A PRESIDENT'S WIFE
From the burning ruins of a country lost and afraid, Dolly Madison saved two things the honor of a husband and that Declaration of Independence which will always be held dear by men and women who know no defeat.
BY HOWARD FAST
THIS day, when a nation was to fall, she could still smile and sip at a cup of tea as if to sip at a cup of tea were a complete achievement by itself, and done superlatively only by Dolly Madison. She could dress herself in a gown of black crinoline, stiff and rustling, a material that speaks of peace and things as they are. She could be charming, as always.
Mr. Barker, who was one of the two guests that came, said words to that effect, that she was charming. He offered a toast, but his hand shook.
The other guest, De Peyster, stared somberly at a portrait of General Washington, as a critic might stare, but he kept saying, "Mrs. Madison, I advise you to go I strongly advise you to go."
She laughed, stroked sound out of the crinoline. Old Bryan, the colored servant, tiptoed into the room with a straw-covered bottle of wine. He shook his head as he looked at the long white table, set for dinner for so many people. Only two had come.
She said, "Gentlemen, if I am not safe in my country's capital, in the house of that country's President, where am I safe?"
Bryan had begun to pour.
De Peyster shook his head gloomily. Looking at the picture, he was thinking of a country that had lasted thirty-eight years, from 1776 to 1814. Then he glanced at the woman, the President's wife, and wondered whether she wasn't a fool. He had once heard someone speak of Dolly Madison as a charming fool.
She said, "Bryan you're staining the cloth." It was a silver damask, the cloth the red wine spilled out like blood.
Bryan dropped the bottle with a crash, and his face became gray. Fascinated, the two men watched the wine pour over the service. The colored man was listening to something that sounded like thunder. Only, hearing it once, you knew.
"It's guns," she said sharply. "You can clear the table. We won't serve dinner."
"Mrs. Madison," Barker pleaded, "leave the city."
Some of the candles had gone out. Ignoring Barker, she lit them again with a lighted taper, thinking all the while of men and the strangeness of men. Suddenly it was a man's world a world gone mad, and they would have her lost in it and afraid. Men like Barker, tall and very handsome in his precise gray suit; men like the British who were marching on Washington; or men like her husband, who for her was the greatest and best of all men. She glanced at Barker and remembered her husband as she had seen him last, small, plain and very tired from lack of sleep. Then he had said, plaintively, "Dolly why is there war?" as if she could answer it. And unable to answer it, she felt that she had lost him. She had been to him more than just a wife, a sort of wall against the world. Now, when he needed her, she was no use to him.
She set back the candle. Bryan was clearing the table, his hands uncertain each time the guns rumbled; De Peyster paced back and forth. Barker had lit a cigar.
A sound at the door and Bryan stood like a black image.
"Answer it," she said. Her voice was very calm, and Barker nodded at her with approval. He liked nerve in a woman unless this woman was too much of a fool to be afraid.
Bryan came back with a folded, sealed paper. "From de President."
"What is it?" De Peyster blurted out.
THE door again; she waited until Bryan had gone to see who was there. Then she went for a chair. She was afraid that she was going to faint, and she despised women who fainted. "It's all over," she told them then. "We've lost the battle more than a battle, I guess. Mr. Madison says that the British will take Washington. We'll leave if it's not too late."
Someone was coming in. She wondered whether it would be a British officer. They would take the President's wife a captive to London in a black-crinoline dress. Did they wear crinoline in London? They would laugh at her and at a backwoods settlement that had tried to be a nation.
She thought of tears. They would be gentle to her, because it was a woman's right to weep. Only she had no desire to weep.
AN OFFICER in American uniform. He repeated his name twice, Carrol Carrol. "I'm to escort you the enemy is very near. We can't waste a moment."
"Is my husband safe?" she demanded.
"Safe? I guess so. But they'll burn Washington."
"We'll not discuss that in the presence of my servants." She had caught a glimpse of Bryan and four others, crouched near the door; she had pity for them; she had never known that there was such pity deep inside of her.
