Authors: Jeanne Williams
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A Lady Bought with Rifles
“In our dreams, at least, we are fabulous and free.”
The small turquoise crucifix called me home, or rather, to my mother, for the distant place of my birth, a hacienda in northwestern Mexico, was alien and strange as the deserts of the
. Miss Mattison, our headmistress, had shown me that corner of Mexico on a globe, south of Arizona Territory, bordered on the west by a sea stretching to Baja California. So far away. Across the ocean and most of North America.
At least I was not the only pupil at Miss Mattison's whose parents were abroad. Probably a third of the girls had fathers scattered about the empire in commerce, government service, or the military, and mail from Australia, Canada, Africa, and India was as common as that from Sussex.
In spite of our prayers for men fighting the Boers, several girls were orphaned when their fathers died in South Africa. I felt like an orphan my last few years at the school, for though I had a living mother, she could not write in English. Father was killed in a mine accident when I was fifteen. After that I had no letters from Sonora, only packets.
Jewelry I could not wear at school, fans, beautifully embroidered hand-sewn chemises, nightdresses, drawers, petticoats, and camisoles, these so daintily worked that our needlecraft teacher handled them with awe and asked leave to show a nightdress to the class. Once, from a box of linen handkerchiefs embroidered with flowers, I found one with an eagle driving curved talons into a hare. A crumpled paper slipped from the folds.
it said. This only gift my half-sister had ever sent both fascinated and repelled me. I put it at the bottom of my drawer where I kept my mother's notes on top, though they all said the same thing.
“Te quiero, Miranda. Te quiero, hijita.”
I love you, Miranda. I love you, little daughter. How I cherished those small perfumed bits of paper! And how I wondered why, if they loved me, my mother and father had sent me so far away.
It was because Father insisted I have an English upbringing, of course. The youngest son of a Wessex squire, he had refused to go into the Army as his parents wished. After a bitter family quarrel, he had gone to Mexico to work for British rail interests, saved his money, become partner, then full owner of a gold mine, and married the lovely young widow of a wealthy rancher. DoÃ±a Luisa Dubois de Anza had defied her relatives to marry the tall Englishman, but she would not leave her country, so my father stayed on in Mexico, though he brought me to Miss Mattison's when I was five.
He visited me every few years, but when I begged to come home, he would say I must have an education that would fit me for life in England if I married there. If I asked to come for just a visit, my father would say perhaps next year. That year never came.
Still, apart from missing my parents, I was content at Miss Mattison's. Father wanted me to have an English background, but of a special, almost eccentric kind. In the school library hung the motto: “The truth shall make you free.” With all Miss Mattison's heart and soul, she clung valiantly to that, though she now and again lost pupils because we studied Darwin's
Origin of Species
The Subjection of Women
While most English schoolgirls were learning to read, write, do simple arithmetic, speak some French, embroider their petticoats, and paint timid watercolors, we were reading Tolstoy, Zola, Hardy, Lecky's
History of European Morals
, and Sir James Erazer's
Miss Mattison's girls also had the advantage of her brother's outspoken views. A prominent though controversial London physician, Dr. Mattison, when visiting his sister in Sussex, gave her pupils lectures, meant to inform and encourage though they were also frightening since his fierce blue eyes, ruddy moustache, and gruff voice intimidated girls who seldom saw men other than tradesmen, gardeners, and the rector. On one occasion he propped a bolster up in front of the class and labeled its midparts
Around these he placed a whalebone corset, laced it with vicious jerks, and then glowered at the class as the maltreated bolster, squeezed almost in half, sagged against the brass-inlaid teapoy where his sister kept the makings of her one indulgence.
“Torture and insanity!” he proclaimed. “All for a wasp waist! Young women, if you value your health, never let vanity or sheeplike conformity imprison your vital organs. We condemn the Chinese custom of bound feet; how much more crippling to constrict lungs and heart!” His cheeks puffed out as his voice boomed louder. “Observe the corset forces upward what it does not squeeze. This, with the fact that to breathe at all, the victim must literally pant, causes a continuous heaving of the upthrust bosom, whichâ”
“Brother!” Miss Mattison rose quickly, pink to the roots of her faded blond hair. “Thank you for a most instructive lecture. Now, girls, those of you who have your compositions done may bicycle or play tennis till tea.”
