Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-four

 

Margarita was dreaming. In her dream she was in a garden with flowers of all colors – reds, yellows, violets, pinks, oranges, whites, and crimson. Some were in pots; others grew in the center of the walkway, or hung elegantly from the walls. In the center of the garden was a grand piano. She saw herself playing the piano, surrounded by her friends. The sun was shining and birds were singing in accompaniment to the music, fluttering their wings in their exuberance, stretching their stick-like legs. She stopped playing and suddenly felt like dancing. She stood up to find a partner, looking around, somehow vaguely expecting someone, someone who looked like Francisco de las Fuentes. The music should have stopped, but the piano continued to play by itself, the keys moving as if she had never taken her fingers away.

A figure moved in through the gate into the garden. It was her father. He threatened to have the piano taken away. You can’t take way the piano, she thought, not when it’s playing by itself. Couldn’t he see that?

Suddenly, the garden grew overcast. The sun disappeared and dark clouds formed overhead. She sat back down at the piano so that it could not be taken away again. Her friends seem to fade away as if into mists and the birds fled in a flock of browns. She was determined that no one would take the piano away because she refused to allow anyone near it. She waved a sheaf of musical compositions at her father to keep him away. He blustered from the other side of the rose bushes and she heard her mother weeping in the back ground.

Margarita heard all these things, saw each little act unfold with perfect clarity. But she had little time to think about what it could mean. Then, someone called her name in a harsh tone. She turned her head. Salvador Muñoz was there by the piano, mocking her, insulting her, trying to grab the sheets of music. She hit him with the sheets that transformed themselves into flower vases that shattered as she threw them. He pulled out a gun and shot her again and again. She fell to the ground thinking, How many times will he shoot me before I die? She kept falling toward the ground but never quite reached the dirt. There were the echoing sounds of pistol shots. Darkness began to surround her until there was only a thick fog... She searched for Francisco but could not find him. She panicked as everyone disappeared and she found herself alone. She called out with her mind – Francisco, help me, save me! She called out to him again and again – Francisco, help me, save me! She thought she saw him in the distance and she held out her hands towards him, imploring him to hurry, but she heard nothing but the mocking voice of Salvador. She called and called as if for an eternity.

He knelt by the rough wooden bed and took one of her hands in both of his, gently caressing and soothing it, then kissing it softly. He whispered her name at first, – Margarita, Querida Margarita. He watched her head move, her lips attempt to utter a sound and he said her name aloud. She did not awaken. Francisco de las Fuentes put her hand down and moved the tips of his fingers of his right hand to her forehead, gently allowing them to cascade down the side of her face. Margarita, dear, he repeated with more force in his deep baritone. He caressed her long, loose hair.

This time she heard his voice in her dream and it was next to her, crystal clear. She felt the warmth of his touch. The demons of dreams reluctantly released her from their grasp and she awoke, gradually opening her eyes, blinking in the light, slowly focusing on the voice that called her from the realm of darkness up to the light, into the present.

Margarita felt his presence before she saw his face. Still coming into consciousness, her words now took on force. "Francisco, Francisco, help me," she called out as loud as she could, but the small man next to her on one knee only heard a whisper.

"Margarita, dearest," he repeated and kissed her again, this time on the lips, "I am here, don’t be afraid."

Finally, her eyes come to rest on his face. She saw the familiar light-blue eyes and the encouraging smile under his moustaches.

"Francisco" she repeated.

"I’m here, dear."

"Is it really you, or am I dreaming again?" Before he could answer, she begged "Don’t leave me, don’t go away."

"I am here, Margarita. I won’t go away again," he promised. "Feel my hand," while caressing hers; "Feel my kiss," and kissed her lips.

She smiled faintly, wishing the kiss could last longer. "I’m so afraid."

"I am with you. Why are you afraid?" he asked in a mild tone.

"I’m afraid I’m going to die. I’m afraid that my dream of finding you, of finding happiness will die, too." There was the sting of tears in her eyes.

"You are not going to die, my Darling. Doctor Aguilera and Señora Montoya are taking good care of you," the small man in the blue and white uniform assured her.

