The story of the Stapleton clan continues in this sequel to Remember the Morning. The Wage of Fame takes place between 1827 and the start of the Civil War. We follow George Stapleton, Hugh Stapleton's grandson, and his circle of powerful friends through their romantic and political adventures. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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August 14, 1999
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Excerpt from The Wages of Fame by Thomas Fleming
ABOVE THE HUDSON RIVER AND the ever multiplying rooftops of New York, the September sky was crystal blue, dotted by scudding clouds. A brisk west wind invoked apostrophes to Shelley--and to the vast continent that receded over the horizon on the other side of the broad river. On such a perfect day, Jeremy Biddle had no trouble persuading George Stapleton and John Sladen to join him for an amble to the steamboat dock beside the Bowling Green at the tip of Manhattan to meet his Ohio cousin Caroline Kemble.
In their years at Columbia, the three had become more or less inseparable. Jeremy, sentimental about friendship, called them the fr?res trois. He took not a little credit for this harmony. In those days he was fond of considering himself a third--an expert at softening the collisions and clashes that our very different natures seem to make inevitable in this world. Between Sladen and Stapleton, a third was urgently needed. Slim and swarthy, with something of the aura of a fallen angel, John Sladen had a reserved, caustic personality, its edges sharpened by poverty and family disappointment. George Rensselaer Stapleton was his opposite, a big, easygoing paragon of amiability and optimism, thanks to his family's wealth and his view of life as a romantic adventure.
Jeremy, with his thick glasses and unruly mass of red hair and mouth full of uneven teeth, was anything but handsome. Interest in his Ohio cousin was minimal, on the unspoken assumption that there was likely to be a family resemblance. There was another reason why Stapleton had abandoned his books of poetry and Sladen had put aside his newspapers crammed with acrimonious political prose. Aboard the good ship Hercules arriving from Perth Amboy was the ex-presidentof the United States, James Monroe, who had vacated the executive mansion in Washington some two years ago.
Columbia, not yet driven from its ancient buildings on Murray and Chapel Streets by the real estate developers, was only a brisk walk from their destination. A moderate crowd had assembled on and around the dock by the time the fr?res trois arrived. Hercules was a spanking new steamer, well over a hundred feet long, with powerful paddle wheels on both sides. She churned smartly up to the dock and reversed her engines with a blast of her whistle that caused many ladies and a few men to cover their ears.
Down the gangplank soon stumped the ex-president. To the young eyes of the fr?res trois, he was a curious figure. The collegians wore the pantaloons, tall hats, and flowing coats of their era, which had profited from the liberating influences of the French Revolution. The president was wearing the constricting style of 1776--knee breeches, lung-binding waistcoat (vest), and tight coat that sloped away to two narrow tails in the back. On his gray head was a cocked hat such as George Washington wore. For a moment they could do nothing but goggle. It was like seeing a piece of history, alive and walking among them.
George Stapleton's eyes grew damp. He hoped to write a chant to the Revolution in Homeric hexameters. Seeing Monroe stirred his admiration of the heroes of that era, so different from their puny contemporary politicians. Beside him, John Sladen had a different reaction. "He looks like an even bigger fool than Aaron Burr says he is," he muttered.
. Down the gangplank behind Mr. Monroe strode a young woman in a simple, high-waisted, blue dress and carelessly draped blue cloak. Raven black hair fell in a cascade to her shoulders. The broad, open forehead, the brows firmly arched without a hint of heaviness, the chiseled nostrils, and perfect mouth cast in the softest feminine mold reminded the fr?res trois of some supreme work of art. With all its purity of outline, the face was not severe or coldly statuesque but superbly serene. To its perfect glory was added a pink coral tint that flushed faintly through the pale cheeks, while the lift of thelong, trailing lashes revealed the magnificent eyes.
"Who's that adorable creature?" John Sladen murmured.
Having no idea, Jeremy and George could only stare as the ex-president, once he had reached the bottom of the gangplank, turned and gallantly assisted the black-haired beauty to the dock. "Mr. Monroe," she said in a warm, throaty voice, "you are too kind. May I introduce you to my cousin?"
