The Comandante of Monterey

and the Challenge of Señorita Anamaría Verdugo

 

by

 Eugene H. Craig

 

 

Chapter 4

 

 

“We have a visitor,” remarked Captain Luís del Guerro as the four riders came around the curve in the road at the edge of the Verdugo ranch. He spotted the lone black horse tied up outside the residence at once.

Melana Verdugo stared at the distant horse and looked worried. “That is Señor Velásquez’s horse, Captain del Guerro. What should we do?”

“Act as if nothing is out of the ordinary. We’ve been out on a pleasant excursion.”

A few minutes later, the two Verdugo cousins entered the patio, laughing and chatting on the arms of the army officers as if they had not a care in the world. When they opened the door they saw a tense Felipe Verdugo and his visitor, a tall corpulent man, in the middle of what must have been an argument.

To his surprise, Felipe Verdugo saw his niece Anamaría with her arm through Luís’ as if they were very old friends. Melana held Alonso Morales’ hand, laughing as if they had been joking together.

“Oh, Father, we have had the most splendid time this afternoon. You should have come with us.”

Don Felipe took the comment in stride although he remembered Anamaría’s unspoken desire not to have him come along. “I thought you girls would have been back sooner, but it is good to see that you have enjoyed yourself so much.” He introduced the comandante of Monterey and his aide to his visitor.

“Captain del Guerro, this is my associate, Pedro Velásquez.” Velásquez nodded in a haughty manner, but made no effort to speak.

“A pleasure, Señor,” responded Luís politely. He continued as if Velásquez did not exist. “Don Felipe, your daughter and Señorita Anamaría have a keen eye for nature and we had a fine time inspecting the artists’ viewpoint. It is as impressive as she described.” 

The heavy-set man who was Pedro Velásquez frowned as he watched the young man who was introduced as Lieutenant Morales turn and whisper something to Melana. She giggled and gave the officer a familiar squeeze. Little could Velásquez imagine that this was pure drama intended for his consumption. Nevertheless he could not resist commenting, “I see that you have a new friend, Melana, who seems to amuse you a great deal.”

“That is so true, Don Pedro. Alonso is just so sweet and witty…and very handsome, don’t you think?”

Morales’ smile reached his eyes and he held her hand in his. “Ah, dear Melana, I am just a frail weed in the garden next to your beauty and talent. You should have seen this artist’s eye for detail and hear her plans for her next painting, Señor!” Don Felipe beamed at this praise for his daughter.

Velásquez, on the other hand, frowned at this lively banter, his eyes drilling into Morales who was giving all this lavish attention to Melana. He pursed his lips, ready for an unsavory comment.

Captain del Guerro watched all of this with a pleasant smile on his face and turned slightly towards Velásquez to view him better. “Don’t be too modest, Morales. You know the old saying  ‘Talent attracts talent’.” Luís was rewarded by Velásquez’s reddening face.

Anamaría decided to outdo them all:  “Oh, how true, Luís. But my favorite saying is ‘Who can resist a military man?’ They’re just so efficient and brave, not to mention adventurous and dashing. My, I’m almost running out of words….” Luís took all the comments in stride as if he expected nothing less from her, including sarcasm, but her familiar use of his Christian name was unexpected.

Verdugo’s business partner was practically beside himself. It seemed to him that his own out-of-shape figure, his thinning, tufted hair and double chin were being held up to ridicule and comparison to the trim, smartly uniformed figures opposite him. If Pedro Velásquez had been less jealous and more observant, he would have noticed the expression of amazement that crossed Don Felipe’s face at this astonishing exchange. Nevertheless, Felipe recovered himself sufficiently to comment, “I’m glad to see that you gentlemen have captured the hearts of the Verdugo household. My compliments, Señores.”

Velazquez finally found his tongue. His anger was controlled, though not his jealousy. “The military serves the Crown, Melana, but military men come and they go. Their lives are neither stable nor secure. Civilian life is best suited for those who wish to live comfortably and well. Of course, you gentlemen, ” he paused over the word as if not wishing to apply it to the officers, “will disagree as you must, but these young ladies are too naïve to know otherwise.”

Anamaría laughed at Velásquez, much to his chagrin. “I could not disagree more, Señor,” she said with a gesture, ignoring her uncle’s attempts to intervene and end the rising conflict. “Stability and security? What do these words mean and for whom? Perhaps for old age, but we young people are always ready to explore new worlds and enjoy the challenge that life brings us – with all its ups and downs. We do so with optimism and confidence, just as Uncle Felipe says we should. And comfort and security comes with the man, not with being tied down to the idea by itself.” She gave him her most disarming smile.

