California was hotter than anything Catherine Lancer had ever known.
Boston in high summer could be unpleasantly warm but it hadn’t prepared her for the way that the Californian sky, impossibly blue, hurt the eyes with its brilliance, or how the sun at noon could beat down on the earth like a brazen hammer. She felt that she was caught between hammer and anvil, being beaten into a new shape by relentless heat and dust.
When the sun was at its highest, she was sometimes so enervated that she could do little more than lie on a sofa, a fan fluttering close to her face and the single hotel maid, dried and wizened like an ruddy apple, running to find lavender water to bathe her temples.
"I miss being able to do things," she said. "I miss riding and walking."
"You'll get used to the heat soon, mo chridhe." Murdoch was coping better, despite coming from his cold, misty country across the world. He spent most days out and about, talking to people: to the governor about their citizenship papers, to the priests about their conversion, to the few Anglo settlers about where the best lands were, to rich Dons who might have a rancho or two to sell. He was big enough already, her Murdoch, but here he was expanding even more. He was fitting into the land in a way that left her bewildered about her inability to follow him. Instead she was vapourish; out of sorts and out of place.
She didn't tell him that. Instead she allowed him to settle her on the sofa to rest, pat her hand, and leave on another of his expeditions into the city convinced that he was the most careful of husbands.
City! El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula barely boasted a thousand souls living within its adobe houses and they called it a city! Its name was several times bigger than it was. It sometimes made her long for Boston and she picked at her memories like picking at a sore. The Common in Spring, balls and parties and summer picnics, the glory of Fall trees, the first snow of winter...
And there Catherine brought the languid melancholy to a sudden halt by laughing aloud. "Fool! You hate the winter."
She got up and dragged the biggest of her trunks to the middle of the floor. She kept the keys on a little silver chatelaine hanging from her belt, careful to keep the boxes locked. She liked Josefina, the dried up apple of a maid, but Josefina was poor and Catherine would not put temptation in her way.
The trunks were full of dresses, fans, parasols and pretty things. Her Boston life was here.
If Harlan Garrett was disappointed that he had one daughter instead of the sons he'd wanted, he never voiced it. He was a liberal father; generous and open-handed, always bringing her little gifts and trinkets. She had a wardrobe of clothes enough for ten women. Her jewel box had been the envy of not only her friends, but many of their mothers, too. Harlan liked her to have whatever she wanted, so she could better reflect his wealth and status. She had been the most fashionable, frivolous little doll in Boston.
Well, he had liked her to have whatever she wanted until what she wanted most had turned out to be the tall, fair young Scot she'd met at Maria Edgerton's debutante ball. Harlan hadn't liked her to have that. Not at all.
"Poor Papa." She shook her head at the trunk. "Poor, poor Papa."
Because here she was, for all her father's protests, Murdoch Lancer's bride of eleven months in a town clear across the continent from home. . . no, from where home had been. Murdoch was her home now. She had packed up the pretty silks and muslins, the shawls and tippets and parasols, and sold all the jewels except the diamonds that had been her mother's. On her wedding day she'd pressed the little purse full of gold into Murdoch's hands to be the dowry that she knew her father had balked at paying and had settled on some future grandchild instead. The purse was hidden inside her second-best boots at the bottom of the very trunk she was searching through now.
Her hand pushed under a layer of tissue and silk to close briefly on the leather of her boots, and she smiled. When Murdoch found the land he wanted, he and she would buy it together. They would be Californios and Boston would be so far in the past that she would forget it entirely.
The summer dresses of thin lawn and drawn-thread muslin brought little relief. The layers of petticoats holding out her full skirts weighed her down to the ground, held her fixed and suffering under the sun, until her limbs trembled with the strain. Even the light straw bonnet, lined with pale blue satin to match her eyes, that had once been so jaunty and fashionable for promenading around the Common now weighed like lead. Beneath it the little wisps of hair at the back of her neck curled damply. When they walked out onto the dusty main street of after their dutiful daily visit to the Mission for instruction in the faith, she was relieved when Murdoch drew her arm through his. She leaned on his arm.
He patted her hand. "Tired?"
"Too hot." She blew a breath upwards, trying to get some cooler air under the poke bonnet.
