The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book I. Rachael Levine
Rachael was riding home one afternoon from Basseterre, where she had been purchasing summer lawns and cambrics. It was March, and the winter sun had begun to use its summer fuel; but the trades blew softly, and there was much shade on the road above the sea. There was one long stretch, however, where not a tree grew, and Rachael drew rein for a moment before leaving the avenue of tamarinds which had rustled above her head for a mile or more. Although it was a hot scene that lay before her, it was that which, when away from home, for some reason best known to her memory, had always been first to rise. The wide pale-gray road rose gradually for a long distance, dipped, and rose again. On either side were cane-fields, their tender greens sharp against the deep hard blue of the sea on the left, rising to cocoanut groves and the dark heights of the mountains above the road. Far away, close to the sea, was Brimstone Hill, that huge isolated rock so near in shape to the crater of Mount Misery. Its fortifications showed their teeth against the faded sky, and St. Christopher slept easily while tentative conquerors approached, looked hard at this Gibraltar of the West Indies, and sailed away.
But there scarcely was a sail on the sea to-day. Its blue rose and fell, in that vast unbroken harmony which quickens the West Indian at times into an intolerable sense of his isolation. Rachael recalled how she had stared at it in childish resentment, wondering if a mainland really lay beyond, if Europe were a myth. She did not care if she never set foot on a ship again, and her ambitions were in the grave with her desire for a wealthy and intellectual husband.
On the long road, rising gray and hot between the bright green cane-fields, horsemen approached, and a number of slave women moved slowly: women with erect rigid backs balancing large baskets or stacks of cane on their heads, the body below the waist revolving with a pivotal motion which suggests an anatomy peculiar to the tropics. They had a dash of red about them somewhere, and their turbans were white. Rachael's imagination never gave her St. Kitts without its slave women, the "pic'nees" clinging to their hips as they bore their burdens on the road or bent over the stones in the river. They belonged to its landscape, with the palms and the cane-fields, the hot gray roads, and the great jewel of the sea.
Rachael left the avenue and rode onward. One of the horsemen took off his Spanish sombrero and waved it. She recognized Dr. Hamilton and shook her whip at him. He and his companion spurred their horses, and a moment later Rachael and James Hamilton had met.
"An unexpected pleasure for me, this sudden descent of my young kinsman," said the doctor, "but a great one, for he brings me news of all in Scotland, and he saw Will the day before he sailed."
"It is too hot to stand here talking," said Rachael. "Come home with me to a glass of Spanish port, and cake perhaps."
The doctor was on his way to a consultation, but he ordered his relative to go and pay his respects to Mistress Fawcett, and rode on whistling. The two he had recklessly left to their own devices exchanged platitudes, and covertly examined each other with quick admiration.
There are dark Scots, and Hamilton was one of them. Although tall and slight, he was knit with a close and peculiar elegance, which made him look his best on a horse and in white linen. His face was burnt to the hue of brick-dust by the first quick assault of the tropic sun, but it was a thin face, well shaped, in spite of prominent cheek bones, and set with the features of long breeding; and it was mobile, fiery, impetuous, and very intelligent: ancestral coarseness had been polished fine long since.
They left the road and mounted toward the dark avenue of the Fawcett estate, Rachael wondering if her mother would be irritated at the informality of the stranger's first call; he should have arrived in state with Dr. Hamilton at the hour of five. Perhaps it was to postpone the moment of explanation that she permitted her horse to walk, even after they had reached the level of the avenue, and finally to crop the grass while she and Hamilton dismounted and sat down in a heavy grove of tamarinds on the slope of the hill.
"I'm just twenty-one and have my own way to make," he was telling her. "There are three before me, so I couldn't afford the army, and as I've a fancy for foreign lands, I've come out here to be a merchant. I have so many kinsmen in this part of the world, and they've all succeeded so well, I thought they'd be able to advise me how best to turn over the few guineas I have. My cousin, the doctor, has taken me in hand, and if I have any business capacity I shall soon find it out. But I ached for the army, and failing that, I'd have liked being a scholar--as I know you are, by your eyes."
His Scotch accent was not unlike that of the West Indians, particularly of the Barbadians; but his voice, although it retained the huskiness of the wet North, had, somewhere in its depths, a peculiar metallic quality which startled Rachael every time it rang out, and was the last of all memories to linger, when memories were crumbling in a brain that could stand no more.
