The Promise



Gail Manfre










The Spanish fiesta of Christmas blends the religious spirit of the Nativity with the culinary delights of the table, and the ancient Iberian passion for song, and the universal pleasure of renewing family ties. The Nachimiento Belenes, or Bethlehem Crib, is more important to a Spanish family than the Christmas tree. Christmas Eve is known as Noche Buena, "good night". An old Spanish verse says “Esta nochos es Noche-Buena, y no es noche de domir,” which translates as “this is the good night, therefore it is not meant for sleep.” After an elaborate Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, upon returning home, every child receives one gift. The other unopened gifts must wait the date of the epiphany, (Twelve days after Christmas, January sixth), since the three Kings are the legendary gift bearers. The Kings leave gifts in the children’s’ shoes that Spanish families place outside their doors for their royal passing.



DECEMBER 15, 1821


Amontildar and Selena crept down the stairs toward the hacienda’s Nativity display. Since she had been ill for the past three weeks, Don Alejandro had ordered the servants to stop working on the statues of the Holy Family. Alejandro had only her best interests at heart, but Selena’s maidservant had told the Señora de la Vega of their quiet disappointment at the unfinished state of the Nachimiento. All that remained to be put in place was the crêche itself and the usual stable animals. The Spanish people especially honor the cow at Christmas because it is thought that when Mary gave birth to Jesus, the cow in the stable breathed on the Baby Jesus to keep him warm. The hacienda’s head servant, Crescencia, was scandalized at the thought of the de la Vega Nachimiento being revealed to the fiesta attendees minus the “sacred cow!“ So together Selena and Amontildar plotted to complete the crêche tonight, sleep or no sleep.

Crescencia asked Amontildar, “All is clear, mam’selle? Is everyone in the hacienda asleep?”

“Oui, commencez [begin] !” the Creole whispered. “Now, my mistress, everyone is ready!”

Selena glanced at Bernardo, who nodded that his workmen were ready.

At Senora de la Vega’s wave of her hand, all of the male servants came into the courtyard and began putting the Nativity scene together.

The plump Spanish woman spoke in crisp but quiet tones. “Pronto, señores! We have very little time and mucho trabajo, comprendo eh, muchachos? And remember to work silencioamente!” Crescencia faced the vaqueros and house staff with her hands on her rather formidable hips.

“Ouch!” Selena yelped suddenly, “I stubbed my toe on ...”

Crescencia and everyone else in the courtyard froze. A dozen heads swerved back and forth, and twelve pairs of eyes darted from Don Alejandro’s room to Don Diego’s door. Bernardo lightly climbed the stairs and double-checked underneath the doorways. Neither haciendado stirred. Nothing, he finally signed.

Amontildar’ s dark eyes bulged in horror. “Never you mind, chere! You set dere and look charmante. Diego, your beau, he kill me dead if you be hurts out here!’

Selena sigh wearily and nodded sleepily. “Did you give Diego the ‘night potion‘?”

Amontildar chuckled. “Mais, oui, chere, both the pere et fils [father and son]. Now you be still!”

Selena shook her head in disbelief. Amontildar has ten thousand tricks up her sleeve, and I think that it is better I do not know very many of them! Señora de la Vega said to herself. And I hope Diego does not learn Amontildar added a little something “extra” in his brandy. Aloud she began to say, “Could I please be ...”

“Hush your mouth, mistress!” Amontildar reproached her. “Tais -toi!”

Bernardo joined them after another look under the dons’ doors. He signed to Selena, my master claims he never snores, but he certainly does! he grimaced good-naturedly.

Selena smothered another giggle. “Quite true, Bernardo, quite true!’ she signed in response.

Crescencia watched Señora de la Vega and Bernardo continue their silent dialogue. “Amontildar, you understand any of that?” the Spanish housekeeper asked.

“Moi? Certainly not.” Amontildar praying that this smart lady could not tell the Creole was lying.

“Ah, by the Virgin, eh, Amontildar?” Crescencia said emphatically as she crossed herself. “Back to work, amigos y amigas! So tell me, Amontildar, when does the señora’s sleeping draught begin to work, eh?”

