“Aaron—“ Betsey opened the door, on her usually docile face a look of surprise. Around him, six children gathered as Aaron looked up from his phone. He cleared his throat nervously.
“I—the children—I brought them home—“
“—Where is Alexander?”
“He is sick. In bed. He asked me to take them home.” One of the children, John, sprinted past Aaron and into his mother’s arms. Aaron watched him. As Betsey held her son she studied Aaron with a nameless look Aaron had come to fear. A pit formed in his stomach.
“I’m sorry to drop by on you like this. Alexander has been up all night, vomiting, and is entirely unable to leave his bed—“
Betsey turned on her heel, walking inside her father’s large Albany mansion, her shoulder-length black-brown hair bouncing behind her. “It’s quite alright,” she said, a little too shrilly, setting John down on the couch and fixing a flower that had fallen out of a vase nearby. John watched her intently, ignoring his brothers and sister who had filed into the living room, chatting happily among themselves. Aaron stood awkwardly in the doorway, occasionally checking his cellphone, pretending he had something to do. Still John stared at his mother. Then, in an instant, locked his black eyes (so much like Betsey’s) on Aaron.
“I will be leaving, Miss Schuyler—“
“—Please call me Betsey,” the woman responded, lifting John up off the couch and standing him up on the floor.
“Betsey.” Repeated Aaron. She looked over and mustered up a smile to give him. It almost pained her but she hid it well.
“Please come inside. I want to talk to you.”
Aaron swallowed and, looking at his phone one last time, shut the door behind him as he stepped into the foyer. He could feel John’s stare still upon his person. Stop staring at me with all of your eyes, little child. Stop it. John’s stare was unnerving.
Betsey called from the living room just beyond the foyer. Still John stood in the doorway.
“I received a curious donation to my orphanage last week.” Betsey ushered John from the doorway and told him to go upstairs with his brothers. Reluctantly he acquiesced, never taking his eyes off Aaron.
“Ten thousand dollars.” The woman breathed, sitting calmly on the couch. Unruffled, unaffected, a perfect porceline doll of a woman.
Aaron stood in front of her. He felt as though should he sit on the seat opposite hers, he would leave a mark. Everything in the house was pristine—from the chandelier on the ceiling, to the generations-old paintings on the wall, to the very hostess sitting on the couch. Like something out of a magazine. Only then did Aaron notice the dirt under one of his fingernails. Betsey looked up at him.
“Would you like a glass of water? Coffee?” She inquired as politely as she could. Trained by her family, she had nerves of steel. She did not reveal her writhing insides, recoiling at the thought of the Snake standing in her prescence.
Aaron nodded and sat down across from her. She reached for a pitcher of water and poured him a glass. Everything moved so slowly.
“Ten thousand dollars. I could not believe it myself.” She remarked, sipping her drink, careful not to chug or open her mouth too widely. She never took her eyes off of him. Aaron sat in silence.
“No one in my family admits to it being their donation. And I would know if it was from Alexander.”
Aaron looked at her from over the rim of his glass.
“You surprise me, Mr. Burr.”
“Please call me Aaron.” He responded quietly.
Betsey exhaled, bringing her knees up to her seat, holding them, folding them neatly beneath her. “You did not have to do such a thing,” calmly she looked him up and down, “Ten thousand dollars is a great sum.”
Aaron studied her face for a moment. “When my relatives died they left me with a trust fund. I don’t need the money. The children need it more—“
“—So very noble of you.”
Betsey’s words came out as sweet and as calm as hot tea on a winter’s evening.
Faint sounds of children laughing could be heard upstairs. The grandfather clock, situated behind Aaron, bared down upon him as it ticked away. Betsey smiled.
“Why did you invite me in here, Betsey?”
The cupcake smile never left Betsey’s face, though the sadness in her eyes was unmistakable.
“I always invite my guests in. My father and the rest of my family are away for the weekend and I was looking for someone to share a drink with.” She raises her sparkling, crystal glass, and sips from it. Aaron mimicked her.
“How is Alexander?” She asks finally. The pit returns to Aaron’s stomach.
“He is fine. I don’t know what he is afflicted with tonight but he has unfortuntately been out of sorts—“
“—Give him fresh fruit. For him, it is an instant cure.”
Betsey smiled again. It was impossible for Aaron to hate her.
A moment’s silence passed between them.
The grandfather clock ticked on.
“We have a lot in common, you and I.” Betsey spoke finally, still sipping, still being the perfect hostess. Aaron looked up at her.
“Well-bred, polished, from distinguished families, wealthy,” each word made Betsey smile more, “We even look similar.” She finished, hushed. Aaron’s rapidly beating heart, though he hid it well, betrayed him.
“Alexander always told me how much he loved black eyes.”
Aaron stood to leave, shaken.
“I should go, Betsey.”
The woman looked up at him, regretting voicing her thought. “Please don’t.” She responded demurly. “Please…just…sit.”
Aaron reluctantly obeyed, careful to avoid eye contact.
