Zorro & the Old Comandante
Eugene H. Craig
Don Sebastian Pérez sat in the parlor of the Muñoz family home and savored the flavor of the wine he had been offered. It was imported all the way from Italy. The Muñozes knew how to live well, he thought, and he approved. Although he had not done too badly for himself, he wanted to forge family alliances that kept money in their respective families and he would not let one recalcitrant daughter upset his plans.
He turned his attention once again to the pudgy young man with pouting lips who sat opposite him and likewise sipped the wine. "She can be difficult," continued Pérez, "but a good thrashing in the beginning of marriage should put her in her place once and for all. I told my wife that her leniency with Margarita has been at the root of all our problems with her. This should have been clear all along. It worked with María and put her in her place. I have not had many problems as a result. But you have to watch women for they are devious beyond belief. That episode with the cats should give you an idea of why such impudence needs to be beaten out of her at the start. I hope I make myself clear."
"There are other ways to make her see reason as well," Salvador commented casually. He was about thirty years of age and wore gray trousers with a long black frock coat and short silver-embroidered vest. He smoked a cheroot and blew out the smoke leisurely. "Women always fear for their comfort. You could also threaten her with disinheritance should she continue to balk. The idea is to narrow her options so she herself comes around to make the choice. That way she could blame no one but herself. I doubt she would choose a nunnery once she is made to understand the situation."
"I have some other plans as well," Sebastian continued. "Getting rid of that piano is one of them. It’s her escape from reality. Those ridiculous friends of hers, especially that Villa girl, are especially unruly. She fancies herself a musician like Margarita does. She’s one of the daughters of that ranchero, Juan Villa, an upstart who got lucky and made money with cattle, probably half of it stolen."
"Villa is good friends with Don Alejandro de la Vega," the young man observed. "Why De la Vega would put up with such riff-raff is beyond me. The De la Vegas are very distinguished in Spain. Don Alejandro should know better."
"If all this were not enough, Margarita has struck up this friendship with this captain who just encourages her. I did not know who he was but apparently Padre Felipe introduced the two of them," Sebastian told him. "Normally the padre is reasonable. When I went to visit him today, he told me that he could not, in good conscience, as he so quaintly put it, force Margarita to marry you. I told him that I thought he was on my side after our little talk. Would you believe that he came up with the lamest excuse I ever heard? He said that he would not stand in the way of Margarita finding love her own way. I have a good mind to cut out our donations to the Church. I’m going to write a letter of complaint about him to the bishop in México. His attitude merely undermines my authority as a father."
"Where is Margarita today?" asked Salvador. "I dropped in but your wife told me that she had left shortly before. She always seems to be out when I come to call and when I do find her at home she acts like she doesn’t want me there. A fine way to treat her perspective husband! Can’t you do something about this? I don’t think my patience can last forever. There are, after all, younger and just as attractive girls in this town, Don Sebastian – and ones without an attitude." There was a hint of a threat in the young man’s words.
"Nobody said that marriage alliances are easy, Salvador," Pérez admonished him, determined to keep the upper hand in their relationship. "María Louisa did not want to marry Napoleon either, but it helped the peace of Europe for a few years. It is true that there are other girls in Los Angeles, but none of them have Sebastian Pérez and his business as a father and asset."
"This is true," Muñoz acknowledged. "I think it would be a good idea to keep up the pressure until she capitulates. She knows that my parents like her very much. What I don’t understand is why she wants to resist me. Maybe this is just a game of hers?"
"A game which has come to an end," asserted Sebastian. "I have an idea. I want you to come over this afternoon at about three. We will corner her. With the help of my wife, this should not take much longer."
"How will you assure she will be there?" asked the other.
"I am sure that she is visiting with her friend, Ismaida Rodriguez. I intend to go there now and to summon her home, or at least find out where she is and bring her back." He stood up to leave, picking up his hat.
Salvador grinned openly. "Can I loan you my bull whip?" he joked, rising up as well.
Both of them laughed and Sebastian wagged a finger at him. "I may take you up on that offer," he said, "just as soon as I’ve worn mine out." With that he left.
Sergeant García sat in the tavern with Corporal Reyes, Hugo Ríos, and two other soldiers. There was a bottle of wine on the table and the soldiers were listening with wide eyes as the sergeant told them of some amazing discoveries. The innkeeper, Señor Pacheco, walked over to the table to listen better.
