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Chapter 26

Monroe entered the crimson-draped chamber of the House just as a roar of applause went up. The secretary of state had to push his way through a crowd to see what was happening. The chamber seemed to be packed full of soldiers, many of whom had obviously just arrived themselves. All of them were still carrying their muskets, and the soldiers were so full of excitement that Monroe hoped none of them would fire a shot by accident—or even, in the fervor of the moment, fire a celebratory shot into the ceiling.


The assault had been driven off, clearly enough. As soon as the roar began to subside, a penetrating voice rang out.


 
"These ills shall cease, whene'er by Jove's decree
We crown the bowl to Heav'n and Liberty:
While the proud foe his frustrate triumph mourns,
And Greece indignant thro' her seas returns."
 


Monroe thought he recognized the passage. If so, a speech given by Hector to his brother Paris predicting the victory of Troy was perhaps unfortunate. If the secretary recalled correctly, Hector himself would be slain by Achilles not long thereafter.


Still—


The soldiers seemed pleased with the sentiments, and Monroe doubted if many of them understood the irony of the citation. Besides, Monroe was six feet tall. Now that he had finally pushed his way into the chamber, he could see well enough over the heads of most of the men to examine the one who'd given that little classical peroration.


So this was the mysterious "Captain Houston." Monroe couldn't stop himself from barking a little laugh. Great God! The man even looked the part!


Houston was standing before the Speaker's canopied chair, at the south end of the chamber. For a moment, Monroe thought he was standing on a stool, until he realized that the captain himself was simply very tall. Tall, broad-shouldered—and powerful, judging from the nearby soldier half reeling from Houston's friendly clap on the shoulder. Houston's blue eyes, powerful blunt nose, and wide grin radiated confidence and good spirits. The mass of rich chestnut hair the captain exhibited when he swept off his hat capped the image perfectly.


"We beat 'em back slick, boys! I'll be scorched if we didn't send the bastards east of sunrise! It won't convene for them to be marching on us again any time soon!" He gestured with the hat, waving it about flamboyantly. "Let's have three cheers for our Liberty!"


The cheers came—enthusiastically, not dutifully—and there were quite a few more than three. By the time the soldiers subsided, Monroe's ears were ringing.


He'd kept pushing forward, and finally made it to the front row. Thankfully, there seemed to be an open space of some sort at the center of the mob. Once the secretary pushed his way there, he saw the reason for it: Joshua Barney was lying on a settee, attended by a very large and striking Indian girl. Several other Indians were gathered around the settee as well, all but one of them children. Even the excited soldiers had been respectful enough not to crowd the commodore. It was obvious at a glance that Barney was badly injured, and feeling the pain of his wounds.


The presence of the Indians was a mystery, but the commodore himself didn't seem concerned over the matter. Badly injured or not, Barney was conscious and alert. He spotted Monroe at the same moment the secretary of state spotted him.


"Mr. Monroe!" the commodore called out. "Welcome to what is still the Capitol of the United States."


Captain Houston had been about to launch into another peroration, but hearing Barney's words he blinked and closed his mouth. Then he peered intently at the newly arrived figure.


The commodore levered himself up on an elbow and pointed. "It's Mr. James Monroe, Captain. The secretary of state. Mr.


Monroe"—the finger pointed the other way—"may I introduce Captain Sam Houston?"


Houston was no older than his early twenties, the secretary gauged, and—for the first time since Monroe had spotted him— he finally looked a bit unsure of himself.


This was no time for uncertainty. Monroe strode forward, bypassing the commodore's settee, his hand outstretched.


"A pleasure to finally meet you, Captain!" he boomed. "And let me be the first to extend to you the congratulations of your grateful nation and government." Monroe would allow himself a little fib here. "Mr. Madison asked me to convey his regards, as well. Alas, he was tied up with matters too pressing to come himself."


That last part was likely true, at least. The president was probably lost, halfway to Wiley's Tavern. The area surrounding Washington was still, in many parts, not far removed from a wilderness. Given the confusion of the moment and having to travel at night—the skies were lowering, too, with a storm in the offing—Madison and his party would have had a rough go of it.


As for the rest...


Well, the secretary was quite certain the president wouldn't begrudge him the little lie. James Monroe and James Madison had been friends for decades, a mutual regard that had not really faltered on those occasions when they'd found themselves on opposite sides of a political dispute or even contesting against each other for the same political position.


