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Rivers of War: Snippet Seventy Four

       Last updated: Thursday, May 12, 2005 17:53 EDT



THE RIVERS OF WAR – snippet 73:

    CHAPTER 30

    Monroe glanced at Houston. For the first time since he’d met him, the young captain was obviously at a complete loss for words. In fact, he was almost gaping like a fish. Whatever else he’d expected from Driscol, clearly enough, Houston hadn’t anticipated that coldly furious tirade.

    No, not tirade, Monroe cautioned himself. It was the lieutenant’s harsh words—the tone, even more than the words themselves—that had infuriated some part of Monroe. That part of him which was Virginia gentry by birth, and whose status had grown great with time.

    Yet the fact remained that Driscol had said nothing which, in substance if not with the same pitiless condemnation, Monroe hadn’t heard said time and again. He’d even said as much himself.

    It was indeed true, as Driscol had charged, that as governor of Virginia, Monroe had had to sentence the leaders of a slave insurrection. Would-be insurrection, to be more accurate, since—as was usually true in such cases—in-formers had revealed the slaves’ plans before they could set them into motion. Monroe had been astonished, at the time, at the hostility which his lenient policy had generated from most of his fellow gentlemen. He’d hung the leader Gabriel and several others, because as governor he was charged with maintaining public order and existing laws and property relations. But that had seemed enough, to him, for the purpose. To go further would have been simple cruelty—yet that had been precisely what many others wanted. Why? For no better reason than Driscol’s very accusation—they’d been gentlemen, aggrieved by the impudence of slaves, demanding vengeance for their injured dignity.

    Monroe took a deep breath, calming and dispelling that stupid, vicious, gentleman’s anger. Driscol’s charge cut to the very soul of the nation, after all— and Monroe knew it. If most men might not wrestle with the problem of slavery, the greatest of them did. George Washington had done so, in his own austere way—and, in his will, he had freed his slaves. Thomas Jefferson, in his far more voluble—some might say, histrionic—manner, had done the same. He’d once concluded a denunciation of slavery with the words, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.

    And Madison, too, in his quiet manner. He’d already told Monroe that once he was no longer president, and could finally retire from public life, he hoped to convince Dolley to move to Ohio. So he could, at least in his own person, finally be rid of slavery.

    The president hadn’t had much hope of success, however. His wife Dolley was Quaker-born, not southern, and had no theoretical attachment to the peculiar institution. But she also had an improvident son, and enjoyed her wealth. And slavery was profitable.

    Money. In the end, Monroe knew, it all came down to that. For him, as much as any man of his class. Nothing else, nothing more. Certainly nothing more exalted. Just the endless, well-nigh irresistible seduction of Mammon— who was surely a demon.

    He almost laughed, then. Leave it to Lieutenant Patrick Driscol to call a gentleman a demon worshipper, and do it to his face!


    That wry thought was enough finally to bring the statesman to the helm.

    “Actually, Lieutenant,” the secretary of state said calmly, “your objections strike me as speaking well for your qualifications in this mission. Very well, in fact.”

    Driscol’s eyes narrowed, and his head turned partway from the window.

    “You must be joking.”

    “Not at all.” Monroe couldn’t convince a man who wouldn’t look at him. His years as an ambassador to France and England and Spain—failures and successes alike—had taught him that. “Please, Lieutenant Driscol, will you simply listen to me?”

    Courtesy—especially when it came unexpectedly—did the trick. Driscol turned completely away from the window and faced him squarely. True, the man’s eyes were still cold, and his slightly lowered brow could have butted a bull senseless, but . . . he was listening. And Monroe knew how to talk. Far better, if not in formal speeches, than a youngster like Houston.

    “All of it is a Gordian knot, Lieutenant. All threads tangled together. A republic which rests in good part on slavery—yet it is a republic. Which means, among other things, that it must respect the property of its citizens until such time as those citizens decree otherwise. Or would you have me take the power, and wield it like a despot? And if so, why do you think the end result would be better? How well did Napoleon do, after he became emperor? You served under him, I believe.”

