The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book II. Alexander Hamilton
In the third year of their life on St. Croix, Rachael discovered that Peter Lytton was dissatisfied with Hamilton, and retained him to his own detriment, out of sympathy for herself and her children. From that time she had few tranquil moments. It was as if, like the timid in the hurricane season, she sat constantly with ears strained for that first loud roar in the east. She realized then that the sort of upheaval which shatters one's economic life is but the precursor of other upheavals, and she thought on the unknown future until her strong soul was faint again.
Hamilton was one of those men whose gifts are ruined by their impulses, in whom the cultivation of sober judgement is interrupted by the excesses of a too sanguine temperament. He was honourable, and always willing to admit his mistakes, but years and repeated failure did little toward balancing his faults and virtues. In time he wore out the patience of even those who loved and admired him. His wife remained his one loyal and unswerving friend, but her part in his life was near its finish. The day came when Peter Lytton, exasperated once too often, after an ill-considered sale of valuable stock, let fly his temper, and further acceptance of his favour was out of the question. Hamilton, after a scene with his wife, in which his agony and remorse quickened all the finest passions in her own nature, sailed for the Island of St. Vincent, in the hope of finding employment with one of his former business connections. He had no choice but to leave his wife and children dependent upon her relatives until he could send for them; and a week later Rachael was forced to move to Peter Lytton's.
Her brother-in-law's house was very large. She was given an upstairs wing of it and treated with much consideration, but this final ignominy broke her haughty spirit, and she lost interest in herself. She was thankful that her children were not to grow up in want, that Alexander was able to continue his studies with Hugh Knox. He was beyond her now in everything but French, in which they read and talked together daily. She also discussed constantly with him those heroes of history distinguished not only for great achievements, but for sternest honour. She dreamed of his future greatness, and sometimes of her part in it. But her inner life was swathed like a mummy.
To Alexander the change would have been welcome had he understood his mother less. But the ordinary bright boy of nine is acute and observing, and this boy of Rachael's, with his extraordinary intuitions, his unboyish brain, his sympathetic and profound affection for his mother, felt with her and criticised his father severely. To him failure was incomprehensible, then, as later, for self-confidence and indomitability were parts of his equipment; and that a man of his father's age and experience, to say nothing of his education and intellect, should so fail in the common relation of life, and break the heart and pride of the uncommonest of women, filled him with a deep disappointment, which, no doubt, was the first step toward the early loss of certain illusions.
Otherwise his life was vastly improved. He soon became intimate with boys of neighbouring estates, Edward and Thomas Stevens, and Benjamin Yard, and for a time they all studied together under Hugh Knox. At first there was discord, for Alexander would have led a host of cherubims or had naught to do with them, and these boys were clever and spirited. There were rights of word and fist in the lee of Mr. Lytton's barn, where interference was unlikely; but the three succumbed speedily, not alone to the powerful magnetism in little Hamilton's mind, and to his active fists, but because he invariably excited passionate attachment, unless he encountered jealous hate. When his popularity with these boys was established they adored the very blaze of his temper, and when he formed them into a soldier company and marched them up and down the palm avenue for a morning at a time, they never murmured, although they were like to die of the heat and unaccustomed exertion. Neddy Stevens, who resembled him somewhat in face, was the closest of these boyhood friends.
Alexander was a great favourite with Mr. Lytton, who took him to ride every morning; Mrs. Lytton preferred James, who was a comfortable child to nurse; but Mrs. Mitchell was the declared slave of her lively nephew, and sent her coach for him on Saturday mornings. As for Hugh Knox, he never ceased to whittle at the boy's ambition and point it toward a great place in modern letters. Had he been born with less sound sense and a less watchful mother, it is appalling to think what a brat he would have been; but as it was, the spoiling but fostered a self-confidence which was half the battle in after years.
Hamilton never returned. His letters to his wife spoke always of the happiness of their final reunion, of belief in the future. His brothers had sent him money, and he hoped they would help him to recover his fortunes. But two years passed and he was still existing on a small salary, his hopes and his impassioned tenderness were stereotyped. Rachael's experience with Hamilton had developed her insight. She knew that man requires woman to look after her own fuel. If she cannot, he may carry through life the perfume of a sentiment, and a tender regret, but it grows easy and more easy to live without her. It was a long while before she forced her penetrating vision round to the certainty that she never should see Hamilton again, and then she realized how strong hope had been, that her interest in herself was not dead, that her love must remain quick through interminable years of monotony and humiliation. For a time she was so alive that she went close to killing herself, but she fought it out as she had fought through other desperate crises, and wrenched herself free of her youth, to live for the time when her son's genius should lift him so high among the immortals that his birth would matter as little as her own hours of agony. But the strength that carried her triumphantly through that battle was fed by the last of her vitality, and it was not long before she knew that she must die.
