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The Haunting of Ambassador Jefferson, Act 4

David W. Parsley

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David W. Parsley



Cast of Characters

Sally Hemings: Slave woman aged 16, owned by Thomas Jefferson, serving in Paris as house servant and chamber servant to Jefferson daughter, Polly.

John Adams: American ambassador to England; known to be residing in London, his appearance here is a mystery.

Thomas Jefferson: American ambassador to France.

Shade of Martha Jefferson: Ghost of Mrs. Jefferson, deceased wife of Thomas.

First Voice: English speaking collaborator of French revolutionaries.

Second Voice: A French revolutionary.

Shade of Abraham Lincoln: Ghost of America’s 16th President; dressed entirely in black, with knee length cape, top hat and cane; featureless though bearded.



Various locations around pre-revolutionary Paris, France.



Act begins late July 4, 1789 - ten days before fall of the Bastille; ends near midnight.



Sally Hemings starts at appearance of John Adams who claims to be responding to her summons (mysteriously delivered.) Thomas Jefferson, American ambassador to France, emerges from residence at the urging of Adams. Shade of Martha Jefferson, late wife of Thomas, appears and leads Jefferson (who follows alone) down the broad Champs Elysess and eventually to a bower in the Place de Concorde, an extensive park in central Paris. Hunkered in the dark bower, the couple overhear a pair of conspirators plotting escalation of revolutionary activities. After their departure, Shade of Martha Jefferson warns Thomas Jefferson to flee France with their daughters and servants before imminent Reign of Terror. She indicates approaching Shade of Abraham Lincoln and disappears.

Scene 1

SETTING: Night outside the main entrance to

Jefferson residence, Hotel

de Langeac, on the Champ Elysess.

Bottom stage right is a wrought

iron city gate known as Grille de

Chaillot. It is partially covered

with a climbing plant now in full

flower. There is a lamppost left of

gate. The hotel is two stories, set

on a shallow slope, at the bottom

of which is a wrought iron fence. A

dozen steps lead from street to the

entrance. Breaking off from the

stairway to the left is a walkway

leading to a garden at the end of

the hotel. There the path winds

back behind a tree.

AT RISE: SALLY HEMINGS emerges from hotel

entrance bearing a candle. She

quietly closes door and quickly

descends to garden path, which she

walks halfway to the tree. JOHN

ADAMS emerges like an apparition

from behind tree, startling her.




(Speaks while walking backward to far side of stair, coming to a halt. JOHN ADAMS advances in pace with her.)

What figure lurks there in the shadow?

Shade or flesh, declare yourself! If flesh

be not deceived, I’m but a girl who serves

this house and carry naught of value on

my person. But alas, if shade!


(Continues gliding advance until on same stair as SALLY, where he stops.)


The girl who serves this house must surely know

who has been summoned to it. Adams. John

to be precise, and shadow serves as cloak

and prudent mask to prying eyes unpried.


Mr. Adams! So good of you to come.

Wouldst sit awhile?


By Heaven, no, Sally. I yet

perplex myself if this be chimera or fact.

These months have seen me not yet housed where I

had yearned to be, with Tom left here to tend

affairs of state more suited to his temper

in situ a place of Cleopatran baths

ADAMS (Cont.)

and dainties, welcome land of anything

that’s new. I left it. Now beseeching dark

(from you!) bids restoration to what I cared

to never see again.


How can you doubt?


Well do I see the Champ

Elysess, the Grille de Chaillot barring ingress

even as it bears recline of fleur-de-lys

which paints the air on such a night as though

bid foppery while bringing somber news.


None more somber than this moment’s errand.

You will see. If only Jemmy had come, too.


Saucy girl, don’t you know your place?

That’s Mr. Madison to you. Again I say

we both are met in nothing more than dream.


Dreams indeed are what have brought us here,

though not conceived in torments of your head

or mine. No, Mr. Jefferson invites

the phantoms that parade this night. Dreams!

I shiver to my soles remembering the shouts

and fevered stammers from which I could

SALLY (Cont.)

not wake him, driven from his bed distraught

as Onesimus who fled far Colossae

to apostolic duty.


To this place?


Yes. To sights my sixteen years

are not prepared to deal with. Many times

have I been summoned out since first his cries

propelled me from his side.


I’ll not pose queries

on that count. What dreadful thing conspires

to prompt entreaty from a slave girl to my ear?


A spirit, sir.


Whose spirit, girl? Speak!


I can’t. I daresn’t say the word aloud.

I only know he has to come. You told

him, didn’t you? Like I asked you to.

And see you do not call me slave, sir! Slave!

This land prohibits such barbarity.

My brother, James, and I discuss it often

since my arrival. Why should we not take

SALLY (Cont.)

presented opportunity and leave

the service of our Mr. Jefferson

when he returns him home, daughters in tow?


