Mariella, a lonely girl in a hacienda is wishing to find the prefect man.
Nobody loves me but the cat, Mariella thought. While the whole Hacienda Frederico was bustling with excitement, they forgot their second daughter. She felt so left out. Her parents pushed her out of the preparations. Her sisters were too concerned in choosing clothing to mind her. For a second daughter among five, she felt so in between. She was not the eldest but not one of the younger ones. Her parents’ attention was with the other four but not on her. It was easy to drown with so many siblings.
Only Manolito loved her. Manolito was her black and white half breed cat. His fur was so soft and warm. Unlike the other cats of the Hacienda, Manolito was attached to her, his human mistress. He was the only one who consoled her. When she was down or sick, he would stay by her side, not leaving even to eat.
Manolito was the boss cat. All the smaller gatos differed to him. Only he was allowed inside the house. He was always pristine when he enters the house. He’s always well groomed. She smiled. He was her little gentleman, her little man. Mama always teased her for indulging her cat.
“They will be coming soon. Don Mauricio’s sons will be our guest for a week.” Mariella told her cat. “Father wants one of us to marry one of them.”
The whole Hacienda Frederico was bustling with excitement. The four sons of Mauricio were coveted by all the Dons who have eligible daughters. Don Frederico was among those dons. He had five niňas who need good husbands. One of the future husbands will inherit the Hacienda. Don Rico wanted his friend incorporated into the family. He would present his daughters as the most eligible girls in the peninsula.
Cecilia, the eldest was the fairest of the all. She was nearing her eighteenth’s year already. Mariella was turning seventeen. She was plain and not very striking in her appearance. The two elder girls were nearing old-maid status. Fifteen and sixteen were the marrying age of the time. Bianca, the middle child, was fourteen and very childish in her demeanor. She was also the prettiest of the girls. The younger two were twins, Antonia and Olympia. They were only twelve. They were only concerned with clothes and their hair. Mariella always found them silly.
So did Manolito. Manolito usually steered clear of her sisters. He goes near Doňa Maria Isabel, their mother, but never the other children.
Her mother was a cat person just like Mariella. Doňa Maria Isabel had a cat just like Manolito. When she was young, she had a black and white half breed she called Megalito after her suitor. Megalito was big and fat, just like his namesakes. She always told her little girls of her funny cat and her mischievous fat suitor.
Everyone in the house was so busy. Don Rico wanted his friend’s sons lacking nothing from their stay. He wanted to impress Don Mauricio. Nothing was spared in cleaning and beautification of the house and its grounds. Don Mauricio was sending his four sons for a week-long stay at Hacienda Frederico. They heard Flores de Mayo was such a big event in the small Barrio of Bayabas.
The servants were busy polishing brass trays or washing the best china. Her parents told her to keep out of the servant’s way. The house had to be pristine. Mariella didn’t want to be with her sisters. All they cared about was their wardrobe, their beauty regiments and their hairstyles. Cecilia was desperate to find a husband among their guests. The three younger ones didn’t quite care but they did want to be the center of attention. What was new? Her family always wanted to be the center of attention.
Across their vast land was Dona Lourdes’ house. Mariella’s father was irked that she had more flowers in her garden than their whole hacienda. Dona Lourdes was an old widow with a lot of connections. She lived peacefully on her own. Occasionally, the family visited her and she in turn visited them. She was very wealthy and very classy.
“Manolito, come here, Ming-ming-ming.” She coaxed him. Manolito stretched in an unhurried fashion from the soft rug near the side doors. He went to walk slowly beside Mariella. He knew his name. “Come on, Manolito. Let’s go to the garden.”
The garden was quiet and filled with old trees. Mariella and Manolito took refuge underneath the shade of a root-tangled acacia tree. It shielded them from the view of the house and the busy gardeners.
Mariella stroked her cat. “Oh, Senior Gato, if only I was pretty like Bianca or knowledgeable like Cecilia.” Manolito meowed as if he didn’t believe her. “Nobody loves me. Nobody even knows me. Like in the Barrio, father Miguel took Cecilia last year as Reyna Elena for the Flores de Mayo celebration and was talking to mama to allow Bianca next year. Nobody even looked at me.” Meow? He inquired. “Flores de Mayo is the town’s way of showing off to other Barrios that we have rich patrons. The role of Reyna Elena is only bestowed to the most beautiful and most popular dalagita in the Barrio. Clearly it is not me.”
