The Promise

by

 

Gail Manfre

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

 

STIRRING THE POT

 

Diego and Selena had decided on a whim to attend the annual Dia de Los Muertos Fiesta in the Pueblo de Los Ángeles. They had spent nearly all of the past week or so in conjugal bliss, which surprised Diego endlessly. Selena de la Vega de Rojas was a woman who actually enjoyed the physical aspects of marriage and was eager to please her bridegroom. Gracias a Dios, he was blessed with a wife who was kind, attractive, passionate and intelligent. Many of the señoritas in his past that literally threw themselves into his arms were, and here Diego was being charitable, empty-headed clotheshorses.

Yet Diego had discovered despite Selena’s obvious conviviality, his bride was actually very shy and sensitive. The new Señora de la Vega loved to socialize and attract all the masculine attention at a fiesta, but when they were alone, she became charmingly demure. Her modesty, even in their intimate moments, both surprised and delighted him.

Wherever the newly married couple went in the Pueblo’s marketplace, every shopkeeper and péon they encountered were especially attentive to Salina. Diego had secretly been afraid that when they finally ventured in public, Selena would be subjected to everything from hushed whisperings to hostility or complete social ostracism. By now, everyone in Pueblo had heard the story regarding Commandante Glorioso’s foul behavior during his visit to the Rojas Hacienda. As they strolled among the vendors’ stalls, Señor Ballarias, a tailor and the owner of the only fabric shop in Los Ångeles, rushed to greet them.

"Bienvenidos, Don Diego and Doña Selena de la Vega. I am glad, Doña Selena, that you are not seriously hurt by the commandante." He glanced up Don Diego, who cocked his head in surprise and frowned slightly that the merchant broached this delicate matter. Selena felt him tighten his grip on her hand, reassuring her that he would handle this difficulty if necessary. But Selena gave her husband a soothing look that said Señor Ballarias is a true friend.

Your pardon, Don Diego. Por favor, be assured that no one in the pueblo believes the Señora is to be blamed in this matter. The people know what kind of man Capitán Glorioso really is,” Ballarias reached for Selena’s hand, and Doña de la Vega graciously obliged. As the merchant kissed the back of her hand, he turned to face Don Diego. “Perhaps I should explain myself, Señor, Ballarias volunteered. “Con permiso?”

Intrigued yet slightly bothered by Señor Ballarias’s overly friendly behavior, Diego replied, “Ciertamente.”

“Doña Veronica Martino, Señora Selena’s mother, knew my parents in Madrid. My mother, Señora Mañuela, was Doña Veronica’s favorite seamstress. After my parents died from old age, I wanted to come to Alta California to start my own fabric and design shop. You see, Don Diego, your beloved wife’s mother sponsored my family and me and gave me the capital to establish my business here in Los Ångeles. So anything Doña Selena wants, it is hers for the asking.”

"Gracias," Selena replied, blushing furiously. "I did fancy some of the Alçenon lace you have just received from Madrid, via Paris."

Señor Ballarias smiled. "Ah, sí, I know the material you want, but I only have six yards left. I shall wrap up the bolt at once and have it sent to you mañana, Doña Selena.”

Don Diego reached into his chaqueta to pay for the lace, but Señor Ballarias told him that he could not accept Don Diego’s money.

“Consider this as a small wedding present.” Ballarias bowed to them.

At every stall they visited, Diego repeatedly heard stories from festival attendees how Selena helped them weather a harsh winter, loss of crops or death of the family breadwinner with her generosity since she arrived in Los Ångeles over a year ago. He realized just how much he had to learn about his bride and Diego’s heart overflowed with love.

She was puzzled when he suddenly guided her away from the bustle of the fiesta and into a nearly deserted alleyway. “Diego is everything all--?”

Her caballero pressed his lips to hers and when he released her mouth, his eyes were filled with tears. “Oh, Selena, my beloved Selena!”

“Diego! What is wrong? Please tell me!”

Mi corazon! I had no idea. It serves me right for believing the ugly gossip regarding you. I did not know that many times when Zorro was either unavailable or busy with another problem in the pueblo, it was YOU who provided food, clothing, shelter and money to anyone and everyone for almost a year. You caused me many a sleepless night wondering who was the people’s ‘other angel!’” Diego cupped her face in his large hands and then crushed her against him again.

