Angelica is sixteen the first time they meet. He's a handsome boy, serious and stalwart, standing to the side of the ballroom at her cousin's wedding.
She's heard of him, of course. Everyone knows about Aaron Burr and the tragedy that he wears like a shroud. His parents dead, orphaned, Burr is cared for by relatives. It makes Angelica cold to think of it, to think of losing her Mama or Papa. She's seen death, of course. Her brother John succumbed to the flu a few winters ago, and it has never left Angelica how he lay, pale and sweating, in his bed, shivering under goosedown. Tragedy is no stranger to the Schuylers.
But tragedy on the scale of Burr's, to lose both parents in one year, is horrifying to her.
"Hello," she says, offering him her hand. "My name is Angelica Schuyler."
"Aaron Burr," he replies, his shrewd eyes scanning her body. She feels strange, like this man can see something she doesn't mean to show.
"How are you related?" she asks.
Burr smiles like a snake, his lips parting without showing his teeth. "My dear," he says. "I haven't a clue."
"How is it a man can have no clue of who his relations are?" she asks, keeping an amused smile on her face. "What would it be if you courted a woman, only to discover her your sister?"
"I know my sister," Burr says, but he has the good grace to at least look chastened.
Angelica shakes her head. Pathetic, men. "And no others?"
Burr shrugs "I would assume to groom to be a cousin of mine," he offers. "I know my grandfather had sisters, I know they married well. Their names escape me, but I can guess that they're the ones who brought me here tonight, where I might meet you."
It's still not an answer, but Angelica presumes it will do for now. "The bride is my cousin," she says. "Third cousin, though I've never met her before."
"And what will you do, then, Miss Schuyler, if you should court her and discover her your relation?" he asks, his voice playful
"Why?" Angelica feels something in her stomach flip gently. This boy is charming, she thinks. Disarming. "Are you planning to help her divorce, or are you accusing me of something sapphic that my father will need to duel you over?"
He returns her smile. "I would never insult your honor, nor duel your father. I respect him too well for having raised a daughter such as you."
"Tell me of your ambitions," she says, leaning in. "What will you be, Mister Burr?"
Burr doesn't have the air of a braggart, but he has pride, and Angelica can see it in him when he straightens his spine. "I'm studying theology at Princeton, with a scholarship this summer to study at Columbia," he tells her. "I suppose I wish to understand the Almighty."
It makes sense to her; she knows enough of Burr to know that his grandfather was a famous preacher. "You won't serve the country?" she asks, inviting him to spar. "You know, Papa says there is revolution brewing."
He raises an eyebrow at her. "In a time of war ... the task of the news-writer is easy; they have nothing to do but to tell that a battle is expected, and afterwards that a battle has been fought, in which we and our friends, whether conquering or conquered, did all, and our enemies did nothing."
"You have a silver tongue, Mister Burr," she says. "A man who quotes Johnson is a man with a shrewd intellect.
"And what of a man who quotes Milton?" he asks. "Or Donne?"
"A gentleman would know better," she replies. "Than to repeat filth in the presence of a lady."
He takes her hand and kisses it, a show of chivalry. "Accept my apologies, please," he says, his face cool, like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.
"This once," she says, curtseying in acknowledgment of his gesture.
They stand off, a moment that stretches between them where Angelica waits for him to counter, to keep up the farce. But instead, her mother's voice calls her from across the room, and Angelica has to break the silence first.
"Mister Burr, that's my Mama. I trust we'll see you at the next family event?"
"Next time I come to Albany," he says. "I'll be sure to pay you a call."
Angelica offers him another short curtsey before turning on her heel and sweeping back across the room to her mother.
My Dear Miss Schuyler,
It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance this week-end at the wedding of two people who we both presume may be cousins of ours, in some sense.
I hope you can forgive my impropriety, and I once again must offer my apologies to you for making a joke that injured your sensibilities. I found you enchanting, to be frank. A rare intellect, a wit of considerable speed. Your father is blessed to have a daughter such as you, a woman who is a revelation to talk to, as well as to look upon.
If you would permit, I would enjoy entering into a correspondence with you. I know that I am not, perhaps, a person you would call yourself overly fond of. But, as our friend Johnson says, "Kindness is in our power, even when fondness is not."
Will you do me this kindness, Miss Schuyler?
His letter is hungry, but honest. Angelica may be sixteen, but she knows enough to know that Burr is looking to court her. This is how things are done.
"Be careful," her mother says, reading the letter when it arrives. "That boy is sly."
Sly. Angelica rolls the word around, trying to get a taste for it, a feel for what her mother might mean. It isn't a warning, not really. Her mother isn't worried about her heart. She's worried about who Burr is, who he might be.
She decides there's nothing to lose, not really, and writes back.
Thank you for your fond letter, and I hope to answer it, shall we say, in kind.