Manolito tried to make himself comfortable by curling into a ball on Mariella’s skirt. Mariella scratched his ears. Her cat purred contentedly. “If only…” She mused.
Hooves clattered upon their cobbled courtyard signaling the arrival of their guests. Mariella peered around the tree in time to see the gilded calesas carrying Don Mauricio’s sons.
“Come on, Manolito. They are here.” She urged him to wake up. He didn’t budge. Manolito was larger than most cats. It was hard to extract herself from him. “Come on, Senior Small Man. I have to make an appearance.” He pretended not to listen to which annoyed her. It was bad enough her sisters ignore her. When Manolito pretends to, it irked her even more. She knew he was only pretending because he finally stood slowly and stretched. He took his little time. In the end, she carried him and trotted to the courtyard.
The four sons of Mauricio were lined in front of their carriage. Don Rico, Doňa Maria Isabel and Mariella’s four sisters were lined up to welcome their guests.
“Ah, my second hija, Mariella.” Her father introduced her. Mariella curtsied clumsily. She was late. The rest of the introductions have already been made.
“Buenas dias.” She said.
The four lads looked at her. Their gaze assessing her from top to bottom. She felt so small and insignificant. She had never been so scrutinized in her life. Those four gazes made her want to shrink and disappear. Don Rico ushered them into the house and she was left in the courtyard.
“Ay Seniorita Mariella, you better get inside and away from the heat. It has made your face red.” Ising, the gardener said. Mariella felt her face. She was warm. She walked to the house. “By the way, leaves are on your hair.” When she felt her hair, true enough, there were leaves.
What an embarrassing she has presented! She must look like a wild Nativo. She thought. What must have they thought of her?
Dinner was but an hour away. Mariella was determined to make up for this afternoon. She had the bath tub brought in and filled. She cared not for hot water since the kitchen was busy cooking food. She just wanted to be bathed, clean and beautiful. Bath oils were poured to make sure she smelled like flowers. She asked the maids to fix her hair and her best saya readied. She wanted to look like a refined lady.
As Mariella entered the dining room, everyone was well into dinner. All her scrubbing and priming had made her late. Worse, she was overdressed.
“Sit.” Her father indicated the furthest seat. She stayed silent the whole dinner.
After dinner, the two families went to the main parlor for dessert. They were served sweetened saba and shaven iced. The boys seemed impressed. Ice was hard to come by especially if the barrios were not port areas. After dessert, Doňa Maria Isabel thought to make the young ones mingle.
The boys were shy, keeping to one side of the room. The girls too kept to one side. Doňa Maria Isabel tried to coax the girls to talk to the boys. The boys were looking shyly from the other side of the room. Each of them assessing the girls one by one. Don Mauricio told his sons the true intent of this visit. It was to see if any of them were compatible to Don Rico’s girls. Don Mauricio was happy to send his sons since it might be one of his son to marry one of the girls who could inherit the hacienda and its lands. He encouraged his boys to make sure they choose wisely. Three of them were of marrying age. Cecilia was the eldest and already eighteen. She was smart and prim. Mariella was the free-spirited girl they met in the courtyard. She was a hidden beauty not often spotted at first glance. Bianca was the middle child but she was a lot younger then the first two. She was a bit childish. As for the twins, they were still twelve. None of the four boys were interested in them.
These girls were also as coveted as the boys. Although they were not sent to the convent to learn, Doňa Maria Isabel saw to their education. They know how to read, write and count. She taught them how to manage a store house as well as a whole hacienda. She even got them tutors to learn Spanish and culture. They learned dances and playing instruments.
French nun had visited the region years ago. They taught the previous generation on basic education. Maria Isabel saw the value of this and made sure her niňas are fit to be hacienderas.
Maria Isabel pushed Bianca to be the first to talk knowing her sister will rush to reign her in. Often, Bianca’s mouth runs away. Cecilia and Mariella went to stand close to her as she flirted with the boys. Cecilia was ready to interject if she said anything. Mariella was ready to pull her physically and stuff her in the nearest closet.
“I’m ever so keen on reading. My father often bribe Spanish monks into selling some of their books. I’ve read some of them.” Bianca said.
“Really, Seniorita?” Fabiano asked. He looked like he was interested in the well-read lady. “What topics are these books?”
