Zorro & the Old Comandante
Eugene H. Craig
He was running a bit late, but then he had spent much time preparing to look his best. First there was the bath and then the scent had to be proper and his hair, moustache, and beard had to be finely attended to. He wore his standard riding boots and Corporal Reyes had made them look almost new. The scarlet sash took a while to wrap around his waist and his white shirt with the black collar and blue army jacket had to be without a speck of a hair or lint or dirt of any kind. Not a single button was missing or loose. Not a single red thread on the cuffs or collar of his army jacket was frayed or in disorder. He decided to wear a single award on his jacket, mainly because His Majesty, Carlos IV, had presented it to him for services to the Crown.
Corporal Reyes brushed his coat one last time as the officer fastened on his saber and scabbard to his belt and placed his hat on his head before leaving. The corporal had taken it upon himself to become the officer’s valet and De las Fuentes liked the man’s attention to detail as well as his personal devotion. He had told Reyes that such duties were not required of him, but the soldier had insisted in his own quiet way by always being there and doing everything anyway. Reyes never dreamed of being compensated for these extra duties but he did find that when he ordered wine at the inn it did not cost him anything. Señor Pacheco told him not to worry and to be glad that he had such good fortune.
And so it was that Capitán Francisco de las Fuentes arrived at the home of Señor Pérez, opening the outer gate of the patio himself. He entered its bricked walkway and knocked on the heavy oak door.
The door was opened immediately by the elderly servant, Martín, who bowed low to him. He noticed that the servant’s eyes betrayed almost a sense of relief at his arrival. Momentarily he wondered why.
"Good afternoon, Your Excellency," Martín greeted him. "Won’t you please come in?"
"Thank you," De las Fuentes responded and took a step inside. "I trust you are well?"
Before the servant could respond to his courtesy there was a sudden movement from the sala as if from someone moving across the floor in haste. "As well as can be expected, Your Excellency," he replied, taking the officer’s hat.
At that moment, Margarita appeared. It had only taken her a second to respond when she heard the comandante’s voice. She leapt to her feet, rushing past her parents and their unwelcome guest towards the front door. A sense of relief washed over her when she saw his face break into a smile at her appearance. He sensed at once that something was amiss.
He bowed low in a courtly way as if she were a princess and took her hand and kissed it.
"My dear Señorita Margarita," he greeted her. "I am delighted that you are at home," he began.
Her father appeared at once. He was not pleased to see the officer, but the captain bowed to him as well. "Señor."
"Oh, Don Francisco," Margarita said in a rush. "It is so good of you to remember that I promised to play piano for you this afternoon."
"I would not miss your playing even if the English landed," he smiled.
Sebastian Pérez wanted to get rid of the annoying officer. "I’m afraid that Margarita has a visitor and cannot play now," he said shortly.
"Oh, he’s not important," the young woman declared. "I can play right now."
Pérez’s face grew red at her defiance. "I don’t think now is the proper time," he insisted. He turned to the captain. "I think later this evening would be more appropriate for your visit to hear Margarita’s music," he told the officer. He did not see Margarita’s silent entreaty for Francisco to stay. Her body language was as clear as water.
María Pérez was listening from her chair in the sala. She got up and came to the hallway. She greeted the captain with the words, "Capitán de las Fuentes, how nice to see you again."
The Comandante bowed low, took her hand and kissed it. "My dear Señora Pérez, the honor is all mine, for your smile is like a rainbow of spring flowers."
Sebastian rolled his eyes at the compliment and found that his original suggestion had been undermined by his wife’s appearance.
"Won’t you come into the sala?" she asked, basking in the warmth of his greeting. "I don’t think you’ve met our guest."
Sebastian was very displeased, but Margarita took the officer by the hand and pulled him into the sala with her. Since the servant had not presented the officer with his hat to leave, it was apparent that other forces were trying to alter Pérez’s wishes.
