Veronica’s memories soon after that encounter were ones of vivid imagery, violently filled with the color and texture of his skin, even the musk of his sex. She could not escape the barrage of thoughts that attacked her every time she smelled a hint of his fragrance, and she seemed to find it again everywhere she turned. What was once a house of sweet flowers now seemed like a brothel filled with the traces of his every labored breath.
She tried in all earnest to do as Marcelina had asked of her without screaming, proceeding to the music room off from the grand salon. Veronica would’ve consented to anything if only to escape the naked man. She hurried downstairs, turning away the servants she encountered. Thankfully, they took their leave without a great deal of fanfare and she settled on the bench behind the large harpsichord that stood near the corner at the far end of the room.
The music room was immense, a fact not challenged by even the largest of God’s creatures. She had fancied as a child that an entire country might fit into one corner and never be aware of a second nation established across the floor. The ceiling was crowned by a gilded golden oval, filled with angels and demons who raged war against each other from one end of Heaven to the other. In spite of the vastness of the painting, one might think it absurd that Heaven could ever be as unnecessarily huge as these frescoes implied. There were certainly never enough Christian families in history to warrant God’s need for so much wasted space. Only mortals would think it so huge a place, she thought.
Veronica touched the keys of the harpsichord and heard the sound echo throughout the vast room. The vibration sent her mind to focus on what she could still remember of her aunt’s words. But the vague hints of his smell reminded her over and over again of what she had beheld in those moments of sin. What a strange organ he had been endowed with, so lifeless and heavy and thick; she could only imagine what a burden it was to keep. She had seen a male cousin’s body when they were both five-years-old and the door to the bathroom had opened for a few moments for the nanny to exit. That fluttering worm had so perplexed her. It just seemed like a mistake, an error in judgment, a useless extra piece of flesh.
She felt a relief at being female just to avoid the trials that such a burdensome appendage must demand. She need only think of the way the balls hung and moved, independently it seemed, within that sack of thinly stretched skin, to feel a revulsion and sympathize with pity for all men. She wondered if this burden was part of men’s sentence, their punishment to inherit the more ignoble and vulgar aspects of life, those which they seemed so willingly suited to handle. In any case, it was of little consequence here.
Within seconds, the footman entered, allowing the Marquesa into the music room. She wore a silk, champagne dress that brightened her face and enhanced the brilliant color of her flaxen hair. She met Veronica with her usual wistful smile and moved past the girl to sit at the large burgundy velvet sofa in the sitting area beside the harpsichord.
Marcelina began to speak to Veronica before the girl had decided to follow and sit down. “As I said, my friend, Blanca came to me when they were arguing about her not wanting to partake in love-making.”
The girl averted her eyes and blushed again at the very idea of speaking about something so intimate and private. The Marquesa did not allow herself to be interrupted by this response.
“Blanca had decided that she was quite beyond such desires, and she had no intention of having another child. Certainly, not after she’d given him so many sons and finally, the daughter she had always wanted. He was gone at sea for months, often years at a time, but when he would return, Blanca invariably refused his advances. They fought about this, and those fights turned into disagreements about everything else. So, one day, when the pain of their discord was too much for her to bear any longer, Blanca asked me if I would consider taking her husband as my lover.”
Veronica met her aunt’s gaze with an audible shock, the wind pushed swiftly through her open mouth. “I can’t believe what you’re saying to me! Why would any woman want such a thing?”
It was the Marquesa’s turn to shift her eyes and give the moment time to breathe. “You will find that life is very long, and in that time our feelings often change. What might seem absurd in youth can become reasonable, even desirable, after we’ve lived with the realities of life for a good long while. Blanca knew that her husband likely took lovers when his fleet stopped in other ports. Even as their leader, he was still a man, and a man would surely not go without such physical comforts for exhaustive periods of time. But those were faceless women in lands too far away to affect Blanca here.
“It was his time at home that concerned her. Eduardo is not a man who could quietly take a mistress in town; the news of such a decision would spread like wildfire, no matter what pains he might take to conceal the matter. And the very last thing she could bear would be to hear of him visiting a brothel. So, she decided that she would keep him as faithfully close to her as possible. She managed this by choosing the one woman that no one would ever believe capable of betraying her.”
Veronica shook her head in disbelief at the very idea. “Why would either of you want such a thing? You don’t… you don’t feel like you’re betraying the memory of Uncle Augustí?” The girl was immediately upset that she would utter something so callous, but the Marquesa did not respond with anger or hurt.
