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La Belle Christiane
2011 Copyright Lyn Cote
All rights reserved
Chapter Twenty-One Scene 1
Major John Eastham of His Majesty’s Army, future Earl of Gresham, sat in the outer room at the Continental Army headquarters near Yorktown, Virginia. It was early November and more importantly less than a month since the American victory at Yorktown. Though a peace treaty had yet to be signed, Howe’s successor, Cornwallis, had surrendered there. Now Major Eastham, under a flag of truce, waited outside General Washington’s office. The secretaries and various officers who came in and out looked askance at this enemy officer. He shared their feelings himself.
He fought the urge to tug at his tight collar. But in Philadelphia almost four years ago, he had promised himself that he would find out what had happened so drastically that day. She had left him without giving a clear reason and he had to know why.
John Laurens stepped out of Washington’s office and stopped in front of Eastham. “Major?”
“Yes.” He stood politely.
“General Washington will not see you. He can think of no matter he needs to discuss with you.”
John felt his face grow warm. “It is a personal matter.”
“I explained that, but the general has never met you,” Laurens spoke glibly. Cornwallis had sent a subordinate to present his sword of surrender. This slight obviously still stung American pride. Laurens half-turned in dismissal.
Major Eastham spoke up in desperation. He had not come this far to fail. “It concerns Mrs. Christiane Kruger,” he said in a hard, even tone.
Every voice in the room stopped. Every pen halted. Every eye turned to him. His face grew warmer.
Laurens gave Eastham a penetrating look. Without speaking, the American knocked on the door again and went back into the office.
Silence and intense interest surrounded the major. In less than two minutes the door opened. “The general will see you now.” Eastham walked the few feet to the door, feeling every eye following him. Laurens closed the door. The major faced the enemy alone.
General Washington sat behind a large desk. The shelves behind him were lined with dark-hued volumes. The red, white, and blue flag of the young nation was draped on the adjoining wall. “General Washington, this is an honor, sir,” John said by rote, bowed low, and waited to be asked to take a seat.
The general took his time and examined the major carefully. He saw that the major was, of course, an aristocrat. His dress and manner displayed that. Since his temples were threaded with gray, the Englishman seemed a man nearing his middle years. His appearance reminded Washington of someone. What was this Englishman doing here, asking about Christiane? Washington locked eyes with the Major’s cool, blue ones. “You are Major John Eastham, is that right?” Washington asked in an unfriendly tone.
“Yes, sir.” John, looking into the face of the general, was sincerely relieved that a desk, not a dueling field separated them. This man’s countenance had a shoot-to-kill quality about it. John swallowed to ease his dry throat.
The interrogation started. “How do you know Mrs. Kruger?”
“I met her in Philadelphia some years ago.”
“When?” the general barked.
“The Christmas of 1777.”
The general’s eyes seemed to draw a bead on a spot between the major’s eyebrows. There was a silence.
“What were the circumstances of your acquaintanceship with Mrs. Kruger?” Washington asked bluntly.
“I do not care to say.”
“Why have you come to me?” the American challenged him.
“I understood that Mrs. Kruger is a friend of yours and I wished to communicate with her.”
“It is personal.”
Suddenly Washington knew whom the major reminded him of and it made him angry. By God! He slammed his fist on the desk and lunged to his feet. The walls reverberated with the sound.
Instinctively John wanted to pull back, but his military training held him in place.
“Men like you disgust me!”
“I do not know what you mean, sir,” John replied evenly.
“Don’t you? My, God, you have nerve. You come to me all innocence, asking to communicate with a very fine woman you have wronged, and you expect me to cooperate with you.”
“I do not know what you mean. I have wronged no one.”
“Perhaps I would have believed you if I had not met your daughter this September.”
“Yes, your daughter by Christiane Kruger.”
“It is impossible.”
“Impossible? By your answers you have insinuated that you were on intimate terms with the lady during December of 1777. Is that not true?” Washington hammered at him like a prosecuting attorney.
“Yes, that is true,” John admitted reluctantly.
“Well, late September of 1778 Christiane gave birth to a daughter. Do you deny the child is yours?”
Washington became literally speechless with rage. Several seconds passed while he gained control of himself. Finally he was able to speak, “Trying to put the blame on another shows singular disrespect for the lady and it will not work. I told you I have seen your daughter. I have often heard that God marks a bastard with the father’s features. The child has your hair, your eyes, and an exact duplicate of your nose. You may continue to deny paternity, but no one seeing your child would believe that anyone else could be her father.”
John sized up his opponent. He realized that if he continued to insist that he was not the father, he would soon be choosing a weapon and naming seconds. More importantly obstinacy on this point would only put him farther from his goal of communicating with Christiane again. In any case, he did not wish to reveal that it was impossible for him to father any child, so he would let it go. “Very well,” he said quietly, “I will accept responsibility.”
General Washington relaxed visibly and sat down. “You intend to be reasonable then?”
“Please be seated.”
“Thank you.” John sat. “Where is Christiane?”
“First I want to know what kind of arrangement you intend to make to support your child?”
“What do you suggest?”
“Perhaps a liberal sum deposited in her name in a Williamsburg bank?” Washington suggested.
“That seems fair.”
The general studied the man in front of him, sizing him up even more carefully.
Finally John asked again, “Where is Christiane?”
Washington ignored the question. “How did you and Christiane become acquainted?”
John stifled his impatience, realizing he would have to follow the superior officer’s lead. “She was detained by sentries at a road block.”
“Ah.” The general waited.
“We had met before in Canada.”
“She asked for my protection.”
Washington’s expression became grim again.
“General, you probably will not believe this, but forming a liaison with Christiane was not my intent. However, we were in each other’s company so much so that finally we did become attracted to one another. I thought I had made it clear that I wanted our connection to be of a long-standing nature. Evidently Christiane decided against it. One day she went riding and did not return.”
“I see.” The general pressed his fingertips together in front of his mouth. “She must have left when she learned that you were married.”
“Married? I am not married.”
Antagonism sprang back into Washington’s eyes. “Christiane said that the man was married.”
John took a deep breath. “Then she is mistaken. My one and only wife died over ten years ago.”
The general, almost at the point of contradiction again, stopped. “Are you prepared to swear to that?”
Washington felt among the papers and pulled out an old Bible. “Will you swear by God and your king on this Bible that you are unmarried.”
“I will.” John stretched out and put his right hand on the black leather. “I swear by God and King George that I am unmarried.”
The American waited as though expecting immediate Divine retribution.
“Where is Christiane?” John hazarded again.
“At my estate in Virginia,” Washington answered promptly.
“How may I communicate with her?”
“Face to face. Return here tomorrow morning at dawn. I will provide an escort for you, a letter of safe conduct and an introduction to my wife. Does that meet with your approval?” .
John was almost speechless, but he managed to say the right words and maintain outward calm. He walked out of the room, almost dazed. He had never expected to be conducted to Christiane, but now he had been given no choice.
As soon as the Englishman closed the door, the general took out a fresh page of foolscap and quickly wrote a letter to his Martha explaining the situation. He could do no more than bring them back together. He hoped the Englishman was not fool enough to let Christiane get away from him twice. And just to be sure, a letter to his friend, Will Fairfax in London might be a good idea. A gentleman’s word should be true, but he would test this one. He began the second letter with a look of determination.
So the Revolution has been won! Major John Eastham is back! What’s going to happen now?–Lyn