Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Forty

 

The patio and sala of César and Ramona Rodríguez’s home were extraordinarily festive. If possible, the decorations, flowers and décor surpassed anything seen before. It was by no accident. All the families of the dons had contributed their finest objects of beauty, including paintings, chairs and even tableware for the event. Streamers of colorful cloth flapped in the cool night air; candles of all sizes had been collected to brighten the house and reflect their power multifold in the great mirrors that hung in the rooms of the sala and dining area.

At the entrance to the patio, to solemnly open the door was the dignified Martín Martínez, absent without the approval of his employer, Sebastian Pérez. Just inside the entrance to their home, César and Ramona, dressed in their finest attire, greeted their guests with a hearty "Welcome." On a long table in the dining room were plates loaded with confections, cheeses, meats, late fruit of the season and nuts. Wine was served by a smiling Conchita Cortéz.

In the sala, leafing through some music scores stood a small man in white silk stockings and black shoes with small silver buckles. The pants were old-fashioned, cream-colored culottes with buttons on the sides just above the knee with small gold buckles, likewise on the side just below the knee, to hold the pants in place. He wore a long waistcoat of red and the coat itself was black with golden buttons and gold trim which ran from the high neck of the coat to the waist. Even the flared cuffs were trimmed with gold. Peeking out at the cuff-line was a white shirt with lacey embroidery. It was unmistakably the wardrobe of the mid-previous century. His hair was covered with a long, dark brown wig in ringlets that reached far below his shoulders, something he was not particularly happy with, but it did suit the occasion. He simply hated wigs, seventeenth century or not. Don César told him it was, after all, only for one evening and besides, it lent dignity and an air of the Royal Court to the spectacle. It was César’s best theatrical wig!

At the small man’s side was a pretty, slender young woman in an elegant dress of blue with long sleeves and a beautifully embroidered black wool shawl. She wore her light-brown hair long and loose despite her recent married status and around her neck was the golden medallion of Saint Francis. She had not stopped complimenting him on his attire from the moment his servant had unpacked it from his trunk and laid it out on their bed. She thought it looked so romantic. He handed her a red rose and she tucked it over her ear playfully. Then she whispered to him, "I’m a little nervous."

Francisco de las Fuentes smiled. "So am I. I have never played before anyone outside a private home and only in an intimate setting among friends."

"I find it hard to believe that you would be nervous about anything," Margarita responded in surprise. "You were a judge at the trials, a general in Spain, and an explorer to our New World."

He leaned closer and whispered confidentially. "But in all these things I could make mistakes and no one would question it or perhaps even recognize the errors. But here, one must perform flawlessly or at least to one’s best ability."

"I just hope I don’t make any mistakes," she sighed.

"We won’t," Francisco said confidently. Then he looked over to the door and saw that a very special group of individuals had arrived. He took Margarita’s arm saying, "I want you to meet the people who saved my life."

César and Ramona greeted the Indians at the door and bid them welcome. The Californians watched as a man in remarkable attire and with very long curly hair approach them. At his side was a slender young woman. It was with difficulty that they recognized the man who had spent so much time with them in the hidden valley. Likewise, the Indians wore their finest furs and moccasins.

Francisco greeted the elder Indian, a shaman named Grey Feather, who was accompanied by a young man. De las Fuentes recognized the young boy with the flute at once. Next to the elderly man was Blue Feather whom most of the whites knew as Juan from the mission of Padre Felipe. In the rear, was a young Indian woman, modestly attired in the white dress of a serving woman with her own woven shawl. Her eyes were wide as she stared around the room at the great mirrors with the flickering candles, at the paintings on the walls, at the clothing of the Spaniards and the abundance of food. She especially appraised the dress and jewelry of the Spanish girl with the long brown hair who smiled at her. She recognized with a kind of shock the small man whom she had cared for during the many days at the cave of her people. How different and impressive he looked even without the blue, red and white military uniform. She reached out to touch the clothing in wonder and then drew back shyly behind the men. De las Fuentes introduced Margarita to them as his wife and thanked them for making the long journey into town. Not a few faces in the crowd that surrounded them looked displeased at the presence of the Indians, but the native Californians were the guests of the Comandante of the pueblo of Los Angeles.

