Book II. Alexander Hamilton
Chapter VII
 

But Alexander had small liking for his employment. He had as much affinity with the sordid routine of a general store and counting-house as Tom Mitchell had with the angels. But pride and ambition carried him through most of the distasteful experiences of his life. He would come short in nothing, and at that tender age, when his relatives were prepared to forgive his failures with good-humoured tact, he was willing to sacrifice even his books to clerical success. He soon discovered that he had that order of mind which concentrates without effort upon what ever demands its powers,--masters the detail of it with incredible swiftness. At first he was a general clerk, and attended to the loading and unloading of Mr. Cruger's sloops; after a time he was made bookkeeper; it was not long before he was in charge of the counting-house. He got back to his books in time--for business in the Islands finishes at four o'clock--and when he had learned all the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and mathematics Hugh Knox could teach him, he spent his leisure hours with Pope, Plutarch, Shakespeare, Milton, Plato, and the few other English poets and works of Greek philosophers which Knox possessed, as well as several abridged histories of England and Europe. These interested him more than aught else, purely literary as his proclivities were supposed to be, and he read and reread them, and longed for some huge work in twenty volumes which should reveal Europe to his searching vision. But this was when he was fourteen, and had almost forgotten what the life of a mere boy was like. Shortly after he entered Mr. Cruger's store he wrote his famous letter to young Stevens. It will bear republication here, and its stilted tone, so different from the concise simplicity of his business letters, was no doubt designed to produce an effect on the mind of his more fortunate friend. He became a master of style, and before he was twenty; but there is small indication of the achievement in this letter, lovable as it is:--

ST. CROIX, November 11, 1769.

DEAR EDWARD, This serves to acknowledge the receipt of yours per Capt. Lowndes, which was delivered me yesterday The truth of Capt. Lightbowen and Lowndes' information is now verified by the presence of your father and sister, for whose safe arrival I pray, and that they may convey that satisfaction to your soul, that must naturally flow from the sight of absent friends in health; and shall for news this way, refer you to them.

As to what you say, respecting your soon having the happiness of seeing us all, I wish for an accomplishment of your hopes, provided they are concomitant with your welfare, otherwise not; though doubt whether I shall be present or not, for to confess my weakness, Ned, my ambition is prevalent, so that I contemn the grovelling condition of a clerk, or the like, to which my fortune condemns me, and would willingly risk my life, though not my character, to exalt my station. I am confident, Ned, that my youth excludes me from any hopes of immediate preferment, nor do I desire it; but I mean to prepare the way for futurity. I'm no philosopher, you see, and may be justly said to build castles in the air; my folly makes me ashamed, and beg you'll conceal it; yet, Neddy, we have seen such schemes successful, when the projector is constant. I shall conclude by saying I wish there was a war.

I am, Dear Edward, Yours

ALEX. HAMILTON.

P.S. I this moment received yours by William Smith, and pleased to see you give such close application to study.

He hoped that in time Mr. Cruger would find it necessary to send him to New York; but his employer found him too useful on St. Croix, and recognized his abilities, not to the extent of advancing his intellectual interests, but of taxing and developing his capacity for business and its heavy responsibilities. In the following year he placed him in temporary charge of his branch house, in Frederikstadt, and Alexander never wished for war so desperately as when he stood under the arcade on Bay Street and stared out at the shallow green roadstead and the inimitable ocean beyond. Frederikstadt was a hamlet compared to Christianstadt, and unredeemed--the arcades excepting--by any of the capital's architectural or natural beauty. Alexander believed it to be the hottest, dullest, and most depressing spot on either hemisphere. The merchants and other residents were astonished that Nicolas Cruger should send a lad of thirteen to represent him in matters which involved large sums of money, but they recognized young Hamilton's ability even while they stared with some rudeness at the small figure in white linen, and the keen but very boyish face. When they passed him under the arcades, and asked him what ship he expected to heave in sight, he was tempted to say a man-of-war, but had no mind to reveal himself to the indifferent. He read from sundown until midnight or later, by the light of two long candles protected from draughts and insects by curving glass chimneys. Mosquitoes tormented him and cockroaches as long as his hand ran over the table; occasionally a land-crab rattled across the room, or a centipede appeared on the open page. But he was accustomed to these embellishments of tropic life, and although he anathematized them and the heat, he went on with his studies. It was about this time that he began to indulge in literary composition; and although less gifted boys than Alexander Hamilton struggle through this phase of mental development as their body runs the gamut of juvenile complaints, still it may be that had not his enormous energies been demanded in their entirety by a country in the terrible straits of rebirth, or had he dwelt on earth twenty years longer, he would have realized the ambitions of his mother and Hugh Knox, and become one of the greatest literary forces the world has had. But although this exercise of his restless faculties gave him pleasure, it was far from satisfying him, even then. He wanted the knowledge that was locked up in vast libraries far beyond that blinding stretch of sea, and he wanted action, and a sight of and a part in the great world. Meanwhile, he read every book he could find on the Island, made no mistakes in Mr. Cruger's counting-house, and stood dreaming under the arcade for hours at a time, muttering his thoughts, his mobile features expressing the ceaseless action of his brain.

