The hundred little reminders that had crossed the Marquesa’s lips over the past forty-eight hours produced not the slightest worry in Veronica. They were quite unable to make their way into her heart. Still, the girl made a genuine note of each one. Her reminders were of behavior methods so finely tuned that her aunt might very well have been a mistress in a finishing school. The Marquesa’s fervor became a living memento of Veronica’s former convent life, though she laughed at the idea of her aunt in a nun’s habit. But all of it was unnecessary because Veronica had changed beyond repair. The awkward little child was simply no more and left in her wake was a young woman who had not the patience for apprehensive thoughts of accidents or failure.
Still, riding in the Marquesa’s carriage to the Ferrero estate, it was beyond the woman’s control not to go on and on about every conceivable position the girl might find herself in, once within her hostess’s doors.
“And be sure that you ask his mother about her gardens. She is ferociously jealous of our estate, despite how much grander her garden is. Be sure to remark more than once how it is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen. That’s important.”
Veronica stifled the inclination to roll her eyes on this fourth occasion when she must be reminded about the woman’s rose bushes.
“And don’t forget the woman will be scrutinizing you from the moment you arrive. I’ve no doubt she has gone out of her way to find out everything about you that she can. And though she’s had only the last two days, you can be sure she knows everything about your background. God only knows what she’s heard! God knows what the servant’s gossip has been, what they might believe of you! We must make every effort to receive each misinformed query without a hint of disturbance. She will be like a lion, this woman, and you must be sure that she does not find a single reason to strike too hard.”
Veronica mentally felt a blow when she imagined Doña de Ferrero striking her with questions. She shuddered slightly. Yes, indeed, she did feel as if the woman’s questions would be striking and began to envisage the features of her face infused with a feline structure.
“Oh, but listen to me, I am too excited for you.” Marcelina stopped herself. “And you don’t let any of this worry you! I don’t even know who you are anymore,” Marcelina said, smiling at the girl’s focused calm.
“Everything is fine, Tia. Everything will go well. None of this matters, really. There is no way that tonight will not go well. If they don’t like me, then the next house will. Just sit back and breathe,” she replied confidently.
Marcelina looked at her with false devastation. “You think this will all be so easy?” she said coyly. “Perhaps I have praised you too highly? This will be one of the great performances of my life. No, do not misunderstand me: any mother would be out of her right mind not to adore you. But let’s face the truth, you are not Barcelonan, you are not Catalonian, and your western accent is unavoidable when you attempt to speak Catalan. You can rest assured that this woman will mention it more than once, regardless of the efforts I will make to drive around that fact.
“Underlying all of this,” she continued, “I suspect what is most important to her is not finding the most perfectly suited girl for her son, but rather jumping on the opportunity to merge with my family. It would be a major coup, I should think, to find a way to be joined not just in friendship but in blood to this house. I’ve little doubt that everything in question is relying on my husband’s name.
“But this should be of no importance to you, my dear. The woman will like you no matter what you do or how you behave. And I don’t want to mislead you with all of this foolish talk. The only thing important tonight is that you make certain you approve of this boy.” The Marquesa let her shoulders relax and fell back slightly into the carriage seat with a heavy sigh. “In addition to this damned woman’s gardens!”
Veronica laughed riotously, affecting a joy that the Marquesa was genuinely happy to sit beside.
“But do tell me again,” asked the woman, “do you really think this boy has feelings for you?”
“I don’t know why you ask me that, Tia! I’m certain of no such thing. I spoke to him for not ten minutes. He may see me again and not give me a second thought. All I am certain of is that the other gentlemen I was introduced to were not even slightly interested in me, or rather I should say that their interest was in themselves and how much I appreciated them. Dídac was genuinely unhappy when you arrived with the next man, when you forced him to say good night. I could see it in his eyes.”
There was a light about the girl as she spoke of this, Marcelina thought, which was all too brilliant to be ignored. And her heart rested assured that her myriad of fears for the girl were useless or unnecessary. The child was already infatuated with Dídac, and it seemed so clear to the woman now that she exhaled in anguish for doting on all this so savagely.
