Excerpt: “Cooking up a Storm”
When the British came to burn Washington, D.C., on August 24, 1814, they had no idea a voodoo priestess
had gotten there first. The War of 1812 is about to
Mama was a conjure woman.
I know what you’re thinking. Conjure, gris gris, voudou—they’re nothing but heathen superstition. I would’ve said the same until that dreadful, scorching day, the twenty-fourth of August, in the year of Our Lord 1814.
Mr. President Madison’s freedman thundered up the drive to the White House steps. His face was gray with road dust. His chest heaved like his poor, lathered horse. “Clear out! Clear out!” he shouted. “General Armstrong has ordered a retreat!”
Ice gathered in my belly, for all I’d been sweating like onions in a pan not moments before. Mama warned me the British were coming. She said her spirits showed her Washington City burning. I hadn’t believed her. I dismissed everything her spirits said as an act of faith. Besides, everybody from Mr. President Madison to the Congress and all our generals said our militia would stop those British before they even got close.
A part of me disbelieved it still. How could her dire foretelling come to pass with the sun shining overhead, and the sky so clear and blue? There should be a storm, a blast of trumpets from on high. But the only sounds were the whimpers of the house girls standing around me.
Mrs. President Dolley Madison paled under her rouge. Hand to her throat, she turned to scowl at Mama, who like always, stood apart from the rest of the servants and slaves.
Mama didn’t cringe in fright, or hike her chin defiant-like. She appeared as calm as still waters. You’d have thought the prospect of the British capturing the town and torching it like we had the parliament buildings in Canada troubled her not at all.
The notion that maybe she did know something—something the rest of us were too staggered to see—gave me a trickle of hope. Not so Miss Dolley. Her glare just about crackled. Her bosom strained against her old gray house dress as she filled her lungs for a proper scolding. But before she could open her mouth, the President’s Master of Ceremonies, John Sioussat, leaned over her shoulder.
“The British will not attempt a forced march in this heat. They will take hours to reach the city—plenty of time to lay a trap.” His voice sounded huskier than usual. His accent was thicker, too. “We can spike the cannons at the gate and lay a trail of powder to the house. That would kill a hundred men and injure far more.”
Miss Dolley gasped. Her head shake turned to a shudder. “They’d be blown to pieces. No. I won’t have it. It’s too horrible.”
French John lifted a dark eyebrow. “It is war.”
War. Here. Now.
French John knew war. He’d served four years in the French Navy, and still wore his hair tied back in a sailor’s queue. In the time it had taken the rest of us to gather on the North Steps, he’d found himself a pistol to shove between the buttons of his vest and a sword to strap to his hip. His fine blue coat dragged from his shoulders. Its pockets strained. The bulge in the one closest to me matched the shape of Mr. President Madison’s folding razor.
French John had always been so particular about his appearance. He’d never risk staining his vest with oil and powder, or spoil his coat unless it was an emergency.
Unless Mama was right.
My heart raced, but I couldn’t move. I didn’t know what to do. Nothing in my life had prepared me for this.
“I don’t care,” Miss Dolley said. “Even in war, some advantages may never be taken. There are lines civilized people cannot cross.”
“If we do not take advantage, Madame, of a certainty the British will. They have promised to destroy the President’s Palace and all the Departments supporting the war. What could be more just, more civilized, than destroying them in the act?”
“You forget yourself, Mr. Sioussat. I am mistress here, and as long as I remain Lady President, the President’s House will not be made into a bomb.”
I sucked my lip between my teeth. Even the crying girls fell silent. Miss Dolley was mistress of the house, but French John was no servant. He was free, white, and as official as the President’s secretary. Saying he forgot himself with respect to her was as good as a slap to the face. Men dueled for less.
Her eyes widened as she realized what she’d done. I expected her to apologize, but she stood her ground, daring him to object.
I held my breath, terrified of what the Master of Ceremonies might do.
The strangest look passed over French John’s face. There was a flash of what might have been sorrow, then nothing. This wasn’t like Mama’s bland facade. He had no expression at all.
He drew himself to his full height, shoulders squared and hands at his sides like a soldier coming to attention. He tipped his head in a small bow.
“Your orders, Madame President?” he asked in a voice as empty as his face.
Miss Dolley’s shoulders sagged in what I suspect was relief. Then she collected herself, straightening her spine until her bearing matched his.
“Are Mr. Madison’s papers loaded on the big wagon?”
“I saw to it myself,” he said.
“Good. Take the red velvet drapes out of storage and place them in my carriage, as well as the large silver urns from the dining room. Pack as much of the plate as you can, but be sure of the urns. They’re the most valuable…” Miss Dolley stopped. She pressed her hands against her temples. “Why am I dithering about urns? This war isn’t about urns. Or restraint of trade. God bless Mr. Madison, it’s not about trade at all. It’s about our independence, and the way General Washington sent the British packing in ‘Eighty-one. That’s why they’re here instead of Baltimore or New York. This is Washington’s city. They’re counting coup.”
My heart dropped past my knees. First she’d lost her temper, now her wits. What would she lose next—our lives?
French John made a questioning noise in the back of his throat.
“They want trophies,” Miss Dolley said. “They can’t take the city home with them. They can’t take General Washington either, unless they want to dig up his bones. Even mad King George wouldn’t stand for that. But they still want proof they’ve bested us, something they can parade in triumph through the streets of London, a symbol of our vanquished state. And what could be more symbolic than the big portrait of President Washington hanging in the dining room?
“We can’t let them have it, Mr. Sioussat,” she said. “Take it down from the wall. Break the frame if you have to. Save the picture if possible. But under no circumstances allow it to fall into the hands of the British. If worse comes to worst, destroy it. Burn it to ash.”
Personally, I thought she was making a big to-do over nothing. What did it matter if they saved the picture and lost the town? But her fervor sparked something in French John. When he left to do her bidding, his face was a face again, not something stuck on the front of a statue.
Miss Dolley seemed to have recovered herself as well. The next thing I knew she was snapping out orders like always. She told the free white servants to leave as soon the household fires were banked. She loaned the butler the small coach, since unlike the whites, he and his family lived with the rest of us in the service wings. She sent footmen in search of more wagons and horses.
None of us expected them to find any. Everyone who was anyone had abandoned the city as soon as the British landed in Maryland, taking their horses, coaches and carts with them. Whatever was left behind was soon taken by others looking to escape. Still, it was a comfort to know she cared enough to try.
Even better was learning she had a plan. She told us to pack only what we could carry, because it was a long walk to the Georgetown ferry, and there was no telling how far we might have to travel once we crossed the river to Virginia. Just thinking about the trip made my feet hurt, but the rest of me felt like I was taking my first clean breath after being trapped in a house full of smoke. With our Lady President back in charge, things didn’t seem nearly so hopeless.
“Not you, Lula,” Miss Dolley said in a hard voice. “Come with me.”
Mama almost smiled. I couldn’t imagine why. From the sound of things, Miss Dolley hadn’t forgotten whatever made her mad in the first place, and the scolding was bound to be worse for being delayed. I sidled toward the house. I had no desire to be thought a party to Mama’s reprimand. Besides, I had a load of packing to do.
Mama grabbed my arm. She didn’t let go until we were standing in Miss Dolley’s yellow parlor with the door shut behind us.
To read the rest, check out “Cooking up a Storm” in Tales from the Vatican Vaults (2015, Robinson)