The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book II. Alexander Hamilton
When he awoke, at seven o'clock, he heard a dull low roar in the southeast, which arrested his attention at once as a sound quite dissimilar from the boom of the reef. As he crossed Strand Street to Mr. Cruger's store, an hour later, he noticed that a strong wind blew from the same direction and that the atmosphere was a sickly yellow. For a moment, he thought of the hurricane which he had passed his life expecting, but he had a head full of business and soon forgot both roar and wind. He was immediately immersed in a long and precise statement of his trip, writing from notes and memory, muttering to himself, utterly oblivious to the opening of the windows or the salutations of the clerks. Mr. Cruger arrived after the late breakfast. He looked worried, but shook Alexander's hand heartily, and thanked heaven, with some fervour, that he had returned the night before. They retired to the private office on the court, and Mr. Cruger listened with interest to young Hamilton's account of his trip, although it was evident that his mind felt the strain of another matter. He said abruptly:--
"The barometer was down two-tenths when I visited the Fort at a quarter to eleven. I'd give a good deal to know where it is now."
Alexander remembered his aunt's barometer, which he had hung in his room before sailing, and volunteered to go over and look at it.
"Do," exclaimed Mr. Cruger; "and see if the wind's shifted."
As Alexander crossed Strand Street to the side door of Mr. Mitchell's house he encountered the strongest wind he had ever known, and black clouds were racing back and forth as if lost and distracted. He returned to tell Mr. Cruger that the barometer stood at 30.03.
"And the wind hasn't shifted?" demanded Mr. Cruger. "That means we'll be in the direct path of a hurricane before the day is half out, unless things change for the better. If the barometer falls four-tenths"--he spread out his hands expressively. "Of course we have many scares. Unless we hear two double guns from the Fort, there will be no real cause for alarm; but when you hear that, get on your horse as quick as you can and ride to warn the planters. The Lyttons and Stevens and Mitchells will do for you. I'll send out three of the other boys."
They returned to accounts. Mr. Cruger expressed his gratification repeatedly and forgot the storm, although the wind was roaring up King Street and rattling the jalousies until flap after flap hung on a broken hinge. Suddenly both sprang to their feet, books and notes tumbling to the floor. Booming through the steady roar of the wind was the quick thunder of cannon, four guns fired in rapid succession.
As Alexander darted through the store, the clerks were tumbling over each other to secure the hurricane windows; for until the last minute, uneasy as they were, they had persuaded themselves that St. Croix was in but for the lashing of a hurricane's tail, and had bet St. Kitts against Monserrat as flattening in the path of the storm. The hurricane windows were of solid wood, clamped with iron. It took four men to close them against the wind.
Alexander was almost flung across Strand Street. Shingles were flying, the air was salt with spray skimmed by the wind from the surface of waves which were leaping high above the Fort, rain was beginning to fall. Mr. Mitchell's stables were in the rear of his house. Every negro had fled to the cellar. Alexander unearthed four and ordered them to close the hurricane windows. He had saddled many a horse, and he urged his into Strand Street but a few moments later. Here he had to face the wind until he could reach the corner and turn into King, and even the horse staggered and gasped as if the breath had been driven out of him. He reared back against the wall, and Alexander was obliged to dismount and drag him up the street, panting for breath himself, although his back was to the wind and he kept his head down. The din was terrific. Cannon balls might have been rattling against the stones of every house, and to this was added a roar from the reef as were all the sounds of the Caribbean Sea gathered there. Alexander would have pulled his hat down over his ears, for the noise was maddening, but it had flown over the top of a house as he left the store. He was a quarter of an hour covering the few yards which lay between the stable and the corner, and when he reached the open funnel of King Street he was nearly swept off his feet. Fortunately the horse loved him, and, terrified as it was, permitted him to mount; and then it seemed to Alexander, as they flew up King Street to the open country, that they were in a fork of the wind, which tugged and twisted at his neck while it carried them on. He flattened himself to the horse, but kept his eyes open and saw other messengers, as dauntless as himself, tearing in various directions to warn the planters, many of whom had grown callous to the cry of "Wolf."