Whereupon, Caroline Kemble led the city's most distinguished visitor of the year 1827 over to Jeremy and with a coolly triumphant smile said, "This is Jeremy Biddle. President Monroe and I met on the steamer. Who are these gentlemen, Jeremy dear?"
Jeremy managed to stutter out the identities of Stapleton and Sladen. The ex-president shook their hands and said, "You have the most interesting cousin, Mr. Biddle. She told me stories of her grandmother's adventures in New Jersey during the Revolution that deserve to be* put into a book. I have a particular fondness for that state. I was with Washington at Trenton in '76. I saw how our little victory ignited patriotism in her people."
"You're too modest, Mr. President," George Stapleton said. "As I recall from my history books, you received a wound at Trenton, leading a charge on a Hessian gun."
"Who'd believe young fellows remember things that happened so long ago," Monroe said, immensely pleased at George's compliment.
Hurrying to Monroe's side were his daughter, Mrs. Maria Gouveneur, and her numerous family as well as the pompous mayor of New York, the Honorable Philip Hone, and a half dozen other distinguished welcomers. The ex-president beamed at Caroline Kemble for another moment. "She reminds me so much of my wife the day I married her. She's the same age," he said.
This was no small tribute. Mrs. Monroe had been one of the great beauties of her era. The ex-president went off with his relatives and the welcoming committee while the fr?res trois gazed in astonishment at Caroline Rawdon Kemble. No one was more amazed than Jeremy Biddle. He had never seenhis Ohio cousins. Like many other New Jerseyans, they had migrated west around the turn of the century.
"How did you know me?" Jeremy asked.
"Mother told me to look for the homeliest boy on the dock," she said.
George Stapleton and John Sladen chuckled. Jeremy was somewhat less amused, but he managed to produce a rueful smile. It was their first glimpse of Caroline's Western directness.
"How did you meet the president?" John Sladen asked.
"He was standing alone on the upper deck, with everyone else too tongue-tied to speak to him. I introduced myself and we chatted agreeably until we docked."
"I'm glad to see Western women have mastered the manners of democracy," John Sladen said.
This was a loaded word--even a loaded sentence--in 1827. The Democrats were a controversial movement, full of rancor against the "ruling clique" as they called Monroe and his successor, President John Quincy Adams. Their hero was General Andrew Jackson, the Tennessean who had lost the 1824 presidential election although he won a plurality of the popular vote.
"I predict women will master a great many things before our generation totters off to oblivion, Mr. Sladen," Caroline said in her oddly authoritative voice.
"Does that include the men in their lives?" Sladen asked in his wryest style.
"That depends a great deal on whether the men choose to join us--or oppose us."
"Oppose, join, you sound like a veritable revolutionary, Miss Kemble," George Stapleton said in his hearty way. George's size and stature--he had a magnificent physique--combined to give a slightly condescending tone to his words.
Caroline's blue eyes became opaque. She gazed at George with a condescension of her own that reduced him to the consistency of rice pudding. "We simply wish to be treated as intelligent beings, Mr. Stapleton. Is that asking too much?"
"Of course not," George gasped, writhing like a soldierwho had just received a fatal wound. Which in fact he had. He was in love with Caroline Kemble before they left the dock. Jeremy Biddle saw a similar ardor igniting John Sladen's saturnine eyes.
Alarmed at the way things were unfolding, Jeremy asked, "Do you have the address of your school?"
"Of course. Mother was her usual methodical self." From her purse Caroline produced a letter in which Martha Kemble instructed her "dear nephew" to escort Caroline to Miss Lucretia Carter's Female Seminary on Richmond Hill. This was a good mile beyond Columbia on the west side of New York. They located Caroline's trunk among the luggage on the dock and carried it to a nearby hackney coach for the trip uptown.
Caroline gazed around her with near ecstatic delight. "Mother wanted me to go to a school in Philadelphia. But I insisted on New York."
Her escorts pointed out the principal sights--majestic Trinity Church, in whose graveyard Alexander Hamilton and other revolutionary-era giants lay, the elegant new City Hall in its green park, their alma mater's ivy-covered walls.
"That's where I really wanted to go," Caroline said, gazing up at Columbia's tiers of windows. "At my grandmother's suggestion, I wrote to them. They replied that no female could possibly survive their rigorous course of study without destroying her constitution. Tell me, gentlemen--did you find the study of Greek and Latin verbs threatened your nervous systems?"
