The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book I. Rachael Levine
The last affliction the Fawcetts expected was another child. This little girl came an unwelcome guest to a mother who hated the father, and to Dr. Fawcett, not only because he had outgrown all liking for crying babies, but because, as in his excited disturbance he admitted to his wife, his fortune was reduced by speculations in London, and he had no desire to turn to in his old age and support another child. Then Mary Fawcett made up her definite mind: she announced her intention to leave her husband while it was yet possible to save her property for herself and the child to whom she soon became passionately attached. Dr. Fawcett laughed and shut himself up in a wing where the sounds of baby distress could not reach him; and it is doubtful if his glance ever lingered on the lovely face of his youngest born. Thus came into the world under the most painful conditions one of the unhappiest women that has lived. It was her splendid destiny to become the mother of the greatest American of his centuries, but this she died too soon to know, and she accomplished her part with an immediate bitterness of lot which was remorselessly ordained, no doubt, by the great Law of Compensation.
There were no divorce laws on the Islands in the eighteenth century, not even an act for separate maintenance; but Mary Fawcett was a woman of resource. It took her four years to accomplish her purpose, but she got rid of Dr. Fawcett by making him more than anxious to be rid of her. The Captain-General, William Matthew, was her staunch friend and admirer, and espoused her cause to the extent of issuing a writ of supplicavit for a separate maintenance. Dr. Fawcett gradually yielded to pressure, separated her property from his, that it might pass under her personal and absolute control, and settled on her the sum of fifty-three pounds, four shillings annually, as a full satisfaction for all her dower or third part of his estate.
Mistress Fawcett was no longer a woman of consequence, for even her personal income was curtailed by the great drought of 1737, and Nevis, complaisant to the gallantry of the age, was scandalized at the novelty of a public separation. But she was free, and she was the woman to feel that freedom to her finger tips; she could live a life with no will in it but her own, and she could bring up her little girl in an atmosphere of peace and affection. She moved to an estate she owned on St. Christopher and never saw John Fawcett again. He died a few years later, leaving his diminished property to his children. Rachael's share was the house in Charles Town.
The spot on which Rachael spent her childhood and brief youth was one of the most picturesque on the mountain range of St. Christopher. Facing the sea, the house stood on a lofty eminence, in the very shadow of Mount Misery. Immediately behind the house were the high peaks of the range, hardly less in pride than the cone of the great volcano. The house was built on a ledge, but one could step from the terrace above into an abrupt ravine, wrenched into its tortuous shape by earthquake and flood, but dark for centuries with the immovable shades of a virgin tropical forest. The Great House, with its spacious open galleries and verandahs, was surrounded with stone terraces, overflowing with the intense red and orange of the hybiscus and croton bush, the golden browns and softer yellows of less ambitious plants, the sensuous tints of the orchid, the high and glittering beauties of the palm and cocoanut. The slopes to the coast were covered with cane-fields, their bright young greens sharp against the dark blue of the sea. The ledge on which the house was built terminated suddenly in front, but extended on the left along a line of cliff above a chasm, until it sloped to the road. On this flat eminence was an avenue of royal palms, which, with the dense wood on the hill above it, was to mariners one of the most familiar landmarks of the Island of "St. Kitts." From her verandah Mary Fawcett could see, far down to the right, a large village of negro huts, only the thatched African roofs visible among the long leaves of the cocoanut palms with which the blacks invariably surround their dwellings. Beyond was Brimstone Hill with its impregnable fortress. And on the left, far out at sea, her purple heights and palm-fringed shores deepening the exquisite blue of the Caribbean by day, a white ever changing spirit in the twilight, and no more vestige of her under the stars than had she sunk whence she came--Nevis. Mary Fawcett never set foot on her again, but she learned to sit and study her with a whimsical affection which was one of the few liberties she allowed her imagination. But if the unhappiest years of her life had been spent there, so had her fairest. She had loved her brilliant husband in her youth, and all the social triumphs of a handsome and fortunate young woman had been hers. In the deep calm which now intervened between the two mental hurricanes of her life, she sometimes wondered if she had exaggerated her past afflictions; and before she died she knew how insignificant the tragedy of her own life had been.
Although Rachael was born when her parents were past their prime, the vitality that was in her was concentrated and strong. It was not enough to give her a long life, but while it lasted she was a magnificent creature, and the end was abrupt; there was no slow decay. During her childhood she lived in the open air, for except in the cold nights of a brief winter only the jalousies were closed; and on that high shelf even the late summer and early autumn were not insufferable. Exhausted as the trade winds become, they give what little strength is in them to the heights of their favourite isles, and during the rest of the year they are so constant, even when storms rage in the North Atlantic, that Nevis and St. Christopher never feel the full force of the sun, and the winter nights are cold.
Rachael was four years old when her parents separated, and grew to womanhood remembering nothing of her father and seeing little of her kin, scattered far and wide. Her one unmarried sister, upon her return from England, went almost immediately to visit Mrs. Lytton, and married Thomas Mitchell, one of the wealthiest planters of St. Croix. Mary Fawcett's children had not approved her course, for they remembered their father as the most indulgent and charming of men, whose frequent tempers were quickly forgotten; and year by year she became more wholly devoted to the girl who clung to her with a passionate and uncritical affection.