Her father wanted to regain control of the situation. "Why don’t you introduce Salvador to the Capitán?" he said to Margarita, trying to put her on the spot.
Margarita put her arm through the captain’s as she halted in front of Muñoz who lazily rose from his chair. "Francisco, this is Señor Muñoz," she said. "He is a friend of my father." She smiled sweetly. "Señor Muñoz, this is Capitán de las Fuentes. He is now the Comandante of Los Angeles."
Salvador looked surprised. He bowed politely at the introduction. "How do you do, Capitán," he said. He looked over at Pérez with a raised eyebrow. Pérez indicated it was news to him. "I did not know that you are the new Comandante."
Francisco bowed politely to the younger man. "I am honored to make your acquaintance, Señor Muñoz. I have not been here long enough to get to know many of His Majesty’s subjects, with the exception of Señorita Margarita, of course. If such a talented young lady is typical of our pueblo, then Los Angeles is indeed a most fortunate possession of Spain."
"And if she is not typical?" Salvador challenged him.
"Then we are doubly fortunate," De las Fuentes replied solemnly.
"Would you like to have a seat, Capitán?" asked María Pérez who was very pleased by his praise for Margarita. "Perhaps you can stay a little while?" She made sure to look at his hands to see if there was a wedding band. There was none.
"I do have a dinner engagement after a while," Francisco replied as Margarita guided him over to an empty chair next to hers, "and can only stay a short time. However, at your husband’s invitation, I would be pleased to return later this evening. I do look forward to hearing Margarita play more piano and would like to share with her some information I have on the latest musical developments in Europe."
"How exciting," Margarita said with enthusiasm, giving all her attention to the officer sitting next to her. "Francisco has been all over Europe – to Vienna and Berlin, to Salzburg, to Venice, even to Rome and other cities. He has met many composers, attended recitals and been to Court many times."
"I believe that we know all those facts, Margarita," Sebastian said in a flat tone of voice.
"Oh, but your friend, Señor Muñoz, knows nothing about Don Francisco," she replied, "and I’m sure he would want to know."
"Yes, of course," responded Salvador. "I like listening to music."
"What is your specialty, then?" asked the officer looking at the younger man with interest. "Guitar playing seems to be all the rage with young men in the colonies."
"Well, I don’t play myself," Salvador admitted. "I’m wealthy enough to pay others to perform for me. I let the menials make the effort and then reward the ones who play well."
"Ah," responded De las Fuentes. He recognized all the symptoms of the nouveau riche, but without the culture. "It may interest you to know that His Majesty, Carlos IV, was a fair violin player. He would sit with his small orchestra and practice with them weekly. I remember him saying once that he did not understand why they could not keep up with him. He was most enthusiastic in his endeavors and accelerated the level of playing beyond the written score. Then there was the Emperor Josef II who made it a point to practice piano everyday in Vienna. His niece was much more proficient in music, but he valued the use of the hand as well as the ear. Kaiser Frederick II of Prussia was a most accomplished flutist as well as a writer of poetry and prose. Sadly, most people will probably remember him for his military victories against his German neighbors rather than his cultural accomplishments."
"Really?" asked Salvador. He did not like the implications of stories so casually told for so subtle a reason. "And what instrument do you play, Capitán?"
Everyone’s eyes were on the small, bearded man who sat at Margarita’s side. He glanced at her and saw her eyes full of curiosity and expectation. He returned his gaze to Muñoz whose pouting expression almost made him look petulant. He smiled pleasantly. "Actually, I play a number of instruments, but not all equally well."
Margarita was thrilled. She touched his arm. "Which ones, Francisco?"
"Violin, flute, and a little piano," he replied. "But I have not played in a very long time. I am sure," he said, turning to face her fully and giving her a look of affection, "that I would perform most unfavorably in comparison to you."
"I’m surprised you don’t play guitar, Capitán," commented Salvador, "since it is the most popular instrument in fashion."