He will come. I daresay I heard the garden door.

Unless I mistake, that is his footstep crisp

upon the winding walk. Ah, there you are, Tom.

A close night don’t you think?


(Walks from garden to stairway.)

Good fourth July.

Please say again, John. What brings you here?



This girl appears distressed by apparitions;

you, the party of concern. She thought

it meet that I should summon you. Naught else.


What meaning, Sally? Do Polly or Patsy know

of this?


Nobody knows but us and maybe

Mr. Madison.


The hour is late.

The waxing moon takes liberty to step


his branching way along the avenue

and taunt such girlish fancies, gait afloat

to rise above the ministries of state.


Diana’s paramour is not alone

in such pursuit on France’s boulevards

where every yokel thinks he knows what best

objective should be served, till liberty

itself’s at liberty to take its own.


How say you, John, when brackish plumes of tea

still belch the edge of Boston Harbor, shells

and bayonets still litter New England fields?

We have our Tree of Liberty while theirs

seeks root to split the walls of privilege

guard to opulence and oligarch.

I’ve seen it myself on strolls about the town

and countryside: unequal division of coin

and property sustains minorities

of birth and station as employer to

the flower of France retained in servitude

and taxation; the rest are left to beg.

Such wealth in few hands held, in holding, press

those who do not have, to means desperate

else continued destitution absolute.



I take back what I’ve said: you can speak more

than three sentences together after all.

This is no Philadelphia, Tom. It is

the beast itself that coils and indicates

what punishment is meet, not justice throned.

Leviathan straight from Hobbes stirs even now

in Paris and abroad, a veritable sea

at yonder gate and who will let!


Aye, it does.

And like the sea its many hands ply blind

its will to wield, though not so blind machine

as balls and bombs on battlefield, still blind

and like as not to mete the fate of enemy

to cordial friend as well as tyrant. Aye,

this stalking tragedy now must run

Achilles to his Hector, vaunt, victorious

while shield is lowered, prey to less blind shaft

while others dispense the topless towers, seized

of hope renewing that which is most good

and virtuous on this very ground, else moved

a new Aeneas founding freedom in fresh soil.


We speak of anarchy, not revolution.

This people so long ruled, are not prepared

for self-rule yet, as our New World breakers

ADAMS (Cont.)

of the wood - if even they be so.



You yourself advocated valiantly such clause

in mutual Declaration. Fifteen years gone

today since life and sacred honor sworn,

a fledgling nation wrought. What has changed?

I affirm the tragedy so precipitous a leap

will occasion here. The Marquis Lafayette

has heard my mind on this. He does not see

the carnage summoned to be unlike our own.

But think of it: freedom! not alone

some purview of our native continent.

Do you suppose our brief experiment,

that just as lief conduct itself across

the Moon or in depths of Fingal’s cave, concludes

the matter? Foul wretchedness persists

all over Europe in instances without number.

Liberty of the whole earth depends on issue

of this contest. Could ever such a prize

be won with no little innocent blood?

Time and truth will rescue and embalm

the memories of such martyrs, while posterity

enjoys that very liberty for which

these would not hesitate to offer life.

Sooner I would that half the earth be plunged


in desolation than see failure of the cause.

Were but one Adam and one Eve preserved

in every country and left free, it would

be better than as it now is.


God save us all!


God save, indeed, and forgive you both! For just

as Mr. Jefferson was finishing,

I saw the eyes of that cat statue move

and shadows lean from every side like devils,

some with pennants and flags, one red like blood

holding a yellow silhouette shaped like

headstones. Hist! The shade I told you of

comes gliding through the gate as if the bars

were only shades themselves. See how she

approaches, gaze on Mr. Jefferson,

with sparkling sash, candle held before.

(Enter SHADE OF MARTHA JEFFERSON stage right, seeming to pass through a groups of iron bars covered with fleur de lys. She proceeds during succeeding conversation at a slow gliding pace, face turned toward THOMAS JEFFERSON until passing the stairway. From then on, stares straight ahead with blank expression, until disappearing stage left.)


Steady, Tom. I see it, too.


Is it not

like my beloved Martha?


As you are to

yourself. Why do you stand amazed, man?

She makes as if to pass on. Hold, spirit!


She does not pause. Sally, John, from here

I go alone. Fie, do not restrain me!

(Exits stage left quickly in pursuit of SHADE OF MARTHA JEFFERSON.)





Scene 2

SETTING: Night outside an entrance to Place

de Louis XV, a large park near the center of Paris. A narrow street runs through center stage, passing over an arched bridge spanning RC to LC. The wall of a modest church extends from URC, to UL where there is a set of closed double doors. Stage right is occupied by moonlit street running from UR to RC, intersecting C street. Downstage is occupied by park gardens separated from C by wrought iron fence which has a gate open at the right end of bridge. A copse of high-trimmed, dense trees are below the bridge.