The horse fled along the magnificent avenue of royal palms which connected the east and west ends of the Island. They were bending and creaking horribly, the masses of foliage on the summits cowering away from the storm, wrapping themselves about in a curiously pitiful manner; the long blade-like leaves seemed striving each to protect the other. Through the ever-increasing roar of the storm, above the creaking of the trees, the pounding of the rain on the earth, and on the young cane, Alexander heard a continuous piercing note, pitched upon one monotonous key, like the rattle of a girl's castinets he had heard on St. Thomas. His brain, indifferent now to the din, was as active as ever, and he soon made out this particular noise to be the rattle of millions of seeds in the dry pods of the "shaggy-shaggy," or "giant," a common Island tree, which had not a leaf at this season, nothing but countless pods as dry as parchment and filled with seeds as large as peas. Not for a second did this castinet accompaniment to the stupendous bass of the storm cease, and Alexander, whose imagination, like every other sense in him, was quickening preternaturally, could fancy himself surrounded by the orchestra of hell, the colossal instruments of the infernal regions performed upon by infuriate Titans. He was not conscious of fear, although he knew that his life was not worth a second's purchase, but he felt a wild exhilaration, a magnificent sense of defiance of the most powerful element that can be turned loose on this planet; his nostrils quivered with delight; his soul at certain moments, when his practical faculty was uncalled upon, felt as if high in the roaring space with the Berserkers of the storm.
Suddenly his horse, in spite of the wall of wind at his back, stood on his hind legs, then swerved so fiercely that his rider was all but unseated. A palm had literally leaped from the earth, sprawled across the road not a foot in front of the horse. The terrified brute tore across the cane-field, and Alexander made no attempt to stop him, for, although the rain was now falling as if the sea had come in on the high back of the wind, he believed himself to be on the Stevens plantation. The negro village was not yet deserted, and he rode to the west side of the mill and shouted his warning to the blacks crouching there. On every estate was a great bell, hung in an open stone belfry, and never to be rung except to give warning of riot, flood, fire, or hurricane. One of the blacks obeyed Alexander's peremptory command to ring this bell, and, as it was under the lee of the mill, reached it in a moment. As Alexander urged his horse out into the storm again, he heard the rapid agitated clang of the bell mingle discordantly with the bass of the wind and the piercing rattle of the giant's castinets. He rode on through the cane-field, although if the horse stumbled and injured itself, he would have to lie on his face till the storm was over. But there was a greater danger in the avenue; he was close enough to see and hear tree after tree go down, or their necks wrenched and the great green heads rush through the air with a roar of their own, their long glittering leaves extended before them as if in supplication.
The Lytton plantation was next on his way, and Alexander rode straight for the house, as the mills and village lay far to the left. The hurricane shutters on the sides encountering the storm were already closed, and he rode round to the west, where he saw his uncle's anxious face at a drawing-room window. Mr. Lytton flung himself across the sash in an attempt to lift the boy from his horse into the room, and when Alexander shouted that he was on his way to the Mitchell estate, expostulated as well as he could without breaking his throat. He begged him to rest half an hour at least, but when informed that the Fort for the first time within the memory of man had fired its double warning, he ran to fasten his hurricane windows more securely, and despatch a slave to warn his blacks; their huts never would survive the direct attack of a hurricane. He was horrified to think of his favourite exposed to a fury, which, clever and intrepid as he was, he had small chance of outwitting; but at least he had that one chance, and Mrs. Mitchell was alone.
Alexander passed through one other estate before he reached Mr. Mitchell's, terrifying those he warned almost as much by his wild and ragged appearance--his long hair drove straight before him, and his thin shirt was in sodden ribbons--as by his news that a first-class hurricane was upon them. At last he was in the cane-fields of his destination, and the horse, as if in communication with that ardent brain so close to his own, suddenly accelerated his already mercurial pace, until it seemed to Alexander that he gathered up his legs and darted like an inflated swallow straight through crashing avenues and flying huts to the stable door. Fortunately this solid building opened to the west, and Alexander was but a few moments stalling and feeding the animal who had saved two necks by his clever feet that day. He was sorry so poorly to reward him as to close and bar the door, but he feared that he might forget to attend to it when the hurricane veered, and in all the fury of approaching climax was pouring out of the west.