"Ah," replied Francisco. "I prefer not to mention instruments that I play poorly. Since there are others who excel in that art form, I tend to devote my attention to those that I have some aptitude for."
Sebastian thought De las Fuentes was lying – or perhaps bragging. "I find it doubtful that someone like you, Capitán, have the time or inclination for such things. After all, you have been engaged in the wars and you have your military responsibilities, such as being Comandante, that occupy your attention. How could you possibly be so accomplished?"
"Señor Pérez," Francisco de las Fuentes responded with great dignity, "I had a good upbringing."
"Now you listen to me, Salvador," said Sebastian Pérez forcefully. "De las Fuentes will return this evening and I want you to be here as well. You need to take a more active role and ease him out of the discussion with Margarita. When she returns, we will continue with our plan."
"This is really becoming most tiresome," Salvador responded. "I think you should begin by sweetening the pot, the dowry, to keep me interested. You talk about shutting out the Comandante while Margarita did everything to shut me out. All she does is call me Señor Muñoz all the time. She calls this captain by his first name and he did nothing to correct her and, I noticed, neither did you or your wife."
"I was not expecting either her or his familiarity," growled Pérez.
"It’s pretty obvious to me that this fellow has really gotten around – and so has she. What is going on between those two?" Salvador insisted. "I told you that I would marry Margarita and I will do so. But it is up to you to deliver the goods and I expect you to. So far, you have failed miserably."
Pérez did not want to get angry with his prospective son-in-law. He walked to the hallway. "Where has she gone to?" he muttered. He called out, "Martín, Martín!"
"Sí, Señor Pérez?" The elderly man hurried from the back kitchen.
"Where did Margarita go?" her father demanded. "Have you seen her?"
"I believe that the Señorita insisted on escorting the Comandante to the outer gate when he left," the servant replied. "I heard her say that she had something to tell him."
"Has she come back in?"
"I do not know, Señor."
"Well, go out and see if she is still on the patio. If she is not, then check her room. She has a habit of going up there and hiding when she wants to avoid me," Pérez said. He turned back toward Muñoz. "There will be another good opportunity for us as well," he continued. "Señor Rodriguez is having a party at his house tomorrow night and we are invited. I will make sure that Margarita is there. You will come as my guest. You will have a chance to meet her friends and make a good impression on them. We can also spread around the word of your engagement in order to create public expectations. This will be another form of pressure on Margarita."
Salvador smirked. "I see your plan, Don Sebastian. You keep on turning the thumb screws and finally the victim collapses. My compliments. You have a fertile mind."
Sebastian Pérez smiled smugly. "It’s a part of being a good businessman, my boy."
Sergeant García nodded contentedly as he watched Capitán de las Fuentes depart on his brown horse for the De la Vega hacienda. The soldier had asked his commanding officer if he wished for an escort, but the Comandante had politely declined. The route, he said, was very direct and he did not think he would meet up with a grizzly bear. García liked his sense of humor. It was very different from that of Capitán Monastario who always seemed to have an unpleasant intent when he made a joke.
Corporal Reyes joined him at the entrance of the cuartel. He had a smile on his face.
García turned to him. "Why do you keep smiling, Corporal? Everywhere you go, you are smiling."
"Well, Sergeant, I’m smiling because I’m happy."
"And why are you happy?"
"Well, I’m happy because every time I go to the inn and buy wine, Señor Pacheco tells me not to worry about paying him. He said I am lucky."
García looked amazed. "Do you mean to tell me that you don’t have to pay for wine?" He was so astonished by the idea that his eyes grew as round as eggs.
"Why, no, Sergeant. I don’t understand it, but if Señor Pacheco doesn’t want me to pay him, well, I can’t force him to take my coins, can I?" He paused. "Say Sergeant?"
"Yes, Corporal Reyes?"
"Why are you smiling?"
