The Gift

 

 

 

CHAPTER 5 -THE BETROTHAL

OCTOBER 12, 1821

 

Moneta allowed Don Diego de la Vega to escort her out the patio gate and through the hacienda’s beautiful garden, a green oasis amidst Alta California’s severe year-long drought. Although she was not visibly shaking, Moneta felt her stomach doing somersaults. Surely, now that we are alone, he will inform me that he cannot marry me, not only because he does not love me, but also he because he barely remembers me from our childhood before he went to the university in Madrid! And we have only met a few times socially since he returned from Spain!

“Don Diego, may I ask you something please?“ Moneta was happy that her voice was strong and did not reveal her tumultuous emotions.

“Sí, Señorita. You may ask me anything you wish and your wish will be my command.“ Diego replied, as he bowed low before her with a grand flourish of his hands.

“You do realize of course why my father is here to speak with Don Alejandro! I can not believe that my father is so ... transparent regarding well you know!” she blushed scarlet.

Diego stroked his chin and pretended to be innocent. “Hmm, I simply cannot imagine why you should appear at my hacienda so early in the morning! Now what diabolical purpose could bring you and your father to our home, eh?” He said as he started chuckling.

Moneta relaxed immediately and she joined Diego in his laughter. “I guess my father means well!” She willed herself -- an admittedly easy task, -- she noted--to gaze into those stunning hazel eyes and was rewarded the most tender look she had ever received in her life.

Diego reached down and covered her small hands with his own. “Moneta, I believe what I am now going to do will probably shock and surprise you!” He said as he gave her his most brilliant smile.

Her eyes grew very wide and she asked in a voice that so quiet that it was if she had not spoken at all. ‘What are you trying to say Diego?“

And then, for Moneta, time stood still.

He pulled her gently against him as he looked deep into her pretty chocolate brown eyes. “Would you do me the great honor of becoming my wife? I do not know if you agree with me, but I absolutely abhor long engagements.” When she lowered her chin, Diego gently raised it up so he could gauge her reaction.

“Come now, Moneta, cara, surely you did not hope that I would reject you, eh?”

Moneta’s complexion reddened yet again. “ Sí! I mean no! It is just that despite our fathers’ honorable intentions, I am still somewhat overwhelmed!” 

Don Diego shook his head. “Overwhelmed?” He murmured. “How can I redeem myself in your eyes?” He carefully searched her upturned face for any sign of resignation or regret.

“Moneta, despite whatever gossip you have heard regarding me --- and remember that I have heard the stories about the ‘vapid and weak Don Diego,’ many, many times -- I promise you that life with me will never be dull!”

To Diego’s complete surprise, she burst into a merry laugh that truly transformed her pretty face into an exquisite thing of beauty.


“What is so ---” You do not believe me, eh?“

This time she almost bent over double from laughing so hard at the look of mock indignation on his face. “I believe you, Diego! Truly, I do!”

Her hidalgo suitor reached again for her chin and held it softly but firmly in his grasp. “Seriously, Moneta, will you make a lonely caballero very, very, happy?”

For the first time in her life Moneta was faced with a choice that would alter her destiny forever. Thanks to her father -- and Diego, she would not have to make this journey alone. She said nothing but kept her gaze focused on his resplendent hazel eyes.

Diego pretended to release her but instead moved his six foot three frame slightly. He positioned his left hand behind her head, then still holding her head, put his right hand on the small of her back, leaned down and kissed her as tenderly as he could.

“Señorita, por favor, he whispered into her ear, please give me your answer. I would much rather have an eager bride than one who feels that she must obey her father’s wishes and become trapped in her own prison of misery. Oh, by the way,“ he said teasingly, as he kissed her once more, “I cannot permit you to leave this garden without hearing you say ‘yes‘!“

“I---I .. well, absolutemente, SI! ”

And then he kissed her yet again, and more deeply this time.

“Diego ... please ..”

She began to sag in his arms. Diego winced when he saw the chalky pallor on her face as she collapsed against his broad chest. Then he picked her up in his arms and yelled for his father and Don Cornelio and carried her into the house.

