In the weeks that followed, the two lovers saw each other only now and then, at parties or at church. The Marquesa had made a concerted effort to share what moments she could with his mother. Those few jewels offered to Veronica and Dídac, which provided a reasonable measure of privacy, were to transpire during dinner at either family’s home, yet proved to be insufficient for either of the two. But for any longing they may have had to see each other, or even steal a kiss, which the young man would never do, they were more than gratified by their correspondence and remained vigilantly faithful to it.
Veronica wrote like a madwoman at all hours, constructing other worlds filled with enchanted forests, secret caves by the sea, or voyages to the stars on the backs of winged horses. In all of these fictions, in all these fantastic places, there were lovers. Lovers of all sorts. Lovers of all predicaments. Lovers of all passions.
The girl would stop every now and again to catch her breath and find herself fretting over just how ridiculous and stupid all these stories were, wanting to stop instantly and never see Dídac again out of sheer embarrassment and shame. But with blessed relief would come Dídac’s writings full of the same simple and stupid worlds that were inhabited by nothing but lovers and those who would dare to tear them apart, as well.
She didn’t see why his stories always had to feature antagonists tearing lovers apart; as of yet, there had not been a single villain present in their lives. Dídac’s parents and siblings had shouted from the rafters with support, or so it seemed in the very short messages he sent her that were non-fictional. Even Veronica’s mother had somehow shown herself to be hardly the villain at all, writing directly to the girl as to how proud she was of Veronica’s sound decisions. The girl now wondered who her mother truly was, what the woman was like in everyone else’s eyes, how she affected their lives. Was the effect as unbelievably pleasant as it had proved itself to be among those who had never met her? It all seemed so long ago that the woman was a part of her life.
But as for her relationship with Marcelina, Veronica felt that she hadn’t been closer to any person as she was with her aunt. Marcelina continued the girl’s education on womanhood to no end, and it was with a magnificent sense of pride that she read all of the correspondence between the two lovers. She was saddened that Dídac’s mother couldn’t be in on the whole charade; the boy confirmed Veronica’s inquiry as to whether his mother had ever read any of her letters. Veronica told him the same of her aunt, upon the Marquesa’s insistence, of course.
As for the progress Marcelina strove for in the young lovers’ public relationship, there was little she could do but draw Dídac’s parents into the conversation whenever possible. She would smile and sigh when they would tell her in so many words that the children should have a large amount of time by which to know each other. And wasn’t that proper, they would ask, and wasn’t that necessary? Marcelina thought it a hilarious notion on the part of the Ferreros, as if they were giving the two any real time at all.
One might have thought they would have grown to be more flexible with the passing of three sons into the world, but the Ferreros held fast to their family ways, and it was all Marcelina could do to keep planning private family dinners to accommodate Veronica and Dídac’s need to see each other. She figured that, sooner or later, something would have to give. The structure of all this slow and laborious propriety wasn’t nearly as solid as everyone believed. Marcelina found little ways to get beyond it so the two could have every possible moment between them before the girl’s mother would insist a suitor be chosen. Lucía would not wait forever on Doña de Ferrero to realize that there should be a marriage proposal being made to her daughter presently. The time for the child’s future to be settled was at hand. It would not wait upon the hopeful patience of parents who were sitting back to witness the maturing of an indecisive boy, wealthy or not.
Marcelina decided that she would find it easier to construct a fissure in the impregnable culture of the Ferreros by focusing on Dídac’s father. As much influence as Francesca held in the household, influence which Marcelina now admired and respected more than ever, it seemed that the final word rested with Joaquim, though he was sweet enough to make this truth undetectable to most. Marcelina would try her very best to appeal to his sense of fatherhood and manipulate the impatience he had already exhibited in the past over the boy’s future.
It was only right that she did everything possible to ensure this happiness for her household and theirs.
Marcelina made her first move to press upon Joaquim her point of view on the matter of marriage in the Ferrero’s house. After dinner, Marcelina didn’t allow Joaquim apart from her under any circumstance. No matter what disturbances arose, the Marquesa saw to it that her conversation imprisoned his company.
“And your son,” she smiled, “how is he dealing with you these days? Is he able to fend you off, still?”
