How I Met Alexander Hamilton
In a sepia shadowed bookshop,
Where an imperious charcoal
Cat with yellow eyes glared from
A fly-specked window,
I found you.
Ecstatic, thin, fair head thrown back,
Face shining, 1776 on fire!
No wonder your friends,
Fellow aides-de-camp to the great
George Washington, nicknamed
You “Little Lion.”
We held hands,
Wandered brown-sugar sands,
Watched waves rise and
Toss wild white manes against the reef,
Brother and sister—
We were alike,
Children in peril.
Chapter One West Indies
Sharing a sick feeling, Alex and Jamie Hamilton stood on barefoot tiptoe and peeked through flimsy wooden louvers, all that separated the rooms of their small West Indian house. Both boys were red-heads, but there the resemblance ended. Eleven year old James was well-grown and strong. Alexander, seven in January, was delicate, fast-moving and nervous, like a freckled bird.
“An idiot would have known not to trust him.” The beautiful dark eyes of their mother flashed. Rachel faced her husband, a slight man of aristocratic feature, who wore a white linen suit. Like him, it had seen better days. His wife’s tone was challenging, her arms akimbo. Her stays, containing a generous bosom, rose and fell.
“I—I—took him for a gentleman.” Father sputtered, attempting to fall back upon a long ago mislaid dignity. “He gave me his word.”
“His word!? Which means bloody nothing! How many times did I tell you what was going to happen? How many times?”
“Shut your mouth, woman!”
A sharp crack sounded as he slapped her. Rachel, hair spilling from beneath her cap, staggered backwards. From the kitchen came the fearful keening of Esther, their mother’s oldest slave.
“There’s naught canna be dune noo!” James Hamilton, his long face flushed, roared the words. Scots surfaced whenever he was angry.
“Yes, nothing to be done. As usual.” A livid mark glowed upon Rachel’s face, but she, with absolute disregard for consequences, righted herself and finished what she had to say.
“This time Lytton’s going to let you go. And if you can’t even manage to hold a job with my kinfolk, where will you get another? What are we supposed to live on? Air?”
In spite of the fact that it was winter on the island, the best weather of the entire year, Alexander shuddered. Distilled fear slid along his spine.
How many times in his short life had he watched this scene replayed? Listened to Mama shout Papa’s failures, watched as his father, humiliated and enraged, used his fists to silence her?
A business deal gone bad! Money lost….
Will we move again?
Every change of residence, from Alexander’s birthplace on cloudy Nevis, to St. Kitts, and from there to St. Croix, had carried them to smaller houses and meaner streets. The carriage, the two bay horses and the slaves who tended them, were only a memory.
Mama was shrieking now, about loans and due dates, things which she declared “any fool” could understand. Frozen, knowing what would surely come, Alexander watched as his father, crossing the room in two quick strides, caught his mother by the shoulders.
With the strength of rage, he threw her like a rag doll. She struck the wall so violently the flimsy house shook. Small emerald lizards stalking the mosquitoes drawn by candlelight, vanished into shadow.
Silenced at last, Rachel crumpled to the floor, sobbing. Her once gay calico dress, muted by many, many launderings, lapped her. The under-shift, always scrubbed to a sea-foam white, drifted from beneath.
James Hamilton, breathing hard, blind with rage, tore open the door and strode past his cowering, terrified sons. For the last time, Alexander saw his beloved father’s face, a sweating mask of fear.
* * *
“Come on, boys. Out of there.”
A candle shone in the balmy West Indies night. The voice wasn’t unkind, just drunk and hurried. From outside came the bell-chorus of an untold host of peepers.
Alex and Jamie, in shirts too ragged to wear during the day, had been asleep in the only bed. There was a mattress filled with palm fronds in the next room upon the floor, but this time of year scorpions came in. When Mama hadn’t returned, they’d decided to sleep in the greater safety of her bed.
Jamie groaned, sat up and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. The Captain of the Guards, Mr. Egan, leaned over. He breathed rum and seemed unsteady. Behind him, supporting herself on the door frame, was Mama. She was, Alexander noted with a thrill of disgust, bare-shouldered, her cap removed, her shining dark hair loosened.
“Out, boys,” she echoed. “Esther said she’d beat your mattress and lay it out after supper. What are you doing in here?”
Neither boy replied. She didn’t want an answer. What she wanted was for them to leave. Tomorrow she’d give them a scolding, but not tonight. At the moment there were other, more important things on her mind.
“Here, young fellow.” Egan, muscles rippling beneath his shirt, handed Jamie the candle. Obediently, Jamie took it. Their rooms were, after all, rented space in the front of his house.
“Use this to look if you’re worried something’s in your bed. Your Ma and I won’t be needing it.”
He threw a grin at Rachel, who was restlessly tossing a dark curl over a pale shoulder. Mrs. Lavien or Mrs. Hamilton—whichever name she used now that she was living alone with her sons on St. Croix—was almost thirty, but she still turned heads whenever she passed along Christiansted’s bustling main street. Anticipation caused the captain to deliver a slap on the rear to speed the smaller boy along.
“Don’t you touch me!” Alex spun and glared, his thin face white under coppery curls.
Jamie grabbed a handful of his brother’s shirt. “Oh, come on, Alex!” He dragged his slight brother through the door. “The captain didn’t mean anything.”
Alexander was wide awake now, his eyes blazing blue fire. The distant echo of surf, the sighing palms, the intoxicating fragrance of Lady of the Night that climbed in profusion over the house, held no power to still his pounding heart.
Grinning, Egan stepped back, threw an arm that was infuriatingly proprietary around his mother.
“Yes. Don’t start,” Rachel cautioned. “Just mind your own business and go back to sleep.” Her dark eyes turned toward Egan. One hand moved easily across his chest, taking in the feel of hard flesh beneath. Alexander wanted to kill them both.
“If you and Jamie slept where you were supposed to, this wouldn’t happen.”
“Come on, woman.” Egan terminated the conversation, pulling her playfully through the door into the darkness.
“The little brats.” Their mother was heard to sigh when the door closed. “I swear they do it on purpose.”
In the next room, the boys busied themselves in a thorough inspection of their mattress. Satisfied at last about the absence of scorpions, they extinguished the candle and lay down together. From over the transom came whispered laughter and the sound of the captain’s boots dropping to the floor.
In the soft darkness, beside his now stolidly motionless brother, Alexander crammed fingers tightly into his ears. Tears pooled against his cheek.
“Oh, Papa,” he whispered into the night. “Papa, please come back.”
* * *
“You aren’t bastards, you know, no matter how many say it.” In their room over the store, Rachel sipped at her glass of rum and gazed out the window.
Jamie rolled his eyes at Alex. Here it came, the nightly monologue. And what difference did their innocence make, anyway? Jamie knew there was no escape.
“My mother made me marry this rich Dane. Anyway, she thought he was rich.” Rachel began as she always did. “A wretched worm, that Lavien! I was about your age, Jamie, when she gave me to him. The fool was even worse at business than your father. It only took him a year to lose my dowry.”
Rachel smiled crookedly, drained her glass. The man she’d been expecting hadn’t appeared. It had left her melancholy.
“Lavien got crazy drunk and beat me. I hear he beats the donkey he’s got for a wife these days, too. One night, in fear for my life, I ran away. That cowardly, spotted caitiff went to the magistrate and said I was unfaithful, that the man I’d run to for protection was my lover. He had me locked in prison for adultery.”
Rachel frowned, stared at the ceiling and twirled a dark curl meditatively. By now, Alex knew mother was already very, very drunk. Inwardly, he shrank.
Fat bugs circled the oil lamp, creating a dizzy pattern of light and shadow. The space held their mother’s bed, a wardrobe, a hulking sea chest, a table and three chairs. Sometimes it was a pleasant place to be, for the high windows of the room caught the prevailing breeze. In this part of Christiansted, though, where there were taverns and whorehouses, it was best to be above street level at night.
A roaring sea shanty began in the inn a few doors down. Jamie’s head swiveled toward the sound in a gesture of impatience. He wanted to be away, out on the street with his friends, but Rachel was still busy with recollection.
“Captain Egan got me out of jail and sent me back to Nevis, to my Mama. I carried a child, but as soon as he was born, Mama gave him to a nurse and sent them back to Saint Croix. I never suckled the ugly little brute, not once. Lavien got a divorce, but what justice is there for a woman in this world? Bloody none, I’ll tell you. The law, the Danish Law,” Rachel twisted the words, twisted them so that they became a sneer, “says that because I’d run away from a man who’d threatened to kill me, I was no better than a whore, and that I could never marry again.”
Into the pause that followed, tree frogs shouted. The relief their neutral chorus provided was broken by drunken laughter from the street below. Inwardly, Alexander damned those sailors. They seemed to mock his mother’s painful story, the one she couldn’t stop retelling.
Across the table, his older brother maintained an expression of studied disinterest. He’d heard it a thousand times. Alex knew that Jamie had plans to meet his forbidden friends, that “bad company” he just naturally seemed to prefer.
“Still,” Rachel’s gaze fixed upon the intent face of her youngest, “When I met James Hamilton on Nevis, he said he didn’t care a fig for any stupid Danish law. We were married, too, married by a clergyman.”
She leaned across the table to stroke Alexander’s thin cheek. “So, these Danes may call you bastards, but you aren’t. And,” she added, sitting back and splashing a drop more rum into her glass, “they may call me whore, but I’m not that, either. Not that we wouldn’t live better....”
