The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book IV. "Alexander the Great"
"Nick," said Hamilton, a few evenings later as they were peeling walnuts, "This is the night on which Mrs. Croix receives, is it not? Do you attend? I will go with you. The lady has kindly been at pains to let me know that I shall not be unwelcome."
Troup pushed back his plate abruptly, and Baron Steuben burst into a panegyric. Fish replied that he had not intended to go, but should change his mind for the sake of the sensation he must create with such a lion in tow. He left the table shortly after, to dress, followed by Steuben, who announced his intention to make one of the party. The host and Troup were left alone.
"What is the matter?" asked Hamilton, smiling. "I see you disapprove of something. Surely you have not lost your heart--"
"Nonsense," exclaimed Troup, roughly, "but I have always hoped you would never meet her."
"If you want to know the truth she has pumped me dry about you. She did it so adroitly that it was some time before I discovered what she was up to. At first I wondered if she were a spy, and I changed my first mind to avoid her, determined to get to the bottom of her motives. I soon made up my mind that she was in love with you, and then I began to tremble, for she is not only a very witch of fascination, but she has about forty times more power of loving, or whatever she chooses to call it, than most women, and every mental attraction and fastidious refinement, besides. There is not a good woman in the country that could hold her own against her. I have no wish to slander her, and have never discussed her before; but my instincts are strong enough to teach me that a woman whose whole exterior being is a promise, will be driven by the springs of that promise to redeem her pledges. And the talk of you banishes all that regal calm from her face and lets the rest loose. I suppose I am a fool to tell you this, but I've been haunted by the idea from the first that if you know this woman, disaster will come of it. I do not mean any old woman's presentiment, but from what I know of her nature and yours. You do astonishingly few erratic things for a genius, but in certain conditions you are unbridled, and my only hope has been that the lightning in you would strike at random without doing much harm--to you, at all events. But this volcano has a brain in it, and great force of character. She will either consume you, ruining your career, or if you attempt to leave her she will find some way to ruin you still. God knows I'm no moralist, but I am jealous for your genius and your future. This has been a long speech. I hope you'll forgive it."
Hamilton had turned pale, and he hacked at the mahogany with the point of his knife. He made no attempt to laugh off Troup's attack, Troup watched him until he turned pale himself. "You have met her," he said abruptly.
Hamilton rose and pushed back his chair. "I promise you one thing," he said: "that if I happen to lose my nethermost to Mrs. Croix, the world shall never be the wiser. That I explicitly promise you. I dislike extremely the position in which I put the lady by these words, but you will admit that they mean nothing, that I am but striving to allay your fears--which I know to be genuine. She will probably flout me. I shall probably detest her conversation. But should the contrary happen, should she be what you suspect, and should a part of my nature which has never been completely accommodated, annihilate a resistance of many months, at least you have my assurance that worse shall not happen."
Troup groaned. "You have so many sides to satisfy! Would that you could have your truly phenomenal versatility of mind with a sweet simplicity of character. But we are not in the millennium. And as you have not the customary failings of genius,--ingratitude, morbidity, a disposition to prevaricate, a lack of common-sense, selfishness, and irresponsibility,--it is easy for us to forgive you the one inevitable weakness. Come to me if you get into trouble. She'd have no mercy at my hands. I'd wring her neck."
Many people were at their country-seats, but politics kept a number of men in town, and for this political and wholly masculine salon of Mrs. Croix, Gouverneur Morris drove down from Morrisania, Robert Livingston from Clermont; Governor Clinton had made it convenient to remain a day longer in New York. Dr. Franklin had been a guest of my lady for the past two days. They were all, with the exception of Clinton, in the drawing-room, when Hamilton, Steuben and Fish arrived; and several of the Crugers, Colonel Duer, General Knox, Mayor Duane, Melancthon Smith, Mr. Watts, Yates, Lansing, and a half-dozen lesser lights. Mrs. Croix sat in the middle of the room, and her chair being somewhat higher and more elaborate than its companions, suggested a throne: Madame de Stael set the fashion in many affectations which were not long travelling to America. In the house, Mrs. Croix discarded the hoopskirt, and the classic folds of her soft muslin gown revealed a figure as superb in contour as it was majestic in carriage. Her glittering hair was in a tower, and the long oval of her face gave to this monstrous head-dress an air of proportion. Her brows and lashes were black, her eyes the deepest violet that ever man had sung, childlike when widely opened, but infinitely various with a drooping lash. The nose was small and aquiline, fine and firm, the nostril thin and haughty. The curves of her mouth included a short upper lip, a full under one, and a bend at the corners. There was a deep cleft in the chin. Technically her hair was auburn; when the sun flooded it her admirers vowed they counted twenty shades of red, yellow, sorrel, russet, and gold. Even under the soft rays of the candles it was crisp with light and colour. The dazzling skin and soft contours hid a jaw that denoted both strength and appetite, and her sweet gracious manner gave little indication of her imperious will, independent mind, and arrogant intellect. She looked to be twenty-eight, but was reputed to have been born in 1769. For women so endowed years have little meaning. They are born with what millions of their sex never acquire, a few with the aid of time and experience only. Nature had fondly and diabolically equipped her to conquer the world, to be one of its successes; and so she was to the last of her ninety-six years. Her subsequent career was as brilliant in Europe as it had been, and was to be again, in America. In Paris, Lafayette was her sponsor, and she counted princes, cardinals, and nobles among her conquests, and died in the abundance of wealth and honours. If her sins found her out, they surprised her in secret only. To the world she gave no sign, and carried an unbroken spirit and an unbowed head into a vault which looks as if not even the trump of Judgement Day could force its marble doors to open and its secrets to come forth. But those doors closed behind her seventy-seven years later, when the greatest of her victims had been dust half a century, and many others were long since forgotten. To-night, in her glorious triumphant womanhood she had no thought of vaults in the cold hillside of Trinity, and when Hamilton entered the room, she rose and courtesied deeply. Then, as he bent over her hand: "At last! Is it you?" she exclaimed softly. "Has this honour indeed come to my house? I have waited a lifetime, sir, and I took pains to assure you long since of a welcome."
