The opera was moments from resuming as Veronica sat gazing out at the theatre’s clamorous patrons from her family’s box on the second tier. Though she was filled with excitement to be there, the true reason she shifted in her chair was from a lingering pain in her back. The long journey from Madrid had ended yesterday, but her body still felt the aching sway of the carriage.
The discomforts of riding in the premature heat of late spring had been a great burden on the treacherous country roads. Still, it had been the first time she traveled to Barcelona without her mother and sister, and that gift alone had made every stone and bump in the road a welcome friend. Even the dour woman who was her governess, and who was far less enthusiastic about tolerating the exhausting week of traveling, could not dampen the feeling of freedom that Veronica had felt during their ride. Even before coming into view the Mediterranean, she felt the weight of the sweet, salted air expanding her lungs and knew she had returned to her favorite place on earth. The castle had soon come into view, nestled amongst the giant Aleppo pines. It was monstrously large, erected upon medieval stonework with its back to the Mediterranean, designed to guard against the naval armies of past ages. Castell de Amontoní rose over the coast on a jutting hill at the breakwater that was high enough to send its fourth story to the very heavens. The crown tiles of its turreted roofs had shone brightly in the blazing sun, beckoning the girl’s carriage as it made its final charge through the property. Her aunt had uncharacteristically appeared outside the doors of the Castell de Amontoní to welcome Veronica, standing among a troop of footmen dressed in flawless red silk uniforms trimmed with gold. Finding herself again in the woman’s loving arms had, in the end, erased each toil endured from the girl’s mind.
The intimacy of yesterday’s rejoining remained warmly in Veronica’s mind tonight as they sat in the most wildly public place she’d ever been. The Gran Teatre del Liceu was a splendid structure that boldly displayed a collage of rich textures and brilliant colors, each designed to attract and compliment the crisp linens and shimmering satins worn by its audience. It was an indescribable honor to be seated at her aunt’s side at her first attendance of an opera, one she had dreamed of since it had been promised to her years ago. Veronica understood that it was merely a theater, little more than a room for the city’s wealthy and the privileged to socialize - people mingling in a never-ending attempt to maintain the public standing that their money couldn’t support by itself. But even these bourgeoisie willfully placed the Marquesa de Amontoní atop a cherished and unreachable pedestal of her very own, and the girl was satisfied to be amongst the like-minded. Nevertheless, the beauty of the room all but occluded them from Veronica’s view.
Crimson red velvet was draped over a sea of chairs that were etched with finely polished dark wood, the whole visage presenting the eye with a strong base of shamelessly loud color that even managed to overwhelm the extensive use of palatial gold. Gilded walls were covered by delicate ornate carvings that framed the horseshoe curve of the room with a striking, shimmering texture. The massive ceiling itself was a unique accomplishment of vibrant murals, further trimmed with gold, and supported the largest crystal chandelier the girl had ever beheld. For Veronica, the auditorium was a temple of indescribable beauty, well-equipped to rival the glory of any church.
The Amontoní box was on the grand balcony to the right of the stage, just twenty feet above the orchestral players. From this vantage point, Veronica could see the remainder of the room almost better than the frame of the opera stage itself, causing the realization that she remained within the audience’s peripheral view throughout the performance. She did not permit even the slightest chance that a posture correction might be needed under this scrutiny.
The theater itself was new, and the families of the city could be found throughout the room’s six levels sitting in astonishment at the immense wealth and size of the auditorium, now the largest on the continent. Opera was almost a sacrament amongst them, and even in their wonderment at the Liceu, not a single person would dare speak a word against the venerable Teatre de la Santa Creu nearby, built centuries earlier down La Rambla. She and other sibling institutions of the arts were revered by these people, remaining beloved in their hearts, and they had little patience for those who would utter an alienating comparison. Most attended the opera with fierce regularity during the season, particularly when the great composers and singers of Europe toured here. For superstars like Cafarelli, the families of Spain would suffer any inconvenience or journey to place themselves in this room. It was one thing to socialize at the opera, it was quite another thing to socialize at an opera hosting a living god. The guaranteed status served by a production featuring one universally known as Farinelli could not be otherwise attained short of supernatural intervention.