Ramona led the natives towards the table with food and handed them plates. There was not a dish that they did not sample and the confections seemed to please them the most along with the slices of meats and nuts.

The Indian girl continued to stare at Francisco in between sampling the food and swallowing the juice. Finally, Margarita whispered in his ear, "Francisco, that girl is watching you like a cat. Who is she?"

Her husband smiled. "I never learned her name, but she cooked all the meals for me at the sacred cave. It seems she took quite a fancy to me," he jested. "Grey Feather, the Shaman, told me that she liked looking into my eyes. No doubt this was a novelty for her."

"Well," Margarita responded mischievously, "I am glad it did not take any longer for you to heal than it did. She might have started making plans for the two of you!"

He chuckled. "But she did not count on the plans we had made for each other."

Margarita beamed at that.

Miguel Cisneros made a point of standing as far away from the Indians as he could. He was overheard remarking that things went too far when savages were invited to listen to something they could not possibly understand or appreciate. If the native Californians overheard him, they gave no indication. Their eyes were fastened on the small man and his wife as they arranged the music and their instruments. Padre Felipe arrived and greeted them. He explained what would happen at the gathering of the whites.

Soon the room was crowded with guests sitting in chairs and on benches. Alejandro chatted with Don Nacho and his wife, Luisa, and the other dons who took their places in the front row.

Francisco de las Fuentes looked around as if expecting to see someone. He was relieved when Martín whispered in his ear that an unusual stranger was waiting to speak to him just outside the patio. He excused himself and walked casually out to the dark gate. There he met with a tall man in black with a mask that half-covered his face.

"I am honored that you are attending my recital," the Comandante told him. "My wife, Margarita, and I have reserved a special place of honor for you in the front row."

"Thank you, Capitán," El Zorro told him. "It is I who am honored to attend. However, for security purposes, I hope you will not mind if I watch and listen to your recital from the balcony inside. I am, if you recall, still a wanted outlaw."

"But you are granted immunity this evening," Francisco told him. He paused. "You may attend our event in any way which is suitable to your concerns. The chair is still reserved for you should you wish to occupy it."

"You do me a great courtesy, Capitán de las Fuentes, and I shall never forget it," the man in black told him. "And now, it is time to begin."

Juan Muñoz appeared before the crowd and announced that the event was about to commence. The hum of voices in the rooms faded into silence as men and women, even a few children, took their seats. César Rodríguez stood before them as master of ceremonies. The recital will be varied, he announced, with quintets, quartets, trios, duos and solos. He introduced himself, his wife, Ramona, Juan Muñoz, and Don and Doña de las Fuentes as the musicians who would perform. All five bowed low before the audience, then took their seats at their instruments.

Alejandro de la Vega looked around for his son who came in quietly through the door and sat next to his father. Alejandro was slightly annoyed by his son’s tardiness, but this soon passed as they, and those present, listened to the music flowing from the quintet.

The evening’s agenda unfolded according to a bill passed around among the audience: chamber music – starting from the previous mid-century up to the latest fashion in Europe.

The first piece began. It was a quick light piece by George Friedrich Handel, the Harp Concerto in B-flat major, which featured a grand floor harp played by Ramona Rodríguez. The dark-haired woman’s fingers nimbly plucked the strings while her husband and the Comandante accompanied her on violin. The second piece was a cello concerto by Antonio Vivaldi and featured a man most were not acquainted with, Juan Muñoz. The De la Vegas immediately appreciated the multi-role that the prince’s servant played. It was a slow and soulful piece and showed the man an accomplished musician in his own right.

The audience was captivated by the playing of instruments. There was a general expectation when De las Fuentes began. He took up an instrument, the viola, looking much like a large violin, and played a short, enormously dignified and dramatic piece by Georg Phillip Telemann, the Viola Concerto in G Major. Diego could not help but think how the piece personified the prince in so many ways. As the music picked up and became quite lively, he saw the officer turn imperceptivity towards Margarita as if playing the piece for her alone, oblivious to the audience. The skill with which his fingers moved over the strings and handled the horsehair-string bow was impressive, for the piece gave full measure to the range of the instrument.

