The walk to the sea terrace brought them down through several levels of gardens. Marcelina passed arm-in-arm through paved walkways lined with dark stones, polished by time and water before they’d ultimately been sculpted by artisans to create stunning patterns that gleamed in the moonlight. They passed calm pools with small, bubbling fountains, and fragrant moonflowers whose deep trumpets were just attaining their most powerful bloom. The women had only moved past the first of these adornments when they began to hear the dull roar of the sea ahead of them.
The sea terrace was a favored gathering spot built upon a low cliff jutting out just above where the Mediterranean crashed into massive rocks at its base. The terrace was enclosed by a short stone wall, sculpted with iridescent stones, tiles, and sea shells, whose playful style made this little hamlet stand out from the other parts of the grounds. The breeze rose lightly here, coming every now and then in lazy rushes through the numerous ornamental trees planted in large ceramic urns that dotted the terrace wall. A substantial wooden table that the girl had seen laid out with delicious lunches for small parties in prior years stood empty to one side, surrounded by small chairs. There were also more comfortable chairs for observing the stunning views scattered about.
They didn’t speak much until they reached the terrace railing and took in their first true breath of the cool, salty air. It was more than intoxicating to Veronica, this delicious constant of the estate’s flavor. How she longed for it the endless months that she spent away from this very spot. When she had taken her fill, Veronica turned to find Marcelina seated at one of two chairs courting a small ornate iron table.
“When I see you standing there, I can’t describe how impressed I am with the woman you are becoming.”
Veronica smiled through the dark night and found the seat beside her aunt. Studying her aunt’s figure now, Veronica couldn’t help but notice just how beautiful the Marquesa really was. She sat serenely in the powerful moonlight, the shadows falling around the angles of her sculpted face to bestow upon the woman the otherworldly grace of a marble statue. As a young girl, Veronica had always been overwhelmed by the influence that this woman seemed to hold over everyone around her. Even Veronica’s own mother, who was certainly not prone to being led by anyone, consented to her younger sister’s ideas and suggestions without resistance. But now Veronica was resigned to simply sit back and study the person that was her aunt. No other creature she had ever seen, much less known, had possessed that grace of stature that the Marquesa de Amontoní floated through life with. Her remarkable figure, much unlike that of her poorly aged sister, made her seem younger than a woman in her early thirties should. It perplexed Veronica to no end; that her mother and aunt were separated by only a couple years seemed as improbable as snow in August.
Marcelina pulled the pins from her hair and let the golden locks fall around her neck and down her back. Veronica was taken by this gesture of impropriety, more so because she had never witnessed her aunt with her hair down than of any fears of unannounced callers finding the woman in a compromising light. Hers was almost the hair of a very small child, with its soft malleability. It seemed as if it would fly off with the breeze at any moment, and had a sort of moving resonance, while it was, in fact, very full and thick to the touch. Its loveliness gleamed brightly now in the garden, as everything else did under this light.
“I believe there will be an even greater opportunity for you at Saturday’s ball than either your mother or I had counted upon,” said Marcelina. “To see you now, to look at how you’ve learned to carry yourself, we’ll likely accomplish more for you than your mother and I planned.”
“I don’t understand. Planned?”
“For the ball,” the Marquesa eyed Veronica with bewilderment. “Your mother has spoken of our plans for your stay here this season, of course.”
The girl fell silent, dumbstruck at the woman’s words, eliciting an unmistakable concern from the Marquesa.
“Surely, you understand that you will be presented Saturday…”
The woman’s words fell off but flew through Veronica’s body like a raging white fire. She had waited upon this moment of confirmation in solitude for months, trying everything to persuade her mother to set a date for the occasion. Her quinceñerra, her fifteenth birthday celebration, had been a very private affair and her mother had made no allusions as to when she would begin accepting suitors for marriage on Veronica’s behalf. The girl had dreamed that it would be here in Barcelona, where she might have the greatest opportunity to find a husband who would move her to the coast permanently.
