I can remember so clearly the day when my troubles began. I was thirteen years old, and it was the spring of 1665. It was unnaturally warm for Madrid, but I loved the sun. I was sitting outside near the garden, reading a wonderful book. In our flower beds, a bright array of color burst forth. Tulips, crocuses and irises all stretched their delicate petals toward the sun.
“Señorita, your mother wishes to see you.” Our maid’s voice shattered my pleasant daydreams. “She sounds excited about something, she did not tell me what.” Relief spread through me. If it was my mother, there was nothing to fear.
My mother, Catalina, was always gentle, calm and kind. Recently however, she had become ill, and now spent most of her time in bed. Her strength had left her, and although doctors examined her, none could find the cause of her weakness. Luckily, my older sister Isabel took after my mother in all respects. Throughout my mother’s illness, she gave me the hope and comfort I desperately needed. Isabel had injured her foot when she was small, and now walked with a limp. Although this meant that her chances of marriage were small, I was glad because it kept her close to me.
Suddenly, I remembered I was supposed to see my mother. I raced inside the house, as our maid called after me, “Brush off your skirt, there is grass on it!”
As I skidded around a corner, I almost collided with my father, who gave me a cold look and said haughtily, “My parents would have beat me if I were so careless.” Trembling, I tiptoed until I reached my mother’s bedroom.
As soon as I opened the door, I saw my mother’s joyful face smiling at me. “Maria,” she said fondly, “come closer to me.” Happily, I walked over to her bedside. “I have good news, your father has told me he will be taking you to court soon.” She said this anxiously, waiting for my reaction.
I felt uncomfortable, I had never been to court all my life, although my father went there often. “Will Isabel and you accompany me?” I asked.
She shook her head sadly saying, “My child, I can hardly move from this bed; how could I get to court?” Her gentle, brown eyes pleaded with me to understand. I did not.
I could understand if my mother did not come. She was ill, and court life would not suit her, but there was no reason that Isabel should not come. Oh well, I thought, I shall get it over with, and then return home to the part of my family that loves me.
Instead of expressing these worries to my mother, I asked one simple question, “When do my father and I leave?”
“Soon, Maria,” she replied, “very soon.”
The next few days passed in a blur. I had no free time; every day was spent “perfecting” me for court. Everything had to be a certain way, and nothing less would do.
Seamstresses rushed in and out of our house day and night. I gasped at the fabrics they held in their arms. Silks, satins and velvets were only one-third of what I would wear. Throughout my life, I had worn simple gowns, generally made of wool. Their colors were muted, and were usually dark browns or grays. Suddenly, I was being presented with vivid, expensive gowns.
When I wasn’t being fitted for new dresses, I was being tutored. I had been studying for many years; my parents believed that everyone should have a good education. However, my studying was much more rigorous then it had previously been. Geography, math, history, literature, all had to be perfected by the time I was at court. Although I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the tutors, I did not see what the point of this was. I was a girl, and as most people would have said, a woman’s job is in her house. In most people’s eyes, I was a worthless girl, whose only purpose was to marry and have as many children as possible.
The days went by so quickly, I was surprised when I found myself arriving at court. I was shocked for the first few days. Everything was so different from my peaceful house. There was never any silence or tranquillity here, something was always happening. Elaborate dances took place in the evenings, and during the day, servants hurried down the hallways, trying desperately to get all their jobs done.
Gradually, however, I began to sink into court life. I even enjoyed it. This process was helped by Edward.
I met Edward a week after I arrived in court. For the first time since I had arrived, I was attending a dance. Although the seamstresses had made many gowns for me, I was wearing my best this evening. It was unlike any other dress I had ever seen. Its pale blue cloth was embroidered with silver thread, which was sewn gracefully into tiny stars bordering the hem. It was made of silk so light it seemed to float around me; I could barely feel it. My dark brown hair was caught up in a silver net, and on my feet I wore delicate blue slippers, which were trimmed with lace. I was laughing and having a wonderful time, when, by chance, I saw a young man standing at the edge of the room. Although I couldn’t understand how, he seemed different to me. Slowly, I crept across the room to where he was standing, and we began to talk.
He was the son of an English ambassador, and had journeyed with his father to Spain. Although his father was busy most days, he was free to do what he liked. As I listened to his voice, I fell into a trance. He was so different from the Spanish men I had met. This was not merely a difference in appearance, although his golden hair and blue eyes were much different from the Spanish. He seemed so much more truthful, peaceful and gentle to me, and I loved these new qualities.
My life was suddenly brighter and happier than it had ever been, and than it could ever be. Edward was the one person I could really confide in about my dreams, and know that he would be supportive. Even my mother and Isabel always thought I was being impractical when I talked about such important matters to them. Edward never criticized me, and so I began to tell him everything. I told him how my father did not care about me as a person, but about me as a tool, used to gain power.
I told him about how I loved learning, and how I hoped that one day I could have enough knowledge to write a novel. I told him about my gentle mother who was so ill, and about my sweet sister who no man would marry because of her limp. I told him everything.
