Defying Conventions (Part IX)
As Defying Conventions begins to draw to a close, be sure to stay around for a follow-up novel that will also be serialized at “The Tidewater Papers.” Publication of that serial will begin in July, but if you’re signed up for this email list, I will send out a preview this Friday!
One more thing!
I will be putting a new “Classifieds” section at the end of this weekly newsletter. Publishing fiction on Substack needs a boost before it can really take off and soar. To that end, I (and others) will be highlighting other newsletters to our readers. If you see one that catches your interest, be sure to subscribe and support those writers.
Now . . . on to the fiction!
Nat had taken the first available coach to New York. “Mr. Brown” would have to leave the same day as well, but he wanted to avoid getting on the same coach with him at all costs. With Camden’s help, the absent Mr. Monroe had supplied the money both for the coach and for the night’s lodging. They both reasoned--Camden more reluctantly--that Mr. Monroe surely would consent to loan Nat the money if only he had been there and known the circumstances.
The rendezvous point was a long walk to the north of where the ferry disembarked, but Nat found a boarding house near the river, rather than risk arousing any suspicion from those he intended to spy upon by coincidentally ending up in the bedroom across the hall. He went over the letter again carefully, trying to recall which suspected spies had never been uncovered. If the time came, he needed to be able to dispose of the letter altogether while retaining its contents. Having satisfied himself that he had memorized all the most important parts, he folded the letter into a tiny square and hid it near the heel of his right boot.
He had purchased some brandy the evening before. On any other occasion, he would have spent the morning trying to find his way to the bottom of that bottle. However, today he knew that there would be no room for error and no margin for dulled senses.
Nat left the boarding house several hours before the meeting, which was to take place at midnight. He found a nameless tavern not too far from his ultimate destination and purchased a meal for himself. The ale was in no way the equal of what was available at the Laughing Fox, but it would do to slake his thirst. The beef stew, however, was better than any he had tasted in quite some time. It was so good, in fact, that he found himself still thinking about it an hour later as he waited in the shadows near where the secret meeting was to take place.
He arrived early to find the best location for listening without detection and for making a quick escape if necessary. Just as he was pondering whether including some leeks might have improved the stew, he heard steps approaching, first from his left and then from several directions all at once. In the darkness it was hard to tell just how many people had gathered, but from the dark silhouettes he was sure there were at least three and perhaps a fourth.
Nat took note of the fact that the men exchanged no passwords or hand signals. Even in the dark they knew and trusted each other on sight. As secluded as they were in this area, they did not seem to think it necessary to lower their voices too much. Nat was able to make out the conversation clearly.
“Gentlemen, I trust that everything is proceeding according to plan. We can have no more errors like you did with Pinckney, Mr. Thompson.”
“No, of course not, Mr. Doane” said the voice that Nat immediately recognized as belonging to the former “Mr. Brown”, now Thompson. Doane was a familiar name to him, but he could not immediately place it.
“Good. Our first strike had its intended effect or near enough as makes no difference. Some of the delegates are frightened, though not all. But more importantly they have had to stop their work. Every delay works in our favor. You have the notes on Mr. King’s routine, Jack?”
“Yes. Right here, sir,” came a much younger voice. Nat thought he saw some papers change hands. One of the men struck a match, briefly casting a dim light on what were now confirmed to be papers. The one he concluded was “Doane” was examining them closely.
“Then nothing has changed. We’ll proceed with the original plan on the first Monday after the convention reconvenes. You will not hear from me again unless the plan changes, but I do not anticipate that it will. You have your assignments so see to them.”
One by one, the men left and Nat decided that this Mr. Doane must be their leader. He tried to follow him, but this man was much more careful than Thompson had been back in Philadelphia. Apparently aware of the fact that he might be followed he took many turns, stopped in place, and varied his speed frequently. Nat did his best to keep up without being detected, but he eventually rounded a dark corner to find that the man had disappeared. Whoever this Doane was--if that was even his name at all--was a man to be reckoned with. Nevertheless, Nat had information that he did not have before, information that might prove vital in uncovering whatever plot it was that he and Camden had happened upon. He found his way back to a more familiar street and made straight for the ferry; he wanted to be on the first one across the river in the morning.