She said, "I'll be ready in a moment, Mr. Carrol; there are some things"
"We haven't a moment!"
She stared at him, wondering how it would be if she were a man: to give up everything that had been bought with blood. She kept her voice quiet, and said: "Bryan get the declaration Mr. Jefferson's, I mean, the one they signed in '76. It's in Mr. Madison's desk in a black velvet case."
Carrol said, "Mrs. Madison, if you delay any longer I won't be responsible for your safety."
She managed to laugh. When she laughed, she laughed with all her face, and the laugh was contagious. Some of the colored servants smiled. Their faith in her made her want to weep. She said gaily:
"If I should charm the British when they come, Mr. Carrol?
He shook his head angrily. Mr. De Peyster had gone. Dolly wondered what had become of him.
She turned to the picture of George Washington. "Take it down," she decided.
"There's no time for it."
SHRUGGING her shoulders, she walked to a window. The streets were almost deserted now. A few people ran past.
They were struggling with the picture. "It's bolted to the wall."
"Then break the frame."
She walked to the table, blew out the candles in the chandelier. Behind her, she heard the rending crash of the frame as the picture came down. Bryan handed her the velvet case with the Declaration of Independence.
"We'll go now," she said to Carrol.
Outside, in the carriage, she sat very straight. A President's wife was seeing the end of her country. "Drive slowly," she said to the man at the reins. "If they see us, it's best for them not to think"
Ice in her blood, Carrol thought.
They drove through the streets, past straggling lines of soldiers and fleeing people. She turned once to look at the house; it seemed gaunt and empty. Bryan and the others stood at the door. Bryan waved and then began to walk away.
Almost fifteen miles from the city, Carrol found shelter for her, a white house that lay in a circle of apple trees. There were two women standing in the doorway.
She tried to thank Carrol; she said: "You will understand, Mr. Carrol, that this is not a usual thing
He nodded stiffly.
"He's my husband," she said desperately. "You blame him. Do you know what it is to carry a country on your shoulders?"
"I'll try to get word from the President, Mrs. Madison."
Then he drove away. She walked toward the house, her gown scattering dust under her feet. The older woman walked forward.
"You're Mrs. Madison?"
Dolly could see that she was pleased to have the wife of a President even the President of a country that was defeated, that might be an English colony within the week.
"I'm Mrs. Burke," she said.
The girl in the doorway was staring past them, her face full of half-fearful excitement. She pointed. It was toward evening, twilight now, the sun behind a bank of clouds. North, where Washington was, a red glow filled the sky.
Mrs. Burke said something, but Dolly didn't hear her. The dust was leaping along the road now in little clouds; even they were red. Washington was burning.
Mrs. Burke said eagerly, "You'll have a nice cup of tea, Mrs. Madison, won't you? I haven't a great deal to offer, you know, but you'll have a nice cup of tea, and rest for a while, and my daughter and I will do everything we can."
Trying to smile, nodding, Dolly answered, "That's good of you very good of you." She sat at the table and drank tea hot gulps of it that scalded her throat. The girl's name was Alice; she sat across the table from Dolly and kept staring at the woman who had been all that a woman could. If someone had told her, a month ago, that Dolly Madison would sit in her mother's parlor, drinking tea with her, she would have denied it for a dream.
"My husband, Joe," Mrs. Burke said eagerly, "he's up there with the milishy. My boy too; my boy, Henry, he's nineteen." Then Mrs. Burke said uneasily: "I want you to know, it's an honor to have you here, Mrs. Madison."
Dolly smiled; she had a way of smiling.
They talked a while more, everyday, commonplace things. Then Alice took her up to her room.
Afterward Mrs. Burke came up with a cup of warm milk. "So you can sleep," she explained.
"You're very good," Dolly said.
"I had a time of misery now and then."
For some time Dolly stood by the window. It was a dark night, and the glow over Washington was like the burning of a giant lamp. It would burn for a long time.
She lay down on the bed and attempted to sleep for a while, but it was no use.