"I feel like I’m going to die anyway, Francisco. I’m being punished for not obeying my parents. I’m being punished for loving music better than anything. I will die before I can find happiness. Salvador shot me so I will never be happy, so I can never marry you."

"You are not going to die, Sweetheart," he told her. "Salvador Muñoz is under arrest in the cuartel. He is behind bars. He cannot stop us from marrying. Look here, feel my ring upon your finger. Do you not feel it?" He brought her hands together very carefully and with much gentleness.

She felt her left hand with her right. "Yes, I feel it," she whispered. "We are betrothed."

"I have good news, Margarita. The gypsy and the Indians cured my leg. I can walk again," Francisco smiled. "I wanted you to be the first to know. We will dance at our wedding. I will take you to Court and we will whirl as if we have the wings of the angels."

She smiled at that but began to close her eyes again. "I feel so cold. Hold me, Francisco."

He adjusted the blanket, tucking it carefully about her neck. Then, he put his cheek next to hers, his head almost on the pillow and caressed her hair, kissing her ear, the line of her jaw, her neck, murmuring his love. The room grew quiet again and outside the window came the sound of birds calling to each other and the rustle of leaves in the branches of the trees.

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

Don Alejandro de la Vega learned at the cuartel that the comandante was at the doctor’s office. He stood talking to Sergeant García at the gates of the garrison. The white bearded don asked the foremost question in his mind. "How is the Capitán taking the news, Sergeant?"

"The comandante is a very brave man, Don Alejandro," García told him, "but he is very upset." The big man reconsidered his words. "As a matter of fact, I would say he is very angry. I have never seen him angry before. I would hate to be in the shoes of Salvador Muñoz, but they would not fit anyway."

It was this anger that concerned Alejandro, not that the prince did not have the right to be angry. It was where and how that anger might be channeled. He hurried across the plaza and met Diego who was just stepping outside the doctor’s office at the pharmacy.

"Diego, my son, how is His Excellency taking the situation with Señorita Margarita?"

Diego shrugged at times like this. "Well, Father, he is composed, just the way one would expect of such a man. But what is to come, I do not know."

"At least that is good for now. But what will come is on the minds of many men. What will be next is the trial and punishment. Surely, this will test everyone’s commitment to all the principles they hold dear."

"This is not just about the comandante – it is about all of our neighbors as well," Diego pointed out. "A vigilante mob already pursued Salvador the same way they did the Indians."

Alejandro nodded. "I only hope that we will not see a repeat performance of that kind of behavior. I would like to think that these men would learn from the first lesson, but given the opportunity, some men wish to take matters into their own hands. It only makes things worse. Will emotion ride roughshod over reason and a duty to act in a just manner, especially in matters that concern one of our neighbors, Don Felix?"

Inside the pharmacy, Francisco opened the door of the little room. He asked the gypsy and doctor to come in. After he closed the door, he told them that Margarita has insisted that she is going to die. "No offense intended, learned doctor," the officer said politely to the gray-bearded physician, "but I want Margarita moved. Is it safe to move her?"

A few minutes later, the door opened again and the officer asked Don César into the room as well. César was hoping for better news.

"Don César, may I call upon your hospitality once again?" Francisco asked courteously. "It is our opinion that Margarita can be moved carefully. I would like her to be in more cheerful surroundings that would be more conducive to her healing and mental well-being. This seems too melancholy a place for her to think positive thoughts."

César understood at once. "Say no more, Don Francisco," he said, nodding and also using a more informal way of addressing the comandante to let him know he had not taken offense at his refusal to perform publicly. "My family and I welcome Margarita back into our home. Her mother is still staying with us and, we hope, will continue to do so."

There was no shortage of volunteers to move the young lady onto a stretcher and move her back to the Rodríguez residence. Don César left ahead of everyone in order to prepare the room for the sick girl. He understood that Margarita should be put in a decent bed and had the servants move the one from her room down to the sala. The household was a bustle of activity, and not just within. Several hours after that the word spread that the young lady would be moving back to Don César’s, two carpenters showed up at the front door with an item they said was for the young lady. Don César went to the door and met the two workmen who bowed at his appearance. He knew them from the local furniture maker’s and asked about their delivery.

