It was only a flight of stairs, and yet after four hours of near un-interrupted dancing and talking and politicking, George Washington was hardly sure he’d be able to make it up to the second floor without having to stop for breath. He was bone-tired -- and it had only been a party. It was a young man’s game now, this business of socializing and dancing, and he’d fought to get himself through it. Ordinarily, it would not have tired him so -- he loved dancing, and the company of young people, and all the thousand little pranks that parties of the sort he had just come from at Penn Mansion are always prone to.
But some days….some days a man merely wished to sit in the corner and be unsociable and taciturn, and merely observe the company while enjoying the feeling of his wife’s hand close in his, and smile at all of her quiet, well-timed remarks. This had been one of those days -- and he had had little time for any of those things. Most especially his wife.
It had been no great difficulty to secure a pair of rooms from one of Philadelphia's leading families, everyone too excited by half to be able to boast the accomplishment of having hosted the General and his lady for the night. It was too far to go back to Morristown, at the party’s late hour, and with Martha and her maid Oney having arrived much earlier than himself, the room was in perfect readiness when he finally reached the top of the stairs, and thier door.
Martha was seated at the dressing table, shoulders draped in a dressing gown of some unremarkable but familiar print, her still-dark hair down from its pins and managed into a sleek braid, trailing over one shoulder.
“You were a long time downstairs,” she observed quietly, catching his eye in the mirror as he closed the door behind him.
“Our host wished to discuss politics for a while,” George explained, smiling wanly at his wife. She nodded, understanding that this was just one more inconvenience amid a whole host of inconveniences that went along being a man both famous and well-respected. He sat down on the chest at the end of the bed, settling in to take off his dancing slippers and try to rub a bit of feeling back into his toes. It was always a trial, after wearing campaign boots for too long -- he walked too heavily in the light-soled shoes and wore his feet to shreds. Still, it wasn’t as if he were in a position to complain about shoes -- some of his army were still doing without one decent pair of footwear, let alone two.
There was a polite knock at the door, and both Washingtons turned, watching as the door opened to admit Billy Lee, still resplendent in his black suit. “Heard you finally come up, sir,” he said, candle in one hand.
“Thank you, Billy -- I’ll handle the General’s clothes tonight,” Martha said. ‘You should get some sleep. Oney’s already upstairs, I think.”
Billy, too, looked tired, though he tried not to show it -- yet there was relief in his eyes that he would not be expected to stay up late washing stains. “Thank you, ma’am. Sir.” He bowed his goodnights and closed the door behind him.
George could not help but sigh. Peace at last. Martha smiled at his annoyance, and rose from her chair, meeting him at the end of the bed and helping him out of his jacket, laying aside his sash and undoing enough of the buttons on his waistcoat so that she could deal with his stock, unwinding the length of linen that kept his shirt closed until he felt free of it.
“It seems such a long time since I’ve seen your hair with powder in it,” she remarked, fingers kneading at the back of his neck and the tops of his shoulders.
“It’s been a long time since there was occasion to do it,” he acknowledged, catching one of her hands and holding it to his lips, pulling her closer with the gesture. “This is the first I’ve had you to myself all evening,” he murmured into the back of her hand, reveling in the feeling of her body pressed close to his.
“They love you, George. And they all wish you to know it. No man could ask for more.”
“Except peace and quiet and to be back at Mount Vernon with you,” he countered, wrapping her arm around him like a protective cloak and letting her rest her chin on the top of his head. “Can a man be tired of life?” he asked philosophically. His wife laughed.
“Of his responsibilities, certainly. But to be tired of life speaks of a different malady entirely. Come to bed, my love. It’s late. Sleep cures all ills.” She extracted her arm, patting him on the shoulder, and climbing into bed, the sheets rustling a little. He sighed, rising from the chest and shrugging out of his waistcoat, laying it alongside his other clothes on the chair.
“So?” He began, climbing into bed and settling against the pillows, “What did you think of General Arnold’s Miss Shippen?”
“She seems a very pretty young thing,” Martha said with a smile.
“I sense a ‘but’.”
“-but,” Martha added, smiling at her predictability. “She did not strike me as a woman in love. One may speak highly all one likes about the fine manners of Philadelphia ladies, but there is a thin line between mannerly and cold, and I thought Miss Shippen erred on the side of coldness rather than composure.” She sat up a little herself and fixed her husband with a smile, the kind that acknowledged that she knew he thought her opinion wrong, and did not really care to change it for him. “Major Tallmadge agreed with me,” she added.
