The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book II. Alexander Hamilton
Alexander went home with Mrs. Mitchell, and it was long before he returned to Peter Lytton's. His favourite aunt was delighted to get him, and her husband, for whom Alexander had no love, was shortly to sail on one of his frequent voyages.
Mrs. Mitchell had a winter home in Christianstadt, for she loved the gay life of the little capital, and her large house, on the corner of King and Strand streets, was opened almost as often as Government House. This pile, with its imposing facade, represented to her the fulfilment of worldly ambitions and splendour. There was nothing to compare with it on Nevis or St. Kitts, nor yet on St. Thomas; and her imagination or memory gave her nothing in Europe to rival it. When Government House was closed she felt as if the world were eating bread and cheese. The Danes were not only the easiest and most generous of rulers, but they entertained with a royal contempt of pieces of eight, and their adopted children had neither the excuse nor the desire to return to their native isles.
Christianstadt, although rising straight from the harbour, has the picturesque effect of a high mountain-village. As the road across the Island finds its termination in King Street, the perceptible decline and the surrounding hills, curving in a crescent to the unseen shore a mile away, create the illusion. On the left the town straggles away in an irregular quarter for the poor, set thick with groves of cocoanut and palm. On the right, and parallel with the main road, is Company Street, and above is the mountain studded with great white stone houses, softened by the lofty roofs of the royal palm. All along King Street the massive houses stand close together, each with its arcade and its curious outside staircase of stone which leads to an upper balcony where one may catch the breeze and watch the leisures of tropic life. Almost every house has a court opening into a yard surrounded by the overhanging balconies of three sides of the building; and here the guinea fowl screech their matins, the roosters crow all night, there is always a negro asleep under a cocoanut tree, and a flame of colour from potted plants.
Down by the sea is the red fort, built on a bluff, and commanding a harbour beautiful to look upon, with its wooded island, its sharp high points, its sombre swamps covered with lacing mangroves, but locked from all the world but that which can come in sailing ships, by the coral reef on which so many craft have gone to pieces.
From Alexander's high window in Thomas Mitchell's house, he could see the lively Park behind the Fort; the boats sail over from the blue peaks of St. Thomas and St. John, the long white line of the sounding reef. Above the walls of Government House was the high bold curve of the mountain with its dazzling facades, its glitter of green. In the King Street of that day gentlemen in knee breeches and lace shirts, their hair in a powdered queue, were as familiar objects as turbaned blacks and Danes in uniform. After riding over their plantations "to hear the cane grow," they almost invariably brought up in town to talk over prospects with the merchants, or to meet each other at some more jovial resort. Sometimes they came clattering down the long road in a coach and four, postilions shouting at the pic'nees in the road, swerving, and halting so suddenly in some courtyard, that only a planter, accustomed to this emotional method of travel, could keep his seat. Ordinarily he preferred his horse, perhaps because it told no tales.
Thomas Mitchell had made his large fortune in the traffic of slaves, and was on terms of doubtful courtesy with Peter Lytton, who disapproved the industry. Blacks were by no means his only source of revenue; he had one of the two large general stores of the Island--the other was Nicholas Cruger's--and plantations of cane, whose yield in sugar, molasses, and rum never failed him. He was not a pleasing man in his family, and did not extend the hospitality of its roof to Alexander with a spontaneous warmth. His own children were married, and he did not look back upon the era of mischievous boys with sufficient enthusiasm to prompt him to adopt another. He yielded to his wife's voluble supplications because domestic harmony was necessary to his content, and Mistress Mitchell had her ways of upsetting it. Alexander was immediately too busy with his studies to pay attention to the indifferent grace with which Mr. Mitchell accepted his lot, and, fortunately, this industrious merchant was much away from home. Hugh Knox, as the surest means of diverting the boy from his grief, put him at his books the day after he arrived in Christianstadt. His own house was on Company Street, near the woods out of which the town seemed to spring; and in his cool library he gathered his boys daily, and crammed their brains with Latin and mathematics. The boys had met at Peter Lytton's before, but Knox easily persuaded them to the new arrangement, which was as grateful to him--he was newly married--as to Alexander. When the lessons were over he gave his favourite pupil a book and an easy-chair, or made experiments in chemistry with him until it was cool enough to ride or row. In the evening Alexander had his difficult lessons to prepare, and when he tumbled into bed at midnight he was too healthy not to sleep soundly. He spent two days of every week with his friend Ned Stevens, on a plantation where there were lively people and many horses. Gradually the heaviness of his grief sank of its weight, the buoyancy and vivacity of his mind were released, the eager sparkle returned to his eyes. He did not cease to regret his mother, nor passionately to worship her memory; but he was young, the future was an unresting magnet to his ambitious mind, devoted friends did their utmost, and his fine strong brain, eager for novelty and knowledge, opened to new impressions, closed with inherent philosophy to what was beyond recall. So passed Rachael Levine.
A year later his second trial befell him. Ned Stevens, the adored, set sail for New York to complete his education at King's College. Alexander strained his eyes after the sails of the ship for an hour, then burst unceremoniously into the presence of Hugh Knox.
"Tell me quick," he exclaimed; "how can I make two thousand pieces of eight? I must go to college. Why didn't my uncles send me with Neddy? He had no wish to go. He swore all day yesterday at the prospect of six years of hard work and no more excuses for laziness. I am wild to go. Why could it not have been I?"