"It’s like this Don César," one of the young men told the musician. "All of us workers wanted to do something for the Señorita Pérez. We thought that this might help due to the situation she will be in." He and the other man removed some sacking from around the items.

César was delighted when he saw the gifts. "These room dividers will be perfect," he beamed.

The workmen nodded, pleased by the maestro’s smile. "A lady like Señorita Pérez will need some privacy in such a large room, and if this will help, we are glad to donate them."

"Allow me to give you something for all your hard labor," César began reaching into his pocket, but the workmen only smiled and backed out the door. "For the señorita," they insisted and left. César thought what a lucky girl Margarita was, having the love of men she didn’t even know.

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

While Margarita was being transported to the Rodríguez, Francisco walked beside the stretcher. Helping to carry it was Diego de la Vega and Roberto Cárdenas, the storekeeper. One he reached the home of Don César, he and his retinue were greeted at the door by Ramona, Ismaida, Juanita and the female servants. They hustled all the men out of the way once the señorita was helped into bed by the doctor, the gypsy, and a mid-wife who acted as a nurse.

"There is much for us to do, so all of you please come back later," Ramona announced.

The men departed the room and their steps led them back to the patio just outside the front door. The comandante thanked everyone for accompanying the señorita to the home and for their help.

Don Diego walked with the officer back to the cuartel. "As I understand it, Don Francisco, this change of residence should do Señorita Margarita much good," he offered. "She will be there with her mother and with her best friends."

"I hope so, Don Diego," Francisco responded. "She seems possessed of a great melancholy, even a great fatalism, I never suspected."

"You know that the señorita was, for many years, badgered by her father to marry and it has taken a great toll upon her to hold up against such pressure," Diego commented.

"This I understand," Francisco replied. "But now, unlike any previous time, she should see her dreams coming true at last. There is no more pressure, no more unhappiness. I am greatly unsettled by her belief that she is being punished so that she cannot attain this happiness."

"Your pardon, Don Francisco," Diego reminded him delicately, "but you yourself once felt this as well, that there was some higher power punishing you for your opposition to the king. Is it possible that Margarita somehow believes the same thing?"

The man in the blue and white military uniform looked thoughtful. "It is true I mentioned this to Margarita some time ago. I hope she is not applying it to herself. This may be a powerful form of self-punishment. I am not sure such thoughts would be easy to overcome."

"Do you have any ideas about how to help this situation, if I may ask?" Diego inquired.

The small officer looked up at the tall don with a smile. "I would like to show you something at the cuartel I think will help. But first, I still have a few official duties, especially regarding the recent death of Señor Castañeda."

"I think I may be of help in this regard," Diego volunteered. "He has no family here in Los Angeles, but he may have relatives in México. The best one to ask about this is his compadre, Miguel Cisneros. Doctor Aguilera could send a certificate of death to the proper authorities in Monterey and ask that a copy be forwarded to México."

"Since his death occurred under my command," the Capitán remarked, "I will send a letter that states his death was accidental, the body recovered and given a proper burial. I hope this will be of some small consolation to whatever family he may have."

"Not many officials do even this, Comandante," Diego responded. "It is one of your characteristics that have endeared you to our community."

The small officer was silent as they entered the gates of the cuartel. His eyes passed over the jail on the far side of the interior before they entered the comandante’s office. Francisco closed the door behind his guest.

Diego wondered what the prince was thinking and watched the small man hang up his hat on the hook by the wooden door. He did not fail to notice the capitán’s hard look to the prisoner in the jail.

"I am afraid that this may change regarding Señor Muñoz," Francisco replied frankly in response to Diego’s comment. "I find it an act of extreme cowardice for that young man to attempt the murder of so innocent a young lady as Señorita Margarita. He has stacked the cards against himself by his actions."

"This is true, Comandante," Diego said quietly. "The most difficult task for anyone, especially you, will be to conduct this trial as you would any other. To be objective, rather than subjective, is a task that I myself would not like to face. I do not envy you, Don Francisco."