“Oh, Diego, this time you did alarm me!” She was right, for he felt her heart pounding in her chest and she suddenly grew very pale. “Feel dizzy...”

Immediately he sat Selena down, for she began shaking. Diego held her gently but firmly in his embrace until Selena’s body relaxed somewhat. Feeling better?” he whispered as he gazed into her smoky gray eyes. “The color is beginning to return to your cheeks.”

“Yes, better,” she laid her head against his shoulder and sighed.

Diego called out to a little muchacho who happened to be passing by them and asked the child to bring a large cup of cool water for the señora. When the boy returned, the caballero tossed a couple of pesos to the astonished lad.

“Drink all of the water, beloved, slowly,” he said as he held the cup of the refreshing liquid to her lips.

“Aahh, Diego this tastes marvelous,” his bride replied as she pulled him closer to her. “Mon coeur, I am content enough to sit here forever in your arms.” Selena would have closed her eyes and taken a nap in the middle of the plaza if she had not jumped at the commotion they both heard coming from the other side of the marketplace.

“I wonder what is the problem?” he said, never taking his eyes from her still pale complexion.

She moved her head a little from his shoulder and groaned, “Diego, soldiers are stopping the festival.”

Diego’s jaw tightened. “You are my main concern, querida. We shall rest here until I am satisfied that you are strong enough to return to the carriage!’

There is no other place I would rather be, Diego,” she leaned her body against his strong shoulder, “but I am hungry.“

He grasped her chin firmly in his left hand. “Hmm. All right. One of the vendors will have some of your favorite tapas. Are you sure you are ready to walk?” Diego asked as he helped her up.

Selena’s head cleared. “Si, the water was wonderful. Perhaps I should have eaten more for breakfast than a tortilla and some hot chocolate ...”

“NO! WE PROTEST! WE WILL NOT PAY THIS FEE!” Many voices shouted. “THIS IS NOT FAIR! WE WILL NOT PAY!”

The newlyweds turned around at hearing the festival goers‘ shouting grow louder. Diego saw Corporal Reyes was directing people into two lines and his first thought Reyes was collecting the special inventory and livestock two days early. No, Glorioso can not be that stupid to interrupt or possibly cancel the fiesta! Or can he? “Come Selena, I must see what trouble the commandante has planned now, and you are certain ...”

“Si, querido. I am feeling better. Indeed let us see what our malevolent madman has done to create this rather noisy situation,” Selena said firmly as she entwined her arm with his and together they marched toward the center of the plaza.

Diego found Garcia trying to calm down Señor Ballarias who was disputing Glorioso’s right to levy an attendance fee.

“Buenos dias, Sergeant. “Why has the fiesta music stopped?” Diego politely inquired.

“Oh, hello, Don Diego,” Garcia said as he removed his hat and bowed to Selena. “You are looking very nice today, Señora de la Vega!”

“Sergeant Garcia, the Commandante wants you to hurry up and start gathering the new attendance fee for the Day of the Dead Festival,” Corporal Reyes told him. When Garcia moved, Reyes saw Selena.

Señora! May I?” Reyes shifted his escopeta to his other hand. He reached down and kissed the back of her right hand. “So pleasant to see you again Señora de la Vega.”

“Gracias, Corporal you are so sweet and have the manners of a gentleman!”

Poor Reyes was so entranced that he forgot to release her hand.

“Garcia! Reyes! Where are you two? I am ready to record collection of the festival attendance fees!” Commandante Glorioso froze into rigid attention when he saw Don Diego and Doña Selena. “Your pardon, Señor and Señora de la Vega. “Sergeant Garcia and Corporal Reyes return to your posts. Don Diego,” he asked in a neutral tone of voice, “since you both are fiesta goers, would you follow me, por favor?“

Diego felt Selena’s body began shaking, and he encircled his waist with one of his arms to reassure her. “Exactly what is the problem, Commandante?” His query was frigid but sharp, and this further annoyed Glorioso.

Glorioso adjusted the high collar of starched white linen and frowned at Diego. “Señor, I am acting in the official capacity of a tax collector for the King of Spain. You will show me the proper respect as His Majesty Ferdinand VII’s legate and address me by my proper title, Visconde de Estrada!”

