There was a quiet rap on the door, then it opened to reveal Ana Maria on the other side. "Lunch is. . ." she began to say, but paused when she saw what Padre Benitez was doing. She shot an anxious look over at Diego, who had reopened his eyes. He shook his head which caused Ana to relax.
The padre turned to look at the young woman. "I'll be right there," he advised before returning to his prayers and holy water.
Ana Maria glanced over at Diego. She knew she would be wasting her breath to ask him to join them for their midday meal. She stepped back and closed the door.
Later that afternoon, after Padre Benitez had departed the hacienda, another tap sounded on the bedroom door. It too was opened before Diego had a chance to respond. He leaned back in the chair he was still sitting in and groaned when he saw that it was Felipe.
Felipe stood at the foot of bed. "Diego," he said, "everyone is worried about you. You need to take care of your. . . "
Diego dismissed him with the wave of his hand. "Spare me the lectures, hijo," he replied wearily.
"I know what you're going through," stated Felipe.
"You have no idea," said Diego coldly.
"Ana and I lost a child."
Damn, thought Diego as he closed his eyes. He had forgotten about that, that Ana Maria had miscarried their first child. He opened his eyes and look at his son in a different light. But still. . .
"You didn't lose your wife," retorted Diego.
"You haven't either," Felipe responded. "And I did lose Ana for nearly three months. I felt as though my world had come to an end then. But it can't, Diego. You have to go on." He paused, drawing in a deep breath before adding, "You have three sons out there who need you, Diego. They are scared that both their mother and father have disappeared and no one is telling them what is going on. You're going to lose them as well if you keep isolating yourself from everyone."
Diego hung down his head. Felipe was right. It had felt as though his world had come crashing down around his head. But he didn't know how he could go on without Victoria. He didn't know how he could face his young sons or what he could possibly say to them that would allay their fears. Shaking his head, he covered his face with his hands.
He looked up when he felt Felipe's hand on his shoulder. "Diego, I'm worried not only about you, but about Ana as well. She's wearing herself out trying to take care of everything both here and at home. It doesn't help that Maria has a broken ankle."
The mystery of the de la Vega's housekeeper's disappearance had been solved the morning after the storm. She had gone out to one of the workers' cottages to see to a sick child. On the way back to the main house, she had slipped in the mud, breaking her ankle. She had lain out in the rain for several hours before anyone heard her cries for help and had caught a bad cold as well.
"She doesn't have to," stated Diego. "I've told her she should go home and rest but she won't listen."
A small smile crept onto Felipe's handsome face. "Sounds like someone else I know," he said. He looked over at the unconscious Victoria and his expression sobered. "She's a fighter, Diego. Just remember that." Felipe patted his father's shoulder reassuringly before leaving the room.
Diego returned his head to his hands. Guilt washed over him. He had been wallowing in his misery for so long, he had become totally unaware of his family. He had noticed how tired Ana Maria had been looking lately, it just hadn't mattered to him. Alfonso and the twins must be frightened out of their wits and all he had been concerned about how he was going to face them again.
The image of a bewildered young boy entered his mind then, a boy who hadn't known what had happened to his mother. A boy who had been pushed aside as the adults had bustled about and told him to stop asking so many questions. A boy who saw his father so stricken with grief that he still dreamed about it at night. A boy who had not been allowed to attend his mother's funeral, who had never seen her gravesite until he was sixteen and had snuck out to visit it one night. A boy who hadn't even found out he had had a little sister until that visit.
His mother's death had affected him deeply. But the way he had been treated at the time also remained burned into his memory.
And now he was behaving the same way. Cutting himself off from the people he loved, just as his father had done. Ignoring his sons, just as his father had done. Being irrational and shouting at people who were trying to help, just as his father had done.
Diego got to his feet. No, he vowed, he was not going to do to his sons what had been done to him. He went over to the bed and picked up Victoria's flaccid hand. Bringing it to his lips, he reached out with his other hand and stroked her forehead.
"I love you, Victoria," he said. Diego released
her hand and stood up. He hesitated for a moment before heading for
the bedroom door.
Z Z Z
Ana Maria, Don Alejandro, and the children were in the library. The younger boys were playing with a pile of wooden blocks, building teetering towers before gleefully knocking them over. Alfonso and Digo sat on the settee, looking at a book of illustrations and hesitantly sounding out words. Their abuelo was reading as well, although it seemed he had to reread the same page over several times before turning to the next one.
Concentrating on her needlework, Ana Maria stabbed herself in the finger when one of the twins shrieked, "Papa!" Glancing up, she saw Diego standing there with a determined expression on his unshaven face.
"Diego?" His father stood up, letting his book fall to the floor. "What happened? Is Victoria. . ."
Diego held out his hand. "She's the same," he said. Bending down, he picked up one twin and then the other. "Alfonso, come on."
The lad hopped off the settee and followed his papa down the hallway. Don Alejandro also walked behind them.
"Son, what are you doing?" he inquired. "You can't let them see. . ."
"I can't let them see what, Father?" Diego interrupted, spinning around. "Their mother? Why not?"
The elder de la Vega was taken aback by the bitterness in his son's voice. "Diego, it will only upset them," he declared sagely.
"Any more than they are already?" countered Diego. "Father, I need to do this. Don't try to stop me."
He turned around and continued on his way. The old don shrugged his shoulders. Ana Maria had come up behind him, a questioning look on her face. Don Alejandro just shook his head.
"I don't know," he said before going back to the library. Ana Maria stared at his retreating back, then turned and made her way to the sickroom.
Diego walked into the room and set the twins down onto the floor. All three boys gazed at their mother, lying still on the bed. Diego knelt down before them.
