Actions

Work Header

Finding Forgiveness

Chapter Text

September 1797

Soft footsteps padded down the hall, alerting Eliza that her husband was approaching the bedroom earlier than usual. Hastily pushing the pamphlet under her pillow, she closed her eyes and tried to force her breathing to sound even. The bedroom door opened. The footsteps stopped short of the dressing room.

“Eliza?” She heard him take a step towards the bed.

She stayed still, making herself relax and keeping her breathing regular.

He sighed. The blankets were adjusted over her, covering her shoulder, and she heard him blow out the candle beside the bed. Then he stepped away, into the dressing room. The sound of rustling cloth followed as he changed for bed. The thunk of her old chest closing told her he’d collected a quilt again.

The bedroom door closed with a soft snap.

She waited another moment, to be sure he was fully settled downstairs, before she pushed herself up and relit the candle. Pulling the crumpled papers out of their hiding place, she opened to the place she’d left off. “I inquired for Mrs. Reynolds and was shewn up stairs, at the head of which she met me and conducted me into a bed room. I took the bill out of my pocket and gave it to her. Some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.”*

She closed her eyes. Angelica had been right: she shouldn’t be reading this. But how could she not? How could she avoid it when everyone else in the city had read it? When everyone whispered about it as soon as they believed she was out of earshot? Not knowing what he’d written had been driving her mad. So earlier in the day, when she’d been out running errands, she’d paid a young lad a few coins to procure a copy for her.  

She firmly believed that she was better off knowing. Even so, reading the scandalous document wasn’t any easier. Seeing her husband’s public description of his betrayal hardly made the awful truth more bearable.

She’d had many images of the girl in her mind ever since his confession. Sometimes Mrs. Reynolds was scantily clad and overly made up, stinking of perfume as she lured Hamilton into her bedroom. Other times she wore a modest, oft mended dress, and a frightened expression, clearly searching for a hero to rescue her from her dreary circumstances. Sometimes she was blonde, other times brunette. Sometimes she smirked lasciviously; other times, she wore an expression of wide-eyed innocence, perhaps with a bruise marring her creamy white complexion.

After several nights of her imagination flipping between these images, she had considered asking Alexander to describe the girl for her. Then she decided against it. It didn’t matter. Whoever the girl was, whatever version of her was real, was wholly beside the point. It did nothing to exculpate her husband.

His words seemed to taunt her, ringing in her memory. The scene played out in her mind’s eye. Maria Reynolds accepted the bank notes, placing them on her dressing table, then turned back to thank him in a breathy tone. Her eyes would be hooded with desire. Hamilton leaned in, his face tipping close to hers, his hands running down her waist.

She opened her eyes, focusing in the wall opposite her. She felt sick. Closing the pamphlet, she stuffed it back underneath her pillow and blew out the candle. Too late. The words were burned into her memory. A long, painful night stretched out before her.

~*~

The bedroom door woke her, the faint light of dawn just visible between the crack in the curtains. She felt exhausted. Between that memory of the cursed pamphlet and waking to nurse William, she’d slept very little. She was careful to lie still again while Hamilton dressed and replaced the quilt in the old trunk. When he exited the dressing room, she felt his eyes on her. He stood there for a long minute, watching her, before he finally left the room.

She rolled over in bed when he’d finally gone, blinking owlishly at the floral canopy overhead. Her mind was blank, numb with exhaustion. Fragments of dreams floated around her memory, just out of reach. Tangled limbs and red lips.

William gave a wail.

She squeezed her eyes shut, exhaled slowly, then sat up to begin her day. Baby William was fed and changed first, his wails finally dying down to hiccuping breaths as Eliza carried him downstairs, calling for Johnny to follow. She tugged gently at the baby’s foot as she entered the front room. His large, shiny eyes flitted over her for a moment, before moving on, hungry to take in his surroundings. His chubby little legs jerked, kicking aimlessly at the air. She kissed the top of his head tenderly.

The maid had already set the table for breakfast. Eliza placed William into his bassinet and sat at the head of the table, slicing the bread as five year old Johnny waited patiently beside her. She nodded to the books on the side table. “Some of Goldsmith’s Rome, today,” she directed.