Back at the window again. She couldn't tear herself away. If her house were burning, each precious thing in the house
Her husband was out there, somewhere. He might come tonight, or he might not come at all.
Blowing out the candle, she sat in the dark. She would try to sleep. Tomorrow, she would go to him; she would need strength for tomorrow.
The window glowed with light. She closed the shutters, but still the red light came through the cracks. She lay down on the bed with her face in the pillow.
The wind became stronger, until the whole house swayed. She might have slept a little then, dozed her whole body hot and aching.
A knocking at the door roused her. It was still dark, and beginning to rain. When she woke and heard the rustle of drops on the roof, her first thought was that it would put out the fire. She unfastened the shutters, and the wind was so strong now it tore them out of her grasp, crashed them back and forth against the walls of the house. She stood there while the rain beat against her face. There was still a glow from the direction of Washington, but it was more subdued now, broken by the intervening rain.
A knocking at the door again, and Mrs. Burke calling, "Mrs. Madison are you up, Mrs. Madison?"
SHE went to the door and opened it. Mrs. Burke was there, in a nightgown with a cloak thrown over it. She said:
"A man downstairs says he's from your husband. I do wish Mr. Burke was here, or even Henry. I feel so helpless without a man in the house."
"It's all right. Where is he?"
Dolly followed her down into the parlor. A single candle flickered on the table. In the feeble light, Dolly made out a rain-soaked man, hatless and booted.
"You're Mrs. Madison?" he demanded.
She didn't answer, stood in the shadow of the doorway. If it were over now and the British had control of the country, able to go where they pleased and take what they wanted
"You don't needa be afraid, Mrs. Madison," the man said wearily. "I'm all right, just dog-tired, and I guess I look like the devil. The President said you could see him at Alley's Tavern tomorrow. But be careful. The British are all over the place. You'll forgive my language. I'm too tired to know what I'm saying."
Then he had stumbled out into the rain, and she was calling after him, "Wait please, tell me how he is. You can rest here. I tell you, wait!"
He was gone. She stood at the open door with Mrs. Burke, listening to his horse's hoofs in the mud, muffled. It was dark out; the swirl of rain and wind felt like a hurricane.
"You're soaking wet," Mrs. Burke said. "You'll catch a death of cold.
"You know where that tavern is?"
"IT AIN'T far. Now you change your clothes and put on some of mine, and I'll put up a fire for tea."
Mrs. Burke bustled away and came back with a shawl to throw over Dolly's shoulders. Then she made tea, sipping it, while she sat with Dolly. They sat there until a gray haze of dawn came into the sky. It still rained, hard rain that whipped like steel wires in the wind.
Mrs. Burke's son Henry came back. It was morning now. He stumbled in, wet and bloody, his arm in a sling.
"Pa's over at Hennesy's. Old man Hennesy's dead," he muttered. "Ain't much left now but for the British to come and take what they please." Then he saw Dolly.
"You keep quiet, you fool," his mother told him. "This is Mrs. Madison."
He became all arms and legs, tried to apologize.
"Tell me what happened," Dolly said.
"THERE ain't much to tell. They took Washington. I hear say burnt it to the ground."
"Is the President all right?"
"I ain't seen nothing of him."
"Can you take me to Alley's Tavern?"
"You can't travel in this weather."
"I'm going there. Will you show me the road?"
He went with her until they reached the pike, and then she sent him back. She gave him a silver bracelet for his mother.
"I can't let you go on alone," he protested.
"I'm all right. Go back and tend to that wound."
Then she walked on alone. It was still raining. Mrs. Burke had given her a coat, but already it was soaked through. Dirt and mud were plastered all over the bottom of her skirt.
As she walked on, the road became more and more crowded. It seemed that every person who had fled from Washington was going toward the tavern. To find the President. Dolly realized that; they didn't recognize her, nor were they interested in her. It was he who mattered, her Jemmy, the man who was President of the United States, of a country that had been defeated in war. And that country had lost itself. For the moment, it couldn't think, couldn't act; its capitol had been burnt, its Government scattered. And that was his fault.
