Across the broad plains, Juan Carlos and Martin rode a few yards ahead of their father, Don Felipe, who was reluctantly surveying his cattle. Thirty years before, a stroke of good luck had befallen him in the form of a straying Arabian. The delicate, prancing stallion had thrown his rider, a Moor who at least appeared to be a man of property and means. The Moor lay dead and the stallion was nibbling grass when Don Felipe happened upon them. The stallion had come when Don Felipe tempted him with an apple, and thus had the Don, who up until then had been a lesser gentleman among Galician gentlemen, founded his fortune.
The moors had never parted with breeding stock, especially this far north. Through this lucky accident, however, Don Felipe had bred this light, fast Arabian with heavier mares and spawned a horse that could run like the wind while pulling any sort of load. In ten years, he had tripled his land holdings. The only other gentleman richer than he was Don Rodrigo.
“Papa, we’re coming upon the cows. Jose Francisco said they would be over this way,” said Juan Carlos.
“When did I get this many cows?”
“Over the last three years, Papa. You have more land and we bought several heifers from the tenants. We chose good milkers.” Juan Carlos pointed to the large udders on the red and white cows who grazed impassively.
“Cheese?” asked Don Felipe vaguely. His gaze was intent upon a point on the horizon toward the west.
“Yes, a great deal. Besides that, we have new goats, and they contribute wonderfully to our dairy. They usually stay with the horses.”
“I had not known that.”
“And why should you?” said Martin, “Is it your job to keep track of every hoof that treads our land? What do you have overseers for?”
“I have very loyal overseers who do their work honestly,” said Don Felipe, with a sudden energy, sticking his chin out at his older son, who turned his head so his father wouldn’t have to see him grimace in pain and doubt.
Juan Carlos sometimes wondered whether his brother were not in fact the devil walking the earth, for he encouraged his aging father in laziness and carelessness. If Martin was not the devil, then it was surely his mother. She belittled her husband’s skill with livestock and crops, which was prodigious, and pressed him to meddle with politics, with which he had not the smallest talent.
“Let us go back to the house. I have things to do. I wish to make myself clean for a visit to Don Rodrigo,” said Don Felipe.
“A good idea, papa. I’ll go with you,” said Martin.
“No, Martin, I need you to stay at home today with Juan Carlos. I expect the overseers will want to present accounts while I am gone.”
“Then, Papa,” said Juan Carlos slowly, “should you go out? The overseers may have things to ask you.”
“I should indeed go out. Jose Francisco will know what is best to do, if you do not. I need to make this visit. Yes, I should. I should make this visit. The Don has been offering his hospitality. I do not wish to offend such a man. Not my old friend.”
“Of course not, papa. Juan Carlos and Jose Francisco will meet with the overseers and I will keep the records and you will go. Don’t you worry about it for a minute, papa,” said Martin with a reassuring smile.
“I count on my sons. I do count on my sons. I can trust them to do what they ought to do. They will take as much care of my lands – perhaps better care – I can only trust that they love the land as I loved it.” Juan Carlos caught the note of longing in his father’s voice. How dared his mother do this? How could she?
They turned their horses back to the manor.
Ten miles off, in a castle that faced the ocean, a man and a woman, both past the bloom of life, sat in a quiet bedchamber, listening while a young friar read from a large book. Neither the man nor the woman – and at times not even the friar – attended to the subject. The woman clutched a rosary in one hand and a handkerchief in the other. The man gazed out at the water.
At length, the woman spoke. “I am tired,” she said, and breathed heavily with the effort of talking.
“I will take you to your bed,” said her husband.
“No, don’t tell me to call the maids. I want to do this,” said Don Rodrigo. He lifted his sickly wife and carried her across the tiled floor to the canopied bed, where he laid her gently and covered her. The light from the window showed how pale her skin had become, and how the bones stood out on her face and neck. Her sparse and faded blonde hair made a light stain on the pillow. A stranger could never have guessed she was barely past her thirty-fifth year.
