Like the other segments of novels that I post this work hasn’t been revisized or edited to any degree. In other words, it still needs work. I’ve noticed, even long after the event, that I have a real ttachment to the characters and scenes. This is also a favorite title of mine. So, all you other writers of historical fiction (or writing in general), I hope you enjoy this excerpt.
A light floated out the darkness, like a spirit seeking shelter from the cold, driving rain. It was a welcome sight for Thomas Teague. He had ridden only five miles from his house near Georgetown but the rain had soaked his clothing, and he felt the chill gradually ease its icy fingers into his soul. He hated being cold. He had endured it in the army, stoically because it was expected that an officer should never complain, but he despised the cold more than any privation he had endured. He thought once, what it be like to lie in a cold grave with nothing but darkness surrounding you?
He wiped the rain from his face and noticed the faint lights of the ExecutiveMansion shimmering through its windows, and felt relief that he would soon be dry and warm.
“Up ahead, sir,” Jacob said.
Teague nodded. Jacob wasn’t his, he belonged to his wife, or rather to her father, the Colonel. The title was honorary, dispensed by a grateful nation to a successful financier and merchant who had made funds available to a struggling government during the war. Colonel Ledger had supported the Continental Congress and its fledging military, not out of any deep patriotic beliefs, but because it was good business. He had reminded Teague of that as they sat sharing brandy before a roaring in the Colonel’s Georgetown house. “One must,” the Colonel announced—every one of his statements seemed to be important announcements—“view each aspect of a situation with candor. I saw that this newly formed nation, or one, that was in fact, forming, might present opportunities to intelligent and ambitious men.” He dipped a bit of snuff, trapping a pinch between his pudgy thumb and forefinger before inserting in a nostril. They were alone in the library, where, Teague knew, the Colonel was gauging the qualities of his new son-in-law. The Colonel had five daughters and Teague had married the third of the five girls—Prudence. Now they lived in one of five houses that the Colonel had built for his daughters. The Five Sisters, al fine, big houses along a quiet Georgetown street. Possessions of the Colonel, as were his daughters, as were his son-in-laws.
“Let me take your horse, sir,” a slave said.
Teague saw the white of the man’s eyes, and the sheen of the lantern light off his wet face.
“Come inside, sir,” the slave with the lantern said. He was far better dressed that the slave who took Teague’s horse. A house servant.
Teague stepped down and handed the reigns to the slave. “Go with them,” he ordered Jacob. “See to the horses.” He followed the servant up the steps and in through the open door, not bothering to acknowledge the bows of the doormen. He began shivering but tried to control his trembling as the servants removed his heavy cloak, soaked with rain, and took his hat. A warm towel appeared and he took it gratefully, trying to wipe the miserable night from his face. A dry blanket was thrown over his shoulders and a smile of gratitude escaped him.
“This way, sir.”
He followed the servant down the dark hallway, the gloom periodically broken with candelabra’s strategically placed on sideboards. The wooden floor creaked heavily as he walked and he noticed that the house, despite being new, had a shabby, worn look about it. Nothing in this new city looked permanent, Teague thought. The few brick buildings were greatly outnumbered by frame structures and the streets, designated avenues by WashingtonCity’s optimistic inhabitants for their width, were nothing more than muddle lanes, crisscrossed by culverts.
The servant stopped, knocked politely on a door, and opened it, standing aside for Teague to pass. Teague handed the blanket to the man and went in.
There were three men in the room but what Teague noticed first was the sound of dripping water. Scattered around the room were wooden buckets and tubs, situated to catch steady streams of water that looked like silver treads in the candlelight.
“Major Teague,” Secretary of War Knox said, advancing.
“Mister,” Teague corrected him. “I have resigned my commission sometime ago, Your Honor.”
“You say that with regret,” Secretary of State James Madison said, from across the room. His diminutive frame was almost lost in the scant shadows of the candles. His voice was sharp and somehow, accusatory. “Is that so, Mr. Teague? If you could, would you withdraw your resignation?”
“No, sir,” Teague said. He recognized Madison as a small man who could be a bully if given the opportunity. He was like a small dog with a mighty bark.
“Have you met his excellency?” Knox said, steering Teague to a large desk near a set of windows. “President Jefferson.”
Jefferson, standing behind the deck, was obviously fascinated with something on the floor. He glanced up, his red hair long, sweeping away from his head. He was tall and strangely pale. Teague was shocked to see that he wore a dressing gown and carpet slippers.
“Three quarts in less than thirty minutes,” Jefferson said picking up a call bell and ringing it sharply. He studied a dark spot on the ceiling. Fat drops of water released themselves from the crumbling plaster and plopped in the bucket at his feet. “Poor construction. Criminal. Someone, some builder has taken advantage of the government. What a miserable house. Look at this.” His long arm swept the room. “Thirteen leaks.”
