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The LAST PRINCE of the MEXICAN EMPIRE A NOVEL BASED ON THE TRUE STORY
By C.M. MAYO
UNBRIDLED BOOKS Copyright © 2009 C. M. Mayo
All right reserved.
Chapter One THE DARLING OF ROSEDALE
Once upon a time there was a little girl named Alice Green who lived on what people who don't know any better would call a farm, but which her family called their country estate. Rosedale's main house was not especially fine, a clapboard box with a center hall and, upstairs, a warren of bedrooms (Alice shared one of the smallest with two sisters). However, it had fireplaces in every room, a gleaming piano in the parlor, and Hepplewhite-style chairs in the dining room. It was said that Pierre L'Enfant, who laid out the plan of the city of Washington, had advised with the landscaping. There were avenues of dogwood and ornamental hedges; peach, pear, cherry, fig, and apple orchards, grape arbors, strawberry bushes, vegetable patches, including sensationally prolific asparagus beds. ("O Moses," Alice's mother, Mrs. Green, would lament each spring with scarcely disguised pride. "What am I to do with all this asparagus?") One might also mention their chickens, ducks, geese, prize hogs, and feeding on the hilly pastures that here and there dropped down to the wooded canyon of Rock Creek, a herd of scrupulously tended milk cows. As was common in those days, the family owned slaves;these had their dowdy little cabins out back behind the stables so as not to ruin the pleasing view from the main driveway. Rosedale crowned the heights above Georgetown, the nearly century-old tobacco port town that had been drawn into the western corner of the District of Columbia. From the dormer window of her bedroom, Alice could see hills undulating down for the few miles yonder to the one they called Rome, where the national capitol sat, then no more than a tooth of a building. To the south, below, lay the Potomac, with its jerry-built wharves and, shooting out from the foot of the Francis Scott Key house, the rickety-looking Aqueduct Bridge. On the opposite shore, in the blue distance: the chip that was Arlington House, with its back to the fields and forests of Virginia. Alas, oftentimes this vista was sullied by smoke from one of Georgetown's paper mills or bone factories.
Rosedale had been founded by Alice's maternal grandfather, General Uriah Forrest, who served with General Washington and, famously, lost a leg in the Battle of Brandywine. Her maternal grandmother was a Hater who grew up at Sotterley, one of the grandest of the Maryland Tidewater tobacco plantations. But so much had been lost by the time Alice was born: decades earlier, General Forrest had been bankrupted. As for Sotterley, the story went, it had slipped from a great-uncle's fingers in a game of dice.
Alice's father worked in an office in the city of Washington, but when he was a young man he had seen action in Tripoli with Commodore Decatur. Her father's uniform was in his seaman's trunk, a wooden box with handles made of rope, but impossible to lift. Alice and her brothers and sisters were allowed to take turns trying on the hat, which had an enormous plume, and posing in front of the mirror. They could take out the rusty musket, and the saber too (but they had to keep that in its sheath). There were a pair of high boots with cracked soles, yellowed breeches that had once been snow white, and a coat that smelled strongly of camphor but nonetheless was riddled with moth holes.
When she was seven years old, Alice knew: she loved uniforms. She wanted, with all her heart, to go to Tripoli.
"Girls don't wear uniforms," her older brother George said.
"Silly," an older sister said, rolling her eyes.
"Saphead," said another brother, Oseola, and he stuck out his tongue.
Thus was Alice persuaded to abandon her first ambition-but never the yearning for her destiny, which she felt as a blind girl might, laying a hand upon an elephant's side: this huge, warm, breathing thing. She had no notion of what it might be, no word to describe it, only the dim but solid knowledge that it was altogether different and inconceivably grander than the others'.
She, being the youngest of eight, had always felt small, but very special, and so this did not disconcert her. She took it as a given, as the color of the parlor's sofa was a given, that while whites went in that parlor Negroes, except to dust and polish and serve tea, did not. What was to ponder in the fact that winter was bitter, and the summer steamy and buggy? Whether it were clear or cloudy, the sun rose every day, and this included Sunday, which was the day Mr. and Mrs. Green and all the little Greens crammed themselves into the big carriage and drove down toward the Potomac and, to save their mortal souls, sat through mass (no talking, no pinching) at Georgetown's Holy Trinity.
And then came finishing school. At the Georgetown Female Seminary, in addition to French, music, and drawing, the history of Rome and such, Alice studied geography. She was diligent and she had a knife-sharp memory. Shown the Sandwich Islands once, she could pick them out of the Pacific, cold. In the parlor her father had a gold-edged Atlas of the World. She would sometimes lie on her stomach on the carpet and, propped on her elbows, study, say, Australia. Chile. Iceland. North Africa. She loved to trace her finger along the ragged curve of the Barbary Coast until it landed on Tripoli.
