Authors: Eve Karlin
Alexander Hamilton was approaching middle age, and his famously red hair was mellowing into a quieter shade of copper. He had a fair complexion and vibrant blue eyes. Pearl buttons embellished his velvet jacket, and his cravat was perfectly tied. He glided to the center of the room.
“I, myself, was struck down by fever last summer,” he began, pausing for his audience to absorb the magnitude of the averted tragedy. There was a rhythmic tempo to Burr's voice, like a primitive drumbeat, but Hamilton spoke with a melodic fluency. “Thus, it is with full confidence that I say the Manhattan Water Company is precisely what our city requires. Indeed, it is essential. Not simply waterworks but a systematic plan for draining swamps and installing sewers. I have personally appealed to the legislature, drafting a proposal I believeâ”
Burr tapped his cigar, making sparks fly. “Several impressive ideas have been posedâfloated, if you willâ¦.” A few men chuckled, and Burr winked. “One in particular is very promising. It's an ambitious plan to draw water from the Bronx River.”
“The Bronx is miles north of here,” one man protested.
Burr grinned, seeming to savor the debate as thoroughly as he was enjoying his cigar. “With the help of Ezra Weeks and his crew, the Manhattan Water Company will build a dam at the base of the Bronx River. From there, freshwater will be channeled into the city through six miles of pipes into a newly constructed reservoir on Chambers Street.” Burr pointed over his shoulder to an easel that held an illustration of an impressive faÃ§ade. Like the gateway to an ancient ruin, four imposing columns seemed to indicate an entrance, but there was nothing behind them but a foreboding brick wall. A larger-than-life bronze statue of a scantily clad Greek god lounged on top of the columns, pouring an enormous vessel of sculptured water into a stream, which flowed into a reservoir. “With the aid of this new reservoir, fire companies will be able to fill their tanks,” Burr announced, “and water will be pumped directly into homes.”
There was a chorus of impressed murmurs, and I resisted the urge to chime in. Burr was as inspiring as his reputation suggested, and a tap of freshwater in our home could mean clean dishes, tidy laundry, even warm baths. But Lispenard was not appeased. “It's a pretty picture,” he shouted, “but who's paying for it?” His disgruntled yells drew me back to reality. Elma lay sick in bed. I took a deep breath and was about to cross the floor when Hamilton stepped forward.
“You men here are the first to be offered stock in the Manhattan Water Company,” he practically purred with self-satisfaction.
“In other words,” Lispenard said, “you need cash.”
“ââNeither a borrower nor a lender be,'â” a somber man muttered as he snatched his hat and stomped out the door. His companions watched him go.
Hamilton spoke above the ruckus. “The money raised will be used to build an aqueduct and reservoir, and all who invest”âhis voice dropped, and the men who had looked as if they might follow their peer out the door turned back to listenâ“those seated in this very room, will benefit handsomely.”
The older men folded their arms and nodded. The younger ones rapped on tables and howled, “Toast! Toast!”
Burr rested his hand on Hamilton's velvet-clad shoulder and raised his glass. “To the tempestuous sea of liberty, may it never be calm. We may subscribe to different philosophies, but Republicans and Federalists can work together when our city's future is at stake.”
“Or when there's money to be 'ad,” Croucher grumbled under his breath.
“Hear, hear!” Levi called, lifting his glass.
I did not doubt his enthusiasm. The Manhattan Water Company would make them all rich. More important, it would lay a labyrinth of pipes in a city starved for water. I could easily have stood there imagining a thousand more improvements to my life, but I had already delayed far too long. Gathering my shawl and my courage, I headed to Elias's table. Croucher followed, though I had the impression he just wanted to see Elias's reaction, not lend support.
“Caty?” Elias's jaw dropped, and he squinted as if doubting the sight before him.
“Seeking truth at the bottom of a glass, eh, Ring?” Croucher said, clearly amused.
“I encouraged him to join me in a drink,” Levi put in, as if to apologize.
“He's not used to spirits,” I said, too quickly and overly loud. It was easier to fault Levi than Elias.
