For All Nails #308: Lady Albany
by Johnny Pez
“This important work was all but completed when, on September 3, 1783, Albany contracted what was first believed to be a cold. His fever continued to mount, however, and a week later Albany developed pneumonia. Bleeding was initiated to save his life, but on September 20, 1783, at the age of sixty-one, Albany died.”
- Trinity Church
- Pittsborough, Pennsylvania, N.C., C.N.A.
- 23 September 1783
Lady Abigail Burgoyne, Duchess of Albany, stood in the chill rain by the open grave. The Reverend Samuel Barr stood to her right as he read the service for the dead, and beyond him stood Lord Cornwallis, the Acting Viceroy. At the foot of the grave stood the men who made up the Grand Council of the Confederation of North America – an impressive name for a singularly unimpressive group. Behind Abigail were the members of her household: her two infant sons, their nursemaids, and her husband’s secretary. Around them stood the small crowd of fur traders, tradesmen, and farmers who had made Pittsborough their home, and who had come to see the funeral of the Hero of Saratoga.
Abigail’s mind kept slipping back five years, to a time when she had stood by another open grave holding the mortal remains of another recently-deceased husband. Had it only been five years since Dick’s death? It seemed like a lifetime. Of course, when you were twenty-five years old, five years practically was a lifetime.
Dick had been a soldier, and a Patriot, and he had died in the terrible privations of the encampment at Valley Forge in the worst winter anyone could remember. He had died, and it seemed to Abigail that the Patriot cause had died with him. Philadelphia fallen, Albany fallen, and the flame of independence that seemed to burn so brightly in the summer of ’76 was guttering out, leaving only ashes and death.
Dick’s death had left her a destitute widow, surviving on the charity of others. And how much charity could there be for a traitor’s widow? For just like that, Dick had ceased to be a Patriot, fighting for liberty and independence, and become a traitor to King and Country. Just like that, all the Patriots in New-York Town were Loyalists, and always had been. Abigail had known that the wise course would be to join them, to sing the praises of Good King George and call down curses on the heads of the traitors of the Congress.
But at night, she would dream of Dick, so proud to fight for liberty, and she knew she would rather die than betray his memory by foreswearing the cause for which he gave his life. So when others raised up their voices and called upon God to save the King, Abigail had remained silent. When the people made Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne their new hero, she had seethed. And when she heard talk about other unrepentant Patriots making plans to leave the colonies for Spanish Mexico, she had made up her mind to join them.
There was a wet splattering sound, and Abigail was back in the churchyard. Reverend Barr had tossed a handful of soggy dirt onto the coffin. The ceremony was over. The townspeople and the government officials were drifting away, leaving the open grave, the rain, and the widow. The members of her household stood off a way, waiting in silence for their mistress to finish her own vigil.
Three years had accustomed her to those words, to her title. She looked up, and saw the concerned face of Lord Cornwallis. “May I be of any assistance?” he continued.
Abigail had always rather liked Lord Cornwallis. She could almost believe he was unaware of her humble origins. He had always treated her as though her title went back to the Conqueror, rather than being a clumsy attempt by the King to curry favor with her husband. And if he had come from Great Britain to stamp out the Rebellion, he had at least shown none of the vindictiveness of the Loyalists after he succeeded.
“Thank you, Charles,” she answered. “I would be grateful if you could escort me to the carriage.”
Lord Cornwallis bowed, and together they made their way through the churchyard, her household following behind. Like most of the buildings in Pittsborough, the church was newly-built, and its whitewashed walls gleamed spotlessly in the watery morning light. Beyond it, a few score other wooden buildings clung to the bank of the Monongahela, while the vast bulk of Fort Pitt loomed indistinctly to the northwest.
Not for the first time, Abigail found herself wondering what could have possessed Parliament to make this isolated frontier town the capital of their new Confederation. Johnny had always been of the opinion that John Connolly’s patron Lord Dunmore had been behind it. Connolly had been a resident of Pittsborough before the Rebellion, and he owned a considerable amount of land in the area – land that had become quite valuable when Pittsborough was named the Confederation’s new capital.