    Driscol’s jaws tightened. “So I did. I left his service ...after some time in Spain. Just butchery, that was.”

    Monroe nodded. “The contradictions continue, on and on. The United States is also a nation coming into being by robbing the lands of other nations— yet it is a nation, and one that you would see grow yourself. Why else did you come here from Europe? Did far more than that!” He pointed at Driscol’s stump. “Gave that nation your own arm.”

    “It’ll all unravel,” Driscol growled. “See if it doesn’t.”

    “Perhaps it might,” Monroe allowed. “But in what manner? I’d gladly see it unravel myself, if I could be sure all the threads wouldn’t be lost, the good along with the bad.”

    “You don’t unravel a Gordian knot.”

    “Precisely.” Now, finally, it was time for a smile. One of Monroe’s best— and he was good at smiling, even if he did it rarely. “A Gordian knot needs to be cut. So who better to ask than someone like you, Patrick Driscol?”


    After the secretary left, a few minutes later—dragged away by his aides once they found out where he’d gone—Driscol glared at Houston.

    “How in the name of creation did he talk me into this madness?”

    Houston had recovered his own equilibrium by now, along with his good cheer. “Patrick, you can’t be that iron-headed. Do you think a man has the career he’s had—with the presidency still to come, most like—if he doesn’t know how to talk people into things?” He placed an arm over Driscol’s shoulder and gave him a friendly, reassuring little shake. “Think of this way. You can always console yourself with the knowledge that you were swindled by an expert.”

    Driscol grunted. The sound was half sour, half . . .


    “It’s an interesting idea, I’ll give it that. The core of it’s yours, I assume? Monroe’s too much the proper gentleman to have come up with it, even leaving aside his English heritage. Only a daft Irishman would think this scheme could work.”

    The lieutenant’s pale eyes moved to John Ross. Always a sergeant’s, those eyes, never an officer’s. “You won’t have agreed, of course.”

    Hesitantly, Ross shook his head.

    “No, of course not. So far I don’t see where”—he shot Houston an apologetic glance—“it’s fundamentally any different from what’s been proposed many times before. We move across the Mississippi—and you take our land.”

    He shook his head again, this time more firmly. “It’s simply not just. It’s our land, and you can’t even claim the right of conquest. We’ve been your allies, most of the time.”

    Houston was a little afraid that the Cherokee’s bluntly stated opposition would deter Driscol. Instead, it seemed to have just the opposite effect.

    “Oh, it’s justice you want from the white man, is it? Well, it’s good to see the Irish have no monopoly on blithering idiocy. You might as well expect an Irishman to get justice from a Sassenach, as so many did and do. Let me explain something to you, my proud young Cherokee. Looking for justice from the mighty is the work of fools. You’d do far better to look for redress in the form of vengeance. Or haven’t you figured out yet that’s really Houston’s scheme?”

    Ross’ eyes widened.

    So did Houston’s.

    “I never—”

    Then Sam realized what Patrick meant. At which point, his eyes widened still further.

    “I know the stories,” Driscol continued, “even if I can’t cite the verses. So, tell him. Sam. Tell him what finally happened to the Trojans, in the end.” His eyes swept the room. “Tell all of them. Henry, too. He’s got as much right to know as any.”

    Everyone was staring at Houston, now. He cleared his throat. “Well, it’s just a story . . .”

    “They’re all just stories,” Driscol rasped. “Which means one’s just as good as another—if people act by it.”

    “Well, ah ...true enough. According to the poet Virgil—he was a Roman, not a Greek—some of the Trojans survived and fled to Italy. After many adventures. And . . . they founded Rome.”

    “The whole story.”

    Sam sighed. Driscol was glaring again. He was so glad he’d never been a soldier who’d had to serve with Driscol as his sergeant. The man was a veritable troll!

    “Well, yes. And in the end, of course, the Romans conquered the Greeks. So the Trojans got their vengeance. Mind you, it took about a thousand years, and there were a lot of twists and turns.”


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