"Aye." Murdoch was grinning when she looked up at him. "I'm thinking that if we have to convert to the Old Enemy to get our land, at least the churches are blessedly cool and dark. Back home they'd say that the De'il looks after his ain."
Catherine laughed. "If Padre Salbatore hears you, that'll mean another penance for being a heathen." She loosened her grip enough to swivel her hand on his arm and jab a finger into his ribs. "On your knees, sinner, and repent."
Murdoch lengthened his stride, until she was almost running to keep up with him, laughing and protesting and breathless. "Well, maybe we shall just have to sin together, Kate. Then at least the penance will be worth it."
He rushed her through the tiny hotel hobby and up the stairs, laughing when he closed the door of their room. He said that it was as well that a big lout like him had a pretty little wife that he could do this to,and as he spoke he swept her up into his arms, dropped her onto the bed and tumbled down after her. He didn't care at all that he was crushing delicate lawn and lace, and he kissed the damp little curls at the nape of her neck until she didn't care either.
Religion had the most peculiar effect on men, sometimes. It heated their blood, or something, and repentance was in very short supply.
This was a land of strangers.
The men of her circle in Boston wore dark clothes; rich stuff, to be sure, but dull and respectable, befitting their positions as leading merchants and scholars. The most a man allowed himself in the way of decoration might be a fancy vest under his coat; the dandyism of her father's youth was over. But California was a land of peacocks; of elegant Dons dressed in rich velvets and silks that were the equal of anything she owned, every man a profusion of lace and embroidery, and elegantly tailored jackets that accentuated their waists. These men were as vain of their dress as their dark-haired, honey-skinned wives.
Oh, those wives!
They, too, were luxurious. They were all lace mantillas that were pinned at their low-cut bosoms with the flash of diamond brooches, all dresses of sumptuous deep reds and blues, hems inches deep in flounces of lace. They were pairs of dark eyes watching her over their fans at Mass as she struggled with the new service and with Latin—thankfully Murdoch remembered enough of his schooling to get them both through without bringing the wrath of the priests on their heads—but she was in their place, not hers, and she felt the weight of their scrutiny.
They spoke to her only of church and children. Well, the one she was forced into so that Murdoch could buy his land; the other they couldn't have until, Murdoch said, things were more settled. She perfected a kind of admiration for their great adobe houses, their arrogant husbands and spoiled sons and beautiful daughters, an admiration that she learned to convey without words. Whenever she was invited to a visit or a fiesta, she would sit for hours, smiling so hard that her face ached with the tension, listening to them whisper about her behind their fans and desperate to find something to say in her halting Spanish that wouldn't make them laugh.
She stiffened her back against their dark-eyed merriment and went back for more. She had no choice. When Murdoch commiserated with her, she smiled.
"It's my job. Yours is to find our home; mine is to do the pretty with our neighbours. Wherever we settle, Murdoch, we'll be living alongside people like this. I must learn to manage them."
And learn she did. She hadn't been the belle of Boston society for nothing, the darling even of the old Boston dames who were sourer than vinegar, some of them, and more Puritan than God. She'd charmed her way to their dried up hearts with winsome manners and an unfailing sweetness that had hid her impatience. She could do it again. She could win approval and make them all kind.
Even Doña María Ignacia Alvarado de Pico, wife of the governor of all of Alto California, the Grandest of Grande Dames. Catherine, brought by a bowing flunky into the dim cool drawing room with its whitewashed adobe walls, heavy dark furniture and dirty oil paintings, looked into black eyes as welcoming as a snake's. She dropped into a curtsey, her smile unwavering and her manners calculated to impress even the most formal of Spaniards.
She had come to this land of heat and dust and a foreign tongue that she struggled to understand; a land where she had not only to leave Boston behind, but her country and her faith.
But not her self respect. No. She'd brought that with her.
And not her skill either. Doña María was smiling by the time the visit was over and—a a great compliment, this—she rose to return the curtsey. Three days later Catherine got a letter from her, delivered with one to Murdoch from Don Pio Pico, the governor.
