Authors: Parris Afton Bonds
With a howl that more resembled that of an animal than of a human being, the middle-aged woman flung herself against the heavy wooden door, her skeletal fingers wrapping themselves about the iron bars of the door's window. Shrieks of bestial rage poured out of the spittle-flecked lips, directed toward the man on the other side.
The stately gentleman with the shock of silver hair stepped back from the door with a grimace of distaste. Drawing a linen handkerchief from the pocket of his dark blue waistcoat, he dabbed fastidiously at his upper lip as he propelled his twelve-year-old daughter back down the cold corridor of Boston's Northhampton Asylum.
"You can understand now, Kathleen, why I've been unwilling to let you see your mother more often these last few years. Only the fact that the doctors assure me her end is near -- and not your persistent clamoring -- has induced me to let you see her one more time."
The well-manicured hands formed clenched fists within the folds of the mauve-colored velveteen skirts that almost, but not quite, matched the deep purple of almond-shaped eyes. Eyes which at that moment blazed in impotent fury.
Kathleen Whatley stood before her father, who sat imperiously in the black and gold Sheraton chair, a crocheted blanket draped across hislap. His stringent features yielded nothing, in spite of the cough that racked his body.
"Kathleen, dear," he said in a chilling tone between spasms of hacking, "you've always been a spoilt and pampered child. A child determined to have her own way. You're twenty now. High timeyou grew up -- accepted the responsibility of your station."
"And if I refuse, Papa? If I refuse to marry Mr. Woodsworth?"
"You surely don't wish to distress your father further, do you, Kathleen?" Edmund Woodsworth asked, his silky voice tinged with a subtle threat.
Kathleen's heavily fringed eyes glared at the slim, fashionably dressed Englishman who stood languidly before the fireplace. Only barely did she repress a shudder while Edmund's glassy eyes slid over her with contemptuous indifference.
But his contempt was equaled by her own as she watched him raise a beringed hand to smother the yawn escaping from the lipless mouth -- a defect he disguised with a thick blond mustache and Vandyke beard. Exceptfor this imperfection, the pale, finely sculptured face was almost beautiful.
However, Kathleen was not deceived by the man's foppish mannerisms. For, in spite of the fact that Edmund was her father's lover -- the homosexual relationship having begun when the two met in Madrid years before, as ambassadors for Great Britain and the United States respectively -- there was a latent air of cruel strength about the English-man. Indeed, the fortyish Edmund was renowned for his deadly expertise in swordsmanship.
A man of steely purpose," the Boston
had punned about a recent duel between him and the now-deceased gentleman who had dared voice his opinion about Edmund's peculiarities.
Now Kathleen saw Edmund's lower lip droop petulantly when she refused to answer him, and braced herself for whatever cutting tirade might follow. But he merely turned to her father with a sigh of impatience, as if wearied by a recalcitrant child.
"My dear James, I'm afraid your daughter sadly needs disciplining. A job I shall certainly undertake once she is my wife."
Her father emitted a half-grunt of exasperation. "You're like your mother, Kathleen. Emotional and unstable. You understand, it was with a great deal of mental anguish that I forced myself to have her committed."
A shiver of irrepressible fear crept up Kathleen's spine. She understood. Her father did not have to say more. His power and influence were still great enough that unless she complied, she could well find herself languishing in some such place as her mother had for nearly ten years.
Kathleen had been too young to understand everything when the whole affair began. But she later picked up bits and pieces from servants' gossip.
"A sordid affair, indeed!" Amanda, their cook, had whispered to the housemaid, Becky. "There Mr. Whatley was in Spain as our President's minister to the court, and Mrs. Whatley -- never did like the madam -- too proud -- she ups and takes herself a lover."
"What happened them?" Becky asked, leaning closer over the kitchen table to catch every word.
Amanda halted in the midst of peeling th eonion. "The madam was the scandal of all madrid. That's what! Didn't bother to hide her peccadilloes, that one. There's them that say the Mistress Kathleen is the love child of the madam's Spanish lover, and not poor Mr. Whatley."
Amanda ignored the housemaid's smothered gasp and went on with her story, delighted to have a listener. "A heathen country, Spain was. Didn't like it one bit, meself. Anyway, when Mr. Whatley came down ill with consumption and had to give up his post, the madam refused to return with him. Declared she'd stay in that pagan land with her daughter, she did!"
