He had left her there with that last whisper, left the room because he finally understood in that one moment that she could not say it. And it was agony, this knowledge. It was for him the ultimate betrayal. It would serve as a source of anguish for him during every occasion he might see her in the future, he thought. It made the notion of marriage to her niece utter torture.
For hours after her carriage had left him in his district, a single thought would not let him rest: he could not marry Veronica because of what this woman had done to him.
If only she hadn’t cried. If only he didn’t believe in the end that she wanted him the same way.
Dídac sat at his desk, bent on writing something drastic, something to hurt her, something to destroy her in the same fashion. But he could not write a single word past his opening remark.
Waiting until words worthy of the woman’s treachery would come to him, he rested his head on his arm and stared at the oil desk lamp, letting his mind go until the wandering led him to sleep.
In the late morning when he awoke, it was as if the sunlight carried through the glass of his window the very words he had fallen short of the night before. They were drastic words, damaging. He could think of none other.
He wrote the letter over four times until it was perfect, his declaration of love, his declaration of war. It was done.
The only thing that remained for him now was to find the courage to send it.
This was not as simple.
The room was bitterly cold. Marcelina could not account for the weather anymore, it seemed to follow no logic as spring awakened. It could be intolerably stifling during the day, while at night the cold would creep back into the city, down the slope of Montjuic or one of her smaller sisters who all loomed over Barcelona, chilling the buildings with an unaccountable bitterness. Whatever the reason, the cold had penetrated every room in the townhouse and she could not keep warm enough even by the fireplace in her room.
She was at a loss. It was incomprehensible that this should have happened; she had been so careful! But she’d been a fool to think he would never arrive at this point. He wasn’t an ordinary man, after all, was he? Hadn’t his uniqueness been the entire reason she had championed Veronica’s engagement to the boy?
His letter had sat unopened at length before the Marquesa, daring her to let this go on. She had sat in the cold room for ten minutes with his letter, turning it over and over in her hands, then setting it down after a while on the table before her, waiting until she had found the resolution necessary for strength, the measure of confidence that would allow him to say anything to her. But all her waiting proved useless, and she did not come to some greater understanding of them both. Marcelina already knew she could not go on with it, there simply wasn’t any way to continue.
As she finally lost the strength to keep from reading it, Marcelina picked it up, broke the seal and unfolded it, more resolute in its impossibility than prepared to endure his words of love.
21 January, 1849
To the Marquesa de Amontoní,
I am writing to officially withdraw my proposal of marriage from your niece, Veronica Elena de Fernández y Motas.
I will take the necessary actions to inform the House of Ferrero upon my first opportunity at the week’s end. Please see to it that your niece is informed of my withdrawal with the proper expediency.
Dídac Adriá Ferrero i Martell.
Her soul had been extinguished by the fifth word; all those letters which followed read as the characters of a foreign text. She had been prepared for the worst from him, but the closure of seeing it spelled out in his own hand was more miserable than death itself. And in the first few moments, she had felt the helplessness that she had spent her every will in life avoiding. It was simple, this pain, for it required not the slightest will of involvement. It was the absence of control, the absence of her delusion of control, which she had made reality for herself daily, never allowing moments such as these to occur.
The only relief from this might be that his letter was the ultimate challenge. The more she studied the words, the more she devoted herself to this simple faith. He had said it as plainly as possible: he would finalize his decision by the week’s end.
Three days she had, then. Three days to see Dídac and heal the wound she had dealt him. Three days to prove to herself that her creation need not fall apart on account of a moment’s indecision.
She was resolute to still be at the helm of her world.
It had taken no small effort to bring him to her townhouse again. He had refused the invitation to discuss his course of action. He’d refused to see her at all. His refusal had poisoned the Marquesa with hesitation, but she chanced that this obstacle was not nearly so impossible.
Her coachman pulled up to the townhouse carrying the young man who held a letter from her requesting that he accept, in person, the return of his engagement ring. Marcelina did not have this ring, naturally, but from the moment he was escorted into her salon, she was certain that possession of it was quite unnecessary.
