The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book I. Rachael Levine
Rachael was asleep when Dr. Hamilton called. Mistress Fawcett received him in the library, which was at the extreme end of the long house. He laughed so heartily at her fears that he almost dispelled them. Whatever he anticipated in Rachael's future, he had no mind to apprehend danger in every man who interested her.
"For God's sake, Mary," he exclaimed, "let the girl have a flirtation without making a tragedy of it. She is quite right. The world is what she wants. If ever there was a woman whom Nature did not intend for a nun it is Rachael Levine. Let her carry out her plan, and in a week she will be the belle of the Island, and my poor cousin will be consoling himself with some indignant beauty only a shade less fair. I'll engage to marry him off at once, if that will bring sleep to your pillow, but I can't send him away as you propose. I am not King George, nor yet the Captain-General. Nor have I any argument by which to persuade him to go. I have given him too much encouragement to stay. I'll keep him away from routs as long as I can--but remember that he is young, uncommonly good-looking, and a stranger: the girls will not let me keep him in hiding for long. Now let the girl alone. Let her think you've forgotten my new kinsman and your fears. I don't know any way to manage women but to let them manage themselves. Bob Edwards failed with Catherine. I have succeeded. Take a leaf out of my book. Rachael is not going through life without a stupendous love affair. She was marked out for it, specially moulded and equipped by old Mother Nature. Resign yourself to it, and go out and put up your hands against the next tidal wave if you want an illustration of what interference with Rachael would amount to. I wish Levine would die, or we could get a divorce law through on this Island. But the entire Council falls on the table with horror every time I suggest it. Don't worry till the time comes. I'll fill my house with all the pretty girls on St. Kitts and Nevis, and marry this hero of romance as soon as I can."
Rachael went to the ball at Government House that night, glittering in a gown of brocade she had worn at the court of Denmark: Levine had sent her trunks to Peter Lytton's, but not her jewels. She was the most splendid creature in the rooms, and there was no talk of anyone else. But before the night was a third over she realized that the attention she would receive during this her second dazzling descent upon society would differ widely from her first. The young men bowed before her in deep appreciation of her beauty, then passed on to the girls of that light-hearted band to which she no longer belonged. She was a woman with a tragic history and a living husband; she had a reputation for severe intellectuality, and her eyes, the very carriage of her body, expressed a stern aloofness from the small and common exteriorities of life. The Governor, the members of Council, of the Assembly, of the bench and bar, and the clergy, flocked about her, delighted at her return to the world, but she was the belle of the matrons, and not a young man asked her to dance.
She shrugged her shoulders when she saw how it was to be.
"Can they guess that I am younger than they are?" she thought. "And would I have them? Would I share that secret with any in the world--but one? Do I want to dance--to dance--Good God! And talk nonsense and the gossip of the Island with these youths when I have naught to say but that my soul has grown wings and that the cold lamp in my breast has blown out, and lit again with the flame that keeps the world alive? Even if I think it best never to see him again, he has given me that, and I am young at last."
When she returned home, as the guinea fowl were at their raucous matins, she was able to tell her mother that the Scot had not attended the ball, and Mary Fawcett knew that Dr. Hamilton had managed to detain him.
But a fortnight later they met again at the house of Dr. George Irwin, an intimate friend of the Hamiltons.
The Irwin's house in Basseterre was on the north side of the Park, which was surrounded by other fine dwellings and several public buildings. The broad verandahs almost overhung the enclosure, with its great banyan tree, the royal palms about the fountain, the close avenues, the flaming hedges of croton and hybiscus, and the traveller's palm and tree ferns brought from the mountains. When a ball was given at one of the houses about this Park on a moonlight night, there was much scheming to avoid the watchful eyes of lawful guardians.
It was inevitable that Hamilton should attend this ball, for the Irwins and his relatives were in and out of each other's houses all day and half the night. By this time, however, he had met nearly every girl on St. Kitts, and his cousin had ridden out that afternoon to assure Mistress Fawcett that the danger weakened daily.
But for an hour, he did not leave Rachael's side that night. The beauties of St. Christopher--and they were many, with their porcelain-like complexions and distinguished features--went through all their graceful creole paces in vain. That he was recklessly in love with Rachael Levine was manifest to all who chose to look, and as undaunted by her intellect and history as any man of his cousin's mature coterie. As for Rachael, although she distributed her favours impartially for a while, her mobile face betrayed to Dr. Hamilton that mind and body were steeped in that tremulous content which possesses a woman when close to an undeclared lover in a public place; the man, and Life and her own emotions unmortalized, the very future bounded by the gala walls, the music, the lights, and the perfume of flowers. These walls were hung with branches of orange trees loaded with fruit, and with ferns and orchids brought fresh from the mountains. A band of blacks played on their native instruments the fashionable dances of the day with a weird and barbaric effect, and occasionally sang a wailing accompaniment in voices of indescribable softness. There was light from fifty candles, and the eternal breeze lifted and dispersed the heavy perfume of the flowers. Hamilton had been in many ball-rooms, but never in one like this. He abstained from the madeiras and ports which were passed about at brief intervals by the swinging coloured women in their gay frocks and white turbans; but he was intoxicated, nevertheless, and more than once on the point of leaving the house. The unreality of it all held him more than weakness, for in some things James Hamilton was strong enough. The weakness in him was down at the roots of his character, and he was neither a feathercock nor a flasher. He had no intention of making love to Rachael until he saw his future more clearly than he did to-night. During the fortnight that had passed since he met her, he had thought of little else, and to-night he wanted nothing else, but impulsive and passionate as he was, he came of a race of hard-headed Scots. He had no mind for a love affair of tragic seriousness, even while his quickened imagination pictured the end.
