It was generally agreed in the village of Las Pesquas that Tomas Almenas was the ugliest man in the village, or indeed in any village within the bounds of public knowledge. Even Jorge Lopez was at a loss to think of a more hideous individual - and Senor Lopez, the shopkeeper and cloth merchant, was a man of much acquaintance with the world and of high cosmopolitan taste. It was he who had endowed the church with a statuette of the Blessed Virgin that glowed with a soft blue light when one lit the lamp at its base, a spectacle that was one of the wonders of the village. One should understand from this that the village of Las Pesquas was not blind to the glories of Art, nor backward in appreciating what beauty might be found in the district.
To have achieved such notoriety for ugliness was remarkable, then, but the ugliness of Tomas Almenas was fully worthy of its reputation. He was a small man, somewhat bent, long-armed but squat like a toad, which unfortunate beast he also resembled in the width of his mouth and the plenitude of his warts. Toads, however, are not further distinguished by rank coarse black hair, and even if they were, it would probably not grow on them in random clumps. Further, if a toad were to squint it would be a detriment, for the golden filigree eyes of a toad are its chief vanity, but the squint of Tomas Almenas was in one sense no disfigurement, for his eyes were small, flat, lashless, and of the colour of the mud at the bottom of a swamp, neither grey, nor brown, nor green.
His ugliness apart, nobody had very much to say to Tomas Almenas, despite his fame on that and on one other account. His voice, therefore, was seldom heard, but it was known to be burred and rough. Mostly, he kept silent.
He was allowed much scope for silence, for Tomas Almenas was an orphan, and of course unmarried. He spent his days plodding behind a mule or engaged in the removal of stones from his holding and their replacement, where possible, with plantings of maize, squash and beans. And here was the other cause for his notoriety in the neighbourhood of Las Pesquas, because it was remarkable how much success attended these endeavours.
Even in a bad year his crops were adequate. He invariably had a sufficiency for himself and some over, even after his land-rent and taxes were paid. Not only that, but he would quite often give produce away to his neighbours, especially those with many children. Of course, his beneficiaries would say that one expected nothing less of a man who had only himself to feed, and nearly four acres of quite passable land on which to do it. After all, did he not keep a pig, in addition to the usual chickens and a goat? For it is to be understood that in the village of Las Pesquas to keep a pig was to signal a certain standing in the district.
But all this paled in comparison with his achievements in a good year, for then not only would his yields be bountiful, but his produce would also be of superb quality. His corn would show uniformly large, tightly packed golden ears, and his beans and squash and tomatoes and chilli would display perfect shape, colour and firmness, bursting with flavour in the mouth. Of course produce of such quality commanded a premium in the market in the town. Certainly the agent pocketed a good deal of the difference himself, but some profit did return to Tomas Almenas. His wants were simple, and his neighbours saw no evidence of his spending money, so it was the common belief that he had a cache of silver rials buried somewhere in his fields.
For this reason, and because of the pig, from time to time one or another of the fathers in the village would mention to his daughter that she might do far worse than to entertain an address from Tomas Almenas, should he care to make one. The daughter would then enquire whether her beloved papa had entirely lost his mind, much as she herself would lose all interest in life if she were required actually to look at the wretch. In this enquiry the daughter would invariably be supported by her mother, and there the matter would rest. In this fashion affairs continued in the village of Las Pesquas for some years.
When the wife of Jorge Lopez died of the fevered colic she was not very old, and Senor Lopez was not yet out of his forties and still vigorous. It was with genuine sorrow that he buried his wife. He missed her good humour and practical good sense, and her excellent management of his household, one of the most extensive in the district, with three servants; but he missed certain of her other attributes more, especially when he found himself alone in the big bed at night. This loss was obvious to others in the village, and so there was no great surprise when Jorge returned from a business journey to the large town at the mouth of the valley with a handsome woman whom he introduced as his new wife.
Now, the second Senora Lopez had herself been a widow, and she had a daughter, whose name was Veronica. The village was, as has already been explained, sensible of beauty, and this was certainly very true in the case of the beauty of Veronica Talti. She was such as would cause a man to hold his breath, and his heart to stop and then leap like a rabbit in his chest. That was, in any case, known to be the reaction of Tomas Almenas, for such things cannot be concealed from public knowledge in such a place as the village of Las Pesquas.
He first saw her in the church, the mantilla over her head, the missal in her hand, some weeks after her arrival. He was perhaps the last man in the parish to enjoy the sight, for he came to Mass only once a month. His was an outlying holding, and Father Santino had given him dispensation to attend less regularly. The good Father had been heard to remark that the face of Tomas Almenas at the rail gave him a certain uneasiness, for he had seen illustrations of the Fall of the Rebel Angels. Of course nobody had told Tomas of the arrival of Senorita Talti in Las Pesquas.
He slipped in among the last of the congregation to arrive, as was his habit, and was performing the usual salutations when he was caught in mid-gesture by the sight of her face as she raised it from her devotions. His hand froze on his breast, and he had to be nudged by the last man in, Esteban Morales, before he could complete his obeisance and take his place. Throughout the service, his one-and-a-half eyes stayed fixed on her, and she, smiling slightly, seemed remarkably to be neither insulted nor disgusted that this was so.
