Zorro & the Old Comandante

by

 

Eugene H. Craig

 

 

 

 

Chapter Six

 

It was after nine in the evening when Capitán de las Fuentes finished a light supper with Padre Felipe at the inn. Felipe told him much about the history of Los Angeles and its accomplishments. He spoke of its newly established orchards, the cattle lands, the gallant dons and accomplished tradesmen. He related how local politics had changed with the crisis in the Américas and how the crisis could be compared in the local conflict between the inhabitants of Los Angeles and their current comandante, Capitán Enrique Monastario. Padre Felipe believed that the comandante was an aberration in an otherwise tolerant and open pueblo. He mentioned how a local outlaw, Zorro, was responsible for righting many wrongs perpetrated by the comandante.

To his surprise, the captain nodded saying that such men arose when they were needed and should not be condemned unnecessarily for their actions. He wondered if anyone had ever tried to persuade El Zorro to join the forces of the government to fight such corruption. Felipe smiled and said that in all likelihood, El Zorro actually helped the government, even if its officials didn’t appreciate the fact. And because they did not, they branded him an outlaw.

Felipe then changed the subject and spoke of the rising level of culture, the prosperity of the rancheros and the growth of the town. He told him of the successful conversion of the indigenous Californian tribes; of the twenty-one beautiful missions that had been established from San Diego to San Francisco that followed the El Camino Real along rivers and streams from south to north; and of the wonders of the landscape.

The officer was a good listener, but he appeared distracted by something. After a while he rose and excused himself for the rest of the evening.

"Are you off to church again, Capitán?" asked Felipe with a smile.

"Not this time. I have a call to make. However, you will see me there in the morning. It is a custom of mine," replied the officer.

"I wish your predecessor was as diligent in his devotions as you are," remarked the priest. "I don’t think he’s been in church since the old war, and if he has been, it’s been for the wrong reasons."

The captain bowed out diplomatically with a pang of guilt, knowing that appearances could be deceiving at all levels of society. With that he left the inn and headed down a nearby side street and toward the residence of Señor Sebastián Pérez, the father of the charming young lady, Margarita, whom he met earlier that day. He was struck by her sincere interest in music and culture, for it was a favorite, though recently neglected, pastime of his and he met few ladies with the enthusiasm she displayed. There was only one other lady to whom she could compare, but he would not think of her for now.

The Pérez family had finished a quiet dinner. The silence was almost ominous. Sebastián Pérez kept trying to catch his daughter’s eye and had failed. Margarita either looked at her plate or at the various paintings that adorned the whitewashed walls. The man gave his wife, María, a long look and decided that it was about time to broach a serious topic, one that his daughter was obviously avoiding. He was about to begin to lecture her about turning down the latest suitor when there was a knock at the front door. An elderly manservant, Martín, announced that there was a gentleman who wished to call upon the family and to pay his respects to Margarita. It was a stranger, he noted.

Margarita frowned, got up abruptly without ceremony, and headed out of the room without a word, thinking it was just another suitor. She was heading up the stairs when her father went to the door himself in expectation. When she heard the voice of the comandante, she stopped in her tracks.

"Welcome, Capitán de las Fuentes, to our home. Won’t you come in?" her father asked.

She could not hear the officer’s reply, but heard her father say, "I’m afraid that Margarita has retired for the evening."

She didn’t wait another moment but gathered up her long skirts and raced back down the stairs towards the front door. No one was there when she arrived. Perhaps, they were there, in the sala, on the right. She practically collided with the doorjamb in her hurry and literally bounced into the sitting room.

Her father and mother looked up in surprise at the thud at the room entrance. They had just sat down in chairs. Her eyes went directly to the small man in his blue and white uniform with the scarlet sash and black boots. At his side was a saber. He looked up and smiled in recognition as she appeared. He stood up at once. His brown hair was thick and his moustache and beard seemed to make his face appear thinner than she remembered.

"Oh, Capitán de las Fuentes," she breathed, almost out of breath. "How nice to see you again."

"My dear Señorita Pérez, I hope I have not dropped by at an inconvenient time to pay my respects to you and to your family?" he asked in his deep baritone.

A hand fumbled at the frilly collar of her high-necked blouse while another smoothed her long black skirt. "Oh, no! Not at all," she said and moved toward him. She knew he would kiss her hand and she stretched it out for him to take.

He bowed, took her hand, and kissed it. As he straightened up, he gave her a wink with one eye. "I was just telling your father and mother how indebted I am to you today for your great kindness to me." He escorted her to an empty chair next to her mother. She sat down in a graceful way, smoothing her dress beneath her, and he returned to his seat.

