Throughout the night, they talked by the simple light of two candles, the darkness focusing Veronica’s absorption of her aunt’s word, suspending time as the present world was shut out. Marcelina was both more direct and loving than ever, and the girl thought of nothing beyond the woman’s words, and how she described her life’s experiences.
“Don’t think for a moment I don’t understand how you feel, or that I’m not overwhelmed with joy for you. If anything, I’m quite jealous of you right now. I truly wish there had been someone to guide me through it when I was your age. The confusion of it all overshadowed the entire event. But I must describe to you the first time I was with a man. It could be characterized as hardly more than a hurried stumble. You’re sure to look back on this night as if it were a fairy tale, I promise you.” Marcelina paused, searching her mind for the details that could not be recalled very easily.
“His name was Antonio, a servant in our father’s house in Madrid, the son of the stable master. Their small family lived in a cottage on the grounds. We were the same age and it was his good fortune to receive schooling from my tutors during most of our childhood. His family was much loved and cared for by my father, and he was given the opportunity to receive a formal education when a tutor was eventually called for my sister and me. Looking back at this, I find it hard to imagine my father ever married my mother, for they were so very different in mind or character. Mamá thought it a disgrace that a common boy—indeed, the stable master’s son—should even be allowed in the same room as her daughter and reminded father of her opposition as vehemently as possible whenever the chance arose. I suppose she did know more than a thing or two about a young girl’s viewpoint, considering how often she ignored me.
“Anyhow, Antonio was quite gifted. He excelled in all his studies to such a degree that he made your mother jealous and frustrated, particularly when the tutor had to explain many of the lessons over again. He sat apart from us, as my mother insisted, but he could hardly sit so far away as to be unable to see and hear our teacher. In time, though her opposition never changed, her attention to the matter did, and the divide shortened enough that we three children began speaking to each other in class almost every day. When he was seventeen and I fifteen, I began to come out of my shell, even before I was presented as a young lady. Despite the forces against us, we became true friends.
“Naturally, we were watched the entire time we were at study, so we bravely took it upon ourselves to meet in private. I made a habit of retiring every day to a small patio, just outside of the house, and would take to reading my lessons alone. My mother welcomed the opportunity for a bit of free time for herself and would only check on me now and then through a window. At that age, Lucía naturally couldn’t stand to be bothered by me, and gladly welcomed her own privacy from me. Confident in the arrangement that I had established for myself, I would quietly slip away when I could to meet Antonio in the farthest part of the gardens in the late afternoon. It was always near a grove of old olive trees on the far border of the gardens that would take ten minutes to reach. I always thought that I would gladly have walked a thousand miles just to see him alone.
“He tried to dress his best when he would come, and I made the same fuss privately with my own appearance. Antonio was such a different person when we were alone, so relaxed. He called me by my first name, never for a moment speaking to me as if I were too good for him. He was like a brother, and he was my true confidant.
“We would talk for hours sometimes, talk about everything that concerned us and our dreams for the future. Antonio often spoke of his plans and hopes to be supported by his father to attend the Academy when he turned eighteen, which we both knew was impossible. He would have the most frightened look upon his face when he realized that truth could not be fantasized away. You see, he would spend the rest of his life in the stables. His father was all too realistic when it concerned his future, making the point to shoot him down from the clouds when Antonio’s dream of an alternate life would light up his face. And what was worse, I myself knew the family expected Antonio to succeed his father in a few years when the old man retired.
“Those months of friendship flew by and Antonio became less and less the dreamer. Eventually, he did not even wish to attend our daily tutorial, though his father would not hear of his son refusing Papá’s generosity.
“During these meetings, we became closer in every way, ultimately falling in love and finding our way together in the shade of those olive trees to make love. It was not nearly as without error as it was for you, I can assure you, for Heaven knows it was little more than awkward clumsiness at best. But we were truly in love, and I can honestly say I have never found that type of young passion for anyone again. He was so alive and real to me, and through this world’s facade of powder and lace, it all fell away.
“In due course, we found ourselves taking risks to venture out on a walk more and more often to make love under the trees. I was so in love with him that my lust began to blind me to my ordinary precautions. In hindsight, I wished that I could have foreseen something so obvious that happened shortly thereafter. I’m sure you realize what transpired.
