Rose saw that Maria kept throwing anxious looks at the window that faced the stables. She would be the first to see Villens come down the stairs and walk over to the kitchen. Lemuel kept looking at Villens’ empty chair and then over at Maria with a quizzical look on his face. Finally he caught Maria’s eye and then glanced back at Lemuel’s empty seat. She just shrugged. Rose decided that if Maria and Villens had an argument last night, she and Lemuel would go to the mound alone. She knew how much going to the mound meant to Lemuel.
Maria was now staring at the window, a puzzled look on her face. She watched for a while, and then stood up, poured two cups of coffee, and walked out the back door. Lucinda, Ethna, Mrs. O’Brien, and Rose exchanged a flurry of looks each carrying an assessment of what the two cups of coffee meant about the relationship between Villens and Maria.
Villens was halfway down the path from his rooms above the stables to the kitchen. He was wearing his new boiled wool jacket, and heavy work clothes he’d borrowed from Pau. The women had only made him dress clothes, never imaging that the Lieutenant would engage in physical labor. He was pacing back and forth and holding a letter tightly in his hand. He would slap the letter against his right thigh, then pace ten steps, turn around, and pace back. His lips were pursed and his brow was furrowed. His red ears were a sign of how long he’d been pacing in the cool morning without a hat.
Maria waited for him at the end of his westward pacing. When he arrived, he looked up and was clearly surprised to find her standing there and offering him a hot mug of coffee. He accepted the coffee without comment and while he drank, he looked at her searchingly, gauging the strength of their budding relationship against the weight of the thing that had set him pacing. He decided it was worth the chance and handed her the letter. “It’s from my father,” was all he said.
Maria set her mug on the ground and removed the letter from the envelope. The thick, ivory paper had his father’s name and titles printed at the head. His father wrote in a sharp, angular hand with brown ink. Even though the letter was written with some urgency, it contained no smudges or blots.
After absorbing these impressions, Maria turned to the contents of the letter.
I have heard of Morales’s great error and the price he paid. He was a fine man, but perhaps he thought too highly of his own value. As soon as I heard of his death, I began to search for information about you. Such information is not easily found these days. As you must know, Morales’ regiments, the ones that survived, have been broken up. Their officers have been imprisoned or decommissioned, depending on their role in Morales’ plans. Most of your regiment is dead.
I had not spent time with Morales for several years, so I do not know of your involvement. I cannot imagine that you, a reluctant military man who served only out of respect for your foolish father, could have been involved in a plot. To be honest, son, you are not a good enough soldier to be helpful.
All is well here. Home is a safe place, as usual. Your mother would you like you to come home for the holidays. Philip is still in France at the University and Julianna sends her love. I have heard recently from our old friend from the desert Sheikh al Dereet. He is still alive and doing well. He was alway such a wise man. He sends his wishes and hopes that you will consider his long life as a lesson for us all.
I hope my messengers can find you soon. Please come and see us at your first opportunity. There is no need to write in advance. Your brother will be home from France in the spring.
I wish you thoughtfulness and wisdom, my son,
Major of Cavalry (Ret.)
Maria looked up when she read the letter and saw Villens carefully assessing her. She was in her working outfit for the first time since the day of the battle. “Are my clothes acceptable, Villens?” she asked. She expected this comment to fluster him as it usually did those men who stared at her.
He didn’t bat an eyelash. Instead he responded, “I haven’t seen you in pants and a man’s shirt since the first time I saw you.”
“You didn’t answer, Villens. Are my clothes acceptable?” she asked again. This wasn’t working out as she expected.
“Don’t be silly, Maria. You know it is not for me to accept whatever you choose to wear. I do reserve the right to respond to your clothes, but acceptance isn’t my place.”
“Aren’t we legalistic the morning,” said Maria. “I thought you slept over the stables, not over the stockyard.”
Villens was caught and he knew it. Rather than pout or fight, he smiled at Maria and admitted, “You’re correct, of course, I am full of bullshit. I was just considering which I find more attractive, you wearing your work clothes or you in a dress.”
“And?” she said, one eyebrow arched.