Riding through the estate grounds, Veronica realized she would not have to worry about paying manufactured compliments to the Ferreros over their gardens, for they truly took her breath away. Multitudes of only the finest flowers in supernatural bloom surrounded her from the moment she stepped out of the carriage. It was all magnificent, these gardens with their stone arches and marble statues, a meeting of Roman gods and Catholic saints in a landscape truly worthy of them. All of the colors and fragrances immediately became intoxicating. Veronica couldn’t help but think she had fallen into some painted masterpiece from which she should never want to leave.
Doña de Ferrero came alone from the house to greet them both. The petite beauty was dressed in brilliant turquoise satin with only moderate jewelry, but the effect was one of unassuming elegance. This woman had seen to it her armor would be as disarming as it was impenetrable.
The first words came from Marcelina who held out her arms in greeting, in the same dramatic fashion as her adversary.
“My dear, we’re so glad you invited us. Each time I’m here, the beauty takes my breath away. Don’t you think so, Veronica?”
“Oh, you flatter me too much,” Doña de Ferrero insisted gracefully and looked intently toward the girl who was still transfixed by the view of the terraced levels of color that swept up around them to the entryway of the house.
With an almost solemn serenity, Veronica turned to her hostess and said, “No, but you’re mistaken, Doña de Ferrero. It’s more breathtaking than could ever be described.”
The girl’s words came with an unmistakable air of sincerity, as the sparkle in one’s eyes that could not possibly be believed to signify a lie. It was this purity of evocation that peeled the first layer of Doña de Ferrero’s armor off. In fact, it might have been said that after the lovely woman’s immediate embrace of the girl, all of her armor had immediately been rendered unnecessary.
Marcelina observed all of this carefully.
“Won’t you please call me Francesca, my dear?” the woman said, bringing the girl’s arm into her own as she turned to guide the three of them into the house. “I am so glad that you could be with us tonight. My son has done nothing but speak of your kindness to him at the Marquesa’s ball the other night. We have both been so eager to have you come here.”
“You’re much too kind,” Veronica responded with an honest blush.
“You will sit by me this evening so that we may talk, hmm? There is so much that I want to know about you, dear.”
Francesca’s words were honest, Marcelina thought, and she wondered if she might have misjudged just how easily this night might progress. She observed the two of them walking arm in arm together before her into the house thinking that, surely, it won’t be so painless as this.
“Dears, you must come with me to my salon for an hour or so before the men arrive from their errands in the city.”
“Oh, your husband and sons are not at home?” the Marquesa asked with a gay tone, hoping not to be misinterpreted.
“No, I told them they really must allow me some time with this beautiful young girl alone, to get to know her, of course, before they have their chance to take up all her attentions.”
“And just how is your husband feeling, Francesca? He mentioned he might be coming down with a cold at the party the other night.”
“Yes, he was not feeling at all well when we left for the opera that night, but the party managed to lift his spirits, and the next morning it seemed that all he really needed was some rest.
“But you must tell me now, dear, what did you think of the ball?” Francesca whispered to Veronica. “Everyone I spoke to thought it such a fine event. The Gorgos and the Tallos both confessed to me that the only place where they ever seem to enjoy the new concertos is at your parties. You know, they never go to the opera anymore, unless decorum calls for it,” she whispered secretively, just loud enough for her aunt to hear as well. “They seemed so genuinely thrilled to be invited again this year.”
“Yes, well, both families were very good to my late husband and I before he died. I will always keep them close to me. Perhaps closer than they might imagine.”
“Oh, but how wonderful, dear,” said Francesca, turning to let the Marquesa see her eyes.
It was a response that seemed genuine yet was received as quite unexpected by Marcelina. That this woman was behaving so intimately with her, so concerned by her tone, and that all of it was so truly honest by her measure, confused Marcelina more than it put her to ease.
“Do tell me, my darling,” Francesca went on with the girl, “what did you think of your aunt’s ball? I understand it was the first one you have ever been allowed to attend. And how wonderful for you! Your first ball! Tell me, child, what were your impressions?”
Veronica easily gave herself to this woman, and all the warmth that Doña de Ferrero exuded. It was an unexpected comfort, placing her at such ease that she lent herself to answer as freely and honestly as possible.
