The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book II. Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton had several escapes from imminent peril when he was a boy, and the first occurred in the month of December, 1761. Hamilton had gone to St. Croix on business, and Rachael and the child spent the fortnight of his absence with Christiana Huggins. Rachael was accustomed to Hamilton's absences, but Nevis was in a very unhealthy condition, through lack of wind and rains during the preceding autumn. The sea had looked like a metal floor for months, the Island was parched and dry, the swamps on the lowlands were pestiferous. Many negroes had died in Charles Town, and many more were ill. The obeah doctors, with their absurd concoctions and practices, were openly defying the physicians of repute, for the terrified blacks believed that the English had prayed once too often that the hurricane should be stayed, and that he sulked where none might feel his faintest breath. Therefore they cursed the white doctor as futile, and flung his physic from the windows.
Rachael was glad to escape to the heights with Alexander. There it was almost as cool as it should be in December, and she could watch for her husband's sloop. He had gone with the first light wind, and there was enough to bring him home, although with heavy sail. She forgot the muttering negroes and the sickness below. Her servants had been instructed to nurse and nourish where assistance was needed, and up here there was nothing to do but wander with her friend and child through the gay beauty of the terraced garden, or climb the stone steps to the cold quiet depths of the forest.
At the end of a fortnight there was no sign of her husband's sloop, but the wind was strengthening, and she decided to return home and make ready for him. During the long drive she passed negroes in large numbers, either walking toward Charles Town or standing in muttering groups by the roadside. At one time the driveway was so thick with them that her coach could not pass until the postilion laid about him with his whip.
"This is very odd," she said to her nurse. "I have never seen anything like this before."
"Me no t'ink he nothin'. All go tee tick--oh, dis pic'nee no keep till one minit. Me no t'ink about he'n de road."
She lifted the child between her face and her mistress's eyes, and Rachael saw that her hand trembled. "Can the negroes be rising?" she wondered; and for a moment she was faint with terror, and prayed for Hamilton's return.
But she was heroic by nature, and quickly recovered her poise. When she arrived at home she sent the nurse to Charles Town on an errand, then went directly to her bedroom, which was disconnected from the other rooms, and called her three devoted maids, Rebecca, Flora, and Esther. They came running at the sound of her voice, and she saw at once that they were terrified and ready to cling to her garments.
"What is the matter?" she demanded. "Tell me at once."
"Me no know fo' sure," said Rebecca, "but me t'ink, t'ink, till me yell in me tleep. Somethin' ter'ble go to happen. Me feel he in de air. All de daddys, all de buddys, 'peak, 'peak, togedder all de time, an' look so bad--an' de oby doctors put de curse ebberywheres. Me fine befo' de gate dis mornin' one pudden', de mud an' oil an' horsehair, but me no touch he. Me ask all de sissys me know, what comes, but he no 'peak. He run out he tongue, and once he smack me ear. Oh, Mistress, take us back to Sinkitts."
"But do you know nothing?"
They shook their heads, but stared at her hopefully, for they believed implicitly in her power to adjust all things.
"And my other slaves? Do you think they are faithful to me?"
"All in de town all de time. Me ask ebbery he tell me what comes, and he say 'nothin,' but I no believe he."
"And has the Governor taken no notice?"
"De Gobbenor lord and all de noble Buckras go yis'day to Sinkitts. Take de militia for one gran' parade in Bassetarr. Is de birfday to-morrow de Gobbenor lord de Sinkitts. Up in de Great Houses no hear nothin', an' all quiet on 'states till yes'day. Now comin' to town an' look so bad, so bad!"
"Very well, then, the Governor and the militia must come back. Rebecca, you are the most sensible as well as the weakest in the arms. You will stay here to-night, and you will not falter for a moment. As soon as it is dark Flora and Esther will row me across the channel, and I will send the Buckra's agent on a fast horse with a note to the Governor. If the other house servants return, you will tell them that I am ill and that Flora and Esther are nursing me. You will lock the gates, and open them to no one unless your Buckra should return. Do you understand?"
The slave rolled her eyes, but nodded. She might have defied the Captain-General, but not one of the Fawcetts.
