The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book I. Rachael Levine
Mary Fawcett accompanied the Levines to Copenhagen, but returned to St. Christopher by a ship which left Denmark a month later, being one of those women who picture their terrestrial affairs in a state of dissolution while deprived of their vigilance. She vowed that the North had killed her rheumatism, and turned an absent ear to Rachael's appeal to tarry until Levine was ready to return to St. Croix. She remained long enough in Denmark, however, to see her daughter presented at court, and installed with all the magnificence that an ambitious mother could desire. There was not a misgiving in her mind, for Rachael, if somewhat inanimate, could not be unhappy with an uxorious husband and the world at her feet; and although for some time after her marriage she had behaved like a naughty child caught in a trap, and been a sore trial to her mother and Mr. Levine, since her arrival in Copenhagen she had deported herself most becomingly and indulged in no more tantrums. Levine had conducted himself admirably during his trying honeymoon. Upon his arrival in Copenhagen he had littered his wife's boudoir with valuable gifts, and exhibited the beauty he had won with a pride very gratifying to his mother-in-law. In six months he was to sail for his estates on St. Croix, and pay an immediate visit to St. Kitts, whence Mistress Fawcett would return with her daughter for a sojourn of several months. She returned to her silent home the envy of many Island mothers.
Rachael wrote by every ship, and Mary Fawcett pondered over these letters, at first with perplexity, finally with a deep uneasiness. Her daughter described life in Denmark, the court and society, her new gowns and jewels, her visits to country houses, the celebrities she met. But her letters were literary and impersonal, nor was there in them a trace of her old energy of mind and vivacity of spirit. She never mentioned Levine's name, nor made an intimate allusion to herself.
"Can she no longer love me?" thought Mary Fawcett at last and in terror; "this child that I have loved more than the husband of my youth and all the other children I have borne? It cannot be that she is unhappy. She would tell me so in a wild outburst--indeed she would have run home to me long since. Levine will never control her. Heaven knows what would have happened if I had not gone on that wedding-journey. But she settled down so sweetly, and I made sure she would have loved him by this. It is the only thing to do if you have to live with one of the pests. Perhaps that is it--she has given him all her love and has none left for me." And at this she felt so lonely and bitter that she almost accepted Archibald Hamn when he called an hour later. But in the excitement of his risen hopes his wig fell on the floor, and she took offence at his yellow and sparsely settled scalp.
There were few gleams of humour left in life for Mary Fawcett. Rachael's letters ceased abruptly. Her mother dared not sail for Denmark, lest she pass the Levines on their way to St. Croix. She managed to exist through two distracted months, then received a note from her daughter, Mrs. Mitchell.
"Rachael is Here," it ran, "but refuses to see Us. I do not know what to think. I drove over as soon as I heard of Their arrival. Levine received Me and was as Courteous and Polished as ever, but Rachael had a Headache and did not come out. Mary and I have been there Twice since, and with the same result. Levine assured us that he had begged her to see her Sisters, but that She is in a very low and melancholy state, owing doubtless to her Condition. He seemed much concerned, but More, I could not help thinking, because he feared to lose an Heir than from any love for my little Sister. Peter and Mary agree with Me, that You had best come here if You can."
Mary Fawcett, whatever her foibles, had never failed to spring upright under the stiffest blows of her life. Ignoring her physical pains, which had been aggravated by the mental terrors of the last two months, and sternly commanding the agony in her heart to be silent, she despatched a note at once to Dr. Hamilton,--Archibald Hamn was in Barbados,--asking him to charter a schooner, if no ship were leaving that day for the Danish Islands, and accompany her to St. Croix. He sent her word that they could sail on the following morning if the wind were favourable, and the black women packed her boxes and carried them on their heads to Basseterre.
That evening, as Mary Fawcett was slowly walking down the avenue, leaning heavily on her cane, too wretched to rest or sleep, a ship flying the German colours sailed past. She wondered if it had stopped at St. Croix, then forgot it in the terrible speculations which her will strove to hold apart from her nerves.
