Home of Congressman Jonathan Dayton, New York, December 20, 1790
Where is he? On tiptoe, craning my neck, I searched the crowded room for Alexander Hamilton. I never forgot our first meeting . . . our gazes locked…time stood still. Oh, for a glimpse of those violet eyes.
I jumped. My husband’s eyes blazed as h e draped my cloak over my shoulders. “We’re leaving.” He steered me toward the door.
“James, what are you—” We dashed into the frosty evening to our fancy carriage—hired for tonight. I slid inside, shivering.
“Home, post haste,” he ordered the coachman and climbed in next to me.
I caught my breath. “James, what happened in there?”
He cleared his throat, his jaw grinding. It chilled me more than the cold seat seeping through my skirts. “We’re leaving town and not coming back. When we get home, start packing.”
Fear clutched my heart. “What have you done now? Cease your nattering and tell me what happened,” I demanded, past politeness. “Why must we flee this time?” My voice rose to a desperate shriek.
He drew a deep breath but still wouldn’t look me in the eye. “Jon and I were discussing our business venture—”
“Which business venture? Keeping track of your schemes makes my head spin.” I flattened my palms to my throbbing temples.
“The land parcels in Ohio. Our words got heated. I questioned his honesty in handling my half of the investment.” His voice faltered. “Before I could blink, he challenged me to a duel.”
I fell back against the cushion as if struck.
“I have no intention of dueling him,” he declared. “Ah’m too young to die on a field of honor. Hence, we are leaving town.”
“James, you—” I wished I could spew forth ‘coward’ or ‘weasel’ but I never spoke to my husband in this manner. “You cannot run from a challenge. He will find you, surely.”
“Not if we reach the Pine Barrens of New Jersey by tomorrow nightfall. We have three days to abscond,” he mumbled, gazing through the window. “I need return this vehicle, purchase a cheap one and a decent draft horse—”
I interrupted, “And do you plan for us to hide in the Pine Barrens indefinitely?”
His shoulders relaxed and he tugged at his lace collar. The rise and fall of his chest slowed as he settled into the seat. “Of course not.” He shook his head. “We’re going to Philadelphia.”
“By God, that is over two hundred miles away!” My fingers curled into fists.
“And a fine place to thrive, as say all the folk I know there.” He turned to face me. “My crony Sam Bass discovered abundant opportunity for advancement. Charles Olton reported the class barriers are not so high. There’s hope of hurdling them.” He waved a hand as if this move were across the road. “Hence, I shall flourish there.” He returned his gaze to the darkness outside.
I leant forward and grasped his sleeve. “And Jon won’t find you hurdling over all these class barriers?” I challenged.
He glanced my way, brow cocked. “He’ll not follow me there. He’ll die in the bed he was birthed in. But for us, we shall explore the new frontier. Then mayhap later on, we kin move west.”
He’d plotted all this between shirking on a duel and dashing into this carriage. Exasperation planted a fiery ball in my stomach. Although we’d moved four times in three years, for economic reasons—nonpayment of rent, joblessness—never had we fled two hundred miles. Fighting my anguish, I wondered . . . hmm, this move could add a spark to my life.
I didn’t realize until late that night what that spark was.
Philadelphia, the Nation’s Capital…
…the new Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, lived there.
Mon., December 20, 1790
I preened like a fairy princess draped in my new crimson gown of brocade adorned with Brussels lace and pointed bodice. Specks of powder dusted my rolled hairpiece, my cheeks rouged like cherries on alabaster. My flash fawney, a string of pearls and earbobs, completed the ensemble. Posing at the looking glass, I twirled. The skirt whooshed as it swirled round me. After spending all day chasing tots, I became a debutante again.
I looked forward to this holiday soirée at the home of Jon Dayton, one of Alex’s friends from the Congress. Our coach pulled up to his door as a man and woman dashed into the coach in front of us, far grander than ours. The man looked like James Reynolds. Is that his wife or one of his doxies? I wondered as it rumbled away.
A servant ushered us into Dayton’s parlour. As we mingled, the delightful strains of a string quartet floated through the air. “There he is.” I gestured to Alex as I spotted Jon wandering the room alone. Hunched over, he puffed on a cheroot.
“There you are, my good man.” Alex halted the congressman.
Jon gave us a shaky smile. “Good eve, Alex, Eliza.” He bowed first to Alex, then to me.
“You appear distraught.” My husband placed a hand on Jon’s shoulder in almost motherly concern.