Del Guerro was pleased at how well she took on a man like Velásquez who could be intimidating, even to other men. She countered Velásquez’s stuffy paternalism with ease, even though Luís’ own views were fairly conservative as well. Outwardly, he patted her arm, more in admiration than approval, enjoying her enthusiasm and gave Velásquez a look of amused condescension.

“Ah hum,” Felipe Verdugo cleared his throat loudly. “It seems everyone has their own point of view which they are determined to adhere to. Let us change the subject, shall we?”

“I think we need to get to the point, Felipe,” growled Velásquez. “We have a problem that we need to settle and perhaps you gentlemen, and ladies, will excuse us.”

“Certainly,” replied Luís. “We had not meant to intrude upon your visitor, Don Felipe. My apologies.” He turned towards the young women.  “You ladies did mention something of interest…” he noted Velásquez’s eyes grow interested and his body tense, “I believe you said you had some sketches.”

Velásquez relaxed again and stared at Felipe intensely. Felipe ignored his guest momentarily and suddenly suggested that the officers stay for dinner. Velásquez looked displeased at this and turned away in disgust.

“I’ll let the cook know we will be having two extra guests, Father,” said Melana.

“Will that be three, Pedro?” asked Felipe, turning back to Velásquez. “There are so many interesting things to discuss when the table is full.”

Pedro Velásquez did not relish spending the evening competing with the officers but he wanted to keep an eye on Melana and the fair-haired Morales. “Make it three, Felipe.”

“I’ll be right back,” said Melana. She turned to Luís. “Captain del Guerro, I can bring down my sketches and some small water colors I did. We can look at them in the garden.”

Melana left to inform the cook and made her way up the stairs. She was tense because of the way Velásquez looked at her and his hatred of Morales was apparent. She gathered her materials and checked on her hiding place for the journal. It was still there, hidden at the bottom of her jewelry box that contained knickknacks, rings, and assorted necklaces. She put it back in the bottom of her chest of drawers. She gathered her materials and left her room. She began to descend the stairs when she heard a movement down the hall.

“Melana, wait!” commanded a voice that she recognized as Velásquez’s. She turned around a forced a smile on her face. “Yes, is everything all right, Señor Velásquez?”

Velásquez stood in the hallway, towering like an unwelcome shadow, suspicious and wary. “What do you have there?“ When she showed him the sketches, he dismissed them. “I need to talk to you,” he said forcibly.

 The smile disappeared from Melana’s face. “What is wrong, Señor?” she asked.

“For starters, stop calling me ‘Señor’,” he said in a curt, irritated tone. “What ever happened to ‘Pedro’?”

“Your pardon, Don Pedro, I have only addressed you as ‘Don Pedro,’ nothing more.” 

Velásquez seemed to gain control over his irritation and forced his own smile. “Won’t you let me change that, Melana? We have been friends a long time and our families are quite close. Not like that soldier boy who is a stranger, but who flirts well. Beware a handsome face and one that makes pretty promises. A man like that is out after only one thing, and it’s not your honor.”

Melana was shocked by his suggestion and flushed deeply. She did not for a minute doubt that Lieutenant Morales was anything but a gentleman. “I hope you will excuse me, Señor, but I have guests waiting for me,” she said in a strained voice, eager to flee to the garden. “Of course, you are a friend, but that is all.”

“I hope to make it more than that, Melana,” she heard his voice as she turned her back and hurried down the stairs. 

Luís was the first to notice her distressed look and the tears in her eyes as she came out onto the patio. She stopped and looked for Anamaría. He went up to her at once. “What is wrong, Señorita Melana?”

She put her pictures on the table, sat down, and cried. He handed her a handkerchief that he plucked out of the side of his scarlet sash. She took it and covered her eyes, as if the cloth by itself could stop her tears. The comandante put his hands on her shoulders and squeezed them gently. “You’ll be all right, it’s all right, dear,” he told her reassuringly.

Alonso Morales and Anamaría, who were chatting about the garden and its design, rushed over from the far side of the patio. Morales knelt at her side. “What did Velásquez say to you that made you cry, Señorita Melana?” Morales was concerned and angry. Anamaría put her arms around her cousin.

Melana recovered after she had a good cry. “It’s, it’s all right now,” she sniffed. She looked at Morales, “Oh, Alonso,” then, looked up at del Guerro. “Oh, Captain, it’s all my worse fears.” And the tears began again.

“What did that demon say to you?” demanded Anamaría. While Melana related the story between sobs, del Guerro gestured Morales aside.

“Lieutenant, we may be able to use this, if you get my meaning. Tactics supporting a general strategy.”

