6 A Proposal for Serafina
For his daughter's twentieth birthday, Señor Mercado thought of visiting her in his childhood town of San Agustin. He promised to arrive before luncheon, and he had three hours to dress himself for the occasion and travel by coach.
He assured to his acquaintances that he was no tulip, but he made himself to be either a pioneer of fashion or a follower of great fashion. He studied two brooches in the mirror, indecisive of which of the two would suit best his cravat. He had a jade brooch shaped like a teardrop and a ruby brooch shaped into a seven-pointed star.
Surrendering with a sigh, Señor Mercado looked over his shoulder to his man, Rodrigo, and asked the aging butler of his opinion of the brooches. The old man, not a devout follower of fashion like his master, answered in slow, purposeful accents, "Sir, if I may be honest, wearing a cravat is uncomfortable under this hot weather."
The Señor shrugged his shoulder and decided on the ruby brooch instead. It looked well with the blue coat he had in mind.
A loud clang echoed from the window, and Rodrigo, without being told, left Señor's room in a hurry. After a few short minutes, the butler came back with a worried look in his eye.
"Well?" the Señor impatiently pressed. "Who was at the door?"
"M-master, I-I said all the best excuses I could think, but the lady was too stubborn. She insisted on seeing you. It's t-the Doña!"
"Jusko," gasped Señor and dropped his brooches. Rodrigo, leaping quickly, grabbed the precious breastpins from the floor and gingerly placed them on a side table.
"Antonio," the Doña's shrill voice rang from downstairs.
Señor Mercado hastily tucked his white shirt, puffed his cravat, and shoved his feet into his top boots. He was half decent, and, looking at the mirror, decidedly thought he was handsomely dressed enough to address his visitor. He went downstairs with Rodrigo behind him, and, upon seeing the lady seated in his sala with her ebony cane leaning against her leg, smiled very business-like and feigned delight with an exaggerated low bow. He possessed one of the Doña's wrinkled hands and kissed it excessively.
"My dear girl," Antonio Mercado said in surprise, "how kind of you to grace my home with your presence!" Over his shoulder, he ordered Rodrigo for tea and cakes for the visitor.
Consuela Salvador dismissed the tea and asked the manservant to leave her with his master. A look of worry passed between Antonio and Rodrigo, and this did not go unnoticed under the Doña's dark, pensive eyes. A moment later, the butler granted them privacy.
Doña Consuela patted the seat beside her, and, when Antonio sat, said ruefully, "You have a debt to pay, sir. I've come here personally, lest the guardia sibil crash open your pretty door and drag you to prison. Thankfully, I haven't called for their aid—yet."
"M-my sweet lady," stuttered Antonio, "I b-believe I've told you of my delayed remittance—"
"Delayed? Hah!" intervened Consuela. "Are the cockpits and horse races the cause of the delay, sir? I heard you fell in too deep from last weekend's race."
It was a well-known fact that Doña Consuela had the Governor-general's ear for she was his wife's aunt, and the appearance of the guardia sibil at Antonio's doorstep was no open threat but a probability, lest he paid her the full amount he borrowed, plus interest. He regretted last year's horse race, where he met the Doña, who gambled occasionally, and he lost at most five thousand pesos had he not bet five to one on a gray bay with a trite name as Rolling-Thunder. He thought Consuela a saint when she let him borrow her money to pay off his debts, but did not take into consideration how forceful this woman was when it came to collecting.
"How much did you lose this time, Antonio? Is it another five thousand?" expressed the lady in tired accents.
"A man's financial status is his business—"
"Oh, hush, you nincompoop. How much?"
Nettled, Antonio looked to the side and whispered, "Five thousand at the races—and another two at the pits."
A long, frustrated sigh escaped from the Doña's lips. "And when shall I expect my money, Antonio? When you've won a thousand, but lose another three?"
"My lady, please, I-I have a transaction in progress—"
"Enough!" the lady shut him with an elegant wave of her hand. "I've a proposition for you instead."
"C-certainly," Antonio stuttered.
"I've two boys returning from Europe this coming Saturday," Consuela said matter-of-fact. "By next month's end I want either of them married. I'm old, Antonio, and I want grandchildren."
"I understand your dilemma, my dear. Do you wish to ask for my aid in finding them a wife?"
"No," muttered the lady. "I'm asking you to arrange a marriage between one of my boys and your daughter."
Señor Mercado's eyes grew wide and recalled his daughter being with him at last year's horse race where he met the Doña. "Serafina, m-my Serafina—?"
"Yes, her. She was a delightful creature and very amiable. She has your looks, only she is more handsome, and her manners were graceful. I wouldn't be ashamed to call her daughter-in-law."
"I had no idea Serafina had affected you so." Had he known he would not have brought his daughter to the races.
"I liked her well enough. Bring her to my house by Saturday afternoon. I want her to meet my sons before the welcome dinner party."
"Certainly not!" exclaimed the Señor feelingly, color rising to his cheeks, and leapt to his feet.
"Pray, my good sir, why not?" seethed her ladyship and clutched the chair's arms tight.
"Why, our estates are encumbered, entailed, madam," he said in a small voice, shamefully admitting how deep his losses were if this would save his one and only child from this distasteful woman's bony hands. "If Serafina married into your family, you will have to settle our debts; and that, my dear Señora, is far from how I planned on repaying you."
The Doña should have been stupefied upon hearing such a blunt confession. Instead, she laughed freely behind her hand and feebly shook her head. "That shan't dampen my opinion of your child, sir." A cold, hard twinkle flashed in the grand lady's eyes and a curl of her lip, much like a sneer, brightened her face. "Unless you want the guardia sibil right at your doorstep, your debt is no laughing matter, Antonio. I told you once that you were no gamester and it would very well be your unbecoming. And don't fret over Serafina being forced into marriage. I like her, didn't I tell you? I wouldn't want the pretty lass to cry over not having a say in the matter."
The Señor looked at the Doña with raised brows and mouth ajar. He thought her proposal for a moment and muttered, "Are you to tell me only her appearance this Saturday will suffice?"
"No," replied the lady. "One meeting could hardly matter. I've arranged for my house down in Las Biñas, had it cleaned and aired. My two sons shall be vacationing there, one of 'em will be celebrating his birthday for a month. I am inviting you and Serafina to stay there until the end of my sons' vacation."
"I shall take my leave now, Antonio," murmured the lady with a smile. She picked up her cane and crossed the room to the door.
Antonio, lacking of words and thought, stared at the empty seat beside his and shook violently at the lady's handling of the matter. He was, grudgingly he admitted, bested by a crook of a woman.