"I should consider it an honor to be permitted to make the attempt, Your Excellency," Hamilton said unexpectedly, when the question of forcing the locks was raised.
It was no fresh intelligence to anyone with the least knowledge of his ardent character that his courage should be equal to the offer, but still occasion'd looks of surprise: General Washington plainly had no thought of risking any of his aides upon so hazardous and mean a task. To answer them, Hamilton added, "I am familiar from my reading with some dozen efforts of this kind, sir, and believe that I can undertake it without substantial risk."
The runes inscribed upon the chests had by then been examined and certainly identified as including General Howe's mark. The chests had been captured three days before, in a small baggage-train stumbled upon by a handful of militiamen. There had been not even the rudest attempt at pillaging them either upon the scene or in the course of their journey to the Continental Army's encampment.
All the awkwardness of seeking a volunteer for an attempt, which every soldier was convinced was as good as asking a man to cast away his life to no purpose, naturally recommended Colonel Hamilton's offer; in any case, Washington allow'd himself to be persuaded, and the operation was carried out an hour later, in a deserted and fallow field some half a mile from the encampment. The chests were hastily lowered from their wagon to the ground by a few men, who even more hastily withdrew to a prudent distance, beside the General and his staff.
Hamilton, a little pale but otherwise sure, rubbed his hands with the juice of yew berries, and laid a circle of the branches around himself before he reached out with the iron pry-bar and thrust it beneath the lid of the larger chest. The locks were no challenge to the strength, being merely small clasps of brass; and whether we choose to grant the laurels to Colonel Hamilton's untutored preparations, or agree with some less generous observers that the virtue of a battlefield capture had likely undone the wards, the point was carried.
"You are uninjured, I hope, Colonel?" General Washington inquired, when he and the rest of his aides had rejoined Hamilton at his beckoning hand.
"Nothing to remark, Your Excellency," Hamilton said, displaying for them a hand only slightly reddened at the fingertips, and without straining further the patience of his audience flung wide the lids of both chests.
The first alone would have been a prize worth taking, full of trays of varying depths laid one upon the other, each compartment labeled in a small hand clear as type: Wormwood harvested with silver knife at the new moon. Silkmoth wings pressed between sycamore leaves. Boar tusk raised only on the acorn of the red oak. The rarest and most valuable ingredients for alchemical work, some of them wholly beyond the reach of a nation separated by an ocean from Europe.
But these treasures and more were almost overlook'd beside the contents of the second chest: three spellbooks laid on end in a nest of silk and cushioning hay, their spines marked each with only a few runes.
"Agrippa," John Laurens said, his hand braced on Hamilton's shoulder as he looked over it. "Paracelsus, and the Clavicula Salomonis."
For a little while no-one spoke; General Washington's face was grave. He was himself the possessor of one thin and nameless grimoire, granted by the Crown during his service in the French and Indian War, but his great genius lay in turning the smaller gifts of ordinary spellcraft to good account on the battlefield, and instead of drawing upon his men directly, to use their smaller workings, independently cast, as a thousand bee-stings to the bludgeon of the British regulars. It was a style of command suited admirably to the resources of a small and uncertain army, operating on scant supply, but it could not easily answer to the power which Britain's generals could bring to bear, if given sufficient time to prepare and array their forces.
Washington bent at last and took The Key of Solomon from the chest, opening it to the center and gently turning a few of its leaves. The staff officers regarded him anxiously as his fingers slowed and halted. He shook his head after a moment, as might a man rousing from a broken sleep full of dark dreams, and shut the book again. "The books are nothing," he said after a moment, "without a wizard to make use of them." He slid the book back into its place in the chest and would have closed the lid upon them.
"Sir," Hamilton said, standing, "with your leave -- "
He was not the only officer to speak: Colonel Laurens, as well, and the Marquis de la Fayette, were not behind in volunteering for the dreadful task, which had notoriously consumed the reason of so many men in the early unscientific days of wizardry, before the establishment of the great universities to fit a man's mind out for beginning the work, and the laws to require apprenticeship and slow tutelage under masters approved by the Crown. If patriots might decry those laws, as serving to bar any from the Art whom the ministers of Britain might choose to deny a place with a master, such objections in no wise rendered a solitary and hasty study less fraught with danger. Yet for so great a prize, what ought not be hazarded?
There was merit to the arguments for delivering the books to Congress, to assign to candidates with perhaps a better claim to preparation. But despite what malicious tongues have since chosen to say, Washington's choice to keep the books by him, and to grant the right to try them to such of his young aides as were prepared to stand the risk, cannot be laid to the wish to promote their interest or his own: aside from the danger, whatever advantage the books might procure for the cause of Liberty was surely most immediately necessary to the Army.
Too, the General was certainly one of a scant few men in the whole of the country who might be of use in supervising such study, and he could hope to more swiftly recognize any dangerous alteration in men whose characters were already well known to him. He gently barred Lafayette from the study, as a risk incompatible with his duty to his patrimony -- given his noble rank, he might with far more safety pursue the study back in his native France -- but permitted Hamilton and Laurens and Tench Tilghman, who joined his voice to theirs, to make the attempt.
The Continental Army was encamp'd at that time, the winter of 1778, at Valley Forge, and headquartered upon a respectable but small manor lent the General by Mrs. Deborah Hewes, scarce large enough to house the staff. The General and his wife had a bedchamber to their use; the aides another, and slept as often as not two to a bed, or upon the floor.
It was already Colonel Hamilton's habit to spend his evenings, when no entertainment demanded his attendance, in a corner of the dining-room of the house, engaged with his books long into the night. He was at that time barely one and twenty, but had already so distinguished himself as to be considered the chief of Washington's aides, known for his swift understanding and his facile pen; he was oft summoned late, when some missive came in requiring an urgent answer, and by remaining below might spare his fellows' sleep.
He and Laurens and Tilghman were shortly to be found in the evenings together poring over the grimoires, but Hamilton pressed on with less caution and more industry, and in a matter of weeks seemed more master than fellow, directing their studies with feverish impatience: he had privately vow'd to achieve some notable act before the spring should see the resumption of hostilities.