Levi seemed oblivious to my anger. “Why have you come all this way?” he asked. His gaze traveled to Croucher, asking the unspoken question: Why had I come all this way with
“Elma is running a fever.” My voice trembled. It was late at night, which somehow made the situation worse. “I'm worried.”
“We can take my brother's rig,” Levi said, jumping to his feet while Elias staggered up.
It was a relief to have a sympathetic man in charge. I just did not understand why it wasn't Elias.
We arrived home after midnight.
“She's going to infect us all,” Elias said from the doorway of Elma's room.
Damp hair coiled around Elma's pale throat. Her eyes were shut, the lids so translucent that it would have been possible to trace the blue veins with a fingertip. I also feared for the children, but I focused on Elma, praying for her speedy recovery so that no one else would fall ill.
“Stay with her,” I said. “I'll go for the doctor.”
“Wait and see how she fares the night.” Elias yawned, already halfway down the stairs.
From the depths of sickness, Elma moaned, “I'm useless.” I immediately thought of Mother and of Elma's futile attempts to earn her affection.
I stooped to moisten Elma's lips. “That's not true,” I said, sure she had heard Elias's callous words.
There were footsteps on the landing, and I was heartened to think that Elias had returned. Perhaps his rude tone had stemmed from worry, mere bluster to disguise his concern. I turned, determined to show my appreciation, but it was not Elias's stout figure in the doorway. It was Levi. I had the distinct impression he had been waiting for Elias to leave.
“She may be contagious,” I warned.
“I'm strong,” Levi said. He gazed down at Elma and took her frail hand in his.
“Hast thou much experience with illness?” I asked.
“Yes and no. I lost both my parents when I was a boy.”
“How?” I asked, startled by his candor.
Levi's eyes grazed the floor. “My mother died in childbirth. Two months later, my father passed. The doctor couldn't understand it. My father was still a young man.” Levi shook his head, perhaps realizing that talk of sickness and death was making me more anxious. “Of course, it was far worse than this. The truth isâ¦well, I thinkâ” He looked wistfully at Elma. “My parents were very close. My father died of a broken heart.”
In all the times he had spoken admiringly of the Weeks brothers and their financial success, Elias had never divulged their family history. And I had never considered it. “That must have been very difficult,” I said, feeling myself soften slightly.
“Fortunately, I had Ezra to look after me. No one could have done a better job.”
I nodded, observing the change in him. As he spoke his brother's name, Levi's caring expression turned into a rigid mask.
“Elias thinks highly of Ezra,” I said.
“Most people do,” Levi said flatly.
“Has he a strong temperament?” I asked, thinking of Mother and Elias.
Levi smiled tightly. “Stubborn and strong.”
“Levi.” Elma's voice was breathless and weak. I was surprised that she was aware of our presence at all and felt a stab of concern that had nothing to do with her illness.
“Let me go for the doctor,” Levi said, his hand on the doorknob. “He's a friend of my brother's. I'm sure he would come as a favor to me.”
He seemed to be implying that the doctor would come free of charge, but it no longer mattered. I thought of Elias sleeping while Elma suffered. Resentment stirred deep inside me, and something in my heart hardened.
After Levi left, I pulled the covers up to Elma's chin and stroked her hair, which still smelled of lavender despite her illness. It was a soothing scent I had always associated with her. Feeling satisfied she was comfortable, I moved to the rocking chair. It was hard to say why I was so troubled by the attention Levi paid her. He was handsome and wealthy. Those were not flaws. Perhaps I was too cautious. I had wanted Elma to find a kind and humble partner, but I also knew I had a tendency to be overly protective when it came to her, my chosen sister. She was free to make her own match. As I drifted off to sleep, my thoughts roamed to Cornwall and what my aunt would say if she knew Elma was ill.
I woke with a start, aware of deep voices whispering near Elma's bed.
“The babbling is consistent with yellow fever,” the doctor was saying.
I sprang from the chair but could not put words to my fear.
“I've never seen her so pale,” Levi said.
“It's the tinge of yellow that disturbs me,” the doctor muttered. “If it's the great sickness, she'll turn a most unnatural shade of mustard. There's no mistaking it.”