Bernardo met him at the gate and helped him into the library. As Diego gently laid Moneta on the couch Bernardo slipped pillows under her head.

“Hurry and fetch Don Cornelio and some water, my friend!”

 As the distraught Don Cornelio ran into the library, he nearly collided with Bernardo. “Easy,” said Don Alejandro, who was right behind Moneta’s father, and whispered to Bernardo, “send my personal servant Felipe to get Dr. Perez.”

“Try not to worry, mi viejo,” Alejandro said to Cornelio. “Dr. Perez will be here shortly.” He turned to Diego. “What happened?” he demanded impatiently.

Diego’s mouth was drawn taut by concern. “I honestly cannot say. We were in the garden. I.. proposed to her. Moneta accepted. I kissed her and then she ... fainted.“ Diego answered without moving his gaze from her face.

Don Alejandro and Moneta’s father exchanged worried looks. Suddenly, an odd feeling struck Alejandro and he started to ask Cornelio a question, but he kept silent as Moneta finally opened her eyes.

‘Did I-I faint?” she asked in a tiny voice.

“Sí.” Diego said softly. Perhaps it was lack of food or something that you ate that disagreed with your stomach? I think that I should take you to the guest bedroom and have the doctor examine you.”

Moneta shook her head. “NO!” she said a bit too forcefully. I feel much better, Diego...really I do.” She attempted to lift up her head but failed. “Oooh, my head and...my stomach!”

Diego pressed one of his very large hands to her lips. “No more arguments! Your future husband insists that you will see Dr. Ignacio Perez! And, since my father has already sent for him, he shall be here shortly!”

But Moneta was too weak to respond and simply rested her head against the pillows.

She looks so pale .. so fragile. I pray that she will be all right. Diego thought worriedly as he picked her up and carried her into one of the hacienda’s guest bedrooms.

 

[[[[ZZZZ]]]]

 

Don Cornelio Esperon, who had been harboring a terrible secret for nearly a month, finally could no longer stand the strain of watching his daughter endure her suffering in silence. And, he sighed to himself, with Don Alejandro’s keen intellect, my old friend surely must have guessed the nature of our dark secret.

Don Alejandro watched Don Cornelio nervously wiping his forehead several times with a handkerchief and, when Alejandro tried to engage him in conversation, his old friend looked at the patio floor and said nothing.

“Cornelio!“ he said sternly, “it is high time that you tell me exactly what is troubling you! As your best friend, I beg you to confide in me now!”

“Alejandro, Moneta is in great distress,” he hesitated again, “she--”

Alejandro shot him a sympathetic but exasperated look. “Cornelio---“

Don Cornelio could no longer stand the strain of keeping his terrible secret. He had to confess the truth to his old friend. With an anguished voice that almost split Don Alejandro’s heart in two, Cornelio cried out “My Moneta was abused, Alejandro! This porco ---this porco -- took the most terrible advantage of my darling Moneta! He ---I just cannot bring myself to say it.. mi viejo. BY THE HOLY TRINITY, I simply cannot inflict this horrible shame upon you, your son, or your esteemed family!” Don Cornelio buried his face in his hands, unable to meet the grim look in his friend’s eyes.

Don Alejandro thought that his head would burst from valiantly trying to contain his anger and outrage regarding the assault of Moneta Esperon and his friend‘s deception. The abuse of a highborn Spanish senorita was extremely unthinkable and unforgivable. Little wonder he so desperately wanted a suitor for his daughter’s hand in marriage! But the fact that Don Cornelio had entered into marriage negotiations while keeping this “abuse” secret was truly alarming. Alejandro knew how deeply a father could love his child. Oh, Bethia Elizabeth, I am forever grateful that our only child was a boy! Of course, that fact is of cold comfort to my dear compadre, Don Cornelio! he thought sadly.

Alejandro looked at his distraught friend, whom the then anonymous Zorro rescued from that odious Emissary from Spain, Senor Basilio. Perhaps this matter could be set right by Zorro, his son.

