The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book IV. "Alexander the Great"
That was the last of Hamilton's battles in the Cabinet. Jefferson resigned; although, in order that the Administration might, until the crisis was past, preserve an unbroken front to the country, he reluctantly consented to withhold his resignation until the assembling of Congress. He retired to Monticello, however; and apologized to the Secretary of the Treasury.
Hamilton, almost immediately, was taken down with yellow fever, which broke out suddenly and raged with a fearful violence. To the ordinary odours of carcasses and garbage, were added those of vinegar, tar, nitre, garlic, and gunpowder. Every disinfectant America had ever heard of was given a trial, and every man who possessed a shot-gun fired it all day and all night. The bells tolled incessantly. The din and the smells were hideous, the death carts rattled from dawn till dawn; many were left unburied in their houses for a week; hundreds died daily; and the city confessed itself helpless, although it cleaned the streets. Hamilton had a very light attack, but Dr. Stevens dropped in frequently to see him; he privately thought him of more importance than all Philadelphia.
Lying there and thinking of many things, too grateful for the rest to chafe at the imprisonment, and striving for peace with himself, Hamilton one day conceived the idea of immersing yellow-fever patients in ice-water. Microbes were undiscovered, but Hamilton, perhaps with a flashing glimpse of the truth, reasoned that if cold weather invariably routed the disease, a freezing of the infected blood should produce the same result. He succeeded in convincing Stevens, with the issue that when the scourge was over, the young West Indian doctor had so many cures to his credit, where all other physicians had failed, that the City Council presented him with a silver tankard, gratefully inscribed, and filled with golden coins. Hamilton's fecund brain, scattering its creations, made more than one reputation.
Meanwhile, he awoke one day to find Mrs. Croix sitting beside his bed. She had left town in June, and usually did not return until late in September. She wore a white frock and a blue sash, and looked like an angel about to do penance.
"I have come back to take care of the sick, including yourself," she announced, "I was born to be a nurse, and I felt that my place was here. I have come to see you first, and I shall call daily, but otherwise I am in Dr. Stevens's hands."
Hamilton stared at her. He was not surprised, for she was kind hearted in her erratic imperious fashion, and much beloved by the poor; nor was she afraid of anything under heaven. But she was the last person he had wished to see; she was for his triumphant hours, or his furious, not for helpless invalidism. He had longed consistently for his wife, and written to her by every packet-boat, lest she suspect his illness and return to the plague-stricken city. He was filled with a sudden resentment that any other woman should presume to fill her chair. To forget her under overwhelming provocation he had reconciled to his conscience with little difficulty, for his extenuations were many, and puritanism had not yet invaded the national character; but to permit another woman to ministrate to him when ill, he felt to be an unpardonable breach of his Eliza's rights, and his loyalty rebelled. So, although he treated Mrs. Croix with politeness while she remained, he gave orders to Dr. Stevens to keep her away upon any pretext he chose. "I am too nervous to be bothered with women," he added; and Stevens obeyed without comment.
Hamilton's convalescence was cheered by two facts: the revival of his spirits and equilibrium, and frequent assurances from his wife that for the first time in five years she was entirely well. She wrote that she had regained all her old colour, "spring," vivacity, and plumpness, and felt quite ten years younger. Hamilton was delighted; for her courage had so far exceeded her strength that he had often feared a collapse. Although she detested the sight of a pen, she was so elated with her recovered health that she wrote to him weekly. Suddenly, and without explanation, the letters stopped. Still, he was quite unprepared for what was to follow, and on the first of October, his health improved by a short sojourn in the country, he went to the wharf to meet the packet-boat which invariably brought his family; his pockets full of sweets, and not a misgiving in his mind.
As he stood on the wharf, watching the boat towed slowly to dock, his four oldest children suddenly appeared, waving their hats and shouting like young Indians. James, who was as broad as he was long, and was wedged firmly between Angelica and Philip lest he turn over, swelled a chorus which excited much amusement among by-standers. To Hamilton's surprise his wife did not occupy her usual place behind that enthusiastic group, but as the boat touched the pier, and all four precipitated themselves upon him at once,--the three oldest about his neck, and James upon his pockets,--he forgot her for the moment in the delight of seeing and embracing his children after three months of separation. He emerged from that wild greeting, dishevelled and breathless, only to disappear once more within six long arms and a circle of sunburned faces. Hamilton received from his children an almost frantic affection; indeed, few people merely liked him; it was either hate or a love which far transcended the bounds of such affection as the average mortal commands. The passion he inspired in his children cost one his life, another her reason, and left its indelible mark on a third; but for what they gave, they received an overflowing measure in return; no man was ever more passionately attached to his brood, nor took a greater delight in its society.