“Not to worry ‘bout dat, Señora Crescencia.” The Creole winked, “Sooner than my mistress tink!”

Jorge Paco, Juan, Bernardo, Benito and eight of the de la Vegas’ vaqueros hauled, pushed and shoved the carved wooden statue of the de rigeur cow next to the statues of the lamb and a donkey. Everything was finally in place. ... finished. Bernardo checked his timepiece. One-thirty a.m.

Parfait!” Amontildar exclaimed as she touched Crescencia’s arm.

Excellente, hombres!” Crescencia echoed, “Gracias a Dios!”

Bernardo nudged Amontildar as he looked over at Selena, who had propped herself against the bottom of the stairway and was asleep.

“Sainte Thérèse!” Amontildar said sotto voce. “Bernardo, Crescencia, we must get my mistress to her bed!” Fortunately, Selena was too exhausted to protest, and somehow the trio managed to get her upstairs, whereupon the women guided Bernardo from the room, removed her night robe and placed her ever so gently beside a snoring Diego.




DECEMBER 16, 1821

8:30 o’clock a.m.

Diego awakened when the sunshine fell onto his eyes and especially after he heard the unmistakable noises of the hacienda staff preparing breakfast. He yawned and gazed lovingly down at his adorable Selena. “Mother of my child, wake up. Do you intend to sleep until noon, or have you forgotten that we both promised my father and the servants we would finish the crêche before luncheon this afternoon?”

He playfully nuzzled Selena’s neck, showering sweet kisses from her throat to her earlobe. The lavender scent she always wore again aroused him. Diego caressed Selena’s soft as silk neck. What in...dios, mi! His wife merely rolled over and slept on. Hmm...Diego picked up her teacup and smelled what was left of the liquid. Ah, I thought so ... Amontildar does follow my orders to the letter.

Beloved, never mind, sleep as long as you --both of you -- like.” Diego got up, dressed, and sprinted downstairs into the sala for breakfast. “Buenos dias, father,” Diego stared at Don Alejandro, who was a strange sight to behold, as he still wore his maroon silk brocaded robe over a nightshirt and a pair of calzoneros with his slippers, “are you not feeling well?”

Alejandro yawned. “No, I am fine, gracias. I think that I slept too well, for I do not remember even falling asleep. And where is your lovely bride?” The old don’s eyes were sparkling with merriment.

Diego yawned several times himself. “I did not want to awaken her. She and the baby need their rest, you know.” Well, I believe that I shall inspect the status of the Nachimiento.”

Don Alejandro nodded. “If you can wait ten minutes, I shall change into some decent clothing and accompany you to the courtyard.”

“Fine, I shall have a large cup of hot chocolate.” Diego sat down again and signed for Bernardo to pour him some more of the delicious beverage. “Bernardo,” his master said while he looked around to see if any of the other servants, especially, Crescencia, were within hearing range, “are you prepared to work on the Nachimiento today? I, for one, will be delighted to see the faces of the children when they see we have all of our Christmas decorations finally displayed tonight.”

Bernardo signed that he should wait for his wife and then asked where Doña Selena was.

Diego grinned. “Resting as she should be thanks to Amontildar’s magic.”

The mute rocked back and forth on his heels and said nothing as he trailed behind the de la Vega men as they left the sala. Don Alejandro and Don Diego arrived in the courtyard near the hacienda's Chapel just as Crescencia ordered the blankets removed that were protecting the Nachimiento earlier that morning. Everyone the courtyard stopped working to gaze at the lovely portrayal of the Nativity now erected in the de la Vega yard. Diego and his folder could scarcely believe their eyes.

"But how did they ..." Don Diego wondered aloud, “finish the Nachimiento creche?" He folded his arms across his chest and whispered to Bernardo, ”Por favor, tell me how in the name of heaven did all of you manage to complete this display overnight?"

Don Alejandro muttered, “Perhaps you should not ask that question, Diego, for you may not like the answer.”

