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MONTE DE PIEDAD
Even the doves were in mourning. The trees seemed to sigh at her leave-taking, and the windows of each building looked, to her, like sorrowful eyes.
As Estela boarded the coach that would take her to Mexico City, and as it rolled slowly from the center of Saltillo and through the outlying villages, the houses becoming farther and farther apart until they dwindled to clusters around a water tank, then to the occasional haciendaBuena Vista, Angostura, Encantandashe wondered when she would see the city of her birth again. Even many years later, when she recounted her travels and adventures to me, she experienced a pang in her heart at recalling the last familiar landmark as it disappeared behind her in the dust.
Her sister would think she had lost her mind. That is one reason she had not said good-bye. Her father, Don Horacio, still unwell after his ordeal at the hands of the authorities, must have suspected her intent, and perhaps even condoned it, for he transferred additional funds to her account in the days before she left. Perhaps, she thought a little bitterly, he felt that his business would not suffer so much if all of the parties to the scandalZacarías, his parents, and his wife, Estelawere not to be seen for a while.
The road climbed through barrancas, steep, water-cut canyons, then ran level across great expanses of pastures and fields. The haciendasLa Ventura, San Salvador, el hacienda del Saladounfolded before them like so many handkerchiefs laid end toend. When the horses needed water, the driver stopped at the estanques, offering the passengers much-needed relief as well.
At dusk, they stopped at the haciendas and were put up in rooms kept for that purpose. Estela and her elderly maid, Josefina, pushed furniture up against the door before going to bed, joking about the rancher who eyed them whenever his wife fell asleep.
They had nine fellow travelers, an empty seat affording a place for Noé to nap, or an extra spot for someone to stretch and doze for a bit. Endless rounds of cards occupied the days of the men, endless numbers of cigars, and from one señora and señor, endless amounts of bickering. Estela and Josefina alternated sitting by a window, which offered relief from the motion sickness induced by the constant bumping. Estela longed to sit on top with the driver, as the men sometimes did, but did not want to draw undue attention to herself. At least three in the carriage knew who she was, but pretended that they did not. Estela did not pay much heed. In her mind, she replayed over and over her parting with Zacarías, her apprehension of Victoria coming into the house with her shoes and stockings in hand, the wedding at which she and Dr. Victor Carranza saw to the marriage of Victoria and the young soldier.
Never to be for us, she thought, love of my life, yet never to be for us.
Estela had not known what to pack for the journey, since she had no idea what she would do once she arrived. She had a vague notion that people would meet her and, seeing that she meant wellor at least no harmconduct her to a safe place to stay until she could make some decisions.
She had packed four dresses, two hats, and two pairs of boots. She had brought a good coat, a nightgown, and a set of four plates she had inherited from her grandmother and which she had always loved. She brought an extra shawl, clothes for Noé, and a parasol. She brought a valuable piece of her mother's jewelry, hidden in a false compartment in the trunk. Estela also brought one book of poetry that she read and reread on the coach, a book about a beloved who could never be obtained, about death transforming us into a part of nature, and other rich, dark, brooding thoughts. Its author, Manuel Acuña, son of Saltillo, had shot himself over a married woman in Mexico City some years earlier, ending a potential medical career. In death he was famous and, as he predicted, a part of the Mexican landscape.
When she could, Estela slept, and when she woke, her heart achedfor what, she could not say. Of course, her heart ached for all of the happy conjunctions we all wish for, to live out our lives in the place of our choice with the person of our choice, perhaps to raise happy, healthy children, to hear the birds sing, and be greeted with respect by one's neighbors. But as with most of us, this was not to be. And so Estela traveled on across the sprawling, mysterious country of Mexico, here and there densely peopled, but otherwise slumbering in its neglect, like the innocent daughter of a rural farmer, unaware of her dark and careless beauty.
In a way, over these endless miles, Estela's mind fell back into the dreaming slumber it had occupied before she met Victor Carranza, when she thought that she was relatively happy in her marriage. It was a sort of dreamworld filled with exotic images and half-implied romances. San Luis Potosí, with its eighteen towers and domes, sparked an extended daydream of Moorish principalities. San Miguel de Allende put her in mind of a medieval village, and its constantly tolling bells kept her from sleeping during the night spent there.
She allowed Josefina and the other passengers to entertain Noé with their carryings-on, and she only took him to nurse him to sleep under her shawl now and then. But he was growing quickly and would not need her in this capacity much longer. Estela dared not think about what she had left behind, lest she change her mind and return. She did not want to go over the circumstances that had led a woman of good background and upbringing to leave her home, her family, and everything she had ever known. And she could not begin to apprehend what lay before her.