But if that was remarkable, what happened when Veronica Talti left the church was incredible. When she passed Tomas Almenas, who was loitering by the door, her glance lingered like a shaft of sunlight on his face. Virtually the whole village witnessed as she lowered her eyes demurely to regard him through her long dark lashes, her lips curving sweetly. Then she arched her spine like a cat, which pulled her shoulders back and tilted her hips forward, before she followed her mother and stepfather down the steps, holding the hem of her skirt perhaps a little higher than was strictly necessary. These actions produced an audible inhalation from every man in sight.
As Maria Consuela Morales remarked that evening to her husband, "She might as well have danced on a table in the cantina, flourishing her chemise above her head."
Esteban Morales replied mildly that the young lady had done no more than any of the village beauties had been doing since time out of mind; indeed, no more than Maria herself had done in her day.
Maria did not trouble to deny this, but still she shook her head. "It is not what was done, but how. Anyway, she could kneel shaven-headed in a Carmelite habit, that one, and any man who saw her would still have trouble keeping his fingers from his breeches buttons. And she knows it. To perform so in front of poor Tomas Almenas is nothing less than wanton cruelty."
Wanton cruelty was not, perhaps, very high on Esteban Morales's list of sins, he being an afiçionado of the cockpit, but he quite took the point. Indeed he had felt the effects of the performance himself, though it had certainly not been directed at him. On that score he allowed himself a moment's wistful regret, but only a moment, before he applied himself to the business at hand, and his activity distracted his wife from further pursuing the subject.
Such measures did little to silence other comment, however; and though the general reaction was incredulous laughter, it was not unmixed with indignation. Tomas Almenas might have been the local grotesque, but he was the local grotesque, part and parcel of the village of Las Pesquas, and it was hardly right that one who was almost a foreigner should treat him so. After all, who was she? The stepdaughter of Jorge Lopez, yes, and very beautiful, certainly, but clearly her stepfather would need to look to her upbringing and, in time, her proper disposition. Life in the city had manifestly taught her things that no well-brought-up maiden ought to know.
The rumour began at the comida the following day. It was of course at once denied. Tomas Almenas left his farm only on market days and to go to Mass. He never went out after sundown. The story that he had visited Jorge Lopez the previous evening was patently ridiculous.
But by the hour of the pasado, the stroll to take the air after the heat of the day, the rumour had gained weight, and in the cantina that evening it was confirmed beyond all doubt, for Julio, the youngest of the servants of the Lopez household, provided an eyewitness account of the event. The previous evening Tomas Almenas had indeed presented himself at the door of Jorge Lopez, ostensibly to consult Senor Lopez on the prices being paid for goat's-wool in the market. He had been wearing a respectable jacket and new breeches, with polished boots and a clean shirt; his regrettable hair had been scraped back and tied into a queue.
This item of information alone was enough to bring on a studious, almost a stunned, silence. Nobody had ever seen Tomas Almenas dressed like that. Nobody even knew that he possessed such garments.
"He had also brought flowers for the ladies." Julio paused, savoured the memory, and drank more wine. "And these were not the flowers of the roadside, you understand, but dark red roses and striped fire-orchids. I have no idea where he obtained them."
"He can grow anything else," remarked Esteban Morales, clicking on the table with his dominoes. "I suppose he can grow flowers, too." Esteban was a neighbour of Tomas Almenas. Their land had a common boundary, and he had long noticed that his own crops did better on that side than on the other.
Julio shrugged. He clearly had more to impart. "Now, normally, of course, Tomas Almenas would be interviewed in the shop, especially since he had called on business, but the Senora had Lupe bring Jerez wine and cakes, and he was received in the front room, just as if he were a person of quality." Julio shook his head slightly at the thought of Tomas Almenas in a front room, drinking Jerez wine from a glass. The cantina hung on his words. "And there," he finished, deploying the information like a packman his wares, "the Senorita joined them."
"It was of course perfectly respectable," said Esteban after a moment, driven by some obscure urge to defend his neighbour. "Her mother and Senor Lopez himself also being present."
"Respectable?" Julio looked incredulous. "Do you imagine that the question arises, with Tomas Almenas? If it were myself, perhaps. Indeed, I have often thought the lass to be approachable if the right method were employed … but Tomas?"
The cantina considered it, and the notion was dismissed, with laughter.
"Nevertheless," continued Julio, "I will say that she was very gracious to him. She sang, accompanying herself on the mandolin." He sighed regretfully and paused to reach into his store of conventional gallantries. "It was as if the stars and the moon had found their voices, and the nightingales hushed to hear her."
Poetry was of course common enough in Las Pesquas, and this had been heard before - though not, it is true, in the cantina. Clearly, therefore, Julio's emotions were somewhat engaged. He had, of course, no hope of formally courting Veronica Talti himself. Handsome as he was, Julio was no more than a servant. However, it was clear from the regret of his sigh that his attempts at more irregular conversation with the young lady had also come to nothing. As for Tomas Almenas, the idea was, as he said, risible. The company discussed the event until both were worn out, and finally dispersed into the night, still unsatisfied.
