“Not at all, we’ve all been having a delightful time here with your gracious wife. And how good it is too see you! You are feeling better today, I trust?”
“Yes, yes, thank you, I feel much better. I can’t apologize enough for showing up at your house in such foul health the other night. Ah, and how good it is to see you again, señorita,” he said, taking Veronica’s hand to his lips.
The girl simply smiled in kind. It was all she could do without risking an error in speech.
“Ah, you have done me a great honor, my dear, convincing my young man here to appreciate music in just one night. I have labored for almost decades to hear him utter such words.”
Dídac blushed at his father’s playful cruelty, though he would not let the smile fall from his face.
“Ah, but you will have another opportunity to better my boy after dinner? The butler has informed me that dinner will be served in five minutes.”
It proved to be more than ten minutes that Dídac was allowed to spend with her before the old man called them all for dinner. They journeyed to the dining room, a vast chamber devoid of the usual Catalonian flavor, but structured more like a Venetian palazzo. High, squarely gilded ceilings with huge frescoes of angels in sheer white robes; it mirrored very closely the fantasy of the Marquesa’s music room at the Castell de Amontoní.
Doña de Ferrero took her place near the center of her table and instructed the Marquesa and her husband to the other side, allowing Veronica and her son to sit on either side of her, establishing what was really two separate groups facing each other. This provided her the opportunity to speak with the girl without the ears of her aunt so closely tuned to her words.
Don Joaquim de Ferrero was not to be outdone when it came to charming his guests. He made certain that the Marquesa had not the slightest opportunity to feel unappreciated. He showered her with praise over the splendidness of her ball and made no pretense of disguising his appreciation for her niece and how fond of the girl his son had already become.
Dídac remained silent throughout most of the conversation between his father and the Marquesa. He managed the courteous motions to pretend he was not staring at her from across the table, and he tried desperately not to glance past his mother to Veronica. The fear of somehow looking over and not being able to pry his eyes off the girl without seeming impolite or improper was far too great. Both youths contained themselves in a world of careful steps that all forewarned of impending disaster.
“His mother tells us that your son is a great fan of literature, Don de Ferrero?” Marcelina’s question broke the boy’s daydream.
“Ah, yes, there seems to be nothing that can be done to evict him from my office. I had always hoped he would grow out of his obsession with books. I have always thought it unnatural. A young man of his age should be more concerned with the duties of manhood rather than of the pastimes of youth.”
Immediately, Dídac turned to his father in abject horror, which the Marquesa could not help but notice from the corner of her eye.
“Oh, I don’t know that there is anything so terribly manly about giving up books,” she smiled at him, drawing a momentary look of embarrassed but desperate love out of the boy’s consuming anger.
“Don’t misunderstand me, my lady,” his father answered. “I don’t mean to say that literature does not play an important role in a young man’s education. But Dídac does not concentrate on any particular field of study with his obsession. He reads simply for the mere act of reading. He reads literature of all kinds, but never confines the focus of his studies toward any specific direction. On and on he reads fictions, these modern novels, and studies useless matters like science and foreign theology. It is not good for him to be so involved with the religions of other peoples; it is difficult enough to persuade him to escort his mother to Sunday mass!”
Marcelina and the man both laughed at this, she adopting a wider margin to seem pleasant, hoping to put all at ease while this obviously brutal family subject was being thrown about with such gay pretenses.
“Well, I’m sure he has a great deal of time ahead of him to surrender such fancies before he needs settle on any particular field, and I should say it’s marvelous that he’s so open in his studies now. To think of all the opportunities his diverse understandings of the world might bring him in the future.”
Her response brought a strong sense of anguished pride from the boy, and his father did not need to turn his head toward the boy to feel as much from him.
“You misunderstand the allowances I make for my son, my lady, you misunderstand me in the same manner that my son does, I’m afraid. I love my son greatly, and my love for him often persuades me to allow for things I would never permit in a sounder state of mind. And if he did not have three older brothers who have matured so effortlessly to my approval, I would never have allowed him to follow his passions this long. I do not prescribe to this belief that he should forever follow where his studies will take him. By now, I think he should be done with these passions, or at least have put them out of his mind in light of the responsibilities of manhood.”
Joaquim smiled now, installing a less frustrated guise. “But his mother and I spoil him, and so he greedily takes the opportunities we provide for. And, of course, it is only just.”
