Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter 16

 

The house was decorated with bright flowers and streamers. Walking in the front door, a visitor beheld ribbons and decorations on the walls and even on the banister leading upstairs. Most of the decorations had paper musical notes or paper instruments attached. Others were drawings of birds on branches or together in ‘choirs’ singing. There was an air of cheerful whimsy in the drawings, in the arrangement of furniture and how the appetizers were to be found in odd nooks and crannies, on small tables and large as if a wanderer could graze on all sorts of delicacies – from nuts to seeds to confections of all kinds.

Traversing from room to room, the visitor would see paintings on the wall of solo or group players with cellos, flutes, violins, harps, violas, guitars, or oboes. Some of the paintings must have dated to the previous century because the hair fashions of the women were so distinct and some of the portrayals might have been in France or England, the Italian or German states, or perhaps even Vienna. Small groups of guests stood together excitedly discussing the latest gossip or perhaps politics or even the decorations and paintings.

The center of attraction in the large sala was a grand piano and in opposing corners were a great harp, a cello, and a guitar. On shelves were lovingly placed a violin, a viola, flutes, a Jews Harp, and an oboe. César and Ramona Rodriguez dressed the part, looking much like the portraits on their walls.

By half past the hour the house was already quite filled with people while horses and carriages crowded the street outside. Diego de la Vega had preceded his father into the pueblo and now held a glass of wine in his hand. He watched the guests arrive, including the old musician, Don José Escobedo, the comandante of Los Angeles, the Alcalde and his daughter, and other notables. He mingled, enjoying the conversations and spotted Ismaida placing music sheets on top of the piano. He made his way over to the piano and greeted the young lady. "Good evening, Ismaida. Are you preparing for your presentation tonight?"

The young lady turned towards him with a smile. She was so tiny next to his tall frame. "Hello, Diego, it is so nice to see you here," she responded. "Yes, Juanita, Margarita and I are going to play some piano solos and duets. As a matter of fact," she lowered her voice, "Margarita changed a few pieces because she wants to play some Beethoven for someone special." Ismaida covered her mouth and giggled.

"And who is that someone special?" Diego asked with a smile, lowering his voice in a conspiratorial manner.

"Well," she whispered, looking around. "If you must know, she wants to play them for Capitán de las Fuentes." She paused. "Margarita is in love with him and she says that he met Señor Beethoven in person and loves his music."

"That is very thoughtful of Margarita," Diego commented. "I am sure the capitán will appreciate that." He straightened up. "It looks like almost everyone is here. You must have invited the town. I don’t think anyone is missing."

"Oh, Diego," Ismaida replied. "There is someone missing, but he wouldn’t dare come. I just wish that he could."

"And who is that?" asked the young man in an amused fashion.

"Now, don’t you laugh at me, Diego de la Vega," she admonished, "but I would have invited El Zorro to come. I imagine that he is very much like all of us."

"Perhaps he is," Diego smiled. "But why would you want to invite this outlaw? How could he possibly be like the rest of us?"

Ismaida flared up a little at the term ‘outlaw.’ She put her hands on her hips. "You know that he’s really no outlaw, Diego," she admonished. "Only Capitán Monastario and a few others think that. Why, he helps all the innocent people and the poor." She sighed. "Someone as dashing and brave as El Zorro would fit right in with us, I’m certain of it."

"All right, Ismaida," Diego laughed. "You are probably right. Anyone who would wear that kind of costume has to be a good actor. Maybe he can sing and dance as well." He ducked out of her way with a mischievous grin as her mouth opened in protest. He spotted the comandante with a drink in his hand and made his way over to him. "Good evening, Capitán," he greeted the officer.

"Ah, Don Diego, good evening," De las Fuentes replied. "I see that Señorita Rodriguez has been setting up the musical program. Was she, perhaps, consulting with you on its content?"

"Now, you flatter me, Your Excellency," Diego responded with a smile. "I know a few popular tunes on the piano and play guitar, but I’m no virtuoso. The talent of this family leaves me far behind."

"I’m sure that you are being much too modest," De las Fuentes told him, "for anyone to play a musical instrument shows that they have an interest in culture and the finer things in life."

"You know, Comandante," Diego pointed out, "Don César told my father and I that you are a musician yourself. He said you play violin, piano and other instruments. I think that it is you who are modest. My efforts are most pitiable compared to that."