“Lucía found us one day, having been sent to fetch me after it was reported to our mother that I was out walking alone. When she’d come upon us, she’d stupidly thought he was trying to hurt me. She naturally did not understand the true nature of our situation, courtesy of our useless mother, and had taken it upon herself to scream like a banshee with her finger pointed at us in vain. I might have behaved the same, if Antonio hadn’t already solved the mystery of physical love for me. Well, he had never moved so fast for me, to be sure, and he was no sooner dressed than she began to run like a hare through the garden, screaming for all heaven to hear. ‘The stable boy is trying to murder Marcelina!’ she’d cried. I need not tell you the uproar that met her when her legs finally brought her to the house. The servants were in a storm of disbelief at her screaming. I had tried desperately to get there before my father and his men would arm themselves with their guns to hunt the boy down.
“It was pure foolishness that I entertained, attempting to act as if nothing had happened and that Lucía had been lying just to make mischief. Our mother could see plainly that my clothes were improperly fastened and that my hair was a mess. She’d known instantly what had happened and had not bothered to speak the truth before my father understood that I was not hurt. Mother slapped me across my face so hard that I flew to the ground, prompting my father to grab hold of her, as if she had gone mad.
“I’d spent that night and the next day alone in my room. The servants were told they might not even speak to me when they brought me meals. In spite of this, one of them managed to tell me that Antonio had been so severely beaten by his own father, upon hearing the news from Papá, that they’d had to be separated to keep his father from murdering the boy. Papá asked his butler to bring Antonio into the servant’s quarters of the main house. This news helped me realize the scope of what we had done. I was also told that, upon being questioned, Antonio had stood up to his father in Papá’s presence and protested his love for me. It had pushed the stable master over the edge and he’d set upon his son with his fists, knocking him unconscious, and kicking him across the ground before Papá’s men could stop him.
“The news terrified me, for I then realized nothing could ever happen to me that would compare to what would befall Antonio for this outrage. The day I spent alone felt like a week, as they let the terrible burden of my fear fester. On the morning of the second day, a maid eventually came to inform me that my father had summoned me and that I was to dress and make an appearance before him and my mother.
“I’d been a storm of nervousness inside and each step to my father’s office had carried with it a dreadful weight. The first sight of his eyes, now darkened with the suffering of knowing, was like a sword through my heart. I loved my father unconditionally, you see. He was nothing like my mother. Even if the man had not been my hero, which he most certainly was, I would have loved him for the simple fact that he represented for me the thinker and scholar that my mother took every chance to scoff at in others. Yet, combined with his distress, I also saw love beaming through his sadness and knew instantly that if anyone would listen to my defense, it would be him.
“With my father in the room were Mamá, his advisers and associates, and Antonio’s mother. I later learned his father had taken to drinking heavily after the incident with Antonio. The stable master’s wife, Constancia, had put her husband to bed and had come to speak with my father privately. Her face had appeared serene in her unhappiness, as if she had accepted what had taken place and understood now what was to happen to her son, displaying a calmness I had thought to be brave. Yes, I think she was a very brave woman, and I wish I had known her more intimately. I happen to think it showed a great deal of courage to stand before my father, after what her son had done, when it was neither her responsibility nor her right to present herself in defense of something so defenseless.
“But I could find nothing but hatred in my mother’s eyes, who would not look to me for even a second. I imagine now she had much to hate on the occasion: that father had not yet killed the fiend who now slept under her very roof; that I was corrupted and had brought shame upon our family; even worse, that the mother of this animal had the effrontery to show herself in her lady’s presence.
“I’d said nothing, and had stood there in silence, and the servants closed the doors as they exited the chamber. I merely stood in the center of the room, staring intently, my eyes fixed upon the dark oak parquet pattern of the floor. All the while, I could feel his penetrating gaze upon my downcast face, his eyes probing me for any hint of what he was dealing with.
“Within seconds, I heard the very soft tone of his baritone voice instructing those present in the room to leave us. And with a most relieved swiftness, his men and Constancia had left, leaving Papá to quietly plead for mother’s cooperation. ‘It will be all right. Leave us that I might speak with her awhile, please,’ he’d said more gently to her. With a dramatic look of protest, she’d turned reluctantly and had made a point to storm out of the room, walking past me fast enough to upset my dress, her eyes still avoiding the sight of me.
“I was at last alone with my father in this enormous room, the room where I had spent so many nights with him, just watching as he worked at his desk with his secretary, talking to the man freely in my presence of all his business affairs and concerns for the city and country. In this room, I had often sat upon a small chair, backed away into a corner where I pretended to read my book, but rather watched him with adoration as he worked. I remember so vividly how he would stop his toils and turn his head around to find me there and shine his most love-filled gaze across the room, followed by a silent kiss.