But this evening, nothing quite so remarkable could be mentioned about Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini. Though the composer was much admired, his offering did not boast anyone who would bring down the house. Still, Veronica viewed it as she did all of her aunt’s life, noble in its majesty and form.
In the box with Veronica and her aunt were Don Eduardo de Flores y Santiago, a general admiral of the Royal Spanish Navy, his wife, Doña Blanca, and their daughter, Angelica, both of whom often visited Castell de Amontoní when he was away at sea. Doña Blanca was one of the Marquesa’s closest friends, having been nearly sisters since they were girls. The officer’s culture had brought them even closer after they had married. Both family’s proximity to the General Admiral’s home port of Barcelona had kept the women together for more than fifteen years.
The two girls sat beside each other alone at the front of the box, the seats around them empty as the Marquesa and the de Flores stood at the rear, speaking with friends who had arrived at the end of the intermission to visit or introduce others. Angelica fluttered her fan a bit much, Veronica thought, appearing to be fairly weary as she almost slouched in her seat.
“Are you too warm? You seem uncomfortable,” she asked Angelica quietly, attempting to avoid their families’ notice.
Veronica was not close with Angelica, having never met the girl before today. She was not quite a year older than Veronica, and the opportunity to befriend a girl her own age here was almost too much to hope for. Veronica had made every effort to accomplish such a communion since meeting the girl in the morning, receiving only the most reserved of smiles from her. Angelica was likely the only friend she would ever stand to make here, at least the only one she’d ever get to see with any regularity over the summer. Thus, ‘affectionate’ and ‘approachable’ had become Veronica’s modus operandi.
“I’m fine,” she replied pleasantly, smiling. After a moment, she added, “You worry entirely too much about me.”
The response immediately unsettled Veronica with a bout of self-consciousness. “It’s just that you seem to be rather weary. It’s taking every effort I can muster just to keep still, I’m so thrilled to be here.”
“Well, at least one of us isn’t bored senseless,” Angelica smirked. “It’s all I can do to keep from throwing this fan at someone.” She focused her eyes on the crowd below them.
The remark stunned Veronica, finding the idea abhorrent and the cause incomprehensible.
“I hate all this waiting,” Angelica continued. “It’s always the same with this wretched place: an eternity of waiting for the opera to begin and another eternity for it to end. I didn’t even make it to the second act tonight before I began imagining which of the players below I could have a bit of fun with.” She closed her fan and held it as if she were choosing the right head to fling it at.
Veronica listened to the older girl as if she were speaking another tongue. It was inconceivable to her that anyone could not exist in perfect contentment within these walls. The very notion was upsetting, and Veronica shifted unconsciously.
“Do you know what irritates me most?” Angelica continued, coolly leaning over slightly toward Veronica. “After the opera, we won’t even have the opportunity to go to the Valenti’s ball, which was the only thing I was hoping for tonight. I really don’t see what the point of coming here was.” She turned her eyes momentarily to give a pointed expression of accusation.
Apprehensively, Veronica mentioned that Angelica’s parents had been much in favor of coming to the opera despite Marcelina’s disinclination to attend the Valenti’s event. She spoke the words gently, trying not to place the sound of reproach in them. “And besides, who were you going to see tonight that you will not meet Saturday at our party? Everyone will be coming to the house, I expect.”
“I don’t see why that should influence your aunt against the Valenti’s party,” said Angela. “And why shouldn’t we attend any party we want? I think she’s perhaps not thinking clearly about the way appearances work.”
Angelica’s scowl and impatience were a bit more than Veronica was prepared for. But she refused to lose her composure at this offensive girl’s effrontery, her aunt’s guest or not.
“I think, perhaps, she wishes to keep the family’s appearances more exclusive and less common. I can’t say I know the answer, but perhaps she is right that it would better serve our interests not to show up at every party. We should not want to appear too common.”
Angelica turned now and finally looked to Veronica with dire contempt.
“So, you think that it’s possible that anyone in my family could ever be looked upon as common?” An evil wind was behind the older girl’s words and Veronica’s heart raced at the realization of how the conversation had just been altered. “Well,” she continued, “I suppose someone like her would.” And with that, Angelica gave a final look of disgust at Veronica, which would also be her final acknowledgment of any sort for the week.