“All topics.” Bianca said. Clearly, she has not read the titles, Mariella thought. Those books were mostly Religious commentaries and Spanish plays.
“What about you, Seniorita?” The youngest of the boys, Angelo, asked Mariella. “Do you enjoy reading?”
“Yes, I read cook books and fiction stories.” She said.
“Fictions books reach this part of the country? We live near Tondo in Maynilad. We get all kinds of books there.” He boasted.
“It would be nice to get more exotic cook books and possibly books on this topic they call science. Cecilia and I read what we can borrow from Doňa Lourdes and Nong Tasho. Nong Tasho is the village storyteller. He was educated by the friars but decided to be a storyteller instead.”
“Science? What a nonsensical topic. The friars will have a fit if they heard the subject. It’s too frivolous a topic. Only eccentric and people who have nothing better to do read them. A gentleman concerns himself with topics on religion and economics.” He scoffed. Mariella frowned. She and Cecilia greatly enjoyed the topics in science.
Maria Isabel called the boys and girls together. She suggested they play instruments. Cecilia took up the piano. Fabiano offered to play the guitar. Rustico, the second of Mauricio’s sons went to retrieve his flute. The three played some ballads.
“Do you dance, Seniorita?” Angelo asked. He was a lithe boy sixteen but he seemed young for his age. He was the baby of the boys.
“A little bit, Senior Aniego.” Mariella blushed. She’s never been asked before.
“It is Angelo.” He corrected. Angelo held his hands out for her and guided her to the center of the room. Mariella was nervous. So was Angelo.
Mariella put on a shaky smile for her dashing dance partner. The rest of the audience began to clap to the beat. Even though the elderly ladies of town tried to teach Mariella Spanish dances, she was not the most apt of students. It was showing in her foot work.
The three musicians played a second song. It was slightly more upbeat. Mariella and Angelo tried to keep up. The result was them tripping on each other’s foot.
“Ouch!” They both exclaimed. They each looked at their respective footwear.
“My new Italian shoes!” Angelo exclaimed. “Your wooden sandals smashed them!”
Mariella surveyed the damage. “It’s just a little dent.”
“A little dent! I was keeping these shoes perfectly smooth and shiny! Do you know how hard Italian leathers are to come by?”
“If it’s any consolation, my sandals are ruined and my toes are bloody.” She lifted her feet and showed him. He sisters gasped at the unladylike quality.
“How can that monstrosity compare to Italian leather?”
Mariella gasped. “What are your shoes compared to my toes!” She lashed out. “You are no gentleman! You care more for your shoes than a lady’s toes.” The music stopped and all eyes and ears were upon the arguing couple in the center of the room.
“And you don’t know the values of such things!” He countered. “If you were to be a don’s wife, you should know such things! But you don’t! So the conclusion is that you are not fit to be a don’s wife!”
“How dare you! You brat!” Mariella cried and ran out of the parlor as fast as her feet could carry her. She cared not for the blood trailing the hall as she ran.
“Oh, Manolito!” She sobbed as she retreated into the room she shared with Cecilia. Manolito was curled on her bed. “None of them will ever look at me again, especially not Angelo. He’s such a brat, a hurtful and hateful brat!” She sobbed into his fur. “I thought he was a charming man but he’s not. He is a spoiled pretender! I hate him.” Manolito uncurled himself and rubbed himself on Mariella to consol her. He was always affectionate. He was even more affectionate when she was sad. Often, her sisters teased her and she cried. Manolito was always there to console her. He never said anything, he never walked away. He just made her feel like somebody was listening to her pains.
“Father wants one of us to marry one of those boys. They are not the gentlemen he describes them to be! I don’t want to see them! They think I’m just an ordinary country girl, a proviciana! I can see it in their eyes.” She sobbed.
“How I wish there was someone for me, someone who will make me feel special. I wish for someone who will not laugh at me and my mistakes. One who will not ridicule me like what that boy did. Dios, send me someone other than those horrible boys! Send me a kind man, a man who is perfect. Someone like my Manolito.” She prayed. Manolito stayed beside her as she sobbed. He even stayed until she was well asleep. Usually, he went out to hunt during the night, only stopping by to bid his mistress a good night. Tonight, her faithful cat stayed and comforted her even in her dreams.