“Yes, Mama,” Johnny agreed. He collected the volume and opened it to the page he’d last left off, squinting at the words before he began to read aloud. “While the Romans were engaged with Hannibal, they carried on aa vi…” he hesitated.

She craned her neck to see the word. “Vigorous,” she read.

He nodded. “A vigorous war with Philip, king of Macedonia,” he over-pronounced the syllables of  Macedonia, a word Hamilton had helped him with weeks ago. She nodded approvingly as she buttered the slice of bread and placed it on the plate.

Johnny read about half the chapter before she allowed him to stop and sit for breakfast. She directed the maid to fetch her elder children and her husband. Her children were all seated and helping themselves to the bread slices by the time Hamilton entered the room.

“Good morning,” he wished, smiling at them all as he sat at the opposite end of the table from her.

His eyes were deeply shadowed and his face was pale in the bright morning light. She wondered if he, too, had found sleep difficult last night. He had an ink smudge on his chin, she noticed. An alternate day, a day before her life had become the mess it was now, suddenly flashed through her imagination: she would stand, lick her thumb, clean off the ink, scold him gently for working too hard, and kiss him softly. How she longed for that old, lost time.

“Morning, Papa,” Johnny greeted happily as he reached for another piece of bread.

Hamilton’s smile stretched a little wider, then faded when no one else at the table offered a greeting. Eliza glanced at Philip, who sullenly stared at his plate. Angelica was avoiding looking at her father, her bright eyes sneaking glimpses of her older brother. Alex and Jamie also seemed to be taking Philip’s queue to ignore their father.

Hamilton looked at their eldest and queried, “Are you feeling better, Pip?”

Philip raised one shoulder in a shrug.

Alex’s eyes tracked between his brother and his father. “Morning, Papa,” he said belatedly. Hamilton gave the boy a thin smile in return. Eliza glimpsed Philip raising his gaze at last to glare at his younger brother. Her husband didn’t seem to notice.

“Tea, sir?” the maid offered as Hamilton began to fill his plate.

He frowned. “I’d prefer coffee.”

“I…I’m sorry, sir…I—”

“We’re out of coffee,” Eliza supplied for the girl.

“I thought our order from the grocer came yesterday?”

“It did.” Her voice was carefully neutral, but the statement still found it’s mark. His face closed off, attempting to cover the obvious hurt as he finally understood this was the latest in the string of little punishments she’d been doling out over the past weeks.

“Sir?” the maid asked tentatively.

“Yes, I’d like some tea,” he said, giving her a tight smile.

Breakfast descended into a strained silence. She tried to fight down feelings of guilt. The children were only acting as they were because they sensed the animosity between her and Hamilton. She never wanted to involve them in this, or to make them choose sides. Angry as she was, she knew Hamilton adored their children. Even so, she didn’t know how to pretend more than she already was.

The doorbell sounded loud in the quiet of the room, and they all turned their heads to look towards the foyer as the maid hurried to answer the door. “That must be James,” Hamilton remarked.

Sure enough, James Inglis entered carrying a stack of papers and books that went to his chin.

“Good morning, Mr. Hamilton,” the law clerk greeted. “I have the briefs you asked for, and the books from Mr. Morris’s library that you wanted to borrow.”

“Thank you. Just set them in my office,” Hamilton directed.

“Won’t you stay for breakfast, Mr. Inglis?” Eliza offered.

The young man nodded eagerly. “Oh, yes, thank you ma’am.”

As he scurried off to unload his burden, Hamilton gave her a wry smile. “He only meets me here instead of my office because you always feed him, you know. He’s like a stray puppy.”

She softened her expression, though she didn’t quite return his smile. “I like puppies. Besides, he could do with some fattening up,” she replied.

Hamilton nodded in agreement.

The clerk barreled back into the room, heedless of the previously strained atmosphere. He settled into the empty set place beside Hamilton and happily scooped food onto his plate. Swallowing a forkful of food, he gave Eliza a wide smile. “It’s delicious, Mrs. Hamilton.”

She smiled and shook her head at him.

“There’s an insurance contract on my desk I want you to read over. Prepare some case briefs and write up a memorandum on how the company might attempt to avoid a payout. I’ll meet you at the office later today,” Hamilton told his clerk as they ate.

