Ricardo and Maria deal with his affair.
|Chapter 3 Man of Mystery
Ricardo was beside himself. He had hardly slept. Rain buffeted the window pane. Dressing quickly he went downstairs to breakfast. Maria was already seated and cast him a jaundiced look.
He sat across from her, leaving the seat empty at the head of the table. This was their custom ever since father died but it was more than just that. In the short span of a year his mother and two older brothers followed, Selena with a broken heart, Rico in the New World and Lopez in the War. He had joked once, with a gallows humor, that the seat had bad karma and recalled that Maria was not amused. He would not have minded had she taken it, not because he wished her any ill but because she was the one who was really in charge… who made all the decisions and kept everything running with an effortless efficiency. She reminded him of their father with those piercing eyes and upturned nose.
She was his twin and like everyone else on the estate, he deferred in her presence, wanting everyone to see that she was in charge. Maria kept staring and drumming her fingers on the table. It was irritating and made him increasingly uncomfortable. They had never kept secrets and he sensed that she knew something was terribly amiss. He dreaded having to confess the mess he had made of things.
“Where did you disappear to yesterday….?”
He replied evasively, kicking the stone down the road. “After the hugs and handshakes, I took a walk about the grounds.”
“I see…,” Her stance was intense, like a cat with a paw on a mouse.
“We see so little of you… I’d hoped you might stay around, especially since the event was arranged in your honor." There was an unmistakable sarcasm in her voice.
“You know I’ve never been good at small talk," he replied in a placating tone, “That’s a skill I leave in your capable hands.”
“You hold the title," she answered unrelenting, "When are you going to start acting like a Count?”
He yawned to mask his nervousness…“I doubt I was really missed… Haven’t I always been considered the spoiled and precocious one?”
“You've a role to play, Ricardo. Like it or not you’re now the head of this family. There are some things I can't do.”
“…Really? I can’t imagine what those might be.” His words were trite but also held a note of admiration. “I’m certain that if anyone took note," he continued, "they regarded my absence as an expression of character. Am I not solitary and withdrawn?"
“You cover your tracks well…quick too on your feet…and with such eloquence. I can see how you've risen to prominence. “
“Our connections had much to do with it. As the surviving son of the Count of Aragon, was I not postured for success?”
“It takes more than posturing to become a general… handpicked by the King to head the Hermandad. Was it posturing that gained you distinction at Grenada…that brought an army of Basques rallying to cause…? The same qualities that make you insufferable are those that bring you to fame. Ferdinand and Isabella don't suffer fools and becoming a favorite reflects on your ability and not the gift of any inheritance. For a spoiled and precocious brat you've succeeded well enough.”
He chuckled raising his eyes but her look wiped from his face away any hint of a smile. Her countenance was utterly without mirth.
“I sent a note to Teresa when your coach was reported in-bound.… She came by shortly after you disappeared, inquiring about your whereabouts. I suggested she look in the garden. Not long afterwards I saw her again, visibly upset. She departed in haste. What did you say to her?”
Ricardo buried his head in his hands. The reckoning had come due. “...Would that we had had a conversation.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You cannot imagine a more awkward situation.”
“I've a good imagination… Try me.”
“Then use it to summon the worst.”
“Did she find you with Angelina?”
“…In a sense but much more damning!”
“Oh my God Ricardo…Tell me it isn’t true.”
“Have I ever lied to you?”
“She saw you together… like that?”
“The recollection is an abiding torment. “
“Couldn’t you keep it in your pants for another half hour?”
He groaned as the full memory cycled back through his recollection.
She jumped to her feet and threw her napkin down in disgust. “She's my best friend for God's sake! Twice a week for a year, she came by, inquiring endlessly... She showed me your letters and confided her love. I expected better of you… really this is unconscionable."
He groaned…. "Tell me about it, Sister…. I need it better explained.”
“We were already making plans. You’re such a disappointment… that’s what you are, a huge disappointment.”
Her words opened a much older wound. His head snapped up and he came to his feet, glaring. He put his hand to his ear and spoke…
"…Now those are familiar words! Where have I heard them before?" His head cocked as if listening to entertain a recollection… "Were those not the same that father spoke when he ordered me from this very house?”
Her hands covered her face and her cheeks grew red.
“Don’t do this Ricardo, don’t go there….”
“When I defied him, just before he knocked me to the ground? Now what was the cause of that dreadful scene?”
“Don’t …, please don’t shame me.”
“You dare to take that tone after sleeping with a miserable groom… a married one at that...with three small children?”
“Lower your voice! “ She said, looking nervously about.
"And what did I say as I stormed from this very house?”
“...You spoke with compassion.”
“And what did I tell that indignant old Bastard?”
“...that if he sent me to the convent, you’d never return.”
“Bravo!" he said clapping his hands.
“You alone, stood up for me…” said Maria tearfully.