"Well, Corporal," García responded hastily and assuming a more serious demeanor, "I want to make sure that there is not some mistake. I don’t want Señor Pacheco to change his mind. I mean, I think this is very important."
"What are you going to do, Sergeant?"
"I think that we need to go to the tavern. I want you to order a bottle of wine for us…I mean, to order a bottle of wine and see if you will get a big bill for not having paid for all the other bottles of wine. Then I can see if you are right or not."
"Right about what, Sergeant?"
García looked annoyed. Sometimes Reyes could be a little slow, he thought. "Right about not having to pay," he answered.
"Oh," the corporal agreed. "When do you want to go?"
"NOW," said the sergeant and pushed Reyes in the direction of the inn. "This could be very serious."
"The development of the sword and rapier is indeed a fascinating subject, Capitán," remarked Alejandro de la Vega as he, his son, Diego, and the army officer sat cross-legged in comfortable chairs in the hacienda’s library. "The simple cross-hilt has not been entirely abandoned. It remains in use for executions in some countries and solely for ceremonial purposes in others."
"What can you tell us about the development of the rapier, Capitán? I heard that it was not originally developed by the army at all," Diego said putting down his glass of wine.
"Ah, you are right," replied De las Fuentes, twirling his moustache a little. "It was first developed in Spain about three hundred years ago in the theatre as a ‘costume sword’ where the word rapier first derived from the term espada ropera. A group of actors wanted to use a lightweight representation of a sword on stage and commissioned a blacksmith to come up with something appropriate. This piece of technology, purely engaged for expediency’s sake, transformed our army. A certain colonel sat in the audience and observed the theatrical swords used. He came back stage and requested to see the swords and to inquire of their make. He was so impressed that he asked to borrow one and took it back to his superiors. All else is history."
"The hilts have been quite different, though," Alejandro observed. "It took almost another century before they changed from pure knuckle-guards to some more serious protection of the hand."
"That is true. We Spaniards continued to use the cup hilt long after the rest of Europe abandoned them. The cup-hilt rapier, the Bilbo, was still being used against the French and it was simply awful in comparison to the improvements. I do have a few old small swords and rapiers from my grandfather with very fine chiseled steel and gilt, inlaid gold and silver work. Another is a gold hilt decorated with the family coats of arms," De las Fuentes added. "You know, I’ve seen some beautiful Italian silver work as well. The English have some magnificent enamel-decorated hilts on their dress small-swords - the workmanship is quite superb,"
"Fortunately in California, we have not had the kind of warfare that lends itself to the creation of such improvements," commented Diego. "While there were uprisings here in the southern part of California against the missions and settlers for many years, it is now mostly a thing of the past."
"I am most interested in hearing some of the history of California from you," said Francisco. "It would seem most appropriate here in the setting of your beautiful library."
Diego looked over at his father and smiled. He knew that Alejandro would be in his element, combining his personal history with that of all of California.
Don Alejandro put his glass of wine down. "You know, Capitán, there is much that can be said, but I fear I could talk to you until dawn about California. Why don’t I just give you a little history to start? Where would you like me to begin?"
Both Alejandro and Diego laughed when the officer smiled and answered, "Genesis is always a good place."
"I’m afraid I cannot start with Genesis," Alejandro responded. "There is not too much that we know of the history of the various Indian tribes that inhabit California or those further to the east or to the north. The history of Spanish California can really start in Spain with José de Gálvez who became visitador general, inspector general, for New Spain - Mexico - under the old king, Carlos III. He understood the dangers to the northern frontiers here in California from the English, Russians, Dutch, and later the Americans. He strengthened the lower peninsula of Baja California and adopted the long-cherished plan of defending the north from Monterey, a natural harbor. I believe he was also involved in purging the missions of the Jesuits here as well."
"When would this be?" asked De las Fuentes. "If I remember correctly, Gálvez had no use for the Jesuits either inside or outside of Spain once they had been expelled in 1767 by His Majesty. As a matter of fact, Gálvez played a rather vital role in New Spain in arresting the Jesuits and shipping them out of the viceroyalty and confiscating their properties. It was done in great secrecy."