Tell me of your studies-- what will you do when you finish? Do you plan to minister? The world stands, unblushing and naked, in front of you. What will you build?
I've recently taken up a new philosopher, Immanuel Kant. My German is middling at best (my Latin is much stronger) but he has a turn of phrase one must admire. His work with what he calls "ratiocination" is fascinating, but I'll admit it loses some it the obscurity. One wishes for a point, a purpose. A practical application of the theory. Pure speculation leaves me hungry-- so the Earth coasts through a universe of gas, a cloud of a home. What does this mean for the man on the street, for the ideals of the soldier?
Though perhaps this is not something one should say to a man who plans to devote himself to Our Lord. What is God if not a pure idea, albeit one that we allow to influence our day to day work.
Truth be told, I prefer John Locke. I've introduced my younger sister, Eliza, to his writings, but she doesn't quite have the mind for it. She's an artist, you see. Plays the piano like a siren enticing a sailor. I think that any man who hears her play would be hard-pressed to rebuff her after. Peggy, who is younger still, likes the ideas, but her sensibilities aren't mature yet. She's still cutting her intellectual teeth on hornbooks.
Send me, if you will, a recommendation. What are you reading? What is today's meditation? What should I be learning, oh ye of great education?
Burr writes weekly through the summer he spends at Columbia, talking of demonstrations in the square, of speakers and speeches and all the ins and outs of life in the city. She feels dull by comparison, having only the events of her father's estate to discuss.
Angelica isn't blind to the events Burr brings up-- her father has friends who come to mull over the state of things in parlors full of pipe tobacco and whiskey fumes. Angelica knows the shape of things-- she can see the revolution on the horizon and feel the change in the air. She's seventeen, and she wonders, at times, how different the shape of the world will be when she's twenty.
Today we heard from General Washington, and what a man he is. Tall and elegant, in the way of the landed gentry of the south. Eloquent, but soft spoken. I intend to be a man such as he when I leave here. I've decided to study law, and take the next year at Columbia to do so.
The winds of change blow more furiously after the General's departure, and with them comes the cold of winter. You can feel the way things move-- ice in the east river and murmurs in the commons. I wonder if nothing will cool the hearts of these men. Perhaps it would be good if it did-- men such as us should be careful, not hasty. There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, and it seems that from time to time the others forget it, and see fit to dwell in oration. They should be more guarded, I think. It's hard to know who might be seeking to o'er perch our garden walls and listen at the balcony.
But here I've mixed my allusions. Forgive me, my dear, as the great Bard must. He comes often to mind-- at times I feel as Hamlet, torn between decision and acting. How does one know if the things in front of them are real? How does one find one's uncle praying for absolution, when the uncle sits abroad with an army of thousands?
Perhaps I prattle on. How of your father? Does he anticipate war soon? Tell me your mind; I know you listen keenly at windows and doors, eager to steal what information men let drop from their lips. Engage me, dear Angel, and tell me how you understand the world to be.
The winter brings its snow and ice, heaping piles against doors until any in the Schuyler home are hand-pressed to go out. Her mother opens curtains to let sunshine in, but all Angelica can see is her future in the crystals of ice that form on the windowpanes. Spring will come and the world will thaw, she will walk free until Burr appears to ask for her hand. She will marry him, and perhaps he will find his courage and will take a job in the army to serve his country in the coming revolution. She'll be a woman of means, a person of importance. Her parlor will bustle with the men who build their nation, and she will stand behind them, a pillar in the temple of democracy.
It makes her uneasy, the thought of a man who might not fight. A man who might be too consumed with private ambition and secret thoughts. He does not share his mind, opting instead to obscure his opinions behinds layers of allusion and metaphor. At times it borders on nonsense, and she has to tease the threads of his letters apart until they fall into a pattern she can see.
But she does not always mind the way he obfuscates. It gives her something to do on the short nights, when her candle burns low and she wearies of copying verses into her journal-- she takes out his letters and reads them in the flickering darkness, trying to put together the man he is with the man he is fighting so hard to present.
You write in circles, my dear. Hamlet and Juliet were never friends, and Verona is too far from Denmark for your story to have any narrative cohesion. I'm sorry to say it, but you should be told. Stick to one metaphor, sir, or you'll be the laughing stock of your peers. Imagine, poor Mister Burr, who cannot tell if this is a Son of York or a Daughter of Prospero.
Eliza is anxious to meet you, and judge for herself if you are a man befitting her older sister's attentions. I've told her a bit, but you must come up when next you have a break, so you can make her acquaintance. She wants to tell you all the rules for courting a Schuyler sister, most of which she's stolen wholesale from a battered copy of "Urania" that she thinks is secreted away, but of which we are all aware. Quite the romantic, our young Eliza. I worry what might befall Peggy, should she take to closely after her next oldest sister, instead of the fine, upstanding woman her eldest sister has turned out to be. A mind that eschews Milton, as you know, is a mind worth knowing the contents of.
