Chapter 8 of Eva’s Secret
8. Dress Rehearsal
Casa Cerra, Monday morning August 29, 1513
Eva set up the trestles and placed the boards over them. Matron bustled in, followed by Analina and Josemona carrying a six-foot roll of heavy fabric.
“Lay it out on the table, like Eva said.” The two women unrolled their burden so that the bottom hung over the side of the table.
Eva stood in amazement. “This tapestry is beautiful!”
“And valuable,” Matron said. “Señor Cerra says that this comes from a city far to the north with the strange name of Bruzzels, and is worth thousands of maravedies. He was most displeased when he saw how poorly we had mended it, though the water-damage was no fault of ours.”
Eva inspected the damaged edge. “I will have to take out all the stitching you added. With heavy tapestries like this if you do not mend them in the position they will hang, the repair goes crooked when you put it up.”
“We did not know,” Analina said. “And the señor is upset the colors do not match.”
“I will unpick some of the original yarns and weave them to the front.” Eva crawled under the table so she could see the underside. “The new yarns I will splice into the back. It is painstaking work, but that is the only way to make it look right.”
“Josemona can stay and help you,” Matron offered. “She did the first repair.”
“It will be better if I do it by myself. This is the kind of job that takes a highly practiced needlewoman.” Which was true, but Eva had other reasons. Working alone would stretch the specialized task out, and so long as she was indispensable, she would not be sold.
They left her undisturbed at the task until midmorning. Eva was beneath the table, working on the backside, when she heard Matron’s voice coming in the entry of the women’s dormitorio. “—and the girl Andres picked up from Casa de Pazia is most exceptional. None of the usual fussing and bemoaning her fate. And so helpful with the shipment from Seville!”
A deep male voice replied. “Indeed? How so?”
“Last week the little Sevillana wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t get out of bed, just languishing away. I was at my wit’s end. But Eva knew just how to handle her, and in a trice she had the child taking her food and running around the patio.”
Matron and the deep-voiced man came into the room. “And more, this young woman knows much of needlework. I have put her to mending señor Cerra’s prize tapestry. Eva?”
“I’m under the table Matron, I’ll be out in a moment.” Eva unthreaded a gold-wire yarn. Beneath the edge, she could see Matron’s sandals approaching, and beside them a pair of backless felt babouche. As the feet came closer, she saw that the wearer was a very dark Moor. A survivor of smallpox.
Laughter bubbled up with the sudden hope. God had a sense of humor. Who but St. Basil’s namesake would she encounter while under a table? And who else would she recognize first from a view of his feet?
“And where is the little Sevillana now?” The feet turned, and Eva saw—as she knew she would— her backwards E on the inside of Baseel’s left ankle.
“At this very moment the child is upstairs memorizing Arabic words from a list they made.”
His voice was deeper, no hint of youthfulness in it now. “Bring her here.”
Matron hurried out while Eva scrambled from under the table and rose awkwardly to her feet. Baseel was more richly dressed than he had been, but her eyes sought the face. She searched the scarred features, trying to read what the years had written there. He stared back, his expression set, as though waiting for some reaction on her part.
Eva noticed that the smallpox scars had accentuated the normal creases and folds, so that Baseel looked like a much older man. But he could not be out of his twenties.
One eyebrow lifted in surprise, and Eva worried he recognized her from his long-ago visits to collect the Alhambra’s kitchen account. No, that’s impossible, she reassured herself. If Baseel even noticed two little girls whispering from behind the nearest bush or wall, they always wore their mantillas when they shadowed Cerra’s scarred representative. And Thank God he would never know that his disfigurement provided fodder for expanding episodes in Blanca’s tale of the enchanted prince!
Eva remembered her manners then. She dipped into a curtsey. “Can I help you, señor?”
“There is a service you can do.” He looked her up and down and his scarred face assumed an expression that was all-too-familiar to Eva. It was the look given her by the suitors attracted to her huge dowry when they saw the bride who came with it.
Dumpy, graceless, big-nosed, freckled, dull. And that was before they knew she had six toes on her left foot.
“Matron tells me that you have taken the Sevillana under your wing.”
“You mean Leonor?”
