Lafayette had seen Alexander Hamilton appear ridiculous before but not, perhaps, so ridiculous as this, nor so disgruntled: he had planted himself as immobile as a fence-post outside the General’s tent and seemed to intend to stand at scowling attention there, rain streaming off the corners of his hat, until the trumpet sounded Judgment Day.
He had not called Alexander a friend for so long to miss the signs of his distemper. Like a good soldier, he was capable of prudence as well as bravery in the face of danger. He staked out a position across the way and discreetly observed this most curious phenomenon, confident that—Alexander being Alexander—he would not have to watch for very long before something explosive and thrilling happened.
“No, you may not enter,” Alexander said.
Ah: sweet victory. Although: that poor corporal. Perhaps being a hand higher than Alexander would provide him with some consolation, though also perhaps not, as Alexander had a way of ruthlessly cutting the objects of his displeasure down to somewhere below his own knees.
“This tent represents the last bastion of our fledgling country’s struggle for freedom.” Alexander drew his hand across the sodden cloth. “Look upon this tent flap as a maidenhead. It is not to be breached lightly and by you it is perhaps best not breached at all. Any information suitable for the General’s ears you may convey to mine, and I will deliver it at his convenience rather than yours. Do we have an understanding?”
“I only wanted to know what—” This devolved into whimpered mumbles.
Whatever it was, Alexander responded to it with a look so cold the corporal almost had to chisel himself out of the frost before bowing and scuttling away like a wronged crab.
Frowning after the poor boy, Lafayette dared to approach.
“He might have been awkward, Alexander, but—pot? Kettle.” He pitched his voice up. “‘I may have punched him, it’s a blur, sir.’”
“It’s very wet,” Alexander said, occupying himself with endeavoring to blow a raindrop off the tip of his nose. “He could have predicted my ill-humor. And Burr needn’t have passed on the story of our first meeting. Though it impresses me that he unbent himself enough to allow that he once did something so unequivocal as meet someone and have a conversation.”
“Yeah, then he said, ‘Maybe, I don’t know, I don’t remember.’” This was a lie: Burr had resorted to that side-step only after first claiming he could not understand Lafayette’s question (“because of your accent, no offense”) and then claiming he may have misunderstood Hamilton (“because of his accent, just off the boat and rather dense”). None of which had moved him any closer to Lafayette’s heart. He didn’t know what Burr was making of Baron von Steuben.
And he did not know what it meant that Burr pretended he couldn’t understand what he understood very well. But he was Alexander’s friend, and so Alexander’s problem.
One of Alexander’s problems, he should say, because his friend’s scowl had mellowed to a distracted frown. “On a scale of one to ten, how much did I bully that kid?”
“You forget that you have the capacity to terrify. Certain persons have never had the opportunity to hear you snore or see your eyes turn to saucers at the sight of candy.” Or see him vomit in an alley, straighten the ribbon in Laurens’s queue, or trip while dancing at his wedding. It didn’t seem polite to go into how not-scary his Alexander was, however. “They know your pen and your mouth and so think you inhuman, quite capable of anything.”
“I’ll write him a letter of apology. A brief one. And I don’t snore.”
This line of questioning was clearly a personal affront. “Laurens never said anything about it.”
“Oh,” Lafayette said, “if Laurens has not complained.”
“You’ve surely not come just to harass and scold me.”
“And remark upon your petit chou? No. What precisely are you doing, besides getting wet?”
The scowl returned, fiercer than ever. “His head aches, he’s resting, no one is to come in.”
“He’s never barred men from his tent before.” Alarmed, Lafayette tried to step around Alexander, only to be stopped firmly with a hand on his chest, and more firmly still by the sudden decidedly sheepish look on Alexander’s face.
“This may be more on, um, my authority. Than it is on his.”
Lafayette felt his mouth quirk. “I see. I understand perfectly, my dear Alexander.”
“I’m sure you don’t,” Alexander said stiffly.
“You might explain, then?”
Alexander was now turning a very delightful shade of dark puce. “He is not, contrary to popular sentiment, a marble statue given oratory—which I write!—and horsemanship. He is flesh. And the man has a headache. He’s had a headache for the last six days.”
“He hasn’t said—”
“I watch him rub his temples, pinch the bridge of his nose. It’s the stress, these things I know, and what’s more, his shoulder’s paining him again. I’ve taken on as much of his correspondence as is feasible but what he needs is a brief spell of quiet without the infernal din of supplicants.”
“So you didn’t press your advantage against his tender head and ill health to again ask for a command, then.”
“Okay, I’m not a supplicant, I’m his right hand! Anyway, if I didn’t ask, he’d think he was dying.”
“True,” Lafayette said. “And for the record, exactly what I thought, so I have, in fact, understood you perfectly. I would do just the same.”
“Yes, but you would do it out of sentiment.”
“Ah. You standing in the rain to save him from bother—sentiment does not enter into it.”
“None whatsoever.” He fitted his hands under his arms and stood embracing himself, shivering a little with the cold. “I’m glad we understand each other.”