Dídac was furious with his father, and that he should utter such things aloud in front of the Marquesa was intolerable. He began to perspire from his anger, and it took all his effort to hold his tongue. He had learned long ago that to begin an argument with his father was pointless; many poor souls had learned that in court as well. He would not make a scene before this woman to vent the slightest bit of anger. He would not injure himself for anyone, least of all his father. It was better for everyone that he hold his tongue and pray for the Marquesa to change the subject.
“I think it is the curse of wealth,” his father continued, “he has never had need for anything in his life, so he does not care that he cannot support himself without the grace of his family. Two of his brothers have honored me and followed my example, indeed, pursued very successful careers in the field of law. My third son has honored this house by his own enterprise in the state legislature. None of his brothers suffered from the same insolence as he, they’ve seen to it not to shun their enormous opportunities. The have been men of action, and they are honored for…”
“But is that such a good thing, Joaquim?” Marcelina interrupted his rambling. “How many young men ever find happiness from simply diving into a career at such an age? My husband was not at all happy in his position. He was the perfect dreamer. The very idea that he must leave his family for months at a time made him quite miserable. He would always say how he wished he had waited, held out for his dreams. His family had always had the resources to support him, into his hundredth retirement, I should think. And it’s the same with this young man, yes?”
Don de Ferrero did not respond, he merely let her continue without resistance.
“My late husband’s boys each died at war. Yes, they had followed in the steps of his career, but that was neither their choice nor Augustí’s. War is war, and honor demanded that they face it.”
The Marquesa’s breath caught and she paused, not allowing the memory of her husband’s pain to collect in her eyes.
“But before those terrible days, my husband had spent every moment of their lives attempting to give his sons the very opportunities you reprove yourself for having given Dídac. Augustí wanted more than anything for those young men to have the freedom to follow any path they desired. And if they never found any one field of study to command their attentions or bring forth a profitable return, so be it, he would say. It is a far greater accomplishment that a man be so magnificently educated. Think of his opportunities to be a leader of his people, a great scholar, if nothing else. He knew it might not be considered fashionable nor economically wise in this day and age, and not in our noble position, but if it meant the child’s happiness, then what of it? I know, Joaquim, you will tell me that a boy of his age cannot possibly know what he wants. But so what? You will not convince me he could not live for a hundred years in this luxury you surround us with tonight and ever be required to manage an enterprise to assist in its perseverance. You must understand, this is not a common idiot, your son. He will be a great man, one day, and that is quite plainly of your doing. I should imagine that he is perfectly aware of how pointless your argument is now. Surely, you have more than fulfilled your duty to bring him to manhood. The rest of his journey will be his alone to navigate.”
The air about Don de Ferrero had changed from the charge of his heated stance to one of resigned defeat. He would never contradict the woman, regardless of his position. He smiled at her, and then to Dídac, and spoke with tender affection.
“You flatter me, my lady. I do not have the answers nor stamina for your debate. I know only that I want for my son to be happy, and I could never have felt happiness at his age with such indecision. And maybe it is wrong of me to expect from him the things I do. But in all honesty, my ranting and ravings over the boy amount to little more than that, as you so carefully point out. I think sometimes I argue with him for no other reason than to hear his voice.” The man turned to his son. “To pry your handsome eyes off a page for my own attention, eh?”
The Marquesa laughed gaily with the old man, shooting a beaming glance of love at the boy with a mischievous look, as if she meant him to understand she was his ally.
Dídac gazed at this woman who had somehow tempered his father’s stubborn will with such gratitude. This angelic siren, who had effortlessly procured such a gentle persuasion from the old beast, had made such an impression on the boy that he could not keep his eyes away from her.
He knew that his father was only saying something pleasant so as not to be forced into such a debate with a guest at his dinner table. Joaquim was not at all honest with her, but it certainly didn’t matter. The boy would take any bit of gentility on the subject of his career, no matter if it came in the form of a pleasant lie.
Doña Ferrero looked up from her private conversation with Veronica from the opposite side of the dining table, seeing the Marquesa and her son so visibly satisfied.
“And what is my husband saying now that makes you all so delighted? You are not boring the company again with your gossip are you, Joaquim?”
“No, your husband is making every effort to introduce me to the real Dídac, the man underneath those beautiful blond locks.”
“Ah, yes, my husband takes to endlessly speaking on the boy’s behalf, then scoffs at his silence.”
Marcelina laughed with Francesca at her husband’s expense. In all truth, it was quite the honor for Don de Ferrero to make allowances for this teasing. He did so enjoy having someone to fight with, even if his own self-decorum wouldn’t permit such a thing.