“Yes, and do you know why?"
She stood trembling and mute.
"Then let me answer that ... because we’re not so different; two acorns, joined at birth, which never fell far from the same tree."
She turned her head away.
"So don’t scold me in that self-righteous tone. It isn’t necessary. I’ll rack myself with far more cruelty than you could ever manage." His words gave vent to a terrible inner rage, intended more at himself than his sister.
Maria sagged and her tears began to flow. We're quite a pair,” she said, with a sniffle, looking out through her fingers. Walking over she embraced him, eyes filled with love. Despite what he had done, she would always love her brother.
“What man has ever resisted Angelina?” she sighed shaking her head. It was a feeble attempt to ease his sorrow but he appreciated the effort.
“Why did you have to invite her in the first place?” he asked, with the slightest edge of humor.
“So this was all my fault,” she answered, wiping her cheeks and remembering their old game of back and forth. How rough they used to play in an endless banter of sibling squabble. “You're so stupid!" she said stamping her foot. “How could anyone of your esteem be such a fool?”
“Admittedly I trumped that foolishness of yours,” he answered, "but not by much."
In that moment of reconciliation there came a voice from the doorway. It was Carlos….They had grown up together. As constant companions and were all but inseparable. When the wars came he followed Ricardo into the King’s service, while Maria tended the home front. Carlos became a trusted Captain.
“Come and join us for breakfast…” Maria invited him. “We’re catching up on old times. My brother has some serious fence mending to do.”
“I love family gossip,” said Carlos smiling…“Is it about Teresa, that strange and wonderful girl who talks through the animals?” Teresa had a sometimes annoying habit of speaking to people, indirectly through dogs, cats and birds.
“Don’t make fun of her. She's liable to sic the mastiffs on you.”
“Thanks for the reminder," he said, with a look of pretended fear. "I'd forgotten the full extent of her powers."
Ricardo was silent. Fools rush in it's often said. There was a strain in air and Carlos was not without intuition... still he pressed on. “What happened? Did our hero get carried away with some amorous enthusiasm? Did he grope poor little Teresa?"
Maria gave him a dirty look, letting Carlos know he was testing her patience.
“Aw come on,” he continued undeterred… “Tell me everything…I won’t breathe a word…“
“Are there no limits to your audacity?” chided Ricardo with a smile. “Are there no family secrets safe from your nosing about? This happens to be a deeply personal matter….sacred to the blood… continue and you eat by yourself on the porch." He tried to make light of the matter and lead his friend away from the truth. There were several reasons... First, he knew that Carlos was in love with Angelina, second because Maria’s affair was too painful to share and finally because Carlos was off on the wrong scent.
He was an enigmatic young man. His father had been knighted and Carlos was certain to follow in his footsteps, yet he had a servant's sense of invisibility. He seemed to know everything because he had a smoky elusiveness. He could be standing next to someone and appear invisible. It was a talent that Ricardo used on occasion and his friend never failed to get to the bottom of the most vexing questions. Yet he was extremely quick witted and brave to a fault and his soldiers loved him because he took an interest in all that they did, to the very smallest of details. He knew the names of wives and children, hopes and aspirations and never met a stranger. He could effortlessly cross the lines of command and informality, find welcome in gatherings large and small and grow in trust and esteem where others found only contempt.
“I went to the Fete last night at Angelina’s, “he said changing the subject. “I actually danced with her... imagine that."
There was also a deep and abiding vulnerability to his heart that would spring at the most unexpected of moments. The source was a tragic, deep seated and unrequited love. He was obsessed by a woman who saw him as just another in a long list of admirers.
They both looked up with interest….
"She asked where you and Maria were....about Teresa, too."
A shiver went through Ricardo...
"And what kind of excuse did you offer?"
"I said you weren't feeling well."
"Well it was strange...was it not, that you missed the social event of the year? On the other hand, I really got to shine with the ladies." At this point they were interrupted by the sound of a horse clattering into the court yard.
"…Is anyone expecting visitors?" Maria asked.
They shrugged. A servant from the Cordova estate came hurrying in, hat in hand.
"What is it, "asked Ricardo?
"Senor," he answered, "I've dreadful news. The Count is dead. He had a stroke last night and arrangements are now being made for the funeral."
"Dear God, "said Maria! "I spoke with him only yesterday. What happened?"
He hesitated, looking flustered....then stepped up to Ricardo and whispered a long time in his ear. Ricardo's eyes grew wide.
"Many thanks," Ricardo answered and the servant bowed and withdrew.
What was that all about? They both looked in suspense.
"He told me the Count died in Angelina's bed. That the servants were summoned by her screams."
"Oh my, poor Angelina," groaned Carlos "How terrible!"
"I'm shocked!" said Ricardo looking over at his sister. "Who would have ever imagined that?"
"I'm going to her," said Carlos.