It was soon clear that if he did not, no other man would. Not quite a month into their labors, Colonel Tilghman drowsed off over one of the texts in the early evening, and started up with so hideous a shriek as to awaken all the house and bring the General himself down the stairs.
When he came into the room, Laurens and Hamilton were holding Tilghman down upon the floor, against frantic clutching convulsions: he would have torn the books to shreds if they had released him. The crowd parted to let Washington pass, and he knelt beside the young man, who gasped protests to him in speech brokenly scattered with Latin and Greek and words in no tongue of mortal men.
"Calm yourself," Washington said, cupping Tilghman's head from beneath, and beckoned for brandy; Tilghman chok'd down one small glass after another, until after some ten or eleven doses he shuddered and the tension began at last to seep from his pinned limbs; in another five glasses he was limp, and Washington directed him carried to a bed, and a watch set upon him for the night.
He dismissed all the rest of the gawking crowd, but Laurens and Hamilton; to them, when the door had been shut, he said, "He will never be as he was again: he will be a year convalescing, and you will not know him for your friend, the next time you meet. He will die young."
Laurens was silent; Hamilton looked at him: they were dear friends. After a moment, Hamilton said, "I have no kin with claim upon me -- none whom my destruction should burden insupportably, who have the right to bar me from a danger beyond that of the battlefield. John, you cannot say the same."
Laurens flushed, and after a moment said, "I would tell you to go to the devil, Ham, if it were not already plain to me that you must do the thing, if it is to be done; I have not made a ha'porth's worth of progress, sir," he added to Washington.
"Then I withdraw my consent to your continuing," Washington said with finality, "and tomorrow you will oblige me by carrying several reports to the Congress, and remaining there a little while to answer questions for the honorable gentlemen: for now, go and rest, Colonel."
When he had gone, Washington said, "A fortnight in the open air and a brief change of society will clear what damage has been done him already, I think."
"I am glad to hear it, Your Excellency," Hamilton said, straight and unyielding; every line of his posture proclaimed his desire to continue.
Washington looked at him a long while, and then said, "If our circumstances were such that I might gratify my own wish, I would order you to accompany him."
"I have made progress, sir," Hamilton said. "I am near to -- "
"That very destruction of which you have spoken, just now," Washington said. He clasped his hands behind his back and turned to the window: still in his dressing-gown, absurd in a man of less consequence, but there was nothing in him which the airiest spirit might mock. "We will speak frankly, Colonel," he said at last. "Your gifts outrun your years: I have not been given to think of you, as you are, a very young man. I am obliged, sir, to ask you to persuade me that it is not an act at once dishonorable to my own character, and unworthy of our cause, that I should allow you to continue in this study -- knowing as I must that in this case, to allow is as much as to command."
Hamilton understood that the fate of his labors were hanging upon a thread: that Washington would never pursue, for any advantage, what he thought dishonorable. Yet Hamilton did not leap to speak; he made no argument, no attempt to persuade. Instead, in making answer, he displayed those qualities since established as essential to his character: a determined boldness, which his enemies might call rashness, and that brilliance which even his enemies could not but regard with respect, albeit tinged with fear or even hatred. In silence he stepped to General Washington's side, collected himself a moment, and then laid his hand flat upon the window before them.
The heat of his flesh drew a faint mist upon the glass, which spread across the panes rather than being overcome by the winter's chill. The mist by slow degrees thickened to impenetrable white, and then Hamilton drew on it with the tip of his finger one of those mystical diagrammes known to have peculiar force in the hands of wizards.
Its outline, dark and wet, in turn spread out and consumed the fog, but when it had cleared, the window looked out not upon the snowy fields of Pennsylvania, but into a broad chamber richly appointed, with a grand fireplace laid for the morning, and several long tables covered with maps upon whose surface a host of small figurines stood.
Breathing in short panting gasps, Hamilton let drop his hand; he did not see the consequence of his own working, it seemed, for his eyes gazed blindly through the scene, and in a moment he sagged and would have fallen but for the support of Washington's arm.
Washington eased him into a chair, and dragged loose his neckcloth; the brandy yet stood upon one of the tables, and without recourse to a glass, Washington pressed it upon Hamilton.
Hamilton only moistened his lips, and then drew back from the bottle, shaking his head. "I am well, sir." He was not well, still grey and panting, but his color was by slow degrees returning, and his eyes clear; he had not taken real harm.
Washington set the bottle down, and himself took a seat; he looked over at the window, which yet showed Sir William Howe's council-chamber clear as though the two rooms had been indeed adjoined, and all the numbers of troops and positions laid out before them. "You have not attempted this before," Washington said.
"Nothing before," Hamilton said, still short of breath, and Washington's brow darkened.
"This was your first higher working?" he said, and rising paced the narrow width of the room thrice, while Hamilton fixed him with his gaze. Washington stopped again before the window, and said, "Good God, Hamilton! To begin so makes me doubt extremely your judgement even the while it removes all doubt of your abilities."
Hamilton steadied at last his breath. "I beg you to believe, sir," he said, "that no other considerations but the necessity of bringing the higher orders of the Art to bear in our cause, should have moved me to make so extravagant a demonstration. I have been a long while in my preparations for this endeavor, which I had intended to perform for you in another week's time."
Washington shook his head but did not answer for some time: he was looking at the troop positions, and comparing the numbers against his own; the Army at that time had been diminished by disease and desertion to scarce seven thousand men.
"This is a gift which cannot be refused," Washington said at last, low, "so I must trust that it is the will of Providence you should continue; but henceforth," he added, turning a fierce look on Hamilton, "you will inform me before you begin the preparation for any working whatsoever, even the most minor of cantrips; you are not to so much as mend your boots, or raise a witch-light, without my permission. I will husband you, sir, for I have no doubt that you will not husband yourself."
Hamilton's progress was afterward a closely guarded secret known only to Washington and a few of the other aides-de-camp; the rumor spread through the camp that on Colonel Tilghman's sickening, the General had banned further work: this rumor he encourag'd to spread.
Thanks to this circumspection, and Washington's caution, which refused throughout the spring all Hamilton's entreaties to permit him some direct action, the British had no thought of colonial wizardry: they set no wards upon even their most privy councils and messages, and though Hamilton might have been frustrat'd for being bound to mere intelligence-work, Washington knew Sir Henry Clinton was appointed the commander of their force, in General Howe's place, even before that gentleman himself.