“I suppose I should be grateful that I was not expected to deliver my niece’s symbol of holy union through the common post,” she said venomously, choosing at the final moment not to deprive herself of at least one more blow for all these trials he had suffered her.
Dídac had expected this remark, hoped for it perhaps. He was so very prepared for it that he did not bother to learn the words of her statement, but simply ingested the tone of her poison. He had felt it would grant him leave to dispense with any allowances he might have been inclined to pay her out of sentiment. He loved her to the point of pain, and all might be made simpler if he adopted a tone that might prevent even a solitary word of affection from passing her lips.
“There will be no need of such measures, my lady, I am here to receive the ring in person.”
The Marquesa studied him intensely as his response came bitterly. His words set a game before her that was unmistakable. She was more confident than ever that her words would lead him from his dramatic foolishness.
She now rose from the seat that she had not bothered to depart from when he’d entered, realizing her simple psychological insult was truly her first injection of venom and quite unnecessary now that she was again sure of herself.
“I will be more than expedient in returning your charm, as you have prescribed in your letter of withdrawal, but I am afraid I simply must require from you a satisfactory reason for this outrage against my niece. I should think you would be aware of just how necessary a woman in my position would find this last strained act of respect.”
He was truly devastated by this, just as he had been in those moments days ago before he’d left her embrace. The agony was again beginning to race through his blood, but he summoned the composure to speak in his defense.
“I should think you are quite needless of such an explanation, Marquesa. You are, after all, quite aware of your involvement in the events that led to my decision. I have been as honorable as could be expected in this sad affair. I had hoped you would be, at the very least, receptive to my intent. I am trying to make this as painless as possible for your niece. It’s in poor taste for you to stand now and pretend innocence. There is no call for you to mock us both.”
And there it is, she thought, he will force me to resort to the pageantry that requires my humiliation. I have injured him past the point of simple affection and apology, he must have the drama of his tragedy played out with full emotion. He will not settle for less.
She assumed the position she had relied on countless times in the past, that certain collapse of body, affecting the appearance of her soul dislodging from her flesh. And then her head was lowered with a dignified look of shame as she summoned the tears, the only apology he would accept. And without fail, the tears came to her face now and flushed her cheeks as they fell in their slow dramatic time. And once that grievance had been executed, she concentrated on her breathing, the slowly building tremble that would soon translate into frame-shaking sobs. And when she was satisfied that he could not perceive her breakdown as anything but genuine, she began her true performance, the words which would need to mend and flatter the boy in order to win him back.
“This is my fault, you are right, señor,” she began. “I have done this to the both of us.”
Marcelina looked up at him now, holding him in her tears, confidant that her eyes would reveal nothing she would not have him see.
“And you are perfectly valid in seeking to withdraw from this engagement. Oh, but I fear for you, señor, fear that you are casting away your future because of my mistake. My niece, señor, she is still true to you and in love with you. She will not fail you as a wife as I have failed you as a lover. I beg you not to hurt her in hopes of enacting your revenge upon me; my punishment was felt when you left. Hurting Veronica will only serve to injure yourself.”
“You may stop there, my lady, there is no need to continue. I have come to a decision that is best for us all. I will not be deterred from it.”
“But don’t you see that it’s not best for you, or her, señor?” she cried, approaching him, closing the room’s length between them. “You know that it’s true she would be accepted by any house in the country, and her mother had asked of me that very thing, caring only that she be married off to the finest house possible. It was I who made it conceivable for her to choose whom she would marry. It was I who allowed her to be courted so intimately by someone who was not even of age, silencing her mother’s outrage only with the knowledge that your family’s wealth would compensate for your lack of ambition. It was I who taught her to value love, señor, to value the love between a man and woman as an essential component of marriage.
“Do not think my behavior with you was anything but my wish that your physical compatibility with her be a settled issue by the time you were to be wed. I am not proud of what we have done in these months, I am simply resolute that I have accomplished an assurance of my niece’s happiness, which I deem crucial. She has never been aware of our arrangement, señor. If I had felt the slightest measure of pride in my sacrifices, I can promise you I would not have hesitated to make her informed of my accomplishments on her behalf.”
