Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty

 

"Good morning, Don Diego," the big soldier standing at the gates of the cuartel called out.

"Good morning, Sergeant," the young man replied and continued walking.

"Oh, Don Diego, could I have a word with you…. please," García implored. "It will only take a little moment."

The young man in the brown ranchero's outfit turned back toward the cuartel. "What can I do for you, Sergeant?" he asked patiently.

"Well, I need to ask you about something," the soldier told him. "You are a poet and a scholar, perhaps you could tell me about, well, about..," the big man hesitated.

"What can I tell you about?" Diego inquired. "Sergeant, you look like you need some help."

"Well, it is really such a small thing," García responded confidentially. "Perhaps you can explain to me what operetta songs are like. I know soldiers' songs and drinking songs and I know what they are like. But what is an operetta song like?"

"Operetta songs?" Diego asked in surprise. That was a bit highbrow for the sergeant, he thought, but then, being around Capitán de las Fuentes, maybe something was rubbing off. "Well, let's see. First, let me ask you, what is an operetta song?"

The fat sergeant looked slightly annoyed. "Don Diego, I don't know. That is why I am asking you."

"I see," replied Diego. "Well, an operetta song is not that hard to explain. It is merely a type of song that is sung in a short, light musical drama. It is a song in a story that is acted out on a stage. In an opera, the story can be about love, or death, about heroism or about tragedy. In an operetta, it will most likely be comic. The characters tell the entire story in a series of songs and that is what both opera and operetta songs are like."

"Oh, I see," the sergeant said thoughtfully. "Well, that is not very different from most songs. All songs tell stories."

"That is true," the young man continued. "Now opera songs are different in that they are like conversations - first one man sings his concerns, then another responds and then another. Sometimes a woman will play the role and she will sing her part as well. Others join in and their dialogue is all in song. Even their jokes are all in the form of songs. Even a man dying does it all in song."

García looked amused. "So, an operetta song is when people sing to each other. They do not talk as you and I, but they sing the words instead.

"Exactly, Sergeant," Diego agreed. "Now, if you will excuse me, I have to…."

"One more moment, please, Don Diego," the soldier insisted.

The young don turned back once again to face the big soldier.

"Well, I don't know exactly how to ask this, Don Diego, but just yesterday Capitán de las Fuentes asked Corporal Reyes and I if we knew songs from operettas. Of course, we do not. Then the corporal told the capitán that I could sing other kinds of songs, you know, soldiers' songs, love songs, songs about donkeys and their masters…"

"I get the picture, Sergeant," the young man pointed out. "So what did the comandante say?"

"The comandante then told me that I should sing for him sometime," the big man replied. "Only I don't know any such songs; that is why I am asking you. Do you know any operetta songs?"

"Ah, I see," Diego responded with a look of profound enlightenment. "I believe what you are asking me, Sergeant, is to teach you some songs from the operettas."

"Sí, Don Diego," García beamed. Then he looked concerned. "Do you know such songs, Don Diego? Could you teach me, perhaps, one song?"

Diego de la Vega gave a short laugh. "As a matter of fact, I do. Tell me, Sergeant, are you really serious about learning a song from an operetta?"

"Sí, Don Diego. After all, Capitán de las Fuentes said he would like for me to sing."

"All right, Sergeant. Let's do it. And wouldn't this be a nice surprise for the comandante."

García nodded enthusiastically.

**************************************

Juanita Villa was very eager to get to Los Angeles that morning. She was literally dancing around the hacienda, imploring her parents to find a reason to go. Finally her father suggested that she and her sister just ride into town themselves. The two girls eagerly mounted their cream-colored ponies and raced each other down the long dirt road toward the pueblo, laughing and shouting to each other.

"I'll get there first and tell Ismaida," called Josefina to her sister.

"Oh, no, you won't," shouted Juanita back, urging her pony onward

The racing steeds kicked up a cloud of dust, passing wide meadows, outcrops, and forests of oaks. They thundered across a wooden bridge over a flowing arroyo and headed up hill until they passed the fork in the road that led north towards the pueblo. In another twenty minutes they had reached the outskirts of the town. Both of the twins slowed to a fast trot past the cuartel and waved to townspeople who looked up to see who was riding by so quickly. Within minutes both pulled their ponies up in front of the home of Don César Rodríguez, dismounted, and tied the reins to the hitching post. Juanita reached the door of the patio first and laughingly ran towards the front door. Seconds later, Josefina followed, watching her sister knock on the door, then turn around and laugh at her. "I got here first," she proclaimed.

