Great Kanawaha, Ohio country, October 26, 1770
The tall mans horse started at the distant shot, and he curbed it firmly, his attention on the woods around him. The sun, far overhead, pierced the canopy of trees with beams that played in shifting patterns on the autumn mold of the forest floor. For a moment his thoughts were in another forest, and the sound of other shots rang in his ears. His horses uneasiness communicated itself to the rest of the horses in the party.
“Hunter?” The other white man stood in his stirrups, as if a few inches of height would improve his view of the woods.
The tall mans attention returned to the horses.
“Pompey, if you cant control that animal Ill have you walk.”
The black man so addressed wheeled his horse in a tight circle, murmuring all the while. His horse stopped fidgeting. The whole party grew still.
The second shot was farther away, the low thump of a musket.
“Crogan said wed find a hunting camp.” The tall man ran his eyes over the rest of his party and touched his heels to his horses flanks, moving off at a trot. He already seemed focused on a distant goal, but the other men, black and white, cast their eyes nervously on the woods around them as they moved off on the narrow track. He slowed his horse to a comfortable walk and flowed in next to the other white man.
“No point in hurry, Doctor. Well need Nicholson to talk to them.”
The doctor seemed oppressed by the shots, but if the tall man noticed it, he gave it no heed.
“You were speaking of the price of tobacco, Colonel.”
“So I was, Doctor. Probably dwelling on it more than is healthy. But if the price continues to fall, well all have to find another crop or see our sons debtors.”
“Youve planted wheat, sir?” Dr. Craik was always a little diffident with Washington, who was not just his friend but frequently his patron.
“Indeed. I dont grow tobacco except to cover expenses, but my tenants are old-fashioned men and need to see a thing done many times before theyll consider it. I am confident that the soil will support it. And the price is better, whether I sell it in the Indies or grind it myself.”
“It could make a difference, sure enough.”
“I doubt it. The Virginia gentry are too used to easy money from tobacco to settle for a hard living on wheat.”
“Perhaps the price will rise in time, sir.”
“Oh, it may. But there are bills due now. Ive had two bills refused in London, on very worthy men, at that. Gentlemen. They write bills to cover the cost of my smith and the like, you know. And those bills were refused. Very alarming.”
“Hose behin us, suh.”
“Thank you, Pompey. Good ears, as usual. That would be Nicholson,” the colonel said. “And I sold Tom. Did I tell you that?”
The two black men looked at each other, just for a moment, but neither white man remarked it.
“You said he was a problem.”
“That he was. Ironical, if you can believe it. And he tried to run. I wouldnt have it, so I sold him in the Indies. I asked Captain Gibson to get me another, good with animals. Well see what he brings.” The tall man stopped his horse and turned, one hand on its rump. A white man on a small horse was trotting up the trail, a rifle across his arm and the cape of his greatcoat turned up around his face against the chill.
“Are you sober, Nicholson?”
“Aye, Colonel. Sober as a judge.”
“Hear the shots?”
“Aye. Thatd be the Shawnee that Crogan was on about.”
“Lets go find them, then.”
Nicholson glared a moment, his narrow eyes stabbing from under heavy brows. Then he shook his head, touched his mount with his heels, and passed to the front.
O O O
Whatever his state of sobriety, Nicholson found the Shawnee camp so quickly that the conversation never seemed to rise again, beyond muttered comments about the beauty of the country. The party moved on at a trot until the hard-packed trail opened into a small clearing with several brush wigwams around its periphery. There was a strong smell of butchered meat and rot, overlaid with woodsmoke. Two native women were scraping a hide. An old man sat smoking. None showed any sign of alarm when the party rode in. The tall man dismounted and threw his reins to one of his blacks.
“Ask them if we can stay the night.” He inclined his head civilly to the two women, who laughed and smiled.
Nicholson didnt dismount. He nudged his horse forward, raised his right hand toward the old man, and spoke a long, musical sentence. The man drew on his pipe, blew a smoke ring, and nodded. Another shot sounded, quite close. The old man batted at a fly with a horsetail whisk and waved at the tall man, then spoke for a moment.
Nicholson turned to the tall man. “Says he knows you, Colonel Washington. Says youre welcome here.”
“Excellent. Dr. Craik, this is our inn for the night. Please dismount. Ill have Pompey and Jacka set up a tent.”
