Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Margarita Peréz went through the ritual she had established for herself. She went to her room and cried all afternoon and well into the evening, hiding her face with her long, light brown hair. The next morning, she went to church and to confession. Then, she consulted with the padre, knowing that her parents would follow her and wring their hands in despair. Then she would play the piano for hours, first heavy and monotonous dirges and then light-hearted melodies that had that playful quality that meant that she had won against the darker spirits.

This time, however, she was also angry. The man who proposed a match to her father was a rake, she told herself. He wanted her for a bride the way some women add diamonds to their wedding bands - to show and impress others. Well, she would be no one’s ornament.

Although she had been told numerous times that she was a beauty, she really didn’t believe it. She was, in her opinion, herself - slender, pale, and blue-eyed. She believed that she had the right proportions of everything she was supposed to and nothing more or less. If anything, she thought her friends were prettier, but she didn’t deny that she was very nice-looking. She was more interested in dressing well, but not extravagantly, and her modesty was something admired. Perhaps these were the very qualities that attracted most men to her – someone who did not seem to threaten their egos. But little did they know her other side, for encompassed in her polite behavior was a spirit that was independent and even a little unrepentant in its independence.

As for her latest suitor, she thought so little of him that she would stick her tongue out in derision after he turned his back. As he sputtered the usual platitudes, she would roll her eyes. Previously she would do it in private, but lately she would do it in their presence, something that disconcerted not a few. As for this latest one, his eyes were off balance, his lips too fat in a self-satisfied pout, and she absolutely loathed the scent he wore - crushed lily. She really didn’t like musk either, so that wouldn’t have helped him. She didn’t need his money or social status. When she found out, just by accident, that he was allergic to cats, she bought several of them and held one in her lap when he came to call on her. The rest of the cats hid themselves under chairs or behind the drapes and even under his chair. When his eyes began to water and he began to sneeze continuously, she smiled to herself. She told him that she was sorry that he was ill and it would be to his advantage to leave. When he finally did leave, she shut the door and laughed until the tears streamed down her face. And the piano put forth merry tunes and melodies for hours. That was the week before. When her parents found out what she had done, they were furious. Well, that hadn’t stopped him from proposing and that is what had made her mad. The simpleton couldn’t take a hint, could he?

This afternoon, however, after the ritual confession to the padre, she went to visit her best friends, Juanita Villa and Ismaida Rodriguez. Ismaida was a tiny young woman, about four foot ten with dark hair and blue eyes. Juanita was taller, about five foot four and had auburn hair. Of the three, she was the most mischievous and clever. Both of these girls were seventeen and loved talking about embroidery and music. In fact, all three of them were musicians. They often met in each other’s homes and played piano, mostly duets. Other times, to escape the prying eyes of their families, they would go to church together and meet out in the shady graveyard to sit on a stone bench. Surrounded by the mission’s roses and shade trees, its wandering paths and high, secretive walls, they were in a world of their own. There they would chat about the latest gossip in town, or about some handsome young cousin who was visiting a friend, or that dashing outlaw Zorro whose romantic blade touched most female hearts. Nobody knew who El Zorro was and, of the three girls, only Ismaida Rodriguez had actually seen him fleetingly on his great black stallion one day while she was out riding with her dueña. This was late one afternoon when the unpopular garrison commander, Capitán Monastario, was pursuing him through the hills. She had waved a kerchief at El Zorro and imagined that he had saluted her with a sweeping gesture from his black hat.

Today’s news was about Juan Valdez and the most unexpected behavior of the comandante, Enrique Monastario, in setting him free. Ismaida always thought that, at some point, the garrison commander would have to do something right. "He’s too handsome to really be that mean," she thought.

Juanita and Margarita disagreed. "Mama says that beautiful boxes can have demons inside and that is what Capitán Monastario is," Juanita declared. "El Zorro probably made him release Señor Valdez."

Margarita agreed but was more practical. "Well, I think El Zorro would have had to put a sword to the comandante’s throat before he would release those men," she said, "and nobody has seen El Zorro at all. Perhaps we should walk across the plaza and see what is going on. If EL Zorro is around, maybe we could catch a glimpse of him."

"Yes, let’s go," the other two girls agreed and all three left through the gated door.