“I understand, Captain. This would seem to be a side act to the main performance.”

“Yes, we have to keep our major objective in sight. And, Lieutenant, continue to play your role well.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Morales in a low voice, adding to del Guerro’s surprise, “and I don’t need to play at it.” He turned back to Melana as she looked up and around, as if seeking him out.

The door to the patio opened and Felipe Verdugo stepped out the door with Velásquez following him. They were talking. Verdugo stopped short. “What’s this? Melana, why are you crying?”

Captain Luís del Guerro stepped forward aggressively at their appearance, “Your pardon, Don Felipe, but I have a few things to say to Señor Velásquez.”

Felipe stepped aside in surprise and the captain turned his anger on his pudgy guest. “You, Señor, are no gentleman. Your manners are crude and your insinuations to Señorita Melana are as unwelcome as they are presumptuous.”

Velásquez opened his mouth to reply and began to step forward, but the comandante’s withering attack stopped him in his tracks. “Silence!” he ordered. “You will hear me out! I will not tolerate any one making charges against one of my officers and I especially will not tolerate any slander regarding his honor or his relations with Señorita Melana. I warn you, Señor, in all seriousness,” he paused and repeated forcefully, “I warn you.” He tapped the hilt of his saber for emphasis.

The outburst from the usually composed and mild-mannered captain shocked those present. Lieutenant Alonso Morales rose up off his knee from next to Melana. He approached Velásquez who had begun to sputter in defense.

“And I, Señor, have something to say to you as well.” Velásquez noted that Morales’ fists were clenched. “You seem to think that you have some proprietary rights over Señorita Melana and her life, who she chooses to have as friends or relations. You are greatly mistaken. And if you ever question either her honor or mine again, I will see to it that it will be the last time you do so.”

“What is this, then, Pedro?” demanded Felipe Verdugo who was shocked by the officers’ outbursts. “I think you have some explaining to do!”

Velásquez looked unsure of himself a moment, thrown off balance by the frontal assault of the officers. Then an expression of innocence formed on his face, though his crafty eyes darted from person to person and at last settled on Verdugo. “There must be some mistake, Felipe, some misunderstanding. I’m not sure what this is all about.”

Both officers snorted in disbelief. Melana looked stunned by the smoothness of the lie. Anamaría was outraged. Her fists clenched. She was so angry that she lost all the words that had formed on the tip of her tongue.

But Felipe was conciliatory. “What happened? We need to get to the bottom of this.” He turned to his daughter. “Tell me, dear,” he encouraged her. Melana shook her head.

“There is no doubt what the bottom of this is,” retorted Morales hotly.

“The lieutenant is obviously over-reacting to something which is none of his business,” interjected Velásquez smoothly. “It must have something to do with a comment I made to Melana, warning her about his familiarity with her upon a first meeting. I meant no harm, Felipe, merely to warn a young girl about a man who is obviously attracted to her ………and possibly to her family’s money.”

Morales’ sword was halfway out of its scabbard when he felt del Guerro’s restraining hand upon his arm. “At ease, Lieutenant!” he murmured in the younger man’s ear.

Del Guerro caught on at once to Velásquez’s masterful manipulation and redirection of the conversation. Despite the emotions present, he was determined to keep the focus of the issue where it belonged. But he would do it with courtesy and a tempering of his words. Alienating Don Felipe would cost them all the territory he had gained so far. 

It was a restrained and diplomatic comandante of Monterey who spoke to the master of the house: “Don Felipe, please permit me to say that I believe what your daughter told us, despite the fact that Velásquez implies his comments were innocent. I assure you, Señor, that they were not.” He paused, understanding both the gravity of the situation as well as of Velásquez’s long-standing business relationship with Verdugo. “It is quite possible that Señor Velásquez has his own agenda as well.”

“You are out of line, Captain,” retorted Velásquez in a superior tone. “You are merely guessing without any facts. Your defense of your officer is admirable and your courtesy is eloquent for all to see, but that changes nothing.” He turned towards Verdugo. “But you are right about one thing, Felipe. I am concerned about Melana’s welfare and her future. I do not see either any harm in protecting her from strangers or from her own naivete.”

Anamaría finally found her tongue. She had decided a long time ago that laughter was a good tool of attack and she laughed at Velásquez’s words. He turned an angry face towards her in response. “Uncle Felipe, I agree with Luís, who is impartial,” she said, deliberately using his first name to let her uncle know that she now considered the comandante of Monterey more than just a military man or visitor. “I think Señor Velásquez is using his friendship with you. Surely you can see that.”