For a blessed moment, the tree frogs sang unaccompanied. Then his mother concluded as she always did. “If your father had been half the man I thought he was, we’d be rich now and no one would dare talk to us like they do. Hear me, boys! In this rotten world, money is the salve that soothes every sore.”
* * *
“And a couple of pounds of salt pork too, young fella.”
Alex tugged open the cask, then picked up a knife, excised a chunk of the hard gray stuff, and weighed it on the balance scale. As he neatly wrapped this in a piece of newspaper, he said, “You owe us six shillin’s, Mr. Inness. We could use some on account. Today, if you please, sir.”
The red-necked customer scowled, but Alexander held the package tightly to his skinny chest and stared up steadily at the man towering over him. He was only ten, and small for his age, but there was not so much as a flicker of fear in his blue eyes.
The money was due. The money was for Mama.
There was a grumbling pause, then the purse came out and a few coins were counted down. “Well, Alex, ’course, ahem, I cain’t give you all, but will that hold you for a while?”
“Yes, sir—for today, sir. But we can’t keep your account open all the time because we have to pay Mr. Cruger on thirty day terms. That’s how you get everything for less here than over at McIntyre’s.”
Alexander toted the difference and handed over a receipt.
“Thank you, Mr. Inness, sir. I’ll look forward to the rest on Friday.” His manner was differential, but his tone was not.
When the customer left, muttering and shaking his head about being pushed by a child, Alexander went straight to the ledger. No new customer came, so he climbed onto the high stool and began working at the figures.
Jamie had slipped out earlier. He was probably down at the docks by this time, hanging around with the thieving, gambling idlers he called friends. Alexander routinely covered for his absences. He didn’t miss his brother. Jamie was a nuisance. He gabbed too much with the customers, never asked for money and never wrote things down.
* * *
Some months passed. Jamie was apprenticed to a carpenter on the other side of the island “for his own good.” Just after, a fever swept through Christiansted. Rachel caught it first, then Alexander.
In their upstairs room, Mother and son tossed on the same bed, tended feebly by old Esther, the only slave not rented out. The surgeon came, bled Rachel, and gave her medicine. Two days flowed by in a throbbing, aching blur. Both patients were drenched in sweat, always thirsty, skin on fire.
Alex didn’t know how long it was that he and his mother lay in that bed. The passing of a day was signaled by the reappearance of the surgeon to bleed Mama, the hours by Esther. Humming softly, whispering prayers to the many gods she knew, Esther would sit beside the bed and patiently spoon chicken broth or some cold, bitter herb tea into their parched mouths.
Day and night spiraled; the doctor appeared to give Rachel an emetic. For the first time, he bled Alex, too.
Mama had been tossing and moaning, but, after a long spell of vomiting, she’d grown quieter. A kind of rattling came with each breath. Alexander, aching and shivering, drifting in and out, didn’t mark the moment when the sound stopped.
In his fever, unable to move or speak, the pool of urine in which they lay felt strangely good, comforting. Esther’s withered, weeping black face materialized for a time and then disappeared.
Next, the doctor and two Danish officials arrived. They began poking around, picking up ledgers and opening drawers. Alex tried to protest, to order them out, but only a kind of murmuring came. The fever sat like a giant on his chest.
“Ask Mrs. McDonnell to come and lay her out.”
They took things—Mama’s things…!
Alexander struggled to rise, but he couldn’t.
“Esther.” He whispered to the old woman who rocked and wept beside the bed. “What de doin’?”
“Takin’ your Mama’s things for de Court, Masta Alex. Soon de goin’ to take me, too. Oh, what’ll become of poor Esther? Your sweet Mama knowed I could’n work n’ more.”
Alexander tried to push himself upright, but everything disappeared as soon as he lifted his shoulders from the pillow.
Mama is dead.
The pale yellow room and everything in it flowed. The pain in his joints, in his head, was shattering. Alexander now had an idea that he, too, would die.
“Not much left of the boy.” Apparently attracted by his struggles, a fat face peered down. “Hey, you, Hector! Put him over there, away from the body.”
The black obediently gathered Alexander up, then, without ceremony, dumped him onto the palm frond mattress on the floor. Movement was agony. Blackness rushed him again.
“Don’t look like he goin’ to last.” The same fat, unsympathetic face stared down, a face familiar, although Alex couldn’t summon the name.
“Leave the old N’gress stay. She can tell us when he dies.”
“Too bad ’bout him. He a real sharp little fella, a big help to his Mama.”
“Well, that’s as may be,” said fat face, “but I never seen a whore’s get amount to a damn.”
Afterwards, Alexander believed it providential, the flash of rage which coursed through every fiber of his weakened being. Fury pulled him back from the brink.
* * *
Alexander gazed at her, now neatly laid out in her best dress on a board set between chairs. She seemed peaceful now, and she had not been that way often. Rachel had been a restless beauty, her last years spent in an almost continual state of helpless rage.
She is quiet now. Nothing can trouble her. There will be no more failure and betrayal.
Alex shuddered. From now on, he must take care of himself. All that was left in the wind of a hot St. Croix afternoon was Mama’s pitiful, ripening husk.
Her family buried Rachel in the Lytton family graveyard. Although they—aloof from their black sheep—had done nothing to help when she’d been alive; in death, they reclaimed her. Much of the small estate was used up by the fancy funeral old Uncle Lytton insisted upon, although one useful thing came from it. James and Alexander got the first shoes and stockings they’d had in years.
On the day of the burial, Alexander forced himself to walk, dizzily clinging to his brother’s arm. Beneath the pounding sun of an upland plantation, the windy roar of a cane-field ocean in his ears, he and his brother wept.
Beautiful Rachel, who had rocked them, who had taught them, who had loved them and shamed them—Rachel was gone.
* * *
His mother’s first husband, Mr. Lavien, returned to Christiansted, as the devil she’d always claimed him to be. With the Court’s blessing, he took all that she’d worked so hard to earn, both money and slaves, every bit of property that Alex and Jamie had helped her earn at their little store. Lavien took it for that half-brother, a child Rachel had never wanted, a child she’d “never once put to my breast.”
When Alexander learned what the court had ordered, he ran through the crowded streets of the town, past the pastels of the stucco stores, past the colonnade. Weaving like a madman, he ran across the paths of carriages and around erect, brown women carrying baskets on their heads.
Bare feet down the road! Slaves, sweating, glossy blue-black, turned their heads beneath wide-brimmed straw hats as he plunged past a chain gang on the road. Finally, he crashed into the palm fringe of the beach, startling the mulatto women who rested in company with a crowd of goats and children in the slanting shade.
At last, feet stinging from the cuts sustained on the road, Alex hit the burning, too soft sand of the upper beach. He twisted an ankle, but he didn’t stop. Reaching the harder wet stuff where the waves came and went, he resumed a quick stride. Only when his chest was on fire, and when he felt certain no white person would see him, did he fall to his knees in the sugary wetness.
There was a fierce onshore wind. Breakers exploded over the reef. At last he could cry as loudly as he wanted, in a place where his helplessness, his weakness, would only be witnessed by the thundering sea.
“Everything Mama and I worked so hard for, every coin we struggled to make! This devil out of her past appears and the court hands it all to him. To a son she gave away!” Long tongues of sea licked the beach. As the wind rose, it started to rasp an ever-deepening gully into the gravel. Although now at the edge of the trench, sun burning his fair skin, Alexander did not move. He almost wished a big rogue wave would roar in and carry him away.
“Oh, Mama, you were right! There is law, but there is no justice. I swear to God, I’ll never trust, never rely, never believe in anything but myself, not ever again.”
The air filled with flying spray and driven sand. Alexander’s hair stiffened with salt. Each gust threw a prickling handful of grit into his tear-stained, sweating face.
* * *
Alexander carefully closed the heavy ledger. Though he was barely half finished, it had already been a long, long day. Numbers swam before his eyes. He rested his head, those tight fine curls, upon it.
Louvers were angled against the sun, but the heat of a heavy, thunderous summer afternoon invaded the room. No one would come into Mr. Cruger’s Store for some time. It was after dinner, siesta for the Spanish and Portuguese—and for anyone else with half a brain.
His gut was puffed with breadfruit and fresh fried flying fish—a delicious dinner for the staff today—and he had stuffed in as much in as he could hold. Tomorrow, it would be back to the usual gooey salt pork plopped onto yams or rice. Now, the effort of eating so much, the work that had begun for him before dawn and the muggy heat of tropical August weighed him down.
Part of a long row of two story pink stucco buildings flanking the Christiansted square, the store had a high ceiling, a verandah beneath a colonnade and tall windows. It stayed fairly cool in the morning. Nevertheless, by 2:00 p.m. the room was almost as hot—and far stuffier—than the sun-blistered sand outside.
Beyond the door, nothing moved. No immense casks rolled by sweating blacks, no oxen, heads swaying, pulling an endless train of high sided, lumbering wagons. No planters in carriages with their ladies—fancy and otherwise—no heart-rending lamentations from the slave pens or shrieks from the public whipping post. No drunken sailors and their whores, seeking shelter for negotiations in the shade.
Only gulls stirred, wheeling and shrieking, making an incredible din. Alex knew they swarmed behind the building, fighting over refuse the cook threw out.
The sea, always moving, rising and falling, dangerous and alluring, could be smelt and heard, the fence that kept him in. Perhaps, someday, it might become a highway to the greater world, a world of which he continually dreamed.
