The Conqueror by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Book V. The Last Battle of the Giants and the End
Burr was defeated by a majority of seven thousand votes; and New England, which had hoped, with the help of a man who was at war with all the powerful families of New York,--Schuylers, Livingstons, and Clintons at the head of them,--to break down the oligarchy of which it had been jealous for nearly a century, deserted the politician promptly. Incidentally, Hamilton had quenched its best hope of secession, for the elected Governor of New York, Judge Lewis, was a member of the Livingston family. Burr was in a desperate plight. Debtor's prison and disgrace yawned before him; his only followers left were a handful of disappointed politicians, and these deserted him daily. But although his hatred of Hamilton, by now, was a foaming beast within him, he was wary and coolheaded, and history knows no better than he did that if he killed the man who was still the most brilliant figure in America, as well as the idol of the best men in it, cunning, and skill, and mastery of every political art would avail him nothing in the future; every avenue but that frequented by the avowed adventurer would be closed to him. Moreover, he must have known that Hamilton's life was almost over, that in a very few years he could intrigue undisturbed. Nor could he have felt a keen interest in presenting to Jefferson so welcome a gift as his own political corpse. But desperate for money, crushed to the earth, his hatred for Hamilton cursing and raging afresh, the only conspicuous enemy who might be bought with gold of the man who was still a bristling rampart in the path of successful Jacobinism, he was in a situation to fall an easy victim to greater plotters than himself. His act, did he challenge Hamilton, would be ascribed to revenge, and the towering figures in the background of the tragedy would pass unnoticed by the horrified spectators in front.
On June 18th William Van Ness, Burr's intimate friend, waited upon Hamilton with a studiously impertinent note, demanding an acknowledgment or denial of the essence of certain newspaper paragraphs, which stated that the leader of the Federalists had, upon various occasions, expressed his low opinion of the New York politician, and in no measured terms. Hamilton replied, pointing out the impossibility of either acknowledging or denying an accusation so vague, and analyzed at length the weakness of Burr's position in endeavouring to pick a quarrel out of such raw material. He said, in conclusion:--
Hamilton foresaw the inevitable end, and commenced putting his affairs in order at once; but, for both personal and abstract reasons, holding the practice of duelling in abhorrence, he was determined to give Burr any chance to retreat, consistent with his own self-respect. Burr replied in a manner both venomous and insulting, and Hamilton called upon Colonel Pendleton, General Greene's aide during the Revolution, and asked him to act as his second. On the 23d he received a note from Van Ness, inquiring when and where it would be most convenient for him to receive a communication, and the correspondence thereafter was conducted by the seconds.
It was Sunday, and Hamilton was at The Grange, when the note from Van Ness arrived. He was swinging in a hammock, and he put the missive in his pocket, shrugged his shoulders, and lifted himself on his elbow. His entire family, with the exception of his wife and Angelica, were shouting in the woods. The baby, a sturdy youngster of two, named for the brother who had died shortly before his birth, emerged in a state of fury. He had eighty-two years of vitality in him, and he roared like a young bull. Hamilton's children inherited the tough fibre and the longevity of the Schuylers. Of the seven who survived him all lived to old age, and several were close to being centenarians.
Angelica was busy in her aviary, close by. She was now twenty, and one of the most beautiful girls in the country, but successive deaths had kept her in seclusion; and the world in which her parents were such familiar figures was to remember nothing of her but her tragedy. Betsey, still as slim as her daughter, ran from the house at the familiar roar, and Gouverneur Morris came dashing through the woods with a half-dozen guests, self-invited for dinner. It was an animated day, and Hamilton was the life of the company. He had no time for thought until night. His wife retired early, with a headache; the boys had subsided even earlier. At ten o'clock Angelica went to the piano, and Hamilton threw himself into a long chair on the terrace and clasped his hands behind his head.