The door opened and Ismaida stood there, looking in at her friends as they rushed up to her.

"You'll never guess what happened to Juanita," Josefina told her breathlessly.

"Don't tell her, Josefina!" Juanita declared. "You let me do that!"

Both girls stopped when they saw Ismaida's serious demeanor and they looked at each other in consternation.

"Oh, hello, Juanita, Josefina," their friend welcomed them solemnly.

"What's wrong, Ismaida?" Juanita asked. "You look like you woke up from a bad dream."

"Please, come in," Ismaida told them. "You need to know something important." She led them to the sala and they all sat down in chairs. Ismaida pulled her chair so close to theirs that their knees almost touched. "There is something terrible I have to tell you." In a quiet voice she told them that Señor Pérez had disinherited his daughter, Margarita, and that now their friend was living with them at their home.

"Oh, poor Margarita," exclaimed the twins simultaneously. "How horrible!"

"What a terrible man, that Señor Pérez! What is she going to do?" asked Josefina.

"Where is Margarita now?" asked Juanita looking about her. "Is she here?"

"She told me that she was going to church," Ismaida told them. "Father had all her effects picked up and brought here about an hour ago. They are piled in the guest room upstairs."

"What did her mother do about this?" asked Josefina. "Surely she did not agree to such a crazy thing."

"Father says that Señora Pérez is 'incommunicado' right now," Ismaida whispered. "I bet that Señor Pérez had to beat her to force her to agree. No one has seen her all morning."

"Does Capitán de las Fuentes know about this?" asked Juanita indignantly. "Has Margarita told him what happened?"

"I don't know," answered Ismaida. "It just happened this morning. All I know is that she went to church. I guess we'll find out when she gets back. She said she wanted to be alone for a while."

All three girls were silent each thinking their own thoughts about their dear friend, Margarita.

Finally, Juanita sighed. "I guess my news isn't very important, not compared to what has happened to Margarita," she commented. Josefina nodded glumly.

"What is your news?" asked Ismaida.

"Well, last night I met El Zorro," Juanita began.

Ismaida gave a start and stared at Juanita. "What did you say?" she exclaimed. "You met who? What do you mean, this is 'not very important'? Of course, it is! Oh, do tell me what happened!"

Juanita gave Josefina a mischievous smile and tossed her head. "Well," she began. "Señor Enríquez came out to rob our house last night - and guess who showed up? The robber had just left the house and jumped over the wall when El Zorro appeared in the yard. He told me not to be afraid and I wasn't. I told El Zorro what Señor Enríquez had done to us. When I told him Señor Enríquez had just left, he called to his great black stallion, Tornado. Tornado raced through the front gates and halted right in front of us. El Zorro told me not to fear because Señor Enríquez would trouble us no more. He leaped into the saddle and was off like the wind. I heard the pounding of hooves as they disappeared into the night. I went inside and told Father and Mother what happened. Then, our servant, Jorge, told us that El Zorro had helped him after Enríquez struck him on the head. Father and Jorge went back to check on Manuel and Lupe. Señor Enríquez had tied up Manuel, but Zorro had freed them. Imagine, El Zorro at our hacienda!"

"Oh, my," sighed Ismaida. "How lucky you are to have met El Zorro in person! I'm so jealous, Juanita. Tell me, is he as tall as they say he is? What is his voice like? What color are his eyes?" She felt so envious of her tall friend. Up to now, she had been the only one of the three one to have seen El Zorro and to have waved to him. She never tired of telling them that he had waved back.

Josefina and Juanita smiled at each other. "He's very tall," Juanita began, "and you wouldn't believe what a gentleman he is. Why, it's just like you told Diego - El Zorro is not really an outlaw, not at all…"

***********************************

Diego de la Vega shook his head in amusement as he walked across the plaza towards the church. Before being sidetracked by Sergeant García's request about operettas, he had intended to visit Padre Felipe and ask him what he might know about Joaquín Enríquez. There were many questions that had formed in his mind and the young don wanted to explore many avenues of investigation.