Jon’s darting eyes and fidgety hands warned me. Uh-oh, something is amiss. He took a deep breath, wiping sweat from his brow. “Sorry. My mind is elsewhere. I must tell you, as my most trusted friends—” He released a sigh. “I’ve challenged a man to a duel.”
I lifted my fan to hide my gaping mouth. “Saints above, Jon, who?” Alex asked him.
“J—Jimmy Reynolds,” he stuttered getting the name out, as if he could not believe it himself.
“Reynolds?” Alex shook his head. “I just saw him leave. Why, you’re closer than most brothers. What brought this on?”
“You know Jimmy and his Scots temper—sorry, no offense—we entered an argument, it grew hostile, and we’re to meet at the Weehawken riverbank Friday next. Alex, I must ask you—will you be my second?”
Raw panic shook me. Dear God, why couldn’t Jon ask Aaron Burr? He was everybody’s second. I glanced about but didn’t see Burr among the guests. “Alex—” I clutched my husband’s sleeve, tracing finger marks in the velvet. “I want you nowhere near that dreadful place.”
“I shall be honored, Jon.” He faced me, his eyes stating, silence, little wife. Anger drew my lips tight.
After Jon excused himself, I turned to Alex. “Oh, poor Maria. I wish I could console her.” I still seethed with anger at my husband, but at least he wouldn’t be the one dueling. “She’s a bright girl from a respectable family Why did she settle for the likes of James Reynolds?”
“Who knows what attracts one to another?” He shook his head. “Since James lost his bid for the Continental Congress, he’s been branded a loser in our circles. Let’s hope he loses the duel, too.”
Phila., Wednesday, August 3, 1791
“Hell’s bells, Maria, ye think I’m made o’gold?” James thundered as I entered our parlour laden with packages: a bottle of Madeira, a satin bonnet to match my new pelisse, and kid gloves, having left my old pair at the White Rose Coffeehouse.
“These are hardly extravagances. After all, you boasted you made three hundred dollars last month.” I relished reliving the moment when he showered coins and notes all over our bed, foretelling how I was “coming into money.”
I dumped the packages onto our new Rococo settee. “Do you want your wife looking like a slattern?” I flicked his gold watch fob, which he’d bought because “Hugh Dugan has a new one.”
“Nay, but you ain’t Mrs. James Monroe, either, so dinna try puttin’ on airs like her.”
“Mrs. Monroe couldn’t get a rise out of you if you downed three scores of oysters. She’s frigid—so I hear.” I smirked, slapping his thigh with my new gloves.
“At least she reads all the books she owns. Did you ever read any of these flub-dubs?” He swiped at my row of leather-bound books, knocking Volume I of Shakespeare to the floor.
“Of course I’ve read them. Twicet and thricet.” I picked up my well-worn Bard tome and replaced it on the shelf. “I read the Bard’s plays over and over. But I never discuss England with strangers. Too dangerous these days.”
“You know more about Macbeth than about me,” James scoffed. He stood the new Madeira bottle on our table and uncorked it with the screw he wore on his key chain.
“All you read are those tittle-tattle sheets,” I accused, and rightly. He paraded his brotherhood with the scandal mongering Thom Callender, whose weekly tabloid tarnished many a sterling reputation, from senators down to their stable boys.
“Aye, and mayhap our names will appear in them someday.” He poured wine into his pewter tankard he’d named Douglas. Hard-swilling males named their tankards and their members. James bestowed “Canute the Great” upon his member—but I hadn’t the heart to tell him it was less than accurate.
“I keep our private life private. So don’t blabber to Callender about what a tigress I am,” I teased as he poured me a goblet of wine.
“Nay, I shan’t. But ah’m glad you brought it up. Sit down, Maria, we need to talk.” He clasped my fingers and walked me to one of our matching Chippendale chairs—his last splurge from a profitable venture—and pushed down on my shoulders till I sat.
“Brought what up? Talk about what?” I trembled. I never knew from one day to the next what—or who—James would bring home.
“Have you more ‘golden geese’? I hope so. We can use some more plate and furniture.” We moved “up” thrice since settling here. We now dwelt in a three-story brick townhome on Pine Street with one outbuilding. We always rented. “Or can we finally buy a house of our own?” I fixed my gaze upon my husband of seven years. Our passion and lust matured into love and devotion, but the desire lingered on.