“Her new name is Aliya,” Baseel’s mouth tightened in displeasure, as though she had challenged him, although Eva was only trying to be sure they were talking of the same person. “Baltasar Cerra has contracted her to become the wife of Muammar Walid.”
Eva’s jaw dropped. “But she is too young to be married!”
“That is no business of yours,” Baseel snapped. “I want you to prepare her so that she knows what to expect.”
“And do not delay.”
Matron bustled in, Leonor in her wake. “Here is Aliya.”
“My name is Leonor.”
“It was Leonor. But now it is Aliya. Our tradition is not as the Spanish; when a woman marries, she takes on her husband’s name,” Baseel explained. His tone was more kindly than he had used towards Eva, but despite that Leonor’s expression became mulish.
Matron squeezed her shoulder. “You are honored to be given the name of the third wife of Muhammad, peace be upon them both.” Matron nodded. “You will be pampered, for Muammar is a very wealthy man, and he does not beat his wives.”
“Pampered indeed. Your future husband wants you to be suitably outfitted, and with that in mind he has ordered that you may choose whatever fabrics you wish from Casa Cerra’s stock. A maidservant accomplished in harem fashions has been sent all the way from Algiers to make them into garments. But we have only today and tomorrow, for Thursday we set out for the port of Malaga.”
Leonor was stricken into silence. Eva too quailed at the use of ‘we’. “Am I going with Leon—with Aliya?”
“You?” Baseel’s scowl grew deeper. “No, you’re staying here. So long as you remain useful.” He turned on his heel abruptly and left.
Eva stood rooted, her first surge of joy at seeing the scarred feet turned to dust.
“Do not be troubled, he is always like that.” Matron soothed. “Come, we will go and choose materials.”
The ugly two-story building on the opposite side of the central court was, as Eva had guessed, a storage depot for Cerra’s goods. On the second floor were the fabrics, rows of different sized bales stitched in protective coverings. To each was tied a swatch of the contents.
“See here, Aliya!” Matron fingered a swatch covered in gold-thread embroidery. “You can choose anything you want, your buyer will pay. There are velvets, satins, and brocades imported from farther than Baghdad!”
Eva inhaled. She could identify the smell of silk, wool, linen, all overlaid with camphor and sandalwood to ward off moths. The smells took her back to another time and place, the week before everything changed.
Eva Age 11, March 1508, The Alhambra,
Eva curtseyed formally to Governor Mendoza’s lady and her gentlewoman Ana Enriquez. “Condesa, my father asks that you accept as a gift your choice of dress goods to make a gown for yourself and your daughter.”
The two servants from Casa de Pazia began spreading their burdens out on every available surface of the salon in the Palacio Partal. The women exclaimed over the lovely fabrics being displayed
Eva presented the letter with the Casa de Pazia seal. “And in return, he begs a favor.”
The Condesa opened it and read the contents. Eva already knew what was in it: an invitation to a memorial dinner in honor of her late mother, and a request that Eva’s noble godmother should help her have a gown made up suitable to the occasion.
“Of course I will help you with a dress, Evita.” Condesa Francisca looked up from the paper. “I’m sorry at the reason, though. But I can offer you the comfort of knowing that, in her last illness, your mother was lovingly cared for by the Benedictine sisters.”
“Madrina, how long have you known?” Eva gave her godmother a reproachful look. “And why didn’t you tell me?”
“The abbess at the Abbey of the Annunciation in Avignon sent me the news six months ago,” Condesa Francisca replied. “I’m sorry, Evita, but I couldn’t tell anyone. Maria’s dying request was that her husband should not find out he was a widower. She did not want another woman to suffer as she had.”
Eva understood. So long as there was no confirmation of his wife’s death, her father had not been able to remarry. The news had come only last week, and already Iago de Pazia had negotiated with the family of a new bride. Her father made no secret of his intention to get another heir as soon as possible.
Blanca blew in, breathless and disheveled. “Mama, you must talk Papa into letting me have a decent horse! That little scrub they let me ride refused the jump across the ravine—why, hello, Eva, what’s all this?”
“I’ve come to stay a few days. Your mother is to help me have a suitable dress made for the memorial dinner, and there is fabric for you, too.” A bribe, so your parents won’t interfere with Father’s plans. But Eva kept the thought to herself.
