Pairing: Eliza Schuyler/Maria Reynolds
Summary: Walking down a street in New York, Eliza spots a familiar face.
At first, Eliza assumes that she must be mistaken. New York is a city of hundreds, after all; what is the likelihood that two such specific people would find themselves on the same street at the same time, on an inescapable collision course? But then the woman’s face bobs into sight again, and there’s no mistaking it. Eliza knows that face: sketches and woodcuts of it were printed in every newspaper in New York, every circular that greedily sucked up every word her husband published to further his own ruination. This is the face that launched a thousand mocking caricatures and pamphlets, bawdy tavern songs and laughing fingers pointed at Eliza's husband and family. She's looking into the face of Maria Reynolds.
The world around her goes black and tilted for a moment before she feels the press of a hand on her elbow. “Please, let me help you,” a woman’s voice says in her ear, and Eliza finds herself being lowered onto a bench on the sidewalk. She blinks twice, and the world around her comes back into focus. But lest she think it was all some bizarre nightmare, the reason for her fit of vapours is now standing directly in front of her, concern furrowing her brow. Maria Reynolds in the flesh looks somewhat different from Maria as Eliza knew her from the pamphlet and newspaper sketches: there are lines around her eyes and mouth, and her hair is pulled tightly back and tucked under a bonnet instead of flowing over her bosom. The styles have changed, of course, and her famous dress- the red one, the one Alexander described in his writing- is gone. The one she’s wearing now is striped red and white, like Christmas candy, with a red sash tied around her waist. Eliza follows the dangling ends of the sash with her eyes, and she spots a small child clinging to Maria’s skirts. For a moment, her mind lurches: Could it be-
But no, of course it couldn’t. She shakes her head as common sense prevails. Alexander- honest to a fault as he was- would have confessed to any illegitimate children he sired. Besides, the Reynolds affair was almost fifteen years ago, and this child is no more than four years old. Of course, it makes sense that Maria Reynolds’ life would have progressed as well as Eliza’s; of course she’s grown and borne more children and changed since 1793. Of course she wasn’t frozen in time as a temptress. None of them can be who they once were.
“Are you all right?” Maria asks. She’s peering down at Eliza with concern in her eyes, and it occurs to Eliza that Maria has no idea who she is. Of course; why would she? Eliza’s face wasn’t the one the papers printed. She’s always led a private life, away from the glaring lights that focused on Alexander and his colleagues. To Maria, she is no more than another face in the crowd, a woman swooning in the street, in need of a kind stranger to care for her. What a marvel the world can be.
“I’m quite well,” Eliza says, managing a weak smile. “It’s just the heat, you know. I should have brought a parasol.” She’s not quite lying: the August heat does bear down heavily on her, especially as she’s still dressed in her black mourning clothes. It’s not the reason she swooned, but it’s close enough.
“Of course,” Maria agrees, smiling amicably. “Still, do you need a carriage called? Or an escort? You shouldn’t walk home alone, if the heat vexes you so.”
The truth of it is, Eliza can’t afford a carriage- funds being as short as they are since Alexander’s death, many of their little amenities have been sacrificed. She doesn’t want to explain this to Maria, however- doesn’t want to tell anyone what her financial situation is, how Alexander left them- so she just strengthens her smile and says “No, thank you. I live nearby. I’ll be fine.”
“Let me walk you home, at least,” Maria says, and Eliza’s stomach flips. They no longer live in the house that Maria once knew as the Hamilton household, but it would still be impossible to hide her identity if Maria did walk her home. Their name is carved into the signposts, after all, and there are not so many Hamilton's in New York that it could be passed off as coincidence. She scrabbles mentally for an excuse that could put Maria off, but finds that her tired mind- exhausted from months of worrying over account books, soothing her grieving children, and attending to her husband’s papers- cannot summon up a convenient lie.
And besides, haven’t they both had enough of lies?
“Mrs. Reynolds,” she says, and Maria’s eyebrows rise when Eliza says her name. “You are very kind, but I’m afraid there’s been something of a misunderstanding between us. You don’t recognize me-”
“Recognize you?” Maria cocks her head. “Have we met?”
“No, no,” Eliza shakes her head. “But you and my husband- my late husband- had a certain . . . number of assignations- once, long ago-”
Maria’s face has begun to pale beneath her bonnet, and Eliza suddenly fears that she will be the one who swoons next. She stands, reaching out to take Maria’s arm. “Please don’t think I bear you any ill will. It’s just, I’m not sure you would wish to come to my house, not knowing . . .”