From the end of this piece, the tone of the music changed greatly as a new era of music was introduced. Mozart, the greatest composer of all times was featured both in piano, violin, and flute. Excerpts from the most well-known and popular music filled the air of the sala – from the Flute Quartet in D Major to pieces for violin and piano and for violin alone. De las Fuentes moved adroitly from instrument to instrument, while the Rodríguezes did the same, giving the audience an even greater appreciation of the knowledge and skill of their own local maestros. Margarita played as flawlessly as she had wished in duos with her husband as well as by herself.

After an hour, there was an intermission. Players and the guests mingled once again. Some discussed the performances with great enthusiasm. The Indians spoke quietly among themselves and to Padre Felipe who explained that the music they listened to represented the best of European culture.

"If all whites played such music and offered it to our people as is done tonight," Blue Feather mused, "then there would be no time – or reason - for the unpleasantness between our peoples."

Sergeant García lingered around the food table watching every tidbit consumed by the other guests and generously helping himself to the largess. His dark eyes took in the finery about him. He thought about how he was going to surprise the Comandante with his song. He had several glasses of wine before Diego de la Vega approached him.

"Good evening, Sergeant," the young man greeted him.

"Good evening, Don Diego," the soldier replied.

"You know, Sergeant, you look very elegant in that cape. I would have never recognized you, except for one thing."

"What is that?" the big man asked in astonishment.

"Your height," Diego replied. "You must be the tallest man in the room."

"Sí, Don Diego," García replied. "With this cape, with this very fine cape, it is hard to recognize Sergeant García the soldier."

"What do you think of the performance here tonight?" the young man asked.

"Well, Don Diego," García began, "it is very nice. I never heard such music before, but," the big man hesitated. "I must tell you a little secret."

The young man in blue drew closer. "What is your secret?"

"The Comandante and the Señora Comandante play very well. So does Don César and the Señora Ramona. Even the comandante’s servant, Señor Juan plays well. But, to tell the truth, I prefer my soldiers’ songs."

"Don’t you like the songs I taught you for the Comandante?" Diego asked as if surprised at the soldier’s revelations.

"Oh, sí, Don Diego, I like them very much. But they are songs, something I can sing."

"I understand, Sergeant," Diego replied.

"Do you?" García still seemed uncertain. "I do not wish to insult anyone, especially these musicians."

"Sergeant, you don’t insult anyone. It’s just that you prefer one kind of music and these musicians prefer another kind. There is nothing wrong with that," the young man reassured him. "By the way, when were you going to sing your songs?"

"Don César told me that after the Comandante plays his violin, he will introduce me. Then I will sing the songs. Don César knows that this will be a surprise for the Comandante."

"I am sure that it will be," Diego smiled. "And I look forward to hearing you sing as well. You have such a fine voice." He gestured towards the sala. "It looks like it is time to take our places again."

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

A lone carriage traveled the wide dirt road toward the pueblo of Los Angeles. Winter rains had whipped the coast of central California and had delayed the trip for several days. Inside the coach, a young, dark-haired officer with a moustache and goatee fumed at all the delays, but there wasn’t much he could do about it except berate the hapless escort that accompanied him from Monterey. The going was slow because even with the lighted lanterns that hung from the sides of the coach and illuminated the dark roadway meant that the coach could only go at a slow pace in the dark.

Capitán Enrique Monastario was eager to get back to the pueblo. He imagined that no one could possibly take his place and guide the pueblo with his stern, but benevolent hand. He suspected that the officer who took his place would be quite unprepared for the antics of the outlaw, Zorro, who had, no doubt, taken advantage of the situation while he was away. Monastario was sure that a calamity awaited him upon his return to Los Angeles. He was, therefore, surprised, when at the outskirts of the town, his carriage was stopped by a patrol of four men. When they saw who it was, the soldiers were unable to completely hide their dismay. Monastario was irritated, but somewhat impressed with the patrols. He wondered if he and his replacement might share something in common in regards to the need of constant vigilance and firm control over the pueblo.

Within minutes, a carriage drawn by two horses drew up in front of the cuartel. The soldiers hurriedly saluted when the officer thrust his head out the window and gestured for the gates to be opened. The carriage and escort entered the cuartel.