His work area was a tall desk with a decided slant. The ledger rested on a narrow tray at the bottom; the wood was ink stained and grimy. Readjusting himself so that he could secure his seat at the high stool, Alexander looked down at his own bare calves and feet, dangling high above the broad, saw-dusted planks of the floor.
On every side, crammed in around him and around the counter, were casks and barrels of every size. Some contained Irish butter, some salt pork or salt cod. Others contained flour, keg bread, cornmeal or rice. Bohes and Congo tea sat in canisters. Yard goods, a rainbow of color, were piled on one counter or laid away in long pigeon holes which occupied most of a wall. Kitchen utensils and jars of green or blue containing medicinals occupied another shelf.
Pipes of Madeira, hams and barrels of Virginia tobacco shouldered in the cool, constant temperature of the stone cellar below. In a long warehouse area at the back of the store was stacked white pine from Albany, Georgia pitch pine, white and red oak staves and headings, along with casks of hinges, hooks, and spouts.
Behind the counter, another servant lay sleeping, his snores practically rattling the lids from the apothecary jars. Alexander knew he should be taking advantage of this time and resting, too, but he was too skinny to risk the floor and the irate toe of a rum-soaked planter’s boot if he overslept. The last time that had happened, his ribs had ached for weeks.
Someday, he thought, I shall sail away from here. I shall make my fortune and live like a gentleman. I shall have silk stockings and shoes with silver buckles, and ivory buttons on my vest and upon my knee breeches. As I go about my business, people will politely and respectfully lift their hats to me, the way they once greeted my father, in that long ago time when our family lived at Nevis.
* * *
His friend, Ned Stevens, at whose house he sometimes slept, sailed away from St. Croix, to King’s College in New York City, to begin the study of medicine. To him, Alexander wrote:
Ned, my Ambition is prevalent that I condemn the grov’ling and condition of a Clerk or the like, to which My Fortune etc. condemns me and would willingly risk my life tho’ not my Character to exalt my station. I’m confident, Ned that my Youth excludes me from any hopes of immediate Preferment nor do I desire it, but I mean to prepare the way for futurity. I’m no Philosopher you see and may be justly said to Build Castles in the Air. My Folly makes me asham’d and beg you’ll Conceal it, yet, Neddy, we have seen such Schemes successful when the Projector is Constant. I shall Conclude saying, I wish there was a War.
* * *
He did not want to remember how it had advanced over weeks, over months. Slowly, one by one, things happened, subtly hemming him in. He was burned—as indelibly as the red hot brands with which they seared the flesh of slaves and the Puerto Rican mules penned behind the store.
He had not believed such a thing could happen. He had trusted, taken the kindness, the generosity, at face value—as Christian Charity—such as they spoke of in church. But this “Charity” proved a fiction. It was all exactly as his mother had always said, those many nights when she’d raved and wept into her cups.
Goodness is never its own reward, Alex. Something is always expected in return.
Ah, yes, the bill had at last been presented, and he’d been forced to pay.
“Who in hell do you think you are, you ungrateful little bastard? Why, if I hadn’t taken you in, you’d be on the street, begging every poxy sailor with sixpence. I warn you, boy, you could find yourself on the quay tomorrow.”
There had been pain, shame, and the choking tears he had striven not to shed, the grotesque finale enacted amid his sobs. Senses reeling in the darkness, a spark stayed desperately aware, waited his opportunity. Drunken sleep came to his master, and Alex crept away. Sliding out of the bed, intent on escape, he held his breath. His knees shook with each creak of the floor. He found his breeches and left with them in hand, letting himself out through a verandah door.
There was a humiliating pause in which he’d stepped back into them. Outside, cool slates touched his feet. Rosy bougainvillea lapped the moonlit walls. At first, he wanted to go straight to the quay that extended into the harbor and leap into the ocean. The sharks which cruised there looking for dead slaves would put an end to his wretched existence....
How can I hold my head up again with this filthy name pinned upon me—and by a man I trusted? Flesh—so defiled, so utterly disgraced—is fit only for those ferocious watery scavengers. After this, nothing is left. Father and mother are gone. My inheritance—and now, my honor, too.
He’d been used with the same nonchalant rapacity with which planters used their bondsmen.
On the street, in the soft, sweet darkness, the mortifying ache let him know he could not bear to walk much further. Falling to his knees upon the warm pavement, he retched a scalding slurry of beef and wine—the fine dinner he’d first been treated to—into the gutter.
Standing, he groped his way along, leaning on the still warm stucco walls, damning his weakness. It was a weakness he’d tried and tried to destroy, one that compelled him to believe in people, to hunger for guidance and praise.
I should have known better. I’m twelve, after all.
He thought of himself as grown—he had to—but still the fatal frailty reappeared, this pitiful, childish wish to have a father, to be within a circle of family affection.
And now, once again, he’d been betrayed, brought down by this pitiful desire, deceived by a man he’d trusted, and brought to the depths. He wanted revenge, to settle the score. To return to that room with a knife, and plunge it deep into that pale, exposed throat. For a joyful moment he imagined a swift slashing blow, the dark eyes opening helplessly, the monster gargling on his own blood. An ocean of red might just wash his shame away.
And yet—yet—Oh God! I would still rather live than make a certain end upon the gallows…
Alexander stumbled into a storeroom. It was locked, but he, trusted by his Master, knew the location of an outside key. In this muggy refuge, smelling of a recent American shipment of cornmeal and pine, he would lie upon a heap of discarded sacks.
Sugaring time was coming, where work never stopped, hardly even for sleep. At least, tomorrow was Sunday, and he would not have to face the man who had abused his trust—the man he depended upon for survival. The man he now utterly despised.
At dawn, he could slink down to the sea, strip, and let the salt water wash away whatever it could. For one day, he had a reprieve, did not have to serve in the store, did not have to bow and smile on cue and say to all and sundry, “Yes, sir! Right away, sir!”
What’s your pleasure, sir?
Now, he knew. Oh, God help me! There is no one else….
* * *
“Cut if off,” Alexander said. He sat on an empty barrel in the barren yard. “Cut it all off.”
The old black barber hesitated, scissors in hand. Around them, a crowd of curious, naked black children gathered. Nearby their mothers, dressed in patched shifts, tied bundles of laundry. Squatting, one of them was making a neat coil of the oily rag she used to cushion her head from the load.
“Got lice, Masta Elicks?”
“Yes. Cut it close. Close as ever you can.”
A little while later, like the petals of some alien northern flower, the ginger curls lay all around his bare feet in the sand. Alexander felt the morning breeze touch his scalp. The sensation was strange, but it seemed apt.
I am naked now, stripped, almost to bone.
“You don’t have no lice. What ya wan’ me cut da kine hair?” Shaking his graying head, the barber held up a mirror. It was ancient, of polished metal. Alexander stared into the gray surface, and saw himself: pale thin face, freckles, deeply shadowed eyes, long head. Here and there little fuzzy licks of red stuck out, as the tight curl began to reassert itself.
That’s me. I’m not even the smallest half-step better now than a nigger.
* * *
He developed a sense of when it was coming, rather like his mother’s rages, fierce and sudden as a mast-snapping squall bearing in from the eastern sea. For a few days, he would warily manage to side-step, but in the end, one way or another, he’d be trapped again.
Master Nick would drink too much and general disaffection would settle in: “Why am I the one stuck on this god-forsaken, plague-ridden island? Why wasn’t I posted to London, instead of Peter?”
And later, after the threats and beating, after violation, smothered in sweaty linen, crushed against the bed, as he wept with helpless rage, the voice over his shoulder would become self-pitying.
“Goddamn you! You’ve always got to fight, don’t you?”
Next, would come drunken justification: “A little of this won’t hurt you, ’cause you ain’t a man yet. Never changed me, after all.”
* * *
Gulls blew over the harbor in dazzling morning light. The sea was an element Alexander could taste in the back of his mouth, like blood or sweat. He stood on a ship tied at the quay and watched as two more high-masted ships tacked towards Christiansted. He carried a ledger, the servant’s deferential step behind his lanky, pockmarked master. These days the book seemed to almost be a part of his body, dragged everywhere, the way he’d seen insects carry egg sacks.
Around him, sailors with tattered shirts scrubbed the planks and painted, pounded, sewed at sails, the thousand tasks of men whose ship is ashore after a long journey. Accompanied by the captains, Nick Cruger would look over his merchandise.
There were cargoes of timber, barrel staves, flour, and corn meal from America. Sometimes, with the smell of death and feces so penetrating Alexander feared he’d faint, he stood on the decks of ships where below, groaning, weeping Africans were chained and stacked like cord wood. As bad a stench came from those as from the ships filled with listless, half-dead Spanish mules, imported in bulk from the Main.
No matter what the ship contained, no matter what else attracted his attention as he stood on those gently swaying decks, Alexander listened, listened as he had never listened before.
This is what my father couldn’t learn. This business of shoveling flesh, bone, wood and metal into the maw of an island sugar factory. I will learn my way out of hell.
Timing the market was the thing, whether the merchandise was a hold full of suffering blacks, or half-starved, staggering mules. He heard how excise taxes in the North America trade could be avoided, the names of officers in various ports who could be “tipped” to overlook the fact that the barrels were full of something which differed from the bill of lading, the strategies of loading and unloading so that high duty items would escape the Harbor Master’s eye.
