The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book II. Alexander Hamilton
On the following day, as Alexander stood on the wharf with his tearful relatives and friends, Hugh Knox detached him from Mrs. Mitchell and led him aside.
"Alec," he said, "I've two pieces of parting advice for you, and I want you to put them into the pocket of your memory that's easiest to find. Get a tight rein on that temper of yours. It's improved in the last year, but there's room yet. That's the first piece. This is the second: keep your own counsel about the irregularity of your birth, unless someone asks you point-blank who has the right; if anyone else does, knock him down and tell him to go to hell with his impertinence. And never let it hit your courage in the vitals for a moment. You are not accountable; your mother was the finest woman I ever knew, and you've got the best blood of Britain in your veins, and not a relative in the world who's not of gentle blood. You're an aristocrat in body and brain, and you'll not find a purer in the American colonies. The lack of a priest at the right time can cause a good deal of suffering and trouble, but it can't muddy a pure stream; and many a lawful marriage has done that. So, mind you never bring your head down for a minute, nor persuade yourself that anyone has a better right to keep it up. It would be the death of you."
Alexander nodded, but did not reply. He was feeling very low, now that the hour for parting was come, for his affections were strong and tender, and they were all rooted in the Island he hated. He understood, however.
He was six weeks reaching Boston, for even the wind seemed to have had the life beaten out of it. He had a box of Knox's books, which he was to return by the Captain; and although he had read them before, he read them again, and wrote commentaries, and so kept his mind occupied for the greater part of the voyage. But an active brain, inexperienced in the world, and in no need of rest, is always bored at sea, and he grew sick of the sight of that interminable blue waste; of which he had seen too much all his life. When he had learned all there was to know about a ship, and read all his books, he burned for change of any sort. The change, when it came, was near to making an end of him: the ship caught fire, and they were a day and a night conquering the flames and preparing their philosophy to meet death; for the boats were unseaworthy. Alexander had all the excitement he wanted, for he fought the fire as hard as he had fought the hurricane, and he was delighted when the Captain gave him permission to turn in. This was his third touch-and-go with death.
He arrived in Boston late in October, and took passage immediately for New York. There had been no time to announce his coming, and he was obliged to find his own way to the house of Hercules Mulligan, a member of the West Indian firm, to whom Mr. Cruger had given him a warm letter of introduction. Mr. Mulligan, a good-natured Irishman, received him hospitably, and asked him to stop in his modest house until his plans were made. Alexander accepted the invitation, then started out in search of his friend, Ned Stevens, but paused frequently to observe the queer, straggling, yet imposing little city, the red splendour of the autumn foliage; above all, to enjoy the keen and frosty air. All his life he had longed for cold weather. He had anticipated it daily during his voyage, and, although he had never given way to the natural indolence of the Tropics, he had always been conscious of a languor to fight. But the moment the sharp air of the North had tingled his skin his very muscles seemed to harden, his blood to quicken, and even his brain to become more alert and eager. If he had been ambitious and studious in an average temperature of eighty-five degrees, what would happen when the thermometer dropped below zero? He smiled, but with much contentment. The vaster the capacity for study, the better; as for his ambitions, they could rest until he had finished his education. Now that his feet were fairly planted on the wide highway of the future, his impatience was taking its well-earned rest; he would allow no dreams to interfere with the packing of his brain.
It was late in the afternoon, and the fashionable world was promenading on lower Broadway and on the Battery by the Fort. It was the first time that Alexander had seen men in velvet coats, or women with hoopskirts and hair built up a foot, and he thought the city, with its quaint Dutch houses, its magnificent trees, and these brilliant northern birds, quite like a picture book. They looked high-bred and intelligent, these animated saunterers, and Alexander regarded the women with deep inquisitiveness. Women had interested him little, with the exception of his mother, who he took for granted sui generis. The sisters of his friends were white delicate creatures, languid and somewhat affected; and he had always felt older than either of his aunts. In consequence, he had meditated little upon the sex to which poets had formed a habit of writing sonnets, regarding them either as necessary appendages or creatures for use. But these alert, dashing, often handsome women, stirred him with a new gratitude to life. He longed for the day when he should have time to know them, and pictured them gracing the solid home-like houses on the Broadway, and in the fine grounds along the river front, where he strayed alter a time, having mistaken the way to King's College. He walked back through Wall Street, and his enthusiasm was beginning to ebb, he was feeling the first pangs of a lonely nostalgia, when he almost ran into Ned Stevens's arms. It was four years since they had met. Stevens had grown a foot and Alexander a few inches, but both were boyish in appearance still and recognized each other at once.