"You might not believe this, but the Ocean is full of islands where there are cannibals," the sergeant said, gesturing with his wine mug. "If you go far enough, you will come to China where there are dragons," he asserted.
"How do you know that there are dragons in China?" Señor Pacheco asked doubtfully.
"Yes, Sergeant, how do you know that there are cannibals on the islands?" asked Hugo with the pencil moustache.
García took a swallow of wine. "It is true. Capitán de las Fuentes was telling me this only today. He said that there are lands where there are men the size of dogs and headhunters who will eat you."
The soldiers looked very impressed, looking at each other and nodding. If the comandante had said such things exist, then it must be true.
García enjoyed being the center of attention. He poured himself some more wine. "And not only that. The capitán told me that he himself had seen a wondrous animal, an animal like no other in all the world."
"What animal is that?" asked Reyes.
"It had a strange name. I don’t remember," the big man told them. "Capitán de las Fuentes said that the animal’s neck was longer than its body. He said that it ate leaves out of the tops of trees. He said that the animal was yellow with strange brown patches all over its body."
"That’s ridiculous," commented Señor Pacheco. "Who ever heard of an animal whose neck is longer than its entire body? The comandante was pulling your leg, Sergeant."
"No, he wasn’t," García replied indignantly. "He was very serious. He told me that he had seen it in a zoo in Vienna. He said that the animal was from Africa and that no one had ever seen such a creature. He said that the animal had a face like a horse."
Everyone was quiet a moment. Then Reyes said, "Say, Sergeant, did you tell Señor Pacheco that our comandante is a prince?" He looked up at the innkeeper whose eyes grew wide.
"A prince?" Pacheco asked in amazement. He saw the soldiers nodding as if they all knew this great secret and only he did not.
García smiled. He gestured the innkeeper closer with his finger and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "The comandante is much too modest to mention this, but it is true. He is a prince, a real Spanish prince. But don’t tell anyone."
"Why do you sit here? Why do you want to know about me?" Joaquín Enríquez asked the man sitting next to his wooden platform in the cell. "It’s bad enough to have guards on the outside of the cell. Now I have one on the inside as well," he complained.
Francisco de las Fuentes responded with a bit of irony. "Señor Enríquez, your present guard holds a higher rank than the other ones, possibly the highest you will ever have. I only hoped you would be more impressed with your own status." He smiled. "This aside, you made some very interesting statements at the hearing about justice and injustice and I would like to know how it is you are so sensitive to these issues. Is it because of your affliction?"
"I don’t see why you should care," the dark-haired man responded. "I am a stranger, a nobody. No one has cared in the past, why should you bother?"
"It is just quite possible that there are people in the world that do concern themselves with such matters," replied the captain. "It is quite possible that I am one of them."
"And what do you, a Spanish officer, know about such things? I would think that you would support a brother officer like Monastario. Birds of a feather, flock together," Enríquez said flatly. "You belong to the same class. Your kind believe the same thing – guilty until proven guilty."
"I know more about these matters than you might guess, Señor. Could not people from different classes suffer injustice as well? Those who can act need to learn from those who have suffered. Even a single individual can make a difference in the lives of others."
"Name me one here in California, yes, even here in Los Angeles, who has made a difference," demanded the prisoner. "Your lone individual, who is he?"
"From what I hear, even in Los Angeles, a man like El Zorro has made a difference in the lives of those treated unjustly," De las Fuentes responded. He lowered his voice. "I will tell you something that I have not told anyone else. The first night I arrived in Los Angeles, this Zorro called on me. He informed me that there were men who needed justice who were languishing in this very jail. He asked that I act with alacrity. I felt that it was my duty to do so. This is why the hearings were conducted the next day."
The prisoner was quiet a moment. "Perhaps," he commented. "But let us return to the rule rather than the exception. You might care as a man can, but by the time you do, it will no longer matter for it will be too late to make any difference."
"Answer me this, if you will," De las Fuentes persisted. "Is there no one at all in any time in your life - a relative, a priest, a master, or a beggar - who was kind to you?"
"Perhaps, but they were inconsequential," the dark -haired man replied, looking into the distance beyond the high walls of the cuartel. "I found that those closest to me treated me the worst. How can you have faith in justice when those who bore you are the ones who destroyed you?"
That statement gave De las Fuentes some pause, but he was determined to learn what had transpired. Already Enríquez was showing some cracks in his armor and the fact he was talking at all was a victory of sorts.