AT RISE: Enter THOMAS JEFFERSON and gliding SHADE OF MARTHA JEFFESON upper right, approaching park entrance.


Again: no guard to mark our progress here.

Where is the Watch? Again you don’t respond,

addressed these seven times. Seven times

seventy, there’s no assurance of

reply or silence obdurate. If dream

is what besets me, better done anon;


and if the night has truly called this shade

to lead down Paris streets to Place Louis,

then all the more, no need to multiply

past sorrows with renewed perplexity.

In either case, no further will I go.

Float onward. I am quit of this charade.

(SHADE continues through gate toward copse of trees. JEFFERSON walks to summit of bridge, then hurries back to join SHADE in recess of trees.)


Shout not, but catch me up - I cannot stay.

Follow to the orchard’s border where night’s cloak

may hide us. See, I dim the candle’s flame.

Do not rush so, I am here. And see

you touch me not.


It is you! It is.


But isn’t that why you came?


Don’t mock me, dear one. How are you so fair!

No trace of wasting illness haunts you here

to drain the honey of your breath or bosom.

How star-like, your hazel eyes, returning fast

my gaze, as though a new made bride you could


dash off, forsake this lonely place, discard

whatever mission prompts you, as when we two

broke from abandoned carriage. Through driving

snow we took unharnessed steeds upmountain

to Monticello’s waiting walls.


The mount

did not seem very “cello” on that ride.

Your horse came near to miring on the road.


Twenty-four inches deep! With only eight

more miles to home, it seemed a little thing

to take familiar mountain track, ascent

that wide hushed world.


Ah, Tom, you never feared

to leave the well worn road! A wide hushed world

it was, that forest filling up with snow.

I never saw it more alive than then.

You with your stallion, I with mare, toiling

through stumble and snag, a fright for limping hare

and flapping owl, to unseen clearing’s edge.

Brave Monticello emerged as though by curtain

drawn of starting sleet: my home revealed.




A lightless home with servants cabined fast

in private hibernations. We let them sleep.


I never told you that Old George appeared

while you were finishing at the stables.




Yes, there he was of sudden, like some patient

holy man. I started worse than the hare!

He smiled and asked if I was well. Perhaps

we should like to call Angela?


I’m glad

that you did not. The night was ours.


Oh, yes.

Still he took a moment to cross the room

and slyly show where I could find some wine

if it would suit, touched forehead and was gone.


I thought I found that wine myself! Oh, well.


I think you knew the hiding place. You came

in seconds after, silhouetted like

some totem resurrected from that ground.


And you, as door closed tight behind me

blinked as though a story figure conjured

to unexpected life, your clothing still

disheveled with exertion, poker gripped

like Dido’s willow wafting me inside.


In such a night I think bold Porphyro

spied dreaming Madeline supine and bore

her as his peerless bride across the moor.


In such a night sweet Martha asked if Tom

might somehow get the fire started. Aye, how

you tossed your rakish curls as eager as

a mare watching the blazon breathed to life

responsive wood to my beseeching hands.


So happy we were. Yet the wine we shared in sheer

delight will not distill us here. Touch me not!

My mission is not renewal of earthly bliss.


Naught else do I desire. The oath you asked

as Death enforced departure, I keep. No other

shall I marry.


Oh, Tom.



Such hours succeeding

silence unbrookable presses mere thought to its walls.

Each treasured poet forsook his art to solace

or illuminate – sweet tongued Ossipon and Homer

alike seemed schoolboys making sport, Milton

more so. High tragedy alone assayed

to mirror like a troubled pool my grief

and horror at such sundering of joined soul.

Alas, even there: no angel to mend my halt.

The hills called me out and I trod them,

often alone, sometimes with little Patsy

who, sharing her portion of common loss,

found greater genius than scripture or blotless bard

to summon my spirit back to semblance of life.

Even now, I stand ready to seek what means…


It is not to be, dear Tom. Not yet. Listen,

for time is short. A pair of men elude

by dark and separate paths the Watch’s eye,

approach the border of this bower whose spray

now shelters our exchanges tender. Stay!

I snuff my flame. Attend what you will hear.

(FIRST VOICE enters stage left, walks to bridge summit. SECOND VOICE enters stage right and meets him there.)



Hist! Something moved as we came up. It’s gone.


Bonsoir, “Jacque.” Jacque?


What do you say? Oh.

The greeting. Of course it’s me and that is you.

Forget the coded messaging. Speak English

as agreed, to thwart any unseen ear.


To thwart any unseen ear, Jacque! As agreed?