He deliberately left her side after a time and joined a group of men who were smoking in the court. After an hour of politics his brain had less blood in it, and when he found himself standing beside Rachael on the verandah he suggested that they follow other guests into the Park. He gave Rachael his arm in the courtly fashion of the day, and they walked about the open paths and talked of the negroes singing in the cane-fields, and the squalid poverty of the North, as if their hearts were as calm as they are to-day. People turned often to look at them, commenting according to the mixing of their essences, but all concurring in praise of so much beauty. Hamilton's sunburn had passed the acute stage, leaving him merely brown, and his black silk small clothes and lace ruffles, his white silk stockings and pumps, were vastly becoming. His hair, lightly powdered, was tied with a white ribbon, but although he carried himself proudly, there was no manifest in his bearing that the vanities consumed much of his thought. He was gallanted like a young blood of the period, and so were the young men of St. Kitts. Rachael wore a heavy gold-coloured satin, baring the neck, and a stiff and pointed stomacher, her hair held high with a diamond comb. Her fairness was dazzling in the night-light, and it was such a light as Hamilton never had seen before: for in the Tropics the moon is golden, and the stars are crystal. The palm leaves, high on their slender shafts, glittered like polished dark-green metal, and the downpour was so dazzling that more than once the stranger shaded his eyes with his hand. Had it not been for the soft babble of many voices, the silence would have been intense, until the ear was tuned to the low tinkle of the night bells, for the sea was calm.
Once, as if in explanation for words unspoken, he commented nervously on the sensation of unreality with which these tropic scenes inspired him, and Rachael, who longed to withdraw her hand from his arm, told him of an entertainment peculiar to the Islands, a torchlight hunt for land-crabs, which once a year travel down from the mountains to the sea, to bathe and shed their shells. Words hastened. Before she drew breath she had arranged a hunt for the night of the 10th of April, and received his promise to be one of her guests. They were not so happy as they had been within doors, for the world seemed wider. But their inner selves pressed so hard toward each other that finally they were driven to certain egotisms as a relief.
"I think little of the future," she said, after a direct question, "for that means looking beyond my mother's death, and that is the one fact I have not the courage to face. But of course I know that it holds nothing for me. A ball occasionally, and the conversation of clever men who admire me but care for some one else, books the rest of the week, and life alone on a shelf of the mountain. The thought that I shall one day be old does not console me as it may console men, for with women the heart never grows old. The body withers, and the heart in its awful eternal youth has the less to separate and protect it from the world that has no use for it. Then the body dies and is put away, but the heart is greedily consumed to feed the great pulses of the world that lives faster every year. We give, and give, and give."
"And are only happy in giving," said Hamilton, quickly. "But if men preserve the balance of the world by taking all that women give them, at least the best of us find our happiness in the gifts of one woman, and a woman so besought dare not assert that her heart is empty. I understand--and no one more clearly than I do to-night--that if she give too much, she may curse her heart and look out bitterly upon the manifold interests that could suppress it for weeks and months--if life were full enough. Is yours? What would you sacrifice if you came to me?"
He asked the question calmly, for there were people on every side of them, but he asked it on an uncontrollable impulse, nevertheless; he had vowed to himself that he would wait a month.
His natural repose was greater than hers, for she had the excitable nerves of the Tropics. He felt her arm quiver before she dropped her hand from his arm. But she replied almost as calmly: "Nothing after my mother's death. Absolutely nothing. When a woman suffers as I have done, and her future is ruined in any case, the world counts for very little with her, unless it always has counted for more than anything else. We grow the more cynical and contemptuous as we witness the foolish gallantries of women who have so much to lose. I am not hard. I am very soft about many things, and since you came I am become the very tragedy of youth; but I have no respect for the world as I have seen it. For many people in the world I have a great deal, but not for the substance out of which Society has built itself. One never loses one's real friends, no matter what one does. Every circumstance of my life has isolated me from this structure called society, forced me to make my own laws. I may never be happy, because my capacity for happiness is too great, but in my own case there is no alternative worth considering. This is the substance of what I have thought since we met, but you are not to speak to me of it again while my mother lives."
"I do not promise you that--but this: that I will do much thinking before I speak again."