The Fashion of the Country

Eric Ferguson
5732 Bossen Terrace #2
Minneapolis, MN 55417
phone/fax: (612)726-6364
eric@celticfringe.net
http://www.celticfringe.net


Characters:
Henry Sibley, Minnesota governor and former fur trader
Helen, his daughter by his Dakota wife, 17
(The scene is Helen's room in her foster family's house. She is sitting in her costume mostly dressed, but with some bits of costume still laying about. There is a sash which says "DELAWARE" on it. She is reading a newspaper. There is a knock. She doesn't move.)

HELEN
Who is it?

SIBLEY
Your father.

HELEN
(She thinks a moment, and tucks the newspaper away.) Come in.

(SIBLEY enters. She doesn't move.)

SIBLEY
Helen, it's good to see you again.

HELEN
Good day, father.

SIBLEY
It's been some time.

HELEN
Yes it has.

SIBLEY
I hope Mr. and Mrs. Brown continue to treat you well?

HELEN
Oh yes, they're very good.

SIBLEY
Helen, Mrs. Brown tells me you don't want to be in the parade.

HELEN
That's right.

SIBLEY
Come now, we can't have my daughter refusing the honor of being first state in the parade.

HELEN
What honor? They can't leave out Governor Sibley's daughter.

SIBLEY
Why would they want to leave you out?

HELEN
It's nothing.

SIBLEY
Good. Let's go then.

HELEN
I'm not going.

SIBLEY
Because of nothing?

HELEN
I don't know.

SIBLEY
I spent the money on the dress.

HELEN
I know.

SIBLEY
Are you ill?

HELEN
No.

SIBLEY
Helen, I'm not going to be governor forever. Enjoy the honors while you can.

HELEN
Is the parade really all that important? Minnesota doesn't even have railroads. Why do we care about a transatlantic cable?

SIBLEY
Well, ...it's a reason to celebrate. It'll be the biggest spectacle St. Paul's ever seen. A telegraph line between America and Europe. Think of how the world may change.

HELEN
I don't care. It changes enough anyway.

SIBLEY
I won't argue about it. Just finish getting your costume on and let's be off.

HELEN
You put on the dress and you march.

SIBLEY
You would have a governor make a spectacle of himself? This is ridiculous. Just tell me why you're so unwilling to ride in the parade.

HELEN
Because what sort of parade is led by illegitimate half-breeds?

SIBLEY
I see. Where are you hearing this?

HELEN
It's in the papers.

(HELEN hands SIBLEY the newspaper. He glances at it and puts it down.)

SIBLEY
You shouldn't be reading newspapers.

HELEN
Why not?

SIBLEY
They're not meant for girls your age. Now finish getting your costume on. I'll be downstairs.

HELEN
I'm not going.

SIBLEY
Everyone knows those men are scoundrels, especially lashing out at some young girl.

HELEN
People read what they say. I don't want to be jeered at.

SIBLEY
No one will jeer at you. They know you. You've always been popular.

HELEN
That was in the Indian school, where the girls were the daughters of fur traders. The whites who've settled here these last few years don't like being around Indians. If I wasn't your daughter, some girls wouldn't even talk to me.

SIBLEY
They're just jealous. You're the governor's daughter and a better marriage prospect than most of them.

HELEN
Even though I'm illegitimate?

SIBLEY
Stop saying that word! Now look...you're not, and I want no more talk of that. It doesn't matter what they think.

HELEN
It does, or why else would the newspapers attack you because of me? Why do the other girls look at me differently? And don't tell me they don't.

SIBLEY
I'm sure you're making something out of nothing.

HELEN
Nothing? When I met with the other girls who were marching, they sat as far from me as possible.

SIBLEY
I doubt it meant anything.

HELEN
As we were leaving, the Smith girls' mother came to pick them up. She didn't think I could hear them where I was. I noticed her look at me and ask her daughters, "Is that her?" Then she said, "Governor Sibley should be ashamed of himself, having one of those running around."

SIBLEY
You may have heard them wrong.

HELEN
Don't tell me they were talking about a loose dog.

SIBLEY
No, I don't suppose they were. However, I will tell you there's nothing they or you or I can do about it, so let's forget all this and get going.

HELEN
Were you really married to my mother?

SIBLEY
Of course.

HELEN
No, I mean really, under the law.