A servant knock softly at the door, entered, replaced the full bucket with an empty one, and left.
Jefferson walked to the fireplace and settled in to the warmth of the fire. Teague envied him—he was still cold. He wished that some one would have the grace to offer him tea. He imagined the warmth of the hot liquid flowing through his body. But the three men in the room seemed intent on something else.
“Mr. Teague,” Knox said. “May I ask why you resigned your commission? I mean to say; a bright young officer, well-known I might add, from an illustrious military family.”
For love, should I say, Teague thought? Because my beloved father would not have a soldier whose prospects of a decent salary were non-existent, in his family. “See here, Teague,” the Colonel had said grandly but just enough sincerity to leaven the question. “You don’t think that I expect my daughter to want for anything, do you?” He was right; a major’s pay could barely support a major, let alone the major’s family. “Come to work for me,” had followed, and what followed that was an expectant smile.
“I felt the opportunities afforded me in the army,” Teague said, “were limited.”
“With such an explanation,” Madison said, easing out of the shadows, “you might well consider politics as a possible career.”
Teague said nothing. He glanced at Jefferson. The president appeared to be studying the carpet at his feet.
“Mr. Teague,” Knox said. “I knew your father quite well, and I am aware of your service to the country. Had you remained in the army I sure that you would have risen to a superior rank. It is for those reasons, and others that I shall make know, that I have asked you here tonight. We would like you to serve as an agent for the president.”
“A confidential agent,” Jefferson said.
“What you must understand,” Madison said, more, Teague suspected, because he did not want to be left out of the discussion, than for any other reason. “Is that anything discussed in this room is not to pass beyond those doors.”
“I understand what the word ‘confidential’ means, sir,” Teague said tersely.
“Let us not lose sight of the issue at hand,” Jefferson said, rubbing his hands together to warm them. “The nation is in a critical state, Mr. Teague. She is, in her present condition,” he glanced at the ceiling, “rather like this house. We have received word of a force being gathered in the west of Tennessee. A band, or company if you wish, of individuals.”
“Rebels,” Madison spat.
Jefferson smiled grimly. “There was a time, not so very long ago, when one would wear that title with pride. The truth is, Mr. Teague, is that we do not know the intention of this group. Oh, there are rumors. Talk about invading the Spanish west, or striking toward Canada. Rumors only and absolutely nothing of substance. One finds it hard to act on unfounded rumors, unless that action is to gather intelligence about the veracity of those rumors.”
“To put it plainly,” Knox said, obviously feeling the need to rescue the moment from the edge of obscurity. “We would like you to go to Tennessee and ascertain the intensions of this company. Devine their nature and goals.”
“Join them if you like,” Madison said. “In fact you may find that the appropriate way to gather intelligence.”
Teague looked from Madison to Jefferson. The president’s interest was back to the array of buckets. “Is there no one closer to Tennessee? Some, officer or other gentleman?”
“It is expedient,” Madison said. “To dispatch someone from here. Verbal instructions you understand.”
“You can travel to Baltimore via coach,” Knox said. “Board a packet to New Orleans, travel up the Mississippi, and thence overland to Nashville.”
“Arrangements have been made for such a journey,” Madison added, “in anticipation of your acceptance of our proposal.”
“The reward,” Knox said quickly, “is a colonelcy in the regular army.”
“And the profound thanks of your nation,” Madison tacked on hurriedly.
“We must be assured of your confidence,” Jefferson said. “And a constant stream of communication. It is imperative that we understand the nature and purpose of this company.”
Teague studied the three men in the room, one after another, looking for some hint of the true nature of the proposition. They were being much too smooth, as if the trap had been carefully considered and laid with expertise. The whole thing felt hollow to Thomas Teague, distasteful.
“Your father-in-law is a patriot and merchant,” Madison said. “Tell him that your government has sent you on a diplomatic mission to discuss matters of commerce with the Spanish in New Orleans. That should more than satisfy the Colonel’s interest in your whereabouts.”
“I take it,” Knox said hopefully, “that you accept our proposition?”
Accept it? Teague thought. It was a lifeline. He was drowning in bills-of-lading, account books, and invoices. He faced rank and file of numbers everyday, and regiments of clerks who scurried about like mice across a kitchen floor. Every supper was a command performance before the Colonel and after the women were dispatched from the library, Teague and the two other sons-in-law listened dutifully to the Colonel’s pronouncements on business, politics, diplomacy, and human nature in general. And when he attempted to find solace in Prudence’s arms, he received instead denial tinged with the mildest form of reproach. Accept it? To refuse the offer was to wither away within the shadow of the twin peaks of revenue and loss, with a ledger for a tombstone. But, there was Faith to consider, that and his promise to Abigail.
“No, sir,” Teague said. “I am forced to decline.”