The young ranchero brushed off the sleeves of his short brown embroidered jacket before knocking at the wooden door of Felipe's office. When there was no response, he opened the door and entered the room. "Padre Felipe?" he called out. When there was no response, he sat down a short while to see if the priest would return. Diego sat pondering all the clues that the 'madman' seemed to be leaving about - the stolen objects and what they meant, what Enríquez had said during the hearings, the threats he had made against the lives of the men there, and the attack on the comandante. Much about Enríquez did not seem to make any sense - why the violent behavior and then the strange things he had said to Señorita Villa. I must find out more information.

After waiting a quarter of an hour and no sign of Padre Felipe, Diego decided on another approach. He visited two solicitors in town and asked them to do some research into any information they could find out about Joaquín Enríquez in past years. If they found anything, would they please contact him immediately.

The young don headed back to the church. On impulse he decided to enter the churchyard and see if the priest might be gardening. He thought of Margarita and Capitán de las Fuentes when he passed the stone bench. I wonder what Señor Pérez is up to now, he thought, thinking how angry the man had been upon leaving the party the night before. Hopefully, Margarita would weather another ordeal at home, now that it was becoming obvious that there could be only one man in her life and that man was a most remarkable Spanish prince. Diego smiled at the thought of what the townspeople would say when they eventually found out who their comandante really was.

As he wandered about the stone-lined paths, past the orange calendula flowers and the yellow poppies, Diego came to the graves. There were not too many. Traditionally, families buried their loved ones on their own properties. Townspeople were usually buried in the churchyard but Los Angeles was not that old. The young don tapped a few small stones out of his way as he turned over the recent events in his mind. Suddenly, he stopped in mid-stride. Taking a step back he stared at the names on two graves just a few feet away from the path. Carved on a scrap of wood over one grave was the name "María Enriquez". There was no birth date recorded, but the date of death was July 1815. Just two graves away was another grave. Barely discernable on that wooden cross was the name "Juan Enriquez." The date of death was 1810. Diego studied the names a long time pondering whether it was mere coincidence or whether they bore any relationship to Joaquín Enríquez, the fugitive.

De la Vega looked up as he heard someone call his name. Padre Felipe gave greetings and came towards him. "Good morning, Padre," he smiled and exchanged a handshake with the priest. Then he turned back towards the graves. "Padre Felipe," he began, "what can you tell me about María and Juan Enríquez?"

**********************

A woman at the cuartel was not a common sight. So when Margarita Pérez entered the garrison on the arm of the comandante, about two dozen pairs of eyes watched her with great curiosity. After they passed the main gate, Corporal Reyes, then on guard duty, turned to the soldier on watch with him, smiled, and moved his eyes in the direction of the young lady. "That is the fiancée of the comandante," he whispered to Private Hugo Ríos.

Ríos was a thin, lanky young soldier in his mid-twenties with a pencil mustache. He glanced over his shoulder to watch the woman. "That's Señorita Margarita Pérez. Isn't she the one who refuses to marry all the men her father tells her to?" he asked.

"I think so," answered the corporal.

Ríos was quiet a while. Then he turned toward Reyes and asked in a low voice. "Did you hear that her father threw her out of the house this morning?"

"Where did you hear that from?" the corporal wanted to know.

"Private López heard it from one of the Rodríguez servants who was packing her things in a cart this morning. Don César has taken her into his home."

"Poor Señorita Pérez," Reyes said with feeling.

Ríos lapsed into silence once again. After some time he spoke again. "Say, Corporal, do you think the comandante will ask her to marry him now?"

Reyes thought about it. "I don't know."

Hugo Ríos looked surprised. "But don't you know?" he asked in astonishment. "You are with the comandante all the time. Does he not talk about these things?"

Reyes did not want to appear to be a gossip so he was careful in what he said. "Well, the comandante goes to see her every day and when he comes back he is very happy. He orders flowers and he meets her at church. He plays his violin and talks about music. But the comandante is not very well. He does not speak of personal matters."

I know all that, thought the private. "If I were going to marry a girl like Señorita Pérez," Hugo commented. "I would certainly be talking about it. If this were happening to Capitán Monastario, everyone would know about it, even if we didn't want to know about it."

"Capitán de las Fuentes is not Capitán Monastario," Reyes observed simply.

Ríos thought he wasn't going to get much out of the corporal. "Hey, look," he gestured to a figure coming across the plaza. "Maybe Sergeant García knows."

"Knows? Knows what?" asked the big man, approaching and overhearing his name mentioned. He marched right up to the private and corporal. "What is it that you want to know?"

