Afterwards, Burr got a drink.
The next part of the story came a day and a half later, a little past dusk. The sky had turned a sickly grayish green and there was an ooze of rain on the streets that he noticed before he ever saw it fall; not as if the world were weeping for Hamilton, but as if it already had and he’d not been permitted to see. There he was, then, sitting again with a drink (he had been drinking steadily, almost continuously), looking at the rain.
It came to him that the last time he had seen the world that color had been the summer Hamilton had spent a week next to him on a courtroom bench shaking like a dog with fever. He’d succumbed, finally, in a chair in Burr’s office—fallen asleep at midday. Burr had hesitated and then let him rest, working around his heavily slumbering figure for the rest of the day and even well into the night, when Hamilton’s fever had broken and he’d woken up alert, sweat-sodden, and hungry. And talking.
He didn’t know what Hamilton’s last words were. He tipped his glass toward the window, now blurred with rain.
Burr dropped the glass.
Alexander Hamilton, faintly translucent, stood off to his left, his arms crossed, obviously in a seething fury.
“Dead,” Hamilton said. “Once again, you resort to the utterly uncontroversial statement. I fired at the sky. I was clearly firing at the sky. I told everyone I was going to fire at the sky.”
“You didn’t tell me,” Burr pointed out.
“I thought that after I’d done it, telling you would be redundant!”
“I wasn’t thinking!”
Hamilton opened his mouth and then closed it again. Then he said, frostily, “I trust that you’ll understand the irony of that without me having to point it out. I hope you don’t intend for me to speak to you any longer.”
That resolution in favor of silence lasted approximately two hours.
“I can’t get out of here,” Hamilton said.
Burr looked at him. “Are you speaking to me again?”
“Don’t be such a child.”
“You can’t get out of where, exactly?” Burr said, as if he hadn’t noticed Hamilton endeavoring to either walk through the walls of the house or turn the doorknob. Outside, the weather had cleared; for a time, his attention futilely directed towards the papers on his desk, Burr had been able to pretend the situation were different. He had done enough slow, steady, laborious work over the years with Hamilton banging around in the periphery of his vision, after all. And storms had always seemed to agitate him.
But Hamilton was dead, even if, characteristically enough, he had not allowed that fact to dissuade him from being a bother. The man could not lie down.
Though Burr had done his best (his worst?) to see it so. The sight of Hamilton, almost alive, his body like stained glass with light shining through it, did less than he would have liked to mitigate the feeling of tooth and claw in his chest, the guilt and shame. Those things were no less, and neither was the anger, which was now given a different veneer: that Hamilton had, despite everything, somehow foiled him once again.
“I can’t leave this room.”
“Try the stairs.”
“And what, jump from the window?”
“You are a shade,” Burr said. “It’s not as if it would hurt you.”
Hamilton brightened. “True.” He paused at the foot of the stairs. “If I succeed in leaving your presence, I have one thing to say to you before I pass.”
“Fuck,” Hamilton said.
“Too succinct,” Burr said. “You need an object. I imagine it’s me.”
“No,” Hamilton said, rubbing his eyes. “I mean, yes, obviously. You shot me, and I died, and it hurt, and there was Eliza and Angelica, and there were my children, and I had every reason to live and you had no reason to kill me except your damned vanity, that you wouldn’t hear in public what I’d said to you in private a thousand times. But that’s not it. I know why I’m here. There was something I wanted to say to you.”
Burr waited. An agonizing minute passed.
“Okay,” Burr said.
“I can’t remember what it was,” Hamilton said.
“Well. Good luck throwing yourself out the window.”
“That’s going to bother me.”
“We all have regrets.”
Hamilton leaned against the railing. “Do you regret it?”
Burr looked at him. He was still hearing the ten-count in his head; he could still feel the way his hand had stayed murderously straight and rigid, the way his eyes had stayed on Hamilton himself, the scrawny bastard immigrant, and not on the angle of Hamilton’s pistol. There was no hole in Hamilton’s waistcoat or jacket now, thank God.
After a period of this silence, Hamilton jerked his chin up. “All right,” he said quietly, and strode up the stairs.
Before coming down somewhat undramatically a minute later. He sat down and buried his head in his hands. Eventually, his shoulders began to hitch. Burr looked anywhere else. He couldn’t have done anything about it. The action itself was already done.
