The servants were miserable. The pressures placed upon them this evening were outrageous. Parties in the Castell de Amontoní were hardly rare, but none went by without a horrendous amount of distress on the part of the staff. Tonight, however, they felt the pressure more acutely than ever. Tonight, they lived with the fear that their employment might very well rest upon the success of the evening, and they all knew what it would take to make the evening a victory. They must produce an overwhelming ovation of whispers from the families of Barcelona, this separated Catalonian society, and one name must be remembered afterward when all had gone home or retired to their beds.
Veronica entered her bedroom quietly, her two maids in tow. She had only just returned from the opera after having left halfway through the second act. She knew that scores would be leaving shortly after her, and that many would not stay for a whole performance if the opera was not famous, or rather, the performers were not infamous.
She now let the final promise of her predicament slowly wash over her as the maids bustled around her, ceaselessly attending to her headdress and gown, and the balance and shine of her jewelry. Her face was slightly smeared from the terrible heat in the opera house, which would undoubtedly mean the last performance in the city until the cool of autumn returned, and she now submitted to a torrent of white powder and paint touch-ups. She closed her eyes and let it all happen to her, submitting to a fate she knew to be quite beyond her control or manipulation.
In what seemed only a moment, another maid came with word that the halls had already begun to fill with guests who had left the sweltering heat of the opera house in favor of the Marquesa’s champagne. Any moment now, she would need to descend to the main floor and be formally presented.
With a hint of weariness, the Marquesa walked in to gaze down at the girl’s progress, her expression not displaying a great deal of interest. The Marquesa exuded an almost lifeless expression with her face, like a mannequin in a shop window who was posed to observe the passing traffic with no apparent consciousness.
Without the slightest movement, the woman’s voice finally spoke.
“We will wait another hour or so to present you. I don’t wish for you to be seen until the majority of my guests have arrived. It will be better to let them all simmer and find the comfort of drink or conversation.”
“Of course,” Veronica replied.
“I will take you down right before the singers and players from the conservatory begin their concert in the main hall. That way, the crowd will have only a brief moment to discuss you before they must silence themselves for the musicians.”
Seemingly satisfied with Veronica’s appearance, Marcelina dismissed the maids, waiting for the door to close behind them.
“What are you thinking?” Marcelina asked, as if she had only just noticed her, demonstrating that it was perfectly reasonable for the girl to be nervous.
“I am not letting myself think anything now. I’m simply hoping to let it all happen without my assistance. I don’t even really want to think on it anymore, I can’t. It’s all too large for me, I only have the strength to watch and smile. It’ll all happen to me as it will.”
Without the slightest sense of relief in her appearance, Marcelina slowly arranged a satisfied smile on her face. “Good,” she said.
The difference in her appearance put Veronica into a sweeter state of ease, not really having sensed just how nervous she had been.
“I’m not being honest with you,” the girl added shortly. “I simply have no answer for that question. I separated my thoughts from this anxiety hours ago. I fear if I were to think of something specific for even a moment, I would have no way to stop this nervousness. It’s consuming me.”
“I don’t want you to worry any longer,” Marcelina responded with love. “It doesn’t matter what happens tonight. It is inevitable that good will come from this evening. I am not interested in whether you receive offers tonight, but merely whether you are able to find someone who pleases us both.
“There are only a handful of names I will entertain, and I fear that most of them may not be well-suited for your demeanor. It is not your security that is of any concern to me, but rather your compatibility. I don’t wish for you to spend the next year acquainting yourself with someone who you will end up despising. But really, I know so little of the character of these men who I’m relying on to be your suitor. The truth is that I have judged them by the most unreliable of techniques.”
“I leave that all to you, Tia. It’s all I can do to not frown at the whole idea of it.”
Marcelina weighed the girl’s response privately, not allowing the words to affect her composure. She knew Veronica had already changed greatly in a week and that there would be nothing to stop the girl now if she could drum up the same passion she’d had for this evening when was first told of it.