"The major reason I cannot accept your statements, Señor Enríquez, is that you must, from somewhere and from someone, get your ideas about justice and injustice. Without an understanding of these concepts, you would not be so indignant, so angry, so hard on yourself and on others," the comandante insisted. "And such ideas could not impact the way they do without an intelligence to understand the implications. Such ideas do not occur spontaneously, but manifest themselves through the growth of our consciousness. Very few, if any, people learn consciousness all by themselves. They must have a basis of comparison. We know what justice is when we see it. Likewise, we understand injustice when we experience it or witness it used against others."
Enríquez put his knee up and chewed on a piece of straw. "Why don’t we change the subject, Capitán? Is there something else you want to know?"
"Yes, there is," the officer stated suddenly and with some intensity. "I want to know if you consider yourself possessed by the Devil upon the onset of your twitching illness? Have you ever been cursed by witches or warlocks which may explain what happened to you?"
Joaquín Enríquez stared at De las Fuentes as if the officer had just fallen out of the sky. He stopped chewing the piece of straw and gave the small bearded man a long look of disbelief. He could see that the captain was very earnest and sincere. He did not answer for a long time because he thought that despite the fact that this officer was very insightful and intelligent, he might be more unusual than he himself. He rubbed his stubbled chin and muttered, "I thought you were enlightened, mon Capitán." He shook his head. "Are you serious?"
The comandante looked surprised at his reaction. "Yes, I am Señor Enríquez. There are many things we do not know or understand in this world that can be explained by the interference of witches, demons and spirits into our natural world. They are summoned by those with knowledge of the dark powers. How else do we understand that which is irrational?"
The prisoner began chewing on the other end of the piece of straw. "Hmm," he mused thoughtfully. "Capitán, may I ask you a question?"
"Yes, of course," De las Fuentes responded. "What do you wish to know?"
"Do you consider yourself cursed or possessed in any way?"
"Ah," the officer responded. "It is something that I have pondered for innumerable hours over the last two years. But to answer your question - I have a greater misfortune than you. Whereas a witch‘s curse can be lifted by knowing the proper spells or placating the spirits, there are more serious conditions that one can find oneself under."
"And what are those?" asked the prisoner.
"One can be punished by God Himself," the comandante told him, lowering his voice considerably and crossing himself.
"Why do you think God is punishing you?" Enríquez asked in a very concerned tone of voice. "You are a man who acts reasonably, courteously, and with humility. You have not abused your position of command or the powers placed in your hands. You are a man who has treated a criminal like me with sincerity and a great deal of compassion. How could you ever think that you are being punished? I don’t even think that I am being punished!"
"You flatter me," De las Fuentes responded. "All men sin and somewhere, somehow, I have sinned most grievously, although I do not understand how."
"Listen, Capitán, why do you think you are being punished
anymore than I am? Like I told you, there is a real reason behind an
illness and it is not a part of any witches, or demons, or spirits or
other such nonsense. I don’t believe this for one moment. I thought
you were an educated man, a reasonable man. If I, an afflicted man, do
not believe that I am cursed, why should you believe that you are?"
"Comandante," the man on the wooden platform said, "we must be reasonable men. It is true that there are many things that we do not understand. However, I am sure that if you can make a connection between mixing charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter together and how a pistol, rifle, or cannon fires, I am sure you can recognize how unlike substances or events can also be mixed to create other reactions."
"Explain to me what you mean," the officer responded. "One is the natural world. Are we not speaking of the other, the spiritual world?"
"Hear me out. Then I will hear you out," replied Enríquez. "After we have listened to each other’s stories, then tell me if you think there is not a connection between a theory you first postulated yesterday, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and mine. Once we do this, why don’t we return to your favorite theme of justice and injustice." He smiled and it was an invitation on a level that De las Fuentes could not resist.
"I accept your challenge," the small officer replied. "If you can provide me with a reasonable explanation then I will give it my most serious consideration and response."
"It’s a deal, then," Enríquez declared. "May each of us discover that we may not be the men whom we appear to be, but something much more profound."
"You know, Bernardo," Diego de la Vega remarked as he made his way up the outside stairs of the courtyard to his room that overlooked the patio of the hacienda, "Capitán de las Fuentes made a few remarks to Zorro that I overlooked. Now that I think about them, I believe I am beginning to put together some of the puzzle about whom he might be or at least what he may be."
