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The Trial of the Century

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Richmond, Virginia

July 1807

Sticky, chocolate covered fingers hover over the white knight on the chess board. Young Aaron’s piercing eyes peeked up at Burr from under his shaggy dark fringe. His grandson sought a hint for the wisdom of the move he was contemplating, Burr understood.

“Think it through, Gampillo,” Burr said as he rummaged in his pocket for a handkerchief. Theodosia has already scolded him for spoiling the boy with too many sweets. His grandson’s hand retracted slightly from the knight as his eyes scanned the board once more. Burr reached out to wipe the evidence of the chocolate square from the boy’s fingers and face.

Aaron squirmed backwards in his chair.

“Here you are, then,” Burr granted, handing the handkerchief over.

“Papa?” Burr glanced up guiltily at his daughter as she entered from the foyer. Her gaze swept briefly over her son’s chocolate stained fingers, prompting a fond shake of her head. She then returned her attention to her father, her expression turning inscrutable. “You have a visitor.”

He frowned. Who would be interested in paying him a social call at a time like this? Theo wouldn’t allow just anyone entrance to gawk at the so-called traitor, surely. His mouth parted to ask the identity of this unexpected guest, but a commotion in the hallway interrupted the thought. One of the decorative tables in the foyer had been upset, by the sound of it, the thud of ceramic on wood carrying in along with the squeaky whine of a wheel in need of oiling.

“Careful, Robert.” The soft voice had a slight rasp to it, but Burr recognized it immediately regardless.

Hamilton.

Burr felt his heartbeat quicken. He rose from his seat, then stood in place, feeling awkward and wrong footed at the abrupt appearance of a man he thought never to see again. What could Hamilton possibly want?

The front of the chair appeared first, blanketed feet resting motionless on the footrest as the bulky chair struggled through the narrow door. Theo moved to hold the door open as wide as possible. When at last the chair bumped over the divider on the floor, he looked upon Hamilton for the first time since that cursed morning at Weehawken.

Hamilton had been both absent and omnipresent to Burr for the length of his long convalescence. His hair had gone wholly gray in the intervening years, and wrinkles were prominent in his thin, haggard face. A hint of mischief still twinkled in his eyes, however, matching the quirk of his lips as he examined Burr in turn. Hamilton was enjoying this, Burr realized.

Burr remained frozen in place, his lips still slightly parted, searching for something to say. Should he be apologetic? Irreverent? Friendly? Hostile?

It was Hamilton who broke the silence, and his first words weren’t directed to Burr at all. Attention  on Theo, still holding the door, Hamilton said, “Thank you for your assistance, my dear.”

“I’m glad to see you so well, Mr. Hamilton.” Hamilton’s charming smile was mirrored on Theo’s face. She stooped down to the chair and placed a friendly kiss to Hamilton’s cheek, then waved a hand towards her son. “We’ll leave you to your business.”

“Traitor,” Burr mouthed when Theo caught his eye. She looked not at all amused at the little jest. The potential death sentence seemed to have robbed her of her sense of humor. 

As she swept from the room, Aaron in tow, Hamilton turned that charming smile on him. “I heard you were in need of a good lawyer, Mr. Burr.”

A disbelieving chuckle forced its way out of Burr’s chest. The gall of him, to refuse all communication, then appear when the trial of the century presented itself.  “Did you, now? Your intelligence was mistaken. I have plenty of lawyers, in fact. Six in all, including myself.”

“I’m certain I’m better than any of them. Especially you.” Burr laughed again, more genuinely this time. “Are you really in any position to refuse help?”

He can’t deny the truth of the statement, but he needn’t admit to it out loud. Instead, he asked with some incredulity, “Did you really travel all the way here on an assumption that I’d require your assistance? And does Mrs. Hamilton know you’re here? She must be beside herself.”

“Such concern for my wife, suddenly,” Hamilton charged, his brow raised. Burr shrank back slightly, a niggle of guilt beginning in his chest at the thought of the pain he’d caused Eliza. “She came with me, for the record. I was on business nearby, anyway.”

“In Richmond?”

“Philadelphia. Richmond isn’t much farther to travel.” That was a patent falsehood, and they both knew it. “So?”

“Why would you want to help me?”

“Because I dislike Jefferson more than you,” Hamilton said.

