MOUNT VERNON LOVE STORY
A NOVEL OF GEORGE AND MARTHA WASHINGTON
March 4, 1797
It was a windswept, raw March morning and the city looked bleak and dreary as it shivered under the overcast sky. But the man who stood at the window of his study in the large house on Market Street didn't hear the rattling of the wind against the panes or even feel the persistent draft that penetrated between the window frame and sill. He was staring unseeingly into the street.
In his mind he was hundreds of miles away and just arriving at Mount Vernon. Eagerly he pictured the last few minutes of that journey. The carriage would gather speed as the horses galloped up the winding road. Then they'd round the bend and it would be there...the great house, gleaming and white in the afternoon sun.
For years he'd looked forward to that homecoming. Several times during severe illness he'd thought that he wouldn't live to enjoy Mount Vernon. But now the hour was at hand. Now he could go home.
He was a tall man who still carried himself impressively well. When he was twenty-six an Indian chief had exclaimed that he walked straighter than any brave in the tribe. At sixty-five he'd begun to bend forward a little like a giant tree that could no longer resist the battering force of the wind.
The width of his shoulders was still there, although the shoulders no longer suggested the agile strength that had once made him seem near godlike to an army. The long white hair was caught in a silk net at the nape of his neck. The black velvet suit and pearl-colored vest had become almost a uniform. The days of blues and scarlets were behind him.
He was so absorbed in his thoughts that he didn't hear the light tap on the study door, nor did he note when the door opened. For a long moment Patsy stood surveying him intently. To her worried eyes he seemed weary and gaunt. But beneath the concern a current of joy rippled and danced through her. Her fears had been groundless! For eight years a persistent instinct had nagged her that something would happen to him...that he wouldn't live to go home with her...but she'd been wrong. Thank the dear, dear God, she'd been wrong.
She was a short woman. The gently rounded figure that had once made her seem doll-like had thickened into solid matronly lines. Still, she moved with a quick, light step and from under her morning cap silvery ringlets lined her forehead giving her a disarmingly youthful look. Long ago she'd explained to the man she was watching that even though her name was Martha, her father had dubbed her Patsy because he thought Martha too serious and weighty. Now this man was almost the only one left who called her Patsy.
She started across the room and went up to him. "Are you ready to go?" she asked. "It's getting late."
He turned quickly, looked puzzled for an instant, then wrenched himself back into the present. With a sheepish expression he reached for his black military hat and yellow kid gloves. "Indeed, after professing to have longed for this day, it would seem unfit to be tardy for my deliverance," he commented wryly. He pulled on his gloves then sighed, "It really is over, isn't it, Patsy?"
For a moment her expression became anxious. "You don't mind giving up, do you, my dear? You're surely not sorry that you didn't accept another term."
He put his hat under his arm and now his eyes twinkled. "My dear, if John Adams is as happy to enter this office as I am to leave it, he must be the happiest man in the world."
Lightly he touched his lips to her cheek. "I won't be long," he told her, "and then if Lady Washington will not mind spending her afternoon with a private citizen..."
"I wish I were going with you now," she said.
He shook his head. "Since Mrs. Adams couldn't be here to watch John take the oath of office, your presence might point up her absence."
Then he was gone. His valet, Christopher, was waiting downstairs to open the front door. Usually Christopher said, "Good-bye, Mr. President," but now he only bowed. The words had trembled and died on his lips as he realized that he would never be saying them again. But after he closed the door behind the tall old gentleman, he whispered softly, "Good-bye, Mr. President."
The wind whipped around the wide-rimmed black hat. He raised his hand to steady it, then quickly braced himself and with a rapid stride started down the block. A small cluster of people were waiting on the street just beyond the grounds of the executive mansion. They bowed and he nodded to them. He heard their footsteps behind him as he turned in the direction of Federal Hall.
The full blast of the March gale pushed hard against him and he leaned forward slightly. He had a fleeting thought that he should have ordered the carriage, but it was a relatively short walk and there was something about going to this ceremony on foot that appealed to him. It was less obtrusive and he wanted to be unobtrusive now.
Maybe he needed this bit of solitude, too. One had to adjust to the end of the road as thoroughly as one adjusted to its beginning.
The beginning...In a way it seemed only yesterday that his mother had warned him about always dreaming and never accomplishing. But it wasn't yesterday. That was over fifty years ago when he was a lad of twelve or thirteen and back at Ferry Farm.
The coldness of the March air faded into the bleak chill of a forbidding parlor. The crunching of his boots became the tapping of his foot on the uncarpeted floorboards. The stark branches of the trees took on the appearance of the depressing furniture in his mother's home. He was absorbed in the memory of that home as he continued on the last walk he would ever take as President of the United States...