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

Padre Felipe was accompanying Capitán de las Fuentes towards the inn when he caught a glimpse of three young women chatting and laughing as they crossed the plaza. He frowned to himself because just two hours before one of them, Margarita Pérez, had been in tears at confession as if it were the end of the world. But he pretended not to see them - not just yet.

Capitán de las Fuentes was observing the bustle of the plaza, the freshness of the whitewashed shops, and the exceptionally blue sky. "This seems to be a very pleasant town, Padre. I hope to see much of it and its surrounding environs." He noticed that the padre was leading him in a roundabout direction to the inn. He moved to the priest’s right side and noticed that they were on a course to intercept three attractive young ladies crossing the plaza. It was a clever course because it put them in line with the public well and made the padre almost invisible to the oncoming trio. The officer wondered what Felipe was up to.

Ismaida was the first to catch sight of the newcomer to Los Angeles. "Oh, look," she said. "I’ve never seen him before."

"Who?" asked Juanita.

"Coming towards us - the army officer. Have you seen him before?"

"Not me," responded Margarita. "It’s not Capitán Monastario." She shaded her eyes and then caught sight of the priest. "Uh, oh." For someone who had acted prostrate with grief just a little earlier, she would have to think fast on her feet. She looked around. There was no place to retreat to.

"Good afternoon, my children," Padre Felipe greeted them as he appeared out of the far shadow of the well.

"Good afternoon, Padre Felipe," the girls responded in a chorus with their most charming smiles.

"Such a lovely day," the Padre continued. He looked at Margarita and said pointedly. "I am glad to see that you have recovered from your grief so quickly, Margarita."

"Being with my best friends can turn a cloudy day into a sunny one, " she replied. "I don’t know what I would do without them."

The army officer cleared his throat. "I don’t believe that I have yet had the good fortune to be introduced to these incomparable flowers of Los Angeles," he smiled.

The girls giggled, then curtsied politely.

"Capitán de las Fuentes," began the priest, "may I introduce a few of them? First, here is Señorita Ismaida Rodriguez."

De las Fuentes doffed his hat and swept it past his scarlett-sashed waist as he bowed in a courtly manner. He took Ismaida’s hand and kissed it saying, "Ah, Señorita Rodriguez, were your eyes stars in the night sky, none other could shine so brightly."

Ismaida’s fine dark eyebrows shot up. "Oh," was her only response.

"And Señorita Juanita Villa," Felipe introduced the second girl.

"I am honored, Señorita Villa, " he said, bowing and kissing her hand as well. "Your step is as light as a gazelle in the green forests of fairyland. You must dance divinely."

Juanita looked astonished. "I do dance, Señor. How did you know?"

"Oh, Capitán de las Fuentes, when I knew him in Spain, was one of the best dancers at Court, Señorita," said the padre. "He must know all the dances in fashion."

"Ah, Padre," acknowledged the officer. "That was many years ago. I am sure that this young lady is much more up to date than I on the latest fashion. We danced waltzes in my time, but I hear that Gypsy dancing is all the rage at the present."

"Waltzes are still very fashionable, Capitán," Juanita ventured. "Only the tempo varies more than it used to. My parents think that Gypsy dancing is vulgar."

"Then they must be from the North," responded De las Fuentes, "for in Andalucía and Seville there is nothing that they won’t dance to, even if it is ‘vulgar.’"

De las Fuentes turned toward the third young woman. She seemed to be sizing up the conversations almost in expectation of another bit of flattery from just another gentleman. He sensed that she would not be very impressed with his usual gallantries. She seemed older and more sophisticated than the other two girls, just from how her sharp blue eyes studied the situation before her and by her wary expression. Nevertheless, he smiled pleasantly.

"This is our own Señorita Margarita Pérez," Felipe said with a gesture of introduction.

De las Fuentes bowed and took her reluctant hand into his. "My dear Señorita Pérez." He likewise kissed her hand, but did not yet release it from his grasp when he returned to his normal height. "Ah," he said, moving his fingers lightly over hers, "a musician’s hands. I can feel it. Do you play piano or perhaps the flute? I can easily imagine you in your home in a Mozart quartet."