He listened to the captains—grim, bitter men, hard as the oak planks of their ships—when they spoke of sailing the routes where pirates and privateers lurked. He heard tales of bloody encounters. He watched as Nick Cruger acquired cannon for his ships, and looked on as the captains recruited the kind of men who knew how to use them.
Alexander also went with his master when he journeyed to ride the plantations. To prosper, a merchant in the import trade had to make an educated guess about the harvest. As peak ripening approached, the island hummed like a gigantic hive preparing to swarm.
Then, the store was jammed with everything from firewood, to barrel staves and brass fittings, to codfish and cornmeal. The pens bulged with slaves and mules.
Sales went on day and night. The harbor became a dense, bobbing thicket of masts. The normally sleepy streets of Christiansted would be crowded with gangs of slaves and laborers, endlessly loading and unloading. Sailors and whores conducted their business in the shade of the alleys, while the taverns played host to drunks and gamblers.
Crimes were committed: theft and murder, brawls over games of chance and women. Slaves displeased their owners. There were daily hangings, whippings, and brandings on the parade ground outside the fort, blood spilled and flesh seared, by the brightly uniformed Danish military. All of this went on just a stone’s throw from where Alexander worked, red-eyed and sleepless at the store’s counter or seated at a high desk, toiling over a ledger.
Occasionally, some of the ladies from his mother’s family would appear, ostensibly to shop for fabric, but actually to look Alexander over. He always bowed and chatted, as if shoeless and in ragged pants, he could still claim membership in a Plantation family.
Nick Cruger watched these performances with a cynical eye, but one of these ladies, Mrs. Venton, decided that this child of her wayward Cousin Rachel was charming. She began to invite Alex for supper, and then, one day, although she was hard pressed for money herself, she took her young relative to a tailor.
When Alexander started for church in a new suit of white linen, wearing fine black stockings and black shoes with pewter buckles, Adam, the biggest of Cruger’s house negroes, gave him a huge grin.
“Goin’ courtin’, Masta Elicks? I swear, de gals in church won’ be able to sit still when de sees yah!”
Alexander held his head a touch higher than usual as he entered the square stone church, squatting in the languid shade of tamarind trees. Although sunburned and freckled—he had just come in from a stint of riding the cane—he was confident in the knowledge he looked every inch the gentleman he wanted the world to see.
* * *
Alexander clung to religion. He prayed night and morning, aloud, and down on his knees. Instead of slipping off to fish and swim with other boys on Sunday morning, he attended church.
Surely the God that made me as I am had a purpose!
Besides, church was where the men of influence and power could be seen. To assist his survival, his plan for escape, he knew he must be noticed. These days, he sat beside his new friend, kind Mrs. Venton, and listened with solemn attention to the invigorating oratory of the island’s newly arrived Presbyterian preacher, Reverend Hugh Knox.
Knox was a genuine scholar, a rarity in the West Indies. As was customary, besides preaching, he taught the children of local gentry. Mr. Stevens, the father of the beloved and absent Neddy, decided to ask Reverend Knox if he’d mind seeing another student at “odd hours.”
At first, the Reverend was lukewarm. He said he’d have to judge whether the boy was worth the trouble. After the first lesson, however, he was all enthusiasm.
“A boy who wants to learn is rare enough at his age, but the way he soaks it up! It’ll be my pleasure to teach such an exceptional young fellow.”
“I’m glad to hear you say so, Reverend,” Mr. Stevens replied. “The boy’s born out of wedlock. His mother is dead. His father’s run off. The family he’s got left are too lost in their own troubles to be of any assistance. It’s a real shame, for Alex is as smart as a whip. I confess I’ve often wished my Ned had half his desire to get on.”
Reverend Knox soon formed a plan for his newest pupil, a plan that involved getting Alexander to college in America, perhaps to his own Alma Mater, the young college of Princeton in the wilds of New Jersey. The Reverend wasn’t sure how the money could be raised, but he had a powerful confidence that Providence would intervene on behalf of such deserving.
He gave Alexander permission to come to his house and read his own collection of books. Besides this, he started him on several courses of study necessary to college preparation, Latin, Greek and Algebra.
* * *
When Nick Cruger went to New York to recoup his health after a debilitating bout of the West Indies fever, he left fourteen year old Alexander Hamilton in charge of the store. For an entire winter, Alexander handled the St. Croix trade for his penultimate employers—Cruger & Sons of New York City.
He knew what to do and how to do it, but the responsibility was immense. Skinny and small, he had to boss men three times his age, ferocious sea captains and rough plantation bailiffs.
Oct. 21, 1771
You know it is intended that you shall go from thence to the Main for a load of Mules & I beg if you do, you’ll be very choice in Quality of your Mules and bring as many as your vessel can conveniently contain. By all means take in a large supply of provender. Remember you are to make three trips this Season & unless you are very diligent, you will be too late as our Crops will be early in.
— A. Hamilton
There were letters to keep Master Nick and his family in New York informed. On his fifteenth birthday—a work day, like any other—Alexander wrote:
To Nicholas Cruger
Via Merryland & Philadelphia
From St. Croix Jan 10th 1772
Dear Sir: The 101 barrels superfine Flour From Philadelphia are just landed, about 40, of which I have already sold at 11 1/2 pieces of eight/bbl but as probably there will be much less imported than I expected I intend to insist on 12 for the rest. Capt. Napper is arrivd and dl’d everything agreeable to his Bill Lading. He landed all at the Westend. The Beer I beg’d Mr. Herbert to sell there. The plate stockings etc. are deposited in Miss Nancy De Nully’s hands, and the Cheeses in #4 are disposed of thus: two, Mr. Beekman kept, and the other two I sent on to Mrs. De Nully.
I called upon Mr. Heyns to Day with the Bill on Capt. Hunter but he was at the Westend so that I can say nothing of that matter. (Mr Heyns I am told is Capt Hunters Attorney.)
Capt Gibbs is landing as fast as possible and you may depend I will give him all the dispatch in my power but I will not undertake to determine precisely when he will Sail as he tells me his cargo is Stow’d very inconveniently and the St. Croix part of it rather undermost. If so he could be detained longer than cou’d otherwise be expected. His Cargo will turn out pritty well. Lumber is high, 18 pounds, and most of the other Articles in Demand enough. But as I am a good deal hurried just now I beg you’ll accept this instead of a more minute detail of these matters which I shall send by the Next conveyance. I have not time to write your father.
I shall do as you desire concerning the Brig Nancys accounts.
Capt. Wells Cargo consisted of Lumber, Spermaceti Candles, Codfish and Ale Wives. All the Hoops he brought were sold immediately to Mr. Bignall at 70 pieces of eight/M and the Spermaceti Candles to different persons at 6 Spanish Reals per pound. We are selling the Codfish at ps. 6 1/2 Per hundredweight and the Ale Wives at 5 & 6 pieces of eight per Barrel. He will return in about 10 days with Sugar and Cotton.
This is all I have time to say now and if I have neglected anything material I beg you’ll excuse it being with the closest attention to your Interest.
Your most obt Servt: Alexander Hamilton
I shall provide Rum and Sugar for Capt. Gibb; the price of rum is now 2/9.
* * *
Every week of his Master’s absence, Alexander measured himself against a doorsill in the back of his store, marking his height with a penknife. He was at last growing, and the change heartened him.
No matter how long the day before him, every morning he went into the back to direct the slaves who moved the stock around. He began to help with the physical labor. It seemed the easiest way to show the men how he wanted things, but there was another motive, too.
Alex had observed the muscles on those black arms. It seemed apparent to him that, just like book learning, even his skinny, boyish body could be taught. When Nick Cruger returned, Alexander had determined he would no longer be a helpless boy.
There came, in the course of things, the inevitable day when, as Alex stood tall as he could behind that mahogany counter, a bailiff he’d never liked called him a liar. Those who witnessed the event always laughed when retelling the story, saying that the fight had been like a small orange tomcat leaping on a mastiff.
Surprise and rage, combined with a couple of speedy, head punches, left the bailiff on his back, bleeding and, briefly, unconscious. Alexander got off the man’s chest and coolly directed his slaves to carry his adversary outside and dump him in the sandy street.
Later, sucking on his aching, bleeding knuckles, once more behind the counter—the best place to hide his shaking knees—Alexander saw that the slaves, even the other gentleman in the store, looked different. A huge, drunken sensation swelled, and for a lingering instant he had the dizzy sensation that he was so tall that his head pressed right against the ceiling.
* * *
When Nick Cruger returned to St. Croix, he had his health back. More than this, his father in New York had provided Master Nick with a bride, a woman with the proper mercantile connections. When one of the house slaves regaled him with the tale of Alexander’s fight, Cruger nodded. Then, after a sideways glance, he said something about how much Alexander had grown.
As they worked alone together, Alexander sometimes glimpsed the old lewdness on his master’s face, but it was now papered over with an assumed disinterest. Nevertheless, Alexander took no chances. These days, his nights were spent either in the house of Mr. Stevens, or with his teacher, Reverend Knox.
* * *
When Cruger resumed control of the business, life, for Alex, slowed to a crawl. Accustomed to running from dawn to dusk, standing tall and making every decision, he was a clerk again, to say “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” on cue. He was only fifteen, but independence felt further away than ever.
He took up his studies with Reverend Knox with a vengeance, but after so much hard work and real responsibility, school seemed like child’s play.