There were only a handful of tombstones in the church’s graveyard – not many of Pittsborough’s residents had died since the building of the church – and trees covered much of the churchyard. As they passed through them, Lord Cornwallis spoke up.
“Lady Albany, I wonder if I might impose upon you for a favor.”
Abigail smiled briefly at Lord Cornwallis’s courtly language. Four years as a playwright’s wife had given her an appreciation for the elaborate conversation of the aristocracy. “You have but to ask, Charles,” she replied.
“Mr. McKee has invited the Grand Council and myself to dine with him this evening, and I would esteem it a great honour if you would consent to accompany me.”
Abigail turned the matter over in her mind. Lord Cornwallis was a widower, and so would indeed be in need of an escort, for which duty Abigail would be eminently qualified. Should she agree? On the one hand, she had little liking for the Grand Council, or Alexander McKee for that matter, and was certain she would find an evening in their company to be burdensome. On the other hand, spending the evening in Government House brooding over Johnny’s death would be even more burdensome.
“I should be delighted, Charles. What time would you like me to be ready?”
“My thanks, Lady Albany, you shall have my eternal gratitude,” said Lord Cornwallis as the two of them neared the gate. “The function is due to commence at seven, so I believe six would be an opportune time.”
“Six it shall be, then, Charles. You may rely upon it.”
Lord Cornwallis bowed again, saying, “I shall have no fears in that respect, my lady.”
When they reached the carriage, Lord Cornwallis gallantly assisted her entrance before joining her within. He nodded politely as the nursemaids, Mrs. Tipton and Mrs. Whitaker, entered with their charges. Abigail knew this was a breach of propriety – servants did not ride with their masters – but she refused to be separated from her sons, and so where she went, they went, and their nursemaids with them. Besides, she was still rebel enough to sneer at the concept of keeping one’s place. Was it her place, a cobbler’s daughter, to ride in a fine carriage and bear a lordly title and hob-a-nob with the great ones of the land? I am a viper, she thought to herself, as the carriage began its journey through the muddy streets. A rebel viper in the bosom of the English aristocracy. Lord Cornwallis knew of her peculiarity, and was too much of a gentleman to object to the impropriety.
The carriage started off, and again her mind was drifting back, as it did so often now. She remembered a morning unlike this one, bright and clear and cold, in New-York Town. She had been leaning out a second-storey window, shaking out a blanket, and a commotion in the street below caught her attention. Off to the left, in the distance but growing rapidly closer, were screams and the rattle of hooves and metal-rimmed wheels over the cobblestones of the street. A run-away carriage, the team of horses mad with fear, their reins torn from the driver’s hands.
Abigail had let the blanket fall from her hands as the carriage passed underneath, and it had draped itself over the heads of the two lead horses. Suddenly blinded, they had ended their panicked flight, and the carriage had come to a juddering halt fifty feet beyond her window. Men in the street had grabbed hold of the panting horses, and a finely-dressed man had sprung out from the carriage.
He had not been long in learning what had interrupted his flight, and so Abigail found herself looking down upon Lieutenant General John Burgoyne, the darling of the Loyalists, and the absolute master of the colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.
“Good woman,” Burgoyne had addressed her, “your quick thinking and timely aid has saved me from a fearful, perhaps even mortal, injury, and earned you my undying gratitude. If there is anything within my power to grant you, you have but to name it and it is yours.” He had ended his fine speech by doffing his plumed cap and performing a sweeping bow.
“It was not for your sake that I acted,” she had answered, “but for that of the helpless people who stood in your path. There is nothing I need from you, Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne.”
Burgoyne had grinned up at her. “That’s a fearsome sharp tongue you have there, good woman. If you need nothing from me, perhaps your good husband does. I daresay he has earned a goodly reward, if you speak him as sharply as you do me.”
“My husband’s needs are less than mine. He fell a year ago in service to the Continental Congress.”
The grin vanished from Burgoyne’s face. “You shame me, good woman. It was a cruel jest to make to a soldier’s widow, and I repent me of it.” He sank down then on one knee and bowed his head, and went on, “I beg you, good widow, allow me to make such amends as I may. If your man fell in service to the enemies of the Crown, nonetheless do I honour his sacrifice. Please, grant me this favor, and let me wash away my shame.” He looked up at her, then, and heaven strike her down if there weren’t tears in his eyes.