The year had been no better than fair, but as always Tomas Almenas had plenty, and to spare, and of the best. His neighbours had come to expect to share in his bounty, and were therefore disagreeably surprised when he sent all his surplus to market as each of his crops came in, and they were more surprised still when he insisted on a strict accounting of the sale price from the agent. That gentleman was in the habit of subtracting more than the usual commission from his sale of the produce of Tomas Almenas, and he now persuaded himself that it was sharp practice of Tomas to baulk. He grumbled, but was heard with little sympathy, others having suffered at his hands in much the same way.
"Still," said Esteban, "it would be a pity if Tomas were to be overcome with avarice." The company agreed. Avarice, particularly in others, was to be avoided at all costs.
Then one day, just as the cooler season was starting, Tomas Almenas saddled his mule and took himself off to the town. When he returned, it was with a crackling paper declaring him to be the owner - not merely the lessee, but the actual owner - of his four acres of land. Nor was this all, for he had somehow obtained similar title over ten more acres of vacant land adjoining his outer boundary. This, it is true, was part swamp and part canebrake, and good for very little, but there could be no denying that Tomas Almenas had in a stroke converted himself into a substantial landowner. He had also bought a saddle horse, an acquisition that for status went far beyond the ownership of a pig.
Now began a strange procession of events. Tomas Almenas had never been one to socialise, and he was now working all the hours of the day, eschewing even a siesta, clearing, draining, preparing, improving his soil and building new field-walls. Lumber was delivered. At night his neighbours from across the valley could see lights, and late travellers on the road reported hammering and sawing. Apparently he was improving his house.
Yet he snatched an hour from labour each evening, and spent it cultivating the society of Senorita Veronica Talti. He would ride four miles to the village to walk with the young lady, with her mother as duenna, and take the evening air just as if he had not been taking the air all day long, working in the sun.
After the rains, which were adequate, Tomas planted his crops. He hired one of the sons of Esteban Morales to break the soil, but the seed he planted himself in the old-fashioned way. It was no sooner sown than it started to spring up with a vigour that made nothing of the new ground and the recent drainage, which should have left the soil somewhat sour. Within a month the corn was tall and showing golden ears, while his market crops prospered to such an extent that Tomas was able, alone in the district, to sow a second time in the season. Moreover, his first harvests reached the market early, which further improved the price he received.
He hired others of the extensive Morales family as hands, and the two younger daughters to clean and cook, stipulating that they should only come into the house when he was out, as he had no wish to compromise their reputations. They found, to their surprise, no hovel, but a well-furnished and pleasant dwelling, a grape arbour with roses, a herb patch, and even piped water to the kitchen.
It was a summer's dusk when Tomas Almenas next consulted Jorge Lopez regarding a matter of importance. The west was still glowing red and gold as the sun reluctantly quit the sky, and it had at last grown a little cooler, but the day had been very warm, which did little for the temper of Jorge Lopez. He had received Tomas Almenas in the small room behind his shop, reflecting that the man had arrived on horseback and was respectably dressed, however hideous his appearance. However, he did not offer refreshments, and he spent no more than the bare minimum of time in polite conversation before he cocked his head and raised one eyebrow, to indicate that his visitor might now proceed with business.
Tomas cleared his throat, apparently with difficulty. His voice, when it emerged, was hoarse and rough, and the words came painfully slowly. "I wish, sir, to secure your … your consent to pay my … addresses, my honourable and proper addresses, to your stepdaughter," said Tomas, apparently unaware of the effect of his words.
Jorge stared him in the face, a difficult matter at most times, and in this case only manageable because of Jorge's astonishment. His shock was so great that for the moment the face of Tomas Almenas hardly registered on him. Only his many years as a shrewd trader kept Jorge's mouth from gaping, while he sat stunned.
Naturally he knew of Veronica's charitable toleration of the company of this … this gargoyle. Jorge honoured her for it, in a way, though he had thought it over-fond. She had been right, of course, to dismiss the more credible local swains who had approached her. Jorge would rapidly have scotched them had she not, for he had no intention of losing such an asset to a village lout. With her mother's money, Veronica's dowry was likely to attract the scion of a substantial family, perhaps a landowning one, but with her extraordinary beauty in the scale as well, she might easily make a match even further up the social scale. Such alliances were valuable. Naturally, it had never occurred to Jorge to see Tomas Almenas as a threat to that.
Nor did it occur to him then. It was clear to Jorge that the fellow had grossly misinterpreted his stepdaughter's kindness, and that it would be necessary to rebuff him … or would it? Obviously the request was laughable, but there was the undeniable fact that Tomas was himself rapidly increasing his wealth, and it was not in the nature of Jorge Lopez to offend one whose goodwill might be an asset in times to come. Perhaps, then, since the idea was so patently ludicrous, it would not be necessary for Jorge Lopez himself to squelch it.