Becky's lashless eyes rounded with avid curiosity. "What did the master do?"
The bony cook resumed peeling the onion. "Mr. Whatley had a doctor there give the madam sedatives. She fought like a tigress. But after she was unconscious, he whisked her aboard a ship bound for Boston. Had to tend to her meself the whole crossing. Heavily drugged, the madam was."
Kathleen had inadvertently made a noise at the kitchen doorway then, and the conversation abruptly ceased. But she could imagine the rest. It was only a matter of a few signed papers, and the estranged wife had been incarcerated in the hellhole that served as an asylum.
She was sharply recalled to the present by her father's "Well, what's it to be Kathleen?"
Edmund's lipless mouth stretched in a hideous curl of triumph, and he glided to the side of her father chair. "That is more like it, Kathleen. You and I shall deal quite famously with one another -- as long as you are obedient."
Kathleen lowered long lashes over mutinous eyes. She too was quite sure Edmund would deal famously with her ... and her inheritance. Within a year of their marriage he would no doubt be in complete control of the Whatley fortune if, as the reputable Boston doctors speculated, her father's declining health lasted even that long.
The Whatley fortune was nothing to her, except as a means to remain free from male domination. The thought of marriage, even if it were based on mutual consideration and respect, was repugnant to her. To some wives, it was an unpleasant experience one had to endure. But to her it was a thing of horror and disgust. To have to submit to the demands and pleasure of a man who had all rights over her -- Kathleen was physically sick at the very thought. To be a helpless pawn as her mother had been -- no!
And for Edmund -- of all men -- to have control over her person; to be a tool of his whim and used however his sexual perversions dictated -- that was unthinkable!
But rebellion? If she refused to marry her father's lover, could she really face the living death of the Northhampton Asylum? Yet if she capitulated and married Edmund, what guarantee was there that Edmund would not do the same -- incarcerate her, claiming inherited insanity?
After long moments of indecision, of mentally searching for any escape, kathleen knew her only chance lay in stalling. The eyes, a startling lavender in the honey-gold face, raised meekly to the two men. "Give me a month to prepare for the wedding, will you, Papa?"
James Whatley and Edmund Woodsworth flashed conspiratorial glances of victory at one another. But such is the nature of tyrants that they fail to notice the small things that make and break empires -- as the two men failed to notice the determined set of the full lips and the stubborn lift of the clefted chin that, along with the small childhood scar running under one cheekbone, detracted from the strong beauty of the woman facing them.
That night, as Kathleen lay in bed, staring vacantly at the lace-edged tester above, she conceived a plan. A plan that was rooted in the clipping the Whatleys' young butler Robert had hesitantly showed her, from the Boston
six months earlier. She had not known then that the advice she had given him would be the shaping of her own destiny.
Over the aromatic breakfast of hot English blended tea and one of Amanda's freshly baked cinnamon rolls, kathleen had scanned the clipping advertising for a tutor. As ever, she was oblivious of Robert's adoring gaze resting on the graceful column of her neck where wisps of sunlit curls escaped the carefully tended coiffure.
"I'd go ahead and apply, Robert," she answered, returning the clipping to him with a smile. "The trip in itself would be an adventure. And as for working in that wild wasteland -- on the rim of the world, as you've put it -- I certainly wouldn't let rumors of daily revolutions and Indian uprisings stop me."
Her smile faded, and one hand gestured at the wintry view of the crowded city that presented itself from windows framed by tassled blue-velvet draperies. "Anything's better than this, Robert -- Boston's stifling boredom. Here, you're pigeonholed to your station in life from birth ... destined to a dull existence by Boston's proper conventions!"
Her grimace faded as she looked up into the face of the young man who hovered anxiously at her side. Robert Patton was the same age as herself -- twenty. But why did she feel aeons older?
"Yes, go ahead, Robert," she had said with a conviction that surprised herself. "Apply for this tutor's job. Anything's better!"
Yes, anything was better than -- and preferable to -- marriage to Edmund Woodsworth. She knew her father to be a mercenary man, but, sweet Jesus, was there nothing he wouldn't stoop to? To actually barter her as if she were one of his stocks or properties. In return for the obscene caresses of another man! Who could believe it? This was 1844, not the seventeenth century, when marriages were understandably arranged.
