- Pages: 368 Pages
- Series: The Alex & Eliza Trilogy
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
- ISBN: 9781524739621
An Excerpt From
Alex & Eliza
Mansion on the Hill
Albany, New York November 1777
Like a latter-day Greek temple, the Schuyler family mansion sat atop a softly rounded hill outside Albany. Just over a decade old, the magnificent estate, called the Pastures, was already known as one of the finest houses of the New York state capital by dint of its exquisite furnishings and trimmings. The pièce de résistance was The Ruins of Rome, a set of hand-painted grisaille wallpapers decorating the home’s second-floor ballroom, which Philip Schuyler had brought back from a year-long trip to England in 1762.
The local gentry was impressed by the mansion’s square footage and elegant appointments, but they were more taken with the general’s and Mrs. Schuyler’s impressive pedigrees: Philip was descended from the Schuylers and the Van Cortlandts, two of the oldest and most prestigious families in New York, while his wife, Catherine, was a Van Rensselaer, the single most prominent family in the northern half of the colony, whose tenure stretched all the way back to the Dutch days of the early 1600s. Rensselaerwyck, as their estate was known, encompassed more than half a million acres, an unimaginably vast parcel, rivaled only by that of the Livingston family, who controlled what Catherine derisively referred to as “the bottom half” of the state. As a married woman, Catherine wasn’t entitled to any claim on the Van Rensselaer properties (or, for that matter, her husband’s), but rumor had it that her sizable dowry had paid for construction of their Albany mansion, as well as the Schuylers’ country estate outside Saratoga.
Just shy of his forty-fourth birthday, General Philip Schuyler was a handsome man, tall and fit, with a military bearing and a full head of hair that, like George Washington, he wore powdered and softly curled, rarely resorting to the elegant (but rather itchy) affectation of a periwig. As a commander in Washington’s Continental army, Schuyler had organized a brilliant campaign against the British forces at Québec in 1775, only to be forced to resign his commission in June of this year, after Fort Ticonderoga fell while under his command. The defeat had been a double tragedy for Philip. Not only had the British taken the fort, they’d also seized his aforementioned Saratoga estate. Though not as grand as the Albany property, the Schuylers’ second home was still sumptuous enough that John Burgoyne, commander of the British forces, chose it for his personal residence. But the coup de grâce came when the Continental army retook Saratoga in October, and a spiteful Burgoyne set fire to the house and fields during his retreat. General Schuyler had all but depleted his wife’s inheritance building the house and bringing the land under tillage, which was expected to provide much of the family’s income. The loss put a serious dent in the family’s finances and cast an ominous shadow over their future.
Not that an observer would know it. Unused to idleness, General Schuyler had spent the past four months striding about the Pastures, laying out new beds in the formal gardens, regimenting the orchard harvest with military precision, supervising the construction of gazebos and guest houses and servant cottages, and generally getting in everyone’s way, servant and family member alike. In a magnanimous gesture that indicated just how chivalrous he was—and how bored— Schuyler had even offered to put up the captured John Burgoyne before the British general was shipped back to England. Thus, did Schuyler’s one-time rival and his entourage, some twenty strong, “occupy” the Albany mansion for a full month, and even if they didn’t burn it down when they left, they still managed to eat a good-size hole into the family’s provisions, comestible and otherwise.
Catherine Schuyler, one year younger than her husband, had been known as a “handsome woman” in her youth, but thirteen pregnancies in twenty years had taken their toll on her waistline. Practical, strong-willed, and stoic, she had buried no fewer than six of her children, including a set of triplets who hadn’t lived long enough to be baptized. If the pregnancies had stolen her figure, the deaths had taken her smile, and watching her husband fritter away her financial assets had done little to improve her spirits.
Mrs. Schuyler’s love for the seven children who remained to her was evident in the care she took of them, from the wet nurses and nannies she handpicked to raise them, to the tutors she hired to educate them, to the cooks she employed to keep them well fed. And somehow in the midst of the numbing cycle of births and deaths, declarations and proclamations, sieges and seasons, the Schuylers’ three eldest girls had all reached marrying age.
Angelica, the oldest, was a whip-smart, mischievous brunette, with glittering eyes, her pretty lips set in a perpetual smirk. Peggy, the youngest, was a waifish beauty, with a waist so tiny that she rarely bothered with a corset, and alabaster skin set off by a mass of lustrous dark hair that was simply too gorgeous to powder or bury under a wig (no matter what Marie Antoinette was covering her head with at Versailles).
Eliza, the middle daughter, was as clever as Angelica and as beautiful as Peggy. She was also the most sensible, more interested in books than fashion, and, much to her mother’s consternation, more devoted to the revolutionary cause and the mantle of abolition than to marrying one of its well-off colonels.