Mairella dreamed that Manolito stood up and donned a cloak and hat. He bowed to her and took her dancing in the stars. He kissed her good night when morning light started to creep in the horizon.
The next day, Mariella refused to come out of the room and face those bratty boys. She even refused breakfast. She rushed to the gardens to hide, searching for Manolito to play with. He was neither in the house nor in the gardens. He must be hunting.
When she saw Tilda snooping around the garden, she knew her parents have sent the maid to look for her. Tilda was their nosiest maid. She was also the one taking care of the girls. She knows Mariella usually hid in the garden near the side doors. “There is no way Mama and Papa will make me face those arrogant boys.” Mariella took her parasol which was just hanging on a hook beside the side doors. She was going to town. What she needed was a nice walk to clear her anger. Perhaps she can visit the church and volunteer her time to decorate for the Santa Cruzan. Perhaps then Father Jaime will notice Don Rico had a second daughter.
Mariella walked towards the direction of the church which was in the center of the town. It was quite some distance but can still be reached by foot. Normally, the family took a calesa to church or town but such was not available today. She wished she brought her purse with her. She wanted to buy some food in town. She was hungry since she did not eat breakfast. Judging from the position of the sun it looked to be almost noon and she was still nowhere near the Barrio.
Still determined, Mariella pressed on. It might take her another hour to reach town. She’s never walked her way to town before. Perhaps she can visit a friend’s house when she reached town. They might have some comestibles to offer. Mariella walked faster. The faster she reach the church, the quicker she would be away from the heat.
The sun was harsh in their tropical town. She wondered if it was true what some of the gardeners said. They said it was colder up north in Benguet. Some said it was even colder in Europe. Maybe one day she can take a trip to the continent.
The midday sun was unforgiving. She kept fanning herself. The parasol was not helping at all. Mariella wiped the sweat from her face. Her handkerchief was already wet. The heat and hunger was taking its toll on her eyes. Her vision was blurry. She felt a bit lethargic. Perhaps she can go rest underneath the nearest tree. She spotted a good shade a few meters away. Mariella walked steadily towards it. Nothing else mattered.
“Ho! Seniorita! Move out of the way!” Shouts from a distance barely registered into her ears. Who was shouting? “Quick seniorita! There’s a horse coming towards you!”
Mariella spared a glance behind her. She was no longer alone on the road. A speeding horse was heading towards her at full speed. Mariella froze in panic. She could not move. She felt so tired and weak from the heat.
“Aaah! Dios ko!” She prayed but was not able to finish. Mariella shut her eyes, waiting for the pain of being trampled by the horse. For a brief moment, Mariella felt like she was flying. Perhaps the horse has hit her already? She decided not to care. She would be dead by the time she opened her eyes. Her father would be very furious. Maybe her sisters would miss her. She would miss them, she thought. However, she would not miss those horrible boys. She let herself faint.
Mariella was no longer bothered by the heat. In fact, the heat felt good. She snuggled closer to the soft body she was sleeping beside. It was like a giant pillow but a bit firmer. She could hear her father’s voice. Was he angry about the horse? She listened closer. He didn’t sound angry. Mariella was relived. But did she get trampled?
She opened her eyes and tried to get up. She got disoriented and fell back onto the stranger’s arms. Mariella tried again but her strength seemed to be as lost as the horse that nearly trampled her. She looked up to the stranger who held her so gently. The moment their eyes connected, she knew it was destiny that brought them together.
“Senior, who are you?” She asked softly.
The man smiled. His features were very striking. It was as if he was foreign yet he blended well in this place. His eyes were golden and his face glowing white. His hair was jet black and matched his coat. Her hero, he was very handsome. His face was so symmetric and beautiful. Maybe he had the blood of fairies r angels in him.
“I was just telling your father that.” He smiled. Mariella’s heart fluttered. “I am Manolito de Antonino y Salvo.”
Her father made a noise to call their attention. Mariella noticed him. He looked disheveled and sweaty. She hoped he did not run all the way here. Behind him she could see some horses and farmhands. Among those horses was the wild one that nearly killed her.
“De Antonino? Young sir, you look like Don Megalito de Antonino y Salvador. Are you related?” Her father asked.
“My father.” The stranger replied.
“Indeed?” Don Rio eyed him. The resemblance was uncanny. This Manolito was a younger and thinner version of the old windbag, Megalito. “Where is he now? We were once acquainted.”