Dídac shook his head slowly, stumbling over his thoughts, incapable of grasping the fatal point of his negation.
“That is not true,” he muttered. “What you say is a lie. You are lying to me, yes, lying, and I will not believe you. You did not have me here every week for half a year to endure some sort of motherly chore. You did not! You had me here because you wanted me, wanted me from the first day we met. And you started it because you knew you would never have me in a better position than when I was when engaged to your niece and powerless to resist your demands. That is why I am not allowed to speak when I am in this house. You will not suffer the slightest word of love from me, you will not risk my admission that I am not here out of fear but desire. You will not forsake your power over me because you know that you love me! And I will not stand for it even one more day!”
Why does he say this? she wondered. What does he mean to accomplish by putting this statement to me? Can he honestly believe this nonsense?
“I do not understand you or what you hope to receive from me by this,” she cried.
“I want you to tell me that your motivation for having me here in your arms all these months was that you loved me; loved me and wanted me. That you had me here not because you were concerned with some absurd notion of your niece’s happiness, but for your own! Tell me that you had me here out of selfishness and lust. There is no sin I cannot forgive us of, but don’t tell me you had me here like a dog breeder who coldly prepares whelps for collectors. I will not stand for such a lie!”
“It is not a lie!” she screamed at him. “That is precisely why you are here. You are a whelp, one I would prepare to be a champion, one which any woman would pay a fortune for! What did you think I would say, that I had chosen some stupid little boy to be my lover, one who had to be instructed minute by minute on how to please me? You have turned out fine, dear, but I did not choose you for your achievements as a man!”
“So just when did I turn out fine? You have had me here all this time and haven’t given me any new instruction for several weeks, not really. You simply have me, enjoy me, if I’m not mistaken, then send me off unaffected, or so you would want me to believe. But if you kept me here only for instruction, certainly I’d have graduated long ago. Why have I still been fetched in your carriage for the past month? Would you have me believe you’re polishing me up to a brighter shine? Just how hard do I have to make you come?”
“Stop it! You will not be vulgar to me now, and I will hear no more of this!” She was crying more intensely now, not entirely certain if it was still by her choice. She felt it was going too far. If she alienated him anymore, she might lose him all together. Perhaps, it would be better simply to tell him what he wanted to hear. How bad a thing could that be, she thought?
“Very well,” she began after a long silence, “I will tell you what you want to hear.”
“No, please, don’t make this more difficult than it already is.”
“Hush, dear, this isn’t easy for me.” She walked to him now and put her hands softly to his mouth. He tried once to recede, but it was an act of dramatic pride rather than a desire not to be touched by her.
“Stop, please,” he whispered, tears were demanding to be released, but he exerted all his will to keep that from happening. The wound became a fissure in his very soul.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, “you know why I have had to lie to you. This cannot be. If I allow you to love me in this way, you will not have the strength to give me up in two years. No, don’t, you know it’s true.”
“You don’t know what you say,” he replied, crying soundlessly. “I will not give you up, but I will not give her up either. I must have you both or nothing.”
She stared at him in fear, his warm breath close to her, and she saw that he meant this, meant every word of it. Marcelina understood, at last, that she had discovered the end of the argument for the boy: he would have her as his lover and Veronica as his bride. His bride! There was no way beyond his reason, no way now, and she saw her only hope was to carry him to marriage and somehow find a way to tempt him into finishing this game and become a husband in his heart. She had damaged him. She could see it so plainly on his face, in the timbre of his cry. She would have to spend twice as much effort in repairing what she had done. There was no other way.
He kissed her then, seeing that he had defeated her, slowly allowing his lips to bring back the warm love he knew to be resentful in the woman.
I am powerless against him once again, she thought. The sweet sensation of his arms was a drug she could not resist.
“Very well. It will be as you wish,” she whispered her cry.
It was over, she could no longer turn back. She gave over her body to him, as if it were he who had become the instructor.