"When I can talk," exclaimed Stevens, "when I can get over my amazement--I thought at first it was my double, come to tell me something was wrong on the Island--I'll ask you to come to Fraunces' Tavern and have a tankard of ale. It's healthier than swizzle."
"That is an invitation, Neddy," cried Alexander, gaily. "Initiate me at once. I've but a day or two to play in, but I must have you for playfellow."
They dined at Fraunces' Tavern and sat there till nearly morning. Alexander had much to tell but more to hear, and before they parted at Mr. Mulligan's door he knew all of the New World that young Stevens had patiently accumulated in four years. It was a stirring story, that account of the rising impatience of the British colonies, and Stevens told it with animation and brevity. Alexander became so interested that he forgot his personal mission, but he would not subscribe to his friend's opinion that the Colonials were in the right.
"Did I have the time, I should study the history of the colonies from the day they built their first fort," he said. "Your story is picturesque, but it does not convince me that they have all the right on their side. England--"
"England is a tyrannical old fool," young Stevens was beginning, heatedly, when a man behind arose and clapped a hand over his mouth.
"There are three British officers at the next table," he said. "We don't want any more rows. One too many, and God knows what next."
Stevens subsided, but Alexander's nostrils expanded. Even the mental atmosphere of this brilliant North was full of electricity.
The next day he presented to Dr. Rogers and Dr. Mason the letters which Hugh Knox had given him. He interested them at once, and when he asked their advice regarding the first step he should take toward entering college, they recommended Francis Barber's Grammar School, at Elizabethtown, New Jersey. Stevens had suggested the same institution, and so did other acquaintances he made during his brief stay in the city which was one day to be christened by angry politicians, "Hamiltonopolis." Early in the following week he crossed to New Jersey and rode through the forests to the village, with its quaint streets and handsome houses, "the Burial Yard Lot," beside the main thoroughfare of the proud little hamlet, and Mr. Barber's Grammar School at its upper end. Hamilton was accepted immediately, but where to lodge was a harassing question. The only rooms for hire were at the tavern, where permanent lodgement would be intolerable. When he presented a letter to Mr. Boudinot, which Mr. Cruger had given him, the problem was solved at once. Mr. Boudinot, one of the men of his time, had a spacious and elegant house, set amidst gardens, lawns, and forest trees; there were many spare bedrooms, and he invited Hamilton to become a member of his family. The invitation was given as a matter of course, and Hamilton accepted it as frankly. All the pupils who were far from home visited in the neighbourhood. Liberty Hall, on the Springfield turnpike, was finishing when Hamilton arrived. When the family was installed and he presented his letter to its owner, William Livingston, he received as pressing an invitation as Mr. Boudinot's, and divided his time between the two houses.
Mr. Boudinot was a large man, with a long nose and a kindly eye, who was deeply attached to his children. Susan was healthy, pretty, lively, and an ardent young patriot. The baby died, and Hamilton, having offered to sit up with the little body, entertained himself by writing an appropriate poem, which was long treasured by Mr. Boudinot.
At Liberty Hall life was even more interesting. William Livingston was one of the ablest lawyers, most independent thinkers, and ardent republicans of the unquiet times. Witty and fearless, he had for years made a target of kingly rule; his acid cut deep, doing much to weaken the wrong side and encourage the right. His wife was as uncompromising a patriot as himself; his son, Brockholst, and his sprightly cultivated daughters had grown up in an atmosphere of political discussion, and in constant association with the best intellects of the day. Sarah, the beauty, was engaged to John Jay, already a distinguished lawyer, notoriously patriotic and high-minded. He was a handsome man, with his dark hair brushed forward about his face, his nobility and classic repose of feature. Mr. Livingston wore his hair in a waving mass, as long as he had any. His nose was large and sharp, and he had a very disapproving eye. He took an immediate liking to young Hamilton, however, and his hospitality was frank and delightful. Brockholst and Alexander liked and admired each other in those days, although they were to become bitter enemies in the turbulent future. As for the lively bevy of women, protesting against their exile from New York, but amusing themselves, always, they adopted "the young West Indian." The delicate-looking boy, with his handsome sparkling face, his charming manners, and gay good humour captivated them at once; and he wrote to Mrs. Mitchell that he was become shockingly spoiled. When Mr. Livingston discovered that his brain and knowledge were extraordinary, he ceased at once to treat him as a fascinating boy, and introduced him to the men who were constantly entertained at his house: John Jay, James Duane, Dr. Witherspoon, President of Princeton; and members of the Morris, Schuyler, Ogden, Clinton, and Stockton families. The almost weekly conversation of these men contributed to the rapid maturing of Hamilton's mind. His recreation he found with the young women of the family, and their conversation was not always political. Sarah Livingston, beautiful, sweet, and clever, was pensively in love; but Kitty and Susan were not, and they were handsome and dashing. They were sufficiently older than Alexander to inspire him with the belief that he was in love with each in turn; and if he was constant to either, it was to Kitty, who was the first to reveal to him the fascination of her sex. But they did not interrupt the course of his studies; and in the dawn, when he repaired to the Burial Yard Lot to think out his difficult task for the day, not a living face haunted the tombstones.
