It would not be fair to speak of Maria Clara without first mentioning her mother, Doña Pia Alba. Capitan Tiago hailed from Pampanga, the province north of Manila. Santa Cruz was the affluent district that contained Binondo, where still the de Los Santos family maintained their primary residence. He met her there at some point, and after a brief courtship their marriage was arranged.
It was the marriage to this beautiful woman from Santa Cruz that gave Capitan Tiago his social status and much of his new fortune. He was the son of a wealthy sugar merchant, but Doña Pia was not content with merely buying and selling sugar and coffee. With their conjugal properties they bought land in San Diego, south of Manila, where they branched out to indigo and ranching. There also began their long friendship with Don Rafael Ibarra and Padre Damaso.
Their first six years of marriage failed to produce an heir, almost putting in vain their pursuit of wealth. All their efforts and affluence turned to ostentatious displays of piety, but it was not until Padre Damaso advised her to come with him to Obando and dance during the feast of Saint Pascual Baylon that her womb quickened with life.
And yet, like a person who had longed for treasure so long that once claimed had lost the joy of it, she ceased to smile and became melancholy during her pregnancy. She was often to be found weeping before the statues of saints. A puerperal fever took her after childbirth, leaving her beautiful baby in the care of her humorless Aunt Isabel.
From her mother did Maria Clara take her brightness, her gaiety, her keen mind and perhaps undue willingness to sacrifice herself in silence.
Though it was the expected in those times that women were best suited to manage the home, it was not as if managing a household did not require a good deal of intellect and stubbornness. Maria Clara had been shut up in a convent for several years as well, where she was taught the virtues of patience, of obedience, and trust in that God shall in the end settle all accounts. And that the confession was the balm to all sins.
“Padre Damaso, godfather, thank you for your time and allowing me to speak with you.”
“It is of little trouble, dear child. You said – if I had any business with your father, if I could take some time to offer you my counsel as well? So it turns out that I had things to speak to your father.” His blithe tone briefly turned aggressive, but if Maria Clara noticed, she gave no sign. “So speak, my child, what troubles you?”
“I must confessed I am vexed, Padre. Something Crisostomo said to me –“
“That cad! I will have him in chains by the morn!”
“No, no, nothing of the sort! He was ever the proper gentleman, nothing untoward happened or was said,” Maria Clara hurriedly clarified, “but… do I… do I have the power to place anyone under my protection?”
Padre Damaso leaned back on his chair and rested his chin upon one fingertip. He nodded at her to proceed.
“I know what would be my duties as a wife, and a Christian woman to the Church, but right now… I have no properties, I have no authority. All my life I have been the one protected, not the one who protects. If I were to wish something to be done, I have to borrow someone else’s power – my father’s wealth; your protection, godfather; my safety in the streets from the invisible hand of the law.
If someone calls out to me for succor, how can I grant them food and shelter? If charity be a virtue, how may I help? I am vexed, padre, I am vexed with this question. I have none by myself to give.”
“Has Ibarra asked for your help?” Padre Damaso scowled. “If he thinks to hide behind you for any misdeeds…! I will not forgive such a coward!”
“No, padre, it is not that. Though I worry about Crisostomo in another way too. What has he been doing in Europe that he can say ‘the amount of thirty-two pesos, for those such as us, is trifling’? I know that my father’s business or your own administration moves thousands of pesos without a worry.
But I have never owned or spent for myself anything of the sort. Someday I shall manage such funds without blinking, but now the thought of such sums as a trifle frightens me.”
“Has Ibarra really sunk so low as to ask you for money?!”
“No, Padre, in the church of San Diego, there is a debt worth that amount. If possible, I would like to pay it in their stead. In San Diego, there are two little boys who need my help. If it would be possible, I wish for them to be protected as I am protected.”
“Then why does he not pay it himself?! He is off to San Diego, and good riddance!”
“So too, I understand, is Padre Salvi. Padre, my Padre, I must confess – him I fear to approach. I cannot bear the thought of someone else occupying the place in our community you have graced for so many years.”
“I see. Padre Salvi is… young, and for his training still needs seasoning. I can speak to him before he leaves. But why should I, Maria Clara? What do you actually want, Maria Clara? You would ask me hurry – but for whom? What did Ibarra ask of you?”
“Their names as Basilio and Crispin. They are young sacristan. They are ten and seven years old. The youngest is accused of stealing from the offering box two gold pieces… I have few belongings, but if possible, I would pay for it myself. I would grant them shelter and protection until the truth is out.”
“Do not shelter thieves, Maria Clara!”
“Maybe they are, maybe they are not. But is thirty-two pesos really the worth of a life? I am vexed, father. Does Crisostomo mean to test me as well?