The friar, who had stopped his reading and looked on as the husband made his tender progress across the floor, spoke up. “Dona, shall I give you the blessing?”
“Give me a prayer, mi hijito, but I don’t need the sacrament,” said Dona Emilia sharply,
“Not today. Come back tomorrow and see if Heaven will have me then.”
The young priest flushed deeply, and stammered out a prayer for Dona Emilia. Don Rodrigo stood, quiet and pious, and crossed himself with a slow grace. The priest bowed himself out, and left the Don and his wife to enjoy the quiet of a day together, one of the few they had left.
“When I go, don’t let that young fool be here. He smells of dirt,” said Emilia pettishly.
“Father Ignacio promised he would be here for you. I won’t let the young priest in.”
“I want to be alone now.”
“Emilia, no. I couldn’t feel right.” Don Rodrigo sat at the edge of the bed and looked intently at his wife’s face. He reached a hand out to touch her cheek, but the look she darted him could have frozen brandy. He dropped his hand and looked back to the window.
“Send me my niece. I want Amaranta. Don’t you sit here and watch me. I can’t bear the way you look at me.”
“If you want Amaranta, you will have her, but don’t send me from you.”
“If you have some lingering regard for me, Rodrigo, show it by going somewhere else to count the seconds until I die. Now send me Amaranta. Let her bring something useful to do.”
“She is a useful young woman. I like her very well.”
“She doesn’t want your compliments, old fool. Now go to your horses or whatever it is you do, and stop making me pretend to like you. I haven’t got much time and I can’t die with that lie on my soul.”
Rodrigo left the room abruptly. Outside the door, he signaled one of the women, sending her with the message for Amaranta.
At the walls of the city, Dona Altagracia was checking her daughters for excessive dirt, unsightly rumples or straying locks. They would ride single file through the streets of the town and, when they reached the shrine, let one of the monks take charge of their horses while they went through the devotions. Later, Dona Altagracia could have a conversation with Father Ignacio.
In the streets, the people stood to the side to watch as the four women rode towards the shrine. It made almost an impromptu parade as they rode by, heads held high, gowns and jewels showing to good advantage in the late morning sun, and rosaries clasped in their hands with the reins. Dona Altagracia kept her face solemn, but inside she was smiling. She knew that her girls made a lovely show and she knew that people would talk of it later.
At the shrine, Dona Altagracia surveyed the crowd carefully. By that time, the English Sir ought to be doing the devotion. While his mind dwelt on the almighty, she would show him a few living saints and see if it went anywhere. Strangers, even those who had little influence, attracted attention from those who had great influence. She handed the reins to a friar, a man clearly wondering about his vows as he gazed at Catalina. Altagracia was mortified to discover that Isabella was slouching again. She stealthily knuckled the girl’s spine and was gratified by an instant straightening. Ximena looked every bit the part of a fine girl from a good family doing pious observance.
Father Ignacio came striding down to the ladies, his arms open in welcome to the familiar sight of the female part of the Montanaro y Castillo family. His habit was poor that day, for Tuesdays never saw much traffic in pilgrims or in prelates. Yet Father Ignacio wore the simple cassock and hood with an air of distinction. He had been a younger son of a good family, and he never forgot it. A man might have taken a vow or two, but one could not cast off what one was born to be, Father Ignacio often said to the novices. For better or worse, you are what you are.
“I had hoped to see my ladies here today. Dona Altagracia, how do you do it? They grow lovelier every time I see them. I hope they are grateful to such a mother, who does so much for her girls,” Father Ignacio said.
“I don’t look for gratitude. The deed itself is the reward. What woman wouldn’t count herself fortunate just to have three daughters like this?”
“Perhaps I may introduce you to a pilgrim who has only just completed his devotion? He arrived early today. A fine young English gentleman such as he ought not to have to trust to the pilgrim’s inn. I hope I may see him enjoying the hospitality and the generosity of The Family of Montanaro y Castillo?”
“Indeed, Father Ignacio, introduce this fine gentleman and we shall see what is to be done. Catalina, Isabella, Ximena, you kneel here before the Saint, and pray. Pray for his intercession that you may be good wives and good mothers to fine men.” If her voice was a little louder than it should have been, at least two men looked up.
