The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book III. The Little Lion
But a few nights later there was a subscription ball in the commissary storehouse, and Hamilton danced with Miss Schuyler no less than ten times, to the merciless amusement of the family. The ball, the first of any size since the war began, was a fine affair, and had been organized by Tilghman, Meade, and several of the Frenchmen; they were determined upon one gay season, at least. The walls were covered with flags and holly; the women wore their most gorgeous brocades; feathers and jewels were on becoming white wigs or on the towers of powdered hair. All the foreigners were in full regimentals, Steuben, in particular, being half covered with gold lace and orders; the music and supper were admirable. Even Washington looked less careworn than usual, and as he stood apart with Lord Sterling, General Knox, and General Greene, he shed no perceptible chill. Miss Schuyler wore white, with a twist of black velvet in her powdered hair and another about her throat, and would have been the belle of the party had Hamilton permitted other attentions. But she gave him all the dances he demanded, and although her bright manner did not lapse toward sentiment for a moment, he went home so elated that he sat scribbling poetry until Laurens pelted him with pillows and extinguished the candle.
The next day there was a sleighing party to Lord Sterling's, and he drove Miss Schuyler, her aunt, and the wife of General Knox through the white and crystal and blue of a magnificent winter day. Mrs. Cochraine made no secret of her pride in her niece's capture of Washington's celebrated favourite, and assured him of a hearty welcome at her house if he felt disposed to call. He promptly established the habit of calling every evening.
But although he was seriously and passionately in love, and quite sure that Miss Schuyler loved him in return, he hesitated for the first time in his life before precipitating a desired consummation. That he had no money did not worry him in the least, for he knew himself capable of earning any amount, and that the Republic, when free, would bristle with opportunities for young men of parts. But he was in honour bound to tell her of the irregularity of his birth. And in what manner would she regard a possible husband with whose children she never could discuss their father's parents? She was twenty-two, a small woman-of-the-world, not a romantic young miss incapable of reason. And the Schuylers? The proudest family in America! Would they take him on what he had made of himself, on the promise of his future, or would their family pride prove stronger than their common sense? He had moments of frantic doubt and depression, but fortunately there was no time for protracted periods of lover's misery. Washington demanded him constantly for consultation upon the best possible method of putting animation into the Congress and extracting money for the wretched troops. He frequently accompanied the General, as at Valley Forge, in his visits to the encampment on the mountain, where the emaciated tattered wretches were hutting with all possible speed against the severity of another winter. The snow was already on the ground, and every prospect of a repetition of the horrors of Valley Forge. The mere sight of Washington put heart into them, and Hamilton's lively sallies rarely failed to elicit a smile in return.
It so happened that for a fortnight the correspondence with Congress, the States, the Generals, and the British, in regard to the exchange of prisoners, was so heavy, the consultations with Washington so frequent, that Hamilton saw nothing of Miss Schuyler, and had little time for the indulgence of pangs. When he emerged, however, his mind was the freer to seek a solution of the problem which had tormented him, and he quickly found it. He determined to write the truth to Miss Schuyler, and so save the embarrassment he had dreaded for both. To think was to act. He related the facts of his birth and of his ancestry in the briefest possible manner, adding a description of his mother which would leave no question of the place she held in his esteem. He then stated, with the emphasis of which he was master, that he distractedly awaited his dismissal, or Miss Schuyler's permission to declare what he had so awkwardly concealed.
He sent the letter by an orderly, and attacked his correspondence with a desire to put gunpowder on his quill. But Miss Schuyler was a tender-hearted creature and had no intention that he should suffer. She scrawled him a hasty summons to come to her at once, and bade the orderly ride as for his life. Hamilton, hearing a horse coming up the turnpike at runaway pace, glanced out of the window to see what neck was in danger, then flung his quill to the floor and bolted. He was out of the house before the orderly had dismounted, and secured possession of the note. When he had returned to his office, which was in a log extension at the back of the building, he locked the door and read what he could of Miss Schuyler's illegible chirography. That it was a command to wait upon her at once he managed to decipher, but no more at the moment; and feeling as if the heavens had opened, he despatched a hasty note, telling her that he could not leave his work before night, when he would hasten with the pent-up assurances of a love which had been his torment and delight for many weeks. And then he answered a summons to Washington's office, and discussed a letter to the Congress as if there were no such person in the world as Elizabeth Schuyler, as indeed for the hour there was not, nor for the rest of the afternoon.
