Time stretched out after her sister’s death. Despite the Marquesa’s natural inclination to be swept away with a grieving pause, she continued on with her life in the same fashion and drove for achievement. Her one honest drive through this period—while potent memories of her youth endlessly brought back long-forgotten experiences with her sister—was for the enrichment of her niece’s future. In fact, the Marquesa delved into her efforts with a magnified ambition. With Veronica’s mother gone, the last and final barrier between them was brought down. Veronica was her daughter now, the Marquesa genuinely believed it to be so, and her foresight of the young woman’s future understood no boundaries. All that she had ever envisioned for herself, the young girl who suffered from the confines of a memory laced with regret, would be created now and made possible for her niece.
Veronica became a presence within the houses of Barcelona, allowing the Marquesa to carefully choose which gatherings she would appear in. The woman provided her instruction on how it was within her means to mark those homes that others would eventually come to embrace and fight to be received by, simply due to her prestige. Veronica learned that, indeed, she too had the power to ennoble one family and defame another, regardless of their established mirth, simply by choosing to or not to make an appearance under their roof. And Veronica exercised this power carefully and humbly at all times, only reveling in this ridiculous ability to influence people so unconsciously when she was alone or with her aunt. She wouldn’t dare mention it to anyone else, even her fiancé. She feared Dídac might not fully see the dynamics of it and think it petty, which she refused to allow it to become. She would have him approve of her in every way.
Veronica did not need to be told that it was her aunt’s initial presentation of her that had empowered her own influence in this small but accredited community of wealth. And it was precisely because of her aunt’s involvement that Veronica continued to look to the Marquesa for guidance and instruction.
“All of one’s gifts must be understood to be responsibilities. To lavish in power is the greatest vulgarity. You would soon come to realize that such power would be rendered useless if you did not respect the possibilities for good it promised.” More than a half hour of reproach had followed this statement of her aunt’s one afternoon. Veronica had stupidly gloated over how simple an act it was to persuade her growing number of acquaintances that the Rubio’s archery party was a dull and lame affair, and the Marquesa had rarely been so serious with her. From then on, Veronica acknowledged that her influence must be exercised only for some greater good; it would be better not to leave the house at all, otherwise.
And when Veronica found that there was nothing that truly inspired her to use this power, she simply ignored it. Rather, she attempted some of the enterprises the Marquesa had recommended. She endorsed local artists who needed financing, she organized her efforts for those charities that were ever in debt, and she even turned to Father Mateu, whom she saw more and more of in a less congenial way, hoping to be turned on to some sort of charitable mission that she could embrace.
But after a few months full of these experiences, Veronica realized she was not suited to be anyone’s benefactor, not merely to justify the wicked little pleasure of exercising her influence. The parties were not nearly that fun, and the work was too difficult and uninspired, not to mention endless. She realized that the work of charity was not something to be done for idle reasons, and she came to ennoble it with that degree of respect.
Shunning her acquaintances and their gatherings, except when expected and necessary, Veronica turned to improving herself as a soon-to-be bride. She came to the conclusion that any man who would graduate from a university would hardly want to find himself married to a lovely fool. Though, to her credit, the Marquesa had seen to it with undeterred focus that Veronica became more knowledgeable of the inner workings of marriage and society. Nevertheless, during the last couple months, Veronica had taken to reading every periodical and historical book she could come across in the house’s untouched, but well-preserved, library.
Her aunt had confessed to the girl that her uncle was not a great reader of literature, having collected what books they owned for decoration more than anything. And the Marquesa had confessed to not having the slightest inclination to read historical texts herself; the body of her knowledge was acquired through life and hundreds of French and German novels, which she believed to be the best and least romanticized of stories, despite the disapproval of most.
In all truth, Marcelina had fretted while eying the girl as she laid silently engrossed with these texts. Upon discovering the girl with a book on military history, the Marquesa had erupted into a fit of shocked laughter.
“I doubt even my husband would have spent a week reading that one!” she had whispered nervously.
All of this passion that the girl had adopted for masculine knowledge was admired by the Marquesa, though it was certainly unexpected. Still, she saw it as another of her own accomplishments to have enriched the girl, inspiring her into spreading her own wings to find ideas and worlds the Marquesa would never have visited. Indeed, she had settled herself on the opinion that, after all the education she’d concentrated upon the girl, seeing the child pursuing this new direction must ultimately be a good thing. Coming to this conclusion, the Marquesa challenged herself to venture more and more on her niece’s behalf in a private fashion. She focused on those actions she took without the girl’s knowledge to better serve Veronica’s future more than ever.
The woman had long ago arranged to continue seeing Dídac without anyone’s suspicion. Marcelina maintained a small but richly appointed townhouse downtown that was only ten minutes from his lodgings near the university. Assigning her frequent travels to the burdens of her wealth and her attorney’s wish to have his entire office at her disposal, she was able to carry out this arrangement with her niece’s fiancé without ever raising suspicion in the girl.