Hamilton now had a small close chamber to his private use, the dressing-room off Washington's own, where he might carry on his work: the windows had been shuttered with paper and with wood, and shrouded in curtains, that no observer from without might glimpse even a brief flare of unnatural light, green or violet, or see some wisp of blue smoke. The servants were denied admission.
There was nevertheless an uneasy atmosphere throughout the house, noticable even to those who never climbed the stairs. Voices were heard at times calling, distant and urgent, which could never be traced to any source; and strange chills and fevers seemed to take the very walls, so a man might flinch if he set his hand upon a door-knob, finding it queerly hot to the touch.
"I do not know that I have done anything during the War," Mrs. Washington was known to say, afterwards, dismissive of the discomfort and risks which she ran in following the General in every winter camp, "for which I should have any claim to resolution, save that I slept three months together in a chamber alongside Colonel Hamilton's work-room."
A formal alliance with France was entered into, early that May: some few weeks later, Mrs. Washington's sleep was yet again disturbed, when Hamilton cracked the door of his chamber, and softly said, "Sir?"
Washington rose without a word and came into Hamilton's closet: the bedding was still bundled up in a corner, unused that night. On the narrow writing-desk, Hamilton laid before him a sheet of parchment, and onto this spilt a dram of some peculiar mixture of lambsblood and mercury. Murmuring, he held his hand above: the quivering liquid divid'd itself upon the page, and divided yet again, until it stood in some ten or eleven lines, and then abruptly he closed his hand and the droplets sank into the sheet and left a faint red tracery of words.
Washington bent over it, by the light of the candle. "As we had expected: he will withdraw from Philadelphia," he said, his finger upon the letters written by Clinton's hand. "And he lacks transports sufficient to go by sea."
At the council of war called to debate the prospects of an attack upon the British withdrawal, Colonel Hamilton officially figured only in the role of secretary: so well had the secret of his labors been kept, that most of those generals in attendance were entirely in ignorance of his capabilities.
General Lee spoke at length to disparage any attack as inconsistent with prudence, remarking pointedly, "For, gentlemen," he said, "let us not forget that these are British regulars, rested and in good order, under the command of a notable general, whose arts should certainly roll up our men in any direct confrontation: we must permit them to retire on New York, and merely harry them as best we may."
This unhappy proposal was received with broad agreement from many of the other gentlemen, I am sorry to report; and General Washington, who had looked for that degree of agreement in the quite opposite direction, did not at once choose to contradict them, but silently absorbed the advice without commitment, a hand covering his lips.
Hamilton showed no such forbearance. "I wholly reject, sir," he said angrily, leaning forward upon the table, "the supposition that our forces are still so much the weaker as you imagine: and as for General Clinton's arts, I have not the least hesitation in avowing our own capacity to meet them, even if the will to do so seems curiously absent."
Astonishment, indignation, met this outburst; General Lee reddened with choler. "You forget yourself, by God you do!"
"Do I!" Hamilton cried, and flung a look of reproach at Washington, which occasioned still more astonishment from the company, as seeming more deserv'd in the reverse.
"That is enough, Colonel," Washington said, and if by his own frown he meant to convey to Hamilton a private direction to be circumspect, the message went astray, or was flung away by its intended recipient; Hamilton rose in a passion.
"Are we to sit idly in camp, listening to musicales and parades, while our enemy marches away to safety not ten miles distant, for fear? It is insupportable!" he said, and flung his pen down and stormed from the chamber.
As a gesture, mere petulance, save that his departure was accompanied by a wave of darkness sweeping across the windows, and a roar of sudden thunder overhead which clap't so near it rattled the cups in the china-cabinet, and overturned a miniature upon the mantel.
This cloud pass'd with swiftness equally unnatural, and the sun showed again, but the generals sat unnerved and silent a moment by the conjunction of peculiarities, none of them quite certain which to first address. General Lee's vanity having been pricked so directly, however, he was quicker decided than the rest. "Well, sir," he said to Washington, "this is a damnable specimen of an officer! Very pretty behavior, upon my word -- I am sorry you should have been so mistaken in the buggering little shit as to take him into your staff -- He must be court-martialed at once."
Despite a coarseness of expression and an eccentric degree of slovenliness in his appearance, General Lee had at that time a great repute among our forces, for his long experience, much of it in foreign wars: he had been perhaps the more obvious choice, for commander-in-chief, and made little secret of his resentment at having been superceded in Washington's favour. He had passed the better part of the last two years as a British prisoner, having been taken by a British patrol with a handful of his guard after injudiciously separating from the main body of his forces during the retreat from New York.
Washington had lately arranged his exchange and release, hoping rather than expecting thereby to gain a valuable and daring field commander, as Lee's reputation would have had him, and to find his sulks and resentments muted after his long captivity. These thin hopes, it was already beginning to be plain, were not to be realized; one can well imagine Washington's feelings on the notion of yielding up so increasingly essential a tool as Hamilton, however in the wrong, to placate the temper of a man increasingly likely to be of no great service.
"The exhuberance of a young man is insufficiently important to pursue under the present circumstances," Washington said, and stood from the table. "Gentlemen, I thank you for your counsel: you will receive my orders shortly."
His tone of finality made plain he was done with the matter and the meeting, and his was not a mode which encouraged familiarity from subordinates: but Lee was not to be so easily repressed and stood to meet him.
"I do object, sir, I object in the strongest terms. What is to be made of the character of this army, when a puling poltroon will speak thus to his superiors, to his very commander-in-chief, with the most disgusting imputations of the courage of men, his betters, who have not spent the war in a damn'd sinecure -- "
"The character of this army," Washington said, interrupting, "will shortly be measured, for good or ill; and Colonel Hamilton's with it. That is all."
Lee, reading in this correctly Washington's intentions to hazard an assault, in the teeth of his advice, did not grow more temperate. "And by this I must suppose you intend, therefore, even to encourage such license," he said. "Well, sir; I will not lend myself to't: I will not, and for my own part, at least, I know how to answer insults like a gentleman."