O O O
Pompey made coffee at one of the small native fires while Dr. Craik admired the skill of the women in cleaning the deer hides, a thoroughness his assistant back in Williamsburg would have done well to emulate.
“They learn as girls,” said Washington in a level tone.
“Use makes master, I suppose. Handsome wenches, too.”
“Oh, as to that . . .” Washington looked off into the middle distance and took a cup of coffee from Pompey without glancing at the man. “Beautiful country. Look at this clearing. Trees that big come out of the best soil.”
“And the savages have little idea what to do with it.”
“They grow corn well enough. Better than some of my tenants, if the truth were known.”
“I had no idea.”
“Not so savage, when it comes to farming. Of course, the women do it. Men mostly hunt and fight.” He sipped his coffee appreciatively. The old man was still smoking, looking at him from time to time but otherwise off in his own thoughts. Washington couldnt place him, although he had a good memory for men he had known during the wars.
Between one thought and the next, the clearing began to fill with native men, all younger and most carrying guns. Others carried deer carcasses on poles or dragged them by the legs. Nicholson, his back against a tree and a bottle in his hand, called a greeting, and two men walked over to him. One took a drink from his bottle when it was offered, and they had a short exchange. The old man merely waved the flywhisk several times and the deer began to be sorted out.
“That fellow is a black!” Dr. Craik was pointing at a tall man in red wool leggings.
“Yes, Doctor. So he is. Probably started as a captive.” Washington nodded civilly at the warrior so indicated, who inclined his head a dignified fraction in return.
“We didnt see blacks among the Shawnee during the wars.”
Washingtons thoughts were elsewhere, and he didnt reply.
O O O
The deer were being butchered. Hearts and livers were set on bark trenchers, intestines set aside, and haunches separated even as they watched. The older women moved from carcass to carcass providing advice while the younger women did all the work and got coated in the blood and ordure. The whole process seemed to take no time at all. Dr. Craik had never seen the like and watched, fascinated. The other two white men seemed oblivious to the spectacle, the tall one standing with his coffee, the small one sitting by him with his rum. Some of the native men were sitting with Nicholson; the older men had gathered in a knot around the smoker, who was now passing his pipe. None showed any curiosity about the strangers.
Pompey walked up behind his master and took the empty horn cup.
“Dat be trouble, suh.” He inclined his head, the slightest gesture toward their tent.
One of the younger women had a white ruffled shirt on. It was clean and probably out of their equipment. Other women were laughing at her. They were also stealing glances at Dr. Craik. Craik remained oblivious for a moment, and then his thin face grew mottled with red.
“Doctor.” The tall man put a restraining hand on his shoulder.
“That woman has my shirt on!”
“Pay her no attention, Doctor.”
“Ill have my shirt back.”
“You may take one of mine. We are in their country, and they are testing us. Think of it as the price of dinner. Resent the next theft, but not the first.”
Nicholson nodded curtly and called something across the camp. One of the older women roared. The others looked uneasy.
None of the men had stirred, but their attention seemed to focus on the whites for the first time. It made Dr. Craik feel uneasy. There was menace to it, an alien scrutiny from beyond his world of manner and custom.
“She looks a damn sight better in that shirt than you, Doctor.” Nicholson settled himself back against his tree and set to getting a spark on to some charcloth for his pipe.
Craik took a deep breath and made himself smile. “She does, the vixen. Even with shirts at six shillings apiece and not to be bought in this country.”
Nicholson was busy pulling at his pipe, clay turned black with use. He had laid his tiny scrap of lit char atop the bowl and was drawing the coal down into the tobacco. He was so fast with his flint and steel that Craik had missed the spark. When it was alight, he puffed for a moment, looking hard at Craik from under his unkempt eyebrows.
“Look at yon, Doctor. The men dont show what they think, and nor should you. Angry or happy, keep your thoughts to yourself. Now, when theyre in drink, mind, then its the strongest to the fore and deil take the hindmost.”
“He seems easy with them.”
“Oh, aye. Well, he doesna give much away, our colonel. And he stands tall. But mostly hes a name to them. The chief there, he marked him soon as we rode in, an that counts for something.”
“Its like another country.”
“It is another country, Doctor. This is the wilderness. He knows, and I know. Even Pompey knows. You were here in the war?”
“With the Provincials.”
“Well, now youre with the savages. Best learn to please em.” The man laughed.