“You’re planning to eat at some point?”
“Not if food does not come to me at my current position. If, however, a sheep wanders by, slaughter it immediately and we’ll have mutton. Failing that, another idiot corporal, and we’ll have lamb. But only if it comes to us here.”
“So utterly devoid of sentiment.”
“This is not sentiment,” Alexander said. “This is loyalty. My sentiment is reserved for my friends: a personal attachment to the General is out of the question. He’s stubborn—”
“By which you mean he has not yet given you what you wanted.”
“—and altogether frustrating in every respect.”
He could not truthfully say he had never known Alexander to be this obstinate, but he hadn’t been so frustrated by it before: this was what would come of one attachment warring against another.
It pained him just a little to see Washington’s every advance of affection so thoroughly, haughtily, and uncharacteristically snubbed; he allowed for differences of temperament, of course, and did not expect all his dearest friends to be dear to each other, but that Alexander should stand such a mulish and unequivocal watch over the General’s door and yet insist on having no place for him in his heart baffled him. It seemed almost English in its perversity. Worse: potentially Burr-like.
Nevertheless, he rallied: “I could, perhaps, stand with you? If we keep our conversation low, we will not disturb mon cher petit général, and I’ll stop you from breathing fire at anyone.”
“You may keep me company,” Alexander said, with the tone of one graciously granting a favor.
In the end, their labors yielded for the General two undisturbed hours and might have yielded still more had Alexander not started sneezing. That was where Lafayette drew the line, purely out of self-interest: it had been a record-breaking month since Alexander had last caught a chill, and he wasn’t going to be responsible for rewinding that clock. He weighed his options and at last nudged his boot-heel back into the tent flap and said, with uncharacteristic volume, “Don’t let this rain make you fall ill, Alexander.”
In no time at all, the cry of “Hamilton!” issued from the tent.
Alexander rewarded Lafayette’s friendship with an accusatory look that all but assigned Lafayette to a place beside Brutus in Dante’s hell and simultaneously informed him that he would be telling Laurens and also Mulligan and also Adrienne about this craven act of disloyalty.
Lafayette was unmoved. “Scowl less.” If Alexander fell ill on his watch, he would have to answer to Laurens, and it was a short-sighted fool who thought Alexander’s wrath worse than John Laurens’s. Let alone, if they were bringing wives into it—and why not? A very French thing to do—Eliza Hamilton’s.
“We will have words about this,” Alexander hissed.
An unintimidating prospect: Alexander had words for every person and occasion. The lovely Eliza had somehow convinced Mulligan to scatter rose petals at her wedding: Lafayette knew perfectly well which Hamilton he feared more.
He smiled in semblance of apology and pushed his friend inside the tent. The day otherwise lacking in entertainment, he then followed along.
He could see at once that Alexander was right: Washington was not at his best. He still had one hand up to his temple, fingers dug in, and the warm gold undertone of his skin had turned comparatively gray.
More than that, he sounded tired. “Why is it whenever I call one of you, I get a company of two at least?”
“I am beset by the French.”
“He grows so hurtful when he’s been thoroughly doused,” Lafayette said. “Have a seat, Alexander.”
“I don’t want to sit!”
“Chair, Hamilton,” Washington said.
Alexander dropped himself into the chair and glowered at everyone and everything in the tent, excepting only his own stack of papers, which he graced with a look that was almost a caress. It was a miracle he’d found himself wedded to anyone or anything but a quill. Sullenness seemed to radiate off him like rolling plumes of smoke.
Lafayette, allowed to stand, took the opportunity to wring out his cuffs, politely steering the gutter-run of rainwater free of Alexander himself.
“Is there some strategy behind your decision to stand in the rain?”
“It did not escape my notice that the marquis was with you,” Washington said, “and if I have a question about his actions, I will direct it at him. You will answer those directed at you.”
“Excellency,” Alexander allowed.
Washington inclined his head. “What informed your taking up post outside my tent?”
“You were not to be disturbed.”
Washington looked at him. “Did you just try to phrase your personal inclination as though it were an order I’d given you? To me?”
“Ha. Very astute observation, sir.”
“And in this order I did not give you, why was I not to be disturbed?”
“My health? Son—”
Just like that, the atmosphere turned as though before a storm: Alexander raising his chin was like the sky turning green and yellow just above them. Lafayette moved forward as if to take a bullet for one of them—he had not yet decided which, if it could not be both—and brushed his fingertips against Alexander’s shoulder. His friend shrugged off the touch angrily.
“If I’m to rally your resources, you, sir, are surely one of them. And your intransigent—”
“Your intransigent refusal—”
Their general, too, had a temper if roused, and he considered himself well and truly provoked by this; it was as if he grew taller every second, looming more and more over Alexander in the chair. Lafayette rubbed his face. He had never seen two people fight so fiercely over each one not wanting the other to grow ill. A minute under fire from an unrestrained Washington would ordinarily have reduced any man in the camp to tears and quivering, but Alexander fed on it: even after his small allowance of self-preservation came into play and he shut his mouth, he sat in his chair with every muscle clenched, resentment thick about him like a smog. It fed him, somehow. Beneath the anger in his eyes was almost relief: Yeah, that’s it. Smack me down on this, and everything will be okay.