Washington liked very little to explain himself in these conditions, and particularly when such explanations should lay before a greater part of the world what he had been at pains to conceal. "There are mitigating circumstances," he said, with great reluctance, "regarding Colonel Hamilton's service, which are not to be readily perceiv'd nor offer of easy explanation at the present time. You will oblige me, sir, by your forbearance in this matter."
Lee yielded, not unaware of the character which he should paint, in refusing the direct request of his superior officer; nor of the pleasure to be had in condescending to that same request, while sparing himself the hazard of a meeting. "As you ask it," he said, "if Colonel Hamilton should make due apologies, I will entertain them: I hope I am not an unreasonable man."
By thus placing Washington in the peculiar position of serving him almost as a second, required to procure him satisfaction, Lee gratified himself and by no means satisfied General Washington, whose temper while admirably restrain'd on most occasions was already much tried by the difficult conditions of the army, whose direction he had undertaken, and beneath that restraint was of a ferocious nature.
But Lee could not be answered, so the full heat of that temper was in force when Washington confronted Hamilton, who in any case was at least an equal party to the circumstances of his discomfiture. "What the devil do you mean by this?" Washington said wrathfully, abording him in his small chamber. "You were not asked to council to offer your opinions, even without insults added for leaven -- "
"Then perhaps I ought have been," Hamilton said, flinging the words with no undiminished temerity, "instead of old crones and midwives, bleating of caution; and yet," he added, his eyes kindling, "I blame them unjustly: if they are cautious they have some right to be so, when they are taught to think our own hands empty and our enemies armed to the teeth. Why ought they think us ready now to meet a foe whose gauntlet we have left upon the ground, months on end, long since the power has been ours to take it up? It is not their caution which has tied our hands!"
I scarcely need say that the General's feelings were by no means soothed by this answer. In a more judicious frame of mind, Washington would have perceived not only the bubbling-over of Hamilton's own frustrations, long pent-up, but the hectic color in his cheek. Or if he had been a wizard-master, he would have recognized the danger heralded by the thunderclap, by the pale cold gleam which was stealing over the walls about them; indeed, would have known long since that however much danger attended the excessive or too-hasty practice of the Art, equally great were the dangers of laying too much restraint, on a talent once fairly launched.
But Washington was in no mood to divine these perils, nor to seek excuse for Hamilton's outbursts, nor even to notice the changing light; as a river receiving fresh rains comes bursting its banks, his own rage overflowed and could find no vent but to seize on Hamilton bodily, and shake him, as easily as one man might another whom he overtopped by half a foot.
T'was an act, I hasten to say, which his better self at once reproached, and which should in a moment have broken the storm of his own anger and drawn repentant apology; but there was no opportunity. As he stood gripping Hamilton's arm, it grew insubstantial, and he was holding naught but air. "O God!" Washington said in horror, thinking Hamilton had vanished, as in a hundred legends of sorcerers disappearing from the world.
Then he looked again: the walls themselves were gone. He stood alone in a pale grey wood, trees of silver bark with barren black branches so entangled overhead as to hide the sun, if sun there were. There were no signs of house or even the encampment; distantly, as beyond some hill, a faint chiming of bells sang. He was wholly alone.
He had vanished.
The horror which Hamilton felt, on witnessing Washington's fading from view, which his own grasping hands did nothing to arrest, can perhaps be imagined. His own anger, in any case for the most part a wild confusion of the mind brought on by the confinement of his magicks, dissipated at once. A single staring moment pass'd, then he flung himself out into the bedchamber and stood panting and looking with desperation about, as though he hoped against reason to find Washington there.
With the army soon to begin its spring campaigning, Mrs. Washington had already departed for Mount Vernon; the room bore now a spartan and half-deserted character. A few garments, a few books, the General's overcoat draped upon a tall standing mirror: this was all. Hamilton leapt for the mirror and threw the coat aside: he prick'd his finger and with his own blood sketched a spell formed more from intention than from study.
The mirror quiver'd and hazed over: and through this darkling window Hamilton saw Washington. The general walked through a strange and gloomy wood on a narrow track which, it seemed to Hamilton, led into mist and came from mist. Washington's face was set and grim, and in one hand he bore a witch-light -- yellow for protection, but it threw an unhealthy cast upon him: he looked almost a waxen figure, or a corpse.
"General!" Hamilton cried, and placed his hands upon the glass as though to reach through and draw him forth, but naught answered: he had no longer the benefit of the the paroxysm of strength which had enabled him to perform, with no font of magic but his own native energies, so extraordinary a piece of enchantment. Washington looked round, as though he heard the cry, but plainly did not see. After a moment he turned to continue onwards, and began to fade from view into the mist.
Perhaps some remembered fairy-tale, or some instinct wakened by his work, warned Hamilton that this was a last opportunity -- that if he stood by and let Washington pass from his sight, all was lost. He turned and seized a scrap of paper and wrote upon it -- John -- I have gone after the General -- Conceal if you can our absence. This he folded and inscribed John Laurens and tucked it beneath the edge of the mirror. Then he set his hands against the glass, shut his eyes, and stepped through.
The forest grew darker and more forbidding as Washington went onward into it: nevertheless he continued on his course. He had no very great hope of escape, or rescue; and suspected worse: that he had been trapped, in this nameless land, not merely beyond those things but beyond the reach of time or disease or want -- in a Limbo without end. Death would be preferable; he did not fear to find it, if some danger lay ahead.
Bells and voices spoke from time to time, far off within the branches, or occasionally strange deep howling; but for the moment he kept the track, to be sure he had not gone in circles. The howls at least grew nearer, until at last he heard a horn blowing, eerie and shrill, and the undergrowth a little way ahead shook and parted as a hound burst out onto the path. No ordinary dog: its jaws dripped with iridescent foam, and its hide was black and glazed like enamel. Its great shoulders were massed unnaturally with muscle, and it grinned white teeth and crouching took a step towards him.
The howling surrounded him now on all sides: a hunting pack, it seemed to him, and a great company behind. He fought the desire for flight, which stole over him almost irresistible as the dogs and horns drew nearer: he was determined not to yield to so base an impulse, and clung to that determination even as his mind grew somehow clouded by a merely animal fear.
