madison --- the Presidentress, they called her, and foremost hostess of the upstart Republic --- to walk in fetters at her husband's side.
When Jemmy had come back late last night from a day in the saddle at the militia camp, he'd been so exhausted he could barely speak: A forced journey even under the mildest of conditions would surely kill him.
And she knew, from her own experience and that of a dozen of her acquaintance, how swiftly situations could deteriorate to violence, among armed men savage with victory.
"Not the admiral," she replied. "To meet Jemmy." She moved into the cavernous gloom of the Presidential Mansion's long central hall. "And the Generals of the militia, and the members of the Cabinet, will be coming here to dine --- "
"Don't tell me you believe that newspaper pap about how the British will turn north to Baltimore." Sophie strode to catch up. She did so easily --- she and Dolley had been the two tallest girls in Hanover County and had suffered together through nicknames like "maypole" and "giraffe." In her impatience she caught her friend's wrist halfway to the little stair that wound its way up to the bedrooms on the second floor; beside them, one of Mr. Jefferson's iron heating-stoves, coyly concealed behind a concrete vase, gave forth the ghostly whisper of last winter's ashes. Through the doorway of the great oval parlor, the full-length portrait of George Washington, like a grave king in black velvet, watched them with wise and weary eyes.
"The British are angry, Dolley, and quite rightly so. After those Massachusetts imbeciles burned the Canadian Parliament buildings in York last year, they'll not settle for sacking a lesser town."
"Dost thou know this?" Dolley's eyes searched her friend's.
If Sophie read anything into the tone of her voice she didn't show it by so much as the flicker of an eyelid. "I should be a fool if I didn't guess."
Dolley turned from her, and ascended the stair. And why should I think that Sophie should know? Because her father was a Loyalist? Because her family was ruined and driven out of this country, for adhering to the King?
Before he had left this morning, Jemmy himself had told her that the troops were far fewer than needed to resist invasion: twenty-five hundred from Baltimore when six thousand had been frantically requested; seven hundred from Virginia in place of the two thousand promised.
Sophie is my friend, and hath been so for forty years.
She would not betray me.
When they reached the upper hallway, Sophie's mobile eyebrows quirked again, for here, out of the sight of whoever might come to call, hastily filled trunks lined the corridor.
"As the Arabs say, Trust in Allah, but tie up thy camel," Dolley told her. "I spent yesterday packing all the Cabinet papers into the carriage. Sukey is like to shake me, for there isn't a cranny now in which to thrust so much as a rolled-up petticoat, and our gardener hath been out since dawn. He hath yet to find another cart or wagon for the rest of the State papers, and a valise of clothing. But whatever he doth find, I will not leave this house until Jemmy comes back."
"Do you really believe you can save him?"
"I believe I can be there to care for him, if he is . . ." Dolley's voice faltered at possibilities her mind wouldn't face.
No President of the country had ever taken the battlefield as President. Sickly and subject to seizures, migraines, and debilitating rheumatism, Jemmy had not been well enough to carry a gun against the British thirty-nine years before. Now, at sixty-three . . .
"I can be there for him if he is taken ill," she finished. "He is not strong."
"Neither apparently are the men who swore they'd guard this house." There was an edge of contempt in Sophie's retort. "Unless they've concealed themselves in the trees and I simply missed seeing them. You'll --- "
She bit off her words with instinctive caution as they entered the bedroom and Dolley's maid Sukey turned from the northeastern window, spyglass in hand. "No sign yet, ma'am." Still handsome, though now in her sixties, Sukey had been Dolley's first concrete intimation of the ongoing dilemma of marriage to a plantation-owner. Jemmy had presented her with the woman upon their marriage. As a Quaker born and bred, Dolley abhorred the idea of owning another woman. As a Virginia politician's wife, it was not a sentiment she could ever make publicly known.
"I thank thee, Sukey. Not even smoke?"
The maid shook her head. "Miz Jones's butler Lou says they got that bridge over Goose Creek heaped up with gunpowder an' brushwood, ready to burn if'n they's drove back."
"Provided they can find some brave soul to go back under musket-fire and light the fuse," Sophie commented. "They'd have done better to burn it first."
"I told Jemmy that as well," Dolley said. "General Armstrong hath it that to do so would impede our pursuit of them."
"I shall be sorry indeed to miss the spectacle of veterans who held their ground at Waterloo fleeing in panic before the Virginia militia," said Sophie drily. "Dolley, you should at least make room in the carriage for one trunk of clothing --- "
"I told her that, ma'am! We may not get a chance for clean clothes, 'twixt here an' Leesburg --- "
"We shall see," temporized Dolley, and inwardly flinched that the ultimate destination of Congress had been mentioned so casually. "I thank thee, Sukey." She handed the maid the newspapers, took the spyglass in her hand. "Dost think thou couldst get Freeman's son Danny to watch from the attic? 'Tis hot, I know, but 'tis a higher view --- "
"Roof'd be higher," said the maid, evidently unconcerned that Danny would fry like an egg on the roof. The butler's twelve-year-old son was no kin of hers.
After Sukey left Dolley said, "I would sooner make room for the things that the others left here, things that belong to the country." She turned to the window, as she had again and again since dawn. Focused the spyglass on the familiar gap in the hills where the Bladensburg road wound through toward the bridge over Goose Creek --- a meager stream which Congress had renamed, with no apparent sense of irony, the Tiber.
As Sukey had said, the sky to the east was clear and empty, like pale blue china. It would ring if I tapped it with my nail.