Veronica’s face was flushed, and her mind raced at the speed of her wild pulse. She did not feel the sensation of her aunt’s gown as it arrived on the chair beside her and pressed gently against her elbow. Perhaps there was no one of her age or sex whom Veronica could speak to without offending, she thought.
The audience returned to their seats in kind as the orchestra players crescendoed their warming up to draw notice to the imminent return for Act II. Only the applause and the audience’s gaze near her seat kept Veronica from crying. Perpetually on the outskirts of consciousness, her mind replayed the conversation over and over, releasing adrenaline to sear through her body at the end of each remembered sentence. At times, she trembled against her will and could hardly affect a smile when her aunt now and then gazed at her to ensure that her niece was well and enjoying herself.
Veronica’s usual custom was to write her diary entries in a fictionalized format, an unusual method she’d adopted to amuse her school friends in Madrid, who she allowed most entries. However, later that evening, when they had all returned to the castle, Veronica wrote only a short paragraph in her diary, more to get the thoughts out of her head than to be clever.
25 May, 1848
I have made my first enemy among the inhabitants of this house. She has made sleep almost impossible tonight. Worse yet, she has made it quite painful to write anything here. Perhaps I would do better to simply move to a deserted island out at sea, like those in the stories depicted by mother’s paintings, where I can offend no one but myself and God.
She closed the diary slowly, listening to the creaking of the stiff leather binding on the old book her mother had presented her with on her fifteenth birthday. Only six months had gone by since that day, a short time that had seemed like forever. And despite the misery of the evening, she was certainly not yet homesick. Any opportunity to escape from the relentless, strict eyes of her mother or the nuns was a blessed relief, no matter how she felt in this moment.
“Enough,” she said aloud and jerked her head sharply to get the thought out of her head, rising from her seat to cross through her bedroom.
Looking out her open window on the second floor of the castle, Veronica was made suddenly aware of how the vivid moon had rendered the garden completely visible, the sea beyond its edge a sheet of shimmering black glass. The few low clouds in the distance moved sleepily past the full moon, newly risen in the southeastern sky. She fancied that on a night such as this, it was too beautiful not to simply watch and cherish.
The warm breeze brushing her dark hair was intoxicating, certainly enough reason to forget useless disasters. And she had not yet rung to be undressed for bed, though it was almost eleven o’clock. She wondered if it would upset her aunt were she to slip outside for a quiet walk. It wouldn’t take her even ten minutes to get to the sea terrace and sit there for a short while. No one was likely outside to bother her.
Someone knocked at the door before she could finish her plotting, and Veronica involuntarily called for the person to enter, her voice jarred by the unexpected intrusion.
From the light in the hall, she saw the outline of her aunt’s dress casting a quick shadow upon the floor before she received with the familiar smile.
“You’re not dressed for bed yet? I would scold you if I were not a similar creature. But on warm nights, I find myself having to dismiss my maid early just to keep the poor thing from falling asleep while she waits for me to tuck in.” The graceful woman crossed the room to sit on the chair of Veronica’s secrétaire. “And how did you enjoy the afternoon? You were so quiet, I couldn’t tell if you enjoyed your dinner at all. I know your fussy little friend couldn’t wait to be excused. Did the two of you have a disagreement?”
“I’m afraid I wasn’t feeling too well earlier,” she answered, her eyes cast to the floor. With a smile, she added, “I feel much better now,” and moved her eyes to the window without commenting on Angelica.
“And just what is so captivating out there?” the Marquesa asked, turning to catch a glimpse. “Ah yes, what a beautiful sight. So many nights here like this one. I think sometimes they all meld together and I fail to appreciate them, at least not until the winter chill comes again. But yes, such a night. And the moon is so bright on the grounds.”
“I was thinking it might be nice to slip out and take a little stroll to catch some air if you don’t think it’s too late,” said the girl.
“I don’t think that’s a bad idea at all,” the Marquesa answered without hesitance. “A walk would be perfect, just the two of us. It seems I haven’t really had much time to speak to you privately since you arrived, what with the de Floreses dragging us to the opera and all. Come then,” she said, rising. “Let’s go now before it’s too late and those clouds on the horizon move in to dim the moonlight.”