At that moment, the servants brought in the second course of the dinner and the conversation’s heat settled along with their stomachs.
Doña de Ferrero kept Veronica’s attentions exclusively to herself during dinner, never allowing her husband the opportunity to steal the girl’s attention too much. And the Marquesa did her very best to hear Dídac’s voice, despite his father’s best efforts to interrupt throughout the evening.
When dinner had ended, more guests arrived in carriages, friends of the Ferreros whom Marcelina did not know very well, but who Francesca thought she should. And during this time, when all the men and women were talking in their own assembled and strictly guarded groups, Dídac was given the opportunity by his mother’s instruction to move off with Veronica and entertain her.
“Be a gentleman now,” the woman said privately in her son’s ear. Of course, they would never be far out of sight, but merely away from the probing ears of his parents.
The young man walked her out onto a terrace strung with lanterns and sprinkled with table candles, this setting extending out from the doors of the main salon on a stone arch over the rear garden.
The evening sky was a severe shade of violet, and the stars were hardly noticeable by the light of the rising moon; though days since full, its light nevertheless obliterated all but the brightest of constellations.
Dídac tried as hard as he could not to stare at Veronica. He had caught himself pinning her down unforgivably with his eyes far too often, and at the same time she tried desperately not to appear to be ignoring him. The result was that both were more self-conscious and distracted. This was only fitting, they each thought privately.
“Your aunt says you are not going to return to Madrid at the end of summer?”
Veronica did not know how to answer. She had a petulant urge to tell him everything, of what she and her aunt had shared, all that they had talked about in the last two weeks. She wanted to let it all pour out of her.
“Yes, Tia has agreed I should stay with her from now on.”
He nodded gently, “What was it like living in Madrid?”
Again, she didn’t know what to say. Tell him what? That she was miserable, that she couldn’t stand her mother, that her sister hated her, that even the nuns weren’t terribly devastated to have her leave every summer? And why not tell him all this? What good would ever come of knowing this gorgeous creature if she was not honest with him?
But, perhaps, he wondered of her family’s view on the Catalonians and their legendary desire to retain the older language and remain separate from Spain, from Madrid? Was this what his tone implied? It seemed he had no tone. Perhaps he did not realize he had asked any question at all. Her overthinking of every syllable was maddening, even within the absurdity of madness.
“Of course, I have always spent my summers here in Barcelona, but living in Madrid is enjoyable too.”
God, she thought, I am already playing a false role, a part in an inoffensive play!
“My sister and I enjoy each other’s company and we have many friends there.”
What a ridiculous statement! Who would ever say such a thing about one’s home, one’s family? Utterly ridiculous!
“The weather is more extreme there than here. It becomes quite unbearable right before I leave, usually. But it is nice.”
She didn’t know what in hell she was saying anymore. She wanted to know about him, but she didn’t want to manipulate this conversation, as Marcelina would insist of her.
“I do a great deal of writing to my friends when I am away.”
“Do you enjoy writing?” he asked, a sudden sense of arousal awakening his eyes.
“Oh, yes, I spend most of my free time writing stories to my friends. I can never find the stamina to write idle conversation to them, though. I am always relaying my days to them in short story form. Sometimes fairies and ogres find their way into the plot, and the result is that my friends are more inclined to write me back.”
It was true. She didn’t know why she would tell him this, but it was true.
Dídac smiled fiercely at her while she was preoccupied with her anxiety.
“I often write myself,” he said shyly.
“Oh, your mother said you spend all of your time reading books,” she returned a bit too quickly.
He nodded his head, embarrassed. And what else did she know about him? What else had his mother done to make this more difficult?
“Yes, I do a lot of reading, but lately I’ve been inclined to do a great deal of writing on my own. I have a passion for fictional writing. I have spent the last few years writing stories. I keep them to myself, though. My father would not approve, if he knew.”
“But, why is that?” she asked.
“He does not approve of most writers, and he certainly has no patience with writers of fancy. He views their accomplishments as a waste of time.”
“Oh, but that isn’t true. There are so many writers who are famous and well-respected who deal in fiction.”
It overwhelmed him that she should say this, that she should know it. A girl this young, that she should understand something which so disappointingly eluded his father!
“I have pointed that out to him, but it has not changed his mind on the matter.” Dídac’s expression turned dark for a moment, seeming to require all his will to command his composure. But his composure now lacked the disfiguring self-consciousness under which he had been drowned in before. Instead, the young man looked to her with unbridled affection.