“It was this love I thought of then, this horrible distance between us. And I could not help but to look upon him for a brief second to see his face once more. All the love was still there, more than ever in his warm eyes, structured underneath that handsome brow, framed with all of those golden waves. He was the most beautiful man I had ever known, and even in his distress, his beauty and love were all too powerful for me to look upon. I could not face such beauty, not after what I had done to him.
“At once, tears fell from my eyes and I battled with God to stop them. The mere thought that he would see them was horrible for me. And within those few moments when I’d struggled with my tears, I’d found that he had risen from his desk and came toward me to stand not more than a foot away. He had approached me without my knowing, startling me, and I’d looked up frightened to meet his eyes. In them, I saw all of his sadness and love through the haze of my tears, now falling uncontrollably. He was too beautiful in his suffering, and I’d let out his name in a whisper as he’d moved forward to enfold me in his arms.
“I’d cried out then, wrenched with violent sobbing that I could not have stopped to save my life. We simply stood there forever as he held me while I cried, telling me over and over that it would be all right. When I had stopped shaking, he’d brought me to his sitting area and I’d fallen down there with my head against his chest. And then we began to talk.”
“It was the first time we had ever talked about anything terrible. Our conversations had always been of our love or the tales of his boyhood, of what I thought of my studies, and what dress was my favorite that week. None of it had ever been in anger and none had ever been about my having done something disobedient. It had seemed that I had finally accomplished something so terrible, even my mother had been without the authority to deal a sentence, and this thought had amused me as much as it had terrified me.
“His tone had been tempered, etched dully out of love and pain, though he’d tried to be organized and stern. My father was a very intelligent man and little could ever disturb him beyond reason. His calm and levelheadedness had been his most valued traits among those whom he’d dealt with in business, though to see him in this way would have shocked most, even under the circumstances.
“‘The house has gone mad,’ he’d said then, while he’d tried to find his composure. ‘His father vowed to kill him in my presence,’ he’d told me, smiling in agony and laughing dryly. Papá had been so taken with the stable master’s response, that he had forgotten for a moment why he’d been angry. He’d related how the man had sworn he would sacrifice his son, that no dishonor would fall upon his house... like Abraham to God. He hadn’t known what to say to the man.”
Veronica gasped at the stable master’s words and actions. “But you must have been so afraid for Antonio’s life! What did you say? What happened to Antonio?” She took another sip of wine and sat poised, tilted forward on the sofa in anticipation.
Sitting next to her niece, Marcelina leaned back, remembering that day as clearly as if it were the present. She could still recall the mix of emotions she’d experienced when she’d pleaded with her father for forgiveness.
“Papá, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me, it was all my fault. I made him feel it was acceptable. He would never have dared if I hadn’t asked him to. I swear, Papá, it was all my doing.”
“No, no, my love, it is not right for you to sacrifice yourself for him now. He is not a fool, he is an educated boy, almost a man, who knew precisely what he had ventured to do.”
“He resisted, Papá, he is honorable. He would never do anything to hurt me.”
At this, her father unraveled himself from their embrace and stood up to look down at her.
“Honorable?” he said, stricken, his voice rising from pain. “What of his actions here are honorable? He has brought havoc to my house in a manner that is irreversible! He has taken your virtue from this house like a thief, committed this offense against my family, and you dare say he is honorable? He has done this, and what is most unforgivable is that he is not the fool stable boy who hadn’t the opportunity to know better! He has sat in your classroom for years, against the advice of my counsel, in defiance of your mother’s disapproval, and he has received the education that I provided him with in great charity. All that he might one day have greater opportunities than his father, whose family I love as my own. And you have the insolence to defend what he has done?”
He moved now like a caged panther, his eyes fixed upon the floor as he paced back and forth in front of her. She felt some of her courage return and spoke quietly, as intimately as she could make her voice sound.
“Papá, you do not understand him. As you say, he is not the foolish stable boy. He’s a boy who has been taught to think like a gentleman, Papá. This is the charity you have given him, this is the useless charity you have burdened him with.”
“The charity I have given him was so that he might one day achieve a higher degree of honor, not so that he could claim your virtue as his prize! As if I would raise the stable master’s son that he might one day be suitable for my own daughter. This is madness! There is nothing I can do for him now. Even his mother sat here and told me it was only right that he be punished to the highest extent of the law. His own mother knows I have no choice but to seek his death, there is nothing else I can do.”
She was horrified by those words. She had not believed that such a thing might be true until she heard him say them aloud.
“My only concern is that, even with my seeking the law to punish him, there will be no remedy for the scandal that will spark, no way to save us from becoming disgraced. Your mother is outraged that I have not done this yet, but I cannot find the courage to sentence you both. My love for the both of you does not permit me to even think upon the truth of my situation! Do you see what has been done to me?”