The house was only an eighth of a mile away, but Alexander was half an hour reaching it. He had to travel on his knees, sometimes on his stomach, until he reached the western wall, keeping his arm pressed close against his eyes; his sense of humour, not to be extinguished by a hurricane, rebelling at the ignoble pass to which his pride had come. When he reached the north wall he rose, thinking he could cling to the projections, but he was still facing the storm; he flung himself prostrate again to avoid being lifted off his feet and sailing with the rubbish of Mr. Mitchell's plantation. As he reached the corner the wind gave him a vicious flip, which landed him almost at the foot of the steps, but he was comparatively safe, and he sat down to recover his breath. He could afford a few moments' rest, for the heavy wooden windows facing the east, north, and south, were closed. Here he was sheltered in a way. The only two good words that can be said for a hurricane are that it gives sufficient warning of its approach, and that it blows from one point of the compass at a time. Alexander sat there panting and watched the wild battle in mid-air of shingles, fences, thatched roofs, and tree-tops; listened to the artillery of the storm, which, with a stone building to break its steady roar, sounded as if a hundred cannon were bombarding the walls and rattling here and there on their carriages meanwhile; listened to crash after crash of tree and wall, the terrified bowlings and bellowings of beasts, the shrieking and grinding of trees, the piercing monotone of the dry seeds in their cases of parchment, the groans and prayers of the negroes in the cellar behind him. He turned his head and looked through the windows of the great apartment, which, although above ground, was supposed to be safest in a hurricane. All but the western blinds being closed, the cellar was almost dark, but Alexander knew that it was packed: doubtless every African on the estate was there; he could see, for some distance back, row after row of rolling eyes and hanging tongues. Some knelt on the shoulders of others to get the air. Alexander shuddered. The sight reminded him of his uncle's slave-ships, where the blacks came, chained together, standing in the hold, so closely packed that if one died he could not fall, nor the others protect themselves from the poisons of a corpse, which pressed hard against the living for twenty hours perhaps, before it was unchained and flung to the sharks. Alexander went close to one of the windows and shouted to them not to forget to secure the western blinds when the lull came, then ran up the steps and vaulted through an open window. It was a few minutes before he found his aunt, and it must be recorded that on his way to the front of the house he looked under two beds and into four wardrobes. He came upon her in the drawing-room, valiantly struggling with a hurricane window. Her hair was dishevelled, and her eyes bulged with horror, but even as Alexander came to the rescue, she shoved the bar into place. Then she threw herself into his arms and fainted. He had but time to fling water on her face, when a loud rattle from another window sent him bounding to it, and for ten minutes he struggled to fasten the blind soundly again, while it seemed to him that a hundred malignant fingers were tugging at its edge. He had no sooner secured it, than his aunt's voice at his ear begged him to try every window on three sides of the house, and he went rapidly from one to the other, finding most of them in need of attention--long disuse had weakened both staples and hooks. His aunt trotted after him, thumping every window, and reminding him that if one went, and the wind burst in, the roof would be off and the torrents upon them before they could reach the cellar.
Fortunately for those who fought the storm, the temperature had fallen with the barometer, and these two dared not relax their vigilance for a moment. Every negro had deserted to the lower region. Alexander was unable to change his wet clothes or to refresh himself with so much as a banana, but there was not a second's time to think of hunger or discomfort. More than once that sense of wild exultation in fighting a mighty element possessed him. His own weak hands and a woman's weaker against one of the Titanic hurricanes of the world's history, with a prospect of winning the fight, was a sight to move comfortable gods to paean or laughter, according to their spiritual development.