“He retired, went home already.” Manolito answered.
“Back to Spain?”
“Well, hijo, what are you doing here?”
“I heard Flores de Mayo was the best in this town. I’m vacationing until the Santa Cruzan Festival.”
“Where are you staying?”
“With Dona Lourdes.” Don Rico seemed pleased. Dona Lourdes only keeps classy company. Senior De Antonino spared Mariella a glance and smiled. “Permit me, Don Rico. I would like to come and call on your daughter.” He kissed Mairella’s gloved hand.
Mariella giggled. “I would be honored.” She spared her father a glance. He was clearly not honored. He was bent on matching his girls to Don Mauricio’s sons. Mariella pretended to be oblivious to the mood. Who would want those arrogant boys? She needed a man. She needed a man named Manolito. This stranger was sent by God. Smiled at him and batted her eyes. He helped her up and she wavered. “Oh, senior, I am going to faint.”
“Do not worry, Seniorita, I will carry you.” Senior de Antonino scooped her up and carried her all the way to the Hacienda. He was very gentle, as if carrying a precious cargo. She felt very special in his arms.
Don Rico led the way back to the Hacienda. Thankfully, his wife sent a carriage. Mariella and her father rode the rest of the way leaving the handsome stranger on the road.
Mariella’s father was not pleased. First, he spent the whole morning looking for his missing daughter then a servant cried his favorite horse, Kidlat, has escaped. Then he nearly had a heart attack when they said Mariella was nearly trampled by Kidlat. He took another horse and raced off down the road towards the barrio. His other servants followed suit. Once he reached the scene, he was greeted by the de Antonino boy.
The stranger looked very familiar. He knew Megalito from years ago yet he felt the same kind of closeness to Manolito. It was as if the two families were never separated.
Don Rico shook his head. Manolito’s timing is suspicious. He complicates things. He hoped Cecilia and Mariella would find their matches in Mauricio’s boys. With Manolito’s presence, the women’s attentions would be divided. What now?
Surely Megalito did not send Manolito to cause trouble. But the timing was a little difficult. Things always changed during Flores De Mayo. The don couldn’t decide if he loved or hated the week. He would have to watch Manolito closely.
Mariella was combing her hair just before bedtime when her sisters barged into her room. She was in the middle of her daydream when her sisters interrupted her. “I heard you had an adventure today.” Cecilia began.
Mariella shrugged. She didn’t want to share the experience with her sisters. It was between her and Manolito. Besides, they would see him when he came to call on her. If he would really come to call on her tomorrow. The thought was niggling at her. Would he really? A small country girl like her?
“Father was furious. It was a man. He came raging down and putting his hands on you.” Bianca said.
Mariella frowned. “He rescued me from a raging horse and held me when I had fainted. This was no ordinary man.” Mariella defended her rescuer.
“Oh it is a man! I knew it! I can only hear bits and pieces from father but I knew it was a man!” Bianca said.
She should have known to fall for Bianca’s tricks. Bianca was the troublemaker and the twins merely followed everything she said. It angered Mariella how childish her sister could get.
“Tell us his name!” Cecilia demanded. “Who is he?”
“His name is Manolito de Anonino.” Mariella said dreamily.
“Manolito?” Bianca screeched. Bianca was always so piercing. “Why, he’s named like your cat! I can’t wait to see him! Do they look alike?” She teased.
“Probably as small as her cat as well.” The twins laughed.
“Is he going to come courting you?” Cecilia asked.
“I do hope so. He said he’d come to call soon.” Mariella said.
Bianca and the twins snickered. “Court you? He’s probably ugly or extremely hairy. Why would a mystery man come suddenly here to court you?”
Bianca and the twins always made fun of her. She was beginning to hate them. Manolito was handsome. Why should she settle for an ugly or hairy man? “Go away! He’s a man, a handsome man and he’ll come here to court me as he said he would. You will all see! You’ll be jealous and I will say that I told you so. A man came to court me!”
True to his word, Manolito de Antonino y Salvo came calling first thing in the morning. The two families were in the middle of breakfast. It irked Don Rico that he came during breakfast. He believed visiting hours should be after meals and not during but he was not a rude man. As custom dictated, he had to invite the guest to the table. “Ah, Senior de Antonino, would you care to join us?” Manolito was ushered in the dining room and given a seat at the far side of the table.