Papá was spent now. His pacing had ended, and he fell to the sofa slowly, bringing his head to rest in his hands. “My God, what have you both done?” he said to himself in a quiet whisper.
Marcelina was without words. The stress in her chest was unrelenting and she could no more bear to look at him than to look away.
And after a beat, he raised his head to slouch back in the sofa, his head falling to rest in his daughter’s direction. He smiled weakly at her and she was now strong enough to hold his glance. She felt she owed him at least that much.
“I don’t care in the slightest that you have fallen in love. Don’t misunderstand me, I have a love for all lovers, and it falls from the belief that there can be no sin in what you have done. It is not that I hate him for loving you, precious. Do not think for a moment I could do anything but adore him for loving you. I would give anything that he might be my son. My anger toward him did not survive a moment after what I heard him tell his father. He stood there like a man, I tell you... like a man he defied his father to pronounce that he loved you, above all things, and that he would not live without you.” Papá closed his eyes and smiled. “Like some fool in an opera, he practically sang this. I was so proud of him, for loving you, for loving anyone so honestly, so bravely.”
She was astonished by her father’s words. The tears came again, burning in her eyes, and after his admission settled in her mind, she heard his words begin again, darkened from the most terrible pain.
“His crime is that he has known all his life, and I had seen to it that he knew, that he could not ever be your husband. He knew it, and he still chose to defy me, which is what I find unforgivable. That he would disrespect all I have given him, that he would attempt to claim you as his own, it is something I cannot ever allow him to amend. I have no choice, what I must do is clear to everyone.”
She was defeated as every word he had said was undeniable, and all she said to him then came in random fragments that she could not control.
“Papá, you cannot let this happen. How can you ask me to live the rest of my life carrying the burden of his death? This is as much my responsibility as it is his. I know you are a great man. There must be a way you can think of to make all of this just go away. The servants will never speak, not if you tell them that their futures hang in the balance of our house not falling.”
“No, my love,” he smiled weakly, “you know very well the servants’ gossip, even if it could be contained, is not the problem. It is that everyone in our family knows, not to mention my associates, to whom my honor is as vital as are their positions. No, there is no choice in this matter. Even if I were to send him to the other side of the world, it would not help matters any. His name alone will now be infamous, a constant reminder of his offense, and you will be dishonored among the houses of Spain, no matter how much my influence could temper their knowledge of your culpability.”
She knew that all he said was true, that there was no other choice. Antonio’s name alone would threaten them forever. It was over, really. Everyone’s mind had been made up on the matter. She saw it was only her father’s abhorrence toward the idea of sending this boy to be slaughtered that had spared him this long. Her mind wandered relentlessly through all of these truths.
Her Papá exhaled his most defeated consent to what lie ahead, and after a short while she felt herself give over to speak about Antonio as if he were already dead.
“I would give all if in death he could be reborn a gentleman,” she said, closing her eyes. “I have dreamt my whole life that he might one day have become a man of status, someone I might meet anonymously in a house far off, a well-to-do young gentleman on leave from his studies at the finest Parisian university, traveling abroad around the world for the first time.”
The man smiled, puzzling over her words for a moment. “The university? Is that where you saw him? I always saw him in the stable, saw him there under my own design, perhaps.” His sadness weighed down on him now, it was a miserable sight look upon. He continued in a lifeless ramble. “I wonder where he might have seen himself had he been permitted to live longer. I wish that I knew him better. I wish I had not let him listen too closely to stories of gentlemen in London, fables your tutors educated the three of you about. I wish I had made a point to understand him as the young man he’s become.”
“That’s what changed him more than anything, Papá. He came to understand his place after years of boyhood fancy. He cried in my arms because he knew that the world outside this place would never be his.” She spoke now to herself, her hands in an endless fidget. “If you could’ve seen his eyes as he gazed at the drawings of the National College of Rome in the books our tutors imported for us. So full of happiness, then instantly so full of despair. His eyes couldn’t hide the sadness.” She began to cry again, silently this time, a private moment she kept to herself for Antonio.
Her father stood up again from the sofa and left her to walk about the room. She could hear him moving behind her and turned to see him sitting at the desk with his eyes fixed upon the ceiling in the way that she had observed all her life. It was the expression he exuded as he contemplated their futures. She thought to herself how beautiful he looked when he did this. It was at these moments when anyone could see most clearly how intelligent he was.