“I am sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you,” Betsey smiled again, somewhat sheepishly this time. Her guest nodded. She pressed on.
“There is no use pretending that we will ever be good friends, Aaron. But I think, often I hope, that we will reconcile our past differences. I do not like conflict.”
“Nor do I.”
Betsey’s smile spread across her face sweetly, like icing.
For a moment Aaron studied the physique of her face and eyes. Shaken, he looked away in an instant.
“I suppose my main objective for inviting you in was to get a chance to really talk to you,” Betsey reasoned quietly, “to know who my children are in contact with. It is a mother’s desire, you understand. I only look out for the welfare of my children. To have them witness conflict between adults is not my wish.”
Aaron nodded. “I understand completely. I myself have no desire for conflict.”
The hostess raised one perfectly manicured eyebrow.
Aaron scoffed and shook his head. “Betsey, I don’t know what you want me to say. I can’t keep pretending that everything is perfect. If there is something you want to tell me, by all means do. I get the feeling you are dancing around a subject.”
Betsey’s porceline face showed no signs of distress. “I told you why I called you inside.”
“You want to be my friend—“
“—No. No, I do not want to be your friend, necessarily. I want you to understand that I feel no ill-will towards you.”
Aaron looked away, a sardonic smile pasted on his face.
“I always knew.” She muttered.
Aaron looked back at Betsey. Her voice was so quiet he could not be sure she said anything at all.
“I always knew. About Alexander.”
“What are you—“
“He used to write to me, while in the army. About women. Other women,” she laughed. Not bitterly, but not at all pleasant. “Men, too.”
“Betsey, you don’t have to—“
“Has he told you about Laurens?”
Aaron’s heart sank. He bit the inside of his cheek. Betsey’s weary grin returned to her face. “I see not.” Carefully she picked a pink flower out of the vase in front of her and smelled it, a secret smile on her face. Aaron ran a hand through his hair and finished the last of his water—desperately needing more to whet his now completely dry mouth but afraid to speak.
“You think I am cruel for bringing this up.” Betsey was not asking a question.
“I knew of his existence, though was not personally acquainted with him.”
Betsey smiled again and placed the flower back in its vase, the sadness still thick in her eyes. “Washington’s headquarters?”
“I was there.”
“For how long?”
“A few months. The work was tedious and dull. I left.” Aaron’s answers were short, matching the pace of his heartbeat.
“You knew Alexander, then?”
Betsey watched him, intrigued. She blinked twice, rapidly.
“When did you meet Alexander?”
“Elzabethtown. We were in the academy there together. Not at the same time. But I knew him.” Aaron’s voice trailed off as his memory failed him. He wondered when, and why, this had turned into a one-sided interview. “What is it that you want to know, Betsey.”
“What is your connection to the Reverend Hugh Knox?”
He quickly detected her reasoning behind the questions.
“Aaron you must forgive me if I want to know the similarities between you and Alexander. It is human curiosity. And a mother’s wish to protect her children.”
Aaron looked at her. She exhaled prettily, placing one hair back into place, and continued.
“What was your first imperssion of him?” Her eyes were averted.
“He was impossible to ignore. I felt as though I should have been his best friend. But something stopped me.” Aaron paused. “Intimidation. He was loud, I was not.”
For a moment, Betsey kept her eyes averted, fixing another strand of hair. “You two are so different.”
“You are nothing like his other romances.”
The two adults were so invested in their discussion, they had largely ignored the laughter and chatter of the children upstairs. With Aaron’s most recent answer, the din in the background came to the fore once again and Betsey was shaken out of her reverie. She looked at him. Aaron blinked, unsure what to say next.
“You mentioned Laurens.” He managed.
“They were lovers, Aaron. I am sure of it.”
Aaron’s mouth once again became dry and his head spun. He rubbed his eyes.
“Yes. I’ve heard the rumors—”
“—Not just rumors. My husband was romantically attached to men, Aaron. From the beginning.”
Only intermittently did the two adults hear the children’s chatter during the course of their conversation. Aaron opened his mouth to speak but Betsey beat him.
“He loved me. I know he did. But as…something different than a wife. Not less than a wife. Just…different.”
Her smooth facade was beginning to wrinkle. Aaron thought he heard her voice crack but shook it away, not believing a woman as pristine as this one could be anything other than resigned and calm. She reached up to her cheek and touched it.
“Betsey, you don’t have to explain if you don’t want to.”
She looked at him, her eyes large and glassy. That smile came back to her face immediately.
“Ever the gentleman.”
Betsey sniffed and continued. “A just and loyal father, too, then.”
Aaron nodded again, his eyes catching John’s at the top of the stairs. In the dim light, he could make out the young child hunched over behind the banisters. John had been listening intently to every word. Betsey could not see him. She pulled from her pocket a receipt from a substantial donation, folded it, and placed it in a box on the coffee table.
“You would never abandon a child?”
Betsey eyed him, seemingly satisfied.