“Of course,” Maria says faintly. “Of course, I- I had no idea. I would not have-” She pulls herself up abruptly, cutting herself off mid-sentence. “I won’t impose.”
“There’s no imposition,” Eliza assures her, struck with regret for the way Maria’s face has tightened and sunk in the space of a few moments. “It’s only, the situation is unusual-”
“It would be improper,” Maria agrees, nearly tripping over her skirt as she backs away. “I shouldn’t- I’ll be on my way.” She tugs on her child’s hand. “Peter, it’s time to go.”
The child- Peter- has sank down into a seated position on the sidewalk during their conversation, and evidently does not see any need to move. Maria pulls on his hand again, and he pulls back, whining. Eliza knows the sound well: a small child, already tiring and short of temper, balking at his mother’s command. She’s heard the same from her own children many times. “He sounds tired,” she offers.
“He’s been a bit ill,” Maria says, still fruitlessly pulling on his hand, avoiding Eliza’s gaze. “A touch of croup- but he’s only being obstinate. Peter, now.”
“As I said,” Eliza says, “my home is not far from here, and I do still feel a little faint. If you still wish to walk me home, perhaps you could rest there before continuing?”
She doesn’t know what prompts the words coming out of her mouth: the terrible mortification of the situation they’ve found themselves in hasn’t changed, nor has the strangeness of walking home with her husband’s former mistress. Still, Maria- not unlike Eliza- looks very tired. Too tired to carry a squalling child however-many blocks it will take for her to reach home. And Eliza has never balked at opening her home to a child in need of rest and shelter, no matter whose child it might be. She holds her hand out to Maria. “Do come with me.”
Maria freezes, looking from Eliza’s proffered hand to the child still sitting stubbornly on the ground. Exhaustion wars with fear on her face, but it doesn’t take long for the exhaustion to win. She takes Eliza’s hand, and picks Peter up with her free arm. He relaxes instantly into his mother’s arms, apparently contented with this new arrangement. Of the three of them, he is by far the most at ease.
“Come this way,” Eliza says.
She was being truthful when she told Maria that her home was not far from where they’d met- only a few blocks. Even so, she finds herself fatigued as they reach their destination, and she suspects that Maria feels the same way. She offers once to carry the child for her- as Maria also has a basket slung over her arm- but Maria shakes her head with an awkward, apologetic smile. “He can be shy sometimes. Especially when he’s not feeling well.”
As they traverse the driveway leading to her house, Eliza risks a sidelong glance at Maria, wondering what she’s thinking. Her eyes are wide as she takes it all in, almost childlike in her wonder. Eliza had never paid too much attention to Maria’s circumstances when the pamphlet was first published- she knew only that the woman was young, married, and had been in her husband’s bed- but watching her now, Eliza wonders what sort of accommodations she’s accustomed to, if this modest mansion has such an effect.
They no longer have a butler to greet them at the door, but that task is taken on by Eliza Holly, who descends the stairs two at a time. “Mother! How was-” She stops in her tracks when she sees Maria and Peter, looking back to Eliza with a questioning expression.
“We have guests, as you can see,” Eliza says. Beside her, Maria lets Peter slide to the floor, and Eliza sets her hand on the top of his head. “This is Peter. Perhaps he and Phil might want something to eat?”
Eliza Holly is nothing if not her mother’s daughter, and she takes this new information in stride quickly making her way down the rest of the stairs and to the hallway. “Of course. Here, Peter, come with me-” She holds a hand out to the child, “-and we’ll see if we can’t find something sweet for you in the kitchen.”
Peter casts a wide-eyed look back at his mother, who nods at him. Evidently soothed, he takes Eliza Holly’s hand and lets her lead him down the hallway and around the corner that leads to their kitchen.
“My daughter,” Eliza explains to Maria. “She’s my-” She stops mid-sentence, unsure of how to explain their family structure. Eliza Holly is neither her oldest child nor her oldest daughter, but circumstances have conspired to make her the eldest child capable of helping her mother around the house. “She helps with the children,” is how Eliza eventually concludes, and Maria nods. She doesn’t ask further questions, for which Eliza is grateful. She may not hold a grudge against Maria, but she also doesn’t wish to explain the loss of Philip and Angelica’s illness. Not when her husband’s death is still so fresh, and the air between them so clouded with past griefs.
She leads Maria into the parlour, and since they have no maid to serve them tea, offers biscuits instead. Maria takes one politely, nibbling around the edge as though she’s afraid Eliza would take offense at anything else. Eliza would like to assure her somehow that she can eat her fill, but she’s not sure what to say.
“Your son,” is what she finally offers, deciding that children are as safe a topic of conversation as she will find. “How old is he?”