He sat back and stroked his moustache. This had to be done with a certain subtlety. Eventually, he nodded, as if having made a careful decision. "I am glad that you have come, Senor Almenas," he said. "Certainly it bespeaks a pleasing courtesy in you." He paused. "You must know that while I have no objection, no objection whatever, I have given a solemn undertaking to my wife that I shall never dispose of her daughter's hand unless it pleases both her and Veronica." He watched the face of Tomas Almenas as he intoned this, and thought to see no change of expression there, except perhaps for a slight flare in the flat little eyes. "I gave her my word. I am sure you understand that it is, for me, a matter of honour."
If Tomas Almenas was disappointed, he gave no sign of it. "Of course, Senor Lopez. It is very right in you. But may I take it that you do not forbid me to approach the young lady?"
Jorge pursed his lips, as if in thought. "Perhaps it might be best if you would allow me to speak with my wife, and discover her views. You have my good word, but you must understand that I shall not coerce, still less dictate, her answer."
"Of course, Senor Lopez. For my part, naturally I have no wish to approach a young lady who finds the idea distasteful. I know I am … I am ill-served by my appearance, and yet…" Tomas made a gesture indicating compensating qualities.
Jorge Lopez smiled. This was becoming simpler. Since the fellow had acknowledged the matter himself, it was unnecessary to refer to it further. "Women are, of course, prone to ill-considered judgements. It is often better that they not be consulted at all. However, in this case…" He let the sentence trail off.
"Indeed." Tomas nodded, and rose. "Senor Lopez, I will not trouble you further now. When may I give myself the honour of calling on you again?"
"Tomorrow at this time will certainly be suitable. Will you not stay and take a glass of wine?"
"Thank you, sir, but I must go." He bowed.
"Good night, then, Senor Almenas," said Jorge, also rising and calling for a light.
He saw the ugly little man out through the shop, watched him ride away down the dark street, and returned to his office, where he sat musing a while, smoking a cigar. Then he rose once more, stepped through a door, crossed a hall, and joined his wife in the sitting room.
Senora Lopez was, as has been said, a handsome woman. Though she would not see forty again, she retained much of the bloom of youth, and those gallants who attempted the strategy of approaching the daughter by way of the mother would declare that they had thought at first that they were sisters. Senora Lopez would smile meaninglessly at that, and the strategy would progress no further. Some of the ladies of the parish were less charitable, ascribing her looks to the artful use of paint, but if it was paint, it was artful indeed.
She looked up from her mending as her husband entered. "Who was that, my dear?" she enquired.
"Tomas Almenas. Do you know what he wanted?" Jorge Lopez intended the question to be rhetorical, but he received a reply that surprised him.
"I can guess," said his wife, smiling. "It was very seemly in him to approach you first, my dear, don't you think?"
"Seemly?" Senor Lopez examined the word. "The man's a freak. I wonder how he dared."
"It is surely hardly a mystery. Most men make such a call sooner or later."
"Not Tomas Almenas. And not on me." Senor Lopez drew out another cigar, remembered that his wife disliked tobacco smoke, and put it away again. "Out of consideration for his feelings, I kept a countenance. The dear God knows that it was not easy."
"And what did you tell him, my dear?"
"What could I tell him? That he was ugly, even deformed? How could I tell him that? What point would there be, if I did?"
"Well, certainly you could hardly tell him his prospects are insufficient. He is now the largest landowner in the village, and said to be wealthy. If that were not enough, you could no doubt require that he match Veronica's dowry and settle it on her. From what I observe, he would be glad to agree."
Jorge Lopez stared at her in consternation. "You are speaking as though the offer were to be taken seriously!"
Senora Lopez considered, then nodded. "Yes. I suppose that I am."
Her husband's mouth opened and closed. He sat in the other chair and continued to stare at her. She bit off a thread, and calmly began on another garment. After a moment, he sat back and breathed out slowly. "Perhaps you do not understand the facts concerning Tomas Almenas," he suggested. "He is a by-word throughout the district."
"For hideousness, of course." She paused delicately. "Poor man. But he is certainly a very good farmer. And gentle to horses and dogs, at least, which I have always found to be an index to character. Well-spoken, too, once one gets used to his hoarseness. Modest. Even, as one should say, a gentleman."
"Gentleman?" Jorge snorted. "Nonsense. He's a péon."
"Actually, dear, I think that he owns his land. And a very pleasant house, if what Senora Morales was telling me is true; and he employs three or four men." She paused again. "Quite enough for any young couple to begin with."
Senor Lopez stared. "You cannot be serious. Such a thing would make us a laughing-stock. I forbid it." He felt, however, that there must be a more conclusive argument than a straightforward assertion of his own authority, and in another moment, he had thought of one. "Anyway, think of what you would condemn your own daughter to suffer. Do you imagine that she would ever accept such a fate? Any girl of the village would drown herself in her father's well if he were to try to force such a marriage on her."
"Veronica is not any girl of the village," said his wife, and there was a touch of steel behind the tone. "But if you fear having your well poisoned, why not ask her opinion?" Her husband made to speak, but she held up a hand. "If she rejects the idea, then I will myself inform Tomas Almenas, taking the sole responsibility, with whatever excuses I can contrive."