Suddenly, through the web of Angelica's flying locks, he saw that his wife had appeared on deck and was about to land. He disentangled himself hastily and went forward to greet her. In a flash he noted that she was prettier than ever, and that she was affected by something far more extraordinary than an increase of health. She threw back her head, and her black eyes flashed with anger as he approached with the assurance of thirteen years of connubial ownership; but she greeted him politely and took his arm. No explanation was possible there; and he escorted her and the children to the coach as quickly as possible. Philip, Angelica, and Alexander were sensible at once of the chasm yawning between the seats; they redoubled their attentions to their father, and regarded their mother with reproving and defiant eyes. Poor Betsey, conscious that she was entirely in the right, felt bitter and humiliated, and sought to find comfort in the indifference of James, who was engaged with a cornucopia and blind to the infelicity of his parents.
When they reached the house, Hamilton dismissed the children and opened the door of his library.
"Will you come in?" he said peremptorily.
Mrs. Hamilton entered, and sat down on a high-backed chair. She was very small, her little pigeon toes were several inches above the floor; but no judge on his bench ever looked so stern and so inexorable.
"Now," said Hamilton, who was cold from head to foot, for he had an awful misgiving, "let us have an explanation at once. This is our first serious misunderstanding, and you well know that I shall be in misery until it is over--"
"I have not the least intention of keeping you in suspense," interrupted Betsey, sarcastically. "I am too thankful that you did not happen to come to Saratoga when I was prostrated with misery. I have gone through everything,--every stage of wretchedness that the human heart is capable of,--but now, thank Heaven, I am filled with only a just indignation. Read that!"
She produced a letter from her reticule and flipped it at him. Even before he opened it he recognized the familiar handwriting, the profuse capitals, of Mrs. Reynolds. Fortunately, he made no comment, for the contents were utterly different from his quick anticipation. It contained a minute and circumstantial account of his visits during the past year to Mrs. Croix, with many other details, which, by spying and bribing, no doubt, she had managed to gather. Failing one revenge, the woman had resorted to another, and fearing that it might be lost among the abundant and surfeiting lies of the public press, she had aimed at what he held most dear. The letter was so minute and circumstantial that it would have convinced almost any woman.
There was but one thing for Hamilton to do, and he lied with his unsurpassable eloquence. When he paused tentatively, his wife remarked:--
"Alexander, you are a very great man, but you are a wretchedly poor liar. As Mr. Washington would say, your sincerity is one of the most valuable of your gifts, and without it you could not convince a child. As if this were not enough, only yesterday, on the boat, I overheard two of your intimate friends discussing this intrigue as a matter of course. There was not a word of censure or criticism; they were merely wondering when you would add to your enemies; for as this woman was desperately in love with you, she was bound to hate you as violently when you tired of her. I think men are horrors!" she burst out passionately. "When, unable to bear this terrible affliction any longer, and unwilling to worry my poor mother, I took that letter and my grief to my father--what do you suppose he said? After he had tried to convince me that the story was a base fabrication, and that an anonymous communication should be destroyed unread--as if any woman living would not read an anonymous letter!--he said, crossly, that women did not understand men and never made allowances for them; and he went on to make as many excuses for you as if he were defending himself; and then wound up by saying that he did not believe a word of it, and that the letter was written by someone you had flouted. But it seemed to me in those awful days that I was awake for the first time, that for the first time I understood you--and your horrid sex, in general--I do! I do!"
She looked so adorable with her flashing eyes, the hot colour in her cheek, and the new personality she exhibited, that Hamilton would have foregone a triumph over his enemies to kiss her. But he dared not make a false move, and he was terribly perplexed.
"I can only reiterate," he said, "that this letter is a lie from beginning to end. It is written by a woman, who, with her husband, has blackmailed me and jeopardized my reputation. I treated them as they deserved, and this is their next move. As for Mrs. Croix, I repeat, she is a most estimable person, whose brilliant wit and talent for politics draw all public men about her. There is hardly one among them who might not be victimized by a similar attack. I doubt if I have called half as often as many others. As for the friends whom you heard discussing my visits--you know the love of the human mind for scandal. Please be reasonable. You have made me the most wretched man on earth, I shall be unfit for public duty or anything else if you continue to treat me in this brutal manner. I hardly know you. No woman was ever more loved by her husband or received more devotion."
Betsey almost relented, he looked so miserable. But she replied firmly: "There is one condition I have a right to make. If you agree to it, I will consider if I can bring myself to believe your denial and your protestations. It is that you never enter Mrs. Croix's house again, nor see her willingly."
Hamilton knew what the promise would mean, but his mind worked with the rapidity of lightning in great crises, and never erred. He replied promptly:
"I will see her once, and once only--to give her a decent reason for not calling again--that I understand I am compromising her good name, or something of the sort. I have accepted too much hospitality at her hands to drop her brusquely, without a word of explanation."
"You can write her a letter. You can merely send polite excuses when she invites you. You are very busy. You have every excuse. Gradually, she will think no more about you--if it be true that she is nothing to you. You have your choice, sir! Either your promise, or I return by the next packet to Albany."
