The study in his New Windsor residence was both cramped and drafty; swept free of dust, the workmanship of the desk and shelves was revealed to be rudimentary and displeasing to the eye. Its only redeeming feature was the window overlooking the long blue stretch of the Hudson. Here the general sat, mornings and evenings, and applied himself to the business of war.
He had been awake for two hours and had the pleasure of seeing his stack of papers awaiting attention shrink by half when a small commotion of voices and steps coming from downstairs alerted the general to the presence of a visitor.
Moments later a knock sounded sharply and Hamilton stepped inside. The general rose, setting aside his papers, and took in the fact of him, there in the doorway. Hamilton had not waited to be granted permission before pushing the door open.
It had been four weeks. Hamilton’s council would be welcome.
“Good morning,” Washington said. “I heard that you and your wife were staying in the area. Did you hire a carriage?”
“I came in a rowboat,” Hamilton said briskly, closing the door behind him.
“A rowboat.” The general sounded out the syllables with all the gravity and deliberation that a man accustomed to leading war councils could summon.
“Yes, your excellency, a boat. I rowed,” Hamilton explained.
“This meeting must be very urgent then,” the general said.
Washington had on many occasions had reason to be grateful for Hamilton’s ability to summon such authority as would befit a man far greater in age and stature, but turned upon his excellency himself, it grated.
He sat, and indicated with a finger that Hamilton should take the other chair.
Hamilton seated himself and continued: “I’ve come to state once more my request for a field command--” The general’s eyes narrowed. “--and to discuss my role in the campaign more generally. Now that my talents must be applied outside the family, so to speak.”
“Now that you’ve quit my staff, you mean,” the general said.
“Yes,” Hamilton said. “As you say, sir.”
“I have made it clear to you,” the general said, “that I regret my words, and that your faculties are such that you will always have a place by my side. Should you wish it.”
“Yes, sir,” Hamilton said, conciliated.
“This notwithstanding the disrespect you have paid your commander in both manner and tone.”
Hamilton twitched visibly and allowed himself several seconds to collect himself before responding.
“I cannot regret my departure,” he said. “But the manner of it is not what I would have wished.”
Washington nodded slowly. “Perhaps,” the general said with carefully suppressed distaste, “we should talk.”
“Sir,” Hamilton said, low and urgent, “you know my request. I await your response.”
The general drummed his fingers lightly on the table and frowned, pensive. “I fear only that no matter my decision, you will misinterpret my motives.”
Hamilton made a scoffing noise and leaned forward further, dragging the chair with him so that it scraped across the floor. “You forget that I have become fluent in your idiom, sir, having employed it in writing for the past four years. I know the shape your words take when a barb is blunted, as I do when well-deserved praise is muted in order to manage the tremendous egos of the personalities we deal with.”
“And which is this?” Washington inquired.
“That remains to be discerned.”
Safe within the confines of his own mind, the general cursed fluently. They watched each other closely.
“Hamilton,” he tried again. Alexander leaned forward at the warmer tone, something like hope in his eyes. “You want to make something of yourself. I see much in you that, with sufficient nurture, could become great.” Washington reached out his hand to clasp Hamilton’s knee. Hamilton jerked back.
“I will not consent to rise up through the ranks on the merit of your misplaced condescension,” he said stiffly.
Washington drew his hands back into his lap. “Be that as it may, you’ll rise when you’re permitted to and no sooner.”
“Clearly,” Hamilton said.
“My goal is to win this war, not to indulge your wishes for personal glory.”
“If only you had been able to say the very same to Charles Lee,” Hamilton said, “Or any other of the incompetent buffoons who swell the ranks of the senior officers.”
“Watch your tone, Hamilton.”
“I have earned this chance.”
“By quitting the position in which you were invaluable to me?”
“By my dedication, by my record in the field. I have done my time.”
“I see,” Washington said slowly. He breathed out, reached for his carefully measured store of patience, and found it empty. “You’ve always had the capacity to surprise me, Alexander,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons I kept you around. But your latest strategy of marching out of a room, slamming the door behind you, and then flinging yourself at it from the outside is not only perplexing; it is exhausting.”
“An imaginative metaphor, sir.”
“You exhaust me,” Washington said. The cramped room, the bitter words, the aides he must cajole to take on some of Hamilton’s prodigious workload. The furious resolution in the set of Hamilton’s jaw now as they faced each other.
“Tell me, Alexander,” the general said, with deceptive calm, “which spectre haunts your mind. Is it the notion that I desire to keep you close to me out of paternal affection, or that I withhold the appointment you desire because I believe you incapable?”
“Both,” Hamilton spat. “I could suffer both of these indignities for a time though it cost me, yet should the two appear in concert I could hardly stand it.”
“Is that so,” the general said. He was quiet for a while, while Hamilton fidgeted in his chair. Hamilton’s jaw was clenched tight and he glanced fleetingly towards the door, his distress growing ever more apparent.
Hamilton, with some effort, met the general’s eyes. “I take it that I have disappointed you, sir.”
“No,” the general said.
“Then the matter is worse than I thought, for I have earned your pity,” Hamilton said decisively. “Forgive me, sir. That was never my aim.”
“Good god, Alexander!” Washington stood, irate. “Pity me, I beg you: I stand before the world with all the hopes of our fledgling union on my shoulders, while the forces of nature unite to impede our army; I must beg for coin from a shambolic assembly of dim-witted, self-interested fools; but when I sit down to work on these unpleasant tasks, I am interrupted to face once more the unremitting persistence of a young man no longer in my employ who feels so entitled to my time that he has acquired a small wooden boat!” He pounded his fist upon on the table, displacing a few papers.
“The boat,” Hamilton said, and rose hastily to his feet. “The boat is hardly of import, your excellency, unless it is to prove that I will stop at nothing to secure a command.”
The general’s hand was still clenched into a fist on the table. “I should very much like to be in your employ, sir,” Hamilton said more softly. “A position in the vanguard force, perhaps, that will be sent south.”
A low exhale. “Of course,” Washington said. “Well, Hamilton, if your goal was to make your desires clear, you have done so admirably.”
“You understand, then, that I desire only for my merits in the field to be considered, and that - personal feelings are not at all pertinent,” Hamilton said quietly.
“I understand very well.” Now that the general had cast aside his mask of impassivity and his anger had been set loose to scorch the air and then fade to nothing he felt wearied, as tired as if he had worked a full day though it was not yet noon. His temple was throbbing.
“My request requires further consideration, I take it.”
“Yes, Hamilton,” the general said, “I will consider your request.”
Hamilton recognized the dismissal, nodded respectfully and put on his coat.
Leaving, he paused in the doorway, turned. “Sir. As it happens, I have the lease of this vessel for several weeks--”
“Short of boarding up the doors or hiding beneath a hedge I doubt I will be able to stop you visiting again.”
A strained smile showed on Hamilton’s face as he whirled away, closing the door behind him.
The general sat, head bowed, allowing the stillness of the room to pass through him. Then he crossed to the window and stood there, watching the back and forth motion of Hamilton’s oar strokes and the smooth glide of the boat, as the figure grew smaller and smaller until it became a dark blot against the water.