Her mother really didn’t know what she was going to do with her.
Three daughters, each a prize in her own way (though Eliza would need a strong man to match her spirit). Under normal circumstances, marrying them off would be a feat of sustained diplomacy in which the first families of New York bound their blood and fortunes together like European aristocracy. But New York’s respectable families were few in number, and word traveled quickly. It would be only a matter of time before people found out just how much the Schuylers had lost at Saratoga, at which point the girls would become damaged goods. It was imperative, then—both to their futures and the family’s—that they married well.
But it was even more important that they married fast.
And so, Mrs. Schuyler resorted to a strategy that had served her own mother well in times of need.
She was throwing a ball.
The Schuyler Mansion
Albany, New York
The mansion on the hill shone like a lighthouse.
Twenty windows stretched across the riverfront of the Pastures, each one ablaze from dozens of oil lamps and candlesticks. Shadows flitted behind the curtains as the household prepared for the party—servants busily rearranging the furniture to make room for dancing as well as laying out trays of preserves, candied nuts and cured meats. Inside the second-floor ballroom, hired musicians set up their instruments, ears tuned to their strings. Upstairs in their private quarters, family members stood before their looking glasses putting the final touches on their evening costumes. Hoops and panniers harnessed onto the women, jabots and lace cuffs fastened onto the men.
At least Eliza hoped it was just the household getting ready. Her mother would scold them mercilessly if she and her sisters were to walk into the house after the guests were already there.
“Has anyone arrived yet?” she asked her sisters as she caught her breath beneath the weight of her load. Each of them was holding heavy bolts of blue wool and white cotton that they had gathered from the well-heeled women of Albany to make uniforms for the Continental troops.
“I don’t think so,” Peggy, the youngest, said, panting from exertion. “It was just past four when we left the Van Broeks’ house, so it can’t be five yet. Mama’s invitation was for five o’clock.”
“And we know none of these Albany ladies likes to be the first to a party,” added Angelica knowingly.
Eliza bit her lip, doubtful. “Even so, we should go in through the back entrance. With any luck, Mama won’t see us come in.” She could practically feel the weight of their mother’s censorious gaze as the sisters labored up the hillside’s sixty-seven stone steps hauling four dozen reams of fabric. At the top of the hill, the threesome quickly skirted around the south side of the mansion and passed through one of the covered porticos that connected the main body of the mansion with its flanking wings. The wing on this side contained her father’s military office, and Eliza was surprised to see that it was as lit up as the rest of the house. Mama would be furious to find Papa still working so near to the ball’s starting time.
“Were Mama and Papa quarreling this morning?” she asked her sisters. “I’d hate to think that Papa won’t be attending the party because of some disagreement.”
“I hope not; things can be so dreary otherwise. What Mama allows the musicians to play are practically dirges. It’s positively funereal,” said Angelica with a sniff.
“Did Dot mention anything?” Eliza asked Peggy, who was close to their lady’s maid. Some might find it strange that a servant was expected to know more than they did about the state of their parents’ union. But the Schuylers, as befit their station, were a formal family and a busy one, and although there were seven children in the house, it was normal for them not to see one another until they gathered for dinner. The servants, by contrast, were in constant congress, and maids and valets and field workers kept one another apprised of the goings-on in the house. Thus Dot was much more likely than the sisters to have the temperature of the current state of their parents’ marriage. Though solid and, in its own way, caring, the Schuyler union was conducted with as much diplomacy as Ambassador Franklin was even now using in Paris to persuade Louis XVI to bring the French into the revolution on the American side.
Peggy frowned. “Dot did mention that Rodger”—their father’s valet—“said that the general is looking forward to the party as much as the missus is.”
“But Mama will be quite cross with him for hiding in his office instead of helping her prepare,” said Angelica.
“Nonsense,” said Eliza. “Mama is probably happy to have him out of the way.”
Peggy continued, struggling to keep her head above the bulky cloth she carried. “At any rate, Rodger said that Papa was expecting a visit from an aide-de-camp to General Washington.”
“What!” the older sisters chorused. Eliza stopped so suddenly that Angelica crashed into her. “Is Papa being recommissioned?”
Since being relieved of duty after the loss of Fort Ticonderoga, General Schuyler had written innumerous letters asking for another command. The family felt his frustration keenly, and Heaven knows they could use the salary, but even Eliza, as patriotic as she was, was happy to have her father off the field of battle.
“Dot said Rodger didn’t say,” Peggy said, which was tantamount to saying that Rodger didn’t know—General Schuyler’s valet was an uncontrollable gossip, a trait the general himself was strangely ignorant of, and the rest of the family tolerated because it was how they got their news. “But he did mention . . .” Peggy let her voice trail off. A little smile played over her face.