But Hamilton, always considerate of women, and despising the weakness and brutality which permits a man to slink out of an amour, would not retreat, and Betsey finally settled herself in her chair, and said, with unmistakable determination:--
"Very well, go now. I shall not move from this room--this chair--until you return."
Hamilton caught his hat and left the house. Although he was possessed by the one absorbing desire to win back his wife, who had never been so dear as to-day, when for the first time she had placed him at arm's length and given him a thorough fright, still his brain, accustomed to see all sides of every question at once, and far into the future, spoke plainly of the hour when he would regret the loss of Mrs. Croix. He might forget her for weeks at a time, but he always reawakened to a sense of her being with a glowing impression that the world was more alive and fair. The secret romance had been very dear and pleasant. The end was come, however, and he was eager to pass it.
His eye was attracted to a chemist's window, and entering the shop hastily, he purchased a bottle of smelling salts. The act reminded him of Mrs. Mitchell, and that he had not heard from her for several months. He resolved to write that night, and permitted his mind to wander to the green Island which was almost lost among his memories. The respite was brief, however.
To his relief he found Mrs. Croix in her intellectual habit. The lady, who was reading in the door of her boudoir above the garden steps, exclaimed, without formal greeting:--
"I am transported, sir. Such descriptions never were written before. Listen!"
Hamilton, who hated descriptions of scenery at any time, and was in his most direct and imperative temper, stood the infliction but a moment, then asked her attention. She closed the book over her finger and smiled charmingly.
"Forgive me for boring you," she said graciously. "But you know my passion for letters; and if truth must be told, I am a little piqued. I have not laid eyes on you for a fortnight. Not but that I am used to your lapses of memory by this time," she added, with a sigh.
Hamilton went straight to the point. He told her the exact reason for the necessary breach, omitting nothing but the episode of Mrs. Reynolds; one cause of reproach was as much as a man could be expected to furnish an angry woman.
For Mrs. Croix was very angry. At first she had pressed her hand against her heart as if about to faint, and Hamilton had hastily extracted the salts; but the next moment she was on her feet, towering and expanding like an avenging queen about to order in her slaves with scimitars and chargers.
"Do you mean," she cried, "that I am flouted, flung aside like an old cravat? I? With half the men in America in love with me? Good God, sir! I have known from the beginning that you would tire, but I thought to be on the watch and save my pride. How dare you come like this? Why could you not give me warning? It is an outrage. I would rather you had killed me."
"I am sorry I have blundered," said Hamilton, humbly. "But how in Heaven's name can a man know how a woman will take anything? I had such respect for your great intelligence that I thought it due you to treat you as I would a man--"
"A man?" exclaimed Mrs. Croix. "Treat me like a man! Of all the supremely silly things I ever heard one of your sex say, that is the silliest. I am not a man, and you know it."
Hamilton hastened to assure her that she was deliberately averting her intelligence from his true meaning. "You have never doubted my sincerity for a moment," he added. "You surely know what it will cost me never to see you again. There is but one cause under heaven that could have brought me to you with this decision. You may believe in my regret--to use a plain word--when you reflect upon all that you have been to me."
He was desperately afraid that her anger would dissolve in tears, and he be placed in a position from which he was not sure of emerging with a clear conscience,--and he dared take home nothing less. But Mrs. Croix, however she might feel on the morrow, was too outraged in her pride and vanity to be susceptible either to grief or the passion of love. She stormed up and down the room in increasing fury, her eyes flashing blue lightning, her strong hands smashing whatever costly offering they encountered. "Wives! Wives! Wives!" she screamed. "The little fools! What are wives for but to keep house and bring up babies? They are a class apart. I have suffered enough from their impertinent interference. Am I not a woman apart? Will you assert that there is a 'wife' in America who can hold her own with me for a moment in anything? Was I not created to reveal to men--and only the ablest, for I waste no time on fools--the very sublimation of my sex--a companionship they will find in no silly little fool, stupid with domesticity? Am I to submit, then, to be baulked by a sex I despise--and in the greatest passion that ever possessed a woman?" She stopped and laughed, bringing her lashes together and moving forward her beautiful lips. "What a fool I am!" she said. "You will come back when the humour seizes you. I had forgot that your family returned to-day. You are in your most domestic mood--and I have been inflicted with that before. But there will come an hour when neither your wife nor any other mortal power will keep you away from me. Is it not true?"
Hamilton had turned pale; his ready imagination had responded with a presentiment of many desperate struggles. He rose, and took her hand forcibly.
"No," he said. "I shall not return. Believe me, that is the hardest sentence I have ever pronounced upon myself. And forgive me if I have been rude and inconsiderate. It was the result of the desire to have the agony over as quickly as possible. I should have found the anticipation unbearable, and I do not believe it would have been more soothing to you. There is no reason why your pride should be wounded, for this is not the result of satiety on my part, but of an imperative necessity. Shake hands with me."
She wrenched her hand free and, seizing a vase, flung it into a mirror. Hamilton retreated.