“Will you be in court this morning, sir?” Inglis asked.

Hamilton nodded.

“Do you have a trial today?” Eliza asked.

“No. Just some motions,” he answered, looking over at her. She saw the way his eyes lit with hope that she had addressed him at all. “I’m trying to get a suit dismissed for failing to state a cause of action.” His eyes landed back on his clerk. “Which is called?”

“A demurrer, sir,” Inglis answered, voice muffled by his hand covering his mouth after he’d forcefully swallowed his mouthful of food. “A responsive pleading used to test the sufficiency of a complaint or counterclaim, distinct from a motion to strike.”

“Which is the appropriate motion in what circumstance?”

“To challenge an answer, sir.”

“Or any defensive pleading. But very well done, Mr. Inglis,” Hamilton praised. “I need to go to the records room after court to do some title work. I should be at the office in the late afternoon.”

“Yes, sir,” Inglis nodded. “I’ll have the case briefs completed for you before then.”

Hamilton pushed back from the table and stood. “Well, time for school and work, I think.”

“Come on, Jamie. I’ll walk you to school,” Philip offered, brushing by his father without a glance. Jamie eagerly scrambled after his big brother. Alex rose to follow them, but paused, giving his father a hug.

“Good luck with your demur, Papa,” Alex said.

“Demurrer,” Hamilton corrected gently, placing a kiss against Alex’s forehead. “Thank you. Now off to school with you. Catch up with Pip.” The little boy obeyed, trailing after his brothers.

Inglis shoveled one last fork full of food into his mouth before standing himself and following the boys into the foyer.

Hamilton hesitated at the head of the table. He always used to kiss her goodbye when he left for work. The habit was ingrained enough that he’d taken a step towards her without thinking. Rather than stop, he strolled over to the bassinet and smiled down at their baby. He stooped over and picked him up, holding him high in the air.

“Who’s my sweet boy?” he cooed.

William’s arms waved in the air and a pudgy hand landed on Hamilton’s nose. He laughed. William’s big eyes stared down at his father in wonder. Eliza caught herself smiling as Hamilton lowered the baby back into the bassinet. He placed a tender kiss to the baby’s cheek.

Swiveling to the table, he gave another kiss to Johnny, who twisted in his chair to hug his father. “Love you, Papa,” Johnny declared, his little arms wrapping tightly around his father’s neck.

“I love you, too,” he answered.

When Hamilton leaned over towards Angelica, however, the girl shrank away. He simply patted her on the shoulder instead. As he moved away, Eliza noticed her daughter looking after her father sadly, almost regretfully, as though even as she rejected him she wished for a kiss goodbye.

 “Don’t forget Angelica and John’s dinner tonight,” Eliza reminded him before he could leave the room.

“I won’t,” he assured her, turning back. He looked like he wanted to say more; he stared at her for a long moment. “Have a good day, Betsey.”

She nodded and returned her gaze to her breakfast. He waited a beat before turning to leave once more. Placing a finger to her mouth, she told herself she was glad he still hadn’t tried to kiss her.

Her day settled in to her familiar routine. Angelica’s tutor arrived shortly after the boys had gone, and Eliza set Johnny to his reading. She cared for William, oversaw the servants and assisted with the household chores, and looked in from time to time on Johnny and Angelica, to be sure they were attending their studies. She kept herself busy, fully occupied with work and the children so that she might not dwell on the unpleasant reality of her life.

~*~

The gentlemen had all almost immediately retired to a separate parlor for a game of loo. A collective groan caught Eliza’s attention as she walked by the room, the cards in the men’s hands nearly obscured by a thick cloud of tobacco smoke. They all had a glass of brandy near to hand.

She shook her head and moved on, nearly bumping into Angelica. Her sister was dripping with diamonds and wore a dress Eliza was tempted to call indecent, no matter how many times Angelica insisted it was the height of fashion in London. The flash of jealousy she’d felt when Hamilton’s eyes had lingered on her sister’s figure had been entirely new.

“Oh, Betsey, there you are. I’m just going to check on the hors d'oeuvres. Will you go make sure everyone is having an enjoyable time?” By which Angelica meant she should make sure all the ladies had a full glass of wine.

