Eliza tipped her head back against the cushioned bench to soak in the warm spring sunshine. A brightly colored bird chirruped overhead, an early returner and a welcome sight after the long winter. The warm breeze carried the pleasant scent of blooming honeysuckle.
Her fifteen year old nephew, Alexander Malcolm, bent down to pat the old retriever dog at their feet. The dog belonged to Sidney Holly, her dear daughter’s husband, but she hadn’t the heart the leave the old beast on his bed when she rambled in the garden. His shaggy golden coat and floppy triangle ears reminded her fondly of Old Peggy. She hadn’t realized how much she missed having a dog in the house until the silly creature had laid his head upon her knee while she was having breakfast in the informal dining room one morning.
She smiled at the lad who’d so sweetly come to call on her today, his own shiny dark eyes and sandy hair bearing a strong resemblance to dog he was still petting. Having brought up six young men herself, she knew visiting his aged aunt wouldn’t be high on his list of favorite past times. She appreciated him taking the time to do so anyway.
“How are your studies going? I hear from your mother that you’re preparing for Columbia?” she inquired.
“I’m to start in the fall, Aunt Hamilton,” he confirmed.
She laid her head back against the bench to take in the view of the valley as she listened to her nephew recount his recent visit to the exalted school. Buildings now dotted the once empty landscape, but the view was no less beautiful than the first time she’d seen it on that peaceful morning so many years ago. Another warm, soft breeze rustled through the honeysuckle vines. She sighed, a hint of a smile playing across her features.
Perhaps she’d have Abigail set her tea out here today.
Footsteps crunching lightly on the stone path to the bower caught her ear as the thought crossed her mind. Her maid approached with a small silver tray in hand. “Ma’am,” Abigail curtsied and held out the tray, which bore a single card.
James Monroe, the card declared.
She frowned deeply. “What has that man come to see me for?”*
“Why, Aunt Hamilton,” young Alexander said, craning his head to read the card, “Don’t you know, it’s Mr. Monroe, and he’s been President, and he is visiting here now in the neighborhood…”*
She tuned out the boy’s chatter, her mind racing.
James Monroe. His name conjured memories better left in the past.
Her husband’s face, pale and tense, came back to her as strongly as if he were standing before her now. She’d never seen him look so wretched. She’d been seated by the fireplace in their bedroom, she recalled, finally freed from bedrest after giving birth to little William. She remembered thinking he was coming in to lie down himself, sure he must be ill with how very pale he’d gone. But he’d walked past their bed, straight to her, and knelt in front of her, his head hung low.
He told her everything.
The confession lived still in her memory with strangely vivid detail, as if it had been a scene in a play that she’d seen a thousand times. A consequence, she supposed, of all the hours spent turning the words over and over in her head: every line, every tear, the way his voice hitched and broke as he spoke. She remembered the weight of his hands resting on her knees so perfectly she felt she could almost reach out and take them in her own.
When he came at last to the circumstances which prompted him to record the shameful matter in writing and publish it for the world, she recalled the deep, terrible anger that had flashed through his damp eyes. “If that damnable Monroe would just admit what happened at the meeting, I wouldn’t need to publish it.” He’d spit the name like poison. “He had the letters. I know he leaked them to the press. And now he won’t even confirm their proper context.”
She hadn’t cared a fig about Monroe in the moment. Monroe had never promised her his fidelity and love. Her husband was the one breaking her heart; he was responsible for all the misery and pain befalling her.
Once the pamphlet had actually been published, however, she found she too was angry with Monroe. Hamilton had betrayed her; Monroe had turned her devastation into a public spectacle. Had Monroe simply confirmed the conversation he’d had with her husband all those years ago in Philadelphia, Hamilton never would have published that cursed pamphlet.
“Ma’am?” Abigail asked, pulling her from the rush of memories.
Her voice was low as she answered, “I will see him.”*
“Very good, ma’am. I seated him in the main parlor.”
Eliza rose and followed Abigail back up the path to the house, her nephew and the old hound close behind her like shadows. The cheery yellow paint of the Grange gleamed in the bright sunshine. Abigail stayed straight on the path to the kitchen, whistling for the dog to follow, while Eliza turned and mounted the steps to enter on the main floor. Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the dimmer light when she stepped inside, but she pushed on through the hall nonetheless, sure to keep her spine straight.
Monroe sat in the old armchair near the fire, where her beloved husband used to sit and read the paper on Sundays. The Virginia gentleman’s handkerchief was pressed to his mouth to stifle a cough when she entered, but he rose immediately when he saw her and bowed low, playing at respectful. He looked smaller, now, she noted, withered and gray; nothing like the ambitious young man she remembered. She wondered how much of that was from his presidency, which invariably had the effect of aging men savagely, or how much was from the recent loss of his wife. He’d come to New York to live with his daughter after Mrs. Monroe’s passing, she’d read this fall. She knew all too well how the loss of one’s spouse changed you, aged you. Her heart might have softened towards another man.
She pointedly didn’t ask him to resume the seat. The lack of polite overture seemed to leave him wrong footed. He cleared his throat in the awkward silence and tucked his handkerchief back in his pocket.