A rueful smile began on Burr’s face. “If only you’d come to that realization a few years ago, so much unpleasantness between us could have been avoided.”

“Oh, I still don’t think you should hold power.” Burr frowned heavily as Hamilton gave him a dismissive little wave. “But I’d hate to give Jefferson the satisfaction of putting you to death. He’s sounding more and more the vengeful tyrant every day.”

“Shouldn’t I be put to death? Fomenting rebellion in the West is treason, is it not?” 

“Are you guilty?”

It’s a good thing Hamilton rarely handled criminal matters, Burr considered, as he sank back into his seat and invited Hamilton closer. Hamilton’s servant obliged, wheeling the chair nearer. “You should know better than to ask a criminal defendant such a thing, Hamilton.”

“I never ask clients questions I don’t already know the answer to,” Hamilton retorted.

“Oh?”

“That you had designs on Florida and Mexico, I believe readily enough. I had thoughts of taking Florida for the United States myself once upon a time.” Burr smiled at the admission. “But Jefferson’s theory that you meant to use that plot as a cover for inciting rebellion in the Western states, that you might ride into the federal city and usurp the rightful government, smacks more of a deranged fever dream than an actual charge.”

Burr inclined his head. “I quite agree. As could the grand jury. Martin thinks they might decline to indict me, which would save us the whole business of a trial. You may have wasted a trip.”

Hamilton scoffed. “Of course they’re going to indict you. It’s a grand jury—they’d indict a loaf of bread if the prosecutor laid it before them.”

“Three grand juries before them declined,” Burr pointed out. “Two in Kentucky and one in Tennessee.”

“You’re being judged by Virginia gentlemen now, not the toothless, riotous simpletons of the back country.”  

“You know, it’s a wonder they don’t like you out there,” Burr said dryly.

Hamilton hummed, unconcerned. “Marshall is sensible, though. He’ll want to find in your favor. You need to give him reason to do so. The only real evidence for the prosecution is Jefferson’s imperial declaration that you are guilty beyond a doubt. That’s nothing in a court of law. The Constitution requires an overt act of war levied against the United States, observed by two separate individuals. As I understand it, you weren’t even there during the whole business on Blennerhassett Island. Does Wilkinson have any other circumstance to use against you?”

“My counsel is well aware of all this,” Burr said, ducking the question. “Why should I let you have the glory of arguing the case?”

Hamilton smirked as he gestured to his motionless lower half. “You’re right. For what could you possibly owe me a favor?”

“So it’s a favor, now? I thought this was for my benefit?”

Hamilton shrugged carelessly. “However you’d like to see it.”

“And you presume that I feel inclined to make amends.”

“I presume nothing.” Hamilton’s expression softened perceptibly. “I know you wish to make amends. I saw the regret on your face the moment I fell. You tried to run to my side; you would have, had Van Ness not caught you by the arm and forced you away.”

The scene overwhelmed Burr’s vision for a moment, the sun-dappled ridge, the smell of gun powder, Hamilton rising up on his toes before sinking downwards, a red stain spreading across his belly. He hadn’t meant to hit him, not really. He’d wanted vindication, an apology for the awful things Hamilton had said, not Hamilton’s death.

The hours, days of waiting, praying, that followed had been harrowing. Even when it was announced that Hamilton would not die, Burr hadn’t been safe in New York. A warrant went out for his arrest on the charge of dueling, though none had been issued against Hamilton. He’d fled Southward to safer ground, and hadn’t yet returned home.

“I would have paid you a call,” Burr began, the apology that had lived in his chest beginning to bubble out. “The timing didn’t seem appropriate. And then I had to leave—”

Hamilton sliced a hand through the air to cut off the explanation. “I wasn’t in any condition to receive you then anyway.”

They shared a long, quiet moment.

“You need me,” Hamilton insisted, jumping back to the topic at hand. “Your counsel is more than competent. I’m sure they will be able to convince Marshall and the jury that the prosecution lacks evidence to convict on such a serious charge. But a not guilty verdict won’t mean much if it appears to have been won on a technicality. You’ll win in the court of justice, but not in the court of public opinion. Then what? Flee back to the West, or to Europe?”

“And you’ll win over the public?” Burr can’t help the skeptical tone in his voice. Hamilton’s never exactly been popular with the people, outside of the passage of the Constitution and the first few months after his catastrophic injury.