He held his ground, and cupping his witch-light between his hands spoke briefly, and fed it more of his strength. It brightened into a circle about him and the hound paused, suddenly wary; Washington felt his mind clear a little. He straightened as the rest of the hunt came forth, a company beautiful and terrible at once, whose faces he could never afterwards recall with any clarity. They regarded with loathing his witch-light, and spoke to him in thin cold voices like whistling through reeds, at first promising his safety should he lower it, then threatening his destruction. The force of their demand was like a storm bent upon him. He stood against it, feeling his strength go little by little, and prayed silently that his courage would not desert him, when it was spent.
A strange music came clamoring suddenly, from the woods, convoluted and discordant as pots jangling against one another -- and the host was distracted. They look'd round and frowning began one after another to ride away again into the forest, in pursuit of the noise. Taking heart, Washington held fast to his light until the hunters all had gone again, the hound pack slinking after, and only then released it, sinking in fatigue to his knees.
"Sir," a voice said, urgently, beside him, and Washington was distantly aware of a hand upon his arm. "We must away." Hamilton's face swam before him.
"Yes," Washington said, all he could manage; he could not rise. After a moment, Hamilton drew Washington's arm over his own shoulders, and staggering together they managed to gain their feet. They crept from the path and into the fastness of the wood.
Washington came back to himself as they walked. By degrees he became aware his breath had begun to mist the air before him, and a chill bit through his coat; the first flakes of snow began to descend. "Colonel, do you know where we are?" he asked, an effort to pierce his own weariness.
"No," Hamilton said, distantly; looking at him, Washington percieved a strange glitter almost o'erspread beneath his skin, echoing a similar quality in that inhuman company which had lately menaced him. "We draw nearer our own country," Hamilton added after a moment, turning towards him eyes gone a shade of blue not to be seen in any mortal. "If you recognize aught, we should turn towards it."
He spoke offhandedly, as though the subject began to be of little interest to him. "Hamilton!" Washington said sharply, and took him by the shoulders. Hamilton resisted the pressure of his hands with more strength than he ought have had. "Recall yourself."
Hamilton stood looking at him a little while and said, "I cannot, and bring us home." He paused, and then with an effort added, "Hold fast to me."
Washington heard it for what it was: a warning and an instruction. "Very well," he said, and clasped Hamilton's hand in his own.
Hamilton walked steadily beside him. He seemed e'en to draw breath but rarely, whilst Washington chose their path as best he could. There was a strange sense of familiarity to their route, as a path he had trodden before, though for a long time he could not name it: until at last they stepped round a curve, and met a low-hanging branch which he had to bend to clear. As he straightened again, he remembered, and halted: they looked on Valley Forge, not as they had left it, but as they had found it, in the bitter days of winter, before even the first of the huts had been erected.
Snow was falling ever more thickly now, and Washington felt his coat a poor barrier against the biting wind. There had been a storm, in those early days; in its icy grasp near two hundred men had died. He kept hold of Hamilton's hand and went onward, but soon he had nearly to bend double to make headway into the wind. Hamilton remained upright, he knew not how, seeming more a statue than a man.
A flutter of white caught Washington's eye: a tent, and recognized as his own; he had not himself taken quarters in a house until his men had all been under some cover. The wind howled, and nothing else had any familiarity. Washington turned into the tent, and drew Hamilton after him within.
The wind grew a little muted, but the chill diminished only insensibly. There was a narrow bedroll and a single camp lantern: the furnishings of his first hours therein. "Will any harm come from our halting to wait out the storm?" he asked Hamilton, who did not answer immediately. Washington repeated the question, and shook him: his limbs felt heavy and cold.
"Do as you wish," Hamilton said only, at last.
Washington pressed Hamilton down to the bedroll and lay down beside him, drawing the thin blanket above their shoulders. There was little warmth to be had even from their close quarters, but fatigue still weighted Washington's limbs, and his eyes shut almost without his will: he only remembered to close his hand about Hamilton's wrist.
He woke again, deep in dark. Hamilton was trying to draw away. The horns were blowing again, distant and inviting. "No," Washington said sharply.
"Who are you?" Hamilton said. "Let go of me."
"Colonel Hamilton," Washington said, "recall yourself: I am -- " he halted, perplex'd: Hamilton was reaching his other hand to him, curious and searching, stroking fingers down his face. Washington had not been shaved since the previous morn.
"I do know you," Hamilton said. "Washington. Why do you hold me? Let me go, and return to your sleep; you will wake home and among all your familiar shades. Let me go."
He tried again to withdraw his hand. Washington held a firm grip, and kept it even when Hamilton abruptly flung himself hard against his hold. This effort having failed, he did not again attempt to wrench free by physical force. Washington drew him down again to the bed, resistless, and lay across him to prevent his slipping away.
Hamilton sighed, and then smiled at him suddenly, a strange and half-cruel smile wholly unlike his usual brightness. He slid a hand beneath Washington's shirt and drew the tips of his fingers delicat'ly across his back.
The peculiar intimacy of the gesture would have provok'd Washington to rebuke: he had no thought of allowing that license from his young gentlemen, which they sometimes allow'd one another from excess of animal spirits, but as he opened his lips to speak his very flesh seemed somehow to catch a spark, in the wake of Hamilton's touch, and a shudder took him shoulders to knees almost violent in its force.
He gasped for breath, and in that moment Hamilton sought again to escape; when Washington pinned him, Hamilton stroked him yet again. "Will you?" Hamilton asked, with a note of curiosity. Washington would have refused, if he had breath, if he could have withdrawn without letting Hamilton escape. He tried to pin Hamilton's hands; Hamilton laughed from beneath him, and blew upon his throat, and Washington shuddered once again.
And then saw that where he held Hamilton down, a little healthy color touched his flesh: when Hamilton laughed, the glitter diminished in his eyes. "Hamilton," Washington said, uncertain, and put his hand a little higher on Hamilton's arm, where the sleeve had fallen back. Hamilton breathed in, and the color followed Washington's hand.
"Will you?" Hamilton asked again, and this time Washington thought he comprehended in the question a note of desperation.
Washington drew a breath and said, "Yes," and bent to kiss his mouth.