As best as Hamilton was able, he didn’t speak to Burr again for almost a fortnight. This meant, in practice, that he spent his time prowling around the vicinity, testing his newfound limitations, and having the occasional venomous outburst, which Burr withstood somewhat better than he did the occasional times Hamilton turned away from him, or went upstairs, and sat in dull and somehow tomblike silence, as though he would be more dead for practicing it.
His mood was at its best when he was experimenting, and at those times, he would sometimes speak to Burr quite unselfconsciously: “Stay in that spot, and I want to pace out how far from you I can get.” The answer seemed to be anywhere in the house. “And I can pass through doors and walls untroubled, as long as they’re interior. Step out into the garden and see if I can accompany you.”
Burr did; Hamilton could. He turned his face up towards the sun, which had come out rather brilliantly over the last few days.
“Can you feel that?” Burr asked before he could stop himself. He hadn’t meant to make conversation.
Sure enough, the moment curdled: “No,” Hamilton said, “because someone killed me.”
“I’ll walk back inside.”
“I won’t apologize to you,” Hamilton said. “You killed me, and now you’ve trapped me, the least you could do is not be such a shit about it.”
“You trapped yourself with whatever it was that you can’t remember,” Burr said. “Or, and I know this wouldn’t occur to the great Alexander Hamilton, maybe this always happens. History is spotted with blood. We’ve trodden on enough of it in our lifetimes—we’ve tracked it into our homes. Perhaps we track the dead in, too. Perhaps they’re always restless; perhaps they always haunt.”
“Nothing but no? No debate?”
“I wouldn’t wish this on my son,” Hamilton said stiffly, “and I don’t choose to imagine it. And in any case, if it were true, I think Laurens would have warned me.”
Burr breathed out heavily through his nose. “Let there be nothing on earth or heaven that’s escaped your notice.”
“He would have.”
“Perhaps he found himself tethered to Washington’s ankle, and spent his years in virtuous harangue in favor of abolition, perhaps he’s why the will was changed, why there were men and women who walked into Mount Vernon slaves and walked out free.”
“John would have achieved more than that,” Hamilton said. “At the least, he would have saved those same men and women many years of slavery, saved the General’s legacy the taint of dying holding people in bondage. John would have freed a whole nation.”
“Do you have to win every conversation?”
“I’m absent any other pleasures.”
Burr was forced to accept that. And he could not shake the thought of Hamilton’s son, in any case, which led him to say, as lightly as he was able, “At any rate, you may treasure my agreement. John Laurens would have haunted you if he could have.”
“Thank you.” Hamilton paced out in front of him. “I seem to be able to leave your sight,” he said from behind a tree, as Burr rolled his eyes, “but not, it seems, the garden. Property lines? Go buy something, or pay a visit.”
“I’m not inclined.”
“Damn your inclinations.”
“I don’t want to be arrested,” Burr said sharply. “The country’s still wearing black for you. It’s better I don’t show my face.”
“Perhaps I’m haunting you in the hopes that justice will be done,” Hamilton said.
“And if you’re not, then you’ll either spend a long time looking at prison walls or, worse, a grave.”
He watched that idea sink into Hamilton like cold rain through cloth—the memories of days on the march had never left either one of them, he was sure—and he wanted, a little awkwardly, to say that he hoped it wasn’t true. Hamilton could be snuffed out like a candle—Burr remembered wanting that death, the way one could remember some distant pain, like the ache of a broken bone on a winter morning—but it would be unjust, and worse, unkind, to smother him out by degrees, to let him spend this strange vitality drop by drop in unceasing boredom and eroding sanity. He had trouble believing Providence would allow it. But he had been allowed, after all, to become the murderer of his friend.
Nonetheless, he felt an inspiration. “Come on,” he said, gesturing Hamilton back to the house. “We’ll take a turn later if you still want one.”
Hamilton followed him, but said, as they were crossing the threshold, “I won’t hope or pray that you escape punishment, whatever the cost to me. I won’t be made complicit in my own murder.”
“You became complicit by answering the challenge,” Burr said.
“I thought you lacked beliefs. I never thought you lacked honor.”
“Laurens shot Charles Lee. Did he lack honor, having fired?”
“Laurens was willing to die,” Hamilton said. “You were only willing to kill.”
Burr held out a book for him. “I’m not asking for your forgiveness or your prayers. Only a moment or two of peace.”
“I can’t take that. I’ve been trying to move your inkwell by hand and thought for the last day and night. I can sit, and I do not fall through floors, but—”
Hamilton reached out. The book seemed to shiver a little as it passed into his hands, but it accepted his touch. It might not, in truth, have been the text that shook, but Hamilton, whose eyes were suddenly bright.