When, Alexander wondered, as he lay, waiting for sleep in a room filled with the snoring of the Reverend and his black servant, am I ever going to escape this grov’ling condition which fate has ordered up for me?
* * *
The sea was azure, the tide low, the wind light. The swell lapped a throaty gurgle as it ran against a reef that meandered close to the beach. In the shallow water behind, tiny brilliant fish, as well as a hundred other forms of stranger life, rippled, crawled and darted.
Alexander walked barefoot, splashing along, enjoying the feel of sand and cool sea. He’d left his straw hat behind, today not caring that the sun was freckling and reddening him. Terns skittered, keeping just ahead, doing their dance of attack and retreat before the water, probing the bubbling sand with slender bills. Over his head, gulls wheeled and cried.
From above the shell and weedy litter, across the blistering white expanse where a shelter of salt-drinking mangroves began, came giggles. Sun-blinded, it was hard to see, but at last his blue eyes fastened upon the source of the sound.
Lithe young women, dark eyes, white flashing teeth— a group of brown sugar concubines, chatted and lazed together under the palms. He knew most of them from the days in his mother’s little store, where he had sold them trinkets, needles, bright calico and small blue bottles of laudanum for their women’s complaints.
“Masta Ham! Masta Alexander! Come ‘n visit!”
They were coaxing him, laughing asides. Thinking of things about which the Reverend Knox repeatedly cautioned, he pretended not to hear.
Wind gusted. At once the responsive sea bounced, a thousand mirrors sparkling. Alexander knew the girls were joking about him, were daring each other.
The child inside still longed for caresses, but there was another impulse, too, burning within his maturing, work-hard body. It shouted at him to go back, to explore whatever possibilities the girls offered. To walk away was harder than swimming against the tide.
* * *
“You goddamned puffed-up little nobody!” The planter had Alex by the shirt.
Ordinarily, he would have defended himself, but this was an important customer, so, instead, he only twisted and ducked. The ham fist struck his back, almost knocking the breath out of him as he wrenched free.
“I’ll teach you to talk back!”
It had not been because of anything, really, but simply because the fellow was in a foul mood. He’d entered the store in a rage and passed it along in the casual fashion a man might kick a cur in the street. Mr. Cruger watched from the back, but made no move to interfere.
The customer is always right. Especially this son-of-a bitch! And Cruger’s absolute indifference to right or wrong, is the best the filthy snake can do….
At quitting time, Alexander was off down the beach. He hated his life and everyone in it.
“God help me, or even the Devil.” He spoke aloud, feeling supremely daring. “When the next war comes, I shall jump ship and run straight to it.”
There was a special place to which Alexander went whenever he wanted to be alone. It was a rough trek through a forbidding grove of twisted manchineel and then up a brush-covered headland. After a slow ledge-to-ledge descent down the cliff face, he’d reach an outcrop a mere twenty feet above high tide, but hidden from anyone above. Today, all he wanted was to stretch out, to listen to the boom of the waves. He anticipated a rare moment of fantasy, one that involved sailing away, maybe to some distant war, or maybe to America to see his friend Ned Stevens.
To his chagrin, however, a girl sat cross-legged in the hidden place, a slim, brown girl, wearing a thin white dress. She regarded him balefully, sullen, grass-green eyes flashing. Her silver collar gleamed in the sun.
They had a shared history. Diana had been purchased by a slaver named Collins soon after Alex’s father had gone away. Prior to that she’d had a good master, had been reared in what Reverend Knox termed “a Christian home.” Alexander, a youthful cynic, deemed it nothing less than the inevitable way of the world when the kind master went bankrupt. It had been an incidental part of that good Christian’s wreck of fortune that Diana, aged ten, had been sold to the debased Collins.
After breaking the girl in, it sometimes amused her new master to give her coins to spend on cloth and trinkets. Like other maroon concubines, she’d come with these coins to Rachel’s little store, for not only did “Miz Rachel” stock the prettiest calicos, but a certain sympathy hung in the air between his mother and these beautiful victims.
Years ago, Alex had gone so far as to sit behind the counter with Diana, backed against a barrel of cornmeal, and had patiently explained the value of the coins, so she wouldn’t be cheated. Slavery had only been an ordinary part of life, until he’d seen, up close, what had happened to this girl, so near his own age. Alex would never have admitted it to anyone, but thereafter he’d felt a bond between them. They had both been left, mere children, to be devoured by the Evil that—clearly—ruled this wicked world.
“What are you doing way out here?”
“Stayin’ away from dem all, Masta Ham.”
With heroic disregard, she went back to staring out to sea. After a moment, Alex sat down crossed-legged beside her. He was dressed in his usual workday white shirt and plain brown knee breeches. Although he owned a pair of shoes and stockings these days, he’d stored them beneath a shelf before making the angry tramp down the beach.
Diana was dressed scantily, but not shabbily. Her brown arms jangled with bracelets, Collins’ largess. A red silk scarf had been braided into her brown, crinkly hair.
“How did you get way out here?”
“It’twas easy. De pig and his frien’s dead drunk. I go back when I good ’n’ rea-dy.”
In those three sentences, a thousand rules were violated. Slaves were whipped bloody for the slightest insubordination.
“Won’t he beat you?”
“He don’ wan’ta damage his propertee, but I don’ gi’e a damn if he do.”
“There are lots of ways to hurt that don’t leave marks.”
“Tink I don’ know?” She gave her head a ferocious toss. “I kin take care ah’ m-sef.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. Say, Masta Ham, dis is one good place to hide. Do ya be here of-ten?”
“Yes. Whenever I’d like to kill them all.”
Her smile, a beautiful flash, appeared. “So! Even clever two-shoes white boys gots trouble. What’s the matter, din’ you kiss ass quick ’nouf for Masta Nick?”
Black to white, she was way over the line, but in the next heartbeat, a bitter laugh broke from his lips.
“Yes. Damn his rotten soul to hell.”
Diana drew up her long brown legs beneath her skirt, hugged them, and stared out to sea. In the silence which followed, she thoughtfully chewed the tip of one delicate finger. Alexander aimlessly flicked pebbles over the edge and tried not to stare.
After a few minutes, as a soft wind blew off the bay and ruffled her thin white dress, Diana said, “You won’ tell any-one I was here, will ya, Masta Ham?”
“No, ’pon my honor.” Solemnly, he met her lime-green eyes.
She gave him a sharp, humorous look, as if she’d been ready to laugh at the idea that a poor bastard clerk could have any claim to ‘honor,’ but she didn’t.
* * *
After that, Alexander found her there often. They talked in this lonely spot, putting aside the distinctions that would have kept them apart in any other place.
Here in Christiansted she and I are both nothing, Alex mused, dirt under everyone’s feet. But I have a chance to escape because I’m a man and because I’m white. There are ways out for me, but for her, a woman of color—a slave—there are none….
“Collins wants to sell you to St. Thomas the next time Captain Harken comes through.”
For months, Collins had hemmed and hawed about what to do with his increasingly unruly possession. It seemed he was more attached to Diana than he wanted anyone, particularly the girl herself, to know.
“Well, at least I’ll be gone from stinkin’ St. Croix.” Diana twisted a ribboned braid.
“Is Marcus so bad?” asked Hamilton. He knew that since Collins had purchased a new girl and begun her “education,” Diana was being given to a favorite house servant at night.
“A black pig instead of a white one.” Diana was briefly dismissive. “Another old man! Collins say if I don’ breed wi’ Marcus, he’ sell me away. Could be worse. He could gi’e me to a mob o’ field niggers.”
Diana gave an inadvertent shudder at the image she had conjured up. She had as strong a fear of the brutalized field hands as any white person.
“Marcus isn’t so old.”
“An’ you jus’ a man. What you know?”
“I—I know.” Alexander tried to keep his voice even, but in those two words he’d breached his own bottomless shame. It had been several years now—since—but the shame didn’t go away. A quiver he couldn’t suppress visibly shook him.
“I’m sorry, Diana. Anything that son-of-a-bitch orders up must be hell.”
Diana, utterly worldly, seemed to understand all of it, both said and unsaid. He blushed beneath the long measuring look which followed, but after a minute, she reached to stroke his jaw. Just this morning, he’d shaved away the sparse blonde whiskers that now grew there.
“Ah’m sick o’ stinkin’ ol’ men. Ah tink Ah’d like to do it wi’ a pretty young fella, Masta Ham.”
* * *
It was a muggy night at the start of rainy season. Alexander had been trying to sleep on a camp cot at Stevens’ house, which was currently empty of anyone but him and a few slaves. The Stevens family often visited a relative’s upland plantation during the summer heat. The darkness was saturated with the heavy perfume of Lady of the Night, but an overhanging frangipani was in bloom too, and the green and sugar scent of the tree struck a clashing chord. Inside a stifling but indispensable mosquito net, his skin alert to the delights of the slightest breeze, Alex sweated. Out at sea, a storm sent down fiery bolts, but not a breath of air relieved sweltering Christiansted.
Perhaps he’d slept, for at first Alex thought the presence under the mosquito netting was a wonderful dream. After all, he’d been imagining it for weeks. Then those slightly moist satin hands took hold in a way which awoke him up completely. It was moonless, but the spice of her told him exactly who was, even now, sliding a leg across him.
Later, skin slippery with love, Diana mused thoughtfully into Alexander’s ear, “You know, you de firs’ man I lie wi’ who smell good.”
* * *
“It’s not much, but it’s all I can give. Maybe you can save and buy your freedom.”