Alexander knew it first. The change in his mother was so sudden, the earthen hue of her white skin, the dimming of her splendid eyes, spoke so unmistakably of some strange collapse of the vital forces, that it seemed to the boy who worshipped her as if all the noises of the Universe were shrieking his anguish. At the same time he fought for an impassive exterior, then bolted from the house and rode across the Island for a doctor. The man came, prescribed for a megrim, and Alexander did not call him again; nor did he mention his mother's condition to the rest of the family. She was in the habit of remaining in her rooms for weeks at a time, and she had her own attendants. Mrs. Lytton was an invalid, and Peter Lytton, while ready to give of his bounty to his wife's sister, had too little in common with Rachael to seek her companionship. Alexander felt the presence of death too surely to hope, and was determined to have his mother to himself during the time that remained. He confided in Hugh Knox, then barely left the apartments.
Just before her collapse Rachael was still a beautiful woman. She was only thirty-two when she died. Her face, except when she forced her brain to activity, was sad and worn, but the mobile beauty of the features was unimpaired, and her eyes were luminous, even at their darkest. Her head was always proudly erect, and nature had given her a grace and a dash which survived broken fortunes and the death of her coquetry. No doubt this is the impression of her which Alexander carried through life, for those last two months passed to the sound of falling ruins, on which he was too sensible to dwell when they had gone into the control of his will.
After she had admitted to Alexander that she understood her condition, they seldom alluded to the subject, although their conversation was as rarely impersonal. The house stood high, and Rachael's windows commanded one of the most charming views on the Island. Below was the green valley, with the turbaned women moving among the cane, then the long white road with its splendid setting of royal palms, winding past a hill with groves of palms, marble fountains and statues, terraces covered with hibiscus and orchid, and another Great House on its summit. Far to the right, through an opening in the hills, was a glimpse of the sea.
Rachael lay on a couch in a little balcony during much of the soft winter day, and talked to Alexander of her mother and her youth, finally of his father, touching lightly on the almost forgotten episode with Levine. All that she did not say his creative brain divined, and when she told him what he had long suspected, that his mother's name was unknown to the Hamiltons of Grange, he accepted the fact as but one more obstacle to be overthrown in the battle with life which he had long known he was to fight unaided. To criticise his mother never occurred to him; her control of his heart and imagination was too absolute. His only regret was that she could not live until he was able to justify her. The audacity and boldness of his nature were stimulated by the prospect of this sharp battle with the world's most cherished convention, and he was fully aware of all that he owed to his mother. When he told her this she said:--
"I regret nothing, even though it has brought me to this. In the first place, it is not in me to do anything so futile. In the second place, I have been permitted to live in every part of my nature, and how many women can say that? In the third, you are in the world, and if I could live I should see you the honoured of all men. I die with regret because you need me for many years to come, and I have suffered so much that I never could suffer again. Remember always that you are to be a great man, not merely a successful one. Your mind and your will are capable of all things. Never try for the second best, and that means to put your immediate personal desire aside when it encounters one of the ideals of your time. Unless you identify yourself with the great principles of the world you will be a failure, because your mind is created in harmony with them, and if you use it for smaller purposes it will fail as surely as if it tried to lie or steal. Your passions are violent, and you have a blackness of hate in you which will ruin you or others according to the control you acquire over it; so be warned. But you never can fail through any of the ordinary defects of character. You are too bold and independent to lie, even if you had been born with any such disposition; you are honourable and tactful, and there is as little doubt of your fascination and your power over others. But remember--use all these great forces when your ambition is hottest, then you can stumble upon no second place. As for your heart, it will control your head sometimes, but your insatiable brain will accomplish so much that it can afford to lose occasionally; and the warmth of your nature will make you so many friends, that I draw from it more strength to die than from all your other gifts. Leave this Island as soon as you can. Ah, if I could give you but a few thousands to force the first doors!"
She died on the 25th of February, 1768. Her condition had been known for some days, and her sisters had shed many tears, aghast and deeply impressed at the tragic fate of this youngest, strangest, and most gifted of their father's children. Unconsciously they had expected her to do something extraordinary, and it was yet too soon to realize that she had. His aunts had announced far and wide that Alexander was the brightest boy on the Island, but that a nation lay folded in his saucy audacious brain they hardly could be expected to know.