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C. M. MAYO|
Last Prince of the Mexican Empire
novel based on the true story
|From the opening chapter, "The Darling
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 (one of the smallest
of which Alice shared 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 had 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 then 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 had served with General Washington and, famously,
lost a leg in the Battle of Brandywine. Her maternal grandmother
was a Plater who had grown 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 was
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,
an impossible-to-lift wooden box with handles made of rope. 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, once snow-white but now yellowed
breeches, and a coat that smelled strongly of camphor but was
nonetheless 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 can't wear uniforms," her older brother George
"Silly," an older sister said, rolling her eyes.
"Saphead," another brother, Oseola, said, 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's. 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, summer steamy and buggy? Whether
it were clear or cloudy, the sun rose every day, and that 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 2,000 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 that
would be 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 the 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 would make 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
No: more than a hundred years.