The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book II. Alexander Hamilton
Early in August, 1772, Mr. Cruger sent him on a business tour to several of the neighbouring Islands, including the great entrepot of the West Indies,--St. Thomas. Despite the season, the prospect of no wind for days at a time, or winds in which no craft could live, Alexander trembled with delight at the idea of visiting the bustling brilliant versatile town of Charlotte Amalie, in whose harbour there were sometimes one hundred and eighty ships, where one might meet in a day men of every clime, and whose beauty was as famous as her wealth and importance. How often Alexander had stared at the blue line of the hills above her! Forty miles away, within the range of his vision, was a bit of the great world, the very pivot of maritime trade, and one cause and another had prevented him from so much as putting his foot on a sloop whose sails were spread.
As soon as the details of his tour were settled he rode out to the plantations to take leave of his relatives. Mrs. Mitchell, who barred the hurricane windows every time, the wind rose between July and November, and sat with the barometer in her hand when the palms began to bend, wept a torrent and implored him to abstain from the madness of going to sea at that time of the year. Her distress was so acute and real that Alexander, who loved her, forgot his exultation and would have renounced the trip, had he not given his word to Mr. Cruger.
"I'll be careful, and I'll ride out the day after I return," he said, arranging his aunt on the sofa with her smelling-bottle, an office he had performed many times. "You know the first wind of the hurricane is a delight to the sailor, and we never shall be far from land. I'm in command, and I'll promise you to make for shore at the first sign of danger. Then I shall be as safe as here."
His aunt sighed for fully a minute. "If I only could believe that you would be careful about anything. But you are quite a big boy now, almost sixteen, and ought to be old enough to take care of yourself."
"If I could persuade you that I am not quite a failure at keeping the breath in my body we both should be happier. However, I vow not to set sail from any island if a hurricane is forming, and to make for port every time the wind freshens."
"Listen for that terrible roar in the southeast, and take my barometer--Heaven knows what barometers are made for; there are not three on the Island. I shall drive in to church every Sunday and besiege Heaven with my supplications."
"Well, spare me a breeze or I shall pray for a hurricane."
He did not see Mrs. Lytton or James, but Mr. Lytton had scant apprehension of hurricanes, and was only concerned lest his nephew roll about in the trough of the sea under an August sun for weeks at a time. "That's when a man doesn't repent of his sins; he knows there is nothing worse to come," he said. "I'd rather have a hurricane," and Alexander nodded. Mr. Lytton counted out a small bag of pieces of eight and told the boy to buy his aunt a silk gown in Charlotte Amalie. "I've noticed that if it's all one colour you're not so sure to have it accepted with a sigh of resignation," he said. "But be careful of plaids and stripes." And Alexander, with deeper misgivings than Mrs. Mitchell had inspired, accepted the commission and rode away.
He set sail on the following day, and made his tour of the lesser islands under a fair breeze. Late in the month he entered the harbour of St. Thomas, and was delighted to find at least fifty ships in port, despite the season. It was an unusually busy year, and he had dared to hope for crowded waters and streets; exquisite as Charlotte Amalie might be to look upon, he wanted something more than a lovely casket.
The town is set on three conical foot-hills, which bulge at equal distances against an almost perpendicular mountain, the tip, it is said, of a range whose foundations are four miles below. The three sections of the town sweep from base to pointed apex with a symmetry so perfect, their houses are so light and airy of architecture, so brilliant and varied of colour, that they suggest having been called into being by the stroke of a magician's wand to gratify the whim of an Eastern potentate. Surely, they are a vast seraglio, a triple collection of pleasure houses where captive maidens are content and nautch girls dance with feet like larks. Business, commerce, one cannot associate with this enchanting vista; nor cockroaches as long as one's foot, scorpions, tarantulas, and rats.
When Alexander was in the town he found that the houses were of stone, and that one long street on the level connected the three divisions. Flights of steps, hewn out of the solid rock of that black and barren range, led to the little palaces that crowned the cones, and there were palms, cocoanuts, and tamarind trees to soften the brilliancy of facade and roof. Above the town was Blackbeard's Castle; and Bluebeard's so high on the right that its guns could have levelled the city in an hour. Although not a hundred years old, and built by the Danes, both these frowning towers were museums of piratical tradition, and travellers returned to Europe with imaginations expanded.