Blanca took in the display of rich cloth, and her mercurial temperament shifted in an instant. “Oh, Mama! It’s been so long since I had an all-new dress!”
Eva knew the Alhambra household had to watch every maravedi, for all their presumed power. Governor Mendoza’s resources must go to paying soldiers and buying armaments, not dresses and jewels. “I have plenty of dresses already. I don’t know why Father has to have another one made up.”
“Those are girl’s dresses. He wants you outfitted as a woman to meet this potential suitor,” Condesa Francisca’s forehead creased in a little frown. “Who is this man he has invited? As your godmother, I have a responsibility to stand in for your mother, now that she is dead.”
“His name is Juan de—” Eva struggled with the strange last name “-de Abensay-something-hay. Of Adra.”
“Juan de Abencerraje.” The Condesa knew at once who Eva was trying to remember. “Morisco family, high in the old sultan’s favor. The Catholic Kings confirmed the father’s patent of nobility when he converted, and bestowed the title Count of Adra.” Condesa Francisca tapped her chin in thought. “A good match for Casa de Pazia, they own several ships, and Adra has a small harbor. I met the father, long ago, but I know nothing about the son.”
Eva supplied the only thing she knew about him. “He’s old. Maybe even forty.”
“That’s not old; Inigo was forty to my nineteen when we married.”
“But I’m only eleven! Please, Madrina,” Eva begged, “Tell him I’m too young.”
“Not for a betrothal. Why, we are also considering who will have Blanca’s hand.” The subject in question made a face behind her mother’s back at the mention of marriage. “And even if the wedding is finalized early, sensible people wait until both parties are of age before consummation.”
“We could get lucky in the meantime,” Blanca suggested. “Like our Princess Katherine in England—her husband died and left her a virgin widow.”
“She is not to be envied, Blanca,” her mother scolded. “The poor girl is stuck in limbo, getting older while that horrible father-in-law holds on to her dowry, yet refuses to marry her to the son now in line for the throne.” Condesa Francisca lifted a length of silk. “Blanca, look at this peacock blue! It is just your color.”
Blanca and her mother unrolled the bolts, discussing fashion and the predicament of Isabella’s youngest daughter in confusing sequence. Eva sat apart, feeling desolate. What did the affairs of far-off royalty have to do with her life? She was truly alone, now; this morning Nurse Veronica had departed with her husband for the de Pazia farm.
“It’s not far at all. I’ll see you often, cariña,” Nurse had said. But Eva was not fooled. Elias had said almost exactly the same thing when he departed to be a novice at Holy Cross, and how often was he able to visit? Almost never.
Misery overwhelmed Eva, and to her horror, an involuntary sob escaped her.
Condesa Francisca put down the figured velvet she was holding. “How rude of us! Here Evita is mourning her mother, and we think only of new clothes.” She turned to the servants. “We will make our choice after siesta. Leave the fabrics here for now, and go refresh yourselves in the kitchens. Come, Eva.”
Eva was glad she had her mother’s death as a dignified excuse for her tears. She did not want anyone to think she was crying about her nurse leaving, as though she were a big baby.
The girls followed the Condesa and Ana to the women’s patio facing Blanca’s chamber.
“This bench was Maria’s favorite place for our duets.” Condesa Francisca settled herself on the cushions and leaned against the back. “I would call for my guitarra and sing some of her favorite tunes to comfort you, but I am so great with child, I cannot hold it correctly. Remember how you children would play your little games while we practiced?”
Eva nodded, feeling guilty. In truth, she had rarely even thought of her mother in the three years since Maria left. Even before that, she had been a distant figure of beauty and grace, someone Eva longed to please but rarely did, homely and deformed as she was.
It was Nurse Veronica who had done the actual mothering. Tears came to her eyes once again as she thought of this morning’s leave-taking. She wiped them away. “I have nothing to remember her by except an ugly old prie-dieu.”
“Don’t cry Eva, I can give you something that was hers.” Condesa Francisca clapped her hands, and a maid appeared. “Alma, there is a painted chest with the Casa de Pazia seal in the back of the storage room behind Blanca’s chamber. Bring it out here.”