Craik wanted to resent his tone, but the advice was kindly given, even from a low Scots Borderer with rum on his breath and an old plum greatcoat, and the tension seeped out of his shoulders.
“Thats right, Doctor. Dinna fash yersel. Dram?”
O O O
Before night fell, the camp took on new life and new smells as the best of the deer went on to the fires. The men made a circle on the grass, some on blankets or robes, some already sprawled from the effects of Nicholsons rum. The women cooked and moved about, a separate community from the men, still at work while the men took their ease. Craik was handed a large mound of meat on a bark platter by the girl wearing his shirt, and he smiled at her, but she didnt meet his eyes. He wondered for a moment what he looked like to her, or to any of them. Handsome? Ugly? The shirt already had a line of black across one shoulder and a red handprint on the back.
He took out his traveling case and unfolded his fork before cutting the meat. One of Washingtons blacks handed round a horn with salt and pepper. The savages just sat and ate, men with men, women off to one side.
Washington spoke into the stillness and the sound of many jaws working. “Ask him from where he knows me, Mr. Nicholson.”
Nicholson spoke without slowing his meal. The old man put his pipe down on his robe and leaned forward a little, his whole attention on Washington.
“He says he nearly took you at the Monongahela.”
“Tell him I was too young to know one warrior from another.”
“He says you were guarded from his gun, and hopes you have a great future.”
“Ask him to tell it.”
The old man spoke for a moment, his right hand moving as if pointing at invisible things. Washington, too, looked at the invisible things. For the second time in a day, he thought of that bitter hour. All around them, the younger warriors stirred and settled themselves, even the drunk ones craning their heads to listen. The old man started, a singsong quality to his narration, as if the beginning had been related many times, which it had. Nicholson picked it up almost immediately, listening and speaking with conviction, mere words behind his host. It was quite a feat, only the occasional occurrence of Scots Border brogue interrupting the impression that the old man was speaking the English himself.
“I was with the French captain at the first discharge, and he fell. We fired back at the high-hats and killed many, and they broke. Then we spread to the woods on either side of the trail. I killed four men in as many shots. Then I moved again, farther off the trail. Many warriors followed me. We fired and ran, fired and ran, trying to circle to the back. For many minutes, I didnt know who was taking the worst of it.”
Washington held up his hand for a moment. “Did you go to the left of the trail or the right?”
Nicholson cocked his head to listen to the old man, then nodded.
“We went up the hill, he says. He thinks that answers you.” Washington nodded.
“After some time we found a little hill with thick trees and we stayed there, firing into the men below us. That was the first time I shot at you. You were on a fine horse. I shot at you and hit the horse.”
“I remember that.” Washington looked into the fire. The battle was not yet a disaster. The grenadiers of the Forty-fourth, the only veterans in the regiment, had formed at the base of that deadly little hill. They kept up a hot fire, and Washingtons Virginians had started to gather on their flanks, staying behind trees but shooting steadily. Some of the raw battalion men of the Forty-fourth had begun to rally from their initial panic. Washington had just asked the grenadier captain to take the hill when his horse went down.
Nicholson paused in his translation to drink, but Washington was still there, kicking his feet free of the stirrups and sliding over the crupper, his boot pulls caught in the buckles of his saddlebag. By the time he was on his feet, the young captain had his jaw shot away, a third of the grenadiers were down, and they were past saving, the recruits and the Virginians with them.
It marked the bitterest moment of his life. The moment in which he knew that they were beaten, that the whole expedition, the empire, the army, the foundations of the world, were undone.
Nicholson wiped his mouth and went on.
“You disappeared when the high-hats ran. I followed you. There was nothing to stop us—most of the English had stopped shooting. The next time I saw you, you were with the big general. He was struggling with his horse. I think it was hit. I tried for you again. Perhaps I hit the general. It is possible. He fell. You caught him. You and others carried him off and I couldnt follow in the press.”
“I thought Id lost you. Then, right at the end, there you were, all alone, sitting on another tall horse.”
Washington looked back into the fire. It was not a moment he liked to dwell on. He had ridden back into the rout and perhaps he had hoped to be killed. He couldnt remember that part with any clarity, but it came to him some nights, when there were bills due in England or a crop failed.
