Prologue – Shadow Patriots

General Washington’s other aides were curious about what Captain Alexander Hamilton was doing, but they did not glance at him, hunched over a desk in a far corner.  Their goose quill pens quivered as they filled out requisitions, wrote reports, and transcribed directives.  They had hung their dark blue jackets over the backs of their chairs and rolled up their shirtsleeves.  August of 1779 was not as hot here in the highlands of West Point as elsewhere in New York, but the room was small, and the air stifling.
Usually Hamilton would be decoding the Culpers’ latest letters in Washington’s office upstairs, but the Commander-in-Chief had had another attack of rheumatism.  The surgeon was up there now, bleeding and blistering him.  Hamilton poured sand on the fresh ink to dry it.  He shook the sand into a pot, rolled up the letters, and tied them with a blue ribbon.  He surveyed the table top to make sure he had left nothing behind that would get Samuel Culper, Jr., and Samuel Culper, Sr., hanged if seen by the wrong eyes.  He didn’t like to think that a traitor might be in this room, but they lurked everywhere else, so why not here?
He headed for the door, dodging chairs and tables, and the sprawl of black boots and portly cuspidors.  He avoided the sabers, plumed helmets, and a banjo dangling from the chair backs.  He reached the hallway and took the narrow stairs two at a time.  Halfway up he stood aside to let the surgeon pass on his way down, with his basin of blood in one hand and his lancet and blistering iron in the other.
Hamilton found Washington sitting with his breeches rolled up, his feet propped on a stool, and his knees bloody.  Martha Washington knelt beside him, wrapping strips of cloth around a muslin poultice to hold it in place over the sores.  The Washingtons’ alliance mystified Alex.  The general was so tall and imposing in his perfectly-tailored uniform that if people noticed he wasn’t handsome, they soon forgot it.   He had an aloof air that attracted women of all sorts, yet he loved his plump, plain, little wife with a solemn passion.
Martha wiped her hands on her apron and spread out the leftover muslin.  She put the makings of her poultice—the packet of flour and the soothing herbs, the mortar and pestle— into the middle of it.  She tied the four corners together, and picked it up along with her kettle of hot water.
“George spends too many nights sleeping in the cold and damp.”  She gave Alexander a beseeching look, as if her husband’s favorite aide could help her George more than the surgeon could.
“There’s nothing to be done about it, my dear,” Washington said.  “Except to send the British packing once and for all time.”
“And then we can return home.”  She laid a hand for a long instant on his shoulder before she left the room.
After her full skirts cleared the door Washington turned to Hamilton.  “You should get you a wife, Alex.”
“It is my most earnest desire, sir, as soon as we send the bloodybacks packing.”  Hamilton was more than handsome.  He had the brooding appeal of a puppy with an injured soul.  Women purred around him wherever his commander established his headquarters.
“Socrates was right, you know.  ‘By all means marry.'”
Hamilton knew the reference.  “‘If you get a good wife, you will become happy; if you get a bad one, you will become a philosopher.'”
“I have got me a good wife, which may be why I am not a philosopher.” Washington winked at him.
“Philosophers don’t win wars, sir.”  Hamilton set the roll of letters on the general’s desk.  “Speaking of marriage, did you hear of the country woman who signed for ownership of a cow?”
“Can’t say as I have.”
“The seller asked, ‘How is it you made a circle instead of an ‘x?’  The woman said, ‘Oh, I got married again and changed my name.'”
Washington’s chuckle cheered Alex.  The general had so few occasions for laughter.
Washington slid the ribbon off the parchment.  “The latest from the Culpers?”
“Yes, sir.  One of Major Tallmadge’s dragoons just arrived in a lather with them.  The top one is dated the 15th of this month.  It arrived expeditiously, given the distance their correspondence must cover.”
“They’re using Tallmadge’s new numerical code, I see.”  Washington unlocked his desk drawer and took out a small notebook with columns of entries written in Major Benjamin Tallmadge’s neat hand.
He read the letter silently, his finger moving along the lines of script.  The finger stopped at the sentence that read, “I intend to visit 727 before long and think by the assistance of a 355 of my acquaintance, shall be able to out wit them all.”
Washington looked up.  “727 stands for New York, but what is 355?”
“It means ‘lady,’ sir.”
“Who is she?”
“We don’t know.”
“That’s good.”  Washington stared at the number 355 as though he could see in it some image of this mysterious lady, what she looked like, if she was high-born or servant class.  “The less we know about her the better.”

 

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