They entered the tragic and beautiful city of Querétaro, where the reign of the Emperor Maxmiliano had ended. He gave gold pieces to the execution squad, it was said, with his own image on them, so that they would shoot straight and not leave him to suffer. A little farther on was the garden with the famous statue of Herculussaid to have cost fifteen thousand dollars in Italysurrounding a huge cotton mill known by the same name as the statue.
At a wooded rise of over nine thousand feet, past the hacienda of Arroyo Zarco, the plateau began to fall again towards the approach to the Valley of Mexico. As they crossed the causeway of San Cosmé, and before entering the city gate, they were stopped by uniformed men who, after much discussion with the driver, charged a fee to enter the city. Each passenger gave up a few pesos, and only after they were safely past the roadblock did Estela understand from the conversation that they had been robbed. Apparently this was such a common occurrence that everyone else had been expecting it.
"Welcome to Mexico City," said the rancher's wife. "If you are planning to spend any time here, you better get used to it."
"Every officer takes his bite," agreed her husband.
"But who did they work for?" asked Estela. "Were they police? Or were they army officers?"
"Who knows?" responded the rancher. "They were probably left over from the French intervention. And who knows which side they fought on at that time." This brought a round of chuckles.
"Everyone is always on the side in power," responded someone else. "Just remember that."
As they continued on their way, the driver called out that they were passing the house built by Hernán Cortés himself on the left, but Estela was unable to see it from her seat.
* * *
It was a time of great progress in Mexico City. It was a time of railroads and matching silver tea services; first-class horses, imported wines, and French Revivalist architecture. It was a time to discuss politics, international economics, and the graces of the perfect woman. Every rail line led to Mexico Cityevery stage coach line, every cattle drive, and every goat track.
It was also a time of starvation, of forced marches and summary executions. Those without money had no voice and would soon have no land. To be a woman without family was to be derided, degraded, and disgraced. Born into misery, a woman brought her children into it, ate it with her tortillas, and was buried in it. Even those of good family were judged, by the law of the land, to be imbecilis sexus, imbeciles by virtue of their sex, requiring guardians for themselves and their propertiesif not fathers or husbands, then lawyers or even their own sons.
The city was vast with possibilities, voracious for new blood to spill on top of old, relentless in its consumption of power and labor. People jostled for a place near the top, and those in the know stayed at the Hotel Iturbide. It was the only lodging of which Estela had ever heard, and so upon arriving, she hired a carriage and asked to be taken there.
The room was large and sumptuous, the service perfect. People came and went in the lobby escorted by their servants, dressed for morning, afternoon, or evening. They discussed their latest visits to Europe or New York or Chicago, and the more fashionable had undergone psychiatric analysis in Vienna. Estela was in awe of even the hired help at the Hotel Iturbide, dressed in matching livery, and whose language and manners far outshone her own. There was the faintest air of contempt about them for her, nothing that could be remarked on, only the pulled-down corner of a mouth upon hearing her pronunciation of the mother language. As for the society people, because they did not know her, Estela was invisible.
At the end of the first week, Estela asked to see her bill. It took all of her money to pay it, money she had thought would last several months. Estela directed Josefina to pack and asked to be taken to "a moderate boardinghouse." The driver appraised the party, then took them to a different part of the District, farther north from the Alameda. The streets grew narrower and more crowded with people on foot, the voices louder, riderless donkeys and ownerless dogs more numerous.
When the carriage pulled up in front of a large, featureless building, Josefina turned away to reach into a private part of her garments. She paid the driver in silver, who said, "Ask for la casera, Señora Gomez."
La casera turned out to be an older woman with a pinched face who wanted to see a little more plata before she would show them a room. She wore a faded dress and a large ring of keys around her wrist. Their trunk was carried in by a boy and deposited in a bare room with a single iron bed. La casera recited the house rulesno overnight guests, no drinking or loud behavior, and the outer door was locked at nine each evening, upon the ringing of the bells of San Lorenzo Martir. She eyed them suspiciously, as if to drive home her points, before leaving them to unpack. Estela wanted Josefina to stay there with the baby, but Josefina insisted on accompanying her mistress on the next, pressing errand. And so the three of them went, on foot, to El Monte de Piedad.
It was a vast building in the very center of Mexico, built practically on the bleeding heart of the old temple. Across from it stood the Cathedral, bearing witness to the ascendancy of the Church in this exotic and barbarous place.