But at eight o'clock he presented himself at the Cochraine quarters, and Miss Schuyler was alone in the drawing-room. It was some time before they arrived at the question which had weighed so heavily on Hamilton's mind. When, however, they came down to conversation, Miss Schuyler remarked:--
"I am sure that it will make no difference with my dear father, who is the most just and sensible of men. I had never thought of your parentage at all. I should have said you had leapt down from the abode of the gods, for you are much too remarkable to have been merely born. But if he should object--why, we'll run away."
Her eyes danced at the prospect, and Hamilton, who had vowed that nothing should induce him to enter a family where he was not welcome, was by now so hopelessly in love that he was ready to order the chaise and four at once. He remained until Mrs. Cochraine sent him home, then walked up the hill toward Headquarters, keeping to the road by instinct, for he was deep in a reverie on the happiness of the past hours. His dreams were cruelly shattered by the pressure of a bayonet against his breast.
"What?" he demanded. "Oh, the countersign." He racked his memory. It had fled, terrified, from his brain under the rush of that evening's emotions.
"I can't remember it," he said haughtily; "but you know who I am. Let me pass." The sentry stood like a fate.
"This is ridiculous!" cried Hamilton, angrily, then the absurdity of the situation overcame him, and he laughed. Once more he searched his brain for the countersign, which he remembered having given to little Ford just after dinner. Mrs. Ford and her son retained two rooms in the house, and Hamilton frequently gave the youngster the word, that he might play in the village after dark. Suddenly he saw him approaching. He darted down the road, secured the password, and returned in triumph to the sentry.
"Sir," exclaimed the soldier, in dismay, "is this quite regular? Will you give me your word, sir, that it is all right?"
"I vow that no harm shall come to you," said Hamilton. "Shoulder your musket." And there the incident ended, so far as the soldier was concerned, but young Ford carried the story to Headquarters, and it was long before Hamilton heard the last of it.
There was no sleep in him that night. He went to his office and laboured for hours over a verse which should adequately express the love consuming him, and then he awoke Laurens and talked into that sympathetic ear until it was time to break the ice and freshen himself for work.
His work that day was of a vastly different character from the impassioned trifle of the night before. He obtained exemption from other duty, and ordered luncheon and dinner brought to his office. One of the most remarkable examples of Hamilton's mature genius at this age of twenty-three is his long and elaborate letter to Robert Morris on the financial condition of the country, written during the earliest period of his love for Elizabeth Schuyler. As passionate and impatient as he was tender, alive in every part of his nature to the joy of a real affection and to the prospect of a lasting happiness, he yet was able for twelve hours at a time to shut his impending bride in the remotest cupboard of his mind, nor heed her sighs. But there was an older love than Elizabeth Schuyler: a ragged poverty-stricken creature by this, cowering before dangers within and without, raving mad at times, imbecile at others, filling her shattered body with patent nostrums, yet throughout her long course of futilities and absurdities making a desperate attempt to shade the battered lamp of liberty from the fatal draught. Her name was the United States of America, and never was there a more satiric misnomer. If the States chose to obey the requisitions of the Congress, they obeyed them; but as a rule they did not. There was no power in the land to enforce obedience; and they hated each other. As the Congress had demonstrated its inefficiency to the most inactive in public affairs, the contempt of the States is hardly to be wondered at. It is not too much to say that troops were recruited by Washington's influence alone, and kept from mutiny by his immortal magnetism. The finances of the Revolution were in such a desperate condition that Sir Henry Clinton built his hopes of success--now he had discovered that no victory gave him a permanent advantage--upon the dissolution of the American army, possibly an internal war. With depreciated bills in circulation amounting to one hundred and sixty millions of dollars, a public debt of nearly forty millions in foreign and domestic loans, the Congress had, in March, ordered a new emission of bills; the result had been a season of crazy speculation and the expiring gasp of public credit. In addition to an unpaid army, assurances had been given to the French minister that not less than twenty-five thousand men should be ready for the next campaign; and how to force the States to recruit them, and how to pay them when in the field, was the present question between Headquarters and Congress.
From the time that Hamilton's mind had turned to finance, in his nineteenth year, he had devoted the greater part of his leisure to the study and thought of it. Books on the subject were few in those days; the science of political economy was unborn, so far as Hamilton was concerned, for Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations," published in 1776, had not made its way to America. He assimilated all the data there was to be found, then poured it into the crucible of his creative faculty, and gradually evolved the great scheme of finance which is the locomotive of the United States to-day. During many long winter evenings he had talked his ideas over with Washington, and it was with the Chief's full approval that he finally went to work on the letter embodying his scheme for the immediate relief of the country. It was addressed to Robert Morris, the Financier of the Revolution.