“My musket was empty, and I started loading it. You yelled at some men running by, but you didnt move. That is when it came to me that you had a spirit and it was not your day to die, and I thought, I will take him for my own, and his spirit will join my clans. Others fired at you. I saw you pull a long pistol and shoot it somewhere else, and I was just ramming my ball home. I pulled the rammer clear and threw it down to get a faster shot, and I began to run toward you. You just sat. You never saw me. When I was almost close enough to touch you, as close as I am now, a boy came at me out of the brush. He spooked your horse. And I hit him with my club, but you were moving away. Indeed, I took him. Since I already had my captive, I thought I would kill you. I looked down the barrel and pulled the trigger, and the pan flashed, and no shot came, and still you rode. Then I looked down at the lock, as one does . . . you know?”
Washington nodded, a brother in the fraternity of men frustrated by the vagaries of flintlocks.
“When I had the priming back in, you were gone.”
The old man was done before Nicholson, and he looked at Washington and smiled. He pointed to a young man in an old French coat. “It happens often to Gray Coat here when he hunts deer, but not to me.”
Most of the warriors laughed, although the one man looked sour.
“I should have ignored the boy, although he made a good slave for a while. My mother adopted him, and he was with us until the Pennsylvania men made us send him away.”
Washington smiled, but he had rather the look of Gray Coat the moment before.
The old man raised his hand and smiled a feral smile. “I should have killed him and taken you. I still wonder what kind of a slave you would have made.”
Mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, November 6, 1773
“You clap on to that line and haul, laddie. Thats it. Handsomely now, you lot. Pull. Pull, you black bastards. Belay there, King. Right.” High overhead the newly fished spar rose into the dawn light and was seated home against the mast. The black men on the deck hauled and sweated, but the sailors sweated just as hard.
The squall had hit them inside the capes, laying the vessel on her beam-ends, stripping off every scrap of sail and cracking the fore-topsail yard. The sailor called King, a free black, had cut the broken yard away from the rigging it threatened to shred, standing on the canted deck with the ropes ends pounding him like a dozen fiendish whips.
The ships master, Gibson, had shipped a small cargo of West Indies blacks to augment the rum and molasses in the hold. They were skilled men: two bricklayers, a carpenter, a huntsman, and a gunsmith, all likely to fetch first-rate prices among the Virginia gentry. In the meantime, they could haul ropes in an emergency.
High above them, King waved at the captain and leaned out, grabbing a stay and sliding for the deck. Something King saw at the last moment of his slide halted him, and he ran his eyes over the group standing in the waist of the ship, still holding the line that had raised the yard. One young man had scars over his eyes, hard ridges that told a story, if the watcher knew what to read. King wandered over, acknowledging the praise of his shipmates and some good-natured abuse. He turned to the man with the scars, a wave of homesickness hitting his breast and slowing his breath. “Hello, cousin.”
The mans eyes widened for a moment, then his white teeth flashed in an enormous smile. “Greetings, older cousin.”
The man looked young, young to have left home with the scars of a warrior and already have a skill worth selling in America. His face was not yet hard or closed as the slaves too often were. “I honor your courage in the storm, older cousin.”
Nicely phrased. King smiled himself but turned away, headed for his hammock. It didnt do to associate too much with slaves, at least where white men could see you. It gave them ideas.
O O O
King returned topside at the changing of the watch, to see the familiar low Virginia shore clear to the southwest. The Chesapeake had become confused in his memories with Africa, where great rivers ran deep into the woods, and he thought of Virginia as home, the place where he had a wife and a family. He stood by the heads watching the shore for a moment and then moved into the waist. The sails were set and, barring a disaster, wouldnt need to be touched until the turn of the tide. Until a crisis came, sailoring was an easy life, and King liked a crisis here and there. They made good stories.
The young one with scars was watching him from the group of slaves at the base of the mainmast. It was a polite regard: The youth didnt stare, but simply glanced his way from time to time, as if inviting him to speak. King settled into the shade of the sail with the other crew on deck and accepted a draw from another mans pipe. There were sailors who wouldnt smoke with a black man, but not many around King. Gibson preferred English sailors to Americans. King had noticed that Englishmen seemed easier with blacks. It didnt stand to reason.
“You gonna jabber some more o that black cant, King?” asked Jones, the mate.
“I might, then.” King looked at Jones, who was smaller but loved to fight.