Hamilton opened his eyes to sunlight: a bough heavy with spring leaves hung overhead, and he heard nearby the coarse friendly laughter of soldiers at their morning ablutions; he pushed himself slowly sitting, an ache in every limb, and look'd to find Washington lying yet asleep beside him, pale and drawn, the roots of his hair in places touched with a white that owed nothing to powder.
They were concealed from general view only by a low stand of bushes, and the disorder of their garments and their persons was such as could not but excite comment. Hamilton hesitated, rubbing his face from weariness: he did not feel equal to any magicks, emptied of strength; then taking his handkerchief from his pocket he threw it in the air and spoke: the corners of the fabric stretched themselves wide, the material thinning as it descended back upon them, a gossamer veil.
Washington jerked awake; he and Hamilton stared at one another: "What have you done?" Washington said.
On the other side of the brush, the soldiers had paused a moment in their laughter; one said, puzzled, "What was that, boys?" and another, "Damn that cloud, it's cold as a witch's teat all a-sudden," before their splashing resumed.
Hamilton look'd with as much astonishment: the enchantment had drawn not an ounce of his own strength; he felt instead as refreshed as though, thirsty, he had come upon a clear wide stream running free, and cupped a handful of water to his lips. "I think -- I must have drawn upon the Army," he said, slowly.
The power to do so, of course, was the true heart of wizardry and the great danger which the British Army offered to the Continental in any battle met head-on: e'en the talents of the greatest solitary sorcerer could scarce equal a fraction of the might of a general, backed by his ordered men and so able to gather all their strength behind his Art.
"They have made you no oaths, nor bound themselves to you," Washington said, objecting: the forms of consent, while insufficient to hold men against an alteration of their will, were understood to be requir'd, to allow such a draft upon the strength of others.
With all the awkwardness attendant upon the situation, Hamilton looked aside and said, "To you they have," blushing for the implication, which at once present'd itself to view, that Washington had in his turn granted consent to Hamilton; save that lacking any official delegation of his authority, Hamilton could only have gain'd that consent thro' a more informal means.
The adventure was already receding swiftly into the realm of a dream only half-remembered, save, of course, for those parts of it which they both should most have liked to forget: the heat of mortal touch and desire, bright and vivid against the glittering pallid insubstantiality of the other lands. Washington pressed close his lips and drew himself to his feet; for an immediate alteration of the subject he inquir'd, "Can you tell what day it is?"
"No, sir," Hamilton said, equally stiff.
They returned to the house, at first by a circuitous, then a direct route, when they had been made sure by a few accidental meetings that Hamilton's concealment was good. Stepping in they found nothing out of the ordinary, the staff crowded about a table full of foolscap and ink, drafting letters; servants talking noisily in the kitchens; and on ascending to the bedchamber discovered Hamilton's note still upon the mirror, untouch'd. It was the self-same day, and their absence had gone unnoticed and unmarked, save before them the mirror was crack'd and mazed so that not even a sliver remaining showed a true reflection.
In later days, the shards were pieced out and sold, as talismans of a sort; a superstition which ill serv'd the purchasers, in delivering only strange and evil dreams. In one case, a man seeking to divest himself of the unfortunate item buried it near an orchard, and the tree which grew up over it was of silver bark. This gave no apples, but a small hard dark fruit like a cherry, which when eaten gave visions of the future and the past, showing that which the victim afterwards would have least wish'd to see; until President Washington hearing of it in later days gave orders it should be cut down and burnt.
Hamilton took off their concealment, and Washington going to the basin began to wash his hands and face meticulously, while Colonel Hamilton in equal silent mortification went into his small chamber to change his clothing. They exchanged not a word, beyond helping one another into their coats, and if Hamilton's hand by accident brushed the bare skin of Washington's neck, and drew therefrom a brief flush of heat, they neither of them remarked upon it.
"The General having arriv'd at that requisite confidence in my powers, to intend directing them 'gainst the enemy in the coming days," Hamilton said, "has made me free of the Army by his consent, privately."
He tried this explanation with anxious emphasis: the parts severally true, and yet in whole eliding the real truth of how he had come by so extraordinary a power unattended by any ceremony. But his fears were unmerit'd: Lafayette and John Laurens thought no more on't than to exclaim with martial delight, over the possibilities thereby unfolded, and to bend over the map.
The awkwardness of the situation in which the Colonel found himself had been not a little relieved by the urgent demands of the war, in offering at once divers occupations that tended to separate him from his commander, and a general distraction from all personal matters. Washington having announced his determination to indeed hazard an assault upon the British withdrawal, he had marched the army from Valley Forge in pursuit. The British were now in striking distance, in the environs of Monmouth, and Washington had judged the time ripe for attack.
Tho' placated by Hamilton's, it must be said most grudging, apologies, General Lee had resolutely maintain'd his opposition to the plan of attack, and on those ground had refused the command of the vanguard. This force was intended to engage the British rear guard, dividing their slow and drawn-out force and delaying their progress until General Washington might bring up the main body of the Army to confront them with a full attack. Lee's refusal had given Washington little pain, in providing him sufficient excuse to offer Lafayette the command in his stead, the Marquis also officially having the rank of major general, despite his youth and relative inexperience, by the wish of Congress to make compliments to the government of France.
A command more to the taste of that young officer is scarcely to be imagined, and having drawn Hamilton and John Laurens to himself for counsel, all three were passionately engaged in disputing the ideal tactics to be used in any of the various circumstances which might be encountered, when a messenger brought them news distressing at once personally and on more noble grounds. General Lee had evidently thought better of surrendering so great a possibility of laurels, and now demanded the command after all.
"So," Lafayette said, having laid down the letter, with a sober look.
"Are the fortunes of the Army thus to be driven by a -- " Hamilton stopped himself from a fresh indiscretion, before the interested messenger, and pressed his lips together until the soldier had been dismissed. "For all the awkwardness which it should produce, with Congress," he said then, intensely, "by God! I should not have given it him; what is Lee's excuse? What claims he might have had, to the command, surely he resigned in refusing it when first offered."
Lafayette, though as surely disappointed, avowed his determination to go to Washington at once and offer his services in any other capacity where he should be useful, whether properly suited to his rank or not. "I tell you, gentlemen, I shall not add to his cares," he said decidedly, "by a word of reproach: after all, General Lee is by no means only a political choice; he is my senior by far, and I cannot lay my own experience against his."