"So," he thought, "the end has come. My work is over, I suppose. Personally, I am of no account. All I would have demanded, by way of reward for services faithfully executed, was the health to make a decent living and ten or fifteen years of peaceful and uninterrupted intimacy with my family. For fame, or public honours, or brilliant successes of any sort, I have ceased to care. Nothing would tempt me to touch the reins of public life again unless in the event of a revolution. I believe I have crushed that possibility with this election; otherwise, I doubt if my knell would have sounded. On the bare possibility that such is not the case, and that my usefulness may not be neutralized by public doubt of my courage, I must accept this challenge, whether or not I have sufficient moral courage to refuse it. I believe I have; but that is neither here nor there, and I shall fall. Should I survive, the sole reason would be danger ahead. For the last two years I have felt myself moving steadily deathward. By this abrupt exit I but anticipate the inevitable a year or two, and doubtless it seems to the destiny that controls my affairs as the swiftest way to dispose of Burr, and awaken the country to the other dangers that menace it. To the last I am but a tool. No man was ever so little his own master, so thrust upon a planet for the accomplishment of public and impersonal ends alone. I have been permitted a certain amount of domestic felicity as my strength was best conserved thereby, my mind free to concentrate upon public duties. I was endowed with the gift of fascination, that men should follow me without question, and this country be served with immediate effectiveness, I have received deep and profound satisfaction from both these concessions, but it would not matter in the least if I had not. They were inevitable with the equipment for the part I had to play. I have had an astonishing and conquering career against the mightiest obstacles, and I may as a further concession, be permitted an enduring place in history; but that, also, is by the way. I conquered, not to gratify my love of power and to win immortal fame, but that I might accomplish the part for which I was whirled here from an almost inaccessible island fifteen hundred miles away--to play my part in the creation of this American empire. It has been a great part, creatively the greatest part. The proof that no native-born American could have played it lies in the fact that he did not. The greatest of her men have abetted me; not one has sought to push me aside and do my work. My only enemies have been those who would pull my structure down; the most ambitious and individual men in the Union, of the higher sort, are my willing followers. To win them I never plotted, nor did I ever seek to dazzle and blind them. Part of my equipment was the power to convince them without effort of my superior usefulness; there was no time to lose. I am nothing but a genius, encased in such human form as would best serve its purpose; an atom of the vast creative Being beyond the Universe, loaned for an infinitesimal part of time to the excrescence calling itself The United States of North America, on the dot called Earth. Now the part is played, and I am to be withdrawn. That my human heart is torn with insupportable anguish, matters not at all. I leave that behind."
Hamilton had been bred in the orthodox religion of his time, and its picturesqueness, including its ultimates of heaven and hell, had taken firm hold of his ardent imagination. But in his cosmic moments the formulations of this planet played no part.
"I have not even a mother-country," he thought. "I am a parent, not a child. My patriotism has been that of a tigress for her young, not of a man for his fatherland. God knows I am willing, and always have been, to die for this country, which is so much my own, but why--why--need I have been made so human? Could I not have understood men as well? Could I not have performed my various part without loving my wife and children, my friends, with the deepest tenderness and passion of which the human heart is capable? Then I would go without a pang, for I am tired, and death would be a relief. But, since all humanity was forced into me, why should not I, now that I have faithfully done my part, be permitted a few years of happiness by my hearthstone?"
He raised his hands as if to shut out the cold high stars. He had had few bitter moments since the night, four years before, when he had deliberately exorcised bitterness and hate; and that mellowness had come to him which came to his great rivals in their old age. But to-night he let the deeps rise. He ached with human wants, and he was bidden to work out his last act of service to the country for whose sole use he had been sent to Earth.
He dropped his hands and stared at the worlds above. "Must I go on?" he thought. "Is that it? Does other work await me elsewhere? Has the Almighty detached from himself a few creative egos, who go from world to world and do their part; removed the day their usefulness is over, that they shall not dissipate their energy, nor live until men regard with slighting wonder the work of the useless old creature in their midst, withdraw from it their first reverence? I go in the fulness of my maturity and the high tide of respect and affection; I go in the dramatic manner of my advent, and my work will be a sacred thing;--even my enemies will not dare to pull it down until such time as they are calm enough to see it as it is; and then the desire will have passed. Doubtless all things are best and right.... Maturity? I feel as old as time and as young as laughter."