The long street interested Alexander's practical mind more than legends or architecture. Huge stone buildings--warehouses, stores, exchange- and counting-houses--extended from the street to the edge of the water, where ships were unloaded and loaded from doors at the rear. Men of every nation and costume moved in that street; and for a day Mr. Cruger's business was in abeyance, while the boy from the quiet Island of St. Croix leaned against one of the heavy tamarind trees at the foot of the first hill, and watched the restless crowd of Europeans, Asiatics, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, North and South Americans. There were as many national costumes as there were rival flags in the harbour. There was the British admiral in his regimentals and powdered queue, the Chinaman in his blouse and pigtail, the Frenchman with his earrings, villanous Malays, solemn merchants from Boston, and negroes trundling barrows of Spanish dollars. But it was the extraordinary assortment of faces and the violent contrasts of temperament and character they revealed which interested Alexander more than aught else. With all his reading he had not imagined so great a variety of types; his mental pictures had been the unconscious reflection of British, Danish, or African. Beyond these he had come in contact with nothing more striking than sailors from the neighbouring Islands, who had suggested little besides the advisability of placing an extra guard over the money boxes whilst they were in port. Most of these men who surged before him were merchants of the first rank or the representatives of others as important,--captains of large ships and their mates. The last sauntered and cursed the heat, which was infernal; but the merchants moved rapidly from one business house to another, or talked in groups, under the tamarind trees, of the great interests which brought them to the Indies. Upon the inherent characteristics which their faces expressed were superimposed the different seals of those acquired,--shrewdness, suspicion, a hawk-like alertness, the greed of acquisition. Alexander, with something like terror of the future, reflected that there was not one of these men he cared to know. He knew there were far greater cities than the busy little entrepot of the West Indies, but he rightly doubted if he ever should see again so cosmopolitan a mob, a more picked assortment of representative types. Not one looked as if he remembered his wife and children, his creed, or the art and letters of his land. They were a sweating, cursing, voluble, intriguing, greedy lot, picturesque to look upon, profitable to study, calculated to rouse in a boy of intellectual passions a fury of final resentment against the meannesses of commercial life. Alexander jerked his shoulders with disgust and moved slowly down the street. After he had reflected that great countries involved great ideas, and that there was no place for either political or moral ideals in an isolated and purely commercial town like little Charlotte Amalie, he recovered his poise, and lent himself to his surroundings again with considerable philosophy.
He had almost crossed the foot of the third hill when he turned abruptly into a large store, unlike any he had seen. It was full of women, splendid creatures, who were bargaining with merchants' clerks for the bales of fine stuffs which had been opened for the display of samples to the wholesale buyers from other Islands. These women purchased the exiled stuffs to sell to the ladies of the capital, and this was the only retail trade known to the St. Thomas of that day. Alexander bethought himself of his uncle's commission, and precipitately bought from the open bale nearest the door, then, from the next, a present for Mrs. Mitchell. Mrs. Lytton, who was an invalid and fifty-eight, received, a fortnight later, a dress pattern of rose-coloured silk, and Mrs. Mitchell, who aspired to be a leader of fashion, one of elderly brown. But Alexander was more interested in the sellers than in the possible dissatisfaction of his aunts. The women of his acquaintance were fair and fragile, and the Africans of St. Croix were particularly hideous, being still of parent stock. But these creatures were tawny and magnificent, with the most superb figures, the most remarkable swing, that ever a man had looked upon; and glorious eyes, sparkling with deviltry. On their heads the white linen was wound to a high point and surmounted by an immense hat, caught up at one side with a flower. They wore for clothing a double skirt of coloured linen, and a white fichu, open in a point to the waist and leaving their gold-coloured arms quite bare. They moved constantly, if only from one foot to the other. Occasionally their eyes flashed sparks, and they flew at each other's throats, screeching like guinea fowl, but in a moment they were laughing good-naturedly again, and chattering in voices of a remarkable soft sweetness. Several of them noticed Alexander, for his beauty had grown with his years. His eyes were large and gray and dark, like his mother's, but sparkled with ardour and merriment. His mouth was chiselled from a delicate fulness to a curving line; firm even then, but always humorous, except when some fresh experience with the ingenuous self-interest of man deepened the humour to cynicism. The nose was long, sharply cut, hard, strong in the nostrils, the head massive, the brow full above the eyes, and the whole of a boyish and sunburned fairness. He could fetch a smile that gave his face a sweet and dazzling beauty. His figure was so supple and well knit, so proud in its bearing, that no woman then or later ever found fault with its inconsiderable inches; and his hands and feet were beautiful. His adoring aunt attended to his wardrobe, and he wore to-day, as usual, white linen knee-breeches, black silk stockings, a lawn shirt much beruffled with lace. His appearance pleased these gorgeous birds of plumage, and one of them snatched him suddenly from the floor and gave him a resounding smack. Alexander, much embarrassed, but not wholly displeased, retreated hurriedly, and asked an Englishman who they were and whence they came.