"No," Hamilton returned, the more bitter on his behalf, "you have not been laggard in retreat, and delivered yourself to the enemy's hands for the sake of making riot in a tavern while your force straggled along the road in poor order; you have not passed the war making ill-natured remarks of your commanding officer, nor putting your vanity before the cause."
Hamilton's friends were well accustomed to his flares of temper, and Lafayette clouted him gently on the shoulder. "You will come with me," he said, much to Hamilton's private dismay: he was by no means wishing to intrude himself upon Washington's presence, and had taken pains since the outset of the march to avoid it. "It must be our part to show we bear no rancor which should interfere with the performance of any duty which the General should please to give us: come, you know it is what you owe to your nation and your character."
They came to the pavilion which Washington had now made the site of his planning work, a-bustle with officers and men; they could not immediately speak to the General, seeing him that moment engaged in a conversation with General Lee. John Laurens leaned over to a lieutenant of his acquaintance and said, low, "So he has changed his mind, I gather?"
"Why, yes," the lieutenant answered, as ironically, "the situation is materially altered, you see: General Washington has devoted another thousand men to the force, and a new brigadier general: now General Lee feels it a respectable command enough to do credit to his consequence."
And then Washington turned and with a face too set to betray any emotion said, "Colonel Hamilton, if you please," and beckoned him over.
Hamilton flushed a little, but preserved his countenance; the same could not wholly be said of the purpling outrage of Lee's expression. "Sir, it is my honor to give you this," Washington said, and held out a folded paper, and, Hamilton having taken it in confusion, continued, "and to brevet you brigadier general: you will be serving in the vanguard."
"Your Excellency," General Lee said, in tones which left no doubt of his sentiments on the appointment, "I should wish to consult with you upon the matter of -- "
"Sir," General Washington said, interrupting, "General Hamilton will ride with you at the head of the second Maryland brigade, to answer whatever wizardries the British may throw in your way." This announcement occasion'd such surprise as to silence not only Lee but the pavilion entire; altho' the latter lost no haste in throwing up such a buzz of gossip and speculation as shortly outdid the previous level of noise.
Hamilton's own feelings on this occasion could scarcely have been more confused: the public acknowledgement of his work, long-awaited, could scarcely but gratify him; and in giving him a formal command, Washington had also provided an explanation for Hamilton's drawing upon the soldiery which might without any embarrassment be put before the world and free him to do his utmost. But to be placed under the command of one whom he at once disdained and disliked, could not but be an evil almost sufficient to outweigh the rest, and all the more so when he must consider it a reflection of Washington's desire to place him outside his own staff.
Those sentiments overpowered even the sense of reserve which had barred him from Washington's company. That night the vanguard was already encamped some five miles ahead of the main army, but Hamilton, having observed the disposition of those three small regiments placed under his command, and having spoken to the men, gathered both his courage and his composure and rode back to wait attendance on the General's tent, where he was at length admitted.
"That will be all, Lieutenant," Washington said, dismissing the young officer with him, who glanced at Hamilton with frank curiosity as he departed, leaving them alone. Washington seated at his desk, attending to a last few letters, his features lit and shadowed by the candles, was a presence palpable not only ordinarily but to senses Hamilton had only lately awakened, and not yet learned to name.
Washington squared his shoulders, and looked up at him with steady regard; the confusion of his own feelings not to be seen in any line upon his face, any nervous flinch of the hand. Nevertheless Hamilton perceived that confusion there, as a low discordant line running beneath the clear strong melody of Washington's presence. Hamilton was equally conscious of their solitude, the peculiar hesitation in the air as of a breath held before speaking fatal words, a sword waiting to fall; and also of the raucous voices of the whole encampment on the other side of the canvas, the shadows of the guards standing on alert outside the tent wall.
"Sir," he said, groping for words, "I should like -- I wish to express -- " He halted and imposed some order on his thoughts before proceeding, as though drafting a letter. "If any behavior of mine should have given rise to concerns," he said, "that I should prefer my present appointment to the previous, or that I should comport myself in that previous situation without -- without a certain requisite decorum -- "
He halted there: Washington had shaken his head.
"I have perfect faith in your conduct, sir," Washington said, and Hamilton had not even the liberty of doubting the remark, from the peculiar quality of the connexion which seemed evidently to stand between them.
"The appointment," Washington continued, "is made of necessity, which can in any case be the only excuse for my granting so extraordinary a promotion, over so many deserving officers of the line. Lord Cornwallis is commanding the rear guard, and by repute his skill in wizardry is second only to Clinton's. He will undoubtedly visit some attack upon the vanguard, when they are exposed to his reach, and you must be their shield before I and the rest of the Army can come up and engage."
Hamilton was silent. As swiftly as this, the appointment suddenly appeared before him in a new and sobering light: not merely the chance of proving his powers, the personal act of valor for which he had so passionately longed; but a grim responsibility for the lives and fortunes not merely of the men under his direct command, but of the vanguard entire and in a sense all the Army: and these, to be defended against all the powers of a wizard of superior training and twenty years' experience.
Washington, as able to read Hamilton's feelings as the reverse, said quietly, "Perhaps I ought say as well, that I should not have made the appointment save in the full belief that you are equal to the task. You are familiar with our tactics, and they place no reliance on great workings. If you can but blunt the direct force of his assaults, and leave our own men room in which to act, I have every hope that we shall carry the day, if Providence wills it. Do not suppose that I expect you to outdo such a man."
But now the peculiarity of the connexion caused them both a moment of fresh consternation, in the mutual realization that whatsoever he might say, Washington did expect Hamilton to outdo the enemy; that beneath a faith already heartening in its scope lay one still greater and more demanding, arising from some irrational and instinctive sense of his abilities.
Even Washington's control was not sufficient to the challenge of finding his own thoughts giving the lie to his words: he flushed and pressed tight his mouth, and Hamilton stood crimson in a struggle between gratitude and dismay.
"Is there aught you can do to remedy this -- ?" Washington said, adding an elliptical gesture with the listening guards in mind.
