Well, team, we actually made it! It's been over a year since I said to myself, "Hey, you know what absurd ship actually makes a lot of sense in my brain? Lafayette and Peggy. Let's see what the internet thinks."
Thanks to everyone who read, reviewed, and motivated me to write over 70,000 words of Peggy/Lafayette romantic shenanigans. I don't know why you humored me, but I'm bowled-over delighted that you did.
This is the chapter I've always known I'd end with, so it felt totally bananas to actually write it. Hope you enjoy, and again, thanks for sticking with.
Okey-dokey then, let's do this thing.
...One last time, if you will.
4 November 1824
"Vous êtes certain que vous vous sentez bien, Papa?" Georges asked, fixing Lafayette with a serious expression from across the carriage. "Le voyage ne vous a trop fatigué?"
Lafayette smiled and shook his head, as if his son were seven years old again and had just asked an endearingly simple question, why the sky was blue, whether pigs had wings. "English, if you will, Georges. It's impolite here to speak French. And yes, I feel quite well. I have no intention of dropping dead this afternoon."
Georges rolled his eyes. He'd grown into a handsome man, Lafayette thought, watching as his son leaned back against the seat and the emerald fields of Virginia rattled past their carriage windows. A little too sure of himself, a little too concerned with the cut of his jacket and the shine of his pistol, but then, that was to be expected in a single man of thirty. Lafayette had been just the same, as a young man.
Of course, now he had no need for frivolities like that. He and Peggy were approaching their fortieth wedding anniversary. At this stage, it took the full weight of a state visit to induce him to purchase a new suit.
For a state occasion of this magnitude, he had even purchased two.
Peggy, seated beside him in the carriage, peered out the window, craning her neck to see further down the road. Her hair had grayed early, decades before, and laugh lines danced filament-like around her mouth. In the warm Virginia light, Lafayette thought he had never seen her look so beautiful.
"We should be there soon, shouldn't we?" she asked. "My God, I need to get out of this coach. Six hours from Washington, and nothing to look at but fields the whole way."
As if the driver had heard her, the carriage shuddered slightly, then bore to the left, taking a small side road deep into one of the cotton fields. Lafayette leaned across Peggy to catch a better look at the large house looming at the end of the drive.
Seeing it fully, he choked.
Arresting. That was the only word for it. The warm red brick and white marble shone with anachronistic, neoclassical grace, its columns as out of place in that Virginia cotton field as a rabbi in Saint Peter's. Built on the verge of a clear pond, the house seemed even more absurd in reflection, its countless windows and sprawling expanse shimmering slightly through the water. And atop it all, the scandalously ostentatious dome, crowning the whole majestic mess like a Roman temple, an homage to the southern god who had designed and built it.
"It's perfect," he said, shaking his head. "Exactly what he would do."
Peggy, following his gaze, gave an impolite snort of laughter. It made her sound like a young girl again, the same kind of disdainful sound she had made a hundred times in her twenties. "No one," she said, "has ever accused him of modesty."
The carriage slowed to a stop at the end of the drive. Before the driver could clamber down from the box to open the door, Georges hopped out, helping Peggy down to the drive. Then, with an air of ceremony, Georges gave his arm to Lafayette.
Lafayette's mouth narrowed slightly. To think that he was reduced to this. The Marquis de Lafayette, lieutenant-general of the Revolution, leaning on his son's arm, knees trembling like an old man…
But then, sixty-six was not young. And his joints ached now, most of the time, but especially after sitting for longer than an hour. They had plagued him all afternoon, causing him to bite his tongue whenever the carriage traversed a rough stage of road, though he had taken care not to let Peggy or Georges sense it. He felt, sometimes, that his body was exacting revenge on him, for the cavalier way he had taken it for granted in his youth.
Lafayette shook his head slightly, as if to dismiss the ruffled feathers of his injured pride. There were worse people to depend on than your own son.
He let Georges steady him as he descended from the carriage, smiling his thanks to the driver as the man handed him the silver-topped cane he had procured for the journey.
The party had only taken a few steps toward the house before the door flung open, and a tall man in a long violet coat appeared in the doorway.
It had been decades, of course. Men changed, given that long. The striking red hair had faded to white. The once-upright frame now stooped slightly, a slight tremor to the elegant hands. But the smile, that was the same. That slightly off-center smile, wider than the Mississippi, stretching up to his clever black eyes, unfogged by time.
Lafayette would have recognized this man anywhere. "Ah, Jefferson!"