“I was so terribly frightened at the opera. The thought of coming home from the performance and being allowed to attend was a bit overwhelming, at first. But when I saw all of the beautiful ladies smiling at me as Tia brought me downstairs... I forgot my fears. I had such an incredible time. Though I had been looking forward to it for ages, during the days leading up to it, I was certain that I’d be too nervous to enjoy it. But then I heard the beautiful violins. They sounded so different in the house than they do at the opera, and the sound of them put me at ease for the duration of the night.”
She was sure she was overspeaking, but the woman’s face was filled with such attentive warmth that she couldn’t help but continue.
“And Dídac was remarkably sweet to speak with me so unselfishly with all the other girls there...”
Veronica blushed again. She did not mean to; it was the thought of him again, his eyes, his breath on her hand, and that these thoughts should come to her while in his mother’s trusting confidence, that was too much for her all of a sudden.
Her genuine emotions intertwined with her answer, visibly moving the Doña so that even Marcelina thought she had been a fool to ever think this girl would have needed help. She had already won this woman over and they were not even yet seated. Her words were so plain and ordinary, yet spoken with such a gentle girlish quality, that the sound of them brought about an almost maternal response from both the women.
“Oh, but that is wonderful then, my sweet!” Francesca beamed. “Dídac has never felt comfortable at parties and he was so delighted that you approached him before decorum insisted that he speak with you. He is very, very shy,” she said, placing her warm hand on the girl’s, “and in spite of all his father and I have taught him, he never speaks to anyone at parties without first being spoken to. He is really quite gentle and intelligent, but not so gifted at making public conversation with young ladies,” she said, winking.
“He told me he likes to read?” Veronica asked.
“Yes!” the woman laughed. “He is always reading something. Wherever we go, he is always buying books. My husband has a library in his office where he carries out most of his business. But he rarely reads anything there but the daily papers. I’m afraid he hasn’t the taste for classical literature. There are thousands of them in there, those books. Endless volumes, and most of them untouched until Dídac turned thirteen. And now the boy reads with such a passion that the vast shelves are almost ready for a necessary addition. He has begged his father to surrender the room to him completely. They fight about it all the time. Joaquim hasn’t the slightest intention of budging, though. But I tell you, unpersuadable as he is with his office, that boy will have that room to himself soon, so help him. My husband is fighting a losing battle.”
Veronica and the two ladies giggled together amiably, enjoying the story and each other. Marcelina kept waiting for a trap that never seemed to arrive.
“And the books he reads! I only wish my Joaquim—that’s Don de Ferrero’s given name—were as intelligent as Dídac is with the languages. He reads works from all over the continent, even the Americas! Can you imagine? English-American texts from New York, of all places. My husband has them shipped here endlessly for him just to keep the boy from complaining that he has ‘nothing to read.’ Oh, but he reads too fast, if you ask me. Like that,” she said, snapping her fingers, “and he is on to the next book.
“Oh, but listen to me ramble on. The Marquesa tells me that your family live in Madrid? Yes, I can hear it in your voice. We know quite a few families there that my husband does business with. Do you miss being away from home for so long? Marcelina says that you spend the entire summer with her here every year now.” It was a barrage of questions.
The woman speaks fluent Veronica, the Marquesa mused to herself.
“Oh no, I love it here in Barcelona. I wait the whole year until the summer just to come and be with Tia.”
“But you don’t like it in Madrid?” Francesca asked, with a slight hesitation.
“I do, it is where my family is... it is where I live. But Barcelona has always been like home for me. It’s where I am most happy.”
“But don’t worry, child, that is good, this is where you should settle and be married. And her parents approve of settling here to marry, do they not?” she shot at the Marquesa.
“Her dear father passed away a few years ago,” said the Marquesa, evoking a genuinely pained look from Doña Ferrero, who sucked on her teeth unconsciously. “But her mother embraces the idea that she should be happy and well cared for wherever she is,” Marcelina answered carefully. “It was her mother’s wish that she be brought into society here, and we both intend to support the girl in her new life, and one day as a wife.”
“Oh, but your mother is wise to do so, dear. A beautiful young lady from such a fine family as yours; you would be wise to marry here on the coast. There are so many good families who would be pleased, indeed, honored to join with your house. I certainly could not be more pleased to have you as my daughter.”