Monroe returned to Philadelphia the following Thursday. Camden thought that he looked refreshed and it was clear that time spent with his wife had done him much good. The thought of distressing Monroe with what he and Nat had discovered was an unpleasant one, but he saw no way to avoid it. He sent word to Nat to come to their boarding house first thing the following morning; the convention was not set to reconvene until that afternoon.
Camden woke first and nervously waited for Monroe to do the same. Mercifully, the wait was not very long. As soon as Monroe had visited the privy and returned to the room to wash his face in the basin, Camden spoke up.
“I took the liberty of ordering breakfast to be brought to our room. I hope you will not disapprove.”
“No, I suppose not. We need be in no hurry today.”
“I must admit, however, that I did so in order that we may receive a guest.”
“Oh. Well, who is that? I assume it must be urgent.”
“Yes, quite urgent indeed, sir. I would not have taken the initiative in this if I did not believe it to be a very important issue that requires your immediate attention.”
A knock came at the door and it happened to be breakfast, rather than their visitor. The smell of hot coffee, eggs, and bacon wafted into the room.
“Please, come in and set the tray down on the table.”
Monroe thanked the girl who had brought the tray and gave her a small gratuity. She attempted a curtsy and then left them alone again. Before either of them could start on the food, however, another knock came at the door. Camden answered the door this time and it was their guest.
“Mr. Monroe, may I present Mr. Nathaniel Aldridge, formerly of the Third Virginia Regiment.”
At first, Camden thought that Monroe did not quite know how to react. He then realized, as the look of shock turned to something different, that Monroe was struck with pity.
“Aldridge,” Monroe said, as if he were attempting to call up memories from deepest recesses of his mind. “Yes, come in, sir. Please come in and join us.”
“Thank you,” Nat managed. Camden moved to his bed so that the two older men could sit together at the table.
“I do remember you, Mr. Aldridge. Rather I should say--although it is to my embarrassment--that I remember you from your burns; I had quite forgotten your name. I hope you will forgive me.”
“Of course, sir. I was one of many men under your command and you can hardly be expected to remember them all by name.”
“It is good to see that you seem to be in good health now. I knew that your duties had kept you in Philadelphia, but I suppose I had always assumed that you would eventually return to Virginia.”
“Yes, well, sir, I suppose I thought the same thing for quite some time. Circumstances dictated otherwise. I hope you will pardon the change of subject, but I needed to see you not just to reminisce.”
“I see,” said Monroe, who snapped out of his nostalgia. “How can I help you then?”
“I think Mr. Monroe, that it is rather I--and Mr. Page here too--who can help you. Mr. Pinckney’s murder disrupted the convention in more ways than one. It’s no longer a secret that one of his assailants was found with the pamphlet by Mr. Henry. You know better than either of us what effect that might have on the political disagreement now being debated. And how it might affect your personally.”
“The divide between nationalists such as Mr. Pinckney and others such as Mr. Henry--and myself, yes--was already well-known. I am sure we have weathered the worst of it and may return to finding some common ground upon which to build an improved government.”
“What if the worst were not yet over, sir?”
Nat described what he and Camden had discovered about the plot to attack Mr. King and who appeared to be heading up the conspiracy. Monroe asked a few questions, but more or less sat in silence.
“Doane, you say?” he asked after a minute. “It can be no other than Benjamin Doane. He was fiercely loyal to the Penn family and their allies before the war. His place as a man of power and influence was ruined by independence. But I should think he would much prefer the position of Mr. Pinckney to mine.”
Camden hesitated to interject, but did so anyway. “Perhaps he believes yours and Mr. Pinckney’s are not the only options.”
Nat, who had been facing Monroe, turned in his seat. “And what would those be?”
“Well,” Camden began tentatively, “if it’s true that he lost his place near the seat of power after independence, perhaps he would prefer that the states not remain united in the first place. Restoring the status quo might be impossible, but desperate men are not liable to be persuaded by logic and reason.”
Nat and Monroe did not respond immediately, but Camden could tell that they were thinking. Whether his idea struck them as insightful or foolish he was not sure. Monroe broke the silence. “You may be right. I do not know, but whatever their motivation, we must act quickly.”