“How did you suppose it?” Hamilton said.
Burr looked elsewhere. “I could not imagine you without a book. Or a pen, but I imagine the difficulty of explaining the authorship constrains your… station.”
Hamilton nodded twice and then swallowed. He was holding the book so tightly that Burr would have sworn his fingertips seemed to grow more opaque by the moment.
“I will investigate your library,” Hamilton said.
He was indicted eventually, but the charges were dropped after the briefest of hours in the courthouse. Hamilton proved able to leave the grounds after all. What delight he took in viciously hectoring the lawyers and judge was sapped away, gradually, by their inability to hear him, and Burr’s unwillingness to respond to him in public; the lack of both audience and foe depressed him. He did not say he was glad when Burr left and they returned home, but he did not seem to mourn the conclusion. He was still carrying a book from their household which, to Burr’s great relief, no one else seemed to see as long as it was in Hamilton’s possession. Perhaps, he thought, he was haunting Hamilton, and not Hamilton him, and eventually, after enough time in their Gothic situation, he would be like that book—solid to Hamilton and invisible to the rest of the world.
“I want to see Eliza and the children,” Hamilton said that night.
“I can’t visit them. You know that. I can’t—inflict myself upon your family.”
“I want to be anywhere but here, with anyone but you.”
“Then remember what it was you wanted to tell me.”
“Don’t you think I’ve fucking tried that?” Hamilton succeeded then, as he sometimes did only when he was in a rage, at sudden corporeality: he knocked a stack of Burr’s papers to the floor. “I’ve said everything I can think of!”
“That can’t possibly be true.”
“When you’re sleeping.”
“You don’t sleep?”
“No, and I pass the time stringing together sentences at your bedside.”
“Please don’t,” Burr said.
Hamilton’s lips pressed tightly together and then flexed wildly, and he made some noise partway between a laugh and a sob.
“Yeah,” he said finally. “All right. It’s a little creepy.”
He passed into the upper rooms of the house then, and Burr didn’t see him again for a week. In the mornings, he pressed his fingers into his ears, as if he could dislodge or scrape out whatever Hamilton had said during the night, as if forgiveness would fall onto the pillow like some fine sediment. It never did. He did not go looking for Hamilton, who had developed a talent for avoiding him, but he did monitor the library to see that the books were going on and off the shelves at regular intervals. It seemed encouraging. Some sign that Hamilton was essentially, despite everything, himself.
On the seventh day, he stayed among the books for a long time himself, and wrote on the frontispiece of each. It was the only thing he could think of.
The next day, at breakfast, Hamilton was there. “I want to debate this case with you,” he said peremptorily, shoving a book across the table at Burr.
Burr felt the heaviness of the toast in his throat. He could remember a hundred mornings that had started exactly this way.
He nodded and opened up the book, skimming briefly past his own note on the patterned page (my sincerest and, separate from it, daughter and relocate, as it pleases you, were all that he saw, for it seemed best not to dwell too long, to risk acknowledging what he had written and what Hamilton had read), and found the page Hamilton quoted to him.
“Very well,” he said. “Let’s begin.”
“If the doors could be lifted off the hinges—”
“I have no intention of leaving our home exposed to every robber and miscreant in creation.”
“If someone ever came inside in the night, I’d wake you.”
“If someone ever came inside in the night, you’d be too deep in a book to know it.”
“Be thankful I’ve given up standing over your bed.”
“Next on your list of renunciations ought to be mocking Jefferson on the rare occasion he deigns to meet with me. It’s very difficult not to react to you climbing up on his desk and waving your hands around.”
“He inspires strong reactions.”
“Consider containing them. I barely have a presence in the administration as it is.”
“Hey, he might meet with you more if you hadn’t murdered me.”
“I think if I hadn’t shot you under conditions of fair play, he’d like me even less than he does now. Shooting you has likely endeared me to him a little, it’s just that there’s no room in his pocket for anyone but Madison.”
“Oh, Madison,” Hamilton said. “I can’t believe he collaborated with me and then turned tail and went to Jefferson.”
“It is astounding,” Burr agreed, “the number of people who seemed collegial who then suddenly align themselves with Jefferson.”
“YOU HAD NO POLITICAL BELIEFS.”
“I also have no carpentry skills, and so can’t design doors without hinges in any case. Suppose you settle for having the garden door propped open during the day only.”