The day following her confrontation with her father and Edmund, Kathleen launched her plan by bribing Robert to let her take his place, her diamond earrings setting the butler up in the bookshop he had often spoken of.
By the time her father discovered her disappearance, it would be too late. She would be on her way to the Mexican province of California. She would have her independence ... but at a costly price.
Captain Nathan Plummer of the two-masted brig
his azure eyes surrounded by tiny weather lines that etched his ruddy face, watched the proud young woman at the railing. She turned, taking the thick, hideous spectacles from her nose, and lifted her face to catch the salty sea breeze as it swept the honey-streaked mass of golden curls from the severely arranged bun at her neck.
His breath sucked in at the startling revelation of beauty. Christ, what a wench! And willful, too! Captured in that moment's pose, she could have been the embodiment of the
figurehead. Drawing men to her with those incredible wine-colored eyes and then vanquishing them with the unpredictable winds of her volatile nature -- which he had more than once experienced during the voyage. Nay, she was more than a tempest. With that apricot complexion and sun-kissed hair she was more a twany lioness ... of which one should beware, he thought grimly, inhaling on the briar pipe.
But, by all that was holy, how he would love to kiss away the polite coolness. It was like a Sierra Nevada glacier, freezing a man foolish enough to approach her. Damn her Yankee coldness! If she was a Yankee, as he had at first supposed.
Or was it true, as one of the passengers, whispered -- the spinster Merriwitten -- that the girl was the cast-off mistress of a Panamanian politician? He would never have thought so, hidden as she was by the ugly spectacles and dour clothing. But to look at her now ... Nathan drew thoughtfully on the pipe stem held between his teeth.
No, probably gossip. In spite of the fact that she had been waiting, unchaperoned, on Panama's Balboa docks with only the one valise, it was probably just as she had told him, her low voice crisp and aloof, when she had given him the passage fare to the Mexican province of California. She was to be a tutor at one of those ranchos.
But the tutors the Californios hired had always been men. Whoever the wealthy
was who had advertised for a tutor -- what would he think when he found his new employee was a woman?
Kathleen wondered, too, as she looked out over the Santa Barbara Channel toward the mist-shrouded coast, what her new employer, Señor Reyes, would say. But then, did it really matter? It was either face the anger of Señor Reyes or submit to her father's and Edmund's perverted plans for her.
Kathleen laughed softly, thinking how outraged her father must have been when he read her note informing him she had run off with the butler. For a Whatley to condescend to such a thing would be unthinkable to him.
However, it was no laughing matter, she thought, reflecting on what had happened since. The hardship of the journey had been much greater than she, accustomed to the comforts of wealth, could have imagined. A hearty February gale off the Atlantic Coast had confined her to her berth for the entire trip to Panama. And crossing the Isthmus, the jungles had been even worse.
She caught her lower lip between small white teeth, remembering the tropic's sweaty stickiness and the steaming swamps, and -- the worst -- the voracious mosquitoes! And the times when she half expected the coach to sink in quicksand. The Pacific portion of the two-month trip had been somewhat better, thanks to Nathan Plummer's solicitude.
She glanced at the massive captain through the thick layers of black lashes. Yes, with those locks as yellow as freshly churned butter and the warm blue eyes, he might certainly be called attractive. But that was as far as her appraisal went. It was best to keep him -- and all other men -- at a distance.
She would wander through hell the rest of her life before she would give up her independence, to be helplessly dominated by a male again. The cold, isolated life under the domineering rule of her father -- if he was her father -- had been quite enough to convince her of the folly of being bound to one man.
No, better to bide her time hidden in the vast emptiness of California until news of her father's death reached her -- as surely it must, for the death of such a prominent man would travel even to California, part of New Spain. She would yet outwit the cunning man she called her father, and the libidinous Edmund. If nothing else, she had time on her side.
After her father's death, after her twenty-first birthday, she should then be free to return to Boston and resume her life, God willing.
Kathleen realized her hands were clenched on the brig's railing, and she forced herself to relax, to enjoy the view from the deck. The morning mist was already lifting so that the porpoises could be seen arcing in graceful dives among the swelling waves.
And in that sparkling sunlight Kathleen first glimpsed the pueblo of Santa Barbara, built on a low, flat, and treeless plain and surrounded on three sides by an amphitheater of mountains.