Francisco nodded, then cleared his throat. "If you will do me the courtesy of waiting here a moment, I would like to retrieve a special ‘medicine’ which I hope will help the situation with Señorita Margarita." With that, he disappeared into his quarters. A few minutes later he emerged with a long rectangular box. He placed it on his desk and looked up at the young don with an almost mischievous look.

Diego was curious when he saw the box and he stepped up to the desk with his eyebrows raised. He smiled as the officer opened the hinged box and pulled aside a soft cloth. Within the box was a violin and bow. "Ah," Diego nodded. "Now I understand, Comandante. Your ‘medicine’ is Music."

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

The home of Don César was already bustling with activity. Ismaida played some familiar airs on the piano, glancing back at Margarita in the bed. The sick girl tied to smile, especially when Don César slid onto the piano stool and played wildly and frantically, making all sorts of laughable mistakes that sent Ismaida and Juanita into peals of laughter.

María brought in bright orange California poppies and placed them by the bed. They were a gift from Padre Felipe, she announced, who would be visiting her later that afternoon. They joined the purple and yellow chrysanthemums from the flower vendor.

Pilar Montoya took her turn at the bed, holding Margarita’s hands and reading the future in her palms. "Look at this, Señorita," she declared holding one of the girl’s hands face up, "Here is your Fate Line where it crosses the Heart Line – for you, this means a long life. Here is your Heart Line. Let us see what it says. Yours is straight. Do you know what that means? It means that for you, only the best is good enough. It is for you to choose your lover, not for anyone else to choose for you. Oh, so that’s how you caught Don Francisco!"

Margarita smiled weakly, not really sure whether she should believe the gypsy or not.

Late that afternoon, Diego de la Vega showed up with his guitar and sat near the bed. Everyone gathered around the young don who wore his best blue trousers, short blue vest, a pure white shirt with a black tie and blue jacket. "What is the best thing to sing about?" he asked with a smile. "Why, there’s nothing better in all the world to sing about than love!"

Juanita and Ismaida and María Pérez listened to his playing as if enchanted. Diego played and sang a popular, cheerful song he hoped would lift his old friend’s spirits:

When the strolling minstrels sing

They sing of the gaviota –

A pure white gull that flies o’er the summer seas -

And my own true love is like the gaviota

Like the gull in flight, she dances gracefully

Everyone joined in the chorus:

Fly, gaviota, fly

Dance, señorita, dance

Gypsy spirit, oh so wild and free

And my own true love is like the gaviota

Like the gull in flight, she dances gracefully.

Everyone clapped when Diego finished singing. Margarita nodded, closed her eyes and looked pale. Diego looked up at Don César with concern. The maestro could only shake his head a little sadly.

Diego walked over to the bed and knelt next to it. "Margarita, don’t give up hope," he told the young woman.. "All of your friends are here with you today to give you our love and to encourage you to believe that all is going to be well with you."

Margarita opened her eyes. "Thank you, Diego. You have always been a good friend." She almost said it as if it were a good-bye.

"I will continue to be your good friend, Margarita, now and for always," the young man responded with some force in his voice. "But I want you to show all of us that you are our good friend, too. You can do this by being determined to get well so that all of us can play music together. What harmony we can make, all of us together."

It was later that afternoon that Padre Felipe arrived. Before seeing the girl, Diego and César took him aside and explained their dilemma.

"Perhaps there is something you can say that will snap Margarita out of this melancholy," César said.

"I am very worried about the señorita," Diego added. "We have surrounded her with what she loves best - music and her friends - but nothing seems to be working."

"Let me see what I can do," Felipe responded. "Perhaps there is something that is burdening her that is not allowing her to feel wanted." With that, the priest disappeared behind the room dividers and sat next to the bed. Everyone else silently left the room and hoped the good padre could break the spell that made the atmosphere heavy and uncertain.

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

Two men showed up at the cuartel and asked permission to speak to the comandante. They were admitted immediately. Sergeant García was apprehensive as he knocked on the door and announced the name of the two visitors: "Licensiado Maximillian Palacios and Don Felix Muñoz."