How it happened, Rachael spent the saner hours of the morrow attempting to explain, but they sat under the tamarinds until the sun went down, and Nevis began to robe for the night. Once they paused in their desultory talk and listened to the lovely chorus of a West Indian evening, that low incessant ringing of a million tiny bells. The bells hung in the throats of nothing more picturesque than grasshoppers, serpents, lizards, and frogs so small as to be almost invisible, but they rang with a harmony that the inherited practice of centuries had given them. And beyond was the monotonous accompaniment of the sea on the rocks. Hamilton lived to be an old man, and he never left the West Indies; but sometimes, at long and longer intervals, he found himself listening to that Lilliputian orchestra, his attention attracted to it, possibly, by a stranger; and then he remembered this night, and the woman for whom he would have sacrificed earth and immortality had he been lord of them.
Heaven knows what they talked about. While it was light they stared out at the blue sea or down on the rippling cane-fields, not daring to exchange more than a casual and hasty glance. Both knew that they should have separated the moment they met, but neither had the impulse nor the intention to leave the shade of the wood; and when the brief twilight fell and the moon rose, there still was Nevis, and after her the many craft to divert their gaze. Hamilton was honourable and shy, and Rachael was a woman of uncommon strength of character and had been brought up by a woman of austere virtue. These causes held them apart for a time, but one might as well have attempted to block two comets rushing at each other in the same orbit. The magnetism of the Inevitable embraced them and knit their inner selves together, even while they sat decorously apart. Rachael had taken off her hat at once, and even after it grew dark in their arbour, Hamilton fancied he could see the gleam of her hair. Her eyes were startled and brilliant, and her nostrils quivered uneasily, but she defined none of the sensations that possessed her but the overwhelming recrudescence of her youth. It had seemed to her that it flamed from its ashes before Dr. Hamilton finished his formal words of introduction, and all its forgotten hopes and impulses, timidity and vagueness, surged through her brain during those hours beside the stranger, submerging the memory of Levine. Indeed, she felt even younger than before maturity so suddenly had been thrust upon her; for in those old days she had been almost as severely intellectual as yesterday, and when she had dreamed of the future, it had been with the soberness of an overtaxed brain. But to-day even the world seemed young again. She fancied she could hear the unquiet pulses of the Island, so long grown old, and Nevis had never looked so fair. She hardly was conscious of her womanhood, only of that possessing sense of happiness in youth. As for Hamilton, he had never felt otherwise than young, although he was a college-bred man, something of a scholar, and he had seen more or less of the world since his boyhood. But the intensity and ardour of his nature had received no check, neither were they halfway on their course; and he had never loved. It had seemed to him that the Island opened and a witch came out, and in those confused hours he hardly knew whether she were good or bad, his ideal woman or his ideal devil; but he loved her. He was as pale as his sunburn would permit him to be, and his hands were clasped tightly about his knees, when relief came in the shape of Mary Fawcett.
Her daughter's horse had gone home and taken the stranger with him, and Mistress Fawcett, with quick suspicion, new as it was, started at once down the avenue. Rachael heard the familiar tapping of her mother's stick, hastily adjusted her hat, and managed to reach the road with Hamilton before her mother turned its bend.
Mary Fawcett understood and shivered with terror. She was far from being her imperious self as her daughter presented the stranger and remarked that he was a cousin of Dr. Hamilton, characteristically refraining from apology or explanation.
"Well," she said, "the doctor will doubtless bring you to call some day. I will send your horse to you. Say good evening to the stranger, Rachael, and come home." She was one of the most hospitable women in the Caribbees, and this was the kinsman of her best friend, but she longed for power to exile him out of St. Kitts that night.
Hamilton lifted his hat, and Rachael followed her mother. She was cold and frightened, and Levine's white malignant face circled about her.
Her mother requested her support, and she almost carried the light figure to the house. Mistress Fawcett sent a slave after Hamilton's horse, then went to her room and wrote a note to Dr. Hamilton, asking him to call on the following day and to come alone. The two women did not meet again that night.
But there is little privacy in the houses of St. Kitts and Nevis. Either the upper part of almost every room is built of ornamental lattice-work, or the walls are set with numerous jalousies, that can be closed when a draught is undesirable but conduct the slightest sound. Rachael's room adjoined her mother's. She knew that the older woman was as uneasily awake as herself, though from vastly different manifestations of the same cause. At four o'clock, when the guinea fowl were screeching like demons, and had awakened the roosters and the dogs to swell the infernal chorus of a West Indian morning, Rachael sat up in bed and laughed noiselessly.