As if he could rise up even if not allowed up off the mat until the bell was rung.
Lafayette did not understand it.
“Dismissed,” Washington finally said. “For the entirety of the afternoon. If I glimpse you, you’ll be on horseback and headed home before nightfall, where it is my fondest hope that your wife will provide you with the good sense you yourself seem to lack.” He met Lafayette’s eyes. “I can hardly describe either of you with pleasure at the moment. Dry what you can of your clothes. Lafayette, a word.”
“Sir,” Hamilton said, and exited with a jerk of his head that could not qualify, to anyone, as a bow.
Washington let him depart. The tent almost had the odor of cordite in his absence, as though there had been gunfire.
“It occurs to me,” Washington said, motioning Lafayette into the chair, “that in all that, he succeeded in distracting me from the central issue. What are his concerns for my health? Do not try to convince me you don’t know.”
He wouldn’t dream of it. “He cited your headache and some pain in your shoulder. Rheumatism?”
Washington did not touch it then, as another man might, in remembrance or demonstration: he wouldn’t admit pain in such a manner. He did not address it at all. “That is hardly a concern fit for an aide-de-camp.”
“He isn’t only a hand that wields a pen in your name.”
“No,” Washington said. “No, I hardly thought that. But I did not think—” He sighed, and age settled into the lines of his face. “That is not his responsibility.”
“Nor mine, except affection makes it so.”
“His approach to the issue did not seem overburdened by affection.”
“No,” Lafayette admitted. “I cannot reason his heart or his actions. But whatever compels him to stand in the rain to glare away the passerby from your door, so that you may have quiet… is not nothing, sir.”
There was some movement on his general’s lips: they mustered, wearily, towards a smile. No kids of my own, he’d told Lafayette in the earliest days of the war.
By now, having gradually adopted each other, they both knew better. Lafayette liked having a father as well as he liked having brothers; perhaps Hamilton could content himself with being only liberty’s son, but he couldn’t do the same.
Washington waved him off. “You need not linger. He’ll want to drink with you, if you can scrounge up spirits, and curse my name, which he may do if he likes.”
Lafayette stood. “It is only to say—I think he is a son to you.”
“From my eyes.”
“From his own actions.” He could not shake the sight of Alexander mired willingly in the rain and cold he so loathed. There was something in it all too serious for words, and he couldn’t have managed it in English in any case. “For what that is worth, mon cher petit général.” And he smiled, with all the charm he could provide.
He could provide quite a bit: Washington seemed to be cheered by him, a trifle at least, and Lafayette took that warmth back out into the rain with him like a candle that would not be drowned out. Try to get that from liberty.
He found Alexander sulking in his own tent—stretched out across his pallet, dark hair out of its queue and drying onto his pillow, looking like a spill of ink—and nudged him gently with his boot.
“Don’t kick me,” Alexander said. “I. Am having. A day.”
“You’re the greatest fool I’ve ever known,” Lafayette said, abandoning English altogether.
Alexander sat up. “That cannot possibly be true. The other day, John—”
“He could not want a better son than you—”
“—yet you throw tantrums at the word.”
“That damned word,” Alexander said, “will be the end of all my ambitions, if he keeps on with it. I’m not a child, not his child, and I will not have either said, to diminish my accomplishments or slander his good name. I’m here at all—standing on soil I would die to claim—because of merit, because I wrote my way to renown. If Nevis had loved me enough to hold me close, the people’s love would have been an arm across my throat. I won’t have it. Not from anyone. When I win this, and I will win this, I will not have history say that out of a father’s affection, he gave me a token position, some sedate command far from action, just to give me satisfaction. I will be necessary, damn it, or I’ll be nothing.”
His eyes were very bright: stars looking for a constellation.
Lafayette gave up on it all. “Your hands are shaking.”
“It’s the cold.”
“Here,” Lafayette said, offering his own. “If you will accept affection from me.”
Alexander nodded, and Lafayette clasped his hands tightly, chafing warmth back into them. Alexander’s fingers still twitched in fits against his—more words he would write, more triggers he would pull, if they would only let him go to give him a chance. Nevertheless: take a break.
“You are very necessary to everyone,” Lafayette said. Something occurred to him. “Hey, when you said you will ‘win this,’ did you mean your command or the war?”
Alexander blinked. “Both.”
“Ah. Will you remember us, when you single-handedly defeat the British?”
He appeared very offended by this slight against his honor: “Of course.”
Lafayette relinquished Alexander’s hands to pat him on the cheek. “Then we will all be very happy, your work dad included.”
Alexander rolled his eyes and bobbed out from underneath the touch to collapse back onto his bed. “May God deliver me patrons and deliver me from family,” he said. He was blushing.