Of course, Veronica was taken to visit the young man at the university, always being afforded the same small privacy that Marcelina had extended to them at the Castell de Amontoní. But these visitations happened only once a month, and even though Veronica had written her fiancé unfailingly, the truth was that her life had evolved during his first school term with only his passing knowledge, and not his active participation. Dídac’s letters came infrequently but with excuses and apologies, attributed to the requirements of his relentless studies.
Though Dídac had grown accustomed to visiting Marcelina in her townhouse once a week, he did not know her mind as he knew Veronica’s. For when he was with the Marquesa, there were certain unalterable rules that he must abide by: namely her insistence that he not speak. In the first days, it was a law that had been repeated every time they met. But after several weeks, it had become a way of life. He would simply arrive in her carriage, sent to fetch him, and proceed upstairs to her room where they would make love. The only voice was her own as she continued to command his every move, scolding him for his often-clumsy insensitivity, and praising him now and again for some moment of perfect pleasure that he had brought her.
As she was the only one of them permitted to speak, the timbre of her voice became an aphrodisiac for Dídac. He would hear her soft alto long before he would arrive, and then for days after, the memories of her sharp commands sporadically inspired inconvenient and embarrassing erections in his classes. But even these inconveniences became something he loved, and these unconscious responses in him fostered a desire for the Marquesa that was left to magnify silently within him, only extending to tenderize and impassion his behavior with her.
Now and again, he would blunder as he had that first time and utter his love for her with the most defeated whisper. To this, she would always smile and place her finger on his lips to lovingly silence him. For she did love him, but there could not be such words between them. She had resolved that it would be better if she forced him to be her object, as much as possible.
Dídac turned to his correspondence with Veronica when he was overcome by his desire to speak to his Marquesa. He wrote volumes filled with the most profoundly beautiful prose he could think of, all of it a vent for his impassioned desire to speak to his lover. None of the letters written to Veronica contained any concrete information of his studies, or his independent life for that matter. Every syllable was devoted to a great longing for love between them, a love which he would throw everything away for. And every time he put a letter to post, he wished that the Marquesa’s name could be inscribed on the outside, instead of his fiancée’s.
He loved Veronica, however, and the subterfuge affected considerable pain in the boy, living with his secret. But at the end of each episode of inner conflict, he resolved it was merely an act for the Marquesa, one which he must see clearly and remove all sense of romance from. He could love the Marquesa silently and intermingle those words he felt for her in the letters only his fiancée would read. And if Marcelina was reading their correspondence, as he suspected she was, then all the better. This life was enough for him, though occasionally his imagination flew through possibilities that were impossible. But what of it?
It was precisely at such moments that his letters to Veronica would become daring and slightly erotic, moments when the recipient would assume the essence of both women.
“And more I wish you were here with me again,” he once wrote, “that I could touch you again and hold you close to me, feeling the warmth of you. It’s the worst torture, this being here alone without you, waiting until you have some desire to see me again. Where are you? Why must I be alone? What must I do to have you with me again? Speak to me! I love only you.”
Always these words were written in a frenzy of emotion, and afterward he would feel a disgust for them, followed by a contempt for himself. It was a confession of his suffering and joy, and ultimately it was something he loathed about himself. The situation was terrible for him, he thought. Their lovemaking was a constant source of conflict producing a ceaseless anguish, but it ultimately became as necessary and addictive a drug as any other.
It was at the end of Dídac’s winter break, less than a week before classes would resume. His visit home to the Ferrero estate for Christmas week had been far more difficult than he had imagined, especially when the Marquesa and his fiancée had stayed for several days. To be around the woman, but yet unable to be with her, had been a genuine agony for Dídac, and having to focus all his attentions on Veronica had only reminded him painfully of his infidelities.
Returning to the city, he had resolved that his inability to cope with the silence between him and the Marquesa must end or he would certainly go mad. This was a resolution in which he did not entirely believe, but he felt there could be no other line of action than something dramatic and final for this affair to bring him more pleasure than pain. He needed some sense of resolution, at any cost.
Dídac told himself during the brief ride from his apartment to the Marquesa’s townhouse that he could only affect change through a decisive action. And when he arrived, he held to this notion as he followed the woman’s footman upstairs to confront her for the last time.
She was dressed in a simple but elegant composition of turquoise satin and white lace that hung smartly, layered in the most handsome manner, he thought. It seemed that no matter what she wore, her attire played off this majestic room of violet papered walls and silver cornices delightfully. Every reflection in the crystal from the chandeliers brought out some vibrant secret in the colors of this room, rendering her in some ethereal light that magnified her beauty and sped his pulse. Indeed, his heart stumbled every time he saw her!
The Marquesa rose from her secrétaire, replacing her silver quill in its ink holder, and came across the distance between them, receiving his embrace and first kiss of the night.
This first kiss he could not deny himself. Dídac could not refuse something so purely wonderful for any reason, whatever the cost. But when her lips left his, he quickly grabbed hold of his former intent and thought quickly of just what he would say. To his surprise, he found that it was she who would commence this impossible conversation.
“But look at you. Your color is wrong. What’s the matter, dear?”