He’d been an apprentice and journeyman goldsmith until the Revolution, but he hadn’t the capital nor the patience to rise to master. He made a gold chamber pot for his most famous client, Thomas “all men are created equal” Jefferson, and his reputation grew from there. But goldsmithing wasn’t enough for James. He lived by his wits and one scheme after another. He groomed and dressed as a dandy, but when he opened his mouth, he made it obvious he hailed from a Glasgow slum.
I harbored mixed feelings about it—I admired his shrewdness, yet he courted disaster, speculating in land deals and currency. With my urging, he ran for the Continental Congress but lost to his friend Dayton. No hard feelings. James didn’t want the job. Too much traveling. As I gazed at his muscular figure ’neath his tight britches, a familiar surge of desire warmed me. With his swarthy good looks and persuasive charm, he made a fitting match for politics.
With his political run over, he served a brief sentence for counterfeiting. He posted bail, but our landlord evicted us. I stayed by his side as we trawled the streets of New York in the dead of winter, scrounging for lodgings.
“No golden geese this time, my pet. Not yet, anyways.” He took a sip.
Disappointment crushed me. “I fear this announcement more than all your other schemes. What is it?” I gulped the fruity wine, hoping to be tipsy for this.
He scraped his chair back and sat, fingering his watch. Whenever he fiddled with his watch or rings from Ben Franklin’s estate auction, I knew something vexed him.
“Maria…” His eyes pierced mine. My heart sank farther. “We were well on our way to being gentry till this morn. I lost it all on a land deal.” His eyes dropped. “For the now, we stand on the line between hard up and impoverished.”
My ire heated me head to toe. “What about the two thousand you invested?” I struggled to steady my voice. “The shares in the Bank of the United States?” Alexander Hamilton created the bank earlier this year, although James didn’t like the Treasury Secretary. He called him a snob to his face. “How could you be so irresponsible?” I grabbed the nearest object, a brass candlestick, but he snatched it away afore I could fling it.
“It looked like a sure thing…but ah’ll make more.” Another of his promises. “Til then, we’re one hunk of bread, these wine bottles, and a dram of whisky from malnourishment. And five days from eviction. The rent comes due Monday.”
I shook with fear. “There you go, pulling it out from under us, as you do time and time again! When will you learn, James?” I had some coin hidden. But after that—what? Too distraught to even look at him, I swept away tears of exasperation with my clenched fist.
“Money slips through your fingers like shucked oysters.” My voice shook. My entire body shook. “I know not how much more of this I can take. What’s next, the almshouse?”
As he stroked my cheek, my rage yielded to pity. He’d become poor in an endless quest to be rich. “No, we’ll never resort to the almshouse. Before we met, I lived in a stable whilst seeking work, too proud to apply to the almshouse as a pauper.”
I released a deep breath. “Oh, James, I love you so, but I feel trapped, with nowhere to go but up and down with you.” Desperate for a solution, I began spewing forth ideas about what I could do: “I can take in laundry. Or work as a cook. Or a whitewasher. Or a soap maker.” I paced the floorboards, wringing my hands. Then a much better source of income struck me. “I can give violin instruction to those toffynoses in the court end of town!”
He cleared his throat and shook his head. “Bah to all that. Listen. I know a brilliant way to make money—a lot more money—in a shorter time than ever before. And it involves Alexander Hamilton, Mr. Treasury himself.”
At the sound of his name, I heated up. That recurring memory made me tingle all over: the first time I’d met Mr. Hamilton, his violet eyes nestled on my décolletage, his russet hair glinted in the candlelight, his lips kissed my hand—my heart surged just thinking about it.
“What about Al—him?”
“I dinna know the chap intimately, but I do know his weakness: beautiful women. Adams once said ‘Hamilton’s ambitions have their source in a superabundance of secretions he could not find whores enough to draw off.’” He clucked, as if in disapproval. “Tis not idle gossip. If a curmudgeon like Adams knows about it, tis true. Secondly—” He refilled Douglas to the rim. “Hamilton recently got embroiled in a payoff scheme, being seen with a trull. He favors paying hush money, rather than harm his reputation. Hence—we can chip away at that weak spot and wear it down farther.”
I shook my head. “Already I do not like this. Underneath the bad metaphors, you are saying you can bilk Al—Secretary Hamilton out of some money.”
“Tis not bilking, dear wife. He shall git something much more valuable in return.”
I paused. “I’m afraid to ask, but . . . such as?”
He cracked a smile and winked. “You.”