“I am attracted to whichever clothes have mademoiselle in them,” Villens replied, then performed a sweeping bow, the feather of his imaginary hat brushing the ground at Maria’s feet.
Maria couldn’t help laughing and said, “That’s it. You must have slept over the cattle pens last night.”
Villens straightened, grinning and adjusting his imaginary hat. He discretely took Maria’s hand in his. “Must we go on this dreadful trip through a swamp on such a raw, damp day? Couldn’t we make up some excuse to go to the capital for a few days? A hotel room, fine restaurants, maybe a show?”
“Maybe a duel with Eduardo O’Brien when you flaunt our relationship before his friends and government officials?” said Maria.
Suddenly serious, Villens said, “I have never claimed to be a hero, and in my family have I known many heroes, but I assure you that if that man is foolish enough to challenge me, I will kill him. I cannot do otherwise.”
The good humor left Maria’a face. “Tonight I will write him. He clearly is no longer interested in me, but I must make it clear that I am not interested in him. He is the kind of the man who believes a woman can never get over him.”
“I am not pushing you, and I would never challenge him, save for him making a grave public insult, but I would be pleased to know that he and his family, of whom I am quite fond, are aware that the earlier relationship is ended.”
Maria untangled the contorted comment, so unlike Villens’ usual direct, humorous speech. It was as if Villens’ sense of being constrained by others’ ignorance of his and Maria’s feelings for each other was communicated in the form of his words rather the substance.
Maria squeezed his hand and said, “I shall write him tonight.”
Villens stepped a little closer and replied, “The morning would fine. There are so many other things to do tonight.”
Pau came around the corner of the stable and pulled up short when he saw that he was intruding on Maria and Villens. They dropped hands quickly and Maria held the letter up to Villens face. “I cannot make out this passage, Villens. Can you read it?”
“I think it says, ‘quick-thinking’,” replied Villens.
“Yes, quick-thinking. I think you’re correct,” replied Maria.
Pau may or may not have fallen for the clumsy dodge, but he was wise enough to greet the pair and move on swiftly. Villens watched him go, then said, “You must write that letter and then let the O’Brien’s know. I feel like a fool sneaking around like this.”
“Tonight. Sometime tonight, I will write the letter. I promise,” said Maria, squeezing his hand.
Villens nodded his acceptance of her assurance. “What did you think of the letter?,” he asked, quickly shifting to his main concern of the moment.
“Honestly?” Maria asked tentatively.
“When we are together just a little longer, you will know that when I ask you something it is because I value your honest opinion.”
“I think your father is very rude to you and I can’t imagine a less inviting invitation,” said Maria.
Villens nodded his head and said, “That’s about what I expected. It’s what my father wanted people to think.”
“People?” asked Maria. “What people besides you, and now me, have read this letter?”
“When I received the letter, it had been opened and read,” Villens said matter-of-factly.
“What? By whom? Why?” asked Maria.
“You missed ‘When,’ and ‘How’,” Villens said.
“Just answer my question,” Maria said.
“Questions. You asked three,” replied Villens.
“I will shoot you if this goes on much further,” said Maria crossing her arms and pursing her lips.
“Let me explain quickly before Lemuel and Rose get here. The letter was opened by someone in the new government. I suspect Eduardo O’Brien or one of his agents. I have been told that he is the head of the Security Office for the new government.”
Maria was stunned. She wanted to know how Villens knew this, but she decided to wait and let him talk.
“My father anticipated that the letter would be intercepted, so he took precautions. First, he presented me as an incompetent and uninterested officer. It is true that I am uninterested in the military, but I am quite good at it. Men in my line have to no choice but to be good soldiers. It is in our blood and how we are raised. My father suspects that I have left the military and he is attempting to convince the new government that I am unimportant and not worth the effort of arresting. He’s correct about that. I was totally innocent of involvement in Morales’ plot. I’m not sure why he didn’t trust me, but he never did. Neither did Rojas or his son for that matter. Morales hated my grandfather, who had made his life miserable when he was a junior officer. As for the Rojas family, I never got along with the son.”
“What was the problem between you two?,” Maria asked.