Senor Lopez considered. Since this was the outcome he desired, it seemed acceptable. Of course the girl would refuse. What girl would not? He nodded, shortly. "Very well. Shall you consult her, or shall I?"
"Perhaps we should both ask her to come down."
Veronica was sent for, and she slipped into the room, having descended the stairs as silently as smoke. Jorge reflected that the more he saw of the girl the more likely it seemed to him that she would make a most advantageous match. No hidalga had ever moved more gracefully, nor possessed more seemly manners or accomplishments; and of course she was achingly beautiful in a way that would cause a stirring in the loins of a statue of St Anthony. That last quality might weigh little with the hard-headed padrones of the landed families, but it was certainly not without appeal to their sons, whose views were, in this modern age, of some account. Senor Lopez began to reckon up the costs of showing the girl off in good society. Certainly these would be large, but the profits…
Senora Lopez was addressing her daughter, and Jorge returned his attention to her words: "Veronica, my dear, Senor Lopez has just received a visit from Tomas Almenas. Senor Almenas came to request permission to pay his addresses to you, and to assure Senor Lopez of his honourable intentions."
Veronica Talti bowed her graceful head. "Yes, Mama."
Jorge heard the catch in her breath. No doubt the girl had felt a pang of anxiety - indeed, nausea. He hastened to soothe her fears, rising and clasping his hands behind his back, in the attitude of one who is in charge. "Of course I gave him no conclusive answer. I told him that I would not decide the matter without your free consent, nor that of your mother as well. She, in turn, has left the decision entirely to you. He will return tomorrow evening for his answer. I have little doubt of what it will be, given the fellow's appearance, and so therefore…"
He broke off. His stepdaughter had raised her eyes to him, an action that would impel most men to silence. She waited a moment before speaking. "Thank you, Senor Lopez. It was most gentle of you to allow me this latitude. I am, of course, deeply aware of the honour Senor Almenas has done me…"
"But you feel yourself unable to entertain such an address at this time. Naturally. Gracefully done, indeed. Now, my dear…" Jorge had turned to his wife, but a movement of his stepdaughter's head again took his attention, and again he halted in mid-phrase.
"Not at all," said Veronica Talti. "I would be most pleased to receive Senor Almenas and to hear his proposals. And if they are as I expect, it will give me very great happiness to accept them."
Jorge Lopez hardly registered this at first. That was because he could not believe his ears. It was some time before the first reactions appeared, but this time his mouth actually did fall open. He stared at the composed and beautiful face of his stepdaughter with blank incredulity.
"But … but…" he blurted, attempting a sound, any sound, that might fill the gaping void in his comprehension. He shook his head violently as if by sudden movement he might impart function to his brain again. Then: "Don't you realise, this is not a … not a light matter, however risible it might be. The wretch actually has the gall to ask for you to marry him. You, to marry him! Marry! Him! You! Him! Marry!"
An expression of faint puzzlement crossed her perfect features. "Yes, sir, that was my understanding. Senor Almenas is a most honourable man, and would never propose anything less."
Both the eyes and the mouth of Jorge Lopez opened wider still. He could only persist in the belief that he was not being taken in earnest. "No, no, truly, he really means it, I am sure. Certainly it must seem like a joke to you, and I do not blame you…"
"It certainly does not seem like a joke to me, sir. I assure you, if I am permitted to follow my heart, I will accept the suit of Tomas Almenas with humble thanks to him and to you, and will do my utmost to be a good wife to him, and to strive for his happiness."
Senor Lopez had often heard that there were women who fainted at a sudden shock, and for a moment he could understand how they did it. His legs buckled under him and he sat down again without any real intention of doing so. Indeed, all he could do for the moment was to stare.
"Mama," said his stepdaughter, with an air of descending to the practical, "I believe your own wedding-gown will fit, and we have grand-mama's lace veil."
His wife chuckled indulgently. "You flatter me, Veronica. That dress will require at least an inch taken in at the waist to fit you properly. But the veil, it is true…"
It was never known what Senora Lopez was about to say about the veil. Jorge Lopez slammed his open hand down on the arm of his chair with a report like the discharge of a pistol. "Enough!" he roared.
Two faces turned to him, one startled, one affronted. He had never raised his voice to his wife before. He had never had to. But now he glowered back at both of them. "It is clear," he growled, "that neither of you has the least notion of the facts. I tell you that Tomas Almenas is the butt of the district. Have you not eyes? Have you not heard the local proverb, "as ugly as Almenas"? I cannot contemplate such an idea. It is nothing less than an affront! I forbid it, now and forever."
Mother and daughter turned and regarded one another. Senora Lopez seemed to read something there. She faced her husband again. "Surely, my dear, you do not think that a man is to be judged on the beauty of his countenance, or condemned on the strength of a rustic prejudice? Such, I believe, is more usually the fate of women. And are we not led to believe that beauty is only skin-deep?"
If there were a faint bitterness about the speech, Jorge Lopez was too furious to notice it. "I do not choose to spend the rest of my life watching the village laugh up its sleeve at me for wasting … for losing … for allowing so … so gross a mismatch. I must do my duty to my house."