“Ah, yes, while you were helping him avoid the dance floor and the predatory nature of Philadelphia’s unengaged young ladies.” George chuckled to himself about that one. That, at least, had been one highlight of the evening -- seeing his usually composed head of intelligence blush at the suggestion of a liason with one of les belles filles.
"Major Tallmadge seemed unwell." Martha glanced at him, expecting answers. George considered his head of intelligence and found little lacking.
"A little unused to so much Philadelphia gaiety on display, I think...'
She shook her head. “No, it was not that, there was...something else. Something he wouldn’t speak to me about.”
“You forget they're not boys, Martha, spilling secrets behind their hands in the schoolroom."
She looked doubtful, and her laugh confirmed such. "Aren't they? What were you doing, at twenty-two?"
"Surveying most of Culpeper County, I believe." He could see himself in the mirror as he said it -- a youth scarce out from underneath his brother’s wing, hat battered and faded, coat mended at the shoulders and dirty, his hair still bronze-y auburn, face freckled with the sun, the weight of his surveyor’s tools heavy on his shoulders. It seemed so long ago.
"Exactly. Culpeper County. You weren’t hundreds of miles away from home fighting a war, George."
"I was fully a man grown, Martha!' Washington sounded a little affronted, even now, at the idea he was only a boy at twenty-two. 'But...well.' he broke into a smile, remembering some youthful escapades. He hadn’t been above sauntering about, hands stuck in his breech-pockets like a jaunty schoolboy - much the way some of his officers did now . 'I suppose...' But he frowned a little, still half-piqued by his wife’s tone. "And what, pray tell, were you at twenty-two?"
The look she gave him would have silenced weaker men. "A woman four years married and with two small children." Martha shot back gently. "But I had the help of my mother and my husband; I was not far away from home and good counsel, when I needed it."
'I hope my officers have enough sense between them to puzzle out their own good counsel, my dear...' But George sounded thoughtful. “But - do you not think they perhaps need it from another source? Good counsel? I am their commanding officer! Their leader! Surely their friends and fellow officers --”'
"You will readily admit you had some moments of antic youth in your twenties -- I am sure the advice of friends is all well and good, but the advice of someone older -- someone they admire -- would do much better in those instances. For they do admire you, George.” Mrs Washington’s tone was pointed. ‘Especially Major Tallmadge. He seems sadly in need of a little fatherly advice…’
"I am not his father, Martha!" Though I sometimes think he wishes me to be, he mused sadly.
"And what of young Mr. Hamilton, and Monsieur Lafayette? Are they to suffer because they have no fathers? That is a poor excuse, George."
Washington avoided his wife's reproachful gaze. 'I can hardly be a father, Martha, when I am their general. It would create confusion, at best; dissension at worst. And I have too many hot-heads under my command as it is, trying to play favourites...' It wasn't strictly true, if he was altogether honest with himself. It was the terrible weight of trust implicit in the position - playing father to the Continentals?
And how should they trust me, when I find it hard to trust myself? Washington reasoned, heavily.
"It is hardly playing favorites, my dear, if you give advice to everyone. Which I am sure you already do."
"Is this to be my punishment for failing you as a husband, Patsy? The adoption of a pack of young men?" George fixed his wife with a faintly quizzical look. It was a question that vexed him often, especially as he watched her in winter quarters with the Knox children, or the other officers and their wives, bouncing rosy-cheeked youngsters on her knee. She had wanted more; he knew that. The two children of which she’d spoken were babies he’d never known, Daniel Custis’ children gone to early graves. But she was inestimably fond of Jack, and had been of Patsy, too, before she had died. Now, with Jack’s wife breeding, Martha’s life was full of grandchildren -- but he did still wonder, some days, if she did not wish she’d chosen differently. He saw that mothering nature in her when she was in camp with him -- darning socks and making sure everyone was fed and had a place to sleep. If she called him now to be fatherly, it was only because she saw herself already as their mother. A place she rightfully deserved. But, as for him...
Martha frowned. "You did not fail as a husband, George," she reprimanded him. "Never say such. God had other plans. And I feel certain this was one." She rested her hand on his chest, lying beside him, as if to press the point home into his heart by the gesture. “He would not have made you so giving and patient otherwise, if it were not for fatherhood.”
