The details of the plan eluded her at first, they always did. She could be certain of the means to and the result of any of her ambitions, but the finer points of intricacy always seemed tiresome and hazy in the beginning.
Marcelina did not have the slightest doubt that she could seduce the young man, the boy with the supernatural green eyes who worshiped her niece with his uncontrollable stare. On the contrary, seduction would be the easiest of her trials. Marcelina knew she was a beautiful woman and that he was a boy of barely eighteen who, if memory served, couldn’t sit still, he was so full of youthful exuberance. Winning him over would hardly be a task.
And she had little doubt as to his discretion. She would not have entertained the thought of this enterprise had she believed he was not a gentleman. And just whom would he tell if he wasn’t? No one of any importance, she mused.
The trick was to provide the opportunity for them both. Discretion in this venture was beyond important, not so much for the boy’s sake as it was for Veronica’s. If rumors of something scandalous were to surface about the young man, they might serve to lionize him, but then they might not. Rumors certainly wouldn’t have the slightest effect on Marcelina, they never had in the past; her money had seen to it.
But rumors might very well injure Veronica, not so much her reputation as her feelings. Marcelina was not impervious to the girl’s alarming youth, and regardless of the toils she had taken in educating her, eradicating the potent possibility of injuring the unstable emotions of a fifteen-year-old girl was not an achievement that should be expected.
Marcelina would have to ensure a way of educating both her precious pupils in a discreet manner that would ensure that neither of them ever realized the other’s experience.
“If he only has a few more weeks before entering the academy, you must be sure and give him leave to visit Veronica anytime he wishes. Surely, you will not force him to drag one of you along whenever the boy wants to see her. As long as one of us are present when they are together...”
The Marquesa was in rare form, she thought. She spent the lazy Sunday afternoon with Francesca, who had accompanied her from morning mass back to the Castell de Amontoní. Veronica had remained at home for feminine reasons that the two ladies spoke vaguely of in hushed tones, and Dídac had escorted his father on another one of his endless trips downtown to speak with a dozen colleagues.
The two ladies were more than delighted to stroll through the grounds, now that the weather had blessedly lightened up. They walked slowly together, arm in arm, followed by both ladies’ entourages, none of whom had yet been given leave to re-enter the house after mass.
The cooler air had made the day spectacular, the Marquesa thought. The sea air drifted in moist fragrant gusts through their skirts and over their sun hats, instilling the most pleasant, lazy contentment in their joints. They strolled along the gravel pathways, stopping only now and again to sit and enjoy the lovely blooms, which had somehow not been destroyed by the weeks of blistering heat.
Marcelina could not have hoped for a greater sign of approval from Heaven than this glorious day. The very air was such that she felt the world might kneel before her and conform to her every design. It was as if the very crystal hue of the azure sky had been tinted the perfect shade, the sun’s warmth erecting the heavens marvelously on this day so that nothing could interfere with her enterprise.
“Oh, but it is not nearly so demanding for us to accompany Dídac. Really, you make me think you don’t want me around,” Francesca teased gaily. “And what will happen when he is off at school and I have no reason to come calling? You think I will not suffer then?”
Marcelina was warmed by the words. With Blanca de Flores gone from Barcelona, it had been so long that she had any woman for a friend. How I will adore the woman when all of this is over and done with, the two children married and quarreling all the time, and she and I content with our success, sitting together after lunch every week with our minds at ease, she thought. What an opportunity I will have then!
“Don’t be silly, Francesca! As it is, I hardly see you as much as I would like. You know very well what I am speaking of. These children have not known each other for more than three months, and all their time together has included a veritable cavalry staring them down so that they are made to feel like cattle on the auction block. The only privacy they could hope to have comes in their correspondence, and having read both sides of it, I can assure you that they are just as inclined to remain proper in script, as well.”
“But what is so uncommon in that?” Francesca posed, frankly. “They are engaged to be married, are they not? They will have all the time in the world to get to know each other when they are married in three years.”
“Yes, in three years! Do you really want to babysit them as if we were the Queen’s guard for the next three years? What’s the point of having us old harpies eying them at every moment if it is settled that they are to be married? Really, let’s not forget that our work is more or less done with. As far as I am concerned, while Veronica is wearing his engagement ring, she is already married to the boy, and I couldn’t be happier with the arrangement. But why should we impose all of this formal nonsense upon ourselves for three long years?
“I’m not sure I understand you correctly, Marcelina. You wish them not to be supervised before they are married?” She was honestly taken aback by the Marquesa’s suggestion.
“Supervised, yes. Imprisoned by our presence, no. Dear, really, what will be the use of haunting them like a plague?”
