The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book I. Rachael Levine
Mr. Hamn responded at once to the widow's call, his adjacence giving him the advantage of Dr. Hamilton, of whom he was a trifle jealous. He was an old bachelor and had proposed to Mistress Fawcett--a captivating woman till her last hour--twice a year since her husband's death. But matrimony had been a bitter medicine for Mary after her imagination had ceased to sweeten it, and her invariable answer to her several suitors was the disquieting assertion that if ever she was so rash as to take another husband, she certainly should kill him. Archibald was not the man to conquer her prejudices, although she loved the sterling in him and attached him to her by every hook of friendship. He was a dark nervous little man, spare as most West Indians, used a deal of snuff, and had a habit of pushing back his wig with a jerking forearm when in heated controversy with Dr. Hamilton, or expounding matrimony to the widow.
Dr. Hamilton, for whose arrival Mr. Hamn was kept waiting,--Mistress Fawcett tarried until her daughter fell asleep,--was a large square man, albeit lean, and only less nervous than the widow's suitor. His white locks were worn in a queue, a few escaping to soften his big powerful face. Both men wore white linen, but Dr. Hamilton was rarely seen without his riding-boots, his advent, except in Mistress Fawcett's house, heralded by the clanking of spurs. Mary would have none of his spurs on her mahogany floors, and the doctor never yet had been able to dodge the darkey who stood guard at her doorstep.
The two men exchanged mild surmises as to the cause of the summons; but as similar summons occurred when newly wedded blacks were pounding each other's heads, provoked thereto by the galling chain of decency, or an obeah doctor had tied a sinister warning to Mistress Fawcett's knocker, neither of the gentlemen anticipated serious work. When Mary Fawcett entered the long room, however, both forgot the dignity of their years and position, and ran forward.
Dr. Hamilton lifted her as if she had been a palm leaf, and laid her on the sofa. He despatched Mr. Hamn for a glass of Spanish port, and forbade her to speak until he gave permission.
But Mary Fawcett made brief concessions to the weakness of the flesh. She drank the wine, then sat up and told her story.
"Oh, Mary," said Dr. Hamilton, sadly, "why do you ask our advice? Your ear may listen, but never your mind. If it were a matter of business, we might even be allowed to act for you; but in a domestic--"
"What?" cried Mistress Fawcett; "have I not asked your advice a thousand times about Rachael, and have I not always taken it?"
"I recall many of the conversations, but I doubt if you could recall the advice. However, if you want it this time, I will give it to you. Don't force the girl to marry against her will--assuredly not if the man is repulsive to her. For all your brains you are a baby about men and women. Rachael knows more by instinct. She is an extraordinary girl, and should be allowed time to make her own choice. If you are afraid of death, leave her to me. I will legally adopt her now, if you choose--"
"Yes, and should you die suddenly, your wife would think Rachael one too many, what with your brood and the Edwardses to boot." Mistress Fawcett was nettled by his jibe at the limit of her wisdom. "I shall leave her with a husband. To that I have made up my mind. What have you to say, Archibald?"
This was an advantage which Mr. Hamn never failed to seize; he always agreed with the widow; Dr. Hamilton never did. Moreover, he was sincerely convinced that--save, perhaps, in matters of money--Mary Fawcett could not err.
"I like the appearance of this Dane," he said, reassuringly, "and his little country has a valiant history. This young man is quite prince-like in his bearing, and his extreme fairness is but one more evidence of his high breeding--"
"He looks like a shark's belly," interrupted Dr. Hamilton, "I don't wonder he sickens Rachael. I have nothing against him but his appearance, but if he came after Kitty I'd throw him out by the seat of his breeches."
"He never looked at Kitty, at Government House, nor at Mistress Montgomerie's," cried Mary. "You are jealous, Will, because Rachael has carried off the foreign prize."
Dr. Hamilton laughed, then added seriously, "I am too fond of the girl to forbear to give my advice. Let her choose her own husband. If you dare to cut out her future, as if it were one of her new frocks, you have more courage than I. She has more in her than twenty women. Let her alone for the next five years, then she will have no one to answer to but herself. Otherwise, my lady, you may find yourself holding your breath in a hurricane track, with no refuge from the storm you've whipped up but five feet underneath. If you won't give her to me, there are her sisters. They are all wealthy--"
"They are years older than Rachael and would not understand her at all."
"I can't see why they should not understand her as well as a strange man."
"He will be her husband, madly in love with her."
"Levine will never be madly in love with anybody. Besides, it would not matter to Rachael if her sisters did not understand her; she has too strong a brain not to be independent of the ordinary female nonsense; moreover, she has a fine disposition and her own property. But if her husband did not understand her,--in other words, if their tastes proved as opposite as their temperaments,--it would make a vast deal of difference. Sisters can be got rid of, but husbands--well, you know the difficulties."
"I will think over all you have said," replied Mary, with sudden humility; she had great respect for the doctor. "But don't you say a word to Rachael."
"I'm far too much afraid of you for that. But I wish that Will were home or Andrew old enough. I'd set one of them on to cut this Dane out. Well, I must go; send for me whenever you are in need of advice," and with a parting laugh he strode out of the house and roared to the darkey to come and fasten his spurs.
Archibald Hamn, who foresaw possibilities in the widow's loneliness, and who judged men entirely by their manners, remained to assure Mistress Fawcett of the wisdom of her choice, and to offer his services as mediator. Mary laughed and sent him home. She wrote to Levine not to call until she bade him, and for several days pondered deeply upon her daughter's opposition and Dr. Hamilton's advice. The first result of this perturbing distrust in her own wisdom was a violent attack of rheumatism in the region of her heart; and while she believed herself to be dying, she wrung from her distracted daughter a promise to marry Levine. She recovered from the attack, but concluded that, the promise being won, it would be folly to give it back. Moreover, the desire to see her daughter married had been aggravated by her brush with death, and after another interview with Levine, in which he promised all that the fondest mother could demand, she opened her chests of fine linen.
Rachael submitted. She dared not excite her mother. Her imagination, always vivid though it was, refused to picture the end she dreaded; and she never saw Levine alone. His descriptions of life in Copenhagen interested her, and when her mother expatiated upon the glittering destiny which awaited her, ambition and pride responded, although precisely as they had done in her day dreams. She found herself visioning Copenhagen, jewels, brocades, and courtiers; but she realized only when she withdrew to St. Kitts, that Levine had not entered the dream, even to pass and bend the knee. Often she laughed aloud in merriment. As the wedding-day approached, she lost her breath more than once, and her skin chilled. During the last few days before the ceremony she understood for the first time that it was inevitable. But time--it was now three months since the needlewomen were set at the trousseau--and her unconscious acceptance of the horrid fact had trimmed her spirit to philosophy, altered the habit of her mind. She saw her mother radiant, received the personal congratulations of every family on the Island. Her sisters came from St. Croix, and made much of the little girl who was beginning life so brilliantly; beautiful silks and laces had come from New York, and Levine had given her jewels, which she tried on her maid every day because she thought the mustee's tawny skin enhanced their lustre. She was but a child in spite of her intellect. Her union with the Dane came to appear as one of the laws of life, and she finished by accepting it as one accepted an earthquake or a hurricane. Moreover, she was profoundly innocent.