"Is it true that the comandante and Señorita Pérez…?" began the private.

"Shhhhsh!" the sergeant reprimanded the private to the latter's surprise. "You should be more respectful in speaking of the capitán."

"But, I just wanted to know if…" continued Ríos.

"You will know when it is time to know," García told him sternly. Then he peered into the yard of the cuartel as if watching someone approach. "As a matter of fact, we should all know fairly soon."

***************************************

The comandante's office was a more pleasant place than she expected or had imagined. There were plants on the porch at the entrance, paintings on the wall inside, including a large map. On top of the large desk was a row of books and even a model cannon. Next to the model cannon was a vase of fresh flowers. Margarita wondered if the symbolism was intentional - the contrast between life and death. There were two large cabinets with doors and drawers and chairs pushed against the wall, Spanish style.

Margarita peered around the desk toward the capitán's quarters and saw a bright green fern on a pedestal outside of the door that led into the comandante's private room.

Francisco had disappeared momentarily into his room and now he returned to the office carrying what looked like a portrait. He brought it over to the desk and placed it down. Margarita rose to look at it. "This is what I wanted to show you," he told her and watched as she studied the painting with great interest.

Margarita gazed down at a portrait of two people. She recognized Francisco at once, but it was a different kind of Francisco than she was used to seeing. Her eyes then moved to the character that dominated the painting.

At the center of the portrait was a slender woman seated in a royal Spanish style upholstered chair of velvet. She wore an incredible long, light-green silk dress with pink flowers embroidered all around the low neckline, waist, sleeves and hem. Around the woman's neck were several strands of pearls intertwined with gold and above her wrists were several bands of diamonds. The woman's auburn hair was pulled back and up in the Spanish style, and there was a cool, aloof smile on her face. Margarita was struck by Isabel's beauty and the fabulous dress and jewels she wore. Then her eyes traveled to the more familiar character in the painting. Next to the woman, holding a book in one hand with the other hand draped casually over the back of the chair was a small, ordinary-looking man in a blue and white military uniform with gold epaulets and decorations on his chest. He wore a golden sash around his waist. His hair was long and wavy, curled in the fashion of the Seventeenth Century. Above his pleasant smile were the familiar upswept moustaches and long Spanish goatee on his chin. The rest of his face was clean-shaven and there was not a trace of pockmarks. The simple, contented demeanor of his face and the twinkle in his eye contrasted sharply with the haughtiness of the elegant woman. Slightly off to one side was a grand piano. On the piano was a large birdcage in which two nightingales fluttered.

"That was Isabel," Francisco commented. "How she loved the elaborate French dresses, fashionable long before Bonaparte - though now she wears the simpler and more austere English style. I think she wore them because she knew I liked them so much."

"Was this the woman you were going to marry, Francisco?" Margarita asked in awe, staring at the richness of the dress and the jewels. "She's very beautiful." Her eyes returned to the image of the man who now stood next to her. "And you look so impressive."

"Yes, it is she," he commented, gazing at the woman in the portrait. "I was very happy back then. I thought that the both of us were. Everyone considered us the perfect match." He sighed deeply. "How appropriate the symbolism of the two musical birds in a gilded cage in this painting is. The artist knew much better than I what the reality was."

"It's a lovely portrait," she said admiringly. "Who painted it?"

"Francisco Goya," he replied with a mischievous smile.

Her jaw dropped in surprise. "But I thought you didn't think much of Goya at all!" she exclaimed. "After what you said the other night about his lack of imagination and other faults. My father was furious. Did Isabel want him as the artist?"

He chuckled a little. "Dearest Margarita, I think Francisco Goya is not just a great painter, I think he is a genius. I commissioned him myself."

"You did?" she sputtered, almost shocked.

Francisco was enjoying the moment. "As for our conversation at your parents' home - I just wanted to see what your parents' reaction would be. I would, for once, like someone to praise an artist because of his real abilities, not just because he is said to be popular, or because others praise him. I wanted a stimulating discussion on style, use of color, portraits of the common people, or the emotion of the moment that he is so brilliant at depicting."

Margarita began to smile. "Oh, now I see what you were up to. Do you really think he is a great artist after all?"