Will you come and visit? I want to know more of your mind, which swallow down whole texts and never seems to feel one way or another about them. How is it that a man might read something as scandalous as The Castle of Otranto and never have a word to say on it is beyond me. You perplex me, Aaron. Your silence on some subjects is so loud as to be deafening.
Speak, friend, and let me know your heart.
Spring comes to Albany, and Angelica finally feels the dust shaking off of her skin. She's been too long inside, too long buried in books and letters and words. She takes long walks, as soon as she can, tying her skirts up to keep the from the muddy ground. She hums as she walks, composing sonnets and odes to the countryside.
She doesn't write them down, though she sometimes plays at reciting them to her sisters, seeing if they can guess, from her description, what ridge she might have gazed upon that day. And as she's waking up from her long hibernation, the men in her father's study become more agitated, more frantic.
The whole house is alive, and Angelica feels free, and happy.
And then her mother dies, and no one opens the curtains. The house falls silent, and dark, and Angelica is more trapped than ever.
I have taken an extra year at Columbia. Dr. Yates, who oversaw my education here, asked me to continue on as his assistant before beginning my practice of the law.
Would it distress you to join me here? I know the death of your mother has thrown your father's house into disarray. Perhaps it would do you well to come to the city, to see the men in the commons, and hear how they talk. You friend Locke is often on the tongues of my compatriots. You should hear the talk of human nature-- so many think that a man in pure form is evil, that we are not fit to govern. And of course, you and I know better.
Man in pure form is fit to govern if and only if there is a woman to stand at his side. So says Johnson, afterall, that only bachelors have a conscience; married men have wives.
I should not talk so much of marriage and wives, not before certain other things are set in motion.
Regardless, think of coming to the City. Perhaps you have an aunt who would like the air, and could be your escort.
There is no aunt, but there are sisters. Peggy and Eliza are anxious to get out of the dark house, to escape their father's sadness. Eliza is fourteen, ready to find the world and embrace it. Peggy is 11, too young to be left alone in the house without her sisters.
They present it to Papa as an exercise in vacation-- perhaps they'll be able to take in shows in New York, visit libraries and attend balls. Perhaps there will be other young women who can show them the social scene, bring them to balls.
Phillip isn't unaware of the situation; he knows why Angelica wants to go. Angelica knows he knows.
Still, he gives his permission, with a list of rules and requirements so long that she could wear them as winter skirts. Be home by sundown, he says. Stay away from the commons.
Angelica takes them, and kisses him goodbye, climbing into the carriage. Eliza takes her hand as the horses whinny and start, clutching it close.
"We're going on an adventure," Angelica asks, brushing a strand of her sister's hair back behind her ear. "Are you ready?"
This will be brief. Forgive me. Welcome to New York. Will you join me on Wednesday for dinner?
There is no need to bring your sisters.
Angelica reads the last line over and over. No need to bring her sisters. No need. They're unwelcome.
Her heart sinks. Here she is, in the greatest city she's ever seen, where the people thrum through the streets at all hours like blood in vital arteries. And her sisters are unwelcome at the home of the man who invited her.
They're in the parlor, her sisters. She can picture them-- Eliza at the piano, picking out her scales dutifully, her voice high and clear like a little bird. Peggy in the overstuffed armchair, a book on her lap,reading something that should be too advanced for her. But not Peggy. Her little bird and her little brain. Good, and kind.
She cannot abide a man who would not welcome them into his life.
Without my sisters, I fear I cannot be present. You may not understand, but family is a thing that matters much to me. Be it a third cousin or a sister, you will never find a woman who cleaves more closely to her blood. Do you see?
If you would like to visit us on Clairmont Street, we accept visitors in the afternoons. You are welcome in our home.
He does not come to visit that week.
He does not send a letter for three days.
Angelica does not cry over him.
I'm writing with apologies, it seems that you misunderstood me. I understand your devotion to your family. I simply did not wish for the company of children. Do you understand that? There are serious things to discuss, and you and I should discuss them as adults.
Angelica crumples his letter in her fist, the anger in her throat threatening to explode into a scream as she does. How dare he?
Angelica pulls a shawl from her closet, pulling it close around her shoulders.
"Hey," she says, fixing her voice with a lightness she does feel as she finds her sisters in the parlor. "What would you say we go down to the commons?"
Peggy's brow furrows. "But-- But Daddy said not to."
"You don't have to come," Angelica tells her, smiling. "I would like you to, but you can stay home."
"I'm going," Eliza says, rising from the piano. "Let me get my shoes."
"Okay," Peggy says, standing as well. "But-- Angelica, what are we going there for?"
Angelica smiles and pulls her baby sister into a hug. "Peggy, we're looking for a mind at work."