The sharp sound of his chair scraping across the floor gave her cause to start as he sprang from the chair like he had seen a vision. He almost ran in his fervor, grabbing his daughter’s hand to pull her after him, racing out of the room and through the house like there was a fire somewhere. They ran downstairs, past his advisors who were lounging in the main parlor, her father holding up his hand to keep them in their seats. He moved her through the hallways and downstairs to the room where they were keeping Antonio.
He opened the door with much commotion, pulled her inside and locked the door behind them before giving Antonio the chance to sit up from his bed. Before she could even see his eyes, she saw the many scars of his wounds. The maids had seen to bandaging him thoroughly with care.
“My lord,” the boy said feebly, standing as quickly as possible, faltering with the pain of his swift movements.
“Sit down, Antonio, I have come to talk with you over what has happened.”
Marcelina was desperately frightened now. She had rarely seen her father in this type of frenzied commotion. She feared his excitement was the result of his anger and that he had come here to relieve it.
“I can offer you nothing to pay for the sins I have committed against you, my lord. I offer my life to you and I ask that you not take mercy upon me. What I have done is unforgivable.” The boy said this with such dire conviction that what was left of her heart sank in desperation. But this statement faltered her father’s focus and he hesitated before speaking, staring at the boy with wonder now, trying to collect his thoughts before he began.
“Very right, you are. You have done something that all my house says I cannot show you mercy for. And it brings me some comfort that you have the honor about you to speak to me now and admit this.”
He studied the boy then with a compassion she did not understand. The truths he spoke were intoned without the slightest hint of anger.
“It is now, by all of my people’s will, as well as the will of your family, out of my hands.”
And at these words, her father witnessed a final defeat in Antonio’s eyes. The young man’s back stooped, his physical presentation collapsing, and he let his head fall down to look upon the floor.
“It is better this way, my lord, for everyone involved. I would not wish to live on with this shadow over our lives.”
At this, her father held his breath, and it seemed he would burst out some curse or condemnation at the boy. But he did not do this.
“Is it really this shadow, as you call it, which gives you cause now to offer up your life?” he asked, little of his own life left in his eyes.
“It sounds all very romantic to me, your submission. I think perhaps you do not say to me all that you feel.”
Antonio was at a loss and could only stare for several beats.
“I don’t understand you, my lord. I only wish to surrender my life to you for the suffering I have caused. It is the only honorable choice I can make.”
Her father turned his head to walk about the small room, which was a minor storage closet near the kitchens and hardly large enough to accommodate many steps. “Touching,” he said dryly, keeping his face turned from the boy.
He waved the back of his head at Antonio. “My daughter has told me many things about you.” With this, Antonio turned his face to Marcelina, uncertain what this might mean. “She tells me you are not the stable boy everyone believes you are. She tells me you’re a different man, and I wonder if I might have failed to judge you fairly. She tells me you are not a man of horses but a man of knowledge, one who would not ever, by sheer will, do anything to hurt her. It makes little sense to me. Would a man of knowledge ever do such a thing?”
“My lord, you have been far too generous to me. It is with the greatest sorrow that I have failed to show my gratitude for the charity you have provided. I have betrayed your trust and generosity, and for this I can only beg your forgiveness and throw my life into your hands.”
“In my hands, yes, that has been the problem all this time. The inadequacies of my visions and judgments have allowed me to selfishly ease the burden of my conscience, committing these vile little acts of charity. But I see now that these acts have been my greatest sin. They have suffered from my shortsightedness with an abundance of fault.”
“I don’t understand you, my lord,” the boy answered.
Papá waved the boy’s voice away. “Tell me, what do you think your life might have been here in my house, living in my family’s service?”
Antonio was devastated by the question and could hardly draw himself up to answer. “My lord, it was my great honor to live under your roof, I have only ever wanted that I might live my life in the peace that your house has bestowed upon my family so generously.”
“Peace, yes, I see. So, you have not spoken for years of what your life would be outside this place, as my daughter says? She has told me you have spoken widely of your desires to do anything else but live in succession to your father.”
Antonio was slow in his response. “My lord, the things I have shared with your daughter have never been anything but the foolishness of a boy’s fancy. I have never wished for anything but to please and honor your family. I should have never dishonored you by saying those things to her.”
It was with this confession that tears came from her, yet again, for she knew the great pain by which he had suffered over this. She could see it in his eyes when his illusions were shattered once again, leaving him with the ultimate realization of what his foolish dreams had brought them to.
Her father turned to face him now with an equal sadness in his eyes. “Well, it disappoints me to hear you say that, for I am afraid it will not do. Not for what I intend for you.”