"Not nearly as much as you're threatening them, Miss Kemble," George Stapleton said.
Jeremy had heard family tales of Caroline's grandmother, the formidably named Katherine Stapleton Rawdon. She too was a relic of America's revolutionary days--approaching her eighties now. Jeremy gathered Mrs. Rawdon had some strong ideas about women's rights and the equality of the sexes. These were not uncommon among the women of her time. The Revolution had stirred up a great deal of intellectual dust among all sorts of people. But fifty years had passed--and for most of America the dust had long since settled into the comfortableideas that had guided the world since Adam's day. Men were husbands, fathers, and masters; women were wives, mothers, and helpmates.
"You're no better than your antiquated professors," Caroline said. "You refuse to take me seriously."
"Miss Kemble, it's impossible for any man with eyes in his head not to take you seriously," George Stapleton said.
"Oh? I must scar my face with acid, cross my eyes, knock out a tooth or two--and then you might actually listen to my opinions? I despise your attitude, Mr. Stapleton. Until you reform it, I haven't the slightest desire to speak to you again."
Jeremy Biddle could scarcely believe his ears. Neither could John Sladen. Here was a woman who coolly--or better, heatedly--flung defiance in the face of a young man who stood to inherit a minimum of a million dollars. Caroline was undoubtedly aware of George's future fortune. She was his distant cousin, thanks to a long-ago marriage between George's great-granduncle and her great-grandmother.
While George floundered, the hackman cracked his whip over his team of bays and they rolled briskly uptown to Miss Carter's Female Seminary. Caroline spent the rest of the journey telling them she was sure she would hate the place. The course of study consisted of French, piano playing, and sewing. These were the three arts society believed an educated young woman required to be an adequate wife and mother.
"Not a word about history or literature!" Caroline said.
"What are some of your favorite books, Miss Kemble?" John Sladen asked.
"Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is my supreme favorite," Caroline said. "I also enjoyed Chief Justice Marshall's life of George Washington, David Hume's History of England, and Mercy Otis Warren's history of our revolution. The latter I'm sure none of you have read, it being by a mere woman."
George Stapleton, not the most industrious of students, had trouble keeping his jaw from succumbing to the law of gravity. Even Jeremy Biddle, who prided himself on some attention totheir courses, was amazed. John Sladen's eyes glittered with dark delight.
"I'll be happy to loan you some of my books, Miss Kemble," Sladen said. "May I also say I read Mrs. Warren's history. I found it a most interesting production."
"I think it deserves a far more substantial adjective," Caroline said.
"On that point, I regret to say we must disagree. I don't feel she dealt adequately with the military side of the struggle. I also detected a certain hostility to George Washington, born no doubt of her Massachusetts prejudices."
"You may be right," Caroline said grudgingly. "What books do you have at your disposal?"
Sladen reeled off a half dozen histories of European countries and biographies of great men, including his hero, Napoleon.
"If you would dispatch them to me, I would be most grateful," Caroline said.
"There's also an excellent circulating medium, the New York Society Library, which you can join for a trifling sum," Jeremy said.
"I fear I haven't even trifling sums available to me," Caroline said. "I'm here as a sort of scholarship student, thanks to the generosity of Mr. Stapleton's grandfather."
"The Congressman?" George said.
Caroline's voice descended an octave; she spoke in a timbre charged with sorrow. "My mother wrote to him, pleading for a loan to send me to school somewhere and appease my determination to escape the environs of Twin Forks, Ohio. He generously donated the full amount of my tuition and suggested I come East to widen my education beyond the realm of books."
At this point, the coachman opened the door and announced they had arrived at Miss Carter's Seminary five minutes ago. None of the fr?res trois had noticed that their forward motion had ceased. It was a tribute to how totally Caroline Kemble had mesmerized them. They sprang from the coach and Stapleton and Sladen carried her trunk up the steps of the modesttown house. Miss Carter's Seminary was three stories high and its whitewashed brick front was badly in need of painting. It seemed to confirm the melancholy portrait of poverty and rejection Caroline had drawn for them.
A maid directed them to the front parlor, which also showed signs of genteel desuetude. The fr?res trois shifted about uneasily, none of them quite certain they were entitled to stay, yet all reluctant to leave.