“Decline?” Henry Knox said, startled. “But I thought that I, that the nation could count on you? I was led to believe…”
Madison cut him off, moving in quickly. “I’m not sure that you fully understand the critical nature of our request. You must see that more is at stake than your comfort, or you personal desires.”
“What is at stake,” Teague said, “is my concern.” The image of his daughter appeared. He would not abandon her as he had been abandoned.
“Splendid,” Knox said. Madison offered nothing more than a slim, cold smile. He glanced at the president for direction. Jefferson nodded. “We have wagered on a horse that would not run. I was certain that you would rise to the call of liberty, like your father before you. Like the Colonel. I see that we were mistaken. Thank you, sir.”
“One moment, Major Teague,” Knox said hopefully. “Is there no enticement by which we can secure your support? No way to reverse you decision?”
“No, gentlemen,” Teague said. “Nothing that you say will induce me to change my mind. If I have your leave?”
“By all means,” Jefferson said, sliding his hands into his housecoat. “Give my regards to the Colonel.”
Teague bowed and left the room.
“Overton,” Madison said in disgust. “The man’s a criminal. A reprobate.”
“We don’t know it’s him,” Jefferson said. “We know nothing of certain about this Tennessee adventure.”
“If it is Overton,” Knox said. “He might have part of the army with him and there’s no way of knowing what his intensions are.”
“His intensions are diabolical,” Madison said. “He is ambitious and without scruples and it is well-known that he feels betrayed by this government.”
“It is well-known,” Jefferson said. “That he lost an election.”
“A hero of the Revolution, a man of intelligence and wealth,” Knox said, moving to the fire. “He could pose considerable threat.”
Madison fixed Knox with a withering look. “I was certain that Teague is the man for the occasion. These soldiers are birds of a feather. The Colonel gave me his assurances. I thought that I could trust him.”
“I trust him,” Knox spoke to the fire. Rainwater trickled down the mantle and hissed as the flames gobbled it up. “The Colonel is a persuasive man. As for Teague…” he pondered the flames, “I knew his father and what I know of the son convinces me that he will do the right thing.” He turned. “He knows Overton. The elder Teague and General Overton were close friends. If it is, as we expect, that Overton is raising a company of some sorts, I think it expedient to have someone that he knows, someone who can gain his confidence.”
“Yes, if we could have convinced that young man to do our bidding” Madison said, advancing with purpose. “And if he had agreed? Suppose that Overton turns that confidence and our young Major becomes captivated by the glare of that bright personage. It was the force of his personality, don’t forget, that moved the army when no other could move it. If it had been he in the Garden, rather than the serpent, Adam would have been coaxed into eating the whole damned tree.”
The sound of a tiny bell stopped their conversation. Jefferson, bell in hand, studied the bucket at his feet. “Twenty-one minutes. The rain is increasing.”
The ride home to Georgetown was miserable. Rain pounded Teague and Jacob, driving through their wool cloaks and soaking both of them. Jacob rode a horse’s length behind Teague and to his left, as he had been taught to do. Teague rode with his thoughts. It all made sense; they had been given assurances. The Colonel came up several times in the conversation, his presence in the room formidable even if he was in Georgetown. The merchant king, some called Colonel Harry Ledger. Even his name spoke of account books and figures that reflected profit and loss. They had spoken to him before Teague called upon them. A burst of lightening caused Teague’s horse to shy heavily to one side. He was able to calm the animal by stroking its neck and leaning forward to he reassure it in a soothing voice that all was well.
In two hours they arrived at his residence. He slid from his horse, weary with fatigue and handed the reigns to Jacob without a word. Pulling his cloak tight around him, Teague walked up the brick walkway, climbed the three marble steps, and entered his home. Cassie, the house servant, took his wet cloak and hat, helped him removed his sodden boots, and offered him a pair of felt house shoes.
“There is a fire in the parlor, sir,” she said, and disappeared.
Teague nodded, deciding that he would send for a glass of port and sink into the wing-backed chair closest to the fire. After the chill was driven from his body, he would steal into Faith’s room, kiss her goodnight and go to his room, careful not to wake Abigail. The three men, the three wise men he named them as he rode home, and the Colonel would be far, far away.
He slid back the pocket doors and entered the parlor. The Colonel stood with his back to the fire.
“Thomas, here. Come here, close to the fire,” he moved graciously to one side, sweeping Teague toward the fire. “Miserable night. Damned miserable.” He was a very big man, well over six-feet, and he used his bulk to cajole or intimidate men. Tonight he was in a hearty, generous mood.
“Thank you,” Teague said. “I had no idea that you had come for a visit.”
