Last Refuge of Scoundrels: A Revolutionary Novelby Paul Lussier, George Guidall (Narrated by)
LAST REFUGE OF SCOUNDRELS ...is the story of John Lawrence, a naive young merchant's son who finds love and his life's purpose in the force of nature that is Deborah Simpson, a prostitute who leads an unsung army of cooks, washer women, jacktars, and fishermen into the fray. Secretly embraced by George Washington, these ordinary heroes prove to be the commander-in-chief's key to victory and the inspiration for his metamorphosis from careerist aristocrat to father of his country-more a man of the people than his peers would ever know.
John and Deborah plunge headlong into a guerrilla war, bringing them up against the foppish John Hancock (whose tremulous nerves are soothed by the smashing of china); the rabidly puritanical Sam Adams; Sam's chubby and elitist cousin, John Adams (who aspires to be the first American king); and the horny Ben Franklin, whose mission to seduce the French to the American cause is waged mostly on chaise lounges.
Through it all John and Deborah are armed with only the inspiration they draw from their burgeoning, albeit unconventional, love.
From the public relations ploy that was the Boston Massacre to the spiritual epiphany of the Boston Tea Party, from the preventable horrors of Valley Forge to the grotesque yet soulful opulence of the court of Marie Antoinette, The Last Refuge of Scoundrels is at once a rollicking romp, a haunting love story, and a laugh-out-loud Dickensian epic that will stir passions as forceful as the Revolution itself.
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It wasn't until I was facing my final days that I realized I hadn't lived.
It wasn't until an uncontrollable terror of being buried alive emerged, of being stowed away in a sealed vault with the world deaf to my hoarse and frenetic screams, that I did all I could to feel my frailty, my humanity-just to convince myself that even I, General Washington, could die.
With pneumonia ravaging my lungs, I walked out into a hailstorm with my greatcoat unfastened, lingering outside from ten o'clock to three in the afternoon. And when the weather settled upon cold rain I bothered not with a hat or a scarf, wanting my neck moist and my hair drenched.
I went to dinner in my wet clothes.
I admitted to a sore throat but took no measures to relieve it, and at that point flatly refused to take any medicine for the "cold."
Nor would I allow Martha to send for a doctor until the following morning. Even then, it was only because I was confident that the many exertions on my behalf would fail that I consented to the mixture of molasses, vinegar, and butter for my throat; wheat bran poultices for my swollen legs; purges of calomel; gargles of sage tea and vinegar; and tiny fires put to my feet.
Past these remedies, however, I drew the line, begging the three doctors arrayed at my bedside (Craik, Dick, and Brown), "Please, do not interfere. You had better not take any more trouble about me."
They smiled, then ignored me.
Oh, didn't they poke and prod, urging me to cough, to sit up, to lie back, to stay warm one minute and to cool myself the next, shifting and raising and lifting and turning and tossing my frame as though I were an old rag doll and they the family dogs.
"Do not let my body be put into the vault less than three days after I'm 'dead'! Please!"
Martha, unable to hold back her tears, thinking me mad:
"Quiet now, General, you need your strength."
At least my secretary, Tobias Lear, indulged my dark fantasy, assuring me he'd take personal responsibility for determining "the President's" death before burial.
Nice enough of him, but I knew, three days or no, I would never be entirely dead. Lear could no more curtail the ubiquity of my hallowed figure than I could. And images on engravings, portraits, busts, ceramics-even a line of handkerchiefs, pillboxes, and soap-while they may persist through time immemorial, being bloodless, never die.
Do I have any blood left? I wondered.
"More blood!" I bellowed. "The orifice isn't big enough!" I wanted evidence.
Enough of this trickling, anemic, brownish sludge the doctors were leaching from my arm, drops at a time. I wanted to see fluid, red and gushing, great gobs of it exploding from my veins. I wanted it now.
"More blood!" I again demanded, too weak to stomp my foot.
And when the doctors, in conference over my condition (quinsy, diphtheria, pneumonia, what?), did not jump to, I grabbed the fleam myself to slice at my wrist when Martha stopped me: "Please, General, no!"
"Call me George!" I found myself commanding her.
"You relieved him years ago, dear," Martha responded, thinking I was referring to a stable boy I'd long since retired.
And that's when I realized what needed to be done.
I'd not asked Martha to call me George... well, ever, really, now that I thought about it. Nor had she ever asked to so address me. Why, even my own children (Martha's really, from a previous marriage: a daughter and a son, Patsy and Jackie) could not be coaxed into calling me "Papa," let alone "George"!
And why should they have? It would be like calling Martha "Abigail" or a donkey a cat. Just plain wrong. For George was no more and hadn't been-since when, where and for how long?
I hadn't a clue.
I moaned, heaved, sighed, bellowed in unendurable pain.
"Please, God, let me be!"
And then it came, a word that I'd only uttered (and to miraculous effect) twice before. It felt strange coming out, like a glass marble passing between my lips, round, slippery, and hard.
And just like that, I found myself in a dream, nay a nightmare, all the more frightening because it was true.
In this dream, I was a man who despised being President.