The first part of the letter was an essay on inflated and depreciated currency, applied personally, the argument based on the three following points: There having been no money in the country, Congress had been unable to avoid the issuance of paper money. The only way to obtain and retire this immense amount of depreciated paper money was to obtain real money. Real money could be obtained in one way only,--by a foreign loan. He then elaborately disposed of the proposed insane methods of applying this projected loan which were agitating the Congress. But he was an architect and builder as well as an iconoclast, and having shown the futility of every financial idea ever conceived by Congress, he proceeded to the remedy. His scheme, then as ever, was a National Bank, to be called The Bank of the United States; the capital to be a foreign loan of two millions sterling.
This letter, even in its details, in the knowledge of human nature it betrays, and in its scheme to combine public and private capital that the wealthy men of the country should, in their own interests, be compelled to support the government, reads like an easy example in arithmetic to-day; but a hundred and twenty years ago it was so bold and advanced that Morris dared to adopt several of its suggestions in part only, and founded the bank of Pennsylvania on the greater plan, by way of experiment. No one but Hamilton could carry out his own theories.
Hamilton, who often had odd little attacks of modesty, signed the letter, James Montague; address, Morristown. He read it to Washington before posting.
The Chief, whose men were aching, sighed heavily.
"They will pick a few crumbs out of it," he said. "But they will not make a law of it in toto; the millennium is not yet come. But if it gives them one idea we should be thankful, it being a long and weary time since they have experienced that phenomenon. If it does not, I doubt if these men fight another battle. I wonder if posterity will ever realize the indifference of their three million ancestors to the war which gave them their independence--if we accomplish that end. I ask for soldiers and am treated much as if I had asked for my neighbour's wife. I ask for money to keep them from starving and freezing and am made to feel like an importunate beggar."
"I had a letter from Hugh Knox not so long since," said Hamilton, in his lightest tone; for Washington was on the verge of one of his attacks of infuriated depression, which were picturesque but wearing. "He undertakes to play the prophet, and he is an uncommon clever man, sir: he says that you were created for the express purpose of delivering America, to do it single-handed, if necessary, and that my proud destiny is to be your biographer. The first I indorse, so does every thinking man in the country. But for the second--alas! I am not equal to a post of such exalted honour."
Washington smiled. "No one knows better than your old Chief that your destiny is no such ha'penny affair as that. But at least you wouldn't make an ass of me. God knows what is in store for me at the hands of scribblers."
"You lend yourself fatally well to marble and stone, sir," said Hamilton, mischievously. "I fear your biographers will conceive themselves writing at the feet of a New World Sphinx, and that its frozen granite loneliness will petrify their image of you."
"I like the prospect! I am unhappily conscious of my power to chill an assemblage, but the cold formality of my manner is a safeguard, as you know. My nature is one of extremes; if I did not encase myself, I should be ramming every man's absurd opinions down his throat, and letting my cursed temper fly at each of the provocations which constantly beset me. I have not the happy gift of compromise; but I am not unhuman, and I like not the prospect of going down to posterity a wooden figurehead upon some emblematic battle-ship. Perhaps, my boy, you, who best know me, will be moved by charity to be my biographer, after all."
"I'll make it the business of my old age, sir; I pledge you my word, and no one loves you better nor can do you such justice as I. When my work in the National Family is done, then shall I retire with my literary love, an old and pleasant love; and what higher subject for my pen?"
He spoke in a tone of badinage, for he was bent on screwing up Washington's spirits, but he made his promise in good faith, nevertheless, and Washington looked at him with deep affection.
"My mind is certainly easier," he said, in a tone that was almost light. "Go now and post your letter, and give your evening to Miss Schuyler. Present my compliments to her."
"I became engaged to her last night, sir."
"Ah! had you forgotten to tell me?"
"No, sir; I have but just remembered it."
Washington laughed heartily. "Mind you never tell her that," he said. "Women love the lie that saves their pride, but never an unflattering truth. You have learned your lesson young,--to put a tempting face aside when duty demands every faculty; it is a lesson which takes most men longest to learn. I could tell you some amusing stories of rough and tumbles in my mind between the divine image of the hour and some affair of highest moment. But to a brain like yours all things are possible."
He rose, and took Hamilton's hand and shook it warmly.
"God bless you," he said. "Your future unrolls to my vision, brilliant and happy. I deeply wish that it may be so."