Abigail was brought back to herself by a change in the motion of the carriage. They had left the rutted mud streets of the town and were driving up the gravel drive of Government House.
The capital building of the Confederation of North America was still a-building, and the grounds consisted of stretches of mud interrupted by stagnant pools of water, with piles of rubbish here and there to add variety to the landscape. The brick façade was complete, but none of the windows on the second floor were glazed, and only half the windows on the first. Work had ceased when Johnny fell ill, and had yet to resume.
The carriage halted at the summit of the gravel drive, and the footman assisted Abigail and the others to the ground. They all carefully picked their way across the wooden planks that spanned the muddy ground until they reached the wooden steps that led up to the building’s entrance. Eventually, the wooden steps would be replaced by marble ones. Eventually.
Johnny had been thinking ahead when he laid out the design of Government House. A spacious foyer opened onto a vast ballroom that rose up two storeys. The ballroom had never been used, due to the unglazed windows and the unlaid floor, and the fact that the sweeping stairs that ascended to the balconied upper story hadn’t been installed yet. In due course, Johnny had confidently informed her, the CNA would extend across the whole continent to the Pacific Ocean, and there might be as many as fifteen or twenty constituent confederations. When that day came, Johnny told her, then Government House would be ready to house the government of a mighty dominion of the Crown.
Abigail and the others went directly from the foyer to the private wing of Government House, where the dining room, sitting room, kitchen, and bedrooms were, thankfully, finished. For the first nine months of her stay in Pittsborough, while Government House was going up, Abigail had lived in Mr. Semple’s public house at Water and Ferry Streets. She still couldn’t decide whether their rooms in Government House were an improvement. On rainy days like this, the roof tended to leak, and the rooms were drafty on windy days. Against that, there was the relief of finally having a domicile of their own for the first time since leaving New-York the year before.
She had just begun to get their rooms in some semblance of order, and was looking forward to spending the rest of her life here with Johnny, when he fell ill. Dr. Bedford had done all he could, bleeding Johnny half a dozen times, but it only seemed to make him worse. On the twentieth of the month, John Burgoyne, Lord Albany, Viceroy of the Confederation of North America, had passed away.
Abigail refused to allow herself to see Johnny as he had been in his last days. Instead, she thought back to the night his new play, Pocahontas, had opened. He had invited her to accompany him to make amends for his thoughtless comments, and she had finally allowed herself to be persuaded. How disappointed Johnny had been when she told him she had never heard of the Indian princess!
“But you’re an American!” he had exclaimed. “How can you not know about Pocahontas and Captain Smith?”
She had shrugged. “They were Virginians. I’m a New Yorker. Next time, you ought to write about Peter Stuyvesant.”
Johnny had shaken his head. “How you all thought you could create a nation together is beyond me.”
To her astonishment, she had found Pocahontas delightful. Johnny had managed to turn the story of the Indian princess into a satire on the Loyalists and Patriots, and done it in such a gracious manner that neither group was displeased.
Afterward, during dinner, Johnny had been full of praise for her wits and beauty, and Abigail didn’t need to be a fortuneteller to see that Johnny was, in his polite and courteous way, inviting her to share his bed.
As charming as she found him, though, she had no wish to be the latest in the long line of Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne’s conquests. She had told him that she ought to be getting back home, and he had, politely and courteously, called his carriage for her.
She thought at first that that would be the end of the matter. The next day, though, it seemed as though half the tradesmen in New-York Town were going out of their way to do her favors. She had been seen at the theater, and remarked upon, and now the word was out that Gentleman Johnny had a new paramour. Well, if they thought they could curry favor with General Burgoyne by toadying up to a cobbler’s daughter, she would not disabuse them of the notion.
But perhaps the tradesmen knew better than she, for a week after her night at the theater, one of Johnny’s servants had called at her lodgings with an invitation to dine with him again. His carriage had come, and once again she had been the reluctant recipient of his hospitality. After dinner, though, instead of flattery, he had said, “Mrs. Conrad, tell me about Peter Stuyvesant.”