“I had hoped that it would be true, of course, but Mamá never told me that she had even consented to such a thing.”
Marcelina’s face turned from bewilderment to scarlet outrage. “That woman will never finish infuriating me.”
She rose from her chair to pace about the terrace, attempting not to lose her composure, attempting not to upset the table, trying not to scream. “When I think of all the times I’ve scolded that woman for her miserable callousness… I grow ill! To act so with your own daughter, and at such a time as this in her life... it’s unforgivable. What reason could she ever have? I’ll never…” She stifled her last words and paced a little while longer before recomposing herself enough to sit down.
After a pause, she continued. “I’m not a woman to travel around my meaning, dear. Short of impoliteness, I say what I mean or I don’t say anything at all. And around you mother I find myself very quiet for extended periods of time,” she confessed, dryly.
Veronica caught herself smiling and corrected it, hoping she had not let her aunt see it.
“Darling, you are a young woman now and I will no longer strain my patience to speak to you like a perfect idiot. I will save that mindless labor for your mother.”
Marcelina reached out to place her hand on Veronica’s elbow. “You are not the same little girl that was here last summer, and I will not spend additional effort to keep you as one. Do you understand me?”
Veronica would be horrified if she genuinely understood the question. She simply smiled and nodded with eyes that beamed fascination at the strange idea.
“Good,” she continued warmly. “And I’ll be even more blunt with you when I say that I absolutely mean it when I assert that your mother is a perfect idiot, for truly she is.”
The girl was stunned by the words and she cast her eyes to the floor.
“To treat such a moment in the life of another woman, the day when she breaks free of the toils of childhood—female childhood at that—with such utter disregard, is truly unconscionable. I’m very much resentful toward her for doing such a thing, especially to her own daughter.” The Marquesa’s voice rose in anger again and she caught herself, taking another pause to let the emotion wane. “But maybe she still cannot see you for what you are, what you have become? Perhaps she stills wants to see the child in you, hmm? And for that reason alone, I may forgive Lucía.”
The woman’s stern expression suddenly turned into the gravest of looks. “But not anytime soon, yes?” And with that, the woman laughed outright.
Veronica smiled gently, still unsure of herself. This was an unanticipated tone, but not one that the girl could say she didn’t like. In fact, it comforted her to know that there was someone else who understood and shared her feelings about her mother and was willing to speak of them in this unguarded fashion. That it should be her aunt, of all people, moved the girl unexpectedly.
“Since you are so in the dark about your own future,” she continued, an annoyed look threatening to return in her eyes, “I will start from the beginning of our conversations regarding our plans for your debut, the correspondence we have carried on with each other over the past months.”
Veronica found herself completely taken in by this creature, this hypnotic and sensual being who now didn’t seem real at all. She couldn’t help but feel she was dreaming. It seemed inconceivable that this woman was about to make herself Veronica’s confidant.
“First of all, I will shine a small light in favor of your mother by saying that this really is all her doing. I did not think this was the best decision, at first, and I admit I was talked into much of it. You see, I had thought of you as being too young and too shy of disposition to arrange any type of a coming-out here in Barcelona. I thought your hesitant nature would do you more harm than good among the families of the coast. But your mother was convinced that you would find success here, and I can see now that she was completely right. To look at you now, I no longer see that irritatingly quiet girl from as recent as last summer. Instead, I see a young woman of high stature, one that has the capability to take the world for her own, if only she will learn how. And that is what I will teach you, dear… how to become a great woman.
“Anyhow, Lucía and I fought for months about how we would present you. For all of her callousness, I think maybe she sees a great deal which I don’t give her credit for. I think she has always seen in you the desire to be a part of this world, and I believe she understands, in private, that she does not have the power to give it to you without help. At least not without my knowledge of this culture, so very different from Madrid’s. We came to the decision that you would spend the summer here being presented at the finest houses that my name could gain you entrance to. In any case, after the season is over, we will visit your mother in Madrid, whether your prospects are to my satisfaction or not. When she and I have come to an agreement—and I assure you that I will win her consent to any decision that I make—we shall return and you will live here with me until the conclusion of your engagement. And in all of this time we are together, I will instruct you on Barcelonan politics and culture and, more importantly, feminine knowledge, which I understand is quite beyond your mother’s desire or ability to instruct.”