To her surprise, Felipe Verdugo became tense at this. “Now it is you who are out of line, Anamaría. Pedro has been a friend for more years than you have been upon this Earth. We all have our misunderstandings at times, but nothing but God above will dissolve our friendship.” Velásquez looked positively smug at that comment.

Felipe turned to del Guerro. He tried his best to be diplomatic to the man he genuinely liked and respected. “Captain, thank you for your courtesy and diplomacy in this unpleasant situation, but I really think you are wrong. My daughter is a sensitive and over-imaginative girl. You yourself have noted this with her preoccupation for romantic books and scenes. Pedro could not be more concerned for her welfare than I myself. He is like a good uncle to her.”

Melana’s mouth dropped open at the injustice of his words and her eyes filled with tears again. She shook her head. Anamaría was the very picture of outrage.

 Felipe paused, taking in a wide spectrum of feelings he did not feel adequate enough to deal with all at once. He did not like confrontation or raw emotion. “I also appreciate the concern you are showing for any possible slight to Melana’s sensitivities that you believe to have taken place. I am assured by your sense of honor, and yours, too, Lieutenant Morales. I believe that your concerns are genuine. However, I do not believe that they reflect reality. Let us drop this for the present, shall we? We all need time for reflection and to gain control of our emotions. Let us not end such a fine day on such a sour note.”

Velásquez looked triumphant and self-satisfied at Felipe’s words. He could always count on Felipe to ease the way, smooth out the rough spots and avoid the worse. Velásquez was the lion and Verdugo the lamb, he thought.

Del Guerro felt like bowing out of dinner at this point, but decided a change in tactics might be more beneficial in the long run. Besides, he wanted to keep an eye on Velásquez the rest of the evening to try to find out more about him, to appraise him further. He could see that Felipe was trying to keep everyone’s good will and that might just serve a good purpose. Luís’ agile mind wanted to pursue the war on many fronts, probing the enemy, seeking out strengths and weaknesses. He would compromise for now.

“As you wish, Don Felipe. I only hope that our concerns will prove to be of naught. However, I do prefer to err on the side of honor. Be assured, nevertheless, that both of us stand firm in our defense of this young lady and we will not stand down until the facts play themselves out otherwise.” He looked Velásquez straight in the eye as he said this and paused for emphasis.  Then he changed the subject. “Señorita Melana did tell me you have some fighting cocks and dogs, both of which interest me a great deal. Animals have a strange way of bringing men together, don’t you think?”

Don Felipe looked relieved and smiled at this opening. “Oh, they are not just of great interest to me, Captain. They are my passion. Yes, such sport brings men of diverse interests together and I would be very pleased to show you my birds. Shall we go down to the stables?” He gestured to a gate at the back of the garden and motioned for the men to follow him. “Just this morning I purchased a new bird and it is a fine specimen. Come along, Pedro. Even you have not yet seen this bird.”

As Felipe gestured his guests out ahead of him, he turned to Melana and Anamaria. “Go inside and wash away your tears, daughter. Everything will turn out fine, I’m sure. We can discuss this later.” He smiled and Anamaría thought that somehow his smile looked rather false. She felt great disappointment in her uncle. He looked weak and conciliatory in comparison to the others. She was still angry. 

“Let’s go inside Melana,” she said to her cousin as the men departed. “I’ll let you wear my green dress for dinner, the one you like.” She tried to think about what she wanted to do later as they went up the stairs together. As they entered Anamaría’s room, Melana sat down in a chair.

“Oh, Anamaría, I really don’t care about the dress. I don’t want you to leave my side, ever. I don’t want to be in the house anywhere alone when he’s here. Now, I’m really afraid.”

“Let’s think about that later, Melana. I want you to wear my green dress. Wear it for Alonso. Let’s put on some nice jewelry, too. What do you think?”

Melana smiled inspite of her tears. “Yes,” she said in a more determined voice. “I’ll do it for Alonso and I’ll only talk to him….oh, and to Captain del Guerro, too.” She looked up at her cousin. “You know, Anamaría, I really like the captain now that we’re getting to know him. He is a real gentleman. Did you notice how he would not back down from what he said about me? And Alonso, did you notice that he even tried to draw his sword…?”

Anamaría nodded, thinking of the comandante. “Well, I wouldn’t expect him to do otherwise, Melana. He took a stand and will defend it.” She paused. “Yes, he’s a bit different from what I thought before.”

Melana nodded. “And Father. I’m so angry about his trying to make it look like I was lying. I still can’t believe he would say those things about me. Why is he against me? I’m his daughter!”

“I don’t know Melana, I just don’t know.” She shook her head. “Let’s talk about this later tonight.”

 

 

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