Margarita Pérez had told herself that nothing this officer could say would interest her at all. She saw the looks of amazement on the faces of her two friends and was surprised herself by what he had observed. "I do play piano," she acknowledged. "As a matter of fact, all of us do." She hesitated a moment. "But how could you tell?"

"I was in Salzburg and later Vienna as a young boy traveling with family members. I had the good fortune to hear a famous musician play there. It was Señor Mozart. His older sister, Señorita Anna María Mozart, also played the harpsichord. I was honored to have a few words with both of them and to kiss the hands of the Señorita. There was something in your hands that reminded me of her," he replied.

"How extraordinary," Padre Felipe commented, very interested himself. "I knew you had been to Venice to see the operas, as well as to Vienna to hear famous composers. But, what about the famous musicians in Madrid? Don’t I remember the Italian Boccherini who played there? He was an astonishing cellist. Metastasio was a favorite of our then Queen María Bárbara."

"That was a little before my time, Padre," responded De las Fuentes. "But I should like to hear more of these ladies’ musical interests. As they love piano, they no doubt know about the latest developments."

"Pardon me, Capitán," the priest reminded him. "We are certainly having a delightful time discussing music, but I believe that we need to dine before continuing the rest of the hearings at three o’clock this afternoon. There is not much time left for dining and a siesta."

"I am truly disappointed that we must cut short such a pleasant conversation," De las Fuentes replied in a regretful tone of voice. "I hope you dear ladies will forgive us." He paused as the three young women nodded. "I also need to go to the chapel before the next hearing resumes," he added to Felipe.

Padre Felipe nodded. "Speaking of the chapel, Señorita Margarita - your parents asked me to speak with you about our meeting this morning. I would like you to come by to see me again, perhaps tomorrow morning?"

Margarita swallowed. Uh, oh, she thought to herself. Looks like I’m in trouble again. But she smiled as if she had not a single care in the world. "I’ll be there." She turned to the captain in order to end the encounter on a more positive note. "I have enjoyed listening to you speak about your travels and meeting the famous composers," she told him, "but I’m afraid that we are too far from Europe to know the latest developments." She paused, looking at her two friends. "Perhaps you could tell us about them when we see you again. I hope that will be soon." The other two girls nodded.

"It would be a great pleasure to do so," De las Fuentes replied and bowed again, kissing each of their hands in turn. He placed his hat on his head and departed with the padre towards the inn.

The three young women watched them depart and then looked at each other. Ismaida began to laugh. "He sure is old-fashioned," she giggled. "All he needs are some plumes or feathers in his hat. I couldn’t believe what he said about my eyes."

"Me, too," added Juanita. "But he’s very smart to notice all those things. He must have seen me skipping a little as we walked or maybe when I twirled. I guess I do it all the time without noticing." She turned to Margarita. "What do you think of him?" she asked.

Margarita watched the officer as he disappeared through the door of the inn, then turned to her two friends and said, "I want him to talk to me again about music."

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

 

Don Alejandro de la Vega and his son, Diego, occupied the table next to the door in the inn. There were no other tables available for those seeking an afternoon meal or a mug of wine. So, when the door to the inn opened and Padre Felipe entered, followed by an army officer, Don Alejandro stood up at once and invited them to dine at his table.

Felipe nodded and smiled, thanking him. The officer made an exaggerated bow from the waist ending with a flourish of his hand. His gesture amused both the De la Vegas.

"You are a rare sight in the inn, Padre," Alejandro noted once the introductions had been made, "but a welcome one."

"I fear the sale of spirits may diminish while I am here," Felipe responded cheerfully. "Only the wives will be happy with my presence." The men chuckled at his words.

Alejandro turned to the officer. "Capitán de las Fuentes, welcome to Los Angeles. I trust that you have met the comandante already?"

"I have not yet had that pleasure," De las Fuentes replied with a thoughtful look. "But it may be something I will need to tend to upon his return."

Felipe smiled knowingly. "The Capitán is not joking, Don Alejandro," he explained. "You see, right now, Capitán de las Fuentes is the acting comandante of Los Angeles."

The inn grew noticeably quieter as if most of the customers had been listening to the conversation at the De la Vega table. There was a hum of voices, followed by the innkeeper’s hasty appearance. Señor Pacheco waved a small towel like a sail. "Oh, Padre Felipe, welcome to the inn. May I get you and your guest some refreshment?"

