The gentlemen, over a bottle of burgundy, drank in comfortable silence. In one corner of the bedchamber, Alberto stood over the mirror, sipping his glass and pulling at his neck cloth. His brother sat on his bed, watching him with a wide, knowing grin.
“What do you really think of her, Al?”
Alberto shook his head, put his glass on a table, and shrugged his buttoned shirt off his shoulders.
Luciano stared at the ragged welts and scars prominent and pronounced on Alberto’s back and arms—horrible, permanent, snake-like marks that would never fade, never disappear no matter how much scrubbing Alberto did.
Alberto put on a fresh long-sleeved shirt, sat on his desk chair, poured himself another glass of burgundy, and swallowed it in one gulp. “Does it matter? Mama is keen on pinning you together with her.”
“Luka,” Alberto sighed. “Perhaps it is time for you to get leg-shackled. You know very well how much Mama wants another child in the house.”
“Maybe she should have just adopted another orphan, rather than forcing either of us to marry a sweet girl such as Serafina.”
“Yes, perhaps she should have,” Alberto said over the rim of his glass. After a moment of careful thinking, he smiled. “You think Serafina sweet?”
Luciano’s cheeks turned red. “She is well-endowed.”
“An hourglass body,” agreed Alberto.
“You sound lecherous.”
“I find her beautiful. That doesn’t sound lecherous, does it?”
“Do you like her, then?”
Alberto kicked off his shoes, poured another glass, and raised his eyes to his brother. “Do you?”
Luciano shook his head. “Getting leg-shackled, indeed,” he murmured in his glass.
The bottle of burgundy was only half-empty and Luciano slept soundly in his bedchamber. Alberto’s pocket watch read a quarter-past four, and he, in a fit of insomnia, decided to walk himself sober. He closed the door softly and padded the hallway in his woollen stockings, and sipped the remaining contents of his glass.
He ushered himself into the drawing room and sat on the rocking chair. The air from the open window was cool against his cheek. He felt his eyes grow heavy and weary, and wondered if this time sleep wouldn’t escape him.
The door latch clicked, and Alberto froze in his seat until the door yawned open and the bloom of candlelight revealed a blushing nymph wearing the gauziest dressing gowns he’d seen. His eyes traced the fine, delicate curves of the nymph’s shoulders and the silhouette of her legs underneath the thin veil she dared wear as a dress.
“P-pardon me,” his nymph quietly squealed.
She stepped back, but Alberto stood fast and called upon her, “Wait!”
Serafina, one foot in the room, the other on the hallway, watched Alberto clamber his way to her in a weary swagger as though he were drunk. She had only wanted to watch the sunrise in the drawing room before the house came alive again. She had not expected the bespectacled gentleman rocking on a chair with a glass of liquor in hand.
“Please, come inside,” he said in a whisper.
Much inclined to reject his plea, Serafina shook her head. “I-I apologize for disturbing you.”
Alberto leaned against the mantel, watched the door close, and hung his head low. “Too foxed, too intoxicated,” he said to himself. “Dios mio, she is beautiful!”
* * *
Luciano, cramped in a church pew with Mama to his left and Serafina to his right, sank in his seat and grumbled in the young lady’s ear, “I should have followed Alberto’s example and stayed in the carriage.”
A deep dimple on her cheek played peek-a-boo as Serafina’s lips quivered to a smile. She turned her head to her father and nodded to something he whispered in her ear. Luciano watched the dimple carefully on the corner of his eye, inwardly telling himself to look away and focus on the padre’s sermon.
“Damn that Alberto,” Doña Consuela hissed, “after I told him about church.”
“Mama,” Luciano admonished, “guard your tongue. You wouldn’t want the padre to hear and spew the fires of hell out of his mouth.”
“Oh, shut up,” she snapped. “Two years in Spain and still thinks church is a waste of his time! His soul will rot, I tell you, rot!”
“You must understand, dear girl.” Luciano put his hand over her shoulder.
She shook her head. “Of course I do!” Doña Consuela endured mass in a simpering mood, grunting every five minutes, and clicking her tongue in impatience.
Mass ended, and Luciano thanked the Lord for ending his suffering, until a gaggle of painted ladies marched to their pew. There was kissing of cheeks and exchanging of ‘Good morning!’ in varied tones and emphasis; and Luciano was caught in the chatter of hopeful mothers and their virginal daughters, who hung their heads low but took secret glances of the charming, young man, who came back from Europe, and smiled wide and bowed his head as elegantly as a prince.
Señor Mercado led Serafina out of the building and shook his head. “My goodness, anak! A pompous brat, that is what I think of him!”
“Him? Luciano, Papa?” she asked in wonderment. “But over breakfast you seemed to be in awe of him.”
“His address and attire, m’dear, address and attire! Did you not see how he tied his neck cloth and pinned that yellow daffodil on his breast pocket? Genius!”
Serafina giggled behind her fan. “He must have out-dandied you, then, Papa.”
“My goodness, child, don’t be blasphemous!”
She was caught in a peal of laughter and excused herself to the carriage, while her Papa shook hands with acquaintances and friends. She pulled the carriage door open, blinked twice upon seeing Alberto staring out of the window with a contemplative look in his eyes, glasses hooked to his collar.
She smiled when he clapped his eyes on hers, and cheerily said, “You should have joined us in church.”
He grunted and helped her into the seat across from him. “Did the padre read the Gospel and spat about every indio burning in hell because our ancestors used to worship the Devil?”