Francisco de las Fuentes nodded slightly. "Not at all. By the way, where is Don Alejandro? I do not believe I have seen him. I trust he is not ill."

Diego looked around. "He is running rather uncharacteristically late," he commented. "But he may be speaking with acquaintances out on the patio." He was going to continue but he saw that the officer’s attention was drawn away. Ismaida and Juanita Villa came up behind the young man. They were smiling shyly but their eyes were fastened on the comandante. "Good evening, Juanita," Diego turned and acknowledged the other girl. He turned to the officer. "I think these young ladies would like a word with you, Capitán." He stepped away towards another group and greeted them. Out of the corner of his eye he watched the girls engage animatedly with De las Fuentes, then draw him over to the piano.

They stood shyly for a moment. The officer politely raised his eyebrows and assumed a questioning look to encourage their query. Both young women smiled at each other and then the tall, thin one spoke. "Is it true, Capitán de las Fuentes, that you have been to Vienna and seen the famous composers?" asked Juanita.

"Yes, I have," he replied. "But their music is played in Madrid as well. On a concert bill can be found the music of Gluck, Michael or Josef Haydn, Mozart, Paul Wranitzky, Vanhal, Richter, Gussmann, and many other composers."

"Is it true that you were in the Royal Palace in Madrid and saw the old king and queen as well as His Majesty?" asked Ismaida. "Have you met other famous people at Court?"

De las Fuentes smiled pleasantly. "Yes, I have been to the Royal Palace many times," he told her. "Actually, there is more than one royal palace. The one in Madrid is called ‘Puerta del Sol.’ It is in the heart of our capital. Old King Carlos and Queen María Luisa hated it because the summers are so hot and the winters are so cold in Madrid. In San Idlefonso there is another royal palace called ‘La Granja.’ However, their favorite palace was in San Lorenzo and it is called ‘El Escorial.’ It was where Her Majesty’s favorite horse, Marcial, lived. She had the painter, Francisco Goya, paint her on Marciel. That was in 1799. It is a large portrait. All the palaces have an enormous number of rooms, lush gardens, and hundreds of servants."

"Who are the famous people at Court?" asked Juanita. "Have you met real princes and princesses before?"

"At Court one meets many famous and noble individuals such as the Duque and Duchess of Osuna. They are great patrons of the arts as well as for playwrights and for bull fighting. As wealthy as they are," he confided, "both of them lack refinement despite their penchant for wit and hospitality."

"Are they really so very rich?" asked Ismaida with great curiosity. Already she was imagining people in silks and jewels.

"They have a marvelous retreat, La Alameda, a few leagues to the south of Madrid," De las Fuentes told them. "The place is a flourishing oasis among the desolate plains of Castile. Let me describe it to you. It is a palace where immense granite steps lead to an unusual entrance. Around it are artificial hillocks surmounted by colonnaded temples, waterfalls, and a miniature fortress with cannons. There is even a hermitage occupied by replicas of hermits for authenticity. The Osuna family has an enormous number of titles, estates, and wealth accumulated through generations of intermarriage with the noblest families. Unfortunately, this has led to a bit of dullness on the part of some family members and strange characteristics in other ones."

"What kind of strange characteristics?" asked Juanita.

"Well, some would say that it is a matter of opinion, but the Duchess is not very feminine in appearance. She is rather a strange woman who handles a sword and stiletto with great dexterity. She has a keen interest in economic problems and government. Her taste in art is rather macabre with witches and the like. Did you know that she is related to the Borgias of Italy?"

The two girls shook their heads. "Would you believe that some people here in Los Angeles actually believe in witches?" asked Ismaida, directing the question to Juanita.

"Who does?" asked Juanita. "Only Señora Pertolá says that the curadora is a witch."

"She’s not a witch," Ismaida frowned. "She is just old, but she knows much about herbs and magical potions. She cures the sick and sells love potions."

De las Fuentes was interested. "Did you know that as recently as 1780, only forty years ago, a woman was convicted of witchcraft in Spain?"

Juanita looked astonished. "How did they know she was a witch?" she asked indignantly.

"Ah," the officer replied. "The authorities said that eggs decorated with mysterious symbols were found in her possession. No one can deny that the Evil One exists," he insisted. "Did you know that in 1610, He actually held court in Logronño disguised as a goat in a meadow before a diabolic assembly?"