Bernardo looked at the ground, reluctant to divulge Selena’s secret.

Don Alejandro and Don Diego exchanged exasperated looks. "Bernardo, please .... if you can, reveal to us how you performed this wonderful miracle?" Diego further inquired.

The mozo rapidly began his explanation, waving his hands back and forth in the air. Señora de la Vega’s idea, my master. She realized how much her ... illness disrupted the hacienda’s holiday celebrations. The señora supervised everything until almost two this morning ... oops. Bernardo rolled his eyes up. I was told not to mention that ...

Diego sighed. I should have known Selena would not sit idly by and disappoint the children on the de la Vega estates. Then he wondered, but why did I not awaken when she left our bed ... unless ... He glanced at Bernardo, who was probably the worst liar the young caballero had ever known.

“Bernardo, did Selena tell Amontildar to ah ...”

The mozo merely shrugged his shoulders and smiled.

“By the Virgin, Bernardo, between you and Amontildar, I simply do not have a chance, do I, eh?” Diego said quietly.

His manservant winked at him. I believe, my master, you have answered your own question ...

After pronouncing the Nachimiento a success, Diego went upstairs to check on Selena. When he discreetly opened the door and peered inside, his beautiful wife was already sitting up at her dressing table and drinking a cup of Amontildar’s special tea.

“Buenos dias,” Diego murmured as he kissed the back of her neck, “how are ‘we’ feeling this morning?”

“’We’ are feeling much better, especially since you are here now, mon coeur.” Selena replied softly. “Did you and your father approve of the servants’ efforts in completing the display for tonight?”

“Oh, sí, but what I do not approve of is my wife’s version of a nightcap.” Diego said in a mocking tone.

Selena giggled. “Am I forgiven, mi corazon, for after all, you have not slept very well these past two weeks worrying about me ...” she lowered her face and sighed.

“Selena,” he began, “I believe I know exactly what you need, some quiet time with me later tonight.”

She raised her head and searched his handsome face, and saw both love and desire blazing within those hazel eyes. “Vraiment? [Really?] Why not surprise me tonight after the children have seen their Nachimiento?”

“Anything for my beloved.” Diego huskily responded. “Until eleven o’clock, then, Selena.” He straightened his navy blue chaqueta as he walked to the bedroom door.

“That long?” Selena teased.

“Ah, but I must have time to finalize my plans, and I know you and Amontildar have to supervise the cooking, baking, and whatnot.” Diego blew her a kiss.

D’accord, mon cher, jus’qua ce soir.” [Until tonight then, my dear]. Selena responded dreamily.




In the de la Vegas kitchen, Amontildar was instructing one of the young Indian cooks how to make pralines. The teenager could not help laughing at the Creole’s constant chattering in French, bemoaning the fact that she did not have any pecans for her rich sugary pralines that Selena loved.

Pas de noisettes!” [No pecans!] Amontildar exclaimed as she poured out the praline mixture on the flat, iron baking trays, “what will my mistress tink?“

“Your mistress, Mam’selle Amontildar, will certainly not be offended if the candies lack any pecans!” Selena said brightly as she glided into the kitchen while tying on an apron.

“Mais, chere, what you be doin, eh?” the Creole’s eyes widened in mock surprise.

Selena defiantly crossed her arms. “I am going to make some red velvet cake for dinner tonight. Any objections?”

Amontildar shook her head. “Non, but dat cake be already done, but you can apply the glacé, [icing] mistress,” the Creole smiled. “But me, I thought I tole you to wait upstairs a little while longer and I be dere real soon to make you look fine for your Monsieur tonight pour La Fête du Noel, mais oui?”

“I am bored, Amontildar, and ...” she stopped when she saw the fierce look on her servant’s face. Selena then decided that a hasty retreat was in order, “n-nevermind, and mam’selle, I suddenly seem to be developing a headache.”

“Tres bien, chere,” Amontildar chided her mistress; “you walk carefully up ze stairs maintenant, oui?”







Chapter Forty-eight
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