"That's a curious way the world has, and you'll be too big a philosopher in a few years to ask questions like that. If you want the truth, I've wrangled with Peter Lytton,--it's no use appealing to Tom Mitchell,--but he's a bit close, as you know, when it actually comes to putting his hand in his pocket. He didn't send any of his own sons to New York or England, and never could see why anyone else did. Schooling, of course, and he always had a tutor and a governess out from England; but what the devil does a planter want of a college education? I argued that I couldn't for the life of me see the makings of a planter in you, but that by fishing industriously among your intellects I'd found a certain amount of respectable talent, and I thought it needed more training than I could give it; that I was nearing the end of my rope, in fact. Then he asked me what a little fellow like you would do with a college education after you got it, for he couldn't stand the idea of you trying to earn your living in a foreign city, where there was ice and snow on the ground in winter; and when I suggested that you might stay on in the college and teach, if you were afraid of being run over or frozen to death in the street, he said there was no choice between a miserable teacher's life and a planter's, and he'd leave you enough land to start you in life. I cursed like a planter, and left the house. But he loves you, and if you plead with him he might give way."
"I'd do anything else under heaven that was reasonable to get to New York but ask any man for money. Peter Lytton knows that I want learning more than all the other boys on this island; and if I'm little, I've broken in most of his colts and have never hesitated to fight. He finds his pathos in his purse. Why can't I make two thousand pieces of eight?"
"You'd be so long at it, poor child, that it would be too late to enter college; for there's a long apprenticeship to serve before you get a salary. But you must go. I've thought, thought about it, and I'll think more." He almost wished he had not married; but as he had no other cause to regret his venture, even his interest in young Hamilton did not urge him to deprive his little family of the luxuries so necessary in the West Indies. Economy on his salary would mean a small house instead of large rooms where one could forget the heat; curtailment of the voluminous linen wardrobes so soon demolished on the stones of the river; surrender of coach and horses. He trusted to a moment of sudden insight on the part of Peter Lytton, assisted by his own eloquent argument; and his belief in Alexander's destiny never wavered. Once he approached Mrs. Mitchell, for he knew she had money of her own; but, as he had expected, she went into immediate hysterics at the suggestion to part with her idol, and he hastily retreated.
Alexander turned over every scheme of making money his fertile brain conceived, and went so far as to ask his aunt to send him to New York, where he could work in one of the West Indian houses, and attend college by some special arrangement. He, too, retreated before Mrs. Mitchell's agitation, but during the summer another cause drove him to work, and without immediate reference to the wider education.
Mr. Mitchell was laid up with the gout and spent the summer on his plantation. His slaves fled at the sound of his voice, his wife wept incessantly at this the heaviest of her life's trials, and it was not long before Alexander was made to feel his dependence so keenly by the irascible planter that he leaped on his horse one day and galloped five miles under the hot sun to Lytton's Fancy.
"I want to work," he announced, with his usual breathless impetuosity when excited, bursting in upon Mr. Lytton, who was mopping his face after his siesta. "Put me at anything. I don't care what, except in Uncle Mitchell's store. I won't work for him."
Mr. Lytton laughed with some satisfaction. "So you two have come to loggerheads? Tom Mitchell, well, is insufferable. With gout in him he must bristle with every damnable trait in the human category. Come back and live with me," he added, in a sudden burst of sympathy, for the boy looked hot and tired and dejected; and his diminutive size appealed always to Peter Lytton, who was six feet two. "You're a fine little chap, but I doubt you're strong enough for hard work, and you love your books. Come here and read all day if you like. When you're grown I'll make you manager of all my estates. Gad! I'd be glad of an honest one! The last time I went to England, that devil, Tom Collins, drank every bottle of my best port, smashed my furniture, broke the wind of every horse I had, and kept open house for every scamp and loafer on the Island, or that came to port. How old are you--twelve? I'll turn everything over to you in three years. You've more sense now than any boy I ever saw. Three years hence, if you continue to improve, you'll be a man, and I'll be only too glad to put the whole thing in your hands."
Alexander struggled with an impulse to ask his uncle to send him to college, but not only did pride strike at the words, but he reflected with some cynicism that the affection he inspired invariably expressed itself in blatant selfishness, and that he might better appeal to the enemies he had made to send him from the Island. He shook his head.
"I'll remain idle no longer," he said. "I'm tired of eating bread that's given me. I'd rather eat yours than his, but I've made up my mind to work. What can you find for me now?"
"You are too obstinate to argue with in August. Cruger wants a reliable clerk. I heard him say so yesterday. He'll take you if I say the word, and give you a little something in the way of salary."
"I like Mr. Cruger," said Alexander, eagerly, "and so did my mother."
"He's a kind chap, but he'll work you to death, for he's always in a funk that Tom Mitchell'll get ahead of him. But you cannot do better. I have no house in town, but you can ride the distance between here and Christianstadt night and morning, if my estimable brother-in-law--whom may the gout convince of his sins--is too much for you."
But Alexander had no desire to return to the house where he had passed those last terrible weeks with his mother, and Mrs. Mitchell begged him on her knees to forgive the invalid, and sent him to the house in Christianstadt, where he would be alone until December; by that time, please God, Tom Mitchell would be on his way to Jamaica. But Alexander had little further trouble with that personage. Mr. Mitchell had his susceptibilities; he was charmed with a boy of twelve who was too proud to accept the charity of wealthy relatives and determined to make his living. Alexander entered Mr. Cruger's store in October. Mr. Mitchell did not leave the Island again until the following spring, and moved to town in November. He and Alexander discussed the prospects of rum, molasses, and sugar, the price of mahogany, of oats, cheese, bread, and flour, the various Island and American markets, until Mrs. Mitchell left the table. Her husband proudly told his acquaintance that his nephew, Alexander Hamilton, was destined to become the cleverest merchant in the Caribbees.