“Oh, shit,” Hamilton said mildly, and stepped back until he disappeared through the back wall of the parlor, leaving Burr to face Theodosia alone. Her brow was furrowed in confusion. At least she was alone: a small mercy. He kissed her on the cheek.
He would have to hope that she had simply heard the very tail end of their conversation. “Apologies, dear Theodosia. I’ve—started talking to the cat. As he likes to venture out into the world, we were striving to compromise. Clearly I’ve slipped into eccentricity.”
“You have a cat?”
He had not counted on her delight. Too late, he remembered the bedraggled tabby she had nursed back to health as a child, spoiling it for mousing by giving it the finest cream and the sardines she insisted on buying with her own pocket money.
“He’s slipped away just now—shy of people—I’m sure you’ll see him before you go.”
“I hope so,” Theo said. “A cat is just right for you. It’s not good for you to be alone.”
“I can honestly say I never truly feel alone.”
“Animals can be wonderful company.”
Her visit lasted only a few hours, and Burr was acutely aware of her craning her neck at odd intervals to try to catch a glimpse of the elusive cat for which he had, over the course of their conversation, been forced to invent a name and habits. But that was the only mar on their afternoon. It had been so long since he had seen her. She seemed determined not to mention the duel to him—it was as though he had never done anything she had not considered admirable, anything that was a blight to her life and reputation—and instead talked merrily and intently of cats and Congress (unmanageable beasts both, she concluded) and took up his pencil to complete the mechanical sketches Hamilton had laboriously tried to dictate to him.
“There,” she said, “now the whole wall can be opened up, if it pleases you.”
When she left him, he walked a while in the empty room, making sure she would be down the street and out of earshot, before he called up to Hamilton.
“Should anyone inquire, you’re a cat,” Burr said. “Named Bother. You sleep on my books and are inclined to bite.”
“How kind of you to tailor the role to my specifications.” Hamilton examined the altered drawings. “These are very well done.”
“She’s immensely talented.”
“The last time I saw your daughter, she was—” He faded out. Burr knew why. The last time their families had met, Theodosia and Phillip had shyly circled each other, wary as enemy combatants, before settling down with abrupt and charming amicability to a game of draughts. He remembered his own sudden awareness that she was coming into young womanhood, which meant marriage, and her departure from him. Hamilton had drunk a little much that night and made uninspired jokes about tying their dynasties together.
Well. They had achieved that much, at least.
“Eliza forgave me,” Hamilton said. “If she would forgive you too, and lead the children to do so—”
“I can’t ask them for that,” Burr said. “In your right mind, not fresh with grief, you wouldn’t want me to pursue them. They think you happy, and gone to your rest. Be satisfied with that.”
“But they are well? You’ve inquired?”
Burr nodded. “Madison and Dolley are friendly with Mrs. Hamilton.”
“My death has made strange bedfellows of us all,” Hamilton said.
Burr had the garden wall of the house converted to doors and let them stand wide open on warm afternoons. Jefferson, when moved to speak on the matter, opined that Burr had lost his damned mind.
When Theodosia died—when he was given the news of her passing—they all said he lost his mind—that he turned and screamed at the wall. Go and find her and bring her back, or what good are you? Why do I have you when I could have her? Why do you go on when she is gone? all the while pitching at the wall whatever came ready to his hands, teacups and books. He knew how he seemed to everyone else, but Hamilton’s eyes were all he cared about: Alexander Hamilton daring to weep for him. He hurled another book at his head and it slapped the wall, its spine split. That had been, he was dimly aware, Hamilton’s favorite. Good. He wanted to rip the cover from it, tear up the pages, put them in his mouth, ruin them with spit and teeth, choke himself on Hamilton’s words.
Then there was a long stretch of gray nothingness. Only later would islands emerge from out of the mindless surf of that time:
Hamilton saying, “You have to eat something.”
Hamilton, in one of his abrupt stages of physicality, normally used only to rage, smoothing the sheets down by Burr’s ankles.
Hamilton, unsurprisingly, talking, talking endlessly, as if speeches would wash over Burr like rain. The words had no borders. Which seemed strange to him, when they had both fought so hard to claim a country.
Then they were in the garden and Hamilton was saying, “If you would only come in out of the rain, that would be—”
“Why can I not see her?”
“I don’t know,” Hamilton said. “If I could go and fetch her, I would. If I could bear messages back and forth for you—I don’t know how the machinery of the universe grinds on.”