But during much of that terrible day and night Alexander's brain was obliged to work on device after device to strengthen those battered boards which alone protected the house from destruction, its inmates, perhaps, from death. A tamarind tree came down on a corner of the roof with a crash; and when Mrs. Mitchell and Alexander reached the room, which was in a wing, the rain was struggling past the heavy mass through a hole in the roof. They closed up the room, as well as the jalousies of the inner walls, but as they returned to the windows they heard the rain fighting to pass the branches, and knew that if the wind snatched the tree, the deluge would come in.
Mrs. Mitchell neither fainted again nor exhibited other sign of fear. While that hurricane lasted she was all Mary Fawcett; and Alexander, meeting her eyes now and again, or catching sight of her as she darted forward at the first rattle of a shutter, recalled his mother's many anecdotes of his redoubtable grandmother, and wondered if that valiant old soul had flown down the storm to the relief of the fortress.
Toward evening that sudden lull came which means that at last the besieged are in the very centre of the hurricane, and will have respite while the monster is swinging his tail to the west. Alexander and Mrs. Mitchell, after opening the windows on the east side of the house, and securing those opening to the west, went to the pantry and made a substantial meal without sitting or selecting. To his last day Alexander could not remember what he ate that night, although he recalled the candle in the long chimney, the constant craning of his aunt's head, the incessant racing of the rats along the beams. He went to his room and took a cold bath, which with the food and suspended excitement quite refreshed him; put on dry clothes, nailed a board against the hole in the roof, then sat down with Mrs. Mitchell in the western gallery to await the hurricane's return.
"We have three windows where we had one before," remarked Mrs. Mitchell; "and the hinges of that door are rusty. God knows! If you had not come, the roof would have gone long before this."
"The silence is horrible," said Alexander.
It was, indeed, earsplitting. Not a sound arose from that devastated land. Birds and beasts must lie dead by the thousand; not a horseman ventured abroad; not a whisper came from the cellar, where two hundred Africans might be dead from fright or suffocation. Mrs. Mitchell had lit the candles, and there was something sinister and ironical in the steady flames. How long before they would leap and add the final horror to what must be a night of horrors? It was impossible to work in the dark, but every yellow point was a menace.
They had not long to endure the silence. This time the hurricane sent no criers before it. It burst out of the west with a fury so intensified that Alexander wondered if one stone in Frederikstadt were left upon another. It was evident that it had gathered its forces for a final assault, and its crashing and roaring, as it tore across the unhappy Island it had marked for destruction, was that of a gigantic wheel whirling ten thousand cannon, exploding, and lashing each other in mid-air. It seemed to Alexander that every ball they surely carried rattled on the roof, and the heavy stone structure vibrated for the first time. It was two hours before he and Mrs. Mitchell met again, for they worked at opposite ends of the long gallery; but in the third both rushed simultaneously to the door. It sprang back from its rusty fastenings, and they were but in time to seize the bar which passed through a staple in its middle, and pull it inward until it pressed hard against the jamb on the right. There was no other way to secure it, and for three hours Alexander and Mrs. Mitchell dragged at it alternately, while the other attended to the windows. By this time Alexander had ceased to wonder if he should see another morning, or much to care: the storm was so magnificent in its almighty power, its lungs of iron bellowed its purpose with such furious iteration, as if out of all patience with the mortals who defied it, that Alexander was almost inclined to apologize. More than once it took the house by the shoulders and shook it, and then a yell would come from below, a simultaneous note pitched in a key of common agony. Suddenly the house seemed to spring from its foundations, then sink back as if to collapse. Alexander called out that it had been uprooted and would go down the hill in another moment, but Mrs. Mitchell, who was at the bar, muttered, "An earthquake. I believe a hurricane shakes the very centre of the earth."
They feared that the foundations of the house had been loosened, and that the next blast would turn it over, but the house was one of the strongest in the Caribbees, built to withstand the worst that Nature could do, so long as man saw to its needs; and when the hurricane at last revolved its artillery away into the east, carrying with it that piercing rattle of the giant's castinets, which never for a moment had ceased to perform its part, roof and walls were firm. Mrs. Mitchell and Alexander sank where they had stood, and slept for twenty hours.