I would like to see these boys for myself. I would like to know if I can tell a liar from an innocent. I would like to know if kindness in the right moment can change a life. I would like to know what Crisostomo means – if I cannot protect anyone, does that mean I am adrift? Does he mean to test how much regard others have upon my judgment? I am protected, but am I owned? Does my voice matter? Does… does anyone care… if I beg?
I am protected, but am I owned?! He vexes me, padre!”
“He means to have you thinking of him constantly. He means to keep you intrigued. This is a callow influence of a womanizer. Beware, Maria Clara!”
“… Padre Damaso, I must ask this of you, please protect these two boys as you would protect me.”
“I must refuse this, it is dancing to that Ibarra’s ruse. His plan shall not move me!”
“Please, Padre Damaso. Do this not for his sake, but for me. Please lend me your power, that I might learn the truth of his heart.”
“If you welcome thieves into your household, Maria Clara, you will ever regret it.”
“Please, Padre Damaso. Else I will have to find out what meager power I have to place others under my own protection.”
“I will tell your father not to accommodate this silly notion of yours.”
“If they suffer, then their protector suffers with them. I should say, even now they are under my protection. I have already decided, now only it is a matter of carrying it out. Please, Padre Damaso, allow me to take in these two boys that I must learn what it means to be responsible for others.”
“Girl, cease this silliness.”
“Please, Padre Damaso.”
“Can you not do this for me? I do not ask for much.”
“I refuse to entertain Ibarra’s whims.”
“If I do not, then he certainly must have something ready in place. I fear he would mock me. Mock you, knowing that you could not do this simple charitable thing for me.” Maria Clara hid her face behind her fan and frowned faintly. “Ah. Perhaps this is his intent. To drive a wedge between us…? How unkind, Crisostomo.”
Padre Damaso’s grip on the armrest of the narra-wood chair froze. That sounded much too plausible.
“Maria Clara, this is nonsense.”
“Please be my ally in this, Padre. I can depend on no one more.”
“Not even your father?”
“My father obeys you, for good reason.”
“Not even Ibarra?”
“He is not God’s representative on Earth. Christ extended his forgiveness to sinners, if they would but repent. Mercy, Padre Damaso. Please show me mercy. May they not come into harm, may any injury on them be the same as laid upon my body.”
Padre Damaso sat motionless on the chair, brooding as if an ailing king on his throne already contested even as he still drew breath. “Fine,” he spat. “We shall see what happens.”
“Thank you! Oh thank you padre! You are gracious beyond words.”
Padre Damaso raised his hand and Maria Clara reached out to kiss his fingers in obeisance.
“I am the one who is your protector, Maria Clara. Do not forget this.”
“Of course, my Padre. I am forever grateful.”
Padre Damaso sniffed. “Yes. Do not make a habit of this, Maria Clara. My tolerance for your whimsies can only go so far. That Ibarra is not good for you, best that you not think of seeing him again.”
Maria Clara smiled. “I shall keep your counsel in mind, Padre Damaso. If he should test me, then I should test him too.”
“A good Christian woman must be demure and not scheming; Maria Clara, I rebuke you. But in this matter, I also forgive you in the same breath. I am your ally, and your mother’s confessor, and in this I command you – be testful. He is not worthy of you, best you see that early.”
It was the custom in those days to put the groom through trials, in imitation of the trials of Jacob. Padre Damaso’s lips quirked at the thought of what tortures he might advise Ibarra should undergo – trials that were beneath a true-blooded Spanish man’s dignity, but the indio in the mestizo cannot refuse lest he appear cowardly.
“Thank you, Padre.”
Padre Damaso stood up and went off to find Capitan Tiago. The priest continued from before his reprimand that Capitan Tiago had engaged Maria Clara to Crisostomo Ibarra without consulting him. Against said threat of withdrawing support, Capitan Tiago began to falter. Sensing this, Padre Damaso demanded the servants bring out a fast pony-drawn carriage, for he had better places to be.
Maria Clara heard none of this.
She sat by the balcony, staring off into nowhere, and behind her restful expression her thoughts was a maelstrom. Her heart still thundered as with the fear and anxiety of battle. She was not a guileful woman, she had meant every word.
But it was left unsaid whether or not she had enjoyed being tested; being seen more than a pretty face and a wife to be. No one before had laid such a burden to her mind and expected her to solve it by the morn. The sisters of the convent had always said – duty, deference, humility, service, a woman’s lot in life –
“I am protected,” she whispered again. “But am I owned?”
She knew her mother had been called an unusually intelligent and faithfulwoman. Long and in vain had she sought guidance in the lifeless eyes of her mother’s painting. She now wondered only what her mother would have done.