The officer alighted out of the coach and looked around in expectation. After a few minutes he demanded, "And where is Sergeant García?"

A young soldier with a pencil moustache, Hugo Ríos, hurried over. "He is in town with the Comandante," he said, saluting.

"No doubt at the tavern," Monastario frowned.

"Oh, no, Señor Capitán," the soldier told him. "They are attending a recital at the home of Don César Rodríguez."

"Oh," Monastario began, then stopped dead in his tracks. "They are where, attending a what?" He barely heard the repeated reply of the private. "Then who has been left in charge of the cuartel?"

"Corporal Reyes," Ríos told him. "But he is cleaning…"

The slender man interrupted him impatiently, "Come with me, soldier. This Comandante must not realize the importance of having someone competent placed in charge while he is gone. And he must be informed immediately of my return."

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

Three young ladies whispered among themselves just a few words during the beginning of the recital. One had seen El Zorro at the gate talking with the Comandante and had told her friends. All three were disappointed that their hero in black had not occupied the chair of honor in the front row with the distinguished dons, but Ismaida’s sharp eyes spotted a figure in black above in the balcony as the recital proceeded and pointed out his presence to her friends, Juanita and Josefina. She nudged Diego de la Vega in the back and pointed to the balcony. Diego looked appropriately impressed as did a few others who followed the direction of the girl’s pointing finger.

A flute began to play, a very lively piece by César Rodríguez. The other four members of the group looked uncertain as if they were not expecting this departure from the music schedule. They had just finished playing music from the immortal Franz Joseph Hayden. César halted, smiled, and announced a surprise soloist and gestured towards the back of the audience. A huge man in an impressive red cloak stepped forward and began to sing at the behest of the flutist who accompanied him:

"I’m the bird catcher, that’s me

I’m always happy, whoop-dee-dee!

As the bird catcher I am known

By young and old throughout the land.

I’m a natural at setting decoys,

And I can whistle like all the birds!

And, with competition, nonexistent,

I know that all the birds belong to me."

Francisco de las Fuentes was delighted and watched the big man perform with gusto the songs he had learned from Don Diego. They were from the very popular Mozart opera, The Magic Flute. And the part was of the birdman, Papageno, beloved of all audiences.

Outside the home of the Rodríguez family, a young officer and soldier halted in the street. Capitán Enrique Monastario held up a hand. "That sounds like García’s voice," he remarked and gestured for the soldier to open the gate for him. "No doubt drunk again." He strode in, across the stone patio, halted and peered in through one of the barred windows. Within was a surprisingly large number of people and Monastario recognized many with dissatisfaction – the De la Vegas, the Torres family, and other malcontents. Then he spotted the object of his wrath. He burst into the home without warning and unceremoniously, brushing aside a frail, elderly gentleman at the door who attempted to quiet him. He strode toward the big man.

García was in the middle of the next verse:

"The bird catcher, that’s me.

I’m always happy, whoop-dee-dee!

As the bird catcher I am known

By young and old throughout the land.

Though what I’d really like is a trap for

Girls…."

"Sergeant García!" roared a familiar sounding voice. The song died on the big man’s lips and everyone in the room turned in their chairs toward a slender uniformed figure who approached the fat sergeant with quick steps. "What do you think you are doing?"

The big man looked dismayed and confused. "Capitán, I am…," he began.

Monastario looked him over and pulled aside the bright red cloak that covered his sergeant’s jacket. "You’re out of uniform," he accused as he began to berate the unhappy soldier.

There was a quick movement from the musical group. A small man in silk stockings and a richly adorned black coat with gold trim strode purposefully toward the pair. In a deep baritone, a voice informed the officer, "You, Señor, are interrupting our recital!"

Monastario turned to the small man with pockmarks who stood before him with a violin and bow in his hands. He looked the man over and smirked at his old-fashioned attire, despite its richness and obvious splendor. Such a character was not worth his attention. He turned back toward the sergeant. "García, get back to the cuartel at once."