“And what does your mother think of your writings?” the girl asked, unsure that she should travel further into this.
“She’s taken no notice of them. They have always been something private, and she has never attempted to know them any better than he does. I can’t think they would matter to her if she did.”
“What do you write about?” she implored him, hoping he would allow her to continue.
There was something fascinating about all this to the girl. She felt as if she might stop caring for his suffering so long as he shared all of this insignificance with her. A certain selfishness was now at command.
He stole a glance at her before gazing out to the garden, thinking of a response. No one had ever asked him to think about his writings in this manner. What does he write about? Indeed, what does he write about? How should he find a sentence to describe four years of scratching out nonsense on paper? What could ever be the right words?
“I write about the world and the people in it. I write what I feel they care about. I write about what people experience outside of this house. I write the little stories I hear the servants remark on. I write about God. I write about what He means to them.”
He was unsatisfied with his words. Yet, what else should he mean to say? That was all of it, was it not?
“Do you ever let anyone read them?”
“Oh, God, no! They’re horrible.” He paused his outburst and continued shortly after he had embarrassed himself enough. “I wouldn’t let anyone read them.”
“But how do you know they’re horrible if you never let anyone read them?”
“I just know they are. I don’t need anyone’s opinion to realize how they read. I couldn’t imagine ever letting them go.”
He tried to smile the whole time he said this, for he knew just how ridiculous it was of him to bring it up, to allow her to draw more of it from him, to put himself in this position and then refuse her the opportunity to investigate.
“If I wrote to you, would you consider writing me back?” she asked.
Dear God, what was she thinking of? What did she mean by this? What did she want for him to write her for? He could not even think on it as he uttered his clumsy, “Yes, I would.” It seemed his mouth had moved independently of his thoughts as he uttered the assent.
“Oh, that would be wonderful!” she hailed. “I would love to read something from you. But you must remember that I don’t really write letters of correspondence like most, I write what I wish to say in a fictional story form.”
“But that would be delightful,” he said, his eyes shining in the dim light, “I will do the same thing and we will write stories to each other.”
He was excited now, the color of his face changed to animate it, making him all the more beautiful, she thought.
“May I ask that you write to me first?” she asked seriously.
He was stunned, not entirely satisfied that he had the right to be. He couldn’t help but feel she had pulled the rug out from under him, changing the tables on him. He wasn’t prepared to handle this sudden flux of apprehension. He had no intention of writing her first, indeed! But he knew his expectation would be viewed as dishonorable should anyone take notice that this young girl had embarked on her own to begin a correspondence with a gentleman. Yet the idea of positioning himself to be the butt of her family’s ridicule was too much to consider.
He did not move while absorbed with all this.
She tried to give him the moment to think on it, some privacy in his thoughts, by looking out to the garden, now ablaze by the rising moonlight.
In a moment, he excused himself.
She did not know how to react to being left alone there. It did not bother her in the slightest, but who knew what the proprieties called for in such a situation. What would everyone else say if they turned to look out here and saw her alone?
For at least five minutes, she sat by herself looking out to the garden, fancying that this view was not unlike that from her own bedroom. But the grounds here went on forever, almost to the horizon, far beyond her aunt’s vista because they were much farther from the sea. And, indeed, the garden went off into the horizon like a forest, creating the image of some sort of mythical paradise. She was reminded again of the painting she had thought herself a part of when she had arrived here.
Dídac retuned at long last with a letter sealed in his father’s emblem.
“This is the first draft of a story I began last month. The first page is a letter to you, just now written requesting the honor of your correspondence. I should think it more than enough for us to carry on with our plans. No one could question the propriety of it.”
“You are allowing me to read something you have written then?”
“If you will forgive me in advance for its quality, but I would be honored if it might inspire a letter in response.”
He absolutely hated giving it to her.
“But this is so sweet of you to think of me.” She rose now and stood up on her toes to kiss him on the cheek, sending nothing less than huge firestorms of color to his face, producing the most lovable expressions she had yet seen from him.
And that was it.
It had seemed as if it would be such a chore to get to this point, but in a matter of minutes, their relationship had begun. Indeed, it had ventured well beyond that threshold, she felt. And everything Veronica had feared, all of the obstacles she thought might endlessly present themselves in defiance of joining, were now obsolete.
She would write him like a fanatic, and the passion of these letters would keep her at her desk for hours each day. She would be faithful to this correspondence as she had never been faithful to anything else in her life before. She swore it to herself, privately.
It would all be true. She would make it be true, whatever the cost.