He sat up suddenly and bent his head. Millions of tiny bells were ringing through the forest. So low, so golden, so remote they sounded, that they might have hung in the stars above or in the deeps of the earth. He listened so intently for a moment that life seemed suspended, and he saw neither the cool dark forest nor the silver ripple of the Hudson, but a torn and desolate land, and a gravestone at his feet. Then he passed his hand over his forehead with a long breath, and went softly into the drawing-room.
Angelica sat at the piano, with her head thrown back, her long fair hair hanging to the floor. Her dark eyes were blank, but her fingers shook from the keys the music of a Tropic night. It was a music that Hamilton had not sent a thought after since the day he landed in America, thirty-one years ago. It had come to her, with other memories, by direct inheritance.
He went to the dining room hastily and poured out a glass of wine. When he returned, Angelica, as he expected, was half lying in a chair, white and limp.
"Drink this," he said, in the bright peremptory manner to which his children were accustomed. "I think you are not strong enough yet to indulge in composition. You have grown too fast, and creation needs a great deal of physical vigour. Now run to bed, and forget that you can play a note."
Angelica sipped the wine obediently, and bade him good night. As she toiled up the stairs she prayed for the physical strength that would permit her to become the great musician of her ambitious dreams. Her prayer was answered; the great strength came to her, and her music was the wonder of those who listened; but they were very few.
Hamilton went into his library, prepared to write until morning. Bitterness and cosmic curiosity had vanished; he was the practical man, with a mass of affairs to arrange during the few days that were left to him. But he did no work that night. The door-knocker pounded loudly. The servants had gone to bed. He took a lamp, and unchained and unlocked the front door, wondering what the summons meant, for visitors in that lonely spot were rare after nightfall. A woman stood in the heavy shade of the porch, and behind her was a carriage. She wore a long thin pelisse; and the hood was drawn over her face. Nevertheless, she hesitated but a moment. She lifted her head with a motion of haughty defiance that Hamilton well remembered, and stepped forward.
"It is I, Hamilton," she said. "I have come to have a few words with you alone, and I shall not leave until--"
"Come in, by all means," said Hamilton, politely. "You were imprudent to choose such a dark night, for the roads are dangerous. When you return I will send a servant ahead of you with a lantern."
He led the way to the library and closed the door behind them. Madame Jumel threw off her cloak, and stood before him in the magnificence of cloth of gold and many diamonds. Her neck blazed, and the glittering tower of her hair was a jewel garden. She was one of the women for whom splendour of attire was conceived, and had always looked her best when in full regalia. To-night she was the most superb creature that man had ever seen or dreamed of. Even her great eyes looked like jewels, deep and burning as that blue jewel of the West Indies, the Caribbean Sea; but her lips and cheeks were like soft pink roses. Hamilton had seen her many times since the day of parting, for she went constantly to the theatre, and had been invited to the larger receptions until her reckless Jacobinism had put the final touch to the disapproval of Federal dames; but he had never seen her in such beauty as she was to-night. Eleven years had perfected this beauty, taken from it nothing. He sighed, and the past rose for a moment; but it seemed a century behind him.
"Will you not sit down?" he asked. "Can I fetch you a glass of wine? I remember you never liked it, but perhaps, after so long a drive--"
"I do not wish any wine," said Madame Jumel, shortly. She was nonplussed by this matter-of-fact acceptance of a situation which she had intended should be intensely dramatic. She was not yet gone, however.
"No one ever could get the best of you, Hamilton," she exclaimed. "I have come here to-night--how terribly delicate you look," she faltered, with a sudden pallor. "I have not seen you for so long--"
"My health does not give me the least concern," said Hamilton, hurriedly, wondering if he could lay his hand on a bottle of smelling-salts without awaking his wife. "Pray go on. To what am I indebted for the honour of this visit?"
Madame Jumel rose and swept up and down the long room twice. "Can there be anything in that tale of royal blood?" thought Hamilton. "Or in that other tale of equally distinguished parentage?"
She had paused with her back to him, facing one of the bookcases.
"Classics, classics, classics!" she exclaimed, in a voice which grew steadier as she proceeded. "That was the only taste we did not share. Don Quixote in Spanish, Dante and Alfieri in Italian; and all the German brutes. Ah! Voltaire! Rousseau! What superb editions! No one can bind but the French. And the dear old Moniteur--all bound for posterity, which will never look at it."