And when winter came and he walked the vast black forests alone, the snow crunching under his feet, the blood racing in his body, a gun on his shoulder, lest he meet a panther, or skated till midnight under the stars, a crystal moon illuminating the dark woods on the river's edge, the frozen tide glittering the flattering homage of earth, he felt so alive and happy, so tingling and young and primeval, that had his fellow-inhabitants flown to the stars he would not have missed them. Until that northern winter embraced and hardened him, quickening mind and soul and body, crowding the future with realized dreams, he never had dared to imagine that life could be so fair and beautiful a thing.
On stormy winter nights, when he roasted chestnuts or popped corn in the great fireplace of Liberty Hall, under the tuition of all the Livingston girls, Sarah, Susan, Kitty, and Judith, he felt very sociable indeed; and if his ears, sometimes, were soundly boxed, he looked so penitent and meek that he was contritely rewarded with the kiss he had snatched.
The girls regarded him as a cross between a sweet and charming boy to be spoiled--one night, when he had a toothache, they all sat up with him--and a phenomenon of nature of which they stood a trifle in awe. But the last was when he was not present and they fell to discussing him. And with them, as with all women, he wore, because to the gay vivacity and polished manners of his Gallic inheritance he added the rugged sincerity of the best of Britons; and in the silences of his heart he was too sensible of the inferiority of the sex, out of which, first and last, he derived so much pleasure, not to be tender and considerate of it always.
Before the year of 1773 was out Mr. Barber pronounced him ready for college, and, his choice being Princeton, he presented himself to Dr. Witherspoon and demanded a special course which would permit him to finish several years sooner than if he graduated from class to class. He knew his capacity for conquering mental tasks, and having his own way to make in the world, had no mind to waste years and the substance of his relatives at college. Dr. Witherspoon, who had long been deeply interested in him, examined him privately and pronounced him equal to the heavy burden he had imposed upon himself, but feared that the board of trustees would not consent to so original a plan. They would not. Hamilton, nothing daunted, applied to King's College, and found no opposition there. He entered as a private student, attached to no particular class, and with the aid of a tutor began his customary annihilation of time. Besides entering upon a course of logic, ethics, mathematics, history, chronology, rhetoric, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, all the modern languages, and Belles Lettres, he found time to attend Dr. Clossy's lectures on anatomy, with his friend Stevens, who was studying medicine as a profession.
King's was a fine building facing the North River and surrounded by spacious grounds shaded by old sycamores and elms. There were many secluded corners for thought and study. A more favourite resort of Alexander's was Batteau Street, under whose great elms he formed the habit of strolling and muttering his lessons, to the concern of the passer-by. In his hours of leisure he rollicked with Stevens and his new friends, Nicolas Fish and Robert Troup. The last, a strong and splendid specimen of the young American collegian, had assumed at once the relation of big brother to the small West Indian, but was not long discovering that Hamilton could take care of himself; was flown at indeed by two agile fists upon one occasion, when protectiveness, in Alexander's measurement, rose to interference. But they formed a deep and lifelong friendship, and Troup, who was clever and alert, without brilliancy, soon learned to understand Hamilton, and was not long recognizing potentialities of usefulness to the American cause in his genius.