“Yes?” Eliza demanded. She could tell from her sister’s expression that Peggy was savoring a juicy bit of gossip. “Tell us!”
“The aide coming to the party is Colonel Hamilton,” Peggy half squealed.
Angelica raised an eyebrow and Eliza tried not to blush.
Like every other girl in every other prominent American family, Eliza had heard stories of Colonel Alexander Hamilton, General Washington’s youngest but most trusted aide-de-camp, who was, if rumors were to be trusted, heart-stoppingly handsome and dashing to boot. Colonel Hamilton had been recruited by the commander of the American forces when he was still a teenager, just a few years after arriving in the North American colonies from the sugar-rich West Indies. Some said he was the son of a Scottish lord and could have claimed a baronetcy as well as a vast fortune if he’d chosen the loyalist side, while others said he was in fact a bastard, the illegitimate child of the disgraced son of some British aristocrat or other (there were so many!) with neither a name nor a penny of his own.
What was known, however, was that twenty-year-old Colonel Alexander Hamilton was brilliant, having made a name as an essayist while still a student at King’s College in New York City. He was also known as having a bit of a reputation with the ladies. Eliza’s old friend Kitty Livingston, who had met the young colonel on several occasions, had written Eliza about him after each meeting. She had been necessarily discreet in her letters (Susannah Livingston, Kitty’s mother, was as much of a gossip as Catherine Schuyler), but it was clear she and the young soldier had carried on quite a flirtation. Eliza had been amused by Kitty’s letters and curious about this young man who had captured the interest of Continental society.
Eliza peered through the second-floor windows of her father’s office, hoping for a glimpse of the famous young colonel, but could discern no figures within the room, only the occasional flickering shadow.
“Perhaps Church will introduce us; I’m certain they are acquainted,” said Angelica, meaning her rich suitor who was practically tripping over himself to ask for her hand. The oldest Schuyler sister was close to giving it, too, as John Barker Church was in the process of building one of the greatest fortunes in the new country, enough to rival or even eclipse their own father’s (or at least before the British had burned a large part of it up at Saratoga). But Angelica was enjoying being the belle of the ball too much to relinquish it just yet.
“It will be interesting to finally meet this Hamilton fellow,” said Angelica. “Livens up the party for once.” Eliza shrugged, attempting to appear disinterested, but her sisters knew her better than that.
“Maybe if you wore something a little more fashionable tonight, you’d catch his eye,” said Peggy cheekily.
“And why would I want to do that?” Eliza retorted.
“As Mama says, honey catches more flies than vinegar,” said Peggy, echoing their mother’s perennial advice about reeling in the right suitor—and quickly.
“Honestly, Peg,” Eliza said, rolling her eyes. “I have no interest in Colonel Hamilton other than to satisfy my curiosity.”
“If you say so,” said Peggy, sounding totally unconvinced. There was no hiding her feelings from her sisters, Eliza realized. They knew her too well.
“Peg’s right, you could make more of an effort tonight,” Angelica chided. “Most girls would love to have your figure. You could at least show it to its best advantage every once in a while.”
“I suppose,” said Eliza. “But why should I when no one need look at me when both of you are in the room?” It was an honest question, and said without the remotest hint of jealousy. Eliza was proud of her beautiful sisters, and much preferred the shadows to the spotlight.
“Oh, Eliza, your lack of vanity is sweet, but one day you must let us help you shine,” said Angelica.
Unlike the perfectly turned-out duo, Eliza was not one for the latest vogue of cinched waists and pannier skirts and powdered décolletage and pompadour wigs. Just a month past nineteen, she favored simpler dresses in solid rose (which did, in fact, flatter her complexion) or soft blue (which made her dark eyes that much more radiant), with square necklines modestly covered by lace shawls whose translucence didn’t so much conceal her cleavage as compel one to look harder. Her chestnut hair, darker than Angelica’s but lighter than Peggy’s, was never covered with anything other than a bonnet, and usually styled in nothing more elaborate than a pair of braided coils that accentuated the oval of her face, making her look that much sweeter. All of which is to say that, though Eliza may have been as “sensible” as her mother feared, that didn’t mean she wasn’t every bit as aware of the way young men looked at her.
Eliza huffed: “I want a boy who is attracted to me, not to my wardrobe.”
“Pretty clothes are like the colors of a flower’s petals. They tell the bee where to land. After that, it’s what’s inside that holds his interest,” said Peggy, still quoting their mother.
Eliza rolled her eyes. “So I’ve heard. At any rate, you two should head inside to get ready; it grows later by the minute. I’ll go back to the Van Broeks’ for the last of it.”
“Hurry back,” said Angelica. “You don’t really have much time, and the Albany ladies will arrive before you know it.”
Already running down the hill, Eliza called over her shoulder, “I promise!”
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