"Padre Felipe is my guest," De las Fuentes responded, turning to the innkeeper and correcting him. "And if these gentlemen would care for an additional refreshment as well, it would please me."

"Thank you, Comandante," responded Alejandro. "I won’t turn down a glass of wine."

"Are you the comandante?" Señor Pacheco asked De las Fuentes in surprise. "I have heard many good things about what has happened today."

"I am currently the acting comandante, yes," the officer replied. "And what good things have happened today?"

"Capitán de las Fuentes," answered Alejandro, "the hearings you have held for the men in jail today are big news in this town. It is not often that justice has been so quickly and ably administered in Los Angles."

"I am sorry to hear that," the officer responded. "But there are hearings yet to be held and I can not say what the outcome will be. Each case must be judged on its own merit."

"If what has been accomplished so far is any indication of what is to come, Capitán," Diego spoke for the first time, "then we have much to look forward to."

"Have we met before, Don Diego?" De las Fuentes asked suddenly. "There is something in the intonation of your voice that leads me to believe that we have."

"I returned from Spain only a few months ago," Diego replied calmly. "Perhaps we met in Madrid? I was there for four years."

"I have not been to Madrid recently," De las Fuentes replied, "but it is possible that we met. Perhaps at a recital."

"I attended many while there," Diego confirmed. He looked up the innkeeper. "I’d like a cup of tea. What would you like, Padre?"

"I think I will indulge myself in some lemonade," Felipe smiled "And I will have whatever the Capitán orders for lunch."

"You could starve on my rations," the small officer responded humorously. "But let us indulge ourselves today." He looked up at the innkeeper. "Señor, bring on your finest culinary creations and godly nectars so that we may inebriate ourselves into an earthly bliss of the palate."

Señor Pacheco seemed at bit confused. He looked at Don Alejandro who only smiled and then at Don Diego in an entreating sort of way.

Diego grinned. "Ah, nothing but the finest wine and food for the padre and comandante," he said and leaned back in his chair as he watched the innkeeper nod and leave hurriedly. "We need to dine with the both of you more often."

"But next time," Don Alejandro interjected, "I shall play the host."

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

He had less than an hour to accomplish his goal. After politely excusing himself after a long lunch and pleasant conversation, Francisco de las Fuentes made his way to the chapel at the mission and, after genuflection, found himself pondering where he could be somewhat inconspicuous - there - towards the back of the chapel on the far left or right.

He put his hat next to him on the bench, and then carefully lowered himself to the kneeling board. Long ago, since the advent of his nightmares, he had learned to position his arms over or against the back of the pew in front of him and cover his face as if in deep prayer. He would go to sleep almost immediately. On lucky days he could sleep three or four hours without anybody really noticing it. He would just change location in church after sleeping an hour or so in one spot. And in church, he never had the nightmares. He had pondered the reason for this for some time and came to the conclusion that a witch or a warlock in the pay of his political enemies must have cursed him. Or maybe it was punishment for his innumerable sins of which he was sure he had many. When he was being more logical, he had to admit that he mainly had his nightmares while lying flat. If he propped himself up on pillows, which was not really comfortable for him, he could also sleep without the nightmares. But for whatever the reason, he felt better in church in the comforting shadows of the statues of the saints, the Blessed Virgin and all the symbols of the benevolence of God. And why shouldn’t he? He was a prince, appointed and anointed by God, yet brought low by who knows what. Maybe he had sinned along the way by being too honest or having loved Isabel too well. No, it couldn’t be those reasons. But - he yawned and closed his eyes and was soon fast asleep. He did not know that three pairs of curious eyes had watched him cross the plaza and enter the church.

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

 

After returning from shopping at the general store and chatting with acquaintances in the street, Margarita Pérez and her friends decided to stroll around the plaza. They were near the mission when Margarita spotted Padre Felipe leaving the inn and heading toward them. She told her friends that she was in trouble with the padre and wanted to avoid speaking to him again. Perhaps if they went into the church, they could avoid any conversation while appearing to be more pious than they felt. Within minutes all three girls entered the chapel, dipped a finger in the holy water, knelt, made the sign of the cross, and then hurriedly sat down in the back.