The young women looked at each other skeptically and then at De las Fuentes with alarm.

"How could anyone tell that it was not just an ordinary goat in a meadow?" asked Ismaida.

The Spanish officer looked stumped a moment and did not answer the question.

"What happened to her?" Juanita asked. "Imagine arresting anyone for having decorated eggs!"

The officer lowered his voice to a discreet whisper. "The Holy Office said so and condemned the meeting," he replied. "As for the accused, she was burnt at the stake for having intercourse with the Devil."

"That is ridiculous!" Juanita declared. "Capitán de las Fuentes, you are much too intelligent to believe such nonsense, isn’t that so?"

The officer looked slightly embarrassed at the young woman's unexpected challenge to his story, but he pressed on. "I actually met some witches myself," he told her. "They are black females and live in Brazil. They speak in foreign tongues, dance around fires, and are pagans. They invoke spirits to break or create spells with magical representations of enemies."

"Did you see them harm anyone?" Juanita insisted. "My father says that too many people have been accused by those who are ignorant and willing to believe anything that they are told. This is how injustice happens to innocent people."

De las Fuentes thought a moment. "It is true that I have not seen harm done by any of them to others, but I am sure that they must cause harm to men and women because of all the bad fortune that happens to good people. Surely God does not punish the good; therefore, it must be witches or warlocks or spirits that inflict harm on others. Sinful people seeking to harm others could pay for curses or bad luck."

"Have many people been killed as witches in Spain?" asked Ismaida who sensed that the conversation about who could be a witch could travel unforeseen roads.

"Actually, no. Very few people have been condemned or died for witchcraft in Spain in recent times, although in the past it was more so," Francisco answered. "It is true of Catholic kingdoms overall. However, in the Protestant kingdoms of England, Scotland, in many German states, and even in the English colonies of North America, both men and women were tried and executed for witchcraft in great numbers. In the German states, thousands of women were killed. Some say tens of thousands."

Juanita looked horrified. "I think that is terrible," she declared. "How could so many women be killed?" She eyed the officer critically. "You don’t believe that all those women were witches, do you, Capitán?"

"No, I don’t," he replied in a mild tone, but impressed with her degree of skepticism. "You see, Protestants tend to run riot with their fears of heresy whereas even the Inquisition does not really believe that so many people are witches. There are Christians who are seduced by the Evil One and they need to be found out. The problem is that most trials are conducted in an atmosphere of hysteria and we need to have calm, deliberate counsels, not madness. When one sees a poor woman, usually an ugly one or even an old woman, convicted, it is probably for these reasons and not any real possession that she has been condemned. Those who accuse them are more likely to be guilty of crimes rather than those accused."

"If that is true," Juanita insisted, "then how could the accused ever achieve a fair hearing or justice? If anything, people who act cruelly should be guilty of witchcraft rather than those who paint eggs or who practice old fashioned cures."

"Señorita Juanita, you are a true child of the Enlightenment," Francisco responded with a smile, "for there is nothing that you will not question in your desire to see that justice is done." He paused. "I think your instinct to suspect the accusers rather than the accused is a good one. But even in our society of intellectual thinking and debate, we must be cautious. I am sorry to say that there are those who act cruelly who may not be possessed at all, just as those who serve the Devil do not always act overtly, but cleverly. I tend to think that those with wealth and power are more likely to be in the service of the Evil One, rather than the poor, for they use their power to harm, not to help." He looked sad a moment, then ended with, "I apologize to you for engaging you thusly, for this kind of debate has gone on and will likely go on until we become wiser, which I hope we will, in the future."

"My father believes as you do, Capitán," Juanita told him, trying to soften her stance, "that we should be willing to debate issues from all sides and learn to be wiser from it. Only in this way can we be fair and attain justice. He says that knowledge of the past is good, but that it can chain us to old ideas that may harm us. He says that as long as honor guides our steps, then we err on the side of what is good rather than what is harmful to others."

"Would the king have such wise counsel, Señorita," Francisco mused, "for it is sorely needed in these times. However, to change the subject matter, I notice that this is a very fine piano. Tell me, which of you will play tonight?"

"All of us will play," answered Ismaida. "I have been practicing a little and would like to know if you are familiar with this song." She glanced at Juanita mischievously, then sat down and began to play a melody he knew quite well. "Do you know it? It is one of Margarita’s favorites."

He nodded and looked pleased. "It was the first piece that she played for me," he told them.