"Do not remind me of those wretched wasted months," replied Hamilton, gallantly, and Dr. Franklin nodded with approval. "Be sure, madam, that I shall risk no reproaches in the future."
She passed him on in the fashion of royalty, and was equally gracious to Steuben and Fish, although she did not courtesy. The company, which had been scattered in groups, the deepest about the throne of the hostess, immediately converged and made Hamilton their common centre. Would Washington accept? Surely he must know. Would he choose to be addressed as "His Serene Highness," "His High Mightiness," or merely as "Excellency"? Would so haughty an aristocrat lend himself agreeably to the common forms of Republicanism, even if he had refused a crown, and had been the most jealous guardian of the liberties of the American people? An aristocrat is an aristocrat, and doubtless he would observe all the rigid formalities of court life. Most of those present heartily hoped that he would. They, too, were jealous of their liberties, but had no yearning toward a republican simplicity, which, to their minds, savoured of plebianism. Socially they still were royalists, whatever their politics, and many a coat of arms was yet in its frame.
"Of course Washington will be our first President," replied Hamilton, who was prepared to go to Mount Vernon, if necessary. "I have had no communication from him on the subject, but he would obey the command of public duty if he were on his death-bed. His reluctance is natural, for his life has been a hard one in the field, and his tastes are those of a country gentleman,--tastes which he has recently been permitted to indulge to the full for the first time. Moreover, he is so modest that it is difficult to make him understand that no other man is to be thought of for these first difficult years. When he does, there is no more question of his acceptance than there was of his assuming the command of the army. As for titles they come about as a matter of course, and it is quite positive that Washington, although a Republican, will never become a Democrat. He is a grandee and will continue to live like one, and the man who presumes to take a liberty with him is lost."
Mrs. Croix, quite forgotten, leaned back in her chair, a smile succeeding the puzzled annoyance of her eyes. In this house her words were the jewels for which this courtly company scrambled, but Hamilton had not been met abroad for weeks, and from him there was always something to learn; whereas from even the most brilliant of women--she shrugged her shoulders; and her eyes, as they dwelt on Hamilton, gradually filled with an expression of idolatrous pride. The new delight of self-effacement was one of the keenest she had known.
The bombardment continued. The Vice-President? Whom should Hamilton support? Adams? Hancock? Was it true that there was a schism in the Federal party that might give the anti-Federalists, with Clinton at their head, a chance for the Vice-Presidency at least? Who would be Washington's advisers besides himself? Would the President have a cabinet? Would Congress sanction it? Whom should he want as confreres, and whom in the Senate to further his plans? Whom did he favour as Senators and Representatives from New York? Could this rage for amendments be stopped? What was to be the fate of the circular letter? Was all danger of a new Constitutional Convention well over? What about the future site of the Capital--would the North get it, or the South?
All these, the raging questions of the day, it took Hamilton the greater part of the evening to answer or parry, but he deftly altered his orbit until he stood beside Mrs. Croix, the company before her shrine. He had encountered her eyes, but although he knew the supreme surrender of women in the first stages of passion, he also understood the vanities and weaknesses of human nature too well not to apprehend a chill of the affections under too prolonged a mortification.
Clinton entered at midnight; and after almost bending his gouty knee to the hostess, whom he had never seen in such softened yet dazzling beauty, he measured Hamilton for a moment, then laughed and held out his hand.