His foot tapped against the floor as he sprawled uncomfortably on one of the stiff old chairs in the parlor at Ferry Farm. As always he'd had a time becoming absorbed in his book. There was something forbidding and uncomfortable about the spartanly furnished room, about the house itself.
He was a scant thirteen but had already decided that when he grew up, his home would be warm and welcoming. It would have fine papers on the walls and a marble chimney, papier-mâché on the ceilings and neat mahogany tables which could be joined together for company. George spent much time envisioning that home.
Sighing, he turned back to his reader. Once more he shifted, trying to find a comfortable position. There simply didn't seem to be room enough for his legs anymore -- in the past year he'd gained three inches, was now nearly 6 feet 1 inch, and did not seem to be finished growing. Even his shoulders were pushing their way out of the plain shirting that his mother considered suitable garb.
His book that day was the Young Man's Companion. His favorite lines in it were:
Get what you get honestly.
Use what you get frugally.
That's the way to live comfortably
And die honorably.
The book slid from his lap. He would have a useful life. Long ago he'd promised his mother that he'd live up to her family's motto. Mary Ball Washington was a difficult woman to please, but that promise had pleased her and evoked one of her rare moments of tenderness.
George thought again of the story he'd heard of when his mother first came into this house as a bride. His father carried her over the threshold and the first thing her eye fell on was the family copy of Matthew Hale's Contemplations. The housekeeper had left the book open at the page that bore the signature of her husband's first wife.
Mary Washington said to her husband, "Put me down, please." Firmly she walked over to the book, picked up a pen, and wrote her own name, boldly and with flourishes. The new mistress was very much in charge from that day on.
George loved his mother but he didn't like her very much. Since his father's death when George was eleven he'd tried to be the man of the house for her, but Mary Washington allowed no smidgen of authority to be taken from her even by her own son. She took care of her brood, wrangled with the overseers who handled the vast lands her husband had left to her and the children, and carried a leather whip at her belt to ensure obedience from her offspring.
George had an uneasy conscience about the fact that he was much happier during his long visits to his half brothers Augustine and Lawrence. They lived on their own estates now. Lawrence on the Hunting Creek land that he'd renamed Mount Vernon, and Augustine on the Rappahannock Farm near Fredericksburg.
Both young men seemed to understand George's feelings because he was frequently invited to spend long periods of time with them. "And how is your good mother?" Lawrence would ask when George arrived. "The same?"
"The same," George would say, hoping that a wry note did not creep into his voice. He wished he could love his mother more. And then he'd forget her and settle into the comfortable atmosphere of his brothers' homes and families.
Now his mother stalked into the room. "Idle?" Her spare figure was even straighter than usual. The nostrils of her roman nose suggested a sniff...always a dangerous sign.
George sprang up. "No, madame. I have been reading my meditations." Lamely he pointed to the book which had slid unnoticed to the floor.
His mother picked it up. "It is not enough to read about how to live life, or to dream it. It is quite more important to do something about it. Are your chores finished?"
"Yes, Mother." He hesitated a moment. It was probably a dangerous time to bring up a sore subject but intense desire to know his mother's mind pushed him on. "And, Mother, have you given further thought to my going to sea?"
It was the wrong time. His mother's eyebrows, thick and well-shaped, drew into an almost unbroken line. "I see no need to think about it today. I have at least three years longer to give that subject my thoughts." She turned and stalked from the room.
She'd only been gone a moment when his sister Betty slipped in. "Is she vexed with you again?" Betty asked anxiously.
George smiled a welcome. Betty was only a year younger than he and they'd always been close. He wondered again how she had ever been their mother's daughter. Betty was pretty, gay, and lighthearted. She always had a light novel tucked in her workbasket. She never walked but seemed to dance across a room. Oddly, of all the children, she got along best with the mother.
She and George understood each other completely and shared dreams. Betty, too, had her own ideas about her future home. "I shall have the very grandest house in all Fredericksburg," she often said. "It shall be built just for me and have great beams and fine brass, a beautiful reception hall with lovely, lovely furnishings. And I shall be the mistress in the finest gowns from London. I'll have lots of company and be very gay all the time and not live like this." Whenever she got to that part of her dream, she would give a near sniff and look greatly like her mother.
Now she stood in front of her tall brother and looked at him adoringly.
George cupped her chin in his hand. "God help the young men in a year or two. No, little one, she isn't really vexed. She just wants to get vexed about something, so beware."
Betty giggled. "Well, if she goes to the kitchen, she'll have plenty of reason. Cook's new assistant has vastly overcooked the pork and cook is in a state."
George groaned. "Dinner should be a pleasant affair indeed. Thank God I'm off for Mount Vernon tomorrow."
Betty sighed. "I'm glad for you but how I shall miss you. You love Mount Vernon very much, don't you?"