Clever and accomplished herself, and quick with ambition for her best beloved child, she employed the most cultivated tutors on the Island to instruct her in English, Latin, and French. Before Rachael was ten years old, Mistress Fawcett had the satisfaction to discover that the little girl possessed a distinguished mind, and took to hard study, and to les graces, as naturally as she rode a pony over the hills or shot the reef in her boat.
For several years the women of St. Christopher held aloof, but many of the planters who had been guests at the Great House in Gingerland called on Mistress Fawcett at once, and proffered advice and service. Of these William Hamilton and Archibald Hamn became her staunch and intimate friends. Mr. Hamn's estate adjoined hers, and his overlooker relieved her of much care. Dr. James Hamilton, who had died in the year preceding her formal separation, had been a close friend of her husband and herself, and his brother hastened with assurance of his wish to serve her. He was one of the eminent men of the Island, a planter and a member of Council; also, a "doctor of physic." He carried Rachael safely through her childhood complaints and the darkest of her days; and if his was the hand which opened the gates between herself and history, who shall say in the light of the glorified result that its master should not sleep in peace?
In time his wife called, and his children and stepchildren brought a new experience into the life of Rachael. She had been permitted to gambol occasionally with the "pic'nees" of her mother's maids, but since her fourth year had not spoken to a white child until little Catherine Hamilton came to visit her one morning and brought Christiana Huggins of Nevis. Mistress Huggins had known Mary Fawcett too well to call with Mistress Hamilton, but sent Christiana as a peace offering. Mary's first disposition was to pack the child off while Mistress Hamilton was offering her embarrassed explanations; but Rachael clung to her new treasure with such shrieks of protest that her mother, disconcerted by this vigour of opposition to her will, permitted the intruder to remain.
The wives of other planters followed Mistress Hamilton, for in that soft voluptuous climate, where the rush and fret of great cities are but a witch's tale, disapproval dies early. They would have called long since had they not been a trifle in awe of Nevis, more, perhaps, of Mistress Fawcett's sharp tongue, then indolent. But when Mistress Hamilton suddenly reminded them that they were Christians, and that Dr. Fawcett was dead, they put on their London gowns, ordered out their coaches, and called. Mary Fawcett received them with a courteous indifference. Her resentment had died long since, and they seemed to her, with their coaches and brocades and powdered locks, but the ghosts of the Nevis of her youth. Her child, her estate, and her few tried friends absorbed her. For the sake of her daughter's future, she ordered out her ancient coach and made the round of the Island once a year. The ladies of St. Kitts were as moderately punctilious.
And so the life of Rachael Fawcett for sixteen years passed uneventfully enough. Her spirits were often very high, for she inherited the Gallic buoyancy of her father as well as the brilliant qualities of his mind. In the serious depths of her nature were strong passions and a tendency to melancholy, the result no doubt of the unhappy conditions of her birth. But her mother managed so to occupy her eager ambitious mind with hard study that the girl had little acquaintance with herself. Her English studies were almost as varied as a boy's, and in addition to her accomplishments in the ancient and modern languages, she painted, and sang, played the harp and guitar. Mary Fawcett, for reasons of her own, never let her forget that she was the most educated girl on the Islands.
"I never was one to lie on a sofa all day and fan myself, while my children sat on the floor with their blacks, and munched sugar-cane, or bread and sling," she would remark superfluously. "All my daughters are a credit to their husbands; but I mean that you shall be the most brilliant woman in the Antilles."
The immediate consequences of Rachael's superior education were two: her girl friends ceased to interest her, and ambitions developed in her strong imaginative brain. In those days women so rarely distinguished themselves individually that it is doubtful if Rachael had ever heard of the phenomenon, and the sum of her worldly aspirations was a wealthy and intellectual husband who would take her to live and to shine at foreign courts. Her nature was too sweet and her mind too serious for egoism or the pettier vanities, but she hardly could help being conscious of the energy of her brain; and if she had passed through childhood in ignorance of her beauty, she barely had entered her teens when her happy indifference was dispelled; for the young planters besieged her gates.
Girls mature very early in the tropics, and at fourteen Rachael Fawcett was the unresponsive toast from Basseterre to Sandy Point. Her height was considerable, and she had the round supple figure of a girl who has lived the out-door life in moderation; full of strength and grace, and no exaggeration of muscle. She had a fine mane of reddish fair hair, a pair of sparkling eager gray eyes which could go black with passion or even excited interest, a long nose so sensitively cut that she could express any mood she chose with her nostrils, which expanded quite alarmingly when she flew into a temper, and a full well-cut mouth. Her skin had the whiteness and transparency peculiar to the women of St. Kitts and Nevis; her head and brow were nobly modelled, and the former she carried high to the day of her death. It was set so far back on her shoulders and on a line so straight that it would look haughty in her coffin. What wonder that the young planters besieged her gates, that her aspirations soared high, that Mary Fawcett dreamed of a great destiny for this worshipped child of her old age? As for the young planters, they never got beyond the gates, for a dragon stood there. Mistress Fawcett had no mind to run the risk of early entanglements. When Rachael was old enough she would be provided with a distinguished husband from afar, selected by the experienced judgement of a woman of the world.
But Mary Fawcett, still hot-headed and impulsive in her second half-century, was more prone to err in crises than her daughter. In spite of the deeper passions of her nature, Rachael, except when under the lash of strong excitement, had a certain clearness of insight and deliberation of judgement which her mother lacked to her last day.