"You are a wonderful fighter," he said, "and you beat me squarely. We'll meet in open combat again and again, no doubt of it, and I hope we will, for you rouse all my mettle; but I like you, sir, I like you. I can't help it."
Hamilton, at that time of his life the most placable of men, had shaken his hand heartily. "And I so esteem and admire you, sir," he answered warmly, "that I would I could convert you, for your doctrines are bound to plunge this country into civil war sooner or later. The Constitution has given the States just four times more power than is safe in their hands; but if we could establish a tradition at this early stage of the country's history that it was the duty of the States always to consider the Union first and themselves as grateful assistants to a hard-working and paternal central power, we might do much to counteract an evil which, if coddled, is bound to result in a trial of strength."
"That is the first time I ever heard you croak, except in a public speech where you had a point to gain," said Livingston. "Do you mean that?"
"What of it?" asked Clinton. "Under Mr. Hamilton's constitution--for if it be not quite so monarchical as the one he wanted, it has been saddled upon the United States through his agency more than through any other influence or group of influences--I say, that under Mr. Hamilton's constitution all individualism is lost. We are to be but the component parts of a great machine which will grind us as it lists. Had we remained thirteen independent and sovereign States, with a tribunal for what little common legislation might be necessary, then we might have built up a great and a unique nation; but under what is little better than an absolute monarchy all but a small group of men are bound to live and die nonentities."
"But think of the excited competition for a place in that group," said Hamilton, laughing. The disappointed Governor's propositions were not worthy of serious argument.
"I do not think it is as bad as that, your Excellency," said Dr. Franklin, mildly. "I should have favoured a somewhat loose Confederation, as you know, but the changes and the development of this country will be so great that there will be plenty of room for individualism; indeed, it could not be suppressed. And after a careful study of this instrument that you are to live under--my own time is so short that my only role now is that of the prophet--I fail to see anything of essential danger to the liberties of the American people. I may say that the essays of "The Federalist" would have reassured me on this point, had I still doubted. I read them again the other week. The proof is there, I think, that the Constitution, if rigidly interpreted and lived up to, must prove a beneficent if stern parent to those who dwell under it."
Clinton shrugged his shoulders. "I would I could share your optimism," he said. "What a picture have we! The most venerable statesman in the country finding some hope for individual liberty in this Constitution; the youngest, an optimist by nature and habit, sanguine by youth and temperament, trembling for the powers it may confer upon a people too democratically inclined. This is true, sir--is it not?"
"Yes," said Hamilton. "Democracy is a poison, just as Republicanism is the ideal of all self-respecting men. I would do all I could to vitalize the one and nullify the other. The spirit of democracy exists already, no doubt of it. If we could suppress it in time, we should also suppress the aspirations of encouraged plebianism,--a dangerous factor in any republic. It means the mixing of ignoble blood with good, a gradual lowering of ideals until a general level of sordidness, individualism in its most selfish and self-seeking form, and political corruption, are the inevitable results. You, your Excellency, are an autocrat. It is odd that your principles should coincide so closely with the despotism of democracy."
"Oh, I can't argue with you!" exclaimed Clinton, impatiently. "No one can. That is the reason you beat us when we clearly were in the right. What says Madam? She is our oracle." "If she would but bring him under her foot!" he said to Yates. "She is heart and soul with us. I augur well that he is here at last."
"It is long since our fairy queen has spoken," Franklin was saying; gallant to all women, he was prostrate before this one. "Her genius directs her to the most hidden kernels."
"What do you wish?" she asked lightly. "A prophecy? I am no Cassandra. Unlike Dr. Franklin, I am too selfish to care what may happen when I am dead. At this date we are assured of two elements in government: unselfish patriotism and common-sense. There never has been a nobler nor a more keenly intelligent group of men in public life than General Washington will be able to command as assistants in forming a government. And should our Governor lead his own party to victory," she added, turning to Clinton with so brilliant a smile that it dissipated a gathering scowl, "it would be quite the same. The determined struggle of the weaker party for the rights which only supremacy can insure them is often misconstrued as selfishness; and power leads their higher qualities as well as their caution and conservatism to victory. I am a philosopher. I disapproved the Constitution, and loved the idea of thirteen little sovereignties; but I bow to the Inevitable and am prepared to love the Constitution. The country has too much to accomplish, too much to recover from, to waste time arguing what might have been; it is sure to settle down into as complacent a philosophy as my own, and adjust itself to its new and roomy crinoline."
"Crinoline is the word," growled Clinton, who accepted her choice of words as a subtle thrust at Hamilton. "It is rigid. Wherever you move it will move with you and bound your horizon."
"Oh, well, you know," said Hamilton, who was tired of the conversation, "like a crinoline it can always be broken."