“Free-dom? You crazy? Ah couldn’a keep it. Anywhere ah go, some white son-of-a-bitch would just know from de color o’ mah hide, ah do belong to him!”
“But there are free maroons….”
“Damn you, bastard red-neck fool! Ain’ whorin’ wi’ you!”
Alexander swallowed hard, fought back the red mist a certain word always raised.
“I don’t want to be like Collins.”
“Ah’m pleasin’ m’sef wi’ you, white boy, an’ don’ you forget’t.”
* * *
Sometimes, brain rattling from a tremendous box dealt by her displeasure, he’d sit back, dumbly shaking his head.
“Ignorant!” Her eyes sparkled with laughter and malice. She’d lean back, in the siesta glow seeping through the lattices to tempt his touch again.
“You men so clumsy, so rough! Pay ’tention now. I show you what de woman wan’.”
She was Love—her crinkly braids, the salt and spice of her sandy skin when they were lost in lust and ecstasy on the nighttime beach. It took all their combined cunning to achieve a rendezvous, but they had both learned patience and subtlety. Still, they were very young, rebelling against every rule of their brutal world. In the twilight shadows of the Manchineel, just above the moon-glittering surf, chances were taken.
* * *
Alexander was hard at work in the store, trying to reconcile some figures that a new clerk had thoroughly deranged, when something caused him to look up. Through the louvers tipped against the fierce afternoon sun, he spied a sailor leading a jenny. On the animal’s back sat a slender mulatto girl wearing a thin white dress. She wore a broad brimmed hat and rode astride, beautiful bare brown legs dangling.
Around her ankle silver gleamed; a long chain was now attached to her silver collar. As they passed the store, the girl turned a proud, expressionless face toward the windows. Alexander threw down his quill and began to open the shutter, ready to jump out and run after her, but before he could get it done, a rough hand landed on his shoulder and spun him around.
“Stop right where you are, Hamilton.”
“Who bought her?” Alexander, fearless, twisted away from Cruger to get a last glimpse.
“One Mrs. Yard, whose famous establishment is at St. Thomas. Collins says he got a nice price.”
Alexander swallowed hard, tried to fight back the tears. The pain of loss instantly merged with the horror of imagining her in such a place.
“Cheer up, boy,” Cruger said. “You’re gettin’ off lucky.”
“What?” After being called “boy,” Alexander left off the “sir.”
“Watch yourself, boy! You better believe Collins was plenty pissed when he found out, but he finally agreed to overlook your trespassing. He did say something about not expecting any better from an uppity yellow bitch and a whore’s son.”
Without an instant’s hesitation, Alexander swung at his master’s narrow, pock-marked face. Nick Cruger, knowing exactly what his words would elicit, struck first.
There was an explosion—pain and stars—followed by a roaring blackness. When the world returned, Alexander found himself lying on his back on the floor, his employer squatting beside him.
The expression on Cruger’s lean, pitted face was ironic. Beyond, other interested faces, both white and black, crowded the doorway.
“Collins said I ought to horsewhip you, but the nice shiner you’re going to have tomorrow will have to do. Now, Hamilton—” He pulled Alexander, whose head felt as if it were going to shatter, into a sitting position, “Where’s your good sense got to? Do you want the French disease? The way Collins let that slut wander around, who knows who else she was tupping?”
Alexander’s soul yearned to defend Diana, to throw another punch at that smug, scarred face, but instead he ground his teeth and said nothing. The strain of prudent inaction was so agonizing that for one rushing moment he thought he was going to lose consciousness again.
“Have you been so busy following your cock around that you don’t know old Knox is on the verge of convincing some of his rich friends to help you get to New York, to go to college with Ned Stevens? Let me tell you, Collins was ready to tell the good Reverend about your whoring, but he finally agreed with me that boys will be boys.”
Cruger got to his feet, roughly pulling his clerk up after him. Alexander shook with anger, but he was still so dizzy he was forced to accept help to stand. The confiding growl went on.
“Discretion is the word with women, be they whores, or be they ladies. No more fooling around, at least, till you’re where Reverend Knox won’t know. Black ass—even so fine a piece—ain’t worth losing your chance over.”
* * *
For days an oily calm lay upon the ocean. The temperature rose suddenly, a full ten degrees. In the northeast, the sky was color of metal. Next, a succession of increasingly violent squalls rushed in and drenched the port.
Captains, knowing and fearing, unloaded in record time. From the porch of Cruger’s store, Alexander thought the quays looked like a struggling insect overwhelmed by ants. Some ships simply put to sea without unloading, setting their sails toward other islands. After anxious hours, the tall ships fled, leaving only a few small local traders still heaving at anchor.
Alexander stood at the docks. Wind scoured his flesh as he watched the monster approach. Black clouds reared above the surf now biting into the beach. The northeast sky was a terrible army of lightning-shattered, roiling thunderheads. He had boarded windows, worked with the slaves at shifting stock from the floor onto high shelves, and loading the most precious articles into wagons, now gone to the inland warehouses. In fact, Alex should have departed along with the last of it, but he hadn’t. Instead, he and many others ventured down to the quays.
Alexander had been in hurricanes before. More than once he’d shared an anxious watch, standing on the shore beside merchants and sailors, staring as the giant anvils moved in from the northeast, sailing over a strangely muddy sea. Those storms had grazed St. Croix’s shore twice during his younger days, bringing deadly lightning and flooding rains that swept soil, men and animals into the ocean, even as it flattened the precious cane. Over all had been the voice of the wind, keening like an injured animal, the sound itself able to tear down buildings and windmills, to crush ships to kindling.
A darkness more terrible than night flowed out of the north. Lighting gored glowing wounds in the sable sides of clouds. The water, casting itself upon the beach, was mountainous, a dirty white. The ground beneath Alexander’s feet shook.
“Headin’ right for us!” A mulatto freeman made commentary to anyone within range.
“'Twill be deep water sweepin’ the streets afore this blow is past.” Agreement came from Jack, a scarred and crippled sailor who was spending his final years roosting and begging in various places around the square, baking his aches and pains.
* * *
Alexander shivered inside his sodden shirt, and shielded his eyes from a slicing wind. The fury bearing down on this hateful island filled him with terror—and a weird, joyful elation. What he saw in the sky, what he felt in the agitation of his companions, sent his imagination careening wildly, like the gulls hurtling down the wind.
“…This tempest will not give me leave to ponder on things would hurt me more….”
It was six weeks and three days since Diana had been sold to St. Thomas. Every instant, his body—his mind—burned with anguish.
Rain beat upon his skinny frame. He stood, closing his eyes, letting it hammer him, barely aware that, one by one, his companions had left the dangerous, thunderous beach.
A weathered hand rested upon his arm. He turned, and through the pelting rain saw Jack.
“Do you think I could lay out the blow in back of yon store? I won’t take nothin’.”
Alexander knew Jack lived in a hut close by the water. It was no doubt already gone, carried away by the waves now chewing through the beach.
“…Why, thou wert better in thy grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies….”
“Come along, then, father.” Alexander shouted his answer against the wind. He offered the old man the dignity of polite address as well as his arm. “We’d better get inside before we wash away.”
* * *
The wind hammered against the hurricane shutters till it broke in, a howling giant loose in the room. Alexander had crawled beneath a shelf and turned his face to the wall. He was silent, even while others around him were screaming and calling upon God in many languages. There was nothing but pandemonium; he didn’t dare open his eyes. In a cracking rush which popped his ears, the roof lifted and blew away.
Icy rain beat against his back. Men sobbed and prayed. He began to pray, too, for the rising water in which he lay tasted of salt.
* * *
Christiansted, September 6, 1772
From the Royal Danish American Gazette—
By Alexander Hamilton
“I take up my pen to give you an imperfect account of one of the most dreadful Hurricanes that memory or any records whatever can trace, which happened here on the 31st of August at night. It began about dusk, at North, and raged very violently till ten o’clock. Then ensued a sudden and unexpected interval, which lasted about an hour. Meanwhile the wind was shifting round to the South West point, from whence it returned with redoubled fury and continued so ’till near three o’clock in the morning.
Good God! What horror and destruction! It is impossible for me to describe or you to form any idea of it. It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels.
A great part of the buildings throughout the Island are levelled to the ground, almost all the rest very shattered; several persons killed and numbers utterly ruined; whole families running about the streets, unknowing where to find a place of shelter; the sick exposed to the keenness of water and air without a bed to lie upon, or a dry covering to their bodies; and our harbours entirely bare….”
“Yes. It has come to my attention that Cruger’s clerk wrote this.”
“Indeed, Your Excellency,” Hugh Knox replied. “Young Hamilton’s native intelligence is a text upon which I’ve been long preaching.”
Knox, his lean black-stocking calves patiently crossed, had waited many days for an audience, off and on, in the Governor’s outer rooms. Since the hurricane, there was plenty to occupy the man, but one must, Knox thought, strike while the iron is hot.
The walls of the waiting room were decorated with a bristling circular display of muskets with bayonets attached and an array of swords, appropriate panoply for a colonial governor. Among the businessmen, planters, and soldiers, Reverend Knox had humbly waited to be summoned by the sallow, officious secretary. He would only have a few minutes, for the Governor was an administrator, one still coping with a monumental disaster.
Now, the moment is come. Though Hugh Knox was a man secure in himself and used to men of power, there was an instant of absolute fear, as he faced this pale, eagle-beaked Dane enthroned behind his mahogany desk.
