The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book III. The Little Lion
The first task awaiting him upon his arrival at Headquarters was to draw up a letter of instruction for Laurens, a task which required minute care; for on its suggestions, as much as on Laurens's brilliant talents, depended the strength of a mission whose failure might mean that of the American arms. Laurens had requested the letter, and told Hamilton that he should be guided by it. He did not anticipate a royal condition of mind which would prompt him practically to carry off the French money-bags under the king's astonished nose, and he knew Hamilton's command of every argument connected with the painful subject of financial needs. Hamilton drew up a lucid and comprehensive letter, in nine parts, which Laurens could study at his leisure on the frigate, Alliance; then attacked his accumulated duties. They left him little leisure to remember he was a bridegroom, although he occasionally directed his gaze toward the North with some longing. His freedom approached, however, and it was swift and unexpected.
It came on the 16th of February. His office was in his bedroom. He had just completed a letter containing instructions of an important nature for the commissary, and started in search of Tilghman, whose duty it was to see it safely delivered. On the stairs he passed Washington, whose brow was heavy. The General, with that brevity which was an indication of his passionate temper fighting against a self-control which he must have knocked flat with great satisfaction at times, ejaculated that he wished to speak with him at once. Hamilton replied that he would wait upon him immediately, and hastened to Tilghman's office, wondering what had occurred to stir the depths of his Chief. He was but a moment with Tilghman, but on the stairs he met Lafayette, who was in search of him upon a matter of business. It is possible that Hamilton should not have permitted himself to be detained, but at all events he did, for perhaps two minutes. Suddenly he became conscious that Washington was standing at the head of the stairs, and wondering if he had awaited him there, he abruptly broke off his conversation with Lafayette, and ran upward. Washington looked as if about to thunder anathema upon the human race. He had been annoyed since dawn, and his passions fairly flew at this last indignity.
"Colonel Hamilton!" he exclaimed. "You have kept me waiting at the head of the stairs these ten minutes. I must tell you, sir, you treat me with disrespect."
Hamilton's eyes blazed and his head went back, but his quick brain leapt to the long-desired opportunity. He replied as calmly as if his heart were not thumping, "I am not conscious of it, sir, but since you have thought it necessary to tell me so, we part."
"Very well, sir!" replied Washington, "if it be your choice!" He turned his back and strode to his office.
Hamilton went to his room with a light heart, feeling as if the pigeon-holes were marching out of his brain. The breach was Washington's; he himself had answered with dignity, and could leave with a clear conscience. He had not kept Washington waiting above four minutes, and he did not feel that an apology was necessary.
"Oh," he thought aloud, "I feel as if I had grown wings." He would return to his bride for a few weeks, then apply once more for a command.
There was a knock, and Tilghman entered. The young men looked at each other in silence for a moment; Tilghman with an almost comical anxiety, Hamilton with alert defiance.
"Well?" demanded Hamilton.
"I come from the Chief--ambassador extraordinary. Look out of the window, or I shall not have courage to go on. He's put the devil to bed and is monstrous sorry this misunderstanding has occurred--"
"Misunderstanding?" snorted Hamilton.
"You know my love of euphony, Hamilton. Pray let me finish. I'd rather be Laurens on my way to beg. What is a king to a lion? But seriously, my dear, the Chief is desperately sorry this has occurred. He has deputed me to assure you of his great confidence in your abilities, integrity, and usefulness, and of his desire, in a candid conversation, to heal a difference which could not have happened but in a moment of passion. Do go and see him at once, and then we shall all sleep in peace to-night."
But Hamilton shook his head decidedly. "You know how tired I am of all this," he said, "and that I can be as useful and far more agreeably active in the field. If I consent to this interview, I am lost. I have never doubted the Chief's affection for me, but he is also the most astute of men, and knows my weakness. If, arguments having failed, he puts his arm about my shoulders and says, 'My boy, do not desert me,' I shall melt, and vow that neither bride nor glory could beckon me from him. So listen attentively, mon ami, and deliver my answer as follows: 1st. I have taken my resolve in a manner not to be revoked, 2d. As a conversation could serve no other purpose than to produce explanations, mutually disagreeable, though I certainly will not refuse an interview if he desires it, yet I should be happy if he would permit me to decline it. 3d. That, though determined to leave the family, the same principles which have kept me so long in it will continue to direct my conduct toward him when out of it. 4th. That I do not wish to distress him or the public business by quitting him before he can derive other assistance by the return of some of the gentlemen who are absent. 5th. And that in the meantime it depends on him to let our behaviour to each other be the same as if nothing had happened."
Tilghman heaved a deep sigh. "Then you really mean to go?" he said. "Heartless wretch! Have you no mercy on us? Headquarters will be a tomb, with Washington reposing on top. Think of the long and solemn breakfasts, the funereal dinners, the brief but awful suppers. Washington will never open his mouth again, and I never had the courage to speak first. If ever you deign to visit us, you will find that we have lost the power of speech. I repeat that you have no heart in your body."
Hamilton laughed. "If you did not know that I love you, you would not sit there and revile me. No family has ever been happier than ours. In four years there has not been a quarrel until to-day. I can assure you that my heart will ache when the time comes to leave you, but I really had got to the end of my tether. I have long felt as if I could not go on another day."
"'Tis grinding, monotonous work," admitted Tilghman, "and we've all wondered how you have stood it as long as this--every bit of you was made for action. Well, I'll take your message to the Chief."
Washington consented to waive the explanation and sent Hamilton another message, thanking him for consenting to remain until Harrison and Meade returned.