Don de Ferrero had a charming face, constructed according to the most basic principles of male beauty. His warm eyes were only betrayed by a stern powerful jaw, which appeared more than capable of carrying the weight of his wide smile. Somehow, fragments of this beauty had intermingled with Francesca’s fair, exquisite bones to produce the indescribable radiance of their youngest son.
“Ah, my philosopher, my scholar? He is a certain cause of grief to me still, more than ever these past few weeks. It was my intention to impose upon him my own personal education of law, to see to it that some semblance of an interest might be lit in him before next year when he must choose between the university and begging in the street!”
Marcelina laughed at his humor, though not because she found his conversation humorous. She had found him to be all the more insufferable during the last few hours. It seemed the man’s impatience with Dídac was finding itself better managed, though his frustration still crept into the conversation now and then.
“It is a most arduous task, indeed,” he continued, “and I am even more at my wit’s end. I notice he spends more and more time locked away in my office writing nonsense, though he has no knowledge of my spying on him, and I’ll thank you to keep that secret between us. But what am I supposed to do?” he sighed. “His tutors all agree with me that he is enormously gifted, intelligent like only few are when he focuses his attentions on his assignments. I really haven’t the first clue how to act on his behalf. I haven’t faced this problem to the slightest degree with his brothers and I fear it will be disastrous to allow my anger and frustration to act in a manner that might distance him further from my influence.”
Marcelina was touched by Ferrero’s impersonation of a sensitive father, peeking its pretty head up from under the guise of the overbearing tyrant. She warmed to the notion that she would be able to convince him of her plans.
“Well, it is only right that you act with such loving caution. It is a shame that most fathers don’t even take the slightest interest in their son’s feelings toward their own future.”
To her surprise, the man almost blushed. Marcelina was prompted on a subconscious level to keep running with him now before he became flustered and forgot their pleasant intimacy. “But I have it under the strictest of confidences that your worries may soon come to an end. I have heard information that leads me to believe your son is finding a whole new focus toward the importance of his future’s security.”
Don de Ferrero leaned closer to the Marquesa’s ear with a dire look upon his face that caught her off guard. It replaced what had always been the very beginning of a smile with something of a careless frown. “Do you hear this? And what, may I ask, might be the result of this focus, as you put it?”
“Only that you may soon find, in place of your son, a man prepared to cast off his boyish fancies in order to attain a new life. One in which he has the position and the means to secure for himself a family of his choosing. I have even heard talk that he may soon present himself to you in a most agreeable mood, and when you least expect it. A mood from which you may be astonished to hear that he desires to begin his legal education in a more focused manner, to use our new secret terminology.”
“And tell me, how might my son have felt such piercing inspiration, after so long a battle that the very cause of it has escaped my detection? What spells have you consulted for these magnificent words?” he asked, his eyes now beaming at her.
“Why, Don de Ferrero, a woman of honor cannot permit herself to divulge the secrets of a strict confidence. But by sheer accident, an excess of your delicious wine might cause me to forget myself and say that your son has found himself most desperately in love.” Marcelina raised her eyebrow slightly and gave him a devilish little smirk.
Joaquim pulled away from her abruptly, so as to give himself room in which to grasp this secret with a margin of composure.
Around the drawing room, the people smiled and laughed serenely, concentrating on their own conversations, no doubt filled with delicious secrets, Joaquim thought. His eyes toured the room for his son, and in a fit of frustration, he realized that he hadn’t the slightest idea where the boy was. He noted in this realization that he might never have known where the boy was, nor really cared until this moment.
He turned abruptly to Marcelina and excused himself, rising to find the boy as quietly as possible, desperately trying to escape from the room without the slightest notice from his wife or guests. The boy was not in the drawing room. No, he now remembered that the boy had gone off to talk with the Marquesa’s niece.
One fine blow of insight struck him hard across the face: his son might actually be eighteen years old and have an eighteen-year-old’s interest in young ladies. It was stupid of him never to have thought that an absence of passion for law should indicate the boyish absence of lust for women. Dídac lived in a man’s body now, did he not? My God!the man thought, eighteen.
In his frantic search throughout the house, Joaquim found that the very idea of his son immediately became different. He entertained, admittedly for the first time, that the boy wasn’t the labyrinthine riddle of torture he had taken him for all these years. Rather, Dídac was a complete and whole individual who might be alive for reasons entirely different from those he had presumed.