“That was the very first question I asked myself after receiving Blanca’s proposition. I had never taken a lover after your uncle died, at least, not one I actually loved. I was all too settled on the idea that such genuine relations were done for me. I saw it as part of the bargain I’d made with myself to never take another husband. But shortly after Blanca had made her case to me, I realized that I no longer cared about my previous resolve. Sex no longer had the same meaning to me that it did when your uncle and I were first married. If you would’ve mentioned the idea of sharing Augustí with another woman when I was 15, I would have been outraged. My anger would only have been rivaled by my jealousy. But time had changed the fears I held to in my early years. And after pondering the offer for some time, I found that it was easy to tell Blanca that I would do it.”
“And he just agreed to this arrangement? Just like that?” she responded, baffled by the simplicity of their decision.
“Certainly not,” she answered, the placid seriousness of her face giving way to an inscrutable grin. “You’ll find that men do not appreciate the notion that their lives are being arranged for them. Nothing would’ve sent him to the arms of a prostitute faster. On the contrary, our first resolution was that we’d never reveal our plan to him. To this day, he still does not know the whole truth. You see, a man must have something to strive for, something to fuel his domineering whims. Certainly, Eduardo would need such fuel if our little scheme was to work.
“It was not difficult to achieve. Blanca and her daughter had been in town to visit a sick relative. Eduardo and I were here alone. I quietly asked my footman to serve him a third glass of wine. And when the evening was done, I got Eduardo to notice me in the way that men notice women. I swore him to secrecy, on my life. I told him that we would all be ruined if he ever spoke a word or even acted differently around Blanca. Satisfied with his spoils, and his relief at my acquiescence to his needs, he agreed to my request. And in time, I found that his needs became my own. The pleasure that I’d felt as a girl had become a fire when I was within that man’s arms, and I began to covet him as he coveted me.
“Many years later, when he realized that Blanca knew of his infidelity with me, she quite matter-of-factly announced to him that he needn’t be concerned about her discretion. And the matter was never discussed again.”
Veronica found that she no longer felt anger at the Marquesa for what she had done. The woman’s gentle candor had finally placed the girl’s fears at ease. And though she could not quite settle the salacious elements of the story in her mind, it all interested her far too much to make any more of their disagreement. She might even bring herself to inquire about those details she still wished to learn but realized she would not have to ask the woman; all of it would come forth now at its own pace.
“The private behaviors of even the most ordinary people are often different than what we might presume. You’ll find that most men take lovers, my dear. It is as true of a baker as it is of a duke, and not at all such an uncommon thing as you might think. The world spends half of its time pursuing sex, while the other half is spent acquiring wealth. Too often, it is the same acquisition.
“I don’t wish for your first days of education here under my influence to be misunderstood, so I will be faithful in my promise to be candid with you now that we are friends. You will return the favor to me by not allowing yourself to hold too strongly to your prejudices and fears. You shall find that they will only hinder your lessons, and in the end, you will regret wasting so much of our valuable time on them.”
Veronica could not stop her eyebrow from rising incredulously at the boldness of her aunt’s words. She nevertheless nodded her head and promised that she would not resist anymore.
“The first and most important thing that I will teach you is that you must unlearn everything, for the world is not what you have been taught. All of your life, until now, has been designed by others to keep you from any true knowledge of the world and its doings. This is where the world of men strives to keep you, even when that design appears to come by the hands of other women. The world will advise you that your place is, and always should be, as a lady. This will be the greatest of traps from which you must free yourself. I know this may sound overstated, and perhaps it is, but whatever other ventures you pursue in this life, this will always be the rule by which you must adhere to retain your freedoms.
“And you are free, never doubt this. Despite all the evil truths that will present themselves to you, never forget that freedom can only be something that you first must allow for yourself. No one can ever hold your freedom unless you are not intelligent enough to keep it from their influence.”
Veronica would have been lying if she said she understood what the woman meant; freedom was not a word that held much meaning for her. What freedoms did she not have that she truly wanted? It seemed her entire life here in Barcelona was an elaborate freedom. But she loved Marcelina and vowed that whatever was to become of their relationship, she would remain faithful and never falter.
“I promise to be faithful, and I do trust you.” It was a declaration more to herself, this surrender to lend her will so freely to the woman’s designs. And after the enormity of her aunt’s story had unfolded, it had become her need now, spurred by more than curiosity.
“Good, then we will continue.”