Besides, Monroe was quite sure that if Madison had been present at the tavern in Georgetown, he would have agreed to send Monroe to the besieged Capitol. He might very well have tried to come himself, and his cabinet would have had to dissuade him.


Houston's handshake was firm and confident, betraying none of the self-doubts and apprehensions the young captain might be having.


No, not might—was surely having, from the questioning look in his eyes.


The secretary of state was normally reserved in his demeanor, but this was a situation that called for some unbending. So, in addition to the handshake, Monroe clapped a hand on Houston's shoulder and drew him close enough to speak quietly.


"I think you may relax, young man. True enough, the last I saw of General Winder, he was bellowing words which did not bode well for your future. But I daresay the general's influence is already low, and plunging lower by the minute."


Houston's response was a slight grimace. Monroe decided he might as well test the captain's honesty, while he was at it. "You did know General Winder had ordered a general retreat?"


Houston blew a little hiss through his lips. "Well, sir, yes. Although I suppose in my defense I could argue that the man I heard it from—William Simmons, his name—turned out no longer to have any official connection with the government. But I didn't have much doubt—none, really—that he was telling the truth."


"William Simmons." The proverbial bad penny. Monroe's own lips pursed, as if he'd tasted a lemon. "Yes, I know the man. President Madison dismissed him for bitter hostility and rudeness to his superiors—whereupon that wretched accountant blamed Secretary Armstrong for persecuting him."


He released the captain's shoulder, smiling broadly. "It's not a bad defense, actually. I speak as a lawyer of considerable experience. In the confusion of the moment—all the military staff unfortunately gone when you arrived in the capital—when did you arrive, by the way, and for what purpose?—hearing of the order to retreat only from a cashiered accountant, who had no authority over you whatsoever—seeing the obvious chance to rally troops at the Capitol—yes, it's a splendid fortress. Secretary of War Armstrong himself tried to convince Winder of that just this afternoon, but Winder's a blithering fool, and you never heard me say that—you acted on the spur of the moment, according to your duty as you saw it. Yes, that'll do quite nicely, Captain. In the unlikely event of a court-martial. Which is getting more unlikely by the moment. Now that I'm here, your action essentially has the imprimatur of the government, if not its formal sanction and command."


By the time he finished, Monroe's smile was wide indeed. Houston shook his head, and managed to extract the questions out of the flurry of legal points.


"I arrived—we arrived—just this afternoon, sir. The rout from Bladensburg was already under way, with soldiers streaming down Pennsylvania Avenue." He looked uncomfortable. "I should inform you that it's possible—uh, likely, in fact—that in the course of my addresses to the troops on the avenue I may have—well, did—juxtapose General Winder's name to various heroes of the Iliad in a manner which might possibly be construed as derisive. That is, perhaps even insubordinate."


Monroe burst into laughter.


Houston flushed.


"As to your other question, sir, I arrived as an escort for a party of Cherokees, at General Jackson's behest. In fact—"


Houston turned aside and beckoned someone forward. "May I have the honor to present Lieutenant John Ross. The rank is that of a U.S. officer, but he's a Cherokee. Not a chief, but well regarded by his people nonetheless. Distinguished himself at the Horseshoe."


Monroe was one of the very few members of the nation's eastern seaboard elite who had spent considerable time in the western territories. So he wasn't surprised to see standing before him shortly, in the person of a Cherokee notable, a man whose red hair, blue eyes, and pale skin would have fit well upon any Scotsman.


Ah, the Scots. Monroe had always found it amazing that the dour northerly tribe had somehow managed to foist off onto more Latin folk the reputation for rampant concupiscence that was rightfully theirs. Scots went everywhere, and bred madly wherever they went. Not forgetting, of course, to spout stern Presbyterian homilies all the while.


The young lieutenant had his hand out, and Monroe clasped it with his own.


"A great pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant Ross. Welcome to Washington—though I wish your arrival hadn't been so awkwardly timed."


"The same, sir. And may I extend the best wishes of my nation."


Perfect, fluent English, too.


Monroe looked back at the commodore and his Indian companions.


"I assume these youngsters are with you also?"


"Yes, sir. Their parents have asked us to place them in suitable schools. Major Ridge, in particular. He's the father of the younger girl and one of the boys, and the uncle of the other boy. Uh, he used to be called The Ridge, but you probably never heard of him under either name."


Monroe had heard of The Ridge, actually, but he couldn't recall whatever else he'd heard about him beyond the name itself. Dealings with the Indian tribes fell under the purview of the Department of War, not the Department of State.