“The loss of my wife was at least before I knew the dead could still walk. I could bear it. But to know that I can be given a second chance, but not with her…” He shook his head. “I don’t know how to stand it, Alexander.”
“The loss of a child at all can hardly be borne.” Hamilton herded him into the house, close behind his shoulders like an attentive sheepdog. Burr let himself be led from behind. “But consider,” Hamilton went on in his best pamphleteering voice, “that with her you have no second chance because you did not need one. You loved her well, educated her well, saw her grown, saw her married, saw her happy. One last kiss, one last conversation—we would all always want those things. But you had no need of amends.”
Burr nodded. The last time he had seen her, they had played chess, and Hamilton had been persuaded to stay in the room and comment on the game—even he had been unable to predict the brilliance of her moves. She had checkmated him without hesitation.
And with her before him, bright-eyed with victory, and Alexander beside him, clapping slowly in full appreciation of it all, Burr had been—content.
“How did you survive losing Phillip?”
Hamilton said softly, “Eliza.”
“I have no Eliza.”
“No,” Hamilton said. “But you aren’t alone.”
Burr retired from public life.
“Bo-ring,” Hamilton said.
“I thought I’d take up my practice again, if you would co-counsel.”
“Somewhat less boring,” Hamilton said, not completely mollified. “You were an excellent lawyer.”
“A better lawyer than politician?”
“No, you were an excellent politician as well, merely an appalling statesman.”
“I don’t see the distinction.”
“I don’t argue that you could achieve your ends, only that you had no end in mind but what you could achieve.” He offered Burr a smile tinged with some indefinable twist of melancholy. “Winning is easy, Burr, governing’s harder.”
“We will never cease to argue.”
“I should hope not.”
Burr smiled. “Our goal in court shall be to win.”
“Open up the floodgates and let the money pour in.”
Indeed they did win, and indeed the money poured in, and then out again, to women’s suffrage and abolition and, discreetly, Eliza Hamilton’s orphanage and the Washington Monument.
Burr’s eyebrows grew first gray, and then white, and though he kept his head shaved, his estimate was that snow had finally covered the mountain, which Hamilton pronounced a terrible metaphor. But Hamilton’s hair had been white even before he died. He had thought of Hamilton as his peer for so long that it was strange to look at him and see, finally, that Hamilton was the younger man by far.
He began to use a cane and Hamilton began, strangely, to be careful of him, to say, “The street looks wet up ahead,” and to beat out rapid-fire insults at people who knocked shoulders with him.
“You can deliver a perfectly sound closing argument from your chair,” Hamilton said.
“Alexander. Coddle less.”
He liked to sit at his desk and look out the open door to see Alexander walking in the garden.
Sometimes he would wake and find Hamilton in the room with him, not just above his bed—he had told the truth when he said he had given that habit up for good—but in the armchair in the corner, a candle by his side and a book in his hand. Eventually he woke to this so often that even when it happened it already felt like a memory.
It’s during his last flickering period of consciousness that Alexander straightens up, impossibly electric—he’s been growing steadily brighter and more solid to Burr for the last few days, and now, at the very end, some veil between them seems to have been taken away. He is real enough to touch. And he does, in fact, touch: he smacks Burr on the shoulder, delighted at his own epiphany.
“What,” Burr whispers.
“I remembered what I wanted to tell you!”
He can’t understand what took so long, nor, if it comes to it, can he understand why he’s glad it did take so long for Alexander to think of it. And he is irritated that he is dying and Alexander isn’t paying attention. But it’s hard to speak, so, looking at the friend at his bedside, flush with excitement, Burr relents and takes his own advice: talks less. Smiles more. He inclines his head.
Alexander leans closer. “I wanted to tell you,” he says, “that I’d see you on the other side of the war.”
“What war?” He’s really only moving his lips now; there’s no sound. Alexander seems to hear him anyway.
“All of this,” Alexander says, and he waves his hands, taking in the room, the city, the fledgling country they both helped build, the world, the stars, the years he spent as a shadow, the dueling ground, their exchange of letters, their differences, the marches in the snow, the smell of musket-fire and damp fog, the sickness that took his mother, the debt that stole his father away, the hot air in the Caribbean, the sweat and blood on the backs of the slaves, the two of them here, their bodies, this, this, this, life itself.
He closes his eyes. He is so weary of war.
His shoulder is still warm from Alexander’s hand, and then he feels a sudden pressure on his fingers. This time the touch is sustained; solid, and more and more so with each passing second.
They have both been waiting for this.