“Of course,” Diego said amiably as he casually reached into his vest pocket and lit a cigar with his free hand The caballero glared down at Glorioso and said, “Visconde de Estrada, no one here remembers any commandante in the past charging an admission fee. Most unusual.” De la Vega took a long drag on his Cuban puro and casually blew circles of blue smoke in the Visconde’s direction.

“Agreed, Don Diego.” said a clear crisp, masculine voice from behind Glorioso. Don Carlos stepped between Diego and the Visconde. When the elder don spoke his voice dripped with disapproval and disdain.

“Visconde de Estrada, I have lived in this pueblo for over thirty years and I can state unequivocally no one has ever charged the members of this community an ‘attendance fee,’” the Grandee said in precise, measured tones.

Glorioso struggled mightily to control his temper. “Are you insinuating I am a liar, señor?” the Visconde’s face darkened with anger.

Don Carlos drew himself to his full height. “I believe that my statement is self-explanatory, sir!”

Señor Ballarias now rejoined the conversation and he and nearly all of the pueblo merchants echoed Don Carlos’s remarks.

“Don Diego, all of the péons and a good number of the merchants can not afford this fee. You know how much the people of this pueblo depend on this fiesta to earn enough money for food and supplies for the winter!”

Ballarias edged himself closer to the Visconde, who responded by raising his left hand. The lancers rapidly encircled de Estrada to protect him.

Don Diego held out his hand to stop Ballarias from doing anything foolish. “My friend, you can not win an argument against an escopeta.” The caballero motioned for the tailor to keep quiet.

“Tell your soldiers to lower their weapons,” Don Diego said in a calm tone that belied the stern look on his face, “por favor, Your Excellency. The people will not give you any trouble.”

Young de la Vega crossed his arms and glared down at Glorioso. Well, commandante, was the message the Visconde read in Diego’s fierce look, are you prepared to kill dons as well as ons over such a small amount of money? Are you? The two men were locked a test of wills. The commandante’s men still had their weapons aimed at Señor Ballarias and Don Diego refused to move an inch. No one in the plaza dared to breathe in the tense, emotion charged atmosphere. Selena felt Diego tighten his grip on her as she momentarily closed her eyes and prayed that Glorioso would listen to her husband’s advice.

Finally, Glorioso broke the impasse. “The attendance fee must be paid, Señor de la Vega.”

“Order the lancers to lower their weapons and then we will discuss the matter,” Diego angrily retorted. Don Alfredo arrived just then and positioned himself next to Don Diego and Don Carlos.

“Si, Your Excellency, unless you wish to murder innocent bystanders!” Don Alfredo irately pointed out.

In his peripheral vision, Glorioso could see the péons and merchants arming themselves with hoes, shovels sticks and rocks. The crowd began closing around the lancers. These dons must be suffering from sunstroke! There is no other rational explanation for their concern for this.... rabble. He muttered to himself. The Visconde’s face burned from barely contained rage.

“You dare to give me orders?” He replied incredulously. “By all the Saints! This situation is intolerable! I ...”

“Visconde!” Diego said loudly. “You have as a clear choice here, allow your common sense to make the correct decision, or permit your anger to force you to make a move you will forever regret!”

Once again I underestimated you Don Diego, but for the last time, I swear it! Glorioso thought dourly as he scanned the crowd for any signs of weakness. He saw only eyes full of hatred and disgust. Curse him, de la Vega is right. Better to swallow my pride now than later.

“Lancers, withdraw at once!” When the soldiers were slow to move, the Visconde waved his bullwhip in the air. Don Diego and the other hidalgos retreated and the crowd’s mood softened.

“Let the fiesta continue!” the Visconde shouted, “and the attendance fee will be collected,” he paused to gauge Diego’s reaction, “but not until next year!”

Don Diego then walked away without a glance at His Excellency with his arms wrapped protectively around Selena. Glorioso watched the happy pair in moody silence, and did not know what infuriated him more, having lost the verbal skirmish this day or losing Selena to that pitiful imitation of a caballero, Diego de la Vega. Selena de la Vega, Selena de la Vega. One day, Don Diego, what you possess and cherish will be mine, I swear it! The Visconde later grumbled bitterly in the privacy of his quarters.

 

 

END OF CHAPTER 26

 

 

 

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