There was a short silence. The Senora rose. "Your duty to your house, sir, is an important matter. But has it occurred to you that my daughter, to speak strictly, is not directly concerned in that?"
Jorge also rose, feeling his legs firmer now, and the ground beneath them as well. "No doubt," he said. "But it will be yet a full year and three months before she attains her majority. And I need hardly remind you, my dear, that her dowry was your property when we wed, and its disposal has thus passed to me."
Senora Lopez inclined her head. "It would appear, Veronica, that it has become necessary for me to discuss financial matters with Senor Lopez. Perhaps you should withdraw."
Veronica Talti bobbed, and silently vanished. Senora Lopez turned back to her husband.
Nobody ever knew what passed during that conversation. It was succeeded by another the following evening, between Tomas Almenas and Jorge Lopez, in the room at the back of the shop. Senor Lopez acquainted Senor Almenas with the sad tidings that his stepdaughter, being of tender years, was not able to entertain such an approach at this time, but that she begged Senor Almenas to display patience. She, for her part, felt it necessary to see more of society - indeed, of life - before taking so final a decision. Senor Almenas was not in any way to feel himself committed.
Tomas Almenas heard this with gravity, his unsightly face oddly placid, his squint less evident. "I am grateful for your consideration, Senor Lopez. I would honour the young lady even more than heretofore, were that possible, for her wisdom and discretion." He paused. "Perhaps it will be my good fortune to encounter you and your family in such society as you choose to patronise."
"That is my hope, Senor Almenas," replied Jorge, stifling his amusement at the thought of Tomas Almenas disporting himself at such events as he had in mind.
He called for wine, there was a further exchange of compliments, and at last the ugly little man took himself off. Again Senor Lopez smoked a cigar, assessing the conversation as having been less painful than it might have been, before he returned to the sitting room. Somewhat later, he retired, reflecting that willingness to compromise was the essence of the marital bond, and that in any case the alternative would be to go to bed alone, or at best with a marble statue for company.
Again, the season was adequate, perhaps a little better than average. Again, the crops of Tomas Almenas were superb. Further, he had taken the initiative of cultivating exotic fruits in the cooler season - strawberries, melons and passionfruit. It was said that these should not bear heavily in their first year, but they did so nonetheless, and their fruit was of the highest quality. Perhaps, as Tomas said, it was the products of his stable that encouraged them. At any rate, such crops commanded excellent prices, which enabled him to lease the grazing rights to an outer area of hill pasture formerly not thought worth the bother. On this he turned a flock of sheep, which did uncommonly well, and the worth of their fleeces was increased by both an unexpected rise in the market and the surprising weight and fineness of the wool.
In all of these enterprises Tomas Almenas was personally concerned to the highest degree, and usually personally present. Yet his affairs were becoming increasingly diverse and widespread. It was necessary for him to delegate tasks so as to leave himself sufficient time to ride into the village to make the pasado. There he would quite often encounter Senor and Senora Lopez and her daughter as they made theirs. He would raise his hat, they would acknowledge him, and there would be a few moments of polite and formal conversation. At most they would accept his invitation to take a cup of chocolate at the café before he raised his hat again and withdrew. Senor Lopez was in attendance at all times, and all of them remained in plain sight throughout. From the fragments of their conversation that could be overheard, it would appear that they were discussing purely neutral and entirely proper subjects, and Tomas Almenas notably eschewed all gallantries, even the most conventional ones.
As Maria Consuela Morales complained, there was nothing to be made of this at all. There was an intrigue of some kind taking place, obviously, however ridiculous that might sound, but sadly, only the utmost propriety was to be observed.
It was of course one of the village sports to count the months backwards from the date of the first birth to that of the marriage, and it is true that sometimes this process yielded a lower number than the ideal. Occasionally, a young lady might approach her papa with the news that it would now be necessary for him to approve of a young gentleman he had previously deprecated, and as soon as possible. In such conversations it was not entirely unknown for her mama to display a suspicious equanimity. The village of Las Pesquas reflected on these facts, observed nothing of the kind in this case, scratched its head, and waited on events.
Jorge Lopez also waited. He waited for an invitation which he had stretched his influence to obtain, and which he at last received with a satisfaction not unmixed with apprehension.
"My dear, you see?" he remarked carelessly, passing it across the table. Senora Lopez took it and scanned it quickly. "Don Luis often does this at the time of the fiesta. I believe his wife's birthday coincides quite closely."
"A reception," mused his wife. "Beginning at eight in the evening. A reply is requested. I see that Veronica is also included." She looked up. "There will, no doubt, be dancing."
"Certainly there will be dancing. The house is a large one, with a fine hall that is always cleared for the festivity." Jorge smiled, indulgently. "No doubt Veronica would enjoy it, and of course the family is a prominent one, with two sons yet unmarried. I think we should accept, my dear."
Senora Lopez regarded him, a half-smile playing about her lips. "I doubt that Veronica has anything suitable to wear. I hardly expected such an invitation, when I brought her out here." She paused, and went on, thoughtfully. "Even my own gown, such as it is, is now sadly outmoded."