“And then?” I asked.
“And then she'll begin to bleed.”
“From the nose?” I said, recalling a young boy whose nose bled for days before his death from the fever. His mother tried everything to stanch the flow, propping him up in bed and stuffing his nostrils with torn rags. But when blood began to spill from his ears, nothing more could be done. I had heard that the sick were being quarantined at Belle Vue, a rustic estate along the East River that had been converted to an isolation hospital. It was reassuring, I supposed, to know that the ailing were getting medical aid, but the treatments sounded nearly as barbaric as the disease itself: ice-water baths, blood purges, sweating cures, metal rods, blistering the skin.
“Nose, eyes, uterusâI've heard of instances in which the pores themselves bleed.”
There was a comforting weight on my shoulder. I turned and my chin brushed against Levi's warm hand.
“It is not yet the hot season,” the doctor said, “and there have not been any cases reported this year.”
Elma tossed her head, mumbling gibberish, and the doctor leaned over her.
“Mrs. Ring.” He stood, tilting his head to the side and studying Elma. “Could she have a bit of water?”
“Certainly,” I said, reaching for the pitcher.
“Boiled would be better.”
“Yes, of course.” Reluctant to leave, I looked over my shoulder as I stepped into the hallway and again as I started down the stairs.
The mood in the room was different when I returned minutes later. Both men were quiet, leaving the impression that I had interrupted their conversation. Elma was calmer too, but I had the uneasy feeling that she had been calling Levi's name again.
The doctor reached for his bag. “Her eyes are clear, so I don't think she's in danger, but keep others away and take this.” He pressed a clear glass vial into my hand. Impossibly light, it was smaller than a robin's egg, and as fragile. I could see that the liquid inside was the color of blood. “It's laudanum,” he said, “to relieve her discomfort. Dispense only a drop at a time and only if she is in pain.”
My palm grew warm and I shuddered. Derived from opium, laudanum was known to be addictive and potentially lethal. “Is it necessary?” I asked.
The doctor folded my fingers closed. “Have it on hand.”
I have often wondered what would have happened if I had simply refused, pushed it back at him with a firm
No, thank thee
. After the men left, I went to Elma's bureau. The top drawer squeaked open as if protesting the intrusion. Pushing aside stockings and undergarments, I buried the vial deep in back, relieved to be rid of it.
Days passed and, like a lost soul who had innocently paddled into a riptide, I felt that I was on the verge of drowning. Yellow fever claimed its first victim of that summer: a prominent merchant and war hero. Days later, the midwife who helped bring Patience into the world fell ill. Doctors performed bleeding and purges but were unable to stop the flow of blood and bile. Both her children followed her to the grave. The following week, three cases were reported in a single night. The number doubled, and doubled again, until fever consumed the city.
The public was warned to avoid fatigue, hot sun, and night air, to walk in the center of the street away from infected homes, not to shake hands. The daily papers printed advertisements blaming the use of strong malt liquor and distilled spirits for weakening men's resistance. A leading scholar wrote a two-volume work claiming the epidemic was caused by volcanic eruptions in Sicily. Others said the poor were dying because they ate an abundance of watermelon. The Common Council faulted “manifold sins, immorality, and profaneness.” Federalists labeled the scourge a foreign contagion, while Republicans cited abominable filth and the incompetence of Federalist magistrates.
The acrid stench of death filled the air as I entered the market. With its pyramids of ripe fruit, the Fly Market had always been lively and colorful. Now roosters roamed free, pecking rotting produce. People hurried through the deserted aisles. Most clutched garlic to their noses and mouths or wore satchels of camphor around their necks to ward off the fever. The coffee tents were gone, replaced by rows of caskets, the pine still green as if the trees could not mature fast enough to keep up with demand.
“Coffins of all sizes!” boys cried, hawking their wares.
“Where's your pretty cousin?” the fruit vendor asked as I chose berries. He was an Italian man with smiling eyes who had always paid special attention to Elma.
“She has been ill. Thankfully, it was nothing serious.” Elma's fever had broken a week earlier, and yesterday she was well enough to share stories with Charles.