THE DRAMA BEGINS as classical tragedy. The scene: the American colonies. The time: 1779. The protagonist: a brave Patriot general, not yet forty. Benedict Arnold has saved his country more than once from military defeat. But there is backstabbing in the ranks; jealous men malign his name; and Congress is ungrateful. He could retire, but he is not a retiring man.
He craves action. He wishes—despite a shattered leg (memento of his victory at Saratoga), despite marriage to a beautiful Loyalist half his age—to return to battle. But he sees the revolution usurped by radical ideologues, and, disenchanted, he considers his options.
Enter young John André. Handsome but unprincipled, he looted Benjamin Franklin’s home of rare books and scientific apparatus when the British evacuated Philadelphia. He sketches, writes poetry, and composes flattering toasts at his general’s dinner table. Now chief of the British secret service in occupied New York, he seizes at Arnold’s first feeler toward defection.
Tragedy gives way to mystery thriller, complete with code names and clandestine correspondence in invisible ink. For a price the general, now in command of the strategic forts at West Point, will deliver—West Point! But how, when, at what price? He and André must talk.
The next act is pure comedy. Urgent messages go undelivered, causing the conspirators to seek each other in places where they are not. Country bumpkins hired to row Andre upriver declare themselves too tired. Still, the meeting does occur, in the wee hours of September 22, 1780, on the Hudson’s west bank. The men cannot see each other in the dark, but the parley goes well. At dawn André discovers that he is behind American lines. The next day he is captured, out of uniform, with the plans for West Point in his stocking, and is arrested as a spy.
The end is tragic, but lacks the catharsis of retribution. Arnold escapes and cannot be hanged for his treason. André stands tall, ties a handkerchief over his eyes, and takes the fall for them both. —Nancy Caldwell Sorel