The moonlight over Barcelona was now at its strongest, and the Marquesa stood staring through the glass doors at its reflection on the finely cut and polished stonework that made up the walls of her balcony. She had not realized she had stopped speaking as her story had played out in her mind, or that Veronica was now so aggressively fixed upon her memories.
“What happened?” she asked her aunt again.
The woman turned back and smiled at her niece’s funny little face, so full of anticipation, the wide-eyed insistence over something she now found to be so distant. It was ridiculous, really, that she remembered so much of it.
“It was a very simple decision that my father made, and the only real thing he could do, though the idea had never crossed my mind the entire time. My father was no murderer, and though I believed this at the time, I truly did not come to understand this truth until after he was forced to deal with Antonio.
“Very quietly, and with an abundance of skill in his timing, my father sent Antonio off to Paris as the nephew of a distant but wealthy Spanish aristocrat. He became a boy of status delivered into the City of Light by his only living relative and sole benefactor. He was sent there in a private carriage, no less, to an apartment located in a respectable building near the Latin quarter, purchased outright for him, where he would stay indefinitely as he continued his education. Antonio was enrolled at the Sorbonne and went on to pursue the field of his choice, all of this under the agreement that he could never return to Spain again. I promised Papá that I would never pursue him, even if just to know anything about his life after me. He would only communicate with his mother privately by letter through my father, a courtesy that she kept secret to her grave. As far as his father, our family, and his associates would ever know, Antonio had been privately executed by men who were, of course, paid handsomely for their cooperation in the charade. My father constructed the whole enterprise in one day and saw to its accomplishment without arousing the suspicions of anyone, aside from his secretary, whose name he used as Antonio’s pseudonym in the affair.
“There is a great deal about the memory of my father which I cherish, but nothing so much as what he did for Antonio, for all of us during that time. He proved to me that a man could be greater than his society would allow, and he taught me the worth of standing for one’s principles even if it must become the strictest of secrets. As for me, he made it understood to all that, after examination by a doctor, my virtue had not been stolen by the boy, but only attempted. There was, of course, a tremendous scandal in Madrid over the sordidness of this entire affair. But a year later, when my father had found a Barcelonan suitor to accept a seventeen-year-old virgin from a wealthy Madrilenian house, who could give him sons, what threads of scandal remained unraveled forever. Don Augustí simply presumed I was a virgin on our wedding night, and, I presume he wouldn’t have truly known if I weren’t.
“But you see how you have let me ramble on about my father when his tale is not the one that I intended to tell you tonight? The real story behind all of this was my first experiences with Antonio. Forgive me for traveling so far in my narrative only to come to a simple story that needed only a few sentences to be told properly.
“What was important to me was that I gave myself to Antonio because I loved him and I wanted him to be happy at any price. At the time, I thought that giving my body to him was the ultimate expression of this love. I surrendered to this conviction completely. In time, I would come to understand that there was a great deal more I could have done for him, had I taken a moment to truly think out his situation. I came to learn that sex, for all its taboo and acclaim, particularly its heralding by men, is not as important a gift as it is a possession. One could choose to use it as a momentary prize or as part of a dowry, and by this manner, one could take advantage of the tremendous value of sex to use it as a tool or a weapon. I have found that any one of several uses can prove to be invaluable under both the most common or unusual of circumstances. Understand, what makes sex such a powerful commodity for women is that only women can use it in any of these ways.
“Men do not have such abilities, you shall find. For men, sex is only something to be sought after and enjoyed. The idea that he might ever use sex to control a woman, other than to produce a child, is inconceivable to a man. He is not capable of detaching the obsession of his own physical desire long enough to construct the slightest plan of ulterior gain, nor can he alter the simple fact that a woman must choose to feel the pleasures of sex, while a man has no choice but to feel pleasure. And it is because of this that women alone wield the power of using sex and all of its temptation and irresistible allure. We can use it to seek from men whatever is theirs to give.”
The girl spoke now, not meaning to. “But a man could force you, couldn’t he?”
Marcelina’s eyes darkened. “That is rape, my dear. That is not sex, but violence, rather. The two have nothing to do with each other, despite the method in which it is carried out. And there is only one answer to that type of violence: he must be put to death.”
Her answer startled the girl in its simple precision. The two sat in silence as the Marquesa’s words echoed in Veronica’s mind, and it was several moments before the woman’s eyes lightened and she continued on down the path of her instruction.