El Monte itself, built in the 1700s, had been erected by a kind soul, the Count of Regla, who saw the need of the poor to be able to obtain cash. By leaving a clock or a bracelet, a firearm or a finely wrought piece of art, the poor of Mexicothose without papers or bank accounts or properties, those without deeds or contracts or even last namescould trust their goods to a clerk in exchange for plata. With luck, they could redeem their valuables before they were sold to junk speculators and reappeared on the Street of Thieves, for all to see and handle, and perhaps for someone else to buy.
It was to this edifice, this monument to the vagaries of fortune in this life, that Estela, Josefina, and Noé repaired. Estela unrolled the length of black velvet she had concealed on her person and revealed her mother's treasure to the young clerk in gold-filled spectacles. The sudden play of light upon the faceted gems of the necklace was startling, and the clerk made as if to shield the display not from his own eyes, but from those of passersby, by encompassing it in the crook of his arm.
With a practiced motion, he flipped up his spectacles and clamped his eye around a jeweler's glass, appraising the piece for a long moment, then turning it over to read the mark of the maker on its clasp, checking for any flaws in the gems or setting.
He looked again at the two women, in sober but respectable clothing, and the little boy, and decided against calling the authorities. They had probably come by this piece honestly, he deduced, based on his already extensive experience with such things.
"But señora" he asked finally, "why do you come here with this? Surely you can obtain a loan from a bank, can pay a lower interest than we will by necessity be forced to charge."
Estela looked at him. "I know no one in this city" she said. "I have not eaten today. Will a banker give me money for a room for tonight?"
The clerk nodded thoughtfully. "Just a minute," he said, and disappeared into one of the many doorways that divided the giant building into an infinity of small spaces. He returned with another man, who again appraised the necklace, and Estela.
"We will write you a contract" said the older man. "We do not want to be responsible for separating you from such an important piece, no doubt a family heirloom?" He paused and Estela nodded. "So we will give you a long-term contract at a slightly lower rate."
"Bueno," said Estela.
The young clerk, under the older man's instructions, began the tedious process of writing out a loan agreement. Then he read it aloud to Estela, who momentarily wished for the advice and presence of her old legal counsel, Licenciado Ernesto Vargas. Upon hearing the interest rate to be charged over the course of a year, she looked at Josefina, who nodded gravely, suddenly an expert in such matters. Estela signed the papers, and the younger clerk began to count out the money to her, the older man counting silently along with him. It seemed to be an enormous amount, with stacks and stacks of bills growing on the counter.
The moment he had finished, the clerk whisked the money into a plain leather envelope, suitable for carrying legal papers, as though anxious to remove the cash from view.
"Now," said the older clerk. "One word of advice. Go directly to a bank and open an account. The cash of even provincials is welcome at any bank."
Estela thought she almost detected a smile. "Thank you," she said. "I will do that."
"A su servicio," said the clerk, bowing slightly. "Buena suerta."
Estela could use luck from any quarter, and she gladly accepted his blessing. The portfolio between them, Josefina carrying Noé on one hip, Estela and Josefina made their way out of El Monte de Piedad and onto the jam-packed streets.
"All of the people, in the world seem to be on this street," said Estela nervously. They made their way down the walkway, carried along by the crowd, until they came to what seemed to be a bank, entered it, and discovered that it was, in fact, a bank.
Estela asked to open an account, something she had never done, and another clerk was summoned to take down the information. Her name elicited no special response, but her recently acquired address produced a pause. Estela realized that she should have done this while staying at the fine hotel.
When asked her marital status, Estela opened her mouth and answered, "Widow."
"Deceased husband's name" asked the clerk.
"Zacarías Carabajál de la Cueva y Vargas."
"Date and place of his death."
"April 1877. Casas Grandes, Chihuahua. He was killed in an Indian uprising." Whether it was true or not, that was the month her life had changed forever.
"And he named you custodian of his estate?"
"Yes." She did not mention that she had gained control of it earlier, with the help of their solicitor. The less said about these things, the better, she felt.
Estela had thought about all of this during the long train ride south. She decided it was easiest to say that she was a widow. And after all, she might as well be widowed, as much use as a husband was who had been driven into exile by the authorities.
As the clerk at El Monte de Piedad had predicted, the bank was all too happy to take custody of her money.
The trio went out again, Noé now fussing and fitful, and secured a carriage. They bought a few things along the way, and upon returning to their room, fell upon the bread and cheese like ravenous animals. Although the room was bare of all but a bed and bureauJosefina curled up on a mat on the floorEstela felt more at ease than she had at the hotel. The people there reminded her of who she was not. Also, she did not know why, but her mother's necklace had seemed to weigh upon her, like a burden from the past. In doing one more unforgivable thing, she felt that she had divested herself of a last anchor to the respectable life she had left behind. Estela slept well that night for the first time since arriving in Mexico City.