"May we call upon you here, Miss Kemble?" John Sladen said. "It would give us the greatest pleasure to show you more than passing glimpses of the sights of New York."
George Stapleton violently confirmed this entertaining proposal. "Nothing could give us more pleasure," he said.
"I have no idea what the rules of this establishment will be. I'm only certain there will be rules," Caroline said.
"There certainly are rules!" thundered a female voice. In the doorway loomed Miss Lucretia Carter. She was at least six feet tall. She wore a black muslin gown with round blue buttons down the front and some sort of epaulets on her shoulders. She glowered suspiciously at the fr?res trois, as if she was certain they were clandestine white slavers, ready to lure all her students into some Algerian bashaw's harem.
Jeremy introduced himself as Caroline's cousin and displayed her mother's letter to assure Miss Carter their presence was entirely proper. But no amount of pleading could mitigate Caroline's crime of arriving with three male escorts.
"Our young ladies may receive visitors between the hours of noon and five P.M. on Sunday. At no other time are visitors welcome," Miss Carter said. "Young ladies are expected at all other times to apply themselves to their studies."
"I'm sure Miss Kemble will demonstrate her eagerness to do that," Jeremy said.
The fr?res trois turned to make brief bows to Caroline. "I hope you'll send me some of those books, Mr. Sladen. I'm sure I would enjoy them," she said.
"Books?" Lucretia Carter said. "You will have no need of books other than those assigned to you, miss."
"These were books on politics and history," Caroline said. "Subjects that interest me extremely."
"No self-respecting lady ever displays an interest in such mundane matters," Miss Carter said. "Come with me, miss. I'll show you to your room."
The fr?res trois trooped glumly into the street. Sladen stared up at Miss Carter's Female Seminary with more than usual spleen on his sardonic face. "My God, Stapleton," he said. "Didn't your grandfather investigate this miserable school before sending a young woman so fine--so intelligent--to be incarcerated in it?"
"Grandfather considers himself enlightened to believe in women's education," George said. "And he is. He was born in 1742, for God's sake! I'm sure this place is no worse than other schools."
"I begin to think this will cure me of that tendency to self-pity that you see as the chief defect of my character," Sladen said.
"I don't think there's any need for this storm of sympathy," Jeremy said. "Cousin Caroline seems to me perfectly capable of taking care of herself. I'm inclined to feel sorry for Miss Carter."
"What would Napoleon do in a situation like this?" Sladen asked rhetorically. "We should launch a military campaign to rescue Cousin Caroline from intellectual and spiritual debasement."
"I think it might be simpler to persuade my mother to let her live with her and my cousin Sally in our town house," George said. "She could become a day student at Miss Carter's and we could visit her to our hearts' content."
George was lazy but he was not stupid. He smiled mockingly at Sladen, who could only gaze glumly back at him. Jeremy knew what Sladen was thinking: The million-heir has done it again. He has reminded us of how insignificant the rest of us are. Jeremy occasionally worried about Sladen's bouts of envy when he contemplated George Stapleton's wealth. The Sladens had fought in the Revolution and traced their lineage back to the seventeenth century. But variouskinds of bad luck had pursued them for generations.
"Your mother doesn't approve of me. It probably has something to do with the cut of my clothes," Sladen said to George. "Or my failure to elevate my pinkie when I drink my coffee."
George's mother, Angelica Stapleton, was a tremendous snob. Hauteur came as naturally to her as breathing. It had a lot to do with being born a Van Rensselaer, heiress to half the Hudson River valley.
"I'll make sure she lets you call now and then," George said with a grin. "I see no need to take unfair advantage."
There it was, out in the open already. Jeremy's two best friends were about to become rivals for Caroline Kemble's affections. If he could have foreseen the impact this contest would have on all their lives--not to mention the history of the country--he would have concocted some scheme that would have sent Caroline back to Ohio to commune with tree stumps, no matter how melancholy it made her--or how guilty it made him.
But Jeremy had no more ability to read the future than any other man in the year 1827. He even entertained the foolish optimism that as an already experienced third, he could cushion the hard feelings that would inevitably emerge in this interesting drama. He was like a novice seaman, sailing into his first hurricane.