The levees, the public speaking, the thick waistcoats, the unending dinners with dignitaries from countries whose names I couldn't pronounce. All of it I found tedious-a ceaseless, unremitting bore.
Since policy-making in particular left me cold, I'd pass my time in "cabinet" meetings jotting down gardening ideas I wanted the caretakers to try back at Mount Vernon, where I longed to return.
I'd riffle through personal mail, with a particular interest in dispatches updating me on the ongoing mating saga of my beloved jackass, who, fussy about intercourse, rejected every suitor, no matter how well researched his lineage or well endowed his organ ("He's a bit more eager than the last, Your Excellency, but still, the jenny seems bored").
Never one to be caught off guard, I particularly loathed speaking in public extemporaneously. Even at my own levees, crowds milling past, I'd cling tenaciously to the fireplace and behave like a wax statue, so most would ooh and aah, but stay away.
When public speaking was altogether unavoidable, however, I'd spend countless hours preparing. I'd write voluminous notes to myself, recording particularly clever turns of phrase, bon mots, jokes, pleasantries, even bawdy puns-in sufficient variety and quantity to cover the wide range of situations experience had taught me I might confront.
Even so, I'd tremble in public and sweat like a horse. Yet, despite all this, I didn't know I was unhappy, that I'd rather I didn't belong to the archives of History.
Advocates had me convinced the vague ennui that circled endlessly about me (like a summer horsefly buzzing unceasingly around one's head) was a sign of great humility and grace. That my mind-boggling array of ailments (recurring malaria, ague, fever, even a malignant carbuncle-you name it, I thought I'd caught it, rarely repeating myself, always something exotic) were signs of royalty, great compassion, blue blood.
And what of those ugly thoughts I'd had from time to time, like wishing I'd fled my inauguration?
What of the admission I'd made, while progressing from Philadelphia to New York (the capital then) for the ceremonies celebrating our First President, that I felt more like a culprit going to my place of execution than a man about to be made leader of his country?
What for the man consumed with all those gloomy thoughts when the ridiculous festivities took hold? The towns festooning themselves with flags, emblems, slogans, and mounted escorts to receive me? The massive applause on my approach and pandemonium on my arrival? And yes, who could forget passing under a victory arch as a concealed mechanism lowered a laurel wreath upon my head and a choir of white-robed maidens strewed blossoms in my path, singing "Hallelujah" at full tilt?
I could forget, that's who. Indeed, I had. All my unhappiness buried, along with George.
Why, I'd even begun to believe I was attractive. Who wouldn't prefer the portraits by Trumbull and Gilbert Stuart? No pock-marked face. No springs visible at the corners of my mouth, coils to fasten my wretched teeth to my jaw or, for that matter, Madeira-stained incisors or cuspids perpetually flecked with unremovable bits of food.
Who could blame the General for being so tyrannized by his own image he'd carry a self-help guide on his person as reminder of just how General George Washington should be expected to act? "Run not in the streets, neither go too slowly nor with mouth open," was particularly important to remember when dignity was required.
Poor embalmed President, Commander-in-Chief, His Excellency, General Washington, who didn't even know he'd lost George somewhere between those phony cherry trees a certain "historian" dreamed up and the real victory at Yorktown: the tri-umphant battle that won us independence and the end of the war.
And then one day, facing the end, all that changed.
I woke up.
Waking from the dream, I felt a new kind of pain. Not a physical sensation, neither the press of inflammation for the burning of blood (red!) seeping through my eyes. Rather, I was gripped by a certain sadness (Had I loved Martha as much as she deserved?); by fear (Did Martha love me?); a degree of fragility (Was I a good man? Am I as gawky and as potbellied as I feel?); and even paranoia (What if America finds out that it wasn't I who won us the war?).
I squeezed Martha's hand and she squeezed back. I felt deep and abiding love for the woman.
And love for my country.
And love for the likes of Deborah and John, whom I'd not thought about in years.
And that was all it took....
Suddenly I felt as though I were being lifted from my bed and transported through the heavens to another time and place: to Boston Harbor, 1765, where I noticed a small boy beckoning me from the deck of a most splendid mercantile ship.
I recognized him as John Lawrence, my longtime aide-de-camp, whose death by suicide just after America's victory had for years mystified dignitaries and officers and, most importantly, me, the General himself.
One look at John and I knew instantly what I was about to experience.
He didn't have to say:
"Not the events of the War, but the story of the Revolution, is your way back to George."
He flew to me-what a lark was this astral plane! We neither embraced nor shook hands; there wasn't time.
"Two breaths left, before you die or are permanently embalmed.
Which is it?" he asked.
"Well, then, come with me and utter not a word! Just watch, listen, and be proud of the legacy of Deborah and Alice and George and John. For this is the way back to George, to the Washington America didn't even know she had."
And now I could see into my bedchamber at Mount Vernon.
I could see my body, my chest heaving for air. The doctors were scurrying all about the bed, panicked looks on their faces, thinking the end was near. But I was just getting started, preparing to come back to life.
And then, to die.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Paul Lussier Co., Ltd.
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