Book 6 Chapter 2
2. The Lady
Summary: Following Don Antonio’s death, his brothers contest his will, in which he left his estate to his wife and daughter. Olivares’ planned codicil, bequeathing money for Latour’s cathedral fund, had never been added. Olivares’ lawyer explains to Father Vaillant that the brothers are contesting the will on the grounds that Inez is too old to be Isabella’s daughter. In order to sustain the will, therefore—and have any hope of securing money for the planned cathedral—Vaillant and Latour must convince Isabella to admit her true age in court. Only such an admission will prove that Inez is her daughter, and not the product of some illicit union between Don Antonio and a secret paramour. At first, Isabella adamantly rejects any idea of stating that she is older than 42; eventually, however, she relents, agreeing to state that she is 52—“the youngest [she] could possibly be, to be Inez’s mother.”
Analysis: The two priests appear to adopt what modern audiences might call a “good cop/bad cop” approach in convincing Isabella to admit her age in court. Father Vaillant is “impetuous” (p. 190), chiding Isabella for her “childish vanity” (p. 189), warning her that, should she fail to admit her age, she will be condemning both; while Bishop Latour adopts a more patient way, appealing to Isabella’s idealized image of herself—“Forty-two to your friends, dear Madame Olivares, and to the world. In heart and face you are younger than that. But to the Law and the Church there must be a literal reckoning” (p. 190).
Intriguingly, Cather titles this chapter “The Lady.” Given that Isabella is a devout Roman Catholic (see p. 176), readers cannot help but be struck that, via Cather’s chapter title, Isabella shares a title of respect and veneration often given to the Blessed Virgin Mary (as in “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” encountered in I.4). Also, the central problem in this chapter is establishing that Isabella is Inez’s mother, perhaps as the Virgin Mary encountered scandal and suspicion when she was revealed to be pregnant with Jesus. Isabella may be something of a Marian figure—an identification that could lead readers to conclude that her reluctant admission of her true age constitutes yet another of those miracles of “great love… divine love” (p. 50) to which Bishop Latour is alert in his ministry. In fact, a striking contrast between the beginning and the end of the chapter may indicate that Isabella’s concession is precisely one those miracles of love. When we first see the Olivares home at the chapter’s beginning, it is not the lively, hospitable setting it was in the previous chapter. It has been “transformed by neglect” (p. 188)—for example, “Chairs and window-sills were deep in red dust, the glass panes dirty, and streaked as if by teardrops” (p. 189). At the chapter’s end, however, after Madame Olivares has made her admission, the Olivares home is once more transformed as a party is thrown to celebrate. “This hospitable mood came upon the house suddenly, nothing had been prepared beforehand” (p. 194)—and yet, just that quickly, “everything sparkled like a garden after a shower” (p. 194). One notable detail is that Pablo serves “his late master’s best whisky and sherry, and quarts of champagne” (p. 193). This reference to the best drinks may put readers in mind of Jesus’ first miracle, the transformation of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana: after Jesus’ miracle, the steward tells the bridegroom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now” (i.e., late in the feast; John 2:10). Similarly, the good wine now flows, suddenly and unexpectedly, at Madame Olivares’ party because Latour and Vaillant have, in effect, worked a miracle of love in getting “the Lady” to set aside her pride for a greater good.