"Did they leave things?" Behind her, Sophie's voice was cool. "General Washington never spent a night beneath this roof, insofar as I know, and I was under the impression that everything Mr. Adams left, Mr. Jefferson had taken out with the trash."
"I don't mean them." Dolley lowered the glass, but stood still gazing through the window, to the hot clear stillness of the east. "I mean Lady Washington, and Mrs. Adams. I mean things a man would not think important, perhaps. Things that are part of what they were, of what we were. Insignificant things, meaningless as the dolls and ribbons and the cups we drank from as children. We need those, as much as papers and speeches, to remember where we came from, and who we were, if our hearts are to survive."
"I wouldn't know about that." The jeer in her friend's voice brought Dolley around with a stab of remorse at having spoken her thought. In her friend's chill eyes she saw the flames of a burning plantation-house, swarming with the shadows of looting patriot militia.
"Forgive me --- "
Sophie dismissed the images with a shrug, scornful even of her own pain. And yet, thought Dolley despite herself, the coldness in Sophie's face was to Dolley proof beyond words of the need for such dolls and ribbons and baby cups. Would she be different --- would her eyes be less hard --- had she had time to snatch up even one fragment of the vanishing world she had loved?
Or would her pain be only of a different kind?
Already Sophie was looking around her at the crimson silk bedroom with an appraising eye. "Did they leave things here? I don't imagine Lady Washington did . . ."
Dolley forced herself away from the window: Watching the road all the day shalt make him no safer . . . "The coffee-set was Lady Washington's."
"So it was." The triangular, thin-lipped mouth relaxed into a smile of genuine kindness. "I remember now. When I came back to this country eighteen years ago she served me coffee from it on my first visit to her. As mementos go, it's rather bulky. Did she keep the mirror, I wonder? The one the Queen of France sent her?"
"The Queen of France?" Movement on the road caught Dolley's eye and she swung the spyglass back, her heart in her throat. It couldn't be soldiers, couldn't be the British already, those deadly lines of marching men whose coats had flashed like blood among the brown Virginia woods . . .
It wasn't. Through the thin young trees and across the whitewashed railings on the unpaved track grandiosely named Pennsylvania Avenue, Dolley could see two carriages. Their roofs were heaped with roped parcels and their teams were laboring as if the vehicles were jammed with people and goods. Behind them, three men pushed laden wheelbarrows through the dust.
Her hands trembled as she turned back to meet Sophie's enigmatic gaze. She drew a deep breath, asked, "Marie Antoinette, Queen of France?"
"I don't imagine it was Marie de Medici. It was a hand-mirror, the kind they make for travelers' toiletry-sets --- it was originally part of one, you know. You've seen the sort of thing: brushes and combs, pins in a fancy box, night-light, candles, mirrors, sometimes nightcaps and a nightgown. This one was in gold, with blue enamel and diamonds, and the queen's portrait in miniature on the back, and the words --- "
"Liberté --- amitié," Dolley finished, a little breathless. "I know. Mrs. Washington gave it to me, almost the last time I saw her." Her throat tightened, remembering plump small competent hands in their lace mitts, the bright squirrel-brown eyes. How white her old friend's skin had seemed against the black of mourning.
"Did she indeed?" Sophie raised her brows. "I'm surprised she let it go again, after all the hands it passed through, to come to her. It was lost, you know, on its way to her. The War was still going on, and the ship the Queen sent it on was captured by British privateers."
"Martha said it had a story to it, that she'd tell me one day. But after that she was ill. And she never was the same, after the General died. I suppose she'd rather the mirror were saved, than the coffee-set. People were always sending General Washington gifts after the War --- I think the coffee-set came from one of the French generals --- but the mirror was special, she insisted." Dolley led the way toward the stairs again, trying to picture in her mind where she had seen that exquisite little looking-glass last. The curio cabinet in the yellow parlor? In among Mr. Jefferson's seashells and fossils on the glass-fronted shelves in the dining-room that had once been his office?
"The coffee-set was the one she used to serve all the members of that first Congress, after the General's inauguration as President," Dolley went on as they descended, into the heavy stillness of the great house. Would Martha have fled? she wondered.
She didn't think so.
"She told me she could scarcely stand to look at it. Had it not been a gift, she said, she would have taken it out into the yard and broken every piece of it to bits with a poker, and thrown them all down the privy."
“Good Lord, why?”
“Because of what befell her and her family, when her General became President.” The windows of the great dining-room --- formerly Jefferson’s office --- faced north onto Pennsylvania Avenue; even with the casements closed, she could hear the voice of the men before the house, the rattle of the carriage-traces and the creak of more wheelbarrows and handcarts being pushed along. A reminder of her peril. Like the Devil constantly whispering, Thou’It never see Jemmy again.
Would Marth have whispered, And serve him right?
As she opened the cabinet between the windows, swiftly scanned its contents, she went on softly, “Twas Jemmy who brought him --- them --- out of retirement, after the General swore to Martha and to all the nation no more to meddle in public affairs. It was the end, martha told me once, of her happiness, and her family’s. . .and of the General’s as well.”
Out on the Avenue a man detached himself from one of the knots of idlers watching the face of the house, stopped one of the barrow-men. There was a brief dumb-show, arms gesturing, hands pointing back to the gap in the hills, the Bladensburg road.
Dolley’s heart froze. Then the man turned and ran off up the Avenue. The barrow-pusher spat on his hands, picked up the handles of his load again. Two more men from the watching idlers raced away, toward their own homes, their own families, perhaps.
To gather their possessions and flee.
Excerpted from Patriot Hearts © Copyright 2012 by Barbara Hambly. Reprinted with permission by Bantam. All rights reserved.