Mariella sat right in front of him. She was bursting with happiness. Manolito was true to his word. He really did come to call. He was such a gentleman. He wore a black suit with a crisp white shirt and white vest. He had gloves that were pristine white. This was an image of a man of means and manners.
Mariella’s sisters gaped at the stranger. He was a handsome man and quite the charmer too. It wasn’t that they were jealous but they were disbelieving of Mariella. Mariella was right. The stranger was handsome and he really was here to court the second hija of Don Rico.
“Would you like a drink, senior? We have coffee, tea or salabat.” Dona Maria Isabel offered.
“Milk please, if it’s alright.” Manolito answered. A servant rushed to the kitchen to get fresh milk.
“What kind of a man drinks milk?” The Mauricio boys sniggered.
“Milk keeps one healthy. It also keeps the complexion clear and rosy.” Manolito explained. He drank the beverage with such pleasure, the girls couldn’t help but give a dreamy sigh. His skin was clearly white and with a hint of rosy tints. The girls drank in his suggestion and called for more milk from the kitchen.
“How is your father, Senior Manolito. I hope he was not too broken when we parted. He did once court me.” Dona Maria Isabel asked him. She was really looking forward to meeting the boy. Seeing him put a smile in her face. Megalito’s son looked so much like his father.
“His is alright, Seniora. My mother nursed his broken heart. I have a lot of siblings to occupy his time.” Manolito explained.
“Really? I am glad. How many are you in the family?” She inquired.
“Six as yet in total but we have another batch on the way. Five of us are her litter but my mother adopted an orphan after the fifth. She’s our only girl so far. We are hoping my mother’s next children will be girls so Pepita will have sisters.”
“Well, that is quite a family. You must tell me all about it some time.” Maira Isabel said. He nodded.
“So, Senior, are you eldest or youngest?” Mariella asked.
He smiled. “Second to the eldest.”
“Like me! I’m also second child.” Mariella exclaimed. This should be fate, she thought. It could only mean fate.
“Where are your other siblings, Senior de Antonino?” Don Rico asked.
“Our eldest is travelling the world. My other brother is in China on business while the little ones are back home.”
“I was terribly fond of Megalito. It was nice to have met him. What about your mother? What kind of a woman is she?” Dona Maria Isabel said.
“She is a fine woman who is always smiling.” He smiled.
“I wish I would know her. I think you get your smile from her. Your father has a very different smile.” She said.
“It is said that I am the only one among my brothers who resemble her. My brothers all take after my father, even in girth.” Manolito said. Dona Maria Isabel chuckled. Megalito was quite rotund. She could only imagine four younger Megalitos, all so very like their father.
Don Rico couldn’t conceive it. As much as Manolito claims that he favors his mother, there is too much of Megalito in the boy. Four more brothers? He hoped they wouldn’t drop by any time soon. He had plans for his hijas and none of those plans include the de Antonino boys.
Manoltio faced Don Rico, who was sitting at the cabisera. “Don Rico, will you permit me to take your daughter to have a stroll around town?”
Before Don Rico could answer, Maria Isabel answered for him. “Of course. You must take her outside for a leisurely morning. After her fright yesterday, she needs some form of entertainment. The other girls should accompany you too.”
“I think we shall join you. We have not the opportunity to visit town yet and you seem to have the advantage.” Angelo declared.
“Where are my manners? Of course you must join us. Ladies must have proper escorts.” Manolito inclined his head in a small bow.
Mariella’s heart skipped a beat, several in fact. Senior de Antonino was a stranger yet he felt very familiar. He also riled Angelo and his brothers with his gentlemanly ways.
Manolito had been in town yesterday. He glided about after he rescued Mariella. He introduced himself to a few members of the town and the word spread like wild fire. They knew Megalito de Antonino’s son was visiting. Megalito had been only a visitor but he had a lot of contributions in town. They never forgot him. Seeing Manolito was seeing him all over again.
When Manolito escorted the ladies and their gentlemen guests into town, the whole barrio was a flutter. Don Rico’s girls were never food for gossip. They were flowers of the barrio. Seeing them at their best was a sight. With them were Don Mauricio’s sons who were talked about profusely. Don Mauricio was famous for his vast sugar plantation. They say he also has banana plantation down south. Among them was the most striking person of the bunch. It was the enigmatic Senior de Antonino. They ladies of town waved at him and he tipped his hat and gave a bow. He was like a celebrity. When he waved to the townsfolk, the Mauricio boys were all forgotten.