The stranger was standing among a small group of friars, relating details of his journey from England. Father Ignacio shooed them off to their duties and took the young man by the arm.
“He is, now I know I will say this incorrectly, Sir Yefri de Atelson. Ai, such names! But then, I am sure you find our names tie your English tongue into knots. Sir Yefri, this is our very great lady, Dona Altagracia Maria de Los Angeles Castillo y Fernandez. She is the Lady of Don Felipe Antonio San Simeon Montanaro Rodriguez. She has two fine sons, both at home now, and about your age, and three beautiful daughters, praying there by the shrine.”
Sir Geoffrey still bore most of the dirt from his journey, and had borrowed a cassock from a monk. He stood a little taller than most men she knew, and he had the easy grace of a man used to an active life. So different, this English sir, from the men of Spain. Humble, it was true, in all his dirt and borrowed robes, but his bearing still proclaimed him nobility, and his bright blue eyes touched a spot in Altagracia’s heart that she long ago buried. She berated herself, am I twelve? I dare not look away for courtesy’s sake, but I must master myself.
“And where do you stay while you are in Santiago de Compostela, Sir Yefri? Surely after so long a journey you do not intend to run off too quickly?”
“I have a bed at the pilgrim’s inn, Dona Altagracia.” He spoke his Spanish precisely, but slowly, and ever with a charming smile. She met his smile and his eyes – the sky was not so blue! – with strict composure, but her heart beat faster.
“Oh, no! You cannot intend to stay at an inn! A gentleman staying at the pilgrim’s inn! For a night, perhaps, but we can do better. You must come home to stay with our family. I am sure my sons will make you fine company.”
“I am a pilgrim, Dona. The inn is my proper place.”
“No indeed, that does not fit with our Galician ideas of hospitality. Let our house be your house while you stay.”
“I agree, I cannot think of a better place for you, Sir Yefri,” said Father Ignacio, “only think how crowded the inn will be in less than a month. And you do not think of going before then. Your men gather in Burgundy in the fall to leave for the Holy Land. That would put you in the inn until August at least, and there will be so many wanting beds then. I will accompany you back to the inn to gather your things, and then I will ride with you to Don Felipe’s holdings. I trust I am not unwelcome at your table this evening, Dona Altagracia?”
“Father Ignacio, do not even say such things. I will look for you and for our pilgrim. For he will not continue to refuse.
“It appears that I cannot, Dona. I accept.”
Belisa sat on the edge of a well in the yard of a small house. Don Jaime’s holdings were small, but they included one good little village with several small farms, where the tenants had always enjoyed the salutary neglect of the land lord and a strong degree of independence. They passed the land from father to son without reference to Don Jaime, or to his father when he was lord, and expected to largely ignore young Tiago when he would become lord. Where sons were lacking, daughters retained rights. Don Jaime’s sole influence was to encourage bringing children up to useful trades, and had seen several younger sons and daughters of his tenants find work on the cathedral that had begun thirty years before, when he was a very young man.
The mistress of this house, a grimly hard-bodied but soft-hearted woman called Margarita, was plucking chickens nearby. Her son, an ox of a boy named Mateo, was chiseling a rock. He had been brought up to be a joiner and carver by his father, but had turned his hand to stone when the cathedral began to go up in earnest. He and Belisa had been friends since they both were capable of walking the distance from farm to manor.
“It is and it isn’t difficult, Belisa. You look at the stone, and you see the thing it should be. Then you use your hammer and chisel and you take away everything that isn’t what you want it to be,” said Mateo.
“Let me stick to drawing pictures to amuse Barto,” said Belisa. Barto sat by a chicken coop at the edge of the yard, laying trails of grain for the little yellow chicks to follow.
“I cannot let you sit by and say you can’t do something until you’ve really ruined it,” said Mateo, quite serious although Belisa laughed heartily. “Tomorrow, I am going to get a stone for you, and you are going to carve something.”