The time passed slowly, much of it in silence. If there was anything either of them wanted to say to each other, it would have to wait. They were both far more interested in observing their predicament. Veronica observed her aunt’s grounding textures; Marcelina observed her niece, wondering how she would react to all the new opportunities opening up in her life. Neither of them truly believed they understood the outcome better than the other. They had faithfully made all the plans necessary to bring triumph to their door. Nothing was left but to simply sit back and watch those plans unfold.
An invitation to Castell de Amontoní was a symbol of irreproachable status, a doorway to the attentions of the elite Catalonian aristocracy. Centuries after the unification of Spain that had resulted in an official disfavor of the older Catalan language, these nobles in the northeast of the country continued to defiantly pronounce the language even louder to separate themselves in spirit from the stifling methods of modern Spanish rule. And the Marquesa’s walls provided the ideal shield. Though Marcelina Theresa Motas de Serra had been born Madrilenian, the young bride had deftly embraced her husband’s Catalonian heritage upon becoming the fourth Marquesa de Amontoní, creating a unique balance that saw her cherished by both cultures. Simply put, it was her uniqueness among the women of the noble houses that afforded the many irregularities in her house, including the old Catalonian opposition to the “new” establishment. Though such a peculiar abnormality would have been scoffed at, were it any other woman, the widow of the great naval general, Don Augustí Marc Serra i Martorell, the Third Marqués to the House of Amontoní, enjoyed every exception made for her to retain the irreproachable and majestic status of her regency.
Beyond this small band of ancient rebels, the Marquesa’s invitations went only to those persons in society whom she deemed worthy of her attentions, and the criteria for her approval was renowned for being eccentric, if not hedonistic. Only those who possessed a sparkling distinctiveness found themselves become one of her guests. Artists of every field: writers, poets, painters, dancers, actors, singers and their composers, the most scandalous and infamous of each sort. Foreigners from every nation in Europe journeyed to her house fully aware and sincerely expectant that under her roof they would be presented as gods to the best of society and displayed with an almost religious grandeur. Even those that were thought of as heretics anywhere else were given a nod of approval if placed at the Marquesa’s side. Whatever physical beauties the place held for the senses, they could never overshadow the pleasures guests would experience from the social prestige that an invitation guaranteed.
By eleven o’clock, the house was well beyond its comfortable capacity. Never a people to obey anyone’s laws of propriety, hundreds crashed the party, as the Marquesa had expected, the unknown entering on the arm or coattail of an invited friend. The people of Barcelona had made certain that they were at this party, if none other. But the woman’s philosophy toward her own events was that an invitation did not matter if the trespassers brought more life with them to the affair.
Absolutely no one who wasn’t a lady was seated any longer. The gentlemen had started to discover the pleasures of stealing away to the garden to be alone with the cool fresh air, clinging gratefully to their drink and smoke. Even some of the younger ladies were now finding themselves kicked out of their seats for the older women, who seemed to pour in endlessly from the night.
In the great hall, the stage had been set, and most guests had found their way here to watch the performance to be given by musicians and choir members who had been imported at great cost from the Conservatoire de Paris. All the greats had come from this school and others like it in Italy, Germany, and England. The significant composers and musicians, the famous choirs and opera singers, as well as the legendary castrati of her mother’s youth, with their otherworldly soprano voices that brought even the highest born to their knees—all came from the conservatories. And tonight, the brightest future stars were preparing to perform no less than five pieces of original work.
It was a different manner in which people prepared themselves to listen to these private concerts, for the guests understood that they were not at the opera. They did not have the opportunity to disapprove of anything they heard. The music performed in the Castell de Amontoní was by the decree and love of the Marquesa. To scoff at any performance under her roof was to outwardly insult her, so even the worst disaster imaginable would have to be met with at least a respectfully responsive applause.