There were two hours before dark. Rachael was conscious of every nerve in her body, and paced up and down the long line of rooms which terminated in the library, until Alexander's legs were worn out trotting after her, and he fell asleep on the floor. Twice she went to the roof to look for Hamilton's sloop, but saw not a sail on the sea; and the streets of Charles Town were packed with negroes. England sent no soldiers to protect her Islands, and every free male between boyhood and old age was forced by law to join the militia. It was doubtful if there were a dozen muscular white men on Nevis that night, for the birthday of a Governor was a fete of hilarities. Unless the militia returned that night, the blacks, if they really were plotting vengeance, and she knew their superstitions, would have burned every house and cane-field before morning.
The brief twilight passed. The mist rolled down from the heights of Nevis. Rachael, with Alexander in her arms, and followed by her maids, stole along the shore through the thick cocoanut groves, meeting no one. They were far from the town's centre, and all the blacks on the Island seemed to be gathered there. The boat was beached, and it took the combined efforts of the three women to launch it. When they pushed off, the roar of the breakers and the heavy mist covered their flight. But there was another danger, and the very physical strength of the slaves departed before it. They had rowed their mistress about the roadstead before St. Kitts a hundred times, but the close proximity of the reef so terrified them that Rachael was obliged to take the oars; while Flora caught Alexander in so convulsive an embrace that he awoke and protested with all the vigour of his lungs. His mother's voice, to which he was peculiarly susceptible, hushed him, and he held back his own, although the gasping bosom on which he rested did not tend to soothe a nervous child. But there were other ways of expressing outraged feelings, and he kicked like a little steer.
Rachael herself was not too sure of her knowledge of the dangerous channel, although she had crossed it many times with Hamilton; and the mist was floating across to St. Kitts. The hollow boom of the reef seemed so close that she expected to hear teeth in the boat every moment, and she knew that far and wide the narrows bristled. She wondered if her hair were turning white, and her straining nerves quivered for a moment with a feminine regret; for she knew the power of her beauty over Hamilton. But her arms kept their strength. Life had taught her to endure more than a half-hour of mortal anxiety.
She reached the shore in safety, and Esther recovered her muscle and agreed to run to the overlooker's house and send him, on his fleetest horse, with her mistress's note to the Governor of Nevis. When the others reached the house, a mile from the Narrows, the man had gone; and Rachael could do no more. The overlookers wife mulled wine, and the maids were soon asleep. Alexander refused to go to bed, and Rachael, who was not in a disciplinary mood, led him out into the open to watch for the boats of the Governor and his militia. There was no moon; they could cross and land near Hamilton's house and overpower, without discharging a gun, the negroes packed in Charles Town. If the Governor were prompt, the blacks, even had they dispersed to fire the estates, would not have time for havoc; and she knew the tendency of the negro to procrastinate. They did not expect the Governor until late on the following day; they could drink all night and light their torches at dawn when Nevis was heavy in her last sleep. Nevertheless, Rachael watched the Island anxiously.
Fortunately, Alexander possessed an inquiring mind, and she was obliged to answer so many questions that the strain was relieved. They walked amidst a wild and dismal scene. The hills were sterile and black. The salt ponds, sunken far below the level of the sea, from lack of rain, glittered white, but they were set with aloes and manchineel, and there were low and muddy flats to be avoided. It was a new aspect of nature to the child who had lived his four years amid the gay luxuriance of tropic verdure, and he was mightily interested. Nevertheless, it was a long hour before the overlooker returned with word that the Governor was on his way to Nevis with the militia of both Islands--for St. Kitts was quiet, its negroes having taken the drouth philosophically--and that her husband was with them. He had arrived at Basseterre as the boats were leaving; as a member of the Governor's staff, he had no choice. He had sent her word, however, not to return to Nevis that night; and Rachael and Alexander went down to the extreme point of the Island and sat there through a cold night of bitter anxiety. With the dawn Hamilton came for them.
The negroes, surprised and overwhelmed, had surrendered without resistance, and before they had left the town. They confessed that their intention had been to murder every white on the Island, seize the ammunition which was stored on the estates, and fire upon the militia as it passed, on the following day. The ringleaders and obeah doctors were either publicly executed or punished with such cruelty that the other malcontents were too cowed to plan another rebellion; and the abundant rains of the following autumn restored their faith in the white man.