She returned and stood before him, and she was quite composed.
"I came to tell you," she said, "that when you die, it will be by the hand of my deputy. I tell you because I am determined that your last earthly thought shall be of me."
"Cherchez la femme--toujours! Why are you doing this?" he asked curiously. "You no longer love me, and your hate should have worn out long since."
"Neither my hate nor my love has ceased for a second. I married Jumel for these jewels, for the courts of Europe, for a position in this country which the mighty Schuylers cannot take from me again. But I would fly with you to-morrow, and live with you in a hole under ground. I came to make no such proposal, however; I know that you would sacrifice even your family to your honour, and everything else in life to them. For years I waited, hoping that you would suddenly come back to me, hating you and injuring you in every way my Jacobinism could devise, but ready to wipe your shoes with my hair the moment you appeared. Now the hard work of your life is over. You look forward to years of happiness with your family on this beautiful estate, while I am married to a silly old Frenchman--who, however, has brought me my final means of revenge. I know you well. You would rather be alive now than at any time of your life. Well, you shall go. And I would pray, if that were my habit, that into these last days you may condense all the agonies of parting from those you love that I have ached and raged through in these eleven long years."
"God knows I have bitterly regretted that you should suffer for my passions. And, if it is any satisfaction to you, I go unwillingly, and the parting will be very bitter."
She drew a sharp breath, and flung her head about. "One cannot triumph over you!" she cried. "Why was I such a fool as to come here to-night? My imagination would have served me better."
"Is it French money?" asked Hamilton.
"Yes, but I alone am responsible. We handle immense sums, and its disposal is left to our discretion. This will be distasteful neither to France nor Virginia,--I suppose I may have Louisiana, if I want it!--but I am no man's agent in this matter."
"You are magnificent! It is quite like you to disdain to share your terrible responsibility. I can lighten it a little. I shall not shoot Burr."
"I should rather you did. Still, it does not matter. He will be disposed of, and I shall lead the hue and cry."
"You are young to be so brutal. Will your conscience never torment you?"
"I have too much brain to submit to conscience, and you know it. I shall suffer the torments of the damned, but not from conscience. But I would rather suffer with you out of the world than in it. I have stood that as long as a mere mortal can stand anything. Revenge is not my only motive. Either you or I must go, and as I have now found the means of boundless distraction, I live. I have been on the point of killing myself and you more than once. But my power to injure you gave me an exquisite satisfaction; and then, I always hoped. Now the time for the period has come." Her chin sank to her neck, and she stared at him until her eyes filled. "Do you love them so much more than you ever loved me?" she asked wistfully.
Hamilton turned away his head. "Yes," he said.
She drew a long shivering breath. "Ah!" she said. "You are a frail shadow of yourself. You have no passion in you. And yet, even as you are, I would fling these jewels into the river, and live with you until you died in my arms. You may think me a monster, if you like, but you shall die knowing that your wife does not love you as I do."
Hamilton leaned forward and dried her tears. "Say that you forgive me," she said; for audacity was ever a part of genius.
"Yes," he said grimly, "I forgive you. You and Bonaparte are the two magnificent products of the French Revolution. I am sorry you are not more of a philosopher, but, so far as I alone am concerned, I regret nothing."
"Oh, men!" she exclaimed, with scorn. "They are always philosophers when they are no longer in love with a woman. But you will give me your last conscious moment?"
"No," he said deliberately, "I shall not."
She sprang to her feet. "You will! Thank you for saying that, though! I was about to grovel at your feet. Take me to my coach! What a fool I was to come here!" She seized her pelisse, and wound it about her as she ran down the hall. Hamilton followed, insisting that she give him time to awaken a servant. But she would not heed. She flung herself into her coach, and called to the driver to gallop his horses, unless he wished to lose his place on the morrow. Hamilton stood on the porch, listening to the wild flight down the rough hill through the forest But it was unbroken, so long as he could hear anything, and he laughed suddenly and entered the house.
"The high farce of tragedy," he thought. "Probably a mosquito will settle on Burr's nose as he fires, and my life be spared."