"I love Goya," he told her, "because of his incredible ability to put feeling into his portraits of people, not just the beauty of their clothing, but of the crassness of their souls. He has a real boldness and talent for presenting people as they truly are." He gestured at the portrait. "Here's a perfect example - the love-struck fool of a general and his bride-to-be - as vain and aloof as the portrait shows. How grateful I am - with hindsight - to this most illustrious and insightful artist. No man like him has used the application of light, shadow, highlights and color. No artist can bring a sense of realism, tranquility or even violence into his paintings with such passion; no artist has brought such sensitive lyricism or truth into his works; such balance, drama, and harmony he has attained!"

"You had convinced me of just the opposite," she told him. "Now to hear you describe him so, I feel, well, so foolish for not imagining that he could be a great artist after all."

"I am so sorry that I played the Devil's Advocate much too well," he responded. "I would have been delighted had your father disputed me over how talent is displayed rather than a defense based upon 'the king chose him as painter.' I must warn you, dear, that I do have a tendency to make trouble like this on occasion."

"I learn so much from you," she told him. "I think it's delightful to do this. It makes you think more about what it is that you believe that you know - or don't know."

"Isabel never liked me doing that," he remarked, "although she knows it is practically a hereditary trait in my family."

"Francisco," she began rather hesitantly, "you said that God had opened your eyes about Isabel. What happened that changed everything?"

He took her over to a chair and sat next to her holding her hands. "My dear, sometimes a man's eyes need to be opened and when he won't open them himself, well, God intervenes." He looked very distracted a moment. "I am convinced that I am much the same now as I have always been, but somehow, I must have sinned dreadfully. Perhaps it was pride or arrogance or something else, but God saw fit to punish me." He watched her shake her head in disagreement but continued. "When the war ended, Isabel and I set our wedding date. I had insisted that we wait until the war was over, the kingdom safe, and our worries put to rest about our king and the affairs of state. It was then that I contracted the smallpox. I thought I was going to die, I was so ill." He paused. "Have you ever seen anyone with the pox?"

"Never," she almost whispered. "Was it so very dreadful? Tell me what happened."

"It seemed to have come from nowhere," he told her. "One night in the winter months, I could not sleep at all. I felt exhausted for no reason. Then it seemed as if everything had gotten very hot, as if in the middle of summer with a forest fire added to the heat. My head began to pound and my skin began to burn. I threw off all my bedclothes, but shortly afterwards, began to shiver. By morning, I thought it had passed, but before the sun reached noon, my fever returned even worse than before. Several doctors were called and came to bleed me. They tried to force noxious substances down my throat. I dismissed all of them most discourteously - something I had never done in my life." He paused, then stared intently at her. "I saw death in their faces, Margarita." Then he continued. "Another day passed and I drank tea, wine thinned with water, orange and lemon juice as I could not partake food of any kind - only to lose it. My skin was hot to the touch and soon, tiny red flecks no bigger than pinpricks began to be seen across my head. As the hours passed, they flowed like a river down to my toes, like red sand. That same day they began to rise, growing and deepening in size, mainly on my face, forearms and hands. Oddly, at that time, I began to feel better, thinking - or rather, praying - that it was not the pox, but the measles instead. It got worse, but at least a physician arrived who did me some good. He kept the room cool, but not freezing, and gave me small amounts of food - barley-gruel and oatmeal served with figs or other small fruits. He insisted on bleeding me, but not too often. I still had a small fever and thought my dilemma over with. It was not. The pocks got worse and hurt. The skin swelled again. Even my mouth was filled with sores and I could not swallow. Soon another fever was upon me and it was even worse than before. I sent for the priest - it was Padre Felipe."

Margarita was listening with a kind of horrified fascination. When Francisco mentioned Padre Felipe, she exclaimed, "Was not Padre Felipe fearful of catching the pox from you?"

"Padre Felipe is one of the most courageous men I know," he answered mildly. "He did not fear to minister to me or to any other. His presence here in Los Angeles is a great comfort to me."

Margarita seemed ashamed by her comments and looked down for a minute. He put a hand on her shoulder. "Do not reprimand yourself so, dear. Most reasonable people greatly fear the pox - and for good reason."

She looked up at him again. "I had no idea the illness was so bad. What happened after that? How does it cause the scars? How long did it last?"