“Merely, dropped in,” the Colonel said, dismissing any formality of his presence. “Stopped by to see my daughter, and grandchild of course. A man must tend to his grandchildren.” He was in a lecturing mood. Soon he would grow philosophical, Teague knew, and everyone present was expected to listen. “We need young, vital men and women for this new nation. Strong citizens to make a strong United States. I’m sure Faith, in her own time, will be fortunate to find the right man and produce sons for the nation. That’s what’s needed, don’t you think? Sons for the nation?”
Teague rang the servant’s bell and when Cassie appeared, ordered a glass of port. The Colonel waved off any refreshment when Teague questioned him with a glance.
“Where have you been this horrible night?” the Colonel asked.
“To the president’s house,” Teague said, too tired to worry about playing games. “I saw President Jefferson, Mr. Knox, and Mr. Madison.”
“Indeed?” the Colonel was a tad too impressed. “Secretaries of War and State. The president you say? Well, I must say that my son-in-law is keeping some very impressive company. Would I be too bold to ask under what circumstances that you went to the president’s home?”
“I was summoned,” Teague said, taking the crystal goblet from Cassie. He took a sip of port, savored the taste, and finally felt the chill leaving him. “I was invited to undertake a mission.”
“Indeed!” This time the Colonel pretended to be overwhelmed. It was still a bit too much. “A mission? Where, may I ask? Of course if your are required… ”
“I declined,” Teague said, closing his eyes as the amber liquid warmed his throat and chest.
“Declined?” This time the Colonel’s surprise was genuine.
“It would have required my absence from Washington for an extended period.”
“Hang the absence,” Teague boomed. “This is the president, young man. The Secretary of State. My old friend Henry Knox.” The Colonel walked away in exasperation and then came directly at Teague, using his size to gain the advantage. “You cannot tell the president that you will not do as he asked. It’s a question of loyalty, service to the nation. It’s a question of your position…”
“Perhaps yours as well, sir,” Teague said before he realized it.
“Yes,” the Colonel said loudly. “One does not advance by retreating, sir. One does not throw opportunities away that are guaranteed to pay dividends.”
The parlor doors opened and Abigail entered, looking distraught. She quickly closed the door behind her. “What is the matter? Everyone one in the house can hear you? What has happened?”
“Your husband,” the Colonel said, leaving no doubt about his disappointment, “has made a very foolish decision.”
“I was asked to undertake a mission for the government,” Teague said. “I declined.”
Abigail, her brown bright with concern looked from her husband to her father. “Declined? Why on earth did you decline?”
Teague was growing tired of the conversation. All he wanted was to climb into bed and sleep away this night. Abigail’s exchanged his fatigue for suspicion. Had she and the Colonel spoken before he arrived? “I did not feel my presence was critical. I did not like the thought of leaving you and faith for a long time. I have responsibilities here.” He saw the merchant’s block surrounded by dirty warehouses. He saw the smile on Faith’s lips.
“Put those responsibilities out of your mind, young man,” the Colonel said. His tone was conciliatory. He was ready to help no matter what. “That is what families are for. That’s what I’m for. Let me take the burden of responsibilities for you.”
Abigail moved toward him, her tone beseeching. “I don’t understand. The president called for you. You cannot simply turn away from that. Father is here. Father will take care of us. The president, Thomas. Think of how you can be advanced.” She moved closed to him, her eyes searching his face, her small hands on his chest. “You cannot throw away an opportunity such as this. You must, for your sake, for my sake,” she glanced at the Colonel, “for my father’s sake. You must do as the president asks.”
He felt defeated, attacked on two fronts. “I do not want to leave Abigail,” he said, hoping that she would understand, but knowing that her ally was her father.
Abigail assumed the role of a petulant child. “How can you say that, Thomas? She is a mere babe; she hardly knows that you are here. You must this instant return to the president’s home and tell him that you have reconsidered. Faith, indeed! Sometimes I think that you care more for that child than you do me.”
Teague gave her a reassuring smile that said such an idea was nonsense, but the smile was a lie. He felt the Colonel’s big hand on his shoulder.
“She’s right, my boy. Duty calls. No need to worry about Abigail or Faith. They’re in good hands. They won’t want for a thing. But there’s no need for you to go out again tonight. Send a servant around to the president’s house with a note stating that after careful consideration, you’ve agreed to his request.” The Colonel moved quickly to a deck, pulled a piece of foolscap from a pigeonhole, selected a quill pen, and opened the lid of an inkwell. “Just a short note,” he said, urging Teague on. “Won’t take a minute.”
“You must,” Abigail said, resting her head on his chest. “For all of us.”
“Of course,” Teague said, placing the glass of port on the desk, “for all of us.” He took the quill pen, dipped it in the ink, and began to write. He decided when he was finished he would bid them both good night, and spend a few moments at his daughter’s bedside. She was a lovely child, bright, cheerful, and inquisitive and she demanded nothing of her father except his presence. Nothing gave him greater joy than to have her slip her tiny hand into his and for him to look down into that innocent, wondrous face that shown with love.