Ismaida played a little more, then halted. "I’m afraid I don’t know the rest of it," she pretended. "Could you, perhaps, finish it?" She patted the stool next to her.

Francisco looked for a place to put his drink down. Juanita indicated she would take it and he handed it to her. He sat down next to the tiny Ismaida. Both girls noticed how he rather ceremoniously flipped the tailcoats of his uniform over the back of the seat. "It goes like this," he told her and took up where she had left off. She looked up at Juanita who indicated with a nod that several guests were forming a circle around them and listening. The officer did not seem to notice them at all. Ismaida and Juanita were very impressed with De las Fuentes’ playing. When he finished the piece, he saw the delight on their faces.

"Why, you played it from memory without any sheet music," Ismaida enthused.

"I’ve played it often enough that I don’t need the music," he explained. "Yet it remains a favorite of mine."

"Oh, Capitán, you play just like Margarita does," Juanita sighed. "You two would make quite a match," she hinted.

"You are too kind," Francisco responded with a smile and he appreciated the compliment. "My efforts pale in comparison to hers for she has a remarkable passion and sensitivity, qualities that make her playing majestic. That is the mark of a superior artist." The two girls nodded in agreement. As he rose from the bench, there was quiet applause from behind him and he turned in surprise toward his small audience. He bowed slightly, acknowledging their appreciation. He saw Diego heading toward him. The young man looked impressed with what he had heard.

"Your Excellency, that was very beautiful," Diego told him. He gestured toward the entrance of the sala. "It seems that the last member of the musical trio has just arrived," he confided. "And it looks like there might be trouble."

De las Fuentes’ attention was drawn across the room. He saw Señor and Señora Sebastián Pérez at the door. Behind them stood Margarita and she looked very unhappy. She wore black again. The officer wondered what could have happened in the short time since the late afternoon when the piano had been returned to her.

Margarita was standing behind her parents and looked around anxiously. She had overheard her father tell her mother that Salvador would be there and she wanted to avoid him. It was with great relief that she spotted De las Fuentes across the room talking with Diego de la Vega. Their eyes met. As her parents turned to greet César Rodriguez, she broke away from them and headed toward the officer. He had a smile on his face and as they drew near, he reached out his hands to take hers. When she reached him, he took both of them and kissed each one, telling her how pleased he was to see her. Diego smiled, greeted her, and bowed himself out of the scene diplomatically. He knew that she had barely even noticed him even though she had greeted him politely.

Margarita’s face lighted up. She drew near and whispered, "Francisco, may I ask a great favor of you?"

"Of course, you may," he responded.

"But I don’t know whether I should ask this of you or not." She hesitated, then added, "Would you dance only with me all evening? It would make me very happy." There was a kind of desperate hope in her pretty features.

De las Fuentes was embarrassed, although nothing would have pleased him more. He thought briefly about how he would have whirled with her across the floor in the past, but now he was crippled and no longer danced. In fact, he was surprised that she asked and did not seem to notice the fact. But she seemed so anxious that he responded, "I would be honored, Margarita, as it would please you."

"Thank you so much," she said looking very relieved. "There’s no one I’d rather dance with more than you." Then she smiled as if all her worries had suddenly lifted from her shoulders. It was almost surprising to him that so small a request could have such a great reward in her eyes.

Both of them suddenly noticed that Ismaida and Juanita had appeared at their side and were smiling in a knowing way.

"Are you ready to play, Margarita?" asked Ismaida. "You told us that you had planned something special. I told father that we are about to begin and he is informing the guests."

"Oh," Margarita responded, blushing a bit. "All of us have been practicing for tonight, Don Francisco," she explained, wanting to appear a little more formal with him in front of her friends. "Each of us will play a few movements from the selections of several composers. We hope you will like them."

He took her arm in his. "I am looking forward to your performance," he remarked as they walked back to the piano. "And who will play first?"

"Me," Ismaida piped up. "We will play duos and solos, Capitán." She sat at the piano, arranged the sheets of music and looked around her to make sure it was the right moment to start. As she began to play, the hum of conversation in the sala and beyond dimmed as more guests came forward to listen.