Hamilton was no less eager to close the discomfiting channel, but by no means confident in his powers to do so; he stepped to the desk, hesitating, and with a shrug to convey his doubts, took off his coat, and drawing up his sleeve held out his naked arm. Washington came around the desk and offered his own in imitation, and they both flinched in silence as they each clasped the hand of one around the forearm of the other.
Washington's jaw was set, with an expression that seemed one of pain and, Hamilton could not forbear knowing, in truth of an entirely different character. Hamilton was himself almost feverish with the sensation, sweat sprung out upon the back of his neck. They were desperately silent, breathing with mouths open, as Hamilton with shaking hand dipped his other finger into the inkwell and began to draw a symbol upon the back of his own wrist, where the pulse overlapped with Washington's.
The first stroke of the ink was nearly intolerable; the second borne only through the most heroic effort on both sides; the third broke them.
The cot stood against the side of the tent, silhouetted plainly by the candles upon the desk; they could not use it. They could not speak. They wrestled with their garments as cautiously as their feelings would allow, Washington's back against the desk and Hamilton before him, and the first guilty touch was nearly more relief than pleasure.
A few passing militiamen called out cheerfully and noisily to the guards, outside; the officer of the watch rang the bell; a horse not far off shrilled a whinny. All these passed distantly, half-perceived. Washington had shut his eyes, and though Hamilton's were open, they were fixed and unseeing, without focus. They clung to their silence as a raft flung about on a storm-driven sea, a hope of reaching safe harbor, even as Hamilton's hand settled upon Washington's back, over the base of the spine, and Washington gripped hard his shoulder, bare where the shirt slipped free.
Hamilton rode to battle the following day in a state of ferment not easily described. The heat of the morning was already extraordinary, and the atmosphere thick and heavy with moisture; weather for wizardry, men called it, and Hamilton could see his own men watching the darkening clouds ahead with apprehension and sidelong glances at him. Lee had placed his small brigade at the very rear of the order of march, and made plain his lack of confidence -- a circumstance which would have given Hamilton a great deal more pain if he had not been preoccupied by rather the excess of Washington's.
Of this and the rest of General Lee's extraordinary conduct at the Battle of Monmouth, the authorities are in doubt whether to lay it to treachery or incompetence, or a peculiar sort of vanity, which should have preferred to be first in defeat, than second in victory. The facts of the matter are however certain: after first failing to mount a concerted attack upon the enemy, after a scant few hours Lee ordered a retreat unjustified by the circumstances and so disorganized as to expose his men to all the force of the British rear guard.
Hamilton, isolated by Lee's own design and unaware of the general progress of the battle, had by then fended off half a dozen assaults drawn from the heavens, which would have flung lightning and torrent upon their positions: these instead had become brief cloudbursts, a relief from the day's heat and the regular volleys of spit-fire which came from the British ranks. The last of these assaults being abruptly withdrawn, Hamilton opened his eyes; he first saw the neighboring regiments withdrawing, and only then the messenger warily approaching him, with the order to retreat.
Of the subsequent events of the day, much has already been written: of General Hamilton's confrontation with Lee, who vengefully abandoned him and his solitary brigade to hold the retreat against the entire force of the British rear; of the sudden brief weakness which, striking the main body of the force, warned that Hamilton had been forced to some desperate effort, and brought Washington to the front in time to dismiss Lee and rally the fleeing troops to a fresh order, by sheer force of will.
And of the advance, and how the men found as they came nearer the line of battle strange shadow-companies moving along with them, figures which could only be glimpsed from the corner of the eye, some of which to this day linger in the road and can yet be faintly seen by travelers when the sun is high.
Hamilton's one brigade stood athwart the road, with their own shadows beside them; though a concert'd thrust by the British might have overrun them all, Lord Cornwallis had learned too much caution from the deflection of all his earlier workings, and swinging from one extreme to another, instead of fearing nothing in the way of American wizardry now feared more than he ought: a fear magnified by the utterly unfamiliar working, from no grimoire nor school, which Hamilton had crafted in desperation.
Neither had Cornwallis taken the opportunity to withdraw, perhaps feeling it indefensible in the face of a solitary brigade which he outnumbered ten men to a single one; but his hesitation and fear had communicated itself to his own troops, and when Washington and his fresh troops came up, accompanied by their own shadow-legions, the British line wavered, and fell back in disorder.
The victory at Monmouth began the swift unraveling of the British forces in the United States; but I will not try my reader's patience by reciting a sequence of battles to be found in every textbook. Less well-known is the immediate aftermath, where General Hamilton was found half-insensible in the midst of his troops, themselves nearly fainting from heatstroke and the drain upon their strength, nevertheless keeping in good order until the main body of the Army had overtaken them. Hamilton was borne to the rear while the attack continued: his working continued without his conscious will.
It is said, although perhaps not with ideal authority, that when General Clinton himself saw the shadow-legions advancing in the field, he told his aide-de-camp, "We will be out of this country in a year." He huddled the remaining portion of his army under a shield, until nightfall permitted them to make their escape under cover of darkness, abandoning behind them all manner of supply and munitions.
Washington came to Hamilton's bedside, after dark, and stooping by the cot kissed his brow and hand; Hamilton stirred and opened his eyes, which asked a question he was too exhausted to speak aloud.
"We have carried the day," Washington said. "Rest." He laid the hand back by Hamilton's side, and gave orders the cot should be carried from the hospital tents to his own.
The soldiers had already been pleased to look on their commander and his chief aide with easy fondness: the one tall, reserved, and cool; the other all mercury and heat, slim and short with high spirits; a cheerful study in contrasts. That fondness, after a certain initial unease, transferred itself without great difficulty to Hamilton's new role: the Congress was not slow in showering General Hamilton with all the laurels which a body of men, all of them sure to hang in the face of a British victory, could bestow, and at least nominally in recognition of his heroic stand, elevated him to the rank of major general and appointed him sorcerer-general.
He and Washington were henceforth nearly always to be found together, the remainder of the war; their horses side by side overlooking the field of battle, while Hamilton formed his workings and Washington direct'd them, developing together the essential division and co-operation between generalship and wizardry which has since proven the heart of a modern army. Though the precise degree of intimacy of their relations continues to be argued by scholars, it is certain that they remained on the terms of the most close friendship and trust the remainder of their days.