Luckily this was not to be the case, for the conservatory made a point to prepare for this evening as they would prepare for the greatest of openings. Indeed, it was an opening, essentially; an opening for the society who would make or break any aspiring career. And though they might not hiss them off the stage, the players understood that tonight would be one of the more important performances of their career. If the people liked what they heard, a performer’s future could be secured; at least in Barcelona, if not the world outside.
The crowd who would hear the performance was now almost completely assembled. And with a nod to her footmen, the Marquesa accompanied Veronica into the huge room.
Veronica fancied that she could somehow block out the reactions around her, but this was untrue. The smiles and glances of approval coming from all around were sincere and penetrated even the most coma-stricken parts of her mind. She could not help but smile honestly at all of them, delighting in the raucous ovation that erupted as Marcelina walked gracefully into the sea of faces, head held boldly in her larger-than-life manner, sending a wave of appreciation throughout the crowd.
It was better than Veronica had dreamed it could be; how often does that happen in one’s life? she wondered.
From all around her came the voices of women praising the Marquesa and bowing to her lovely niece, all at which Marcelina merely smiled with elegant composure and reasonable acknowledgement. Her role was played perfectly, the girl thought, and everything was working out as they had planned.
The two of them took their seats at the front of the room, and within moments, the Marquesa nodded to the maestro that he might begin the performance.
All around her, Marcelina was met with looks of happiness and envy and, perhaps, resentment. Veronica knew what they thought of her and marveled at how she could shape their impressions of her so effortlessly. To them, the Marquesa seemed flawless, in spite of her unconventionality, and the girl understood it all too well now.
Seated beside the woman, Veronica had become a celebrity in her own right, a benefactress of the ridiculous and luxurious adoration her aunt inspired. It was enough reason to stand for it all, at least for a few hours.
Throughout the night, long after the concert had finished, the sounds of the violins carried on in Veronica’s mind as she was introduced to young gentlemen, all of whom possessed bodies that still moved slightly to the melodies.
It was a different universe, this place she was in, and it seemed she had become a different woman. She felt sensations that would have been incomprehensible only a few days before. A certain arrogance infected her, smothering any chance left of pretending that no change in her had taken effect, that she wasn’t the reason the young men stared so faithfully from behind their father’s shoulders. Veronica felt the satisfaction of knowing that it was she who had caused the air to stir, that there would be nothing to keep her from happiness now.
It was vulgar arrogance, to be certain, but what of it?
As the party progressed into its fourth segment, a time when socialization took on the form of chatter devoid of introductions, Marcelina left Veronica’s side for a moment to speak privately with the parents of the young Dídac Adriá de Ferrero y Martell, a young man of eighteen and of good height with rich blond hair and sharp green eyes that dared the whole world to ignore them. Those eyes—very French, some might say—seemed almost artificial in the way they caught the light and remained wide under his boyish brow. He had lips that were full, but not awkwardly so. They were, however, very chapped, and Veronica could not help but notice him lick at them in agony more than once.
The Marquesa noticed her niece’s fascination.
Alone then, caught in an ocean of faces where only the boy’s eyes cut through, he had distinguished himself among the overgrown garden of smiles with his slight scowl. He seemed to have carved a path for her through this fog unknowingly, guiding her to him with his eyes. Veronica did not know if it was right that she should speak to him there in the main hall among others or wait until her aunt and his parents could make arrangements to speak in a more private manner. The question didn’t linger long on her thoughts before she proceeded to approach him, never really having decided to do it, but simply speaking unconsciously, startling him.
“Did you enjoy the music this evening, señor?” she asked, feeling the urge to smirk at her own assertiveness. “I did not see you at the opera or in the hall.”
“Oh, no... I did... I mean, I was in the hall,” he said.
“And you enjoyed it?” she asked again, allowing another awkward beat to pass.
“Oh, yes, I did, most certainly,” he breathed all at once, stopping himself to repose. “I don’t attend the opera unless my parents insist... I don’t have an ear for it, yet... I thought the singing was very beautiful.”