So it was that she found herself becoming the secret co-author of his next play, In Old New Amsterdam. She found it breathtaking watching as her stories of the peg-legged tyrant were transformed into a drama of love and war.
The new play was only half done when she heard from one of Dick’s old comrades from the First New York. General Benedict Arnold was going to lead a party of Patriots west into Spanish Louisiana next spring. There, they would establish a settlement free of the British Crown and its Loyalist toadies. Abigail had declared then and there that when Arnold’s party left, she would be going with them.
Abigail sat up, aware that she had fallen asleep in the sitting room. She looked up at the clock on the mantelpiece: five o’clock. Her girl, Letitia, was standing beside her. “My Lady, Lord Cornwallis says you need to get ready for the party.”
“Thank you, Letitia.” Abigail rose, and the girl followed her to her bedroom. There was a whalebone corset to be fastened into, and petticoats and a dress to go over it, and then makeup to be applied. The familiar ritual helped to occupy her mind, and by six o’clock she was back in the sitting room, waiting for Lord Cornwallis.
He appeared promptly as the clock was chiming six, his red uniform resplendent, and his powdered wig carefully arranged. “You look lovely as ever, My Lady,” he greeted her.
“And you look dashing as always, Charles,” she answered.
Taking her arm, Lord Cornwallis escorted her out to the carriage, again helping her inside. They rattled down the gravel drive, then began splashing through the muddy streets of Pittsborough.
The overcast sky had begun to darken by the time they reached Mr. McKee’s large frame dwelling at the corner of Water and West Streets. The house, Abigail had heard, originally belonged to an Indian trader named James O’Hara. However, O’Hara had had the misfortune to support the Rebellion, and after British rule was restored he had been arrested and his property confiscated by a Loyalist named Simon Girty. McKee, a friend of Girty’s, had bought the property from him.
Like Government House, the McKee house had a gravel drive leading up to its main entrance. The carriage came to a stop, and one of McKee’s servants took charge of it while the footman helped Abigail and Lord Cornwallis descend to the ground.
Mr. McKee had spared no expense for his guests, lighting every room with wax candles and oil lamps. They showed the house to good advantage, and Abigail was impressed by the well-crafted furniture and paintings. Then it occurred to her to wonder whether the credit belonged to Mr. McKee or to the displaced Mr. O’Hara.
Mr. McKee met them in a large dining room dominated by a long, heavy table. “Lord Cornwallis! A pleasure to make your acquaintance again! And Lady Albany! I wasn’t expecting the honour of your company tonight!”
“Lord Cornwallis graciously requested that I accompany him tonight, and I couldn’t refuse,” Abigail answered. Despite Mr. McKee’s courteous words, Abigail could tell that he wasn’t particularly pleased to see her. She suspected that he resented having to defer to someone of such common origins.
Mr. McKee returned his attention to Lord Cornwallis. “My Lord, please allow me to introduce my other guests. I’m sure you know Doctor Connolly from the Southern Confederation.”
“Of course,” said Lord Cornwallis politely. “Doctor, a pleasure, as always.”
Dr. Connolly bowed. “Lord Cornwallis, Lady Albany.”
Dr. John Connolly was a Pennsylvania native who had aligned himself with Governor Lord Dunmore of Virginia during his dispute with the Pennsylvanians over control of the territory beyond the Monongahela. After fighting broke out between the colonists and the British in 1775, he and Lord Dunmore had schemed together to raise a force of Loyalists and Indians at Fort Detroit and use them to crush the Rebellion. Connolly had been captured by the Patriots in Maryland, and had spent the Rebellion in gaol, finally being freed by General Clinton in 1778.
According to Johnny, it had been Lord Dunmore who had persuaded Lord North to appoint Connolly as the Governor-General of the newly-created Southern Confederation. However, Connolly’s dreams of power had proved to be cruelly mistaken; he had learned to his cost that he could do little without the approval of the Southern Confederation’s General Council. And that body, ably led by Theodorick Bland, the Royal Governor of Virginia, had been minded to approve little for Connolly. The Governor-General had spent his first year in office writing increasingly angry letters to Johnny demanding that Something Be Done. Johnny, however, had been content to allow Governor Bland’s wishes to prevail.