"They are literally the pick of Martinique, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the other Islands celebrated for beautiful women. Of course they've all got a touch of the tar brush in them, but the French or the Spanish blood makes them glorious for a few years, and during those few they come here and make hay. Some come at certain seasons only, others perch here till they change in a night from houri to hag. This daylight trade gives them a raison d'etre, but wait till after dark. God! this is a hell hole; but by moonlight or torchlight this street is one of the sights of the earth. The magnificent beauty of the women, enhanced by silken stuffs of every colour, the varied and often picturesque attire of the men, all half mad with drink--well, if you want to sleep, you'd better get a room high up."
"Mine is up one hundred and seventeen steps. I am but afraid I may not see all there is to see."
But before the week was half out he had tired of St. Thomas by day and by night. The picture was too one-sided, too heavily daubed with colour. It made a palette of the imagination, sticky and crude. He began to desire the green plantations of St. Croix, and more than ever he longed for the snow-fields of the north. Two days of hard work concluded Mr. Cruger's business, and on the thirtieth of the month he weighed anchor, in company with many others, and set sail for St. Croix. He started under a fair breeze, but a mile out the wind dropped, and he was until midnight making the harbour of Christianstadt When they were utterly becalmed the sun seemed to focus his hell upon the little sloop. It rolled sickeningly in the oily wrinkled waters, and Alexander put his Pope in his pocket. The sea had a curious swell, and he wondered if an earthquake were imminent. The sea was not quite herself when her foundations were preparing to shake. Earth-quakes had never concerned him, but as the boat drifted past the reef into the harbour of Christianstadt at midnight, he was assailed by a fit of terror so sudden and unaccountable that he could recall but one sensation in his life that approached it: shortly after he arrived on the Island he had stolen down to the lagoon one night, fascinated by the creeping mist, the scowling manchineels, the talk of its sinister inhabitant, and was enjoying mightily his new feeling of creeping terror, when the silence was broken by a heavy swish, and he saw the white belly of the shark not three feet from him. He had scampered up the hill to his mother's skirts as fast as his legs could carry him, nor visited the lagoon again until the shark was mouldering on its bed. To-night a mist, almost imperceptible except on the dark line of coast, changed the beauty of the moonbeams to a livid light that gave the bay the horrid pallor of a corpse. The masses of coral rock in the shallow waters looked leprous, the surface was so glassy that it fell in splinters from the oars of the boat that towed them to shore. There was not a sound from the reef, not a sound from the land. The slender lacing mangroves in the swamp looked like upright serpents, black and petrified, and the Fort on the high bluff might have been a sarcophagus full of dead men but for the challenge of the sentry.
Alexander began to whistle, then climbed down into the boat and took an oar. When he had his feet on land he walked up King Street more hastily than was his habit in the month of August. But here, although the town might have been a necropolis, so quiet was it, it had not put on a death mask. There was no mist here; the beautiful coral houses gleamed under the moonbeams as if turned to marble, and Alexander forgot the horror of the waters and paused to note, as he had done many times before, the curious Alpine contrast of these pure white masses against the green and burnished arches of tropic trees. Then he passed through the swimming-bath to his bed, and a half-hour later slept as soundly as if the terrible forces of the Caribbean world were safe in leash.