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Letters from the Corrugated Castle: A Novel of Gold Rush California, 1850-1852by Joan W. Blos
Chapter One: Eldora
August 5, 1850 - November 18, 1850
No story begins entirely of itself. There is a story behind each and every story, and behind that story there is yet another.
John Hall, Travels in the West
The First Letter
San Francisco, California
Dear Cousin Sallie,
I begin with words I never thought to write: I am not an orphan! Never mind that we have believed this to be so since I was first brought to live with Aunt and Uncle (not my real aunt and uncle as you well know).
Yesterday Aunt received a letter from a woman who lives in San Pedro, which is in the Salinas Valley, some three days' journey hence. The woman, whose name is Señora Elisabeth Ramos, believes me to be her daughter! She tells that she did not die of cholera in Panama as has been understood to be the case. She has been twice widowed. Her first husband was my father. Her second husband died shortly after the ending of the war with Mexico. They did not have any children. So I am her only daughter, her only child. She hopes that she may visit when she is next in San Francisco.
Aunt told me this morning that she and Uncle are agreed that when she replies to Mrs. Ramos, she will say only that we have received her news, rejoice at her well-being, and will welcome a visit. "And," Aunt said, looking at me directly, "until that happens, Eldora, we will speak no more of her letter nor expend ourselves on conjecture."
I was greatly curious but asking questions would have been of no use. It has always been Aunt's way not to spend time in thinking on matters until they require attention. Uncle is more reflective and, in that regard, I am more like him. It will hardly surprise you, therefore, that he was the one to join me, over the next several days, in wondering how my mother — if indeed she is my mother — learned of my whereabouts. Nor will it surprise you to hear that when Uncle and I speculated aloud as to whether I resemble her in appearance, Aunt busied herself at the cookstove and had nothing to say on the matter.
It is twelve weeks since we said our farewells, four since we arrived in this place, three since our iron house was erected, and two since we saw our first fire. We are told that fires are quite common here, many dwellings being made of tent canvas or hastily constructed of wood. I am glad we have an iron house.
We stayed in a hotel while awaiting the walls, doors, windows, and so forth needed for the construction of our house. These necessary parts were sent from New York City but, having been ordered before we left New Bedford, were not too long in arriving. As soon as the shipment containing them arrived, Uncle engaged a man to assist in assembling our new home. It took only two days to complete it. Aunt's cookstove required nearly four days! It was also sent, disassembled, from New York City, and it was our good fortune that it arrived at nearly the same time as the house.
The furnishings are few: a table that serves many purposes, a rocking chair, several straight chairs, shelves for Uncle's books, and a bed for Aunt and Uncle. Aunt has curtained one corner to form a sleeping place for me. A small table next to my bed holds a basin and a pitcher. A chamber pot is stored under the bed. All very convenient!
Although the price is dear, we have purchased some few items in addition to the kettle, fry pan, coffee pot, and tableware we brought with us. A well-made broom pleased Aunt especially, and also a bucket of good size. Uncle has taken to referring to our new home as our corrugated castle! It is small but quite comfortable.
We three remain in excellent health although we are surrounded by much illness. The cholera is the worst of it. Many people arrive in weakened condition due to the travail they have endured merely to reach this place. In that regard it does not seem to matter whether one travels overland or, as we did, by sea.
I trust that you also are well, and hope to hear that this is indeed the case. Has Baby Emily got her first tooth? She is the cunningest baby I have ever seen. I liked so much to hold her and make her smile. It is hard to imagine how she will look with teeth! I think it would make me smile!
We have not yet received any letters, so you can appreciate our concern and curiosity. Are you addressing letters to San Francisco, California, and prepaying them? It appears this is necessary for their secure receipt. I hope I am the first to receive a letter and that it comes from you!
I hope I will soon be able to tell you about my mother's visit if Mrs. Ramos is indeed my mother. Aunt cautions me that I must not place all my hopes on it.