“Mateo! I’d waste good stone!”
“I won’t let you. You’ll make a sconce. That’s just lines.”
“Where’s the fun in that?”
“First it’s too hard, then it’s too boring. Belisa, if you wanted me to beat you, you should just ask.”
“If you can get the stone, fine. I’ll try it. And then you can get in trouble because you ruined building materials.”
“Belisa!” called Barto, “Belisa, there is a cat. He’s going to get the chicks.”
“Say ‘Shoo!’ Barto.”
Barto shooed, and the cat ran off, and Barto laughed triumphantly. Margarita chuckled briefly. She spoke up in her firm, short way.
“Belisa, you’d be working on that Cathedral if you were not a gentleman’s daughter. Several women from the farms work there to earn extra. Only you’d be an artisan.”
“And there are women artisans?”
“A few. One lays tile.”
“I wish you could, Belisa. You’ve some skill at making a pleasing line. You don’t draw so badly either. God gave you those skills,” said Mateo, “And when you see him at your end, he’s going to ask you what you did with them. If you could say ‘I built you a cathedral,’ that would be something. And it would be a little extra gold in the coffers.” Mateo’s eyes were quite open to Belisa’s reality.
“Well, I know father could use the money,” said Belisa, “for it isn’t a small fortune that’s going to tempt a respectable man to marry either me or Ciomara. Of course, I could marry for money. Say, a man who’d gone and made himself rich on trading. Anything would do. Then I could give Ciomara enough to make herself a really good respectable marriage.”
“Marry beneath your state? You deserve better,” said Margarita.
“I don’t see any way around it. And your idea of working for money will make me unfit for any kind of respectable marriage, either for position or for money.”
“Well, we’ll see how you do with that stone tomorrow. After all, no one needs to know it’s you working,” Mateo said, looking struck with this new thought, “plenty of the stones are shaped in workrooms elsewhere. We can disguise you if you ever need to go to the Cathedral grounds.”
Belisa turned sharply and stared at Mateo. This idea simply had not occurred to her. People knew her as Don Jaime’s daughter, and Ciomara’s twin, and recognized her easily in the town. But she could look very different. Very different.
“Mateo, I believe your younger cousin, Antonio, is going to start working with you on the Cathedral. If he can work a chisel, that is.”
Don Felipe inhaled the salt spray. The hour for dinner approached, and he was pleased that he would be in time to take the meal with Don Rodrigo.
They had been young men together, both serving as knights under Don Rodrigo’s father. Felipe had not cared so much for the swordplay as Rodrigo had, merely completing the necessary exercises and then going to work with the horses. Fields, plants and animals had always been Felipe’s first love. Rodrigo loved the sword training, the jousting, the discussions of battle strategies of the Ancients and the talk of what other lords did to expand their influence and holdings.
As Felipe traveled farther from his home, and from the influence of his younger, beautiful wife and his sons, he felt a certain lightness. Out here, in the scenes of his youth, he remembered what had once made him happy. When he first began to govern his father’s holding, he woke in the morning with a relish for the day. Now, he wanted only to do enough to keep people from distracting him as he contemplated better times.
At the castle gates, he shouted to the porter, “Don Felipe de Montanaro y comes to visit Don Rodrigo!”
“Welcome, my lord,” said the porter. Something about the man’s face seemed familiar. It was not exact, but there was the roundness, the bald head and the thick beard – had so many years passed?
“One moment. Can it be that your father was a round little man, name of Gerardo?” asked Don Felipe.
“The same. He knew you, Don Felipe. He was pleased to assist you when you were a knight here. I have heard all about you many times, if you will forgive me for saying it.”
“Gerardo. I knew him. You have a good man for a father.”
“Thank you, Don Felipe.”
Striding through the yard, where the servants had their quarters and men had been training but a half-hour ago, Don Felipe let the memories wash over him. He saw steel flash through the air, and heard the ring of blacksmiths’ hammers that had been still for decades. With the past clouding his eyes, he barely recognized Don Rodrigo, who came out to greet the preoccupied Felipe. Rodrigo’s graying temples and stouter waist puzzled Don Felipe for a moment, until his own protruding belly brought him thumping back across the thirty or so years where he needed to remember his courtesy.