Wearied in body, she returned to the house and sat by the window of her room, striving to compose her mind for sleep. She was forcing herself to jot down instructions for her housekeeper, whom she had taught to read, when she heard a chaise and a pair of galloping horses enter the avenue. A moment later, Dr. Hamilton's voice was roaring for a slave to come and hold his horses. Then it lowered abruptly and did not cease.
Mary Fawcett knew that Rachael had come to her, and without her husband. For a moment she had a confused idea that the earth was rocking, and congratulated herself that the house was too high for a tidal wave to reach. Then Dr. Hamilton entered with Rachael in his arms and laid her on the bed. He left at once, saying that he would return in the morning. Mary Fawcett had not risen, and her chair faced the bed. Rachael lay staring at her mother until Mary found her voice and begged her to speak. She knew that her hunger must wait until she had stood at the bar and received her sentence.
Rachael told her mother the story of her married life from the day she had been left alone with John Levine,--a story of unimaginable horrors. Like many cold men to whom the pleasures of the world are, nevertheless, easy, Levine was a voluptuary and cruel. Had his child been safely born, there would have been no measure in his brutality. Rachael had watched for her opportunity, and one night when he had been at a state function in Christianstadt, too secure in her apparent apathy to lock her door, she had bribed a servant to drive her to Frederikstadt, and boarded the ship her maid had ascertained was about to leave. She knew that he would not follow her, for there was one person on earth he feared, and that was Mary Fawcett. He would not have returned to St. Croix, had his investments been less heavy; but on his estates he was lord, and had no mind that his mother-in-law should set foot on them while he had slaves to hold his gates.
Mary Fawcett listened to the horrid story, at first with a sort of frantic wonder, for of the evil of life she had known nothing; then her clear mind grasped it, her stoicism gave way, and she shrieked and raved in such agony of soul that she had no fear of hell thereafter. Rachael had to rise from the bed and minister to her, and the terrified blacks ran screaming about the place, believing that their mistress had been cursed.
She grew calm in time, but her face was puckered like an old apple, and her eyes had lost their brilliancy for ever. And it was days before she realized that her limbs still ached.
Rachael never opened her lips on the subject again. She went back to bed and clung to her mother and Dr. Hamilton until her child was born. Then for three months she recognized no one, and Dr. Hamilton, with all his skill, did not venture to say whether or not her mind would live again.
The child was a boy, and as blond as its father. Mary Fawcett stood its presence in the house for a month, then packed it off to St. Croix. She received a curt acknowledgment from Levine, and an intimation that she had saved herself much trouble. As for Rachael, he would have her back when he saw fit. She wrote an appeal to the Captain-General and he sent her word that the Danes would never bombard Brimstone Hill, and there was no other way by which Levine could get her daughter while one of her friends ruled the Leeward Caribbees.
Many thoughts flitted through the brain of Mary Fawcett during that long vigil. Her mind for the first time dwelt with kindness, almost with softness, on the memory of her husband. Beside this awful Dane his shadow was god-like. He had been high-minded and a gentleman in his worst tantrums, and there was no taint of viciousness in him. A doubt grew in her brain, grew to such disquieting proportions that she sometimes deserted Rachael abruptly and went out to fatigue herself in the avenue. Had she done wrong to leave him alone in his old age, to bear, undiverted, the burden of a disease whose torments she now could fully appreciate, to die alone in that great house with only his slaves to tend him? It had seemed to her when she left him that human nature could stand no more, and that she was justified; but she was an old woman now and knew that all things can be endured. When that picture of his desolate last years and lonely death had remorselessly shaped itself in her imagination, and she realized that it would hang there until her hands were folded, she suffered one more hour of agony and abasement, then caught at the stoicism of her nature, accepted her new dole, and returned to her daughter.