He was sure he would scream if he didn’t come upon the boy soon. Had he been swept off the earth?
Joaquim returned to the drawing room, exasperated, though still unobserved by the household, and turned to silently face the Marquesa from across the room.
She smirked at him, understanding his frustration, and with the slightest turn of her head, she nodded to the terrace doors that appeared closed.
He exhaled and turned to them, walking as slowly and as casually as he could.
At the threshold, he looked to see through the glass that was cracked slightly open to find his son seated on a stone bench with the young Fernández girl, surrounded by the dark glow of the lanterns and candles. Don de Ferrero was mystified, indeed, quite desperately hypnotized by the sight of it. It was as if the colors of the flowers and shrubs were all turned in appreciation of the lovers. It was too obvious, he thought, the look in the boy’s eyes. They were on fire. They werefire! And it was this fire that knocked Joaquim out of his paralyzed state.
He pulled away from the doors, hoping not to steal his son’s eyes away from the girl, though he couldn’t imagine what could ever cause such a thing to happen. Joaquim found his way back to the sofa near the empty fireplace where Marcelina still kept her warm vigil, with the heat of the season to comfort her. The woman’s knowing smirk was still on her lips as she welcomed the man to resume his seat beside her, without a sound.
Joaquim exhaled slowly, laboriously, though he couldn’t yet find a way to smile back at her. He had thought himself such a keenly observant man. He had believed himself able to see things more keenly the older he got. It startled him to consider that he was merely getting older and that the reverse might be true of his sight.
“How long has this been so?” he asked desperately. “They have known each other for no more than a month.”
Marcelina’s smile only brightened. “I will save you further pain, Joaquim. It is quite clear this news has taken you by surprise. I shall only say that this interest has been noticeable long enough for me to make the logical considerations. But really, don’t hold it against yourself,” she continued. “Surely, at his age, you have more vital things to consider for his future. And that this should all happen now is but another hint of luck for us both.”
He was stumped by her words. “You say that he is considering pursuing law, that he will present himself to me soon with an interest in it?”
“I say that he only considers it with much more urgency, now that he is driven by a most compelling reason. Whether or not he, in fact, decides it will be law, I have it under very good advisement that he will choose something that you will support, something of a more solid foundation to focus his studies.”
In an instant, Joaquim was brought up to her viewpoint. “He is young, my lady, perhaps too young to be sure of anything in this life. It may be premature of us to consider this.”
“Premature? Have you ever thought for a moment during his entire life that directing him towards a career was premature? This is the role of parents, is it not? It does not come more urgently upon us when they are born than when they are grown. No, my dear, it is something that is always on a mother’s mind, and her mother wishes that such things be settled, as soon as possible. That they are so fond of each other should make it clearer to you that we have leave to carry out our duties, with even more expediency than before. Leave from God, Himself!” she whispered. “That they have only known each other for a month is a pointless argument,” she continued. “And just how long did you know Francesca before your parents had settled the issue of marriage for you both? Wake up, my dear friend. The cock is calling you to your responsibilities.” She beamed at him again, seeing she had already won.
He was without words, embarrassed. He was provoked and alive with the thought of it. Part of him was in love with her, with her sincerity, the warmth there on each syllable, and in her smile. She was certainly a stunningly beautiful woman, and if his spinning mind could focus on that confidence in her eyes, he would surely rise in lust with her right then and there.
Without the slightest warning, the Ferrero’s guests felt a crack of thunder strike an incomprehensibly loud roar through the window panes. The flash that proceeded it seemed very close, indeed, too close. In less than a moment, it seemed the house was awakened by the tremendous sound of heavy rain spilling down from the night sky. It was a flash storm, uncommon for the summer months, but the kind that came with hardly a warning and made itself unmistakably noticed when it arrived.
Veronica raced into the house with Dídac in tow, the two not realizing they held each other’s hand. It seemed that no one else paid this much notice, though Joaquim found that he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the sight of it.
“Dear God, but where did that come from?” Francesca cried.
“From nowhere, it seemed,” Dídac answered. “The sky was not even clouded when I looked at the stars ten minutes ago, but then a wind started up...”