Francisco de las Fuentes asked courteously for the men to enter his office.

The lawyer, Maximillian Palacios, was a heavy-set man with quick eyes that evaluated a situation quickly and efficiently. He had been very careful in ascertaining the comandante’s personality and the history of his relationship with Don Felix. He knew getting to the point would be the best policy in dealing with this comandante. He responded very politely to the officer’s greeting. "I am retained by the Muñoz family to represent the case of Salvador Muñoz, Capitán de las Fuentes," he said by way of introduction.

The officer shook his hand and also that of Don Felix Muñoz, who appeared quite shaken by the events.

"Please have a seat, gentlemen," the comandante offered. "I regret that we must meet under these circumstances."

"As do I," Don Felix replied in a tremulous voice. "You have no idea how much it pains me to have to be here. This has caused me so much grief, that I can hardly manage my emotions. Please forgive me."

"I understand," Francisco responded. "There is much grief on all sides and only yours exceeds my own."

"Your Excellency," Felix began. His hands shook and he suddenly fell to his knees before the officer. "Please, forgive me. Forgive me." The tears streamed down his face. "Will you give mercy to my boy?"

Both the comandante and Palacios helped the old man to his feet. Francisco was moved by the man’s grief but there was the fact of attempted murder, and there was the law. His duty was to uphold the law. "Please rise, please compose yourself, Don Felix," he asked.

The don nodded and sat down in the chair. He watched the officer go to a cabinet, open the door and take out three glasses. He poured some liquid into all three and offered a glass to the lawyer and to Don Felix. Both men accepted and sipped the brandy. Then the officer began to speak. Felix listened as the officer spoke in a calm and resolute tone.

"Don Felix, this is not your fault. Do not reprimand yourself so harshly."

The graying merchant shook his head. "Your Excellency, it is my fault. It is my fault because I raised so dissolute a son. I closed by eyes to Salvador’s failings because he had been a favorite child. I spoiled him, gave him money for cards, clothes and horses. I never imagined that he would ever bring disgrace upon my family. I never imagined that he would ever try to harm Señorita Margarita. My wife and I love her like a daughter. We are truly horrified."

Francisco nodded for Felix’s benefit and there was a long silence.

"I would like to request your permission to speak to Salvador, if I may," Palacios asked, because this was the point of their visit. "We hope to find out what might have led to his actions."

Felix shook his head. "Gil, the flower vendor, said they were arguing at some length…"

The comandante decided to let them know how serious the case had become. "I am sorry to tell you that right now, there is no certainty that Señorita Pérez will survive the shooting. Her will to live seems to hang in the balance."

Felix put his hand to his head in despair. "I pray she will be able to recover," he whispered.

Francisco stood up. There was really nothing more he could do or say for the old man. "Don Felix, Señor Palacios, you have my permission to visit with your son and to prepare him for the upcoming trial. From here on out, the law will have to take its course."

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

It was early that evening when Capitán Francisco de las Fuentes appeared with his wooden box at the residence of Don César Rodríguez’s home. Before he had a chance to explain what it was, Cesar and Diego took him aside.

"Don Francisco, there is something that we must tell you," César began. "Please come with me." He led the officer and Diego down the hall towards the back of the house and into the kitchen with its huge brick fireplace and hanging pots and pans. He closed the door. "Here we can speak without being overheard." He looked over at Diego and took a big breath. "You might know that Padre Felipe was here a short while ago. He spoke at length with Margarita."

The officer was silent. He did not ask any questions. He anticipated the worst.

Diego took up the slack in the conversation. "Padre Felipe confirmed what you have already said, Don Francisco," he explained. "Margarita thinks she is destined to die without finding happiness, without being able to marry you. The padre can not convince her otherwise. He told us that he has no explanation for why she feels this way."

An incredible sadness transformed the features of the small man who carried the mahogany box. "Then she will die by her own belief that she should die," he said sadly. "Not even I am able to convince her that she can get well." He paused and held up the box. "Nevertheless, I am here to play for her, and I will play as I have never done before. It is a small thing that I wish to share with her because it is something that I love. If this can give her even a brief moment of happiness and even inspire her to want to live, then I will play until I can no longer stand."