Shortly the maid deposited a dusty leather-bound trunk before the gathered ladies.
“This box was my mother’s?”
“It holds the dress she wore when she visited the last time, just before she left. It was to be given it to a mutual friend, but she is gone. So now it should go to you.”
Eva lifted the lid. Inside, under a layer of dried rose petals, a familiar green satin shimmered under a pattern of roses stitched in tiny garnet beads.
“Take it out, Eva,” Blanca said excitedly.
Reverently Eva lifted the shining folds from the box. She remembered this gown—the most beautiful of her mother’s dresses. Eva drew in her breath, fingering the silk. “This was her favorite.”
“I can still see her as she was that night in the banquet-hall, playing her guitarra for the guests.” The Condesa’s mouth turned down. “Iago was always jealous whenever she played—he left early in a rage.
“I confess that I helped your mother leave, Eva, though I pretended to be as surprised as anybody. I sent her to Guadalajara with some relatives. But I thought she would return when Iago cooled off. Of course this gown was too bulky to take, so your mother wanted Pilar Martinez to have it. But when I sent word, Pilar said I should keep it here. She was in my present condition, you see,” Condesa Francisca patted her bulging belly. “She said she would wear it at her little one’s christening in the new chapel.”
“I remember,” Ana said. “And we held a funeral for mother and infant instead.”
Condesa Francisca sighed. “Griefs come in threes, they say, and 1505 brought a grievous threesome for me. First, we lost Queen Isabella, our family’s loyal patroness. And then my dearest companion flees—and I don’t doubt your mother had good reason, although she never breathed a word against Iago. Lastly, my friend Pilar dies in childbirth.”
The Condesa put a hand on her own swelling belly and let out an explosive breath. Blanca looked alarmed. “Mama, is it the baby?”
“Don’t worry, cariña, this is my fourteenth, and I’ve never had any trouble.” Blanca’s mother stood and stretched her back. “Poor Pilar suffered with every child. The Martinez women always do.”
Eva started at the family name. “Was Pilar related to Marina de Fonseca y Martinez?”
“Yes, Marina is her daughter. Goodness, I haven’t seen her since she went to live with an aunt in Jaen.”
“You’ll see her at the memorial dinner.” Eva traced a beaded rose on the silk. “Marina will be my new stepmother. The match has already been arranged.”
“To Marina? She is only thirteen!”
“And Father isn’t going to wait for consummation.” Eva had overheard the maids gossiping that Marina had begun her monthly courses and was now fertile.
Blanca pounced. “If Marina is too young to marry at thirteen, Eva and I are surely too young for betrothal at eleven!”
“Marina’s age is not what concerns me—although it certainly would be a disgrace if she were not yet a woman.” Out of delicacy, the Condesa stopped short of mentioning the business that Casa de Pazia’s servants gossiped about so freely. “It is the bridegroom himself. Pilar would never have wanted her daughter given to Iago de Pazia! Forgive me for speaking of your father so, Evita, but his jealous rages toward his late wife were known to her friends.”
“Madrina, you don’t have to ask forgiveness for speaking the truth.” Eva bunched her fists in helpless anger. “I heard him wish Elias dead. And now that my brother is off at Holy Cross, Father can hardly wait to get rid of me too. Then there will be nothing left to remind him of my mother.”
“I intend to have a very frank discussion with Marina’s family.” Eva’s godmother had a determined look about the eyes. “And as for your father, he is due for a reminding he will not soon forget! Iago wants me to help outfit you, and so I shall. Eva, stand up.”
Bewildered, Eva stood. Condesa Francisca lifted the dress and held it against her. “Ana, what do you think?”
Blanca clapped her hands with delight. “Mama is going to have the dress remade for you!”
Eva was doubtful. “I’m too short, and mother was slender, while I’m not. And look at the top! I don’t have anything to fill it out with yet.”
Ana considered. “We can’t take in the bosom without ruining the beaded pattern, but we can pad Eva so that it will fit. And a puffed silk under-chemise.”
“But the skirt—!”
“That is the least of our problems. See, this garde can be removed to make it shorter. And look, this is an old-fashioned high waist. On Eva it will fall at her natural waistline and be right in style.”