Eliza shook the dark thoughts from her mind and smiled. “Of course.”

“Oh, I don’t know how I survived without you,” Angelica grinned, kissing her cheek as she glided away down the hallway.

“I think it’s admirable,” Jennet Goulet Troup whispered as Eliza approached the doorway to the parlor where the ladies were sitting. “I never would have been able to come to a social function so soon after such a scandal.”

“Oh, I know,” Mary King whispered back. “The poor dear. Having to smile and converse, knowing everyone had heard. I simply cannot imagine.”

Eliza shrank back from the entryway, leaning against the wall. She couldn’t do this. Hearing the whispered pity was too much. Taking a deep breath, she stepped back to the parlor where the men were at their card game.

“Alexander?”

He looked up from his cards with a frown. “Yes, dear?”

“I’m afraid I’m not feeling very well. Might we go?”

His eyes widened and he nodded, pushing back from the table. “I’ll have the carriage brought around immediately. Please excuse me, gentlemen.”

“Would you like to lie down upstairs? I could send for a doctor,” John offered.

“No, thank you. I’d just like to get home.”

Hamilton moved past her, careful not to touch. John rose from the table as well, coming to stand beside her. He placed a caring hand on her shoulder. “Are you sure there’s nothing I can get you? Some water?”

She smiled and shook her head.

“What’s wrong?” Angelica asked, coming back from the kitchen.

“Eliza’s feeling unwell,” John informed his wife.

Angelica hurried to her side and felt her forehead. “No fever. What’s the matter?”

“I’m just feeling a little out of sorts,” she pleaded, easing away from her sister.

Angelica frowned deeply and seemed to intuit what was wrong. “Did someone say something to upset you?” she whispered, her lips barely moving so no one around them would hear.

Eliza shook her head. Tears of anger and humiliation burned her eyes, but she refused the let them fall. “I just want to go home.”

“The carriage is here,” Hamilton announced, walking rapidly back down the hall towards her.

She pushed past the three of them, desperate to get away. Clambering into the carriage, she leaned against the far door and stared out the window, studiously ignoring her husband as he settled across from her. He stank of tobacco smoke. He knocked on the wall and Robert, their driver, snapped the reigns. The horse’s hooves and the carriage wheels clattered over the uneven road.

They rode in uncomfortable silence for a time. Eliza kept her eyes trained on the empty New York streets. The tears began to leak out and she brushed her hand over her cheek hastily to hide them.

Her husband sighed. “Betsey,” he began.

“Don’t.”

“What happened?”

Anger rose up within her. The gall of him, to ask such a question. She snapped her gaze to him, his bright eyes visible for just a moment in the light of a passing street lamp. A derisive chuckle fell from her lips. “What happened?” she repeated with disbelief.  

“Did someone say something to upset you?” he asked, unknowingly mimicking her sister.

“I’m not upset,” she said sharply. “I’m livid. I’m humiliated.”

“Eliza,” he started again.

“You embarrass me.”

She regretted the words almost before she finished saying them. She’d meant to lash out, to hurt him, but she knew that statement would cut him deeper than she intended. With three words, she validated every insecure thought he’d ever had, undoing a lifetime of reassurance. The image of her sweet husband lying beside her in bed in the early days of their marriage came to her. “I just want to make you proud,” he’d whispered to her in the dark.

More tears leaked from her eyes. She didn’t bother to wipe them away.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

She ignored him.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’ll never cease to condemn myself for making such a mistake.”

Her fists clenched in her lap. “A mistake,” she echoed coldly, her temper flaring. “A kiss in a moment of passion might be called a mistake. You were sleeping with her for a year. Giving away our savings to pay for your trysts. Then you wrote more than ninety pages on the subject and published it for the world to read. You were acting with calculated intent. That isn’t a mistake.”

“I know. I know,” he said. She heard him take a shuddering breath. “I just…I thought things were getting better. That we were getting better.”

She snorted derisively.  

He stayed quiet for several minutes. When he finally spoke again, his voice sounded tight. “What do you want me to do, Betsey?”

She kept her head turned to the window.

He let out a long exhale. “This isn’t working. You aren’t happy. But I don’t know what to do.”

She squeezed her eyes shut.

“Do you want me to leave? Do you want a divorce? Just tell me what to do. What can I do to make things right?”

