The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book II. Alexander Hamilton
When Alexander was five years old, James arrived, an object of much interest to his elder brother, but a child of ordinary parts to most beholders. He came during the last days of domestic tranquillity; for it was but a few weeks later that Hamilton was obliged to announce to Rachael that his fortunes, long tottering, had collapsed to their rotten foundations. It was some time before she could accommodate her understanding to the fact that there was nothing left, for even Levine had not dared to lose his money, far less her own; and had she ever given the subject of wealth a thought, she would have assumed that it had roots in certain families which no adverse circumstance could deplace. She had overheard high words between Archibald Hamn and her husband in the library, but Hamilton's casual explanations had satisfied her, and she had always disliked Archibald as a possible stepfather. Dr. Hamilton had frequently looked grave after a conversation with his kinsman, but Rachael was too unpractical to attribute his heavier moods to anything but his advancing years.
When Hamilton made her understand that they were penniless, and that his only means of supporting her was to accept an offer from Peter Lytton to take charge of a cattle estate on St. Croix, Rachael's controlling sensation was dismay that this man whom she had idolized and idealized, who was the forgiven cause of her remarkable son's illegitimacy, was a failure in his competition with other men. Money would come somehow, it always had; but Hamilton dethroned, shoved out of the ranks of planters and merchants, reduced to the status of one of his own overlookers, almost was a new and strange being, and she dared not bid forth her hiding thoughts.
Fortunately the details of moving made life impersonal and commonplace. The three slaves whose future had been the last concern but one of Mary Fawcett, were sent, wailing, to Archibald Hamn. Two of the others were retained to wait upon the children, the rest sold with the old mahogany furniture and the library. The Hamiltons set sail for St. Croix on a day in late April. The sympathy of their friends had been expressed in more than one offer of a lucrative position, but Hamilton was intensely proud, and too mortified at his failure to remain obscure among a people who had been delighted to accept his princely and exclusive hospitality. On St. Croix he was almost unknown.
They made the voyage in thirty-two hours, but as the slaves were ill, after the invariable habit of their colour, Rachael had little respite from her baby, or Hamilton from Alexander, whose restless legs and enterprising mind kept him in constant motion; and the day began at five o'clock. There was no opportunity for conversation, and Hamilton was grateful to the miserable mustees. He had the tact to let his wife readjust herself to her damaged idols without weak excuses and a pleading which would have distressed her further, but he was glad to be spared intimate conversation with her.
As they sailed into the bright green waters before Frederikstadt, the sun blazed down upon the white town on the white plain with a vicious energy which Rachael had never seen on Nevis during the hottest and most silent months of the year. She closed her eyes and longed for the cool shallows of the harbour, and even Alexander ceased to watch the flying fish dart like silver blades over the water, and was glad to be stowed comfortably into one of the little deck-houses. As for the slaves, weakened by illness, they wept and refused to gather themselves together.
But Rachael's soul, which had felt faint for many days, rose triumphant in the face of this last affliction. Like all West Indians, she hated extreme heat, and during those months on her own Islands when the trades hibernated, rarely left the house. She remembered little of St. Croix. Her imagination had disassociated itself from all connected with it, but now it burst into hideous activity and pictured interminable years of scorching heat and blinding glare. For a moment she descended to the verge of hysteria, from which she struggled with so mighty an effort that it vitalized her spirit for the ordeal of her new life; and when Hamilton, cursing himself, came to assist her to land, she was able to remark that she recalled the beauty of Christianstadt, and to anathematize her sea-green maids.
The trail of Spain is over all the islands, and on St. Croix has left its picturesque mark in the heavy arcades which front the houses in the towns. Behind these arcades one can pass from street to street with brief egress into the awful downpour of the sun, and they give to both towns an effect of architectural beauty. At that time palms and cocoanuts grew in profusion along the streets of Frederikstadt and in the gardens, tempering the glare of the sun on the coral.
