The girl was mad from the traveling. The discomforts of riding in the premature heat of late spring were a great burden on the country road. Still, she gladly suffered them to sit within the stifling carriage beside her governess, a dour woman who was far less enthusiastic about tolerating their long journey from Madrid. It was the first time that the girl had travelled without her mother and sister, and that gift alone had made every stone and bump in the road a welcome friend.
The end of May carried with it a primal scent for Veronica Elena Fernández y Motas, filled with the fragrances of the moving country landscape and the dust kicked up by the horses that advanced them forward. She’d waited all year long for the expected formal invitation to spend the summer season at the Castell de Amontoní, the home of her aunt, Marcelina. The woman was Veronica’s favorite person in the entire world, and the only member of her family with whom she felt any communion. Marcelina Theresa Motas de Serra, the fourth Marquesa de Amontoní, made it far from secret that she all but lived for the love of her sister’s children, joyfully receiving them for months each summer to enjoy the relief offered by the cool breezes of the Mediterranean. The Marquesa’s home, looming over the eastern coast of Spain just north of Barcelona, held the unique position of perfection on earth for the girl. Though, the respite meant nothing in light of the very opportunity to be bathed in her aunt’s inexhaustibly sweet kindness. She felt like she was floating forward now, thrilled not just to be here, but also to be free of her mother’s inflexibility and her older sister’s dominating whims. To be so close now was almost more than she could bear.
The carriage had finally drawn close enough to the city that the roads were paved, and their advancement became much louder as the horseshoes clacked upon the stone. Approaching the Mediterranean, the weight of the sweet, salted air expanded her lungs. They eventually turned north and progressed along the coast, causing a veritable uproar in her limbs, barely stifled by the oppressive tightness of the little moving box. As Veronica leaned forward to look past her governess through the carriage window at the vast turquoise sea, the woman’s impatient look was enough to persuade the girl to immediately sit back without hearing a word.
For other guests, an invitation to Castell de Amontoní was a symbol of irreproachable status, a doorway to the attentions of the elite Catalonian aristocracy. Centuries after the unification of Spain that had resulted in an official disfavor of the older Catalan language, these nobles in the northeast of the country continued to defiantly pronounce the language even louder to separate themselves in spirit from the stifling methods of modern Spanish rule. And the Marquesa’s walls provided the ideal shield. Though she had been born Madrilenian, the young Marcelina had deftly embraced her husband’s Catalonian heritage, creating a unique balance that saw her cherished by both cultures. Simply put, it was her uniqueness among the women of the noble houses that afforded the many irregularities in her house, including the old Catalonian opposition to the “new” establishment. Though such a peculiar abnormality would have been scoffed at, were it any other woman, the widow of the great naval general, Don Augustí Marc Serra i Martorell, the Third Marqués to the House of Amontoní, enjoyed every exception made for her to retain the irreproachable and majestic status of her regency.
Beyond this small band of ancient rebels, the Marquesa’s invitations went only to those persons in society whom she deemed worthy of her attentions, and the criteria for her approval was renowned for being eccentric, if not hedonistic. Only those who possessed a sparkling distinctiveness found themselves being treated fairer than her ordinary guests. Artists of every field: writers, poets, painters, dancers, actors, singers and their composers, the most scandalous and infamous of each sort. Foreigners from every nation in Europe journeyed to her house fully aware and sincerely expectant that under her roof they would be presented as gods to the best of society and displayed with an almost religious grandeur. Even those that were thought of as heretics anywhere else were given a nod of approval if placed at the Marquesa’s side. Whatever physical beauties the place held for the senses, they could never overshadow the pleasures guests would experience from the social prestige that an invitation guaranteed.
Supported by her family’s staggering wealth, no scandal could strip from the Marquesa the prestige she impressed on the families of Spain, noble or not. It was clearly understood that she did not extend invitations to the bulk of her family scattered throughout Madrid and the west of the country. She made not the slightest attempt to hide her impatience with their conservative banter and philosophies. In fact, she went out of her way to carefully insult them as politely and as frequently as possible, or so they believed. She made the exception for her nieces, Lucía and Veronica, her only sister’s daughters.
The Marquesa had long ago been given the opportunity to inspire a worldlier view in the girls, having taken advantage of their annual visits to gently open their eyes to the very world their mother ignored. While Lucía had just married and would likely never be given leave by her husband to vacate Madrid again, her private battles with the impatient discipline of her mother had resulted in an exhausted silence from the woman over the years. Her exhaustion had prompted a withdrawal resulting in a more lenient accommodation of Veronica’s upbringing. The two simply did not speak very often, and Veronica chose not to give her cause to, as Lucía so loudly had. The Marquesa took advantage of this opening to develop a uniquely close relationship with Veronica, acting as a surrogate mother when they were alone.
Though the woman lived as magisterially as a queen might, one wouldn’t think so were they to speak with her intimately. Some may have thought it unnerving to witness the Marquesa affect an intellectual view of the world and its doings when speaking to both friends and acquaintances, language filled with a bewildering sense of modern liberalism, though she lived in almost autocratic decadence. Wiser birds found that they could not last very long in her presence should they to attempt to treat her as a queen or deity. She simply did not see herself as elevated above other people in that way and quickly lost patience with those who did.
Despite this irregularity, her position and wealth perpetually made Marcelina the object of many suitors’ eyes. The tragic demise of all four of the Marqués de Amontoní’s sons in naval war, who were followed shortly by their devastated mother, had meant that the very future of the house rested squarely on the shoulders of his new child bride. And in the four years they had been married, Marcelina had never borne him an heir before Don Augustí closed his eyes forever. Now thirty-two years old, she had seen to it that the memory of her life as a wife, the predicament she had so unsatisfactorily dealt with as a girl, continually kept her from the slightest consideration of a second marriage. She had resolved that such a life was behind her for good. A woman in her position had little need of marriage. If the title must die with me, then so be it, she thought.
Veronica understood only some of this and, at times, certain unfocused suspicions crept about at the back of her mind. But whenever such a notion found itself wanting to become a conscious thought, she quietly disavowed all interest in the subject to better focus on all that was wonderful in this place. And it was this feigned disinterest that afforded her the pleasure of loving and admiring the whole design of the seductive world her aunt had constructed. She was proud to be given a part in it, even if only a small one.
The castle came into view, nestled amongst the giant Aleppo pines even from this long distance, and Veronica could see it well. It was monstrously large, erected upon medieval stonework with its back to the Mediterranean, designed to guard against the naval armies of past ages. Castell de Amontoní rose over the coast on a jutting hill at the breakwater that was high enough to send its fourth story to the very heavens. The crown tiles of its turreted roofs shone brightly in the blazing sun, beckoning the girl’s carriage along the final stretch of its journey.
When the property line had been crossed, the carriage driver whipped the spent horses into one final charge through the acreage toward the forecourt. Footmen in flawless red silk uniforms trimmed with gold emerged from the house to receive them.
The Marquesa de Amontoní, her aunt and godmother, appeared outside the doors shortly to greet Veronica with arms unashamedly outstretched. Feeling the woman’s laughter and warmth envelop her, Veronica understood again that all the suffering in the world could be reasoned and atoned for in but the shortest of moments.
“Ah, my sweet love,” the woman whispered in the girl’s ear, “you are finally with me again.”