Dídac drew his eyes from the windows and realized that he still held Veronica’s hand, and quickly let it fall away. He was certain no one had noticed it. They all had their eyes turned to the terrace doors, where the image of the crashing rain was darkened as the large candles and lanterns were extinguished by the pouring water.
Joaquim saw the boy’s hand fall away, but quickly averted his eyes when Dídac turned upon the household to see that no one had paid him any notice. The boy’s heart raced as he looked to each of them, mostly to his mother in fear of her disapproval. But he found none in her eyes as she studied the rain.
“I fear the rain will flood the streets,” Francesca said tensely. “Joaquim, shall we bid our guests good night so that they can take their leave? The streets will soon be too wet for the carriages.”
Joaquim turned to his wife and roused himself from his coma. “Yes, yes. Listen, it is important that you all hurry now before you can no longer ride, before the mud overtakes the unpaved roads.”
The party dispersed and the guests hurried along to their carriages, which were brought round to the front immediately, their drivers already in a panic to get home. The rain fell now without mercy. Huge, violent drops of water that invaded everything.
Marcelina kissed Francesca good night before dashing from the house to her carriage with Veronica in tow. The driver cracked his whip over the horse’s heads once the ladies were inside, jerking the carriage forward into the wet night. But they had not traveled even two minutes before the lanterns of the oncoming carriages stopped them in the center of the road that raced through the Ferrero estate to the highway.
The Marquesa’s driver dismounted and ran to the oncoming carriages that blocked their path. In the dark night, she could only see the ghoulish outline of her driver as he stood before the oncoming carriages, nodding his head to the information yelled through the noise.
“What’s the matter?” she asked her man when he raced back.
“The road, my lady. The Cardona’s driver says there is already a flood that has overtaken the road up ahead. We must turn back to the house. There will be no way to cross for hours, perhaps even all night.”
“Very well, then.” Marcelina closed the window and sat back as the driver returned to his perched position and moved the carriage aside so that the others might pass before bringing the horses round and following the caravan back to the house.
Francesca was already alerted to the party’s return by the time Marcelina and Veronica dashed back through the merciless rain that threatened to shatter the very tiles of the roof with its humbling volume.
“Oh, my dear, do hurry,” Francesca screamed from the threshold.
“It seems we are to be here for some time longer,” Marcelina cried, pulling Veronica in behind her from the downpour.
“Yes, the servants are already preparing rooms for you all. You shall spend the night, of course. With any luck, the road will be cleared in the morning.” Francesca clasped her arm and led Marcelina back to the drawing room as Veronica followed. “Please, come back in and sit down. The footmen will bring around some sherry to warm you all.”
The room was again filled with the party, as if the exodus had not even happened. The Gorgas and Lamarcas all returned to their sofas and chairs with Joaquim, who saw to it that a fire was stoked unnecessarily, soon roaring to fill the room with a perplexing heat that the Marquesa moved across the room to avoid. Hotter now than when the summer sun was in the sky, she thought.
To her uncontrollable joy, Veronica found that Dídac was still in the drawing room, waiting to receive her. She found she could say nothing to him aloud, but she sent a stunning look of joy to see him again, all on fire, glowing the way he always seemed to.
And it was not a great deal of time that they had, but Veronica found that the moments with him now were such a delicious pleasure, that little of anything could cause her to feel unhappiness.
The letters they had sent to each other over the past month had been something undreamt of; each one of them unleashed a new intimacy that Veronica had cherished and honored with her heart and with her loving words in reply. She would have him be her husband forever and she knew that she could never feel any different. It was enough for her now simply to have met him, to have known him and shared the world they had. She could never bring herself to feel anything but this joy upon remembering the days of their intimate confessions. Were he to be taken from her now, she would most certainly be content of love. But she understood without need of reason that she would have him forever, as she desired. And she would relish in the knowledge that he wanted her even more than she wanted him.
In but moments, the servants informed their mistress that the house was prepared for the guests to adjourn to their rooms for the night.
Francesca announced this to her guests and they were led as a group to the upper level, where their rooms were thoroughly lit by candles and warmed by more unnecessary fires.
The Marquesa and her niece were shown to rooms on the second floor, joined internally by a common drawing room, while the other guests were each shown to their respective suites.