“Now then, King, boyo, dont you glare at me. Im all for your talkin any lingo you like. Its just funny to hear from you, thats all Im saying.” Jones was from a part of Britain called Wales, where they seemed to sing instead of talk. King was on the edge of a retort about Jones and talk, but he smiled to himself and let it pass. Instead he motioned to the scarred youngster, who rose from his squatting position against the mast in one fluid, athletic movement and walked across the deck to the sailors.
“Speak the Kings English, boy?”
“The better you speak it, the better you will be treated. You have a name, then?”
“Cese. Cese Mwakale. My father commands a thousand warriors—”
“Not here, he doesnt. What were you called in Jamaica?”
King nodded. He knew a dozen Caesars in Williamsburg. “How long ago were you taken?”
“Four years, older cousin. You?”
“Twenty-five years, young one. But I was a fool, and walked to their landings to see the world. Who was king when you left?”
“King of Benin, sir? Or of my province?”
“Benin will do.”
“Callinauw was king when I last heard, sir.”
“And where do you hail from?”
“Eboe, in Esaka. My father commanded the regiment there.”
King nodded curtly. It took him back to hear the words, to know that a man he had hated once was lording it in Benin, but it all sounded very far away. He smiled at the young man and held out the other sailors pipe.
The lad seized the pipe greedily and sucked a great draft into his lungs. Jones watched in amazement as the inward breath went on and on. Cese held the breath for a moment and returned the pipe with more gravity than he had taken it.
Jones looked into the bottom of the pipe bowl and mimed using a glass. “Tobacco is cheap in Virginny, but not that cheap, Blackie.”
“Call him Cese.” King smiled at the boy. “How were you taken?”
“My fathers regiment was away in the north. You know of the Northern War?”
“I had heard. It was a small trouble in my youth.”
“It is a great war now. So many young men are away that kidnappers, criminals, can steal children and young people from their homes; larger towns have militias of old men and women.”
“And the king tolerates this?”
“The king fears Muslims more than he cares for us. Listen, then. I was at the camp with the youngest men, those unblooded, just training. We were drilling with spears when the shots were fired, and our officers led us straight out after the raiders. The old men and women turned out with swords and shields, but the raiders shot them down with muskets.”
“Where were your own muskets? We had hundreds in my youth.”
“All our muskets were away with the regiment. Nor had we ever fought against men armed as our men were. So we charged them, like fools. In moments they were all around us, in the brush on our flanks. Some of us were shot, and some stopped charging and ran. When I saw that, I knew we were done. I determined to die, and charged on. My spear bit deep into one, and then I was clubbed down. When I awoke, I was a slave.”
“You killed one. Thats good.”
“I paid. Perhaps Im still paying. Some of the men who were taken were ransomed later, but I was not. I think my father took another wife. I do not know.” He crossed his arms to indicate that this was not a topic he wished to discuss. “Now I am here. Tell me about Virginny.”
“What yo skill, Caesar?”
“Be a huntah, suh.”
“Hunter. Was your father of the Embrenake?”
“And werent such men distinguished by their speech? So it is here. Say hunter.”
“Hunt-ar.” The other slaves had edged closer. As the foreign speech was replaced by English, they gathered courage to join in.
“You goin to Jamaica again, then, Mista King?” asked one, a bricklayer.
“Yaas. I go twice a year, weather allowing. Mostly I sail wi Mr. Gibson.”
“You carry a message to my woman?”
“Ifn you give me a good idea where to find her. I don go too close to some plantations. I been a slave twice an I don mean to go that way gain. Won sail again till spring.”
Others asked for messages carried, or verbal messages, which King refused. He told them where to find a Quaker clerk in Williamsburg who would write out short messages for slaves, if asked nicely. Cese watched him eagerly, his head cocked a little to one side like a smart puppy awaiting instruction. King began to pass along whatever came to his mind, but they had questions of their own.
“Mista King, you know who we go be wokin fo?”
“I expect you be wokin fo Mr. Washington, ifn you be on his boat.”
“What he like?”
“They betta, an they worse. He be fair, and that somethin.”
“He fair? Do he let usns buy freedom?”
“How bout marriage? Do he abide black folks as marry?”
“Is it true that Christian folk cant be slaves in Virginny?”
They were clamoring now, and their different accents were hard for him to understand. He shook his head at them. West Indian slaves were the most ignorant; they were kept in pens and didnt get to hear much news.
“No. Many Christian folk is slaves.”
“Is you free if you gets to England?”