“He is a missesah, as my grandfather would say, who considered me a fool who did not recognize his special mission.”
“He is a good friend of Eduardo’s, you know,” Maria said.
“So I’ve heard,” said Villens. “I have also heard that Mrs. O’Brien’s boy’s rise from humble beginnings is due less to native ability and than to a willingness to adore the Rojas, pere and fil. In some circles, he is called the Irish Ramora. The Rojas’s are confident that they are the future of a great empire in New Spain. Flattery seems logical to them.”
Maria had met the Rojas men briefly, and she hadn’t seen them this way. Of course, the brief meeting never got past Old World charm. She would have to think about Villens portrayal of the pair. “What is this about the Bedouin King?” she asked.
“That is both warning and advice. The story of Sheikh al Deleet is a favorite one in our family. The Sheikh was a Bedouin King in the first century of Islam. He had resisted conversion and kept to the old Arab ways that his tribe had followed for countless centuries. However the Sheikh had a problem. His kingdom lay squeezed between the eastern Christians in Constantinople and the Islamic Persians to his west. They were both pressuring him to convert, but he knew whichever faith he choose would bring the armies of the other down on him. The Sheikh was ruler of a small tribe and war with either one would crush him and his people.”
“The day came when the Sheikh had to decide. He sent for religious men from both faiths. For a week, they debated and performed services. They gave gifts and promised more. Finally the Sheik called the groups together. He told them he was ready to make a decision, but he needed one further question answered. Both groups agreed to answer his question.”
“The Sheikh began by asking the Christians who was better, the Muslims or the Jews. They answered immediately that the Jews were better than the Muslims. He then asked the Muslims, who was better, the Christians or the Jews. They quickly choose the Jews also. ‘That’s it,’ the King replied. I am converting to Judaism.’”
Maria thought for moment or two and then said, “Your father is afraid that you are caught between Morales and Rojas. He is suggesting you take a third, middle course. “
“Very good, but there is more,” said Villens. “He is also warning me that I will have to choose.” At this point, Maria and Lemuel came out of the kitchen and called greetings. They made more noise than normal to warn Maria and Villens of their approach. “Later,” whispered Villens, as he slipped the letter into his pocket.
“We’re sorry to interrupt,” said Rose. “If we are going to be back before dark, we need to leave soon.” She handed Villens a bacon sandwich wrapped in a napkin. “You need to eat, whatever we decide.”
“No, no, we’re ready, or I should say, I’m ready. What about you, Maria?” Villens asked.
“Let me run inside and get my notebook and drawing box. It won’t take minute.”
With Maria’s departure, the scurrying about that marks the beginning of any expedition began in earnest. Lemuel gathered up the coffee mugs and returned them to the kitchen. Rose went to get the food basket she’d packed earlier that morning. Villens walked over the stables while he finished his sandwich. He returned with a small cart laden with shovels, a pick axe, a few small trowels, and several horse blankets. He wore a sheathed dagger and loaded his cavalry carbine and sword into the cart.
On her way to her study, Maria saw Doña de la Vega coming down the steps. “Excuse me, my dear,” said Angelica. “I seem to be out of perfume. Could I possibly borrow yours until I can send home for a bottle? I have admired your perfume since we first met.”
“Of course, Senora,” said Maria. “I’m afraid that all I have is a small amount that belonged to my mother. I’ll get it for you.” Maria turned to go up the stairs, but halted when Angelica put her hand on her arm.
“I couldn’t possibly accept your kind offer,” she said. “You must wear your mother’s perfume. I will be fine sans perfume for a few days. By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask. Are you growing your hair longer?”
“A bit, I suppose,” said Maria.
“You should stop supposing, and make the choice,” Angelica said. “It already looks lovely. Longer hairs suits you. That handsome Villens seems to like it.”
Maria blushed, thanked her for the compliment, then hurried off to get her things for the trip. Angelica thought that if Maria could blush when she choose, most men would be defenseless. She sighed and wondered when she’d last blushed. Such is the price of a long, interesting life, she thought. It had been a long time since flattery or surprise had drawn a blush from her.