"What a night!" she thought. "And for what? A man who companioned me for four hours as no other man had ever done? and who made me feel as if the world had turned to fire and light? It may have been but a mood of my own, it is so long since I have talked with a man near to my own age--and he is so near!--and yet so real a man.... No one could call him handsome, for he looks like a flayed Carib, and I have met some of the handsomest men in Europe and not given them a thought. Yet this man kept me beside him for four hours, and has me awake a whole night because he is not with me. Has the discipline of these last years, then, gone for nothing? Am I but an excitable West Indian after all, and shall I have corded hands before I am twenty-five? It was a mistake to shut myself away from danger. Had I been constantly meeting the young men of the Island and all strangers who have come here during the last two years, I should not be wild for this one--even if he has something in him unlike other men--and lie awake all night like the silly women who dream everlastingly of the lover to come. I am a fool."
She lit her candle and went into her mother's room. Mary Fawcett was sitting up in bed, her white hair hanging out of her nightcap. It seemed to her that the end of the world had come, and she cursed human nature and the governors of the Island.
"I know what has kept you awake," said Rachael, "but do not fear. It was but a passing madness--God smite those guinea fowl! I have lived the life of a nun, and it is an unnatural life for a young woman. Yesterday I learned that I have not the temperament of the scholar, the recluse--that is all. I should have guessed it sooner--then I should not have been fascinated by this brilliant Scot. It was my mind that flew eagerly to companionship--that was all. The hours were pleasant. I would not regret them but for the deep uneasiness they have caused you. To-day I shall enter the world again. There are many clever and accomplished young men on St. Kitts. I will meet and talk to them all. We will entertain them here. There is a ball at Government House to-night, another at Mistress Irwin's on Wednesday week. I promise you that I will be as gay and as universal as a girl in her first season, and this man shall see no more of me than any other man."
Her mother watched her keenly as she delivered her long tirade. Her face was deeply flushed. The arm that held the candle was tense, and her hair fell about her splendid form like a cloud of light. Had Hamilton seen anything so fair in Europe? What part would he play in this scheme of catholicity?
"You will meet this man if you go abroad," she replied. "Better stay here and forbid him the gates."
"And think about him till I leap on my horse and ride to meet him? A fevered imagination will make a god of a Tom Noddy. If I see him daily--with others--he will seem as commonplace as all men."
Mary Fawcett did not speak for some moments. Then she said: "Hark ye, Rachael. I interfered once and brought such damnable misery upon you that I dare not--almost--(she remembered her note to Dr. Hamilton) interfere again. This time you shall use your own judgement, something you have taught me to respect. Whatever the result, I will be to the end what I always have been, the best friend you have. You are very strong. You have had an awful experience, and it has made a woman of thirty of you. You are no silly little fool, rushing blindly into the arms of the first man whose eyes are black enough. You have been brought up to look upon light women with horror. In your darkest days you never sought to console yourself as weaker women do. Therefore, in spite of what I saw in both your faces yesterday, I hope."
"Yes--and give yourself no more uneasiness. Could I look upon the love of man with favour? Not unless I were to be born again, and my memory as dead as my body."
"If you love, you will be born again; and if this man overmasters your imagination, your memory might quite as well be dead. One of the three or four things in my life that I have to be thankful for is that I never had to pass through that ordeal. You are far dearer to me than I ever was to myself, and if you are called upon to go through that wretched experience, whose consequences never finish, and I with so little time left in which to stand by and protect you--" She changed abruptly. "Promise me that you will do nothing unconsidered, that you will not behave like the ordinary Francesca--for whom I have always had the most unmitigated contempt. The hour. The man. The fall. The wail: 'The earth rocked, the stars fell. I knew not what I did!' You have deliberation and judgement. Use them now--and do not ramble alone in the gorge with this handsome Scot--for he is a fine man; I would I could deny it. I felt his charm, although he did not open his mouth."
Rachael's eyes flashed. "Ah! did you?" she cried. "Well, but what of that? Are not our creoles a handsome race, and have not all but a few been educated in England? Yes, I will promise you--if you think all this is serious enough to require a promise."
"But you care so little for the world. You would be sacrificing so much less than other women--nevertheless it would make you wretched and humiliate just as much; do not forget that. I almost am tempted to wish that you had a lighter nature--that you would flirt with love and brush it away, while the world was merely amused at a suspected gallantry. But you--you would love for a lifetime, and you would end by living with him openly. There is no compromise in you."
"Surely we have become more serious than an afternoon's talk with an interesting stranger should warrant. I am full of a sudden longing for the world, and who knows but I shall become so wedded to it that I would yield it for no man? Besides, do I not live to make you happy, to reward as best I can your unselfish devotion? If ever I could love any man more than I love you, then that love would be overwhelming indeed. But although I can imagine myself forgetting the world in such a love, I cannot picture you on the sacrificial altar."