"The skin peels away and nothing but boils are left. I seemed to go in and out of delirium and when I breathed, it sounded like a death rattle. I even smelled like death. I was certain that I was only a foot away from being in the grave. Then, as suddenly as it appeared, my fever broke and I fell into a deep sleep. The malady had lasted about two weeks, but its terrible disfigurements took much longer to heal. At least I did not have the worst of it, for my hands remain almost as fine as they were before and there are only a few marks on the rest of me, but as you can see, it ruined my looks. I am often grateful that a man can grow a beard to cover the worst of the effects, while a woman must spend her life finding creams and paints, tallow and powders to help her face the mirror."

"Your brow feels almost smooth now," she noted, gently touching his forehead and seeming to notice the scars for the first time.

"And by some miracle, I did not lose my eyelashes or brows because it makes you look quite ferocious, like a staring snake. I am grateful for that, and for surviving intact."

"When Isabel saw you, what did she say?" she asked quietly.

"I saw Isabel months later, when my skin had healed, though it was stained and pitted," he told her. "But I had grown a full beard so she could not see its worse effects. When I came to her, I embraced her as before, but she reacted in great revulsion upon seeing me. As she turned away, I said to her, "Isabel - I am still your Fernando. It is still me here."

Margarita felt indignant and upset. How could that woman do that to you? she thought. "Why did you call yourself 'Fernando'? she asked, instead of posing the question on the tip of her tongue. "Isn't your name 'Francisco'?

"It was her nickname for me," he explained, "from one of my many given names. I am named after my grandfather and my father. My mother insisted on adding the name Francisco. Actually," he smiled, "I prefer it the best."

"So do I," she affirmed, "after the saint of compassion." She sighed a little herself. "After this meeting, did not Isabel still wish to marry you?"

"I did not believe otherwise. There was so much that we shared - our music, our love of art, culture, and all the old-fashioned things. While this was going on in my private life, much more was happening in the political sphere. Up to that time, I had participated a great deal in the restoration of the king, but there were many intrigues and I ended up on the wrong end of imperial favor. As suddenly as the king demoted me for spurious and false reasons, he announced his opposition to our marriage."

Margarita felt a bit outraged at that. "I would think that whom you married was none of his affair," she exclaimed, "even if he is the king."

"Why, Margarita Pérez," he responded, feigning surprise, "you are beginning to sound like a Republican." When he saw her smile mischievously, he added, "You are right, of course, since everyone knew of our long engagement and both families were in agreement and approved of our marriage. There was something going on behind the scenes that I was not aware of. With the demotions, the personal attack by the king on my engagement, it was like a landslide falling on my head. I was stunned by these events, but nothing grieved me more than when Isabel remained silent. She did nothing to counter the king's statements opposing our marriage, and only told me that she could not oppose the king's command."

Margarita started disliking the woman in the portrait the longer she thought about it. Her face took on an expression of pure disgust.

Francisco noted this and put a hand gently to her cheek. She turned to face him. "You see, Margarita, Isabel had every means at her disposal to oppose the king's declaration, yet, with all her wealth, position, and influence, she did not raise a finger other than to tell me that she still loved me, but would submit to the will of the king anyway. She did not have to."

Margarita shook her head in disbelief because in her own mind she doubted whether Isabel had loved Francisco as much as he had cared for her. The woman's fickleness almost angered her, but she could not feel anger with him there, with him so close. But she felt very guilty and needed to tell him what she had begun to earlier. "Francisco, there is something I need to tell you right now." She looked very distressed.

"Did my story frighten you so much, then, dear?" he asked.

"Oh, no, Francisco," she explained. "It's not about you at all. It's just that, well, it is so hard to know how to begin."

"You know you may tell me anything," he said in a quiet voice, holding her hands that were now trembling.

Her eyes filled with tears in spite of herself. "This morning," she told him, "quite early, my father disinherited me. He had a lawyer come and explain everything. He ordered me out of the house and all my belongings with it. I left. I went to Don César and told him what happened. He took me into his home at once and sent his servants to get my things. He is furious. He told me not to worry about anything, that I would have a home with him and his family."

De las Fuentes looked stunned and was angry a long moment before he sighed and let the emotion pass. "You did right," the officer began. "But this is my fault. I should have taken steps to prevent this."

"Oh, no, Francisco," Margarita exclaimed. "I would never have married Señor Muñoz, no matter what my father did. He just disinherited me to punish me. He thinks that I'll run back to him and submit to his demands, but I won't do it, Francisco, I just won't do it. I would rather have nothing at all than not be in love with the man I am married to!"