He half-smiled at that. 'You are always so sure, my dear.' He shook his head, musingly, before reaching out to take his wife's hand. 'I wish I had your certainty. Sometimes I feel the Maker takes a very half-hearted interest in our scrabbling affairs below...'
"I am sure He takes great notice. For why else would He place you at the head of such a pack of hounds, if He did not think you the most excellent man to lead them? For as much as they need you, George, I think you need them, too. I do not think I have seen you happier than when you converse with the Marquis over dinner, and silence yet another one of Mr. Hamilton's outbursts."
Martha’s quiet observation stilled him. He’d never thought of it that way before. But, in truth, she was right. Someone had jokingly referred to his aides as his ‘family’ and he had never contradicted them; the word seemed right, somehow, for though they were subordinates, he could not see them as something less than him -- more like extensions of his will, his person. He gave orders, and they saw them done. Some had come and gone, and some had stayed, but he still wrote to those moved on to greener pastures regularly, heard about their pursuits, their families. He wished for them to be successful, and cheered them on to such achievements, feeling proud as he did so that he had known such men, and helped shape them. Much like a father would, he realized.
He realized he was thinking overlong and looked at Martha, grinning at him.
'Hamilton's a mad fellow, is he not?' he said quickly, trying to change the subject back to where it was before his woolgathering. There was amused affection in Washington’s tone. 'In truth, I think he has a touch of Don Quixote about him; all those windmills he jousts at...' He paused, the truth of Martha's words seeping in like a sponge.'And the Marquis is congenial company.' More than congenial, in truth. Of all his unruly officer brood, the Marquis' lively enthusiasm and generosity of spirit touched George most. Perhaps because he seemed a little lonely, the solitary Frenchman amongst the rowdy Virginia planters and Connecticut farmers. George knew how that was. He had shuffled amongst the not-quite gentry for years. And there was a pleasing optimism to Lafayette. He hadn’t given way to the misanthropy that characterised Arnold, with his dark fits of brooding and pointed jealousies.
Martha was still smiling, and George knew he should probably admit her right, or she would be intolerable about it until he did. 'Patsy, I believe you know me better than I know myself.’ He said, in a tone of almost child-like wonder. ‘How do you do it?'
Martha gave a smile that was not quite a smirk. "A habit of careful observation, honed over a great many years of marriage. Some men may sight out fields at a glance, and some women may measure men."
'Are you saying you have made maps of me, Martha?' There was a soft, faintly sly twinkle in Washington's eye - all the more endearing for the fact the general couldn't have truly looked sly if he tried. 'Do you have some secret sketch, marking the roads and byways into the soul of George Washington?'
She nestled closer, moving her head from her pillow to rest her chin on his chest, half-folded over him. "I have walked every inch of you, my dear," Martha confided warmly. "And could draw you entire from memory -- fields, fences...trees and ...woods."
"Martha!" The insinuation of ‘woods’ was not lost on him, and the general had flushed a little. It had been a great source of embarrassment to him as a boy, that tell-tale blush; it had made disguising any emotion or passion nearly impossible. He had learned ,with difficulty, to control it when he lost his temper in later life - but there! Martha made any deception impossible. She brought out the truth in him - no matter what it was.
One hand reached out to touch his hair, stroking it with a gentle, soothing motion. “I hate it when you speak of yourself as old - that is hardly what I see, when the tree still has sap left in it."
‘Not much, I fear,’ George said, a little gloomily. ‘I never felt my age so much tonight as I did amongst the Philadelphia gentlemen. I could almost hear my bones creak, simply looking at them.’
“I did not hear such,” she assured him. “The ladies present agreed you one of the handsomest men in the room. But if you are old -- which I still debate -- I would not trade my old man for the brightest young Apollo in the colonies.”
“Patsy, you are too good for me.”
“Just good enough,” she countered. “Now, does my old man still need his sleep, or does Mr. Washington feel up to a bit of surveying?” The mischievous smile on her face made him recall their wedding night, tucked up in bed at White House with beewax tapers in every sconce, and his smiling bride, looking at him like she looked at him now. Twenty years of marriage, and still beautiful and bewitching -- and speaking of surveying, too.
George allowed himself a brief smile. “Douse the candle and I’ll let you know.”