García eyed the small man while stuttering nervously, "I am sorry, Capitán. The Comandante said that I could…"

"I am the Comandante, García," the officer told him impatiently, "and you will do as you are told."

Monastario was interrupted by the small man who asserted firmly, "No, Señor, you are not. The command has not reverted to you by the officer in charge." He turned to the nervous soldier. "Sergeant García you may remain to finish your presentation."

"Silence, you idiot," Monastario retorted as he spun on the man. How dare this civilian try to usurp his authority! Nevertheless, his reprimand resulted in several of the dons standing up in astonishment and anger. He vaguely felt a reaction of great indignation from the small man, but he ignored the civilians. The officer was, however, distracted by the sudden movement of a young woman from the performing group who appeared at the side of the gentleman in the long wig. He recognized her at once. "Señorita Pérez."

Margarita was indignant. "How dare you insult my husband!" she began. The small man placed his hand on the sleeve of her arm to restrain her.

"Your husband?" Monastario gave her a look of mock surprise and responded with a small bow. "My humble apologies. So, you finally married." He looked the small man over again and smirked. "Forgive me, Señora, but you disappoint me. I thought you would have done much better than this!" He gave the small man a gesture of contempt.

There were more gasps from the audience at his words, but Monastario was only intent on taking García in hand. He was taken aback when the deep voice of the small man asked in a challenging way, "Who is this insufferable bore?" Monastario swung back around to face the small man who continued in a calm but indignant manner, "You, Señor, are a sorry excuse for an officer and you are no gentleman."

"Really?" Monastario retorted with narrowed eyes. "Stand aside or I’ll arrest you for …" He was further infuriated by the additional interruption of the small man whose commanding voice carried over his own.

"You shall do no such thing!" the man in old-fashioned attired declared. He added pointedly, "You offend me, Señor. You offend me greatly - and all those who have gathered here for an evening of culture and refined entertainment."

"And how do you propose to stop me from arresting you, Señor?" Monastario responded in a mocking voice. He drew his sword to indicate his intent and pointed it at the man.

With a quick movement, Francisco poked him in the chest with the bow of the violin. "You will stand down, Señor, or suffer the consequences."

"And do you propose to fight me with your bow?" Monastario asked sarcastically. "Take care that you do not try my patience or I will consign you to the tomb."

There were more gasps at his words from those present. Don Alejandro, Diego, Don Leon and others moved behind the small man in a show of force and support.

De las Fuentes drew himself up to his full height, if not more. "My honor is being impugned upon," he said slowly and solemnly as if to everyone in the room, not just to the young officer facing him. He turned to Don Alejandro de la Vega who stood behind him. "I request from you the borrowing of your fine blade."

A dozen voices all chimed in dismay, "Your Excellency!"

Don Alejandro and his son, Diego, implored him, "Please, Your Excellency, do not let him draw you into a fight." Events, like the exchange of the two men, had moved much faster than anticipated. But the small man insisted. Alejandro reluctantly gave him his sword. He knew that if he had not, others would have offered theirs.

Diego was visibly dismayed. "Capitán Monastario has a wicked blade," he warned the small man who nodded in acknowledgement of the fact. The young man looked around in a distracted manner, up towards the balcony. His look was caught by the three girls who searched with their eyes for the figure in black there who seemed to have disappeared.

Monastario was eager to shed a little easy blood. He watched the small man first remove his coat, then his wig. He twirled his own blade a little in anticipation and wore an eager look.

"Capitán Monastario, please do not do this," García implored.

"Silence, baboso," Monastario responded easily.

"I must warn you, Señor, that you have one last chance apologize to me and my wife," the man in silk remarked as he took the don’s blade and examined it, feeling its weight in his hand and shifting the sword back and forth.

Monastario continued with his insults. "I give you one last chance to play your fiddle instead, Excellency." He said the last word with a sneer.

Margarita wrung her hands. "Francisco, I…"

"It’s perfectly all right, Dear," he replied. "You need not fear for me, only for this.." he gave Monastario a scathing look of his own, "barbarian."

Now it was Monastario’s turn to be stung by words. He gestured towards the patio. "I will not detain you for long."

"Nor I, you," asserted Francisco de las Fuentes.

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

 

Chapter 41
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