With greatest affection,
The Second Letter
San Francisco, California
Dear Cousin Sallie,
Aunt has received another letter from Mrs. Ramos. Because of her business, the nature of which we do not know as yet, she will be in this city in a few weeks' time and hopes to call on us then. She is quite certain that I am her daughter but she wrote very little about herself, or how she found me, or why she believes she is my mother. In consequence of which we are more curious than ever! I grow more impatient with each passing day but Aunt worries that a mistake has been made and that the woman who wrote to us is not my mother after all. "How will we know?" she asks. To which Uncle replies in his steadying way, "We will know, and so will she."
The letter from Mrs. Ramos was posted in Monterey. It came with the mail ship but only after considerable delay due to contrary winds. It was the only letter we received.
While waiting for the mail to be distributed, Uncle met a man named Mr. Hall and his son. The son, who is traveling with him, is named Luke. He is a good deal taller than I am and already has a low voice. His father mentioned that Luke has only recently passed his fourteenth birthday so he is older than I am, but only by a year. Luke is able to travel with his father because he no longer attends school. Why this is so was not explained. I could tell that Uncle was curious, but he did not ask!
Mr. Hall is a newspaper writer from the state of Michigan. He intends to write about California's cities, people, and gold mines. The newspaper for the town where he lives will publish his dispatches. He says that every one is eager to read about California, as every one is hoping to come here or they know someone who is here already. Mr. Hall told Uncle that Millfield, which is where he lives, and also the next town over, are short of doctors, lawyers, and shopkeepers because they have all left for California!
Uncle says that he and Mr. Hall have discovered that they are very much in agreement about books, shipping companies, and political matters. Aunt laughed when he told us. She was certain, she said, that the last was most important. Then she added that she hoped this new friend would pay us a visit so she might form her own impression. Uncle said he had already made the suggestion, and hoped that the son would come too. Evidently the idea met with Mr. Hall's approval for he came today and his son came with him!
Mr. Hall is friendly and can be quite funny. But if the son stays at the hotel the next time his father decides to visit he will not be very much missed. He did not seem much interested in what others were saying and when asked a question said little more than "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" in reply.
Aunt served slices of the bread that she had made only that morning, and with it honey we had brought with us. She used the China tea — bought here — for the first time. Mr. Hall exclaimed at the bread and protested her generosity with the honey. But Luke spread his bread with several spoonfuls of it, and licked his fingers as boldly as you please. Aunt said nothing at the time. But after they left she commented on his unmannerly behavior. Uncle said he thought that Luke was a very unhappy boy. I wonder why Uncle believes this to be the case. I did not know boys could be unhappy.
Aunt is calling. I will end this letter now and write more tomorrow or the next day.
The Third Letter
San Francisco, California
Dear Cousin Sallie,
I think you will laugh when I tell you that I have made a friend who does not speak English and appears to be no more than five years old! Possibly she is older as Mexicanos tend to be small even when they are grown.
This afternoon Aunt had gone down to Portsmouth Square (which is the central plaza) and I had completed the lesson Uncle set for me. As is usually the case in California, it was quite pleasant outside. I was seated on the empty packing box that Aunt and I use as a dooryard bench. Seated there, one can see up the street as well as down. On one day we will admire the clothesline a neighbor has strung from a corner of her house to a sturdy pole; another day we will laugh to see a household's entire washload displayed spread-eagle flat on the canvas roof of their tent.
Today, my attention was captured by a small girl, with the blackest hair you ever saw, as she came up the street. She was looking with frank curiosity at the houses along the way — the canvas tents, an iron house larger than ours, and several dwellings of wood that boast framed windows.
I had the impression that our street represented quite a novelty to the little girl, and perhaps it did. Once, I recalled, Uncle had described coming upon a portion of the city where most of the houses were small adobes. It was a rather short distance from this area, perhaps only a ten- or fifteen-minute walk, but seemed to belong to another world. Most of the residents, he had added, appeared to be Mexicanos. So perhaps that explained not only the child's curiosity but also the cut of her long black skirt and embroidered cotton blouse.