SIBLEY
Yes. As things were understood then. The Dakota approved. No, it wasn't legal under our law, but there wasn't much in the way of white law then.

HELEN
Did you love my mother?

SIBLEY
Well... Marriages just didn't work the same between traders and Indians. That's not to say there was no affection, but these things started out as business arrangements. The woman's family got the status of being the trader's in-law, and we got the family ties that made for good business ties. We had influence, we could keep out competition.

HELEN
I see. So that's all it was.

SIBLEY
Now don't sulk, that's not what I meant. Besides, our marriages are partly economic too. That's why I made so sure you got your piece of the annuity money when the tribes were removed to the reservations. No man in his right mind will turn down a governor's daughter with such an endowment, no matter what the circumstances of her birth.

HELEN
So I've always been a business arrangement.

SIBLEY
That's not what I said. I wish you had known your mother better. She would have known how to explain this to you.

HELEN
Would you have stayed married to her if she had lived?

SIBLEY
Tell her to live here? What were you just saying about getting funny looks? Think how difficult things would be for her. You at least grew up speaking English and living among whites. You were the daughter of a prominent man.

HELEN
She was the wife of a prominent man.

SIBLEY
So what? She would be merely spurned instead of run out of town?

HELEN
They wouldn't run her out of town.

SIBLEY
They wouldn't have to. Living here would be like living on the moon. She would have hated me for dragging her here.

HELEN
Was it really such generosity? Didn't the traders call it "the fashion of the country" to take Indian wives and abandon them when they married white wives?

SIBLEY
"Le fashion du pays." Yes, we called it that. But most of us have done our best to care for our half-Indian children, just as I have with you. I'll leave it to each man's conscience how cavalier he was about the whole thing.

HELEN
But how awful for the wives, depending on each man's conscience!

SIBLEY
They couldn't have mixed in with white society. They were much better off with their families.

HELEN
You just said the traders became part of the family.

SIBLEY
We were. But the fur trade died.

HELEN
You couldn't live with your wives' families?

SIBLEY
Of course not. We weren't Indians. It's complicated. Look, would you have me try to keep trading on a reservation? Some of my former colleagues still do, but there's no money to be made. Both the traders and the wives are better off this way.

HELEN
But why did you marry a white woman who won't have me in her house?

SIBLEY
I hoped she would be more generous. Perhaps when you're older and married, you'll understand that you don't want to be reminded of the more disreputable parts of your husband's past.

HELEN
I'm a disreputable part of your past?

SIBLEY
Don't put words in my mouth. You know that's not how I feel. But yes, that is what you are for her. Don't condemn her too strongly. Think about knowing your husband has a child that's not yours.

HELEN
Did she know?

SIBLEY
Yes. But she agreed to the marriage anyway.

HELEN
You mean you agreed to it anyway.

SIBLEY
That too.

HELEN
Did you marry her because she's Franklin Steele's sister?

SIBLEY
Partly, yes. That's not mercenary, that's just life. There's nothing wrong with making a good marriage, and it has mostly been good.

HELEN
A marriage where your daughter has to live elsewhere.

SIBLEY
Haven't I tried? How often have we spoken in front of this house as I passed from one place to another, in broad daylight and in full view of anyone passing, including newspapermen?

HELEN
Often. I don't know.

SIBLEY
Remember the picnic last July 4th?

HELEN
Yes.

SIBLEY
It was crowded, right?

HELEN
Yes.

SIBLEY
Yet there I was, with you, where anybody could see. I wasn't ashamed of you. Neither should you be ashamed of your Dakota blood.

HELEN
I'm not ashamed of it! It's these whites who moved in the last few years who want me to be ashamed of it!

SIBLEY
Then don't be. Ride in the parade. If they can't accept our ways, well...it doesn't matter.

HELEN
(She puts on the rest of the costume) What about the next election?

SIBLEY
That's not for a long time. By then us "Moccasin Democrats" will be so outnumbered there's no hope of winning anyway. So let's enjoy it while we can. Oh, I nearly forgot, Mrs. Brown said this letter just came for you.

(She looks at the letter and snatches it from him.)

HELEN
Dr. Sawyer!

SIBLEY
Dr. Sawyer? Hmm. Is there something you would like to tell your dear father?

HELEN
(She hesitates and smiles) Maybe.

SIBLEY
I see. You are full of surprises today Miss Delaware. Well, you can tell me all about it on the way there.

(They exit. End of play.)

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