Very well: Jacque. There I said it, Jacque!

I have no patience for forced intrigues and handshakes.

Have you the purse?


Safe, here. What of gunpowder?


First the money. Ah, that weighs right the palm.

Too dark to count it now. I trust you, Jacque!

About the cargo that so interests you:

delivery has been suspended. Orders.

The way I hear it, no one thinks the stuff

is needed now. Them that’s got it’s sitting

pretty fine behind walls four feet thick.

With shipments not so easy to secure...

well, you should understand that part of it.


No looking at me that way, Mr. Jacque.

Fair is fair. Intelligence is what

you asked for; this is solid as it gets.

If you want powder for your plots and riots

or whatever else: the Arsenal at Bastille.

Not sure they’ll want to give it up to you.

“Ten barrels for the riots, sir!” coupled

with “Simon dit!” or “S’il vous plait!” perhaps...


Mon Dieu! I do not speak of vases and stones!

This riot, as you call it, is but a splash

across the dam. Behind it is revolution.

You laugh. At me. Our cause. Perhaps that’s well.


I do not laugh at you, my friend, nor your cause

which moves as just as any in this world

of servicers and their string pullers. Why not

try to call account of them and theirs?

A little trouble to them might wake a few.


It is no gentle remonstrance we seek

but revolution, I say. The council waits

the outcome of our meeting, and what bring you?

Futility and proffered platitudes.

Regard our outcast Goshen where no house

is without its dead while oligarch in Theban


splendor remains unjudged. My only boy

whose eyes were bright from birth, was taken from

his mother’s arms for stealing bread. Fourteen

years of age and yet they sent him to

the galleys: he who never harmed or cursed

now toils beneath the whip, one face among

a tide of bobbing heads, mere breakers foamed

before the feet of tyrant, merchant, God

unpitying. To that, cry, “Liberty,

equality, fraternity, or death!”


You must be mad to seek such things. Think!

Countless dead you summon from their quick.

Your France is Europe’s foremost to enact reforms.

Could not those innocent heads you bless more meekly

inherit that New Earth you plot to seize?


Such musings occupy indeed the meek

among us, cannot prevail against that monster

Time, ally of the status quo, numbing

brief outrage which must be taken at her crest

to loose the grip of clinging tyranny.

Heads, you say! Aye, they are forfeit, tribute

to coming reigns that oust and burn the frame

of privilege most rank, till it be buried

as by flood. For that revolution there


are never sufficient heads, nor blood to tide.


‘Tis from your heart you speak. I see it now.

‘Gainst monster Time, you pose another: reign

you call it, aye, but one of Terrors loosed.

Take back your coinage. Here. Such gold like salt

has lost its savor. I repent me of this,

and say goodbye. May you yet do the same.

(FIRST VOICE drops money bag and exits stage left.)


He is gone then, just as well. May he hie

himself with haste in gentle exile, lest

he should be found and that hour is his last.

Repent? I? Nay, but take the gold he drops

and keep it as a prey to what’s afoot.

(SECOND VOICE picks up money bag and proceeds down bridge, hesitates, then goes up street R and exits UR.)


Most sobering, this, and as we feared in council.

Such forces must not usurp and lead the cause.

I’ll urge the Marquis anew: gradual steps,

positions acquired through stealth and reason, good will…


You cannot stop it, Tom, though persuasively


contended. Oh. The next visitation approaches

trailing curtains of what must be. Attend.



(SHADE OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN enters scene DR and stops at gate.)


Yes. Our time together lent

untimely stay, now closes like the lid

of Eremite’s dreaming eye, proved not eternal,

nor yet forever closed. Remember me.

To Polly and Patsy must you attend, and James,

Sally, the rest. Take them from this place.


(Turns to see approaching SHADE OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN, as SHADE OF MARTHA JEFFERSON vanishes)

I’ll not bid thee adieu! This latest shade

I see approach, detached a shadow from

its fellows as though a very tower lurched

along the garden, gaunt though stately meined.

Martha! Are you so soon gone? And I,

once more distractedly deprived, said not

adieu. Adieu, adieu! Fled is that music

leaving me here with stars and blooms less graced.



(Slowly turns to waiting SHADE OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN)

Are you the spirit, sir, whose coming was

foretold to me? You answer not, but shroud

in silhouette with downward outstretched

hand on silver crested cane and somber

head bowed, prodding like some prairie lawyer

calling witness to deeds whose trial reveals

when arguments commence. Beloved sprite

you drive from me. Nevertheless, lead on.

(SHADE proceeds towards JEFFERSON, passes him, and exits DL. JEFFERSON turns and begins to follow SHADE OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN.)



previously unpublished
© 2015 David W. Parsley
Parsley Poetry Collection

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