As the three men headed back up the hall toward the sala, Diego said to the small officer. "You know, Don Francisco, it is not such a small thing to share your love of music with Margarita. You are sharing with her much more than that; you are sharing life, happiness, and love. You and I know that such a thing can come to pass. Is there something that we are overlooking to convince her that this is possible?"

"I don’t know, Don Diego," Francisco admitted. "I told her about my home in Spain, and our plans to go to Court. I even described to her the cathedral that I hope we will be married in. She smiles as if imagining it and then she weeps as if she will never see anything I describe to her. I am at a loss to know what to do next."

"Do you wish us to leave you two together, Don Francisco?" asked César cautiously. "Or may we accompany you in any of the pieces you wish to play for Margarita?"

The comandante stopped. He smiled at the maestro. "Forgive me, Don César, for my past impudence. I would be honored if you would like to accompany me. Let’s see if our combined efforts can open the heart of Heaven for Margarita."

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

Diego lay in his four posted bed that night, thinking about the music concert for Margarita. Francisco de las Fuentes had sat in Diego’s chair by Margarita’s bed and told her that he had a surprise for her. He opened his box and showed her his violin. He told her ever so gently that he would like to play her some of the most popular tunes in Europe by the virtuoso, Niccolo Paganini whom he had seen perform in person. He lifted up the violin onto his left arm, tucked the end under his chin and began to play, softly and with great passion. The entire household grew silent listening to some of the most heartfelt romantic music anyone had ever heard.

María Pérez felt the tears pouring down her cheeks, for never had she heard such music played with such tenderness and sincerity. She thought of her own barren marriage and of how much she envied her daughter’s good fortune. She dabbed at her eyes constantly, smiling through her tears.

César had taken Diego aside and whispered to him that he had once heard that of all the musical instruments in the world, the violin was the one that came the closest to simulating a man making love to a woman. César confessed he had never heard anyone play the violin with the skill of Francisco de las Fuentes. Diego agreed.

After teatime, Diego approached the capitán and made a request. He would like to know if Don Francisco would play with him a favorite piece of music that required both guitar and violin. He would be greatly honored, he said.

They played Mozart, combining violin and guitar. Next came Beethoven with piano and violin. There were pieces by Scarlatti, Soler, and Albinoni, Bach and others. Don César, his wife Ramona, and even Ismaida and Juanita joined to create quartets, duos, and practically a small orchestra. But the girl in the bed kept her eyes closed.

When Diego arrived home that night, he was feeling depressed. He told Bernardo that he was very worried about the situation for both Francisco as well as Margarita. He told the mozo that there must be some way for Margarita to bounce back.

Bernardo nodded, looking a bit sad as well. He lifted his arms up as if playing a violin.

Diego nodded. "The comandante played violin and viola; even the flute. And what music

he made! Never have I heard such magnificence. Surely, Margarita must have been impressed – the rest of us most certainly were. Cannot music help heal her, Bernardo?"

Bernardo shook his head in the affirmative, thought a moment, then shrugged his shoulders.

"After we exhausted ourselves, Don Francisco had some private words with the señorita," Diego continued. "When we were ready to leave, he told me he was going to see Padre Felipe. I have never seen him in such despair."

Diego turned all of this over in his mind, thinking about his own words to Don Francisco: "Is there something that we are overlooking to convince her that this is possible?"

He fell asleep with troubled thoughts. About two hours later, Diego sat up in bed with a start. "That’s it!" he exclaimed. "The answer is so simple. It is right under our nose and we have not seen it staring us in the face." He leaped out of bed.

Within minutes, a rider dressed in black made his way down to a secret cave beneath the De la Vega hacienda. A dark horse and rider emerged from the rocky cliffs and made their way through the underbrush. Soon the two became a dark shadow streaking along a dirt rode toward the pueblo of Los Angeles. Above them, a full moon shone with the intensity of day.

 

 

Chapter 35
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