“I hope you are keeping well, Don Felipe,” said Don Rodrigo, his deep voice slow and portentous.
“I am well. Thank you. My old friend. My friend from another life.”
Don Rodrigo frowned, looking over Don Felipe carefully. They were nearly the same age, and could match each other’s fortunes. Both men wore rich garments, and bore plain but good jewelry, and each seemed firmly rooted in the world, but in Don Rodrigo’s bearing, there was something that seemed crouched and ready to spring. Don Felipe seemed to have settled, neither happy nor complaining about what he found himself settled into.
“And your wife? Dona Altagracia has no rival for beauty in these parts.”
“She is wonderfully well, but she gave birth to her three rivals going on sixteen years ago now. Catalina will be sixteen next January. Isabella will be fifteen, and Xiomara thirteen. Have you seen them lately, Rodrigo? They have their mother’s face and my mother’s hair. Catalina is surely the loveliest of them, and Ximena has the wit. Isabella has my mother’s beautiful nature. But I do go on about them too much.”
“You know me well enough to know I could never grow tired of hearing about your daughters. I believe my table is laid, and we can go into the hall and talk some more about your daughters. You say Catalina is sixteen? What are you about? Is she a fine brandy? Are you hoping she gets better with age, or do none of the men here please you? My wife was fourteen when I married her, and she did very well in the role of a lady.”
“Your Emilia was always so dignified. Dignified and delicate. She was like an angel, all golden and white. Like an angel. And she bore you a good son. It was such a shame he died so young.”
“I wish we had another. And now she is ill, and it is likely she will not recover. I intend to summon Father Ignacio tomorrow. Emilia will feel better when she has the sacrament.”
“I know she is ill, Rodrigo. So terrible. And she not two years younger than my Altagracia, who cannot be made ill. Nor can you make my daughters ill. Nor my sons. Never an ache or a pain in one of them that they complained of. But it is so sad that your Emilia should have become so ill. She might have lived many more years.”
The two men entered the hall. Don Rodrigo’s men stood in a chorus of scraping benches and shuffled boots. Twenty young men, such as Rodrigo and Felipe used to be, all in matching garments with Don Rodrigo’s crest proud on their chests, waited to eat. Dona Emilia could not come to the table. In her stead, a young woman, who was precisely what Emilia had been in her youth – tall, slender, pale as a lily and cold as steel – was ready at the seat next to her uncle’s.
“You do not know my niece, Amaranta. My wife’s sister’s daughter. She has come from Carcassonne to do the duties of the lady of the house. Emilia quite depends upon her. Amaranta, how does your aunt?”
“She is asleep.” The girl barely stirred, though she met her uncle’s gaze calmly.
“Come, we will eat now,” said Don Rodrigo. He clapped his hands, and from the doorway the servants bore in trays of bread and fish, and of baked meats and cheese. The men began to talk and eat. The low roar of men’s voices filled the hall, and Don Felipe found he could talk to Don Rodrigo almost privately.
“Tell me more about Catalina, then. Is she a healthy girl?” asked Rodrigo.
“Oh yes. She is very healthy. She rides all the time. She can sing, like a bird she can sing. And dance. Very healthy girl. As I said, my family is never ill. They go on, strong as horses. Tall, too. Quite tall. Not quite as tall as your niece, but tall.”
“She is never out alone, if I know your ways.”
“She stays with her mother and her sisters all the time. They ride out together. This morning they were visiting the tenants and bringing old clothing to the women. I have nearly beggared myself with buying gowns and necklaces and bracelets, and they have given all the old ones out to the tenants. Such things they have. I suspect the traders have made quite a pretty fortune clothing my daughters. And I think they went to the shrine today.”
“But they have secure dowries?”
“The most secure.”
“Don Felipe, I am glad to hear it.”
Santiago de Compostela: a telenovela (The Premier)