Villens wrestled the heavy cart out of the stable. The others noticed the weight of the cart and suggested that a horse or mule pull the cart. Lemuel pointed out the ground was still soggy from the flood and the path would pass over even soggier places. A horse or mule would get weighed down. They picked through the tools and discarded a few. Still, the cart would be difficult to maneuver.
“What we need is a strong back that’ll follow directions, and isn’t so heavy that it’ll sink in the mud,” said Lemuel.
“I can handle the cart,” insisted Villens, but Rose interrupted. She knew that Maria and Villens would want to spend time together today and that didn’t include dragging a cart along. “Wait here,” she said. “I’ve got the answer.” Villens and Lemuel shrugged and then began a desultory examination of the tools, noting the strengths and faults in a manly way.
Rose returned in about fifteen minutes with Finn by her side. The boy could barely control his excitement at being considered. “He’s nearly sixteen, but he’s large for his age, and he’s as strong as most men,” said Rose. Finn beamed and swelled his chest to the breaking point.
Villens walked over to Finn, never breaking eye contact. Finn stood motionless, growing increasingly uncertain as the unsmiling Villens drew closer. He stopped about a foot away from Finn, then slapped him in the chest with the back of his hand. There was a hollow thud, followed by air rushing out of Finn’s lungs. He doubled up and nearly collapsed, by Villens grabbed his arms and held him. Rose started toward Finn, but Lemuel grabbed her arm. Villens bent down and whispered in Finn’s ear, “Never pose, son. It makes you an easy target. Now let’s go. You’ll do fine.”
Maria had arrived while Finn was trying to catch his breath and Rose indignantly told her what Villens had done. Lemuel assured them both that this was standard young male-older male initiation behavior and Finn would not only remember it fondly, he would repeat the action as soon possible when he was the elder.
“Men are dogs,” Maria said to Rose. “Pack animals that can be sometimes be housebroken.” Rose laughed, but she wondered what Vera would have done if she’d seen Villens strike Finn. Vera was a wildcat where her babies were concerned.
The party headed down the path, Lemuel and Rose leading the way, then came Finn with the cart, and Maria and Villens followed behind. The path was narrow and the group stretched out. The couples wanted their privacy and Finn did not want his struggles with the heavy cart to be obvious to the others. “You may be big dog here, Villens,” said Maria quietly, “But you will help that boy.”
“I know,” he said. “Let him have his way for a while and then I’ll tell him you ordered me to take over. That way, I’ll be the weak one.”
“Why do men make things so complicated?” Maria asked.
“Oh, it’s not complicated to do. It’s only complicated to explain to women.”
Lemuel and Rose discussed the house that Don Hernando was building for them. They discussed getting married. Rose had heard that the new government was promoting secular marriages performed by judges and justices of the peace. She assumed that Don Hernando would still be a justice of the peace under the new government. Lemuel said he’d ask the Don. If so they could marry soon and begin preparations to move into their new house.
They spent some time talking about Ethna. There was no one nearby in whom she was interested. She was of a marriageable age, but she had never expressed interest in anyone. There was a Bryant cousin or two who seemed interested, but she clearly wasn’t. Maybe Eduardo could find a place for her in the capitol were she could meet eligible young men from the new party. If only there was school for her, she was so intelligent, but she was twenty and the university in the capitol didn’t take women. Maybe Maria could help.
Rose told Lemuel about her husband, Declan. Declan was an Irish sailor she’d met when he jumped ship in Porto Royal. He’d been press ganged in Liverpool where he was visiting family. He was a scholar who had travelled from Trinity university to Liverpool to deliver messages to family members who had gone to England to find work. He made the mistake of wandering around the docks, drawn by the noise and bustle, and found himself sailing to Africa on a slaver.
He was a gentle man and unused to physical labor. The physical demands of sailing and the brutality of the slave trade sickened him. He nearly died on board, but he was determined that he would not be cast overboard, sewn in an old sail with British cannon balls at his feet. He fought the illness and when the ship docked at Port Royal on the Atlantic coast, he ran.