“So I hear. I been there, and I aint seen no slaves.” It was common knowledge that a man was free if he could reach England. Sometimes a man could get free by enlisting in the Royal Navy, too. King had bought his freedom the first time, saving pennies from his fishing to buy his way free. The second time, hed taken one beating too many and run, joined a navy ship hungry for men, thin on the decks from the yellow jack in the Indies and with a hard first officer not liable to ask a man questions.
He looked back at the boy. “You wan be free, Cese?”
“I will be free, Mista King.”
“You take care, now. Mr. Washington, he sell black boys wha try to run.”
Cese nodded. He looked out at the shore for a moment. “Maybe I go England.”
“Go to England, Cese. Maybe so. You know who Somerset was?”
“He was a black man like you. He run from his master in England. Got caught, got beat, got a white man to take him to court. He won. No slavery in England now.”
Cese had heard a little of the story, but not so plain, always told elliptically so that an overseer wouldnt understand. He thought it remarkable that a black man had got into a court at all, much less that his case should be heard. In the Indies, a slave couldnt even give evidence, a fact of life that every slave knew all too well.
“Maybe I go to England,” he repeated.
“You take care, boy.”
King nodded to Jones and they stood, Jones carefully wrapping twine around his pipe and putting it into a fitted tin. Before the mate could call them aloft, they were standing at the base of the mainmast, ready for the last tack into the bay, the boy and the other slaves forgotten.
Cese watched the shore and thought about the raid and his last moments as a free man. He thought about it often, but now he tried to think about what England must be like, a land where men became free just by touching the ground, or so he had been told. He tried to imagine how to get to England, but he couldnt see it. What he could see in his minds eye was the musket butt coming under his shield, into his hip and groin, the point of his spear going into the other mans innards, his hand turning the blade as he had been taught. One kill. It didnt seem like much of a tally against a life of servitude, and sometimes he wondered if he should just have died when he went down. And he thought about his father, a war captain of renown. He had probably taken another wife and forgotten Cese. Cese shook his head to send the memories away. He seldom thought of his father.
He looked at the coastline, nearer now, and decided to do the very best he could. Other slaves said Virginny was different from the Indies, the whites better, the living easier, and fewer folk died. Perhaps he could win his freedom.
“Hunt-ar.” He savored the word. “Eng-land.”
Williamsburg, Virginia, March 4, 1773
She meant trouble, that was plain. Marthas eyes sparkled as they always did when she had mischief on her mind, but her voice seemed serious when she asked him to explain the days events. Of the men in the room, only Washington understood his wifes message: They had already talked politics enough. Young Henry Lee, just graduated from Princeton, did not hear the irony in her voice or catch her meaning, and he leapt to ex- plain with a simplicity that damned him as a patronizing animal to every woman present.
“It is not a complicated matter, maam.” Wiser heads turned to watch the man charge to his doom; his implication that she might be unequal to a more complicated matter lost him the support of the crowd.
“Im sure youll make it all plain to me, Mr. Lee.”
“Indeed, maam. We have settled on choosing a committee of eleven men to obtain the most early and authentic intelligence of all such acts and resolutions of the British Parliament, or proceedings of administrations, as may relate to, or affect, the British Colonies in America . . .”
“So you intend to form a Committee of Correspondence, as Massachusetts has?” Martha smiled at the younger man. She was quite short, but her immense dignity and the memory of her beauty, as well as her reputation, gave her a presence that only a few of the men could match, and Lee was not one of them.
“. . . to keep up and maintain a correspondence and communication with our sister colonies.”
“Mr. Lee, I believe you are repeating a speech that most of my guests have already heard.” Martha Washington said “Mistah” with the mans name, and the drawl lengthened a bit each time she said it. “It certainly sounds like you have chosen a Committee of Correspondence.”
Lee looked at her as if he had just perceived that she was mocking him. “I was endeavoring to explain, maam.”
“I think you were making a speech, sir. And what I wish to understand is, why? Why must we join a league with the good wives of New England? Why have you censured our governor for bringing to justice a counterfeiter whose work threatened every person of account in this colony? Why this incessant attack on Parliament?”
“Surely, maam, your husband has explained . . .” He looked about him with the assurance of a man of twenty, expecting allies against the assault of one small middle-aged woman, but he saw only stony stares, and this stung him. His opinion of women was not very high, but his standard of rhetoric had much to recommend it, and he felt sure he could defeat her, if only he chose the right arguments.