“My Lord,” said Dr. Connolly, “I was hoping to bring to your attention a most outrageous perversion of justice being perpetrated under our own noses!”
“Rest assured, Governor-General Connolly,” Lord Cornwallis answered, “if there is justice being perverted under my nose, I shall certainly take steps to see that it is, er, un-perverted.”
“It warms my heart to hear you say so, My Lord,” said Dr. Connolly, though Abigail doubted that all the fires of Hell could warm Connolly’s heart. “I mean to speak no ill of the dead,” he continued with a bow of the head in her direction, “but I fear me that your predecessor was most lax at times in seeing justice done.”
“Lord Albany? Surely not!” Lord Cornwallis insisted. “The man was a veritable cornucopia of justice!”
“You must judge for yourself, My Lord,” said Dr. Connolly. “As you are no doubt aware, following the end of the Rebellion, the traitor Washington was brought to London for trial and sentenced to life imprisonment. Dr. Franklin interceded on his behalf, and at his instigation the traitor was brought back to Virginia and confined to his estate at Mount Vernon. It was far too lenient a sentence for such a notorious traitor, and when I was appointed Governor-General of the Southern Confederation I was determined to see that he be placed under a more stringent state of confinement. However, my attempts were balked by Governor Bland, who has been content to allow the traitor to remain where he is. I was most vigorous in my attempts to bring the matter to Lord Albany’s attention, but he insisted that he could not compel Governor Bland to alter his policy. It is my earnest hope, My Lord, that you will see the necessity for action in this matter.”
Johnny had indeed heard from Dr. Connolly many times on the subject of “that traitor Washington”. Though he had never admitted it to Dr. Connolly, Johnny had been more pleased than otherwise by Governor Bland’s treatment of Washington. Washington, after all, had once been Bland’s commanding officer in the Continental Army, and Johnny much admired such personal loyalty. To Dr. Connolly, however, Johnny would simply point out that his powers as Viceroy were quite limited; quite as limited, in fact, as Dr. Connolly’s own powers as Governor-General. As much as he sympathized with Dr. Connolly, he would say, there was nothing he could do to change the circumstances of Mr. Washington’s imprisonment.
Lord Cornwallis, after gravely listening to Dr. Connolly’s statement, paused for a moment before responding. Finally, he said, “I understand your concerns, Governor-General Connolly. This is indeed a serious matter.” He paused again, and then, a touch sadly, continued, “However, I am as yet only serving as Acting Viceroy. As such, I feel it would be premature for me to attempt to promulgate any new policies. For all any of us knows, the Ministry may see fit to appoint another man as Viceroy – perhaps even a North American, such as yourself.”
Dr. Connolly affected astonishment at the suggestion. “Oh, surely not, My Lord! As much as I might wish to see it, I do not believe it would be prudent for the Ministry to place such an important office in the hands of a North American so soon after the Rebellion. I feel confident that they will rather repose their trust in a man of unimpeachable loyalty such as yourself.”
Abigail would have wagered all the tea in China that Dr. Connolly was not the least bit astonished at the thought of a North American being appointed in Johnny’s place. She would in fact have wagered all the tea in China and Ceylon that Dr. Connolly’s first action after hearing of Johnny’s death was to write to his patron Lord Dunmore to suggest himself as the C.N.A.’s new Viceroy.
Abigail found the idea sufficiently appalling that she interrupted Dr. Connolly to say, “Charles, would you be so kind as to give my apologies to our host? I fear that the day’s excitement has proven too great for my delicate constitution. I should like to retire and collect myself, if I might.”
“Not at all, My Lady,” Lord Cornwallis was quick to answer. “Please, allow me to escort you to Mr. McKee’s sitting room. You should find the atmosphere quite restful.”
As they left the dining room together, Lord Cornwallis murmured to her, “I wish I could absent myself from Connolly’s company so readily.”
The atmosphere in Mr. McKee’s sitting room was indeed quite restful, and Abigail felt her mind settling into a more tranquil state. She was remembering the night in Johnny’s parlour in New-York, pages from his new play scattered here and there, when she had informed Johnny that she intended to leave with General Arnold’s party for Louisiana.
