Veronica heard in passing that the Marquesa had returned when one of the footman spread the knowledge to the staff loud enough for her to hear it, unmistakably. Veronica had long grown accustomed to her aunt’s weekly ritual, her reliable journey fifteen miles downtown to meet with her representatives, and then the night spent at her townhouse only to return the next day. But Marcelina had not returned in three days, and no word had been sent to the house as to when they might expect her. That she would arrive so late in the evening was also odd.
She gathered herself to descend to meet her aunt but was cut off by the sight of the woman landing at the top of the third floor, just as Veronica exited her room.
“Come with me,” Marcelina said, hurrying up the stairs past the girl.
Words were not shared for several moments as Veronica found her usual place on the sofa in her aunt’s drawing room and watched her settle in. From an armoire, Marcelina selected a very large bottle of Caribbean rum and set it out with small crystal glasses, lighting some candles in seconds and thoughtfully observing their glow before taking her first sip of the drink.
“Everything went well in town?” the girl enquired.
“Yes, everything is fine. I simply stayed longer to please my lawyer. He is in the process of executing a major security that required my presence in his office for days. And as such, I don’t wish to have his staff of insects crawling around this house.”
“So then? To what do we drink?
Marcelina took notice of the glasses now, as if she hadn’t entirely been aware of having put them out. She brought the rum to her mouth savagely. Fine, sweet and hot, the way she preferred it. There was no distance she would not travel for this special drink, though so much of it was available here in Spain and Portugal that was not imported from the other side of the world.
“I want to talk about you. You have been on my mind for some time and I wonder if I haven’t failed you, fallen off in my parental duties. I realize you are so close to me now that I take it for granted you cannot hear my very thoughts. Is there anything you wish to talk about that we haven’t examined yet? You will soon have been here almost a year. Certainly, there are things that you have observed in all that time you wish to discuss?”
Marcelina waited for her response now with a fairly wide-eyed stare, the blonde wisps of her journeyed hair attempting to break free of her hairdresser’s vision. Veronica loved her aunt most at times like these, when her attentions became ripped away, it seemed, to focus on matters that were perpetually in plain sight, but that were rarely noticed by the woman. In fact, she had nothing on her mind to speak of, but this was not important. It was a given that whatever the subject, both of them would wind up with an overwhelming exasperation that they had uncovered some unturned stone, bringing them closer to each other. It was fantastic, she thought.
“Nothing terribly important, I’m afraid. I’ve been doing nothing but reading lately.”
“Just lately?” the Marquesa eyed her playfully, evincing a posture which she rarely displayed to people other than her niece. “It seems to me there is little else you have done in months. Just how many books are there under this roof?”
“You’d be impressed to know!” Veronica declared, mimicking the woman’s wide eyes. “There are ancient texts of all sorts here, fingerprints of de Amontoní ancestors long since gone from this earth.”
Marcelina relaxed into a beautiful laugh that seemed to have overwhelmed some sort of underlying tension she had brought home with her. It was a simple and profound pleasure for the Marquesa that her new daughter did not submit herself to the mind-numbing chatter of other young women, those she had only months ago flocked to with religious devotion. Marcelina was more than satisfied that the girl was already such an intelligent outcast and celebrated consort. Let the house go deaf with the sound of screaming bindings being pulled apart, the literati be damned!
“Tell me something that pleases you from one of these books. What keeps you so enthralled?”
“Julius Caesar and his empire! The stories in those books, you wouldn’t believe it. The whole continent and beyond, they say. Even Barcelona, before the Moors. The Romans had developed the city for centuries, infusing it with their culture so that it took on a distinct flavor from the entire empire. The stories of the emperors and their battles and their women. You wouldn’t believe it all.”
“I’ve been there, in Rome,” Marcelina rolled her eyes slightly. “It’s you who wouldn’t believe it. What a different breed they are. Such an aggressive mindset.”
“I would love to go there someday, just to walk the streets. To sit inside the arena. That would make it all seem real to me.”
“It was full of weeds when I was there, but it still managed to make an impression on my young mind. But you should certainly go there, dear. Take a long journey after you are married, before you must consider children.”
It was a question Veronica had been waiting to be led to for as long as she could remember.
“Why did you never...?”
“Children?” Marcelina filled the dead air. “It was not possible. The forces driving against it couldn’t be overcome. He left so very soon after we were married and returned only once for a month in the years before he passed. And he was so very old, as well. Truthfully, it was not an easy proposition for us. And during the few times when I did conceive, I suffered miscarriages. I was so young.” She looked at the girl’s eyes suspiciously now. “Why, how long have you wanted to ask me that?”
Veronica averted her eyes from the reproach, though it was but merely a caring question. She immediately felt as if the knowledge was something she could have carried on without knowing.
“I’m sorry, Tia. I didn’t mean to wander through such memories.”
“No, no, dear, it was so very long ago. I don’t ever think of it anymore, really. But in a way, I guess it’s always been a part of my driving will in seeing you settled with someone of your age. I did not really know Augustí. He was well into his fifties when he married me at seventeen. Thinking back, I believe he cared for me more as a victory, rather than as a wife. He had outlived my predecessor, who had borne him five sons. They all tragically met the same fate in the Navy. I believe he saw me as his last hope of outsmarting the dark cloud that had consumed his family. But in the end, all that was left was a young girl who found herself taken in and adored by the women of the old families.