He headed west, away from the sea, and ended up on the other side of the continent, on the land of Don Hernando. Pau found Declan collapsed on the road. He brought him to the house, where Mrs. O’Brien took him under her wing and nursed him back to health. Don Hernando’s family has always been opposed to slavery, so when Declan’s health returned, the Don put him to work writing anti-slavery tracts that were distributed in the capital.
Declan was a quiet man, a good man, and Rose soon fell in love with him. They married when she turned twenty, Ethna’s age, and soon had three children. Don Hernando insisted they live the large house with him and his family. He had grown quite close to Declan over the years.
It had been nine years since Declan had jumped ship and the risk of being recaptured by the British seemed negligible. Declan’s tracts had gathered a large readership in the capitol, so when he was invited to give a lecture at the university, he accepted. He travelled to the capital alone and was never seen alive again. Several weeks later his body washed up on the shore.
“We’re not sure what happened to him,” said Rose. “Mother and Pau went to the capital, but answers were hard to find. Mother thinks the invitation was arranged by British agents who wanted the tracts suppressed. She thinks they followed Declan and either killed him or returned him to a ship from where he jumped overboard some later.”
“What do you think?” asked Lemuel.
“I used to think all sorts of things about it,” Rose said. “But then I realized it didn’t matter. Declan is dead. He was killed by the British. He was Irish, so that’s always a safe bet. I loved him and he loved me. We have three wonderful children. I was pregnant when Declan was killed. That is why I named my youngest after his father.”
Rose paused and stopped walking. She took Lemuel’s hands and looked into his open, honest face. “It has been a long time, Lemuel. I have been alone a long time. So have you. I love you. I am lucky to be in love again. Are you in love with me, or are doing what the Don wants?”
Lemuel smiled shyly. “You know it’s difficult for me to talk, to speak about how I feel.” Rose nodded and squeezed his hands. “If you can love an odd duck like me, think how easy it is for me to love such a generous heart as you.” He drew her to him and they kissed until the rattle of the cart gave notice of the others’ approach.
Pau was tending the fire at the forge when Anthony Bryant walked in. Before Pau could welcome him, Anthony asked, “Is Cupido dead yet?”
“No,” replied Pau. “He hangs on, but he is more dead than alive.”
“Is anyone helping him live?” demanded Anthony angrily. “Maria? Ethna?”
Pau picked up his largest hammer and effortlessly slammed in onto the iron piece he was shaping for the green house. Without looking at Anthony, Pau said, “I’m going ignore that last comment out of respect to you and your grief over your father’s death. However, I will not ignore what could be seen as threats against my family.”
The two men glared at each other. The heavy hammer rested perfectly still in Pau’s huge fist. Anthony looked away and said, “I meant no disrespect and I would never harm any member of your family. Your family is my family and mine is yours. We will not be broken by the likes of Cupido Valenzuela.”
Pau placed the hammer gently on his workbench and shook hands with Anthony. “Why won’t the bastard die?” asked Anthony.
“He’s either too stupid or the Devil doesn’t want him,” said Pau.
Finn was unable to hide his difficulties any longer. He was panting and his muscles were strained to the breaking point. Villens tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Put it down, Finn. We all need a rest.” Finn slid off the arms of the cart and heavy load slammed to the ground. Finn walked two steps from the cart and dropped to the ground. Villens rummaged around the cart and found a tarp. He folded it up and tossed it to Finn to use as a pillow.
Maria joined them and sat down on a rock. “Should we get Lemuel and Rose?” she asked.
“Let’s let them have some privacy,” said Villens, settling on the ground next to Maria and using the rock she was sitting on as a back rest. He stretched a leg out and kicked Finn’s foot. Finn, who was nearly asleep, sat up startled.
“Good job, Finn,” said Villens. “I’ll take over when we start again.”
Finn considered arguing, but then his good sense won out. “If you must, you must,” he said, and then he laid down to go to sleep. Maria went to the cart and found two burlap sacks to cover the boy. He was asleep when she reached him and covered him.