“Por favor, Cornelio,“ Don Alejandro gently asked his old friend. “tell me the name of this ganallo!“

Don Cornelio’s face darkened in rage. This chichimeca rejects any and all responsibility for the consequences of his ‘romantic interlude’ as he calls it! As for my Moneta, she blames herself for everything.”

“Cornelio,“ Alejandro tried a different approach to this most delicate subject. “perhaps we should wait until after Dr. Perez confirms your suspicions!”

“NO“! Cornelio exploded. “I-I already know that Moneta is with child!”

Alejandro was briefly taken aback by the anguish and despair in his old friend’s statement.

Dios! What a relief it is to have finally shared my terrible disgrace with someone! Cornelio said to himself as he rubbed his throbbing forehead. “Alejandro, there is no questioning that fact. The caballero she named as the father absolutely denies paternity and therefore refuses to marry my daughter. If I were 20 years younger I would tear the raton to pieces! Cornelio looked forlornly into his friend’s eyes as he began wringing his hands. “Alejandro, what am I going to do?”

Still stunned by his friend’s deception, Alejandro simply sat in his chair, unable to bear looking at his friend.

Finally, Don Cornelio broke the awkward silence. “I shall certainly understand if Diego wishes to void this marriage contract!” Don Cornelio then turned away to prevent Alejandro from seeing him weep. After a few minutes of releasing all of the tension of the past few weeks, Cornelio sputtered “Oh, m-my b-beloved child, Moneta! Alejandro, an old man can only h-hope that a handsome and kind caballero like Diego will.. find it in.. his heart.. That an old friendship such as ours can endure such humiliation...” Overcome again by his emotions, Don Cornelio wept uncontrollably.

Don Alejandro gestured to Bernardo to serve the Jerez he had earlier requested. Diego’s father pressed a glass of the Jerez into Cornelio’s hands and ordered him to drink all of it. When his friend emptied his glass, Alejandro refilled Don Cornelio’s glass and then poured one for himself. Seeing that his master’s needs were taken care of, Bernardo discreetly retreated to the porch.

Alejandro and Cornelio sat quietly in the patio pondering how such a cheerful day that had begun full of promise now had descended into sadness and despair.

“For the love of God, Cornelio, I shall ask you once again, tell me the name of this raton and I shall personally see him handed over to the Viceroy’s justice to be heavily fined and publicly flogged!”

When Don Cornelio identified the father of Moneta’s child, Alejandro sneered. “By all the Santos, the man is a scoundrel and certainly no gentleman! Rest assured that Diego will do the honorable thing!” Alejandro exclaimed. ‘Why don’t you go see how Moneta is doing, while I have a talk with my son.”

Cornelio slowly started toward the hacienda. However, he still needed to tell his old friend one last thing.

“Alejandro?“

“Sí, Cornelio, Alejandro sighed wearily, “what is it?“

“When I confronted Ricardo and his father, Don Juan del’Amo, admitted that his son has a rather .... wild reputation with the ladies, but said that his son would certainly never resort to assaulting a woman, and especially not a lady of such gentle upbringing as my daughter!”

Alejandro spat disgustedly. “By all the Santos! Did Don Juan then offer financial compensation for your ...”

 “Sí!” Don Cornelio said angrily. “Even if I were not a wealthy man, what is money compared to my daughter’s shattered reputation?” He looked directly into Alejandro’s eyes. “Before we arrived here this morning, both Moneta and I vowed that we would tell you and Diego about her pregnancy before she accepted his betrothal!”

Diego’s father lightly touched Cornelio’s arm and reminded him that Cornelio should check on Moneta.

Cornelio Esperon nodded sadly and started to enter the hacienda.

Don Alejandro waved to Bernardo and whispered to him. “Bernardo, Please tell Diego I wish to see him now. “

The elder de la Vega closed his eyes and silently prayed. Bethia Elizabeth de la Vega y de la Cruz, my beloved wife, pray for our son Diego. I truly want him to lead a normal life as a husband and father! How can I find the strength to worry him with yet another serious matter, especially since I know how much grief he suffered from that amnesty prank! Ay, yi yi!

 

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