“Mrs. Hamilton, it’s been a very long time since we last met,” he began, in a measured, practiced tone. “Time has since brought it’s softening influences, and we are both now nearing our graves. I think it’s time we let our past differences be forgiven and forgotten.”*
Her lips thinned as she stared hard him across the parlor. The nerve of the man, to come into her home and speak as though they were equals in sin. She had no need to beg his forgiveness, and his honeyed words masquerading as magnanimity were hardly the way to go about asking for hers.
“Mr. Monroe, if you have come to tell me that you repent, that you are sorry, very sorry, for the misrepresentations and the slanders, and the stories you circulated against my dear husband, if you have come to say this, I understand it. But, otherwise, no lapse of time, no nearness to the grave, makes any difference.”*
Monroe blinked once, as though having trouble processing her answer.
She kept her expression firm.
After a long silence, he adjusted his rectangular spectacles over his gray eyes, collected his hat, and left. She laid her hand over her stomach and tried to settle herself as she stared at Hamilton’s empty chair.
Young Alexander gave an impressed whistle somewhere behind her. She glanced back and saw him grinning from ear to ear. No doubt he was surprised that his dear old aunt would speak so to the likes of the great James Monroe.
“He ranks far below your Uncle Hamilton in importance and prestige,” she informed the lad, her voice sure and steady. “Never let anyone tell you otherwise.” Had her beloved lived, that man never would have ascended to the presidency in the first place, of that she was certain. To think Monroe thought himself worthy to occupy the same office as the great General Washington….
“Mama?” Her younger daughter swept into the room, slightly out of breath and rubbing flour from her hands onto her apron as she went. Abigail would have told her about the unexpected guest; the protective child must have hurried up here as soon as she heard. “Is everything all right?”
“Just fine, dear heart.”
“You seem upset.”
She forced a smile; she’d not let that man cast a pall over a perfectly lovely day. “Not at all. I was just thinking about afternoon tea. I think I’ll take it in the garden today, while I work on balancing the accounts for the Orphan Society.”
Her daughter looked skeptical, but she nodded. “I’ll let Abigail know to bring you a tray.”
Eliza held out her arms to her nephew. “Thank you for coming to see me today, my dear. I’ll free you to enjoy the rest of the afternoon as you please.”
“I always love visiting you, Aunt Hamilton,” Alexander argued, sounding perfectly genuine. He was still grinning as he stepped in to the hug. She imagined today had been more entertaining for him than most, she thought as she squeezed him tight.
When her nephew and daughter had gone, she paced over to the far side of the sofa to retrieve the account books and her lap desk. Her daughter had suggested she make use of the desk in the library when she was named director of the New York Orphan Asylum, but she’d refused. That desk belonged to her husband, alone. His completed papers had all been collected and carefully preserved, but everything else remained just as he left it. Quills and ink powder lay in the drawers beside blank pages, awaiting brilliant thoughts that would never come.
She cleared her throat and made her way back down the hall, heading towards the honeysuckle bower once more.
As much as she tried to put Monroe and his unwelcome visit from her mind, she thought again of his words as she walked along the garden path with her desk. So much time had passed since those days when Maria Reynolds had plagued her mind. But time alone was not sufficient to forgive those who’d never shown remorse for their actions. She’d not wipe the slate clean merely to satisfy the man’s conscience because he felt the weight of his own mortality.
Forgive and forget, he’d said.
Her husband’s face came to mind again, pale and wretched, his head hanging low. He, too, had asked for her forgiveness that day. She hadn’t known how to give it to him then. Of course, in the end, he’d done so much more than merely ask.
When she was young, she used to think of forgiveness as a destination, a state of mind to be achieved. She’d been convinced that one day, she would wake up, and the pain would have disappeared as if it had never been. She’d forgive him, and thoughts of his betrayal would never trouble her again.
Now, though, she thought of forgiveness more as a choice: a calculated determination that the love, laughter, and joy a person brought to one’s life outweighed the pain of their misdeed. She’d made that choice every day since her husband’s confession. However much pain he’d brought her, he’d brought her infinitely more joy.
She lowered herself back onto the cushioned bench under the bower, his favorite spot in the garden. He was supposed to have been her whole life. That had been the deal. She’d spent the better part of two decades supporting him, caring for him, loving him no matter what. And then he was just gone.
That had hurt more than any thing else he'd ever done.
She tried to fill the void he left with good works, with meaning. She directed the Orphan Asylum, and spoke out for causes he believed in, and tried to preserve his memory for posterity as best she could. But life could feel so empty without him by her side.
She was wiping the dampness from her eyes when another warm breeze off the Hudson wafted through the honeysuckle and across her face like a soft caress. A gentle reminder to draw her from her melancholy thoughts, she understood. Perhaps they were temporarily apart, but not even death could dissever two souls so entangled as theirs.
Her Hamilton had been her anchor in the darkness, a steadying presence as the winds of life blew cold and everything permanent around her seemed to crumble. And so he remained. She felt him there with her, in the warmth of the spring sunshine on her face and the scent of honeysuckle and the birdsong overhead. His love enveloped her always: her guardian angel.
She’d forgiven him long ago.