Neither of them noticed Señora María Pérez giving her husband an astonished look at her daughter’s friendly behavior toward the officer.

"You were saying, Capitán de las Fuentes, something about my daughter helping you out," Sebastián Pérez continued.

"Ah, yes," De las Fuentes began. "Your daughter was most helpful in reminding me, in church, that I needed to get back to the hearings that were conducted this afternoon. In doing so, she saved me from a great embarrassment." He smiled over at her.

Margarita waved her hand as if it were a trifle. "Oh, it was nothing, really. You just forgot about the time and I alerted you to it."

"Not so trifling as you would imagine," the officer continued. "It would never do for the hearing officer to be late for his own meeting. This young lady had a unique method, to say the least, of getting my attention." He looked over at her with an amused look on his face. She put a hand to her mouth to cover her embarrassed smile and she laughed a little while he continued, "And I managed to get there just as the church bell finished striking the hour."

"I’m pleased to hear that Margarita was so thoughtful in helping a stranger to our community," her father commented.

"Well, he wasn’t exactly a stranger. We had already met earlier," Margarita admitted. "Padre Felipe introduced me to Capitán de las Fuentes - I mean to us - Juanita, Ismaida, and me, in the plaza earlier."

"Is that so?" her mother asked. "Padre Felipe introduced you? How interesting." There was something in her tone that puzzled the officer. "Did you girls meet at church?"

"I went to Ismaida’s house and Juanita was there. Later we went to church, but first we met the Capitán," she explained. "Would you believe that he has been to Venice and Vienna? He’s heard all the famous composers of Europe. Isn’t that exciting?"

De las Fuentes looked pleased at how much she remembered from their encounter. "I believe this was mentioned after discovering that your daughter plays piano," he told her parents. "It is true that I met some composers and writers from other countries, but certainly not all of them. It was fortunate that, in my younger days, I met a few who also wrote fine piano music."

"That’s impressive," remarked Sebastián Pérez, who was not really interested at all. "I’m afraid that Margarita is the only serious musician in this family. Her sisters play a little, but she is the most dedicated. She practices hours almost every day, sometimes to the detriment of her social relations." He waved the elderly servant over. "Won’t you bring a glass of sherry for Capitán de las Fuentes and one for me as well?" The servant bowed formally and left.

There was an awkward pause after his last comment but Margarita hurried to cover it. "Didn’t you say you had met Señor Mozart and his sister?" she asked. "Do tell me about some of the other musicians."

"Yes, I met them, but when I was a boy, and on more than one occasion," he replied. "It might be of interest for you to know that all the major musicians of Europe know each other, study with each other, and learn from each other. For example, the German composer, Ludwig van Beethoven, studied with Mozart for a short time in Vienna, as well as much longer with Josef Hayden. Beethoven is one of the most formidable pianists I ever heard, an incredible improviser. He was most inspired by Muzio Clementi, the rival of Mozart. He also worked with Antonio Salieri and Johann Albrechtsberger, just two of his many mentors. Mozart was so impressed with Señor Beethoven that he said that, one day, he would cause quite a stir in the world. Of course, Beethoven’s politics were controversial because, at first, he supported Bonaparte and French republicanism. He later denounced Bonaparte for crowning himself emperor. However, politics aside, I was thoroughly enchanted at his orchestral performances, especially the Sixth Symphony, which is also called the 'Pastoral.' Señor Beethoven once remarked, at a reception I attended, that he wished for humans to celebrate nature in all its manifestations, no matter how inclement. He conveyed the astonishing idea – at least for us Spaniards – that humanity is a greater part of a larger environment – uncertain, dramatic, and imperious – the real controller of our lives. Some musicians are philosophers as well. I could speak to some extent about this but you would be here all night."

"I think that is fascinating," Margarita responded with enthusiasm. "To hear the composer play his own music and speak about what inspires him."

"Ah, here’s the sherry," her father interrupted as the servant offered De las Fuentes a glass from a silver platter. "Shall I propose a toast to the King?" They both rose.

"To the King," De las Fuentes repeated dryly and sipped the sherry. "I propose a toast to Spain." The two men drank again.

"I take it that you have been to Court on occasion?" Sebastián Pérez asked once they resumed their seats.