Maria swallows her mouthful of crumbs before answering. “He’s three,” she says, voice scarcely above a whisper. “His father- my last husband, John- dies when I was still with child, so he was our only offspring.”
“I’m so sorry,” Eliza says, thinking of her smallest son. Little Phil was only two when his father died, and quickly stopped asking for him after the duel. It’s a different sort of grief, watching her children forget. Then something else occurs to her. “Your husband . . . John . . . ?”
Maria blushes brightly, until she’s almost the same colour as the stripes on her dress. “I divorced my first husband,” she says, looking down at her hands clasped in her lap. “He was not . . . he was unkind to me, and to our daughter.” This, Eliza remembers: it was what Maria had first told Alexander, that her husband had abandoned her without recourse. Apparently that part, at least, was true. “My daughter- she is called Maria as well, she’s nearly thirteen now- has a position as a domestic servant. She visits me every Sunday, and we pool her wages with mine. And I-” She lifts her chin a little, as though refusing to apologize for her family. “I work in a shop.”
Eliza nods. “I admire your industry,” she says. She sounds faintly ridiculous even to her own ears, but she perseveres. “I’m sure it must be difficult, supporting two children on your own.”
“It can be,” Maria agrees. Her eyes slide back and forth, looking around the room, and Eliza feels a faint blush of shame. The household furniture, like many things in her house, has grown shabby since Alexander’s death; there’s been no money to replace it. Maria’s own dress is also well-worn, though she’s carefully washed and ironed it. She looks surprisingly at home here, both her clothing and the settee she sits on being worn but clean. Eliza had never thought to compare her own circumstances to Maria Reynolds’- after all, she has never been divorced, and she does not work in a shop- but in this moment, sitting across from each other, they are at some form of accord.
“It would be foolish of me, perhaps,” Maria says, “to offer you any sort of apology after so many years.” Eliza opens her mouth to speak, hoping to divert the incoming disaster, but Maria stalls her with an upheld hand. “I know I cannot offer you any real amends for what happened. For what I did.” She closes her eyes and shakes her head. “And I certainly cannot offer any sort of excuse. I was young and foolish and afraid of my husband, but I still operated under my own power, and I behaved terribly.” She finally looks up, and her eyes are damp. “I certainly could not have expected you to treat me so kindly, knowing who I am and what I did to you. I cannot thank you enough for your hospitality.”
Impulsively, Eliza stands and crosses the room, sitting down next to Maria on the settee. Maria’s hands are still folded in her lap, and Eliza reaches over to take them. “You don’t need to thank me,” she says gently. Maria looks away. “Truthfully, I do not bear you any ill will. Of all the participants in that scandal-” a shudder travels through Maria, “-men who were far older and more worldly than you knew what they were doing. Even my husband.” Part of her still thinks especially my husband; Alexander was, after all, a man of principle. A temporary weakness would have been one thing, but his damnable stubborn pride was what had mired him in the whole scandal. In the end, Maria had been bought and sold by men who wished to profit; she had been the last thing on any of their minds, the well-being of a woman and her child irrelevant to the earth-shaking battles of titans.
Maria lets out a slow, trembling breath. “Thank you for saying so.”
“I said it because I meant it,” Eliza says, squeezing Maria’s hands slightly. After all that’s happened to both of them- children, husbands, and politics all- here they both are. “You may have behaved poorly, but you were not to blame for the whole affair.”
She wasn’t expecting Maria to raise her head. She was expecting even less for Maria to turn and press a kiss to her cheek. She freezes in place, overwhelmed by the gesture, the damp skin pressed to hers, the smell of Maria’s hair. Was this what had first caught Alexander’s attention? Was this what he had used to excuse all his future misbehaviour? Open affection, freely offered and given, a hand reaching out when the world had seemed too dark? Had an excess of love been his weakness, or had he just been flattered by a woman’s pleas for help? He hadn’t truly known- nor had James Reynolds, or James Monroe, or James Callender- what true courage it had taken for Maria to act, or for Eliza to stand by him, or for their daughters to carry on after they were gone. These were the things that would never be published with her husband’s papers, or in newspaper accounts of some tawdry scandal. There were some things the public had never really wished to know.
Later, when she and Maria have finished talking- Eliza tries to press another bag of biscuits into her hands, but she refuses- she stands in the doorway, watching Maria and Peter make their way down the drive. Eliza Holly comes up to stand beside her, leaning against her mother. Eliza puts an arm around her and squeezes. “Who were they?” her daughter asks, watching the pair leave.
Eliza keeps watch until they reach the end of the lane and disappear into the street. “Family friends,” is all she says.