Monday evening came quickly and when the convention adjourned for the day, Camden found himself waiting for Monroe outside of Independence Hall. He emerged while in the midst of a conversation with Rufus King of Massachusetts. He had been one of the handful of delegates that he had met in person, and despite their marked differences of opinion in political matters, Camden could easily see how he had become one of the most influential men at the convention. The pair approached Camden and continued to speak in hushed tones.
“Everything is in order, Mr. King” Camden all but whispered. “All you need do is take the usual route back to your boarding house and we will take care of the rest.” King still looked very unsettled, but managed to put on a resolute face and gave both Camden and Monroe a nod before turning to leave.
All along the route to his lodgings there were likely to be witnesses, with the exception of one alley that Mr. King had taken to using as a shortcut. There could be no other place to attack him without the conspirators easily being discovered and caught. It was very near there that Nat and several men he had hired would be ready. The confines of the alley made for a good ambush, but that was a blade that could cut both ways. Mr. King’s boarding house lay in the same direction as Monroe’s, which allowed Camden to follow in the same direction, albeit only several minutes later. The only way anyone could conceive to catch the attackers would be to catch them in the act.
After the appointed number of minutes had passed, Camden and Monroe set out at a brisk pace along the same route they knew Mr. King was following. As they approached the alley, Camden half expected to hear the same sort of shouting that had accompanied the attack on Mr. Pinckney, but it was only after rounding the last corner and the scene came into full view that he heard the last grunts and jostling of what seemed to be barely a minor scuffle.
Nat’s men had sealed off the alley from both ends and fallen upon the would-be attackers just as they had made their attempt. Mr. King sat leaning up against the wall of one of the houses that backed up to the alley, his coat and shirt slightly out of place, but otherwise appearing to be none the worse for wear. Camden and Monroe rushed to him.
“Are you unharmed, Mr. King?” Monroe inquired.
“Yes, yes. I’m fine. One of them was able to shove me to the ground, but your men acted quickly.”
Camden offered a hand, helped Mr. King to his feet, and assisted him in dusting off his clothes. Nat and his hired hands were busy corralling the half dozen attackers.
“Is this all of them?” Monroe asked.
Nat paused for a moment to catch his breath. “Yes sir, it is. They came from both directions, but so did we. Fortunately, there were two of us for every one of them. Some of them put up a fight, but they’re all here.”
“Good. Very good.” Monroe surveyed the motley crew that Benjamin Doane and his co-conspirators had hired, but said that he recognized none of them. “That can hardly be surprising, however,” he continued. “A man like Doane would not make the mistake of sending anyone important to carry out a task like this.”
Monroe then approached the group of men, all of whom were now seated, near the mouth of the alley. “I already know who sent you here, but what were you sent here to do?” No one seemed to be inclined to answer. “Understand that each of you already stands to be punished for assaulting this man. Do the right thing and tell us what you were sent to do.”
One man at the end, the youngest by the look of him, scanned the other men before venturing to speak.
“Sir,” he began. The man next to him, gave him a swift elbow to the ribs and said “Shut it, Tom!” Nat repaid the man’s elbow with a kick to the stomach and he doubled over, gasping for air. Camden then pulled the young man to his feet and away from the rest of the group.
“Now, Tom,” Monroe began, once they were out of hearing distance of the other men. “You must tell me what you know. You may have no idea what you have gotten yourself into.”
Tom looked down at his feet. “I . . . well, I was meant to be arrested, sir. I suppose I have been after all. But we were told that this man was to be left alive.”
“You were told to let yourself be arrested?” Camden asked, his incredulity getting the better of him.
“Yes. I was given a story to tell after my arrest about how I had been hired by a man from Virginia who wanted Mr. King and others like him out of the way. I was to say that I was convinced that he was right that they should not be allowed to succeed in writing a new constitution.”
“I see. Will you tell that story again when the time comes? You would be doing the honest thing.”
Tom hung his head, but managed a slight nod.
A group of men from the watch had since arrived and Nat and the others got the attackers to their feet for the long walk to the jail. Perhaps, Camden thought, one of them might provide information that would finally bring the entire plot to the light of day.
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