There were maybe a hundred mud-brick houses with red tile roofs, and in the midst of them rose the wooden palisades of the presidio, with the Mexican flag -- the cactus and the eagle -- rising above the old Spanish fort.
A little way off were the Indian huts, and above their thatched roofs towered the splendid, newly plastered spires of the mission's church. The Santa Barbara Mission was queen of the twenty-one missions that lined El Camino Real, the Royal Highway, which ran almost the entire length of the province's coastline.
Since Santa Barbara had no harbor, kathleen was forced to wait for the brig to lower its oarboat to take the few passengers ashore. But her patience had worn thin, and she walked the vessel's deck anxiously. She had no wish to postpone any longer than necessary her meeting with Señor Reyes -- to know after four months of nervous waiting if her plans had succeeded.
There was already the unfortunate fact to nag at her that the
home port was Boston. Yet she doubted that anyone aboard had recognized her, so discouraging was she at attempted conversations. Even the old maid Merriwitten and her equally aged companion Mamie Harding had given up their prying, and sat uneasily in the sern of the boat as the oarsmen waited for a large swell of the ocean to roll in, breaking up the heavy surf.
Once the oarboat beached, the sailors, clad in duck trousers and striped red cotton shirts, carried the passengers ashore. But it was Nathan himself who lifted Kathleen out of the boat and waded ashore with her cradled in his arms like a child. He set her down on the sandy beach, and, as her eyes scanned th epeople gathered there, looking for her prospective employer, she was barely conscious of Nathan's farewell offer -- that he could be reached at La Palacia Posada that week, should she need anything.
Among the crowd Kathleen saw Indians, dressed only in rawhide breechcloths, soldiers, and the lower-class Mexicans and half-breeds that Nathan said were called
But nowhere did she glimpse a ranchero -- or Californio, as he had told her these men were called -- native sons of upper-class Spanish colonists who had come to ranch nearly seventy years earlier.
The passengers who had come ashore had gone on to their destinations, and the crowd that gathered for the ship's arrival was already dispersing but for the few curious ones who eyes Kathleen's extraordinary golden coloring, rare there among the dark skins and black-eyes, black-haired natives.
But Kathleen lingered there, waiting, savoring the climate that was so different from that of Boston. The air was softer, the ocean bluer. And there was a lazy, radiant warmth that permeated everything. However, as the lemon-colored sun began to fall rapidly into the sea, she grew anxious. She was half tempted to return to the
and seek help from Nathan, who was already aboard, busying himself with the ship's cargo papers, when the crunching of hooves on the smooth sand brought her head around.
the officer ordered sharply to the three soldiers who rode behind him. He swung down from the cream-colored palomino and approached Kathleen, his sword gleaming in the sun and his scarlet taffeta sash swishing with the wind.
Removing the low-crowned hat piped with the yellow braid of the cavalry, he said, "Señorita, are you awaiting someone?"
The Spanish of childhood came facilely to her lips.
she told the stocky officer, who was only a little taller than she, maybe five and a half feet at the most.
That is, I -- can you tell me where I might find accommodations for the night?" she asked, deciding it was wise to say as little as possible. "Is there a hotel near?"
Kathleen was unaware that the sea wind vividly outlined her high, rounded breasts and gently curving hips as it whipped the black muslin gown about her slim frame. The officer's hot, cocoa-colored eyes above the neatly clipped mustache ran over the delineated contours. Too slim for his appetite ... Still ...
He moistened his fleshy lips with the tip of his tongue, finding himself unaccountably attracted to the girl. It wasn't just the unusual coloring, or the still childish but provocative shape of her lips, that promised untold delights. Nor was it the sensuously shaped eyes that smoldered like violet embers behind the thick spectacles. But what was it?
And what was she doing there on the beach alone? A runaway indentured servant, possibly?
Lieutenant Alejandro Aguila made a quick decision then. Why tell her that the mission accommodated travelers? -- which, in truth, it did. But only for the dignitaries and grandees and those blessed by wealth. There was no room for such as he -- a Castilian of high birth but little money, forced to accept an officer's post at some stinking command in the middle of nowhere.
Yes, he would keep this girl for a while -- a week, a month. Then she could strike out on her own.
she should thank him! Only her coloring saved her from being sold off by some enterprising mind to one of the waterfront whorehouses.