“Iago de Pazia’s dead wife’s image, wearing her dress. It will be like a fairy-tale!” Blanca was enraptured. “He will be smitten with remorse!”
“It will need more than a dress to waken a calloused conscience,” Condesa Francisca said. “Scent will help. Maria always used attar of roses.”
Eva lifted the dress to her face and inhaled the smell of mother. “My father never has that around now.”
“Of course, he does not want to be reminded of his late wife.” Blanca said sagely. “Mama can supply you with some.”
“We will also prick his unwilling ears with Maria’s songs,” Condesa Francisca said. “The prerogative of rank, not to mention courtesy towards a guest, will allow me to override the planned amusement—spontaneously, as it will seem. I will bring my guitarra—Maria gave it to me, he will recognize that—and I will insist on playing her favorite songs for the guests. I want Iago to know that I have not forgotten his treatment of Maria, and squirm with shame.”
The Condesa gave another sharp intake of breath and put both hands on her belly. “You see, even the baby within me senses my excitement. But I think it is time I retired for siesta. Making another human being is hard work!”
Blanca looked after her mother and Ana, her face creased in worry. “Mama has had a hard time these last few months. Eva, have you ever read the tombstones in a graveyard? I have, and eight out of ten of the grown women are buried with an angelito.”
“Blanca, your mother never has any problem birthing. Look at how well she did with little Diego!”
“She was younger then. Our head groom says that age increases the risk for a mare.”
“Well, our head groom says it’s the first foal that carries the greatest risk.”
“Another good argument for joining a convent. Whether in the getting or the birthing, sex is the most dangerous thing a female can do.” Blanca picked up one handle of the trunk. “Help me carry this into my chamber, it’s Rosa’s day off.”
Eva took the other side and they brought the chest into the dimness of Blanca’s room. “Turn around and I’ll unlace your kirtle, and you can do mine.”
While the girls stripped down to their chemises for siesta, Tabita’s lookalike offspring appeared and began twining around Eva’s ankles. She scooped her up. “Tabita-too has gotten so big!”
“Cats get to choose their own mates.” Blanca stroked her pet. “If I were as free as a cat, I’d marry Elias.”
“They’d never let you marry a merchant’s son.”
“I know.” Blanca sighed. “Well, since he’s going to be a priest, I’ll be a nun. A great abbess.”
Eva pretended to give this serious consideration. “Then you’d better choose the black wool for your dress. That peacock-blue silk would be far too worldly for a girl who wanted to take the veil.”
“There’s no need to rush things!” Blanca pulled the green gown out of the trunk to admire it. “I do love beautiful clothes. Eva, let’s try this on you now.”
Relieved at the change of subject, Eva stood still while Blanca dropped the voluminous skirts, stiffened with the concentric hoops called verdugos, over her head. She tied off the waist at the back.
“Now to stuff your bosom, like Ana said.” Blanca folded a linen towel and pinned it below the neck of Eva’s chemise. When she laced on the beaded bodice, it fit perfectly. The swing of the conical skirt knocked the lid of the trunk shut on Tabita-too’s tail.
Blanca rescued her pet. “Look, Eva, there’s something more in the bottom!”
Beneath the dried rose-petals was a drawstring bag of cheap muslin. Eva opened it and shook out a mantilla of the sheerest silk, beaded in matching garnets and stitched to a garnet-jeweled high comb. Wrapped in the mantilla’s folds was a small evening purse made of the gown’s green silk, hung on a belt-rope of garnets.
“Oooh, they’re so pretty! Here, try it on.” Blanca thrust the comb into the back of Eva’s braids and draped the gauzy veil. “Your hair is so thick, Eva, and the garnets bring out the red. See, look at yourself.”
Eva examined her reflection critically in the mirror Blanca held up and adjusted the weighted edge of the mantilla. “Blanca, if I arrange the beads like this, do you think people won’t see my nose?”
“It’s hardly noticeable.”
Blanca was lying, of course, but Eva appreciated her loyalty. “My hair is still all frizzy.”
“That’s because you comb it so roughly. Ana can fix it for you the night of the dinner. Not this severe pulled-back way your nurse does it.” Blanca began undoing her friend’s braids. “We’ll pull ringlets down over your shoulders, like so, and nobody will notice that the bosom of your dress is stuffed.”
