The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book IV. "Alexander the Great"
Mrs. Hamilton, albeit she had not a care in the world, sighed heavily. She was standing before her mirror, arrayed in a triumph of art recently selected by Mrs. Church, in London. On her head was an immense puff of yellow gauze, whose satin foundation had a double wing in large plaits. The dress was of yellow satin, flowing over a white satin petticoat, and embellished about the neck with a large Italian gauze handkerchief, striped with white. Her hair was in ringlets and unpowdered. She was a very plate of fashion, but her brow was puckered.
"What is it?" asked her husband, entering from his room. "You are a vision of loveliness, my dear Eliza. Is there a rose too few, or a hoop awry?"
"No, sir, I am well enough pleased with myself. I am worrying lest General Washington ask me to dance. It will be bad enough to go out with Mr. Adams, who snaps at me every time I venture a remark, but he at least is not a giant, and I do not feel like a dwarf. When the President leads me out--that is to say, when he did lead me out at the Inauguration ball, I was like to expire of mortification. I felt like a little polar cub trotting out to sea with a monster iceberg. And he never opened his lips to distract my mind, just solemnly marched me up and down, as if I had done something naughty and were being exhibited. I saw Kitty Livingston giggle behind her fan, and Kitty Duer drew herself up to her full height, which is quite five feet six, and looked down upon me with a cruel amusement. Women are so nasty to each other. Thank heaven I have a new gown for to-night--anyhow!"
Hamilton laughed heartily; she always amused him, she was half his wife, half the oldest of his children. "And you are fresher far than any of them; let that console you," he said, arranging her necklace. "I am sure both the President and the Vice-President will take you out; they hardly would have the bad taste not to. And you look very sweet, hanging on to Washington's hand. Don't imagine for a moment that you look ridiculous. Fancy, if you had to walk through life with either of them."
Betsey shuddered and smoothed her brow. "It would be a walk with the dear General," she said. "I dare not dwell upon what it would be with Mr. Adams--or anyone else! You are amazing smart, yourself, to-night."
"This new costume depressed me for a moment, for it is very like one Laurens used to wear upon state occasions, but I had not the courage to wear the light blue with the large gilt buttons, and the pudding cravat Morris inconsiderately sent me; not with Jefferson's agonized eye to encounter. The poor man suffers cruelly at our extravagance and elegance."
"He is an old fright," quoth Betsey, "and I'd not dance with him, not if he went on his knees."
She looked her husband over with great pride. He wore a coat of plum-coloured velvet, a double-breasted Marseilles vest, white satin breeches, white silk stockings, and pumps. There were full ruffles of lace on his breast and wrists. A man of to-day has to be singularly gifted by nature to shine triumphant above his ugly and uniform garb, whereas many a woman wins a reputation for beauty by a combination of taste with the infinite range modern fashion accords her. In the days of which we write, a man hardly could help looking his best, and while far more decorative than his descendant, was equally useful. And as all dressed in varying degrees of the same fashion, none seemed effeminate. As for Hamilton, his head never looked more massive, his glance more commanding, than when he was in full regalia; nor he more ready for a fight. All women know the psychological effect of being superlatively well dressed. In the days of our male ancestors' external vanities it is quite possible that they, too, felt unconquerable when panoplied in their best.
The ball that night was at Richmond Hill, the beautiful home of the Vice-President and his wife, Abigail Adams, one of the wisest, wittiest, and most agreeable women of her time. This historic mansion, afterward the home of Aaron Burr during his successful years, was a country estate where Varick Street now crosses Charlton in the heart of the city. It stood on an eminence overlooking the Hudson, surrounded by a park and commanding a view of the wild Jersey shore opposite. The Adamses were ambitious people and entertained constantly, with little less formality than the President. The early hours of their receptions, indeed, were chilling, and many went late, after dancing was, begun or the company had scattered to the card-tables. The Vice-President and his wife stood at the head of the long drawing-room and said good evening, and no more, as the women courtesied to the ground, or the men bowed as deeply as their varying years would permit. The guests then stood about for quite an hour and talked in undertones; later, perhaps, the host and hostess mingled with them and conversed. But although Mrs. Adams was vastly popular, her distinguished husband was less so; he was not always to be counted upon in the matter of temper. This grim old Puritan, of an integrity which makes him one of the giants of our early history, despite the last hours of his administration when he was beating about in the vortex of his passions, and always honest in his convictions, right or wrong, had not been gifted by nature with a pleasing address, although he could attach people to him when he chose. He was irascible and violent, the victim of a passionate jealous nature, without the saving graces of humour and liveliness of temperament. But his sturdy upright figure was very imposing; his brow, which appeared to end with the tip of his nose, so bold was the curve, would have been benevolent but for the youthful snapping eyes. His indomitability and his capacity for hatred were expressed in the curves of his mouth. He was always well dressed, for although a farmer by birth, he was as pronounced an aristocrat in his tastes as Washington or Hamilton. At this time, although he liked neither of them, he was the staunch supporter of the Government. He believed in Federalism and the Constitution, insignificant as he found his rewards under both, and he was an ally of inestimable value.