“Goodness!” she blanched. “Wh-where do you get such ideas?”
He grinned crookedly at her and shook his head. “I wonder,” he whispered.
A pregnant silence came over them, and Serafina busied herself with her fan, picking at the loose threads and tracing the floral carving with one finger. It was a full minute before she could raise her eyes again and look at him.
He was staring at her through half-slit eyes and a fist under his chin. A ghost of a smile lingered on his lips, and Serafina watched as the light broke through the window, cast a glow on Alberto’s bronze face, and she thought him to be handsome. She blushed and looked away, wondering if her expression gave way to her lustful thoughts.
“Señorita, may I ask you a personal question?” he said.
“Y-yes, sir. What is it?”
“How are you still unmarried?”
“Pardon?” she gasped.
“A woman with your looks should have certainly received more than two marriage proposals before you even turned fifteen; and yet here you are, twenty and unmarried.”
The carriage door swung open, and Luciano leaped to his seat beside Alberto. “You have to excuse my brother, Señorita. He has such a straightforward way with his words. He doesn’t realize how inappropriate he can be.”
The rest of the party climbed into the carriage, and they made their way back to the Doña’s residence.
Upon arriving at their door, Doña Consuela put her hand over Serafina’s. “A coach will be at your residence tomorrow, m’dear,” she said before clambering down the vehicle.
It had escaped Serafina’s mind that the Doña had invited her to a month-long celebration of one of her sons’ birthday; and tomorrow was the start of it. She wondered which of the brothers were celebrating and what present should she prepare.
“It’s Alberto’s birthday,” Luciano whispered in Serafina’s ear and jumped out, Alberto followed.
The carriage lurched forward and Serafina watched the three family members stand by their door and wave their hands.
* * *
“Isn’t she a gem, Luka?” harped the Doña over a bowl of tinolang manok (a broth of sili leaves, yellow ginger, and leafy vegetables, with pieces of chicken), grilled pork belly marinated in soy sauce and crushed black peppers, and cooked, white rice.
“Don’t inquire me of that, Mama. I’ve barely spoken two words to her since last night. If anything, you must ask Alberto.”
“Alberto?” gasped the Doña. “Pray, what do you mean? He barely speaks himself!”
Luciano grinned. “Perhaps he fancies her, Mama. Before we left from church, I heard the little parrot chirping to the young lady.”
Round, wide eyes darted to Alberto’s direction, and the old lady quivered in her seat. “Is this true, anak?”
“I find her countenance a feast for the eyes,” Alberto said matter-of-fact.
The Doña sagged in her seat and shook her head. “Can neither of you think beyond her good-looks?”
“Mama,” Luciano said in a chuckle, “I trust you understand, aside from her beauty, Alberto and I find Señorita Serafina perfect.”
“Then why won’t either of you propose to her! I’ve had friends who married their husbands after an hour of meeting them. You two have had half a day.”
“Don’t fret yourself over a trivial matter, Mama,” Alberto said. “I will marry her, if Luka finds married life tedious over bachelorhood.”
“Such nonchalance, Alberto. No! I forbid you to ask her hand in marriage,” cried the Doña. “Love, my boys! You cannot ask a young woman to be your wife when you aren’t in the throngs of love, in a delirious romance! You must woo her; make love to her with poetry and song!”
“But I do think I may be in love with her already, madam,” Alberto intervened.
“Hush, child! I know your ways. You say things so seriously when, in fact, you think them to be trivial. You never weigh in the effect your words may cause.”
“I must confess, Mama: if Alberto’s intent for Serafina is true, then I am forced to compete for the lady’s hand.” Luciano smiled.
The Doña blanched, threw her spoon against her plate, and screamed, “Idiots! I have unfeeling, insensitive idiots for sons.” She pushed her chair back and marched out of the dining room.
Alberto glared at Luciano, who laughed hard and loud. “You’ve angered her.”
“Let her be. She raves and squawks about love and romance as though she were in a novel herself.”
“What do you think of Serafina, then, Luka?”
Luciano wondered of his brother, who looked at him with a hot gleam in his eyes. “Al, she is Mama’s chosen woman. Should I even wonder whether I fancy her or not?”
“But if Mama is adamant to have a grandchild, she should pester you. You’re her flesh and blood.”
“’Pon rep, Al! I’d rather she pester you. Your declaration of love for a stranger should be taught to stage actors. You almost had me fooled.”
Alberto grunted and shoved a spoonful of rice into his mouth. “Do you have such little faith in me, brother? For all we know, the lady must have already set her cap for me.”
“Set her cap,” Luciano said feelingly, his lips twitching to a sneer. “I am no gudgeon! I know well when a woman has set her heart on me, my good man. Did you not see how her face lit when she finally laid her eyes on me?”
“I’d lay a blunt she didn’t!”
“A bet then, brother?” Luciano set his fist under his chin, stared at Alberto with his head slightly turned to the left and smiled, flashing his teeth in challenge. “What say you, Al?”
A crackling silence stretched as moments passed, and the indio gentleman kept his eyes on the hand outstretched to him in a friendly, easy manner. Alberto, though he had tasted the excessive vices of young bucks and rakes back in Spain and found them deplorable, turned and twisted Luciano’s suggestion in his brain, feeling a tickle in his stomach.
The fair gentleman, with his patience tested to its limits, dropped his hand and stared at his brother under a perfunctory eye. “I’d say it’s a no,” he said.
“On the contrary,” retorted Alberto, “I accept. Your terms, brother?”