Bernardo nodded and followed his young master into the room. After he closed the door behind them, he tapped Diego on the sleeve. Diego turned to watch the man explain his ideas with his hands. First a man with a beard and moustache that turned up at the ends – De las Fuentes – and then a man with a big head.
"A big head?" asked Diego as Bernardo shook his head.
The mozo looked around, picked up some books, a quill, a piece of music paper and then pointed to his head.
"Ah, a knowledgeable man?"
Bernardo moved his head up and down vigorously, adding more books to the pile.
"A very knowledgeable man," Diego agreed. "Yes, he certainly is. He has traveled, met the famous and powerful, knows the musicians of many countries, and is an officer, which means he is of a noble family. But this is only part of our puzzle, Bernardo. When our good captain met Zorro, he made some puzzling comments. First, he thought I was an assassin. This must mean that he has powerful enemies."
Bernardo looked astonished at the idea anyone could think that his master would be an assassin. He raised his hands as if holding more.
"There is much more," Diego continued. "The comandante said that he kept on having this recurring nightmare over and over. He seemed almost indifferent to an impending death, saying he wouldn’t keep on having the same dream if he died. It almost seemed as if it would be a relief for him. He also asked Zorro if he were a sorcerer or a warlock. I’ve never been asked that before!"
Diego almost laughed at Bernardo’s reaction. The mozo frowned and tapped a finger against his head. "No, I don’t think he’s crazy," the younger man said. "But here’s another important piece to our puzzle. He referred to the fact that he once told a general that he should cover his flanks when the French were outside of Madrid and that the man had ignored him. The capitán was very indignant that this general had questioned his judgment. Doesn’t this strike you as odd, Bernardo, that a captain, indeed if he is a captain, would be indignant by such a thing? Now only a very vain and pompous lower ranking man would be so arrogant, but we know our capitán as a very modest man. However, if he was a general as well, of course he would be indignant. If he had a higher social standing than the other general, he would be even more indignant. These and other pieces of the puzzle are starting to fit together – oddly and strangely."
Bernardo looked thoughtful, then his eyebrows shot up. He held up a finger to indicate he had an idea. He did a visual description of de las Fuentes, then took a handkerchief to cover up his face.
"Do I think that he is covering up who he really is, or perhaps he is in disguise?"
The mozo nodded vigorously.
"Hmm, I had not thought of that. But, if so, then why? What could this mean?" The young man paused, then smiled. "Anything could be possible." Then he grew more serious. "There is one other thing as well," he told the mozo. "Capitán de las Fuentes often uses the royal ‘we,’ something my father noticed, a habit only those from the most noble families use, families who are even more royal than the family of the king. He said that it was the duty of princes to see that laws were applied justly and obeyed. Our comandante seems to be very interested in seeing that the king’s laws are applied justly. No doubt he has seen and heard much in the southern colonies about injustice under the king and he is acting to show that under our form of government, justice can occur. He seems very tied to duty and might have been referring to himself when he mentioned the duty of princes. If he is in disguise, then is he on some kind of mission?"
Bernardo suddenly held up a finger. He pointed to his shoulders and then made a gesture as if something were being ripped off. Then he used his hands to describe a small man with a beard, and a bandoleer.
"Ah, I see what you mean. Perhaps our captain was somehow demoted or disgraced?" Diego guessed. "Yet he is still loyal to that system on the one hand, and expects the worst from it on the other." He shook his head sadly. "Padre Felipe told me this afternoon that the comandante is one of the best men Spain has ever produced, yet he has been betrayed unjustly. No wonder he thinks he’s been cursed." He walked over to the door. "You know, Bernardo, many of the clues conflict. Let’s see if Father has any ideas about Capitán de las Fuentes. If there was such a case many years ago, then perhaps he can recall it."
María Pérez sat in her room and cried after her husband, Sebastian, left to bring Margarita home. Never before had her heart ached so much for her daughter. María knew that Margarita disliked Salvador Muñoz and would never consent to marry him. She told her husband that in a moment of truth and he reacted badly. He yelled at her and shouted that it was all her fault that Margarita was rebellious and disrespectful. Well, he would teach the both of them a thing or two and they would eventually be grateful for his decision.