Eva looked in the mirror again. Only her mouth and chin showed clearly beneath the edge of the veil; the locks that flowed down over the square neckline were dark in the shuttered room. Maria’s eyes peered mysteriously from behind the sheer beaded mantilla. For the first time Eva realized that she did, in many ways, resemble her mother.
“Here, put on the garnet belt.” Blanca linked the rope of polished red stones around the waist of the dress, adjusting the clasp to Eva’s size.
Eva felt like another person, beautiful and gracious. She twirled until the skirts stood out, then stopped and swept a low curtsey. “Welcome to the Casa de Pazia, señores.”
“Oh, Eva, you look like a storybook princess!” Blanca pretended to bow like a Spanish grandee. “Fairest lady, I lay my heart at your feet!”
Eva giggled and struck a pose, offering one hand to be kissed while the other rested on the beaded bag at her waist.
“Hey, there’s something in the purse!” She pulled out a letter, folded in at the corners, the plain wax seal in the center unbroken.
“Bring it over here to the window, I’ll open the shutters for light!” Blanca was as excited as Eva. “Who is it from? Who is it for?”
“There’s no address, unless you count this little column drawn in the corner.”
“It’s a pillar! Blanca guessed. “For Pilar, the friend who your mother left the dress for.”
“My mother’s last letter before she left.” Eva fingered the thick paper. “Would it be wrong to read a letter sent to someone else?”
“Of course not! Not when both the sender and the intended recipient are gone,” Blanca added. “I’ll bet your mother is looking down from heaven right now, wanting you to read it. Go ahead!”
With shaking fingers, Eva broke the seal and unfolded the thick paper. Blanca looked over her shoulder as she read,
I trust you will receive this, although as you know, it is safer if I name no names. I have given up hope that I can change my husband. There is no help for one who loves only money and does not fear God. And yet I cannot leave without some thought to the fate of the children I leave behind.
Eva held the parchment up to the dim light from the shuttered window, for the next lines were blurred where the ink had run, as though tears had fallen on the paper.
My son is well-instructed, but my daughter is as yet ignorant in our faith. So I bequeath her to your care, knowing you will be diligent in her religious instruction. To that end, I am leaving her my prie-dieu. Tell her she must keep it close, and never part from it; it is an heirloom passed from mother to daughter for centuries. When you judge she is ready, reveal to her the true meaning of the cross.
That battered tin and pine cross! Far from being something too ugly to take, it was a treasure her mother had valued greatly. She must get it out of the closet and use it for her devotions.
Please, my friend, do not let my child be given in marriage to a religious fraud such as I had to endure. Choose for her a sincere man of our own faith, and if her father balks, you well know what threat will force his hand.
Farewell, faithful friend. I will remember your kindness to me and mine, and will ever bring your name before heaven’s throne.
Blanca looked at Eva wide-eyed. “See Eva? You were meant to find this right now, before you are contracted. Your mother wanted to be sure you married a man who loves God.”
What Elias had shouted on the day they found out Mother had gone rang in Eva’s mind: “You’re the reason Mama left us, because of your lack of faith! She couldn’t live with your hypocrisy, prating first one creed and then another, pretending to honor God.”
“Odd, I wonder why she didn’t leave your spiritual care to my mother? That’s what a godmother is for, isn’t it?”
“Pilar knew something that could force my father’s hand.” Eva took a deep breath. “Blanca, if I tell you what it is, will you promise never to breathe a word?”
“By the Cross of Santiago!” Blanca signed an X over her heart.
“Iago de Pazia is a secret Jew. His conversion was only for show.” Eva was almost glad her father was not a real Christian; his rages would have made her doubt her faith. “Mama must have tried and tried to get him to submit to Jesu, until she finally gave up hope that she could change him.”
“What if this man he wants you to marry is a secret Saracen?”
“I’d never marry a Saracen! They commit bigamy.”
“And tri-gamy, and even quatri-gamy—that’s four wives. The followers of Muhammad can have that many.”
Eva was appalled. “But if he keeps his real religion secret, how would I know until it’s too late?”
“Mama will find out. She’s your godmother, so it’s her responsibility.”