Tripoli. Alice whispered the names of the Arab cities: Tangiers. Algiers. Tunis. Cairo. She would close her eyes and imagine the musky scents of their bazaars, the tables piled with bangles and silks, oranges sweet as the sun. Her father had explored ancient temples, ridden a real camel, and held in his own hands a two-thousand-year-old kylix painted with the figure of the Minotaur. He had seen Malta, Mallorca, Gibraltar. On the map Alice would touch each of these magical places and then slide her pinky over the aqua blue swath of paper that was the Atlantic. And then her finger would arrive at Chesapeake Bay, sliding up the sinuous Potomac to ...
Oh, Dullsvania. Blahsberg! Boringopolis!!
She knew there was another life waiting for her, a life as romantic as anything out of The Thousand and One Nights. Here, in the country, it sometimes seemed that she had nothing to do but sit at the window, her chin in her hands, and watch crows alight on the fence-rails. (Her mammy said that in the night the crows flew to Mexico, to feed on dead soldiers. In the day, they digested the flesh. But Alice knew better than to pay heed to Negro talk.) Sometimes, early in the mornings before school, her mother made her help feed the chickens and inspect the dairy. Was that not the rudest thing in the world? One day, she would wing across an ocean. She would be adored; like Commodore Decatur, she would be remembered for a hundred years.
No: more than a hundred years.
After her fourteenth birthday, when she began to read her older sisters's stash of novels, her daydreams became ever more baroque. Armor-clad knights on snow white steeds, damsels locked into sunless towers, Frankenstein, all class of ghoulish specters, and pirates, rakish lords and mined ladies, and the personal memoirs of the white slaves, victims of shipwrecks on the wild Mogador coast, sold into brutal servitude to Mohammedans, then rescued by the most dashing of British officers, titled gentlemen of the most polished minds and cultured sensibilities. Such were the stories that enchanted her for hours at a stretch.
She was the youngest and the prettiest of all her sisters. On the cusp of the bloom of her life, she seemed the bud of a most glorious rose. Her father, she believed, was rich-and he was until he was thrown from his horse. He seemed to be all right at first, just a bump on the back of the head, but by morning he had sunk into a stupor. He slept, he ate, he slept. He spoke very little. This went on for some weeks. And then, one morning in 1850, he did not wake.
The subsequent decline in the family's income meant that Alice's dowry could not be so generous as some of her sisters' had been. However, the fatherless girl grew up-it seemed to have happened overnight, her mother said-into a ravishing belle. She wore her fair hair in ringlets, and by biting them when she thought no one was looking she kept her lips plump and brightest pomegranate-red. Her teeth were a row of pearls; her laugh, a pretty brook. She had sylph-like arms and such dewy skin that, though some other girls may have been blessed with more in the material sphere, she was sure of it, they were all jealous.
For Alice's first winter, as the social season was called, her mother had four of her sisters' gowns refitted for her by the colored mantua-maker: emerald green silk with a satin bodice and lilac ribbons on the cuffs; buttercup yellow silk with tulle and coral pink silk trim with three flounces of tulle; ashes of roses moiré with a whale-boned bodice; and, her favorite because it made her feel like a heroine out of Ivanhoe, Napoleon blue velvet with cap-sleeves and a scalloped train. She also had three wrappers; a fan trimmed with Alençon lace and another with swan's feathers; a coral bracelet and a pearl rope-necklace (her grandmother's); two adorable beaded bags (one jet, one white), and four pairs of dancing slippers (these not hand-me-downs but her very own), each dyed to match one of the gowns. In addition, four visiting toilettes: a suit of sky blue poult-de-soie embroidered in lavender; one dove gray with slate gray braid; another of the same but with beaver fur-trimmed collar and cuffs; and one in jet, but the dramatic effect, which would have, as the mantua-maker pointed out, made her face pallid, was lightened by ruches in rhubarb-sherbet pink, and ecru lace ruffles on the bodice.
A winter in Washington! As soon as they were old enough to put aside their dolls, this was what all the girls dreamed of: balls, receptions, concerts, opera, choice little dinner parties, skating parties, jaunts to the capitol, gatherings ... Come May, they liked to say, a belle just might find herself with an engagement ring on her finger.
Her mammy clapped her hands at the sight of her. "Miz Alice! Fo' de Lawd' sake!"
Alice, too, admired herself in the full-length mirror. Her eyes gleamed like wet hyacinths. One of her ringlets, soft as silk, rested on her collarbone. With two fingers she lifted it and tossed it behind her shoulder. She bit her lips, hard, to bring out their color. She brought her hands to her waist, pinched by the corset into the narrowest of "v"s. The corset, she was delighted to note, made her bust quite the opposite of an ironing board. She rose up on her toes, and then down, to see how her hoopskirt would bounce as she danced. Thanks to insisting on shoes a size too small, she had the daintiest feet. The daintiest of all of her sisters'. Indeed, the daintiest of all her classmates' at the Georgetown Female Seminary.
"What do you think?" she asked her mammy. "In my hair, shall I wear the japonica or the silk rosette?" It was a pomegranate-red rosette, more suitable for the decolletage of a dowager actress.