Don Agustin Eduardo de la Cal Fernández Velásquez was thinking of selling his rancho, several days' journey north of the city, in the San Joaquin valley. Doña María presented her compliments and her assurances to her dear Señora Katerina that she was using her influence on their behalf; the governor presented Señor Lancer with his compliments and the offer of an introduction.
"You, mo chridhe, could charm rocks into melting." Murdoch kissed her hand in homage.
"In this heat, who needs charm for that?" But she smiled anyway..
No. She hadn't lost that skill at least.
They were pioneers now, she and Murdoch.
She emptied her trunks into two piles of things, one to go with her to her new home in the San Joaquin, the other for Josefina. She put a big pile of linen and stiffened crinoline into Josefina's pile: the wife of a pioneer had no need of petticoats and full skirts. It was high time that she stopped being a fashion doll, something for other women to copy. Indeed she was tempted, too, to shed the stays that pinched her in at the waist and pushed up her bosom and only propriety stopped her there. She regretted it. The stays gave her a light and pleasing figure, but they made it very hard to breathe. The wife of a pioneer should breath free and breathe deep.
She wanted to be stripped clean of the old life, and be ready for action. There was work to be done and a new place to learn to call home. Lancer they'd call it, determined to make their mark on this new land. She shut the lid of her trunk with a snap. This piece of California, this piece of the strange land of heat and dust, this rancho of nearly sixty thousand acres, ten thousand cows and three dozen Mexican vaqueros was going to be her place, hers and Murdoch's. It belonged to them.
And Catherine Helen Garrett Lancer, late of Boston in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, would learn to belong to it.
California was colder and wetter than anything Maria Graciela Martínez de
Lancer had ever known.
It rained. All the time, Dios help her, it rained. Some days it lashed down out of a sky roiling with black clouds. On others it drizzled, reminding her of tears rolling down the face of an old woman too far gone in grief to sob. Even on the days it didn't rain, the sky lowered itself to sit over her head, grey and ponderous.
Murdoch came home from town one day, bringing her wraps and shawls of soft dark wool, the sort of shawls that the gringa women in town wore along with their dark dull dresses. He wrapped one about her shoulders. It was very warm, she admitted that much.
He kissed her. "I saw how much this cold snap has you shivering, querida. I wouldn't have you and the little one cold."
She smiled at him and went to look at herself in a mirror. She saw Murdoch's reflection nod in satisfaction.
"Good," he said. "You look very well in it."
Dios! It was a dull thing, this woollen shawl; a dreary dark colour that made her look dreary also. She wasn't like herself in it. She looked dull and spiritless, meek and mild; a cold-blooded thing with no fire and less passion.
She looked like a gringa.
It was hard to thank him for this gift, when she knew that was what he wanted.
December was a sad month in this part of California. Murdoch was quiet and reserved as La Navidad approached, his thoughts on the past. It rained, and the dry ground drank it up until it couldn't soak up anymore, and yet still it rained until her garden was flooded and the roses drowned. She looked at their heavy heads, weighed down and dripping, and she thought of her roses in the warm south, where the rain fell only gently and the whole land glowed with sunshine.
She was always so cold, and now she could not longer walk or ride to keep warm. She was too big and it was too much effort. It was as much as she could do to walk around the garden when the rain cleared for an hour or two. Mostly what she did was wait, huddled over the fire in the great room and listening to Murdoch and the men working on repairing the hacienda roof, or Murdoch giving the vaqueros orders in his quaintly accented Spanish, or the squeak and scrape of Murdoch's pen as he worked at his desk.
Wrapping herself in those dull shawls helped only a little.
"My blood grows thin," she said to Maria Salazar Morales, the housekeeper, when she brought champurrado to warm her. "The child takes all my strength."
Maria Morales had a smile as cool as the pale winter sunshine. "You will get used to it, Madama."
The chocolate was spiced with cinnamon, the way she liked it. She sipped on it, drawing the wrap around her shoulders against the draft she fancied blew at her in a sort of sullen spite from the windows behind Murdoch's desk.
The old hacienda was weatherproof now, at least, even if one wing was still little more than a ruin. Murdoch had worked the estancia for more than five years, trying to build up enough money to restore the old house. And other things, he said, and looked east when he said it. She knew what he looked for, but he did not have money enough to go east for that. Not yet.