De las Fuentes recognized their musical agenda at once. Ismaida started out with a short Mozart piece. She then began to play a few movements from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 14 in C sharp minor, known by most in a later age as the "Moonlight Sonata." Margarita sat beside her and both played more movements from the same sonata. Margarita then played a short piece by Bach, his Prelude to "The Well-tempered Clavier." Juanita then played selections from the Emperor Concerto. Francisco stood only a few feet from the players and seemed to be looking off into the distance as he listened. But when Margarita played, he only had eyes for her. When she was not playing, she stood at his side and he took her arm in his.

From a distance, Sebastian Pérez frowned as he watched the comandante and his daughter hold hands on occasion and intertwine their arms. He was furious because both of them were displaying their affection in public and that was the last thing he wanted.

Of all three girls, Margarita stood out in her distinguished and unique style of playing. The room was so quiet that aside from the music, not another sound was heard. After the girls finished, they stood and curtsied to much applause, especially from the comandante. As Sebastian headed across the room over towards is daughter, Juanita declared that Margarita had a special presentation to make.

Margarita stood in front of the piano bench and looked out at the small crowd. "I would like to play something special because we have among us a man whose talents make him very much a part of our pueblo here in Los Angeles as well as a part of our musical community." She saw her father halt and glare at her. Originally, she had not planned to say anything at all, but now thought another move on the chessboard was due. She turned towards Francisco. "I would like to dedicate this song to my dear friend, Capitán Francisco de las Fuentes, our comandante, who never fails to inspire me."

De las Fuentes was both moved and delighted by her words and bowed low in her direction. There was a murmur of approval by many of those present.

"Here, here," Diego de la Vega called out. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sebastian frown in his direction. If a look could kill, thought the young man to himself, I would have already died a thousand deaths for this small comment. But I would do it a hundred times for Margarita’s happiness.

Margarita quickly launched into a surprise rendition of several selections from the Appassionata by Beethoven and finished with excerpts from his Pathetique. She played sensitively and in complete control as if the unpleasant altercation with her father had never taken place. Much of the time she looked up from the musical score and had only eyes for Francisco – and his did not leave hers.

As the last notes sounded the room was silent as if its spectators did not wish to part with the music. Then, slowly the applause built and rolled around the room. Margarita smiled out at everyone as she stood up and curtsied. She turned to De las Fuentes. To her surprise and delight the small officer embraced her with great emotion. It was only the interruption of César Rodriguez, who rushed up with a huge bouquet of flowers that he snatched from one of his own displays and presented to her, that prevented any words between them.

"Magnificent, Margarita! Magnificent!" enthused the Maestro. "You always surpass my expectations and tonight you really outdid yourself!" He turned to the officer. "Comandante! If mere mortals can this fair lady so inspire, think what Heaven can thus acquire!"

"Ah-hmmm," a loud voice boomed in on the conversation. The small group turned to face Sebastian Pérez who had taken the arm of Salvador Muñoz and brought him forward. "That was very nice, Margarita," he said in a voice oozing sincerity. "Salvador, here, is your foremost admirer and he has something special to say to you."

The stocky young man with the pouting lips gave everyone an oily smile. His dark eyes looked Margarita over in an unpleasant manner. "Bravo, Margarita. You know I adore your playing. Señora Rodriguez just told me that their own musicians will begin to play soon and I only wish to dance with you all evening."

Sebastian smirked, thinking to catch his daughter off guard as he watched for a defensive reaction in her.

Francisco de las Fuentes turned toward the young man with a pleasant smile, still holding Margarita’s hand in his. "I regret to inform you, Señor Muñoz, that I have already made that request of Señorita Margarita."

Margarita decided to imitate the officer’s calm and dignified style. Before her father could respond she added. "And I, of course, accepted Francisco’s offer," she smiled addressing the group in general. "There’s no one I would rather dance with more."

As Sebastian began to sputter in protest, César interrupted with "Excellent! For those who have no partners as of yet, there are several young ladies here who need a partner." He took the stunned young man’s arm. "Salvador, you know Señorita Juanita, don’t' you? Well, she’s a fine dancer. You will need much energy to match hers. Did you know that dancing is a fine way to take off those extra pounds?"

Juanita gave Salvador a condescending gaze while her eyes were daggers at Don César. César made haste to whisper in her ear "I will make this up to you, I swear it, Juanita." She gave a small laugh as if he had said something amusing to her and turned to Muñoz. "Do you really dance at all, Señor Muñoz?"

"Yes, I do," he replied lamely, giving the comandante a resentful glare.