Sometime during the previous year Peter Levine had returned to St. Croix for his health, and he remained with relatives for some time. He and Alexander met occasionally and were friendly. As he was a decent little chap our hero forgave him his paternity, although he never could quite assimilate the fact that he was his mother's child.

Alexander returned, after six months of Frederikstadt, to the East End of the Island. A few months later, Mr. Cruger, whose health had failed, went to New York for an extended sojourn, leaving the entire responsibility of the business in young Hamilton's hands. Men of all ages were forced to obey and be guided by a boy in the last weeks of his fourteenth year, and there were many manifestations of jealous ill-will. Some loved, others hated him, but few submitted gracefully to a leadership which lowered their self-esteem. For the first time Alexander learned that even a mercantile life can be interesting. He exercised all the resources of his inborn tact with those who had loved and those who did not hate him, and won them to a grateful acceptance of a mastership which was far more considerate and sympathetic than anything they had known. As for his enemies, he let them see the implacable quality of his temper, mortified them by an incessant exposure of their failings, struck aside their clumsy attempts to humiliate him with the keen blade of a wit that sent them skulking. Finally they submitted, but they cursed him, and willingly would have wrung his neck and flung him into the bay. As for Hamilton, there was no compromise in him, even then, where his enemies were concerned. He enjoyed their futile wrath, and would not have lifted his finger to flash it into liking.

Only once the tropical passions of his inheritance conquered his desire to dominate through the forces of his will alone. One of the oldest employees, a man named Cutter, had shown jealousy of young Hamilton from the first, and a few days after Mr. Cruger's departure began to manifest signs of open rebellion. He did his work ill, or not at all, absented himself from the store for two days, and returned to his post without excuse, squaring his shoulders about the place and sneering his contempt of youthful cocks of the walk. Alexander struggled to maintain a self-control which he felt to be strictly compatible with the dignity of his position, although his gorge rose so high that it threatened to choke him. The climax came when he gave Cutter a peremptory order, and the man took out a cigar, lit it, and laughed in his face. For the next few moments Alexander had a confused impression that he was in hell, struggling his way through the roar and confusion of his nether quarters. When he was himself again he was in the arms of his chief assistant, and Mr. Cutter bled profusely on the floor. He was informed later that he had "gone straight over the counter with a face like a hurricane" and assaulted his refractory hireling with such incredible rapidity of scientific fist that the man, who was twice his size, had succumbed from astonishment and an almost supernatural terror. Alexander, who was ashamed of himself, apologized at once, but gave the man his choice of treating him with proper respect or leaving the store. Cutter answered respectfully that he would remain; and he gave no further trouble.

"You'll get your head blown off one of these days," said Hugh Knox to Alexander, on a Sunday, as they sat in the library over two long glasses of "Miss Blyden," a fashionable drink made of sugar, rum, and the juice of the prickly pear, which had been buried in the divine's garden for the requisite number of months. "These Creoles are hot, even when they're only Danes. It's not pleasant for those clerks, for it isn't as if you had the look of the man you are. You look even younger than your age, and for a man of thirty to say 'Yes, sir' to a brat like you chokes him, and no wonder. I believe if there was a war this minute, you'd rouse the Island and lead it to battle without a misgiving or an apology. Well, don't let your triumphs lead to love of this business. I happen to know that Cruger means to make a partner of you in a few years, for he thinks the like of you never dropped into a merchant's counting-house; but never forget that your exalted destiny is to be a great man of letters, a historian, belike. You're taking to history, I notice, and you're getting a fine vocabulary of your own."

"I'd like to know what I'll write the history of if I'm to rot in this God-forsaken place. Caribs? Puling rows between French and English? I'd as well be up on Grange with my mother if it wasn't for you and your books. I want the education of a collegian. I want to study and read everything there is to be studied and read. I've made out a list of books to send for, when I've money enough, as long as you are. It's pinned on the wall of my room."

"And I suppose you've never a qualm but that head of yours will hold it all. You've a grand opinion of yourself, Alec."

"That's a cutting thing for you to say to me, sir," cried Alexander, springing to his feet. "I thought you loved me. If you think I'm a fool, I'll not waste more of your time."

"A West Indian temper beats the conceit out of the Irish. You'll control yours when you're older, for there's nothing you won't do when you put your mind to it, and you'll see the need for not making a fool of yourself too often. But as for its present liking for exercise--it's a long way the liveliest thing on St. Croix. However, you've forgiven me; I know that by the twinkle in your eye, so I'll tell you that your brain will hold all you care to put into it, and that you'll have made another list as long as King Street before you're five years older. Meanwhile, I've some books on theology and ethics you haven't had a dash at yet, and you can't read my other old books too often. Each time you'll find something new. Sitting up till midnight won't hurt you, but don't forget to say your prayers."

Knox, long since, had laid siege to Alexander's susceptible and ardent mind with the lively batteries of his religious enthusiasms. His favourite pupil was edifyingly regular in attendance at church, and said his prayers with much fervour. The burden of his petitions was deliverance from St. Croix.

When this deliverance was effected by a thunderbolt from heaven, his saving sense of humour and the agitated springs of his sympathy forbade a purely personal application. But twenty years later he might have reflected upon the opportune cause of his departure from St. Croix as one of the ironies of the world's history; for an Island was devastated, men were ruined, scores were killed, that one man might reach his proper sphere of usefulness.