Though she felt certain subjects were too delicate for young ears, Miss Mattison believed in developing body as well as mind and had rejoiced when the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896. Unless there was a downpour, we bicycled or took long walks every day, led by Miss Mattison in her cherished old Bloomer suit. Besides tennis and archery, we had weekly riding lessons from a local stable.
As well as being warned of the dangers of tight lacing, we knew more about our physical functions than most women. Dr. Mattison left the
and other medical publications in the library, and though a few older girls insisted that a woman's flow stopped when she was pregnant because the blood went to nourish her baby, most of us knew that the curse or “the flowers” accompanied the casting off of the unfertilized ovum.
And we knew that Queen Victoria's accepting chloroform to ease the birth of Prince Leopold back in 1853 had popularized its use as an anesthetic and that Joseph Lister had used antiseptics as early as 1867 though his rules of hygiene were still not always followed by careless doctors, even after Florence Nightingale proved during the Crimean War that simple cleaniness could save countless lives.
“Be sure, young women, this concerns you more than romantic dreams or Latin verbs!” thundered the doctor. “If you aren't careful of your physician, one with dirty hands could leave you with childbed fever that can kill you or permanently disease your female organs.”
I couldn't imagine doing whatever it was that got babies in the first place. Certainly I would have been terrified to share a bed with a man like the doctor. I was glad to escape his urgent warnings and lose myself in the books of Dickens, Victor Hugo, Rider Haggard, Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells, and Arthur Conan Doyle. I was proud that my father had contributed several important volumes to the well-stocked library: John James Audubon's
Birds of North America
, with its beautiful color plates, and Prescott's
History of the Conquest of Mexico
. He had also donated a stereoscope with hundreds of cards showing animals, birds, and other countries.
For Sunday reading, after services in the old gray Saxon church, there was Bunyan's
A Pilgrim's Progress
, John Donne's sermons and meditations, Milton's
, and other edifying books. Sunday was a day we yawned through once we had acquired the ability to sit through services without squirming. It was not a time for “worldly” pleasures, though it was hard to think of anything at Miss Mattison's school that fitted that description.
Oh, but when Father came, I knew delight! We would go by train to London and be borne by elegant hansom to the Savoy, where we had a suite of two bedrooms, sitting room, bathroom, and W.C. After the austerity of school and my narrow lumpy mattress, pile carpets, Japanese wallpaper, gold frieze, carved mantels, and walnut furniture seemed overpoweringly grand. I would just be getting able to sleep in the big smooth postered bed when Father's visit would be over and he would leave me at Miss Mattison's to remember the fairy-tale time we had shared. Luncheon on the terrace overlooking the Embankment, the famous Savoy Dinner or Opera Supper after a play, ballet, or opera. I loved Gilbert and Sullivan, and as I grew older, Father took me to Wilde, Ibsen, and Shaw. And there was the National Gallery, the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew as well as the aquarium in Regent's Park.
But better than the opulent food, the luxurious suite, plays, pantomimes, ballet, and opera was being with my father, reveling in his undivided attention. I thought he was the most handsome man in the world with his chestnut hair and moustache, deep blue eyes, and erect figure.
When I was too weary to go to the public rooms, Father had tea brought to our suiteâscones, pÃ¢tÃ©, dainty egg and cucumber sandwiches, lobster salad, walnut cake, and chocolate cake. We would feast sumptuously while playing chess or while Father talked of Las Coronas, the hacienda, or the mine, which had so much pyrite gleaming from the slope that it actually looked like a golden mountain though the real ore was hidden deep inside.
Some of his miners were Yaqui Indians and he spoke of them with increasing concern because the Mexican government was killing or deporting them by hundreds and turning their ancestral lands over to Mexican and United States' colonizers. So far, Father had managed to protect his workers, but he was terribly worried about what was happening in Mexico.