The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book I. Rachael Levine
Mary Fawcett encouraged her daughter's social activity, and as Hamilton's name entered the rapid accounts of revels and routs in the most casual manner, she endeavoured to persuade herself that the madness had passed with a languid afternoon. She was a woman of the world, but the one experience that develops deepest insight had passed her by, and there were shades and moods of the master passion over which her sharp eyes roved without a shock.
As she was too feeble to sit up after nine o'clock, she refused to open her doors for the crab hunt, but gave Rachael the key of a little villa on the crest of a peak behind the house, and told her to keep her friends all night if she chose.
This pavilion, designed for the hotter weeks of the hurricane season, but seldom used by the Fawcetts, was a small stone building, with two bedrooms and a living room, a swimming bath, and several huts for servants. The outbuildings were dilapidated, but the house after an airing and scrubbing was as fit for entertainment as any on St. Kitts. The furniture in the Tropics is of cane, and there are no carpets or hangings to invite destruction. Even the mattresses are often but plaited thongs of leather, covered with strong linen, and stretched until they are hard as wood. All Mary Fawcett's furniture was of mahogany, the only wood impervious to the boring of the West Indian worm. This tiny house on the mountain needed but a day's work to clean it, and another to transform it into an arbour of the forest. The walls of the rooms were covered with ferns, orchids, and croton leaves. Gold and silver candelabra had been carried up from the house, and they would hold half a hundred candles.
All day the strong black women climbed the gorge and hill, their hips swinging, baskets of wine, trays of delicate edibles, pyramids of linen, balanced as lightly on their heads as were they no more in weight and size than the turban beneath; their arms hanging, their soft voices scolding the "pic'nees" who stumbled after them.
Toward evening, Rachael and Kitty Hamilton walked down the mountain together, and lingered in the heavy beauty of the gorge. The ferns grew high above their heads, and palms of many shapes. The dark machineel with its deadly fruit, the trailing vines on the tamarind trees, the monkeys leaping, chattering with terror, through flaming hybiscus and masses of orchid, the white volcanic rock, the long torn leaves of the banana tree, the abrupt declines, crimson with wild strawberries, the loud boom of the sunset gun from Brimstone Hill--Rachael never forgot a detail of that last walk with her old friend. Hers was not the nature for intimate friendships, but Catherine Hamilton had been one of her first remembered playmates, her bridesmaid, and had hastened to companion her when she emerged from the darkness of her married life. But Catherine was an austere girl, of no great mental liveliness, and the friendship, although sincere, was not rooted in the sympathies and affections. She believed Rachael to be the most remarkable woman in the world, and had never dared to contradict her, although she lowered her fine head to no one else. But female virtue, as they expressed it in the eighteenth century, stood higher in her estimation than all the gifts of mind and soul which had been lavished upon Rachael Levine, and she was the first to desert her when the final step was taken. But on this evening there was no barrier, and she talked of her future with the man she was to marry. She was happy and somewhat sentimental. Rachael sighed and set her lips. All her girlhood friends were either married or about to be--except Christiana, who had not a care in her little world. Why were sorrow and disgrace for her alone? What have I done, she thought, that I seem to be accursed? I have wronged no one, and I am more gifted than any of these friends of mine. Not one of them has studied so severely, and learned as much as I. Not one of them can command the homage of such men as I. And yet I alone am singled out, first, for the most hideous fate which can attack a woman, then to live apart from all good men and women with a man I cannot marry, and who may break my heart. I wish that I had not been born, and I would not be dead for all the peace that is in the most silent depths of the Universe.
At ten o'clock, that night, the hills were red with the torches of as gay a company as ever had assembled on the Island. The Governor and Dr. Hamilton were keen sportsmen, and nothing delighted them more than to chase infuriated land-crabs down the side of a mountain. There were some twenty men in the party, and most of them followed their distinguished elders through brush and rocky passes. Occasionally, a sudden yell of pain mingled with the shouts of mirth, for land-crabs have their methods of revenge. The three or four girls whom Rachael had induced to attend this masculine frolic, kept to the high refuge of the villa, attended by cavaliers who dared not hint that maiden charms were less than land-crabs.
Hamilton and Rachael sat on the steps of the terrace, or paced up and down, watching the scene. Just beyond their crest was the frowning mass of Mount Misery. The crystal flood poured down from above, and the moon was rising over the distant hills. The sea had the look of infinity. There might be ships at anchor before Basseterre or Sandy Point, but the shoulders of the mountain hid them; and below, the world looked as if the passions of Hell had let loose--the torches flared and crackled, and the trees took on hideous shapes. Once a battalion of the pale venomous-looking crabs rattled across the terrace, and Rachael, who was masculine in naught but her intellect, screamed and flung herself into Hamilton's arms. A moment later she laughed, but their conversation ceased then to be impersonal. It may be said here, that if Hamilton failed in other walks of life, it was not from want of resolution where women were concerned. And he was tired of philandering.
The hunters returned, slaves carrying the slaughtered crabs in baskets. There were many hands to shell the victims, and in less than half an hour Mary Fawcett's cook sent in a huge and steaming dish. Then there were mulled wines and port, cherry brandy and liqueurs to refresh the weary, and sweets for the women. A livelier party never sat down to table; and Hamilton, who was placed between two chattering girls, was a man of the world, young as he was, and betrayed neither impatience nor ennui. Rachael sat at the head of the table, between the Governor and Dr. Hamilton. Her face, usually as white as porcelain, was pink in the cheeks; her eyes sparkled, her nostrils fluttered with triumph. She looked so exultant that more than one wondered if she were intoxicated with her own beauty; but Dr. Hamilton understood, and his supper lost its relish. Some time since he had concluded that where Mary Fawcett failed he could not hope to succeed, but he had done his duty and lectured his cousin. He understood human nature from its heights to its dregs, however, and promised Hamilton his unaltered friendship, even while in the flood of remonstrance. He was a philosopher, who invariably held out his hand to the Inevitable, with a shrug of his shoulders, but he loved Rachael, and wished that the ship that brought Levine to the Islands had encountered a hurricane.
The guests started for home at one o'clock, few taking the same path. The tired slaves went down to their huts. Rachael remained on the mountain, and Hamilton returned to her.