"Ah, Lafayette!" Jefferson said, beaming.
"And Peggy," Peggy reminded them, smiling broadly as she took Lafayette's arm.
My dear wife, as if anyone could ever forget you.
Despite his age, Jefferson hastened down from the porch to meet the Lafayettes in the drive. Without a hint of the old arrogance or showy decorum he'd worn like a badge of honor as the French ambassador, Jefferson spread his arms wide and embraced them both warmly, like a brother.
Like a true friend, uncolored by betrayal, Lafayette thought, but stopped himself before continuing. This journey was not the time to remember old failings on the part of those who could no longer defend their actions, their cruel neutrality. It was too late for "forgive and forget," but at least for the day, he would try his best to ignore.
"It's good to see you," Jefferson breathed, stepping back to look at them both fully. "So very, very good to see you."
"You as well, my friend," Lafayette said. With a wry smile, he nodded his head at the house. "And it is good to see this monstrosity in person. I confess, when I heard you had built your own Versailles in the middle of a cotton field, I did not believe it."
Jefferson laughed. "I've been told drawings do not do it justice, either. It must be seen to be believed. Dear God, and this must be your son. Georges?"
"Yes, Mr. Jefferson. A pleasure to meet you," Georges said, masking the French lilt in his voice as best he could. He bowed deeply and well. Lafayette felt Peggy squeeze his arm gently, a silent message, We did well, my love. A son to be proud of.
"Well, come in, come in," Jefferson said briskly, as if just remembering he was eighty-one years old, not an excitable child of eighteen, and that people of their age and station conducted business indoors.
Jefferson ushered them into the house and down a long, carpeted hallway, toward a sitting room decorated in various shades of green. Lafayette sat down rather heavily on the sofa opposite the window, sighing softly as the ache in his knees sharpened, then relaxed. Peggy sat beside him, taking his hand. Georges paused a moment in the doorway, looking back into the hall with an expression of wonder in his eyes.
"Mr. Jefferson," he said, "would you mind if I looked around the—"
"My dear boy, nothing would give me greater pleasure," Jefferson exclaimed, the expansive manner of his younger days returning, though restrained by age. "Monticello is meant to be looked at. Go across the hall and tell Stevens he is to give you the full tour."
"Thank you, sir." Georges gave a small half-bow and excused himself into the hall.
Jefferson, smiling still, settled into an armchair opposite the Lafayettes. "Is your son really so passionate about neoclassical architecture?" Jefferson asked. "Or is he, like any young man, bored to tears by old men and women reminiscing?"
Peggy laughed. "We have dragged Georges from New Haven to Washington already. If he hears one more old man call Lafayette the 'Fighting Frenchman,' I think he will throw himself into the Potomac."
"Clearly Americans do not have high standards for heroes, Thomas," Lafayette remarked, "if both you and I somehow qualify."
"I quite agree," Jefferson said, crossing one grasshopper-like leg over the other. "I agree entirely. Oh, thank you, Mary, but perhaps later. Let us talk for a few minutes first."
Lafayette and Peggy glanced up, toward the door. A dark-skinned woman stood in the doorway, holding a silver tea tray in both hands. She dropped a low curtsey and disappeared back into the hall, keeping her eyes low, never saying a word. Both Lafayette and Peggy shared a glance, and Peggy shifted uncomfortably on the sofa. Lafayette squeezed her hand in his, then cleared his throat. They were in the United States only for a few months, and for the first time in nearly fifty years. Strangers, essentially, by now. Did his opinion count for anything? Or was he simply meant to appear as a heroic figurehead of times past, illuminating the glory of the revolution and winking at the injustice of the present?
What would Laurens have said, were he here?
Seemingly oblivious to their discomfort, Jefferson spoke, a small note of melancholy creeping into his words. "Who would have thought it. That the three of us would be here, still, with so many others gone."
Lafayette's eyes dropped to the emerald carpet.
And one, of course, in particular.
The memory returned again, as it had time and again. The evening two weeks before, when he had stood alone on a sweeping hillside in Virginia.
The verdant landscape sprawling in front of him. Moses, climbing to the peak of the mountain. Moses, old but not yet gone, looking forward into the Promised Land. Moses, having arrived too late.
The tomb at his feet. Not a monument to the founder of a nation. Not a mausoleum in the heart of the city that now bore his name. Only a simple, marble tomb, here at the home he had loved, beside the wife he had loved, in the country he had loved.
Alone, Lafayette had wept, for the loss of a father.
His secret hopes of introducing his son to the giant for whom he had been named.