He took her into his arms and hugged her a long minute. He was greatly moved by both her determination and her moral courage. "Margarita, dearest," he told her, " you, who have nothing, have stood up to the power of a king - and more than once. Not even Isabel had such courage," he told. "Nor I. You have no idea how much I admire what you have done." He paused. "And now I have something I would like to give you to make up for all my shortcomings, if you will accept it." He released her and proceeded to pull a small silken cloth out of a hidden coin pocket in his trousers near his sash.

She was consumed with curiosity as she watched him carefully untie a golden-colored pouch. When he took out the object, she saw that it, too, was wrapped in another piece of soft material. He pulled the object out and presented it to her for her inspection.

It was a ring and set in its golden band was an inlaid musical note created out of tiny diamonds. It was the most beautiful ring she had ever seen. There was a rainbow of colors in the tiny flashes of light as she moved it from side to side. Even as she gazed at it with awe, he took it from her, raised her left hand and slipped it on her finger. "I've never seen anything so beautiful before," she gushed. "Is it really for me?"

He only smiled with his eyes, for his demeanor was serious. "I deeply apologize that it was not originally made for you alone," he told her. "But you are the most deserving of it. I offer you this as my pledge and as an engagement ring." He paused. "Dearest Margarita, will you take this humble captain for your husband in marriage?"

She swallowed hard, her eyes filling with tears in her happiness as she smiled. "And will you take this disinherited old maid as your wife in marriage?" she asked, throwing her arms around his neck in joy. Both of them laughed together, then she cried. He held her in his arms and felt very happy, moved by her silent assent, even as the pain in his leg now reached out with its long tentacles to almost spoil the moment.

"Oh, Francisco," she wept. "It's the most beautiful ring I've ever seen and I don't care if it's original or not. I'm only crying because I'm so happy. You are the only man I've ever wanted to marry."

"Margarita, dearest, are you sure, because you may face danger as my wife since my enemies have already made one attempt to kill me. I would fear for you as well should any further attempts be made," he whispered in her ear.

She laid her head on his shoulder. "I've never been more certain of anything in my life, Francisco," she responded. "We'll face them together. But, are you sure, too, because I wonder if I'm really worthy of you. I'm not even an aristocrat, not like you."

He chuckled at that as she lifted her head and gazed into his eyes. "You once asked me if I believed that someone could be sent to you; that someone could be someone else's salvation," he told her. "I now truly believe that, dear. I believe that God has united us through our love of music and the spirituality that links us in this and many other ways. You may not be noble in the eyes of those who surround us, but you are in my eyes - and that is all that matters."

They kissed again and she wiped her eyes. Then she attempted a little humor. "Well, at least you won't have to ask my father's permission to marry me now." She gave a little laugh.

"My dear, I had no intention of asking your father," he declared, but there was a twinkle in his eye.

"What?" she exclaimed in surprise.

"Ah, your mother would have sufficed," he explained, "for me, that is. And I do intend to ask her permission. If you would like, I will also ask Don César since he is now acting as your guardian."

Margarita beamed at that. "Don César will probably tell you that he has been waiting for your declaration." They both laughed.

"And now, let's go see Padre Felipe to get his blessing," Francisco responded with a smile, enjoying the combination of her humor and gentle teasing. He took her arm in his and they left the room together. "I will tell him that I have finally found the balance."

"So have I," she replied. "And I am happier now than I've ever been in all my life."

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Sergeant García was coming in through the gate when he saw the capitán and Margarita Pérez come out of the comandante's office. He noted the couple walked arm in arm and both had a blissful look on their faces. De las Fuentes barely nodded at the sergeant as they passed.

García halted and turned back toward the officer, "Oh, Comandante…"

The officer stopped in mid-stride. "Yes, Sergeant?" The large man who began to grin hugely distracted him.

"Congratulations, Capitán. Congratulations, Señorita," the sergeant smiled and gave both of them a snappy salute.

"Thank you, Sergeant García," De las Fuentes responded and returned the salute.

When they were both several meters away from the cuartel, Margarita asked, "How did he know, Francisco?"

"Ah," the officer replied. "Those in love are like what our poet Luís de Góngora wrote so long ago:

'Oh, bella Galatea, Oh tú que en dos incluyes las mas bellas' -

'Oh, lovely Galatea, your eyes hold the brightest stars.'

"Those who have known love, recognize the symptoms."

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Chapter 21
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