Maria and Villens sat and watched Finn for a while. When he had settled into a deep sleep, Maria said, “Villens, the letter from your father reminded me that I know almost nothing about your family. You have been living with mine, but I don’t know the first thing about your family.”
“I am the only son of a pirate Queen and her Egyptian lover. They raid the Atlantic coast leaving terror in their wake. I killed my first man when I was six and was captain of my own pirate ship at eight.” Villens seemed prepared to go on, when Maria noticed that Finn was wide awake and staring at Villens.
“Go back to sleep, Finn,” said Maria. “Villens head injury is acting up again.”
A disappointed Finn went back to sleep. “I really am going to have to shoot you someday,” said Maria to Villens. “For your own good.”
Villens leaned back against the rock and rested his head against Maria’s thigh. She glanced at Finn, but he was asleep. She stroked Villens hair as he began his story. “Let’s start with the founder of my branch of the Villens family. Please don’t shoot me, this is all true,” began Villens. “My Grandfather was Lucien Emile Villens. He was a cavalry officer in the French army. He was ruthless in battle and loyal to his troops. The problem was that he respected competence, not position, and he said what he thought. These are worthy qualities, but they do not serve in the army.”
“After a French defeat, in which he rallied the broken and scattered cavalry units and fought a rear guard action that prevented the army from being wiped out, the King called for my Grandfather to present him with a medal. After being given a royal ribbon for bravery, the King asked my grandfather to tell him about the action. The King expected to hear of my Grandfather’s heroic actions, but instead my grandfather said that if the idiotic General commanding the French Army hadn’t had his head firmly up his ass, the battle would have been won easily and the rear guard action would have been unnecessary. That General was the King’s brother, and only a timely escape aided by members of the cavalry saved my Grandfather’s life.”
“He ended up in Hesse, where he quickly rose to be the head of the Prince’s cavalry and a leading minister in the court. He helped the Hessians develop a heavy cavalry unit that was the envy of the German Princes. He would have stayed in Hesse, except that he was ordered to attack the countrymen of his new wife Arabella, and he refused. The Hessian Prince was disappointed, but he acted honorably and allowed my Grandfather and several of his officers to leave. He also granted them generous severance gifts.”
“Lucien was then recruited by a hidalgo who wanted to build up his cavalry. The only problem was that Lucien was Jewish. His family had ceased practicing Judaism, indeed most of the family had converted to Catholicism, but my grandfather belonged to part of the family known as ‘the Noseless Villens.’ It was said that every one of them had cut off their nose to spite their face before the where twenty. The Noseless Villens would not convert, even though they never darkened a synagogue. They just refused to be told what to do. When asked by the Spanish Lord why he would not convert if he didn’t practice the Jewish faith, my grandfather said, ‘Any religion where the believers argue and bargain with their God is a religion worth keeping.’ The Lord laughed and promised that he would protect him from the Church.”
“My grandfather spent many years fighting Spain’s enemies. As he promised, the Lord protected my grandfather from the Inquisition. When the Lord died, his heir was not as powerful, and the Church began to circle round with drawn knives.”
“Eventually it was decided to send my Grandfather to New Spain to escape the Inquisition. He was to serve as the head of a mobile band of troops that was to establish Spanish control over the Atlantic Coast of southern New Spain and then push inland. He was remarkably effective.”
“What about the Inquisition here?” asked Maria.
“Grandfather was no fool. He made it his business to protect priests in missions and to defend the houses and buildings of the Inquisition. He also befriended those who weren’t overly diligent, and they clamped down on the fanatics. As my Grandfather didn’t flaunt his Judaism, things went fine.”
“Grandfather was eighty-one when he died. He was thrown from his horse,” said Villens.
“He was still riding at eight-one?” marveled Maria.
“Oh, yes, in fact he was jumping a fence,” said Villens.
“Jumping a fence? Did the horse run wild?”
“No, the poachers he was chasing had climbed the fence.”
“And he fell off?” Maria asked.
“Good Lord, no. Lucien Villens never fell off of a horse in his life. No, the horse pulled up. It would not jump and it threw him,” said Villens.
“The poor man,” said Maria.
“He broke his back. His last words were, ‘Shoot the God damned horse.’”