“’Tis uncommon to discover such originality of thought and facility of expression in one so young.”
“The piece is handsomely written. His sentiments are most apt and pious,” Knox said. “Master Hamilton has had but little formal schooling, and so it is quite astonishing to see how far he has come. One must concede this is not the natural inclination of youth, especially one who must labor under such conspicuous disadvantages.”
“It was remarkable how well the boy did with Nick Cruger’s business while he was away. The literary arts are one thing,” and here the Governor tossed the newspaper aside, “but the sort of address and decision which are needed to manage a business is quite another.”
“Yes, indeed, Your Excellency. I most heartily concur.” Reverend Knox, an accomplished preacher, dared a pause. Then he spoke the words he’d been rehearsing ever since the plan had formed in his mind.
“I have often wondered, Your Excellency, what might become of such a deserving youth if he were to receive the benefit of an education at an institution of higher learning, perhaps one of those now established in the American Colonies….”
* * *
The island looks so small, a green bead set on a long white thread of surf….
Legs braced against the swaying deck, Alexander shaded his eyes with a tilt of his hat.
So many times I have dreamt of this! So many times!
Sails billowed, full bellies of gray and white. The British tricolor galloped from the main. Gulls drifted in their wake, gliding and crying plaintively. The world looked sharp-edged and bright. Alexander heard the whisper in his head as he watched the shocking green of that coral-encrusted jewel recede.
I will never see you again.
Turning, he put his back to the islands and walked to the bow. Here, he faced an expanse of waves, nothing ahead but ocean. He blinked against the sharp breeze and the sting of salt spray. The wind here was cold and hard, straight from the north.
Chapter Two The Pastures, Albany, NY
The girls had strayed too deep into the old pasture to run back to the red brick pile of their house, so they hid. Angelica grabbed little Peggy and together they crouched inside a big hole within the trunk of one of the squat, ancient fruit trees, one that Papa said had been brought as rootstock by the very first Dutch settlers.
When they’d first spied the Indians, Betsy had been climbing to pick apples. It was too late to climb down, so she tucked long skirts over her knees and made herself into a small bundle, hugging the trunk and praying the leaves would cover her. As the party passed directly beneath her, she froze and tried not to think of the old war stories the servants told, about how Indians had killed her Uncle ’Bram—shot dead right on his Saratoga doorstep.
These intruders were wearing buckskin trousers, homespun shirts and hats with foxtails and feathers. The European touches were a good sign, for this was the way Indians dressed when making a formal visit to Albany.
There was a woman, too, walking very erect. Beside her marched a boy. He must have recently joined the men’s lodge, for his head was newly plucked, pale as a butchered hog on either side of the bristling strip of hair. He looked straight up, met her eyes, and then, without a word, continued on with his elders.
Betsy knew these Indians were Mohawks, a tribe with whom her father was on good terms. Nevertheless, trained, as all frontier children were, to hide from strangers, she didn’t twitch.
Today’s Indians must have had a claim on Papa, for they went directly to the wing of the imposing brick house which contained his study. A few minutes later, in the distance, they saw their father come out to greet them.
Sometimes, if Chiefs arrived in rain or snow, they would be invited in to sit cross-legged in the downstairs great room with Papa. Here they dipped their dinner out of three-legged pots carried in from the kitchen. Betsy and her sisters would slip out of their room, down the staircase, and try to get a peek through the door which led into the study wing. Here, if they were lucky, they’d see warriors sitting-crossed legged on the carpet, solemnly gazing around at the French panoramic wallpaper and up to the crystal chandelier.
Relieved that these were only visitors, Betsy climbed down to join her sisters. They collected their dolls and walked slowly back to the house, Betsy holding Margaret’s sticky little hand. They met slaves already carrying out carpets and furs.
“Let’s sit here.” Angelica, the oldest, and always the leader, took a seat on one of the long benches along the study wing. “We can watch.”
Peggy, however, was done with outside. She wanted to go in, and began to complain. They were close to the kitchen now, and the smell coming from there made her think of the treats she could wheedle from the women there.
“I want a koekje!”
Peggy strained at Betsy’s hand and, after a little pulling, Betsy gave up and simply let her go. One of the house slaves at work there would certainly take charge of her little sister. Peggy went charging away, as fast as her short legs would carry her, toward the kitchen door.
While they watched, a pavilion arose beneath the biggest maple, and a fire made. Tables and carpets came out, and an entire joint of beef was carried out from the kitchen.
Then, a commotion began. Mama was at the center of it, although this was a surprise. Their Mama rarely lost her temper. She came out of the kitchen door, hauling Ruby, one of the slave girls, by the arm. She had a hazel switch in hand.
“Ruby, if I set you to watch my girls, you are not to let them out of your sight!” Mama switched Ruby’s legs, and poor Ruby hopped up and down in her short skirts, shrieking.
“Why is Mama so cross?” Angelica asked, as Mrs. Ross, their plump Scots governess, herded them away into the house and upstairs.
Something was very wrong. Mama never lost her temper.
* * *
Darkness came. Papa sat outside with his visitors. The rest of the family—the children, the governess, and Mama—had supper as usual at the walnut table, laid with East India Company blue-and-white china.
“Who is the Mohawk lady who looks so grand?” Angelica, dared to ask the question on everyone else’s mind.
“She is Mary Hill,” her mother said. “The daughter of a Clan Mother.”
“And who is the boy, Mama?”
“Her son, I suppose.”
“What have they come to see Papa for?”
“Gifts! What else do Indians want? Now,” Catherine Schuyler said, “finish your supper. You are going to bed early tonight.”
Betsy watched in disbelief as Angelica’s rosy mouth dared to frame a “why,” but then the strangest thing of all happened. Papa sent in his servant, tall, black Prince, to invite them out. The expression on Mama’s face led Betsy to imagine that she would refuse, but instead she rose with a brisk rustle of linen and silk.
“Come along, girls. Mrs. Ross, you as well.”
Looking apprehensive, Mrs. Ross lifted Peggy. As Mrs. Schuyler’s long, warm fingers came to enclose Betsy’s, Angelica sprang up and raced toward the door, chestnut curls bouncing.
“Angelica!” Their mother spoke sharply. “Walk—and stay beside me.”
As they approached the pavilion, Betsy caught the smoky smell of the visitors. Nervously, she tightened her grip upon her mother’s hand.
“Do not be afraid.” Mrs. Schuyler leaned to whisper softly. “Remember who you are, Elizabeth.”
Betsy obediently straightened. I must be brave. On both sides I am descended from the first Patroon, Killian van Rensselaer. Still, it was a struggle to put away the nightmare images of so many oft-told tales—the bloody scalping knife—the fire!
Quivering, Betsy stared at them. She saw strong berry-brown faces, aquiline noses, delicate spirals of tattooing, and black eyes. Mary Hill sat beside Papa, but at the appearance of Mrs. Schuyler, she gracefully arose.
The Indian woman’s hair was gathered into a shiny knot at the nape of her neck. She wore a fine white blouse, red calamanco skirt and jacket and a pile of necklaces—gold chains and silver, trade beads and shells, bones and feathers—all jumbled together.
Mohawk or not, Mary Hill is beautiful!
The two grown women gazed at each other in a cool measuring way, something Betsy had observed ladies do at parties. Overhead, the pavilion flapped and scarlet leaves whispered. These two women—one dark, one fair—were both tall, beautiful—and so proud!
Mary Hill’s wise eyes met Betsy’s. Brown fingers reached to touch the single black curl which trailed below her cap. The woman gestured to her companions, half turned to speak in her own language. The men were unreadable, but whatever she’d said caused the boy to stare.
Betsy couldn’t help herself. She stared back. His brown skin, his tattoos and newly plucked scalp made him strange, but his face, now that she truly looked at him, seemed as familiar as any of her cousins.
Mary Hill said, “Three fine strong daughters are a blessing, but a Chief needs sons. This will help.” Searching among the mass of necklaces, brown fingers sought and removed one. Betsy saw it, made of tiny bones, bird’s claws, bear’s teeth and dainty feather tufts.
Her face a mask, Catherine Schuyler accepted the necklace and very slowly and ceremoniously, put it around her neck. Then she removed the locket she wore, one hung upon a satin ribbon. Inside, the girls knew, was a likeness of Papa.
“This is dear to me and mine. Look upon it and think well of Philip of the Pastures.”
The Mohawk woman received the locket and solemnly added it to those she already wore. Blue eyes gazed steadfastly into black. Betsy thought she saw a secret there, something between great ladies.
From her father came a kind of sigh. Relief—satisfaction—it was impossible to tell.
“Your son will be a strong arm to his clan.” Mama spoke again, in a gracious tone.
Betsy could feel Angelica shifting beside her, no doubt bursting with questions, but suddenly Papa made an expansive gesture that took in the entire group and said, “I give many presents in honor of your son’s manhood and Bear Clan.”
A line of slaves came out of the darkness. They carried blankets, rifles, bright knives and kettles. Last, a beautiful green silk petticoat and an armload of calico were presented to Mary Hill.
While their guests crowded close, their dark eyes and brown fingers investigating the treasure, Mrs. Schuyler motioned to the governess. With Betsy by one hand and Angelica by the other, she walked back to the house.
* * *
Later, after the girls had on their nightgowns, they ignored Mrs. Ross’ protests and trotted away to peep through the upstairs great room window one more time. Below they saw points of light—pipes glowing around the fire.