Senor Lopez, an experienced negotiator, managed not to wince. Instead he made a gesture indicating moderate generosity. "I am away to town tomorrow, and it would be strange if I could not obtain suitable materials there. After all, am I not myself in the trade?"
His wife continued to smile. "Indeed, my dear, you are assuredly in the trade."
The discussion proceeded, with Senor Lopez wincing only slightly, and only from time to time. Nor did he stint, when he came to fill the formidable order that he took away with him. Senora Lopez then went into serious collaboration with her daughter and three selected seamstresses.
The results were truly extraordinary. Senora Lopez had retained a superb carriage and complexion, and a figure that required nothing in the nature of props or stays. She might have attempted something arresting herself, but settled for a dark and elegant gown that fitted her to perfection. It was clear that she wished to be seen only as a foil for her daughter, and in this she certainly succeeded.
The figured cream silk of Veronica's gown richly complimented the pale honey of her skin and the midnight of her hair. That was alone effective enough, but its simple, close-fitting bodice had been subjected to some form of witchery. It retained an appearance of classic chaste severity whilst at the same moment hinting wickedly of delights beyond description. Jorge found the effect staggering. Recalling his own youth, he wondered whether there was a young man anywhere who could manage to keep his feet, or his head, when presented with such a sight.
As they drove away in the carriage he had hired for the occasion, Jorge was already planning in his head the interview he would conduct with Don Luis Martin y Domanova, when the latter called on him. This anticipation was reinforced by events upon their arrival.
The first triumph came at the receiving line - Don Luis, looking bored, the Dona Isabella, looking regal, and their two sons Juan and Hector, looking wooden. Senor Lopez presented himself, his wife and stepdaughter, and passed on, leaving his hosts respectively astonished, speechless, open-mouthed and stammering. By the time Veronica had crossed the floor, actual jostling had broken out among the young gentlemen present, and several young ladies of good family were already on the brink of futile tears. Within half an hour there had been two duels arranged, not to mention an informal encounter on the terrace between the sons of the house.
Jorge Lopez took a glass of sillery and complimented his wife on her excellent judgement. He observed with a tolerant eye the discreet elbowing and pushing that was going on around Veronica as she held off what appeared to be a determined and numerous storming party with little more than fan, eyelashes and gentle smile.
Senora Lopez smiled brilliantly. "I am so glad that you approve, my dear. Ah, the cotillion."
The music had started. Of course it was Don Luis and his lady who opened the dancing, but they hardly had time to perform the first figure before Juan Martin y Domanova asserted his precedence, pushed his way to the front, timed his bow perfectly, and led Veronica out on the floor, smiling despite a bruise that was rapidly forming on his left cheek. His younger brother neglected his duty to dance, and sullenly applied himself to a glass of punch, which clearly stung his cut lip.
Jorge Lopez reflected that there was safety in numbers, and that this applied even to predators, for they would spend most of their efforts in obstructing each other. He filled his glass again, well pleased.
The music ended. A dozen gallants converged to claim Veronica for the next dance, employing not only a variety of ruses but also nudges, trips and shoves. Jorge watched with interest, smiling. He was still smiling when the musicians began again, and he felt a tap on his shoulder.
It was from his wife's fan. "Sir," she said, "I believe you once told me that the quadrille was the only measure that you could tread without disgrace." She nodded at the floor, where couples were lining up. Her eyes were bright.
Jorge smiled fondly. "My dear, it is rather the only one in which my feet remain sufficiently distant from my partner's to avoid serious damage." He flicked a glance at Veronica, a splash of white within a solid ring of masculine jackets, their formal black relieved only by the full-dress regimentals of the garrison officers. She was smiling on all of them impartially.
"Shall we?" asked his wife, and at that moment he could refuse her nothing. They took their places, and for some minutes Senor Lopez was engaged in activities which he always found took up his full attention - listening to the beat, counting steps and remembering which way to turn. When he had a moment, he looked about. Ah, there was Veronica, turning with perfect grace and making her courtesy to her partner. Good, the child was behaving sensibly. She had shown no sign of accepting an escort to take the air on the terrace, as had some of the maidens present. Senor Lopez would certainly have intervened in that case; though it is true that if the escort had been Juan Martin y Domanova, he might have delayed a little. Not too much, though. The bait might be expendable, but not until after the hook is firmly implanted.
There followed a lively passage, involving passing between files in a weave. Jorge followed the others, not perfectly certain, but everything resolved itself. He looked for Veronica again, in a moment when he had only to stand still, and caught a glimpse of her passing under the arch of hands that was one of the figures of the dance. Her back was to him, as was the back of her partner, an agile dancer in a fine silver-laced coat. Jorge wondered who he was; certainly a wealthy man. He advanced, more or less on the beat, retired, advanced again. Once more through the evolution, and the music ended.
"You acquitted yourself very well," said his wife, and Jorge Lopez found that he was actually enjoying the evening for its own sake. Heated, he took two glasses from a passing tray. They sipped and watched the throng, for a moment knowing a perfect understanding and a felicity as great as Jorge Lopez had ever known.