"Well, I'm quite sure something suitable can be found. And now, Captain, might I inquire as to your plans?" He turned back, smiling again. "Your immediate plans, I refer to. Regarding the"—he pointed a finger toward the eastern wall—"enemy."


"Oh." Finally remembering the hat he'd snatched off to lead the hurrahs, Houston placed it back on his head and gave a little tug to set it firmly.


"Well, sir. It's like this."


He seemed to be stalling, his eyes looking toward the entrance that led to the adjoining Senate building. A moment later, whatever he saw seemed to cause a trace of relief to come to his face.


Monroe turned and saw another officer coming into the chamber. Almost an apparition, really. Where the six-foot-tall and strongly built secretary of state had been forced to push his way through the mob of soldiers by main force, the middling-height and squat lieutenant seemed to pass through them like Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea. And with only one arm, to boot, where Monroe had had two.


"May I introduce Lieutenant Patrick Driscol, sir. One of Brigadier Scott's officers. Distinguished himself at the Chippewa."


The slight emphasis on the word made it clear that this time Houston was not using it simply as a gallant pleasantry.


Distinguished himself.


Studying the approaching lieutenant carefully, Monroe thought that Captain Houston was quite wrong. "Distinguished himself" wasn't the right phrase, and he was certain the man Driscol himself would have scoffed at it. He had all the earmarks of a soldier risen from the ranks. Monroe had known men like this, in his youth. At the battle of Trenton; again, at Monmouth; most of all, during that terrible winter at Valley Forge.


Officers and gentlemen fought battles and distinguished themselves. Men like Driscol made and broke entire armies, and did so with no more thought than a blacksmith shaping iron at an anvil.


He had his hand extended before the one-armed lieutenant had even begun to raise his. James Monroe was a gentleman born, and of the Virginia gentry at that. But he'd been taught his manners as a twenty-year-old subaltern by a general named George Washington. A ruthless and hard commander, who'd whip an insubordinate or shoot a deserter in an instant, but never once sneered at the men who made him what he was.


"A pleasure, sir," Driscol said, as he took the secretary's hand. He even seemed to mean it.


Houston cleared his throat. "Patrick, the secretary of state was just asking me what my plans were. As they relate to the current conflict."


"Well, Captain, as we were discussing just before the British began their assault"—it was all Monroe could do not to laugh— "you'd planned to give the men some supper after they'd beaten the bastards off. In rotation, of course, following the system I'll have set up, so that we keep sentries in place at all times. In the event of another attack."


"Supper, yes." The captain looked about, doing his best— rather well, in fact—not to look puzzled.


"There's not much, I'm afraid," Driscol continued, every inch the respectful lieutenant, even if Monroe thought his rasping voice could have filed away stone. "Nothing in the Capitol itself, of course, beyond an occasional bottle of spirits hidden away here and there."


Monroe chuckled. "Knowing my legislative colleagues, Lieutenant, you'd have found quite a few of those."


Driscol smiled at him thinly. "Well, yes, sir. About every other desk. I had them all sequestered and stashed away in the Library of Congress. Under a reliable armed guard."


Monroe must have looked a bit skeptical. Driscol's smile thinned still further. "Oh, you may lay your fears to rest on that account, sir. Private McParland will shoot any man who tries to force his way in. And he'll refrain from disobeying my orders himself, you may be sure of it. I executed the lad, once, and he's been the very model of discipline ever since."


Monroe raised one eyebrow. But Driscol was already turning to Houston.


"Captain, there'll be enough food in the packs of the men— some of them, not all, of course—to go around well enough for tonight. No one will eat well, but as long as it's divided evenly—I'll see to that—they'll go hungry, but not famished. And we'll pass around a tot of spirits later. Not enough to inebriate any man, just enough to cheer them up."


"Very well, Lieutenant." Houston seemed oriented again. "But how are we with regard to powder and shot?"


"Well enough for the battery. Ball and his men are experienced. Between what they brought themselves and Henry's supplies, we should have enough to last the night, even if the Sassenach are lunatic enough to try another frontal assault. I doubt that, though. They suffered a fearful slaughter. Still, I've got sentries posted. If they come again, we'll have plenty of warning."


The lieutenant sounded mildly disgruntled at the thought that the British wouldn't attempt another assault. Between the man's demeanor and the Ulster accent, Monroe understood. Driscol was one of those Scots-Irish immigrants whose hatred for the English was corrosive and unrelenting. Under other circumstances, that could pose a problem. Under these—


As secretary of state, it would be Monroe's task to make peace with the enemy, eventually. The more men like Driscol bled them, the easier that task would be. Problems of another day could be dealt with then.