“It was an incredible freedom to have been reared by so many loving people. And then, overnight, I came to understand that I was the only de Amontoní left, that this house was mine alone, that I had no need in the world. But most importantly, there was no one who would oppose the life I set out to live, not even his relatives, who all thought the title should’ve gone to them. There were the endless suitors; the old ladies felt so very obliged to find someone to ensure my respectability. But I had observed much of the world by then and knew well enough that I would never just marry anyone for the sake of marriage again. And to escape the suitors I fled; to Paris and Venice, to Amsterdam and London, to everywhere, even New York. I landed in your lovely Rome somewhere along the way and admitted myself to every house my name or reputation would allow for. And even there, I faced suitors in every corner. But this did not matter. I had long learned what to make of the world, and what its possibilities and dynamics were.
“In the end, the life I chose was really the only one a woman in my place could choose: I became as much a man as a woman could. I changed the politics of my suitors without their consent or knowledge and found myself all at once a master of facades. I had always been on my own, at heart, and with this mask I wore for them, I was granted the opportunity to take from them anything I chose. And by the time I was twenty-five, I returned to this house with my name greatly enhanced and resolved myself to make an honest attempt to determine if I had the power to take what I wanted from the world. And to my delight, I found myself capable of having anyone in the world undergo a frenzied journey just to be with me here in this ridiculous fortress, which had seemed the memory of a prison for so long. I made this house mine at last, and my guests made a widow the most respectable woman the old families had ever seen. I’ve lived here ever since with precisely this influence, and I am quite certain nothing could ever tempt me to leave. And finally, when I had thought perhaps the gluttony of it all might be the undoing of me, you came into my life and proved there was a reason for all I have accomplished.”
Marcelina moved off the subject consciously. “But how do you feel about the proposition of marriage after all this time? Surely, you have de-sentimentalized it by now.”
“No, not at all,” Veronica admitted. “It’s only that I’ve stopped thinking about it. The whole idea of it is too much to live with every day when I realize just how long the years truly are to be. And there is so much I want to do before I’m married. By the day of our honeymoon trip, I want to be knowledgeable of all the places we might journey to.”
“That’s wonderful and fine, dear. But tell me, how do you feel about sex now? Do you still worry about your compatibility with Dídac?”
“No, not at all. You should know this by now, Tia. You were the one that helped me to understand why those old fears were unnecessary. No, I understand that everything will work out fine. If God has brought us together, His will shall render my fears mute.”
“Oh my, but that’s a romantic and poetic statement! How wonderful that you feel that way. I hadn’t thought you would ever see it in that light.”
Veronica felt proud of what she had said; she certainly believed her words.
“But tell me,” her aunt continued, “have you yet felt the desire to be with anyone else? Have you thought of being with a man physically while you wait out the long span until your marriage?”
Veronica did not receive the question well; it brought back a consciousness that she had tried very hard to put behind her. The truth was that she thought of being with Dídac often, and when this thought of her fiancé had not materialized to her satisfaction, she invariably turned to the night she spent with Father Mateu. The episode with the General had long been removed as a variable in these thoughts, but somehow the few moments of ecstasy in the beginning were combined and infused with Father Mateu. It was his face in place of the General’s, and when she was alone in her bed, her sexual desires were often constructed in this manner. It was not something she was ashamed of, but rather something she felt was a betrayal to Dídac, something she would not ever dishonor his love by turning into words.
“It is not important to me now,” she answered solemnly.
Marcelina did not know just how she should receive such a response. She did not truly understand what her motivations were for her query, but without fail the need to proceed along this line continued in her.
“Not important? Really, I had thought you would be most inclined to the idea of taking on a lover, what with so much time on your hands until the wedding?”
This was abhorrent to the girl. Her aunt’s words were a sacrilege to her very soul. Veronica had long analyzed her behavior in the past with a great tendency to stray to the arms of guilt, but had, with her aunt’s wisdom and help, learned to separate the girlish feelings of fear from her new woman’s knowledge of life. But still, it was inconceivable that her aunt would be so careless as to suggest she consider a lover when she was so much in love with Dídac, not to mention engaged to the boy who had been so loving to her, in spite of the long time they had been separated.
“I do not understand you, Tia, you know good and well how I feel about Dídac.”
“Yes, yes, I do know. But really, what has that to do with it? Certainly, you have wished to have at least the comfort of someone in your bed, if not the spiritual love.”
The words struck Veronica like a slap across the face. Her aunt had somehow found her way to the root of a conflict that Veronica had long since buried by the decree of her better judgment. Speaking of it now so boldly brought out a great pain from the girl. She felt her heart increase its pace as an uncomfortable warmth rose to the top layer of her skin.
“No, Tia. It is not something I’m interested in,” she answered softly. “I am more than content to be faithful to my fiancé, as he is to me, until we are joined.”
“Oh well, that is wonderful. I don’t want you to feel I was suggesting you take on another lover. I was merely speaking abstractly about human desires, dear. No, it is very good that you have found a joy in him, it will anchor you so very well.”
Veronica felt a slight ease with this omission, and the tension of her fear began to subside.
“But tell me this,” Marcelina continued, “would you like to take Dídac on as your lover now while he is at school?”
“My God, Tia, why do you ask me this? You know very well he would never consent to such a thing.” It was absurd of her; she had gone too far with this.
“You think so, do you? I have a pretty good idea he would be more than thrilled if he could have you now. But just think, Veronica, I am in town every week at the flat downtown. He is only ten minutes away by carriage. You could come with me from now on so that you two can be together.”
“That’s ridiculous, Tia, he would not ever allow for such a thing! My God, what if his family were to find out about it? No, Tia, you cannot believe such a thing would work.”
“Ah, so then you would care to have him now, wouldn’t you?”
Veronica felt her heart might rupture from this talk, this nonsense.
“Of course, I would, but...”