When the Hamiltons entered his drawing-room to-night they found many people of note already there, although the minuet had not begun. The President, his graceful six feet in all the magnificence of black velvet and white satin, his queue in a black silk bag, stood beside his lady, who was as brave as himself in a gown of violet brocade over an immense hoop. Poor dame, she would far rather have been at Mount Vernon in homespun, for all this pomp and circumstance bored and isolated her. She hedged herself about with the etiquette which her exalted position demanded, and froze the social aspirant of insufficient pretensions, but her traditions and her propensities were ever at war; she was a woman above all things, and an extremely simple one.
John Jay, now Chief Justice of the United States, was there, as ever the most simply attired personage in the Union. His beautiful wife, however, beaming and gracious, but no less rigid than "Lady Washington," in her social statutes, looked like a bird of paradise beside a graven image, so gorgeous was her raiment. Baron Steuben was in the regalia of war and a breastplate of orders. Kitty Livingston, now Mrs. Matthew Ridley, had also received a fine new gown of Mrs. Church's selection, for the two women still were friends, despite the rupture of their families. Lady Kitty Duer, so soon to know poverty and humiliation, was in a gown of celestial blue over a white satin petticoat, her lofty head surmounted by an immense gauze turban. General and Mrs. Knox, fat, amiable, and always popular, although sadly inflated by their new social importance, were mountains of finery. Mrs. Ralph Izard, Mrs. Jay's rival in beauty, and Mrs. Adams's in wit, painted by Gainsborough and Copley, wore a white gown of enviable simplicity, and a string of large pearls in her hair, another about her graceful throat. Mrs. Schuyler, stout and careworn, from the trials of excitable and eloping daughters, clung to the kind arm of her austere and silent husband. Fisher Ames, with his narrow consumptive figure and his flashing ardent eyes, his eloquent tongue chilled by this funereal assemblage, had retreated to an alcove with Rufus King, where they whispered politics. Burr, the target of many fine eyes, was always loyal to his wife in public; she was a charming and highly respected woman, ten years his senior. Burr fascinated women, and adorned his belt with their scalps; but had it not been for this vanity, which led him to scatter hints of infinite devilment and conquest, it is not likely that he would have been branded, in that era of gallantry, a devirginator and a rake. All that history is concerned with is his utter lack of patriotism and honesty, and the unscrupulous selfishness, from which, after all, he suffered more than any man. His dishonesties and his treasonable attempts were failures, but he left a bitter legacy in his mastery of the arts of political corruption, and in a glittering personality which, with his misfortunes, has begodded him with the shallow and ignorant, who know the traditions of history and none of its facts. He was a poor creature, with all his gifts, for his life was a failure, his old age one of the loneliest and bitterest in history; and from no cause that facts or tradition give us but the blind selfishness which blunted a good understanding to stupidity. Selfishness in public life is a crime against one's highest ambitions.
Mrs. Hamilton kept a firm hold on her husband's arm, and her glance shot apprehensively from Washington to the Vice-President. The latter could not dance at present; the former looked as if petrified, rooted in the floor. Betsey had a clever little head, and she devised a scheme at once. She was the third lady in the land, and although many years younger than Mrs. Adams, had entertained from her cradle. No one else immediately following the entrance of her husband and herself, she did not move on after her courtesy, but drew Mrs. Adams into conversation, and the good lady by this time was glad of a friendly word.
"You will be detained here for an hour yet," said Betsey, sweetly. "Can I help you? Shall I start the minuet? Dear Mr. Adams will be too tired to dance to-night. Shall I choose a partner and begin?"
"For the love of heaven, do," whispered Mrs. Adams. "Take out Colonel Burr. He matches you in height, and dances like a courtier."
Other people entered at the moment, and Betsey whispered hurriedly to Hamilton: "Go--quickly--and fetch Colonel Burr. I breathe freely for the first time since the clock struck six, but who knows what may happen?"