Francesca checked in on her guests only once before retiring. The Marquesa thanked her host and assured her that everything was fine, kissing her goodnight on the cheek. Francesca sent word to her staff to be on alert for anything that her household might need in the night, then shut herself away.
Veronica quietly knocked on her aunt’s door through the adjoining drawing room, allowing Marcelina to coax her into bed to talk for a few moments.
“Are you glad we were forced to stay, dear?” Marcelina toyed with her niece.
The girl beamed, “So happy that I hope it rains forever.” She giggled and sunk into the luxurious comforter embroidered in golden taffeta. The room was as well fitted and furnished as any that might be found in the Marquesa’s castle, and it suited the woman just fine.
“Do you have everything you need in your room?”
“Oh, don’t speak to me about such things! You spent the whole evening speaking with his father. I saw you. I kept rising and walking about the patio to see you through the glass doors. And there you were by his side all evening, gossiping with the man to no end.” Veronica’s eyes were so alive, she might never sleep tonight. “What did you say? I know you. You would not let the whole two hours go by without mentioning something to him. I know you!”
“Do you? You think you know me so well?” the woman teased.
“Tia! I’m going to begin throwing things if I’m not told, really!”
“Well, that might be fun to watch, perhaps a bit noisy. But fear not, I’ll tell you.”
The Marquesa recanted the important part of her conversation with Dídac’s father and doted on her knack for sending the man stammering through the house in search of the boy.
“But you said nothing else? You didn’t attempt to settle anything more than that?” the girl impatiently asked.
“Well, my dear, you will remember that the heavens let themselves be heard and sent us off like running horses. There was hardly anything else I could say for the time being. But don’t worry, you’ll see that Joaquim will be more than happy to draw more details out of me over breakfast. I have little doubt he will exercise every effort to hold me here. He will want more to stoke his dreams. And you, what did you get your handsome devotee to profess to you this evening? What endless words of love did the boy have for you this time around?”
Veronica could only smile; her satisfaction was mirrored in Marcelina’s face. “He spoke of his plans to win back his father’s approval so that he might put the idea of a marriage proposal to him all the more sooner.” The girl couldn’t help but beam again. “He said he would come to a decision by the end of the week on what he would pursue, so that his father might have time to enroll him in the proper courses at the university. He was so alive with the idea,” the girl said proudly. “It’ll be a long time that he’s there, at the university I mean. Surely, for three years. But he said that he would often be given leave to visit me. He wants to visit Madrid with us to meet Mamá.”
“His father will be pleased, I can promise you.”
Marcelina pulled the girl into her arms and hugged her for a few moments, running her fingers through the heavy soft waves that had been let down to fall over her shoulders.
“It’s good you are so fond of the boy, dear. I had much difficulty in convincing your mother that it was right to agree to this fashion of courtship. The woman was so convinced it would be better for you not to have anything to do with the arrangement, but I knew it would not suit you to be married off to a man you wouldn’t meet until your wedding day. You will be so much happier in your youth for it, dear, I promise you.”
Marcelina let her go slowly, still playing with the girl’s hair, the soft strands that glowed a rich burgundy in the candlelight. “But help me now with my gown, I don’t wish to trouble Francesca’s servants any more than is necessary.”
At that moment, there was a quiet knock at the door.
The Marquesa moved quickly from her bedroom to the small anti-chamber, leaving Veronica behind, and summoned the caller to enter. The door opened slowly to reveal the still-dressed figure of Joaquim, who nodded and smiled.
“Good evening, my lady. I trust everything is fine with you?”
“Yes, thank you, Don de Ferrero, all is fine here with us,” she responded, confused at the unexpected second call.
“Good,” he said. “If it’s not too late for you, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind us continuing our conversation. A warm fire is lit in the library and I could have one of the servants prepare something light for you to eat. Some more sherry, perhaps?”
Marcelina walked toward him. “Yes, that would be delightful.”
She turned to Veronica, who was gazing into the drawing room through the bedroom door and saw her mouth had fallen ajar. “Veronica, I am going back downstairs to speak with our host. Go to sleep, dear. I will see you in the morning.” And with that, she followed Joaquim quietly downstairs to the immense library, which suffered yet another fire, and to the warm sherry she had been promised.
Veronica sat still on her aunt’s bed, wishing she were not a child, and that it was not past twelve o’clock.