One day, as I was sitting in my room, my father entered. He was smiling, but I sensed that the reason he was smiling did not have anything to do with my well-being. His cruel eyes sent a warning to me as he spoke, warning me not to disagree. “Maria, I have decided that we should return home for a while. There are matters I would like to think over for a time, matters that could prove profitable,” he told me.
Instantly I knew what those matters were, and, in an instant, I felt my secure world shatter into millions of pieces. I knew one word that could describe it all, marriage.
I couldn’t believe how foolish I had been. While I had sat in my mother’s bedroom, I thought about how strange it was that only I should have been going to court. Now the pieces fell into place. My father had been putting me on display, showing me to all the rich and powerful men who might someday prove a “suitable” husband for me.
I don’t know how I managed to survive the trip back to my house. I was living my life in a deep stupor, and I had no hope left in me.
When I arrived home, I managed to scribble out a letter to Edward. I told him how sorry I was that I would never see him again, and that I hoped he would understand.
A few evenings later, my father called my whole family into his bedroom. My poor mother had to recline on his bed, she was so weak. I did not feel anything at all. I knew that tonight my father would probably announce who I was to marry, but I had already resigned myself to the fact that I would be unhappy, and that there was nothing I could possibly do about it.
Then my father began to speak. “After much consideration, I have decided that it would be most profitable for our family if Maria married the Duke . . .”
That was as far as he ever got. At that moment, I screamed. In an instant, my father had grabbed me around my wrists. Tears were streaming down my face as I pleaded with him, “Father, please, if you love me, let me marry Edward. Please let me marry Edward. I need to, someday I will write novels. If you love me let me do these things. I promise I will not let you down.”
He slapped me hard across my face. As my face stung painfully, I heard my father yell, “What makes you dare to think that you can take control of your fate? Answer me, Maria!”
Then I saw something amazing; my mother, slowly and painfully, rose from her bed. “Juan,” she said gently as she touched my father’s shoulder, “Juan.”
Then my father turned toward her. “I will talk to you later, Catalina!” he screamed. I watched her as, horrified, she climbed back into bed.
That is the last thing I can remember before I fainted to the floor.
When I woke up the next morning, the stars were only beginning to fade into the morning sky. I was in my room, with my bedspread pulled up around my chin. Vaguely, I wondered how I could possibly be in my bed, when I had been unconscious in my father’s room. I decided that our maid must have brought me in here.
I began to lift myself off my bed. Instantly, a stabbing pain shot through my head, and I fell back into a mound of pillows. Hesitantly, I reached a hand up toward the source of the pain. As my fingers brushed up against my hair, I felt a bump. It must have happened when my head hit the floor. I winced, and attempted to get out of my bed again. This time, I was successful.
After I slipped on a robe over my nightgown, I crept out into the parlor. The house was silent and peaceful, there was no sign of the struggle that had taken place the night before. On the table was a note. On the front it said, “To Maria.” My heart raced as I opened it up.
Just as I had suspected, it was from Edward. He told me to meet him Thursday evening just outside of my house. Today was Thursday. He promised he would be there and asked me to pack a few of my possessions. After we were a safe distance from Madrid, we would stop at a church.
I realized then that he wanted me to marry him. After that, we would most likely leave for England, for what was there for us in Spain? It saddened me to leave my mother and sister, but I could not marry anyone but Edward, it would crush all my dreams.
I spent the rest of the day packing a few of my treasured possessions in a small cloth bag and writing notes to Isabel and my mother. In the notes I told them that I would always love them, and that one day, if fate would have it, I would visit them again.
That evening, I walked outside my house. It was cold and, even as I pulled my shawl tighter around me, I shivered. Then I spotted the carriage just up the path. Quickly, I ran up, and saw Edward standing there. He put my bag in the carriage and opened the door for me, saying that as soon as we were married, we would leave on a ship going to England. As I climbed through the door, I glanced back once more at my house, then nodded, sure I was doing the best thing. The carriage rolled slowly out onto the path and away from my house.
* * *
“Maria, England is only a mile away; we will soon be there,” Edward shouts down from the deck above our cabin. I am grateful to him, for he has broken the trance that I fell into while I thought about my past. His voice is comforting; it makes me feel secure and warm, although outside our ship, waves rock violently.
“Can you see the coast?” I ask. My voice is calm, not betraying the doubts I still sometimes have.
“Yes,” Edward tells me, “it is a great sight to see, we are almost home.”
Ever since our carriage rolled away from my house, I have not felt that I was at home. As Edward comforted me in our carriage, I was not at home. As we became husband and wife in a small church, I was not at home. Now, suddenly, I realize, I am more at home with Edward than I could ever be with my father. With this comforting thought in mind, I stare down at the paper in front of me. Perhaps, someday, this paper will be bound into a great novel, that many children will read. I put my pen to my paper, and begin to write.
Usually when I am writing, I find that the words form easily under my pen. I devote myself to shaping the characters and plot. Today however, I cannot help thinking about my past, present, and future. I think about my family, and how they are different in so many ways. I think about Edward, and the home we have in England. And my future? All I can do is wait for another day.