She heard it on every side. In a rain, people walk slowly; they stumbled along, muttering that this was Madison's work. She wondered how long she could bear it, how long it would be before she screamed out the truth: that a country unprepared for war had been plunged into hopeless war, that one small man was left to bear the entire burden of that war.
She tried to run, to leave them behind her; she stumbled and fell in the mud.
A CARRIAGE drove along the road. She saw Carrol, ran to the carriage, calling to him. And then he was helping her in, trying to recognize Dolly Madison in the weary, bedraggled woman. And even in the carriage, she could think of only one thing:
"You've seen him? He's all right?"
"He's all right, Mrs. Madison. He'll be at the tavern."
The tavern keeper's wife gave her a change of clothes, a dress of striped homespun. Then she sat in the kitchen of the tavern, close to the fire, drinking a cup of spiced wine.
People kept going in and out of the kitchen. There was a great crowd in the tavern. She could hear their voices, occasionally one above the others, always crying out against Madison, always blaming him.
Carrol stayed in the kitchen. Evidently he intended to wait with her until Madison came.
"He'll be here soon?" Dolly asked him. "You're sure he'll be here, Mr. Carrol?"
"He said he would."
"Mr. Carrol, you've been through all this. Do you blame him? Hasn't he done all that a man could do?"
"He's the President."
"Is that all? Must he be crucified for that? He's my husband. Don't you understand?"
Carrol looked at her a moment, strangely, then walked away.
For a long time she sat in front of the fire, motionless. Sometimes, people came into the kitchen to look at her. It had gotten about that the President's wife was in there. Some of them greeted her, and then she would glance up and nod and even smile the way Dolly Madison was supposed to smile.
Yet for herself, she could only think that he was somewhere, planning, scheming, trying to salvage the pieces of a nation and he was alone. If only she could be with him.
She went into the dining room once. As she entered, the hum of noise stilled itself; eyes flashed at her and then avoided her. There was a Mr. Hammond there, a congressman whom she knew, and she went over and greeted him very graciously. He muttered something.
DOLLY said, "I'm sure that the President, when he comes, will be glad to know that he has so many faithful friends."
"If he comes," someone said.
"When the President comes" She tried to hold back this was a man's world but the words poured out. "Gentlemen, you believe that we are defeated. They've burnt my home. I left it in a hurry, I'm ashamed to say, and I took only two things: the picture of a man and the statement of men, gentlemen, who did not know when they were defeated."
Carrol took her up to her room. She was trembling, and her face was white as snow. Carrol was reluctant to leave her, but she assured him that she was all right.
"It is the gentlemen down there who need you, Mr. Carrol, the brave gentlemen who have given away their country and are waiting to blame him."
Carrol nodded. He said, "If you'll accept my apology, Mrs. Madison."
"You believe in him?"
"You'll tell them, Mr. Carrol the gentlemen downstairs?"
"God grant Mr. Madison comes here soon."
It was night when he came. She had sat in her room while the light faded out. The rain stopped for a time, started again.
He opened the door, and she saw him outlined against the light of the hall. For a moment, she hardly dared to hope that it was he just a small dark figure outlined against the light of the hallway.
"Jemmy," she whispered.
She was in the dark. She came forward, and then she was in his arms, holding his rain-soaked body, stroking his hair, and whispering what she could make into words, only a small part of what was in her heart.
HE HELD on to her. He held on to her as if she were all he had left; he kept repeating her name again and again: "Dolly Dolly" He said, "Dolly, I'm tired. How I need you. It's too much."
"Not for the two of us. It's never too much for both of us, Jemmy."
"It's only begun, Dolly. I have to tell myself that that it's only begun. You'll be with me now, and we'll fight it out together."
"I'll be with you, Jemmy never fear."
"You're a proud, strong woman for a man to have for his wife. I was afraid before, Dolly but not now."
Later, he slept. It was the first time he had slept since she had seen him last. He slept with his head on her breast, and she lay there awake and happy, stroking his hair very softly.