"You are right. As a matter of fact, it coincided neatly with the expulsion. Although the Jesuits had been given control of all the missions in New Spain from Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Baja California up to Santa María de los Angeles, they could not create prosperity in so arid a land. With their expulsion, Gálvez had little use for their missions either. Ironically, due to Indian fighting that tied up the troops, Gálvez had to turn, once again, to missionaries for help. This time they were the Franciscans who now head up all the missions in California. They were the driving force behind the establishment of all the missions here in California – from San Diego to San Francisco. But there is much more to the history than the establishment of the missions. There were the great explorations. Gálvez had the good fortune to have two competent and gallant men to lead the expedition to Monterey, Capitán Gaspar de Portolá and the friar Junípero Serra. Portolá had a good thirty years military experience in Spain and was a captain of the dragoons. Although he arrested the Jesuits, he did so with great courtesy. Serra took charge of all the missions. He was a fanatic and a flagellant, controversial in his own time. Portolá dropped anchor in San Diego Bay in April 1769 with Serra in tow."
"The seas run heavy at that time of year, do they not?" De las Fuentes asked. "It must have slowed their progress."
"That was indeed the case. Most of the men on the ship succumbed to scurvy by the time they reached landfall. On the other hand, there were two land expeditions that headed north to meet them. One party was led by Capitán Fernando de Rivera y Moncada with twenty-five men and forty mission Indians. Rivera arrived shortly after Portolá. Rivera expected to find the beginnings of fortifications there but he discovered that only a hospital and graveyard had been established. Despite the toll on their numbers, Portolá headed north, passing close to this area where they experienced several frightening earthquakes. They followed the coast to San Luís Obispo and had to turn inland and then north up over the mountain ranges. They discovered the Salinas River and followed the river valley back to the coast until they arrived in Monterey. They did not recognize the fine sheltered harbor that Vizcaíno had discovered in the early seventeenth century. Too impatient due to lack of supplies and ill men, they decided to rest a few days and continue north. They actually discovered San Francisco Bay by accident."
"While they recognized San Francisco’s significance," added Diego, "no ship sailed into the Bay until 1775. Portolá even got lost, didn’t he, Father?"
Alejandro chuckled, "Yes, he certainly did. Perhaps it was the fogs. Portolá actually thought Monterey had been ‘stopped up’ by sand dunes because he didn’t find it again. Instead, they decided to return to San Diego," he continued. "All they subsisted on was the meat of their pack mules that they butchered daily. When they reached their destination, in January 1770, they found a calamity. The Ipai Indians had attacked the Spanish camp and scurvy continued to plague the men there. There were only twenty left when he returned."
"Did Portolá give up or resume his explorations later?" asked the Comandante.
"He was determined to find Monterey again and did so the following June. There he established a presidio and within, the mission of San Carlos. Monterey became the capital of Alta California soon thereafter," answered Alejandro. "Portolá’s major concern was to establish a base to hold off Russian and English incursions into Alta California but he worried that such a base would be inadequate for such a task. It is four hundred and fifty miles between San Diego and Monterey and both could barely stave off Indian attacks, let alone that of other European powers."
"In the following decade, Spanish explorers from Juan Bautista de Anza to Francisco Garcés and Francisco Atanasio Domínguez opened up land routes in Colorado, Arizona, Nueva México into California," continued the don. "They discovered what was practical as well as what was impractical in their expeditions. Unfortunately, their relations with the Yuma Indians deteriorated so badly that their missions and settlements were attacked. The Yumas spared women and children, but not the men. More savage tribes were encountered such as the Apaches and Comanches who attacked the missions from San Antonio to Santa Fe. Many Spaniards came from these areas and settled in San Francisco Bay in 1776. Shortly thereafter, farming soldiers settled the area in San José in 1777. Other groups arrived to settle at Santa Barbara in 1782 and others near the Mission San Gabriel. It was this latter settlement that led to the founding of Los Angeles in 1781. Los Angeles became the second largest civil settlement in Alta California. And so, here we are, Capitán."