“Why, Mrs. Conrad, whatever for?” Johnny had said, his features perplexed.
“Because there is no place for me in this world,” she had answered. “I have no wish to remain where my husband is a traitor, and I a traitor’s widow. General Arnold intends to found a new settlement, for those of us who cannot give up the dream of liberty. That is the life I would choose for myself.”
There had been an odd look on Johnny’s face. “And is there nothing here for you? Is there nothing in this city that you would regret leaving?”
“Perhaps,” she had said softly. “Perhaps there are one or two things I would miss. But I would miss liberty more.”
Johnny’s eyes had dropped to the quill pen in his hand. “Mrs. Conrad . . . Abigail . . . it’s . . . it’s such a damn nuisance to be a playwright and suddenly find yourself at a loss for words. Now that you put me to the test, I find . . . I find that I can’t bear the thought of watching you leave.” He had looked up again, looked at her. “I want you to stay, Abigail. With me. I want you to stay and be my wife.” He slid down from his chair onto one knee. “Will you, Abigail? Will you be my wife?”
The clock in the sitting room rang eight. Abigail looked up, and saw Lord Cornwallis standing in the doorway. “Is it time for dinner, then?” she asked him.
When he didn’t answer, she grew concerned. “What is it, Charles?”
“My Lady,” he said slowly, “you know I’ve always had the greatest respect for Lord Albany. He was my superior officer, and my friend.”
“I know, Charles,” she said. “You’ve been a good friend to both of us this past year. And you’ve been a greater comfort to me than you can ever know, these past few days. I don’t know that I could have withstood Johnny’s passing without you.”
“And yet,” he whispered, “to my shame, to my great shame, I was false to him. In my heart, I was the most baseborn traitor that ever lived.”
Of all the shocks Abigail had suffered since Johnny had fallen ill, this was the greatest, and the most unexpected. She had no difficulty understanding what Lord Cornwallis was trying to say.
“Do not be ashamed, Charles,” she told him. “Whatever was in your heart, you kept there. Never did you make any sign of it, by word or deed. You remained true to him to the end.”
“You are kind, My Lady,” said Charles. “More kind than I deserve. You would think me the greatest villain that ever lived if I spoke the words my heart urges, while you still grieve for your husband.”
“I know what you would say, Charles,” she assured him. “It is plain enough on your face. And you are no villain. Believe me when I tell you that there is no man in the world that I would rather hear those words from. But you must not speak those words, now or ever.”
Charles closed his eyes, and Abigail hated to see the pain in his features. “Of course, My Lady.”
“Charles, in spite of what you might feel for me . . . and in spite of what I might feel for you . . . your world is one I could never share. You are a general in His Majesty’s service, and you must go where he commands you to go. I know you were only jesting with Doctor Connolly, but what you said was true enough. The Ministry might send us another man to be Viceroy, and call you back to London. And I could not go there with you.”
The pain was still there as Charles said, “But why, My Lady?”
“There is a child at Government House,” said Abigail, “a child who bears the title of Lord Albany. I want that child to be an American.” She deliberately used the older, faintly disreputable term, rather than the newly-coined “North American”. “I want him to grow up here, in this land, the land that holds his father’s remains. At one time, I was ready to leave it, but Johnny made me see that I belonged here, and I want to make Little Johnny see that he does as well.”
Now there was a smile on Charles’ face, in spite of the pain. “Still a Patriot, My Lady?”
“Now, and for always, Charles.”
There was a touch of awe in his voice as he extended his hand and said, “Dinner awaits, My Lady.” She took it, and rose from her seat, and they left the sitting room arm in arm.
“The General even found time to write two more plays, both of which were well received not only in New York, but elsewhere in America and in London. His marriage to Mrs. Abigail Conrad, a North American who had been a known rebel sympathizer during the war, was greeted by loyalist and former rebel alike as a good omen for a new era of friendship between the English speaking peoples.”
--- Robert Sobel, For Want of a Nail, p. 39
(Forward to FAN #309: Remembrance Day.)
(Forward to 11 May 1784: In the Country of the Bland.)
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