The Marquesa laughed easily and pulled the woman’s arm closer to her as if she were a young girl. “No, don’t you play that role, you know very well what I am talking about. What will they do, spend all that time smiling stupidly at one another without ever having the chance to really understand each other? Dídac doesn’t strike me as the type of young man who will be happy with a caricature for a wife, some fool kept in a drawing room to entertain his guests. I can promise you that my niece will resign herself to no such position. They’re in love, dear. And the only thing ridiculous about that is they hardly know anything at all about each other! It’s all amazing to me.
“But really, they already know what their boundaries before marriage are. You will never convince me that your son is not every inch a gentleman, and the very thought that I should concern myself with what they say to each other privately is pointless. I know his values. He makes everyone in his presence strikingly aware of the man his father has raised and his mother has tempered. And I know my niece. I know she expects him to be every bit the gentleman that he has proven he is. So, what is the point of scrutinizing their every word, pushing ourselves to guard against the slightest improper question or behavior? It all seems a tremendous waste of time.”
The lady had heard all that the Marquesa had said, and she knew that, though it might seem an unconventional outlook to anyone else, between the two of them it was the most reasonable one. Francesca trusted her son as much as she loved him, and realized that she had carried out the motions of a mother the whole time the two had known each other.
Dídac had courted the young girl like a gentleman, taking the reins from his parents and seeking out his future with this girl without either of the two being made aware of it until he had set his own path. These were not the actions of a boy who needed a mother’s hand to guide him. That time was past. Dídac had proven to her with each passing day that he had chosen to become a man and behaved like one with a remarkable sense of valor. And it provided her with a magnificent sense of pride as she conceded to her dear friend that their children were more than capable of steering their course in life with minimal help in the future.
“I’m so very happy we discussed this,” Francesca said now. “It was something I have thought over long, but the idea would’ve never been realized into words.”
“Oh, but it is so good to hear you say that! The thought has occurred to me now for some time, and I don’t know what I would have done if I had to go on pretending that my new nephew’s behavior was of the slightest interest to me. Really, I am so in love with the boy, I probably would have found myself constructing elaborate schemes to get the young man alone with Veronica, just so that they might have but one moment for themselves. And after I had exhausted myself in that endeavor, I would have set about making the most ridiculous excuses to everyone for not knowing of their whereabouts!”
Doña Francesca laughed in intimate jest, gripping Marcelina’s hand in her own as they turned to walk back to the house. “Oh, my dear, you make this all so much good fun!”
That evening, after Francesca had settled in her mind to speak with her son over his frequent visits to his fiancée at her aunt’s house, she abruptly lost her inclination to approach him.
Her husband had returned with the boy in the middle of what seemed to be another useless but heated argument over some frivolous point of view. And as usual, Dídac was stubborn in his inability to let the argument go. He had more of a need to hold the last word than anyone she had ever met, save his father.
As the two entered with frantic footsteps into Francesca’s parlor, it required a stern signal from Joaquim to convince Dídac that their discussion was at an end. He rose his hand and looked to the boy with his most serious face, muttering under his breath, “Enough.”
Dídac was frustrated at his inability to challenge his father’s halting gesture, but to continue such a debate before his mother would set Joaquim into a rage that would result in a severe punishment. Joaquim was not a parent to be disrespected by his son in front of anyone, and that unsaid rule, Dídac was more than willing to obey. Francesca’s son would not venture to distress his mother for any reason, least of all over some moronic argument.
“What’s all this nonsense you fight over? My God, to hear you speak, you’d think you were two ruffians in a tavern!” she soured her face in jest.
“Mother!” Dídac was shocked by her statement, joking or no.
“Your son may think he is in his better judgment, my dear, but I am convinced that he has never possessed such a thing.” Joaquim bent to kiss her cheek before landing exhausted on the crimson sofa.
Francesca turned to her son and winked, giving the boy a final dismissal from his frustration. Even with this relief, he could not bring himself to sit down, continuing to pace slowly about the room.
“Oh, but you’re mistaken as usual, señor. If you would open your eyes and close your stubborn mouth, you might yet see that better judgment is the only thing my son makes use of. You think he has snared the most beautiful girl from the finest family in the city by chance? Perhaps it is you who have misplaced your better judgment,” she teased, a melodramatic face the final insult.
Dídac smiled at his mother and made a ceremonial bow in her favor.
“Yes, see how he responds to his mother’s wisdom,” she smiled. “Really, I don’t know why I let you talk to my son at all.”
The tired man laughed with one jolly chortle. “That’s perfect! Now I’ll have to spend twice as long penetrating that thick skull of his. It’s all your fault, my love!”
“What’s this nonsense he’s saying,” she turned to her son with a wicked smile. “Why does he keep talking and talking. My, but he enjoys the sound of his voice! How do you put up with him, love?”