He was absolutely silent after this, giving leave to several more moments of awkward hesitation.
Veronica realized he might pass out if she forced him to speak again. And if he weren’t so damned beautiful, she might be inclined to wait for this conversation to go somewhere on its own. But who knew how old she might be before that day ever arrived? she mused.
“You don’t care for music, then? You don’t enjoy the operas? How do you spend your time? Do you play sports… read?” This was all absurd really, unleashing this heavy stream of questions. However did she arrive in such a predicament? Walking up to a young man she did not know, striking up a conversation from nowhere; her mother would die to see her now, she thought. And what he must think of her!
“I’ve read a great deal in my father’s library,” he was quick to respond after a measured silence. “I do like the operas... I prefer to read the librettos, the old stories they’re borrowed from. I find more enjoyment in them. I like the operas... I just don’t like going to the operas... with everyone there...”
Dídac smiled painfully at the girl. He was at a loss to explain himself further and knew himself to be the perfect fool in that moment. He exhaled at his own ridiculous manner of speaking and smiled again, immediately retracting from the sharp pain of his parched lips that were almost bleeding.
“Your lips,” she said, reaching forward to touch them, startling him again with the unconventionality of her directness.
“Yes, they are terrible,” he said, reaching up to them, barely touching her hand. “I don’t know why this always happens to me in the summer. I almost never experience it when it becomes cold. It’s ridiculous, really.”
“I have a soothing cream which might help some.” Veronica immediately turned to her servant girl, who was never far behind, whispering for her to run and retrieve the black jar of cream from her vanity.
When she’d gone, and left the two, Veronica told Dídac that she understood his fascination with literature. “I’ve spent my whole life, it seems, with my nose in a book. My mother is not a reader, but she has always been fond of the quiet it brought her,” Veronica quipped, smiling.
Dídac winced again from the large smile that appeared without forethought. “I’m certain I’ve heard my parents complain of just the opposite in me.”
Within moments, the young girl retuned to Veronica and presented her with the ointment.
“Here,” Veronica said, “let me.” The girl reached her finger to his face and slowly applied the cream to his rough lips, gently rubbing the ointment back and forth, feeling the hairs on her arm rise at the sweet sensation of his exhaled breath on to the back of her hand.
It did not occur to Veronica how improper it was for her to behave this way, and worse, in this crowded room. She did not even think to look around her at the stares now coming from the ladies all around the pair. The thought of delicate convention seemed lost on the girl, and she was unconcerned with how she was supposed to behave.
The young man had stopped himself from withdrawing from her unexpected touch, and when she was done, he smiled, feeling his lips soft and wet from the cream.
“Thank you,” he beamed at the sensation.
“You’re very welcome,” she replied simply, returning the small crystal jar to her maid.
From the other side of the room, the gaze of her aunt and his parents immediately caught her off guard, and she lowered her eyes out of habit.
Marcelina had watched the whole thing and marveled at how Veronica had naturally done something so simple, something no other girl in the room, indeed the whole city, would have had the courage or intelligence to do. It was something so seemingly sweet that his mother, Doña de Ferrero, remarked upon it at once in Marcelina’s ear, the woman’s words spoken without the slightest sarcasm. The woman found this girl’s actions to be perfectly charming.
Veronica thought that the remainder of the evening was trivial and unexpectedly long. None of the older gentlemen to whom she was introduced seemed to have the vaguest idea of what had happened to her earlier with Dídac. They were all awkward gestures and boring conversations about things as far away from her life as possible. Afterward, she would remember these older men and cringe for them, feeling a vile sense of shame for them that they would try so hard to impress beyond their abilities.
Aside from the violins, Veronica could only remember the sensation of Dídac’s breath upon her hand. She thought he might remember the feel of her fingers pressed to his lips, and it was this thought that sent her joy into an inescapably sweet agitation.
Before Veronica went to sleep that night, Marcelina came to her with word that the Ferreros had invited them both to their home for dinner two days from now.