Veronica took these words as a breath of fresh air. All that she had privately hoped for herself seemed possible by the sound of this woman’s voice.
“I suppose that I should thank you,” the girl started. “I really don’t know how to. You do me such an honor.”
A crack of the sea sent flumes of mist high into the air as the tide returned in full force.
Marcelina warmed again to the beautiful young woman beside her. She was absolutely confident that she had found the young woman she was looking for in this creature: so lovely, so awake and full of promise.
“And this is what I had hoped Lucía would have shared with you before you left her. It just seems absurd not to have told you the moment it was decided upon. I really don’t know what she could have been thinking.”
Marcelina’s face clouded over. “It makes me fairly concerned, really. I think perhaps you should not speak to her of this when you communicate with her, at least not at first. Perhaps you should rely upon me and my correspondence with her.”
“If you think it would be best,” Veronica consented.
“Yes, I’m certain that the idea is more than your mother wants to deal with, as it pertains to speaking with you about your feminine education and marriage. I think your mother did not tell you because, underneath, she is very saddened by the whole affair.”
Veronica looked unsure of her meaning.
“Oh, I don’t mean to say that she doesn’t wish for your happiness, as we all do, but I think that she is still privately hurt that you’re leaving her in this fashion. To lose a daughter all at once... And maybe she did not want to distress you about leaving her in what will be such a permanent way.”
“But you said yourself that we would return to her in the autumn,” Veronica said, unconvinced. She had never really gotten along with her mother, and the whole idea of the woman distressing over her well-being, as it pertained to anything but her social standing, seemed somehow an unlikely and foreign notion.
“Yes, that is true. Well, whatever her purpose, we will put it behind us and you will not write to her of it. You seem to hardly write to anyone at all, or so I’ve noticed.”
“I suppose that’s true, I don’t write much, and I’ve never had need to write Mamá before. I genuinely hadn’t even considered it. My mother and I are not that close. She is very distant from all of us, at times. And when she isn’t, well,” she said, hesitating, “she isn’t very appreciative of my being in the way.”
Veronica felt the breath leave her body as she confessed these words so carelessly. She had never spoken of her mother in anything less than a constrained manner. She could not believe what she had let herself say.
Marcelina appeared to receive this with alarm. Veronica could not tell whether she was shocked by her candor or had been made uneasy by the matter itself. After silence had permitted the sounds of the sea to overtake their senses, the Marquesa looked at her niece in warm earnest.
“I’ve never had a daughter of my own, dear, and I don’t know if it’s something I should truly regret. I don’t know of a mother and daughter in this age that are as close as I think two should be. I was not close with my mother, nor was yours. Lucía was always very cold with our mother, as was everyone, really, but somehow your mother was favored. At times, I wonder if I was colder with my mother in the end than she was with me,” Marcelina paused in thought. “Nevertheless, you should not be distressed by any of this. You are here now and your life is beginning. Everything that has held you back will be removed and you will have the opportunity to help decide your future.”
“Oh, but what can I decide? You make it all sound as if any part of it were under my control. All of this future you speak of will be set by you and Mamá, not me. You will choose what I wear, whom I speak to, and who I will marry, will you not? What are all of these advantages you speak of? Being removed from my mother, as you put it, is merely a luxury for me, not a liberation.”
Veronica heard the last sentence she spoke as if in a mist-covered dream and could not fathom what had allowed her to say it aloud. And to this woman, of all people! She felt she had surely offended her.
But Marcelina only presented her usual affectionate smile.
“So observant, you are,” she whispered warmly, “but so sad, still. You cannot yet see all that awaits you.”
With that, she rose from her seat and extended her hand to her niece.
“Come, we should return to the house. The night air grows cooler.”