Margarita felt relieved that the tables had been turned on Salvador and her father. She decided to look at her father. "Did you know that Padre Felipe told me that Francisco was one of the best dancers at Court?" she asked conversationally.

Sebastian was silent. Francisco was amused. "Ah, but did I ever tell you about the Conde Albani from Italy?" he began. "It’s a rather long story, but…"

"If you will excuse me," Sebastian said hastily and turned away. He did not want to be subjected by another long monologue from the comandante. He did not have the courage to challenge the man directly yet was determined to counter these unexpected roadblocks in his plans for the evening after the dancing was over.

As soon as he left, Francisco dropped the subject and turned to Margarita. "That was not hard to do," he smiled knowing how pleased she was at thwarting the two men’s plans – at least for the time being. "Actually, I wanted to let you know that a very distinguished young man here tonight also plays guitar and piano." Francisco took her arm and they strode over to Diego de la Vega.

Diego was wondering why his father had not shown up at the party and was deciding whether to leave early or not when the comandante’s voice reached his ears.

"Don Diego?" the officer inquired.

Diego turned around and caught sight of his old friend at the captain’s arm. "Yes, Capitán? Oh, good evening, Margarita," he smiled.

"I was just telling Margarita that you are also a musician," De las Fuentes told him.

"A poor one, I’m afraid," Diego answered although she shook her head in disagreement.

"Not poor at all, Diego," Margarita corrected him. "I remember that you do play guitar quite well, including the piano."

"All right, Margarita, " the young man replied. "I do play guitar." He turned to De las Fuentes. "You know, Comandante, I have never heard Margarita perform as well as she did tonight."

The young woman blushed modestly as he praised her. Then he looked the officer in the eye and said casually, "You are very lucky to find such talent, Don Francisco, because I doubt there are many ladies of Margarita’s abilities to be found anywhere."

"Oh, Diego, you are much too kind," she responded, almost embarrassed by his accolades.

"I concur with Don Diego," Francisco agreed, then mused. "You know, as the days go by there is a feeling that we are only beginning to seriously discover this fact."

Margarita was not sure of what he meant by ‘we,’ but Diego nodded in understanding. "Oh, Comandante, if you will excuse me. My father has not made an appearance this evening and I want to find out why."

De las Fuentes looked alarmed. "Would you like me to dispatch some soldiers to your hacienda?" he asked.

"No, no, that’s fine. I am sure that something must have held him up, or perhaps he ran across an old acquaintance," the young man answered. "I am going to give instructions to my mozo to return home and check on my father. He will send word if there are any problems." Diego turned to look for Bernardo who was enjoying himself watching all the guests. Diego heard the comandante say, "If there is trouble, I will come at once."

Margarita turned to Francisco. She felt that now, more than ever, she needed to do what Padre Felipe had told her because the sands of time were running out. "Francisco, may I speak to you in private. There is something that I have to tell you. It's very important."

"Of course, dear," he replied. Together they went out to the front patio. There were only a few people who were drifting between groups of conversationalists.

On the patio was an ornate fountain. Below the wall was a bench. It was the bench that stood before the tree that Margarita had climbed up to Ismaida’s room just the night before. Behind the shadow of the fountain, they found the privacy they sought. Before she could begin, Francisco took her hands in his. "Margarita, dear, tell me exactly what is happening at home with your father and Señor Muñoz."

"My father is determined that I should marry Señor Muñoz and will not accept my refusals," she told him. "My father is becoming very hostile to me because I will not agree to his wishes. He does not wish to understand that I am not interested in Señor Muñoz or any of the men he has brought to me."

"May I ask you why?" Francisco inquired. "Forgive my curiosity but you are a very intelligent and attractive young lady. I cannot imagine anyone not noticing that."

"I forgive you anything, Francisco," she responded. "The truth is that none of them share my love of music. I think they just want me as an ornament, a possession, and I cannot abide that. As for Salvador, I can’t stand him – he is arrogant and cruel, I feel it. Better to wait for the right man to come along or not marry at all."

"And who would be the right man?" he asked quietly.

Her eyes filled with tears and spilled over. She held his hands tightly and he knew the answer without any words. "I’ve never met anyone like you before, Francisco," she told him tearfully. "You are the most cultured and kind man I have ever known." She swallowed hard. "You love music like no one else and I could play for you forever. No one else has ever made me feel the way I do about you. You are the first man I have truly fallen in love with - with all my heart!" She saw nothing but a great tenderness in his eyes for a long moment and then a cloud formed over his face.