Peter Lytton's coach awaited the Hamiltons, and at six o'clock they started for their new home. The long driveway across the Island was set with royal palms, beyond which rolled vast fields of cane. St. Croix was approaching the height of her prosperity, and almost every inch of her fertile acres was under cultivation. They rolled up and over every hill, the heavy stone houses, with their negro hamlets and mills, rising like half-submerged islands, unless they crowned a height. The roads swarmed with Africans, who bowed profoundly to the strangers in the fine coach, grinning an amiable welcome. Surrounded by so generous a suggestion of hospitality and plenty, with the sun low in the west, the spirits of the travellers rose, and Rachael thought with more composure upon the morrow's encounter with her elder sisters. She knew them very slightly, their husbands less. When her connection with Hamilton began, correspondence between them had ceased; but like others they had accepted the relation, and for the last three years Hamilton had been a welcome guest at their houses when business took him to St. Croix. Mrs. Lytton had been the first to whom he had confided his impending failure, and she, remembering her mother's last letter and profoundly pitying the young sister who seemed marked for misfortune, had persuaded her husband to offer Hamilton the management of his grazing estates on the eastern end of the Island. She wrote to Rachael, assuring her of welcome, and reminding her that her story was unknown on St. Croix, that she would be accepted without question as Hamilton's wife and their sister. But Rachael knew that the truth would come out as soon as they had attracted the attention of their neighbours, and she had seen enough of the world to be sure that what people tolerated in the wealthy they censured in the unimportant. To depend upon her sisters' protection instead of her own lifelong distinction, galled her proud spirit. For the first time she understood how powerless Hamilton was to protect her. The glamour of that first year when nothing mattered was gone for ever. She had two children, one of them uncommon, and they were to encounter life without name or property. True, Levine might die, or Hamilton make some brilliant coup, but she felt little of the buoyancy of hope as they left the cane-fields and drove among the dark hills to their new home.
The house and outbuildings were on a high eminence, surrounded on three sides by hills. Below was a lagoon, which was separated from the sea by a deep interval of tidal mud set thick with mangroves. The outlet through this swamp was so narrow that a shark which had found its way in when young had grown too large to return whence he came, and was the solitary and discontented inhabitant of the lagoon. The next morning Rachael, rising early and walking on the terrace with Alexander, was horrified to observe him warming his white belly in the sun. On three sides of the lagoon was a thick grove of manchineels, hung with their deadly apples; here and there a palm, which drooped as if in discord with its neighbours. It was an uncheerful place for a woman with terror and tumult in her soul, but the house was large and had been made comfortable by her brother-in-laws' slaves.
Mrs. Lytton and Mrs. Mitchell drove over for the eleven o'clock breakfast. They were very kind, but they were many years older than the youngest of their family, proudly conscious of their virtue, uncomprehending of the emotions which had nearly wrenched Rachael's soul from her body more than once. Moreover, Mrs. Mitchell was the physical image of Mary Fawcett without the inheritance of so much as the old lady's temper; and there were moments, as she sat chattering amiably with Alexander, with whom she immediately fell in love, when Rachael could have flown at and throttled her because she was not her mother. Mrs. Lytton was delicate and nervous, but more reserved, and Rachael liked her better. Nevertheless, she was heartily glad to be rid of both of them, and reflected with satisfaction that she was to live on the most isolated part of the Island. She had begged them to ask no one to call, and for months she saw little of anybody except her family.
Her household duties were many, and she was forced at once to alter her lifelong relation to domestic economics. Hamilton's salary was six hundred pieces of eight, and for a time the keeping of accounts and the plans for daily disposal of the small income furnished almost the only subjects of conversation between her husband and herself. His duties kept him on horseback during all but the intolerable hours of the day, and until their new life had become a commonplace they were fortunate in seeing little of each other.
Alexander long since had upset his father's purpose to defer the opening of his mind until the age of seven. He had taught himself the rudiments of education by such ceaseless questioning of both his parents that they were glad to set him a daily task and keep him at it as long as possible. In this new home he had few resources besides his little books and his mother, who gave him all her leisure. There were no white playmates, and he was not allowed to go near the lagoon, lest the shark get him or he eat of forbidden fruit. Just after his sixth birthday, however, several changes occurred in his life: Peter Lytton sent him a pony, his father killed the shark and gave him a boat, and he made the acquaintance of the Rev. Hugh Knox.