María sensed that something was in the air when the young man arrived at the door around noon and insisted on being let in. After responding to the servant’s summons, she had found him seated in the sala, drumming his fingers on the arm of a chair. He rose when she entered the room and asked for Margarita. When told she was out, he acted very irritated, asking her why the young lady was never at home or engaged in domestic pursuits. María replied that there was a time and place for that, but that Margarita had friends and she often went to church. The thin woman felt emboldened enough to tell Muñoz that Margarita was not typical and he should not expect her to be. "She is intelligent and independent," she told him. "She knows own her mind better than I. Do not expect her to be what she is not."
"Señora Pérez," Salvador had responded in a haughty manner, "were it not for the great respect I have for you and your husband, I would not tolerate this kind of behavior. She is very fortunate that a man with the patience I have would consent to marry her."
"And if she does not consent to marry you?" asked the woman.
"She will," he responded with confidence. "Don Sebastian and I believe that, with the right kind of persuasion, she will not only consent, she will be grateful to do so." He smiled and it was not a smile she liked. "Naturally, we expect you to cooperate fully in bringing this unfortunate situation to a happy solution for us." He looked as if he were waiting for a confirmation. When none was forthcoming, a sour expression formed on his face. "Please tell Don Sebastian to call upon me as soon as possible this afternoon. I shall be at home."
"I’ll tell him," she replied, keeping her tone neutral. She did not want to give him any false hopes. As a matter of fact, she was beginning not to like him herself. As the door closed, María Pérez feared that she had been too candid. Perhaps it would have been better had she said nothing at all. Her comments to Muñoz would cost her a slap across the face when Sebastian found out. Oh, why don’t I have the courage of my own daughter? she fretted. Her hands shook thinking that Salvador would strike Margarita the same way Sebastian hit her on occasion. She feared what Margarita might do as well, although her daughter had never shown a violent side. No, Margarita would find a way to get even, like she did with the cats.
There was a slight noise behind her and she turned to see the figure of the lean servant behind her who always answered the door, served the drinks, and helped her in a thousand ways. "Yes, Martín?" she asked through her tears.
"The Señora is very troubled," the elderly man dressed in black stated. He was a Spaniard and had served in good homes in Spain.
"Is it so apparent?" She wrung her hands. "I had hoped so hard, so much, that Margarita would not have to face such an ordeal. I hate what I am being asked to do, but what choice do I have? I had so hoped there would be someone whom she would want to marry, not someone who is being forced upon her."
Martín handed her a fresh kerchief to dry her tears. "I am only a servant," he began modestly, "but I think there is hope. It has already arrived, although perhaps you did not notice."
"Do you mean Capitán de las Fuentes?" she asked. "My husband believes he is already married. I did not notice a wedding band when he was here but I did not look. He has pockmarks and seems very contrary - in my husband’s opinion. Don Sebastian says Capitán de las Fuentes has a ‘Napoleonic attitude’ – quite out of place for his rank of captain."
"Begging your pardon, Doña María," Martín continued in his quiet way, "but what do you think of Capitán de las Fuentes? Do you not think he is much more a gentleman than the young men who have inquired about the señorita, including Señor Muñoz?"
"What do you mean?" she asked, surprised that he would insist on probing her thoughts.
"I have served in many fine homes in Spain," he said. "I want you to know that, although I have only seen him briefly, the comandante is a well-bred gentleman, more than most. In fact, I would say, more than any in Los Angeles."
"How do you know this?" Now she was more than curious.
"A man who has served fine gentlemen recognizes one at once, Señora," he explained. "It becomes an instinct. I also overheard what Señorita Margarita has said about him."
María found she had much to consider. "Do you think, Martín, that Margarita should marry Señor Muñoz?"
"It is not the place for a humble servant to give his opinion on this matter, Señora," he replied. "My only wish is for Señorita Margarita’s happiness. It fills my heart when I see her full of joy and it saddens me when she is miserable."
"Thank you, Martín," María responded. "You have spoken the words that I have kept locked in my own heart. I only wish I had the courage to speak up for her but I am just a coward." The tears returned to her eyes.
"Perhaps the Señora can still help her daughter," the elderly man advised her. "For if you fear to speak up, perhaps your actions can prove what is in your heart instead." With that he bowed and departed the room.
The slender woman stood there trembling a little. She did not want to be a part of forcing Margarita to marry Salvador Muñoz. She did not want to say anything at all. How could she possibly do anything? She raised her kerchief to her eyes to daub the tears that began to flow again.