“Jefferson’s people are lost to you, whatever you do,” Hamilton said. “But my support can win forgiveness from the Federalists. You could come home to New York.”

Burr hated just how good that proposal sounded.

“If they indict me,” Burr decided, emphasizing the first word, “We’ll talk.”

**

Burr fumbled in his pocket for the card with Hamilton’s current address scrawled across the back in his familiar, sloping hand. Two guards trailed behind him, allowing him one last stop before taking him to Luther Martin’s where he was to remain under house arrest. He was keenly aware of his conspicuousness as people peeked around curtains to watch his progress down the street. 

“I’m surprised you’re not staying with Marshall,” Burr had remarked when Hamilton had jotted down the address for him.

“He offered,” Hamilton had replied as he finished penning the Broad Street address with a flourish. “But it seemed rather a conflict of interest given what I was in town to do.”

Matching the number on the card to that of house before him, Burr took a steadying breath and tapped his cane against door twice. Theo had been the one who insisted he call on Hamilton. Now that the grand jury had handed down an indictment, the threat of death loomed large over them all, except for his dear little Gampy, who remained happily oblivious.   

A servant admitted him to a small parlor to wait. He paced anxiously for several minutes, painfully aware of his armed escorts waiting just outside, until he heard voices in the next room. Peeking his head out the door, he saw Hamilton and Eliza in the larger parlor across the way. Hamilton was bent forward in the chair, his arms braced against his knees, as Eliza tugged up his shirt to reveal his back and scooped something out of a small jar with her fingers.

“You’re in pain,” Eliza was saying, her expression severe. “Doctor Hosack said to apply the analgesic cream when you first feel a twinge, so it won’t get worse. And frankly, I don’t much mind keeping that man waiting.” The reference to Burr dripped with a loathing of which he hadn’t imagine the normally sweet, friendly woman capable.

Hamilton grimaced as his wife smoothed the contents of the jar gently over his spine. Her hand seemed to linger longer than necessary, savoring the touch. At last, she readjusted the shirt into place and moved to assist her husband back into his usual position.

“I can do it,” he snapped with an edge of frustration. She stood back patiently while he struggled to adjust himself up in the chair. The effort seemed to leave him mildly breathless.

“Hey,” she said softly when he was settled, prompting him to look up at her. Leaning down, she fussed with his blanket, and then pressed her lips to his in a slow, loving kiss. When she pulled back, her hands cupped his face in a gesture of cherishing adoration. “I love you.”

A smile tugged at his lips. “I love you, too.”

His gaze shifted towards Burr a moment later, and the smile disappeared. Eliza turned towards him as well, her eyes narrowing at the sight of him. Burr retreated back into the small parlor, uncomfortable at having witnessed the private moment.

The progress of the wheelchair towards the smaller parlor was audible. Burr remained standing, leaning on the mantle, while Eliza guided the chair into place opposite an arm chair. Hamilton tilted his head back to look at her.

“Could you give us a few minutes?”

“No,” she said, firmly.

“Betsey,” Hamilton sighed, a note of amusement entering his tone, “I hardly think I’m in any danger. What do you think he’s going to do to me in the middle of the parlor at three in the afternoon?”

“I never expected Mr. Burr would do anything to harm you.” Accusation and betrayal laced her words. Her hands rested protectively on the back of her husband’s chair as she spoke. Burr’s eyes went to the floor like a chastened child. “I have no interest in giving him the opportunity to prove me wrong again.”

“It’s fine,” Burr assured them both. “I'll only be a minute. I just came to say, well, to ask.…” He pushed out a breath. “The grand jury handed down an indictment. I'm to be held under house arrest at Martin's during the trial.”

Hamilton nodded, unsurprised.

“I need your help.” Burr couldn’t look at Eliza as he said it. He waited, half expecting Hamilton to grin or to gloat.

Instead, Hamilton gave him a reassuring smile. “It would be my pleasure, Mr. Burr.”

The relief that fluttered in his chest surprised him. He didn’t need Hamilton to assure victory in court, he knew. But his help promised something more than dodging a death sentence. The promise of forgiveness, of home, resided in Hamilton’s open expression. Unable to articulate the soaring feeling inside him, Burr managed only a whispered, “Thank you.”