“Nothing,” she replied flatly.

He fell silent for the rest of the trip.

When they arrived home, he held his hand out to assist her from the carriage. She glared at him until he stepped back. She pushed through the front door and went straight upstairs, closing the bedroom door with a decisive snap and leaning against it. Tears were still leaking from her eyes. She rubbed her hands over her face.

After a few deep breaths to calm herself, she pushed away from the door and retreated to the dressing room, where she fought her way out of her expensive gown. Changing into her night gown, she sat at her vanity and began brushing out her hair. A pale face and red eyes stared back at her from the mirror, misery etched in every line.

She hated this. She didn’t want people talking about her, pitying her. She didn’t want to be angry with her husband. She didn’t want to hurt him or to punish him. She just wanted her life back.

They can’t go on this way. She’s miserable: he’d been right about that. Staring at her reflection, she asked herself seriously: did she want a divorce? She’d refused immediately the last time he offered, but perhaps she should have considered it more carefully.

She tried to imagine what her life would be like without him. Taking the children to Albany, never to see him again. What would she do for money? Placing that burden on her parents and siblings seemed a bit much. Perhaps she could marry again. She was young still, in her child bearing years with an affluent family name. She wouldn’t want for a husband long, she supposed. One of those great landowners she’d been meant to marry in the first place.

Nausea surged through her at the very thought of it. And what about Hamilton? She doubted he’d survive losing her and the children.

She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t leave him.

For better or worse, her Hamilton was a part of her. Her love for him was so deeply rooted within her, she doubted death itself could fully disentangle his soul from hers. But where did that leave her?

His question from the carriage came back to her, his strangled plea for her to tell him how to make things right. Her answer had been true, she realized. Nothing he could do would make up for his sin. No amount of groveling would undo his betrayal.

She can’t keep punishing him forever. He can’t remain the villain who broke her heart for the rest of their lives. There was only one way forward.

If she didn’t intend to leave him, she would need to find a way to forgive him.

But how?

She climbed into bed and pulled the pamphlet from its hiding place beneath her pillow. Opening to the first page, she started it again. His violent insecurity and defensiveness screamed out at her once more, hardly concealed by his clear attempt at dispassionate, logical persuasion. She reread his account of the Congressional investigation that had nearly killed him. She recalled holding him in her arms as he collapsed into bed each night, emotionally and physically exhausted from trying to prove his integrity to men who would never be satisfied.

I can never cease to condemn myself for the pang, which it may inflict in a bosom eminently intitled to all my gratitude, fidelity and love. But that bosom will approve, that even at so great an expence, I should effectually wipe away a more serious stain from a name, which it cherishes with no less elevation than tenderness.”*

She had barely marked the passage the when she’d first read it, ignoring it as a token apology. Her heart clenched as she read the words now. An apology, yes, but also something more. He’d been reassuring himself of her love, telling himself she would understand the need to protect his professional reputation.

Footsteps padded down the hallway later that night. She’d blown out the candle some time ago, but she was still awake when he opened the door. She feigned sleep as she had every other night, forcing her breath to be even. She listened to him change into a nightshirt. The dull, familiar thunk of the trunk followed as he collected the quilt to sleep downstairs.

He was tip-toeing out of the room when she turned over.

“Alexander?” she whispered in the dark.

He froze in place. “I thought you were sleeping.”

“Are you coming to bed?”

“What?”

“Come to bed.”

He didn’t move at first, waiting, as though this were a set up for a cruel trick. Finally, he stepped over to the bed, hung the spare quilt over the foot, and slowly slid in beside her. She turned away, not able to touch him quite yet. The mere inches between them felt like a bottomless chasm.

“Alexander?”

“Yes?”

“That wasn’t true, what I said.”

“What?”

“You don’t embarrass me.”

She felt him adjust onto his back.

“Yes, I do,” he whispered. 

She sighed. Flexing her hand once, she slowly reached back without turning over. Her fingertips brushed over his hand, and she clutched on to it. He clutched back tightly, almost painfully, as though he were dangling from a precipice with only her hand to keep him from falling. She ran her thumb along his knuckles.

She didn’t know how to fix them any better than he did.

But this felt like a start.