He was momentarily stumped, assaulted by question instead of command, recovering only to thank her without words in his own manner.
“I have something I must say, something about us,” he uttered with a man’s voice.
Marcelina’s eyes were put off by this, more so by the tone, which was the giveaway, rather than the exact words.
“Yes?” she asked, turning to find a seat on the sofa.
He followed her lead and secured himself in a chair across from her, a safe position where he could recite his practiced speech without any danger of hurting himself.
“We do not talk about this, ever, and I would like it if you would allow me to say everything I must.”
She simply nodded her assent. Dídac could find no look of suspicion in her eyes as he studied her for that one second.
“I am at a loss, my lady,” he hesitated. “I do not know how to say what I mean without being indelicate. I cannot continue with this arrangement as it is, this silence between us. I don’t know what it is you want from me, how you can keep doing this without uttering the slightest word of love for me…”
“But I do love you, dear,” she interrupted.
He looked to her as if she had destroyed him. Gathering what was left of his breath, he spoke from pure instinct.
“I cannot see you in this way anymore if I am not to be permitted to speak and tell you how I feel. I mean, I love you, and every time we are together I love you more. Yet you say nothing but the coldest words of observation or... approval. You simply tell me what to do and touch me as if you love me, but you say nothing! And I don’t understand it, I don’t understand how you can have me here every week and say nothing, feel nothing, want nothing from me but this vulgar obedience.
“Something must change,” he frowned. “I realize now that this has to change somehow or end. If you would only let me tell you how I feel, how much I love you, I think I could continue on with this, give into whatever you wanted from me. But God, just let me tell you what you mean to me, just once! I don’t know what else I can say.”
The last word had caught in his throat. He realized that tears had begun to back up in his eyes, and in that moment, he felt himself to be an absolute failure. He had ruined it, muttering something incoherent to her and now it was over. He would live forever with this regret, this shame.
The Marquesa had not moved, she simply continued to stare at him, as if she had adopted the detached mood she held while riding in her carriage. When Dídac saw this look, it was the final blow. He could no longer stop the tears that shamed his face.
A slight frown of anger came to her forehead, or was it distress?
“I understand,” she said quietly. And with that, she rose from her seat and walked away.
He had thought she would now excuse herself to leave him in his agony, but she did not. Instead, the lady walked about the room, glancing from object to object, as if attempting to bounce her thoughts off the furniture in hopes it would confirm some notion of hers.
“I’ve certainly never heard that from a man. You are a rarity, aren’t you? And tears, as well. You mean business when you say it, don’t you? Yes, I see you do. But do you understand why I have not permitted you to speak when we are together?”
“You said yourself, you want me to be good enough for your niece. You want for me to be silent and pay attention to your instruction. Instruction...that’s what you call it,” he grinned falsely as he sighed. There was the slight hint of bitterness in his language, more defeat than resignation.
“That has nothing to do with it,” she reproached quickly. “You do not speak because I cannot afford for you to speak.”
“I don’t understand you,” he squinted at her when she came into focus again.
“I had already chosen to love you before you were ever engaged to my daughter, don’t you understand? I loved you from the moment you blushed before me on account of your father’s stupid words. Don’t you see, I had decided that I would love you then. I hadn’t even conceived of this arrangement at that moment, but still, I knew I would love you for your sensitivity and pride alone.”
“Love me? Yes, love me,” he sniffed, “like you love the artwork in your house. Love me like you’d love your nephew. But that isn’t what you do. You take me to your bed, and what for? Not because you love me, but because you love her!”
“And because I love you!” she let her voice rise. “You think I take you to my bed only out of love for her! I educate you because I love her. I educate you in my bed because I love you!”
“How can you say that, say you love me when you have not whispered one word of that affection in months, not one whisper while taking me to your bed!”
“Because I can’t afford to tell you this! I can’t afford for you to fall in love with me. I can’t afford to grow possessive of you, to love you without detachment. Don’t you see, if I say that I love you when you are in my bed, in my arms, I won’t be able to let go when the time comes! And I will not do that to either of us, I cannot!”
“But I love you!” he shouted in anger, rising to his feet without notice.
“Love her! That is why you are here, don’t you understand? I have brought you here to learn to love her like a man, not me. I do not need you to love me.” She felt she might cry if he answered her. “That’s enough, I don’t want to discuss this. Leave and go home.”
“That’s a lie!” he screamed, suffering as much from his heart as his ridiculous volume. “You don’t believe that! You need me as much as I need you. Say it!”
“I will not,” she whispered. She felt the tears threatening.
“Yes, you will! Say it, I will hear it from you now!”
“I won’t! Be silent!” she hissed.
“You will say it! Tell me now, tell me you need me. I already know it’s true! Tell me you want me like I want you!”
He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her body to his own, kissing her without resistance. He kissed her in agony, a last bit of desperation that had somehow overcome his pride.
“Tell me,” he whispered the cry.
She stared at his pleading eyes until she could no longer stand it, looking to the floor, defeated.
“You must leave now, señor.”