Ethna and Ronan stood in the new library admiring the beauty of the woodwork. “It’s time we made it a library,” said Ronan.
“You mean books, right?” asked Ethna.
“Unless you want this room to be the Shelf Room, I think we need to get books,” replied Ronan.
Ethna had been dreading this moment. She hadn’t been in the old library since that horrible day. She still dreamed of the violence and the shooting. Ronan saw her hesitation and offered to get the books. “No,” Etha said. “No, Ronan, I’ll do it. I have to.” She walked slowly to the old library and put her hand on the knob.
Ethna’s throat was dry and her ears strained to hear through the heavy door. She knew the room was empty, but she feared she was wrong. She stood outside the room and slowly, meticulously, the bloody scene played itself out before her. She froze, trapped by the vision she had seen so many times.
Then Ethna took a deep breath and shook her head to drive away the visions. He turned the handle and stepped in the room. It took her a moment to realize that she had shut her eyes. She opened them and the ghosts were gone. The bodies and the blood were removed. The damage had been repaired. The smell of the gun smoke still lingered in the fabrics, or was it in her mind? She couldn’t tell, but it didn’t matter. She opened the curtains and filled the room with light. She took down an armful of books and walked to the open door. “I will do this,” thought Ethna. “I can do this.”
The rest of the day she came in and out of the room moving books. Eventually Ronan joined here and before long they were laughing about childhood adventures in the library.
“My father is also a hero,” said Villens. “The natives attacked a mission where the Cardinal was visiting. My father and a small band of cavalry blunted the attack and lead the priest to safety. The Church honored him with an ornate golden cruxfix.”
“Is you father a Christian?” asked Maria.
“Oh yes,” said Villens. “He converted when he came of age. His father must have furious, but I don’t think they ever spoke of it. I once asked my father why he converted and he said that his nose was far too distinguished to waste. I am not sure how deep his Catholicism goes, but he and my Mother attend Mass and entertain the Cardinal and other priests at our home. It was the Cardinal who secured my father’s position as military commander of the Southern and Eastern regions of colony. I suppose I should country now. My grandfather resigned his commission when his son was promoted over him. I’ve often wondered if that wasn’t the aim of the Cardinal.”
“My mother is a charming, lovely woman whom all the men admire. I have heard some women say unkind things about her, but I assume that was jealousy. When you meet her, I am sure you will love her.”
“She sounds like death on daughter-in-laws,” thought Maria. “I must remember to hire a food taster.”
“I have a younger brother, Philip, who is studying Natural Science at the Ecolê in France. I’m sure you two will have a great deal to talk about when he returns.”
“My sister, Julianna, is a wonderful girl, about Ethna’s age. We must get them together. They will become fast friends, I am certain. Can you imagine the commotion caused by two such bright, lovely, and spirited girls? Sparks will fly! The sons of the local gentry will be poleaxed. Their mothers’ will be lining up to arrange marriages.”
“Of course, if you come to my home before we are engaged, you will drive all the men crazy, and I will be forced to fight duels day and night to defend your honor.” Maria was taken aback by this causal mention of engagement. Villens reached into his pocket and handed her a torn piece of paper. She recognized the paper. It was torn from his father’s letter.
“This is for you,” Villens said. “Wait until I move the cart some way down the path, then read it.”
Villens stepped over the snoring Finn and slid in between the arms of the cart. He lifted the weight onto the front axle and started down the path. Maria waited until she lost sight of him around a bend, then began to read.
“On Discovering an Unexpected Love
We met on an inauspicious, bloody day
Denied us, an idyllic bower and lute,
Violence and death make treacherous clay,
Unpromising soil for love to take root.
But when the flood receded, stood revealed,
A blossom rare, strangely out of place,
The tiny seed in hard-baked soil, long concealed,
Flood drenched, sprung to life, our bond to grace.
Destruction, then introduction; flood, then bloom,
Nature’s polar dualities oft times are wed,
As in you, your struggle to find the room,
For thought and feeling, for heart and head.
Come floods or blossoms, there cannot be,
A better life, than all of you with me.”