“Papa has given them horses, too.” Betsy said, pointing them out for little Peggy.
“She must be terribly important.” Angelica added her own estimation.
Three white-capped heads leaned close together. The girls could easily identify their father’s square body, now seated on a camp stool beside the relaxed squatting form of black Prince, his servant.
* * *
The next morning the girls awoke to bird song. In the low bed set beside the one they shared, Mrs. Ross snored softly, her braid of silver and brown trailing across the pillow.
She sleeps hard. The girls’ eyes met. They knew that slipping from the room would bring no rebuke—especially if they returned before she awoke.
A few steps later, once more gathered on the window seat, peering into a misty dawn, the girls watched the Indian boy as he stroked the neck of the gift horse. Others were awake, too, cutting meat from the remains of the joint and loading packs. Yawning and shivering, the sisters huddled close.
Horses loaded, tumplines set on foreheads, burdens shouldered, the Mohawks retreated, a silent line that vanished into autumnal mist. Only a blackened spot at the foot of the maple and the dew-heavy pavilion remained to prove that any of it had happened.
* * *
“Why did the Indians go away so soon?”
Until Angelica spoke, breakfast had been quieter than church.
“They got what they wanted,” Mrs. Schuyler said.
“But they usually stay for days.”
“Only when they don’t get what they want. Now, no more prattle about Mohawks, Angelica.”
* * *
In long coat and planter’s hat, while Prince held his horse, Philip Schuyler mounted. This morning he was off to oversee the northern farm. Betsy watched as her Papa, with unusual humility, bowed low over Mama’s long, elegant fingers. Catherine Schuyler received his ceremonious attention with an expression of cool abstraction.
In the upstairs great room, the two older girls and three young maids were set to the tedious task of sewing shifts for the slaves. They were cut, some already pin-pieced, so after their Mother got them started, the girls sighed and threaded their needles. Ice in their mother’s eyes clearly signaled the dangers of complaint. As they began to pin, Mama gave the order “no chattering,” then she and her own maids went to the other side of the room where small spinning wheels were set. They began to work upon the contents of a basket loaded with hanks of flax.
Sensing her mother’s upset, Betsy couldn’t concentrate. Soon, there were consequences.
“Good heavens, Miss! You’ve sewn the wrong pieces together.”
Betsy flushed, embarrassed.
An entire seam must now be snipped apart.
“Perhaps reading aloud will clear your head. Go and fetch Reverend Vanderdonk’s red book.”
Betsy’s heart sank. The book had been written by a famous Divinity Teacher, “for the moral instruction of children.” Not only was it written in Dutch, but it was most dreadfully dull.
“Yes, Mama.” Dutifully rising and dropping a curtsy, Betsy started for her parent’s bedroom. She walked upstairs slowly, hand trailing along the curves of the banister, watching the room below appear to shift and change at each ascending step.
She crossed the upper great hall, lifted a latch and went in to her parent’s bedroom. Since the war with the French was over, Papa had finished the interior of their house. Men from New York had come and installed green brocade wall paper—a design of yellow birds and trees set on a lime background. The background colors matched those of the bed curtains. A magnificent wall-to-wall carpet, also green, was the finishing touch. This had been woven in Amsterdam and made especially for this room.
Betsy used a step-stool to reach the shelf where the red book was kept, picking it out from among the others: geographies, surveyors’ studies, histories, Shakespeare and several Bibles. She sighed as she stepped down again, but as she began toward the door, Betsy’s eye caught the twinkle of something new pinned to the head curtains of the parental bed.
Crossing the room to get a better look, she recognized the Indian necklace, bird’s feet, bear teeth, beads, and tiny bones dangling. Holding that book of stern Calvinist dogma in her bosom, surrounded on every side by all the fashion and luxury Europe could provide, Betsy stood stock still, studying it.
* * *
During her fourteenth winter, Angelica was sent to visit Livingston kinfolk in New York City. She went from Albany with her head high, without an ounce of anything but anticipation.
Down the green lawn from the house, standing on their father’s quay where his river schooners loaded and unloaded, Betsy and Peggy cried while Angelica and her slave, Pearl, went on board. Angelica said good-bye to them tenderly, but she didn’t shed a tear. She was full of confidence, like a newly-fledged goose winging on its first flight to a far land it has never seen.
All winter, Betsy sorely missed her sister. Nothing seemed as much fun; all games grew stale. In the spring, after the ice had gone roaring like a white mountain down the Hudson, her beloved sister came home at last.
Betsy was overjoyed, but within hours she understood that everything which set Angelica apart had been enhanced by a winter in New York. From the British officialdom who set the tone, Angelica had learned the word “Provincial.” Within five minutes of landing she used it—with just the proper disdainful curl of a rosy lip.
She returned with new dresses in the English fashion, with new dances to teach her sisters, and a freedom in speaking to her elders that would have shocked her Grand-dams to the core.
A harpsichord and a Huguenot music master arrived as well. The poor fellow wore a flowing black wig and much lace at his neck and wrists. He stood goggling on the Schuyler’s quay as if he half-expected a savage to leap out of the brush and hack off his scalp then and there.
Catherine Schuyler took one look at the elegant little lady who arrived wearing rouge on lip and cheek and chattering about balls and “the charming Major Smith” and “the most engaging Lieutenant Jones” and knew her little girl was gone forever. The big bed that the three girls had shared since childhood wouldn’t do anymore. Betsy and Peggy were both sad when Angelica moved into a room by herself, along with Pearl and the brand new harpsichord.
Even Pearl had acquired airs in New York City. When Pearl’s mother, her temper stretched to the breaking point, finally took a strap to her, it set off a near riot. Pearl had refused what she haughtily termed “common nigger’s chores” in her mother’s garden plot, but when she refused to lift a finger in the kitchen, too, it had been the last straw.
“How dare she whip my Pearl!”
Angelica swept into the upstairs great room where her mother sat embroidering in the light of the long front windows. The drama of her entrance was somewhat diminished by the fact that she’d had to race all the way from the kitchen wing into the main house and then up the steep staircase. The tight lacing she now insisted upon had left her seriously short of breath.
“Pearl is mine!” Her face was scarlet with rage and exertion. “Her only work is the work I set!”
Betsy, who had been sewing, stared with a dropped jaw.
How did Angelica dare talk to Mama like that?
Catherine Schuyler lifted her level hazel gaze from the day’s hand-work, completely serene.
“Pearl is still a child, Angelica, and so are you. Her Mama and I took turns rocking you both together in the same cradle, so let me tell you that in this house, both of you—my woman’s child and my child—do what they are told. If her Mama requires her help, it is her duty to give it. If she refuses, it is her mother’s right and her mother’s duty to whip her. Pearl is yours, true, but as long as she lives here, she has duties to her mother as well. No mother’s wishes will be defied in my house.”
Within hours of that uproar, Mrs. Schuyler thought it proper to deliver a lecture to all three of her daughters.
“It is no shame to be in the kitchen, girls. That silly notion is why the English gentry often have such bad food. Their servants cheat them at the market and then cook the cheap stuff they get carelessly. The surest way to have things as you want them is to learn to do everything yourself. How, I ask, are you to teach a cook to produce what you desire, if you don’t know how to do it?”
In spite of the lecture, neither Angelica nor Pearl spent much time in the kitchen. Angelica could hardly be prevailed upon to sew an inch of anything now except embroidery. Her days were spent practicing music, studying French and reading poetry—or, that other plague that had come home with her—English romances.
Sitting with his wife before the evening fire, a bottle of Madeira open on the shining surface of a walnut table and set conveniently close by Prince, his gouty leg propped upon a pillow, Philip Schuyler was frequently heard to sigh, “Thank heaven we didn’t leave her at the Livingston’s for one minute longer.”
Angelica talked endlessly about life in the sophisticated city. Her favorite story was about Governor Moore’s daughter, who had climbed out the window into the strong arms of “a wonderfully handsome Captain.”
“You see, they had to run away because her parents refused to allow the marriage—even though—by breeding, her Captain was most suitable. Really, the only thing he lacked was money.”
Understandably, Major and Mrs. Schuyler found this tale not at all to their taste. Angelica had just turned fifteen, Betsy was fourteen and Peggy thirteen—all of marriageable age. Dutch mothers were not slow in telling their daughters where babies came from.
“And what if the rogue hadn’t married her as he’d promised, but simply carried her off somewhere and made use of her?” Papa was outraged. “Regrettably, in this day and age, such things are not uncommon. Then what? She’d be ruined, disgraced for the rest of her life, nothing but a burden to her family. In Roman times she would have had no alternative but to open her veins. It might be better if that were still the fashion.”
Mama Schuyler lifted a chestnut eyebrow slightly, but when she spoke again, it was simply to agree.
“Understand that what is fashionable is rarely moral. Of course, here in Albany, no young man would dare such a trespass. Even if a young woman committed an indiscretion before marriage, her suitor would never dare to abandon her. If her young man dared that, why he—and his family, too—would be ostracized.”
“Far be it from me to contradict, but times change everywhere, Mrs. Schuyler, even in Albany. My dear daughters, please understand that an elopement is a positive danger that a young woman should never, under any circumstances, undertake. How can you forget,” he turned to his wife, “that English officer who dishonored our cousin, sailing away and leaving the foolish trusting child with a bastard?”
The girls had already heard this tale. During the French War, officers had been quartered in the town.