Upon hearing the commotion, Padre Jaime came down his torre and greeted the man. Nobody can tear Padre Jaime from polishing his golden bells. This man, Manolito, he had that effect on people. So had his father who had helped the mestizo priest gain a full parish.
“My dear don, have you come from Spain? I shall give you a tour of the parish. Mind you, it’s no cathedral but we are proud of it.” Padre Jaime greeted.
“Padre, I am not a don. That title will go to my eldest brother. I am here for the Flores de Mayo and will stay until the Santa Cruzan.” Manolito said.
“Will you not stay longer, Senior?”
Manoltio watched Mariella looking at the bazaar stalls with her sisters. They always had bazaar stalls around the church when there was an occasion. She looked up and met his eyes. He smiled. She smiled. “If I have a reason to stay, I will stay.”
The little excursion to town had been mildly pleasant. They parted at the gates of the Hacienda Frederico. Manolito will walk to Dona Lourdes manor from there. The boys had a tour of the town but Angelo was not happy. He had been eyeing the fair Mariella. Now, a stranger was eyeing his prize.
Mariella was not the pretties of ladies but his parents have assured them that Don Rico’s hijas are all versed in Tagalog, Malayan and Spanish. They were educated and have been occasionally tasked to oversee the workings of the Hacienda. Fabiano will surely inherit Hacienda Mauricio. Angelo on the other hand wanted a life independent from his family. If he’d marry one of the ladies, he might inherit Hacienda Frederico. The prospect sounded good but…
Angelo knew he was not the gallant ladies’ man. He was quick to anger and had no skills in the books. Still, he worked hard and was always determined to get what he wants. He saw how Mariella blushed as Senior de Antonino kissed her hand and parted their company.
Should he go for another sister? No. Cecilia was nice but she was older than him and much too bookish. What of Bianca? She was the fairest and prettiest of the girls. He didn’t think he could live with her high pitch voice. The twins? No, they were too childish. There was something about Mariella. Mariella was shy but when angered, explosive. There was something in her nature that he couldn’t finger but it touched him. Did he want Mariella or her Hacienda?
Sunday morning. The family and the sons of Don Mauricio took two carriages to church. The Church was undergoing some construction for the Santa Cruzan. There were bamboo scaffoldings everywhere. There were a lot of people hired especially from neighboring barrios to finish repainting and hang decorations for Flores de Mayo. The church façade was getting most of the flowers and buntings. Padre Jaime wanted a good front.
When the mass was ending, Padre Jaime announced the schedule of activities for next week. It was May tomorrow and Flores de Mayo was a way to enrich the coffers of the church. Mariella knew that the said Padre was going to corner three people into donating more money: Her father, Dona Lourdes and a rich widow from across town.
Mariella’s father ushered them all out, determined to get away from Padre Jaime. Seems that Dona Lourdes had the same plan. She was rushing out of the doors before the last song ended. She was escorted by a young man dressed in pristine white shirt and black coat.
Excited, Mariella ran to greet the man. “Senior!” She waved. “I’m so glad to see you here. Oh, hello, Dona Lourdes.” She did a short curtsy to the old lady.
“I am glad as well, seniorita.” He kissed her gloved hand. “I thought to visit in the afternoon of this lovely Sunday.”
“Mariella!” Her sisters called her. “Where are you going?”
Before she could answer, a gust of wind blew her hat in the air. It flew upwards to snag on a bamboo scaffold.
“Allow me, seniorita.” Manolito said. He took off his gloves and hat and handed to her.
Angelo, witnessing the hat flying, rushed over. “I’ll get it!” He raced to climb on the bamboo pole.
Manolito climbed gracefully on an inclined bamboo far from the pole where the hat is. When he got high up, he jumped to a higher pole and again on to the next one coming closer and closer to the said pole.
Mariella and her sisters watched in wonder. All the church goers were also transfixed. He flew from pole to pole, so graceful in the air. He must be an encanto.
While Manolito flew from pole to pole, Angelo was still halfway up the pole. He saw Manolito defy gravity. The sweat made Angelo’s fingers lost its grip. He fell to the cobbled floor in a heap.