Lafayette had remained at Washington's tomb until the sun descended behind the hills of Mount Vernon, until purple twilight softened into dusk, until the mournful aria of a barn owl circling the property startled him back into the present moment. He had bent to one knee, aching joints protesting the movement, and kissed the tips of his fingers, then pressed them against the tomb, tracing the letters of Washington's name with his fingertips.
"Thank you," he had said aloud.
Somehow, he had felt then, it seemed as if Washington heard.
Then he rose, took a deep breath, and turned back toward the house, where Peggy and Georges waited on the veranda.
"I never thought we would outlive him," Lafayette said. He did not need to specify who he meant. "Somehow I always thought he would live forever."
"So many of them," Peggy said, leaning against Lafayette. "Washington. Laurens. Alexander. Angelica…"
Lafayette heard Peggy's voice crack over the last syllable. Quietly, he reached over and wrapped one arm around her shoulders. She accepted the gesture, but said nothing about it.
He had not been there beside her, when she visited Trinity Church on their way through Manhattan. He had offered, of course. But she had told him, gently but firmly, that this was one visit she had to make alone.
The churchyard was smaller than she had expected. When Eliza had written of it, years earlier, Peggy had imagined a vast, sprawling field, like the grounds ringing her and Lafayette's chateau in Chavaniac.
Foolish, she realized now. The idle imagining of a grief-stricken brain prone to fantasy. There were no fields in New York, scarcely any trees, barely any sky. This small grove, ringed by a high iron fence, neatly kept grass, five or six maple trees shading it from Wall Street without, was the closest to Eden that Manhattan could offer.
She sat on a small stone bench, hands folded in her lap, looking at the three gravesites standing side-by-side.
The largest, of course, was his. A soaring obelisk, a wholly unnecessary quantity of marble, as ostentatious and profligate in death as he had been in life. Never use one word when ten would do. Never settle for a grave marker when one could have a monument. Not until she saw his grave did Peggy realize she had never quite forgiven Alexander, for what he had done to her sister. Not until she saw his grave did she realize she did not plan to.
The small space, empty still, beside him. Eliza's, one day. Planned in advance. Taking her time, for which Peggy was grateful.
And the third, near them both, a simple headstone, one that tore at Peggy's heart, threatened to break down her defenses, force her into tears again, years after the fact.
Angelica. Buried next to Alexander. Well, Peggy was not surprised. She'd known since Eliza's wedding. Everyone knew. Everyone with eyes.
"I'll miss you, sister," Peggy said quietly.
Don't, she could almost hear Angelica saying. I'll see you later, little sister. Enjoy yourself, until then.
"It does something to one's perspective," Jefferson sighed, shifting slightly in the chair as though his back troubled him. "Death, I mean. It makes you wonder. What was it all for? All our work. How hard we tried."
Lafayette glanced toward the window, where the midafternoon sun streamed through and dotted the green wallpaper with flecks of gold. Charlottesville was miles from the coast, he knew. It was foolish, to think he could see the ocean from here. And yet, he found his mind wandering to the Atlantic, painting an image of its turbulent waves, painted with the sun. An ocean separating his two homes, two revolutions.
So different, both, yet in so many ways the same.
So much lost, so much won, in both.
"It was not for nothing, my friend," Peggy said. "We've had losses, but they meant something. They did."
My friend, Lafayette thought, smiling to himself. Forty years ago, Peggy had threatened to break every one of Jefferson's fingers. "My friend," she called him now. A revolution of sentiment, in its own way.
"Look around," Peggy continued. Her smile had a sadness to it, the bittersweet reverie that came only with age. "Look at where we are."
Jefferson looked out the window, at the sweeping lands around Monticello, at the Virginia he had dedicated his political life to protecting.
Lafayette looked, instead, at Peggy.
How far they had come, the two of them. Two children in a heady ballroom, wild, stupid, quick to fall in love and slow to think of consequences. A soldier and a covert agent of the revolution, fighting for two ideals at once, the right to freedom and the right to love. A new-made husband and wife, leaning over the rail of a ship, looking naively eastward toward an approaching shore. Two souls trapped in the whirlpool of a country descending into terror. Two prisoners, free in each other's eyes.
Parents. Citizens. Lovers.
The very best of friends.
Sensing his thoughts, Peggy smiled—the same smile as ever, age would not touch that. A soft smile that spoke of memory, of affection, of promise.
Of time gone, and time still to come.
"Look at where we are, indeed," Lafayette said, and kissed her.