"Many times," the captain deadpanned, not failing to notice the impressed reaction on the man's face to what he considered a trifle. "And it is a subject that one could talk about forever as the politics of Court are intricate and multilayered. However, I am most interested in Señorita Margarita’s penchant for music, especially piano playing. To play a musical instrument is the mark of a cultivated person, one whose imagination, creativity and sensitivity for melodies, inspired by Heaven in some of the most brilliant minds ever to grace the European races, cannot be underestimated or denigrated as spurious or superfluous, for, ultimately, it is God who inspires and guides the musically talented into realms rarely trespassed upon by the uninitiated. It is our privilege to peer into these realms on occasion, indulging ourselves in the most minute beatitude, marveling at the exponentiation of melody and harmony, which not only captivates, but inspires and sublimates our emotions from the raw to the refined, exemplifying Creation at its most astonishing and sublime. Is it not so?"

"Uh, why, yes," her father responded uncertainly. "People who create music are certainly gifted, but one can be overly focused as well." He looked over at his daughter who looked positively captivated by the officer’s words.

"When I play music," Margarita interjected enthusiastically, uplifted by De las Fuentes’ astonishing dialogue, "I feel transformed into another place, a higher realm, soaring among the angels and the timelessness that is the beauty of music. I leave behind me, and far below, the base, the unimaginative, the coarse and the rude. It seems that most people not only do not understand this, they don’t want to. I see substance where they see nothing; I hear beauty while they are deaf to it; and I fly amongst the clouds on wings of unearthly materials while they tread the muddy bypasses, their souls burdened by the organic." She was astonished by her own outflow of words, all of which she attributed to De las Fuentes’ propensity for elaborate speech. Her heart felt light and filled with joy just talking about music.

"This is pure nonsense," Sebastián Pérez interrupted, frowning, and admonishing her. "It is fantasy, a flight of imagination and silliness. It is irresponsible and ridiculous."

"Not so, Señor," the captain shook his head in open disagreement. "Señorita Margarita understands very well that music can be a spiritual communication with God. One should be more discerning in this because your daughter has a rare gift, a gift that is at once beautiful and unique. It is hardly frivolous." With his deep baritone, his comment seemed more like a reprimand, although he spoke in a calm and mild manner.

"If you’ll excuse me," her mother interrupted. "I’ve neglected to give orders to the cook for tomorrow." She looked a little nervous even at the minor disagreement, which was, after all, just another opinion. She gestured for the servant to follow her.

The captain rose and bowed although her husband remained seated as she left the room. The officer understood at once that she did not like to hear disagreements with her husband and that was one reason that she departed. But, he was used to it. He had seen the late king, Carlos IV, depart the room for the same reasons when the queen became impassioned about one topic or another over which there was a difference of opinion. It seemed such a cowardly way to avoid discussion and enlightenment, he thought.

"Are you a musician yourself, Capitán? You speak like one who knows much of these matters," asked Pérez somewhat defensively and feeling out of his depth on the subject matter.

Margarita looked at De las Fuentes in great expectation. What she saw was a sad smile. It disconcerted her and fed her curiosity.

"I played once upon a time," he finally said, "but when the war came, I became its master instead. Someone very dear to me played the piano wondrously well." He cleared his throat and steered the direction of the conversation into safer waters. "There was an Irish general at Court and his wife played the harp. The music was not of this Earth; it was so magical. I later learned that a blind harpist had composed all the music. His name was Turlough O' Carolan. Perhaps his eyesight was better than ours, for he also wrote music to honor those that he knew even though he never saw their faces nor the world in which he lived."

"How interesting," yawned her father. "Would you care for another glass of sherry?"

The captain was going to turn him down because of his ill-humored attitude, but decided that if the father left the room he could make a request of the young lady. "I would be delighted, Señor Pérez," he replied.

As soon as the man left the room, De las Fuentes turned to the young woman. "Ah, Señorita Margarita, would it be asking too much for a favor, although you have honored me twice today already?"

"What kind of favor?" she asked.

"Could you play upon your piano?"

She was delighted at his request. "Yes, I will," she responded without hesitation. "Nothing would make me happier." She leapt to her feet and walked over to the dark mahogany seat with the velvet cover that stood in front of the piano. He followed her over to the instrument. She opened the seat and found her music sheets missing. "My music is gone!" she said in surprise.

"I am so sorry," he said, the disappointment quite evident in the tone of his voice.

She looked up into his eyes and touched the arm of his blue army tunic. "That won’t stop me from playing," she declared. "They can take away what is written, but not what is here." She tapped her forehead and watched the smile return to his lips. She sat down and thought a moment. "I’ll bet you know this piece," she began and her hands touched the keyboard. In a moment all the inhabitants of the house stopped to listen to the music pouring forth from the sala.