This man, who was to play so important a part in the life of Alexander Hamilton, was himself a personality. At this time but little over thirty, he had, some years since, come to the West Indies with a classical library and a determination to rescue the planters from that hell which awaits those who drowse through life in a clime where it is always summer when it is not simply and blazingly West Indian. He soon threw the mantle of charity over the patient planters, and became the boon companion of many; but he made converts and was mightily proud of them. His was the zeal of the converted. When he arrived in the United States, in 1753, young, fresh from college, enthusiastic, and handsome, he found favour at once in the eyes of the Rev. Dr. Rogers of Middletown on the Delaware, to whom he had brought a letter of introduction. Through the influence of this eminent divine, he obtained a school and many friends. The big witty Irishman was a welcome guest at the popular tavern, and was not long establishing himself as the leader of its hilarities. He was a peculiarly good mimic, and on Saturday nights his boon companions fell into the habit of demanding his impersonation of some character locally famous. One night he essayed a reproduction of Dr. Rogers, then one of the most celebrated men of his cloth. Knox rehearsed the sermon of the previous Sunday, not only with all the divine's peculiarity of gesture and inflection, but almost word for word; for his memory was remarkable. At the start his listeners applauded violently, then subsided into the respectful silence they were wont to accord Dr. Rogers; at the finish they stole out without a word. As for Knox, he sat alone, overwhelmed with the powerful sermon he had repeated, and by remorse for his own attempted levity. His emotional Celtic nature was deeply impressed. A few days later he disappeared, and was not heard of again until, some months after, Dr. Rogers learned that he was the guest of the Rev. Aaron Burr at Newark, and studying for the church. He was ordained in due course, converted his old companions, then set sail for St. Croix.
Hamilton met him at Peter Lytton's, talked with him the day through, and carried him home to dinner. After that he became little less than an inmate of the household; a room was furnished for him, and when he did not occupy it, he rode over several times a week. His books littered every table and shelf.
Alexander was his idol, and he was the first to see that the boy was something more than brilliant. Hamilton had accepted his son's cleverness as a matter of course, and Rachael, having a keen contempt for fatuous mothers, hardly had dared admit to herself that her son was to other boys as a star to pebbles. When Knox, who had undertaken his education at once, assured her that he must distinguish himself if he lived, probably in letters, life felt almost fresh again, although she regretted his handicap the more bitterly. As for Knox, his patience was inexhaustible. Alexander would have everything resolved into its elements, and was merciless in his demand for information, no matter what the thermometer. He had no playmates until he was nine, and by that time he had much else to sober him. Of the ordinary pleasures of childhood he had scant knowledge.
Rachael wondered at the invariable sunniness of his nature,--save when he flew into a rage,--for under the buoyancy of her own had always been a certain melancholy. Before his birth she had gone to the extremes of happiness and grief, her normal relation to life almost forgotten. But the sharpened nerves of the child manifested themselves in acute sensibilities and an extraordinary precocity of intellect, never in morbid or irritable moods. He was excitable, and had a high and sometimes furious temper, but even his habit of study never extinguished his gay and lively spirits. On the other hand, beneath the surface sparkle of his mind was a British ruggedness and tenacity, and a stubborn oneness of purpose, whatever might be the object, with which no lighter mood interfered. All this Rachael lived long enough to discover and find compensation in, and as she mastered the duties of her new life she companioned the boy more and more. James was a good but uninteresting baby, who made few demands upon her, and was satisfied with his nurse. She never pretended to herself that she loved him as she did Alexander, for aside from the personality of her first-born, he was the symbol and manifest of her deepest living.
Although Rachael was monotonously conscious of the iron that had impaled her soul, she was not quite unhappy at this time, and she never ceased to love Hamilton. Whatever his lacks and failures, nothing could destroy his fascination as a man. His love for her, although tranquillized by time, was still strong enough to keep alive his desire' to please her, and he thought of her as his wife always. He felt the change in her, and his soul rebelled bitterly at the destruction of his pedestal and halo, and all that fiction had meant to both of them; but he respected her reserve, and the subject never came up between them. He knew that she never would love any one else, that she still loved him passionately, despite the shattered ideal of him; and he consoled himself with the reflection that even in giving him less than her entire store, she gave him, merely by being herself, more than he had thought to find in any woman. His courteous attentions to her had never relaxed, and in time the old companionship was resumed; they read and discussed as in their other home; but this their little circle was widened by two, Alexander and Hugh Knox. The uninterrupted intimacy of their first years was not to be resumed.
They saw little of the society of St. Croix. In 1763 Christiana Huggins, visiting the Peter Lyttons, married her host's brother, James, and settled on the Island. She drove occasionally to the lonely estate in the east, but she had a succession of children and little time for old duties. Rachael exchanged calls at long intervals with her sisters and their intimate friends, the Yards, Lillies, Crugers, Stevens, Langs, and Goodchilds, but she had been too great a lady to strive now for social position, practically dependent as she was on the charity of her relatives.