The moment passed, and he recalled himself to his cares. Where was Veronica? Certainly it was well that her gown stood out so from the rest. Ah, there she was, a glow as of the face of an angel about her face, clearly feeling the same happiness. She was plying her fan and looking over the heads around her, ignoring the posturings of those gentlemen attempting to catch her eye by twirling their moustaches and making chests. She smiled, suddenly, brilliantly, and gave a little wave. Jorge Lopez saw the back of the man in the silver-laced coat as he returned to her from the buffet, carrying glasses. He gave her one, turned to her in animated conversation, and in doing so presented his profile to Jorge.
Tomas Almenas! Jorge almost dropped his glass. True, it was Tomas Almenas in a beautiful coat, it was Tomas Almenas in satin breeches, it was Tomas Almenas in dancing pumps, it was Tomas Almenas in an embroidered waistcoat and ruffles and a snowy front, but it was Tomas Almenas. Horror surged through Jorge Lopez.
His wife had turned away to receive some item of gossip from another lady, and was laughing deliciously, but he had no ear for that. He bowed jerkily and muttered what might have been an excuse. The music had started again, and the floor was rapidly filling, but he saw only a whirl of lights and a flash of faces as he crossed it almost at a trot. He arrived just as Tomas Almenas was about to lead Veronica out again, but he had to push through the crowd of young bloods clustered about them, and he was too late.
It was only the tail end of her words that he caught, but they froze him to the marrow. "… my stepfather, I am sure, is only trying to protect me, Tomas. But now that I know he has given you his approval, I am sure…" She caught sight of Jorge, turned a little, then smiled again and swept a courtesy, producing a collective sigh from the bystanders that was audible above the music. To make matters worse, Tomas Almenas bowed in a perfectly unobjectionable manner.
Jorge stood irresolute. "Senor Almenas," he said, temporising. "How … pleasant to find you here."
"It is a charming occasion, is it not?" Tomas Almenas also smiled, and for the first time Senor Lopez observed that his teeth were very white and very straight. When he smiled, his squint all but disappeared. Jorge could not account for how these facts had never previously imposed themselves on his attention. Nor that the carriage of Tomas had, in some inexplicable fashion, become perfectly upright, endowing him with at least three fingers more height. Even his voice was less rough than Jorge remembered: "I recall expressing my hope that we would meet at such events. Indeed, that entire conversation is very clear in my memory."
Jorge Lopez opened his mouth to ask how Tomas Almenas had been invited, realised that it was not something he could ask under any circumstances, and changed the enquiry just in time. "It would be a shame to miss such an occasion," he said. "A very fine old family."
"Indeed, sir. Very fine." He paused, and Jorge could see amusement in the little eyes, a gleam that he had never observed before. "Don Luis did me the honour of pasturing some of his sheep with mine, and was pleased to remark that they have done well. I believe, too, that he has seen fit to accept some advice I offered regarding the placement of a well, and is happy with the result."
"Ah." Jorge stood irresolute. There was obviously something he might say, but he could not for the life of him think of what it might be.
"But if you will excuse me, sir, I believe I have the pleasure of this dance with your enchanting stepdaughter. Perhaps I might be permitted to call on you tomorrow." He was looking over Jorge's shoulder as he said that, and it was the voice of Senora Lopez that responded.
"Of course, Senor Almenas," she smiled, serenely. "Please don't waste the music on our account. We have memories of our own dancing days, do we not, my dear?"
Jorge Lopez could only bow. He watched Tomas Almenas hand Veronica out on to the floor. It became clear to him in that moment that he was also bowing to the inevitable.
The marriage of Tomas Almenas to Veronica Talti was quite the largest in the memory of the village of Las Pesquas. The bride was certainly the most radiant, and as for the groom, even Senora Morales remarked that he became more than presentable, when he took the trouble. No doubt joy was a great cure for ugliness, or at least for warts, for those of Tomas Almenas had apparently entirely vanished. When he smiled, which was often, his mouth appeared no more than generous, and now that he held himself straight, he was obviously of a good height, and it could be seen that he had a fine pair of shoulders. Even his squint disappeared, and his eyes, thus revealed, were seen to be kindly and gentle, and by no means dull. The neat sleekness of his hair was ascribed to the attentions of a superior barber, for his affairs often called him to the city.
Still, the admiration of the village was tinged with a little envy, at first. Of course the young couple was wished well, but it seemed a little partial of Providence to grant such conventional wishes so abundantly. The agricultural enterprises of Tomas Almenas continued to prosper amazingly. Emulation was attempted, but never with the same success. However, after an interval he returned to his custom of open-handed generosity to his neighbours, and this was applauded, the more so since he now had more to give.
So it was that the envy eventually died away, except among a few of the gallants, who grumbled that they could not see what the very beautiful Senora Almenas saw in her husband, to whom she was inflexibly and irritatingly faithful, as he was to her. When such murmurs reached the ears of Jorge Lopez, he would shake his head and remark that only Senora Almenas herself could say what it was, but it was strange how opposites attracted. The attraction was even, one might say, magical.
This story originally appeared in Borderlands.