George considered a moment. "Yes," he said. "Lawrence and Anne are so kind to me but it's more than that. That land...just the way the sun shines on it, or the snow blankets it in white. The way it looks in autumn when the great trees are losing their leaves. It's the joy of riding across the acres next door to Belvoir and visiting with the Fairfaxes. It's riding home again late, when evening shadows are touching the house and the sun is sinking and the Potomac is half dark, half gleaming. Yes, Betty, I truly love Mount Vernon."
March 4, 1797
The firing of the cannons brought him sharply back to the present. Of course, the cannons were being fired to signify the momentous event that was about to take place. For a moment he thought of the cannons that had purchased this moment -- the ones that had shattered the silence of '74 and '75.
There was a great crowd outside the building of the Congress. It parted quickly to let him pass. He began to climb the steps. And then the applause began. It started tentatively, one single pair of hands clapping, then like a flash it swept through the assemblage.
The sound preceded him so that when he came in sight of the lower chamber of the House, the members were already on their feet. A burst of applause greeted his entrance. It rose in volume and pushed against the ceiling and walls of the great room. It mingled with the ovation which the people outside continued to offer.
He quickened his pace, anxious to reach his seat so that the tribute might end. "Not for me," he thought. Not today. But when he reached his place and stood there the tremendous sound didn't abate; it reached a crescendo then softened and died reluctantly.
Jefferson was the next to arrive. The President watched as the tall aristocratic figure made his way through the room. He was wearing a long blue frock coat and his even patrician features betrayed none of the turmoil that might well be expected of the Vice-president-elect.
They had often opposed each other in their views, so much so that Jefferson had resigned from the cabinet. But George eyed his old friend affectionately. He would not admit, even to himself, that much as he and Jefferson had differed in many ways, he could warm to the man far better than he could to John Adams.
He thought of the day in '76 when the messenger had come to his New York headquarters, bearing a copy of the Declaration of Independence. He'd opened it slowly. For months he'd been begging for a statement like this and fearing it would never come. Even after a year of conflict some members of Congress still talked about an eventual reunion with England. He'd tried to point out that armies must fight for a cause; they must have a goal. Independence was a mighty word. It made it possible for a man to put up with starvation and misery. It drove out fear. And still many of the lawmakers vacillated about making a final break with the mother country.
Finally he'd been promised that a formal document would be issued. In the hopelessness of that first New York campaign he waited for it and wondered just how weak and carefully hedged it would be. The news that Tom Jefferson was charged with the responsibility of writing it made him cautiously optimistic. Jefferson was young but he wrote with the bold pen of a dedicated man. Then when he read the Declaration and absorbed the full richness and power of it, the majesty and breathtaking vision of it, he exultantly ordered that it be proclaimed to all the troops. That evening he stood at the door of headquarters and watched the expressions on the men's faces as a booming voice cried: "When in the course of human events..."
A stirring in the chamber announced the fact that the President-elect had arrived. George knew that Adams had ordered a new coach-and-four for this day. He'd refused to let even Patsy make him comment on the fact, but had been content to remind her that they had had a new carriage at the beginning of the first term in New York.
Patsy had sniffed that there was something about Adams that made you fairly feel as though he should be riding in front with the groom. Again George declined to answer. In the secret recess of his soul he quite agreed. John was a powerful patriot with a brilliant mind, but there was something about the man's attitude toward himself, at once obsequious and resentful, that was curiously irritating.
Adams was wearing a handsome pearl-colored broadcloth suit. His sword gleamed at his waist. But his expression was as dour as ever. A pity Mrs. Adams could not be here, George thought. Only she seems to have the talent for putting John at ease.
Eight years before, Adams had been embarrassed when greeting George, who was to take the oath of the Presidency. Now once again he seemed embarrassed. His nod was nearer to a bow. He seemed too hasty to begin his Inaugural Address.
George settled back slightly in his chair. It was understandable, the man was nervous. He thought of his own first Inauguration. He remembered the crimson velvet cushion that had held the large leather-covered Bible...the cheers of the crowd...his own opening words: "No event could have filled me with greater anxiety than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order..." He'd wanted them to know that he entered the office aware that he might fail them. Had he failed them? He hoped not.
Years ago he'd sworn that he would do well.
Just suppose it had all worked out that he had been able to go to sea. How different his life might have been. Nearly fifty years ago he'd wanted a nautical career so desperately but his mother refused him her permission. He sighed deeply. Even now, like a learned response, the pulsing anger of that moment came back -- the fury, the frustration, the sense of dead end. He leaned forward a bit but he wasn't hearing John Adams' address. The rather flat nasal voice seemed to become more clipped and sharp-toned...It became his mother's voice.
Copyright © 1968, 2002 by Mary Higgins Clark