"By all means," urged Maria, "and offer our condolences."
He found his hat and swept from the room.
The two siblings sat in stunned silence for a few minutes as each reflected on the implications of this startling news. At length Ricardo spoke.
"I didn't want to say it in front of Carlos but it happened while they were having intercourse. It took half the household to drag him off her."
Maria's eyes got wide, her face turned red and she covered her face. "This will certainly give the wags something to talk about."
"I'm not without sympathy," continued Ricardo, "but… does this mean we can expect Angelina to be coming around someday soon? Will she see this as an opportunity to once more plead with me to marry her?"
"I doubt that she would again be so forward again," replied Maria, "however, we'll know more when we see her at the funeral."
"Promise me, you'll not leave my side."
That afternoon a courier arrived from Madrid. He strode briskly into the library where Ricardo was working and handed him a post....It was a letter from the King and Queen. He broke the seal and read it eagerly.
“What is it?” asked Maria, joining him.
“The king wants to see me; the situation is deteriorating with the Basques. After the funeral I must go to Madrid. Perhaps you would care to join me. Isabella would be delighted. Isabella was their cousin and Maria had been her companion at Columbaria.
“Find something dowdy to wear,” he said lightly but with a serious undertone. "Isabella prefers the matronly look, especially when her husband is around.”
Maria knew exactly what he was referring to. Many a pretty girl had been sent home from the Court for no greater offense than being attractive. Since she married Ferdinand her jealously had become notorious. Realizing she cut an attractive figure, Maria began considering ways to conceal her good looks.
“I’ll bring my high necked dresses,“ she answered, “and that hideous ebony pin that mother used to tie back her hair with.”
On the coach ride north they sat together in the carriage. Carlos led the escort that spread out around them. A troop of Dragoons was a necessary precaution because there were many with a terrible axe to grind The Hermandad was a Civil Military organization with half made up of police and the rest soldiers. The police served in the municipalities dealing with petty criminals while the Lancers patrolled the rural areas chasing brigands and keeping an eye out for the chicanery of nobles. During the days of ------ these nobles became a law onto themselves dividing up the lands and behaving as they saw fit. The idea of a strong monarchy was just beginning to catch on and many of the “blood” had to be constantly reminded that times were changing. The Hermandad were the enforcers and the “Lawless Ones” bridled under a new yoke. No longer could anyone with a sword, act capriciously, extort commerce and impose taxes. Now the laws were enforced and everyone answered to the Monarchs. The Hermandad saw to that.
Maria watched the country side roll past and Ricardo sat pensively, deep in thought… At length he spoke. “If I were half a man I’d hang myself and leave forgiveness to eternity.”
“You certainly made a mess of things," she agreed.
“What did Teresa say when you went by?”
“She’d already departed for Madrid…left word she was going to see her parents….”
“I wonder what that’s all about.”
“Hmmmm, I’ll look into it.”
“Will she ever forgive me?
“Don't get your hopes up. “
“I’ll do anything!”
“Before I go trying to intercede, tell me your intentions…”
“My intentions are to plead her hand in marriage."
“Well that's a start. Are you’re sure now it was as bad as you imply?"
“Worse… Is there some part of the picture you're not sure about?”
“I think I have the image of it clearly in mind.”
“What will you tell her?”
“That Angelina played you for a fool…that you’re ashamed…, distraught, filled with remorse…but despite everything, your love is sincere and that you want her to become your wife.”
"Think it’ll work?”
“This's no simple task….What she saw isn’t easily forgotten...Teresa’s an innocent and vulnerable young woman.”
“…and you are the best of advocates,” he said squeezing her hand.
“I’ll do what I can…but don’t expect too much.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Give me some time to work on it. Just be ready when the time comes."
They arrived late that afternoon. It had been a long ride. A group of horsemen were waiting at the Inn on the outskirts of the City. Accommodations had been made where they could quarter a large party of men and horses. Ricardo stepped briskly from the coach and strode over, talking to the officer in charge.
A coachman opened her door and Carlos helped her to the ground. She stretched and looked about. In the shadow of the eaves her brother was talking to someone she hadn’t seen before. His back was turned and she asked Carlos, “Who is the one with Ricardo?”
He craned his neck and smiled…“Someone who’s elusive and dangerous.' He's a devoted friend of your brother… saved his life at Grenada and forever operates beneath a shroud of mystery."
“What’s his duty?”
“He chases down brigands….damned good at it too… He finds them or they find him….no matter, because that’s when the Devil gets his due.”
“There's no shortage of men with a bounty and the trade is brisk on their heads. He's making a fortune at it. It takes a brigand to know one, I always say, but otherwise Benvolio is a fine fellow.”
“And how do you fit into this new line of work?"
"My duty is to keep tabs on the Nobles…The ones who sneak about and make mischief."
"Takes one to know one,” she replied.