He took her hands in his and kissed each of them in turn, then looked deeply into her eyes. "I am deeply honored, dear, very deeply honored. But Margarita, you don't want a broken down old warhorse like me. See, I've had the pox and it has ruined my looks. I can't even dance with you because now I'm a cripple and I walk around deliberately slow so no one will notice. And these are only our apparent defects. I'm just a captain now, a non-entity, an inconsequential rank…"

As he spoke, she placed a hand to his face and caressed a cheek. "Oh, Francisco," she interrupted, "none of that matters to me. Why, you should know that even Beethoven has pock marks." He nodded in acknowledgement saying, "And Mozart," as she continued. "All I see is your kindness and goodness. I feel a link between us because of our love for music and how both of us are so different from the people who surround us." She paused and felt the deep emotion emanating from him by her words. "I have waited for you all of my life."

Francisco felt a tightening in his chest, something he had not felt since the time he lost Isabel. He took her into his arms and hugged her closely. Then he lifted her chin gently and kissed her a very long time. She wrapped her arms around him as well. They stood there a few moments before he spoke very softly in her ear. "Margarita, there is something I need to tell you," he began.

"You’re already married," she finished in a strained voice. "It’s all my fault. I never asked you."

"No, I am not married, dear," he smiled. "It’s not that at all."

She swallowed again and looked up at him. "Is it because you think I’m an old maid? I’m almost twenty-nine." She was quite serious.

He couldn’t help chuckling at that. "Margarita, dearest, believe me, you are no old maid. You are the most delicate rose in the gardens of Allah; an enchanted muse from ancient mythology; a magical spirit; a reincarnation of my forgotten hopes and dreams." He paused. "It’s just that I want you to get to know me better, all my sins. It is only fair to you," he added. "What I was in the past could be as important as what I now appear to be to you and to everyone."

"I don't believe any sins of yours could be bad - past or present, Francisco. Do you believe that someone can be sent to you, someone that you never believed was possible before?" she asked him intently. "That is what I see in you. You are all my hopes, even my salvation, Francisco. I just know it."

He smiled somewhat sadly. "You will come to church tomorrow morning, won’t you?" he asked. "I go there every day. It has been a place of refuge for me – for body and soul. I want to tell you why. Only there will I be able to relate to you a story about a tragedy that reaches from the battlefields of war into the royal court in Madrid and beyond – even here to the shores of the Américas. After I tell you, I want you to think about it. Then let’s see if both of us can find answers to the questions in our hearts."

Margarita nodded uncertainly. She was mystified but felt she had not lost him. There was something that was troubling him and she believed it did not have anything to do with her at all. She heard the sound of the music from the sala. He listened as well. De las Fuentes looked into her eyes and commented, "It’s beautiful, isn’t it? And I couldn’t wish more than at this moment that I could dance with you the way I once did in the courts of Spain."

She smiled and squeezed his hands. "I know you can still dance, Francisco," she told him. "It really doesn't matter whether we can move across the floor or not. I just want to be in your arms and for us to be out here together in the moonlight."

"Then we will dance," he declared and took her hands. Both of them moved slowly and he put his cheek next to hers as they moved closer together.

"Do you want to know something, Francisco?" she whispered in his ear.

"What is that, dear?" he responded.

"I received the most wonderful gift today."

"Did it please you?"

"It's the next best thing that has ever happened to me," she told him.

He smiled, knowing she was delighted with the piano. "And what was the best thing that has ever happened to you?" he asked.

"Meeting you, Francisco."

He halted in mid-step, deeply moved by her words and her sincerity. He kissed her very tenderly on the lips. They then kissed again with much affection, oblivious to the rest of the world and to the eyes that watched them from afar.

Salvador Muñoz watched the comandante and Margarita Pérez dance from the doors of the sala. He was filled with envy and jealousy. He remarked aloud, "I don't understand what she sees in him. He isn't such a great dancer after all."

Diego de la Vega appeared from behind him. "What a happy thing it is to see two people who care for each other the way Margarita and the comandante do," he commented. When Muñoz gave him a displeased look, Diego added, "I am sure that no one would want to marry Margarita knowing that she is in love with another man. That wouldn't be right, would it?"

 

 

Chapter 17
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