The stout mammy, whose woolly hair was covered with a calico bandana, pointed to the japonica.
Alice plucked up the silk rosette. "This one."
A sister laughed condescendingly. "Alice, you are de trop."
* * *
With the greatest of ease Miss Alice Green navigated the social whirl. From her very first formal ball, she was enchanted by the pressing crowds-among them cabinet ministers! Sam Houston with a serape thrown over the shoulder of his dinner jacket! Senators and their attaches, army colonels, generals, corporals, their chests flashing with decorations for valor in the Mexican conflict. And above all, her heart would flutter at the sight of the men of the diplomatic corps-or, as a belle from the Georgetown Female Seminary properly referred to them, le corps diplomatique. They had the most beguiling uniforms-gold lace, gold buttons on crimson coats, or tunics as black as onyx, all with elaborate embroidery and froggings, hats trimmed with feathers, chests bespangled with exotic decorations. There was the inestimable Baron de Bodisco, ambassador of the czar, and his lovely, still youthful wife, née Harriet Beall Williams, of Georgetown. It was not uncommon for a belle, through this avenue, to marry into aristocracy. There were well-known examples such as Miss Gabriela Chapman of Virginia who had married the Marquis de Potestad Fornari of the Spanish legation.
"Eet iza mya pleazure," said the minister from Sardinia, as he kissed the belle's hand.
There were Prussians, Austrian counts, Spaniards, Italian chevaliers, Frenchmen with mustaches waxed into daggers, Danes, English lords, Swedes, and even Turks. The Turkish admiral! A gentleman to behold: he wore a turban with a diamond and jeweled crescent, the most luscious robes, a dagger studded with precious stones, a scimitar on his belt, and slippers with toes that curled up into points. He looked all the part (the belle had to agree with the army corporal she was waltzing with) of a genie out of Ali Baba's cave.
There was much hand kissing, wafts of perfume, blasts and trills of music, and always, the Negroes weaving their way among the guests with trays of flutes of champagne, or rum punches, platters of the recherché tidbits concocted by the most fashionable restaurateurs. The decorations: pink candle shades, spun-sugar swans, banks of hothouse lilies, poinsettias, heliotropes, red, white, and blue bunting, potted palms and profusions of ferns, and on one occasion, at a recital of La Traviata, no less than four dozen lemon trees (whose fruits turned out to be-on the sly, Alice squeezed one-papier mâché).
Her dance card was invariably filled. She had been taught that a young lady should be demure; nonetheless, in the mirrors, she boldly watched the others watching her-one of the French attaches in particular, an adder-eyed count with slicked-back hair and a mole on the side of his nose. He never asked her for a dance, but she had to be careful not to look at him because then their eyes would lock. Always, she felt her mother's watchful gaze from the sofa, the inevitable sofa in the back of the room where, crowded like sparrows onto a telegraph wire, the mothers sat together, her own mother in black widow's crêpe and the drabbest paisley shawl.
After dancing, breathless and flushed, fanning herself (and hoping the elegance of her Alençon lace fan would be noticed; it was comme il faut), Alice would make her way to the supper-buffet. At the end of her fifth ball, an Annapolis middy she had danced with twice before came up behind her.
His Adam's apple seemed to have a life of its own. He simply stood there, breathing. His face, which could not be said to be that of a Romeo, was beaded with sweat. His name had quite gone out of her head.
"Miss Green, would you do me the honor of dancing this waltz?"
She had blisters on both heels. As it was, it would be a supreme effort not to be seen limping on her way back to the table where her sisters and their beaux were waiting for her. Already, she had turned down three would-be gallants. She decided to be freezingly polite: "No thank you, I'm quite tired." She turned back to the cavalcade of cakes and petit fours and puddings.
"Miss Green?" This specimen was a barnacle of tenacity.
She finished serving herself a slice of the apricot sponge gâteau. Someone jostled her from the left. She let out a peeved sigh.
"Miss Green," he insisted, "may I call on you at Rosedale?"
She almost blurted, yes, but-isn't it better just to be honest?-she said, "No."
The poor boy looked as if he had taken a cannonball in the gut. She was sorry. But not really.
Oh, the clod-footed boys. The ones with pimples on their necks and sweaty gloves. Annapolis middies, low-down-the-totem-pole army types, law clerks, a dry goods merchant's son ... Why were these the ones who asked to put their names on her dance card? As Alice danced the mazurkas and quadrilles and waltzes, the air would grow uncomfortably warm, the whalebones in her corset would rub under her arms, the pins in her hair come loose, and her too-small slippers would rub her heels raw-for this?
And it provoked her to tears that other girls lived right in the thick of the social scene: in Lafayette Square, or on Pennsylvania Avenue, or Georgetown, whilst she and her sisters had to make the miles-long slog back up the dark road to Rosedale. In inclement weather, this was cruelty to the horses, her mother would sigh.
Excerpted from The LAST PRINCE of the MEXICAN EMPIRE by C.M. MAYO Copyright © 2009 by C. M. Mayo. Excerpted by permission.
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