Hamilton obediently started in quest of Burr. But alas, Ames and King darted at him from their hiding-place behind a curtain, and he disappeared from his wife's despairing vision. Ten minutes later he became aware of the familiar strains of the minuet, and guiltily glanced forth. Betsey, her face composed to stony resignation lest she disgrace herself with tears, was solemnly treading the measure with the solemnest man on earth, clutching at his hand, which was on a level with her turban. A turn of her head and she encountered her husband's contrite eye. Before hers he retreated to the alcove, nor did he show himself in the ball-room again until it was time to take his wife to their coach.
He escaped from the room by a window, and after half the evening in the library with a group of anxious Federalists,--for it was but a night or two after his dinner with Jefferson,--he retired to a small room at the right of the main hall for a short conference with the Chief Justice. He was alone after a few moments, and was standing before the half-drawn tapestry, watching the guests promenading in the hall, when Kitty Livingston passed on the arm of Burr. Their eyes met, and she cut him. His spirits dropped at once, and he was indulging in reminiscences tinged with melancholy, for he had loved her as one of the faithful chums of his youth, niching her with Troup, Fish, and other enthusiastic friends of that time, when to his surprise she entered abruptly, and drew the tapestry behind her.
"You wicked varlet!" she exclaimed. "What did you sow all this dissension for, and deprive me of my best friends?" Then she kissed him impulsively. "I shall always love you, though. You were the dearest little chap that ever was--and that is why I am going to tell you something to-night, although I may never speak to you again, Aaron Burr is burrowing between my family and the Clinton faction. He hopes to make a strong combination, defeat General Schuyler at the next election, and have himself elected senator in his place. Why, why did you alienate us? We are nine in public life--did you forget that?--and what was Rufus King to you or to the country compared with our combined strength? Why should John be preferred to Robert? You are as high-handed and arrogant as Lucifer himself; and generally you win, but not always. Burr has seen his first chance for political preferment, and seized it with a cunning which I almost admire. He has persuaded both the Livingstons and the Clintons that here is their chance to pull you down, and he is only too willing to be the instrument--the wretched little mole! I shall hate myself to-morrow for telling you this, for God knows I am loyal to my people, but I have watched you go up--up--up. I should feel like your mother would if I saw you in the dust. I am afraid it is too late to do anything now. These two hostile parties will not let slip this chance. But get Burr under your foot when you can, and keep him there. He is morbid with jealousy and will live to pull you down."
"My dear girl," exclaimed Hamilton, who was holding her hand between both his own, "do not let your imagination run away with you. I am very well with Burr, and he is jealous by fits and starts only. Why in the name of heaven should he be jealous? He has never given a thought to the welfare of the country, and I have devoted myself to the subject since boyhood. If I reap the reward--and God knows the future is precarious enough--why should he grudge me a power for which he has never striven? I know him to be ambitious, and I believe him to be unscrupulous, and for that reason I have been glad that he has hitherto kept out of politics; for he would be of no service to the country, would not hesitate to sacrifice it to his own ends--unless I am a poor student of character. But as to personal enmity against me, or jealousy because I occupy a position he has never sought,--and he is a year older than I, remember,--I find that hard to believe, as well as this other; he is not powerful enough to unite two such factions."
"He has a tongue as persuasive from its cunning as yours is in its impetuosity, and he has convinced greater men than himself of his usefulness. Believe me, Alexander, I speak of what I know, not of what I suspect. Accept the fact, if you will not be warned. You always underrate your enemies. Your confidence in your own genius--a confidence which so much has occurred to warrant--blinds you to the power of others. Remember the old adage: Pride goeth before a fall--although I despise the humble myself; the world owes nothing to them. But I have often trembled for the time when your high-handed methods and your scorn of inferior beings would knock the very foundations from under your feet. Now, I will say no more, and we part for ever. Perhaps if you had not worn that colour to-night, I should not have betrayed my family--heaven knows! We women are compounded of so many contradictory motives. Thank your heaven that you men are not half so complex."
"My dear friend," said Hamilton, drily, "you women are not half so complex as men. You may lay claim to a fair share because your intelligence is above the average, but that is the point--complexity is a matter of intelligence, and as men are, as a rule, far more intelligent than women, with far more densely furnished brains--"
But here she boxed his ears and left the room. She returned in a moment. "You have not thanked me!" she exclaimed. "I deserve to be thanked."
Hamilton put his arm about her and kissed her affectionately.
"From the bottom of my heart," he said. "I deeply appreciate the impulse--and the sacrifice."
"But you won't heed," she said, with a sigh. "Good-by, Alexander! I think Betsey is looking for you."