“That the counterfeiter needed to be brought to book no one here contends, maam. But the governor used methods that the House of Burgesses cannot condone without it impugning our stand on a larger issue, to wit, whether Americans can be taken out of our continent to England to be tried. This counterfeiter was in Pittsylvania County. The court there was competent to execute justice on him, but our governor chose to send a special sheriff and bring him to Williamsburg to justice.”
“And now he can no longer pass counterfeit five-pound notes that cause my steward to suspend business.” Martha smiled at him again, a happy smile that made it difficult for him to believe that he was being led to slaughter.
“But the legality places us awkwardly, maam. If the governor can write a warrant to take a man from his county to Williamsburg for trial, then the Admiralty in London can write a warrant for a smuggler to be taken from Boston to London for trial.”
“What of it? Are we not all English? Or is it your meaning that Americans will give their own a ‘fairer trial? Perhaps the smuggler will never be found guilty in Boston, Mr. Lee? Because if thats your meaning, I cant help but think that my steward is happier that this counterfeiter did not get a ‘fairer trial among his friends in Pittsylvania.”
Lee looked like a man who had just discovered a deep pit yawning at his feet. Arguments against the tyranny of the Crown were so popular in Virginia that he was not really ready to argue cases; he generally expected approbation in reply to any reasonable assault on the government. Martha Washington, however, was of far too much consequence to ignore, and it struck him, then, that he could forfeit his standing either by offending her, as one of the richest landowners in the colony, or by losing the debate, which would not increase his stature with the House of Burgesses, to which her husband belonged, and to which he aspired.
Lee felt doubly ambushed in that Washington himself rarely spoke in the House and was firmly a friend of liberty. It seemed astonishing that he should allow his wife to make such statements. He turned and looked at the tall colonel, who nodded gravely at him. He was actually expected to debate with her. Very well, then.
“Are you familiar, maam, with the Gaspee incident?”
“Perhaps you will help me understand it, Mr. Lee.”
If he heard the warning in her voice, he ignored it.
“In June of last year, a British armed cutter of that name, engaged in the suppression of the smuggling trade, ran herself aground in Narragansett Bay. A group of men boarded the cutter and burned her. An Admiralty court of inquiry was given jurisdiction over the case and is understood to believe it has the right to send Americans to England for trial.”
“And this would be harmful because . . .” She drawled the last word as she had drawled his name, a deliberate provocation.
“They would never receive a fair trial in England! And an attack on the rights and privileges of any one colony are an attack on them all!” His voice was powerful, and declaimed well. The words were Jeffersons, but he said them with complete conviction.
“But . . .” She smiled again, that happy smile that seemed to deny any possibility of open conflict. “But, Mr. Lee, those men actually did burn that ship, did they not?”
The laughter was pained. Lee had the sympathy of the entire audience, many of whom had also labored under delusions about Marthas native intelligence at one time or another. Washington simply looked absent, as if he refused to be a witness at another execution.
“The burning of the ship is not the issue,” Lee began, but she closed her fan with a snap that distracted him, and she stepped up close for the final assault.
“No, sir, it is not the issue, and you do the friends of liberty no service to pretend it is. The issue is that we smuggle because Great Britain chokes our own trade and wont let us carry our own cargoes. That is the issue. And that they try to tax us beyond our ability to bear in prosperity, to pay her debts and ours from the Great War. That too is the issue. These are the issues, in trade, that will drive us to separate—that and the arrogance of our motherland, whose representative said at my own table that we are a race of cowards who could not stop five hundred of them from marching across our whole continent. That is the other issue. It is on these—trade, taxation, and the force of arms—that our arguments will rest. But not on the actions of law, or Dunmores taking of a counterfeiter.”
There was, quite spontaneously, a small round of applause, and Lees training as a gentleman triumphed over his youth. He not only avoided showing resentment, but smiled and bowed deeply. “I hope you are always as passionately devoted to our cause as you are now, maam. You would be a devilish opponent in the House, and were lucky your husband does not speak more often, if he has trained you to this pitch of argument.”
Washington laughed aloud, a single bark that was completely different from his usual closed-mouthed laugh.
“Trained her? Trained her?” He barked again. “Perhaps, Mr. Lee, you now have a taste of why Im so often silent.”
From the Hardcover edition.