“Yes, the men of this world will always decree that this inconceivable use of sex is something despicable and unforgivable. A sin, you will hear them call it. But you must always remember it’s this very ability that is God’s greatest gift to women. You must never shy away from using this gift or any other of the faculties He has instilled in you. If anything, it is the waste and disrespect of His gifts that are of the greatest offenses to Him.”
Veronica heard everything said to her, every syllable, and she was well aware that so little of it had had the slightest meaning in her life before today. What thrilled her about all of this was that her aunt made it sound like the greatest of all secrets, something that would be an invaluable defense in this new world she was still learning about. And though Veronica felt at times that the woman’s verbiage and purpose was a bit too calculated, she was certain that what was being learned could never have been shared by any other.
The next morning, Veronica rose early again to her surprise, considering the great many ordeals that had unfolded the previous night. But these odd events in her life seemed to have little bearing on her thoughts this morning, for she moved about her room in a most energetic fashion. She was also surprised that she did not feel embarrassed by the thought of seeing the Father again this morning. She was far more interested, rather, to see how the event had left him. She felt nothing of the slight pain that she had caused herself last night, and hurried about the room, summoning her dressing maid so that she might find herself out and about the house more quickly.
Veronica wanted more than anything to have the opportunity to sit and observe the world with the new knowledge she possessed, to see what differences, if any, would present themselves to her. The thrill of it, the anticipation of seeing the adults around her now, was almost too much for her, and Veronica concentrated to avoid devouring the crepes and sausages she chose in the dining room too quickly. When she walked into the room, the staff had just begun to lay out the table for the morning meal, apologizing for their lateness.
As if summoned by her very desire, Don de Flores and his wife appeared together for breakfast shortly after the girl had begun on her plate. They entered the room in slow stride and Doña de Flores’ smile shone on Veronica with a delightful morning salutation on her lips.
“We were delighted to hear that you rise so very early, my dear,” Doña de Flores smiled. “It is not a familiar sight under this roof. In town, we are usually up shortly after the sun, but here it seems that our hostess does not care for anyone to rise before the day is nearly half over, to say nothing of how her staff feel about the matter,” the woman remarked, smirking at the footmen who hurried to finish setting the breakfast. “I find myself having to dress my maid at times,” she added, narrowing her eyes in jest.
The two of them laughed congenially and Veronica was so happy they had both come down, feeling more comfortable around the couple.
“I recall being a bit taken by it at first, that the house couldn’t pull themselves out of bed before ten o’clock. I quickly decided to submit to the nocturnal lifestyle here,” the woman continued. “It is a rather easy habit to give in to, I must say. Still, it is nice to greet the morning with such a fresh face. And such a beautiful morning! This time of year seems to be dreadful anywhere else but the coast.”
Veronica felt much more at ease to hear the woman speaking so intimately with her, instead of over her, as was usually the case with most adults. Still, she felt a slight concern that the woman could seem so naturally content to sit at this man’s side, knowing of his infidelities. Veronica caught herself attempting to explain away all thoughts of scandal, realizing that she was unconsciously trying to deny the truth shared by her aunt. Indeed, the infidelity was no secret to Doña de Flores; she did know. She had orchestrated it, in fact. The new clarity still did nothing to prevent the fatigue from the stress that Veronica felt over the matter. In time, the girl resigned to simply be relieved, and focus on this welcome peace at the breakfast table.
His peace was still with her.
The Marquesa did not find her way to the dining room that morning, opting to take her meal in her room. And after the trio had welcomed Angelica and became a quartet, Veronica learned with some disappointment that Father Mateu had left for town that morning before the staff had even risen.
The week passed effortlessly, and Veronica found that Marcelina’s words brought peace with every breath. Hours passed unnoticed at the woman’s side and the world changed for Veronica. The knowledge of her blindness to the simple matters of life around her became all at once thrilling and provocative. The disturbance of only a few days ago had grown more than tolerable, and after four days of revelation, Veronica was so enrapt with the world her aunt had unwrapped for her that she could barely pull her thoughts away long enough to find her old anticipation for the ball. Indeed, it seemed like a passion she had clung to a million years ago.
Her aunt had seen to it that she would be the finest-dressed young lady of the evening. If anything about her presentation were not perfect, it would hardly be for lack of trying. Should Veronica feel the slightest hesitation for this new world, she needed only to distract herself with every beautiful object in sight. The numerous textures of this place acted as a shield, protecting her from self-doubt. The Marquesa’s was a world constructed so carefully, she thought, that any notion of having once lived in another culture became further obliterated by each door or window that opened for her.
And now at the week’s end, it seemed her former life, with all of its tedious conditions, was but the essence of a dim and hazy flash of memory, long since cast off.