De las Fuentes nodded. "You tell the story well, Don Alejandro, and it is a fascinating adventure of courage and the unexpected." He paused and looked around at the books surrounding him. "I am very impressed with your knowledge and by the immensity of your library which would put many a nobleman’s study to shame. I see that you have an array of books from literature to music; from memoirs to biographies; from the sciences to mathematics; and from the histories of many countries to geography. I consider books sacred. Perhaps you have some from Italy? I myself enjoy architecture, music and the arts. It is heartening to know that there are men of culture and learning even on the far frontiers of Spain."
"Thank you for your kind compliments," Alejandro replied. "You know, Comandante, you seem very well-informed, as a matter of fact, exceptionally so. I hope you will not mind my observation, but you are quite the scholar and a man whose knowledge of the world and culture is remarkable. Are you by any chance related to General Alfonso de las Fuentes y Alarcón? I remember hearing of him as an exceptional scholar on the General Staff and in Court many years ago."
Diego watched the reaction of the small man who sat in the chair opposite them. De las Fuentes shifted slightly in his chair. His expression did not change. He looked Alejandro in the eye and said calmly. "Yes, I am."
When nothing further was forthcoming, Alejandro cleared his throat. "You know, I also remember that Prince Gabriel, the favorite fourth son of His Majesty, Carlos III, was such a scholar as well." He gave the officer a look of askance.
Francisco seemed contemplative a moment. "I was inspired by Prince Gabriel’s accomplishments and wished to emulate him. His Majesty loved him dearly. Many were greatly saddened by his premature death by smallpox."
Diego smiled. "You know, Comandante, the soldiers of the cuartel are very impressed with your leadership. Sergeant García has referred to you as a prince."
The comandante merely nodded his head in affirmation but made no comment.
"Your Excellency," Alejandro began. "No one in all of Los Angeles has ever experienced the kind of justice and compassion from an official of the Crown as they have under your command. I have never heard any officer or official display the kind of knowledge and understanding of the law or one whose capacity for dispensing fair judgments has given such satisfaction to the community under his care." The don looked over at his son and hesitated. "Are you the prince that Sergeant García says you are?"
"Yes, I am," De las Fuentes affirmed.
Diego, remembering what Padre Felipe had told him about the Capitán, pressed a little further. "Your Excellency, are you in fact General de las Fuentes y Alarcón or," he paused, "the General de las Fuentes y Alarcón to whom my father referred?"
The officer’s light blue eyes met Diego’s brown ones and he smiled slightly as if one trumped in a game of cards. He uttered a small sigh of resignation. "I regret to inform you that I was and am the officer you named," he replied.
Alejandro and Diego looked at each other, more in surprise than with a sense of satisfaction, and rose to their feet. "Your Excellency," Alejandro and Diego bowed in his direction.
De las Fuentes rose as well. "Please, gentlemen, I ask that you seat yourselves again and not stand on ceremony. You see before you only a capitán of His Majesty’s Lancers. It is by his orders that this is so and my only claim is to be the acting comandante of the pueblo of Los Angeles."
"As Your Excellency wishes," Don Alejandro responded as both he and his son resumed their seats. He looked over at Diego knowing what inquiry would follow.
"Capitán de las Fuentes," Diego continued, "I hope you do not think that I am asking an impertinent question but, are you here as an inspector general, checking up on the situation in Los Angeles? Why would you come to us as a capitán? Are you, perhaps, in disguise?"
"Since you have deduced my true identity," Francisco told them, "and I am certain of your integrity in all matters, I will tell you what only Padre Felipe knows. You may find it, however, more troubling and certainly more enlightening than the stories you have just told me about California."