Marcelina thought then that she had completely misjudged this woman, something that had never occurred. Indeed, the Ferrero did mean business for Veronica and her son, but she was far more convinced of Veronica’s pricelessness in the scheme of this play. The intrepid woman had not even attempted the slightest remark about the girl’s western origins. Doña Ferrero might as well have asked for Veronica’s hand herself, she had mentioned marriage so many times.
Marcelina could feel nothing but awe. If she had known the woman would be so easily charmed by the girl, she would’ve sent her on in the carriage and enjoyed dinner at home. She wanted to laugh aloud.
But she knew they had only been here for a short while and was still suspicious of the woman. Undoubtedly, coercions would come from the father when he showed his face. Marcelina’s defenses would not be withdrawn over a warm reception and girlish laughter.
“Tell me, what do you do for leisure, child?” Francesca continued.
“Well, I love music so very much. I am afraid I don’t read nearly as much as I should on my own. The convent sisters always provide me so much instruction about manners to learn. I always feel I’m trying to catch up. But I do very much like to write during my free time. I keep a journal, a diary of sorts, that I’m constantly sending to my friends at home. Really, my entries qualify as short stories. You see, I never see my classmates when I am away during the summers, and it takes so long just to hear back from them that I simply write stories for myself and send them copies without the expectation of a reply. They find it strange, but they always beg me for more. So, I’m always writing.”
“Oh, but this is wonderful,” said Francesca, “that you take the time to do this for your friends. It’s so rare to find a young girl who is apt to accomplish more constructive activities than sit around at tea and gossip like us old ladies,” she mused, winking at the Marquesa.
“I have always thought it refreshing that a young lady would continue her education throughout her life. I have never had any daughters of my own, and it has always pained me. My husband and I do not share similar views on this matter. I can only imagine the endless battles we would have had over a daughter’s education. But I find it unforgivable when a young woman presumes to stop her education and revert to becoming the perfect idiot once she is married. I have always made a point to keep up on the latest goings-on in the world. I read my husband’s newspapers more than he does!” she exclaimed, failing to suppress her laughter completely, eliciting a spirited burst from the Marquesa, who was certain that she’d been having lunch with an imposter for the past ten years.
Indeed, the Marquesa’s curiosity could not be contained. If she had known the woman was this intelligent, she would have made a point to become a closer friend.
“Well, this afternoon is ending as well as I could have ever hoped for,” Francesca said gaily. “The men should be back soon. Why don’t we take a short walk in the garden before dinner?”
“Oh yes, I would like that very much,” the girl acquiesced, lightning up. “I have been told so many wonderful things about your gardens and there is so much I would like to know about them,” Veronica said eagerly.
“You care for such things then, dear?” the woman asked, engagingly suspicious.
“In Madrid, the weather is so severe in the summer that my mother never really seems to be able to accomplish much, it’s one of the many reasons I love the coast as I do.”
They proceeded outside and were greeted by an exceedingly large expanse, stretching out forever with levels and pathways etched through colors she’d never before imagined.
“Oh, but it’s so magnificent,” said Veronica quietly. “I wished Mamá would let me soil my hands. I would give anything to be able to work in a garden. To think of all that could be done in a season.”
Francesca smiled lazily now with the greatest look of satisfaction Marcelina had ever seen on the face of a woman. She watched the Doña place her arm around the girl’s waist and whisper in her ear.
“I will tell you a secret, if you let me, my dear,” said Francesca.
“Oh, please do,” Veronica answered, effortlessly mimicking the intimacy.
“I do more here than instruct our team about what I prefer. A few moments down that path there is a little patch that no one but myself has access to. Even Dídac does not know this. In it, I do all the work myself. It is my little place away from the world and it grows more beautifully than any section of the whole. It is wonderful to, how do you say, soil one’s hands?”
Marcelina did not hear the woman say this to Veronica, but the look of absolute joy in the girl’s eyes upon hearing her words could be seen for miles.
“Perhaps, one day you will come with me there and I will show it to you, yes?”
With those final words between them, Veronica knew that nothing she did this evening would be of any dire consequence. She would love this woman regardless, even if she were never to be her daughter.
But before the ladies had the opportunity to stroll anywhere together, Dídac and his father stepped out onto the grounds to greet them.
“Marquesa de Amontoní, how good it is to see you again. I hope you did not have to wait too long,” Don de Ferrero said, taking her hand and kissing it gently.