The war had not helped. Everyone had losses from the war, although it was a matter of degree. Murdoch had lost cattle and markets, and money was, he said, very tight. She and her country had lost so much more. Some days she looked at her tall, fair husband with a flare of resentment. Bad enough that Mexico had had to cede Alta California, but to find that Murdoch had worked against her countrymen in this... well.
The rain dashed against the window panes, making them rattle. She looked out at the grey days and brought the shawl more closely around her. It was useless to repine. What was done, was done; and through it Murdoch had made sure that he kept his land grant when the Americanos came. He was not Mexican, except in name, and did not feel the blow to pride and honour. She supposed that most gringos would have done the same.
The window pane rattled again and she put down her empty cup so hard that it made an echo of the rattle in the saucer. It didn't break. She glared at the world beyond the window. It was entirely possible that in winter at least, California was no great loss.
One day she climbed the wide stairs up to the attics underneath the eaves. The wind moaned softly around the corner of the house, blowing in through cracks and crevices until its creeping fingers found her out and stirred her hair. She shivered a little, but she had heard Maria Morales tell Isabella Roldán that the Patrón intended to bring down the crib that had been stored up there for the last three years. She wanted to see it for herself first. She wouldn't have it if she didn't like it.
The attics were lit by long narrow windows just beneath the red-tiled roof. They smelled of dust and cobwebs, and as she moved the dust motes floated in the dim light. Not even Maria Morales came up here with brooms and feather dusters. The things up here were forgotten and unwanted, left to moulder into nothingness.
The trunks stood along the east wall in a row. Two were locked, but the third opened when she pushed at the lid. She laughed when she saw why this one was unlocked. Murdoch had put the portrait here, inside the trunk, along with the old clothes, the dresses and one leather boot made for a small foot. Its fellow was missing.
Some of the dresses were of fine lawn and silk and muslin, but most were thick wools and merinos and challis; rich and fine but lacking colour and fire. It could be cold in the East, Murdoch had said once, and he'd looked away from her as he spoke. As cold as most gringas, she supposed.
The portrait's pale blue eyes stared up at her until she turned her back on it.
The crib was very fine. It was dark wood, the carving done by a master, and it rocked under her hand when she touched it. She could use some of the lawns and muslins from the trunk to dress it with, to make it a fine place for her son to sleep—she was certain the child would be a boy—and it would do. She would be gracious when Murdoch brought it downstairs. He would have to bring it soon.
She paused by the open trunk as she left the attic and closed it quietly, as she would close an old book that she never intended to read again.
"My son shall sleep in it," she said to the portrait inside. "Not yours."
She sat with her book forgotten on her knees, watching the little flames lick at the logs.
Her abuela had shown her how to see pictures in the flames, how to use the dancing fiery tongues to see things long gone, or things that were yet to come.
The old woman had thought that she was very wise. She was always full of advice and opinions. "Only the sea is hungrier than fire, niña. Make sure that when you look, you don't hunger for things that in your heart you know are bad. The flames will like that, they hunger for that. You do not want la mala suerte, an evil fate, to befall you and yours. Although..." And her abuela had leaned forward to tap Maria on the cheek. "Aceptar tanto lo bueno como lo malo, cariña."
Try as she might, Maria could not make out the pictures in the flames, good or bad. She shivered.
It took a moment to struggle out of the chair and move towards the staircase. She was as slow and ponderous as the clouds moving outside. Murdoch looked up from his books and ledgers and smiled at her.
"You look like the ship in full sail, querida." He nodded towards the model ship he kept on the table behind the sofa. A toy, the sort of thing a boy would keep. "And you look beautiful."
She managed a smile. She didn't feel beautiful. She felt like the ship must feel when its sails were swelling forward, big-bellied, and it was running before a sharp wind. She took the stairs with care, holding onto the wooden banister to pull herself up every step.
The carved wooden chest standing at the foot of their bed was the only thing that she had brought with her from Mexico. It was old, so very old. It came from Spain, her mother had said, brought by her abuela's abuela a hundred years before. It was made from oak so old it was black, carved deeply in the traditional way. The lid was smooth and hard under her hands as she swept them across the surface, chasing away the dust.