"Muchachos," he began, "your mama is very sick. She had the baby. Remember what we told you about having a baby brother or sister and it was growing in her tummy?" He addressed the last comment to the three-year old twins, Alejandro and Francisco, who both nodded.
"Well, the baby came too early," he explained, "and she wasn't alive when she was born." He swallowed hard. It was still difficult to think of his daughter as dead.
"She?" echoed Alfonso. "We have a baby sister?"
"No," replied Diego. "She was born dead."
"Oh," Alfonso said, thinking it would have been nice to have a little sister. He looked up at his father as another thought crossed his mind, one that had been nagging his conscience since the night of the storm. "Papa, did I make Mama sick and the baby dead?"
Diego could only stare at his son in shock for several minutes. Then he began shaking his head. "No, hijo, no," he finally said, grasping the boy's shoulders. "Why would you even think such a thing?"
Alfonso hung his head. "Because I disobeyed you and went to visit Señor Maldonado," he said. "I made Mama worry too much. It's my fault, isn't it?"
Diego pulled his son to his chest. "No, Alfonso," he said, the lump in his throat making it hard to speak. "No, hijo, you mustn't think that way. It was not your fault. Babies come too early sometimes." He pushed his son an arm's length away and made the boy meet his eyes.
"Alfonso, it was not your fault," he reiterated. "This things happen sometimes and there's just no reason for them. It's not anyone's fault. Do you understand?"
"Si, Papa," Alfonso replied. He felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off his chest. "Can we kiss Mama?" he asked.
All three boys crept cautiously toward the bed. Before Diego could stop him, Francisco had climbed up on the mattress and leaning over, kissed his mother on the cheek. Alejandro was not far behind. The twins snuggled up on either side of her as Alfonso got on the bed as well so he could kiss her too.
"I love you, Mama," the youngster said. "I hope you get better soon."
At first, the movement was so infinitesimal that Diego thought he had only imagined it. But then Victoria's eyelashes fluttered even more noticeably. Sitting down on the bed, Diego took one of his wife's hands.
Her head rolled to one side and then the other as her eyes slowly opened. Diego couldn't tell if she was cognizant or not. Then her eyelids drooped shut again, but he could swear he saw a small smile appear on Victoria' face.
Diego got to his feet again. "Come on, muchachos," he announced. "You can visit again tomorrow."
The boys slid off the bed and the twins raced out the door. Alfonso lingered for a moment, kissed his mother on the cheek again, and then exited the room.
Diego leaned over and touched his lips to his wife's. "Victoria, can you hear me?" he queried softly. "Victoria?" But there was no reaction.
It had to mean something, he thought. She had opened her eyes, if only for a second. Had she responded to her sons' visit? Or was it merely a coincidence?
Diego sat back down in the chair by the bed. He had no idea that Alfonso had been feeling so guilty about Victoria's illness. That the boy had been blaming himself because of his disobedience. He smiled wryly as he remembered that Alfonso's promised punishment for his misdeed had never materialized. Diego shook his head. He just didn't have the heart to punish the boy now.
"Diego?" He looked up to see Ana Maria standing in the doorway. "Supper is almost ready. Did you want to. . .?" She was afraid to finish her question.
"I'll go," he replied. He looked down at his rumpled clothing and stroked his whiskered chin. "Just let me clean up a little first."
"Si, I'll come stay while you eat," said Ana Maria before turning to leave. She paused, however, and added, "I'm glad you let the boys see Victoria. I think it helped." She then continued on her way.
Diego started to unbutton his shirt.
Did he do the right thing? he wondered as he gathered up his shaving things.
Only time would tell.
Z Z Z
Diego was startled from his sleep by a shout from Victoria. He leapt from the chair and knelt by her bedside. She was thrashing and moaning wildly. Tentatively he placed his hand on her forehead.
Dios mio, she was burning up. Diego immediately soaked a cloth in the bowl of cool water that sat on the table by the bed and put it on her forehead.
"Victoria, querida," he said in a soothing tone. "Shh, it's all right." He tried to grab her hands but she was waving them so much he was afraid of hurting her.
"No, Mama, no." Diego could barely make out the words she was saying as she rolled her head from side to side. He tried to lift her head so he could get her to sip from a glass of water, but she was thrashing around so much, she knocked the glass from his hand, spilling it on the front of her nightgown.
The cold douse of water calmed Victoria down almost immediately. "Mama, Mama," she murmured quietly. "No, no." Diego stroked her cheek as she continued to keen for her mother.
She must be reliving the day her mother was shot, he surmised. He could think of no other time she would have been so anxious about her mother. He had not witnessed the execution of Señora Escalante but from the accounts he had heard later, it had been horrific.
His poor querida, the fever must be triggering the terrible memories. But why had it suddenly risen once again? She had been almost fever free earlier this evening, Diego recalled
He didn't have long to dwell on it as Ana Maria rushed into the room, with little Jaime on her hip. "He's cutting a tooth," she explained. "I was up with him when I thought I heard Victoria's voice. Is she awake?"
"No," replied Diego. "But she's burning up again and she's delirious."
"Should we get the doctor?" asked Ana Maria worriedly. Jaime began to fuss and she laid a hand on his brown curly hair to soothe him.
Diego shook his head. "No," he said. "I don't what he can do. Not that he's done much in the first place," he added the last sentence bitterly under his breath He got to his feet and also placed a gentle hand on his grandson's hair. "I think I have something that can help both Victoria and little Jaime here."
Without another word, he ran out of the
bedroom, leaving a bewildered Ana Maria staring after him.
Z Z Z
"THE DEATH OF INNOCENCE" CHAPTER TEN