The boy smirked at last, unable to resist his mother’s reaching hand, which gently pulled him to his seat beside her. He exhaled audibly and slowly turned to meet her gaze and said, “It’s baffling, isn’t it?”
Francesca let out her most charming little giggle and kissed her son’s cheek over and over, sending him into the most pleasant of moods. Indeed, he instantly forgot that he should be upset with his father, who raised his hands in defeat, rising to find the sherry in his library.
It was the same always, she thought, one or two words in my son’s defense and the man is on his feet and out the door in search of his more reliable allies, liquor and cigars.
“What’s his problem now?” she whispered to Dídac when his father was gone.
“Do you really want to know?” the boy asked wearily.
“Of course, not. It was not a question, dear, simply a complaint.”
“Then, I second your complaint. Just what is his problem?”
They smiled together, Francesca curling her arm in the crook of his. This was the moment she liked best with her son, the private moments when his guard was safely down. She had enjoyed these times when he was a small child, when he was too small to even speak more than a handful of words. Back then, she had looked forward to this time, when he would be a man and would speak to her with the love of a friend. She did not have any real friends, save her husband, and that relationship was one which baffled even her, for she did not view her marriage as a friendship, though she adored Joaquim and had been lovingly embraced by him from the first year of their marriage.
But with her son, she had long ago envisioned an intimacy that she knew she would never really have with his older brothers. They were each like their father, and though they adored and loved their mother, it was simply not in their character to be close friends with her. Dídac, however, had made himself distinct from the very beginning. When the other children had resigned themselves to be independent young boys, intolerant of their parent’s presence or intrusion, Dídac had always been nearby, sending warm and secretive glances toward her, those little looks of understanding that communicated volumes in mere seconds. And he had been the only one of the boys to turn to her when he began his changes into manhood, the others having turned to their manservants or cousins, or anyone else. But Dídac truly trusted no one but his mother, and by that trust, she had raised him to be the type of man that Francesca had always dreamed of as a girl. He was a fighter, but remarkably sensitive. A simple look might set him into rage or shatter him to tears. And he was gifted, not merely in his godly good looks, which every day baffled Francesca more and more, but in his intellect, which had fostered a keen awareness of other people’s joys and miseries, placing him in the most desirable of positions. Indeed, his awareness had given way to a young man that any woman might give all to be loved by. The boy’s love seemed a rather disturbing thing, the manner in which he lavished it upon people blindly and effortlessly, placing the success of his affections for others before even his own happiness. But then, that was the crux of it, his happiness seemed solely dependent on the reception of his generous love.
The more Francesca watched her son becoming a man, the more she loved him. It was indescribable, this love, and it anchored her to him in ways that might raise disapproval in others.
“I spent the morning and afternoon with the Marquesa de Amontoní,” she whispered, reveling in anticipation of the response she knew he would give.
His whole body stiffened, his back corrected itself as if he had instantly been placed in the woman’s presence and must look the part.
“And she is very well, I understand,” he said effortlessly, assuming that charming pitch of voice that somehow had been bred into him. Francesca was sure his voice was the result of some pleasant mishap of breeding, she could never account for how he came into possession of it. He certainly hadn’t learnt this relaxed charm from any of the men in this family. It was like a beautiful instrument, this voice of his, like a viola with its sensuous low timbre.
“Yes, she is very well, though she missed your escort, sadly.”
His brow tensed against his will. “Papá has a million reasons why these ridiculous journeys are necessary, even on Sundays. But I can’t say any of them are reason enough to disappoint the Marquesa.”
She liked that he said this. None of her other sons would have said it and meant it. It was what distinguished her son among all these gentlemen in her life, that he alone was a true gentleman and not merely the image of one.
“And how is Veronica?” he asked mindlessly.
“I did not see her. She had to stay home to tend to her menstruation.”
Francesca had long ago made certain her son was genuinely aware of the feminine cycle, and the mention of this left not the slightest dent in his concentration.
“We spoke for a long while after mass at her house, discussing our wish for you to pay your visits to her niece on your own from now on.”
“What?” She had truly grabbed him off guard.
“Well, really, you are going to be engaged for so very long that it seems hardly necessary to tow me or your father along every time you wish to call on the girl. Marcelina and I both agreed it would be far simpler for everyone if, from now on, you would simply call on her by yourself. Only when the Marquesa is in, of course, but without our accompaniment, nevertheless. That way you can see her every day if your both wish.”
“But this is wonderful!” He stood up in spite of himself.
“Oh, well, I guess it’s all right with you then? You can tell Marcelina yourself when you see her that you approve of our decision.”
She absolutely loved the look in his eye. This was what life was, this look in the boy’s eyes, she thought.
“Well, good,” she said, “this way I can get used to being a lonely old lady, gradually, instead of all at once when you leave for school.”
“Mamá!” he defended her.