Manolito slid down the pole effortlessly. He really must be an encanto, only his wings must be invisible. “Your hat, seniorita.” He placed the hat on Mariella’s head then produced a red ribbon from his coat pocket and fastened the hat to her head. “Oh Senirito Angelo, your jacket is torn.”
Angelo’s brother helped him up. He was not injured but his pride was. Don Rico decided to cut the visiting to town short. Angelo needed to change his clothes. They bid Manolito and Dona Lourdes a good day and boarded their carriages back to the hacienda.
On the way home, the carriage was accosted by a group of robbers. There was a distance of wooded area between the barrio and Hacienda Federico. It was dense and can hide danger easily. Flores de Mayo invited a lot of people from neighboring towns. Unfortunately, it also invited unwanted trouble.
There were at least ten men armed with bolos. The two footmen accompanying Don Rico only had sticks with them. The road was barricaded with fallen trees and the passengers were told to come out of the carriage.
“Oh, Dios ko!” The girls started praying.
“Hand over your money and jewelry!” The bandits ordered them. One of them made a grab for Mariella’s brooch. It was given to her by her grandmother. She clutched it tightly afraid to let the memory go. The bandit pulled her away from the group.
“Unhand her!” Angelo launched himself to the man grabbing Mariella. The man waved his bolo and Angelo backed away. “Please stay calm, Mariella. The tanods should be coming soon. The Kapitan del Barrio will be informed of this.” Angelo tried to reassure her.
“Don’t be too sure, senior.” The bandits laughed. “Nobody will be along. We made sure of that.” They sneered.
A cold shiver ran down Mariella’s back. Were the tanods in all this? If not, were they harmed to get them out of the way? Will they defile them and kill them here? All these questions ran in her head. Mariella started to panic. “Someone, help us!” She did not want to die here.
“Seniora, shut up! Shut up of we’ll make you shut up!” One of the bandits threatened.
Mariella shut her eyes tightly and screamed even louder. “Someone! Help me! Manolito! Manolito, save me!” Oh, Manolito, she thought, please save me…
Trouble ensued but Mariella’s eyes were still shut. She kept shouting and shouting. Her sisters seemed to be shouting along with her. She couldn’t hear what they were saying but she shouted for her rescuer.
Mariella felt she was being wrenched violently from one arm to another. “Be calm, mi amor. I am here.” A familiar voice whispered to her.
She opened her eyes and saw her dream hero holding her tight. “Manolito! You came!” She sobbed into his black silk coat. “I was so scared.” Manoltio deposited her to her father’s arms and faced the bandits.
“How dare you! We’ll teach this Mestizo a lesson!” The bandits roared and came after Manolito.
Manolito de Antonino brandished his short walking cane and hit the bandits that came charging. He was swift and graceful. He dodged them easily and hit painful parts of their bodies, knocking away their weapons.
“Angelo, pick up those weapons.” Angelo obeyed. When he finished collecting all ten weapons, Manolito made quick work of the bandits. They were all knocked on the ground. He told Don Rico’s footmen to tie the bandits up.
Manolito bowed to Don Rico. “Don Rico.”
“Senior, you save us! We are in your debt.” Dona Maira Isabel said.
“It is my duty to protect Seniorita Mariella.” Manolito said.
“My thanks, Senior de Antonino but I have to go home and lie down. All this excitement is not good for the heart. I’m afraid I outgrew this kind of adventure long ago.” Don Rico said.
Manolito escorted the group back to the hacienda. He bid his goodbye in the courtyard. The girls all rushed to the prayer room where they held a rosary to say their thanks. Some of the boys joined them. Don Rico went to lie down.
Angelo was alone. He sat on the courtyard steps, not wanting to join his brothers or the ladies. He was in a foul mood. The bandits attacked and he was not even able to do anything. Senior de Antonino came out of nowhere in a blur of black and white, saving them all. Manolito did not even have a proper weapon.
“Meow?” An inquiry came from behind him.
Angelo looked around. It was a cat. “Oh, it’s you. You are the cat she also calls Manolito.” The cat shrugged. “So, Senior Gato, what does it take to get noticed by a lady.”
Manolito the cat got up, picked up a flower growing near the steps. He nipped on the stem and carried it with him. Angelo can only stare. “What a cat! Seems I have to compete with this Manolito too.”
End of Chapter 1