Margarita closed her eyes and waited long minutes before daring to open one eye and then another to see if Padre Felipe was anywhere nearby. It wasn’t that she was afraid of him; she just did not like the idea that he might say anything more to her before tomorrow’s unwelcome encounter. She sighed in relief because he was nowhere in sight. She turned her eyes towards her friends who still had their eyes closed. Then she saw him.

The officer was almost slumped over the back of the bench in front of him. His hands covered his face and he looked quite lost in prayer. He didn’t move at all the entire time she gazed at him. Then she felt someone nudge her. It was Juanita Villa.

Juanita leaned over to her friend and whispered. "Look, I think he’s asleep," she pointed out.

"So?" she responded as if not particularly interested.

"Padre Felipe said the hearings would resume at three o’clock and it’s only five minutes away," Juanita replied. "Why don’t we see?"

"What do you mean?" whispered Margarita in return, somewhat alarmed by Juanita’s audacity.

Juanita smiled mischievously. She cupped her hands to her mouth and said in a loud whisper, "Capitán de las Fuentes! Capitán de las Fuentes!"

"Shhhh, don’t do that!" said Margarita, looking anxiously around and then at the officer. He did not respond at all.

Ismaida giggled and did the same. "Capitán de las Fuentes! Wake up, Capitán!" she said in a loud whisper and snickered into her hands. "He is asleep."

"He’s going to be late," Juanita said to Margarita. "What can we do?"

"Oh, I don’t know," she responded nervously. "Why don’t you call again since you are so bold?"

"Oh, no, Margarita," responded Juanita, still whispering. "Look - Señora Pertolá just came in. She’d tell the padre we were misbehaving in church. You’d be in trouble again."

Ismaida had to cover her mouth with her hand. She knew what Juanita was up to and it was almost too funny for words.

"Go ahead, Margarita, you do it," Juanita urged. "You go wake him up."

"I can’t do that," Margarita responded. "Why don’t you do it?"

"But you’re the oldest, Margarita, and besides, he talked to you the longest, don’t you remember?" Juanita insisted.

"Oh, my," Margarita replied and became agitated. "I guess I could. I’ll just tell him that he’s running late. He’ll just thank me and leave."

"Go on, go on," the other two girls urged.

Margarita was uncertain. She looked around to see if anyone else was watching her. No one was. She went two pews up and moved silently down toward the sleeping officer. "Capitán de las Fuentes," she whispered and got no response. She turned back to look at Juanita and Ismaida. Juanita gestured for her to poke him.

She hesitated and touched his arm. "Capitán," she whispered. "Wake up." There was still no response. She looked back at her friends again in dismay. Juanita again gestured for her to poke him. Margarita hesitated, then elbowed him in the ribs, much harder than she had intended.

The comandante’s eyes shot wide open and he sat back with a thump on the bench, looking startled. The point of the scabbard of his saber shot up and hit the pew in front and its hilt banged against the back of the seat. Several worshippers in the forward pews turned around to see what the disturbance was. He blinked as he saw a young woman sitting next to him blushing to the roots of her hair. "Señorita?" he responded in surprise. Then he recognized her.

She handed him his hat. "Hurry, Capitán. You are late for the hearing!"

"Ah," he replied and took his hat from her.

She slid down the bench on her long skirt to get out of his way. As she backed out and stood in the aisle, he exited the pew, then bowed to her and kissed her hand - several times - and hastened out of the chapel. "Oh, my," she said out loud, then quickly covered her mouth with her hand. She looked over at her friends, Ismaida and Juanita, who were giggling and looking at each other. Then she became very self-conscious. She looked around anxiously toward the front of the chapel and saw the accusing eyes of Señora Pertolá who had seen everything. Uh, oh, she thought, today is not my day. She surmised the best thing to do would be to leave the chapel in the officer’s wake and she turned on her heel, gesturing to her friends to follow her.

Capitán de las Fuentes was halfway across the plaza when the girls emerged from the church and watched him limp painfully the rest of the way to the cuartel. They turned and looked at each other in consternation. "Why, he’s crippled," said Ismaida.

 

 

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