She threw back the lid and, grunting softly with the effort, got down on her knees in front of it. She touched the contents and for the first time all day, she felt warm. She had spent many hours on these little dresses and gowns for the child, each one embroidered with flowers and birds and even, here and there, a butterfly dancing amongst the blossoms. The christening gown had cost her many, many days of labour. It was of the finest lawn, threads drawn from hem and sleeves until it looked to be inches deep in lace. The little one would look beautiful in it, when she handed him over to the priests to give him his name and dedicate him to the good Dios. Murdoch did not go often to Mass, but he would give her this much; their little one would grow up in the true faith. She touched the frothy lace with gentle fingers and smiled.
Soon. Soon it would be over and she could be herself again.
This was a land of strangers.
It was no longer a part of her proud and honourable country. It had become strange to her. Where once great families lived, where there had been rich estancias filled with honour and tradition, where there had been the scented dimness of big white churches, there were now new ranches and new towns. There was one such new town a few miles to the south of Morro Coyo. Green River, the gringos called it, and they built it from wood and stone, not thick adobe bricks made to keep the sun out in summer and the warmth inside in winter.
Gringos were dull people who saw nothing good about the land unless they'd tamed and trammelled it. They were people who liked narrowness. And Dios! but they were plain. The men wore work clothes or dark clothes on Sundays for church. There were no charro jackets, or calzoneras decorated with silver conchos, or-wide-brimmed hats. And their wives were just as drab, just as dreary, in dark clothes that covered them from feet to neck, as if by showing an inch of skin was so deep a sin that a hundred years of repentance would not be enough.
Oh, those wives!
For Murdoch's sake she called on them when the spring came and she could ride and drive again. They were all prim clothes, black or dark brown up to the chin with just a line of lace for prettiness. They were prudish and restrained, narrow and pinched; they were everything that she was not.
They spoke to her mostly of church and children. None of them were of the true faith and whenever she spoke of Padre Luis, they looked at her with hard little smiles on their faces and said: "We're Episcopalians, my dear, not Papists." Or looked down their long gringa noses and said: "I was so surprised to realise that Mister Lancer allowed his son to be christened in the Catholic church." She found it hard not to say that she knew of no other real church, but she was kind for Murdoch's sake and just looked at them over her fan until they flushed and talked about something else.
At least when they talked of children, she had the nicest one in the entire Valley to show them. All bright blue eyes and cooing noises when he was awake, Juanito was a cherub when he was in his crib, one hand curled under his cheek and his face rosy with sleep, his hair curling damply on his forehead. But even that wasn't enough. They looked at Juanito with those hard little smiles and said: "What a handsome boy! He's a little lighter skinned than you, isn't he, dear?" Or: "You must remember to speak only English with him, my dear. You have a very pretty accent, of course, but it wouldn't do for the son of Mister Lancer to speak like that. This isn't Mexico anymore and it just wouldn't be right."
And sometimes, even: "That's a very pretty dress, my dear. So... so colourful and really rather more... exciting than the fashion I'm used to. I suppose that it's a Mexican style?"
"Si," was all Maria said, to everything.
Whenever she was invited to a visit or a Ladies Aid, she would sit for hours with them, smiling and polite. She spoke English in that very pretty accent of hers and wore her brightest, most Mexican clothes. Often, as the gringas talked, she would raise her fan to hide her face and the scorn she felt for them.
She counted none of them as friends, the way Murdoch did their husbands.
"They are so very respectable," she said when Murdoch asked how she was getting on, and waved a languid hand. "They fatigue me."
One day, when Johnny was running around on unsteady little legs—no walking for John Luis Lancer Martinez!—and babbling to her all day long with that strange language that only other babies understood, Murdoch came home from a long day's work.
"I've taken on a new hand," he told her over supper in the great room, the table lit with the heavy candelabra, the candles winking off the silver and glasses in a way that pleased her with the richness of it. "Tom Dane. He's from Texas, I believe. He's married with a wife a year or two older than you." He smiled at her. "I think you'll like her and she'll be a great help to you. Her name's Marcy."
This was a land of strangers now. It was a matter of some sorrow that a true Californio no longer belonged.
4,671 words April 2011