As she came closer, I saw that she was cradling some roughly knotted cloth with twigs sticking out on either side. Its identity puzzled me at first. But the tender way she sang to it showed it to be a well-loved doll. The child halted when she came to our gate, stared at me with curiosity equal to mine, and quickly looked away. I looked at her, smiled, and patted the space beside me. As an invitation, it was understood and accepted.
For a few minutes neither of us spoke. When the silence became uncomfortably long, I offered the information that we were from New Bedford, Massachusetts, and that my name was Eldora. The child listened carefully but when she spoke it was to say, "No English."
A few minutes later she touched my hair with one finger and said, "Dorado." Thinking she meant to say my name, which I had just revealed, I corrected her. I had not guessed her intention, however. She sighed deeply as if despairing at my stupidity, and shook her head, no.
Then she ventured to touch my hair again and quietly but clearly repeated what she had said. Next, she pointed to her own hair and said, "Negro." Then she pointed to herself and said, "Lucia," and finally, she pointed to me and said, very clearly, "Eldora." At this I laughed aloud for the sheer joy of understanding our exchange. Following her example, I spoke my name and hers and the colors of her hair and mine. Then a new thought struck me. Pointing to the doll she carried, I asked the doll's name. Lucia looked puzzled at this and I knew I would have to try again.
"My name," I said, pointing at myself, "Eldora. Your name: Lucia. And" — here I pointed at the doll — "her name?"
"No name," she said.
"No name?" I repeated, and Lucia nodded. So, from that moment on, No-Name was the name of the doll.
We were very pleased to have begun a friendship in this way and cared not at all for the differences between us. Only a short while later a young Mexicano, broader in the shoulders than Luke but not as tall, came up the street. He stopped when he saw us and shook a finger at Lucia. He was speaking Spanish so I did not understand the words except for "madre," which he said several times and quite sharply. It was clear that she was to come with him at once and that her mother was vexed. Lucia stood up quickly, put the doll under her arm, and bade me, "Adiós." I said the same to her, following it with, "Good-bye."
I think it was her brother that came to find her. He seemed not surprised, just cross, that she had wandered into the neighborhood of the Americanos. Evidently this was not the first time she had done so and he had been sent to look for her.
After Lucia and her brother left, I remained seated for a while and that was when one of our neighbors came hurrying out of her house. She lives only two houses west of ours and she was in such haste that she was still drying her hands on her apron as she came toward me.
"It is not good to play with Mexicanos," she said. "Dirt. Disease. Also, they are thieves. I am quite certain your mother would not approve."
"Perhaps you have seen me with Mrs. Holt," I said. "But she is not my mother."
If my intention had been to discomfort her, the expression of dismay that came over her face showed that I had succeeded. I knew I owed her an apology. But, rankled by the way she had spoken of Lucia, I was disinclined to give the woman the least information. I just sat there and she just stood there.
After a few minutes, during which neither one of us spoke, she shrugged, looked at me crossly, and walked back to her house which she then entered. I suppose it was rude of me to behave as I did and she will probably regard me as a hateful child forever. That is not so bad. But if she tells others about me it could cause trouble for Uncle and I would be sorry.
Uncle is working very hard to start a school here. As you know he is very much influenced by Mr. Alcott and his writings, and Uncle intends his school to be one where students learn to trust themselves beyond the teachings of books. Thus, he says, he will not so much instruct the students as guide them in their learning. He is firm in his beliefs but these ideas are new ideas, not yet widely held. For this reason, he has told me more than once, it is important that our neighbors think well of us and trust him as a teacher.
I hope I will make a better impression on the next neighbor who talks to me.
Ever and fondly,
Copyright © 2007 by Joan W. Blos
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