Alfonso Fernando Francisco de las Fuentes y Alarcón stood at her side and watched her hands glide over the keys. The memories flooded into his mind and he remembered a man with windblown, wavy hair playing at a piano a long time ago in the city of Vienna where he first heard the song. He remembered more clearly a young woman with beautiful long auburn hair who looked up at him passionately and played endlessly in Madrid and about whom he dreamed at night. Margarita looked up at him with a quiet smile and he nodded, ‘Für Elise’."

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

 

"I thought you had gotten rid of that damned music," Sebastián Pérez told his wife in the kitchen. He was very irritated at hearing the piano play from the sala.

"I locked it away in your desk just like you told me," she told him, "but she probably has memorized all sorts of songs."

Her husband listened to the music a moment and shook his head. "What do you think of De las Fuentes?"

"He’s very well-mannered and spoken," María answered, "but you probably noticed the pock marks on his face. At least some of his whiskers cover them and the scars are not too bad. He looks positively foreign with that style of moustache and beard – but from the time of Richelieu."

"He’s an army officer, of course, but he’s probably married, judging by his age. He seems to be more interested in hearing her play music than in her," Sebastián commented.

"Margarita seems to like him. I have never seen her face glow the way it has tonight when talking with him or listening to him," her mother noted. "Perhaps she is changing her tune," she added hopefully.

"I wouldn’t count on it," her husband replied. "Nothing is safer than a married man and it gives her a chance to indulge herself in her fantasy world of music." He paused. "I am seriously considering getting rid of that piano. Once it is gone, she will face reality. I told Padre Felipe to talk to her tomorrow morning about reconsidering Salvador’s marriage proposal."

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

 

Tomás Robello and Angel Ledesma sat side by side on the bench in the prison cell. It had grown dark and the night air was mild. From the cell door, they could see the stars beginning to appear in the night sky.

Ledesma shook his head and counted on his fingers again and again. He sighed for the tenth time that evening.

"What’s this counting on your fingers all about, Angel?" Robello asked. "You’ve been doing it all day."

"I’m thinking about all those fines we have to pay, Tomás," Ledesma said in a mournful tone of voice. "Just think – twenty-eight pesos to Señor Pacheco, fifteen pesos in fines, ten pesos for Benito, and ten pesos to the comandante. It seems like a fortune."

"Lucky for us we split the cost," Tomás observed. "When you think of it that way, it doesn’t seem so bad."

"Oh, sí," Ledesma responded. "I forgot. That means we pay only, uh, how much?"

"Forty-two each."

"But you have to pay the extra fine to the comandante and to me."

"What do you mean ‘to me?" Robello demanded.

"Well, Tomás you still owe me five pesos," Angel replied.

"Five pesos! Where the devil do you think I can conjure up five pesos when I owe all the rest of the fines? You can bet that the Capitán will get his ten before you get your five!" Tomás rebuked him testily.

"You would pay an army officer before you would pay your best friend?" shouted Ledesma. "What kind of a friend are you anyway? You got me in all this trouble and you show no gratitude, none!"

"He’s not just any army officer, stupid! He’s the comandante!" shouted Tomás in return.

"Oh, sí, that’s right," Angel responded in a conciliatory tone. "I forgot." He was quiet a spell. Then he asked Robello, "Say, Tomás, how much are you going to need for the fines?"

"Almost fifty pesos."

"Well, Tomás, if you borrow fifty pesos from me – plus the five you owe me – then you will owe me fifty-five pesos."

"No Angel, I will owe you fifty pesos. You have to subtract the five pesos I owe you from the amount I will borrow because I owe you them already."

"All right," said Ledesma. "But don’t forget to pay me back. This is the worst debt you have ever gotten me into. You will be paying me almost all of your wages for the next several years. You won’t be able to borrow any more money from me for a long time."

"Say, Angel, I have an idea. Maybe that comandante will let us trade some jail time for the fines. If you volunteer to stay here in jail, then I can get out and earn the money. Then when I have enough, I can come get you and pay you the fifty pesos that I owe you. You would leave jail a rich man!"

"I don’t know, Tomás. How long would I have to wait in jail?"

"Not too long. Why, look at the bright side. You will be getting free food, free bedding, free blankets and fresh air. The soldiers are friendly at this cuartel and this comandante isn’t bad at all. Who knows, you would have plenty of company and they say that free wine is served when you are here on the holidays."

Ledesma smiled. "Free wine on holidays? That sure beats paying at the tavern. Well, Tomás, it sounds like a good deal to me. I just want to sleep on it a little bit tonight."

"Sure, Angel. Think about it. Think about it all night. You will find that I am right as usual," Tomas told him. His friend, Angel, could not see him roll his eyes in the darkness. "The things I do for you!"

 

 

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