"We're less well off with the muskets, I'm afraid," Driscol went on, now looking a bit exasperated. "There was no way to keep the silly bugg—ah, militia volunteers—from blasting wildly at anything in sight. Or not in sight, often enough. Some of the men are out of shot or powder entirely, and many of them are low. On the other hand, a fair number never fired their muskets at all. I'll see to a redivision of what we have left, sir. We'll have enough."


He glanced at the secretary of state. "For tonight, that is, and assuming we do nothing more than simply hold the Capitol. But I don't recommend any sallies—and I couldn't begin to predict what the morrow might bring."


Very smooth, this rough lieutenant with the voice like a file. Monroe couldn't have passed the initiative up the chain of command any more slickly himself.


Fortunately, at the age of fifty-six and with many years of experience as a senator, a state governor, an ambassador to three major nations, and a member of the executive cabinet, Monroe was no stranger to finding the initiative deposited firmly in his lap.


"If the British make another attempt on the Capitol, Captain Houston, I shall rely upon you and your men to beat them off. But that is all."


Driscol's mention of a "sally" had almost made Monroe shudder. The thought of Houston leading untrained and inexperienced men, collected from the pieces of dozens of shattered units, into an assault of his own upon British regulars in the open field...at night, even worse than in broad daylight...


Monroe did shudder, just slightly. Houston flashed him a smile.


"Please, sir. As I've once had the occasion to inform Lieutenant Driscol, I am not actually a fool. I've no more thought of leading a sally against the British tonight than I do of leading a charge against the tides."


His humor was fleeting, though. "But will simply holding the Capitol be enough? It's possible the British may leave things where they are, but I doubt it. There's really nothing stopping them from burning the rest of the city. The public buildings, at least. They may spare the private homes."


Monroe shrugged. "So be it. And so what? Captain, the sole purpose of this British raid was to manufacture a political demonstration. It was designed to humiliate us and undermine national morale, that's all. There's no conceivable military gain for them here. On that subject, at least, I was quite in agreement with Secretary Armstrong, even if—"


He broke off the rest. This wasn't the time nor the place to air the dirty linen of the cabinet. "The point being this: They can burn everything else in the capital, starting with the president's mansion, but this—this alone, never think otherwise—is the seat of the United States government. So long as the Capitol stands against them, they have accomplished nothing but to brand themselves publicly as arsonists and thieves. Petty vandals, no more!"


Deliberately, Monroe had spoken slowly and loudly enough to be heard all through the chamber. A fresh roar of applause went up from the soldiers.


"Just hold the Capitol, Captain Houston," Monroe added quietly. "Do that, and you will have done extraordinarily well. Trust my judgment here, if you would."


"Certainly, sir." Houston hesitated; then: "General Jackson speaks well of you, Mr. Monroe. I, ah, just thought I might mention that."


That was... interesting, although Monroe wasn't really surprised. Before the recent rise to political prominence of western figures such as Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson, Monroe had been the one major politician in America who had generally been attentive and friendly to western interests.


Interesting.


Monroe pondered the matter, as Houston and Driscol went about preparing the troops for a possible new British attack. In less than two years, Monroe would most likely be the new president of the United States. It had become something of a tradition in the new republic for the secretary of state to succeed to the presidency.


Whether the current war with Britain was won or lost, he was well-nigh certain that the western states and territories would dominate many of the concerns of his administration. If the war was lost, as rambunctious grievers and grousers; if it were won, as rambunctious triumphalists. Either way, they'd be an opportunity and a monstrous pain in the neck at one and the same time.


His friend Thomas Jefferson had once said of James Monroe, "Turn his soul wrong side outward and there is not a speck on it." Like all encomiums, especially coming from a personal friend and political ally, Monroe knew that the statement needed to be sprinkled with some salt. But he liked to think it was true enough—and he certainly strove to maintain it as a principle for his own conduct.


So he decided to postpone contemplating the fact that he'd cemented the allegiance of southern and western frontiersmen by his actions this night. For the moment, he'd be guided solely by his assessment of the needs of the nation.


There would be time afterward for a consideration of the political implications. He'd give the matter some real thought then, of course. An upright and honest politician still had to be a politician, or republics would be as fantastical as unicorns.


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