It was Troup who took him for his first sail up the Hudson, and except for the men who managed the boat, they went alone. Troup was a good listener, and for a time Hamilton chattered gaily as the boat sped up the river, jingling rhymes on the great palisades, which looked like the walls of some Brobdingnagian fortress, and upon the gorgeous masses of October colouring swarming over the perpendicular heights of Jersey and the slopes and bluffs of New York. It was a morning, and a piece of nature, to make the quicksilver in Hamilton race. The arch was blue, the tide was bluer, the smell of salt was in the keen and frosty air. Two boats with full white sails flew up the river. On either bank the primeval forest had burst in a night into scarlet and gold, pale yellow and crimson, bronze, pink, the flaming hues of the Tropics, and the delicate tints of hot-house roses. Hamilton had never seen such a riot of colour in the West Indies. They passed impenetrable thickets close to the water's edge, ravines, cliffs, irregular terraces on the hillside, gorges, solitary heights, all flaunting their charms like a vast booth which has but a day in which to sell its wares. They sped past the beautiful peninsula, then the lawns of Philipse Manor. Hamilton stepped suddenly to the bow of the boat and stood silent for a long while.
The stately but narrow end of the Hudson was behind; before him rolled a wide and ever widening majestic flood, curving among its hills and palisades, through the glory of its setting and the soft mists of distance, until the far mountains it clove trembled like a mirage. The eye of Hamilton's mind followed it farther and farther yet. It seemed to him that it cut the world in two. The sea he had had with him always, but it had been the great chasm between himself and life, and he had often hated it. This mighty river, haughty and calm in spite of the primeval savagery of its course, beat upon the gates of his soul, beat them down, filled him with a sense of grandeur which made him tremble. He had a vision of the vastness and magnificence of the New World, of the great lonely mountains in the North, with their countless lakes hidden in the immensity of a trackless forest, of other mountain ranges equally wild and lonely, cutting the monotony of plains and prairies, and valleys full of every delight. All that Hamilton had read or heard of the immense area beyond or surrounding the few cities and hamlets of the American colonies, flew to coherence, and he had a sudden appreciation of the stupendousness of this new untravelled world, understood that with its climate, fertility, and beauty, its large nucleus of civilization, its destiny must be as great as Europe's, nor much dissimilar, no matter what the variance of detail. The noblest river in the world seemed to lift its voice like a prophet, and the time came--after his visit to Boston--when Hamilton listened to it with a thrill of impatient pride and white-hot patriotism. But to-day he felt only the grandeur of life as he never had felt it before, felt his soul merge into this mighty unborn soul of a nation sleeping in the infinity, which the blue flood beneath him spoke of, almost imaged; with no premonition that his was the destiny to quicken that soul to its birth.
* * * * *
While on the ship, Alexander had written to his father, asking for news of him and telling of the change in his own fortunes. James Hamilton had replied at once, gratefully, but with melancholy; by this time he knew himself to be a failure, although he was now a planter in a small way. Alexander's letter, full of the hope and indomitable spirit of youth, interested as keenly as it saddened him. He recalled his own high courage and expectant youth, and wondered if this boy had stronger mettle than his own equipment. Then he remembered Rachael Levine and hoped. He lived to see hope fulfilled beyond any achievement of his imagination, although the correspondence, brisk for a time, gradually subsided. From Hugh Knox and Mrs. Mitchell Alexander heard constantly, and it is needless to state that his aunt kept him in linen which was the envy of his friends. His beruffled shirts and lace stocks were marvels, and if he was an exquisite in dress all his life, it certainly was not due to after-thought. Meanwhile, he lodged with the family of Hercules Mulligan, and wrote doggerel for their amusement in the evening. Troup relates that Hamilton presented him with a manuscript of fugitive poetry, written at this period. Mercifully, Troup lost it. Hamilton has been peculiarly fortunate in this respect. He lies more serenely in his grave than most great men.
When he was not studying, or joking, or rhyming, during those two short years of college life, he read: Cudworth's "Intellectual System," Hobbes's "Dialogues," Bacon's "Essays," Plutarch's "Morals," Cicero's "De Officiis," Montaigne's "Essays," Rousseau's "Emile," Demosthenes's "Orations," Aristotle's "Politics," Ralt's "Dictionary of Trade," and the "Lex Mercatoria."
He accomplished his mental feats by the--to him--simple practice of keeping one thing before his mind at a time, then relegating it uncompromisingly to the background; where, however, it was safe in the folds of his memory. What would have sprained most minds merely stimulated his, and never affected his spirits nor his health, highly as nature had strung his nerves. He was putting five years college work into two, but the effect was an expansion and strengthening of the forces in his brain; they never weakened for an instant.